Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Top Ten European Songs

In another of my completely subjective bimonthly surveys for e!Sharp magazine, I list the Top Ten European Pop Songs:

Top Ten European Pop Songs

By Craig Winneker

1. Imagine
John Lennon
Here we go again with another sure-fire argument-starter. Europe has a long and varied tradition of popular music going all the way back to the Middle Ages, when troubadours in tights roamed the landscape singing of chivalric deeds. But enough about Iron Maiden – we’re here to talk about the greatest pop songs the continent has produced.

Continent, you ask? Well, it’s true that by European pop songs, I mostly mean British, since the continent itself just doesn’t seem to really get what makes a good pop song. Sure, there is an occasionally worthy hit from Spain or Germany or France (usually it’s a novelty number), but most of the classics originate a few miles off shore. Fighting words? You’ll find me at the bar, humming Serge Gainsbourg.

So what is Europe’s greatest popular song? Well, I start off immediately with controversy, because even though I consider the Beatles the greatest pop group of all time, I think it would be wrong to pick one or even a handful of their songs for this list. It just isn’t fair to the rest of the genre. So I’ll give them their due by picking the best song ever written by one of their individual members. John Lennon once called “Imagine” an “anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic” song, and it’s true that it is naive in the way that anything utopian is. But it still manages to be a superb pop-song, heartfelt and pure, melodic and catchy.

Rolling Stone magazine called “Imagine” the third greatest song of all-time (but it should be noted that their first two choices were a song with the words Rolling Stone in the title and a song by a band called the Rolling Stones). “Imagine” is a singular piece of music that manages to transcend the pop chart or the passing fad. Here’s hoping it will never turn up in an iPod advert.

2. Anarchy in the UK
The Sex Pistols
Sometimes referred to as the first punk song (though the Ramones had released “Blitzkrieg Bop” a year before, and the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” was in 1969, etc.), this classic nevertheless put punk on the map in Europe and around the world when it hit the charts in November 1976. The Pistols were terrible musicians but masters of satire and attitude; plus, they managed to show up for more gigs than Babyshambles.

With “Anarchy in the UK”, they didn’t so much as incite violence as strike and outrageous pose and crack a joke or two: “Your future dream is a shopping scheme”, and so on. It’s ironic now to consider that the standard-bearers for the punk movement were actually entirely a marketing creation. Some things never change.

3. 99 Luftballons
Released in 1983, this New Wave wonder reached the top of the charts in West Germany and in the UK. It also fared well in the US, in both English and German versions, thanks in part to a video featuring sultry Nena and her bottle-black hair in the halcyon early days of MTV. The song’s story line, about a nuclear war triggered when the military overreacts to a release of balloons, was all-too-timely; when it was released, the US was deploying Pershing missiles in West Germany and Europeans feared the breakout of nuclear war. Back then it had ominous political resonance; now we can be (mostly) thankful it’s just a sure-fire happy-hour sing-a-long.

4. One
An incredibly beautiful song from what is probably U2’s finest record, “Achtung Baby”, this song is a fan favourite that consistently makes lists of the best songs of all time. U2 legend has it that the band were on the verge of breaking up when they wrote it, but that discovering its gorgeous melody gave them a new sense of optimism. The song’s heart-wrenching lyrics have been interpreted in many ways –a lovers’ lament; Bono’s troubled relationship with his father; even an allusion to German reunification (the song was recorded in Berlin). Cover versions by Johnny Cash and Mary J. Blige are as memorable as the original.

5. My Generation
The Who
Roger Daltrey, at age 62, is still singing what must be Pete Townshend’s most memorable lyric: “Hope I die before I get old.” Now it can be served up with lashings of irony along with Townshend’s still ear-splitting guitar riffs. But when it first came out in 1965 “My Generation” was serious business, an expression of youth anger and frustration at boring old Britain. Daltrey’s distinctive stuttering on some of the words was meant to evoke a teenager on speed, but there was another reason for the unusual effect: In 1965, singing “Why dontcha all f-f-f...” was the only way to say the F-word – or at least imply it – and still get played on the Beeb.

