Lads, I Have Here The Seventeenth Most Wanted Man in Scotland
178 · 25 June 98
Big Country: Restless Natives & Rarities
"Do we need to get Michael Jordan to lace up a pair of soccer boots?", asked a belligerent Brent Musburger, after the US's disappointing 2-1 loss to Iran ended their already-slim World Cup chances, and if you can overlook the obdurate ignorance and oozing short-straw resentment long enough to take his question more seriously than he meant it, I believe there are seeds of an explanation for the current state of US soccer inside, albeit one with something of an anti-capitalist conspiracy-zealot ring. Michael Jordan, whatever the internal values of his athletic ability, is even more significantly an integral cog in a humming perpetual-motion machine of bankable sports success and advertising omnipresence. It was wildly unlikely that anybody was going to upset the Bulls on their way to the sixth in their tedious series of NBA championships this year, and this makes Jordan a fantastically useful iconographic synonym for everything good and triumphant in the universe. "I want to be like Mike" doesn't mean "I want to stick my tongue out while I play", or "I want to follow a training regimen strict enough to keep me at the top of my field into my thirties", or "I want to find out, the hard way, that I can't just put on the equipment of another sport and replicate my basketball success", it means "I want to be the hero all the time". The structure of basketball is uniquely conducive to both perpetuating this image and exploiting it. With only five people on the floor at once for each team, and the rules heavily skewed in favor of offense, any Bulls game is virtually guaranteed to provide at least a dozen Michael Jordan highlights. And as the drama builds, late in the game, the play becomes increasingly episodic, which allows each triumph to be followed instantly by a cut to a commercial, giving sponsors a maximum carryover surge of rapt vicarious exhilaration to harness for the cause of irrelevant buying impulses.
Soccer, on the other hand, requires a little more audience discernment and commercial patience. Although flashes of individual brilliance are prevalent, it is a team game, and even the best players in the world can't be relied on to generate more than one highlight (assuming, unimaginatively, that only goals qualify) per game. Its draconian disciplinary code means that the biggest star can be ejected from a game for a momentary lapse in judgment, no matter whose shoes he's wearing. And more uncooperatively still, the game does not stop, so conventional TV spots have to be crammed into the pre- and post-game lulls, and halftime. The culture shock, for advertisers used to basketball and football, which at times seem like little more than aspic suspension for commercials, is considerable. So less money flows into soccer in this country, and its stars are less notorious, and fewer boys devote their youths to becoming the next ones, and we end up with a men's national team that is talented, diligent and earnest, but which lacks Jordan's majestic confidence and irresistible killer instinct. It seems instructive to me that the US women's team, which doesn't have monetary competition from other sports to worry about, since nobody in advertising has much cared about any women's team sports until very recently, is easily one of the best in the world: the only thing between US soccer and world success is that we haven't put our national mind (if one can call such a blundering, incoherent thing a "mind") to it yet.
And ironically, my conviction that we eventually will has as much to do with money as my pessimism for our short-term fortunes. The more the wires draw the world together, and the more corporations spread across it, the larger the efficiencies of scale grow for global advertising. Coke and Pepsi and Nike and Reebok and Budweiser and MasterCard all desperately need representatives with worldwide appeal, and sports heroes address an all-important demographic set (known in marketing terms as "people who won't buy things just because the Spice Girls say they should", or, alternately, "men"). Drew Bledsoe may be good enough for a New England Ford dealership, but he's useless in Barcelona, and Nairobi, and Hong Kong. Nike needs Americans to love Ronaldo and Chilavert, like the rest of the globe, and what Nike needs, I suspect the US will find a way to supply. The challenges of establishing soccer as an attention-dominating sport in the US are considerable, but they pale in the face of the impossibility of converting the rest of the world, much of which lives for the game, to any other pastime. Soccer is bad for commercials, but it's great for brand awareness, and in the corporate-nation future, mind share is the foundation for market share. So the money will come, because money seeks out other money and we've got lots of other money here, and we will learn to play the world's game, because the oceans are no longer sufficient to preserve our isolation. I'm not sure we'll win a World Cup by 2012, but I expect us to challenge for several within my lifetime.
