Sunday, July 16, 2017

Late '80s Heart: Just Couldn't Leave Those Power Ballads "Alone"

Here's the deal: If you're gonna do a power ballad, you might as well go big. I want to ask a question, in all sincerity: Has anyone ever criticized a power ballad for being ... too powerful? No. No one has ever made such a preposterous statement. It would be like criticizing a swan for being too graceful, a sword for being too sharp, a Bond villain for being too dastardly. It would be absurd.

Well, what if your song's about being alone? Isn't that kind of a ... quiet emotion? Maybe to the outside observer, perhaps, but on the inside, and if you're, I dunno, 16 years old, it's big. It's an emotion so big, it took not one, but two Wilson sisters to fully capture the scope of that pain. Indeed, very few pieces of music have been able to express the sheer magnitude of despair that confronts those in the throes of solitude. Heart's 1987 power ballad, in this regard, may stand (wait for it ...)

Alone.

Once again, Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly (AKA the "Like A Virgin" guys) secretly scored a ubiquitous '80s #1 hit without anyone noticing who in the hell they were. From Songfacts:
Tom Kelly and I were signed to Epic Records and we made one album under the name i-Ten. It was sort of made out to look like a group, but it was really just the two of us.

We made this album and it was co-produced by Keith Olsen and Steve Lukather. I wasn't really happy with the way it turned out, but it did have some good songs on it. One of the songs on it was 'Alone.' The album was titled Taking A Cold Look. It didn't do much although it has sort of a cult following in Europe.

The most prominent song on it was 'Alone.' Tom and I recorded it for that record and just sort of set it aside when that record didn't succeed ... I just put those songs in a drawer and forgot about them, but then Tom and I were having a good deal of success with 'Like a Virgin' and 'True Colors' and then we heard that Heart was looking for a power ballad and Tom said, 'What about 'Alone'?' I winced and said, 'Oh, I don't really want to look at that song.' He said, 'What do you mean? That's perfect.'

We took the song out and sure enough it was relatively easy to do because we liked everything about the song except the first line of the chorus. The version on i-Ten, the lyric said, 'I always fared well on my own.' Both lyrically and melodically it felt very stiff and unappealing. So I did a minor change on the lyric and it said, 'Til now, I always got by on my own,' and Tom changed the melody and gave it much more movement and almost a slightly R&B feel on the first line of the chorus. That really lifted the chorus, and then all of the sudden I liked the song again.
"I always fared well?" No, no, no. Sometimes it really is the little touches. Could you image, say, "I've been suffering recently from a lack of satisfaction"? Or "There's a lady who I believe is fairly certain that all that glitters is gold"? It's gotta scan right.

The song begins with a piano that initially seems to be alone, although on closer inspection it is paired with what may have been intended to sound like a ticking clock, but perhaps more closely resembles a squeaking shoe. Enter Ann Wilson, seemingly not bothered by the rodent in the studio:
I hear the ticking of the clock
I'm lying here, the room's pitch dark
I wonder where you are tonight
No answer on the telephone

And the night goes by so very slow
Oh I hope that it won't end though
Alone
OK, you're thinking, so it's another soft rock ballad a la "These Dreams." That's cool, but where's the rocking Heart of yore? And then BAM.

What I think separates "Alone" from its power ballad peers is that the power totally comes out of nowhere and it's like holy shit where did all that power come from? In the blink of an eye, the song goes from Howard's End to The Crow. At first it seems like Ann is merely taking a pleasant little stroll in the moonlight, but then it turns out she's accompanied by a vast and insatiable army of warlocks and sea serpents and stuff:
Till now I always got by on my own
I never really cared until I met you
And now it chills me to the bone
How do I get you alone?
How do I get you alone?
The best touch is the sudden harmonies added by (I imagine) Nancy and Ann that accompany the line "I never really cared until I met you." It's the way they split across the stereo channel with such precision, like a laser beam refracting. I just want to tell the ungrateful guy she's trying to woo, "Hey, she may look quiet and shy, but underneath, she'll come at you like a coven of feral witches - just give her a chance buddy."

Then the song slips back into sensitive ballad mode. The thing is, if you think too hard about the lyrics of "Alone," you realize that it basically describes an embarrassingly well-worn unrequited love song scenario that's not original or insightful in any way whatsoever. But if you forget about that for a second and just listen to it, you can't help but be touched in your ... you know ... that thing in your chest region?

Then there is the second chorus. Oh man, the second chorus. What's amazing about the second chorus is that the song has already revealed its "I'm going to suddenly go from serene and peaceful to explosive and fiery" gimmick and you figure there's no way it could be as effective the second time around. But it's better. At 1:56, the drummer performs this agonizingly slow, monstrously heavy drum fill that sounds like it's coming from Ringo's evil fairy stepmother. In the first chorus, Ann started singing right off the bat, but this time, there are a couple of extra bars that are merely instrumental, and it creates this unprecedented sense of anticipation. "Where's Ann? Why isn't she singing? Is she hurt? Is she ... dead?" Oh she's alive all right. Here is my best rendering of her soul-piercing battle cry:

"Ohhhhhhhhh-hauuu-huh-whoa-hauuu!"

And then she sings the chorus. Sit the fuck down.

The rest of the song just sort of rides the inertia from that second chorus all the way to the denouement, although Ann finds one last chance to shine around 3:09 with two jet engine-level cries of "Uh-lowwwwwwwwww-wn-uh!" You can practically smell the burnt fuel residue emanating from her lungs.



So, the video. It begins with some creative staging, as Nancy sits in the foreground playing a grand piano, her hair apparently having been dyed in apricot juice, while Ann, dressed in funereal black, leans on a balcony in the distance. At 0:30 we get a nice close-up of her mascara-smothered visage, but then ten seconds later we get another close-up, and suddenly she's wearing a veil. She's a widow! Dude! She's literally grieving over the death of her fleeting love for some random superficial crush.
But what about the chorus? Something crazy's gotta happen at the chorus, right? Well how about the piano exploding? Oh, and now the rest of the band is on stage and there's an audience with flashing lights and blah blah blah, but honestly: how hard do you have to be playing your '80s power ballad to make your piano explode? Do you think the insurance covered that?

Then at 1:38, the Wilson sisters find themselves in the world's most purple-saturated room. Seriously, what was the conversation like on that set? "Not enough purple! Bob, I wanna see purple bleeding out of my eyeballs!" Where's Barney and Grimace when you need them? And then, then, at 1:54, we have what might very well be the best use of a horse in an '80s music video, full stop. Nancy Wilson, for no apparent reason, is suddenly riding a fucking horse. Hi-Ho Silver, girl, that's what I say. Hi-Ho-Silver.

Two final observations: 1) By the end of the video, in half the close-ups of Ann, she's wearing the veil, and in the other half, she's not. Was this a gaffe? Intentional? What does it mean? 2) I love the close-up of Nancy at 3:22 - it's like her post-power ballad sexy satisfaction face. You did it, Heart. You shagged that power ballad harder and longer than anyone had ever shagged a power ballad before. Take a well-deserved nap.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

That Time Belinda Met Sammy Davis, Jr. (Plus: That Time Belinda Dated ... Dave Mustaine?)

Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew, cover it with chocolate and a miracle or two? Belinda Carlisle, obviously. You don't even need me to answer that. But who can also take an unexpected compliment from Sammy Davis, Jr.?

Our erstwhile Go-Go certainly was no stranger to surreal, unexpected celebrity encounters: who can forget that awards show with Marvin Gaye, that random smooch from David Lee Roth ... hell, we could even go all the way back to Darby Crash and Pat Smear while we're at it. But there was something about the combined effect of a new Hollywood royalty husband and a sustained cocaine hiatus that managed to generate a heightened amount of extra-bizarre Belinda celebrity juxtapositions. While she never met her husband's father, she certainly spent plenty of time with Morgan's mother (and James Mason's ex-wife), Pamela Mason, who, judging by Belinda's description at least, must have been quite the character. From Lips Unsealed:
By the time I met her, she was more famous as a hostess than anything else. She had parties almost every night, which was how Morgan had grown up. I came in toward the tail end of that run and met scads of amazing people. Over the years, I met George Burns (he was charming), Stewart Granger (boisterous and handsome), Dick Van Dyke (I talked to him about Mary Poppins, whose songs I sang as a little girl), Glenn Ford (a lovely man), Gregory Peck (wonderful), Milton Berle, Robert Wagner, Anthony Perkins, Berry Berenson, and Walter Matthau, who was always seated next to me at dinners. Every time I saw that I was next to him, I thought, Oh God, not him again. He was so cranky that making conversation was a chore. But I was young, naive, and limited in what I had to say, and now I realize how lucky I was to have known him.
Walter Matthau, cranky? In real life? I cannot believe it. I ... just ... cannot believe it. "Oh God, not him again." No kidding. That would be awkward. "Hey, soooo ... Mr. Matthau, have you heard the new Pet Shop Boys album?" "There hasn't been a great band leader since the day Glenn Miller died. Who the hell are you? Pass me the Polident!" This whole description of these dinners seems like pure invention. Can you picture a young Belinda Carlisle in the same room as A) George Burns; B) Milton Berle; C) Gregory Peck; D) More than one of them at the same time?

