The Infinite Jukebox: Alison Krauss’s ‘When You Say Nothing At All’


Until I got married and my wife put her foot down very firmly, I went through a phase of devotedly watching the Country Music Awards show from Nashville every year. Before you start to object, let me assure you that this had nothing to do with an unexpected love for the music, even though I had a phase in the Nineties of exploring the melodies of some of the more modern female country singers.
No, it all started one weekend away in Shropshire with a mate and his wife, the Awards show on BBC2, the wine open on the coffee table and a great deal of sarcastic backchat from both of us, about the music, the singers, the introductions (some of which really not needing our gleeful snarkiness to turn them into minor masterpieces of unintended hilarity).
So I’d tune in every year, bottle already open, open-armedly welcoming the chance of piss-take, whilst on the serious side hoping for more occasions on which the long-haired, tall, slim, short buckskin-skirted, knee-length booted Suzy Bogguss might do another enthusiastic and bouncy dance. Or even sing, I wasn’t fussed.
But into even frivolity like this a serious point must also intrude. That first occasion, at Paul and Jane’s, I saw a singer I’d never heard of sing a song I’ve never heard. And on the strength of that one performance, that silenced all of us by its beauty, and by the emotional impact of the song, I bought a compilation album by Alison Krauss, just because it featured ‘When you say nothing at all’.
Although Ronan ‘Pub Singer’ Keating covered it and had a UK no. 1 single with it, I’m astonished still that ‘When you say nothing at all’ hasn’t become a modern standard, a song attempted by all and sundry. Somehow, it’s resisted becoming as well known as it should be, and remains a song that’s almost a private pleasure.
The song was written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, who thought it was ok but nothing special. But it was first recorded by Keith Whitley, who took it to the top of the Country music singles chart in 1989, before dying of alcohol poisoning. Alison Krauss was a noted singer and bluegrass fiddle player who recorded it with her band, Union Station, in 1995 for a tribute album to Whitley. It was never intended as anything more, but people heard it, people loved it, it got airplay it spread and it was her first single hit, reaching no 3.
Which was why she was on the Country Music Awards show that Saturday night, and why Paul and I both stopped in our tracks to listen to something we immediately understood was special.
‘When you say nothing at all’ is a love song that puts into words how much more is said without words. It’s amazing, Krauss sings, how you can speak right to my heart, without saying a word. It’s in one sense a conventional sentiment, but the song brings it to an extraordinary depth, by making all of it about silence, and the inability of words to define this collaboration of minds and souls.
And then the chorus bursts open with all the ways that love eschews verbal communication. The smile on your face lets me know that you love me, there’s a truth in your eyes saying you’ll never lead me, the touch of your hand says you’ll catch me whenever I fall. You say it best when you say nothing at all.
Those who only know Keating’s version not only do not know the delicacy that Krauss brings to the song, her deft, pure voice flowing with the love the words themselves do not say, but they do not know an original line, as the second verse leads into the repetition of that chorus. Old Mr Webster, she sings, referring to the famous American dictionary, could never define what’s being said between your heart and mine. Nothing so oblique for us poor stupid Britons, who will never understand a reference to a master wordsmith being lost for words.
And the surprising strength that she brings to that chorus, full of the force of her conviction that this is where her love abides, the band reinforcing her on those first two line.
I think that night in 1995 she may have sung to just a solo piano accompaniment, trusting in her voice to deliver a song of such silent profundity.
Overall, Ms Krauss is too pure country for my mixed tastes, just as I retain very few of the CDs or tapes from that long-ago fascination, but her version of this song still moves me like few others, and without it there would be no point to have an Infinite Jukebox at all.

