On things coming naturally and having to work at stuff.
I like a lot of albums. Recently, I posted 10 albums that meant – probably, at least for those ten days – the most to me.
Even though a lot of those records – and a lot more besides – do mean something in particular to me, I wanted it to be a bit more personal, so I picked records that might not have been seen as classics, but ones I felt most connected with. I couldn’t not pick The Stone Roses or Forever Changes though.
They’re very similar in a lot of ways; I see that now but the way they managed to ingratiate themselves to me couldn’t have been more different.
I came to them in the wrong order, for starters. I’ve written about following The Stone Roses around in 88-89 and how my eyes were opened and my brain was confused by the crowd (see: ‘Not The World’s Strongest Man’) this post is about the difference between things naturally connecting with you and things that you have to work at and whether one is worse than the other and how I’ve changed my mind.
1. ‘Easy-Peasy.’ – ‘The Stone Roses.’
“We revel in the laxness of the path we take.”
I’d first heard of The Stone Roses in a Melody Maker live review which, periodically, I would make myself read from cover to cover. They were described as ‘irresistible in an Undertones sort of way’. I was quite into The Undertones at that point and made a point of looking into them.
When I did, I found that they were nothing at all like The Undertones. I didn’t learn anything because I still found myself checking out bands who were written about in the music press based on who the journalist said they reminded them of years later.
The album was a long way away at that point, but Elephant Stone had just been released and you could get hold of Sally Cinnamon pretty easily, too. So I bought them and I was into it straight away.
Whilst I don’t really consider myself a snob, I do accept that I’m a bit picky. It doesn’t take much to put me off. I should like Quadrophenia by The Who, but I don’t because the synthesizers annoy me. I should like The Wall by Pink Floyd, but I don’t because it sounds a bit metallic. I should like more Jesus & Mary Chain records but I don’t because the drum machine irritates me. I should like The Strokes, but they’re too twitchy: like a hyperactive child in a vat of Lucozade. I should like all sorts of things but some minor detail prevents me. It’s my problem, I accept that.
Some things I don’t like anything about. Take Led Zeppelin: I don’t like the blooze at the best of times, but Jimmy Page is one of those typical guitar players who thinks that playing twenty million notes a minute on a distorted Les Paul is the way to go; the drumming’s too bombastic; Robert Plant sounds like he’s caught his unmentionables in his zip and anyway, if he’s not on about goblins and hobbits, he’s on about ‘giving you aaaawwwwlllllll maaahhhhh luuurrrrrrvvvviinnnnggggg aaaawowowowowwwwwllllllll nighhhiyiyihtttah laaaawowowownnnng’, and I don’t give a toss about the bass playing. So, that’s heavy metal out of the window, isn’t it?
The Stone Roses did not annoy me. John Squire made a beautiful sound on the guitar and he played melodically and supportively for the songs. The drumming was astonishing, Ian Brown sang beautifully – and yes he did, so go fuck yourself – with vulnerability and feeling and the bass playing was groovy, especially on ‘Elephant Stone’.
There were photos on the back of Sally Cinnamon but, as I later discovered, it was before Mani replaced Pete Garner on bass and a bit out of date. It was at the end of what some described as their Goth phase, which wasn’t anything of the sort. Their earlier material was more like Spear of Destiny, I eventually learned and my workmate Sarah, when I played her the earlier stuff, liked that more than the contemporary records. She was into Spear of Destiny, or ‘S-pyah’, as she and her psychobilly mates referred to them. Goth? Pfff.
