Thursday, May 04, 2006

Making Drinks For Nigel, Pt. 1

Calum Marsh

Pretentious though it may be, I like the idea of pairing music with alcohol. Granted, these two delightful activities - listening to music and drinking, respectively - aren't exactly a perfect match: listening to an album is an act to be respected, which first and foremost means doing it sober, but sipping a single drink while your record spins isn't such a crime, is it? I'd like to think not. A well-selected glass of wine is said to bring out the best in certain foods, without detracting from the meal's own importance, and I think the same applies to music: the right drink can make that special album resonate all the more deeply, whether it works to establish atmosphere or just generally helps you relax. With that in mind, I'd like to recommend, once again, a few music and drink combinations which should work quite nicely. Enjoy.

Five Fine Albums & Their Alcoholic Counterparts: 5 - 3

05. The Cure - Disintegration (1989)
By 1989, The Cure had already released an unsatisfying debut, toured with Joy Division, recorded several hit singles, completely rethought and reworked their artistic vision, toured around the world, became drug addicts, flirted with suicide, broke up, reunited, and had a song on 'Miami Vice'. Still, it was not until this year, when Disintegration was released, that The Cure saw what was generally recognized as their "breakthrough". The album, despite of its thoroughly dark undertones, was a huge commercial and critical success, reaching number three on the British charts and featuring four Top 20 singles in the UK - 'Fascination Street', 'Pictures Of You', 'Lullaby', and, perhaps most notably, 'Love Song' - all of which were similarly successful in the US, marking the first time in The Cure's history that it had gained American attention.

Disintegration is an album of many layers. On the surface, this is nothing more than a light, textbook 80s pop album, one which is seemingly easy to digest and thoroughly enjoyable throughout. But where most albums of the genre are limited to a kind of basic enjoyment, Disintegration delves into deeper waters. There seems to be an intensely dark undercurrent running just underneath Disintegration's deceptively sweet surface, one that is often missed upon casual listening. On 'Love Song', lead singer Robert Smith sings "however far away, I will always love you/whatever words I say, I will always love you". How this song is so often interpreted as sweet or romantic is baffling. This is not a joyous celebration of undying love, but rather an unspoken apology from a man who is aware of his inability to show his love. Robert Smith is resolutely depressed on Disintegration, but so debilitating is his sadness that he has no choice but to accept its presence. What else can he do? "Drearily and tired, the hours all spent on killing time again/ all waiting for the rain", Smith sings on 'Prayers For Rain', indeed sounding like a man who has quietly accepted defeat. In many ways, Disintegration is about the way in which love can do more harm than good. Broken romances eat away at those who remain in them, but who has the strength to leave? As a man who chose, unlike to friend Ian Curtis, to bear his dark life, Robert Smith understands sadness very well - and thank god, too, because without his pain we'd not have the joy that is Disintegration.

Best Heard With: Cranberry Redbull
Also known as an "Excitabull", this delicious drink is sweet enough to satisfy the lightest of drinkers. But mind the deceptive taste: sweet exterior aside, a Cranberry Redbull is a very powerful drink. It's not recommended that Redbull be consumed with alcohol - hell, the bar can't even legally mix the two - but you're not afraid of breaking a few federal laws, are you? I didn't think so. Enjoy the sweet taste of the drink and sweet sounds of the music while the heavy alcohol - and heavy themes - wash over you with subversive ease. Oh, I can't resist: this drink will definitely cure what ails you - ha!

04. XTC - Drums & Wires (1979)
XTC's fourth studio album, Drums & Wires, was, at the time of its release, remarkable for two reasons: firstly, it signaled a departure from the synth-based pop sound they had previously reveled in (a result of their keyboardist's split from the group just months prior to the recording of Drums); secondly, it succeeded as being a relative commercial success in spite of the controversy it earned as a political statement. The hugely popular single 'Making Plans For Nigel', which reached number seventeen on the UK Singles Chart, tells the story of Nigel, a young, working-class man in England who "has his future in British Steel". The story was all too familiar for the majority of the British working class - XTC's audience, generally. These were young men with no discernible way of doing anything with their lives except do this job - like it or not, their paths were drawn out for them. English youth, especially those involved with the Punk movement, responded to 'Nigel''s message, and as a result the track became something of a working class anthem.

I was born in Britain, and my father just so happened to be a part of the British Punk scene in the 1970s. He'd have been 18 when Drums & Wires was released - an age that placed him not only squarely in the Punk demographic, but also in a position where British Steel was a perfectly viable career opportunity. Fortunately, he took up a trade - well, I won't bore you with the details. The lesson is...move to Canada? But seriously, 'Nigel' was explicitly directed at my Dad, so it's only natural that the track resonated so strongly and still resonates so strongly with him today, some 25 years later. I remember hearing this song when I was growing up. My Dad told what it was about: that Nigel could have been anybody, that nobody was happy with it, and that a future in British Steel was no future at all. The fact that 'Nigel' and the rest of Drums resonates so deeply with me, a person who didn't experience any of this at all, is a testament, I believe, to the quality of this album. On the one hand, it's a deeply personal and political album that's intention is partly lost in translation, but on the other hand, it's really, really good - and honestly, isn't that enough?

