Tag Archives: Mystery Jets

Song Analysis #25: Mystery Jets – Greatest Hits

Title: ‘Greatest Hits’
Where to find it: ‘Radlands’ (2012, Rough Trade)
Performed by: Mystery Jets
Words by: presumably Blaine Harrison

It took me a while to discover Mystery Jets. They’re not a band that gets played at all on American radio, so it was not until I started listening to BBC Radio religiously that I heard about them. I’m so glad I did, though. The best word I can think of to describe them is ‘cheeky’: even though they’re older, wiser, and more mature than when they began in the early Noughties, yet they’ve never lost their youth. They’re still witty and funny, and there are so many songs of theirs I keep close to my heart. Their 2010 album ‘Serotonin’ still gets to me every time I queue it up, as it has such personal meaning for me; when I did my own answers for the Quickfire Questions 2 years ago, I didn’t hesitate to list it as the album I’d bring with me when I leave this earth. But I chose this particular song because even though I wasn’t a huge fan of their 2012 album ‘Radlands’ – in which they tried to go ‘American’ for this one; just ask any member of Noah and the Whale, being ‘called American’ by British media if you’re English is not a compliment – ‘Greatest Hits’ sticks out as a hugely poppy song, yet there’s a hell lot of underlying meaning in here for music lovers, and it’s sung in such a cute way too.

For me, the way they began is one that is so heart-warming. Blaine has leg weakness from spina bifida, which I’ve had to explain to people why he’s sitting down when he’s playing guitar onstage. It seems strange to me to have to do this explaining; he’s an artist, he should be able to do what he wants, right? But even though I’ve only met him once (frankly, I don’t know how I didn’t cry when it happened) and we’re not close friends or anything, there is a special kinship I have with him, because he’s not letting a medical disability from stopping him from what he wants to do in life. He’s not letting it get him down. If anything, it’s probably made him more ambitious. Good for him!

As a child, Blaine could have said to himself, “this is my lot in life”, and just given up, but he chose not to. A big part of why he didn’t, and he has admitted this himself in interviews, is the support he has gotten from his father Henry. A while ago, I’d read this Sunday Times article that was Henry’s personal account of how the Mystery Jets began. He explained that he helped his son early on with his band, even playing bass in the new group, because he wanted his son to have an outlet for his creativity and not think about his physical impairment. And that is what the best parents with children who have any sort of medical / physical / mental condition: they support their kids in whatever endeavour they decide to pursue. They don’t say, “that’s dangerous” or “you shouldn’t do that because it’s not appropriate for someone with your condition” and lock their children in their bedrooms. Of course, there are plenty of examples of kids and adults with medical issues who have gone on to excel in the fields they’ve chosen and seemed to have thrived rather than ‘suffer’ from any problems the not-so-supportive parents insisted they would have, whether real or perceived. But naturally with the music connection, it’s Blaine Harrison and his story that touches the most deeply.

First, the words:

Verse 1
You can take ‘The Lexicon of Love’ away, but I’m keeping ‘Remain in Light’
You can take away ‘It’s a Shame About Ray’, but I’m holding on to ‘Country Life’ (ohhhh oh)
You can keep ‘No Need to Argue’, and I’ll keep ‘The Aeroplane Over the Sea’
But hold on to ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’, ’cause I’m holding on to ‘Village Green’

I don’t know if the knot just needs untangling, ’cause the tapes get stuck all the time
Either way, I’m keeping ‘Double Nickels on the Dime’

These were our greatest hits (shalalalalalalala shalalalala)
The best of me and you (shalalalalalalala shalalalala)
These were our greatest hits (shalalalalalalala shalalalala)
The best of me and you

Verse 2
I still remember buying you ‘Band on the Run’ on the first day that we kissed (whoo-ooo-ooo)
But you always did prefer ‘McCartney I’ because it reminded you of being a kid
No way you’re having ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’, you only listen to it when you’re pissed
But when you sober up, it’s always “Why the fuck are you still listening to Mark E. Smith?”

