A Guide To Understanding Popular Music

A Guide To Understanding Popular Music Part 1

An occasional dissertation on the state of popular music, its past, future and the turning points that make it simultaneously great and shit, from our friend Hector Grey.

An occasional dissertation on the state of popular music, its past, future and the turning points that make it simultaneously great and shit, from our friend Hector Grey.

Part one, the dissemination of the LIST. Here’s the rundown of the perennial overachieving albums according to the numerous BEST RECORDS EVER…lists that really aren’t that spectacular. Herein contained is merely MY opinion, and you’re welcome to yours, remembering all the time that you are wrong and I am right.

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles
Starting with the glaringly obvious, of course, to ease us in. SPLHCB has been top of the pile since the list was invented sometime in the 1980’s. It’s the perennial overachiever, elevated simply because lazy journo’s need for a shorthand for what’s great. The Beatles were great, right? So what was their pinnacle? It’s the same muddy logic that has the Mona Lisa elevated to Worlds Greatest Painting. If such a thing were even possible, it certainly wouldn’t be that, would it? And while we’re at it how can a record, never mind that it’s a Beatles record, that has Good Morning, Good Morning, Lovely Rita, Within You, Without You and other guff be regarded as the best record ever? The Beatles did better pop on Revolver, did better weird on the White Album, did better all round on Abbey Road.

For answers I suppose we must look to when the album came out, bang smack in the middle of the summer of love, and remember the way it looked (brilliant, oft mocked, cover art), the (apocryphal) concept, the admittedly marvellous splendour of Day in the Life. It must have sounded different and new and exciting at the time, harnessing as it did the 8 track recorder!!. People who had grown up with the Beatles and we’re now getting stoned must have believed this to be the greatest moment in history, an epoch, that they too were part of the future of the world, and unfortunately that’s what they celebrate every time some fogey puts a list together. They celebrate their youth, not music. This record is dull, over blown and contains the lyric “fun is the one thing that money can’t buy”. I mean, come on. Self censorship is apparently the one thing money can’t buy.

OK Computer – Radiohead
Whoa, hold on, OK Computer is a good album, isn’t it? Well, yeah, but it’s not even Radiohead’s best album, so how can it be the best of all time (according to Channel 4’s greatest albums of all time internet poll)? Don’t get me wrong, with Airbag it has one of the great openers, but after that it veers from sublime to dull, dull dull. Paranoid Android isn’t entirely sure what it is, and ends up being a mish mash, a collage of some fairly ordinary songs which become one overlong, disparate mess, redeemed by an excellent video. The novelty of Radiohead releasing this as a 467 minute single obfuscated the paucity of the offering. Subterranean Homesick Alien is a non entity, it offers nothing. At most it shows us that Radiohead are using dynamics to suggest changes rather than stomp boxes, but it barely even suggests that. At the spine of the record are Exit Music (unfortunately associated with Baz Lurmans vomit), the transcendent Let Down and the cocky Karma Police.

You think at this stage that we may actually be in the midst of a great, great record, but then it goes arse up, and until it gets to the ultimate song, the Tourist, it’s turgid and boring, incomplete and in Fitter, Happier, really, really fucking annoying. Nigel Godrich’s over spontaneous production has moments of marvellous clarity, but ultimately grates. It’s an experimental way of recording that they’ve all since mastered, but here it verges on conceit at times, a little too spiky, a little too noisy, the playing a little too loose, as if it took 20 takes to get the guitar line to sound like it was birthed on the spot, and the nakedness of the drums exposes Phil Selway’s limitations, ones he effectively covers up in later recordings with the aid of electronics. It’s 50% great record and 50% shit, and that does not the worlds greatest make. It was viewed as, and maybe still is, as the Brit-poppers token weird album, the antidote to the over blown pub rock and the smug soulessness of the Oasis-Blur melange, the archness of Pulp, the dullness of everything else, OK Computer should never have been judged with these empty vessels in mind in the first place. The fact that Radiohead surpassed OK Computer on their very next outing and then arguably, outdid that with the next, and that with the next…etc, effectively relegated OK to the 3rd least worthy of their creations says much about the lack of imagination and scope of experience in the average internet pollster. Sure, what does the internet know about music, anyway?

