The Infinite Jukebox: Pere Ubu’s ‘Final Solution’


I’ve said before that sometimes you can come to a piece of music, or a band, at the wrong time, when you are not ready for what they have to offer, and it’s only years later, if you’re lucky enough to get the chance, to hear them again and this time understand what they’re doing. This was very much the case with Pere Ubu, Cleveland’s finest export, and the world’s foremost and possibly only proponents of the avant-garage.
I started listening to John Peel’s evening show in January 1978, the best part of a year after I could have discovered it when I was growing enthused by the rawness and directness of punk and new wave.
Peely, of course, was the first one to spot Pere Ubu, who’d been making waves in 1977 with their 12″ five-track EP, Datapanik in the Year Zero (lots of American bands then and later, R.E.M. included, started their career with a 12″ five-track EP, all for the same reason: they couldn’t afford the studio time for a full album). I heard tracks from it and thought it incomprehensible. The same went for the first album, later that year, The Modern Dance. As for its follow-up, Dub-Housing, that didn’t even sound like anything I’d heard from them before and after that I shut my ears.
Jump forward to 1985. I work in Manchester City Centre, with easy access to things like the Virgin Megastore at lunch. One midweek morning, I decide that I fancy buying an album. But which one? After some thought, I come down to an either/or between The Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut album, or Pere Ubu’s The Modern Dance. I haven’t gone on for much longer before realising that, at the age of not-quite thirty, I was making a life-changing decision.
The real choice wasn’t between two records, but between the past and the future. Ever since I started listening to pop and ever since, my natural attraction was to the new: what’s next? Always what’s next. The JAMC was what’s next. Pere Ubu was what I’d jumped past. They were an unexperienced corner, a gap in the story. If I chose The Modern Dance, I was really signalling that I was not prepared any longer to go in search of what was next, that I was set to now fill in the story, paint out the holes.
What did I buy? Well, it turned out to be The Cocteau Twins. The JAMC album wasn’t released until the next week, the Ubu was long since deleted. But I had decided, and it would have been Pere Ubu.
Why, you may be meaning to ask, was I even thinking of Pere Ubu in 1985? The band didn’t even exist any longer, having split after five albums and multiple line-up changes. They were of no relevance to 1985 whatsoever.
The answer was the song we’re listening to here. Someone, and it might not necessarily have been Peely, it may have been our then-Stockport based pirate radio station, KFM, had played “Final Solution”. In fact, I’m sure it was KFM because the reception wasn’t all that wonderful. I had got to the radio cassette recorder before half the long intro had run, and I wanted to know more. Like the Age of Chance’s ‘Kiss’, my ears were being blown apart and remade in a new form. Pere Ubu were post-punk before there was even punk to be post.
This song dates from 1976. Let me say that again. 1976. Can you seriously believe that? It begins with a bass guitar, playing a solid, unvarying note in a tempo that the entire song will use. It’s joined by the drums and a lead guitar, played by Peter Laughner, who would die within a year of recording this, playing a complex, growling filigree, and by Allen Ravenstine’s synthesizer, not playing music of a kind that differed only in sound and texture from an organ or an electric piano but rather sound, pure abstract sound shimmering, hammering: industrial.
The solo ends. Bass and drums lockstep and move forward implacably. David Thomas, Ubu’s lead singer and the only member to be there from start to finish, enters. His voice is raucous, growly, squeaky. He is like no-one you’ve heard before. He sings/intones/chants lines of apocalyptic teenage angst, deliberately OTT. The girls won’t touch me, he protests, but Thomas’s enunciation is so intentionally vague that you can’t be certain if it’s because he’s got a misdirection or a missed erection. Either way, he also complains that living at night isn’t helping his complexion. Social infection and insurrection are the other rhymes in this first verse.
And the bass and the drums drive onwards. Thomas’s Mom has thrown him out until he gets some pants that fit, and she just don’t approve of his strange kind of wit. Just who is this we’re locked in here with? Do we really want to be here with him? Guitar and synthesizer surround everything, enclosing Thomas in a cage as his voice rises to a howl, they’ll make him take a cure, but he don’t need a cure, and the band come in like a gang backing up one of their own who’s threatened, don’t need a cure, don’t need a cure, don’t need a cure I need a Final Solution.
Here we’re wavering on the edge of something extreme. Final Solution has a connotation, maybe it has only a single meaning and it’s one you toy with referring to at your peril, but this sound is an unforgiving advance and the kid’s in a world of his own where perspective is all to hell, and in his own head it’s all so extreme.
And it’s that bass and the drums, and Laughner showers a stunning, chiming solo before Thomas expands his universe of solipsistic anguish, with guitars that sound like a nuclear destruction (at which the sound stops, for an unheard beat, before we escalate yet more), the kid crying that he’s a victim of natural selection (it’s not my fault) and talking obliquely of suicide, Thomas drawing all the energy into his personal maelstrom and the gang shout you down again don’t need a cure don’t need a cure…
Then the bass takes over as a lead instrument, heavy-handed and threatening, until Thomas starts to repeat just the word Solution, in growing desperation, against a background of sweet, harmonious ‘ooohs’ from the gang, until Laughner starts one last, extended, astonishing solo, the guitar creeping up the scale, the sound growing almost edgier until you’re almost screaming for the tension to come to an end, and Laughner chops things down and Thomas screams ‘Solution!’ into the heart of the song and you wonder how anything’s going to end a thing that’s gained so much momentum, until the drums abruptly quit and bass and guitar wind down to a stop in a few shirt but satisfying notes. Oh my God.
This is a song that unmakes and remakes its listeners. The world you leave to hear this song is not the world to which you return when its five minutes(only five minutes?) ends. It is both destroyer and creator, yet it can be returned to again and again, and listened to mesmerically, as Laughner’s guitar works through those three solos, as Ravenstine’s synths create an unwordly yet concrete world, as Thomas’s voice grows in both power and anguish…
Eventually, I got The Modern Dance when it first became available on CD, in a limited issue edition. I never did buy The Jesus and Mary Chain. As far as I’m concerned, I came out ahead.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Rembrandts’ ‘The Other Side of Night’


