Thom Yorke’s Clichés: Part 2

A few weeks ago I put up a blog post detailing some of the details behind Thom Yorke’s lyrics, and why they’re successful, despite appearing childishly simple on the surface. Since then there’s been a surprise album drop from the man himself (yes, another one), and a few tweets that hint at his compositional process in more detail than the scatterbrained websites Radiohead have maintained in years past. Here’s my update.

Twitter

Via the magic of social media, we’ve been granted an insight into the way Thom Yorke writes his lyrics, the sort of insight that was previously restricted to the gatekeepers (as Yorke might call them) of a BBC documentary series like Arena. In any case, it’s safe to assume these notes represent an early brainstorming, one of the first points at which he commits pen to paper. It’s an unconventional approach, dividing the page into columns down which he seems to be transcribing thoughts and phrases as they come into his head, and then paring them down to cut out the chaff. Instead of plotting the lyrics along the linear path of a narrative, there’s a scattergun approach, firing words at the page without discriminating, and then trying to unlock a coherent pattern among them. The overall system is like the embodiment of apophenia. It’s a helpful writing tool, but it also says a lot about Yorke’s persona poised against the system -even drafting lyrics requires a negotiation with overwhelming, faceless ‘data’, and trying to understand if any inherent patterns have value, or if they are completely arbitrary. It’s quite Pynchonian in that respect, and shows a measure of influence from that author which goes beyond the band name-dropping him with W.A.S.T.E (the name is lifted from an organisation in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49). As I mentioned in the earlier article, you have to sideline your expectations of one persona speaking to you, of telling a story from their account. Yorke is what DH Lawrence might have called a ‘pipe open at both ends’, allowing all parts of the system to emerge from his larynx. Here’s a transcription, with idioms also highlighted in red:

taxpayers Traffic jams All of us A broken spell I’m no saint
managers Cheques to sign Have turned to stone A dried up well Clutching straws
Catching up Call waiting Don’t slack off Holding patterns No idea
Britney spears Book onlines Or the penny drops In a queue Where to start
All his work Burned out lights And taken away Rotten fruit Why ask me?
Will have Flames to fan All the names & vegetables As if i’d know
Been in vain Warrantees All the names Leaves that fall Waiting outside
Coming at you coming [?] for you What’s the warning On leaves that fall The swimming pool
From beyond From beyond Who can hear? On leaves that fall As if it helps
The trees The trees On leaves that fall As if it helps
Beyond the trees Beyond the trees Click your fingers More hot air
I have indeed

 

Yet more shit Tickertape Then up in smoke In the balloon
Your holiness

 

I do not want need Message reads A teleport Disconnected
Chasing tales Stomach cramps Voice [?] looking at you A sick joke Frightened
Borrowed time Chattering teeth From beyond the trees Any which way Reverberating
Fossilised

 

Hollow words Beyond the trees Just don’t stop Hollow sounds
Specks of dust

 

On the breeze Big deal so what? Don’t give in Strict demands
Glowing orbs Vessels to fill The present tense Don’t let up Upon my time
Twisted frames

 

Vessels to fill Is all you got Self-improvement Responsible
Weakest links

 

Hovering [?] birds of All his work Life coach Adult
All this time Birds of prey Will have been in vain Motivated Stay in line
Struggling Can’t let go Multiplied Coming at you Motivated Stay in line
Fighting for On motorways From beyond the grave Sales force Need to fulfil
A little patch Teenagers Beyond the grave Sales force Deadlines
A little earth On my tail Tooth and nail Don’t slack off deadlines
With wood & stone [slime] They [?] think it’s a race Agoneeze [?] Or the penny drops Musst make
Wood store [slime] All this love Platinum cards All this work best
The present tense Will have been Freebees Will come to nought Use of my time
Is all you got

 

In vain Stamps 2 lick Mirrors in Robots in
Why waste time

 

Can be taken Checking lists Changing rooms In disguise
Breaking up?

 

from you Decisions decisions We think we In disguise
Lights that dance

 

At any time This with this [?] Have an opening Never here
Around your eyes At any time Such & such Come but next Somewhere else
You won’t know where Wants this by when? A better break Waiting here
You won’t know why Yesterday A better break Wait for you
Feed the greed Yesterday Hollow fake Waiting for
Don’t stop now yesterday Reverberate The states to change
Don’t turned around All this talk Wind 2 change
All this mouth Bottomless pit
The truth is love Bottomless pit
I’m uncertain

Even at this early stage you can see some of the subversion at work, as ‘chasing tales’ continues the invective of ‘The Daily Mail’ into a pun that sends up journalists let off the leash to find stories, who only end up chasing their own tails and perpetuating a cycle. Most of the notes are nowhere near what ended up in the final version, but it’s telling that one of the few that did is ‘the penny drops’, showing that the idiom provides the foundation on which the song rests – it is one of the few phrases which made it from ‘early notes’ into the final version, indicating that Yorke does find them an interesting sub-section of language. There’s a lot to be mined from the list, but just to mention one more thing at the moment: the refrain of ‘beyond the trees’ hasn’t been sung in any performance (yet), but it’s circling around the idiom ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ – saying ‘beyond the trees’ several times over shows the wilful attempt to escape from the labyrinth of pre-programmed language. On that note, something incredibly simple that I missed last time is just how many times phrases are repeated on Hail to the Thief compared to Radiohead’s other releases. I’ve tallied them below, not counting the occasions where lines are delivered in pairs (see ‘Myxomatosis, ‘A Wolf At The Door’ and ‘The Gloaming’ for this)

Song Phrase Tally
2+2=5 Paying attention 13
I’m not 11
Sit Down. Stand Up. Sit down, stand up 11
Anytime 4
The rain drops 46
Sail to the Moon Sail us to the moon 4
Backdrifts You fell into our arms 5
Go to Sleep Over my dead body 4
Were I End And You Begin I will eat you alive 15
There’ll be no more lies 12
The Gloaming They will suck you down to the other side 4
They should be ringing 12
There There Don’t reach out 4
Someone on your shoulder 4
I Will Eyes 15
A Punchup At A Wedding No 44+
A Wolf at the Door The flan in the face 4
Put me inside 5
No I have no idea, but a lot

It’s proof that Yorke’s pessimism about political control of language reached its saturation around the time of their sixth album, particularly as he hadn’t used repetition in such a heavy way before, or since (outside of choruses, obviously).

Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

Brain In A Bottle  I just keep bouncing back
Guess Again  As one door shuts/Another opens
Mother Lode  Your truth is out of their league + hits the ground running

Quite aside from giving us the most Yorkesque album title yet, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes gives us three more instances of idioms. All of the idioms here are ostensibly used in a positive context, but the fact that they are idioms in the first place negates the effect. Yorke has already deconstructed the optimism of ‘bouncing back’ back in 1997 with ‘Let Down’ (bouncing back and one day/I am going to grow wings/A chemical reaction/Hysterical and useless…), and ‘As one door shuts, another opens’ is another positive-sounding phrase, but given that the song has already described ‘all my nightmares’ and ‘wild dogs’, there’s something else going on. The phrase moves away from an Apprentice style soundbite into a domesticated labyrinth, where another door opening is not an exit, but another layer of confusion that helps the ‘mind blow up’. Same with ‘Mother Lode’: ‘hit the ground running’ is particularly loved by corporate employers, so recalibrating the phrase is another middle finger to Yorke’s favourite nemesis, the middle management. In the context of this song, hitting the ground running is like the doors in Guess Again – a myxomatosic twitching, trying to escape from surrounding darkness. If you look at the grid above that I transcribed from Twitter, it does seem that Yorke is particularly interested in deconstructing such corporate language which deigns to help the individual achieve their potential, but really only perpetuates a system full of suited drones.

Notes for ‘The Present Tense’ include ‘self-improvement’ and ‘life coach’. I worried over the last few years, as Thom Yorke grew his hair, spent more time in Los Angeles, and hung out with cool EDM artists, that he would drift from the acid-tongued, alien looking man I idolised in my youthful naïveté. Still, it’s helpful to know that while he seems a much more contented soul now, he’s still capable of piercing the particularly Los Angeles brand of vapid personalised bullshit.

In the particular is contained the universal: Music micromoments

What is music made of? It’s a more difficult question than you might think. We may be comfortable discussing the artistic implications of a symphony, an album, or even a single, but to what atomic level can you reduce it to? Can you say that one note contains the entire artistic project on its own? I’m a firm believer that you can – I use the model of a fractal, where a shape will be found endlessly folded and repeated no matter how far you zoom into it. Or there is the example from biology, where each cell contains the information which defines the entire organism. So here’s a very subjective list of my own favourite micromoments in music where due to chance, accident, or design, I get a short sharp shock which summarises, or in some cases recalibrates, the larger work of which it is a part.

Rolling Stones – Satisfaction

1:35

This is the micromoment which gave me the inspiration to put this list together, and is probably the best example. The distinctive fuzz-box riff is delayed slightly when it returns, which fits beautifully with the song’s themes of malaise and delayed gratification, and the way Keith Richards gives it a little jazzy inflection before it comes back is pure sex.

Air – Run

1:09

This track really knocked me for six the first time I heard it, due to the micromoment at this point (and again in the second chorus). It’s like two tracks – one a fast-paced electro number with a driving beat, and another spacey ambient tune – have been spliced together, with the processed voice maintaining a pulse during the transition. A really sweet song that manages to merge two perspectives in an aubade, weighing the necessity of being propelled forward into the next day while wanting to stay in a blissful, timeless (and very French) state. You can almost taste the croissant crumbs on the pillow.

Angelo Badalamenti – The Red Room

2:10

WARNING: Twin Peaks spoilers ahead

The very last episode of Twin Peaks (or at least what we must now call the ‘original run’) featured a twenty minute sequence in the Black Lodge, with this piece as its soundtrack. In doing so, the show was revisiting a location that had already been featured in Agent Cooper’s strange dream in season 1, with this as the memorable musical accompaniment. The first season gives us a blisteringly cool jazz piece, but the second season’s excursion into the Black Lodge inverts the soundtrack, slowing it down to a crawl, as the half-note walking bass is clipped into a much more ponderous sequence of crotchets, with a deviation every couple of bars. The absence of a chord progression complements this, as the same guitar chord keeps returning. It makes for a very effective soundtrack to Cooper’s fear and eventual pursuit in the Lodge, trapped between the two rooms. The first instance of the chord is the micromoment I’ve highlighted here as the music stayed with me for a long time after initially watching the scene in question. It’s such a clean and almost breezy sounding tone – a glimpse to what may be found in the White Lodge maybe – but its fixity, when scaffolded by that shadowy bass, is an apt gateway into the most surprising 20 minutes of television I’ve ever watched. It initially seems much more benign compared to the ‘Dark Mood Woods’ segment of the piece, but as in many of Badalamenti’s collaborations with Lynch, it is a bolder and more productive method of horror soundtracking, the type of fear that compresses your chest for days, not one which momentarily raises your heart rate.

Arcade Fire – Haiti

1:47 and 2:07

From the very beginning of ‘Haiti’, the terms of reference for a listener are uncertain. The first thing you hear is a simple guitar line, and a sound effect of gushing water, before being swamped by a siren-like drone, and one of Funeral’s distinctive powerful rhythm sections, though in this case the tone is top-down violence, rather than the bottom-up smashing of ‘Power Out’. The dichotomy is distilled into these two little moments of the song, where Regine Chassagne utters a strangulated breath. It could be a breath of life, symbolic of Haiti’s rebirth following the atrocities outlined in the song, or the sound of a life being quenched. Arcade Fire are easy to knock for their baroque tendencies (and it’s hard not to be jealous of a song with bilingual lyrics), but these little gasps indicate just how fully they grasped the complete aural spectrum on their first album, not just striving to the peak of the wave graph.

The Avalanches – Frontier Psychiatrist

1:57

I knew when making this list that The Avalanches would be on here at least once. So I changed tactic and limited myself to one micromoment per artist. Then came an equally difficult decision: trying to pick just one sample from the chronically entertaining ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’. I plumped for the enigmatic ‘I promised my girlfriend I could…’, simply because it raises so many questions about what the end of the sample originally was (I’m guessing it wasn’t ‘the violin, violin’). Likewise, it makes me think about how tiny the sample really is – at only a second long, it takes up a tiny portion of the record it is lifted from, and is similarly incidental when The Avalanches use it (whereas ‘that boy needs therapy’, for example, is the hook of ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’). It’s not the funniest sample on the album (that honour belongs to the whisper of ‘money’ on the intro to ‘Two Hearts In 3/4 Time’, or the femme fatale who kicks off ‘Little Journey’), but it’s the best indicator of how good The Avalanches are at what they do. Or did. When oh when is their second album going to come out?

The Band – The Weight

2:28 and elsewhere

Yes, it’s a three male part male harmony. No rule books are being rewritten here. But there is something about The Band’s earnestness which bypasses the cynical, British part of my brain (located to the rear of the hippocampus) and leaves me in awe at The Band’s particular variant of American roots music…except maybe when they do that verse about the dog. Regardless, this harmony breathes with an expanse of American history that would, without their efforts, be considered impossible to fit within the confines of a four-and-a-half minute long piece of music.

The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever

1:05

There are a few songs in this list which have breath-taking micromoments where they subtly change tempo or mood, and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is the archetype of such a manoeuvre in popular music. The crux of this little transition is when the cello reaches its final note on its first descent, confirming the song’s turn towards darkness as the cello puts a much different spin to the melody compared to the Mellotron of the first minute. If there was ever a song which captured the essence of the split between experiencing life as a child (sweet, naive guitar and Mellotron) and looking back on it with the burden of adult experience (heavy string and horn sections), then this is it, like the dropping of a pubescent voice. That is what is represented to me by Geoff Emerick’s splice, and so much else besides.