I don’t know if the knot just needs untangling or if we forgot which way’s up and which way is down
But still the tape keeps going round and round

These were our greatest hits (shalalalalalala shalalalalala)
The best of me and you (shalalalalalala shalalalala)
The best of me and you
Of me and you

Still the tape keeps going round and round
The tape keeps going round

These were our greatest hits (shalalalalalalala shalalalala)
The best of me and you (shalalalalalalala shalalalala)
Our Desert Island Discs (shalalalalalalala shalalalala)
The best of me and you (shalalalalalalala shalalalala)

Now, the analysis:

I suppose I’m lucky that I’ve never lived with anyone I’ve loved: I’ve saved myself the heartache of having to split up combined record collections, which is the crux of ‘Greatest Hits’. For someone like me for whom music is my whole life and mine can be told through the music I own, I can’t imagine anything worse than two people who have clearly bonded over music having to do exactly that when they break up. The title ‘Greatest Hits’ I think is misleading, but I think this was done on purpose, because ‘These Were Our Greatest Hits’ sounds cumbersome and potentially off-putting to the casual liner note reader, and worse, to a music fan, it sounds pretty depressing, doesn’t it?

This song means so much more when you read the lyrics in the two verses. He specifies which albums he’s willing to leave behind to her and which ones he adamantly refuses to give up. He also remembers the albums of their time together. I love the actual naming of the albums happening here: it’s like a knowing nudge from a fellow music lover, the wink wink, nudge nudge that happens between friends. First off, let’s look at the albums mentioned in verse 1, along with the choices he’s making.

You can take ‘The Lexicon of Love’ away, but I’m keeping ‘Remain in Light’
He’s leaving behind ABC’s ‘The Lexicon of Love’, a ’80s New Wave pop album about love. This is also the album that contains the immortal ‘The Look of Love, Part One’, aka a perfect example of ’80s love song cheese. Seems appropriate to not want this album if you’re breaking up with someone. In exchange, he’s keeping Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’. I love Talking Heads, and this is the album that contains ‘Crosseyed and Painless’, ‘The Great Curve’, and ‘Houses in Motion’, so I’m the wrong person to ask about this, because in my opinion, there’s no contest here.

You can take away ‘It’s a Shame About Ray’, but I’m holding on to ‘Country Life’
He’s giving up the Lemonheads for Roxy Music. For me, this is another no-brainer, though I suppose others that grew up in the ’90s might have more trouble deciding. That said, it’s an interesting battle, since the Lemonheads represent the ’90s alt-rock movement in America, and Roxy represents ’70s glam rock, two entirely different genres. I got into Roxy Music through my love of Duran Duran, though I’m not as big of a fan to know if the “ohhhh oh” the Jets popped after the end of this line means anything. Read on for more…

You can keep ‘No Need to Argue’, and I’ll keep ‘The Aeroplane Over the Sea’
The Cranberries vs. Neutral Milk Hotel: Irish indie / rock vs. American indie / folk. Hmm. No pun intended, I’m neutral on this battle. Jeff Mangum’s cult of followers is a mystery to me, though I think in the song, this line is intended to indicate that by taking the more lyrically dense album and leaving behind ‘fluff’, the music is more important to him than the girl or the relationship, even if it’s painful as hell at this moment.

But hold on to ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’, ’cause I’m holding on to ‘Village Green’
‘Village Green’ of course refers to ‘The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society’ from 1968. Again, I think this is a loaded choice: he’s letting her keep Belle and Sebastian‘s third album – Stuart Murdoch being one of the great and prolific pop love song songwriters of recent memory – and taking for himself the last Kinks’ album, as if it’s a parting blow.

In verse 2, things go from what seems to be jovial to argumentative. The first half is Paul McCartney related: he recalls buying her ‘Band on the Run’, aka Paul’s most successful post-Beatles album, on the first night that they kissed. That’s a lovely memory. The added “whoo-ooo-ooo” is a cheeky nod to ‘Band on the Run’ track ‘Jet’. He also remembers that even though ‘Band on the Run’ was a great album, “you always did prefer ‘McCartney I’ because it reminded you of being a kid”. ‘McCartney I’ is actually ‘McCartney’, the first album Paul did after he left the Beatles, but I guess for clarification purposes since there was a later ‘McCartney II’, it’s referred to as ‘I’ here. I’m thinking there is a reason why he remembers this particular preference of his former love.’McCartney’ represented the start of things for Macca, whereas ‘Band on the Run’ represented the heights of Wings: by remembering these two albums that are Paul McCartney’s and also link the two of them, he is reminiscing about how it all started between the two of them and how innocent it was.