6. Bohemian Rhapsody
Frequently voted in British and other European polls as the greatest pop song of all time. Well, maybe. But it’s certainly the most outlandish and, at times, irresistibly catchy. Plus, it has made “scaramouch” a household word. Combining elements of opera, metal, and soppy ballad, the song is five minutes and 55 seconds of pure bliss, courtesy of Queen’s legendary frontman, Freddie Mercury, and a couple hundred overdubbed backing vocals. An Indian Parsi born in Zanzibar, Mercury showed just how far a precocious colonial homosexual could go in Britain – all the way to the top – before his tragic death from AIDS in 1991.

7. Dancing Queen
Yes, you could make a case for “Waterloo,” which won the Eurovision Song Contest (one of the few times a song with any staying power has taken the top prize) and catapulted these Swedes to international stardom. But “Dancing Queen” is the better song by far, a pocket pop symphony worthy of Brian Wilson or Phil Spector. Released in the summer of 1976, it was soon topping the charts all over the world, and is the only one of ABBA’s many hits to be included in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. When you’re on the dance floor, you can’t resist it..

8. Boys (Summertime Love)
Well, we had to pick one example of the disco novelty hit, a warm-weather tradition in Europe – proof that kids baked too long in the Ibizan sun will listen to anything. We might have chosen any number of other songs from the European (s)hit parade: “Aserejé (The Ketchup Song)” by Spanish girl group Las Ketchup, anything by the Spice Girls, or even that horrifically catchy Moldovan number that took Europe by storm a couple years back. But what the heck, we’ll take this one, from pneumatic Italian model Sabrina Salerno. “Boys”, a top-five hit all across Europe, was cranked out by the legendary production team of Stock Aitken and Waterman, whose chart successes by the likes of Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley and Bananarama can only be described as “craptacular”.

9. Comme d’Habitude
Claude François
The French have made many invaluable contributions to Western culture, but popular music is not, to put it mildly, one of them. Whether its depressing chanson, embarrassing novelty tunes sung by the Lolita-du-jour, or just lazy French translations of English or American pop hits (did we really need a Francophone “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”?), the French pop oeuvre is truly lamentable. There are a few exceptions, an occasional triumph from Brel or Gainsbourg. Legendary French performer Claude François specialized in French covers (“Si j’avais un marteau,” etc.). But with the classic “Comme d’Habitude” he scored a nearly unprecedented coup – a French song that would be translated into English as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”. Your present author has made the French version his karaoke signature tune.

10. Whole Lotta Love
Led Zeppelin
Never mind that it was a blatant rip-off of a Willie Dixon song (a fact which eventually won the blues legend a court settlement) or that its fusion of irresistible riff with spaced out wank-rock would spawn hundreds of unworthy imitators and millions of garage-band wannabes. In fact, that’s the best thing about this song, Led Zeppelin’s first and biggest international hit. It gave birth to heavy metal as we know it – pompous and carefree at the same time, the music would become especially popular in communist eastern Europe, where it inspired mullets and moptops from Leipzig to Kiev. Long live rock.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Mexico Jane, the Search Continues....

Eight new chapters in the continuing saga of the search for Mexico Jane -- which seems stuck for the moment in boozy, smoky, talky South Wales but appears headed for Basque country and presumably the New World in forthcoming installments -- are now posted on Kalimotxo.

The author goes by the handle Duvel99, who says the plot idea came to him "in a dream, a bit like Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he wrote ‘Kubla Khan’ in his nightie". His epic adventure "aims to be part Ken Follett and part Jack Kerouac but will most likely end up being all Len Deighton" He's promising lots of future chapters of Mexico Jane, "like Charles Dickens when he wrote ‘a Tale of Two Cities’ in 472 parts [though] he probably had a bit more of a plot in his head when he started..."

Click here to read...