When people mention The Rembrandts, inevitably it’s in connection with the theme from Friends, ‘I’ll Be There For You’, twice a top five hit in the UK in the heyday of the sitcom. Me being me, and liking the song’s R.E.M.-esque vigour and melody, dug deeper, to the extent of buying the band’s most recent CD, which they’d called, amusingly, LP , a follow-up to Untitled. Some people are born smartarses.
It wasn’t a bad album by any means, but it wasn’t as distinctive as I hoped. The overall sound, and songwriting, was much more reminiscent of Crowded House, and the release was not all that long after Woodface, but in the end there weren’t enough compelling tracks to justify keeping it, and I recorded the ones I wanted to keep and sold the album on. One of those songs was “The Other Side of Night”.
If all you listen to is the music, then this is a pleasant, low-tempo song, set to a gentle, shuffling beat, with an appealing but not overly-demonstrative melody, sung in a restrained and sometimes gently yearning voice. But that yearning note is not there for just fun, and when you tune your ear to the song, what this is about is loss, loss of a love, a might-have-been love. And it doesn’t take much to understand for what the Other Side of Night is a metaphor.
Sadness is encoded into the song, whose gentility becomes fragile in its playing out. Whoever she was is unknown, whatever she was is plain to see, and what has happened to her has been a sorrow that can never be relieved, and also a guilt. No farewell words will ever be heard from the other side of night.
This song is a companion to The Pierces’ glorious ‘Glorious’. It hasn’t a tenth of the fire of that song, and nothing of the Pierces’ determination not to take life as being over, but to live as loud and as hard as they can. The Rembrandts are a long way from recovering from their loss. They are calm and placid about it, accepting in part of what cannot be undone, but still they look back, seeing the absence, rather than forward, to the life best lived in honour of the loved one gone ahead.
It’s easy to say, no doubt in response to that early and devastating loss, that my thoughts turn too often to a mournful tone, that sadness and loss will always affect me more than joy and happiness. And the other side of night is right in my wheelhouse when it comes to words that describe.
Because Danny Wilde and Phil Solem are singing about a girl who took her own life. A girl who was not a love but who might have been, had there been another year, another season. A girl who’s become a question, not an answer. The sun shines where she is but The Rembrandts see only night, under a moon that throws a beautiful light but not one that eases, because no beauty can answer the unending questions.
Because nobody loses someone to suicide without questions as to their own part, the invisible responsibility, the unanswerable guilt at what might have been different had I been different. Those dead are always close at hand, around a corner, just out of the line of sight. Thank whatever passes in your world to a God, I have never experienced such a loss, but survivor’s guilt is one of the most powerful guilts that can be borne because it can never be lifted except by your own head.
For The Rembrandts, all that might have been were possibilities. Would I have fallen in love with her if there had been a longer time? The unspoken fear: was it for my failure to love that she chose to go beyond?
But she is where she chose to be, now and forever. Would she have inspired so beautiful a song without the mourning that exists in every note? That no-one can ever know.