The Infinite Jukebox: Steely Dan’s ‘Midnight Cruiser’


Go back in time and the further you get, the more likely it is that I didn’t hear the songs I recall on The Infinite Jukebox when they first appeared. Of course I heard a lot of Steely Dan when they first appeared: both ‘Do It Again’ and ‘Reeling in the Years’ were released as singles in the UK, both got an immense amount of airplay and both were completely ignored by the Great British Record Buying Public. In fact, everything single-wise was ignored except for 1977’s ‘Haitian Divorce’ (I tell a lie: ‘Do It Again’ on reissue in 1975 got to no 35, big whoop).
But despite my familiarity with, and love for these songs from the first time I heard them, I did not buy a Steely Dan album until 1978. At least it was Can’t Buy a Thrill.
And so I finally heard the remainder of that first album, that the New Musical Express had raved over, but which it had described as an album of songs in the way that it’s follow-up, Countdown to Ecstacy was a band album. I knew at last what they meant: smooth, pop-oriented songs, strict structures, verses and choruses and middle-eights and instrumental breaks. This was the business, and ‘Do It Again’s long shuffle and western revenge set-up and ‘Reeling in the Years” collegiate times and ripping guitars were the highlights, one heading up each side in those years when music was in shiny black and turned over on itself.
But there was this other song, buried away as track 4 on side 1, that had all the same qualities as the Dan’s other early songs, of tight playing and a chorus that invited you to lend your own throat, whose lyrics offered the same kind of proto-nostalgic milieu as ‘Reeling in the Years’ but which offered something deeper, something in which the smartarsery of the album found resistance. It was a song that had sentiment at its heart, joyous reflection, a memory of times that were better, or at least fresher. A time that was fun and yet in its way serious, about which there was to be no cynicism.
Oh, it was obvious that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were clever, cleverer than us and knowing of it, and clever enough to be cooler, in on a joke that no-one without their intelligence would ever see, let alone understand. But ‘Midnight Cruiser’ was where it got to them. Where the cleverness remained but it had stopped protecting them.
Polonius, my old friend, Fagen exclaims, step on in and let me shake your hand. The kid, as he’s described in the liner notes (remember them?) is glad to see his old buddy and invites him out: for one more time, let your madness run with mine. They’re not just going out, they’re going back, one last cruise: streets still unseen we’ll find somehow, no time is better than now.
And the song swings into one of those glorious Steely Dan choruses, full of melody and yearning, asking where are you driving midnight cruiser? Where is your bounty of fortune and fame? I am another gentleman loser, drive me to Harlem, or somewhere the same.
But the clue’s already in there, in that reference to Harlem, the long ago hip place of the Jazz Age, where the white folks went for fun and risk, but that Harlem was long since dead in 1972, and it was a vastly different place by then, and only the risk remained.
And with it the regret. The world that we used to know, the Kid muses, people tell me it don’t turn no more (he’s not been to see for himself, unable to bear so direct a disappointment). The places they used to go, familiar faces that ain’t smiling like before, and then comes the climactic conclusion, the dagger to the heart, the sadness that cannot be overcome, for things are not now as they were, and never will they be again, and there’s not a damned thing you can do to alter that, nor to escape from the pain and the loss. The time of our time is come and gone, I fear we’ve been waiting too long.
Oh yes, time, and the illusion that if you’d done this before now, if you hadn’t waited so long, it may all have been there, still alive as you once knew it, waiting for you and Polonius to make it be alive again by being there, by being part of it.
It never was, and no amount of cool can bridge that gap between was and is, nor take away the sense of loss. Where are you driving, Midnight Cruiser? Where have you been and where will you be now, and can you be if this doesn’t exist any more?
And behind the music is the knowledge that without that past, Polonius and the Kid aren’t Polonius and the Kid any more: after this, they will never see, hear or speak to each other again, because the point has been lost.
Steely Dan conjured up the music to tell us what the words alone can’t tell us, that there are things this world will do that no-one can stand up against. I heard that from them in 1978, long after they recorded this poignant song, and I am reminded of it every time I hear it again.
The time of our time is come and gone. I fear we’ve been waiting too long. Is there a sadder lesson to learn?