Bjork – Venus As A Boy

1:05

Bjork is so on-point with her use of samples and production on her actually-not-quite-debut-album, from Brazilian drums in ‘Human Behaviour’, through Bond theme strings in ‘Play Dead’, to Talvin Singh’s tabla in this song, that it seems paradoxical that the moment which most strikes out to me is this slice of ‘Venus as a Boy’, where all of the accompaniment ceases. The song is just left hanging in mid-air, having to be resuscitated by keyboards before the bridge. Bjork discussed the real life figure who inspired the song as being a man who could appreciate the beauty in mundane tasks like waking up and brushing teeth. It seems very fitting then, to momentarily focus on the musique concrete sample at the core of the song, holding it up, asking the listener to dedicate all of their attention to it for a period of seconds, daring us to find the beauty in the infinitesimally small.

Boards Of Canada – An Eagle In Your Mind

2:51 and 4:54

Two separate micromoments in this one. The first is probably what most listeners remember from this track, as the percussion (which otherwise dominates) drops out for the only time to welcome a horribly disfigured voice saying ‘I love you’. The disfiguration is such that this love has to be unrequited; the only reaction to it is one of surprise and revulsion.

The other micromoment in this track is a partner in crime for the Sandison brothers’ particular brand of insidiously unsettling music. Thom Yorke said in an interview that the subtle shift towards the end of ‘Freeman Hardy And Willis Acid’ by Squarepusher and Aphex Twin was so profound that he had to stop his car. I get the exact same feeling whenever I listen to ‘An Eagle In Your Mind’, because the second half seems so discontinuous from the first: there’s no obvious breaking point where the song transitions from one part into another. That said, the part at 4:51 is what sends a shiver down my spine, when I realise the track isn’t just going to leave quietly. Your perception is never quite safe in this track, because there’s always something hiding around the corner. In that regard, it’s the apt introduction to Music Has The Right To Children.

Boston – More Than A Feeling

3:45

Similar to ‘Satisfaction’ with its delay, this is the calculated opposite to Keith Richards’ offhanded strumming; this is Tom Scholz at his calculating best. Some of the entries on this list are celebrations of the accidental, the spontaneous, what can disrupt the creative process without our knowledge, as if visited from elsewhere. This is different; this is Scholz, the master engineer, knowing exactly what buttons to press at what time. Nothing in ‘More Than A Feeling’ is left to chance. For better and for worse, I am positive that if you dedicated all of CERN’s computers to producing the most perfect song that could ever be written, they would give you ‘More Than A Feeling’, note for note. Scholz just slips in an extra bar between verse and chorus to drive the anticipation levels even further for that earth-shredding mix when the chorus guitars come in. In a lot of the entries on this list, you have to throw your hands up and admit that conscious intention is not the main factor at work; it’s the indescribable instinct of the artist, or courage to let the dice roll and see what happens. In this particular instance, you have to doff your cap to a master craftsman.

Burial – Archangel

3:34

This micromoment is an encapsulation of the Untrue album and maybe the entire Burial project as well. Burial’s tunes are populated by ghosts, of pop culture samples which come through the ether in forms so distorted that they have completely different resonances to the original copy. This is a classic case of artistic precision, of dropping in a detail which on the surface is so incidental to a work and yet, conversely, is responsible for making the entire work sing. Untrue takes the most plaintive refrains of pop songs, like ‘could it be alone?’ in this one or ‘I can’t take my eyes off you’ in ‘Near Dark’, and leaves them calling into an empty Tube tunnel, symptomatic of urban loneliness. The micromoment in ‘Archangel’ is like the plaintive, bathetic answer to Ray-J’s questions but never the twain shall meet, as the two voices are isolated in separate elements of the urban fabric, only capable of hearing their own echoes.

Buzzcocks – Breakdown

0:13 and elsewhere

What you have here is a little extra word from Howard Devoto which gives British punk its distinctly sardonic twist, a blossoming from the British tradition of metropolitan art schools. ‘Breakdown’ is a song which describes mental disintegration to the point of Devoto uttering anguished yelps which close it, and the choruses offer a really dry extra comment, because by singing ‘I’m gonna break down, I’m gonna break down, yes’ Devoto gives a completely out of place rationalisation, as if breaking down makes complete sense. The illogical seems logical, in 1977 at least.

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains

0:00

Something I see written quite a lot across message boards and social media is a particular tactic of ingratiating newcomers into a particular artist. Helpful guides will tell them: start with this work, because it’s more accessible, and then if you like what you hear, move on to the more challenging stuff. In Rainbows before Kid A. The Colour of Spring before Spirit of Eden. Stand! before There’s A Riot Goin’ On. As a general rule, it holds up pretty well, but there’s little substitute for the feeling of getting slapped around the face by the sheer weirdness of something, of bypassing the conventional records and penetrating to the bewildering circus tent at the core. That was how I got into Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, though arguably they fall into a separate category of faux-macho masochism in indie circles, a sense of ‘weirder-than-thou’ where being able to subject yourself to Trout Mask Replica from a standing start is a true test of your indie credentials. The undocumented consequence of this, of course, is that the ‘accessible records’ then become much weirder in their own right. Paranoia begins to set in as you think to yourself: is this it then? Is it really in just one key? Those are the thoughts which danced across my brain as I explored Beefheart’s discography more and more, and ‘My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains’ exemplified the shift in perception I was undergoing. The intro is so understated, in contrast to the songs on Trout Mask Replica which are just as likely to begin with a squall of saxophone, or of a guitar in an unconventional tuning, or of someone reading surrealist poetry. In contrast to those bellowing calls to attention, this track is so understated, the opening bass notes being like a little tug on your sleeve, rather than a scream into your ear. I mentioned the gulf in accessibility between Stand! and There’s A Riot Goin’ On earlier, which is usually held up as the quintessence of 60s optimism giving way to the murky realities of the 70s, the feeling that the dream has died. I’d argue that the Beefheart’s early 70s records are played so straight (and often so mournfully) as to mirror the same change in attitude, more than just the appeal to mainstream credibility that he was often accused of.

Charles Mingus – Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting

4:09

The sound of jazz being pushed to its very limits. I always knew I was going to choose this track, and tried to pick one of the many bruising moments where Mingus hoarsely shouts into the mix. But I’d forgotten that at one of these points, the recording seems to give out and issue feedback in wizened response. I’ve yet to find a moment in jazz that reaches the same level of terror and thrill that Mingus’ band achieve here. It’s a cross-section of jazz and, well, noise, that is produced accidentally but what else do you expect when you stretch a form to breaking point?

Daft Punk – Digital Love

3:31

Daft Punk on Discovery became the heirs to Nile Rodgers’ brand of disco, in the sense that they were happy to pare their song down halfway through in order to reconstruct it, to show the parts that went into its composition. What Daft Punk do so successfully on Discovery is, with the benefit of decades of life experience, marry the emotions with the music. Their inspiration is dance music, but they play it with the continuity to momentous events in their life, connecting with a moment beyond the dancing space (in my humble opinion this is why reviews, particularly Pitchfork’s, were quite lukewarm to the album upon its initial release – they needed a similar amount of time to process just how far the album’s emotions reach). It is with the wisdom of all that experience that the breakdown ends in ‘Digital Love’, and the guitar solo begins. Daft Punk’s breakdowns provide the opportunity to step back and think ‘what’s it all for?’, before leading into a renewed assault on the body that now has an emotional weight attached.