The Infinite Jukebox: Lake Street Dive’s ‘What I’m Doing Here’


Among the many things I gained from a decades-long enthusiasm for the works of Clive James was an introduction to the works of Lake Street Drive, a jazz-rock band who’ve been around since the beginning of the 2010s. I am not normally a fan of any kind of jazz, and especially not anything that falls into the bracket of trad, but based on his panegyric to the voice of singer Rachael Price, I went on YouTube. And now I have all their CDs to date and the ambition to see them live.
Lake Street Dive are a compact four piece consisting of Mike ‘McDuck’ Olsen on guitars and trumpet, Mike Calabrese on drums and Bridget Kearney on stand-up bass, plus the aforementioned Ms Price on vocals, with all three of the other members on backing vocals. Their music is tight and complex, utilising a mainly rock-oriented sound but jazz inflections and constructions. And in Rachael Price they have a woman with a stunningly rich voice.
Her voice is warm, throaty, flexible and she’s in complete control of her range, owing nothing to studio trickery whatsoever. That she’s also stone cold gorgeous is a bonus.
That first song I was exposed to on YouTube was ‘What I’m Doing Here’. To my chagrin, it is not available on CD, but only as the lead side of a 7″ single, and me with no record player any more. It’s a slow ballad, built upon a primarily piano track, with Price ranging throughout her entire vocal repertoire over its length, trying to decide for herself whether or not the boyfriend she has is worth keeping.
Nobody knows what I’m doing here, she sings, and admits that she herself hasn’t got a clue. What she is doing is messing around with these other fools, when she’s not with him. But what seems obvious to everyone else, that he is the one she should be with, is far less obvious to Rachael. She knows she’s wasting her time with these other losers, but questions whether the boyfriend she’s avoiding is so good a bet for her. Their relationship is turbulent: yes, they’re in love, or he’s in love and she has feelings for him, but there are times when things are turbulent and that love is not enough.
And while they wonder, they who are unnamed but are her friends, and are here represented by the backing vocals of the band, what she’s doing with these fools and losers, Rachael herself wonders, knowing that they are not enough for her, they are beneath her, and why she is here and not elsewhere is as much a mystery to her as it is to her friends.
But not necessarily the same mystery. If they are that much below the boyfriend she, on one level loves, why does she spend her time with them and not him? What is she seeing that she can’t see that she’s seeing? Her voice dips and soars, asking herself a question she cannot answer, hoping to find in the music the explanation, and the key to what she should do in order to move forward.
That she can’t find it yet is no fault of the honesty with which she interrogates herself. If the answer is in her voice, it will come. In the meantime, being caught between choices like Hamlet has never sounded so musically compelling.
And she sings it in one single take in the video attached below. Incredible.