And yet, the most mind-melting encounter of all appears to have been the time Belinda claims she met the only one-eyed black Jewish member of the Rat Pack in a Hollywood restaurant:
"I went up to him and drooled all over him in Chasen's. It was a few years before he died. He knew everything about me and the Go-Go's. On his way out, he came up to my table, snapped his fingers, looked at me and said, 'Baby, you're a vision of nowness.' I just about died. That was the best line I'd ever had from anybody!"


The best line - from anybody! And God knows she must have gotten plenty of lines. Unfortunately, I don't even get enough lines to bother to rank them. Apparently this encounter changed her life, as she still talks about it to this day, and even named the last chapter of Lips Unsealed "Vision of Nowness." Belinda, has it occurred to you that maybe Sammy said that to every girl?

And now, from the opposite side of the musical spectrum, a story that's a little too good to be true - meaning it probably isn't. But don't let that stop you from repeating it. Allow me to quote a passage from Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine's Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir:
At one point in the mid 1980s, I was set up on a date with Belinda Carlisle, the former lead singer of an almost freakishly popular girl band called the Go-Go's and at that time a solo artist. In this case, I was more than happy to suspend my feelings about pop and metal making strange bedfellows. Belinda was gorgeous, and she was, at the time, ubiquitous (as well as single). I have no idea if she was a fan of Megadeth or of heavy metal in general. I know only that through an intermediary I was to meet her and we were to embark on an honest-to-goodness "date." Belinda came to the Music Grinder one day while we were starting to mix So Far, So Good ... So What! Unfortunately, her timing could have been better. Moments before she arrived, I had finished snorting a balloon of heroin. As she knocked at the door I chucked the empty balloon behind a dresser and lit up a joint - better the sweet smell of weed than the acrid odor of smack. Belinda walked in, looking positively radiant - and sober, I should add - and smiled.

"Hello," she said.

I tried to choke back a lungful of smoke, but to no avail.

"Whoo-huh!" I barked, a cloud of gray filling the air.

Belinda turned on her heel and walked right back out of the room. And that was the end of that particular love story. It was, I guess, doomed from the very beginning.
I think I have to cry foul on this one - either that, or Mustaine's memory is a little hazy (and based on the content of the passage, I don't find that too hard to believe). Belinda had already met Morgan before she ever went solo, and before she got (temporarily) sober. In other words, by the time her solo career started, she was already off the market. Peace sells ... but who's buying this anecdote?

Sunday, June 18, 2017

"Let's Wait Awhile" - Like ... The Next Album?

An R&B smash about ... abstinence? Boy, back in 1987, things sure were different. People said hello to you at the corner grocery store. Elementary school students brought their teacher an apple on the first day of school. The president didn't talk about AIDS. It was a gentler, kinder world. And instead of singing about taking her panties off at the first possible opportunity, Janet Jackson sang about ... keeping her fly zipped for that special someone?
There's something I want to tell you
There's something I think that you should know
It's not that I shouldn't really love you
Let's take it slow

When we get to know each other
And we're both feeling much stronger
Then let's try to talk it over
Let's wait awhile longer

Let's wait awhile
Before it's too late
Let's wait awhile
Before we go too far
"Wait"? "Wait"?! This isn't the '80s pop music I know. Prince didn't sing about waiting. Madonna didn't sing about waiting. George Michael sure as shit didn't sing about waiting. Not even Billy Joel sang about waiting. Who the fuck sang about waiting? The English Beat?

Also, who knew Jam & Lewis were such die-hard fans of '70s soft rock poster boys America? Not only did they build 2001's "Someone to Call My Lover" around a sample of "Ventura Highway," but years earlier, they arguably lifted the opening of"Let's Wait Awhile" from "Daisy Jane." Indeed, it turns out that not only were Jam & Lewis masters of dance floor funk, but they also possessed an impressive gift for lush, slow jam balladry. "Let's Wait Awhile" is like a soft velvet blanket on my ears. It's so ... cozy. I think this is the sound Madonna was trying to achieve on her ballads, only with more, you know, warmth or something.



Once again, Jam & Lewis get a lot out of a little:
  • 0:01: Fake wind chimes and the world's gentlest keyboard melody
  • 0:11 Janet enters, single-tracked
  • 0:34: Imitation bass drum and imitation fingersnaps
  • 0:57 Janet's voice multiplies on the chorus, while some eerie, futuristic synths squirm in the background
I don't remember hearing "Let's Wait Awhile" much in 1987, nor immediately afterward. In fact, I heard it on the radio in college one night and couldn't quite place its year of origin. I thought it might have been a track from Rhythm Nation 1814, or even janet. I have to say that it has aged quite nicely, as has the classy black and white video, in which Janet comforts her disappointed boyfriend on a majestic Manhattan rooftop. Just when they seem to have come to terms with her decision, the door slams shut behind them. Looks like they might have to "wait" on that rooftop ... for "awhile"! Also, do you think I could have their apartment?



The magic truly blossoms at 4:00, after the (not entirely unnecessary) key change, when Janet suddenly transforms into a bouquet of floating flowers, crooning "da-dee-da-dee" from each stereo channel. It's like Minnie Riperton's "Loving You" ... except she's deliberately not loving you. "I promise ... I'll be worth the wait," she coos at 4:17. Oh I believe it.

And we wouldn't have to wait long. Three years, to be specific. The last (proper) track on Rhythm Nation 1814, "Someday Is Tonight," is where Janet finally goes all the way. Sample lyric:
You know I promised
I'd be worth the wait
Now the wait is over baby
Please don't hesitate
Boy you make me tremble
With your warm caress
I never knew I could feel this way
No more fantasizing
You'll ever have to do
Cause tonight baby
All your dreams come true
I want you so bad I can taste it
I'm yours if you want me
So what you're saying Janet, if I'm reading this right, is that you're done waiting? It's a little unclear to me. The thing is, we arguably didn't even have to wait the full three years! The last track on Control, "Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)," in addition to sounding like an early version of Al B. Sure's "Nite and Day," may not spell things out quite as explicitly, but based on the aural evidence before me, I'm not entirely sure that Janet was truly able to hold it in until 1989. Listen to the moans and whimpers in the final minute, including the breathy deployment of phrases in French (the language of love):
Je ne sais pas ou le temps s'est enfui
Il me plait d'etre là avec tu
I really don't know where all the time went
I really have to go
Stop...
Stop!
Oh I really have to go
Oh ... I really have to go
One more time?

Oh je t'aime mon cheri

Ohhhh...
Ohhhh...
OK, Janet, get a room. I mean, if you're not going all the way right there, you're definitely getting close enough for me.



Sunday, June 4, 2017

Two Phil(ip)s Are Better Than One AKA "Easy Lover" And Some Hard, Hard Varnish

And then one day, Philip Bailey, that guy from Earth, Wind & Fire with the super girly falsetto, decided that maybe he'd had enough of the other elements for a little while. Too much fire in his life. A little sick of wind. You know how it goes. Unfortunately, his first solo album, Continuation, seemed to vanish into thin ... what's the word? Air. Thin air. Turns out he needed another element. But which one? Water? Sulphur? Lava?

Phil Collins. I'm no chemist, but the element he needed was Phil Collins.

Yes. Like Frida before him, Bailey turned to the nakedly-domed producer with the Midas touch. But the world may not have been ready for Chinese Wall - and it may not be ready still. First of all, did you know that Philip Bailey could actually sing in a normal voice? That's sort of like finding out the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest could actually talk. Bailey was putting us on all this time! The thing is, Philip Bailey the tenor sounds a lot like ... fellow EW&F lead singer Maurice White. Which is probably why he decided to sing in falsetto while he was in the band. I guess the falsetto was his golden goose. But solo Philip Bailey was suddenly like, "Fuck that pansy shit, this is my record, I'll sing however the fuck I want." The end result is that a lot of Chinese Wall kind of sounds like J.T. Taylor being produced by Phil Collins. I mean, when you can sing effectively in two completely different registers, how do you decide which tracks should get the tenor and which tracks should get the falsetto? Did they record alternate versions of each, and then flip a coin?

"Photogenic Memory" partially solves the vocal issue by featuring the tacky vocoder version of Philip Bailey, surrounded by screaming guitar and lots of clanging things. Apparently Phil was really into that '80s synth effect that sounded like an Asian flute (perhaps inspiring the album's title?), as he smothered "For Every Heart That's Been Broken" and "Time Is A Woman" with the gimmick. A couple of these songs could have easily fit onto an EW&F album: "Go" sounds like a peppier version of "After the Love Has Gone," while "Show You the Way to Love" sounds like a more lethargic version of "After the Love Has Gone."

But EW&F retreads were not what the people came for. They came for the Collins. "Easy Lover" was Phil Collins's way of saying, "Yeah sure, it might say 'Philip Bailey' on the album cover, but I'm gonna let everybody know who's really in charge here." "Easy Lover" is like "Say Say Say" or "The Girl Is Mine," but with balls.



Before you can even speak the word "Sussudio," the drums come crashing in like Genghis Khan's hordes - snares taut and brittle, cymbals shimmering and piercing. In the distance there's this high-pitched synthesizer whistle, like an evil robotic bird singing outside your window on a warm summer day. Look out 1984, 'cause Phil and Philip are comin' to getcha. After about thirteen seconds, the big riff kicks in - a riff that is simultaneously raunchy and sinister without actually possessing what you might consider any genuine menace. Because this is Phil Collins we're talking about.