Soon after, ‘Made of Stone’ followed and that was even better than ‘Elephant Stone’. It sounded like everything and nothing that came before it. Everything that was good, anyhow. The b side of ‘Elephant Stone’ was ‘The Hardest Thing In The World’ and it wasn’t brilliant, but it was alright. It had the ingredients, even if it had gone a bit wrong in the baking. Also on the 12” was ‘Full Fathom Five’, the title of which I recognized from The Tempest, which impressed me as it showed that they at least weren’t against a bit of highbrow. (See: ‘Highbrow Fidelity’). I didn’t love it, but it was alright. Good b sides would have been nice, but even The Smiths’, whose b sides were often lauded, put out plenty of dross on the flipside of some of their singles. It wasn’t all ‘How Soon Is Now’, ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ and ‘Half A Person’. On the back of ‘Made of Stone’ was ‘Going Down’ which, on closer inspection, was about cunnilingus with a fuller figured girl called Penelope: “There’s so much Penny lying here, to touch, taste and tease.” The best line was, “I don’t care, I taste Ambre Solaire.” The backwards track, ‘Guernica’ was a big step forward from ‘Full Fathom Five’, in that it had singing and it resembled a song, even though it was ‘Made of Stone’ backwards.
Around this time, I decided I needed to see them on tour and I caught the bus to Sheffield on a horrible day in February to pay homage at the university where they blew my – with apologies to Jimi Hendrix – fffftt sweet mind.
Diversion – my first gig
My auntie Val, who was actually my grandma’s younger sister, was nice to me. She was one of those women you used to never see without her headscarf and a fag in her mouth. My grandma never really gave a shit about me, on grounds that I was my father’s son. Her favourite was my dad’s big brother, Alan. Alan was married to a Jehovah’s Witness and we didn’t really see them much because all they ever wanted to do was talk about being Jehovah’s Witnesses and my parents’ tolerance has never extended as far as any religion. Well, they tolerate them, they just don’t want to hear about it.
Anyway, Val took my Jehovah’s Witness cousins, Tina and Donna, and me to Bridlington Spa to see Gary Glitter, probably about 1977 or 8. A good few years after his heyday.
I found the whole thing confusing. Appalling human being as he surely is, I’m not sure I can blame Gary Glitter for my confusion as I was confused by pretty much everything as a kid. To be honest, I still am about a lot of things.
It was busy, that wasn’t confusing, what was confusing was how the crowd responded to him. I don’t remember him playing any songs at all, although he must have. All I recall, with perfect clarity, is there being a big silver motorbike on stage which he would strut over to and rev. At this, the crowd would chant, “Leader, leader, leader,” and collectively punctuate it with punches to the Nuremburgesque air. Then he’d waddle to the front of the stage, point at people and pull stern faces. Rinse and repeat. Funny business.
After that, Tina and Donna weren’t allowed to go anywhere with our Auntie Val anymore. I didn’t mind it. I didn’t get it, but that was alright. I’d been taken to see 2001: A Space Odyssey (I was eight) a couple of weeks earlier because I’d enjoyed Star Wars, and I definitely didn’t understand that. It didn’t stop me enjoying it though. There’s a definite downside to not understanding anything, but the unexpected upside is that you get used to it and get on and enjoy it anyway. Shapes and colours. Shapes and colours…
End of Diversion
It wasn’t like Gary Glitter, that much is for sure. There was no motorbike and no chanting, although there would be at later gigs. Chanting, not motorbikes. It wasn’t anywhere near as busy as Brid Spa had been, but that didn’t matter. It was very loud and Ian Brown revealed himself to be a better singer in the studio than live, but I didn’t mind that. He had something else. I didn’t know what, but whatever it was, I wanted more of it.
I’d missed the last bus back and spent a freezing night shivering among the dossers and ne’er do wells, a bit frightened, really. It didn’t put me off, but it did made me think twice before just setting off on a whim somewhere. At least in February.
Attention securely grabbed, I went all over to see them after that. At least part of the reason I got a car was so I wouldn’t have to leave early to catch the last train from wherever it was they were playing: Bradford, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield again, Leeds the day after, Nottingham a couple of days after that. Seeing what they looked like influenced me to search out clothes like theirs and to get a haircut like John Squire’s (see: ‘Not The World’s Strongest Man’).
