Friday, 7 December 2007

Frankie Goes to Hollywood>The Power of Love

Now we're in the Christmas season it's only right to feature a Christmas classic. Frankie Goes to Hollywood were just one of those bands that defined the '80s - add The Smiths and The Cure and you've probably got the trinity of '80s music.

'The Power of Love' is simply a great song. My brother had bought the album Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984) and played it endlessly in the house and car. If I remember rightly, the single came hard on the heels of 'Relax' and 'Two Tribes' both of which caused quite a stir on the radio and yet it was so utterly different in every way from its predecessors. As a Christian I can only say that the lyrics are moving and a fantastic expression of the Holy Spirit. And yet typically all we heard about at the time of the release were the same old voices - condemnation from Christians looking down from their ivory towers and judging the lifestyles of Holly Johnson and co and then the liberal secularists assuming it was all just irony.

It strikes me that if there is any irony in the song, it is that both the conservative Christians and the liberal secularists both miss the point. The ironic thing is to think that just because the band members were gay, just because the band didn't appear to be 'religious' and just because they usually sang about sex and drugs, that the message of Jesus Christ could not be expressed in and through them. They sound like the very people Jesus would choose to hang out with.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Playlist = War and Peace

New month so time for something different. From time to time I thought I might offer a playlist on a particular theme (in Bob Dylan theme time radio style) - gives a chance to increase the variety of songs without full explanations. Every one is a cracker - what can I say! If you have time, check them out.

And the first theme is: War and Peace

1. Give Peace a chance - John Lennon
2. Peace on Earth - U2
3. Dunya Salaam - Baaba Maal
4. Masters of War - Bob Dylan
5. Another Man's cause - The Levellers
6. And The Band Played Waltzin' Matilda - The Pogues
7. Us and Them - Pink Floyd
8. Born in the USA - Bruce Springsteen
9. Gimme Shelter - The Rolling Stones
10. Life During Wartime - Talking Heads
11. War - Bob Marley

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Pulp>Common People

I love this song whichever angle you approach it from. The lyrics are clever and quirky, it has a great tune, the music builds brilliantly throughout and even the video is pretty good. In fact the album it's from, Different Class (1995) is an excellent all round effort.

Apparently the song is Jarvis Cocker's take on those who attribute glamour to poverty. Well, living in the East End of London you come across a fair bit of that. Wierdly this is a phenomenon amongst Christians of a certain sort, too, who get competitive about how 'poor' the area is where they live. There is definitely some theological reflection that can be done with this song and concepts of 'incarnational mission'. Ultimately, of more concern to the person who takes Jesus seriously, must be the haunting words 'You'll never live like common people, you'll never do what common people do, you'll never fail like common people, you'll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw, because there's nothing else to do.' Now how do you respond to that?

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Roxy Music>More Than This

Strangely, I fell in love with this song when it appeared as a karaoke track in the fantastic movie 'Lost in Translation' (2003). I've posted the clip below, and it's sung by the brilliant Bill Murray whose deadpan performance in my humble opinion pips Brian Ferry's original to the post. In the context of the film, and you have to see the whole thing to really get it, the song just hits a nerve that otherwise it's easy to miss. In fact the whole soundtrack to the movie is brilliant and if you persevere through 5 mins of silence on the final track you get Bill Murray's version.

Still, it must be said, the original is still pretty good and it appears on the album Avalon (1982). The wistfulness of it all somehow tugs the heartstrings - like a lament and yet to a strangely upbeat backing. The lyrics state that 'there is nothing more than this' and yet it's more like a question than an answer. Damn right there's more than this and only people who know it can sing this song.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

The Beatles>In My Life

'In My Life' probably isn't my favourite Beatles' song, but it is certainly one of the most lyrically moving and searching. Released on Rubber Soul (1965) it became one of the Beatles' favourite songs. Interestlngly, Paul McCartney once claimed that it was one of only two Beatles songs that he and John Lennon disputed composing (the other was 'Eleanor Rigby'). The lyrics certainly belong to John Lennon, but McCartney claimed the music much to Lennon's annoyance. Ironically, it's the overall sense of connectivity within the song that I like - a sense of a present love that rises above even the best of the past and promises an even better future. For Lennon this was likely a human love, probably Yoko Ono, but take it into a different context and the meaning changes. Johnny Cash's moving version on American IV (2002) gives a tone of regret. Another way of looking at it of course, is to see the present love as that of God. Then it becomes a worship song that could easily be sung in church.

