If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller (Italo Calvino, 1979)

This isn’t the actual beginning of Calvino’s novel ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’, but it is the beginning of the first book-within-a-book, also called ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ – so it still counts as one of my favourite opening passages of a novel.

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from the piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odour of the station there is a passing whiff of station cafe odour. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences.

I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) (The Turtles, 1968)

Formed in 1965 as The Crossfires from the Planet Mars, The Turtles were huge by 1967 – their biggest hit ‘Happy Together’ knocked ‘Penny Lane’ from the #1 slot in the USA. Their follow-up album, ‘The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands’, was a concept album in which the band pretended to be a series of different groups, credited with fantastic names like The Atomic Enchilada and The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul.

While ‘Eleanore’ and ‘You Showed Me’ were the big hits, the track ‘I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts)’ is a one-and-a-half minute nugget of mad genius. The band adopt what I think is supposed to be a Hawaiian tribal war chant – but the pounding drums, whoops and call-and-response shouts come off more like the Sugarhill Gang. Later sampled by the Beastie Boys (‘Jimmy James’) and De La Soul (‘Say No Go’), it’s amazing how well it measures up against early B-Boy classics like Incredible Bongo Band’s ‘Apache’.

The transition from ‘I’m Chief Kamanawanalea’ to the sublime ‘You Showed Me’ is a vindication of The Turtles daft multi-persona concept and – is it weird to have a favourite transition between songs on an album? Because that’s mine.

Listen to I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) on Spotify.

The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands

The drums from Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (Stevie Wonder, 1970)

While it’s a fantastic song all in all, for me it’s all about the drum track. It’s so unfussy, so methodical and regular, and then so satisfying when the drums break out into a quick rattle at the close of some of the vocal lines. I’ve not been able to find out for sure who the drummer is, but Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers are usually credited so the likely candidate is Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen.

It’s amazing how much he’s able to achieve in the moments that he allows himself to escape from the standard beat, and I love the way that towards the end of the song he lets the rat-a-tatting take over little by little, threatening to transform the song from Stax-esque funk into a wild marching band.

Click here to listen to Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours on Spotify.

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The lead guitar from So Not What I Wanted (Herman Düne, 2002)

David is my favourite songwriter of the Herman Düne brothers but this song by André is an absolute beauty. There are two guitar solos in this song and both are near-identical – I’ve always assumed that the solos were by David, but I’ve had trouble finding out either way.

At 02:10 André’s and Diane Cluck’s vocals drop out and the guitar solo begins – at first confident and clear, but then fading and rattling into uncertainty. As the next verse continues, the lead guitar shimmers in the background, and then at 4:38 the solo returns, this time accompanied by an insistent regular drum pattern, rising in volume gradually.

The lead guitar line’s naive simplicity and repetition mirrors André’s cracking voice and sometimes awkward French-Swedish accent. It’s one of the most perfect marriages of vocal and instrumental melodies that I can think of.

Click here to listen to So Not What I Wanted on Spotify.

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Summertime! EP (The Drums, 2009)

Although only released last year, I like to imagine Summertime! by The Drums as the soundtrack to my end-of-sixth-form summer holiday. It’s sunny, hopeful and nostalgic. Like Animal Collective, The Drums have Brian Wilson as an ancestor, but also mix in Factory Records reverb and melodies that you’d swear were hits back in the 80s.

This EPs one of those rare records that make me sure that whichever track I’m currently listening to is my favourite – but I think ‘Don’t Be a Jerk, Johnny’ has to be top, if only for the coda ‘You used to be so pretty / But now you’re just tragic / Believe in something / You’re full of horseshit’.

There’s a huge amount of buzz around for The Drums – Rose and I will be seeing them live on 23rd Feb and I can’t wait to hear a sample of their first full-length album.

Click here to listen to Summertime! on Spotify.

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The skiing scene in King, Queen, Knave (Vladimir Nabokov, 1928)

In just his second novel Nabokov had begun experimenting with narrative conventions. While it’s maybe not quite as impressive taken out of context, I love the trick he plays in the extract below. Chapter 8 of King, Queen, Knave begins in one scenario with Franz and his lover Martha, but as Franz examines a photo of her husband Dreyer, Nabokov smoothly transitions to the scene within the image, lingers for a few moments, then hops out again. It’s an effect that’s simpler to achieve in film, but in prose it takes you by surprise. It leaves you feeling hyper-aware of each sentence as you begin to suspect that any sentence might spring off on an unexpected tangent.

One such blurry morning, a Sunday, when he and Martha in her beige dress were walking decorously about the snow-powdered garden, she wordlessly showed him a snapshot she had just received from Davos. It showed a smiling Dreyer, in a Scandinavian ski suit, clutching his poles; his skis were beautifully parallel, and all around was bright snow, and on the snow one could distinguish the photographer’s narrow-shouldered shadow.

When the photographer (a fellow-skier and teacher of English, Mr. Vivian Badlook) had clicked the shutter and straightened up, Dreyer, still beaming, moved his left ski forward; however, as he was standing on a slight incline, the ski went further than he had intended, and with a great flourish of ski poles he tumbled heavily on his back while both girls shot past shrieking with laughter.

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Spotify playlist: I Keep Losing Heart (Dec 2009)

Here’s a Spotify playlist that I made at the end of last year. It’s a bit of a mishmash of old 78s, distortion and cheap Beatles pastiches (come on Spotify, surely you can talk the boys around by now?).

1. I don’t want to set the world on fire – The Ink Spots
2. Welfare bread – King Khan & the Shrines
3. So bored – Wavves
4. California girls – The Magnetic Fields
5. rr vs. d – Au
6. I keep losing heart – Electrelane
7. Lesley Gore on the T.A.M.I show – Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
8. The cracks are showing – Vivian Stanshall
9. Shake appeal / Tight pants (live) – The Stooges
10. Red shoes by the drugstore – The Wedding Present
11. Bottle opener – Giddy Motors
12. You can’t catch me – Chuck Berry
13. All my loving – Beatles Rumba Band
14. Living in hope – The Rutles
15. Making plans for Nigel – XTC
16. Two sleepy people – Hoagy Carmichael & Ella Logan
17. Say a litle prayer – Santo & Johnny
18. Barbados – Lord Invader
19. Staging the plaguing of the raised platform – Cornershop
20. Are animals – Au
21. You are the generation that bought more shoes and you get what you deserve – Johnny Boy

Click here to listen to I Keep Losing Heart on Spotify

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Tim Major – writer & editor

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