Stephin Merritt – My Life In Music
Read more in issue 304 of Uncut – available now for home delivery from our online store.
EMPEROR TOMATO KETCHUP
There is rarely a foreground in Stereolab and it’s certainly not the vocals, which are often in French and sometimes in gibberish. Definitely not foreground is a guitar, so proudly terrified is Stereolab of being called a rock group. And yet they’re as loud in concert as Sonic Youth, ie, too damn loud! I found them by rooting around in a record store and noticing their song title “John Cage Bubblegum”. This was back when I used to say I liked experimental music and bubblegum, and nothing in between. What I turned out to really like is music that takes a set of ideas really far in any direction, without apology.
When I was 11, I had three favourite contemporary bands: Bay City Rollers, ABBA and Sweet. All were essentially singles bands, but Sweet released the great bubblegum metal LP of all time. It turned out they were cheating, combining two UK studio albums with revisions for the US. More cheating, please! Being 11, I had no idea that half the songs were about what we now call rape and the rest were about drugs. I thought they were about growing up. Nope! I was in it for the soundscapes. I listened on headphones as loudly as I could stand and so many times that I’d gone through three vinyl copies by the time it came out on CD.
This record turned up mysteriously with no-one remembering buying it. When I read the credits and learned Stevie played almost every instrument it became my archetype for the true solo artist. And when later I learned that Tonto’s Expanding Head Band were patching the synths, I came to appreciate that every auteur needs a gang. Innervisions was recorded in the heyday of the envelope filter, so practically every sound is “byow byow byow”, which seems to convey some mythical ghetto authenticity and probably gave me my lifelong addiction to effects boxes.
IN MY LIFE
The only record in my mother’s collection from when I was a tot that I’ve owned enthusiastically ever since. As opposed to Bringing It All Back Home, which belongs in every collection but needn’t be played more than once a decade. Judy burns her bridges to the coffee-house folk scene by changing genre constantly. The lyrics – by Dylan, Newman, Lennon–McCartney, Cohen, Brecht, Brel – are all brilliant in very different directions. It’s the arthouse equivalent of a variety show, and the only album that compares is 69 Love Songs, which took three hours to be as take-no-prisoners eclectic as In My Life managed in 43 minutes.