Stone Roses – Stone Roses
Yeah, yeah, yeah you’re at an illegal rave in a warehouse in Manchester and it’s 1988 and Peter Hook is getting off with your girlfriend but you don’t care, cos you’re coming up and the Stone Roses are hitting the stage and they’re playing Sally Cinnamon and the skinny, hollowed eyed knacker you were weary of an hour ago is now giving you a knobbly bloke massage and it’s not gay cos it’s not about sex, it’s about people, and about being together, about connecting on a deeper, unconscious level, maybe even a spiritual one. It’s about the beautiful, unwritten future. And then you wake up ten years later and that knacker robbed you, your girlfriend left you and the Stone Roses are, and always were, shit. They are a myth, a series of myths even, the first being that they somehow plugged a gap in the market, when SAW took over the airwaves and banished the Guitar, like Judge McGruder, to roam the cursed earth of dodgy-coiffed, leather panted American rawk bands and skinny, ugly young men in Barking never to scare the top 40 again. But that’s simply not true, and if it were, was the saviour of the guitar really going to be comprised entirely of Jeff Beck’s cock mucus? Another myth, and a well worn one, is that they were any good. They somehow embodied all that was “groovy” 20 years hence, with the ribald feel of Ringo reincarnated in a fishing hat, Jack Bruce’s intelligent lucidity somehow infused into a car thief and John Mayall’s finger tips shoved up a foreskin. No, sirs, no. this is not true. Rene, for all his hats, had the stiff wristed subtly of an octogenarian, arthritic call girl, and sounded less like Starkey or Wyatt then he did the rhythm maker on a Casio keyboard. Mani’s bass play is all loops as he clearly couldn’t remember all the nuances to every song AND simultaneously inject turpentine into his face and Squire’s guitar was the mere bedroom effluence of some over eager teenager recently happened upon daddy’s hitherto verboten collection of H&E. Yes, after a few weeks with a torch and an old sock under the cover, we all reckon we’re pretty good at it, but to take this onaism on to stage, and the splatter it across numerous ruined canvasses while at it, borders on sociopathy. Brown’s simian gurgle is so beneath my contempt I’ll not bother right now.

The shit glue that holds all this raw sewage together is the debut disk, recorded by a producer, John Leckie, who not only had an impressive catalogue, but had been involved in some seat of the pant, avant garde work in his youth (yes, I mean Red Rose Speedway (no I don’t (yes I do))), which makes it all the more depressing that this one dimensional, characterless drudge was the best that the man who helmed PiL’s primordially important debut single, Public Image could do with the dunderheads he was seconded to (he’d clearly given up the ghost by the time he was sucking the life out of Radiohead on The Bends). Brown’s grunting is layered, layer upon layer, which is apparently ethereal, but isn’t, it’s just obviously trying to mask the fact that he couldn’t sing. Worse luck that it’s not layered enough that we can’t hear what the fucker is actually “singing”. The lyrics read like a cross between remedial poetry and the kind of “therapy” that’s practised in prisons. She’s a waterfall is not Keats. Elizabeth my Dear is not Wilde. None of it is anything other than the brain-spunk or a crayon wielding man-child with delusions of grandeur. And the deadpan delivery of the albums bowel-infuriating nadir…my god, this cod “jam” at the end of I Am The Resurrection sounds like it is, a load of skinny white cunts auditioning to be in an under-12’s War tribute act for the school fete.

This may have been the record when you thought for the first time that you finally “got” music and you were now a part of an ego mass, a gathering, a movement of people, a scene, but the sad truth is that you weren’t. Pop music lies to us, we’ve come to expect it, but don’t do its job for it by lying to yourself. Throw this disk into the bin. It’s awful.

The Madcap Laughs – Syd Barrett
Ah, Syd, poor, demented, handsome, wistful, ethereal Syd. No one would care about Syd if it were not for the fact that the Floyd he started went on, after his departure, to be one of the biggest bands of all time. Dark Side of the Moon, which of course Syd had no involvement in, is still one the top selling records in the history of buying stuff. Syd, or Roger as is mother called him, went nuts, his crazy antics driving his band mates to utter distraction. His not playing during gigs, or strumming just the one chord for every single song, presuming he turned up at all, are all the stuff of legend, sign of his unutterable uniqueness, his blithe spirit, his singular genius. Yes, either that or the mark of someone who has gone batty. Why? we may never know. Perhaps it was the copious amounts of brain scramble that was doing the rounds among the groovy classes in the late 1960’s, perhaps it was the pressure of being in an increasing successful band. The pressures of touring, perhaps? Personality clashes? The monumental wrongness of being in a band with two Rogers in it? Whatever, Syd clearly did not have the wherewithal to be a member of the Floyd no more, and worse still, his creative output, which made up the majority of Floyd’s fist disk, was dwindling to a trickle.