Fairytale Time 2020


It’s that time of year again, and it’s getting to be that time of year earlier and earlier. Last week, the first two Xmas singles crashed into the Top 100, the perennials of Mariah Carey and Wham! Long term readers of this blog will know that I take a personal interest each year in one Xmas song, the one that for me is the perfect Xmas song, and the one that has re-charted for the longest sequence in time of any record. Obviously, that is ‘A Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl.
Which has today entered the Top 100 at no. 63.
Unfortunately, this time of year is also the time of year for boring arguments about ‘A Fairytale of New York’ with reference to a couple of lines in the lyrics, namely the second verse where MacColl and Shane McGowan’s characters slag each other off. A matter of him calling her an old slut on junk and she responding by calling him, amongst other things, a cheap lousy faggot.
Are these nice things to say? No, of course not. Is McGowan a misogynist and McColl a homophobe? We don’t even know if the characters whose roles in the song they are singing are misogynist or homophobe, or just a couple who have been involved with each other’s rough lives for so long that they will reach for any insult with which to attack the other in their disappointment made acute at the Xmas season.
Does it matter? These are, as I said, not-nice things to say, but this is a world in which people say not-nice things. I have, on many occasions, said not-nice things, even if they were not these particular not-nice things. But people say them, and a certain amount of accepting this is, I think, necessary.
The question of language in ‘A Fairytale of New York’ has once again been taken up by the sledgehammer-to-nuts BBC Bashing Brigade. This year, the BBC have announced a mixed approach: Radio 1 will play a bowdlerised version recorded by The Pogues and Kirsty in 1992, Radio 2 will play the original and DJ’s on 6 Music will play whichever version they prefer. One local radio DJ – there’s always one, isn’t there? – has already vowed not to play it at all and described it as a ‘nasty, nasty record’: I need hardly tell you my response to that, do I?
And the Guardian, forever eager to build mountains up out of social molehills, has convened a panel of radio listeners to debate if the BBC should censor the record at all. My opinion? SFW. The record is the record. I have owned it since 1987 and I play it whenever I want. I really don’t care what they do on the radio, any radio, the song is thereby untouched. And, to be very honest, have people completely lost the ability to make up their mind for themselves about something that, at base, is entirely personal?
That’s what worries me most. Since when does someone else’s opinion about a piece of music matter so much? Can nobody think for themselves any more? If you like, great. Play it, enjoy it, be moved by it as I am. If you don’t like it, pass by it, as I do Mariah Carey and Wham! We’ve got too many more important things to worry about this year than a bloody Xmas song.

The Infinite Jukebox: 10,000 Maniacs’ ‘Verdi Cries’


I got into 10,000 Maniacs thanks to John Peel championing the band’s first full album, The Wishing Chair. He’d previously championed the 12″ EP Secrets of the I- Ching which, apart from the track ‘My Mother the War’ (arousing phantom memories of the Sixties sitcom that I alone seemed to recall, My Mother the Car) did little or nothing for me.
But The Wishing Chair, with its fuller sound, it’s nearness to folk-rock in one direction and my shiny bright new jangling favourites R.E.M. in another was a joy to listen to and a true fascination from then onwards.
The verdict of friends who heard the music on my car cassette-player? Nice music, shame about the name.
In 1988, they (and I) followed it up with the Peter Asher-produced In My Tribe. Asher brought a smoother, more West Coast sound to the band, toning down the acoustics that had given The Wishing Chair its folky edge and burnishing the songs with an extra sheen, without obliterating the band’s characteristics.
The band had cut back from a six-piece to a five-piece by then, founder member, guitarist and occasional vocalist John Lombardo having left. And Asher emphasised the music’s ringing qualities and singer Natalie Merchant’s voice. Between critical acclaim and commercial success, this was 10,000 Maniacs’ peak.
In My Tribe had a nice, composite feel to it. Without sounding anything like what my mother would have described as ‘much of a muchness’, the album had a solid, consistent sound to it, with Robert Buck’s jangly guitar dominating the sound, above a tough, versatile rhythm supplied by Stefan Gustafson and Jerry Augustyniak, with Dennis Drew’s keyboards filling the sound out. When I took my girlfriend Mary to see them at the Manchester Apollo, it was his performance she loved, swinging and swaying at the keyboard, possessed by the sound, and she liked 10,000 Maniacs even more than she did R.E.M.
But there was another song to which none of these things applied. It was the last track on side two of the album, the end of the album. Musically, it was separate from everything else, not just on In My Tribe but throughout their whole career. This was a song called ‘Verdi Cries’.
It featured Natalie Merchant’s voice and a solitary electric piano. It’s a very curious song, with a stop-start melody that avoids the overall pop-smoothness of the album. Merchant sings of a stay in a hotel, listening to the man in the adjoining room who stays in all the time, playing Aida. He eats alone. Each day they delivery pastries on a tray outside his door that he ignores and Merchant steals these to eat on the beach. She draws in the sand, a jackal-headed woman, and dreams of lover’s fates sealed by jealousy and hate before washing her hand clean in the sea.
The holiday ends. Merchant jokes that only three days more and she’d have learned the entire score to the opera. All these things, the stolen pastries, the arias, the sand-drawing come with her as memories from years ago.
The song is, apparently, based in real life, deriving from a holiday on Mallorca when Merchant was twenty, which would put the time as 1983 or thereabouts.
It’s a haunting, spellbinding piece of music, spare and remote, and to listen to it is like passing into a dream rather than a memory. It stands alone at the end of the album because nothing, certainly not anything in which the band were involved, could follow that. 10,000 Maniacs had two more studio albums in them before Natalie Merchant left to go solo, but the seeds of her departure were sewn here.
But as the closing track of an album, I have none that compare to ‘Verdi Cries’, which is in some ways like a visit from a different Universe, and no other that, without setting out to attempt the feat, so clearly and definitively says, ‘Follow that – if you can!’