David Bowie – Five Years

2:14

Most of the entries in this list are concerned with mixing up notes or chords, quite simply because they’re the easiest to concentrate into a single ‘moment’. But here is an exception: the moment when David Bowie goes into the second person address in ‘Five Years’, telling his listener ‘I thought I saw you in an ice cream parlour’. The ice cream parlour is the perfect setting, carrying on the blend of the apocalyptic and the banal which he nails so successfully in the lyrics to this song. The change in address encourages reconsideration of the song’s portentous opening remark ‘we had five years left’ – suddenly it’s as if Bowie isn’t speaking on behalf of all of humanity;, that isn’t what’s important. The ‘we’ may in fact be a much smaller audience of one person, cutting the song’s ambition from global to local, but making it much more heartfelt in the process.

Dirty Projectors – Cannibal Resource

0:05

There came a point, after an embarrassingly frequent number of listens to Bitte Orca, that I realised just how consistently dark its lyrics are. For that I put the blame squarely on the opening to ‘Cannibal Resource’, lead track off the album, which irradiates washes of sunshine from the beginning and features gorgeous harmonies in the chorus. The Radiohead influence goes beyond the Airbagesque bass; as much as Dave Longstreth implores the listener to ‘open your eyes’, the vivid colour suggested by the guitar distortion has us amused like kittens with balls of string, unable to become more than a ‘terrified witness’ to global peril. The micromoment here is the culmination of a guitar melody that doesn’t seem to be emerging from any human activity, instead exploding out of the stereo in peaks of technicolour. ‘Can it sing a melody’, indeed.

Lana Del Ray – Video Games

1:07 and elsewhere

This is a great interpolation of an old pop song, Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’. Lana Del Ray gets a lot of stick for supposedly instigating an annoying retro/Instagram/hipster chic, but the power of this particular micromoment means that there is a critique going on, as she sighs out her delivery, aware of the temptation to idealise life in a faux-nostalgic Polaroid picture frame, but at the same time attuned to the fragility of it all.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Providence

17:45

Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s debut album takes its name for the keys which commence both sides of the record, and the endless loop of the vinyl at the end. The CD edition is expanded sufficiently to give it a much different character from the LP, and the micromoment in question has a much greater impact on the latter version (though I’ve linked to the CD here because it will in time become the canonical release). The plaintive call of ‘where are you going?’ which finishes the album is utterly profound, coming as it does after the eschatological tour de force which Godspeed have unfolded. It’s a question which the listener cannot escape. You may not address it directly, but it’s the sort of question which can haunt you at solitary moments. It’s impossible to stay neutral when the voice finally dissolves into the soundscape of ambient drones.

Incredible String Band – Chinese White

3:16

Folk is a curious genre. It couldn’t get any more segregated, as each community with its own musical history has its own folk sound, as any trawl through the Alan Lomax archives will tell you. But beyond surface level differences, folk music frequently has a structural underpinning shared across countries, uniting the geographically distant. The Arabian gimbri played by Robin Williamson (a type of lute which is normally plucked rather than bowed, as it is here) marries with the guitar plucked by Mike Heron in the sort of pan-continental soup that seemed all so possible in 1967. Heron’s vocals call out across time zones, from Hebrides to Hebron, with his emphasis on the word ‘around’ emphasising the inclusiveness of this rather marvellous album, and its opening track.

James Ferraro – Linden Dollars

0:13 and elsewhere

Far Side Virtual left a lot of critics nonplussed upon its release in 2011, who were confounded at whether they were the victims of a joke, or whether they were listening to the soundtrack of a sonic art installation at a non-existent gallery. Far Side Virtual is stuffed with punchlines, and this micromoment is one of them – an obscenely gratuitous overload of sound effects and muzak keyboards. There is no regard for subtlety. It would be easy to make an album in such a vein which was fundamentally unlistenable beyond one or two spins, an album before which one could stroke one’s chin but not a lot else. Ferraro’s gift is to provide a series of vignettes that are sugar-sweet, an injection of pure musical adrenaline which is even more concentrated than most pop songs. After the injection comes an odd sense of guilt – more than just poseur’s regret, Ferraro begs the question of how much we can let ourselves enjoy these snippets of consumerist culture, or whether we can make ourselves sufficiently distant from considerations of capitalism when we listen to music. It cuts to the core of a central debate about art.

Jay-Z – 99 Problems

0:06

Having come to a disagreement with Def Jam president Lyor Cohen, Rick Rubin spent the 1990s making excellent albums for Johnny Cash and doing his level best with much poorer material from such luminaries as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Mel C (!). Coming as hip-hop and club music flirted with each other in the early part of the millennium (50 Cent’s ‘In The Club’ arriving only a few months before), Rick Rubin provides a blast from the past. And what a blast! He may have killed decent production by taking a large role in shaping the loudness war, but in the time when the war only consisted of initial shots fired, it sounded pretty breath-taking. A song which was out of time both in its sound and its lyrics, my eardrums are still reverberating from the first time I heard that guitar and drum crunch.* It’s the sound of hip-hop being taken out of the club by its throat and thrown back onto the streets.

*In fact I can remember exactly where I was. I had to get some meat out of the chest freezer (yes, you could say I got more meat than I anticipated…) and, being bored on a Sunday afternoon, turned on our old radio (you know, the one your dad listens to when he’s decorating the house) and BAM!

The Jesus And Mary Chain – Upside Down

2:27

The Jesus and Mary Chain single-handedly metamorphosed Phil Spector’s wall of sound into a wall of noise in their early releases, most spikily so on ‘Upside Down’, their barnstorming debut single. Its relentless power can most keenly be felt at this micromoment, where it sounds like Jim Reid forgets to approach the microphone, meaning his first attempt at the refrain is submerged in the mix.

Jimi Hendrix Experience – Purple Haze

0:00

One of the greatest gifts a musician can leave to prosperity is to have a chord named after them or one of their works: an honour which unites Igor Stravinsky, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix doesn’t so much as enter this song as shamble into it, forgoing the tonic and kicking things off with a bizarre dominant seventh sharp ninth chord. ‘Purple Haze’ is a song which, from the first chord, sounds like it has no direction but is very relaxed about that fact. 1967 will probably always be the most prolific year for record music, but ‘Purple Haze’ has every claim to be its quintessential soundtrack.

