Tag Archives: new wave

Toxic Post-Punk Syndrome: Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives

Having spent a little bit more times on the fringes of reggae (The Specials are my latest venture, getting into full-on ska territory at this point), the realization suddenly dawns on me that there’s a reggae song that I’ve been a fan of from way back, and it turns out that it’s even better now: Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives”. Stapled onto the back of the American version Costello’s debut album, My Aim Is True, it was his first UK hit and an excellent object-lesson in simple atmosphere-building (a technique he’d use later to absolutely devastating effect on “I Want You”). The rest of the album shows of Costello’s songwriting chops, with scathing lyrics and good tunes, but this one feels totally immersive and that you’re only getting a little piece of the much bigger picture.

A Steve Goudling drubbing of the drums pulls us into the story as the slinky bass makes its appearance known and asks you to follow it with morbid curiosity, courtesy of Andrew Bodnar. There’s a slightly sinister air as the bass is slightly too complex to sit on its laurels over the reggae beat, so you get the sneaking suspicion that it knows something that you don’t. Costello’s guitar tries to sidle in without being seen before the vocals come in. As his voice cracks under the pressure, he draws out the scene cinematically “long shot of that jumping sign/visible shivers runnin’ down my spine/cut the baby taking off her clothes/close-up of a sign that says ‘we never close'”. His voice oozes menace as he lingers on those last syllables as Goudling deftly skips along the hi-hat.

The off-beat organ in the chorus makes it sounds little cheesy at first, but by the time the climactic last chorus comes by, you’re no longer laughin’. The vocals get closer and closer together until they’re overlapping each other in paranoia “Now fear is here to stay/Love is here for a visit/…/Someone’s scratching at the window/I wonder, who is it?”. The tension builds and builds as the vocals hammer on the beat harder and harder and the rhythm section fills things out more and more until it all stops and Costello delivers the punishing line “It only took my little fingers to blow you away”. Even though it follows your standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, there really ain’t no climax until that one little moment where it all comes together beautifully, as the rhythm stays pretty intact up until that point.

Each part under analysis doesn’t seems like it would fit together with everything going on in the song, and perhaps that’s the beauty of it. The song begins to coalesce more and more as it goes on until everyone’s firing on all cylinders when Costello calls “shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot!” during the chorus. The minor key and Costello’s straight delivery avoids the idea that Costello is trying to emulate a reggae song, but rather, is using the form as sort of a means to an end, the tension held together beautifully by the insistent rhythm of the whole thing, the organ in the chorus being the only place they really seems to hang a hat on it. By far one of my favourite songs of his entire oeuvre and one that I have a multitude of listens to give. Building up to that moment every time manages to remain a highlight, no matter how many repetitions. I’m still finding more in it!

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Frankly, Mr. Shankly, I don’t give a damn: The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead

For a dude who has an eye towards a solid knowledge base of rock music, it took me a long time to get around to The Smiths. First off, someone told me that Morrissey always sounds like he is yawning when he singing, which I couldn’t NOT hear anytime I heard a track he was singing on. Secondly, I’d sort of sussed for myself that The Queen Is Dead was the preferred album of the knee-huggers in the corner with the too-big sweater set, which really isn’t my deal. Specifically, I thought that their entire oeuvre sounded like “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”, which is a two-minute slice of jangly twee pop on this album which works fine for its length, but I figured a whole album of that would be too cute by half. I kept my distance for awhile.

They are frequently included, however, in the discussions of best 80s bands and guitarist Johnny Marr seems to be as venerated as much as, if not moreso, than Morrissey (he played on Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and No One’s First and You’re Next, among other collaborations with bands comprised of young Smiths fans). I eventually decided that it was me the problem was with and that Strangeways, Here We Come was a cool album title, so I scoped a track off of that (“A Push and A Rush and the Land Is Ours”) and found myself pretty engaged. I figured the next step was to get into an album, so I picked myself up a) their only album at HMV I was at that wasn’t a compilation and b) their seminal album, The Queen Is Dead.

After a single grande olde English chorus of “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blightly”, the band launches into the title track and they are, if I do say so myself, rocking out! Mike Joyce pounding on the toms in anticipation as Marr sends out a few electric washes from the guitar to get everyone in the mood before hitting the ground running. To my surprise, Morrissey doesn’t start off entirely introspective. He does state that “Life is very long/When you’re lonely”, but has a few ideas as to why that might be and takes aim at what he sees around him driving the rampant loneliness of 80s Britain with the aggression of the band backing him up, the bass never staying in one place for too long, in fear of being found: “Passed the pub that saps your body/And the church who’ll snatch your money/The Queen is dead, boys!”

After that first song, I was ready to pick up whatever the Smiths were putting down, as I found that my assumptions about them were totally wrong – they are a much more versatile band than I gave them credit for. Knowing what they have in their quiver, I was just happy to see what they chose to notch. It turns out I didn’t even give “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” a fair shake after I paid closer attention to what the rest of the band was laying down underneath Morrissey’s foppish vocal on that song. Not that the band needed to rock out to get my attention – I just didn’t mark their versatility when I dismissed them early on.

I also noticed they bore more than a passing resemblance to one of my favourite all-time bands, R.E.M. It’s the conversational tone of the lead singers reporting on the state of the world and how it affects them, combined the the guitarists’ knack for creating textures and atmospheres with intricate picking and sliding, making a quiet, ‘busy’ sounds to ably back-up and harmonize the vocals instead of a big loud one. The Smiths of course with a big dollop of Britannia on top, whereas R.E.M. deal chiefly in Americana.

Now that The Smiths and I are getting to be fast friends, it’s time to hit up that discography. Wait…four albums? Only four? Oh well. Such are the surprises that hit when a band gets a decent amount of fame over a short period of time – their reputation grows much larger than their body of work could hope to. Simon & Garfunkel only had five albums. Ditto The Police. Hell, The Sex Pistols only had one! Nevertheless, I think it’s time to turn my attention to the rest of Strangeways, Here We Come which, as it turns out, was their swan song.

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