So, with Pink’s boot mark tattooed onto his mental arse, Syd, indulged by the record label in a way unthinkable these days, wandered around Abbey Road putting his meanderings down on tape. Songs with no discernable tunes, or odd arrangements, borne less out or musical genius and more out of a kind of soporific disconnection. Syd wasn’t there, his best work was behind him, and the record became the half completed ramblings of someone who seemed bored by it all, as if strumming these random phrases out of the acoustic was some kind of forced therapy. But that doesn’t stop people, the same people who tell you Rain is as good as the Beatles got, from lauding Syd as popular music’s missing light seemingly by dint of the fact he wasn’t doing anything and had gone to ground (although without extending that same lack of discretion to Syd’s soul-mate in the infuriatingly oblique, John Lennon), and waving The Madcap Laughs around as if it were proof of the possibilities of Syd’s curtailed genius. This fathomless exhortation of the sound of one mans drawn out mental breakdown is nothing less than dismayingly sad, such was Syd’s prior intrigue, talent and all round modishness. The George Best of pop, the man who had it all and chucked it to do some gardening. Except it’s not true, Syd, as The Madcap all to clearly shows, didn’t quit at the top of his game, but sometime after he had peaked, and his peak, it would then appear, was brief and less fecund than is assumed. It was all gone, and here we’re left with a Dear John on vinyl. I’m off, people, because I’m mental and music bores me. It’s facile to say that Pink Floyd are shite, they’re up there to be knocked off the pedestal, and neither they, nor their legion of accountants, really care what you think after all, but it’s idiotic to act as if the only thing they ever had going for them was Roger Keith Barrett. The Floyd did okay after Syd, Syd did less impressively after the Floyd.

Everything – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is grand, few tunes here, couple of lyrics there. It’s all fine. But why oh why is 3 chorded, rusty piped troubadour regarded so highly? Why is he revered? He’s the white Bob Marley, wherein everytime he gargles his rheum we’re supposed to gasp, and smile at the repeated genius of his mutterings. Is it just me? Everything he’s ever done seems at least 45 minutes too long, all his words seem couched in a particular time, and that time is gone. His endless gigs are endlessly tedious. I can understand why a septuagenarian who recalls first hearing Bob whist pouring paraffin into their pony-drawn wireless back in 1897 may have all 6 million of his albums used as some kind of load bearing structure down in the old folks home, but why are people under the age of 40 into this artefact? Does it really speak to you? Are the times actually a changing? Or have they just changed back.

Bob is like Sonic Youth for old people, too prolific, too obtuse, too protected by the bearers of the bright light of musical enlightenment and canonised within their columns to be given an objective critique. Whether or not Bob was once anti-establishment, it’s clear now that Bob is the establishment. He runs it, don’t you know. And he just won’t shut the fuck up. Please, Bob, shut the fuck up. How can your back catalogue be judged when you’re still scraping away at it. And you out there, yes you, the young man with Blonde on Blonde on your ipod, there ARE other ways to communicate with your parents. Just tell them you’re still a virgin, they won’t judge you. Plus, they don’t really like Bob anymore. Truth is, nobody does, they just feel they need to pretend it is so, lest the finger points and the screams of “Judas!” start.

