Today on The Obsessive Album Project we take our first look back to a monumental year. 1977 was the year David Bowie released Low, the year Kraftwerk released Trans Europe Express and the year The Clash released their debut album. Also, even more importantly, at least for a 21 year old living in West London, your author popped out into the world.
We’re going to take a look at the three albums mentioned above – starting with The Clash (#70) and their debut album. It happened so long ago now that I can’t really remember how I got into The Clash, but I suspect an old friend pointed me in the direction of London Calling at some point. And then an even older friend, Baxi, pointed me at the first album.
I think there’s something important about listening to punk at the right age, in the right circumstances. When I first heard this album, I could relate – a little – to the anger contained within Strummer & Jones lyrics – although at university, I was working a low paid job at McDonald’s, you could say I was so bored of the USA. There have been stages in my life where the Clash have been massively important to me, Jo will tell you about a point in 2005 where I was obsessed by the film Rude Boy and the live performances contained within it. She still can’t listen to White Riot without wincing. I will tell you about how much I related to the lyrics to Janie Jones and, obviously, Career Opportunities.
Although now, let’s be honest, a middle aged man who is in a more comfortable position than where I began this blog ten years ago yesterday (belatedly happy birthday to me), I listen back to the first Clash album and still love it. I love its energy. I love the paranoiac What’s My Name. I love that Mick Jones was the only one who really knew what he was doing.
It doesn’t really matter to me that The Clash weren’t really punks (at least not musically), that they used it to jump off into the worlds they were interested in, because I did the same too. And maybe I thank them for letting me know it was okay to do it that way. Clearly, their cover of Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves is where the mask slipped for the first time; a) it’s a brilliant cover; b) whilst their contemporaries stood still, it led to so much great music. 8.82
Here is a photo of The Clash’s Paul Simonon and David Bowie.
Speaking of whom, we come to Low (#71), originally conceived as the soundtrack to Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth which, of course, starred the Thin White Duke himself. If you read my Blackstar tribute, you’ll know that it was Low, more than any other album which – belatedly -cemented my relationship with Bowie.
Here is where I try to win any Bowie fans I upset with my dismissal of Lodger back.
I was pretty much hooked by this album from the opening as the instrumental, Speed Of Life whirred into life. It’s such a jaunty opener, I defy anyone to listen to it and not enjoy. We then get a series of short, perfectly formed pop songs. Breaking Glass tells you,“Don’t look at the carpet, I drew something awful on it”, which makes me laugh every time I hear it. Sound And Vision & Always Crashing In The Same Car hint at creative struggles, with Bowie singing in hushed tones on the latter, as if bereft of confidence. It’s quietly beautiful.
The second side is, largely, where the magic happens though. This is where Bowie (and, obviously, Brian Eno), finally, had me thinking “That’s it, I’m in!”
Weeping Wall does a ghostly approximation of Scarborough Fair, whilst A New Career In A New Town would be echoed 39 years later on Blackstar. I mentioned earlier about hearing music in the right circumstances. I had heard Warszawa a couple of times before, notably on the soundtrack to Control, Anton Corbijn’s film about Ian Curtis and it had done nothing for me. Listening to it with new ears and within the context of the album, I found its doomy tones and glacial pace, almost dirge like, impossibly alluring. The same goes for the “I’ll invent my own language” track, Subterraneans which closes the album out. I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure that the first time I heard this album, I went straight back to the beginning.
Always crashing in the same car, I had found my Bowie gateway drug. 9.09
“From Station to Station, back to Dusseldorf City/ Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie”
With these words, German electro pioneers Kraftwerk made it clear that they had also been listening to David Bowie. This line comes from the title track of Trans-Europe Express (#72) and I think this track, this magnificent sprawling track which dominates side two of the album, is one of the most important tracks in the history of music. Yes, even more important than New Order’s Everything’s Gone Green *BIG CALL KLAXON*
Side one kicks off with Europe Endless – gets on a train and provides a homage to limitless travel within Europe that, writing in the Brexit aftermath, seems, well, like a dream to me now.
The Hall Of Mirrors is a spooky reflection* on the nature of celebrity and how it can distort your own self image. This is properly terrific, percussion echoing like footsteps throughout the track whilst a woozy synth bass and whirling keyboard lines evoke the distortion you’d find in the titular hall and Ralf Hutter sings “even the greatest stars discover themselves in the looking glass”.
The pulsing Showroom Dummies lightens the mood with a mission statement wrapped in a knowing, deadpan humour that apparently everybody writing in the music press at the time seemed to miss. Scars still raw from WWII perhaps. I can understand how this tongue in cheek joke may have read as something more sinister in 1977. It’s as if the Terminator walked into Tech Noir and, rather than killing Sarah Connor, started a dance revolution instead.
And, when you flip the vinyl, you get the revolution. Trans-Europe Express puts you back on a train and, as with Bowie on Subterraneans, creates its own language. I feel slightly wanky saying this, but I really do feel like it created the future of music right here. Hip hop and rap certainly owe a debt to these 4 men from Dusseldorf and their bleeps and percussion and pulses.
Although perhaps not the singing.
And on the singing, are our four heroes singing “Trans Europe Express”, or it is Trance Europe Express? Whichever it is, the track seamlessly bleeds into Metal On Metal & Abzug.
Endless Endless closes the album out on a slight reprise of the opening track and the optimistic refrain, “endless endless”.
It’s not going to surprise you to hear that I love this album. I think it is one of two in the Kraftwerk cannon which has a legitimate claim to being their finest.
What’s the other one? You will have to wait and see… 9.27
*See what I did there, haha