The Infinite Jukebox: Neil Young’s ‘My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and ‘Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)’

This time we’ll have a double-header of the same song, by the same artist, only the two songs couldn’t be more different, nor one of them more brilliant.
In 1979, Neil Young was in danger of disappearing. Since the commercial success and reception of Harvest, and hitting the British Top 10 with ‘Heart of Gold’, his albums had grown dark and dense, sales failures with only the odd highlight here and there. Punk and New Wave had threatened the status quo of the ProgRock Gods era, with its short, sharp bursts of intensity and drive and, fairly or not, Young was among those titanic icons we were looking to sweep away.
But Young still had the intensity as well, and the integrity to see Punk as a challenge, a demand to be different, be raw, and personal. He came back with the lengthy ‘Live Rust’ tour, out of which came the mostly live Rust Never Sleeps album, a set split into an acoustic side of Young, a guitar and a harmonica, up there, up front, alone, and an electric side, joined by Crazy Horse.
Young chose one song to start and end the album, to bookend it and to mark the distance travelled between the opening and the closing of the set, with words and small differences to the lyrics to mark how great a gulf lies between the two performances.
In the beginning, it is ‘My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)’. It’s clean, it’s bright. Young picks out the notes with brio, an elemental melody alternating between notes and chords. His voice, that enigmatic cracked falsetto, rises about the music. He sings about the simple power of rock’n’roll. Because the meaningless words of the title are arranged this way, he can sing/repeat that the music is here to stay, drawing into line the essential unity of the music since the beginning.
And that gives him the famous line: it’s better to burn out than to fade away, the one everyone heeds, the one that Kurt Cobain wrote in his suicide note, so understandable yet so unfitting, from a song whose ethos is life. Young’s out to tie music into everything.
Out of the Blue, though. Not the suddenness of an unexpected change, but rather the leaving of a state of sky-high magnificence. But where does anyone go who has come out of the Blue. Young has a simple answer. They go Into the Black. And they never return.
Young asks if what he sings is the story of a Johnny Rotten, comparing the already crashed-and-burned Sex Pistols with the once equally dangerous Elvis Presley, who became an icon as bloated as everything his youthful energy threatened.
Is this the story of a Johnny Rotten? Young answers himself with a harmonica solo before returning to his theme, only this time it has been reversed. Hey Hey, My My. Rock’n’Roll will never die. But already we’re seeing it in another light, the light of Death.
Seven songs intervene, at least two of them astonishingly brilliant, before Young returns to his leading song. Hey Hey, My My. The simple, acoustic music, with its brightness, its clarity, is insufficient to handle the other side of the coin, to go. Young needs the force of the band, he needs to bury the song in a crushing mountain of sonic fury, in the dirtiest, loudest, deepest and most grungy sound he and they can develop, the blueprint, a decade later, for grunge, for Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, who will not fade away.
We’ve passed into some kind of inferno. Young repeats the words that ended the first version, telling us now that there’s more to the picture than meets the eye. He repeats what happens when you go from Blue to Black. A guitar solo replaces the harmonica. Johnny Rotten is introduced but now he is ‘the’ Johnny Rotten, not ‘a’. And that line we remember is itself changed. It’s better to burn out because Rust Never Sleeps. Decay, deterioration, diminution awaits all of us unless we fight it.
For now this is a war, a war for Young to stay what we must all be, difficult, demanding, tearing down what restricts us, what makes us comfortable, self-satisfied. And Crazy Horse surround him like the band for Hell: how can only four men sound so big as this?
Of the two, my heart lies in ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’, for its sheer power, for its determination to look entropy in the eye and spit in it. For all that it is the sound of darkness, and flame everlasting, it is the sound of Life, more so even that its little brother with its openness. Neil Young met the challenge of irrelevance and threw it down.
Would that we all could do that so well.

