Give It Up! Ten Reasons We Loved LCD Soundsystem
On Friday October 10, 2002, I posted a live review of LCD Soundsystem at the Bowery in Manhattan. “Give It Up!” I headlined. “Ten Reasons To Love LCD Soundsystem.” On Saturday April 2, 2011, at Madison Square Garden, LCD Soundsystem gave it up for good. Here are Ten Reasons We Loved them.
1: THEY WERE FUNNY
This may not be the first thing James Murphy would want written on his group’s gravestone, yet many fans discovered LCD Soundystem via the humor. The aged-hipster name-checking of 2003’s debut 12” “Losing My Edge”; the complementary youthful-hipster fantasy “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”; the self-effacing yet oddly patriotic anthem “North American Scum”; the let’s-call-them-like-we-see-them “Drunk Girls…” All these songs were examples of LCD’s wit and yet they were all, also, singles. From start to finish, James Murphy composed lyrics that made his listeners smile. Chuckle. And even laugh out loud. That’s a rare craft in songwriting, especially when you expect to be taken seriously.
2: THEY WERE TENDER
Any old fool can crack jokes. It takes a particular kind of fool to make you cry, too. 2004’s eponymous debut LP hinted at sentimentality with “Too Much Love” and “Never So Tired As When Waking Up,” but it wasn’t until Sound of Silver, LCD’s stone classic album from 2007, that James Murphy fully revealed his inner softy. Tapping the simplistic synths of early 80s Human League, “Someone Great” was an open, raw break-up song, while album finale “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” rode the waltzing 6/8 time signature to deliver a monumental eulogy to the post-9/11 city. A similar sense of sadness saved the group’s final album, This Is Happening, from being an otherwise sub-par remake of its predecessor: “I Can Change” is as good a love song as anyone wrote in the last few years, and the closing track (again) “Home” has that melancholia that’s at the heart of so much musical magic, and yet which is so hard to capture.
3: THEY WERE LOUD
Humor mixed with tenderness; you could almost be excused for thinking that James Murphy was the modern Harry Nilsson. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that at both the first and last LCD shows I saw, he sang Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire.”) Fortunately LCD Soundsystem, whether on record or, especially, in concert, knew the importance of decibels. This was never so apparent as when I saw them in Manchester, in November 2010, as the opening half of a double bill with Hot Chip. From the first rumblings of “Get Innocuous,” they set about raising the roof, more or less literally, the show reaching an ear-splitting, soul-shaking intensity with the rousing-from-nothing 2004 single “Yeah.” As with all the best bands, LCD could get voluminous regardless of tempo or style: whether it was the punk thrash “Tired,” the simple chant that fused the dance rhythm of “Us and Them,” or the climax to their greatest song, “All My Friends,” LCD got in your face in just the right place(s).
4: THEY WERE A PROPER DANCE BAND
As a studio concept, LCD Soundsystem was really all about one man: James Murphy, who not only sang, not only produced, but also played just about every instrument on everything he recorded. (Check the credits on Sound of Silver for “Someone Great” and “All My Friends,” the two deepest cuts, and you’ll note that James Murphy played everything, from drums to bass to guitar and keys.) And yet Murphy realized early on that if he wanted his nom de plume to carry resonance, it had to be by putting together a proper group, with identifiable characters showing up in the same places on stage every time. So, fans soon learned to fall in love with Nancy Whang, up front and centre, on vocals and keyboards; with Tyler Pope on bass; and, especially, with Pat Mahoney on drums, who played his parts like he’d created them. As the LCD sound grew over the years, so did the accompanying system, and latter tours mushroomed to include Gavin Russom on keys, David Scott Stone on guitar, and Matt Thornley on percussion, amongst others, including, on the Hot Chip tour and the final week in New York, Hot Chip’s own Al Doyle. Together, they made a proper band. And not just any proper band, but a proper dance band, one in which more people were situated behind keyboards and percussion than roaming the stage freely with guitars, and yet one that was inexorably organic. Truth is that while LCD could rock, and they could also whisper, they were best at getting you to dance your ass off.
