Never do anybody a favour? No, that’s a crap motto. And you can’t just do things you ‘believe’ in, either, because how do you ever find out what you believe in, in the first place? And what’s ‘belief’ anyway?
Once upon a time – I forget exactly when but I think it was summer or autumn 2005, and it was in Leeds, or London (a large city, anyway) – I was sitting in a hotel room for a spare couple of hours, and someone gave me an iPod with a load of songs on it. So I listened to them. They were rough – not fully mixed, rather than amateurish – and some of them didn’t have vocals yet, but they were amazing; alive, and unpredictable, and creative, but still loaded with melody and tune. Some were savage and exciting, and others were outrageously direct and poppy.
One of these tracks was called “Mountain Song”, and it was probably my favourite. It started small, with a strange, shlucka-shlucka guitar riff working in one channel, and it grew and grew and grew, and grew some more, somehow avoiding obviousness and cliché along the way. It had no lyrics at this point; no vocals at all. That growth never pushed over the crest into bombast, if I recall correctly; it edged into and remained within tension but never collapsed into release. It was wonderful.
Nearly a year later it was retitled “World At Your Feet” and released as the official single for England’s World Cup campaign. And it was… lackluster. Not unlike England’s performance at that World Cup. Oh the utter inevitability of it.
(Why does the England team need an ‘official single’ anyway? Wouldn’t tactics be more helpful?)
Some context. Steve is the only member of Embrace who actively gives a damn about football; I know this because I asked them back in 1997. They didn’t apply to do the England song; they were asked, and they likewise didn’t write a song especially for it; they adapted one they had leftover from the album sessions. Danny, not knowing or caring about football at all, got Tony, the band’s manager, to help him write parts of the lyric in order to make it obliquely interpretable as being about football. Rik, unhappy with the way This New Day was mixed and mastered, made sure that at least “World At Your Feet” had more air and life in it than “No Use Crying” (which is a great pop song ruined by airless mixing; and lyrically would have been more appropriate as an England song anyway, given the inevitable tears; “Target” would not have been).
Straight away I thought doing a football single it was a bad idea, which is probably why I never wrote anything about it, the accompanying b-sides, or the two singles that followed it and their b-sides, even though those b-sides ended up being more interesting than most of the stuff that made the album, if only because they weren’t so badly mixed and so loudly, shrilly mastered.
I probably only listened to “World At Your Feet” half a dozen times. It felt tired, and wrong, and uncomfortable somehow. A bad decision. Everybody makes them.
But there’s a silver lining, because “Love Order” and “Whatever It Takes”, which accompanied the CD release, are great songs; the former a lavishly-stringed pseudo-disco number, named in tribute to New Order, the latter a strung-out bait-and-switch number that hints at euphoria but actually delivers complete despair. Together, as a pair, they’re amongst the very best b-sides this band have done; if you took them along with the likes of “Flaming Red Hair”, “Madelaine”, “Feels Like Glue”, and “Too May Times”, you’d be able to piece together an album that smashes This New Day into tiny pieces.
To me, “Love Order” is a classic ‘should’ve been an a-side’ b-side, with its sweeping intro and campy, dramatic string stabs. The groove is tight and lithe, decorated with little colourations of synth and other electronics underneath and to the sides of the prominent string riff. Rik plays a weird, non-solo guitar break that shouldn’t work but does. I’m gutted that “Love Order” came too late to get on Dry Kids, but, as with a handful of other b-sides from across both Out Of Nothing and This New Day, faintly glad it didn’t get on the album it accompanied, because the b-sides all sounded better. With hindsight, it points the way slightly towards where the band are now.
“Whatever It Takes” is a strange, oddly structured beast. It starts small, with low-key mumbling and ambience; it’s a minute before the tune proper begins, three minutes before a drum hits (and when they do it’s as part of a taut, unsettling pulse). The vocal from Danny is faintly ominous and questioning to start; the whole song is a series of questions and false promises. The chorus, which emerges more than four minutes in, and seemingly from an entirely different place to the rest of the tune, is an enormous, gospel-esque effort that promises euphoria; a mass of voices asking, “how does it feel to be loved?” But then comes the switch. “I don’t know”, is the response, and it’s sung with such heart-rending desperation that you worry for the singer. It’s monstrous, huge, unhappy, and wonderful.
There were a handful of other b-sides from “Target” and “World At Your Feet”, some of which I don’t really remember (“What Lies Behind Us”, “Run Away”), and some of which were enjoyable dirty rock moments – “Just Admit It”, “Thank God You Were Mean To Me” – one of which is notable for a filthy, bleeped-out lyric and an extravagant, reverberant guitar sound. Another tune, “One Luck”, did something similar to “Whatever It Takes” by riding a strange chorus atop an awkward groove, but with far less emotional clout.
And then there were the pair of b-sides that accompanied “I Can’t Come Down” (the only Embrace single, apart from the too-limited-to-chart “All You Good Good People” 7inch to fail to hit the top 40; that fact that it stalled at 54 made it feel as if the game was up); two live recordings of otherwise unreleased songs. I remember a discussion in an aesthetics lecture about what the ‘essence’ of a piece of music was, the thing that captures the spirit and gets passed down, and a vague conclusion that different kinds of music had different essences: for classical it would be the score; for jazz it would be the live performance (captured on tape, most probably); and for rock and pop (and the various subgenres thereof, from soul to dance to hip hop and beyond) it would be the studio recording, replete with production touches, mixing, mastering et al.
Of course, this is a vaguely reductive conclusion that fails to deal with some things – fusion jazz, modern minimalist classical, the performative aspects of hip-hop like breakdancing – but it made a certain amount of sense to me, as someone who bought in fully to the concept of ‘Platonic essences’, as a useful foundation point. It’s why I care so much about the records, and how they sound – in twenty years they’ll be all we have left, and it won’t matter how good you were live or whatever. They’re your music’s legacy.
So what does it mean when a ‘rock’ song exists only, in the public sphere, as a live recording, replete with crowd noise and the odd missed note? History is littered with examples (many courtesy of Neil Young, plus the entirety of Kick Out The Jams, various James Brown tunes, etc etc), so it’s not that rare, but it does feel strange, unusual, and faintly intangible.
Of course, both these Embrace songs have been recorded in the studio, and I heard studio versions of both of them in that hotel room. “Contender” (“pop metal”, according to Rik) existed in several forms, some organic and punky, emphasis on the guitars and drums, and other versions electronic and chaotic, all drum machines and crazed organ riffs. I loved all of them, and didn’t know which I wanted to eventually emerge. Inevitably the live version that did emerge is all of those different versions and none of them; crazy organ riffs, guitar chaos, the most amazing, insistent bassline, a groove loaded with momentum that seems purpose built to move large groups of people. I’d love to hear a studio version again, but suspect from talking to Rik that we never will.
Likewise I doubt we’ll ever hear anything but the live version of “Heart & Soul”. I vaguely recall the studio version feeling elongated and layered, like a piece of techno, synth melodies building and building. The live version includes a chaotic, almost-jazz-y breakdown as the tune tries to dismantle itself, which I found incredibly exciting. Maybe there’ll be a rareties box one day, a way for people to hear “Effortless Now” and “Fear Fighter” and all those other missing pieces that I’ve caught glimpses of over the years. Except that in some ways we have heard those missing pieces, because they often end up being recycled, filtering into future material so that, even if we don’t know them on their own terms, we can feel their influence. There are rippling future echoes of some of them, and of the likes of “Contender” and “Heart & Soul”, in the band’s new material. And that might be enough.