The Infinite Jukebox: Age of Chance’s ‘Kiss’

The best Prince covers are easily the ones where you know nothing about the original. Of course, if you’ve only ever owned one Prince album, even if that’s Sign O’The Times, that aspect is easy, but just think of ‘Nothing compares to U’, or ‘Manic Monday’, not to mention the little known but still brilliant Hindu Love Gods cover of ‘Raspberry Beret’.
And then there’s the Age of Chance…
The first time I heard ‘Kiss’, I hadn’t a clue what to make of it. How I even heard it, I don’t know because I’d stopped listening to Peely by then. It just stopped me in my tracks like a street-mugging, and it’s still a jolt of electric energy and easily one of the best examples of pulling a song apart by ripping off its arms and legs with wild horses and suturing them back together in a way nobody could have imagined. Just what the hell was this?
Well, this was, to use Age of Chance’s own definition, Crush Collision, a musical style I have never heard any other band perform. Before I got the album and found that out, the best I could come up with by myself was Heavy Metal Call-and-Response and it isn’t even Heavy Metal…
A music teacher friend of mine once described music as “organised noise”. What the Age of Chance do is to break the concept of organisation down as far as it can go whilst remaining recognisable as music. The staccato, inconstant drumming, constantly disrupting any kind of rhythm, the thunderous guitar, hammered out on one undifferentiated chord, these leave the only vestige of the tune Prince wrote in the hands of the singer, or rather shouter.
But the song is not a song, not in the hands of the Age of Chance, it’s a bludgeon of sound, stripping any sense of melody out of the aural experience. The only remnant of tune is conveyed by the raucous chorus, which may have been sinuous and slinky in the Prince original, but is here a defiant chant, negating any suggestion that the band are performing a song (I have never knowingly heard Prince’s version and I have no wish to mar the purity of the Age of Chance’s barrage by ever doing so: the disappointment would be massive).
In fact, there’s an underlying air of glee, a joyful sense of anarchy to the band’s approach. They’re ripping the song to pieces, rebuilding it in a completely different form, overwhelming as they charge towards the listener, shaping the world about them in a way that it has never been done before. If only they were plugged into the mains, the band give off the sense that they could light Leeds for a month.
If the band were a part of any musical tradition it was the brief Industrial music phase also championed by Peely in the early Eighties, exemplified by Tools You Can Trust. The Age of Chance had clearly heard them, but where Industrial Music built itself out of percussion almost exclusively, Crush Collision had greater ambitions, more polyphonic rhythms and a sense of hurtling inevitability, as if they were sculpting their sound out of granite rather than metal.
If only they’d lasted. One album, two Peel Sessions, 12”ers and remixes and b-sides, all linked by that charging sound, those epic chants. Partway through recording a second album, ‘singer’ Steven-E (Elvidge) quit. The album was re-voiced by his successor, but Elvidge’s voice was an essential component of that sound and, despite limping on another three years, the spell was broken. Age of Chance were one of those bands who exist in one line-up and in which no-one can be replaced, and especially not by a smooth, sweet, soul voice. On top of those rythyms?!.
There isn’t anything else that sounds remotely like this that I like, and there was only ever too little of this. Sometimes you wonder if the world isn’t ready for some bands, and sometimes you wonder if some bands just have too narrow an audience. Count me in that niche, if that was what they were: some grooves are too good to get out of.

The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘Canoe’

There are few enough songs by Pete Atkin and Clive James that are known outside the charmed circle of we privileged fans as it is, and sometimes it feels that the later ones, the Twenty-First Century additions to that rich but obscure canon are known even less well. At least the likes of ‘The Master of the Revels’, or ‘The Flowers and the Wine’, or ‘Thirty-Year Man’, or ‘The Faded Mansion on the Hill’ have the advantage of history, the resonance of time.
‘Canoe’ comes somewhere between the old and the new. It was written in the Seventies, in that time when Atkin and James were so prolific that the songs outran the albums on which they could be recorded. Listening to it, you wonder how on earth it could have been ignored then, but the same thing happened to ‘History and Geography’, and other classics known only to those lucky few who got to gigs, before the contract with RCA was used up by the jokey Live Libel at the same time that the music business exploded, destroying the expectation of a seventh album.
The song finally saw daylight twenty years later, in the unexpected second act made possible by an Internet to connect the dots between the memories of the fans from then, and the later arrivals who found something that made complete sense to them.
A new wave of interest. An interest on Atkin’s part in dealing with that backlog. Sessions in his local studio, laying down demos, until he realised that these were not demos after all, but the basis of a seventh album, aye, and an eighth simultaneously. The ground being cleared before the reinvigorated urge to write anew.
‘Canoe’ is a dazzlingly simple song, played on on electric piano with minimal percussion: rich, calm notes and Atkin’s voice, clear in its Englishness. The melody is delicate yet rounded, framing a story that, once you begin to understand it, is immense in its implications. The song was inspired by the Apollo 13 mission, the one that went wrong, the one where the world held its breath over the days it took before the Bird could be negotiated back to Earth, its crew alive and well.
Clive James built the song upon the recognition that so modern a story was nevertheless one of the oldest stories of all. What, in essence, was the difference between Apollo 13’s venture into that terrifying, empty, trackless place, and the journeys of the canoes of Pacific islanders, guided only by the skies as they sought routes across the pathless water to their trading islands?
It’s the gift of this simplicity, and James’ refusal to wrap his story in the ornate language he was proud of, that introduces us to the three in the canoe, the lucky three who, under a perfect moon, on easy seas, slide across the reef in search of the island where they trade the shells their island holds for feathers.
But they are not the lucky three. They don’t find the island, they never return, they row under the sun’s reflected glare.
And imperceptibly the song crosses vast gulfs and times, as the singer tells his friends the time has come for all of them to die. But now the singer is one of Lovell, Swigert and Haise, checking navigation readouts and warning they are out a whole degree.
The same fate awaits them, death by frying. But the astronauts are the lucky three, flying the mission with their hands, and on a path for home. The astronauts returned, where their earlier counterparts were lost, drifting down in silence to the ocean the missions shared.
Clive James found the words to bring these two far-separated things together, and Pete Atkin the melody to bind them in your thoughts as the piano plays out. They produced a song that, like so many of their other creations, yet for far bigger reasons, ought to be far better known than it is. No other writer, I believe, of either words or music, could have told that story without the elaboration to dull it, in a way that would make us feel less for the ones who went out there for all of us, for the ones who returned with gifts and giving, and the ones who remained in their unknowingness.
And though this aspect of the Apollo 13 is little known, no other humans have travelled further away from our planet than Lovell, Swigert and Haise. They are the ones who truly went where no man has been before. ‘Canoe’ is a worthy token of their safe return from that distance.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Tiny Children’