But this feeling is momentary, as it then goes sour. His memories head to Mark E. Smith, the famously curmudgeonly leader of the Fall. He’s arguing with her, saying she has no business keeping ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ because she only wants to listen to it when she’s drunk, and presumably in an ill enough mood to want to emote with Smith, but when she’s not drunk, she’s wondering aloud – and in an argumentative fashion – why he even has the record. There is also a mention of ‘Double Nickels on the Dime’, an ’80s punk record by the Minutemen. I misheard this as “either way I’m keeping double nickels on the dial”, as if he was standing around alone at a jukebox, putting tokens in, feeling lonely. To be honest, I like my misheard lyric better.

In both versions of the chorus, their relationship, rather appropriately enough for two great lovers of music, is being compared to a tape that can no longer be played. I don’t know why it’s taken so long for someone to put this into a song. Everyone else seems to like using the “close the book” / “close the door” imagery on the end of a relationship, and I find this far better and appropriate for a child like me who came of age on cassettes, not vinyl or CDs. Instead of just saying they are over and the connection is gone, this literally explains their relationship as being dysfunctional.

“I don’t know if the knot just needs untangling, ’cause the tapes get stuck all the time”: I can’t tell if this is pure confusion over what has happened, or he’s resigned himself to the fact that the tapes get stuck, that there is miscommunication and/or communication between them has been halted altogether. But in the second chorus, he changes the second part of the line to “if we forgot which way’s up and which way is down”. Tape players, like most electronic devices, cannot work when they’re upended and this again shows that their tapes, their life together, cannot continue to be used for their intended purpose.

As I mentioned at the start of the analysis, “there were our greatest hits” would have been my choice for the song title, as this is what the song is about. He’s remembering the life the two of them had together, and people who like music think of everything in their lives in terms of music: you remember what you were listening to when milestones, good or bad, happened. I think the words “these were our greatest hits / the best of me and you” are so sweet: even if this was written at the moment they broke up or at least he was feeling horrible that the relationship was over, eventually all of us, though it takes some of us longer to get there (*cough*me*cough*), we can eventually get to a point where listening to those songs that remind of people we once loved won’t hurt anymore and we can look back at the times we had with those people fondly.

A final note why this song is so personal to me: Desert Island Discs is something all Brits are familiar with, because you guys grew up with it. I didn’t. The only reason I know about it is because on Saturday mornings, my father would take me to the one Tower Records in town so he could go shopping for new music or gear. But for me, the one thing I really looked forward to when we went was picking up a copy of their magazine Pulse! It was a free magazine, and there were always huge stacks of it by the door, you couldn’t miss them or their bright red colour covers. It was something I could hold in my hands and flip through while in bed, poring over the album and equipment reviews. I remember thinking, wow, what would it be like to be a rock journalist and get to write for Pulse! With them sitting there by the door, everyone must read it, surely? Writing for them would be something, wouldn’t it?

In the back of the issue, there was always a section called Desert Island Discs, and it is exactly what you imagine it would be: famous American people listing what albums they’d bring with them to a deserted island. It wasn’t until much, much later when the internet happened that I realised this Desert Island Discs thing has been going on for *years* on BBC Radio 4 and it wasn’t Pulse! who had come up with the idea for the feature. (My mother has this running line about “most things that are good seem to come from Britain” and this would be one of them!) Though I did not intend them to be when I started the feature, the Quickfire Questions on TGTF now act like a small nod to my father. I hate December, and I pretty much hate the holidays too, because I don’t like being reminded that he is no longer here. But posting this on Christmas Eve makes me feel somewhat better.

Lastly, the song, in promo music form. It’s important to note that the promo version includes an intro prior to the song in which Blaine Harrison is calling an American girl (obvious by the way the phone is ringing), a man answers the phone in a typical Southern drawl (‘Radlands’ was recorded in Texas, after all), and he explains he’s coming by to see ‘Gracie’ to pick up his records. This differs from the album version, which features a clip of I assume John Lennon (?) in an interview saying he doesn’t want to give his secrets away to “the fucking BBC” (I guess they had to remove that for YouTube).