By this time, the album had come out and I stood at the counter of Sydney Scarborough’s in town on the Monday of its release where the bloke had to open the box of that day’s releases so I could buy a copy. It wasn’t the last time I bought it and I don’t just mean various re-issues over the years. I bought it again a couple of times because I wanted to buy a great record and I couldn’t think of one better than that.
I’d taken the day off work to listen to it and I was thrilled that I had. My first listen took me about four hours because I kept picking the needle up and returning it to the start of the previous song because they were all so fucking great. I recognised some of the themes relating to Paris in 1968 which pleased me enormously as it meant that The Stone Roses and I watched the same things on telly. I’d heard some of it live of course, but this was different. It was even better than The Smiths because it was jubilant and optimistic. I even considered that, while it was probably unreasonable to place them above The Beatles just yet, this album might be better than any of The Beatles’. I still wonder…
Then came ‘She Bangs The Drums’, which they made an even better job of – it’s a re-recording, not a remix. And the b sides? I hope you’re sitting down. ‘Mersey Paradise’ jangled and ‘Standing Here’ howled and roared, then undulated and swayed like a steam train. Both were at least good enough to have been on the album. They played those two live anyway, but Jesus Christ. A couple of years later, I unexpectedly ejaculated in my pants without any manual assistance at the coda of ‘Standing Here’. I was in company, yes. And they all thought it was hilarious. Even at the time, bent double and staggering to the bathroom to clean myself up, I thought it entirely reasonable. If anything was going to make me jizz in my kegs, it was going to be them. If anything else, I was mildly proud of it. Now who’s confused, eh?
There were more gigs, by which time there was quite a lot of chanting even if there still weren’t any motorbikes on stage. Some people were taking ecstasy and they did look like they were having a good time, but I couldn’t afford £25, so I slummed it on acid at a fifth of the price. Some other kids who couldn’t stretch to E prices combined acid with speed, which I also never bothered with. I had a great time. Thinking about it, the acid might have contributed in part to my exceptionally (about three hours) premature ejaculation at that party.
‘Fools Gold’ came out in the Autumn, although on the sleeve it said ‘What The World Is Waiting For’ for the first week it was out and, initially – for the first play – I wasn’t entirely convinced by it. Halfway through the second play, I was back on track. The b side, ‘What The World Is Waiting For’, I thought was pretty good too, if not quite up to the standards of the ‘She Bangs The Drums’ b sides.
The next summer, ‘One Love’ came out and it was the first disappointment to me, although the b side, ‘Something’s Burning’ was good.
A couple of months later, I went to university and I’d been (?) graduated for over a year before they brought out ‘Love Spreads’ which I thought was lousy. ‘Second Coming’? Big pile of shit. Dreadful. I have so many complaints about that record that I might even write an entire post about it at some point, but I shall be returning to talk about ‘Second Coming’ in this post because I think it’s relevant. Ooh, they didn’t half made me mad.
2. ‘So you must try. Try and try…’ – ‘Forever Changes.’
“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all”
With The Stone Roses, it was like the universe had been priming me for them and I couldn’t really understand how I’d managed without them. They slotted in and around me and my thoughts – however banal, unoriginal and trite they may have been, and believe me, they were – in such a way that I couldn’t grasp how I’d not noted their earlier absence. I’ll come back to that though. The other noteworthy aspect for me was, it also stuck with me. I’ve never gone off it. It appeals as much now as it did then. Some albums grab you straightaway and then, after a couple of months, that’s it. You’ve had enough. It’s the ones that instantly click and leave a marked impression on you forever that are the real rarities. The Stone Roses is one of the few. I love Forever Changes more today than I did when I first heard it, but then I didn’t like it much at all on first listen…
I’d not heard of Arthur Lee’s psychedelic band Love, as they were introduced on national American television on their sole appearance in 1966, until The Stone Roses mentioned them in an interview – their interviews were excellent too, I’d never seen people who gave less of a shit about playing the game than they did and I loved them for it. In my second year at university, I was watching a video I had of their TV appearances, wrecking another interview, when a housemate walked in, watched a couple of minutes and was absolutely horrified by their lack of respect for banal interview questions. That made me enjoy it a bit more, if anything. He was into U-fucking-2, if you can believe that.