Friday, 2 November 2007

The Killers>All The Things I Have Done

Of all the bands around at the moment, The Killers stand out from the crowd. This became plainly evident to me whilst watching the otherwise dull Live 8 concert in 2005 (good cause of course, but hijacked from the real Make Poverty Campaign and the music got in the way of the issues as well as being decidely mediocre). I'd never even heard a Killers' song before they took to the stage that day. They sang 'All The Things I Have Done' and I was smitten.

Actually, Hot Fuss (2004) is a great album. The best song, 'All The Things I Have Done' has everything - a catchy riff, enigmatic lyrics, a building thumping vibe and to top it off a gospel choir half-way through. The UK video to accompany the track is apparently shot in Brick Lane just down the road from me, so even more resonance for those of us living in East London.

I particularly like the line 'I've got soul but I'm not a soldier'. I'm not sure why. I suppose it's just slightly left-field and in my case not true (in The Salvation Army sense). But the song runs deep - there are many themes there and it can be read as a plea for God's help in the midst of a troubled life. Whatever the writer intends it's a gospel song of sorts - at least that's how I hear it!

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Nick Cave>The Mercy Seat

There's no doubt that Nick Cave causes great problems for Christians looking for fellow journeyman in the world of music. On the one hand he promises so much: his lyrics are laden with biblical references and gospel-style songs - many of his songs could comfortably accompany the now obligatory powerpoint presentation mid-service. On the flip side there are few artists who write with such venom and at times such foul-mouthed lyrics. The more conservative Christians tend to write him off as an ally of the enemy. Interestingly, his secular fans are equally troubled by him - they take issue with the religious tones of his music. The more conservative among them suggest his lyrics are simply ironic. Both views are decidedly flawed - neither life nor faith is ever that black and white.

His song 'The Mercy Seat' (Tender Prey, 1988) is a perfect example of the enigma that Nick Cave is. He clearly knows his Bible (he went to church as a child growing up in Australia), and he clearly knows what it is to live the rock 'n' roll lifestyle (drugs and sex also feature heavily in his music). But what a song it is - Johnny Cash did a great cover version (American III, 2000) - and those in The Salvation Army will be interested by the title. Take a look at the lyrics here... The song tells the story of a man about to be executed by the electric chair. The "Mercy Seat" refers both to the throne of God in the heavens, which the man feels he will soon visit, and to the electric chair.

The live versions of this song are far more powerful than the album version and I just love the clip below. For me, there is worship in Nick Cave's music. Worship because it is the real Nick Cave featured throughout, not some kind of pseduo-holy version but the whole Nick Cave, unadulterated, with his dark side and his demons yet to be cast out, but ultimately a man who uses his music to tell God how he feels.


Thursday, 18 October 2007

Johnny Cash>The Man Comes Around

Johnny Cash is a legend, that goes without saying. Whilst tracks like 'Walk the Line' and 'Ring of fire' are undisputed classics, his last two albums American IV (2002) and American V (2006, released posthumously) are for me the most moving as he reached the end of his life. Whilst the power of his voice in the later albums has faded, there is a depth that can only be detected in a man nearing his end. Tracks like 'Hurt' (the stunning cover version of the Nine Inch Nails song) have received air time but I confess to loving the apocalyptic 'The Man Comes Around'. Virtually ever line is taken from Revelation and his voice at the beginning and end of the track makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Given 5 minutes warning of an impending end to the world, I might just slip this track on, sit back and think about what's about to happen...

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

The Strokes>On the Other Side

When I need a real lift few bands are better to listen to than The Strokes. Almost every track from their first album Is this It? (2001) is a cracker. Most of them I suspect glorify a lifestyle closer to that of Sodom and Gomorrah than John Calvin's Geneva or the Taliban's Kabul but boy do they get your foot tapping!

On my first hearing of The Strokes all I could hear was The Velvet Underground but the New Yorker's third album First Impressions of Earth (2005) moves things on a little. My favourite track has to be 'On the Other Side'. The lilt of the song sounds a bit like a cheesy American 19th century hymn but when it's set to the lyrics it just blows you away. If Jeremiah was to have a favourite song I reckon it'd be this one - the protaganist shares his agony of judging everything and everyone and getting tired of it.

