I was a fairly late developer when it came to pop music.
Music of some description was ever present when I was growing up, but somehow anything post 1962 seemed to pass me by till I was about fifteen. Jazz? Yes. Classical. Most certainly. The contents of several hymn books? Absolutely. But most things involving a guitar and an amplifier remained a complete mystery to me.
When, eventually, I did have my Damascene conversion to this whole super-genre of music, I was spellbound by just how rich and fascinating my discovery was. What had appeared on the periphery as a dichotomy of either sugary love songs on the one hand or ripped denim clad noise on the other now presented itself as the spectacular galaxy of sounds it always had been.
Ben Folds Five were one of the first bands that completely seduced me. Hook, line and veritable sinker. They immediately appealed because, like me, Ben Folds plays piano. Unlike me he is phenomenally talented. Annoyingly so.
The band’s first, self-titled album was everything a first album should be: raw, visceral and fun. It’s an explosion of hedonism, turning the piano keyboard into a glorious, technicolour riot.
The song that scored them their fifteen minutes of fame was ‘Underground’. And, to be fair, it is a blinding belter of a tune, setting out the Ben Folds Five stall perfectly: tongues firmly rooted in cheeks (“hand me my nose ring”), furious melodies, gorgeous harmonies, lyrical celebrations of the underdog, and fingers seemingly multiplying to cover every one of the piano’s 88 keys at the same time.
As a pianist you’ll listen to ‘Underground’ and wonder how exactly Folds manages it. As a human being, you’ll just get swept up in the magical assault on your ears.
But this magic is not limited to one song on one album. True, it was ‘Underground’ that made the most impact, but there are plenty of other moments on the album that leap out and grab you by the throat.
Take ‘Philosophy’, for example. Never mind ‘Underground’. This is Ben Folds Five’s finest tune (its finest recorded delivery actually appearing on the Ben Folds Live album). Again, it’s a song about being misunderstood, about reaching out for something other people can’t see. (“Even when this was all was grass/And I sang and danced about a high-rise”).
And again, the piano score is beyond spectacular, opening with a delicate introduction, Folds’ fingers caressing the high notes with ease, before plunging into full throttle thumping around the lower reaches of the keyboard. There’s an excerpt from Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in there, a whirlwind of glissandos and a whole arsenal of musical incendiary devices.
If you listen to the solo live version, you’ll get an added bang of Dick Dale’s ‘Miserlou’ for your buck – with Folds attacking the keys more like a glockenspiel than a piano.
What else is there? ‘Julianne’ about a regretted rebound one night stand (“I met a girl/she looked like Axl Rose/got drunk and took her home and we slept in our clothes”), ‘Uncle Walter’, mocking an opinionated old man (‘Your Uncle Walter saw who fired the shots/He drove his chair in the cavalcade’) and the album opener, ‘Jackson Cannery’, a force of nature in its own right, expressing boredom and frustration with small town misery (“enough’s enough/I’m leaving this factory”).
And then there’s ‘Best Imitation of Myself’ – another piece of introspection and soliloquising on the theme of feeling out of kilter with the rest of the world:
Last night I was east with them
And west within
Trying to be for you what you wanna see
But I can’t help it with you
The good and bad comes through.
For all the hedonism and visceral-ity on display, Ben Folds Five is a much deeper, more thoughtful album than a first listen implies. There’s as much anger and self-questioning here as you’ll find on a Nirvana album and just as much social commentary and irony as you would expect from a Blur or Pulp record from the same time.
Plus there’s a piano on it. And a fantastic pianist perched atop his stool to boot.
No wonder it appealed to a fifteen year old – and continues to appeal to an adult – like me.