|Track||Album / Single|
|Losing My Edge||DFA Records dfa 2123|
|Daft Punk Is Playing At My House||LCD Soundsystem|
|North American Scum||Sound Of Silver|
|All My Friends||Sound Of Silver|
|Someone Great||Sound Of Silver|
|New York, I Love You But ...||Sound Of Silver|
|Dance Yrself Clean||This Is Happening|
|You Wanted A Hit||This Is Happening|
|Home||This Is Happening|
Contributor: Rob Langham
The podcast I present, Sounding Bored, is devoting a forthcoming episode to the musical decade that is the 2000s in an attempt to understand whether or not that still very recent epoch can be said to represent anything in the same way that its predecessors, the 80s and 90s, undoubtedly now do. That’s a tough ask as the dust continues to settle – after all, even Bob Stanley pretty much decided to put an end to his magisterial chronicle of Pop history, “Yeah Yeah Yeah”, around the year 2000.
Having lived in London for some years, I was already approaching middle age – well, roughly the same age as Jesus – as the new millennium got going and the early years of the new century were at times hard to pin down. Britpop had been usurped by landfill indie. The Strokes and The White Stripes took their retro stylings to the UK before trying to break the much bigger market of their homeland of America. Superstar DJs and club culture were on the wane and the internet was beginning to hold us all in its vice-like grip.
It’s inevitable perhaps that one of the signifying acts of the decade, LCD Soundsystem, emerged amid such cultural uncertainty. As founder and personification James Murphy once remarked to a Pitchfork interviewer, “You don’t have to pussyfoot around it – I’m old” – and while this self-confessed bear of a man could, as it turned out, party with the best of ˈem (unlike myself who was firmly in pipe and slippers territory by then), a musical education stretching back a couple of decades saw him primed to take all the bests bits from Rock’s first half century and create three albums and a cluster of EPs of stunning quality, a pick ‘n’ mix that so often transcended its influences and achieved cultural and critical plaudits all along the way.
The signs of a new, understated landscape for dance music were there as the decade dawned. Exhausted by one too many nights in Ibiza and the low-brow nature of Dave Pearce’s Love Groove Dance Party on Radio One, the UK scene went underground again. Club nights like Erol Alkan’s Trash were unashamedly snobby in their door policy despite this writer managing to somehow get across the threshold of its venue, London’s The End, on a wintry night in 2002 – my clothes were deemed to be not ‘eighties’ or ‘trashy’ enough which my mother would certainly have disagreed with – but having shown up at the highly unfashionable hour of 9.30pm suffering from frostbite, I and my considerably trendier (and younger) cohorts were eventually allowed in. Along with the classic 2ManyDJs remix CD from Soulwax, nights such as Trash and the even more up itself Nag Nag Nag used eclecticism as their blueprint, weaving New Order, Pink, Dolly Parton, The Smiths, The Shins and … errr … Justin Timberlake into an unholy whole.
DJing aside and as far as original music was concerned, the blink-and-you’ll miss-it genre that came into favour was so-called ‘punk-funk’ and it was a method that drew its most detectable influences from a few thousand miles away across the Atlantic because this was a New York City groove and make no mistake.
Early singles such as !!!’s lengthy Me And Giuliani Down By The Schoolyard (A True Story) epitomised matters – a mix of guitars and electronica that drew far more consciously from 1970s funk as opposed to the indie-dance crossover of a decade earlier which had relied on the 1960s for its reference points. Then came The Rapture – suspicious as a ‘haircut’ band – with the shouty anthem House Of Jealous Lovers, followed by a debut LP of some variety in Echoes.
It turned out that the aforementioned Murphy was behind much of this with The Rapture emerging courtesy of the newly founded DFA (Death From Above) production company, a collaboration with Mo’ Wax co-founder Tim Goldsworthy – indeed, it would be Murphy himself who would transcend the initially more promising bands and artists on the label who, good as they were, were never quite able to conjure up an anthem or a tune in the way their CEO could manage.
