A midnight meeting at the crossroad
June 20, 1937: Robert Johnson is about to complete the last of five studio sessions, recording all the 29 songs his discography counts. That day he decided was time to record the well-known song about the deal with Satan: Me And The Devil Blues.
The facts behind the lyrics are not really clear: the whole story sounds like a Southern American legend that no one is able to prove. The song describes the return of Lucifer to take back what he owns (probably a man’s soul). As the legend reports, Johnson wanted to become a great bluesman even if he was pretty awful at playing guitar. Some of his early friends, including Son House, found terrible the way he played first time they meet him.
Following what the legend narrates, he went to a crossroad at midnight with a guitar, waiting for the devil to come. At some point a huge black man came, tuned the guitar and played a few songs, showing the way to control perfectly the instrument. As soon as Johnson had his guitar back he owned mastery of it. The extraordinary rapid achievement created this famous legend and turned Robert Johnson into one of the greatest guitarist ever, with his peculiar fingerpicking and the astonishingly way to play and sing at the same time. Listening to his voice is almost like hearing a voice crying.
Johnson died one year after he recorded this song, at the age of 27. The causes are still unknown, even if there are several theories based on some events preceding his death.
The bitter taste of sweetness
Karen and Richard Carpenter formed a famous duo during the 70s named The Carpenters, recording a list of popular songs such as Close To You and We’ve Only Just Begun. Even if she was a great drummer, the record label barely let her play during the sessions, using her voice and, most of all, her face to promote the band and various releases.
On February 4, 1983 she died at the age of 32 from complications related to anorexia nervosa. She was living at her parents’ house, where basically she spent most of her life under the influence of an omnipresent mother.
In 1990 Sonic Youth released this song as an homage to this American singer, imagining her life in heaven with others dead rockstars. From an imaginary cloud she waves goodbye to Hollywood, to Richard and the mother, who is one of the main subject of the song. As a matter of fact, the chorus is Karen’s mother voice giving her a roasting (“You aren’t never going anywhere”) and throughtout the song there are several references to anorexia (“I feel like I’m disappearing, getting smaller every day”).
In this tribute song Karen seems to be happy in heaven, finally playing the drums in a band with her friends Elvis, Janis Joplin and Dennis Wilson. All of this is narrated by Kim Gordon’s voice on a spooky guitar swirl, giving the atmosphere of an alien and ethereal kind of bliss.
The pursuit of the perfect love song
In 1995 Jason Pierce decided that was time to come back in studio and give a shape to some new ideas. At that time Spiritualized were supporting Richard Ashcroft’s Verve on tour, even if Pierce was having hard times after years of heroin abuse. After few sessions Kate Radley, keyboardist and Pierce’s girlfriend, left the studio to join Ashcroft for a secret marriage. Such an experience during drug rehab characterized indelibly the mood of the record: the whole album (released in 1997) turned out as a concept about addiction in all its possible meanings.
The feeling of being dumped by someone you love is crystallized in this magnificent track. In an act of pure masochism, Pierce used his ex-girlfriend’s voice to introduce the song, taking the clip from one of the early sessions.
The whole composition is based on a Gregorian structure with different interweaving vocal lines following the same chord progression.
The song is clearly inspired by Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling In Love and, as a matter of fact, part of the lyrics was taken from that song (It’s easy to recognize the chorus singing the Elvis song at the end of the track).
Even if it was written during a troubled period, this rock-gospel track sounds heavenly peaceful. That’s why Jonathan Glazer used Ladies and Gentlemen for his temporary installation at Coachella Festival in 2011. The song was played non stop in a cathedral-shaped structure with every different vocal line coming from a falling raylight.
Chernobyl as a small affair
On 26th April 1986 a series of steam explosions at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused one of the biggest disaster of the 80s, dispersing huge quantities of radioactive material (400 times more than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima).
That day Morrisey and Johnny Marr were probably listening to Steve Wright On Sunday, a show hosted by BBC Radio 1. The news from Ukraine interrupted the broadcast with updates on the rising danger in Eastern Europe. The description of that calamity was simply brutal: the immediate damages of the accident were just the beginning of a long-lasting domino effect.
