Top 5: Biff Smith (The Starlets)

Top 5: Biff Smith (The Starlets)

Onder Invloed is celebrating it’s 2,5 years anniversary. One part of the celebrations is this new section in which musicians will give you their Top 5 of best songs. Including a personal story behind the song. There will be a new Top 5 online every day in January. Read the stories, watch the videos and listen to the songs in our Spotify playlist. Episode 9: Biff Smith (The Starlets).

Biff Smith (Photo: Matthijs van der Ven)

1. The Triffids – Tender Is The Night
As a callow, impressionable young man in my roaring twenties, I once emerged from a three day booze binge to find I had blown all my money and had nothing but Porridge and a bag of tangerines to live on for the week. Oh well, at least I wouldn’t catch scurvy. After a more thorough search through the pockets of last night’s trousers, more in hope than design, I discovered a tape made up for me by my friend Tony. It was “Born Sandy Devotional” by The Triffids. I had never heard of them before.

After a filling, if rather prosaic meal of porridge and tangerines, having no dough, and nothing better to do, I thought I might as well give it a listen. I remember feeling a bit underwhelmed to begin with, that it took a while to get going but, gradually and almost without realising, I was drawn into the atmosphere of the record, it’s dark melodrama, evoking a sense of desperation, of despair, and of the wild self-destructiveness borne of love, frustrated.

‘Tender Is The Night’ is the final song of the record and is more requiem than finale. After the wide screen drama of the album up until then, this quiet elegy caught me with my guard down. Triffids front man and songwriter David McComb steps into the background as vocals are sung by keyboardist Jill Birt. Her vulnerable, childlike delivery of a lyric reflecting on people, places and events now long past evokes an atmosphere of the confessional. I would recommend some quiet time, late on one evening, maybe a bottle of wine, and a listen to ‘Born Sandy Devotional’ in it’s entirety.

‘Tender is the night’, I would say, is not a single, they’re unlikely to ever play it on the radio, and is best appreciated as part of a spectacular album. Subtle and understated, yet painfully evocative, I love it now as I did all those years ago when, hungover, broke, and living in a bedsit, I felt like the luckiest man in the world. I feel like I’m sharing a secret with you here. Be careful who you tell.

2. The Blue Nile – Easter Parade
I was maybe 15 or so, and I’m afraid my musical taste hadn’t stretched much further than Phil Collins and Simple Minds (yes, I know, I know, shut up for a minute). My sister was studying for her exams and I would often hear a strange, haunting music coming from her room. It was the first Blue Nile album ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’.

I took to regularly borrowing it and, whilst being very taken by the more pop sounding songs like ‘Tinsel Town In The Rain’ and ‘Heatwave’ (although they didn’t sound like any pop music I had heard before), I found I was more and more being drawn to the stark, minimal beauty of ‘Easter Parade’ and it’s impressionistic description of festivities in a dreamlike city. The words and imagery suggest what the song might be or could be, leaving an imaginative space for the listener.

Thinking that they must be from some far and distant planet, I was later surprised and delighted to discover that they were from Glasgow. Growing up in Cumbernauld, on the outskirts of the city, Glasgow had always seemed to me endlessly romantic and exciting (sometimes, it still does). The appearance of this magical record seemed to confirm this. I have never listened to Phil Collins or Simple Minds since.

3. Ennio Morricone – Once Upon A Time In The West
No words necessary

4. Iggy Pop – The Passenger
This gets me up dancing every time. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a question for another time. It struts and swaggers, cocky as you like and full of fuck you. In the line ‘la la la la la la la la’ there is more attitude, defiance and rebellion than in all the earnest protest songs of the world put together. For all it’s sneering, however, it is also unexpectedly romantic in it’s gutter stargazing –

‘He sees the bright and hollow sky
He see the stars come out tonight
He sees the city’s ripped backsides
He sees the winding ocean drive
And everything was made for you and me’

The sound of night and the city.

5. Jacques Brel – La Chanson de Vieux Amants
Jacques Brel didn’t just sing his songs, or even perform them – he lived them, live on stage, in all their hilarity and tragedy. From the frivolity of ‘Les Flamandes’ and joie de vivre of ‘Mathilde’, through the tender regret of ‘Le Chanson de Viex Amants’, to the last gasp, desperation of ‘Ne Me Quite Pas’, Brel’s music demanded involvement from his audience. This wasn’t music to be passively entertained by.

The bareness of emotion and freedom of it’s expression brings the listener to the heart of the song, and of the singer. Sometimes, as in ‘Ne Me Quite Pas’ there is an almost uncomfortable feeling of intruding upon another man’s grief. ‘Le Chanson de Vieux Amants’ is both celebration and lament. All the ache and joy of life and love can be felt when Jacques Brel sings ‘Mais, mon amour…’. He is an inspiration.

And he looked really cool too.

Visit The Starlets’ website.
You can also listen to the original versions, and some cover versions, of these songs in the Onder Invloed Spotify playlist.