Bird York>In the Deep

I figured it was time for a song written and performed by a woman. I know nothing about Bird York, but she looks a tad more beautiful than Shane MacGowan. I came across this song from the fantastic movie Crash and it is featured on her album The Velvet Hour (2005).

The lyrics and music of this track get me everytime and is the perfect soundtrack for postmodern Christians struggling to get to grips with a faith largely wrapped up in modernity. I'd rather be 'out there spinning in the deep' than pretending I really have all the answers.

Friday, 27 July 2007

The Pogues>Summer in Siam

The Pogues have written some fantastic songs, not least 'Summer in Siam' from the album Hell's Ditch (1990). How they managed quite such an impressive output with the chaotic Shane MacGowan at the helm is to their credit. Like many creative individuals, staying on the straight and narrow is rarely a prerequisite for producing quality art. You have to question, though, how can someone who looks... well, so rough... produce such a great version of 'And the Band Played Waltzin' Matilda'?

The irony of a now religiously-convinced teetotaller discovering this beautiful song on the occasion of his first legal pint of lager, wouldn't be lost on MacGowan who was brought up a strict Catholic before adopting a hedonist lifestyle. I must confess I was already a Pogues fan, so I didn't go through any conversion process that night in the Munro pub in Villars, Switzerland on my 17 birthday (drinking limits are earlier in Europe). What stood out, however, was the way the whole pub went quiet when 'Summer in Siam' came on the juke box (how on earth it got on the playlist I'll never know). Admittedly it was complete 'euro-drivel' that normally blared out from the speakers, but there's just something about that song that transports you into a heavenly world.

Ask MacGowan and this is all he can come up with about it: ' I write simple songs that people can sing along to. Like, there's no point explaining what 'Summer In Siam' is about...' Shane rolls his eyes skywards in exasperation, '... because the bloody thing's about what it says it's about.' Hmmmm! Not that helpful - but who cares what it is really about, it's a fantastic song and when I hear it 'Then all I really know Is that I truly am.'

PS If you can work out the lyrics from the song then you're more attuned to the singing of a drunken man that I am. Easier just to check here...

Monday, 23 July 2007

Bob Dylan>Ain't Talkin'

Trying to decide on a Bob Dylan track to include here, is like trying to decide which Shane Warne delivery was his best. Was it his first ball in Test cricket to remove Mike Gatting or the one that got Andrew Strauss in the 2005 Ashes? Or was it... and the list goes on from one great moment to another. Such is the way with genius. In Bob Dylan's case, should it be something from his early period - 'The Times They are A-changin'' for example, a song that gripped a generation? Or rather 'Like a Rolling Stone', perhaps his definitive song? What about something off Blood on the Tracks (1975), often the critics' choice album or one from his 'Christian phase'? When it comes to faith and Dylan, 'pick a song, any song' would probably work.

In May, my Dad and I stood in the same room as Bob Dylan. OK, it was a big room (Wembley Arena) and there were 10,000 others there, but it was still the same room. As he walked on stage I wondered why it had taken me so long to go and see him. I happened on the delights of Dylan, aged 14, whilst scouring my uncle's record collection on holiday. Twenty years later, I finally made it. It wasn't too late, but there was a distinct feeling of 'how much longer can he do this' about it. With his hat pulled low over his face and his back almost to the audience, for two hours he was sensational - but not a word was uttered except to introduce the band at the end and then it was just names.

It seems that for whatever reason, Bob 'Ain't talkin'' (you need to listen to the song yourself for clues about why this might be). Or as the chorus to the song from last year's Modern Times (2006) goes, 'Ain't talkin', just walkin'. And here we come to the crux of the matter for me. When it comes to matters of faith there is far too much talking and precious little walking that happens. For me, having listened to Bob's sermon-song and seen him living it out in Wembley, I've decided to imitate him. Sure words will get us somewhere, but actions will get us further.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan>Nothing Without You (Tery Bina)

Nusrat, the late Pakistani Qawwalis singer, is my first entry of 'devotional' music. I must admit, ashamedly, that I'd never heard of him until earlier this year. How I wish I could turn back time - to have discovered his music earlier, to have perhaps had a chance to see him perform at one of his legendary London concerts. See what I missed in the video below.