Following the breaking news, the DJ unfortunately decided to put Wham’s brand new single I’m Your Man on. Feeling rather discordant about the recent news, the cheerful atmosphere of the song nauseated Morrissey, who subsequently displayed an inappropriate lack of sensitivity.
In respons to he decided to write a song direct at that specific Dj, showing the same brutality he revealed during his show (“Burn down the disco, hang the blessed DJ because the music they constantly play it says nothing to me about my life”). The text is about an hypothetic scenario, in which the whole UK is devastated by street riots from Dublin to Birmingham. This way he maybe hoped a higher level of awareness for the Dj.
Musically inspired by T.Rex Metal Guru, this song merges catchy jingles with one of the cruelest lyrics Morrisey has ever written.
An obscure path from Walt Disney to Frank Sinatra
What’s the relation between Micky Mouse and the student protests during the 60s, Frank Sinatra and Paul Anka, Andy Warhol and Lennon’s Working Class Hero?
In order to find an answer to all these questions we should go back to 1968 and start from an unreleased Bowie’s tune.
In 1967 Claude Francois recorded Comme d’habitude, a song that became pretty fast famous in the USA. At that time a young David Bowie was commissioned to rewrite and sing the lyrics in English, hoping to give a larger diffusion to his debut record and earn popularity across the States. Even a Fool learns to Love, as the song was retitled, was unfortunately never released. Paul Anka, with a huge sense of business, bought the rights of that French song and rewrote it into the famous My Way. In a short time that version reached a huge popularity thanks to Sinatra’s interpretation.
Aware of the showbiz cruelty, Bowie rearranged the same song trying to ape Sinatra’s style: this way we come straight to Life on Mars. The orchestral and majestic atmosphere of this song is clearly a reference to My Way, especially in some chords progressions.
But what’s the point of quoting Mickey Mouse, John Lennon and a bunch of workers in the lyrics?
To clear this point is to remind a huge Disney’s animators strike during the 40s. That fact (“a god-awful small affair” as Bowie sing) showed how the company turned arts and entertainment into factories and products. The “girl with the mousy hair” is quite bored of the repetitive work is doing (“she’s lived it ten times or more”) but it seems like there’s no way out: the revolution became a product itself, the idealism is ready to be sold on silver screens and dance halls.
Even the 60s student protests turned into a brand. That’s the reason why Lenin-Lennon was once again up for sale. Life on Mars itself became a best seller from being an anti-showbusiness hymn.
The never-ending battle between bad and evil
1967: 27 years after the author’s death, The Master and Margarita was finally published as a novel and, due to the growing rumors around the book, was immediately translated in English. The main plot is pretty famous: the Devil and his crew come in Moscow during the 30s, putting on a magical show, messing up around the city and, above all, interfering with the life and destiny of Margarita and his Master.
According to the well-known legend, the book came quite soon to the attention of Marianne Faithfull that, fascinated by the surreal and evocative atmosphere of the story, passed it along to Mick Jagger. And that’s where the story behind this song started.
The influence of Bulgakov’s masterpiece in this song is really evident: the way Satan introduces himself in the first two lines is quite similar to the words said by Lucifer the first time he appears in the book (“Please allow me to introduce myself:
I’m a man of wealth and taste. I’ve been around for a long, long year, stole many a mans soul and faith”). The whole text is a description of the atrocities the humankind committed from Lucifer’s point of view.
Another strong influence for Jagger’s writing was obviously Charles Baudelaire (Les Litanies de Satan). But, most of all, it’s Dostoevsky’s Great Inquisitor that symbolizes perfectly Lucifer’s speech (“Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints”).
Jagger wanted to write a song that could sound like Bob Dylan styling, trying to build a folk song on a three chords progression. As drummer Charlie Watts said, Jagger went at his house in Sussex and played the song entirely at the front door. Under the influence of Keith Richards, the song turned in a six minutes samba with one of the most famous percussion section in popular music.