I have an indeterminate relationship with The Teardrop Explodes. ‘Reward’ was an irrepressible burst of joy, with some of the greatest non-soul horns ever to decorate the top 10, and I had a major Thing for the re-recorded single version of ‘Treason’. But the wider world of the album diffused the energy of such individual songs without replacing it with melodies of the same standard.
A couple of the succeeding singles were strong without even scratching the superstructure of the chart. One of these was the enigmatic ‘Tiny Children’. It had slipped through the cracks in the floorboards of my memory until it appeared in a YouTube sidebar, an omission that suggests the need for an urgent replaying. For this song is many things but one of the them that it is unforgivably lovely.
When first I heard it, I was captivated by the sound, the utter simplicity. There are only two instruments on this track, an organ extemporising on a minimalistic melody that obliviates the need to develop its theme and, over the coda, a distant drum, echoing on three beats, 2 and 1, and 2 and 1, as we who have listened sit in silence.
Over this limpid, eliding melody Cope sings, using his upper register without the sense of straining for power that marked the rest of his work with the band. His voice stands separate from the organ, still and detached. You imagine that he has his eyes closed as he raises his face, seeking a purity in his expression.
What he sings is as fragile as the melody. There is a YouTube video that connects this song to child abduction and abuse, and in his immaterial way, this may be what Cope is expressing, but his words are abstracted lines, connecting by succeeding instead of continuous meaning. Sometimes the words explode in your mind, creating unshakable empathies: Cope sings helplessly of calling someone’s name in Colin’s house (the song was written in the house of a friend called Colin), implying that there is no answer.
Later he sings of making a meal of ‘this wonderful despair I feel’. The song is composed of this, fractured lines whose leap from one to another obeys a logic completely alien to the audience. What Cope sees inside is something we cannot see ourselves, yet his performance convinces us that it is something that we should shudder before wanting to too clearly understand. What it is shakes him, shakes his faith in whatever we has previously believed in. Oh no, he sings plaintively, I’m not sure about the things that I care about.
Oh no, I’m not sure, not any more.
This undermining is so fundamental that he repeats these lines, leaving us with this finality, as the organ takes advantage of a greater freedom, with the melody, and the solo drum pounds a slow motion military beat.
And now this fragile song has returned to my mind, I find that though I don’t understand it in words, I cannot listen to it without tears rising to my throat, if not my eyes, because on another level I understand that this song, as flimsy as a spiderweb, and as weightless as it too, is about sadness and bewilderment, and beauty, and the inability to distinguish between these and misery.
No-one can live here too long.

The Infinite Jukebox: East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’

I have never been interested in boy bands, though that attitude had to change, at least in part, when I married a Take That fan. I saw them twice with her on their first reunion tour, learned to appreciate some of their songs, and one of these, ‘Rule the World’, is to me as good as anything I’ve heard. But the rest? Gah! Spare me, save my ears, relieve me from this hideous mockery of good music. Say not the name Boyzone in my hearing, let not the existence of Westlife be mentioned.
East 17 were a particularly unbearable example of the breed. They were the bad boys to Take That’s good boys, the dickheads whose schtick was outrage allied to the harmonies. This was still in the days where, however much you didn’t listed to Radio 1, you nevertheless heard things far more often than you ever wanted. Thankfully, I cannot now consciously remember or recognise a single East 17 song.
Except one.
‘Stay Another Day’ was the Xmas no 1 of 1994, spending five weeks at the top, the band’s only no. 1. Even at the time, with not reason to have an alleviated view of boy bands, I liked the record. It’s a gorgeous, slow ballad, built upon some wonderful harmonising on the much-repeated chorus, rising to some extended vocal arrangements over the song’s long coda that sends the song into infinity and leaves you regretting that it has to end when you could listen forever.
This isn’t a Xmas song, yet the addition of Xmas bells over the coda are a perfect touch, drawing the atmosphere of the season into the song, adding a touch of stardust. it isn’t even a romantic song, despite the words talking about asking someone to stay, though Girls Aloud turned it into a love song for the b-side of their first single.
No, this is an incredibly sad song, written by lead songwriter Tony Mortimer, following the death of his brother, a suicide. Knowing that the message is to a loved one who, rather than being a lover, leaving, was a brother who left forever, deepens the meaning of the song and the togetherness of the harmony, with the band as a surrogate brotherhood, increases the poignancy of the forlorn desire for the loved one to stay. All of us are affected by this.
And the final genius of Tony Mortimer is that to accompany this plea, he found a tune of simple beauty, free from tricks, in which to say how much his brother meant to him.
I’ve never heard the Girls Aloud version of the song and never will. To turn this song into a romance is cloth-earedness of the highest water, and Mortimer’s bemusement at the step says all that need be said. Though one can never rule out the possibility of someone singing this song with an equal measure of pain and understanding in their heart, I should venture to suggest that none of us, no matter what our voices, have any right to this song, and that it is something that should be accorded the respect of being left pristine.
None of the meaning of this song I knew in 1994. All I knew was that it was a lovely sound from an unlikely source that, for four minutes at a time, reconciled me to them. Knowing all I know, I regard it with more profound love than so long a time ago. This is a song that will outlive all the centuries.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Cocteau Twins’ ‘Orange-Appled’