5: THEY WERE CRAP
No, really, they were. In the nicest possible way. Crapness was evident in “Losing My Edge,” in the narrator who sounded increasingly pathetic with every additional little claim to hipster fame. Crapness was apparent in the early gigs, when Murphy frequently performed drunk. Crapness was visible in their 7” record sleeves, and in the back-to-1978-bedroom-productions that accompanied some of those more punky early cuts. To my mind, crapness was present in the musically ambitious 45:33 mix, not only because it was sponsored by evil giants Nike, but because anyone who actually ran for a hobby – unlike Murphy, who only pretended that he did – knew that the music was way too slow and laid-back to serve as accompaniment for more than a walk in the park. In an act of unmitigated genius, crapness was evident in the two-chord piano riff that anchored “All My Friends,” the slightly off-beat notes ensuring the song’s all-important f***ed-up humanity. And crapness was all over their long goodbye, at Madison Square Garden on April 2: in the early insistense that this show would be “no more professional” than any other; in the deliberately amateur, almost clown-like space costumes worn by Juan MacLean and Shit Robot (I believe) in the midst of the “45:33” second set extravaganza; in the almost comically bad camera work that rarely caught a performer actually performing, and which mainly perfected the craft of looking up James Murphy’s nose. And of course, crapness was there in the rewind picture show: those Polaroid-cum-digital camera shots that are low on subtlety, high on intensity, and which have become, late night warts and all, the visual memento of the 21st Century party (animal). At the end of the day – or night – LCD knew that however high you got, your life was still nothing better than a B-movie.
6: THEY WERE ABLE TO SING ABOUT BEING IN A BAND WITHOUT DISAPPEARING UP THEIR COLLECTIVE ARSE HOLES.
Generally speaking, you do not detail your woes as a professional musician unless you intend to a) lord your superiority over your fans or b) as a result of a), royally alienate them. LCD Soundsystem somehow found a third way. “North American Scum” was a work of witty tour-diary genius, celebrating the cultures they’d discovered in other countries while refusing to disown their homeland. “All My Friends,” on the other hand, was deadly serious, one of the few songs that made getting messed up on the road (“when you’re blowing 85 days in the middle of France”) seem just the same (good, bad, indifferent, embarrassing) as getting messed up at your mates’. Perhaps it was the success of these self-referencing songs that then allowed Murphy to write “You Wanted A Hit” for the final album, This Is Happening, responding to the pressure heaped on LCD Soundsystem in one sweetly ambivalent second line, “Well, maybe we don’t do hits.” Murphy not only sang about what it was like to be not-quite-so-young and not-quite-in-love, he sang about what a farce it all was when you became an unlikely success singing about such stuff.
7: THEY WERE UNLIKELY
And that, perhaps, was their biggest achievement. As far as we can tell – and Murphy, bless him, never appeared interested in rewriting the truth as anything more glamorous – the LCD Soundystem story went like this. A 30-something DJ, producer and indie label co-owner made a record of his own under a pseudonym, in which he sent up the entire New York hipster generation of which he was an older member. To his surprise, it touched a nerve, so he figured he might as well put out another single. And put a band together to play live shows for the fun of it. Throughout these early years (and it took three of them to get from debut single to first album), there was no expectation that LCD Soundsystem would find an audience beyond the underground: Murphy, after all, was too old, overweight, often out of it, not conventionally good-looking and, at the beginning, not a very good singer, either. Yet it turned out that the world loved him because, not despite of, these foibles. It’s a great rags-to-riches story, but it also explains why Murphy decided to bring the gravy train to a halt. When you never set out to become a rock star, you’re entitled to have doubts about continuing with your band purely because you’re now responsible for a payroll or twelve, or because Stephen Colbert believes you get “honey-dipped co-eds” waiting in the wings..