Nusrat is a singer in the Islamic Sufi tradition. Millions of South Asian Muslims see him as the greatest singer ever. He walks firmly in the traditions of the great thirteenth century Persian poet, Rumi, whose verse speaks of love and God and demonstrates a side of Islam that few non-Muslims are even aware exists and many hard-line Islamic traditionalists believe is not Islam at all. Listening to Nusrat, I find myself exposed to the same God I read about in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. His voice and passion transcends what I actually hear.

Nusrat doing 'neat' Qawwalis live is amazing but some of his recordings for a western audience are also stunning. And so the song I have chosen is 'Nothing Without You', a song about the love between a man and a woman from his album Mustt Mustt (1990). It's almost as if it's been lifted straight out of Songs of Songs - both a celebration of sacramental love between human beings and an allegorical representation of the love between God and humankind. If and when I enter heaven I expect to hear a sound like that of Nusrat's improvised section in the middle of this song. Hear the live version here.

Sisters of Mercy>Torch

In 1990, in a small village in Switzerland, a Saudi prince introduced me to The Sisters of Mercy. For the next 3 years they became one of my favourite bands, forming the backdrop to my early days at university and the overiding influence of my uni rock band - Drag (yes you did read that correctly. And no, we didn't wear it when playing live.) We even did a cover of their mysterious 'Alice.'

The track 'Torch' off the album Floodland (1987) became a great favourite, best played late at night in the pitch dark. This is when The Sisters come alive - the hallmark of a truly great goth band. I like this song, not just for it's biblical imagery, but Andrew Eldritch's voice, which has such brooding qualities. At times it sounds more rock-opera than goth-rock but somehow it works, and every time I hear it my soul lifts.

Incidentally, in 1993 I saw The Sisters live at the NEC in Birmingham. Not one to usually enjoy standing out from the crowd, it was a strange choice I made in wearing a white t-shirt to the gig. Other than the girl in the wedding dress, I was the only one not wearing black. Thank goodness there was a lot of smoke.
Listen to The Sisters legally here...

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Bruce Springsteen>Thunder Road

Sometimes it's the spirit of a song rather than the lyrics that sets my spiritual pulse racing. The Boss' 'Thunder Road' (1975), from the album Born to Run, is in this mould (not that the lyrics aren't fantastic, because they clearly are). It was my friend Pete who reminded me recently of what a great song this is. There are other songs that have the same effect if I'm in the right mood: Doves 'Pounding' is another good example (and is surely modelled on 'Thunder Road'), and pretty much anything by The Strokes.

Bruce Springsteen has travelled with me for years. I remember being gathered around the record player with my Dad and Brother for a first listen of Tunnel of Love (1987). The brilliant Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) formed the soundtrack to my paper-round in the school holidays. And as for 'Streets of Philadelphia' - can there be a more perfect 3 minute pop song?

'Thunder Road', though, like much of Springsteen's work, just screams out the desire to go somewhere else, to do something more, to break free. This is hope for the ordinary person on the street. The track builds, until Clarence Clemons' saxophone solo just lifts you to a higher plain. This in my opinion would make a great funeral song!

Monday, 16 July 2007

Rufus Wainwright>Going to a Town

This is the first of many songs for me that inspire, challenge, motivate and encourage faith. I've deliberately chosen a challenging one first-up. It's Canadian Rufus Wainwright's 'Going To A Town', second track off his excellent 3rd album - Release the Stars (2007). His previous albums, Want One and Want Two, contain various gems and I'm sure another of his tracks will feature at some point.

Because the refrain of 'Going To A Town' contains the line 'I'm so tired of America', it's been suggested that this is about the war in Iraq. Actually, Rufus Wainwright's lyrics (and music) are rarely that obvious. This is no protest song about war - it's a protest song about something even more insidious - small minded thinking (such things are the root cause of war). Take a look at the song's video and you'll see this is about Rufus Wainwright and his own journey 'home'. It's full of Biblical imagery.

This song convicts all those who judge others and write them off. I imagine in his mind are narrow minded conservative Christians who claim they know exactly who are God's chosen ones. To be frank, I feel just as Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees by making a Samaritan the protaganist of his parable about loving others, so here the words of wisdom come from the mouth of a man despised by many Christians simply on the basis of his sexuality. The last word goes to Rufus: 'Tell me, do you really think you go to hell for having loved? Tell me.'

Rufus Wainwright - Going To A Town lyrics