Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Allnighter: Glenn Frey, Yuppie Sex God

(Note: For some reason, Mr. Frey and/or his legal team have put a copyright claim on all YouTube clips featuring songs from The Allnighter, which is odd, considering every song from No Fun Aloud is readily available on the site, and considering this album is 30 years old and wasn't even that popular when it came out. Why The Allnighter, Glenn? Why? Think of all the top-notch publicity Cosmic American Blog was about to give your sleazy 1984 opus! Nonetheless, I have decided to go ahead with my post, and if at some point these tracks pop up on YouTube, I'll just add them in later. In the meantime, if you're simply too curious, you can acquire the discussed recordings using your medium of choice.)

Although he'd already smothered himself in plenty of vaseline on No Fun Aloud, for his second solo album, The Allnighter, Glenn Frey slid even further into his unique soft-core L.A. universe. This album is like ten different Viagra commercials. What I really want to know is: what, exactly, inspired Frey pick up his guitar and think, "You know what the music scene really needs right now? It needs this." I picture him listening to a Prince record and feeling the thrill of competition. "He thinks he can make sexy music? I can make sexy music."

At first glance, the title track seems to be about L.A.'s most inexhaustible gigolo, but I'm starting to think it's actually about a vibrator. Tell me what you think:
Lonely girl, rainy night
Lookin' for that number
She needs someone to treat her right
There's plenty of men she could call
But she wants him most of all
Oh God, I hope he's home tonight
She needs a love from a real exciter
She needs the allnighter

The allnighter
He's the one, the one she calls
When she gets that feeling
Some nights she just can't stop herself
He's tough and tender, a soul bender
Ain't no service he can't render
He touches her like nobody else
He brings out the love, love, love deep inside her
He's the allnighter

Now when all the stimulation lets you down, down, down
And there ain't no medication layin' around, 'round, 'round
Ya feel your little heart begin to pound and pound
He's a satisfier of that one desire

Other guys come and go
They may try, but they don't know
Every girl needs special care
Oh, he's so bad, he's so good
He makes it feel just the way it should
Nobody else can take her there
He's the real thing, the pure delighter
He's the allnighter
"There's plenty of men she could call/But she wants him most of all"? "He's tough and tender, a soul bender"? I'm sure there are some supremely bendable sex toys around. "Every girl needs special care"? "Nobody else can take her there"? I think I'm on to something.

Then there's "Sexy Girl," which climbed all the way up to #20 on the strength of it's Huey Lewis-esque bouncy beat and biting guitar fills, but here's a general rule for aspiring songwriters: if you have to put the word "sexy" in your song title, your song probably isn't very sexy (see: Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"; Air's "Sexy Boy"). Here, Glenn composes a slightly toned down Penthouse Forum letter in which he shares with us his good fortune in real estate matters:
She moved in next door to me
And she showed me her world
What a neighbor
Thanks for the favor
She's a very sexy girl

She's a sexy girl (sexy girl, sexy girl)
She's a very sexy girl
She's a sexy girl (sexy girl, sexy girl)
She's a very sexy girl

I got a feeling I can't go wrong
'Cause every time I see her
It's like hearing my favorite song
She's already down the steps
She's way down the block
But my heart keeps beating faster
And it just won't stop

I love to take her walkin'
And when we started talkin'
I'd tell her she's the finest I've ever seen
She'd look into my eyes,
But then I'd realize
I'm holding on to a dream

Stop any man walking down the street
Ask him what kind of girl he'd like to meet
There's not one thing in the whole wide world
He'd rather see than a sexy girl
At least the video (currently muted, but screw it, I'm embedding it anyway) is a little more realistic: when Frey shows up to the girl's door with a bottle of champagne, she says hello ... and so does her football jersey-wearing boyfriend. Still, Glenn makes less of a spectacle of himself than the fat, balding, Hawaiian shirt-wearing neighbor whose garden hose mimics his erectile behavior.

But it's not all fun and Hustler on The Allnighter. With "Smuggler's Blues," perhaps the musical step-child of his buddy Bob Seger's "The Fire Down Below," Frey spins a bluesy drug dealing tale so gritty it would make Tony Montana blush:
There's trouble on the streets tonight
I can feel it in my bones
I had a premonition
That he should not go alone
I knew the gun was loaded
But I didn't think he'd kill
Everything exploded
And the blood began to spill

So baby, here's your ticket
Put the suitcase in your hand
Here's a little money now
Do it just the way we planned
You be cool for twenty hours
And I'll pay you twenty grand

I'm sorry it went down like this
And someone had to lose
It's the nature of the business
It's the smuggler's blues

The sailors and pilots
The soldiers and the law
The pay offs and the rip offs
And the things nobody saw
No matter if it's heroin, cocaine, or hash
You've got to carry weapons
'Cause you always carry cash

There's lots of shady characters
Lots of dirty deals
Every name's an alias
In case somebody squeals
It's the lure of easy money
It's gotta very strong appeal

Perhaps you'd understand it better
Standin' in my shoes
It's the ultimate enticement
It's the smuggler's blues

See it in the headlines
You hear it ev'ry day
They say they're gonna stop it
But it doesn't go away
They move it through Miami
Sell it in L.A.
They hide it up in Telluride
I mean it's here to stay

It's propping up the governments
In Columbia and Peru
You ask any D.E.A. man
He'll say "There's nothin' we can do"
From the office of the President
Right down to me and you

It's a losing proposition
But one you can't refuse
It's the politics of contraband
It's the smuggler's blues
If you're thinking this practically sounds like an episode of Miami Vice, well ... so did the producers of Miami Vice. According to Wikipedia, "The single 'Smuggler's Blues' helped to inspire the Miami Vice episode of the same name, and Frey was invited to star in that episode, which was Frey's acting début." I'm not sure if the video is a truncated version of the episode or something else entirely, but you know what? He's not half bad!