But having a theory to explain it doesn't make the US's exit from the World Cup any less disappointing, disappointing not in the sense that it was unexpected, since most intelligent soccer fans wrote off our chances as soon as they saw the draw that put us in a group with Germany and Yugoslavia, but disappointing in the simple sense that I would have been happier if we'd won. The 1994 World Cup was what reactivated my dormant passion for soccer, so I've been waiting four years for the next one, and when the whistle blew, ending the game with Iran before a miraculous equalizer could materialize, I felt like Joe-Max Moore looked: terribly, terribly lonely; staggering under the weight of another four years of regrouping and re-anticipation, which began that moment; knowing that we pour our hearts into something at which we simply aren't that good; knowing that somebody has to lose, or else these tournaments don't work, but wishing, in a blast of irrational despair, that it didn't have to be us this time.
Of course, you don't get to be a soccer fanatic in the US without learning to project your identity onto other, more successful, nations. I didn't set out to watch every game of the Cup out of a conviction that the US would be involved in more than three of them, I set out to immerse myself in the greatest celebration of international playfulness the world currently knows. But an evening of self-pity, at least, seems earned, an evening for closing the shades, turning off most of the lights, sprawling on the couch in pajamas, eating ice cream and listening to something magnificent and all-consuming, some music with the wing-power to lift me from here, some music that sustains the illusion that I am surrounded on all sides by private but undying joys. Actually, I was out of ice cream, and in no mood to go shopping, so the music had to be twice as phenomenal to compensate. Fortunately, the night before the Cup began I finally held in my hand a copy of a compilation in whose existence I'd stubbornly refused to believe until I did, and if Tony Butler's The Great Unknown, which sounded like an album of Big Country b-sides, threw me into a rapture, that's nothing compared to what an actual compilation of Big Country b-sides does. Restless Natives & Rarities came into existence, conceptually, more than two years ago, when Big Country's management solicited votes from the band's fans for what tracks a b-sides collection should contain, and the idea that Mercury would actually be willing to release such a thing seemed incredible to me then, and still does, but I have the band's complete corpus encoded in the one Lotus Agenda database that prevents me from discarding that program, so I went through it, dutifully, assembling the definitive list of vinyl-marooned b-sides, subtracting the ones that had made their way onto previous compilations, or were bonus tracks on the recent reissues of the first five albums. I'm not sure if every Big Country fan did the same exercise, or if the concerted group endorsement from the members of the email list was decisive, but the eventual selection is almost exactly the one I wanted. Since the general public demand for this collection must be negligible, I'm interpreting it as a gift especially for me, a kind reward for my quiet, constant loyalty.
Those of you who are not obsessive completists may think that two discs full of songs I already had is an odd present, but I assure you that the only way it could have been more perfect is if they'd let me write the liner notes. It's actually a disc mostly full of songs I already had. Two of the three exceptions are appearing here for the first time, but it's the third, "Made in Heaven", that would single-handedly justify the set for me, even if the rest of it was twenty-nine copies of "Harvest Home". It was, until now, the only song Big Country had ever released that I did not own. At some point somebody on the mailing list taped their copy for me, so I'd heard it, but I'm a collector and a completist, and homemade tapes don't count. It would be easy to say "All but one, that's close enough", but only if you weren't me, and more than just a missing song, "Made in Heaven" was a symbol of a lost era in my life. It appeared on one of the CD singles for "Broken Heart", from the 1988 album Peace in Our Time, and thus came out during 1988-89, my senior year in college. These were dark days for my record collection, as I had stopped working to have time to finish my final projects, and my bank account and the last semester were thus in a close race towards expiry. At the very end, crushingly, I found myself literally unable to spare $7.99 each to buy the last two twelve-inch singles from Peace in Our Time. I realize that on the scale of possible financial hardships, this will rank low, and I believe there's a clause in Roger's Rules of Sympathy that specifically disqualifies people who are too busy with Ivy League course work (albeit only through the graces of financial aid) to hold down a measly twelve-hour-a-week job teaching SAT prep classes to suburban high-school kids, so you are under no obligation to believe me, or care, but this was one of the saddest moments in my life. I regret the implied materialism, but I knew those two singles contained pieces of my soul, and the thought that I had arranged my priorities so that they would be withheld from me filled me with a profound sense of error. I did eventually find both singles again, years later, but by that time I'd discovered that I'd missed more than I knew. I didn't buy a CD player until 1990, and in a rare instance of collector's oversight it hadn't occurred to me that there were even more songs, appearing on CD singles, of which I was completely oblivious. Tracking these down turned into the signature obsession of my record-store existence; the tattered copy of the bizarrely unlabeled "Republican Party Reptile" single I found for $1.99 in a chain-store reject bin remains one of my greatest prizes. As I listen to "Made in Heaven" again now, knowing that my collection is finally complete, it seems to offer the uplifting promise that the past can be mended. It is an odd system of values that can't find something less obscure to which to attach such an essential hope, I'm aware, but if you want to be happy you learn to cherish what you're stuck with.