If it was something that turned my heroes – and that’s what they were to me – on, then I wanted a piece of it. Because we had a connection, you see. They didn’t know that, and I wasn’t about to tell them that. You what it’s like when you hear desperate suitors telling girls things like, “We belong together,” it’s a bit scary. Anyway, we didn’t belong together, I just wanted someone to show me some good stuff, really.
At that point in time, the reissue market for music wasn’t what it is now, or even what it would become in the 1990s. No internet, remember, so you’d just have to wait until you found stuff you were after.
Diversion 2 – Gregory’s Girl
I love Gregory’s Girl. Not Clare Grogan or Dee Hepburn, I mean the film. If you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat for an hour and a half. Charming isn’t the half of it.
Anyway, there’s a scene in Gregory’s Girl in which Gregory takes his little sister to the local cafe to buy her a fancy milkshake. He’s doing that because that’s her price for explaining to him about how to talk to girls.
They’re sat together in this cafe and she’s got her milkshake in front of her and, sat opposite, Gregory asks her questions and she patiently explains the answers more or less monosyllabically, so he can understand what she’s getting at.
As Gregory’s listening to her, his attention keeps being drawn away by his sister’s untouched milkshake. Eventually he says to her, “Are you going to drink that?”
And she replies, “The best bit is just before you taste it,”
Two things: 1. I wish I’d had a little sister who could have explained to me how to be less of an idiot around girls. 2. I agree with her. Anticipation is a wonderful thing, often better than the reality.
End of Diversion 2
That’s what it was like before the internet: you spent a lot more time thinking about what things might be like because it wasn’t possible to type a couple of words into a search engine that hadn’t been invented yet and, within about five seconds, be watching or listening or buying whatever it was that you were looking for. I had a list in my wallet of books, records and videos I was after, so when I went to York, Leeds or Manchester, I’d trawl around the second hand shops, with a list of things I’d heard of but never seen. For most of these things, the anticipation outweighed the reality by a very large margin.
To start with, I’d got hold of a (op art and groovy) box set of four records called, “The Psychedelic Years”. A compilation of sixties psychedelia, most of which I had never heard of. There was a fair bit of duff on it, but plenty of sounds that my ears delighted in being vibrated by.
Love had a track on there: “Alone Again, Or” which I thought was brilliant and the anticipation I felt magnified. Finally, finally, I found a copy of Forever Changes. On tape, which was disappointing because tapes never hit the spot like vinyl did. All that rewinding and fast forwarding, stretching, getting chewed up in tape recorders, all that. And the art was too small. Still, it was better than nothing.
First song, first side: ‘Alone Again, Or’ As I’ve said, I already knew this one and I loved it. Great. As the quasi flamenco guitar faded out and ‘A House Is Not A Motel’ started up, I closed my eyes to pay closer attention – like the blind can’t but help – and I didn’t get it. The acoustic guitars churned and the drums pattered, but I just could not get my head around it. Next: ‘Andmoreagain’: same thing. I should have liked it, it was all there. But I didn’t.
And so it went on, just the same. It wasn’t like I hated it, but I didn’t get it either. Disaster. The Stone Roses’ favourite album, so they said and I didn’t get it. And after all this time, too.
Gregory’s little sister was right about anticipation: it probably was better than the reality. Sometimes, what you did was build things up so much that the reality could never live up to it. I mean, low expectations mean you’re less likely to be disappointed, don’t they? And I was enormously disappointed: in myself, mainly. Later, I’d think about Gregory’s little sister when ‘Second Coming‘ was released as well. This time with an alternative reason as to why it was at its best before you tried it. And, believe you me, I tried with that bastard. And failed. I blame them for that one.
