Thursday, April 15, 2010

Day 16: A song that I used to love but now hate

I've previously mentioned the cassette tapes which my father's friend Martin used to send us when we lived in Africa. I can still remember what was on each and every one of those tapes, and could probably recite word-for-word several of the albums, even though I haven't listened to some of them in well over a decade. I'm quite certain that just about everyone could tell similar stories about how their early tastes in music were heavily-shaped by what their parents listened to, and this was like that only much more so, because those tapes - and a few local African bands - were literally the only music I heard. To my 6-year old ears, this was all music had to offer, and I was quite happy to make the most of it. In the absence of music radio, Top Of The Pops or the like, it took a long time before I really developed any sense of what I liked, as a separate entity from what my parents listened to. Consequently, those albums loom very, very large in my early memory.

None of the above is, I suspect, anything like as special or unique as I used to think it was. But still, it's my story, so it matters to me. Which brings me, neatly as ever, to today's song.

Before you get the wrong idea, I should stress that I'm still genuinely, unironically fond of quite a bit of Dire Straits. Yes, it all went a bit horribly-wrong there towards the end, and Mark Knopfler's solo career is as perfect a demonstration as you'll ever find of the truism that musical virtuosity isn't any sort of guarantee of interesting music. But unfashionable as they are, I still maintain that there's a lot more good than bad on three out of their first four albums (the less said about the almost-unbelievably-awful second side of Making Movies, the better). There's an understated, bluesy charm to their first record which might surprise anyone who's only familiar with their mid-'8os stuff, 'Sultans of Swing' is still an inescapably, undeniably wonderful song, and like all good North-Easterners, I can't listen to 'Going Home: Theme from Local Hero' without thinking of wandering past St James' Park in Newcastle on a match day, and remembering those few brief years in the mid-'90s when Newcastle United were genuinely worthy of their fans' incomparably-passionate devotion.

But ye gods, does Brothers In Arms sound shit. Not the entire record - if you can get past the horrifyingly-thin production (aargh, those drums! Those horrible, tinny, overly-reverbed drums!), then 'Money For Nothing' is an endearingly-dumb bit of simplistic pop/rock (albeit marred by a completely gratuitous Sting, for which there really should be some sort of Parental Advisory sticker), and the title track is a masterpiece of sombre, po-faced Adult Contemporary. Near-painfully sincere and polite, perhaps, but a decent tune for all that - so good, in fact, that Metallica paid it the ultimate compliment in 2007 by brutally eviscerating it with a cover version so mind-bendingly awful that one might almost assume that they did it on purpose. If nothing else, though, it really hammers home just how much better the original is, and isn't that the best thing about all truly bad covers?

The rest, though? Eurgh. Like any number of albums from the mid-'80s, the record has a distinctly 1950s feel to it - unfortunately, coming as it did at the dawn of the CD age, it was produced and mastered by tone-deaf gibbons, presumably gigglingly-high on a lethal combination of Brand New Digital Technology, their own giddy genius, and cocaine. Lots and lots of cocaine.

Every note on the album is recorded so crisply, so cleanly, and so utterly without an ounce of soul or humanity, that contemporary listeners could have been forgiven for giving up on these new shiny discs in disgust, and going back to their 8-tracks. It would have been unfair and wrong, of course - I don't want to sound like a lunatic analogue purist - but still hard to entirely blame them. Instead, though, the buggers embraced the album in unprecedented numbers, resulting in a wave of sound-a-like overproduced monstrosities from just about every other then-big name in popular music, setting back mainstream digital recording by a good half-decade, co-inventing Stadium Rock, and - just for good measure - killing Dire Straits. Admittedly, as band-killers go, being elevated to Best-Selling Group In The World is arguably preferable to most of the alternatives. After all, it's hard to imagine that degree of success not going to just about anybody's heads, let alone a group who'd started out as a virtuoso pub-rock band in the punk era, which made them just about as uncool as it's possible for professional musicians to be. But got pretty ugly.

Just listen to 'Walk of Life'. The song itself is innocuous enough - a bit on the twee side, but not too hideously offensive, and if you imagine it being played by Buddy Holly, for example, the cheesy upbeat-ness becomes a lot more tolerable. The production, though. Oh my bleeding ears, the production. Those crisp, bone-dry vocals. Those plastic-sounding guitars. Those FUCKING DRUMS. It's not as obviously-dated as some of the synth-and-drum-machine embarrassments from the same era, perhaps, but disposable pop is meant to date badly. That's part of its charm. This, on the other hand, was presumably intended to last, and is therefore bad on a rather more profound level - CDs wouldn't sound this awful again until at least the compression-mad days of the early 2000s and on.

But as a kid, I absolutely loved it.


Anonymous said...

I finally got around to looking at this, and read the entire thing because I'm unemployed and it was fun. Makes me miss you - come to Berlin! Or come to Halberstadt on the 5th of July for the next As Slow As Possible sound change...


Mark Patterson said...

Hooray, another victory for shameless self-promotion!

In my defence, the main reason I've been pimping the blog so heavily is because the more people are reading it, the more likely I am to actually keep writing it. It's a laziness thing.

Would love to come to Berlin, Malin & I are actually thinking about at least a long weekend there some time this summer if at all possible. If I could time that to coincide with you playing at least one gig, that'd be even better, 'cos I'd like to see you play.

Anonymous said...

I'll be out of town working from 10th July until 28th August, but the rest of the time I'll be here to show you the history and get you drunk on 25-cent beers (marked up to at least 1,50€ in bars, for shame).


Pål Hellesnes said...

Berlin rocks.

(And you're just annoyed that Sting got a truckload of cash from participating in "Money for nothing". Admit it)

Mark Patterson said...