The Infinite Jukebox: R.E.M.’s ‘Let Me In’


It surprised me to realise that, after one hundred posts under this title, I have yet to feature a track by R.E.M., my favourite band for nearly half my life. And it’s equally strange that the song that’s inspired me to write about should be off one of my least favourite R.E.M. albums of all time.
Monster was released in 1994, and a mate of mine and I went to see the band touring it at what was then the MacAlpine Stadium, the newly-built (still only three-sided) home of Huddersfield Town.
It was a blazing hot July afternoon and, in order not to fry/dehydrate completely, we took seats in the shade of the stand at the Town End, whilst the stage was set up at the open end, down the length of the ground.
To be honest, of the seven R.E.M. gigs I saw down the years, this was the least entertaining, in part from the distance we were from the band, but more for the songs they were showcasing. Monster was a deliberate reaction to the mainly acoustic music the band had made over the past two albums, and so the sound was deliberately loud, dirty, heavy, aggressive and, overall, a bit one-note. I won’t say it made the album monotonous, but unvaried would be an apt word.
So what makes ‘Let Me In’ stand out above, not only its fellow songs on this album but all the others they recorded? And why has it come to mind now? 2019 saw the 25th Anniversary of Monster and a special edition CD was issued, in two disc and five disc formats. The latter includes a complete remix of the album, which clarifies its deliberately thick and semi-distorted sound in a way that gives the album a more interesting sound overall to me.
But ‘Let Me In’ has undergone more changes than a mere remix. This was always the song that stood out for me. It was the famous song about the recently deceased Kurt Cobain, and Michael Stipe’s efforts to contact him, to offer help. It wasn’t the only slow-paced song on the album, but it was the only one of the three to be dominated by Peter Buck’s guitar, a swirl of sound, thick and woozy, feedback-drenched, in which individual notes and chords are indistinguishable, with Stipe’s vocals buried in the middle of the mix yet escaping plaintively, to plead ‘let me in’.
What he sings struggles to be heard, in its semi-abstract, abstruse form. The only clarity is that plea, a forlorn cry for help from Stipe even as it’s a cry to help, the urge to bridge the gap to Cobain as he entered the final phase of drowning in his own life.
And there in the middle of the song an organ begins to echo the melody in Stipe’s voice, a simple, one-finger two-finger, underlying the words. Until Stipe’s oak-smoked voice rises into the falsetto and the organ begins to spin out of the drench of sound, until the voice that has failed to deliver the help it so desperately wanted to deliver and which can only now mourn is supplanted by it, swirling the melody, soaring yet despairing, taking the lead until the song finally fades into silence. If I were not already drawn deeply into ‘Let Me In’, this coda completes the spell. Like Stipe but without the articulation it is the summation of the regret for what could not be done, a threnody using the minimal melody of the song to draw us into the ultimate sorrow.
The remix does many things. It separates the instruments, it releases Stipe’s voice from its half-hidden place, it brings it out into the open freeing the words for clear perception, it reduces the blur and thickness of the sound, and these are all things that, musically, I have always preferred, and which in that sense does enhance ‘Let Me In’. Yet it also removes the organ, removes the tambourine, distances the guitar, making the performance a thing of guitars only, arranged as a supplement to Stipe’s voice rather than its prison. And that diminishes the song even as it’s turned into a better vessel for Stipe’s singing.
It takes out the pain, and this is a song about pain.
And though it’s not in my nature to prefer such a sound, this once it is the thick sound, the blur and the entanglement, the inability to distinguish what Buck is playing, that is the true sound of what R.E.M. meant in recording this.
You’d expect the organ to be the work of Mike Mills but on the tribute video it is played, painstakingly, by Peter Buck. But who cares really? Let ‘Let Me In’ be the enigma it was meant to be, concealing its answers. Let it reach directly into the heart. Let It In.

The Infinite Jukebox: Second Season


Second series are often better planned than first efforts. After achieving 100 posts and collecting everything as a book, I wanted to take a posting break on The Infinite Jukebox. That didn’t mean that I was taking a writing break, indeed I have been compiling entries, sometimes at a semi-furious rate, since posting about Roger Whittaker. I currently have almost twenty posts lined up in order of composition, enough that instead of the previous haphazard and occasional posting schedule, I’m putting Series 2 on a weekly schedule, starting on Monday. Look out for a new song every Monday morning, hopefully until I’ve racked up another hundred and published another Volume to be ignored by an uncaring world.