Turn on the Bright Lights – Interpol
Unfortunately for Interpol, I judge this album not for itself, but for all that came after. It was lauded at the time, an underground grower, suddenly thrust upon the world’s ears. Much was made of their revisionist sounds, the obvious early 80’s new wave influence, the very epitome of the approaching zeitgeist. There was the heavy pound of Furs-like drums, the vibrant pluck of Carlos’ bass, echoing anything from Peter Hook to Nick Beggs, the heavily affected guitars, the dirge like drawl of vocals, the New York sang froid, the snappy suits. But it went too big for them. Having seen their debut Dublin gig (in the Village, supported by a lacklustre Franz Ferinand) where they were road-tight and coiled but already lacking in something of a presence. The following gig in the Olympia showed them up completely, unable to muster enough personality, nor indeed a tune, to fill this medium sized venue, it was clear that the image of Interpol had far outstripped the music. Unable to even complete on full listen of any of their subsequent disks caused a drastic rethink of Turn on the Bright Lights, which was, at the time, dark and insistent, loaded with the right nods and winks, the perfect portfolio of influences. But it carries nary a tune, barely anything that can be sung, and the playing lacks a subtly, a subtly that wasn’t apparently needed on first listen, but on which has the record entrenched in the bedrock of its time. Lacking the invention to break the chains of this record, and too afraid to change a winning formula, not only have Interpol repeated to distraction their own sound, thus diminishing it even further, they’ve also spawned a generation of copy cat shits, who, sadly for Interpol, have over taken them at a pace. Be careful what you wish for, you may just not be good enough to handle it.

Justified – Justin Timberlake
Actual real people I knew, and in some cases still know, people who worked in the music industry (for what ever that is) in Dublin, promoters, musicians, writers, recorders, the people with hair cuts who always seem to be there, the endless procession of deejays who all have a night in a pub that no one goes to, all fell over themselves to pay praise to this record. It was the acceptable face of modern pop, the guilty pleasure we wore on our sleeves. My god, where are those people and their opinions now? Long gone, I’m afraid. For many, it was the McDonalds fiasco that did in the dream, Justin, somehow (somehow!) once cool and sexy, now merely a sales man for hamburgers, a harbinger for obesity. For others it may have been the symbolism of a Jackson nipple that brought home the reality of his comparative limitations. But long before that there was the glaring issue of the utter shitness of Justin Timberlake and his scrawny, squeaky voice. It’s fucking unbearable, like having Alan Ball sing Off the Wall down a phone line at you while you hammer a rusty nail into your ear. These are songs that allegedly Michael Jackson, a semi transparent, drug addled child molester, thought beneath him, and after repeated listening, it’s easy to see why. All shine, all sheen, all surface, no substance, so like the manchild himself. Justin has nothing to say, and can only say it in the most torturous way possible. Timberlake is, and always has been, no more than Ace of Base for cunts. It’s music for school children to listen too while they stuff their leery faces into another burger. Now, that’s child abuse.

Grace – Jeff Buckley
Ah Jeff. Haunted, beautiful, wistful Jeff. Ah. What could have been, but before that, to what was:

The album Grace never convinces a concise compendium, never enthrals as an entity, merely comes across as a collection of songs, a showcase for the artist that was to take the sound of the early nineties, all that grunge, Temple of the Dog shit onto the coffee tables of Lower Manhattan, to fit into Kurt Cobain’s cold dead shoes with less heroin and more patchouli. Interspersed it is with cover versions that are derived from Jeff’s previous career as coffee house crooner, showing us his range of influence, but more importantly, the range of note he can flagellate into a bar. Lilac Wine seems pointless, the song is old as the hills, and the hills have infused it with more of the patois required to pull it off than Jeff can muster. His Hallelujah takes it’s lead from the superior John Cale version, rather than the original, and is in effect a cover of a cover. One assumes Jeff was aware of the original, but he chose to borrow the wording of Cale’s, who arranged the sprawl of Leonard’s original verses into a listenable poesy. It seems odd to attempt a cover like this, when it’s been rendered more masterfully, and more manfully, and only a couple of years previously, by a codger who had earned that weariness with which he confides the stanzas. You just don’t believe Jeff. The final filler-cover is a choir boy rendition of Corpus Christi Carol, which seems only to fulfil a need to make it clear to us, the listener, that the artist has a spectacular range, and that isn’t it just far-out that you have gone form this medieval whimsy to the kind of fuzz heavy riffage that made Soundgarden’s oeuvre so unbearably trite in the space of mere minutes. Doesn’t this album have, like, EVERYTHING. Man.