Some years ago, I forgot to recharge my mp3 player ahead of a long train journey. This reminded me that I still had a portable Minidisc player, and over three dozen MDs, which would make a brilliant substitute (I then forgot to bring my headphones).
But this stash of MDs was a massive musical treasure trove, comprised of music taped, mainly from the radio, over not just years but decades. For the next few months, I had a wonderful time playing these Minidiscs, compiling track-listings, checking off the tracks that I had, in the meantime, collected on CD, whether shop-bought or self-burnt, and starting a vast programme of creating more compilation CDs from the outstanding tracks.
Many of these were recorded off the radio, with intros clipped, or DJs talking extensively over the intros and outros. Now, with YouTube at my fingertips, I could download clean copies of them, complete and uninterrupted. Several tracks had been ‘bounced down’ more than once and were not in that good a condition and they too were downloaded, clean.
The best of it was that there were dozens of songs that I had not merely forgotten I had but which I had also forgotten existed. A load of music dropped into my lap, to enlighten and enliven me.
Amongst this avalanche of virtually ‘new’ music were a couple of dozen tracks that I had so completely forgotten that I couldn’t remember what they were! Artist, title, a lot of the time both. Most of these were relatively easy to recover by googling a line of dialogue for the song, but there were two particular instances where this was not going to work. These were three French-language songs from Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and four tracks by The Cocteau Twins.
Ok then, given that the Cocteau Twins’ songs rarely have actual words in them, let alone recognisable ones, how do you go about establishing the title of a forgotten song? I could limit the hunt by excluding all the tracks on the CDs I had, and also all those I had never bought in the first place, but that still left an awful lot of songs to choose amongst.
And this was such a different track, bright, buoyant, structured more like a conventional song than most of the band’s repertoire, with actual, detectable verses, and a build to an astonishingly upbeat and passionate chorus that came round over and again. The orthodox song structure, the bright and forthright sound, made this an unusual track from the band to begin with.
It’s one of those sounds where you don’t really need the words to sense the meaning of the words. Elizabeth Fraser sings with a mixture of joy and yearning in her voice, and as with all great choruses, you find yourself wanting to share the sound, sing out loud and proud with her. And the music is built upon Simon Raymonde’s springy bass and Robin Guthrie’s rich, rotund guitar, a miniature wall of sound.
It’s called ‘Orange Appled’, a title I re-discovered by playing snippets of intros from Cocteau Twins tracks on YouTube until I hit the right one. It’s a song from 1986, the period where the trio were calling songs by butterfly’s names, and it appeared on the ‘Love’s Easy Tears’ 12” EP. And despite my disavowal of Cocteau’s songs not having actual words, you can find full lyrics from several online sites.
There’s a substantial discrepancy between what one site has for the verse, and what four or five others put down but there’s a definite consensus on the chorus: He loves you more than this,
The stars let you know all’s right and bright and, He loves you more than this, Ego lets him know that’s how much more was gained.
And armed with these words, I listen to the song again, and I strain my ears, and I can just about agree that Elizabeth Fraser is singing this, and then I put the words away and listen again and once more my ears are unable to translate that slightly husky, flowing river of sounds into words, but I catch the meaning in the voice and it doesn’t matter.
But if YouTube had not come along in the meantime, I would still not know what this song was called. The ignorance would have itched, but the song would have been an eternal balm.

