This week, to mark the release of our volumes in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, we continue our series of guest playlists from friends, critics, and fellow music lovers. (Check back late afternoons: we’ll probably be posting two a day.) Given that both our books focus on New York in the 70s, we’ve asked contributors to curate lists along the lines of a loose theme: “favorite NYC records.” What constitutes a “NYC record” is left to their discretion.
This morning’s list comes from Bart Plantenga, host of the Amsterdam-based radio show Wreck This Mess (formerly on WFMU). He’s also author of the (NYC set) novel Spermatogonia: The Isle of Man and another novel, Beer Mystic, which he describes as being “about beer and mysticism in NYC c. 1987 and is currently going around the world excerpt by excerpt via the world’s longest pub crawl.” Follow him on Twitter @bartplantenga.
NYC soundtracks: bart plantenga, Wreck This Mess, Amsterdam
In 1998, I co-produced a 5-hour radio show on Radio Patapoe in Amsterdam with 2 fellow DJs Ron and Grrrrt from Jonges van de Vlakte [Boys from the Plains] during which we attempted to circumnavigate the globe via 170+ geographical location songs: “Amsterdam” by Jacques Brel, “Moi Mon Paris” by Renee Lebas, “Cannes” by Edwin Rotten & Martine Rotte Dweil, “San Tropez” by Pink Floyd, “Per Le Strada di Roma” by Puerro Piccioni, “Upper Egypt” by Pharoah Sanders, “Abu Dhabi Check” by Mad Professor vs Puls Der Zeit, “Timbucktu Express” by African Head Charge, “Hong Kong in Stereo” by Yummy Fur …
The thing was, we could’ve spent hours “in” Paris and NY. There are probably many reasons why there are so many songs about NYC and Paris — some of which are honorable, enthusiastic, and laudatory, while others may be more sycophantic or opportunistic such as built-in airplay or esteem by association. Some may be hyperbolically respectful, oozing civic pride or nationalism even. So more often “New York, New York” than, say, Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York is Killing Me” or middle period Lou Reed, when he was just getting crusty enough to be indignantly grumpy on songs like “Dirty Boulevard,” where he takes on the betrayal of promise head on.
In any case, city songs require a few designated landmarks that anchor them to a particular place. A street, club, or building name may instantly evoke a thousand memories, a confluence of mind’s eye film footage flooding past… And what about wordless songs that evoke the ambiance of the city?
1. “New York USA” by Serge Gainsbourg
Strangely enough for you, not me, my favorite NY song is by Frenchman Serge Gainsbourg [Tim B. already beat me to it!] A perfect song, jungly rhythms of a cosmopolitan/Parisian version of an Olatunji song and great lyrics (“I’ve seen NY / Never seen anything like it / I’ve never seen anything so high / it’s all high in NY”) and then listing the names of some skyscrapers: “Empire State Building, oh, it’s so high” Rockefeller Center, International Building, Waldorf Astoria, Pan-American Building, Bank of Manhattan, Time and Life Building, American Hotel, C.B.S. Building, R.C.A. Building like a concrete mantra … Serge is a unique French performer who did it all; there is no one like him in Anglo culture: part Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Dean Martin, Kerouac, Oscar Wilde… Excellent 1964 video [during the Scopitone heyday] with Serge hanging from a skyscraper ledge, singing. A magical remix: “New York U.S.A.” Snooze vs Serge Gainsbourg. Snooze hits it head on.
2. “ Tribeca” by A Certain Ratio
Here is a live, sloppier rendition of the very pristine acr:mcr [A&M 1990] version by this great white funk band from Manchester, UK. In the same category as Liquid Liquid, Rip Rig & Panic, Pop Group, early New Order… I like lyric-less songs about NYC that evoke the sound and feel of the city [Charlie Parker et al.] Here we have serious grooves oozing ironic frivolity driving a sense ignored existential gloom. The Manchester studio version just feels like a hot day on the city streets, humane and percussive with shimmering hints of street ambience.
A Certain Ratio – Tribeca [embedding disabled]
3. “Piss Factory” by Patti Smith & Lenny Kaye
It’s not exactly why I moved to NYC but this great declamatory clenched fist manifesto did help justify/motivate the move. “I’m gonna get out of here, I’m gonna get on that train, / I’m gonna go on that train and go to New York City / I’m gonna be somebody, I’m gonna get on that train, go to New York City, / I’m gonna be so big, I’m gonna be a big star and I will never return …” And of course she was right.
4. “O Little Town of East New York” by Shelley Hirsch
This brilliant full-CD memoir by this gifted vocalist evokes vivid, visceral, highly poetic images of growing up in East New York, Brooklyn. Hirsch’s repertoire –- which includes abstract vocals, storytelling, comedy, local accents, memoir, urban history, and singing –- is perfectly equipped to handle NY’s hectic audio overload and make some [non]sense out of it.
5. “A New York Minute” by Alan Licht, A New York Minute, XI, 2003.
OK, this is such a simple idea, weave together a 15-min. yarn of radio weather forecasts to create a true sonic, rapid-fire logorrheic tapestry of NY -– especially in the morning on snowy/stormy days -– and the human/NYer preoccupation with weather reports. So simple it’s genius. I once produced a similar but less-brilliant, piece “Trafficante Onosphere,” and what surprised me was how winter weather reports remixed can evoke a certain apocalyptic angst. Despite the motormouth velocity of Licht’s composition, these weather reports have a kind of meditative effect – soothing and mesmerizing. Also: Charlie Morrow, “Central Park 1850” and Central Park 2007” on Toot, XI, 2011.