Rather more it doesn’t, but it shows us glimpses of talent. Apart form the obvious one, that voice, there’s suggestion that Jeff’s song writing would mature once he dumped the faux-grunge that he was still wedded to. Everyone on earth dropped that lumberjack-shirt-and-hobnail-boot-wearing-gresy-haired-self-obession in time, one can only imagine that Buckley would have done so too. So Real (upgraded from a b-side to album track for reasons of Jeff’s inscrutability, one assumes) isn’t very good, Mojo Pin sounds like In Through the Out Door-era Zeppelin, which, in case you’re wondering, is the wrong era to be referencing, but suffices as an opener, followed as it is by the bizarrely captivating title track. Last Goodbye is so-so, you can tap your feet to it, Lover You Should Have Come over veers lyrically from pillar to post, funeral to boudoir, never couched in any compelling reality, but musically showcases a hitherto neglected talent for balladeering bombast that would have done his father (Tom Jones, I think) proud. Dream Brother is a decent rocker, isn’t it? It even has some lyrical content that seems to suggest at the past life he tried so hard to keep under wraps (difficulties with Tom Jones, I think). One may infer from the flashes on this record that the future of coffee tables in the houses of the mildly wealthy were to be laden with ever more Jeff records, stuffed with this kind of middle of the road, Bolton-esque ear candy, sweetly sung, with snatches of acerbic guitar and the odd mesmerising cover thrown in. One may even think that his voice would have grown further, or better still, he would have earned some of that jaded world weariness he sought so valiantly to facsimilate, but we were denied this by his untimely, idiotic death. So we don’t know, do we. We can try and extrapolate from the recording released posthumously, but that does a great disservice to the man, such is the paucity of tunes or vigour present on Sketches For My Sweetheart. Maybe Grace was his peak, maybe all the future held for Jeff was Carey-esque wailing over over blown Nillsson and Fred Neil versions. Maybe there was nothing left in the tank, as Sketches hinted at, or maybe he would have over come this sophomore jinx and written better, more muscular music in the future. Thing is we’ll never know, but what was lost was a potentially glorious future, and not the pretty decent past.

Never Mind the Bollocks – The Sex Pistols
Kablammo! Punk “ fah-king” Rock, you cunt! London, a-buzz. The summer of hate, the antithesis to all that love and understanding shit a decade earlier. A bubble of youthful expression amid the blackouts, strikes, unemployment, 3-day working weeks, oil crises, bombings and other vagrancies of the decade of the split end. Punk Rock, thwack! Visceral, noisy, snarly, smelling slightly. Speed and tinnies, fights at gigs, spitting rheumy hepatitis at singers of awful bands. Pub rock, reclaimed by spotty teenagers. Jumpers with holes, leather pants, a shop called Sex and a boy with green teeth. Punk Rock, a phrase as old as, well, older than the movement it self, a phrase heavy with significance. But what, in the end, was it? Anti hippie, anti authority and anti middle class, jazzified, gnome and pixie loving prog rock. Anti disco, anti top of the pops shit. Anti ESTABLISHMENT.

The Sex Pistols were, famously, the poster boys of punk rock, the most outré of it’s progenitors. The ones who swore on tv, and in doing so made them selves persona non grata, having gigs along the length and breath of England cancelled for fear of the negative influence they would present to the youth of whatever sceptre’d dale they happened to be playing in, being jumped in the streets by thugs for whom irony is no more than the kind of bar they use to twat you around the shins. Johnny Rotten, shit teeth, Sid Vicious, drugged idiot, Paul Cook, Union Jack t-shirt, Steve Jones, some kind of illiterate. The voice of the young uns. Maybe, maybe not. It’s true the Pistols’ attitude forged a new identity for some, a new undifferentiated ego mass, a new consensus for the kids. In the past there’d been the Mods, the Rockers, the Prog Wankers, Hippies, Dandies, all the rest of it, now there were punks, as regimented in their livery as the Royal Dragoons, as predicable in their attitude as a pen of sheep. Jumping up and down on the spot to..to what exactly. Somewhere in the history lesson of 18 months of media frenzy in late 1970’s one thing is oft forgotten. The Pistols, much like most bands, made some music. Lets not make light of the tectonic shift in attitude when Anarchy in the UK burst from their scrawny frames. In the midst of the hoo-ha, the impact of the music is generally lost, and paradoxically, overblown. Anarchy was great tune, a worthy debut, God Save the Queen, released in her Jubilee Year was anarchic, rude, a warning, Pretty vacant was a pop song, in the greatest traditions of the Faces, or the Kinks. Beyond the singles, what do we have? Pub rock, loud guitars, pounding drums and someone playing bass. It could be Dr. Feelgood, were it not for the swearing. Cook’s steady, tight, manful pounding underpins it all, Jones, who spent all day playing his guitar in order to improve, layers his chords on top of each other, solos here and there, semi virtousitic, like punk shouldn’t be. Somewhere someone is plucking the bass, and the most important element, the words, and the scowl of Rotten, almost relegated beneath the swirl of phasing strings.