Still, I hadn’t waited all this time to just give up on it and chuck it out – perhaps a further consequence of the internet, the lack of effort in finding things might result in a lack of persistence with whatever it is you’ve found. So I persevered with it.
It was hard going. The song titles were all weird and often bore no relation at all to any of the lyrics. The songs sounded pretty similar too. I realised later that the reason for that when I learned how to play the songs on the guitar: there’re a lot of ‘major 7th chords’ all through it. I don’t know any musical theory at all, so I can’t explain what it means in any reasonable way, but they sound a bit yearning, I suppose. A little bit summery. Airy and jazzy, I suppose. That’s the best I can do. If you listen to ‘Something’, by The Beatles, the chord change on the word, ‘move’ on the first line is a major 7th. In ‘Regret’ by New Order, the line ‘I was upset, you see’ is over a major 7th. That’s the best I can do.
It took weeks of playing it every day until I found a way in. At first, with a lot of albums, you like one or two songs on them and you listen mainly to those first. So I focused on ‘Alone Again, Or’ and ‘The Red Telephone’, the last song on the first side. It was a pain in the arse, what with it being on tape and having to forward and rewind all the time and, eventually, you get sick of doing that, so you just leave it. Same with records, really. And then you give the others a bit of a chance and sometimes they grow on you.
Forever Changes grew on me.
3. ‘It’s all dick, isn’t it?’ – Conclusions.
To utilise an egregious analogy: ‘The Stone Roses’ is like a willy that’s pretty big even when it’s flaccid. When it perks up, it more or less stands up and doesn’t get much bigger. ‘Forever Changes’ is a bit like Michelangelo’s ‘David’, in that it’s not very big whilst flaccid, but once it gets up, its inflated size and girth is impressive. That makes it sound like I’ve seen ‘David’ with a hard on and I haven’t. But you get the picture, unfortunately expressed as it may be.
Music’s not really a contest. We all have our favourites and it’s a bit artificial to try to impose a top ten or however many records you fancy ranking, but some of us do that occasionally. I’ve made the attempt because people ask you what your favourite album is and I don’t know what the answer is. I mean, I could pick one arbitrarily, but what for? If anyone asks me, it depends on what mood I’m in, so I just tell them whatever I feel like that day and don’t worry about it. It’s allowed, isn’t it?
What my brain keeps trying to work out though is, if albums – or books, films, dinners, paintings, whatever you like – that you have to work at liking are, in some way, denigrated by the effort you have to put into them. The Michelangelo quotation I put at the top of this section illustrates that to an extent.
With people, it tends to be those that you immediately get on with whom you have relationships with because you don’t get to find out about those you don’t get on with, do you? In psychology, the rule, as much as there are any, is this: familiarity breeds liking. Not contempt.
What that implies is that, in terms of relationships, if you like somebody, hang around and eventually, the other person will like you too. A bit like me and Forever Changes, I suppose. A bit like me and the girl from ‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy,’ I mean, we fancied each other straight away, but I fancied Forever Changes, and that took a lot of work on my part, didn’t it? I was certainly doing most of the heavy lifting in that particular relationship, but that’s records (tapes) for you. We never really clicked on any level other than that though. The girl in that story, to be fair to her, probably had to make a pretty big effort too. In fact, I know she did. Even though she couldn’t keep her woman’s area to herself when we were going out, she did try with me, and I’m not the easiest person to go out with a lot of the time.
With The Stone Roses, it’s like the Baudelaire quote at the very top of the page: we can be a little bit in love with the idea that making very little effort can be a good thing because that way it seems more natural. More right. More in tune with the universe and what have you. The idea that there’s one special person out there for each of us, and we’ll find them, just so long as we keep being ourselves.