But if "Smuggler's Blues" gives the listener an impression of moral ambivalence, on "Better In The U.S.A.," Frey picks a side and he ain't afraid to admit it. Perhaps he heard Don Henley's "Them And Us" and thought, "You what Don? I can do a better Cold War song than you can." When the Beatles recorded "Back In The U.S.S.R." and turned it into a Chuck Berry/Beach Boys pastiche, they were joking. But Glenn decided to write the same exact kind of song about the U.S., and I think he was actually serious. "Better In The U.S.A." reads like a Fox News rant about how liberals should stop complaining about all of America's flaws because, hey, Russia's worse! Well, the Soviet Union probably was worse, but that's not saying much. This might have made a good television short narrated by Charlton Heston, but as an '80s pop song, it's kind of awkward:
Well, they look to the east, they look to the west
The Third World wonders, which way's the best
We got freedom, we got soul
We got blue jeans and rock 'n' roll

Man there ain't no choice
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better in the U.S.A.)
You can be what you want
Say what you wanna say (It's better in the U.S.A.)
How can I make you understand
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better in the U.S.A.)

I hear the same propaganda, day after day
It's gettin' so hip, to knock the U.S.A
If we're so awful, and we're so bad
You oughta check the nightlife in Leningrad

Man it ain't even close
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better in the U.S.A.)
If you could see behind the curtain
Life is cold and gray (It's better in the U.S.A.)
How can I make you understand
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better, it's better)

Nobody's perfect and change comes slow
It's really up to you which way you wanna go
You can move to the left or move to the right
You can stand in the dark, you can stand in the light

Drivin' on the beach on a night in June
Me and my baby and the lover's moon
We're playin' sweet soul music, got it turned up loud
Makes me feel so good, makes me feel so proud

Man there ain't no choice
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better in the U.S.A.)
They'd be movin' here from Moscow
If they could only find a way (It's better in the U.S.A.)
How can I make you understand
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better)

We got burgers and fries (In the U.S.A.)
We got the friendly skies (In the U.S.A.)
We got the beautiful girls (In the U.S.A.)
They got the beautiful curls (In the U.S.A.)
We're drivin' beautiful cars (In the U.S.A.)
We're diggin' movie stars (In the U.S.A.)
We get to make romance (In the U.S.A.)
We let the little girls dance (In the U.S.A.)
It's better baby!
Nice sweater, baby
What'd you say, you and me go for a little drive?
Come on
Leave it to Glenn Frey to turn a patriotic anthem into an excuse to pick up an unsuspecting female.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday": Where The Soul Of Aerobic Rock Dances Eternally In The Cosmos

Ten million light years from now, when the Bleeblox species of the planet Yurkurk in the Beta Luxus System can barely receive any signal from 1980s Planet Earth, when all the last remnants of '80s culture have been swallowed up by the inevitable pull of dark matter, only a few musical blips will remain. "Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday" will be those blips.

These three singles are indestructible. Sledgehammer, chainsaw, liquid nitrogen - no weapon that currently exists could destroy them. Whatever it is that makes up this beast we call "80s music," these three singles contain its secret essence. Someone who did not know anything about '80s music, and listened to these three singles, and didn't like them, would probably never like '80s music.

To be honest, I used to not like "Lucky Star" very much either. Yeah, it was on the Immaculate Collection, but whenever I made Madonna "best of" mixes for my friends, I usually left it off. Of course, I was an idiot, and must now beg forgiveness from the dance pop gods for offending them so. What once sounded gratingly simplistic and annoying now sounds delightfully uncomplicated and infectious. Question: is the gurgling synthesizer at the start supposed to make us think of a "star"? Or maybe it's Madonna's subtle homage to the Who's "Baba O'Riley"? Honestly, I don't have much to say about "Lucky Star" that hasn't already been said better by AMG's Stewart Mason in his song review (previously referenced by Zrbo in the comments section of my old post on "Into The Groove" from about five years ago), other than that "Borderline" was apparently released after "Lucky Star." Well, no AMG writer's perfect:
Madonna had released four singles before "Lucky Star," with "Holiday" and "Borderline" reaching the Billboard Top 20 and "Everybody" and "Burning Up" doing less well. "Lucky Star" had been the song that got Madonna signed to Sire Records in the first place, however, and it would be her commercial breakthrough, reaching number four in the summer of 1984 and becoming one of her defining early hits, thanks hugely to a simple but powerfully effective video that simply showed Madonna, with a pair of backup dancers, showing off both her moves and her body against a simple white backdrop. As a video, it's about 500 times sexier than the entire Sex coffee table book. As a song, "Lucky Star" just feels slight on casual exposure, but a closer listen makes it sound downright minimalist, and consciously so. A simple chorus based on an everyday children's rhyme, sketchy verses that seem to have no function other than to propel the song into that chorus, and a funky guitar-and-electronic-percussion bridge, the song is dead simple and given an absolutely bare-bones arrangement and antiseptically clean production, but for some reason, it works. It's near impossible to hear this song without dancing, even if you don't look one-hundredth as good as Madonna while you're doing it.

Although I do find the video compelling, I can't help but feel that Madonna ... creeps me out a little. She's like the Denny's of Sexy: sure, it gets the job done, but where's the warmth? While ostensibly trying to praise her artistry, some of the intellectuals quoted on the song's Wikipedia page might unintentionally confirm my opinions:
Author Peter Goodwin, in his book Television Under the Tories: Broadcasting Policy 1979–1997, commented that although "Lucky Star" is not a narrative video, in the clip Madonna plays at least four characters:—the person in sunglasses looking; a break-dancing girl; an androgynous social dancer; and a seductress. The juxtaposition of all these characterizations portray Madonna as a narcissistic self-lover. Images of Madonna's body writhing against the white background generates the question whether she is addressing her lover or herself in the song. According to Goodman, Madonna creates an eroticized woman for her own pleasure only. Time noted that "[s]he's sexy, but she doesn't need men [...] she's kind of there all by herself."
Then what does she need us for? Oh who cares, it's still a great single. On the album, the silence following the fade of "Lucky Star" is broken by a gentle, lightly ringing keyboard intro, reminiscent of the one at the start of Stephanie Mills' "Never Knew Love Like This Before." Mason writes:
"Borderline" ... is a pure treasure, one of those unabashedly commercial pop songs that also manages to at least hint at deeper emotions ... Slower in tempo than the rest of the album, but with enough of a backbeat and a wiggly synthesizer bass line to keep it from being a ballad, "Borderline" hits a slinky groove from its vibraphone-like intro all the way to the throaty scatting Madonna does just as the song starts its fade out.
Well, I do tend to cringe slightly every time she sings "Keep pushing me-uh, keep pushing me-uh, keep pushin' my luuh-huuv..." Keep pushing what, Madonna? Oh, you mean keep pushing your genitals? Don't know where I got that idea. After having spent years listening to the Immaculate Collection mix of "Borderline" (which, as far as I can tell, is not too different from the single mix), these days I really enjoy listening to the slightly longer, less over-exposed album mix.