The Infinite Jukebox: Peter Gabriel’s ‘In Your Eyes’


It’s easy for me to pick out a melancholy love song, to enjoy with a degree of relish that’s an obvious component of my romantic history. I am expert at recognising the many ways in which lyricists can describe loss, heartbreak and longing in words that go beyond the banal and simple (yet still completely heartfelt) of most pop songs.
It’s harder to find songs about being in love, about what that means, beyond the superficial, songs that say, with a naked blaze of emotion, just how deep the feeling for another person goes, the completeness with which she becomes a part of yourself, until she really is the reason you are living.
I’ve already referred to Peter Gabriel’s ‘In Your Eyes’ in this series. It’s on the album, So, it was the opening track of its once Side 2, and it is one of the very greatest songs Gabriel has not merely written and sung, but arranged, drawing together musical elements that unite the world and which place the song on a plane different to the ordinary concerns of pop and rock, beyond and aside from our own concerns.
‘In Your Eyes’ is slow and relaxed. It moves to its own rhythm, slow and sensual, the music a sea of sound flowing. Love, Gabriel sings, I get so lost sometimes. Days pass by, and this emptiness fills my heart. He wants to run, he gets in his car and drives away. But wherever it is he goes, when he runs like this, unable to face what his life has become, it always leads him back to her.
And this is where the magnificent warmth and passion of the song rolls in. His instincts return, the facade with which he faces the world burns away, silently and without pride he reaches to her, with whom no distance is required, no separation exists.
And he tells her that in her eyes, the light and the heat of her eyes, he is complete. Everything he is and wishes to be is bound into being one with her, the merging of souls and hearts and minds into an invincible whole, against which nothing the world can do can hurt it.
In your eyes. This is beyond passion, it is something of the spirit, it isn’t soul music as any genre with which we are familiar yet it is soul to soul music, where the boundaries between persons cease to matter, cease to exist. She is his soul, as he is hers.
There is another verse, about pain, and wasted time, of working so hard for their survival and needing her to keep him awake and alive. It balances out the song, without adding anything to it that we don’t already know and understand. For we are there, inside the massiveness of Gabriel’s commitment to the woman he loves and whom he needs and who he sustains. This is no one-sided thing, it is commitment as breathing, as the very soul of everything that exists between them.
And it all exists in her eyes, in the light and the heat, that identifies him as the core of everything he is.
And this is love and this song wraps me in the warmth that Peter Gabriel has for the woman who matters to him, she who is the one, of which there can only be one. And melancholy is banished, now and forever.

