Remember The Rakes? You should. Such stalwarts of post-punk revival English indie that Arctic Monkeys once got called “the poor man’s Rakes.” Their breakthrough single, 22 Grand Job, channeled the anxieties of young working Londoners. Am I making enough to get by? Does it matter if it’s less than what my mates are making? Is it worth the misery? Opening with a machine gun snare and never looking back, the song is a snapshot of the young professional ennui that got largely wiped out by the global economic collapse. It’s done with a swagger that clearly recalls their one-time tour mates, Franz Ferdinand, and shows no indication understanding that things could get much, much worse.
Before developing a sound and a political consciousness that would traverse the world, The Clash made British punk music about British issues. On their debut album, that meant examining the depressed economic state of what was soon to become Thatcherite England. That album featured two time-tested classics on the topic, the sputtering, breackneck Janie Jones, which Martin Scorsese once named the best rock tune of all time, and the derisively angry Career Opportunities. The latter channels all the frustration of everyone who’s ever been underpaid, underemployed or underappreciated at work. It’s a bitter indictment of the crumbling economy and the limited opportunities available for British youth which is painfully relevant again today for a generation of workers across Europe. But it’s Janie Jones that remains the more perfect tune. By now the opening is purely iconic: Topper’s stuttering, combative drums and the snotty, aggressive guitar are instantly recognizable. In the two minutes that follow, Joe Strummer manages to perfectly capture the pain of every worker with a hopelessly mundane career, daydreaming about being somewhere else, getting stoned and listening to rock and roll. “He don’t like his boring job, no!,” he sneers, before promising to let his boss know “exactly how he feels/IT’S PRETTY BAAAAAD!” Of course Strummer’s delivery really sells it, punctuated by a band bristling with resentment. It’s a brilliantly straightforward but incredibly special depiction of the universal desire to live one’s life for oneself.
With the first song of their first album, Franz Ferdinand begin things with a juggernaut. Sure it starts with Alex Kapranos gently crooning about the enigmatic Jacqueline, but then in kicks the foreboding bass, which leads to driving drums and darkly blistering guitar. The song cements itself with the fatalistic lyrics that would define the album. Franz Ferdinand are better known as flirts, lovers and keen observers, but their debut saw them toying with death drive and indifference, declaring, “I’m so drunk I don’t mind if you kill me.” The chugging, angular assaultiveness of the track could easily stand on its own, but the immortal, job-hating refrain it produced makes it one for the ages:
It’s always better on holiday/So much better on holiday That’s why we only work when/We need the money
It’s a bludgeoningly simple lyric that works in contrast to the sharpness of the track. The whole thing balances on a razor’s edge between post-punk art rock and laddish oafishness. That low culture would rarely appear on other Franz Ferdinand tracks but here, on their introduction to much of the world, it made for compelling tension.
Another repeat offender, King Krule documents the indignities of everyday life, including the job you go to everyday, on Easy Easy. It’s the closest thing he’s had to even a minor hit, including being big-upped by Beyonce, and it’s clear why. While his voice is still brimming with anger, the track itself is itchy pop brilliance. Up tempo, short and sweet, it channels the frustrations of living a young life of necessity instead of joy with little more than Archy Marshall’s evocative vocals and tightly wound, Buddy Holly-esque electric guitar. Sparse and agitated, he captures the uneasy contrast between selling your soul by day and trying to find it at night:
When your dead end job’s been eating away at your life/You feel little inside with trouble and strife And now you spend your evening searching for another life/ And yeah I think, mate, I think you got her in your sights
He goes on to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism about going through hell, also a favorite line of fellow British hip hop innovator The Streets. It sound surprisingly optimistic coming out of Marshall’s mouth. I actually want to believe him when he says everything will be okay if you just keep plowing forward. It feels like less of an expectation that the bad times will end and more of a promise not to let them get you down in the first place. Just calm down, take it easy, and everything will be all right.