Some of the key differences:
  1. There's a drum machine in the right channel that is more prominent in the album mix. Usually (watch in disbelief as I attempt to demonstrate my knowledge of musical terminology) a drum machine will place the accent on the second and fourth beats in the measure. But what I love about this drum machine in "Borderline" is that the accent is on the first beat of the measure. You'd think that would be really annoying, but I am totally into it. The thing is, the more prominent drum machine in the center channel is still placing the accent on the second and fourth beats, so the sense of "conventional" rhythm is still there, but there's an unusual sense of contrast. Oh yeah!
  2. In the single mix, right after the line "Cause you've got the best of me," there's a prominent synthesizer riff, but on the album version, that riff is missing. This should bother me, but I'm kind of digging the empty space right there.
  3. There are several extra lines of lyrics that were edited out of the single mix, mostly beginning around the 4:00 mark, featuring such probing insights as "Keep on pushing me baby/Don't you know you drive me crazy," "Look what your love has done to me/Come on baby, set me free," and "You cause me so much pain, I think I'm going insane/What does it take to make you see?" It's like hidden easter eggs on the DVD!
The reason you can tell "Borderline" was released after "Lucky Star" is because it has a genuine video with an actual budget, although I don't know if bigger equals better. According to Wikipedia, there was an actual plot this time:
The accompanying music video portrayed Madonna with a Latin-American man as her boyfriend. She was enticed by a British photographer to pose and model for him, but later returned to her original boyfriend ... Posing for the photographer, Madonna looks towards the camera with challenge in her eyes thus depicting sexual aggression. At one moment in the video, she starts spraying graffiti over some lifeless classical statues thus portraying herself as a transgressor who breaks rules and attempts at innovation. With the video Madonna broke the taboo of interracial relationships. Although at first it seems that Madonna denies the Hispanic guy in favour of the photographer, later she rejects him thus implying her desire to control her own sexual pleasures or going over the established pop borderlines with lyrics like "You just keep on pushing my love, over the borderline". The contrasting image of Madonna, first as a messy blonde in the Hispanic sequence and later as a fashioned glamorous blonde, suggested that one can construct one's own image and identity ... The British photographer and his studio is decorated with the classical sculptures and nude statues holding spears in a phallic symbol. In contrast, phallic symbols portrayed in the Hispanic neighbourhood included a street lamp which Madonna embraces and a pool cue held erect by Madonna's boyfriend.
Eh. I prefer the videos where she's just doing her aerobic dance moves with her club buddies. Just look at the way she stares at the camera during the "da da da" fade-out. Yes, Madonna, I can see you there.

Finally, there is "Holiday." I've probably said this about an '80s song before, and I'll probably say this about an '80s song again, but this time, I mean it: "Holiday" is the perfect '80s song. And can you ask for a more perfect "first hit"? Although it only originally peaked at #16, the radio kept on playing it and playing it and they've never really stopped. It's kind of sad to think that Madonna never topped her first hit, but hey, the Pet Shop Boys never topped theirs either. Again, after listening to the Immaculate Collection mix for so long, hearing the original version is like tasting chocolate chip ice cream for the first time - all over again. The intro alone is its own scoop of perfection:
  1. It all begins innocently enough, with the basic keyboard melody (perhaps owing something, as I mentioned a couple of years ago, to ABC's "The Look Of Love") plus the drum machine and imitation tambourine (?) for the length of one bar. Promising, very promising.
  2. Ah, but then another keyboard comes in, playing a much higher riff, in the second bar, sounding like hot fudge being poured over your already delicious sundae.
  3. There's an emphatic, synthesized "bwonk," and the rhythm ... explodes.
  4. We've now got a cowbell in the left channel (according to Wikipedia, played by Ms. Ciccone herself!).
  5. Also, the entrance of the bass line, which, as everyone knows, is the bass line to end all bass lines.
  6. These additions stand alone for two bars, but then a chicken scratch guitar straight from Parliament's "Flash Light" jumps in on the right channel, and another synthesizer trying to sound like a guitar spreads itself across both channels.
  7. Two more bars pass, and the apathetic ladies come in. Mason writes, "In the tradition of Chic's very similar 'Good Times,' Madonna sings the 'Holiday/Celebrate' chorus so completely deadpan that it sounds like she's being sarcastic ..."
And so, an entire minute and five seconds has passed before Madonna has even started singing. Houdini himself never devised such an entrance. By this point, the song can do no wrong. A little staggered vocal overdubbing here ("If we took a holiday/Ooh yeah, ooh yeah"), a little Latin salsa piano there ... it goes on for six freaking minutes and I wouldn't change a thing. A thing. Not even some Yoko Ono caterwauling could kill this vibe.

I'm not sure the same level of praise can be directed toward the video, however. There may be no larger discrepancy between the level of familiarity with a hit single and its accompanying music video than in the case of "Holiday." I'm getting conflicting information as to whether this was even released, and Madonna probably issued a court order requesting that it be wiped from the earth, but here it is. Boy, this video is cheap - cheaper than even "Lucky Star." It makes "Everybody" look like Raiders Of The Lost Ark. There are a total of about three different camera angles. And here's the real question: why are they dancing in front of Ichabod Crane's bedroom? The whole thing feels like they just wanted to film it and get it over with so they could hurry up and go take a holiday.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Bangles: That "Other" '80s Girl Band AKA If Pope Francis And Jesus Had A Fistfight, Who Would Win?