John Lennon – Imagine

2:33

There’s no middle eight in ‘Imagine’; what Lennon plays instead is just a solitary bar which connects the first chorus with the second verse via a quick left hand run up the piano. Part of the reason it sounds so good is because Phil Spector gives room for the piano in Lennon’s home studio to breathe, instilling unusually strong power to a piano-led song with a very simple chord progression. The message of the song would be completely lost if the production was overly tinkered with, so the benefit of that little bar is to stress the dignified continuity of the piece and, by extension, the responsibility we have to our fellow man away from the corrupting institutions of religion and nationhood. John Lennon never quite managed to satisfy himself with the most efficient form of protest, but the earnestness of his songwriting is what will survive, and is much more effective than any bed-in he ever staged.

John Zorn – James Bond theme

0:40

Amongst other things, Naked City chews up pop culture standards from decades ago and spits them back out in the listener’s face in an ultra-stylised yet chaotic form, and this is most evident in the Naked City band’s cover of the James Bond theme. The album as a whole lives and breathes New York, and what emerges from the covers of the themes to James Bond, Batman, and Chinatown is an invocation of the urban quagmire, offering an ultra-cool ideal of the honourable man in the shadows who protects the city, before ambushing him with a saxophone blast. That’s why I picked the micromoment of this piece, when the keyboards rush into the chorus with such a wonderful amount of cheese, like the last hurrah of the city crusader. The striking cover photograph to Naked City was taken by the photojournalist Weegee in 1940, but could easily be from 1989, the year of the album’s release, when New York City was in the grip of a peak in violent crime prompted by the crack cocaine epidemic.

Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues (live at Folsom Prison)

0:49

It’s all very well and good to salute accidents and instincts in production, but they are often only a pale imitation of the spontaneity of live performance, of an artist reflexively being prompted by an audience’s immediate reaction. It’s the audience reaction that I’ve selected from this performance of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ – after Cash delivers the song’s darkest lines, ‘I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die’, there’s a round of applause and cheering which has always sat queerly with me. Is it just taking advantage of a gap in the performance to salute the band on their first song or a real approval of those words? I might be being overly dramatic, but in the raw power of Cash’s performance, you don’t doubt that he could shoot a man in Reno if he was hyped up enough.

Laurie Anderson – O Superman

2:09, 7:52

I wanted to be able to choose just one micromoment from ‘O Superman’ but I can’t, it’s just too good. The first one is along the same lines as David Bowie’s ‘Five Years’, but this time it’s an expansion rather than a contraction of the address which strikes directly to the heart. The piece’s wilful weirdness means that no element of the song is a total bolt from the blue, but suddenly calling up ‘the planes’, synecdochic of the military-industrial complex, after the domestic Mom-and-Pop opening lines is pretty potent, added to by her serpentine drawing out of the last word. It’s gained an extra edge of heartbreak following 9/11 and Anderson’s emotive performance of the piece just eight days afterwards. It’s an unintentional coincidence, but the real piece of foresight is using the narrative device of an answerphone message with a voice that pretends to be human. There must have been an awful lot of calls made that day to answering machines that left the caller in an horrendous state of anxiety, just waiting for a response, left reliant on technology to confirm whether loved ones were alive or dead.

The micromoment towards the end works in a similar way, as it is poised at the crux of a fade out which begins with a synthesiser which morphs into a saxophone. A great summary of the song’s investigation into the interface between humanity and technology.

LCD Soundsystem – Losing My Edge

2:19

Generally speaking, I don’t like dubstep. Or at least, I find it difficult to take seriously, which means that inspired remixes like that of the Inspector Gadget theme tune are, in my view, the perfection of the genre. The WUB-WUB-WUB sound effect is so inherently funny that any ‘drop’ I hear in a dubstep tune is a glorious punchline. Those that do take it more seriously have a propensity to engage in an arms race of finding the most extreme and ear-destroying drops. The best I can offer is the not-technically-a-drop from LCD Soundsystem’s debut single, quite literally the ‘I was there’ moment. It won’t burst your guts out through your earhole, but it does provoke a wry smile as James Murphy mourns the loss of his mode.

Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love

2:44

Trying to cover Led Zeppelin is pointless. To get a drummer as good as John Bonham, a bassist as good as John Paul Jones, and a guitarist who can keep up with Jimmy Page in one room would be an achievement in itself, but even then the hypothetical cover band would still be missing Robert Plant’s voice, a bottled-up sample straight from the Mississippi delta which somehow implanted itself in the West Midlands. A voice so powerful that it could only sustain itself for a few years at its peak, its decline exacerbated by relentless touring. The voice is given full form at this moment, a borderline non-syllabic thunderbolt.

Lou Reed & John Cale – A Dream

4:39

Contrary to popular belief, the lyrics of ‘A Dream’ are not taken verbatim from Andy Warhol’s diaries, but they were written by Lou Reed under their inspiration, which makes the scorn that is poured upon Reed in the song even more astounding. When presented with the opportunity to write your own history it is tempting to present yourself in the best light, but this micromoment emphasises the sense of guilt Reed feels. It comes as Cale (reading as Warhol) talks about being spurned by Reed at an awards ceremony, unable to believe that Reed couldn’t even bring himself to greet him. Years after, Reed’s guitar sends out a plaintive hello, trying to connect with the dead, filled with the self-disgust that is brought on my grief. The guitar rises to try and meet the now departed Warhol, but it’s a forlorn effort.

Miles Davis – On The Corner

0:00

The title ‘On the Corner’ couldn’t be more appropriate; the opening to this album sounds like being kicked out of the back of a van onto a Harlem cross-section on the hottest day of the year, with traffic beeping its annoyance at you from all four sides. Regardless of how many times I listen to the album, I always think there’s going to be a warm-up before Miles and his band engage in their full-frontal assault, and it never comes.

Radiohead – Let Down

3:02

There’s a latent argument that most Radiohead fans have ready in their back pockets whenever a hostile party accuses them of making depressing music; that it’s actually uplifting, it encourages you to think yourself, or words to that effect. But let’s make no bones about it: ‘Let Down’ is utter misery, and all the better for it. It doesn’t just have an acute self-loathing pitched far above Creep’s teenage angst, it even methodically explains to you that you can’t grow wings, you’re doomed to fail, you’re consigned to a life where very little is changed by your agency. When Colin Greenwood’s bass re-enters following the break it’s with a deep sigh and a shrug, almost too chronically feeble to even limp to the end of the song.

Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter

2:59 and 3:02

A pair of moments so intense that they contributed to Merry Clayton, the backing vocalist, having a miscarriage shortly after recording her takes. As with Mingus, this is a moment where the emotional intensity of the sound breaks into pure noise, taking away some of the soft comforts we expect from music and crossing the threshold into a dark underworld.

Simon & Garfunkel – The Only Living Boy In New York

3:45 and elsewhere

Jaak Panksepp is a neuroscientist with an interesting hypothesis: the goosebumps we feel when listening to certain pieces of music has an evolutionary basis in ‘separation calls’, where a young animal calls to its parent when it becomes lost. The reaction (technically called piloerection) is curiously common to certain songs, when you may expect it to be a matter of subjectivity. Having spoken to some friends, it seems that this particular moment of ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ provokes the same rush of adrenaline in most people who hear it. Panksepp’s hypothesis could be drawn from this song alone, as the echo chamber call of ‘here I am’ is primitive in its attempt to facilitate reconciliation between the two musicians.