The Infinite Jukebox: Fairport Convention’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’


Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving. But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
This is the image that opens Sandy Denny’s finest song, ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’, recorded by Fairport Convention: her finest song, their finest five minutes, despite the competing claims of many other songs.
It’s not here because it represents a moment of significance, nor because it is intimately connected to a personal recollection. It is here simply because it is beautiful. For five minutes it transcends everything except its own, gentle, disarming sound. It is an oasis of calm in which time ceases to apply. It’s about transience and stability, sung by a beautiful voice in a contemplative mood, a voice that has achieved contentment, at least for a time, time enough to wonder, almost idly, what happens to time when it is done and gone?
Once again this is a song that I didn’t discover until long after its time, far from the context in which it appeared. I must have heard it, and heard of it, and heard of and heard Sandy Denny, most notably for her version of ‘Whispering Grass’, but it was the mid-Eighties before, with some unexpected cash in my pocket from petrol expenses from my firm, I splashed out on the new four-album boxset retrospective titled after this song. The album covered all aspects of Sandy’s career and the song itself was represented by a live version.
So I became familiar with it at last, just one among many songs I could have known for much longer had I listened sooner to what people said. But I had already found, and sometimes in the face of ridicule, that I very often didn’t get the appeal of classic music.
But they were right about ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’. Sandy had recorded it with The Strawbs, and solo with just her acoustic guitar, and everyone says that Fairport made this a rock version but despite the presence of subdued electric guitar, and a slow beat, this is no rock song. It’s quiet, it’s slow, it’s almost dreamy in tune with the words but all the band do is supply an underlying consistency. They are the contentment to Sandy Denny’s words. The birds may be flying south but she will not be leaving, she doesn’t seek the sun because she has the winter fire, she has no thought of time and the drag towards other places, for who knows where the time goes?
Her sympathies are with the sad, deserted shore, left behind by its fickle friends. Even so, she recognises that it knows, and understands, the nature of their cycle, the fact that it’s time for them to go. But still she will not go herself, she has no thought of leaving, she does not count the time.
The lady is outside of time itself, as are we as we listen to this slow, spreading recitation. But not even Sandy is impervious to time. She is not alone whilst she has her love with her, but people are creatures of time and her solidity may not be matched in others. All things, even this, have a time to go. But she roots herself in the endless turn from the storms of winter and the birds’ return in spring: she has no fear of Time, for who knows how her love goes? And who knows where the time goes?
Sandy Denny’s island drifts in the stream of time, for now anchored in a place from which she can look outward. The song exists to be re-played, over and again, and in its time things are this way, the way we want all good things and loves to be: subject to nothing, and especially not the seasons. She knows it can’t be that way forever: wherever the time goes it carries us with it.
But she will face it without fear, and with the knowledge that she has given a gift against time, and it is this song and its recording, that stands uneroded by time, forty long years after her death, following a fall down stairs. It was the last song she played live, at her last concert. During her last years, Sandy Denny faced troubles that many say contributed to her early death. The music that was never composed or sung haunts everyone.
But this song ensured that in a thousand years time they’ll still know her name, and they will still ask where the time goes, and none shall even than have an answer, but the Lady will forever be part of the question.

The Infinite Jukebox: Edwina Biglet and The Miglets’ ‘Thing’


You’ll have to be of my generation to even believe that a record like this from a band with a name like that ever existed, because who in their right minds under the age of thirty would fall for the idea that this wasn’t a complete spoof. But it’s not. I even had a copy of it once.
The thing about ‘Thing’ is that it’s not meant to be taken seriously (ya don’t say?). It was the creation of writer and producer Jonathan Hodge, though the first time I heard it on Radio 1, they were suggesting it wasn’t him behind the record but Jonathan King (King was in a phase of recording one-off singles under different pseudonyms, most of which charted, sometimes quite highly, one of which was The Piglets, so the suspicion seemed justified).
For what’s absolutely a novelty song, based in sound, there’s a surprisingly strict song structure based on a three verse pattern repeated three times throughout the song, with the coda being a final repetition of the first pattern verse leading directly into an outro that fades.
Firstly, Edwina (real name Vanessa) sings about having a Thing that goes (electronic noise) and asks if you wouldn’t like one as well? In the same artificially naive voice she promotes its value: it’s smaller than most, it can come through the post, that sort of thing.
Then, to a slower tempo, a silly male voice putting on an accent describes the merits of his, e.g. he keeps it clean in the washing machine, and hangs them up to dry in the bathroom.
Then a male-led chorus gives us yet more details of this polymorphous object, he’s got one that’s red, but his friend’s got a green one instead, the one he’s got is round and cuddly and sits there on the end of his bed…
You’re getting the picture.
Of course, not everyone is as enthusiastic as Edwina and her pals. Daddy doesn’t understand, Mommy says that they should be banned, she says they’re no good, there really should be laws against them, stop them getting out of hand. But what can you expect from the Out-of-Touch Generation?
Between the second and third verse sets, a voice hurriedly counts down 5-4-3-2-1 into an instrumental break, and as I said, ‘Edwina’ sings a final four lines before we shoot off into the coda.
Apparently, there are people who suspect the ‘Thing’ to involve some sexual connotation but come on, get real! The whole thing is nonsense, the pure, uncut thing. It’s electronic foolery, the synthesizer as whoopee cushion or joy buzzer noise and as such it’s a weird little gem, but to pretend it means anything but a collection of silly qualities that have no objective meaning is to miss the point by the orbit of Jupiter.
It was fluff and fun and I love it still. Jonathan King could never have come up with anything remotely so inventive or so sweet and we could have done with many such oddities to keep us from having to take so much of the Seventies so seriously.