Everybody lumps the Go-Go's and the Bangles together. Somewhere in the world, somebody just did exactly that, maybe like five seconds ago. A lot people probably don't even know which band came first, although it's really not that hard. True, they were both all-female bands, they were both active in the '80s, and they both enjoyed roughly the same amount of commercial success. You're probably thinking I'm about to tell you the similarities end there. Actually, they don't.

Like the Go-Go's, the Bangles started out as part of a very specific Los Angeles alternative music scene. In the case of the Go-Go's, that scene was L.A. punk, but in the case of the Bangles, that scene was the delightfully named Paisley Underground. And like the Go-Go's, the Bangles became pretty much the only band from their scene to hit the big time and infiltrate the Top 40, MTV, etc.

Although in reality the two bands were almost contemporaries (with the Bangles even releasing their first single as early as 1981, the same year as Beauty And The Beat), I think it's more accurate to say that the Bangles were what you'd get if you'd added three years to the Go-Go's. Handily, this three year addition actually describes the differences in the two bands' sounds. While the Go-Go's drew on the pre-British Invasion girl group, surf rock, and Brill Building pop of 1961-1963 (the Beach Boys, the Shangri-La's, The Shirelles, The Ventures, Lesley Gore), the Bangles drew on the post-British Invasion American folk-rock, garage rock, sunshine pop, and early psychedelic rock of 1965-1967 (the Byrds, the Turtles, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas & the Papas, Nuggets-style garage bands). So they followed the Go-Go's by about three years in both '60s musical influences, and actual '80s popularity!

Every so often the chattering classes will debate the question of which '80s all-girl band was better. But saying that the Bangles were better than the Go-Go's is like saying that Mars is better than Earth. I mean, yeah, Mars is cool and everything, but the best planet is obviously Earth. For me, the Go-Go's simply held more ... drama. The Bangles seemed calmer, more well-adjusted, not as outrageous or comical. Plus, unlike the Go-Go's, most of the Bangles' biggest hits were written by outside songwriters. Also, the Bangles slid further into MOR cheese than the Go-Go's ever did, although perhaps if the Go-Go's had stayed together longer they would have done the same. Let me put it this way: imagine if Belinda had released her solo material under the Go-Go's' name; that's sort of what happened to the Bangles. As for chart superiority, consider this one a draw: while the Bangles never had an album as big as Beauty and the Beat, the Go-Go's never had a single as big as "Walk Like an Egyptian." Still, even if, in my opinion, the Bangles were not as great as the Go-Go's, that doesn't mean they were not also great.

Then there is the question of Belinda vs. Susanna. Although I appreciate Susanna Hoffs' physical appeal (with those sultry ebony eyes and long flowing Jewish locks) and am sympathetic to those who may feel particularly enthusiastic about it, there is no legitimate argument here. It's like Pope Francis vs. Jesus. You may admire Pope Francis, but if Jesus and Pope Francis has a fistfight, I don't need to tell you who would win.

Although it must have been somewhat irritating for the Bangles to hear themselves constantly be compared to a prior band, if you have it in your head that some sort of "rivalry" developed between the Go-Go's and the Bangles, here's the funny part: they were actually friends! Yes Virginia, sometimes all your most precious dreams really do come true. I'm not saying they were good friends, but they probably got along with each other better than, say, they got along with their own band members.

Look at that photo. It's like the Million Dollar Quartet. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but allow me at least fifty. Look at the difference between the facial expressions of Jane, Belinda, et al. and Susanna. The Go-Go's are like, "Aw, look, it's our little sister band! Isn't that cute?" And Susanna is like, "Nobody gonna compare me to anybody. I shouldn't even be standing here."

But even if a rivalry had genuinely begun to brew, it couldn't have lasted long, since the Go-Go's imploded just as the Bangles first rose to prominence. Mostly, it sounds like the Go-Go's were just too entertaining to hate. From a recent interview with Hoffs:
The problem with the Bangles is that we had a lot of juicy stuff but nobody knows about it because we were very discreet. But the Go-Go's were less discreet [laughs].

The funny thing was the Bangles had less of a good girl image on the outside, and the Go-Go's had this Little Miss Sunshine, sweet American pie image. But they were just crazy! I mean, they were just wild, wild chicks, and they'll tell you that themselves [laughing]. And the Bangles had this other image of kind of being a garage rock band, a little bit less, you know, 'shiny with a bow in our hair.'

I know Belinda and she's great and I can tell you I've had some of the craziest nights of my life with her, oh my God! She's completely fantastic.
Oh we know, Susanna. Believe me, we know. Just one request: next interview, provide more details please?

So, in sum: the '80s were blessed with more superstar all-female rock bands than basically every other decade combined. But long before "Eternal Flame," first there was the Paisley Underground. The Paisley What-erground, you say? All right, give me a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mark Knopfler, "Skating Away" With My Heart

I love albums that take their title from the lyrics of a song on the album but not the actual title of a song on the album. For example: CCR's Willy And The Poor Boys ("Down on the Corner"), Simon & Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme ("Scarborough Fair/Canticle"), Roxy Music's Stranded ("Street Life"), Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True ("Alison"), De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising ("The Magic Number"), The Pixies' Doolittle ("Mr. Grieves"), Nirvana's Nevermind ("Smells Like Teen Spirit"), Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish ("For Tomorrow"), and, perhaps most famously, Dark Side Of The Moon ("Brain Damage/Eclipse"). Wait, you mean that song wasn't actually called "Willy and the Poor Boys?" That song wasn't actually called "Dark Side of the Moon"? You can go far in life once you start paying attention. Add, to this list, Making Movies and "Skateaway." According to Wikipedia, however, Mark Knopfler had actually written a song called "Making Movies," but thankfully it didn't make the cut; otherwise it would have ruined my whole paragraph.