Sly & The Family Stone – Just Like A Baby

0:43 and elsewhere

There’s a precedent in literature for working in bed: Proust completed A la recherche du temps perdu while confined to his cork-lined bedroom, Orwell finished the final drafts of 1984 while bed-bound with the illness which would eventually kill him, and Mark Twain worked in the same bed which he transported whenever he moved house. Recorded music is different of course, as you need access to high-tech recording equipment that is unlikely to be at your bedside, unless your name is Sly Stone. It’s the sound of a creaking bed which I’ve picked out here, the glimpse into Stone’s drug-addled mind as he created his original brand of introspective funk on There’s A Riot Goin’ On. His work in the late 60s promised a utopia, including people of all races and creeds in a joyous dancing celebration, and in 1971 that is replaced by a reclusiveness that means the world is best faced from the comfort of the bed.

Squarepusher – Come On My Selector

2:34

Tom Jenkinson is the fucking daddy.

Steve Reich – Four Organs

4:29

The nature of Steve Reich’s phasing pieces ensures that there are moments of collision or harmony which create an effect that goes beyond the initial inputs. I have to confess my ignorance (and welcome any knowledge on the subject) with regards to what is happening here, but the little micromoment at 4:29 is an exquisite example. Even though the maraca doesn’t change throughout the piece, it makes it sound like the percussion is mixed slightly higher for a brief moment to ride the crest of the crashing organ waves. I plan to write another piece in a few weeks’ time about some of the historical connotations of Steve Reich’s use of phasing, so to my readers: I hope you’re both looking forward to it.

Aphex Twin – Tha

1:51 and elsewhere

I don’t find ‘Tha’ relaxing at all, which makes me a contrarian against every doe-eyed admirer of the track who’s left a fawning YouTube comment. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, there are the incredibly subtle shifts in tempo which occur throughout the song and almost sidestep your perception completely. Secondly, there is the sample of people talking buried frustratingly beneath the mix, resisting your attempts to decipher what exactly is being said. Along with the samples of people talking is the moment I’ve chosen (occurring more than once) where there is the sound of shoes squeaking in a hallway. Brian Eno famously developed his vision of ambient music while in a hospital bed unable to change the volume on a recording of harp music. The hospital bed is exactly what I imagine at the centre of this ambient work, in the middle of a cavernous space surrounded by people remotely discussing your fate. That echoed squeak is the sound of those incredibly long hospital corridors with whitewashed walls.

Suicide – Frankie Teardrop

3:33

Tom Scharpling’s radio show on WFMU spawned a monster in 2013: the ‘Frankie Teardrop challenge’, where the plucky listener has to listen to the song through headphones in a scary location late at night. I pre-empted Scharpling somewhat because I tried doing the same thing when I discovered the song in 2007, walking around a wooded field close to my parent’s house that had no artificial illumination for miles around. I only attempted it a couple of times, but on each occasion it was this moment that I would, purely instinctively, rip the headphones from my ears and throw them to the ground in cold-blooded fright. There is no easy way out of this song. Even from the beginning, the percussion on the organ is going at such a rate to make you realise it isn’t going to end well. You glance at the track listing to confirm just how long you have to endure it, and think ‘oh, for fuck’s sake’.

Talk Talk – Wealth

4:04

During their prolonged recording sessions for Talk Talk’s final albums, Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene created a reverential atmosphere, a process which included the burning of incense candles. At the end of Spirit of Eden there is the aural equivalent of a candle flickering out, as the organ persists and persists before slowly fading away. It’s hard to pick a moment per se from all of that, but the terminal mumbling of Mark Hollis beneath the organ would be it. A fitting way to end a delicate album.

Brian Eno – Windows 95 startup noise

And then of course, there are pieces of music, only seconds long, which are micromoments in their entirety. Brian Eno gives a memorable description of being tasked with composing the start-up sound for Windows 95, which must ring true for composers who work with technology companies everywhere:

“The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 3.25 seconds long.”

But you know what? He absolutely nails it. Windows 95 was the first operating system to really feel the clout of Microsoft’s multimillion pound marketing department, with the company even paying for an entire run of the Times newspaper so people could get a free copy, all courtesy of Uncle Bill. It brought personal computing to a generation’s awareness and the sense of optimism in technology is inculcated by Eno. Mysterious and alluring in equal measure, it holds special significance for me because it was the soundtrack to my first explorations within a computer, at that age where you immerse your curiosity into exploring every aspect of the machine, double clicking whatever you fancy, and congratulating yourself when you find a new cache of folders to explore. It’s a hell of a thing to represent that in a handful of seconds, but Eno pulls it off.

clock down

The Wire’s peculiar debt to sketch comedy

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for pretty much the whole of The Wire.

clock downCheeseshop

This summer, I had the privilege of being able to watch the complete box set of The Wire. And it really is a privilege. The programme is the realist novel par excellence for the 21st century, and should be as secure in the canon as the more traditionally feted Dickens and Eliot are. That its medium is the small screen only makes it more powerful; it arrives to the viewer through the vessel of mass readership, just as Great Expectations and Middlemarch reached their readers through All The Year Round and Blackwood’s magazine respectively. To continue such an analogy, the box set is the equivalent of the ornate, high-investment bound copy released a few years later.

Hardback copy of Middlemarch.

Hardback copy of Middlemarch.

There are many shows that have become successful through television and then found a second life with box set sales, but in my (fairly limited) experience, only The Wire comes remotely close to answering the question that haunted the great 19th century novelists: what is to be done?

Any attempt to address the whole of a series which manages to contain nearly all aspects of the American urban experience is an Icarean project, so in the meantime I want to focus on one specific scene, my favourite from the entire series: Omar visiting Proposition Joe’s shop in season 4 episode 11, ‘A New Day’.

The set-up of the scene is a good example of what sets The Wire apart from its competitors: complete bravery in writing, and a tonal flexibility that ensures the series always rises above trying to portray a lowest common denominator image of the streets. The scene begins with a Tarantinoesque fragment of conversation, as Cheese logically concludes that midgets have the ‘fattest ass’ and the ‘best pussy’. It would be easy to set the scene in the shop with a moody silence before Omar makes his entrance, almost bellowing how serious the show should be taken from the screen. Instead we get an insight – and sometimes five seconds is all it takes – that the characters have much more behind them than the game they are a part of. It’s illusionary, sure, but the best programming nearly always is. I particularly like the little exchange because it gives a brief glimpse into Prop Joe and Cheese getting along as members of a family, meaning that Cheese’s betrayal of his uncle in season five has true pathos. It gives neat mirror image of the punning exchange to follow as well, as if every interaction has a kernal of comedy at its core.