Here's an excerpt from Part 22:

We meandered back through the village towards Crackity’s car. ‘We need a plan’, he announced decisively and gave me a sly look. ‘Bilbao’s our first stop. Would you mind if we popped down to Brittany on the way?’ he asked airily. ‘Not at all Crackity’ I said sarcastically, ‘I’m in no rush to find Jane after all. Why don’t we have a few weeks in St.Tropez while we’re at it?’ He looked hurt when I said this and so I reluctantly agreed. He clapped me on the back and grinned hugely. ‘Great, we’ll go to Douarnanez, it’s famous for communism and sardines; you’ll love it.’ I had to agree it was a good mix even though I was worried that we’d never get to Spain at this rate...

Pussy Cats

Playing at being a music critic again...this time for The Bulletin, Brussels' weekly expat magazine.... too tired to put links in for the albums, you can find them on Amazon, etc....

Pussy Cats Redux

Classic album remakes have a mixed history, from gimmicky (‘Radiodread’, an all-reggae version of ‘OK Computer’), to it-must-have-seemed-like-a-good-idea-after-all-those-bong-hits (Camper Van Beethoven’s song-for-song reinterpretation of the Fleetwood Mac flop ‘Tusk’) to just plain unnecessary (Danger Mouse’s ‘Gray Album’).

But New York-based indie rockers the Walkmen doubly redeem the genre with their new CD, ‘Pussy Cats’: a shambolic yet faithful remake that also shines much-deserved new light on the original album, released by Harry Nilsson and produced by John Lennon in 1974.

Recorded during Lennon’s infamous ‘lost weekend’, several months during which he was separated from Yoko Ono and tomcatting around Los Angeles, the Nilsson album features an all-star cast – er, make that an all-drunken-star cast, including Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Rolling Stones sax maniac Bobby Keys and someone named Sneaky Pete.

This madcap, brandy-Alexander-fueled bunch turned out a strange assortment of sappy ballads, rollicking boogies, a children’s ditty or two, and even a proto-punk reinterpretation of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’.

The album was an unfortunate turning point for Nilsson’s career, which had previously been on a meandering but nevertheless upward trajectory. Instead of a gifted songwriter with a three-octave voice, he would become known mostly as Lennon’s drinking buddy.

It was an unfair characterization, but not without some justification. Nilsson’s once poetic lyrics became lazier and more coarse. His carousing during the recording of the album took its toll on his delicate tenor, turning it into a harsh growl.

Fans were shocked to hear Nilsson’s voice on 'Pussy Cats’' opening single, the Jimmy Cliff classic ‘Many Rivers to Cross’. The album was a critical and commercial failure. Lennon went back to Yoko and stay-at-home daddyhood, and Nilsson went on to release a string of inconsistent but occasionally interesting albums.

Thanks to the Walkmen, the original ‘Pussy Cats’ rates another listen – and has the last laugh. As enjoyable as the new CD is, the old one is better. Nilsson’s performance on ‘Many Rivers’, which turned off so many of his fans in 1974, sends a chill up my spine every time I hear it.
As for the original recording, it makes you wish Lennon had done more producing. Yes, he had a tendency – probably absorbed from his frequent collaborator Phil Spector – to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Think Wall of Sound – with somebody’s head smashed through it. The ‘Pussy Cats’ closing track, a rousing ‘Rock Around the Clock’, sounds as if it were recorded with The Electric Mayhem, better known as the Muppet Show band. It’s a gem.

But back to the Walkmen. Their good-natured, low-fi rocking suits the tracks perfectly, as does singer Hamilton Leithauser’s sandpaper voice. On a couple of numbers the guys even manage to outshine the originals, but mostly they’re just having fun playing songs they love (the Nilsson album having been a tour-bus fave). And ponder this: Nilsson was mainly covering other songs; by covering him the Walkmen have given us what must be the first ever meta-cover album.