Given that, unlike its predecessors, the third track on Making Movies is not a song about the challenges and pitfalls of romance, you'd be tempted to think that it would be a lighthearted change of pace. But Knopfler's artistry may have snuck up on you once again, because it might be the most aching, tender, anthemic track on the whole freaking album.

It begins with an absurdly slow fade-in, as Dire Straits' drummer is apparently bouncing a basketball in an abandoned alleyway. The organ comes in at 0:25, then Knopfler's nimble fingers make their presence known around 0:34, followed by the voice a few seconds later:
I seen a girl on a one way corridor
Stealing down a wrong way street
For all the world like an urban toreador
She had wheels on, on her feet
Well the cars do the usual dances
Same old cruise and the curbside crawl
But the rollergirl, she's taking chances
They just love to see her take them all
Interesting. A girl on roller skates, comically impervious to the dangerous traffic surrounding her, no big heart-wrenching love story, right? The music's got sort of a low-key bluesy groove, probably going to stay that way for the whole six minutes. Your sensitive and vulnerable soul shouldn't have to worry about being shattered, right? Uh-oh, the bridge sounds like trouble:
No fears alone at night
She's sailing through the crowd
In her ears the phones are tight
And the music's playing loud
Hmm, they're picking up some steam. Are they building towards something grand and sweeping? Nope, not yet at least, as Knopfler tosses off a fancy little guitar run, everything calms back down, and you're still OK:
Hallelujah here she comes, Queen Rollerball
Enchante, what can I say, don't care at all
You know she used to have to wait around
She used to be the lonely one
But now that she can skate around town
She's the only one
Hold on, it's that meddlesome bridge again, dangling the threat of Knopflerian majesty over your head. But this time, Pick Withers does a tasty drum roll, and you better brace yourself, because here it comes:
She gets rock 'n' roll in a rock 'n' roll station
In a rock 'n' roll dream
She's making movies on location
She don't know what it means
And the music make her wanna be the story
And the story was whatever was the song, what it was
Rollergirl don't worry
D.J. play the movies all night long
Daaaaaamn. Dire Straits just gave my heart an aneurysm. That chorus is like a glimpse into an entirely different song, from an entirely different universe (I think it's actually in a different key, which helps). Also, props to Roy Bittan for pounding out a choice piano chord or two, fleshing out the glory. That chorus is like the beautiful sound that Rollergirl hears in her head. Sure, on the outside, to her fellow ignorant city-dwellers, she might seem like some narcissistic little punk. But in her mind, she's the hero of an epic film that's screening on an endless loop - and there are no boring scenes.

To me, "Skateaway" is one of those luminous songs about the power of music. Music can turn the mundane into the fantastical, the dreary into the exciting, the insignificant into the essential. But Mark Knopfler manages to say this with the music, by juxtaposing the calm, repetitive verse with the soaring, intensely melodic chorus. The music makes me want to be the story, dude!

And the amazing part is, his singing range is so horizontal, he barely even hits the soaring notes he's actually written for himself, but those notes are so soaring, it feels like he hits them anyway. It's like how FDR always seemed like he was walking, even though he was merely holding on to his aides, or a cane, or a podium (yeah, I caught a little of that Ken Burns documentary last week). Here's how great this song is: Knopfler actually starts laughing at one point (around 2:56), and yet this does not reduce the song's emotional punch one lousy iota. Unquestionably the most beautiful moment in a song full of beautiful moments: during the second go-round of the chorus, right after Knopfler sings "DJ play the movies" at the 3:54 mark, his guitar hits a note so piercingly high, it doesn't sound like it came from a real guitar. It sounds like it came from a unicorn's tears, or a wood sprite's orgasm.

And then, at 3:58, it all turns to dust again as the band brings everything back down to lazy-ville, as if the rock and roll dreams in Rollergirl's head could never be taken seriously by the jaded truckers and cab drivers surrounding her. Nope, it'll just be her little secret. Rollergirl skates off into the neon night, and that chorus never happened.

Like the videos for "Tunnel of Love" and "Romeo and Juliet," I'm not sure if the claustrophobic, hermetically sealed vibe of the studio-crafted video for "Skateaway" really captures the "bustling, real-world city boulevard" feel I get from the song, but it still has its fun and/or surreal charms, particularly the slow-motion shots of Rollergirl (apparently played by the ex-patriate daughter of a Nigerian president!) skating through the faceless masses. For me, the most powerful part of the video might the very last minute, which simply consists of a single uncut shot of the band playing in front of what appears to be the Dawn of Man. For Dire Straits, I think the music really was the story.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Day The Go-Go's Died (Or Did They?) AKA It Ain't Over Till The Slightly Overweight Belinda Sings

Rome fell to the Huns. Napoleon lost one battle too many. The British Empire collapsed under the weight of its own antiquated colonialism. Sooner or later, all great things must come to an end. And so it was ... with the Go-Go's. From Lips Unsealed:
The five of us rehearsed with the intention of making a new album. We tried to come up with our own songs and we worked through songs outside writers had submitted. The record company wanted more creative control over the band's next steps. We didn't like it, but we didn't have any better ideas.

Frustrated at every turn and no good at communicating with one another, the band dissolved into factions, with Charlotte and me pitted against Kathy and Gina, and Paula left uncomfortably alone on the periphery as we fought during rehearsals. The demos we recorded sounded terrible ... the band had lost its creative center. It no longer felt like the Go-Go's.
Ah, yes, the druggies vs. the rhythm section. Or rather, the (both soon to be relatively sober?) superstar lead singer and chief composer/multi-instrumentalist vs. the two most expendable band members. Not to give it away, but I don't think this was going to end well for the bassist and drummer.
I finally met secretly with Charlotte, who agreed with me that after two months of work the only decent, Go-Go's sounding song we had was "Mad About You," which Paula had brought in. Otherwise the band wasn't working anymore. It was early May 1985. We had an album to record and a tour to set up. But both struck us as unlikely. The lack of material aside, the dynamics were way off and no one was getting along. Charlotte and I decided it was time to call it a day.

