Perhaps not for the first time, this week I’m wondering how exactly I’ve left it this long to cover a subject. It is very much one of those things that I should have covered some time ago, but apparently I never got ’round to it. So, as usual, I asked my friends, and was perhaps a little shocked to get so many suggestions.
Electricity changed music, that’s for sure. It helped to amplify it for live performance and recordings, it allowed vastly more complex ways of recording it, and indeed it eventually allowed new ways of composing music by the development of synthesisers and related technology. Musicians’ Unions pushed back against these changes, of course, as did music fans at points (the fuss over Dylan going electric was part of a wider discussion at the time, and has entered musical lore).
Not unsurprisingly, electricity in music is here to stay. But this week’s post isn’t just about synths – although they do feature in every song but one. It is about the use of electricity as a metaphor, as a display of power, and as a way of inspiring some fantastic music.
Thanks, as ever, to all those that did suggest songs. No less than 168 were suggested, with 22 of those used before (including five suggestions for a certain Electric Six song that instead makes the title of today’s post). There were more duplicate suggestions (which I have no problem with) generally this time, too, with 127 unique songs, and 70 people suggested them.
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me, or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
Long one of my favourite Fear Factory songs, there was a tentative suggestion for this in the thread, wondering if it would count. You’re damned right it does. The lead-single and opening track on their deep-concept album Obsolete – the tale of a political prisoner who rises up and takes down the state which imprisoned him, broadly – is five-minutes of staccato, brutal industrial metal that showcases everything that was brilliant about Fear Factory at the time. This track imagines the protagonist as a surge of electricity that will burn down all around him, and Shock absolutely crackles with power. Fear Factory may not be what they were live (although I always found that a wired, noisy crowd that know all the words makes it so much better), so here’s a version of Shock live the year it was released.
It was suggested by a few people, and I certainly thought about using the mighty jolt of Electricity, but seeing as Pure Phase gets a long-overdue reissue/remaster this month (where I’ll add glow-in-the-dark vinyl to my already-extant glow-in-the-dark CD box), let’s instead look at one of the key songs from that often-overlooked album. The base sound to this entire album was an undulating, soothing drone, that occasionally makes itself clearly heard through the cacophony of other tracks, but it becomes the heart of the lengthy Electric Mainline (itself a pair with the preceding and brief take on Laurie Anderson’s Born, Never Asked), which ebbs and flows around the band in lockstep as they provide the gentlest kosmische groove in the background (while the live version on the extraordinary Live at the Royal Albert Hall is unexpectedly ferocious). The feeling is one of the band channelling the electricity that is powering the music, and making it dance to their tune.
/Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
As well, nudging out that song called Electricity allowed me to feature this one instead. Covered more than a few times, most notably by Apop on 7, this quite glorious four-minutes of early synthpop celebrates the sources of electricity that are powering their music, and in what must have been a pretty far-sighted comment in the last verse, even espouses the environmental virtues of solar power (something that was still broadly being developed for commercial use in 1980, and certainly was not common).
For a band so steeped in the rock’n’roll cliché that they probably created a few of them, it is perhaps no real surprise that at least five AC/DC songs using the theme of electricity were suggested (and I’ve got a feeling that there are a few more, too – not to mention their name, of course). But let’s go back to the original and best, shall we? High Voltage comes from their international breakthrough album of the same title, and saw Bon Scott howling his eternal love of rock’n’roll, and that he’s only ready to go when he’s plugged into the mains and playing live. Happily, his surviving bandmates and replacements continue that power to this day. “Gimme High! Gimme High!”
A band that passed me by somewhat the first time, I realised by the time of their return last year, they were a much bigger thing than I could have imagined. The lead track from their debut album (now nearly a decade old) takes an intriguing lyrical direction, over the top of pulsing minimal wave electronics. The song deals with attraction and desire, but dealing with it at the level of neurotransmission, where small electrical signals through synapses transmit information to and from the brain. In effect, here, the brain and body is betraying the protagonist.
/Black Mass: An Electric Storm in Hell
/An Electric Storm
The use of electricity, beyond amplifying instruments, also began to allow the use of new musical sources, which became known as the synthesiser. By 1969 there were ways to make such music, but mostly they were in the realm of large organisations, or very rich people, and only as the decade ticked over into the seventies did synths finally become commercially available to all (that could afford it, at least for some more years to come). This album was the product of an American electrical engineer (David Vorhaus) attending a lecture by BBC veteran Delia Derbyshire (one of the true pioneers of electronic music), and the pair working together with Brian Hodgson to create material using early synths. This is the last track on the album, and it really does feel like being in the heart of an electric storm. Randomised beats hammer out of the speakers, other unsettling noises buzz and crackle in the mix, and distorted howls of what I can only assume are human voices make the whole thing that more unsettling – what makes it all the more incredible is that this astonishing track was apparently created in one day, after the label demanded they finish recording and submit the album…
/Cables & Wires
Another song where I changed my mind on what song to feature late-on (the ever-excellent Machine Rock staple Two Wires Thin was the original plan), this instead comes from the thundering comeback that was FullBlackHabit – amid stiff competition, still likely Eric Powell’s best work. Cables & Wires is a celebration of the technology that makes recorded music and live music happen and roars out of the traps, bouncing along on a chassis of breakbeats, booming bass and screaming acid hooks as Powell tries to mention every bit of electrically-powered equipment that got the track to where it was – which was on most of our best-of-year lists in 2007 (mine at #6), that’s for sure.
/Plug Me In
/Add Insult to Injury
Add N to (X) had fun with their retro-fetishism – they were certainly unusual at the time in making a point of using analogue synths exclusively – and took it to extremes with a number of suggestive videos that sure as hell raised their profile, even if few people ever got to see them. Plug Me In could be seen as another of their songs about robots coming to life and doing human things, but the rarely-seen “banned” video for this (I’m not linking to it here, but Google is your friend) suggests very, very different connotations, as two pr0n actresses certainly plug something in to use…
A promising young band in the late-90s whose timing couldn’t have been worse in joining Chrysalis (I seem to recall a number of alternative bands were dropped by them around the same time, and Radiator certainly didn’t get a great deal of promotion), their one album (they were previously known as Vital Escape with a different line-up) was one of powerful, electrically-charged rock, that charged out of the speakers from the moment opener I Am faded in. Interestingly, though, there were two singles on the album that suggested electrical themes (Generator and Resistor). The former was perhaps more radio-friendly, with skittering breakbeat samples and rolling rhythms, while Resistor said little and suggested a lot. Phased programming spirals around the speakers as the drums and vocals pull into focus, and the calm verses contrast with the bulldozing roar of the refrain, a suggestion that they will be every bit the impedance that they need to be. I saw the band live a couple of times, too, and they were electrifying in that form (of all people, I saw them support Motörhead at Brixton in late 1998…).
/Ohm Sweet Ohm
The curious, retro-beauty of Radioactivity – that was both celebrating the past and future, that of radio, and of radioactivity, and it’s interesting to note that the title track has long-since pivoted to be an anti-nuclear power song from the original, rather more celebratory take – still has a very different feel to the albums before and after. The final song allows a little humour to sneak in from these famously reclusive, serious Germans, as amid lush, stately synths, they take the idea of “home sweet home” and twist it with a very English pun into one referencing electrical resistance.