After all of this, these songs themselves could easily be anticlimactic, but I wouldn't have wrapped my emotional stability around them so tightly if I didn't also love them so fiercely. Tori Amos and Del Amitri earn their places in my b-sides pantheon with songs that might not have sounded in character on their albums, but that sound like they were completed and then left out. Big Country and Manic Street Preachers, my next two nominees, have more b-sides of the other sort, it seems to me, not misfits so much as songs that never quite got finished, and their sketchiness reveals aspects of the bands' personalities that their more-considered albums often do not. The strangled arena-metal guitar, sawing mock-viola E-bow and ghostly backing-vocal sighs of the lurching "Made in Heaven" are clearly studies for something, and the gaps where the twelve-string chords break aren't negative space, they're bits exposed wiring that would have gotten plastered over later. The echoey "All Fall Together" (from the Wonderland EP) began life as the churning instrumental "Giant" (a b-side from the "Wonderland" single, already on CD on the 1995 German collection In a Big Country), and the vocal parts grafted on will always sound surreal to me. "Over the Border" (from "Peace in Our Time"), sort of Big Country's answer to Marillion's "Sugar Mice" (and a good case for choosing Highlands wonder over gloomy, reclusive alcoholism), wants to be one of their complicated, multi-stage epics like "Porrohman" or "Red Fox", but Brzezicki doesn't seem to have worked out how his drum part will bridge the sections, and the song jerks to a stop right where I think a coda ought to start. The instrumentation of the plaintive "Not Waving, But Drowning" (from "King of Emotion") sounds like a first draft that would have been revised in light of Stuart's ideas about the accompanying melody, except the lyrics turned out to be too grim, and they must have figured they had too many bleak songs already. The languid, sparkling instrumental "On the Shore" (from "Broken Heart") feels like an introduction whose corresponding body never transpired. "Balcony", a pre-The Crossing song used in the movie Against All Odds (and from the "Harvest Home" single), is disconcertingly embryonic, its keyboard chatter and whooshing synth-drums bled through from some alternate universe where Big Country went on to be Magazine. The sledgehammer instrumental "Dead on Arrival" (from "Save Me") sounds like they're channeling Saxon. The verses of the galloping "Pass Me By" (the other "Save Me" b-side) sound unresolved, but the chorus launches into trademark anthemic splendor. "Promised Land" (from "Peace in Our Time") is clearly a demo, but the way the ping-pong rhythm guitar evades the melody as the chorus comes in invariably makes my heart accelerate. The rumbling "Return of the Two-Headed King" (from "Beautiful People") is a striking combination of The Buffalo Skinners-era power and The Crossing-like melodic lilt. Tony Butler's eager "World on Fire" (which replaced "Dead on Arrival" on the CD single for "Save Me") presages his solo album. The howling "I'm Only Waiting" (from "Republican Party Reptile") captures the band's stylistic uncertainty circa No Place Like Home in uncanny microcosm. The pre-first-album sequencer interlude "Flag of Nations" (from "Harvest Home") captures the band's stylistic uncertainty circa before Mark and Tony joined. And "The Longest Day" (from "Peace in Our Time"), parts of which ended up being rearranged into "Broken Heart", is like an insomniac's dream of how the song might have been. Two of the three Why the Long Face-era out-takes are literally alternate versions, and although the goofy wah-wah distortion of "Blue on a Green Planet" (from "I'm Not Ashamed") seems like a misguided impulse they later thought better of, the buzzing demo for "God's Great Mistake" (new here) amounts to an entirely different song that happens to have the same lyrics, and one I have no idea why they felt they had to rewrite. "Normal", the one wholly unreleased track, is a jittery, roaring sprint, something like a dozen "All Along the Watchtower"s on speed.
Mixed in with the unfinished and the half-formed are at least four songs that stand, I think, among the band's best. The gloriously frayed anti-nationalist fight-song "When a Drum Beats" (from "Broken Heart") has one of my favorite off-balance chorus transitions in the world, and accomplishes the paradoxical feat of making an anthem out of a song about the perils of anthems. The menacing "Kiss the Girl Goodbye" (from "Republican Party Reptile") is foreshadowing for the infectious charge of Why the Long Face. The understated gem "Winter Sky" (from "Just a Shadow") is strung over a stiff, unvarying drum-machine beat completely unlike Brzezicki's usual tornado of syncopation, but the structural limitations turn out to be a virtue. And the furious anti-apartheid sing-along "Song of the South" (from "One Great Thing", released back when anti-apartheid anthems were still needed) is my second favorite Big Country song ever, after only "Wonderland", and the two songs sometimes swap positions temporarily, like Neptune spelling Pluto on solar-system sentry duty.