Person of Interest: s05 e08 – Reassortment


Look familiar?

What we have here is a great spinal story that, in the show’s early days, would have made a magnificent standalone episode, a story of chilling prescience for this year of our terror, 2020, carrying with it three peripheral stories of varying momentum that lead towards our impending end, the whole thing being a textbook example of combining multiple strands.

Just your average, everyday episode of Person of Interest then.

At the centre was a Number of the Week, international negotiator James Ko, flight diverrted to New York ‘due to maintenance reasons’. Ko’s not too well so he checks into a local hospital. He’s given a standard anti-viral only for him to collapse and die abruptly, bleeding from the mouth. The label on the anti-viral has been switched: he’s been given an injection of live flu. Ko already had avian flu: the two strains combine in a unique manner, unique amongst millions of combinations, to create a superflu of lethal proportions. The hotel has to be locked down to prevent the contagion spreading. Yes, four years before the fact, we have a COVID19 orecursor story. I am no longer surprised by things like this.

Also locked down in the hospital are ‘Detective Riley’ and, joining the fray to assist, ‘Professor Whistler’. The attack is self-evidently but why? What could Samaritan possibly want in this scenario?

One answer is equally self-evident: two disruptors’, two ‘obstacles to progress’ to die as part of this. These are Doctor Mason and Nurse Carroll, who have filed complaints about the new automated medical database and mistakes in sending drugs. The database is controlled by Samaritan.

Meanwhile, first of three, there’s Jeff Blackwell. He takes the girlfriends who’s waited for him during twelve years in prison, since she was seventeen, out for a meal at an upmarket restaurant, but she’s full of doubts and statistics about recidivism, and she leaves him, unable to face the fear of his winding up inside again. Jeff expresses doubts about his new employment to his supervisor, Mona, and is asked to complete one last task, after which he can quit if he chooses. He’s to go to a particular hospital…

Meanwhile, second of three, Fusco is not letting go on the bodies in the tunnel. He beards Carl Elias in the safe house, tells him Bruce is dead, gets his assistance. Fusco’s a detective. He works his way through leads, identifies Jeff Blackwell, traces him to a hospital…

Meanwhile, third of three – but let’s save this one for the end as it alone has no direct connection to the hospital or the contagion. Blackwell’s been sent there to kill the Doctor and the Nurse, two of the three complainants who might expose what it is doing. No need to kill the third when he’s taken your shilling, envisioning a future of automated diagnosis and dispensing, cutting out the human errors that cause 400,000 deaths each year.

Working together, Team Machine save the days. Finch and Bear stop the collaborator. Blackwell’s about to inject the Doctor when Reese tackles him. Fusco intervenes to save Reese but gets a syringe himself, Blackwell jabs the nurse and escapes. But Root, continually extolling the benefits of an open system, identifies and steals an antidote, saving the day.

But there’s fall out. Reese doesn’t chase Blackwell out of concern for his partner. Like Spider-Man and the guy he didn’t stop, there is a consequence to this, as we who have watched this before are all too aware. Fusco however has put in for a transfer, a new partner, someone who will respect him, share information with him, will trust him. Fusco has been kept in the dark too long. Fusco has washed his hands of things.