What happens next is an absolutely audacious move, anchoring the scene in a very recognisable TV genre, albeit one usually far removed from the streets of Baltimore: sketch comedy. Reducing comedy sketches to a structuralist core would probably leave you with a branch of what could be best described as the ‘man walking into a room’ sketch, the type used as a central conceit in Thank God You’re Here, and perfected by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s safe to say Prop Joe’s reaction means he wasn’t expecting the Spanish-American inquisition.

DIABOLICAL LAUGHTER

DIABOLICAL LAUGHTER

You have to credit Michael K. Williams and Robert Chew for their sense of timing in their first part of this exchange: following the guns being drawn, Omar casually places the clock on Joe’s desk and Robert Chew lets the chime of the clock ring out just long enough before putting on his glasses (another comic prop in the circumstances, with shades of Eric Morecambe and Vic Reeves), then asking what its malfunction is. Omar’s pun ‘ran out of time’ is wonderfully absurd, when we know how thorough he is when planning his robberies; as if as well as scoping the joint, keeping track of Joe’s muscle and their movements, he also put the same amount of thought into a splendid little throwaway gag. The punchline is delivered while he produces a .50 caliber Desert Eagle, mixing the tone somewhat: on one hand it is a comically large gun, becoming an excessive prop in the manner of Joe’s glasses, but on the other it is supremely powerful and Joe’s fear is justified, given that one shot from it would be enough to place most of his innards on the back wall.

One big gun.

One big gun.

Likewise, the clock is a symbol of Joe’s mortality, only giving himself a chance of crawling out of his grave by fixing it, and fixing Marlo. As their dialogue develops, and the situation becomes more intense, the camera flits between Joe and Omar’s faces, zooming in closer and closer each time. This is until Joe urges that Omar ‘take a deep breath’, and then offers him a proposition. Here the writers make great use of Prop Joe’s name, and his established behaviour. He momentarily becomes a recurring character in this twisted sketch show, appeasing the audience with his catchphrase. Omar’s response is mirrored by the reintroduction of zoom into his face, and the stakes are raised again. In a similar vein, Omar’s insistence that ‘we got to have things simple. See Omar likes it simple’ extends a character trait he has used several times before and here has a newly-tapped comic dimension: talking about himself in the third person. Both Joe and Omar issue lines not out of place as part of a recurring comedy sketch, talking about themselves as characters and employing their most distinctive lines. The next section of dialogue is like them laying the foundations for the next sketch in the series, as Omar adopts a camp, faux-despairing tone when he imagines what he would have to do if Joe double-crossed him. With the scene firmly laid, Omar continues the vaudeville style acting, which has a strange anaesthetic effect upon the consequences of his actions; namely, taking out Joe.

The comic structure is brought back to the fore as Omar asks for a ticket for his clock, which, forgoing its symbolism for a moment, is an almost unbelievably banal follow-up to the plan he and Joe have just laid (and the consequences it has). His parting word of ‘Gentlemen’ to Joe, Cheese and Slim Charles is a theatrical flourish upon which to exit.

The clock/ticket episode shows how Omar manages to treat Joe as a civilian and a gangster all at once.

The clock/ticket episode shows how Omar manages to treat Joe as a civilian and a gangster all at once.

It looks forward to Omar’s posthumous reputation as a mythical figure, the accounts of his death exaggerated hugely to superhuman levels, as his propensity for drama adds to his power, by cultivating an aura which makes others fear him, as he tells Renaldo afterwards, “I trust [Joe’s] fear”.

By invoking a paradigm of sketch comedy and mixing it with themes of the Baltimore streets, this particular scene shows The Wire at its most successful as a tragedy, a piece of social commentary, while being capable of raising more than a few laughs. The overlap of the two forms is indicative of the show’s more general concern with (mis)communication, because as a viewer it becomes difficult to find a stable reference. This seems very fitting in a show that examines at length the ins and outs of ‘The Game’, a euphemism for the American city and the sub-euphemisms within that. Furthermore, the name of the show points to one of its central paradoxes: that the Major Crimes Unit needs wiretap surveillance to be able to make the most powerful arrests, but the institutions of the police department and the criminal underworld are separated by a common language. It only makes sense that for the viewer, the message is obfuscated as to whether we’re watching a sketch comedy or something much darker.

How Disney prepared me for a life of pain and misery

Looking back, there’s one thing in particular I don’t understand about the 1990s. Well, there are plenty of things I find weird about that decade, weird being a very 90s word in its own right – the obsession with aliens, the ubiquitous curtained hair, the mysterious ‘zig-a-zig-ah’  – but most of those can, with the benefit of hindsight, be assigned some sort of cultural genesis now that they have retreated into history and are no longer caught up in giddy spontaneity. The UFOs have packed up and gone home. The curtains have been drawn. But what I can’t comprehend is how Disney were content to publish their films, where a boy loves a girl oh but there’s a bad guy and some trauma you’ve got to work through and sometimes you’ve got to learn what’s inside you really counts and everything turns up rosy when you defeat the cynical power grabbers like Hades and Scar and Gaston and Quallo, alongside the game adaptations of those films, which teach you that life is an unrelenting procession of pain and failure.

Alright, alright, I know that the games were produced in the model of arcade games, and were therefore completely unforgiving in their difficulty level and readiness to tell you GAME OVER. Moreover, the difficulty level was only reflected in the number of lives you were given, as opposed to actually making the game easier. The only difference was the number of occasions you were granted to subject yourself to more toil and pain, which is more of a curse than a blessing. The design of these games seemed deliberately calculated in order to make you fail, or at least make you suffer pain at every opportunity. Aladdin and Simba – protagonists of the two best adaptations – seemed incapable of even jumping without running into something that would chip away at their microscopic health meter. Even jumping on the lowest grunt enemy required some sort of sacrificial offering to appease the Disney gods. In the case of Aladdin, this was further complicated by trying to avoid fire and swords. In fact, Aladdin was great for the particular situation which seems much less common in platforming games now – missing the absolute precision needed for making a particular jump, and ending in a place – spikes or a bed of flaming coals usually – where the sole contribution you could make as a player was to accelerate your character’s death; trying all sorts of tactics, jumping up and down, running around, before staying in one spot and sobbing. In some games (the Sonic the Hedgehog series was a persistent offender) I’d let that slide, but in a *Disney* game?! At an impressionable age young players are introduced to one of life’s important lessons: sometimes you’re powerlessly trapped in a situation without any hope of escape. You’re going to die anyway, so why not speed up proceedings? That’s it, life’s terrible, and you may as well just kill yourself. But buy a Mickey Mouse novelty straw before you do so.

As a point of reference, I can say without any hesitation that the first level of Aladdin is harder than 95% of missions in Grand Theft Auto 4.

In the first level of Aladdin, you will get pots, swords and fire thrown at you - sometimes all at once.

In the first level of Aladdin, you will get pots, swords and fire thrown at you – sometimes all at once.

I’m sorry, did you say ‘tutorial level’? There’s no stabilisers on this bicycle. Or you can go back even further to the intro movie – in The Lion King, this takes the form of Timon, lit up against a black background, hands held up in despair like something out of Goya’s worst nightmares, portentously intoning: “It starts”.

