Album cover for Ege Bamyasi by Can

#106 Vitamin C by Can, available on Ege Bamyasi, 1972 [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

Can was the original ‘post’ band. They (core members Irmin Schmidt, Holger Czukay, Michael Karoli and Jaki Liebezeit) made post-punk more than five years before even punk was invented, and post-rock while the overblown pomposity of its embarrassing uncle, prog, was but a twinkle in its glitter-shadowed eye.

As such the Cologne-based outfit sit just behind the Velvet Underground and Sly & the Family Stone, and alongside Krautrock peers like Neu! and Faust, as one of the most influential rock bands of all time. In fact – like most successful innovations – their sound was born of a potent brew of other, diverse influences: the two aforementioned American bands (experienced by Schmidt during an epiphanal visit to New York City in 1968) and the new European music of Stockhausen and Boulez.

Arguments rage over which is the definitive Can album/track. I don’t really want to join that particular debate, but – for its Pied Piper-like ability to drag you, body shaking in rhythmic convulsions, towards blissful, isolated insanity – Vitamin C, from fourth album Ege Bamyasi (“Aegean okra”), hits the spot for me.

The song recounts the circumstances of a girl at odds with the materiality of her rich family’s life, all the while losing her own essence (her vitamin C). Either that or it merely represents the order in which words happened to tumble from vocalist/lyricist Damo Suzuki‘s freed mind in the studio.

It doesn’t matter, as the cryptic words merely add texture to the track’s underpinning: Liebezeit’s formidable groove. It is both propulsive – harnessing and releasing energy like a sentient rubber ball – and complex, belying the drummer’s jazz background. It is also inescapable, at least until it dissolves inside the swarm of bleeps and slithers at the track’s end.

Vitamin C was also released as a single backed with I’m So Green, Ege Bamyasi‘s other impossibly funky miniature and a close second for this chart entry. You won’t find a more liberating or funkier seven minutes of music this side of the Atlantic anywhere.

This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

Single cover for Gasoline Alley Bred by The Hollies

#116 Gasoline Alley Bred by The Hollies, single, 1970 (available on The Air That I Breathe: The Very Best Of The Hollies[buy from Amazon.co.uk]

The Hollies remind me of my childhood, in the car with my parents on the ‘long’ journey to see relatives (the trip was just over an hour, which of course feels like an age when you are small). Given this, I can’t pretend that Gasoline Alley Bred would have made it into this chart otherwise. It’s not the best the Hollies created (they were at their peak in the mid-1960s with songs like Bus Stop, a period outside the scope of the midlife 150), but it is a great song nonetheless.

It was written by Rogers Cook and Greenaway (of I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing/Buy The World A Coke fame) and Tony Macaulay (Build Me Up Buttercup). A homespun tale of American blue collar aspirations and values, its sentiments are heavily romanticised by the two Bristolians and one Londoner whose main experience of the US at that point was probably television, the movies and – possibly – the comic strip the song may take its title from. It is all the better for it.

The band use the song to showcase their signature vocal harmonies to great effect, and it contains some lovely guitar accompaniment, presumably from Tony Hicks. Listening to it now, it’s even better than I remember it.

This review is part of close to 94 ‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

Album cover for Just As I Am by Bill Withers

#123 Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers, taken from Just As I Am, 1971 [buy from Amazon.co.uk]

It feels a little odd to write a post about this song on what will probably turn out to be the hottest, sunniest day of the year here in London. Anyway…

Ain’t No Sunshine is possibly the best-known and best-loved song by Bill Withers (though it has strong competition from Lean On Me, Just The Two Of Us, Lovely Day, Grandma’s Hands, et al). Though originally released as a b-side, it was his breakthrough track, enabling him – against his better judgement at the time – to give up his factory job to launch a music career.

Apparently inspired by the 1962 film Days Of Wine And Roses, its two minutes convey without fuss just how it feels to be apart from the woman you love. The simplicity of the lyrics is complemented perfectly by the acoustic guitar, drums and strings accompaniment. And Withers’ voice is of course effortlessly magical.

A song to sit back and sink into.

I can’t let this post end without mentioning one of my favourite jokes (or at least one of the favourite jokes I can remember):

Q. How do you turn a duck into a soul singer?
A. Put it in the microwave until it’s Bill Withers.

Ahem.

This review is part of close to 94 ‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

#131 Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone by The Temptations (taken from All Directions, 1972)

The high watermark of cinematic soul, Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone in fact sat uneasily with The Temptations. First, the song was written neither by nor for them: producer and co-writer (with Barrett StrongNorman Whitfield had released a recording by The Undisputed Truth months before the Temptations were handed it. Second, by refashioning it from a four minute potboiler to a twelve minute quest for truth, Whitfield moved it firmly away from the group’s straight-up-soul comfort zone; they simply weren’t in it enough to be sure it was theirs. Third, Whitman ensured Dennis Edwards took the opening line, “It was the 3rd of September, that day I’ll always remember (yes I will). Cos that was the day that my daddy died” – it was the day Edwards’ daddy died.

The song in its full version (seven and four minute edits were released too) is a masterclass in sustained, searching tension. The repeated attempts by its protagonist (a son seeking, from his mother, the truth about his recently deceased father) to get ‘closure’ apply to the song as a whole: no chord changes from which to return home; no variation in its mantra-like chorus; no loosening of its firmly anchored bass line.

The son’s plea for honesty is forever caught between fatalism on the one hand and stoicism on the other – perhaps between soul music’s roots in the blues and gospel respectively. The first act of an unfinished morality play.

This review is part of close to 94 ‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

#132 Behind The Mask by Yellow Magic Orchestra (taken from Solid State Survivor, 1979)

YMO are possibly second only to Kraftwerk in their impact on the early development of electronic pop, with all the onward influence (the formation of house and techno) that entails. It’s a shame, therefore, that their biggest international hit was performed for them by a middle-aged rocker (albeit one you can put into the ‘legendary’ category) during a mid-1980s career sag.

Co-written by core YMO member Ryuichi Sakamoto and British lyricist Chris Mosdell, Behind The Mask began life as a stripped back, poetic depiction of the death of human feeling, reinforced by its robotic vocoder-filtered vocal.

While it had little chart impact outside of Japan, the 1979 version did (so the internet says) reach the ears of Quincy Jones, then working on Off The Wall with Michael Jackson. Jones and Jackson worked on their own version of song with Jackson adding lyrics, turning it into a story of betrayal by a lover. This version was picked up by Off The Wall session keyboardist Greg Phillinganes and released as a (low-charting) single in 1984. It’s not known whether Jackson ever recorded a version of his own.

By 1986 Phillinganes had moved on to become a member of Eric Clapton‘s group, and introduced the song to the rocker. Clapton covered Phillinganes’ cover for  his album August, creating a worldwide hit single and live staple.

Things were already looking bad for the original’s integrity when the final twist (of the knife) came the following year from none other than original co-writer Sakamoto. He covered the cover of the cover with American singer-songwriter Bernard Fowler on vocals. Whether this act of attempted ‘chansonicide’ was accidental or a desperate act of mercy I’d prefer not to think about.

But somehow the 1979 recording remains unblemished by the sins visited on it (and indeed Phillinganes’ version does grow on you), its bleak demeanour unaffected by its adventures abroad. “All is blank, all is blind, dead inside the inner mind”, and for that we should be grateful.

This review is part of close to 94 ‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.