And Finch, displaying as much anger as he ever has, rounds on Elias, forbidding him to ever speak to Fusco again. And Elias, as calm as he always is, explains that in war you have to use all your forces, and that in war there are always sacrifices. Sacrifices: that word so abhorrent to Harold Finch. But, Elias warns, it’s the quiet ones you have to beware of. Harold, inside, is the darkest of them. It’s a foreshadowing.

But we have a meanwhile to return to. It’s Shaw. It’s another escape, starting from when the next sedative is to be administered: overpowering the doctor, injecting her, knocking a glass of water off the stand. Disabling security card systems. Accessing tunnels. Emerging in a cell in a South African prison, in Johannesberg. Breaking out of that. And being confronted by Lambert, mini-Greer, as smug as always. Why bother? It’s just another simulation. Any moment now the technicians will remove the VR headset. Isn’t she tired yet? Has she any hope of telling what was real? Sameen wavers, her grasp on things breaking down. If Lambert wants her to believe this is a simulation, why doesn’t he prove it by shooting himself in the head?

From the moment he doesn’t do it, we know. We know this is not a simulation. We also know what Lambert doesn’t know, that Sameen is carrying a gun behind her back. If this is a simulation, she might as well do this. She pulls the gun and shoots Lambert through the heart. Oh dear. She steals his keys and heads off into the night of Johannesberg. Shaw is coming. But she needs to be quick…

The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘The Flowers and the Wine’


I’ve form for this particular Pete Atkin/Clive James song.
My rediscovery of the pair thanks to missing the Monyash Folk Festival by a week quickly led me to the Smash Flops web-site and the Midnight Voices mailing list, initially receiving a week’s messages as a digest and then later, when I first had the internet at home, as individual messages. Once the mailing list converted to a message board, the fun of it went out and I dropped away.
One of the most popular topics on the mailing list was analysis of Clive James’ lyrics, picking up the myriad references and subtleties. We were lucky to have one particularly erudite lady whose expositions fascinated everyone, me included. I wanted to do something like that, but I lacked the breadth of references. If I were going to try, it would have to be a simple song, and Clive James didn’t write simple songs. Oh, but maybe once he did.
‘The Flowers and the Wine’ is a simple, straightforward two minute long song, played out to an acoustic guitar that supports a melody held mainly in Atkin’s single-track vocal. It’s famous in the Atkin/James catalogue for being their most commercially successful song: Val Doonican recorded a cover in which he had his writers re-write the lyrics for the second half of the middle eight, and Atkin and James received more royalties from that single recording than for their entire six album Seventies output.
I’ve called the song simple, and it is, but not plain. It’s fifteen lines, arranged in five verses of three, the third and fourth of which comprise the middle eight, and with no choruses. James sketches the set-up with concision. Another night I’ve been to visit you and him (beat) comes to an end/switch on the hallway light, farewell a friend.
The words seem clear and open, a meal with friends, but already even in this brevity we’ve learned so many things. The singer’s visiting good friends, a couple, and he’s alone: this is not a dinner party, rather something intimate, but the singer doesn’t see this as a visit to a couple. He’s already said so: the visit is not to you (two) but to you (infinitesimal pause) and him. She’s the one he’s there for. But we arrive at the end, and, just as he arrived, the singer is departing, as a friend.
Another verse, in the same pattern. Another night I bring the flowers and the wine (beat) has slipped away/there were only three to dine, and two to stay.
He’s making the situation more explicit. One guest, one couple, one comes and goes, two are there before and after. It is a couple he’s visiting, as the gifts he brings with him make plain. Flowers for her, wine for all. Of course it’s all very conventional, the mores of fifty years ago, but these are not just the flowers of convention but the only gift he can give to her, openly. They stand for more than just flowers, they’re the only way he has of saying he loves her, in front of him. In front of her, for that matter.
Musically, Atkin introduces the middle eight. James asks a rhetorical question: when you set the dates for tete-a-tetes like these/what tells you that I count the days between/except my nothing caring air of ease?
Oh yes, these meals matter so much, these snatched moments of her company, the only intimate contact there ever will be, and the only way he can convey to her just how much this means to him is to pretend an absolute indifference. That line about the nothing caring air of ease has been burnt into my heart for a very long time, it is, for its simplicity, one of the five most compact lines of Clive James I have ever read.
Back then, I struggled with the other half of the middle eight, but really it is easy to understand. When clouds black out the moon that moves the tides/what tells you there’s a river in the dark/except the streets lights on the other side. It’s a recasting of the previous triplet into symbolic terms, an abstract restatement, But the terms are more than that: the firmament, the river, the moon that creates tides, and in the midst of light a darkness, an absence that can’t be seen but which nevertheless is every bit real.
And finally, another night (another damnable night, unable to be avoided without exposing the secret he’s kept hidden) I book a taxi door-to-door (beat) has been and gone/I have never loved you more, see you anon. There, it had to be said, and there is that wonderful double-meaning, the anon that means this arrangement cannot end, that there is and always will be another night, and the anon that the singer must forever be, anonymous These simple lines, as they appear to me, are nevertheless a level of Hell.
Does she know? We spent days arguing this backwards and forwards. Of course she knows was the attitude of some, which led into a secondary debate about the morality of knowing and letting the poor bastard dangle against the decision to allow him his delusion. Everyone agreed that this guy will never break the code that demands he does not become a pest to her.
Fifteen lines, supported in a very low-key manner. In the hands of a master, songs are not songs but universes.