We talked it through until we assured ourselves that the band had stopped moving forward artistically and that we as individuals were stifled. We could do other things. I had already been approached about doing a solo album. Though that hadn't been an option when the band was my top and only priority, it sounded viable now, and Charlotte was amenable to working with me.
Hmmm. A solo album, eh? A new song called "Mad About You"? Sneaky, sneaky Belinda, pulling that little ace out of your sleeve, at just the right moment. And secretly roping Charlotte into your handy getaway plot! Dealing that ace could've cost you all your chips, but oh ... how you hit the jackpot.
The two of us called a meeting with the other girls on the second Friday of the month and broke the news that we wanted to end the band. Kathy and Gina were not just shocked, they were blindsided and fought back with anger and bitterness at the way we handled the situation. Kathy insisted we were overreacting and had overcome worse, but I kept to the basic premise: the band wasn't working, the songs were terrible, and the chemistry wasn't there.
But why let that stop you? It didn't stop Kiss. At any rate, there it was: the Go-Go's finally sealed their lips for good. Wait, what's that you say? Ah, but that's another tale for another time - one that is not without its share of intrigue, although between you and me, it couldn't quite measure up to the next twist in our saga, perhaps the most gripping twist of all.

You see, in a more ordinary universe, this would have been the end of the Belinda Carlisle story. Former Go-Go's lead singer fades away in a haze of garish leggings and coke. Ah, but fortunately, the universe in which we live is no ordinary one. It turns out that fate had other plans in store for the erstwhile Dottie Danger. And if you thought a story this good couldn't possibly get any better, well think again buddy.

By 1985, Belinda Carlisle had already demonstrated that she was no stranger to stunning career transformations, having morphed from grungy punk rebel to adorable New Wave princess. But that initial makeover would be small potatoes compared to what was to come. The '80s listening public failed to anticipate her most bizarre and seemingly unfathomable transformation yet. With the aid of a brand new (and rich) Hollywood husband, a little break in the consumption of the white powder, some strategic dieting and exercise, and the eager embrace of an impressively sanitized musical style, in 1986, Belinda Carlisle would finally assume the role she had been born to play, would finally claim her title as the unquestioned, uncontested, the one and only ... Queen Of Yuppie Rock.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Girls Just Want To ... Sing Sappy Aerobic Rock Ballads?

After just one song, did the world think it knew Cyndi Lauper? Well, Cyndi had other ideas. Or rather, maybe that was the idea all along. According to Wikipedia, "Initially Epic Records wanted 'Time After Time' as the album's lead-single. However, Lauper claimed that releasing a ballad first defines an artist in a certain way, noting that she could have been known as a balladeer and that it could have killed her career." The irony being, of course, that after She's So Unusual, Cyndi ended up primarily becoming known as a balladeer, but at least it was her choice.

Nonetheless, I'm still on the fence over how well her idiosyncratic vocal style, so suitable for dance-pop, works with balladry. For instance: when she sings "And darkness has turned to grey," the word "grey" almost sounds like "crack," and just another couple of lines later, the word "OK" almost manages to have three syllables in it. Also, usually when I say that a song sounds "incredibly, inescapably '80s," that's the highest praise in the world, but because, simply as a composition, "Time After Time" feels so much like a classic pop standard, I kind of wonder if the production, particularly the overpowering, synthesized bass line that sounds like it flowed right out of Giorgio Moroder's bowels, does the song a bit of a disservice. I almost wish I could hear what "Time After Time" would have sounded like if it had been been recorded by the Beatles. But that's probably true of any song. Well, maybe not "The Macarena."

Based on the opening minute of the video, it might be fair to say that Cyndi herself still had reservations about coming off too "sensitive" and "touchy-feely": she's lying in bed in a trailer, mouthing every word to the Marlene Dietrich film The Garden Of Allah, apparently clutching a giant porcelain dog. But once the song starts, things get a little squishy: she imagines seeing her mother in a doorway (the same real-life mother from the "Girls" video), fights with her boyfriend (after he teases her for getting a haircut that looks like she accidentally fell on a grate), and finally gives a dramatic train station goodbye that could have come straight out of an old Hollywood tear-jerker. According to Wikipedia, Cyndi's tears were real. By the end of it all, this video is actually kind of genuinely ... sad. Like, for reals.
Although it was the final hit off She's So Unusual, I have to say that "All Through The Night" kicks just as much fluorescent bracelet ass as the other three. The original version, by its songwriter Jules Shear, sounds like some sort of klezmer polka karaoke number, but somehow Cyndi heard a hit in there. Beginning with a sparkling synthesizer arpeggio (I'm pretty sure that's what it's called, and if it's not, well, that's what it's called now), the single quickly establishes an introspective, late night, after-party vibe, with a touch of the same slightly reggae flavor that "Girls" utilized. As opposed to the original version, Cyndi maximizes the power of the chorus by 1) keeping the verses really spare and percussion-free, and 2) letting a male voice join her on the chorus, almost turning the song into a duet. Then, at about the 2:10 mark, we're treated to a synthesizer solo that was apparently played by Pac-Man (or possibly Mrs. Pac-Man - my sources differ).

I suppose her singing is strident and affecting, but again, thanks to her interesting pronunciation choices, at times it's just so ... unusual. Some examples:
  • She turns the word "crying" into "kwy-ing."
  • In the line, "And it goes running," she puts the stress on "it." Seriously, who puts the stress on "it"?
  • For years I thought the word "meter" was actually "needle" and she simply just inserted a rogue "t" in there.
  • I thought "we won't reach back" was "we want respect." Was Rodney Dangerfield supposed to do this at some point?
  • I thought "same without saying" was "sadness outside." Still kind of works.
  • I thought "what by day they lack" was "what binding they lack." Why was the need for binding so urgent? God, if they only had some binding!
However, smart choice to let the chorus repeat an extra time (around 3:10). It's like the sound of a couple that just wants to let the magical evening linger a little longer before they have to say goodbye. It's like when you "fall back" in Daylight Savings Time and you realize that even though you'll still have to go to work in the morning, at least you get to stay up an extra hour and play video games.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Uptown Girl": Auto Shops Sure Have Changed Since The '80s

So, there's this guy you know, and for all intents and purposes, he's a lot like you. He's kinda goofy, fun to be around, not too attractive, not too ugly, but you can identify with him. Suddenly, he snags this girlfriend who's like a supermodel. OK, that's nice, good for him, but you don't really want to hear about it too much. However, he can't believe his good fortune and he thinks everyone in the world is as excited about it as he is and it's all he ever wants to talk about. Also, it's 1983. And that guy is Billy Joel.