Timon knew better. He tried to warn us.

Timon knew better. He tried to warn us.

This is despite the fact that the game was produced and marketed for children, whereas GTA 4 sold so many copies that each person on earth actually has three versions of the game, with one of them buried underground and fed with water and nutrients so it can be harvested come spring. Heck, even when the games would attempt to give you some kind of reward or bonus, events would take another sick twist. Between levels of The Lion King is the minigame ‘Bug Toss’.

Bug Toss. Don't think I ever cleared single digits on this.

Bug Toss. Don’t think I ever cleared single digits on this.

Seems generous enough – you get a respite from Simba’s interactive Bildungsroman to segue into the comic relief of Timon and Pumbaa, but what you get instead is a sadistic exercise. The game is randomised, so there is no pattern you can unlock to try and improve your skills at catching the bugs; if the second bug is going too quickly and you’re on the other side of the screen, you’ve had it. Which brings us to another lesson that these games can inspire to a young generation: the platform levels are difficult, but you know that with enough dedication you can be the best and overcome anything! Luckily at Disney we know better, so we give you these mini-games to show you that life is completely random and meaningless, and you end up being shat upon from a great height. Let’s take a look at one level in particular – the next one in The Lion King – to understand in greater detail just how our childhood idealism was crushed.

WARNING: the following YouTube video will cause post-traumatic recollections to anyone who owned The Lion King on the Mega Drive.

They say that leaving school at 14 to begin manual labour was ‘character forming’, and that kids these days live a pampered existence. They couldn’t be further from the truth. I repeatedly subjected myself to this torture as an extra-curricular exercise. The original scene from the film which inspired this level isn’t entirely innocent either. I don’t know about everyone else, but I was intimidated by the really polychromatic scenes in cartoons, overwhelming pscychedelia that they were. But the game took intimidation to a whole new level. The level doesn’t even start innocuously – it gives you the instruction ‘roar at monkeys’, without specifying that it is the pink monkeys you need to roar it. This simple oversight cost me about a week in poorly invested time. The jump sequence over the giraffes is complicated by the strange mechanisms of jumping in the game, where even thinking about the possibility of breathing on one of the arrow buttons means Simba will lurch uncontrollably in mid-air. The first monkey sequence is simple enough, once you realise the colour coding at work.  After that is a bizarre section with an ostrich. I have to say before I stick the knife in, that you should credit the developers for their originality in inserting so many different mechanisms into a film tie-in, but simultaneously curse them for coming up with the most varied instruments of torture. Prompted by a floating arrow, you soon realise you have to either jump or duck to avoid the incoming obstacle, although one of them (which I assume is a baby rhino) looks a lot like a pig. Its impassive obstinacy, causing Simba to die if he gets within a certain distance of it, is perhaps the best advertisement for vegetarianism Disney ever made. The sight of that lurid pink pig/rhino/elephant/whatever, striking down the precocious lion as if with laser vision, makes you look at old Ham in a new light. The mechanics are easy enough to pick up, though the exact rhythm needed for the ‘double jump’ over pig and branch combo requires syncopation barely possessed by the most skilled jazz musicians. Still, your reward for that is your first checkpoint of the level!

Your reward is a series of absurdly difficult jumps along the pendulums of rhino tails, a feat made more difficult by the aforementioned propensity for Simba to move around in mid-air like a toddler that has had their mashed potatoes spiked with Red Bull. The game does a good job at trying to mollify ‘death’ as the Pokemon series does most of the time, by suggesting it’s a faint, and that Simba just needs a good rest. The finality of ending up in the drink is hard to dismiss, though. If you manage to overcome the tails (and make quite a hard jump over the giraffe), you get a second round on the ostrich, but this time without the benevolence of the golden arrow, which has clearly fucked off in disappointment at your previous efforts. This makes the process so much harder than it seems. You start seeing imaginary branches and pigs everywhere, mixing your jumps and your ducks, and coming to view the double jump as a personal nemesis. Oh, and then they throw in a pig/rhino that comes much sooner than you anticipated, rushing towards you with all the anger felt by its precursors that were processed into bacon and sausages. Then, oh then, comes the real monkey test.

The painful doubling of monkey roaring and ostrich dodging in this level is truly cruel, allowing you to think you’ve mastered a dynamic, only to see it return in much more unforgiving form. It’s a handy fable of life that Disney are communicating to us – sure, you can work hard to get good at what you do, but sooner or later it’s going to come back in a form you can’t defeat, so you’d better walk off into the sea with stones in your pockets. It goes without saying that the second monkey tableaux is hard as nails, but I’d forgotten how difficult landing the jumps could be on those birds’ nests – Simba’s famous tetchiness meant that all too often you’d land the jump but because your fingers had the composure of a crack addict, you’d add an unnecessary poke to the side and you’d get to start all over again. The fact that you have to then go back over water to begin the process again – when for the most part you’re unsure if you’ve even done the right thing – is absolutely heinous. There seems to be many permutations of monkeys possible – and quite a few illusory dead-ends, one of them has to be roared at twice for god’s sake – that, once again, drowning seems like the natural termination, to watch the number of lives decrease and jack it all in.

The Mega Drive from which these cartridges held their reign of terror was the only true family I console I ever used. It belonged to my older sister, via a school friend of hers, and my other sister and I would join her for gaming sessions. But not for multiplayer; we’d gather round to repeatedly throw ourselves at a brick wall. My older sister’s friend was the only person who was good enough to make any progress on the games, and when she did crack through a level, we rejoiced like fanatics. There was one Saturday morning where she managed to go through about three levels consecutively that we’d never even seen before – an event so dramatic, I was sent down like the envoy of a successful raiding party to my parents. They failed to appreciate the significance of what we achieved, probably distracted some quaintly 90s activities: Mum throwing away an empty carton of Golden Grahams, Dad setting up some outdoor furniture.

Disney must have learnt something over time, though: I can’t close this without giving a shout out to what may be the most perfect mini-game ever made. The catchily titled The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride Gamebreak contained 4 beautifully designed nuggets of fun, but one of them had all that and a heap of originality to boot; ‘Paddle Bash’.

Paddle Bash: A hidden gem that may stay buried forever, as it really doesn't like running on 64-bit systems.

Paddle Bash: A hidden gem that may stay buried forever, as it really doesn’t like running on 64-bit systems.

A combination of Pong and Breakout, the power-ups and power-downs were impeccably balanced, the two dynamics at play always kept the game interesting, and the ‘easy’ difficulty setting (well, ‘kitten’) actually meant something. I’ve never been able to find a copy that can work on Windows 7 and beyond, so if anyone has the foggiest in how to direct me, please get in touch. If we can work out a method, then I would recommend it to young and old. It’s a real shame that video games can suffer so much from technological obsolescence, as one of the leading lights in its field can become unusable within 10 years. Even out-of-print books can at least be bought for a premium.

Are the early Disney games great though? Goodness me, yes. Or at least the first half of all them is, that’s as far as I’ve ever got. Someone will have to tell me if they stay good in the second.