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Colbert Report: James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem|
8: THEY WERE INDIE
As co-owner of DFA Records, and half of the eponymous production/remix team, Murphy’s initial output with LCD Soundsystem never had to doubt its independence. But that vibe took a deep hit when Murphy appeared to sell out to Nike, and by the time of Sound of Silver, DFA had struck a licensing deal with EMI, which meant that LCD records carried now not two corporate acronyms but three. The major label deal afforded lavish the proper distribution every indie craves, and also the lavish video budgets the band’s ethos deserved. (Though the price that we, the audience, pay for this will be evident as you try and watch the official clips I’ve embedded here, most of which come with advertising for the new Britney Spears album, for God’s sake.) Yet left to their own (de)vices, the group‘s indie ethos somehow became more pronounced, not less. LCD made a point of covering their heroes for B-sides (the Banshees’ “Slow Dive,” Joy Division’s “No Love Lost”), a compliment repaid when Franz Ferdinand and John Cale both covered “All My Friends” (and LCD put them out on their own B-side). They contributed to the annual Record Store Day despite being on a label that had done much to render records marginal. They gathered up B-sides under the title Confuse The Marketplace, made a “live-in-the-studio” album intended as a tribute to the BBC’s Peel sessions concept, and released their cover version of Paperclip People’s “Throw” not through EMI but composer Carl Craig’s own label, Planet E.
Coming off the road after Sound of Silver, Murphy returned to his DJ roots in NYC, sending out last-minute personal e-mail invites to parties that announced, as one example: “we won’t do that thing we do when we get too drunk. we promise. we’ll keep it together. we won’t totally ditch you and disappear into the bathroom and shit.” (I’d already moved upstate this point and could never drop everything and get to one of these soirees, even those that assured me that as part of the “original” DFA list, my name would be on the door. That either makes me hipper-than-thou or terminally lame. Perhaps both!)
Finally, the night Barack Obama was elected President, back before we all had instant communication via Twitter, Murphy sent out a mass e-mail that was short and sweet and which will forever endear himself to me:
“Just saying…” it began.
“Our country has a black president. how about yours?”
Somehow, I couldn’t imagine Jay-Z doing likewise.
9: THEY WERE POPULAR
We love our acts when they’re cults. We love them partly because we know the rest of the world knows so very little about them. That, after all, was the lyrical essence behind “Losing My Edge.” But our tastes eventually need validation from a wider group of people. Fortunately, LCD Soundsystem received that validation in the form of Grammy Nominations, Top 10 albums in the UK and USA and no doubt many other “lesser territories aside,” an unauthorized online remix album released the same bloody month as Sound of Silver hit the stores, and top place or thereabouts in an almost endless array of Critical Lists. Pitchfork Media, whose own rise rather mirrored that of LCD (it made sense that it was pitchfork.tv invite to stream the last concert from Madison Square Garden) proclaimed “All My Friends” the second best song of the 2000s. And they were half right.
10: THEY WERE NEW YORK CITY
The greatest groups are always a product of their social environment, and LCD Soundsystem, from first note to last, were the living breathing embodiment of a certain type of New York City. It was there, in the opening lyrics of “Losing My Edge”; it was there, in the pulsating post-punk revivalist rhythms of “Yeah”; it was there, in countless references to the five Boroughs across any number of songs; it was there, in the clothing, the videos, the photos, the visuals; it was there, in the shout-outs on the Sound of Silver credits, which could serve as a time capsule who-was-who of downtown NYC circa 2006; it was there, in the choice of closing support band, Liquid Liquid, whose early 80s percussive funk was such a clear influence on LCD’s own relentless love of cowbell and conga. And it was there, of course, in “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” the last song they ever played. (At least until they reform.)
By the time that song was released, in 2007, I’d already abandoned my gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood for the greener, more open pastures of Woodstock-area Catskills. That made “New York I Love You” especially bittersweet: Murphy’s lyrics seemed to posthumously confirm some of our reasons for leaving, just as those early 12”s “Losing My Edge” and “Yeah” had brought me back into contact with my inner DJ, and helped inspire me to play parties again – encouraged in part by the fact that I was only five years older than that ultimate NYC scenester Murphy.
At some point in the future, aliens will come to earth and seek out the soundtrack of the This-is-Happening white boy (and girl) New York City from the first decade of the 21st Century. They will find it to some extent in the Strokes, in Interpol, in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV On The Radio, along with any number of American heartland (and foreign) transplants who relocated to Brooklyn after 2001 to be at the center of the musical universe. But they will find it most effortlessly, most emotionally, and – crucially – most variably, in the music of LCD Soundsystem. Thank you. We loved you. And when you did bring us down, at least you did so with a celebratory farewell. As I oh–so-fashionably tweeted the morning after the Madison Square Garden goodbye, “That was some break-up sex. And almost four hours of it.”