I guess it's fair that if we ask our artists to turn their suffering into art, then occasionally we have to let them turn their adolescent glee into art. I don't really begrudge Billy Joel too much for Christie Brinkley, since a) for most of his career, he seemed pretty depressed, b) eventually they got divorced and his songwriting dried up, and c) the whole concept of their marriage is pretty funny. Also, I like the songs she inspired.

Amusingly enough, according to Wikipedia, "Uptown Girl" may not have even initially been inspired by Christie Brinkley, but rather by another '80s supermodel Billy had been dating just prior to Brinkley: Elle MacPherson. Oh you have got to be kidding me. If you didn't want to punch him before, you really want to punch him now.

Although Billy conceived "Uptown Girl" as a Four Seasons homage, the final product probably has more meat on its bones than "Sherry" or "Big Girls Don't Cry" ever did. Those old Four Seasons mixes tended to feature extremely wide stereo separation between the rhythm track and the vocals (which was quite prevalent during that era, and which some people hate but I really love). On "Uptown Girl," however, all the instruments are essentially mixed in the center, almost like a mono mix. Well, I guess Billy Joel isn't Lenny Kravitz. But what this means is that "Uptown Girl" plays thicker and louder than any of those early '60s hits, and it may even be catchier (!). "Uptown Girl" has more hooks in it than an annual pirate convention (not sure if those exist, but hey, just go with it). Let's count them:
  1. The initial "Ah-ah-ah-ah"s from the backing vocalists (0:12)
  2. The verse melody (0:20)
  3. The "And when she knows what she wants" melody, which is sort of a bridge or a pre-chorus (except I don't think the song actually has a chorus) (0:49)
  4. The sudden minor key twist of the "She'll see I'm not so tough" section, which leads back into the verse (1:04)
  5. The "Oh-oh-oh" hook, which sounds like a modified version of Hook #3, but is actually a bit different (1:27)
That's five different hooks, all piled on top of each other, and they just keep coming! The interplay between Billy's lead vocal and the backing vocals is very creative as well, somewhat reminding me of the way McCartney and Harrison's backing vocals zig-zag behind Lennon in "Help!" Here's my feeble attempt to write it out:
And when she knows
(And when she)
What she wants
From her ty-yiy-yime
(Wants from her ty-yiy-yime)
And when she wakes up
(She wakes up)
And makes up
(Makes up her)
Her my-yiy-mind
We're not talking beginning level Tetris here.

While the single was a big hit in America, it was ginormous in Britain, hitting #1 for five weeks, becoming the second best-selling song of the year there (behind "Karma Chameleon"), and apparently elevating Billy to a whole new level of UK stardom, dragging his whole back catalog into the charts along with it (much like what Born In The U.S.A. would do with Springsteen a year later). I mean, what was it, specifically, about "Uptown Girl" that made the UK think it had been missing out on all those years of Long Island brilliance?

At any rate, Billy probably figured, "Well, as long as I've got Christie Brinkley lying around, I might as well stick her in my video." The clip for "Uptown Girl" must surely feature the least authentic depiction of a New York City mechanic's shop in celluloid history, with grungy auto workers eagerly breaking out into song. It's like the opening scene from West Side Story: why have I always had the feeling that real-life gang members didn't prance around in leotards and display unparalleled grace and poise? By the same token, I'm pretty sure there weren't too many auto shops with black guys wearing frilly little crop tops, but I could be mistaken. Then again, if Christie Brinkley showed up at my auto shop, perhaps I might have found myself in the mood to sing too.

This is also your chance to watch two people who, I assume, were not particularly adept at dancing (one being a singer and the other being a model) dance for three minutes. Oh, and not only is she better looking than he is, but she's also taller (or maybe it's the shoes?). But who's idea was the hat? Since when did girls from "Uptown" wear black cowboy hats? The whole time I'm thinking, "Hey, Christie, ditch the hat." And sure enough, she does.

Here's how I know I'm getting old: A couple of years ago I was over at a friend's place and he was listening to the radio, which was tuned to an "oldies" station. Suddenly "Uptown Girl" came on. No, no, no. See "Uptown Girl" was supposed to be an homage to oldies, not an actual oldie itself. But the kids, the damn kids, they can't even tell the difference these days.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Drummer Takes Over Genesis, No One Notices AKA That First Intoxicating Taste Of Horse Tranquilizer

Usually, when a band announces that it will be replacing its departing lead singer with its drummer, that is not a good sign.

When Phil Collins became the new front man for Genesis, I'm sure many had their doubts. "Yeah, right, and why didn't Ringo front the Beatles?" It was a plan so crazy, it just might work. Well, as with Pink Floyd after the loss of Syd Barrett, Genesis not only survived, but thrived: while The Lamb Dies Down On Broadway peaked at #10 in the UK and #41 in the US, A Trick Of The Tail peaked at #3 in the UK and #31 in the US, while Wind & Wuthering peaked at #7 in the UK and #26 in the US. It kind of makes you wonder, besides wearing funny costumes, how much Peter Gabriel actually did. I mean, when the Doors recorded those albums without Jim Morrison, you definitely noticed.

