There are times when I ask questions for this long-running series that turn out, well, differently to how I might have expected, and this is one of those times.
I asked for suggestions of songs where there are indeterminate things, with examples such as Meat Loaf’s I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That) (which as a number of commenters pointed out, isn’t as indeterminate as it first appears), and Faith No More’s Epic (where the question “What Is It?” is asked even by Mike Patton). The responses I got were a fascinating bunch. Some songs veil very obvious subjects where the word “it” does a lot of heavy lifting, others genuinely are indeterminate, and then the final song today alludes to an event, but to this day has never been explained.
With what was a pretty tough subject, I still got 78 suggestions. Six had been used before, there were 76 unique songs (and thus, fascinatingly, only two songs were suggested twice), and 46 people suggested songs. Thanks, as ever, to everyone who got involved, or even just reads these posts.
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).
The rampaging, industrial-drum’n’bass monster that opens fourth Cubanate album Interference has a jittering nervousness that permeates the whole track. Amid the mechanised roar of the music – like a fucking massive bulldozer ripping through the speakers to utterly flatten you – you can add the stuttering bellow of Marc Heal’s vocals, that sound like he is trying to solve the mysteries of his own psyche through song, although we are apparently as none the wiser to what “It” is as he is.
One of Radiohead’s strongest and most striking singles never exactly spells out what is going on – “it” could well be sex-related here, perhaps, although there are other interpretations too – and is a tour de force of guitar wizardry from Jonny Greenwood as well. But the truly indeterminate nature of this song comes from the legendary video, where an unnamed, unremarkable man seen lying on the ground, refusing offers of assistance, before eventually “revealing” something to the bystanders – something they probably never should have known. Props to the band for leaving this an unsolved mystery for all this time.
/Sign o’ the Times
One of the lesser remembered songs on this gargantuan, brilliant double-album has a short title, and is based around a thumping, distinctive Fairlight CMI-derived drum pattern that nearly drowns out everything else, such is the power of it. Unlike some songs on this list, too, “it” isn’t particularly difficult to discern. This is Prince wanting sex, and lots of it, with his paramour, wherever, whenever he can. The song drips with sweat and lust, and despite broadly keeping the lyrics relatively restrained, the sheer atmosphere of the song might make it deserve an x-rating…
/Give It Away
The lead single from the Chili’s mainstream breakthrough – I think it’s difficult thirty years on to recall just how huge a hit this album was – is a funk-rock monster that’s full of hooks, and an awful lot of the word “it”. I’ve long assumed the song was either about sex or drugs – or maybe both – but according to the lengthy notes about the song on Wiki, it is instead about selfless behaviour and altruism, Kiedis paying tribute to his ex-partner Nina Hagen, who got him through tough times in the eighties. I’ve been listening to this song for three decades, how did I never notice that before?
/It’s Like That
/The Greatest Hits
The debut single from these hip-hop legends was one about the troubles of the world at the time – 1983! – as various countries were still dealing with the after-effects of the early-eighties recession, and indeed their home city of New York needed a whole lot of cleaning up. Run DMC saw this, and this song, while spelling out what was wrong, also was a shrug of the shoulders: what could they do? The odds were – as they are now – stacked against many, and as they say, “It’s like that, and that’s the way it is“. I am, by the way, using the stellar house-rebuild of this song from the late-90s, remixed by Jason Nevins.
/Was Ist Ist
Perhaps looking at things through a similar lens were Einstürzende Neubauten, on the chaotic opening track to their turning point album ENDE NEU – the last album to feature F.M. Einheit, and the notable change of sound that followed. Was Ist Ist translates as “What Is, Is”, so broadly, “it is what it is”, and amid gang chants and the clatter of percussion, Blixa Bargeld suggests a whole host of things he’d like to see – both realistic and fantastical, frankly – before accepting that there is a hefty distance between the possible and what’s realistic. What is, is.
The follow-up to the career resurrection of Cosmic Thing – and the monster hit Love Shack that it spawned – perhaps wasn’t to the same level, and without Cindy Wilson, it maybe didn’t quite have the same feel, either. That said, the lead single and title track was a punchy new-wave pop song that had both Fred Schneider delivering his usual deeply odd spoken vocals, and Kate Pierson’s powerhouse delivery. While the “Good Stuff” is never explicitly explained, though, the video and lyrics drop more than enough hints, and going down might give you an idea…
/I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)
Perhaps surprisingly to UK ears, Hall & Oates are reckoned to be the biggest selling duo ever, which is some feat when you consider the competition. I also must say that I was surprised to find that they have been working together as a duo since 1970 – now that’s longevity. Their blue-eyed soul was most defined by the powerful, dramatic voice of Daryl Hall, and this 1981 hit shows Hall at the peak of his powers. At face value, this song shares a broad subject with that Meat Loaf song, where Hall agrees that he’ll do quite a number of things, but that is where he draws the line. Apparently the song is framed around the music business and label demands, rather than a relationship, interestingly – and I now am immediately wondering what they were asked to do…
/In The Air Tonight
“Do you like Phil Collins? I’ve been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that, I really didn’t understand any of their work. Too artsy, too intellectual.”
But move onto Invisible Touch…
“Their lyrics are as positive and affirmative as anything I’ve heard in rock. Phil Collins’ solo career seems to be more commercial and therefore more satisfying, in a narrower way.”
In The Air Tonight, though, shows his bitter side. Removing the mask and revealing just how much anger and spite a regular man in the eighties can have. The woman in the song – it’s obviously a woman, right – has fucked him over, and he’s fantasising about getting his own back. “It” is his sweet revenge. Phil Collins and Patrick Bateman, we’re so alike. It’s just I go through with it.
With profuse apology and thanks to Brett Easton Ellis, as I’ve added my own imagined thoughts into Bateman’s own comments on Phil Collins and Genesis.
Morphine were always an enigmatic proposition, their dark, saxophone-led, jazzy rock sounding like no-one else at the time, or indeed since, so it perhaps is apt that they find their place in a post about indeterminate things. But, unlike other songs here, there is just one hint of impropriety from Mark Sandman, an accusatory finger to a co-conspirator, it seems:
While you go running freely spending money every place
And me I got to hide and I don’t dare to show my face
If I am guilty so are you, it was March 4th, 1982
As far as I’m aware, there has never been any explanation whatsoever as to what this was about. And with Mark Sandman having long passed, I suspect the mystery will remain for ever.