But listen to that titanium percussion machine! He's muscular, yet supple, forceful, yet thoughtful. When the song goes hither, he goes thither. And the transitions! Good lord, the transitions. Just when you get a handle on things, and you're humming along to "I'm just trying to make you seeeeee," Phil kicks you in the ribs with a fill, suddenly Philip Bailey's in this whole other zone with "She's the kind of girl you dream of," and you're curled up on the floor, gasping for breath. And just when you've gathered yourself, Phil knocks the wind right out of you with three swift punches to the gut and now we're in this whole new section about "No you'll never change her, so leave her, leaver her." The sheer sonic beat-down is unceasing.

And listen to that sweet, sweet vocal blend. It really makes me believe that God must be a fan of MOR '80s duets. Notice how, on the chorus, Phil and Philip harmonize way out on the left and right channels, multi-tracked and stacked, like a thousand gym teachers lurking in the night, but when the verse comes around, Philip jumps front and center, with Phil right behind. They're coming from all directions! And then they hit this chord at the end of "It's the only way/You'll ever knowwww-ohhh-ohhh." What kind of a chord is that? This "vocals from all directions" set-up truly pays off during the fade-out, as multi-tracked, pre-recorded Phil and Philip keep the party going on the sides, while live and in-the-flesh Phil and Philip hold court in the center and throw some juicy ad-libs into the mix:
  • 3:55 - Phil: "Sheee-eee's aneasyluvahh!"
  • 3:56 - Philip: "Get-uh, hold on, ohhh"
  • 4:06 - Phil: "You'll be downnnn on your knees!"
  • 4:12 - Philip: "You won't feeeeeee-aal it"
  • 4:21 - Phil: "Tryna make you seee-heee yeah!"
  • 4:30 - Philip: "And like no uhh-thah ... yuuuhhl be on yah knees"
  • 4:35 - Phil: "You'll be on your knees!"
  • 4:37 - Philip: "Yeah yeah yeah!"
The concept for the video (which seems to have been uploaded at the wrong speed - come on Vevo) strikes me as a bit underdeveloped. We're supposed to be watching Phil and Philip "making" the video that we're watching, but as far as I can tell ... how is that different from every other music video ever made? At 1:24 we see both of them in a dressing room, with Phil "practicing" the lyrics (for what, the video? It's not a recording session), getting his hair styled. Now that has got to be the easiest hair styling job of all time. And whose outfit is sillier: Phil's blue vest and white shirt with khakis, or Philip's black leather pants and wool sweater?



Here's a riddle for the ages: what genre is "Easy Lover"? It's like the Mariah Carey of pop singles. It managed to make the R&B, Mainstream Rock, and Adult Contemporary charts. It is a genre without a home, forever roaming the '80s airwaves of our collective minds. Phil knows what I'm talking about. From a recent Rolling Stone interview:
I always loved Earth, Wind & Fire, and in 1984 I was asked if I would produce Philip Bailey's solo album. People were leaning on him, racially — "Don't come back with a white album. You're one of us." So Philip got Nathan East to play on it also. We hit some rocky ground early on, but we worked everything out. Near the end of the sessions, Philip said, "We haven't written anything together on this album."

So we just started having a jam one night, and went round and round and turned it into a verse and a chorus. We recorded it that night so we wouldn't forget it. That song doesn't sound like any particular era. It's just fantastic. The hip-hop brigade fell in love with me after "Easy Lover." They were like, "Where'd that come from? That ain't black music and that ain't white music. That's kind of an interesting color of beige."
So that's the name of its genre: "beige rock." Got a certain ring to it. Once again, a riveting story - if only it were the truth. Here's what really happened. From In The Air Tonight:
I was playing strip croquet with the Phenix Horns. We'd made a bet: if I won, they'd buy me a ten-pack of Japanese bondage videos, and if I lost, I'd have to produce Philip Bailey's solo album. Well, guess who lost?

It was a warm summer day in L.A. On my way to the studio I saw a girl in the Sears parking lot, reminded me of a chick I'd shacked up with a couple of years earlier back in Baltimore. Kitty. Said she was Geraldine Ferarro's cousin. A stone cold fox, with short black hair and a Daffy Duck tattoo on her thigh. But she never called me back.

So Philip was cool, we hung out in the studio, jammed a little, but no ideas were coming. I went to the bathroom to get a fix of the horsie juice, when I saw him pull out a little metal canister from his jacket.

"You want some Phil?"

"What is it?"

"Just some shit I like to sniff."

"You're a sniffer? I've done some solid sniffing in my day." I walked over to Philip and leaned in close. "I used to get these big cases of paint thinner, you know, just crack that shit open and take a big whiff."

"What brand do you use?"

"Crown mostly."

"Crown's good."

"Sometimes I go with Klean Strip."

"Klean Strip? Klean Strip's for kids, man."

"Really?"

"Yeah, don't mess around with that amateur crap. What you really want is Jasco."

"Hmm. Never tried Jasco."

"Now that shit will fuck you up. Just drop a little of it in your eyes. You'll be flyin' higher than the Milky Way."

"No kidding."

"But I'll let you in on a little secret. You really want to get fucked up, you go with varnish." He dangled his canister in mid-air.

"Varnish?"

"Ronseal is good, Minwax ain't bad, but Valspar will take you to the fuckin' promised land."

"You don't say?"

"Yeah man. I take a good solid sniff before every concert. How do you think I get that high fuckin' voice all the time?"

"I see."

"Yes sir. Me and Valspar have had some good times. Boy, last year, I was doin' a show in Baltimore, afterward I was back at the hotel with this bad bitch, she had like, this short black hair, we were crackin' open that varnish, I was pourin' it on her tits and sniffin' it right off, man. But she never called me back. She was no good, man. Total tease, but couldn't trust her for shit, you know?"

"I know just the type."

"Yeah, she had sort of this Daffy Duck tattoo on her thigh, said she was Geraldine Ferraro's cousin or something."

I did a double-take. "Wait, Kitty?"

"Yeah, that was it, Kitty! You know Kitty?"

"Do I know Kitty?" I shook my head in mutual disgust. "Hell yeah I know Kitty. She's a total tramp."

"Oh, tell me about it! You had Kitty too, huh? Well I'll be damned."

I stood back in reflection. "I mean, at first, she's like the kind of girl you dream of, dream of keeping hold of."

"Yeah, but better forget it, man. You'll never get it."

"She'll say that there's no other, 'till she just goes and finds another."

"Yeah! Right on, man. You know what she is, Phil?"

"What?"

"She's an easy lover."

We both glanced at each other. "That's it." Turns out Philip and I had been done wrong by the same skank. So it just flowed from there.

"We gotta warn other guys about her. Like, we gotta make them see."

"They're going to think they're going to change her, but they just need to leave her, get out quick, you know?"

"Man." I could see Philip was really getting eaten up ruminating about Kitty. "It's like ... she'll take your heart but you won't even feel it. How can she even do that? Bitch is crazy."

"And yet, you're the one that wants to hold her, right? And control her as well. I can't explain it."

"Better forget it, is all I gotta say. Ooh, you'll regret it. You getting all this, Nathan? This is gold, motherfucker, gold I tell you."

Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Walk Like An Egyptian," Glance Sideways Like A Short, Jewish Californian

All right, let's unroll this random papyrus scroll that's been sitting on my desk and see what we've got here:
In 1986, Dr. Pierre Fouchet and Dr. Wei-Yin Sing, on an archeological mission sponsored by the International Excavation Society, came across a heretofore undiscovered tomb twenty-seven miles from Cairo. There inside the ancient shrine, they spotted a jewel-encrusted chest. After gingerly wiping off the dust, they found a message scrawled in hieroglyphics, which their guide quickly translated for them:

"Ridiculous Pop Hit, Only To Be Released In The 1980s"

Dr. Fouchet pried open the chest with a crowbar, and a smattering of phrases, paired with a cartoonishly Middle Eastern melody, instantly filled the spidery cavern. The song quickly climbed its way out of the shrine and proceeded, like an oriental snake-charmer, to hypnotize the Top 40 airwaves of the day. Fouchet and Sing, sadly, were never heard from again.
I mean really now. Explain this to me:
All the old paintings on the tomb
They do the sand dance, don't you know
If they move too quick
They're falling down like a domino

All the bazaar men by the Nile
They got the money on a bet
Gold crocodiles
They snap their teeth on your cigarette

Foreign types with the hookah pipes say
Ay oh whey oh, oy oh whey oh
Walk like an Egyptian
Wait, who's doing the walking? What does "Ay oh whey oh" mean? Why does Vicki Peterson sound like she's from Minnesota all of a sudden ("dohn-cha know")? And did ancient Egyptians even have cigarettes? And who else would have hookah pipes aside from foreign types? I'm not done here:
The blonde waitresses take their trays
They spin around and they cross the floor
They've got the moves
You drop your drink then they bring you more

All the school kids so sick of books
They like the punk and the metal band
When the buzzer rings
They're walking like an Egyptian

All the kids in the marketplace say
Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh
Walk like an Egyptian
So are we still in Egypt? Does Egypt even have schools with buzzers in them? Or blonde waitresses? It never ends. What does Susanna have to say for herself? From a 2011 interview with MTV Hive (titled "The Bangles Never Made A Sex Tape"):
I have a question about “Walk Like an Egyptian.” I watched the video a lot as a teenager, and then at least a half dozen times preparing for this interview. For the life of me, I can’t figure it out. What the hell is that song about?

