Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Superstitions: An Cat Dubh/Into The Heart

U2: An Cat Dubh/Into The Heart

When you think about U2’s great debut album, Boy, “An Cat Dubh/Into The Heart” is probably not the first thing that you think of. Maybe, like me, you think about how the album’s unique sound, earnestness and confidence, despite the young age of the band members, was impressive. Or about how “I Will Follow” blew you away. Or maybe you think about how this album launched U2 to the heights of the music business. Is it the best U2 album? No. Is it my favorite U2 album? No. Was it a groundbreaking, remarkable debut? Yes.

Nevertheless, these two joined songs are strong, even if they weren’t my go-to tracks when I played this album on WPRB, which I did many, many times. (The second half, “Into The Heart,” is about childhood, maturity and the loss of innocence.)

“An Cat Dubh” means “The Black Cat” in Irish, and so we have officially satisfied the theme. Now, when I think about the black cat superstition, I think about bad luck. But because I care about you, the Star Maker Machine reader, I do research. Not exhaustive research, but at least a look at Wikipedia (I know…) And it appears that in Celtic lore, black cats can be lucky! Also, according to that article, pirates believed that if a black cat walks towards someone, that person will have bad luck, but if a black cat walks away from someone, then that person will have good luck—although in the UK, the belief is the opposite. So, if you see a black cat, it could be good luck or bad luck, and depending on the way that it walks, it could be good luck or bad luck. Or the opposite. Here’s another article. Look—superstitions aren’t real, so it doesn’t matter, knock on wood.

Meanwhile, the song “An Cat Dubh” is really about sex. It was written about a short relationship that Bono had while separated from his then-girlfriend, now wife Ali. The lyrics of the song, though, are a little more obscure—they are about a cat that kills a blackbird and then sleeps beside it. I guess that’s what we call a metaphor. And you can decide whether the black cat is lucky or not—I’m pretty sure I know how the bird thinks, though.


"I'm Lucky, I'm Lucky", sang Joan Armatrading, "I Walk Under Ladders", on the song that gave the title, Walk Under Ladders,  to the 1981 LP that, for me, cemented her reputation. Produced by Steve Lillywhite, the go-to producer of the 1980s, who also went on to deliver the business for music as diverse as U2, Morrissey and his then wife, Kirsty MacColl, it had the muscle to present Armatrading's heartfelt songs in a convincing sheen of new wave. Gradually moving along from her earlier singer-songwriter and coffee shop soulstress modes, by the 80s she could hold her own with Joe Jackson and Costello, with sharp invigorating songs, underpinned by any style from a broad shelf of those available.

I guess I came as an early adopter: John Peel, the disc jockey and UK arbiter of taste for all spotty teenage music nerds for  decades, even as those teenagers hit their thirties, celebrated her very early on, long before the eyes shut swayathons of Love and Affection and Rosie. I saw her at Reading Music Festival in 1976, remembering, in truth,  little more than you were supposed to like her. And then she became the civilians darling, beloved of all the womenfolk, it seemed, in the world. At least any I had an eye upon. I sort of just went along with that, attending many a gig. But, rather than resting on her laurels, she evolved almost in front of my eyes. Suddenly, with Me, Myself, I, I was the one paying attention. She was suddenly cool, really. Blondie producer, for chrissakes, Richard Gottehrer produced that one, full of electric guitar based songs, rousing songs, not ballads, not that she couldn't still bring a corker or two of this out of the hat. And she played an electric guitar. On stage. Girls just didn't, or at least not very often.

I think the copy of Walk Under Ladders I had access to was on cassette tape originally, but my shelves show me I have the vinyl as well. An astonishing array of stellar musicians had been assembled by Lillywhite: the credits reveal XTC whizz Andy Partridge, synth boffin Thomas Dolby, eternal sax machine and session man Mel Collins, Tony Levin, later to be a Peter Gabriel and King Crimson acolyte. These were big fry. And I haven't included the ska dream team brass section of Rico Rodrigues and Dick Cuthell. Or only bloomin' Sly and Robbie! Impressed already, the excitement could only up.

Opener, I'm Lucky, seemed so apt, whether referring to the feet she had landed on or to the ears of the listener. A Dolby synth riff introduces the song, ahead of, first, Joan's exuberant vocal, with then the drums and bass kicking in and we're off. Second track, When I Get It Right, hurtles in with frantic sax, before skanking through verses, each ended by a never more power-pop chorus. She got it right. Three in a row with Romancers, the ska influences far more obvious than I remember at the time, every song so far clocking in at an economical sub four minute mark. Can you tell I'm smiling as I write, Spotify propelling me back the years? Birmingham Odeon may have been all seats but I but I sure wasn't sitting ten, either. I Wanna Hold You, a straightforward romp, all scuzzy guitars and anthemic chorus keeps up the momentum, wondering how long this can go on. It can't. Because it is time for Uber-Joan, her pinnacle, the song that ensures her place on the pantheon, no matter how she maybe later became. Oh. My. God. Just how good, how heartbreaking is The Weakness In Me? Don't answer, just accept, the setting a perfect placement for this hymn to the pain of infidelity, planned or even merely imagined.

Side two, remember I told you this was vinyl, is the second killer ballad, No Love, perhaps the wrenching downside or the kick of reality to the foolishness of juggling love and lovers, the inevitable aftermath: "If I Had No Love, I Wouldn't Give It To You". Ouch. No wonder next track, Going To The Hop, is such slight fare, if only by comparison. Any thoughts of slight fare, however, become immediately dismissed, as the splendour of I Can't Lie To Myself judders into earshot, a dubby, if dub-lite, lurch of roots reggae, the bass and drums of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shaakespeare unmistakeable, the choppy guitar of Gary Sanford, well worth a link, her regular guitar man, not half bad either. But it is the descending duh duh duh duh duh bass that gives most joy. That and Joanie on fire. An ear worm that will stay for days, this has to be the high water mark of this already all the levees broken album, yes, even above The Weakness In Me. Straightforward synth-rocker Eating The Bear, no, me neither, follows with some unnecessary basso profundo BVs, making it the most disposable track on the record. But just as you'd have been happy to have ended it all the track before, another tearjerker is pulled from the bag, an almost gospel hued number, Only One, all fretless bass and more synth twists, a reasonable and satisfying winding down of proceedings.

So what happened next? I kept up for a record or two, but it seemed harder work. With Lillywhite still largely on board, The Key had its moments, before another whizz producer, Mike Howlett, even more foot wedged in the door of electro-pop, took over for Secret Secrets. The songs still good but the formula a bit tired and, especially now, dated. I sort of stopped checking after that, she fading from my radar, if still a name in lights, at least for a while.

I rejoined a lot later. 2007's Into The Blues burst her back into the limelight, if a different one from before, hitting all the blues genres best of's of that moment. Which was odd, as it seemed to echo no semblance of blues of which I was aware, being, to my ears, a muddy stodge. It was another 8 or so years before I could face her again, upon her supposed farewell tour, a solo retrospective project. My wife, also a fan, although more of her earlier stuff, came too, ahead of each leaving disappointed. Here's why.

The moral? Don't turn back, never turn back? Maybe. I have to say the rest of the audience seemed ecstatic. I just wished I had left after my last live sight of her, probably 1987. My wife, maybe 1980.
But I have the records, so maybe I'm lucky too. And this is and was the best.