Personal Effects

Iain Banks

EMI Records, 1999



I suspect that this will be my best opportunity on the Daily Vault to review the "work" of an author that goes by the name of Iain Banks. I will, however, endeavour to limit any unseemly fanboyism that I have in respect of this writer.

Personal Effects is a compilation of music, one of several such CDs in the EMI "Songbook Series". The idea is that various cultural icons with a reputation for eclecticism, controversy or downright strangeness were given the chance to choose some of their favourite tunes for a CD. Other (in)famous individuals include the poet Ivor Cutler, horror writer Clive Barker and puppetmeister Gerry Anderson.

My impression of Iain Banks' contribution to the series is one of, "I'm glad he writes better than he chooses music". OK, OK, the CD is a personal pick of tunes, but it is surprising how mainstream are the tastes of a cult writer. On the other hand, the CD booklet has snippets of information wherein Banks explains his choices and is quite amusing in places.

The Waterboys starts the collection, with a song from the album This Is The Sea by the name of "Don't Bang The Drum" from 1983. This title is in direct contradiction of Todd Rundgren's single from the previous year, "Bang The Drum All Day", but that's OK, I forgive them. A more famous release by the band is probably "The Whole Of The Moon", but the saxophone, expansive sound and powerful drum-beat (again a contradiction) on this track combine well with a nicely played piano. Clearly a song for the tape/CD-player in your car.

"Heroes" by Bowie is next, from 1977. Oh well, not my favourite Bowie track. Anyway, things get moving right along again with the release from 1995 by Dreadzone, called "Little Britain". Basically an electronic instrumental with incidental voice-overs, this is a combination of pseudo-classical and techno styles, with medieval fanfares á la Beggars Opera thrown in. Surprisingly catchy, harmless fun, and a UK top forty spot to boot.

I received my first introduction (and nearly a fond farewell, too) to Warren Zevon next, with "The Factory" from 1987. Billy Bragg meets Bruce Springsteen. The harmonica was the icing on the cake (I hate harmonica). Strangely, after initially being unable to stomach this song, the strongly acoustical feel and pointed lyrics are slowly winning me over. Probably I'll never really like it though.

I like Neneh Cherry. She has a voice that folks of the American persuasion call "sassy". Absolutely. Unfortunately, Banks hasn't chosen "Buffalo Stance" here, but "Man Child" (both from 1989). Still, it's a pretty piece, smart lyrics, funky synths and a worthy inclusion on the CD. A strange follow-up to "Uncle" Zevon though.

Ninety-nine percent of all reggae leaves me cold, so the track from Peter Tosh is a non-event for me - "Get Up, Stand Up", whatever, I don't care. Then mischievous Devo get a look-in, with "Satisfaction (Can't Get Me No)". Devo were a brave act, eschewing chord changes and other such fripperies. Their mickey-take of the Stones classic makes me laugh, as does any fun poked at Messrs Jagger and Co. This original turned up on their 1978 album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, which contains the original material I prefer from them. Cheerful nonsense.

1977 was a bad year for artists of the Progressive oeuvre, and this was highlighted by the fact that a band like The Sex Pistols could achieve a degree of success in the market-place. "Pretty Vacant" illustrates the point pretty well, although the musical introduction to the song is actually quite good. Switch off when you hear the vocals start up. The Pistols really were a notorious, but pale, imitation of what the Punk movement was meant to represent - better examples are contained later on this very CD.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Twenty years later on, Radiohead were touted as one of the major bands of the time. 1997's "Karma Police" is one of the better tracks on OK Computer, but I have to ask, "Why all the fuss over this band?". The most recently produced track is immediately followed up with the oldest - "For Michael Collins, Jeffery and Me" by Jethro Tull hails from 1970 and is a soothing balm for an old prog-head whose nerves are still jangling from the previous four tracks.

Kirsty MacColl is a very welcome addition to the collection. "Walking Down Madison" bears the normal MacColl hallmarks, thoughtful lyrics sung in a lovely voice. The presence of a rich and fruity Rap accompaniment is unexpected, but not unpleasant. Who can forget her earlier work, such as the incomparable "There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis"? A minor irony here - this song featured first on Electric Landlady from 1991, which featured a certain Johnny Marr from the Smiths. Marr has been suggested at one time in some Banks circles as a possible lead in the film to be made of Banks' rock bio-pic novel, "Espedair Street". More on "Espedair Street" later.

One of the better products of the New Wave was The Buzzcocks, whom Howard Devoto left to form Magazine. The 1978 classic Shot By Both Sides was the first result of this. The 1990 song, "Careful", by Horse, features a very strong female lead vocal, reminiscent of Alison Moyet in some ways. A little digging revealed that "Careful" was released as a 12" single which also featured a song called "Wichita Lineman" - I mention this in view of Banks' comments in the CD booklet concerning his non-inclusion of the song by the same name as performed by Glen Campbell. Doubtless, and in true Banks fashion, Iain Banks will deny any hidden joke and put this down to coincidence. Coincidence? Not a chance!

Ask twenty people to name a "One Hit Wonder" from 1980 onwards - what are the odds that five of them mention "Martha And The Muffins"? "Echo Beach" was the outcome of a chance listening to a demo tape by one Robert Fripp. The Frippster liked what he heard, by all accounts, and the rest, as we say, is history. Whatever happened to them . never mind, I love the track.

A proper Punk band, The Ruts. "Babylon's Burning" is raw, energetic and dangerous. Hell, I even like it. Slightly less raw-edged though is a snippet of poetry that follows, read by Ivor Cutler. A Glaswegian poet of known eccentricity, its inclusion on the CD is a clear example of self-indulgence (yes, I know that the whole CD is another example).

I am indebted for the inclusion of "Sleeping Satellite" from 1992. It is one of those songs you heard on the radio once or twice, absolutely loved, and then totally failed to track down for some reason or other. Tasmin Archer is the person responsible - the album Great Expectations went platinum in the UK and rightly so - now I know. Note to self - add this to the "To buy" list.

Hmm - Richard Thompson "1952 Vincent Black Lightning". I know that Banks likes motorbikes, maybe that explains it. I'd prefer a Ducati 916 myself . What a minute - Afro Celt Sound System? Yep, a band that combines traditional Celtic and African forms. The song that is included here, "Dark Moon, High Tide" from 1996 is much more Celt than Afro, with only a distinctive drum beat to indicate any presence of fusion. I should check out the album, Volume 1 Sound Magic sometime, for further research. The track here is pretty good.

Mike Scott, former Waterboy, brings the collection to a close, with the 1997 "Love Anyway". Scott's influence in The Waterboys is apparent as the track bears the same distinctive sound. A nice song to finish with.

It is interesting to review a compilation release, as in a way, I am rating the person choosing the tracks as much as I am the music of the collection. I have to say, the whole Songbook Series idea seems a little silly to me - just because you enjoy the work of a writer, will you also share his musical taste? Not in this case, although there is some overlap in interests, it must be said.

I am hoping that I will get an opportunity to rate Iain Banks' own musical compositional skills one day. I gather he is currently thrashing out some ideas with Gary Lloyd for a soundtrack for the forthcoming movie of "Espedair Street", Banks' novel about a rock star in his declining years who looks back at his days of glory (or lunacy, more like). Watch this space.

Rating: C+

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