I should note that The Walkmen have also just released a very fine record of their own material, ‘A Hundred Miles Off’. Their version of ‘Pussy Cats’ is available this month, and the Nilsson original has been reissued with bonus tracks. A nice Christmas prezzie pair for your best drinking mate.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Brit Prog Rock Lit Crit Blog

The multi-talented former "Baywatch" star David Hasselhoff is at it again -- he isn't just a fine actor and pop legend, he also writes music reviews... well, actually, it's my mate Martin Jones, in a typically brilliant Kalimotxo article, reviewing the recent concert given by Fish, former lead singer of prog-rock dinosaurs Marillion.

Martin, er, Hasselhoff dragged me along to the show and I actually liked it. Fish is a kind of discount Peter Gabriel, except, at 38euros a ticket, he ain't much of a discount. In 'Hoff's review, I play the part of Yasmin Bleeth.

For the full article, click here. Excerpt below:

Hi fellow Kalimotxeros. This week I’m in Brussels watching the mighty ‘Fish’, ex-lead singer of prog rock greats Marillion. For this tour he is going to play the whole of their amazing 1985 concept album ‘Misplaced Childhood’ in one go. Dude, that’s so prog rock! He’s also playing some solo stuff (uh-oh) plus some really old Marillion stuff which is almost as good as Tin Machine. I rushed down to the Ancienne Belgique from my Spanish course where I’d learnt from my teacher that Fish is known ‘El Pescado’ in Andalucia and ‘El Rey de Prrrrog Rrrrrrock – si no incluido Pedro Gabrrriel’.

My friend Jan-Michael Vincent from Airwolf had to cancel as he had forgotten he had to go to a firework display in Crymerch so I decided to give his ticket to Yasmin Bleeth. I met her in a Lebanese pitta place... [click here to read more]

Friday, November 10, 2006

Quiz Scandal!

Last night's CAF Pub Quiz was a big success, thanks to all who came out to play and help out for a good cause. And, yes, as the Tippler pointed out last night and again today on his blog, it was Little Jimmy Osmond, not Donny, who sang "Long Haired Lover from Liverpool"... I didn't write the question, but still I should have remembered the Brits' fondness for American novelty acts...

Proof below:

Country New Wave

Some performers just have it. Not sure what "it" is in this case...
The kid in the pyjamas does a great robot dance...

Monday, November 06, 2006

America Votes 2006

Many of you have been waiting for my election predictions... and why not? I've been wrong so many times before! This year, TCS Daily asked a selected few of its writers to predict the outcome of tomorrow's mid-term Congressional contest: read the full article here, or see below for my section:

CRAIG WINNEKER, Editor, This Europe

Conventional wisdom holds that Democrats will recapture the House - giving them at least two years in which to get medieval on the Republican administration. I for one relish the prospect of Nancy Pelosi staring down George W. Bush in a contest of which deer is in whose headlights.

Democrats had a chance to snag the Senate, too, until last Thursday, when a Zogby poll showed them actually doing it. This was the guy who, on the afternoon of Election Day 2004, predicted a John Kerry landslide. Study hard, get good grades, and you, too, can become a pollster or even a political analyst.

It will all come down to turnout. Yawn. What an election-eve cliché. What it really comes down to is which party will be better able to suppress the potential voting activities of its opponent. One big question mark: will the clandestinely-gay-fundamentalist-Christian-dad vote be mobilized or discouraged by recent news events? I think when push comes to shove these guys will descend from Brokeback Mountain and swarm polling places. They'll probably give Conrad Burns another six years.

Then there is the biennial carping about how democracy suffers because so few Americans bother to go to the polls. I live in Belgium, where election turnout is always 100 percent; citizens are required by law to vote. Well, the electoral system here produces just as many nincompoops as the American one - and the most successful political party has its roots in the SS. So be careful how much turnout you wish for.

My prediction? Democrats "win" in a landslide, but Republicans manage to keep control of the House and Senate. How will this be possible? Not sure, really, but I'm hoping Vanity Fair will explain it to me sometime soon.