Well, we didn’t write it. And to be honest, we weren’t totally sure what it was about either.

I knew it!

It was written by this guy named Liam Sternberg, and I heard somewhere that it had something to do with a time he was on a ferry crossing a river somewhere in Europe. It was very windy or something, and there was waves, something was causing people to walk in a funny way. Apparently that was the inspiration.

I would accept that explanation if anywhere in the lyrics he mentioned “ferries” or “wind” or “waves.” But he doesn’t. It’s all gold crocodiles and cops in donut shops.

I know, it’s kind of vague. I just watched that movie To Kill a Mockingbird. And there’s a scene where Scout and her brother, I forget his name, says, “Let’s walk like Egyptians.” And then they do a funny walk. I watched that scene and I was wondering if maybe Liam had subliminally remembered that movie as a kid and maybe that’s where it came from.

But you don’t know?

I really don’t.

This interview is over!

[Laughs.] I’m sorry!
In another interview with the AV Club, she expands further:
I was up at Columbia on the A&R floor, talking to David Kahne about songs, and he said, “God, I’ve got this crazy song. It’s really cool—I don’t know what you’ll think of it, but …” So now I’m curious. I say, “Okay, play it for me.” So he played me a demo of Marti Jones singing “Walk Like An Egyptian.” Apparently Charlie Sexton had also covered it. It was written by Liam Sternberg, who was from Ohio and had some involvement with Chrissie Hynde from the early Ohio music days, the scene there. Anyway, great guy. So the song had been covered a couple of times or demoed a couple of times, but I heard the Marti Jones thing, and I was immediately struck by how cool it was. She did a really great vocal on it. It was very deadpan, very cool. I liked it. And I think the idea was that we were thinking, y’know, the album had a certain flavor to it, but it might be nice to have something with a very different kind of groove to it, a different attitude, just to kind of make the album seem more well-rounded in a certain way. I guess that’s what David was thinking. At any rate, the band decided, “Yes, let’s go for it. Let’s go ahead and record it.” And we recorded it at the Sound Factory.
And that should have been the end of that. But this was the '80s. And the '80s naturally said, "But wait, there's more!":
You know, as soon as I started having a copy to play for my friends, before it came out, I was amazed that so many people were struck by the song. I guess I had gotten familiar with it and had gotten past that first response where it struck me as very quirky but very original, but I never, ever thought it would be a single, so the reaction to it sort of surprised me initially. But it just sort of kept building. It was the third single on the record, and it ended up being maybe our biggest single in America. I don’t know, maybe “Eternal Flame” was bigger in Europe. But it really caught on. It was such a slow build, though ... It was a series of very unexpected things that just kind of all came together in just the right way to make that song a hit. I think it just genuinely caught on with people. I don’t think the record company even had to do that much. They sort of just let it happen. They had given up early on, because like I said, it was really slow. It was people calling into radio stations and requesting it. It started developing its own momentum, as I recall. That’s always good when that happens.
Is it? Is it???

Because "Walk Like An Egyptian" became the biggest thing ever. Although it hit #1 in December of 1986, due of the way Billboard compiles their year-end lists, it was named the #1 song for the entire year of 1987. "Walk Like An Egyptian" is one of those '80s songs people used to play to me in college, with a nostalgic grin on their faces, while saying, "Dude, the '80s!" I did remember hearing it a couple of times as a kid (not often), thinking it was funny, but in my college years I had little patience for such misplaced affection. However, as with many emblematic '80s hits, I didn't really care for it until I approached the decade with fresh ears about six years ago, and then I found that, no matter how hard I tried, I ... just ... couldn't ... resist.


I'm sure fans of the Paisley Underground Bangles already weren't too keen on the rest of Different Light, but "Walk Like An Egyptian" is definitely the point where they felt the Bangles jumped the shark. Honestly though - has jumping the shark ever felt so good? "Egyptian" genuinely reeks of that "anything goes" spirit. I think the key to its success is that the Bangles really commit to the absurdity. There's not a wink to be found. The Bangles don't sing it "silly"; they sing it like they'd sing anything else in their repertoire. They think they're doing a Kinks cover! They take this verbal mish-mash and they rock out.

There's also the fact that it seems to employ some sort of vaguely politically incorrect stereotype of "Middle Eastern" music. First of all, the song opens with a gong sound. Are gongs even ... Egyptian? Aren't they more Chinese, or Mongolian? Are we entering an opium den or something? And then there's this rhythmic "chopping" sound. What the hell is that? Is that like Egyptian guys doing karate? Where's Carl Douglas when you need him? And how about "Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh"? That's about as ethnically accurate as the Tomahawk Chop.

It's also impressive that, as much of a departure as the song is, the Bangles still manage to infuse it with their signature mid-'60s garage fuzz-rock verve. After all, quasi-middle eastern drones were all over the place in psychedelic rock. I'm not saying this could've been performed by the Yardbirds or the Strawberry Alarm Clock, exactly, but ... it's got that heavily reverbed, Bo Diddley groove to it, you know? It still works with the Bangles' whole aesthetic. It's like "Psychotic Reaction" or "Green Tambourine." It's far out, man. Best parts:
  1. Right after every "Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh," all the instruments drop out aside from the (synthesized?) tambourine, leaving each singer to seductively intone the title
  2. After Vicki's (impressively gnarly) guitar solo, the instruments drop out as they do in the chorus, but this time, the band simply whistles mysteriously for several seconds
  3. Once Susanna finishes her verse and the band kicks back in (at 2:56), there's this ... noise, it sounds like someone trying to ... unsuccessfully start a car?
I should note that on their biggest hit, the Bangles split up lead singing duties: Vicki took the first verse, Michael took the second, and Susanna took the third. This famously left out Debbie, who not only didn't get a verse, but didn't even play drums! (They used a drum machine.) She still won't shut up about it even today. From the band's VH-1 Behind the Music episode: "Yes, ironically it's the signature song! It's the song everyone always talks to me - my friends are like 'Walk Like an Egyptian'! I'm like 'Oh God, please,' you know, because, it's just, you know, unfortunately, had a lot of bad memories for me."

How did she ever cope with the terrible trauma?? Let it be said, however, that being given a verse on "Walk Like an Egyptian" may not have been quite the honor after all. From the MTV Hive interview:
What are you thinking about when you sing that song? What do the lyrics mean to you?

Mostly I’m thinking, “Please don’t let me forget the words!” I have forgotten the words during shows to such a degree that I plaster the stage with little Post-It notes, just in case. And it’s so bizarre because it only happens on the songs that I’ve been singing for thirty years. I could sing those songs in my sleep, and I probably do. But for some reason, I start tricking myself. It’s a mind game. I’ll be up on stage singing, and in the middle of a song this little voice in my head will go, “Who are you kidding? You only think you know this song. You’ve forgotten everything!” And sure enough, I’ll stumble on a line and I can’t find my way back.

I feel like I should test your lyric memory right now.

No! No!!

The panic in your voice tells me this is a good idea.

This is a terrible idea. Because you’ll probably trip me up and it’ll be really bad.

Let’s just do one “Walk Like an Egyptian” verse: “All the Japanese with their yen/ The party boys call the Kremlin.” What comes next?

Um. [Laughs.] See, it’s like the alphabet. If you start in the middle, you’re going to have trouble.

Do you want a hint?

No, no, I can do this. [Long pause.] Let’s see, let’s see. [Long pause.] It’s got to be in order! That’s my problem.

“And the Chinese know (oh whey oh)…”

“They walk the line like Egyptians!” [Laughs.] Thank you. It’s very complicated. It’s like a beat poem. I don’t know what Liam was thinking.
Another observation: the lyrics, with their quasi-rapping nature, feel like they should be sung by, I don't know, a British singer, or maybe a New Yorker, but the Bangles sound so ... Californian. They don't sound jittery enough, or something. It feels like David Byrne or Neil Tennant would have been able to pull it off more naturally. The Bangles kind of sound like they're about to go skateboarding. Listen to the way Michael Steele sings "then they bring ya more" or "when the buzz-ah rings"; she drops too many letters from the words. Susanna takes it even further, turning "if you want to find all the cops, they're hanging out in the donut shop" into "if you wanna find all the cops, they're hangin' out in the donut shop." It's also hilarious how she, perhaps unintentionally, sexes up these rather unsexy phrases, singing "And the Chinese know-uh" and "All the cops in the donut shop say-uh" with little extra breaths at the end, like she's still in "Manic Monday" mode:
Slide your feet up the street, bend your back
Shift your arm, then you pull it back
Life's hard you know (oh whey oh)
So strike a pose on a Cadillac

If you want to find all the cops
They're hanging out in the donut shop
They sing and dance (oh whey oh)
They spin the clubs, cruise down the block

All the Japanese with their yen
The party boys call the Kremlin
And the Chinese know (oh whey oh)
They walk the line like Egyptian

All the cops in the donut shop say
Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh
Walk like an Egyptian
Walk like an Egyptian
Which brings me, of course, to the video. It opens, unlike the studio recording, with the Bangles on stage, Vicki shouting fiercely into a microphone, "OK we're gonna do one more ... Yeah!" Wait, so is this the "real" video, or just some live footage? Oh no, it's the real video all right, just with a trendy pseudo "live" opening! As Debbie begins to shake that tambourine, the camera reveals that the Bangles have arrived, not from North Africa as stated, but apparently sub-Saharan Africa, as they seem to have just popped out of the jungle, their hair having mated with a particularly fluffy species of moss (Susanna's appears to have been dyed purple, but on closer inspection, that may just be the ridiculous back-lighting). At 0:40, the camera cuts to a studio shot of the girls in full Egyptian garb, which makes one realize just how short Susanna really is.