Truth is that by the time the album came out, with it’s iconic cover and offensive song titles, The Sex Pistols had already influenced the next generation of musicians to get off their arses and make the music that the world desperately needed. It’s the stuff of legend, the roll call of future faces (including Mick Hucknall) who attended the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig and others around the country, and pretty soon all the important music was coming from up north. The Pistols didn’t make Howard Devoto talented, they didn’t give Ian McCollough the pipes, they didn’t stuff the ghost of William Blake in Mark E Smiths brain, but they presented a forum for them to go forward, tentatively, and learn the trade from the bottom up. Obviously you needed a phd to become a roadie for Yes, but to be in a “punk” band, you just needed the gumption to get onto the stage and give it a lash. The Buzzcocks, the Fall, Magazine, Joy Division, Echo and The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, A Certain Ratio, even cod-shockers Bauhaus, and numerous others had already released or were recording by the time Never Mind The Bollocks came out, and the job had effectively been done. The album is a mere afterthought. Whatever primal fear came out of seeing them play live, before they became a mere comedy act in Malcom McLaren’s circus of the absurd, is utterly absent here. It’s hard to fathom how this music, standard stuff, really, could have influenced the slew of talent that followed in it’s wake, including Rotten’s own recorded output. Although it’s crazy to think that four lads could have gotten a nation so riled up that they put their boots through their own tv’s and actively sought out the band members to maim them, or that doing a gig on a boat could have been so subversive, it clearly was never the music that infuriated the effete ruling classes. Because if that were the case they’d have strung up The Sweet while they were at it.

Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys
As for Pet Sounds, well firstly McCartney claims that hearing this record caused him to come up with the whole idea of SPLHCB in the first place, so that’s the first black egg pulled from the jar. Across its sprawl of songs there are, no doubt, some absolute crackers, but again, why has it become the greatest album of all time, what is the logic? Pure revisionism, for a start, Brian Wilson is painted as the great songwriter, the great misunderstood and simultaneously fully-understood genius of his age, for some bizarre reason. Lists of lists, complied old white guys, place Pet Sounds in the top 2 or 3 and have led to an entirely new generation singing the praises of this album for fear of feeling as if they’re missing something. You’re not missing something. This is a band who have at least fifty albums with the word “Surfing” in the title. Brian Wilson may have had some ideas, but he didn’t have them all. If Syd Barrett and John Lennon are different sides of the same coin, then Brian and Macca are opposite sides of their coin. Innovative in the studio, writers of ditties, melodists, bassists, multi instrumentalists, modern men, counter culturists, drug users. It seems that by not doing a great deal after Pet Sounds other than going slightly barking and retiring to bed for an age has elevated Wilson, and thusly his magnum opus, to these lofty heights of reverence. As for McCartney, well, his problem was to stay busy and healthy, wasn’t it, and become some kind of sainted, living joke. Ha! Look at his one legged, prostitute, gold digging wife! Ha! Twat. Whereas, taking so much coke that you have a stroke, are confined to bed, become a corpulent codger and now can’t sing very well at all are just the leverage you need to attain legendary status.

That’s not to imply that Pet Sounds is all muck, far from, it’s just not as great as everyone thinks it is, and one gets the overriding impression that people just think that because we love our heroes to be failures, to show their feet of clay. Revolver prompted Wilson to record Pet Sounds, and Sgt Pepper prompted him to blow it all up his nose and take to bed. Wilson, despite his obvious abilities, was for ever in thrall to the Beatles, and particularly McCartney. Maybe it’s time we kicked Pet Sounds down the charts a little bit, and made room for Wings at the Speed of Sound. No, hold on…fuck, that was going so well….

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