And that's very nearly everything. "All of Us" and "Heart and Soul", from the "In a Big Country" single, were on the reissue of The Crossing, as were "Angle Park" (from "Fields of Fire") and "The Crossing" itself (from "Chance"). The New Year's Eve cover of "Tracks of My Tears" from "Chance" is on four separate compilations, including the King Biscuit Flower Hour recording of the whole show at which it was recorded. The cover of Roxy Music's "Prairie Rose" (from "East of Eden") is on the reissue of Steeltown, as are "Bass Dance" and "Belief in the Small Man" (from "Where the Rose Is Sown"). The cover of "Honky Tonk Woman" (from "Hold the Heart") is on In a Big Country, as is the cover of Eddy Grant's "Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys" (from "Heart of the World"). "The Travellers" and "Starred and Crossed" (from "King of Emotion") are on the reissue of Peace in Our Time. "Soapy Soutar Strikes Back" (from "Broken Heart") is on the Master Series compilation. With the exception of a few stray alternate mixes, then, and the three songs on the anachronistic vinyl single for "You Dreamer", this compilation comes a solitary track short of completing the conversion of Big Country's entire catalog to digital. Why, with space for it, they didn't include the muted "Troubled Man", from "Heart of the World", I can't imagine, but I'm guiltily pleased that in the end there's still one song that only the truly devoted will remember.
As the title implies, though, the showpiece of the collection, in both artistic and collector's senses, is "Restless Natives", the thirty-five minute collage assembled from the band's soundtrack to the film of the same name, originally released in two parts on the twelve-inch singles for "Look Away" and "The Teacher". Parts ambient dreamscape, metal stomp, dance-mix sampler twiddling, acoustic buoyancy and Big Country's unmistakable Celtic-folk-motif-turned-rock-hooks, this had to have been one of the most ambitious pieces of music ever consigned to the back of a single. I've never seen the film, but the soundtrack includes enough snippets of dialog to give a sense of the dramatic flow, if not exactly the plot, and although an invisible thirty-five minute trailer sounds like a singularly perverse idea, I'm not sure it isn't better this way. It's hard, in any world that actually has hills, to ride off into them. Movies attempt to shift the audience through a series of emotions, but doing this with words and actions requires the writer to reverse-engineer causes out of desired effects, and the watchers to make the difficult return leap from event to import. This is usually why (as Dedee mockingly observes in The Opposite of Sex) movies have music: to gloss over the story's inability to take you where you're intended to be. Spend an hour with half-a-dozen movie channels and a Mute button and you'll quickly find that the only things that don't fall apart are soft-core, where there's no drama or character development in the first place. This soundtrack is the logical storytelling inversion, then, using dialog only to establish the premises, and letting the music do the work it's best at. We talk too much, and don't sing enough; too many words, where melodies would suffice, too many theories about things that should be self-evident. In fact, these songs don't need my commentary, any more than soccer games need the announcers to add "color", and perhaps writing about them, like eating ice cream in the dark, is not really a spectator sport. But I feel better, now, than when I started, and if the best I can hope for, some weeks, is to brighten one life, then this time I guess it's mine.
Talk Talk: Asides Besides
I didn't become a serious Talk Talk fan until long after their twelve-inch period, so Asides Besides, their two-CD b-sides compilation, also promised long ago but initially replaced by last year's The Very Best of Talk Talk, is a gift of another sort. Disc one, which contains the extended remixes (the original ones, not somebody else's ghoulish meddling) of "Talk Talk", "Today", "My Foolish Friend", "It's My Life", "Such a Shame" (two), "Dum Dum Girl", "Without You", "Life's What You Make It", "Living in Another World", "Pictures of Bernadette" and "Happiness Is Easy", is as much a period piece as the soundtrack to The Last Days of Disco. Listening to seventy-seven minutes in a row of Eighties-style extended mixes, without the benefit of drugs or strobe lights, can be a little trying, especially back to back with Extended, the similar collection from Ultravox, but I'm glad they exist, and if mashing these together tends to reveal the common formula behind them (multiply all five-second instrumental breaks by six), that still seems preferable, to me, to techno's penchant for blithe gut rehabs.