Over the course of the video, the camera takes us out of the concert hall and into the streets, where we are treated to the sight of various New York city-dwellers and passersby attempting to, as it were, "walk like Egyptians." This includes everyone from businessmen, window washers, firefighters, little old ladies, and dogs to, surprisingly, Princess Diana, Muammar Quaddafi, even the Statue of Liberty (!). All the cool kids are doing it!

And then of course, there are The Eyes. From that same MTV Hive interview:
How about that sideways glance you do in “Walk Like an Egyptian.” You know what I’m talking about?

Oh yeah yeah.

Your gaze shifts from right to left in that really flirty way. When I was 14, that absolutely killed me.

I guess it’s become an iconic moment in that video, and I didn’t even realize it was happening. We shot it in this soundstage warehouse in New York, and the audience was all contest winners from a radio show. I knew the camerawoman, Nancy Schreiber, because she’s worked with my mom before, who’s a filmmaker. Nancy was all the way in the back, somewhere behind the crowd, and I guess she was using a long lens because I didn’t even know she was filming me. I had this habit I’d adopted from touring, where I’d find one or two people in the audience and make eye contact with them during the entire show, just to anchor it. I’d single out a person to the left of me and a person to the right of me, and that’s who I’d sing to. And that’s what I was doing when we were shooting the video. But I had no idea the camera was so tight on my face.

So you’re like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, when she was all, “I didn’t know they were filming my beaver!”

[Laughs.] Right, right. And that’s the truth, sometimes you don’t know where the camera is. They don’t always tell you. And maybe it’s for the best. If the camera was really close, right up in my face, I would’ve been more nervous and self-conscious. It was just something that I do when I sing live, and I was caught in an unguarded moment.

Have you always known that your eyes were such a commodity?

I don’t know if I’d go that far.

I would. Do you ask for a crate of Visine in the Bangles contract rider?

What? No, no, no.

You get pink eye and the band is over.

[Laughs.] That’s so funny. No, there’s nothing like that. It’s interesting the things that people associate with the Bangles and with me. It’s all just part of the lore.
Indeed, I have heard it said, in ancient Egyptian mythology, that the eyes of the short Hebrew Bangle were known to be powerful enough ... to raise a mummy from the dead.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Early Solo Belinda Interview Highlights: "100 Percent" Nutty

It would appear that, in the days following her first solo album, life was treating the newly-minted Mrs. Mason well. Here's how she put it in Lips Unsealed:
I was in a good place, the best in years. I was most accurately described by my new catchphrase: 100 percent. I used it all the time. I was giving my career 100 percent. My attitude was 100 percent positive. I couldn't say I was 100 percent sober, since I allowed myself an occasional glass of wine.
Well, fair enough, but 100 percent doesn't leave much room for error. Maybe she could have gone with 96.2 percent? Doesn't have the same ring to it I guess. I might also add that perhaps she wasn't giving 100 percent effort to her catchphrase creativity. Nor would I say that she managed to be 100 percent articulate in interviews, as the following clips prove.

Here's an interview that's labeled as a segment from Solid Gold, but is (at least according to one of the YouTube comments), actually from America's Top 10 with Casey Kasem. Here we find Belinda in her Cybill Shepherd phase. I love how she passive-aggressively tries to tell the media to get off her back about her "hot new look":
I think "bubbly and effervescent" has, uh ... hopefully I don't come across that way because, um, that's what I'm trying to out- ... I mean, I've grown up, and I don't, I don't ... I mean, I can't help the way I look.
It's not my fault I'm gorgeous! Then Casey starts to give a little "inside scoop" on Belinda's weight "problems," and her follow-up explanation seems superficially mundane but is actually rather depressing:
Well, I uh ... started going to a nutritionist, and um, she sort of educated me about foods, and I - I tried to stick to her diet, but it didn't work, I don't like depriving myself of, um, cookies and sweets that I like, so what I did is, over the course of a year I just sort of ... pretty much stuck to, um, as well as I could to her diet, which was no sugars, and once in a while I'd ... I'd have a little bit of a binge but I try to keep the calories down and I exercise a heck of a lot.
This sounds soooooo psychologically healthy. I mean, this kind of mentality is perfectly sustainable over the course of several years, right? Honestly, with those entrancing eyes of hers, I'm tempted to believe anything she says.



Here's Dick Clark interviewing Belinda on American Bandstand after a (lip-synced) performance of "Mad About You". He asks Charlotte, "Do you still collaborate?" and Charlotte says "Yeah." He then turns to Belinda and asks, "You do a lot of writing and stuff?" Her technically not untrue answer is politician-worthy: "Well I try. Charlotte does a lot of the writing." As in, "I co-wrote the lyrics to one song on the album, but we don't need to go into that here." Also, apparently Belinda was remixed in London by William Orbit (??).



Here she is on The Tonight Show performing "I Feel the Magic" (live!). In the interview afterward (starting at 3:30), Belinda eagerly throws her punk heritage under the bus:
Johnny: You've changed. When you and the Go-Go's were really cookin', you had purple hair at one time, you wore trash bags as dresses ...

Belinda: I've come a long way since then.

Johnny: Yeah you sure have. Was that just a phase you were going through at the time?

Belinda: Um, well, I guess part of it was, um, rebellion ... and it just seemed fashionable at that time to, uh, wear trash bags and to be different.
Exactly! That's all punk was! A passing fad! Not an ideologically oppositional subculture intent on bringing back excitement, rawness, and political insight into pop music again. Just a silly fashion statement. Hi-Yo! Belinda and Johnny then spend the rest of the interview talking about - I kid you not - Belinda's desire to raise miniature pigs. What the hell was going on in there?



Here's a clip from an unnamed show with a host who is apparently in 9th grade, featuring liberal doses of the "Mad About You" and "I Feel the Magic" videos, but also some dynamite interview excerpts where Belinda crawls out from under her gigantic shoulder pads and pontificates on - once again - pig farming, being married, and being able to actually function as an adult. Here's how she describes a typical day:
So I get up every morning at 6:30am, and then I'm over at Jane Fonda's at about 8:00am in the morning, and then, um, I go shopping, and after that I usually go to lunch with friends, and then go shopping again in the afternoon.
So is this supposed to be a good day, or a bad day? It sounds like my idea of hell, but ... whatever floats your boat.
What I like about myself these days is, um, I'm finally becoming a responsible person. For years and years I never really took care of business, and never was really too on top of things, and I think, um, the challenge of being responsible is a ... big one for me and I'm finally doing it, taken about a year to get into it but I think I like the fact that I'm not a flake anymore.
Well, let's not jump the gun here. I also love how she describes "not running around being a completely drugged out space case" as if it's something to "get into," like how you'd get into a new band, or a new novel. At the end of the clip she holds up a giant gold record, which I'm thinking was probably just the third one I.R.S. Records had ever handed out.



Finally, we have an evocatively maritime PSA for R.A.D., an ad campaign I don't recall in the least, which apparently stood for "Rock Against Drugs," although I feel that would sort of be like creating an ad campaign called Politicians Against Corruption. I mean, isn't drugs what rock is all about? Belinda leans against the sand in her grey blazer, white tank top, and jeans, and solves drug addiction once and for all with these simple words:
I used to do drugs. And one morning I woke up, I looked in the mirror and I said "You look frightening." Nobody said "Quit." And nobody said "Stop or else." I got sick of it, so I quit. And now ... life's a beach!


Or is it? Favorite YouTube comments:
The funny thing is that she was off of cocaine at the time, but was doing pretty much anything else. And that makes this so much more awesome in retrospect.

Then I bought this oversized blazer and wore it to the beach

I'm like, Gee, this commercial would be much more effective if she just popped her tits out.

I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.
All right, all right, let's not pile on here. So perhaps Belinda got a little over-confident. But at least she was on the right track. Here's a suggestion: if you're a rock star, and you've only been off drugs for a year, and you're only 28 years old, don't make a PSA boasting about how sober you are, OK?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

If We Built This City, Can It Be ... Un-Built? AKA Nothing Screams "Dust Bowl" Like Corporate Synth-Rock

Woo! All right! No more worrying about those pesky, lingering ties to some old band named Jefferson Airplane. Pffftt. Now we can give the people what they want!

Fact: Jefferson Airplane had two big Top 10 hits in 1967. Jefferson Starship had several Top 40 hits, big and small, between 1975 and 1984. However, neither of those fine musical institutions ever managed to have a #1 hit.

Starship had three.

God either has A) a very twisted sense of humor, or B) very embarrassing taste in music.

Seriously though, what's the moral of the story here? Do the very thing you've struggled not to do for decades, and suddenly you'll be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams? Turns out Jefferson Starship's problem wasn't that they'd sold out; it was that they hadn't sold out enough.