While not a literal kiss off to an oppressive job, Bob Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm is still one of the top three songs on the planet to put on repeat when your work is sucking away at your soul. Hitting out at hypocrisy anywhere it lives, Dylan soundly repudiates fakers, liars and tyrants with snide superiority. In defense of anyone who’s ever bucked the pack, he penned the eternally repeatable passage:
I try my best to be just like I am/But everybody wants you to be just like them/They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
His choice to “go electric” here wonderfully mirrors the content of the song with its sound. Rebellious, a little spiky and brimming with confidence, its the perfect embodiment of youth blazing its own trail. Dylan does what we all wish we could do: he strikes out on his own. Screw authority. Screw tradition. Screw doubt and doubters. Maggie’s Farm is the anthem for doing what’s right and what’s good, not letting anyone convince you otherwise or bend you to their will. It’s angry, a little self-righteous and supremely satisfying.
I know I just touched on Elbow last week with a mini weekend post, but it’s time to revisit them in full. Often painfully lumped in with Coldplay, Elbow are experimental and accomplished in a way that other English bands of their ilk rarely are. They’re masters at creating rich, involving soundscapes, even on gentler tracks that from the outside might be accused of being boring. And for a band that’s often associated with feel-good, Radio 1 rock, they’re also surprising unafraid to show anger, disappointment and frustration. The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver certainly is one of their gentlest songs, but it tracks the somber realization that you hate your job, and maybe by extension your life, even if it’s a career that you thought you wanted. Guy Garvey cobbled the lyrics together from stories of people who realized their career was making them miserable, then asked the band to create something that sounded like a tower crane moving across the sky to accompany them. You don’t hear a lot of prog rock inspired by coming to terms with your own failure of late. It’s a strangely reassuring work, one that echoes your own frustrations while letting you know you’re not the only one that feels them. Elbow are experts at expressing honest emotion without letting the situation turn maudlin and they achieve that again here. Moving without being manipulative, it’s a heartfelt rumination on how much is too much to give to a job.
I was always obsessed with Eleanor Rigby as a kid. I think it must have been the first sad pop song I ever heard. Or may be it was the distant, third person nature of the story. Or that it made me think of my devoutly religious grandmother, who always seemed quite sad to me. Whatever the reason, it resonated deeply. I poured over it, memorizing the lyrics and aping the strings (it was certainly the first time I’d ever hear them used on a popular track). It’s been a long time since the song was regularly in my life, but whenever I hear it, it instantly takes me back to that time as a child, perched next to the turntable playing melancholy air violin.
Another genius track from Public Access TV that proves their absolute dominance of the New York scene and American indie right now. A tale about having given up on life until meeting the eponymous girl, it’s an 80s rock inspired gem that builds into a frustrated yowl for frontman John Eatherly. And just when you think it’s at peak brilliance, they go ahead and throw in an unforgettable outro as Eatherly coos “P-P-P-Patti don’t stop.” Don’t stop, indeed.
Jackson C. Frank was never one to write happy songs, but the pain and anger that linger in Marlene are still unique. It was written 22 years after the death of the girl he dated when he was 11 years old. She was killed in a furnace explosion that would leave Frank severely injured. Instead of a wistful remembrance of the young love, it’s a literal tale of haunting. Her lonely ghost will not leave him alone. Even at that young age, he looks back on her as his true love. After more than two decades, the scars of her death and his inability to save her feel fresh. The melodic vocals of Frank’s early work have here been replaced by a rasping cry. The guitar is harsh and paranoid, representing the inescapable grief and guilt of the loss. Yet Frank is equally unwilling to move on as he is unable, despite being beset with this agonizing apparition. Marlene is the sound of someone broken and trapped by the past.
Like most Suicide songs, Cheree is a lesson in mood. It takes what could be a beautiful, pop-perfect keyboard line and perverts it with droning feedback and mechanical drum beats. Not even a glockenspiel-esque twinkle can fully draw it out of the darkness and into the light. That right there is the brilliant conflict of Suicide’s work: they meld melodic central themes with pulsing, discordant undercurrents. Add to that Alan Vega’s demented, confrontational vocal and you get music that makes your skin crawl in more than one way. Cheree barely has lyrics to speak of, complimenting Martin Rev’s child-like arrangement. It’s probably the closest to outright pretty the band ever come, but it’s still chilling and not without threat.