I’m in two minds about the wonder of doing what comes naturally: ‘just being yourself’, not least because I don’t really think I’m anything in particular naturally. A bit of the old, discredited tabula rasa theory. What if what comes naturally is torturing animals? Should you just be yourself if that’s the case? I’m not convinced and, as a glib bastard myself at the best of times, I think ‘Just be yourself’ can be a load of bollocks.
Having said that, there have been very few occasions when I have just ‘clicked’ with people straight away – not necessarily even fancying them – but, like I said earlier, most of the things you click with instantly don’t always maintain their appeal for very long.
One of the nice things that used to happen to me when I went out with girls in my younger days was that some of them would tell me how much they liked being with me because they felt like they could ‘be themselves’ around me. From which I inferred that they meant they felt they couldn’t around other lads they’d been out with. I found that a bit odd, lovely as it is to be told it because I’ve pretty much always ‘been myself’ around whoever I’m going out with. I’m not suggesting that was always a good thing, necessarily. And they could be whoever they were, too. Why would you want anything different? Unless they’re into torturing animals, of course.
Once, a girl I was seeing was in my room. We were reading and listening to music, occasionally pointing out something good, bad or ugly in our respective books and she said to me, “I’ve never been out with anyone like you and it scares me.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“It scares me,” she clarified, “because I never thought it would be so easy. Going out with someone. And with you, it is.”
“And you find that worrying, do you?” I asked.
“I do, yeah,” she said.
“Well, I wouldn’t. Let’s just enjoy ourselves, eh? It’s alright, isn’t it?” I said. Or something like that. In short, like Flava Flav, I shut it down. I mean I didn’t ask for any details because I didn’t want to hear it.
She thought I was clever, which is better than your girlfriend thinking you’re thick, but I wasn’t: she was. I was being too cool for Christmas about it. I knew exactly what she meant because it was the same for me. But I didn’t get it, really.
The reason I mention that is because it’s all very well finding these things that instantly slot in around you, like ‘The Stone Roses’, but once you’ve surrendered yourself to them, what happens when they put ‘Second Coming’ out and you hate it?
The answer is either you try work at it or you don’t.
The thing is with these things that feel so right, right from the start, like ‘The Stone Roses’ but not ‘Forever Changes’ is, when something stops working about what follows, maybe working at it doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. If it was so natural once and now it’s not; maybe That’s All Folks and Goodnight is the natural response.
But the things you really poured your guts into, like ‘Forever Changes’, you expect to have to put a bit of spadework in and, because of the time and effort you put in, it means that you’re less likely to cast it asunder the minute something else turns up.
I couldn’t really put a fag paper between my appreciation for ‘The Stone Roses’ and ‘Forever Changes’, even though one just clicked and the other one didn’t and I had to work at it.
For a long time, I’ve thought that ‘Forever Changes’ is probably a better record than ‘The Stone Roses’ and it might be because although The Roses very much followed in the path laid out by Arthur Lee (after ‘Forever Changes’, everything did change. Not quite forever – the reunion a few years ago – but he never put out a record anywhere as good as ‘Forever Changes’ again) the fact that I had to work at it, and the fact that it did click in the end made me appreciate it more.
Now I’m not so sure. I’ve been thinking about the occasions in which things do just click, like ‘The Stone Roses’ and I think they’re rare. They have been for me anyway. Which is what makes things precious, isn’t it. That feeling of rightness, you can’t help it, can you? And the lack of control you feel is what’s scary. And though ‘Second Coming’ still sickens me, and I couldn’t bring myself to go to any of the reunion shows – and I’m glad I didn’t – what I felt for ‘The Stone Roses’ is undiminished, because of how natural and easy it was, no matter absolutely everything that happened after it – apart from Fools Gold and Something’s Burning – was execrable; ‘The Stone Roses’ was special and always will be, for a lot of reasons, but not least because it came so easily and, little was I to know: very little would afterwards.
I think Michelangelo would agree. So would Baudelaire.