The Infinite Jukebox: Magazine’s ‘Shot by Both Sides’

Had you asked me, towards the end of the year or at any time since, what was the best single of 1978, I would rave at you cheerfully in favour of ‘Teenage Kicks’. I still will if you don’t run away fast enough.
But had you asked me that question at any time between, say, the spring of that year and the very end of Autumn, I would have had a different answer. I would have said Magazine, and ‘Shot By Both Sides’.
It is still, to me, a massively brilliant song, the single version a giant, dark, compelling sound, it’s failure to spend months at Number One a mystery set to rank with that of the Sphinx. That ‘Teenage Kicks’ was actually better was Howard Devoto and Co’s bleeding hard luck. So it goes, as Nick Lowe and Tony Wilson both used to say.
‘Shot by Both Sides’ was Magazine’s first release. Howard Devoto had left The Buzzcocks because he wanted to do more than the pure punk sound, and in John McGeogh he found a musical partner more than capable of realising his ambitions to incorporate elements of progressive and avant garde music. Devoto envisaged a keyboard player, and between the single and the album versions of the track, he found one in Dave Formula, but in this moment the band were a four-piece, with McGeogh the dominant player, and ‘Shot by Both Sides’ was both introduction and farewell, looking Janus-like to future and past. It wraps itself in the punk sound of angry guitar, but its immediately a fuller, deeper sound, built upon a charging riff full of menace, and an ascending lick, a rising string of notes, written by Pete Shelley and generously allowed to form the keynote of this song.
(The Buzzcocks would record the original song, ‘Lipstick’, late in the year as the b-side to ‘Promises’, and bloody odd it sounds in that context.)
‘Shot by Both Sides’ has muscle and energy, but it’s a focussed, targeted energy, as dark and paranoid as Devoto’s lyrics. Barry Adamson and Martin Gorski lay down a solid rhythm over which McGeogh doubles up on riff and lick. Devoto’s voices twists away from the sound, arch and affected, reminiscent of Steve Harley in its refusal to settle on a straight tone.
He works his way into the heart of the crowd, shocked to find what is allowed, losing himself in the heart of the crowd whilst the song hurtles towards him. The song’s confidence momentarily disintegrates, mimicking the sense of Devoto cracking, the rhythm chopping up, its momentum dispersing before Devoto goes full-on batshit paranoid. There is no safety in the heart of the crowd, no anonymity, no invisibility: Devoto is shot by both sides, his enemies, real or otherwise, must have come to a secret understanding, for how else could they be on him from all directions? Devoto sings to the lick and the chorus pounds that message of shock, horror and fear.
The middle of the song sees McGeogh go off into a high-speed solo, slashing at the notes in piercing fashion, before retreating to allow Devoto to give full reign to his drama: Shot by Both Sides, I don’t ask who’s doing the shooting.
The single couldn’t be what it is without the punk background from which it arises, could not be both single-minded and yet hinting at wider soundscapes to come. It’s a culmination, a threshold before change. Devoto’s ideas were grandiose, but they held a retrogressive element to them. Once Formula was added to provide the scope Devoto foresaw, Magazine would not, could not sound like this again.
And I’m afraid I think that the band was the lesser for it. In time, McGeogh, who was one of the most influential guitarists of his time, would come to the same conclusion, his departure from the band stemming in equal parts from frustration at Magazine’s lack of commercial success and the decreasing amount of space allowed for him and his guitars: he would be both ornament and architecture to Siouxsie and The Banshees’ lush middle period.
With the possible exception of Magazine’s flambuoyant cover of ‘Goldfinger’ on the b-side of their second single, nothing the band did sounded remotely like as good as this. ‘Shot By Both Sides’ was pure, driving, musical ecstasy, power and energy in beautiful balance, taking over your ears until the only thing you wanted to do was to play it again, immediately, and louder! And forty-one years later, like ‘Teenage Kicks’, it hasn’t aged a second. Let the riff pound out and immediately we are trapped, in the middle of the crowd, overwhelmed by fear, shot by both sides.
And still the only response is to play it again.