The Infinite Jukebox: Graham Parker and the Rumour’s ‘Discovering Japan’


At some point in their career, every band will (if they’re lucky) make an album that surpasses everything they’ve done before, an album of precision, power and single-minded directness of purpose. What they don’t know is that that album will also surpass everything that is to follow.
And some bands will have one track on that album that, all by itself, summarises in less than four minutes everything that that album is about.
And they will release that track as a single, to burst upon the ears of the Great British Record Buying Public like a thunderclap and as one the Great British Record Buying Public will turn and say, “yer what?” and go and buy Cliff Richard instead.
‘Discovering Japan’ was the opening track and second single to be released from Graham Parker and The Rumour’s 1979 album, Squeezing Out Sparks, his first album under a new contract, with Arista Records, and his penultimate album with the Rumour (who were credited on the label but not the album cover).
The big difference, on paper, between Squeezing Out Sparks and Parker’s previous works is the absence for the first time of the Rumour Brass, the horn section that had previously accompanied the band (ironically, they were off helping The Clash open out their sound for the double album London Calling). This was originally at the suggestion of producer Jack Nitzche, favouring a rawer sound, but was enthusiastically embraced by Parker.
Between the brass and Parker’s rough-voiced, soul-inflected vocals, the group had always straddled the boundary between rock and R&B: Parker’s only top 30 hit, The Pink Parker EP had been led by his cover of The Trammps’ ‘Hold Back The Night’. But the brass was out, and suddenly the band was functioning as a band, tight, focussed, purposeful, generating energy from every note.
And it can’t be ignored that the album was Parker’s first after his split from Mercury Records, who he’d regarded as mismanaging his career, to the point of writing a very pointed song, ‘Mercury Poisoning’ (“it’s fatal and it don’t get better”) about them. Squeezing Out Sparks has the rush of freedom in every track.
Though the first single from the album, ‘Protection’ was a great stomping favourite of mine, ‘Discovering Japan’ was up front and centre when the needle hit the vinyl, and it’s a bomb. Parker hits the ground running, a tight, taut, strangled vocal, declaiming rather than singing lyrics about Japan, written on the return from a tour of that country where he’d been hailed as a star.
The lyrics are impressionistic, evocations of a culture to which Parker and The Rumour were aliens, the whole song stringing these together as an attempt to comprehend a country that had once been an implacable enemy but which had reinvented itself without necessarily changing.
Apparently the band hated the song, and the producer thought it was crap, to the point where Parker himself came to doubt it, but he wanted it up front on the album, to signal that things were different, that the music was coming from a changed culture within Parker and the Rumour itself. The driving guitar, the solid, unhurried beat, the band’s ability to mirror Parker’s intensity, are dynamite and I can only shake my head that so many people doubted the song’s appeal.
There isn’t a duff track or a flawed note on the whole album, ten songs that go together as a set marking Graham Parker’s release into a new life. There was only one more album with the Rumour before he split from the band, but neither he nor they reached this peak again. And ‘Discovering Japan’ has become one of Graham Parker’s best loved songs.
It’s nice to have been out ahead of the curve for once.