On the other hand, time has a funny way of balancing the scales. "We Built This City" has occasionally received the distinction of being named "the worst song of all time." All time? That's a lot of songs. We're talking every caveman grunt, every biblical croon, every Nickelback growl. According to Wikipedia, most of these surveys laid out some ground rules:
The defunct magazine Blender's ranking of the song as the worst song ever was in conjunction with a VH1 Special of The 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs...Ever. In order to qualify for the distinction, the songs on the list had to be a popular hit at some point, thus disqualifying many songs that would by consensus be considered much worse. Blender editor Craig Marks said of the song, "It purports to be anti-commercial but reeks of '80s corporate-rock commercialism. It's a real reflection of what practically killed rock music in the '80s."

In 2011 a Rolling Stone magazine online readers poll named "We Built This City" as the worst song of the 1980s. The song's winning margin was so large that the magazine reported it "could be the biggest blow-out victory in the history of the Rolling Stone Readers Poll".
It's a landslide! I must now direct your attention to an article published in GQ last year, "An Oral History of 'We Built This City,' the Worst Song of All Time," featuring testimony from defendants such as songwriters Bernie Taupin and Martin Page (I'm afraid Heart's "These Dreams" may not have been their biggest 1985 pop music crime), producer and co-writer Peter Wolf, and Starship members Mickey Thomas, Craig Chaquico, and Pete Sears, among others. The jury's verdict? Guilty pleasure as charged! Highlights:
Craig Chaquico: Peter came to my recording studio in Mill Valley and played the demo for me. About a minute in, he hit the pause button and in his Austrian accent started to sing: “Vee built dis seety on vock and VOLL” ... Peter Wolf was a genius synthesizer player. The Synclavier was cutting-edge. We didn't feel like we were selling out; we felt like we were trying to land a man on the moon.

Peter Wolf: Journey was recording in the studio next door, and every time I opened the door, their band members were standing outside with their mouths open. “This is the Starship? It's unbelievable!”

Craig Chaquico: It's a very '80s track. I remember watching Miami Vice in between takes.

Pete Sears: That was the best song on the album, even though it's considered the worst song of all time. The rest were a load of crap.

Mickey Thomas: Bernie didn't say “mambo,” he said “mamba,” which is a snake. Marconi created the radio. Maybe Bernie meant to say “mambo.” Maybe it means: If you don't like this music, some really angry snakes are gonna come out of the speakers ... At one point I did start to sing “mambo,” to try and be more grammatically correct, and after a while I thought, “Fuck it,” and went back to “mamba.”

Craig Chaquico: Marconi's the guy who invented the radio, and his style of music was the mamba. But listen to the radio now. Do you hear any mamba? That's how I look at the lyric: Things change. I could be totally wrong.

Mickey Thomas: When the song went to No. 1, I said to Bernie, “More than ever, people are gonna ask what ‘Marconi plays the mamba’ means.” He said, “I have no fucking idea, mate.”

Craig Chaquico: The No. 3 song on that Blender list was “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” by Wang Chung, which Peter Wolf produced. I called him and said, “Dude, I'm on one of the worst songs ever, but you're on two. That's awesome!”

Martin Page: “We Built This City” is like Mickey Mouse. People want to knock it and they want to love it. It's iconic, like Mickey's ears. The moment it comes on, people go, “I know that. I love it.” Because people love Mickey.
That's certainly the first thing I think of when I hear "We Built This City": "I'm going to Disneyland!" Full disclosure: I'm probably in the camp of "awesomely bad." While I would never play the song by choice, I would certainly sing along to it at a karaoke night, especially when Grace Slick gets around to her hilariously-enunciated "Some-wunn always playyy-innng, cor-por-ay-shun-games!" I also love how the riff between the chorus and the verse sounds like it's being played by a giant pair of electronic scissors. But that's neither here nor there. I don't know if any one song can be declared "the worst song of all time," but back in 2009, my (part-time?) co-blogger Herr Zrbo dared to declare the video for "We Built This City" to be the "Worst. Video. Ever." Some choice excerpts:
First there's the montage of people's faces looking thoughtful and contemplative. Why are they looking so stern while lost in their innermost reflections? Why? Because they're all looking at the Lincoln Memorial of course! Now, I wasn't aware that Lincoln built this city, or country, on rock and roll. Actually, I'm pretty sure he didn't found much at all. And I'm damn 100% sure he didn't listen to rock and roll.

But then, what follows afterwards! I'm just going to call it folks, it's the MOST cringe-worthy moment in music video history of ALL TIME. As our oh-so-80s rebel protagonists look on in adoration at Lincoln, the statue comes to life, raises his fist, and sings the chorus! It's just so, so awful. Even in 1985 this scene must have been perceived as awful. Words can't honestly express how truly awful it is. Not only that but it's creepy as hell.

The video just proceeds to be awful from there on out. Grace Slick sings about corporations and how annoying it is that they're constantly changing their names (boohoo!), all set to the backdrop of... Vegas casinos?! I wonder if the band realized the irony in these lyrics, as Starship are well known for having changed their name multiple times. Then a bunch of people are running away from giant tumbling dice. Why? I guess those dice represent those pesky corporations and their pesky habit of changing their names.

Then there's the radio announcer part during the bridge. I think it's there to give some 'street-cred' to the band, but if you listen to what the announcer says it makes little sense. He starts with "looking out over the Golden Gate Bridge on another gorgeous sunny Saturday." Ok, that sounds pretty good. Then: "and I'm seeing that bumper-to-bumper traffic." Huh? If you're trying to get the the radio guy to hippen-up the song, do you really want him talking about bumper-to-bumper traffic? How about something like "and there's no traffic today!" My reaction to this part is something like "Bumper-bumper traffic?? Oh well, I'll just stay in today and let someone else build this city."
Zing! I don't have much to add, other than that for a video made in 1985, the blue screen technology seems laughably poor. Also notice how, after Abe Lincoln miraculously springs to life, the camera cuts back to the assembled onlookers, who act as if ... nothing remarkable has happened whatsoever! I mean come on people, Lincoln just sang the chorus of "We Built This City." At least give the man a courtesy clap.



Less maligned, although perhaps that may not be saying much, is "Sara," which hit #1 in early 1986 and does not feature Grace Slick singing ill-conceived lyrics in a comical way. "Sara" isn't actually good for much of a laugh at all, come to think of it. The weirdest thing about "Sara" is that it could have been by anybody: Mr. Mister, Survivor, Peter Cetera, Mike & The Mechanics ... pick a band, any band! Let's just say that in the pantheon of "Sara" songs, I think it's third banana to Fleetwood Mac's "Sara" and Hall & Oates' "Sara Smile," both chronologically and artistically. Forget about being in the same league; it might not even be in the same sport. If those other two "Sara" songs are like downhill skiing, Starship's "Sara" is more like curling.

I'll tell you what Starship's "Sara" doesn't make me think of, though: the Dust Bowl! That's right, the video was apparently directed by Dorothea Lange as part of the Works Progress Administration. I think "Sara" wins the award for "Best '80s Video Featuring A Tornado." Here's how Wikipedia describes it:
The music video for "Sara" prominently features actress Rebecca De Mornay and Thomas in a storyline about a relationship ending, on a Dust Bowl farm in the midwest, with frequent flashbacks to what is presumably Thomas's character's childhood and the tornado that wrecked his home.
Thomas's "character"? Mickey certainly does a nice job leaning against a fence post and staring off into the distance. And why does Rebecca De Mornay keep morphing into Thomas' salt of the earth mother? That's kind of ... fucked up. Strangely, I find both the black-and-white footage of his hard-scrabble youth and the imitation "home video" footage of modern-day Mickey and Rebecca horsing around oddly convincing, but they don't seem to mesh tonally. When I watch a Starship video, I expect tonal unity, damn it! The last shot is cool, but I think it's one video too late: that ominous dust cloud should have swallowed up the "We Built This City" video instead.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

This Is The Way Wham! Ends: Not With A Wham!, But With The Whimper Of Leftovers

Did Wham! even have to make an official break-up announcement? This might have been the most redundant break-up announcement of all time. From Wikipedia:
Michael was keen to create music targeted at a more sophisticated adult market rather than the duo's primarily teenage audience and therefore, Michael and Ridgeley officially announced the breakup of Wham! in the spring of 1986. Announcing the breakup, Michael said: "I think it should be the most amicable split in pop history."
Well sure! What was Ridgeley going to do? Refuse?
At London's Wembley Stadium on Saturday 28 June 1986, Wham! bade goodbye to their fans and each other with an emotional embrace at the end of its final concert. 72,000 people attended the eight-hour event, which included support artists, on a scorching hot day in London.
And the cosmos sighed just a tiny little sigh that warm summer day. Which leads us to the critical question: What do you do when your duo is splitting up and you've got a pile of random, incoherent leftovers in the can? The answer: For the UK market, tack the new songs onto Sides Three and Four of a double-LP greatest hits collection, and for the US market, slap together one more final "album" from a combo of new songs and stray odds and ends!

Sounds like a good plan to me. And so, Wham! didn't release a final album proper so much as 66.6% of a final album. In the UK and most of the globe, grieving Wham! fans received a greatest hits package called The Final, while in North America and Japan, they had to console themselves with the "album" Music From The Edge Of Heaven. Remember that one?

