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Friday, January 30, 2004
I'm finally in the loop enough that I'm starting to get some demo discs for A&R purposes, or at least for consideration and comment. One that passed through my hands recently was by this British band called The Futureheads that I understand has been making some small noise over there recently. On a whole it was OK but not really worth picking up, I felt, more of a "wait and see" kind of thing.

But one track, "First Day," was just fantastic. Lyrically, it's kin to Fountains of Wayne's "Hey Julie" and the other songs on Welcome Interstate Managers about the general shittiness of being young and working an office job. Told mainly in a sarcastic second person from the voice of the new boss, it gives a kind of orientation monologue: "Welcome to your new job / hope you have a wonderful first day / we are so happy to have you join the team / you are so lucky on your first day / and they say" / this is a job that people die for / I hope you're ready for the next stage / a lot of people work in the same place / don't let them get in your way." This is not meant to be positive, clearly being an ironic parody of smiley-smile corporatespeaken. "I don't feel lucky," of course we'd all respond, but maybe, too, we would feel lucky--lucky to have a job and to be able to eat and have fun outside of work, especially while seeing our unemployed friends. Unfortunately, this ambiguity is not actually present in this song, a point I'll address later.

The sound of the whole thing is very early English punk, which I like a lot: some shouting, some toms on the drums, some riffy guitars, very nice overall. I'd say Buzzcocks but I think it'd be easier to say that I could hear them playing on The Young Ones. The verses are more post-punk, with lyrics chanted somewhat irregularly over an off-kilter bar-breaking guitar and rhythm line. The chorus is just great, really melodic and catchy for no particular reason as there doesn't seem to be a definite chord change, just one vocal line falling and rising against another one that seems to mostly hit two particular notes, but it works just so so well, you want to stand up and sing along and pump your fists a bit, I feel.

The great part, though, and the thing that, along with the general theme, really endeared me to the song, is that after the second chorus, the music cuts out and the vocals go: "And they say faster! Faster!" And then everything cuts back in, at, you guessed it, a faster tempo. This may sound a bit cheesy and obvious, and I guess it is--Modern Times-ish reflection of the pace of industry emphasizing productivity over compassion, etc. etc.--but it's just so good to take a song that's already going along great and energetic and ratcheting it up again mid-song. It makes you want to dance.

And then--oh and then, they do it again. Fucking perfect it is, again certainly obvious and maybe a bit gauche, but really effective. "Faster! Faster!" and roooooowr! it all gets speedier and they're chanting, and they're saying "Faster!" over "First day!" and it's great, and then that wonderful chorus kicks in again over a broken-down drum part, and they're chanting some more, and then the instruments hit their final notes and the vocals chime against each other in a kind of a capella rondo for a while and it's very pretty and fun and then they're out, at 2:04, just in the nick of time. And it's short, Bank Holiday-short (maybe a better comparison than I know there), but it feels kind of epic in the parts they throw in and the way it's all used and the way you feel taken on a trip. What folks told me I should be feeling about The Homosexuals I felt about this particular song, if that makes any sense. Perhaps I'm just a slave to novelty.

That all said--and I do enjoy listening to the song--the song's theme, which I find so resonant, they pretty much fuckup. I'm always interested in honest examinations of the middle-class life, but here it seems to be dismissively treated as not even worth the try, something obviously so bad that you should escape from it as soon as you can. And I'm backed up in this assessment by the biographical fact (eek!) that the songwriter penned the track after trying to work an office job and being so horrified that he went backpacking around Europe. Now, in a way this is an even more honest statement about the middle-class life than the band hoped to make, since the kind of people who have the wherewithal to not work and have a long vacation instead seem to inevitably dismiss the corporate life and everyone who works in it as deluded, whereas that simply showcases how ignorant said backpackers are of their own position in life. Very few people actually like working these sort of jobs, and those people are making a lot of money off them; for everyone else, it's something you have to do in order to do all the other stuff you actually enjoy, or maybe even just something you do so you can fulfill all your other responsibilities and never have a whole lot of fun at all.

That's why I like the point of view of Fountains of Wayne's office songs so much: the characters may be losing it, and some even seem to be specifically crushed by their jobs, but there's no question that they're going to quit, and the fact that they're letting it get to them seems disreputable and kind of sad. It's evidence of a flaw in the characters, not the system they're part of. And in other cases, this is explicitly true: in "Little Red Light," for instance, a guy who seems like he's pretty together otherwise is being undone by having to work while his lovelife is being destroyed, a situation I think we're all familiar with: the need to put on a professional face and get shit done when you'd much rather either be talking with someone or lying around weeping. When I originally set out to write this entry I thought I'd end up point out this difference as a kind of European-American divide, and while it partially is--it's a lot easier for an English guy to backpack around the Continent than an American--I think it's mostly an age thing. The FoW guys are older than the Futureheads folks, and the latter seem to still have that annoying youthful sneer directed at "normal" people, a sneer which fully ignores the likely reality that they, too, will be normal one day. Adam and Chris have lived long enough to have an empathy for those people, to not simply dismiss them as soulless corporate automatons, but to see them instead as people who have to be soulless automatons 8 hours a day to preserve their sanity, but who are quite human and alive the rest of the time. They just don't have the money or the freedom--same thing, really--to avoid those 8 hours. (And I'm not entirely sure what the difference is, soul-sucking-wise, between working in a bank and working the kind of service job your average up-and-coming musician has to, but that's another post entirely.)

So yes: "First Day" by the Futureheads. Great track, even if the writers are a bit annoying.

UPDATE: Oddly enough, Tom Ewing has just republished a great old article that touches on the theme of songwriters reflexively slagging off suburbia, which I didn't read until after finishing this entry. Good stuff, although I don't think he's giving Luke Haines enough credit. I think the FoW song "Valley Winter Song" would qualify as what he's looking for, although maybe it'd be better called "Levittown Beat." Would the Wrens? If so, maybe I should listen to them again.