The second disc, however, is a very different experience. Talk Talk didn't really have enough genuine b-sides to fill a CD ("5.09" and "Stump", from the Laughing Stock era, belong to Polydor, and thus don't appear here), so this one combines ten of them with a variety of other things: the demo versions of the early songs "Talk Talk", "Mirror Man" and "Candy"; the non-album single "My Foolish Friend", the alternately sweeping and haunting piano version of "Call in the Night Boy", a simplified "U.S. Mix" of "Dum Dum Girl", and a truncated edit (which exceeds, amazingly, even my completist tolerance) of "Eden". Of the b-sides, the strident "Strike Up the Band" (from "Mirror Man") is quick and practically disco, the elegant "?" (from "Talk Talk") sounds like a cross between Marillion and U2, "Why Is It So Hard?" (written for a film) is incongruously upbeat, "Again a Game...Again" (from "Such a Shame") snappy and a little shrill, "Without You" (from "Dum Dum Girl") impeccably (and hilariously) coifed. By track twelve we've exhausted the Talk Talk/It's My Life material, though, and the mood changes abruptly. "It's Getting Late in the Evening" (from "Life's What You Make It") is becalmed and orchestral, nearly drumless. "For What It's Worth" (from "Living in Another World") shores up drifting synth fills and diffident piano with a nervous bongo-drum rustle. "Pictures of Bernadette" (from "Give It Up") is a weird, but courageous, attempt to reintroduce slick old-style drum loops and synth stabs under resonant The Colour of Spring-style chaos. And "John Cope" (from "I Believe in You") is straight out of the sessions for Spirit of Eden, omitted from the album, I'm guessing, because it turns out a little too neatly, too song-like. The composite effect of the second disc, though, is less about the individual songs than the band's overall stylistic evolution, and because much of it is new to me, it ends up seeming like the lost album that finally explains Talk Talk's metamorphosis from glossy New Wave machinists to Zen hermits. I'll have to think about whether an explanation of this enigma is a good thing or a bad one, but at least now I have the choice.
Peter Godwin: Images of Heaven
The final stop on this short tour of forgotten monuments is Images of Heaven, Oglio Records' recent resuscitation of New Wave footnote Peter Godwin. I haven't tried to sit down and decide, rigorously, what I think the definitive synth-pop song was, but "Images of Heaven" would be as obvious a short-list candidate as "I Melt With You", "Don't You Want Me?", "Cars", "Never, Never", "Only You" or "She Blinded Me With Science", and probably leads the field for the sub-category of best keyboard riff. Rhino already rescued it from vinyl oblivion on volume twelve of their Just Can't Get Enough series, but there's something to be said for having a copy that doesn't share a CD with "Karma Chameleon" and "The Politics of Dancing". The only other song you're likely to recognize is "Criminal World", from Godwin's pre-solo band Metro, which David Bowie covered on Let's Dance. The one I wanted to hear again was "Over Twenty-One", an inane but enjoyable trifle from the album Correspondence. Oglio must not be as fond of it as I am, though, as it's not one of the four songs from Correspondence included here, and the ones they picked, "Baby's in the Mountains", "The Art of Love", "Young Pleasure" and "The Dancer", are all songs that struck me as inane without the "but enjoyable" after it, approximately as cringe-inducing as the embarrassing titles ("Images of Heaven", a deft evisceration of the cult of media celebrity, appears to have used up Godwin's capacity for incisive social observation). The two other songs from the Images of Heaven EP, "Torch Songs for the Heroine" and "Emotional Disguise", both sound to me like low-grade Falco, and neither "Cruel Heart" nor "Gemini", unearthed from I know not where, improve my opinion markedly.
There are also three new Peter Godwin songs, and although this is usually a spectacularly terrible idea, to my surprise it's the detail that salvages this compilation for me. The sultry French/English duet "Rendezvous", all growling bass and glistening synth splashes over a rustling drum loop, verges on camp, but forgets the air of ironic detachment, and is left sounding sincere, instead. "Another World" seems like an attempt either to mitigate Gary Numan's gloom with a little George Michael flair, or to temper George's pop superficiality with some of Gary's uneasiness, both of which strike me as promising notions. And the spare piano/strings meditation "Naked Smile" could be an excerpt from Joe Jackson's Heaven & Hell, if only there were eight deadly sins, and Painting was one of them. I don't know whether this is the extent of Godwin's second life, or there are a dozen albums to come, but I bought this one expecting no more than a single shiny instant of nostalgia, so an encouraging glow of possibility is a very pleasant surprise, and as good a point as any at which to rejoin the march towards whatever celebrations and disappointments come next.