I first became aware of the slightly clunkily named LCD Soundsystem (remember that this was an era when it was de rigueur to call oneself ‘The something’ – The Hives, The Vines etc.) on the release of their debut album in January 2005, a quite ludicrous review from the wonderfully pretentious Paul Morley welcoming the record with a three column list of all its influences and no commentary in the pages of The Observer Music Monthly. The LP was helpfully accompanied by an additional CD of original singles and remixes and the first track in my Toppermost run down can be located thereon.
Losing My Edge was the ultimate send up of musical one-upmanship, an activity I have occasionally been on the receiving end of but have far more regularly dished out. To this day, my other half is very often reduced to referring to me as ‘music nazi’ and the joy of Murphy’s tune, actually dating back to 2002, is the mix of ridicule of the phenomenon while still being very clearly immersed in it.
A fictional narrator recounts his struggles to manfully catch up with musical trends and influences namechecking Monks, Section25, Sun Ra and The Sonics among them, trades in turntables for guitars and back again, was present at early Suicide practice sessions – yes, practice sessions, not just common old gigs – and dishing out advice to Captain Beefheart when he was first starting out. Its impact is in no way lessened by the suspicion that Murphy may once have sworn blind to all such activities in the bars of the Lower East Side. It’s also very handy as a list of musical innovators whom one may have missed out on.
Alongside from the bonus CD – all extended grooves and yelping that recalled Mark E. Smith, Talking Heads and others and all clearly influenced by club culture, the eponymous album itself was notable for its variety, never more so than in its crowning moment, Daft Punk Is Playing At My House.
Leaving aside Brit queasiness at the failure to use the collective plural, this was a magnificent micro-level example of the macro-level Losing My Edge with the probable same hipster troubadour choosing to reflect on a single up-to-date moment in his social life rather than the totality of his cultural experiences. The notion of the French electronic duo trying hard to step over the cat and avoid knocking over the ashtrays in a Williamsburg bedsit is now even more bizarre post-Get Lucky. It’s as if Murphy is doing his best to send up cooler-than-thou vibes but can’t quite help himself.
The third track I am picking out also comes from LCD Soundsystem the album. Tribulations doesn’t quite have the nod to the zeitgeist of much of the band’s work – but my oh my, it’s a killer of a tune, a luscious keyboard pattern recalling New Order or even Detroit techno, the vocals bratty and self-confessional.
A year later, I was to move to the United States myself for a spell, holing up in a chilly flat on East 13th Street. By now, LCD Soundsystem’s album was a year old but it kept on finding its way on to my turntable (OK, I admit it – my iPod) – released to not that much fanfare around the time that Arcade Fire’s Funeral hit the shops, the suspicion that this was the best bloody thing by any artist or band going was beginning to linger and it was gratifying to discover that this was the one act that my American friends and I could 100% agree on – as one understated New Yorker remarked to me, “that’s good shit”.
Fast forward to 2007 and the first fruits of the band’s second album signified one of those ‘steps back in amazement’ moments in modern music. For all the brilliance of Losing My Edge and Daft Punk Is Playing At My House, there was an element of ‘novelty record’ about them and they were often talked about more for the lyrics than their tunes. Not so North American Scum which received equal praise for both.
Like a less heavy handed Born In The USA, Murphy identified that tendency for all Americans to be blamed for the excesses of George W. Bush, to be beset with abuse on the streets of Prague or Berlin and which led travelling Canadians the world over to affix maple leaves to their rucksacks. “We’re not that bad,” he’s protesting quietly and quite right too – and there’s also the pretty obvious fact that chasing oil money in the Middle East and intervening heavy-handedly in wars isn’t the pursuit of choice for many statesiders, just as a majority of the popular voters didn’t back Donald Trump more recently. It’s a paean that makes deft use of its ironic title and yet is as singalong and dance-along as one could ever hope for. Brilliant!