Imagine, if you will, a world in which "Careless Whisper" had never existed. Most of Wham!'s farewell material exists in such a world. In the minds of most George Michael-loving Americans, the true follow-up to Make It Big wasn't Music From The Edge Of Heaven, but Faith, in the same sense that the true follow-up to True Blue wasn't Who's That Girl, but Like A Prayer. George Michael fans are not easily fooled.

All right, well let's see what we've got here.

"I'm Your Man" was the biggest, if not the best, hit from this batch, charting at #1 in the UK and #3 in the US. It kind of sounds like a re-tread of "Freedom," which was just a retread of every Motown single from 1966, and its chorus of "If you're gonna do it, do it right" sounds like a retread of The S.O.S. Band's "Take Your Time (Do It Right)," but keep your expectations low and you'll have a good time. The video finds Wham! accidentally being booked at London's historic, and yet insultingly small, Marquee Club. Listen to George bitch to his manager over the payphone: "Eight million albums in the last six months, I don't understand why on earth we're playing at the Marquee." Also, don't miss the sleazy scalper with an odd (Caribbean?) accent: "Want ticket? Beautiful band, man, Jorge Miguel!"



"A Different Corner" was another one of those "Careless Whisper" deals where the song appeared on a Wham! album but was credited to George Michael on the single - even in North America! No "George Michael featuring George Michael" business this time. Although it was another UK #1 hit (and a US #7), I can't help but feel like he found a discarded Yazoo backing track in the dumpster outside the studio and recorded a vocal over it. It's like his way of saying "Hey everybody, I'm a sophisticated adult now" was to put as little instrumentation into the song as possible. I dunno, as super-minimalist George Michael songs where he plays all the instruments and where the video features him sitting alone in a room go, it's no "One More Try."



As a rubbery Prince pastiche, "Battlestations" could be considered a proto-"I Want Your Sex," complete with a "sexy George whispering" intro and a "random sexy woman whispering in French" outro, but it looks like the campiness meter was still resting around 5 or 6 at this point and hadn't been turned up to the necessary 9 or 10. I keep expecting Prince to chime in with "You don't have to be rich to be my girl" any second:
Monday was the worst day
And Friday wasn't my day
But Wednesday was the best day
Because on Wednesday night we made love
All I'm trying to give you is a good time honey
Why d'ya have to keep on playing games with my head
Used to be your baby when you had no money
Now we spend more time in battle
Than we ever do in bed

With its peppy horns and bass-voiced doo-wop intro, "The Edge Of Heaven" (promoted as Wham!'s "farewell single") sounds like the sinister step-child of "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." According to Wikipedia, "Michael has said the lyrics to the song were 'deliberately and overtly sexual, especially the first verse'. The reason for this, he says, was he thought no one would care 'because no one listens to a Wham! lyric. It had got to that stage.'"

Oh the injustice! Oh the inhumanity! No one was listening to Wham! for the lyrics! Fine, all right, so George snuck something outrageously explicit into it, thought he'd show his fans how stupid they were, eh? Let's see what X-rated nastiness he got away with:
I would lock you up
But I could not bear to hear you
Screaming to be set free
I would chain you up
If I'd thought you'd swear
The only one that mattered was me, me, me

I would strap you up
But don't worry baby
You know I wouldn't hurt you 'less you wanted me to
It's too late to stop
Won't the heavens save me?
My daddy said the devil looks a lot like you

You take me to the edge of heaven
Tell me that my soul's forgiven
Hide your baby's eyes and we can
You take me to the edge of heaven
One last time might be forever
When the passion dies
It's just a matter of time before my heart is
Looking for a home

I'm like a maniac, at the end of the day
I'm like a doggie barking at your door
So come take me back to the place you stay
And maybe we can do it once more

You say I'm dangerous
But don't worry baby
I get excited at the things that you do
And there's a place for us
In a dirty movie
Cause no one does it better than me and you
Wait. Where was the "overtly sexual" part again? "I would strap you up"? Eh, pretty mild. "Maybe we can do it once more"? "I'm like a doggie barking at your door"? I've heard worse in cereal commercials. Let's just say that, with "I Want Your Sex," George would finally recognize the wisdom of not beating around the bush.



So how did the record label fill out the edges of Music From the Edge of Heaven? Let's see ... a little "Wham! Rap '86" remix here, a little "Last Christmas" there, toss in an unreleased live song from the Beijing concert, and voila! Bon voyage, you noble soldiers of fortune. Professor Higglediggle writes:
Situated along the marginal divide between "farewell album" and "retrospective collection," the disjointed material assembled for the Music From the Edge Of Heaven and The Final releases further places Wham! at an ever-shifting artistic intersection of displaced cultural signifiers. The duo's refusal to generate a proper, ideologically unified "album" signaled their relational defiance to the mechanization of heterogeneity. Its schizophrenic mimesis is not generally noted in reviews, the All Music Guide referring to the US edition as "More of a hodgepodge of tracks than a coherent album," a judgement that conveniently ignores the duo's dogged commitment to avant-garde theory of the post-war period and the Situationalist International. Although one could argue that Wham! have been given just credit in many respects, in this particular respect, one could argue they warrant reevaluation, although we could not necessarily advocate a hollow formalist analysis of this type.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Robert Palmer Unintentionally Activates An Electrical Appliance AKA Maybe He Meant To Turn Some Women ... Off?

Before Janet Jackson, there was Cherrelle. Rather than being a hatchback automobile manufactured by General Motors, Cherrelle was actually an R&B singer and early protege of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. While she only had a couple of small pop hits, apparently she was all over the R&B charts, starting with 1984's "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On." Remember when '80s R&B still had a little bit of funk and disco in it? Yeah. However, the "tire screech" synth part is practically holding up a sign saying, "Help me! I've been kidnapped from Prince's '1999'! Please bring take me back! Pleeeeease!" Then there's the video, which appears to have utilized the most awkward special effects since the days of Ray Harryhausen. Ever seen a gorilla pop and lock? You have now.



For reasons not clear to me, Robert Palmer covered "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" on Riptide; when released as the follow-up single to "Addicted to Love" in 1986, it hit #2. You and I could sit here till the cows come home and debate which version is "better," but let's face it, both have their strengths. First of all, you've got to give the man some credit; he changed it up a bit. He added a whole new synth riff that doesn't sound like it's from "1999," but sounds more like, I don't know, a Vic 20 with epilepsy? And where Cherrelle came off as a bit solemn and diffident, Palmer comes off as genuinely apologetic and taken aback. Cherrelle sounded like she was folding the laundry; Palmer sounds like he's sexy and he can't help it, and he really wasn't paying attention, and, gosh, he genuinely didn't mean to turn you on, you know? Musically, while his version isn't arguably as funky, it's still pretty funky, goosed along, once again, by former Chic drummer Tony Thompson.

The video features the return of the "Addicted to Love" girls, who I presume have been practicing and are now much more capable? This time around, four elegant dancers in white dresses, black gloves, and chiffon boas have joined the proceedings, straight from the Ziegfeld Follies, and I believe they are actually "for real" dancing and not "miming" dancing. He's even got a glamorous sound and lighting crew!



As far as I can tell, most of Palmer's '80s peers considered him to be a pretty stand-up guy, but it turns out not everybody was particularly "turned on" by his charms. Take, for instance, his opening act, who I'm thinking may have landed the slot in 1986 due to a mutual Andy Taylor connection. From Lips Unsealed:
In June, I went on tour with Robert Palmer, who was having monster success with the chart-topping single "Addicted to Love." I was his opening act, and he was not very nice to me. He was aloof, condescending, and dismissive. He spoke to me only once during the entire month we traveled together and that was to ask if I had any drugs. I didn't. It was the first time I could ever say no. He shrugged, walked away, and never had anything to do with me again.
Damn it, Belinda! You blew it! You got sober too soon. You totally missed your chance to bond with Robert Palmer!

Priceless. Opening act for Robert Palmer? He probably thought she was just a disposable little simpleton. "How dare they pair me up with that silly L.A. fluff muffin!" He, on the other hand, was an artist, a man who played R&B music, real music, like ... "Addicted to Love," OK?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Against All Odds, Phil Crafts A Break-Up Ballad Behemoth AKA The Backstage Oscar Tantrum That Broke The Camel's Back

I've never seen Against All Odds, but apparently it's a re-make of the 1947 film noir classic Out Of The Past, which I recently re-watched on TCM, so does that count? I think my favorite line is when Robert Mitchum's character is explaining to his innocent love interest what the femme fatale is like. His "sweet" girl says, in an effort to be generous, "No one's all bad," and Mitchum replies, "No, but she comes closest." I digress. Apparently, Against All Odds turns the Robert Mitchum character into a professional football star played by Jeff Bridges. Sign me up!

Clearly a twisted plot needed a twisted theme song. Like any self-respecting '80s recording artist, Phil Collins realized it was time to jump into the soundtrack fray. Surely he had another weepy ballad inspired by his divorce still hanging around somewhere? Hey, wait a minute, what about that old demo from the Face Value sessions called "How Can You Just Sit There?" A little revision here, a little alteration there, slip the movie title into the chorus, and presto! Here's what he said in a recent Rolling Stone interview:
This is another song that's been a ring around my neck. It was written around the same time as "In the Air Tonight," but I discarded it. A couple of years later, I was asked to write a song for the movie called Against All Odds. I was really hot at the time, and they said, "Have you got a song for this movie of ours?" I said, "I'm not able to do it on the road, but I have a demo of this ballad." It was basically like saying, "Here's $10 million. Would you want it?"