Best Heard With: John Smith's Bitter - Extra Smooth
Go to absolutely any pub in Britain and they'll have John Smith's on tap. Go to any Beer or Liquor store in Canada and they'll think you just made up a brand. It's amazing that one of the most popular brands of beer in that entire country - among the Top Ten best sellers, in fact - seems to have never existed here. Sure, we can get German bottles with names I can't even pronounce and a thousand American brands that all, um, suck - but the most popular beer in England? No, that doesn't sound like it'd sell very well. Sigh. I have a drearily romantic vision of depressed British Steel workers heading to the local pub for a pint of John Smith's after a long hard day in the factory, professing their love for XTC and discussing the latest article on Mocking Music in great detail. This is surely what happens every night across the sea (can one of our British readers look into this, please?), and, keeping that in mind, we should all order cans from eBay and drink them while listening to Drums & Wires. To our North American fans: if you find that John Smith's is available on this continent, please tell me where to find it. Thanks in advance.

03. Brian Eno - Ambient 4: On Land (1982)
The back side of On Land's original packaging bears a message from Brian Eno, which details the album's recording process and, interestingly, explains how the album should be listened to. Eno describes his personal method for arranging his speaker system, one that he expects fans to imitate in their own homes so they can properly listen to On Land. An included diagram depicts the ideal listening quarters: two standard size speakers placed to the left and to the right of the turntable, respectively, and one small speaker placed behind the listener. "The effect is subtle but definite", Eno continues, "it opens up the music and seems to enlarge the room musically".

It might seem odd to include instructions with a piece of music, but if an album ever warranted it, it's On Land. The fourth and final installment of Brian Eno's revered 'Ambient' series is widely considered to be the best, his most comprehensive example of the then-radical Ambient style. By 1982, the year of On Land's release, Brian Eno had already established himself as one of the most important figures in the short history of recorded music. Some of the most highly acclaimed albums of the 70's and early 80s - Remain In Light, Low, The Unforgettable Fire, Another Green World, and Here Come The Warm Jets, among others - were the result of Eno's work as either a producer or musician (Low was not produced by Eno, despite popular belief, but he is still largely responsible for its quality). Perhaps more remarkable than the amazing quality was the surprising prolificy: Eno was producing and creating several albums a year, and practically every release was warmly received. One downside to his acclaimed discography is the degree to which so many of his records are swept aside. Praise for Eno is typically reserved for his work as a producer, leaving his own albums - specifically the Ambient series - strangely out to dry. Released on its own, On Land would likely stand as one of the most universally adored records of the 80s, right beside his Remain In Light, not left in its shadow as it is now.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about On Land twenty five years after its release is its ability to stand up to modern scrutiny. So-called "classic" electronic or experimental music has a nasty habit of sounding dated in a contemporary context, but On Land somehow managed to avoid fading away. It's often written that Ambient music works to enhance a particular environment, but I disagree with that assertion; Ambient music establishes its own environment, one which is so complex and enveloping that it almost requires an instruction manual - good thing Eno was thinking ahead.

Best Heard With: Gin & Tonic
Gin & Tonic (or "G&T", if you want to sound like an idiot) is probably the smoothest, cleanest tasting drink you'll ever have. Like Ambient music, it's an interesting combination of simple elements that works to establish something much more exciting - in this case, it gets you loaded. It's light and refreshing, in a way, but it's not to be taken lightly: enjoy it, let is wash over you, otherwise you might just miss what the big deal is. Pour two ounces of Dry Gin over ice in highball glass; top up with tonic water or, alternatively, club soda. You can add a lemon or lime wedge for extra flavour, but its standard practice to serve without.

Numbers 2 and 1 to follow next week.

XTC - Making Plans For Nigel
Nouvelle Vague - Making Plans For Nigel (XTC cover)
The Cure - Love Song
Nouvelle Vague - A Forest (Cure cover)
Brian Eno - Lizard Point

XTC - Drums & Wires
The Cure - Disintegration
Brian Eno - Ambient 4: On Land

This is a Long List for Something With Nothing to Think About: A Mocking Music List

Comments on "Making Drinks For Nigel, Pt. 1"


Blogger Casey Dorrell said ... (5/5/06 7:48 pm) : 

C'mon people, where's the love?


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (6/5/06 7:57 pm) : 

I've never noticed before that no one carries John Smith's here. Now I am on a mission to find it and I shall take it upon myself to visit hundreds of pubs, if necessary, in order to check that fact because i'm giving that way.

Heh. I like the fact that google ads now think that your readership needs to quit drinking, start rehab, and that they most certainly have hangovers. My favourite?


Blogger Unknown said ... (8/5/06 12:22 am) : 

music principle 101.

Nothing is outdated. It's just not enough alcohol.


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