The Infinite Jukebox Book


Good morning all.

Over the last five years I’ve been adding posts about a variety of songs that, in many differing ways, I find significnt, whether that be musically, soocially or personally. The series hasrun under the title of The Infinite Jukebox.

Just last week, I posted the 100th such essay and, having reached that milestone, i decided to compile all the blogs into a book, which I have now published through lulu.com.

It’s nothing you haven’t read before, but if you were interested, and didn’t fancy picking through five years worth of posts to find these gems, you can now have these all in one place, by clicking on this link and paying a mere £6.99 and postage.

There’s even a picture of the cover to incite you.

The series will go on here and when I’ve racked up another 100 entries, I shall alert you to the chance of acquiring Volume 2. But that won’t be for awhile yet so you needn’t worry about me embarrassing you like this again any time soon.

The Infinite Jukebox: Jim Croce’s ‘Time in a Bottle’


It’s always sad when a musician loses their life, removing forever the possibilities of where their talent could have taken their audience. It is doubly painful to think of the death of Jim Croce, killed in a plane crash returning from the last night of his tour.
Croce had started his career, unsuccessfully, in the mid-Sixties, recording one album with his wife, Ingrid, but first came to commercial notice with his third album, an American no. 1 and its attendant single, the title track, ‘You don’t mess around with Jim’. Further singles followed, including his only lifetime no. 1, ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown’, which was covered by the unlikely figure of Frank Sinatra.
Croce had become a hit, and several of his songs got Radio 1 airplay without selling, but he became increasingly unhappy at the amount of time spent touring, keeping him away from Ingrid and his son, A.J. So much so that he wrote her, after his last gig, telling her he was giving up music so as to stay closer to her. In the morning, his plane crashed on take-off, killing everyone on board: Croce’s letter arrived after Ingrid had learned of his death.
But in 1970, after learning that his wife was pregnant with A.J., Croce had sat down and written a song, encapsulating his lover for Ingrid. It’s recording had been a fortuitous experience: Croce found a harpsichord on the studio which blended beautifully with the two acoustic guitars he played, with the addition of a very small amount of electric bass, and no percussion.
The song was called ‘Time in a Bottle’. It appeared on You don’t mess around with Jim, and after his death, albeit with some misgivings about the sentiments of the song, set against his loss, it was released as a single, and became a second American no. 1. I heard it that year and bought it, though like everything that came before it, and most undeservingly, it made no headway in Britain.
I could never persuade anyone else just how good it was, but then I was surrounded by prog fans.
The song is simple, dealing with the most simple of subjects, the love one person has for another. There are three verses and two choruses, the verses dealing with desire and hope and the awe of that other person, that Croce sings in a higher register, his voice full of wonder at the fact at the thoughts of eternity that dance through his mind. He sings of abstract ideas, becoming concrete in his dreams, the idea of saving time in a bottle, to be used to spend time with her, turning days into forever and words into wishes that come true, so that all of time may be spent within her presence, of a box for wishes and dreams that never came true, a box that would be empty of everything but the memory of how she made them come true.
And the choruses are repeated in a lower register, in a softer, less urgent tone, because the choruses are what is, what is real between them, which is that there is never enough time in the demands life makes for what you want to do, and that is still her, for he has had enough time go past to know that she is the one he wants to spend all his time with.
The contrast between the dream of the verses and the practicality of the choruses, between what should be and what is is the cornerstone of the song, and the painful poignancy of the contrast between the understanding that Croce is singing from the heart and that he never had the time at all, that what he needed was not time in that bottle but rather a genie who would have preserved him to live at least some of that future to which he looked.
The song received a beautiful, crisp, clean production in which each note was individually sounded, with crystal clarity. And Croce was right about the interplay between the harpsichord and the guitars, which mesh seamlessly, creating a delicacy of sound over which his voice rises in what is, in many ways, a private hymn to the woman he loved. But he expressed it in a way that each and every one of us recognises in ourselves, in universal terms that only require the existence of another person, a someone that they want beside them.
Even in 1974, and having behind me only my first, puppyish love that I hadn’t known how to make work, I was moved to deep emotion by this song. Sometimes I wonder if I recognised the future that was waiting for me. There never were enough times to do the things I wanted to do once I found them. This song remembered for me before I had the memories.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Smiths”How Soon Is Now?’