I had already written the lyrics, before I saw the film. When I think about the movie, the first thing that comes to mind is the size of Rachel Ward's breasts. I thought they were fantastic. I like Jeff Bridges, too.
Good old Phil, always reliable for a deep insight or two. And yes, Jeff Bridges's breasts were also fantastic.



So let's see, what've got here? The piano (and vibraphone?) introduction is like the calm before the storm. And this is going to be one raging fucking storm, let me tell you. After a pregnant pause, the man enters:
How can I just let you walk away
Just let you leave without a trace
When I stand here taking every breath
With you, ooh ooh
You're the only one who really knew me at all

How can you just walk away from me
When all I can do is watch you leave
Cause we've shared the laughter and the pain
And even shared the tears
You're the only one who really knew me at all
Come on Phil, is she seriously "the only one who really knew [you] at all"? Not your parents, your siblings, your bandmates? Guilty of a little exaggeration here, aren't we?  He's totally turning himself into this helpless, pathetic victim. "How can I just let you walk away"? Just lock the door, put a chair in front of it or something. "Just let you leave without a trace"? I'm sure there's a trace. Maybe a receipt from JC Penney? That half-eaten box of Triscuits? "When all I can do is watch you leave"? How about blackmail her new lover? Slash his tires? There's all kinds of shit you can do.

And another thing: has anyone ever noticed that these lyrics don't actually rhyme? He's employing this incredibly simple A/B/C/B rhyming scheme, but he can't even bother with that. Look at the first verse. "Trace" doesn't rhyme with "you." What the phuck, Phil. Sorry, "leave" doesn't rhyme with "tears." The sad part is, there's a perfect rhyme for "leave" that means the same thing as "tears": "grief." "And even shared the grief." I mean, how lazy do you have to be here? At least he bothers to rhyme "space" with "face" on the chorus, even though he does it twice in a row:
So take a look at me now
There's just an empty space
And there's nothing left here to remind me
Just the memory of your face

Ooh take a look at me now
Well there's just an empty space
And you coming back to me is against the odds
And that's what I've got to face
The truth is, Phil brings so much unstoppable vocal passion to the proceedings, it's clear the rhyme scheme is the last thing on his mind. He probably didn't even notice the strings coming in at the start of the second verse (but I did). I just want to enter this song, put my arms around Phil, and tell him, "It's OK, bro, you don't need that ho." Or maybe someone needed to tell Phil that he wasn't the first person to ever write a break-up song. Then again, maybe that would have ruined his shameless level of emotional commitment. I mean, here is a man so fragile, so abandoned. And he really wants his ex to know it too. It's not just, "I feel like shit," it's "I want to you stop whatever it is that you're doing right now and see the absence of matter in my house. That space right there, it used to be occupied by solid molecules, and now there is literally nothing there. I just want you to soak in, on a pure, visceral level, the shriveling wreck of a human that I've become. Just look at me, bitch. That is all."

A minute and thirty seconds go by, and I know what you're thinking: "If this is a Phil Collins song, then where are the mother fucking drums?" Don't worry, Phil's got your back. At 1:35, first comes one thwack, and then another, and he draws it out nice and slow, like a tender massage from a sensual lover, until he finally locks into a deafening groove. Note, also, the army of Phils who descend from the ether on "turn around and see me cry," like the spectral spirits of so many love-scarred yuppies. Up until now, it seems like Phil is cruising the vocal highway at top speed, but right around 2:12, you finally realize that he'd merely been taking this Jaguar for a test drive. "There's nothing LEFFFFT here!" Whoa. Dude. Phil clenched his fist so tight on that one that when he opened it again, I swear some blood came out. Then at 2:23, he gives a "cause THERRRRRES!" so abdominal-pinching that I'm almost certain he let out a little nugget of poop. At 2:35 he's so overcome with passion, his body convulsing uncontrollably, it almost sounds like he's stuttering as he lets rip a "Take-a-good-look-at-me-naaaooo-haaaoo-haaaooo!" The man's gotta be out of gas, right? He's got nowhere to go but down, surely? Oh, my friends, you underestimate Phil at your own peril. Because at 2:39, he lets out a "cause I-I-I-I-I'll" so intense, so primal, I'm pretty sure that his ex-wife heard it all the way from her Mediterranean vacation home. He begins to calm down, but like a devastating rain storm that still has one last gust in it, he manages, one final time, to go back into that place of terrible, terrible pain at 2:45 ("And you coming back! to me"). Now the hurricane has truly dispersed. Everyone can go back to their homes. Send in the Coast Guard. Let the clean-up begin.

Oh Phil cleaned up all right - on the Billboard charts, that is. "Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)" became the first of seven US #1 singles for our diminutive hero. "In the Air Tonight" may seem ubiquitous now, but I think its ubiquity evolved over time. It was with "Against All Odds" where the floodgates (floodgated drumming?) truly opened. Two comments on the video: 1) How much fruit-flavored syrup could they have possibly used to create that majestically multi-colored waterfall behind Phil? OK, fine, I guess it was just water with fancy lighting. You got red, blue, green ... I mean, I just want to dip my snow cone under that waterfall, you know? 2) Right when he sings "And you coming back! to me," he gives the moment the almost mandatory fist-clench it deserves.


Sure enough, Oscar knew a middle of the road winner when it heard one. Just one problem: they didn't actually let Phil perform the song during the telecast. Now let me make one thing clear: when I die, I hope they bury me with my DVD copy of All That Jazz, but ... Ann Reinking doing a dance routine version of "Against All Odds"? From a recent story in Rolling Stone:
Phil Collins was so overjoyed when "Against All Odds" got nominated for an Academy Award in 1985 that he re-routed his Australian tour so he could fly in to attend the event. The song was his first Number One in America and he was thrilled to have the chance to perform it at the Oscars in front of a worldwide audience of millions. Then he got the bad news: The Academy wasn't going to let him sing it at the 57th Annual Academy Awards, offering the dubious argument that this was a movie event and thus only movie people would perform. Even though he was one of the biggest stars in the world at this point and would be in the audience, eager to play, he'd have to sit there and watch dancer Ann Reinking deliver the tune.

He walked into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with his head high, telling reporters on the red carpet that he looked forward to seeing Reinking's take on the song. Then the show started. Not only was Deniece Williams allowed to sing "Let's Hear It For The Boy" from Footloose, but Ray Parker Jr. was permitted to sing "Ghostbusters." He sat in his chair and stewed, and his anger only grew when he saw Reinking lip sync part of the song as she did a ridiculous, cheesy dance with a male partner. Stevie Wonder won the Best Song Award for "I Just Called to Say I Love You," and when Rolling Stone caught up with Collins the next morning he was still fuming.

"It was awful," he said of Reinking's performance. "But I'm glad I didn't sing the song now, after what they did to Ray Parker." He then turned his attention to Stevie Wonder. "He is one of my heroes, but I have serious doubts about whether or not that song was actually written for the film," he said, before offering an explanation for why Wonder won that he probably regrets: "He's blind, black, lives in L.A. and does a lot for human rights."


Fuckin' Stevie Wonder, such a sympathy pick (and what exactly did they do to Ray Parker, Jr.?). Sounds like Oscar really screwed Phil over - if you listen to the public story, that is. What really happened, of course is even more shocking. From In The Air Tonight:
I got into town the night before to do the rehearsal. My boys were supposed to be there with my shit - not just the horsie juice, but some exotic fuckin' junk. We're talking seal tranquilizer, walrus antiseptic - there was this guy we knew in Santa Monica who had connections with the Coast Guard you wouldn't believe. But I got to my dressing room, nothing was there. And I mean, I needed something, you know? It was a bitch of a flight, I'd had some quiche that wasn't agreeing with me ... I was on a razor's edge. A pair of producers knocked on my door, so I cracked it open.

"Mr. Collins, you're scheduled to do a soundcheck at 8:30pm. You think you'll be ready?"

"Fuck off."

"Umm, Mr. Collins, excuse me?"

"I said fuck off!"

"So ... you're not quite ready yet?"

"I'm ready all right - ready to shove a fuckin' ice pick down your fuckin' throat!"

"Mr. Collins is there something the matter?"

"Where's my shit? I'm not singing a fucking note until I get my shit!"

"I see. We have some hors d'oeuvres in the lobby."

"I can't get high on fuckin' crab cakes!"

One producer whispered to the other. "I'm not sure he can go on."

"Fuck this ..." I threw a champagne bottle. "... fuck this ..." I threw an imitation statuette. "... and fuck this ..." I threw a rotary phone.

"Bob, do you want to call security?"

"You want your Oscar?" I proceeded to drop my trousers and point to my nether regions. "I've got your Oscar right here!"

"I think we're going to have to go with Plan B. Get that dancer on the phone."

I wagged my dick in the air. "Take a look at me now, eh?" Emboldened, I pulled out a ninja star from my jacket pocket - I used to always have a couple of those around - and I chucked it right between one of those fellows' legs, where it lodged itself into the door with a distinct thwaaaaang.

"Well, Mr. Collins, thank you for coming, but I think we'll need to make alternate plans."

So they had that stupid Broadway dancer go out there instead. It was my fault, really. But I made up some story about the Oscars not allowing me to perform - which was technically true, I suppose.