But that wasn’t the end. When Sound Of Silver arrived, it was greater than we could ever hope it would be and never has the euphoria of bonhomie on a classic night out ever been better evoked than with the majestic All My Friends. Insistent piano and guitar grab the listener by the cerebral cortex recalling German systems music. Lines such as “and if the sun comes up, if the sun comes up, if the sun comes up, and I still don’t wanna stagger home” and I “wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life” underline the absolute necessity of friends, being surrounded by them and shared experience – as a pal once remarked to me, friends are every bit as important – no more important – than one’s love life abode or job – so, as Murphy says, “If I could see all my friends tonight …”
… the companion piece to which came immediately following. Someone Great started more sedately with popping synths and sparky keyboard squiggles. It’s a song about regret for the losing of one of those moments that should have been cherished in the previous song, a deeply moving poem to loss in which the repeated refrain “when someone great is gone” is simply unbearable – and yet, one feels that this is just a warning to hold on to those relationships, battle through, step aside and be adult. That one suspected that the good-natured Murphy had a very mature attitude towards friendships and relationships and a keen sense of perspective was utterly, gloriously underlined by this central sequence of one of the decade’s great albums.
All My Friends and Someone Great continued to provide heaving evidence of Murphy’s ear for a club banger, but New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down is one of the all-time great album closers – an uncharacteristic ballad in possession of real lyrical depth that manages to be personal but also completely and totally on-the-money of a city in transition from a creative hub to a playpen for the rich. The lines, “like a rat in a cage, pulling minimum wage” will see many residents of the Big Apple nod in agreement as burger prices head north of £25 while hearing Murphy falling out of love with a city that has irrevocably changed is wistful indeed although there is still too much there for him to contemplate leaving entirely.
Come 2010 and I was now living in New York again, this time for a longer spell of a full half year. A bedbug epidemic was raging that steamy summer and I suspect that my cheapo (by New York standards) Brooklyn hotel had been impacted. After moving to Harlem, the sweltering conditions continued but LCD Soundsystem’s third long player, This Is Happening, released that Spring, was always going to be part of my musical soundtrack as I wandered the streets of the city.
For me, Drunk Girls’ attempt to match the most rousing moments of the previous two albums was unsuccessful but, happily, album opener Dance Yrself Clean had already reminded us all of Murphy’s talent, a stately jaunt transforming itself into what might be termed heavy metal keyboards and agonised vocalising – an attack on the sense and a restatement of the new wave spirit that stubbles all of the band’s output. It sets a slightly darker mood than is present on the previous albums.
This Is Happening is sometimes described as a lesser LP than the band’s high points and while there may be a grain of truth in this, it’s still weighty with lyrical invention and musical accomplishment. You Wanted A Hit is an example of that most intriguing of rock’s sub-genres, the navel-gazer. The track is pretty much up front about the kind of arguments that must ensue amid record company offices – although the irony behind stanzas such as “You wanted a hit; But maybe we don’t do hits; I try and try; It ends up feeling kind of wrong” is that Murphy was every bit as capable of smashing the charts as a Justin Bieber or a Beyoncé. One does, however, recall Morrissey’s bafflement that songs about moors murderers didn’t make it into the top 5 when reflecting on North American Scum’s failure to get airplay in the Amarillo branch of Applebee’s.
Which leaves Home, a fitting epitaph were it not for the band’s re-emergence as workaholics on the live circuit throughout 2016 and the promise of a fourth album in 2017. Stylistically and thematically, it’s as close to the band that LCD Soundsystem are compared to – and it was hard not think of Talking Heads’ This Must Be The Place when listening to the song. James Murphy is far too self-aware, far too steeped in musical history not to have deliberately positioned this as a tribute.
As the man once said himself, “You don’t have to work very hard to write an article about us. Just use the words ‘unlikely frontman’, ‘bear-like’, ‘unshaven’, ‘Talking Heads’, blah blah blah…” I’ve just spent over 2,000 words doing the same and yet I feel that any retrospective of the 2000s, the Noughties, the Noughts or whatever you wish to call them, will place LCD Soundsystem centrally in the narrative.