When it came to having a cavalier approach to singles in the Eighties, New Order were the unashamed masters. It wasn’t that they took unconventional steps, but sometimes it was like they were deliberately anti-commercial. Eventually, they either learned better or they got fed up playing games, but for a while there they were the kings of doing the nonsensical thing.
I can think of only one contemporary band who ever pulled off a stunt to rival New Order, and that was The Smiths, with ‘How Soon Is Now?’
I was an eager Smiths fan for a few years, packed inside my years following New Order. It began with dear old Peely playing ‘This Charming Man’ one night, which I immediately thought of as the Postcard sound, done right (you’ll understand what I mean if you were there too) and ended less than halfway through the only time I ever saw the band live, during the all-day G-Mex gig, the Festival of the Tenth Summer.
But for that few years, I was indeed enthusiastic. I bought the singles as they came out, quickly enough to capture original picture sleeves, like when Morrissey had to stand in for Terence Stamp, I think, to duplicate an unauthorised still on ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ The fifth one was the disappointingly nondescript ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’; not just nondescript, but also short, at 2 minutes and 10 seconds. It’s b-side was even shorter, a mere 1 minute and 50 seconds, though every second of it was lush and gorgeous, because this was the achingly wonderful ‘Please Please Please (Let Me Get What I Want)’.
Still, a total of four minutes of music spread across a 7” single was not really value for money in most people’s books.
But I was a fan, and fans bought everything, and besides, there was a bonus track on the 12”, and my Lord it was 6 minutes and 50 seconds long, and it was called ‘How Soon Is Now?’
First of all, how insane was that? That’s three-quarters as long again as the other two tracks put together. Who does that?
And then I listened to it. And listened to it again. And again. Who, in their right mind, throws away something like this on the bonus track on a 12″ single? Are they all completely deaf to what this is? Or are they setting out to out-perverse New Order, because if they are, they’ve done it.
I now know that ‘How Soon Is Now?’s placement was down to Rough Trade label-boss Geoff Travis’s aversion to it being released at all, it being such a compete contrast to the rest of the group’s music. So the answer was that Travis at least was completely deaf to ‘How Soon Is Now?’ and if it had been up to him it would have been a secret known only to the group itself.
Given how widespread people’s musical tastes are and can be, I rarely say things like this, but I am genuinely flabbergasted that someone like him could not recognise that here was a monumental, magnificent piece of music, an epic. Who cares that it was totally unlike what had come before it?
Cribbing a bit from Wikipedia, I can report that the song is built around the use of a single chord, F#, and that Marr wanted a swampy sound (the track’s working title was ‘Swamp’). But interesting though that is, I concern myself with effects, not causes. And ‘How Soon Is Now?’s first impact came from the contrast between its shimmering effects, the multiple guitar licks built upon the base of Marr’s sustained, growling, crawling, almost grinding rhythm, the guitar riff that isn’t a riff, that sustains and multiplies throughout.
The song peals in on a higher guitar lick, but the rumble takes over. Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce maintain a complex yet simple beat, metronomic in its crispness yet lacking any element of a dance-beat, as Marr crosses and criss-crosses the slow chugging rhythm with layers and layers, and Morrissey slides across the face of the song, singing melancholy lyrics of shyness and vulnerability that were, in many ways archetypal Smiths, but which, in their self-pity were in complete contrast to the solidity, the complete self-confidence of Marr and the implacable sound he’s built.
In the end, like Morrissey’s crippling introversion, the song has no ending. The music has formed itself into a barrier, an unscalable wall. It has no ending, the riff is perpetual motion, the guitars play and dance and the song has to be faded out because it cannot be stopped. The song could last forever – one take was apparently fifteen minutes long – and who would care?
‘How Soon Is Now?’ is the thing that The Smiths will ultimately be remembered for, a hundred years from now, no matter how separate it is from the rest of their music. It was thrown away as the extra track on a 12” single. It became the band’s sixth single, in a version edited down to 3 minutes and 41 seconds, a song already released on a single, released as a single, but only got to no. 24, after three Top Twenty hits. We’d all bought it already. On reissue, seven years later, it reached no. 16.
But it’s still an amazing song, an amazing performance, a thing of tensile strength and extraordinary daring that, despite the decision of some people to condemn the guitar-based rock track as a passé remnant of the Twentieth Century, still sounds as vigorous and magnetic as the day I first heard it, and will remain so.
Not bad for something they threw away and wasted.

The Infinite Jukebox: Robert Wyatt’s ‘Yesterday Man’


Has it ever occurred to you, when listening to any Golden Oldie show that broadcasts Chris Andrews’ colossal 1966 hit, ‘Yesterday Man’, that there is a massive gulf between the sound of the song – peppy, poppy, bouncy, delirious, uptempo, upbeat, danceable – and what Andrews is actually singing about?
After a brassy, bright intro, trumpeting to a halt to give a platform for Andrews to deliver his first line, he announces that he’s a Yesterday Man, and affirms to his friends that this is what he is. And, in case there should be some doubt about a linguistic shift that has utterly transformed the meaning of the words, he repeats it and repeats. That’s what I am, that’s what I am, a Yesterday Man, with a quick confirmatory echo behind him of ‘Gone is the look of love she had last night.’
Ok, it’s plain, and the verses make it plainer. He had a girl. She was great. He thought she was in love with him, but she’s dumped him overnight. He was sure taken in. And now he’s her Yesterday Man and he couldn’t sound more pleased about it if you’d offered him a 14″ Deep Pan Pizza with all his favourite toppings on it.
Hey, wait a minute. This is a break-up song, no doubt, break-up-I-was-conned, and Andrews is singing about it as if it was the best experience of his life, and no-one seemed to have noticed? Truly we are strange people.
Jump now to 1974. Robert Wyatt, once of Soft Machine and Matching Mole, now confined to a wheelchair after a fall from a window resulted in a broken back, records a cover version of The Monkees’ ‘I’m a Believer’ for a John Peel Show session. It goes down well enough that Wyatt records it as a single and has an unexpected minor hit and a controversial Top of the Pops appearance.
In the New Musical Express, it’s reported that Wyatt has recorded a version of ‘Yesterday Man’ that’s even more brilliant as a follow-up, but for unknown reasons, the single is cancelled. Until one day in 1977 when, listening to Piccadilly Radio, an unknown track started to play. ‘Gone is the look of love she had last night’, it began, and I dived for the tape recorder and hit Record, for I’d never forgotten about the Robert Wyatt version and this was indeed it, but what it was doing on Commercial Radio at that point I have no idea, and I never heard it played again.
Wyatt’s interpretation differs massively from Andrews. He takes the song at a slower pace, noticeably but not dramatically so. His vocal range, which is in a higher register than Andrews, lends itself to the plaintive, whilst the instrumentation is thicker, weightier. The song is immediately recognisable: the syncopation is there and the song structure hasn’t been tampered with.
But what distinguishes it most clearly is the simple difference that Wyatt is singing to the words and not the arrangement.
And make no mistake, this is a melancholy song, and incredibly so in its last line, when the singer confesses that in spite of all that I say, I’d take her back any day. And Wyatt sings it like it is and in the process turns a cheery romp into a sorrowful lament and a confession of obsession and weakness. It’s what his voice is made for, and the arrangement reflects it perfectly.
As for the original, we all know that the juxtaposition of elements in any form of art can be a fruitful form of tension, but really, singing about heartbreak in a happy-clappy jolly voice and arrangement as if you’ve won the EuroMillions jackpot on a multi Rollover week is not going to produce anything for anyone. Wyatt got it right, taking his cue from the words, and on a long ago day in 1977, I reacted instinctively and grabbed the chance to hear this, and to take it into my memory where it resonated for the rest of my life.