The reason nobody noticed is because Genesis, for a couple of albums at least, sounded exactly the fucking same. It may seem odd to say it (after so many years of solo stardom for each of them), but back then, Phil Collins' voice sounded a lot like Peter Gabriel's. Do a blind taste test, and see if you can tell the difference. And again, I'm not trying to be contrarian, but I think I actually like A Trick Of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering more than the Gabriel albums. Seriously! The music sounds more relaxed, more spacious, not quite so busy, not so self-consciously "arty." Yeah, fine, I guess the lyrics aren't quite as "intellectual," but Peter Gabriel can go save his rock operas about Puerto Rican New York street hustlers for someone else; I just want to hear some tasty prog-pop hooks.

Which is not to say that post-Gabriel Genesis didn't have its thematic inspirations. Initially, I assumed the lyrics on Tail and Wind were simply fanciful, fairy tale imagery, but in his disturbingly candid and riveting memoir In The Air Tonight, Collins reveals their surprising origins:
  • "Dance on a Volcano" was actually "Dutch slang for having to take an extra-fiery shit. We used to say, 'Gentlemen, excuse me, I have to go 'dance on a volcano,' if you know what I mean.'"
  • "Entangled" was actually about "a particularly unfortunate bondage session with a 73-year-old deaf woman in Tokyo. See, with S&M, communication is key."
  • "Robbery, Assault & Battery" was "actually about a real robbery, assault & battery. Tony and I were in Jacksonville, huffing Alligator pee, and we robbed a 7-11 with a crowbar and some jumper cables. I beat the daylights out of a clerk with a can of WD-40. Took the two best lawyers in Florida to get us out of that one."
  • "One for the Vine" was about "two little orphan kids my uncle used to keep in a cage in his basement. He'd walk down there and feed them plant food. He used to dangle it from a little dropper, and he'd give a drop to the kids, and then he'd give some to the ivy that was growing all over the wall. So he used to say, 'One for the children, and one for the vine.'"
  • "Your Own Special Way," often referred to as Genesis' first proper love song, was actually an ode to a particularly insatiable groupie with custom-made dentures. "She had her own special way, all right."
  • On the other hand, certain songs with evocative titles were simply products of creative license. "'Blood on the Rooftops,' I didn't get that from anything, I just pulled it out of thin air. No blood, no rooftops."
And so, the little drummer that could became the little front man that could, surprising everyone in the universe, even himself. But if it seems like it was a win-win situation for all concerned, the ugly truth is that the transition came at a price:
Being the drummer was like attending university on a full scholarship. All the perks of adulthood, none of the drawbacks. You could drink all night, shag all day, pound the skins, crash on the floor, and nobody expected any different. Playing with house money. Being the front man was like graduating at 23 and heading straight into a position the bank. The party was over.

Night after endless night, the demands never ceased. "Phil, the equipment's missing!" "Phil, the record label thinks the new album cover is offensive!" "Phil, I'm pregnant with your child, and so is my cousin!" After a while, I just couldn't deal. Like many rock and roll legends before me, I sought out some ... assistance.

At first, it wasn't a big deal. Tony always had a bottle of uppers he used to carry around, just some run-of-the-mill amphetamines. We had a show in Indianapolis and I was wiped out. I took a couple to get through it. That was all right for a little while. One night in Pittsburgh I cut my skull on a hatchet (during some rougher than usual cos-play with a Mongolian call girl), and I could barely crawl out of bed the next morning. They gave me a dose of lidocaine and some valium and shoved me out there. I couldn't understand why the audience was turning into a bunch of toads and badgers, but Mike told me later I was merely hallucinating. Apparently we played well. Funny, I've never read Wind in the Willows.

But still, I needed something to give me that "jolt" I was really looking for. Whatever I tried, it just didn't have that "kick," that certain "dazzle." There was show in Miami. Due to go on in three hours. I'd gotten into a bout of fisticuffs the night before with the father of a 15-year-old cheerleader (she told me she was 19, there was an ostrich involved, etc. etc.). I felt like eight dog turds stacked on top of each other. I was passed out in the hotel lobby when a janitor tapped me on the arm.

"You OK?"

It was a Cuban fellow, with a gold necklace and a tattoo of a cross on his arm.


"You look malo, man, muy malo."

"Huuh? What do you want? What is it?"

"You in that group, yes? Los Genesis?"

"Yeah. Got a show in two hours."

He let out a laugh. "You? Show in dos horas? Dos horas? You not ready for no show, man." Suddenly he leaned in and whispered to me. "I got something can help."

"Look, pal, I'll handle it. Just stay out of my business."

"You do concert no problem." He then pulled an opaque brown vial out of his pocket. "These little ninos ... like power from los dioses."

"I don't want it."

"Hey man, is your funeral."

I held out my hand, he dropped a few tablets into my palm, and I groggily slid them into my pocket.

"You need more? You look for Julio." And with that, he jiggled his key ring and headed to the storage closet.

"Smartass," I muttered to myself. But after denting the leather seat for another hour, I stumbled to the bathroom and wiped my face over the sink. I stared into those sunken drummer eyes. "What the hell." I popped two tablets into my mouth and stuck my lips under the faucet.

We were doing a sound check. Just as I began to sing a snippet of "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)," it ... hit me. This feeling. It was like ... an electricity and gasoline blood transfusion. It was like if sex and death went to college together - and studied the same major. My eyes became laser beams, my arms became jackhammers, my legs became pistons. I thought to myself, "Dear God, I am not a praying man, but I will do whatever you ask, pay any price, suffer any burden, as long as you let me feel this way for the rest of my life."

They say it was one of the greatest Genesis concerts of all time. We played a 96-minute version of "Supper's Ready" - 28 of those minutes consisting of my drum solo. Over the years, at least five different couples have confessed to me that after they returned home from that concert, they conceived a child. From the first note to the last, magic was in the air.

The next morning, I rushed down to the lobby. Where was that blasted janitor? Suddenly I heard a whistling in the hallway.

"Ah, Senior Collins! You do a good show last night! I never see drumming like this, not even in Cuba."

I pulled him into an open closet. ""What is it?" I demanded.

"What is what? Why you whisper, man?"

"What is it?"

"Ah, you mean my little helper friends." He slowly grinned.

"Don't play games, just tell me what it is!"

"As long as it works, why you care?"

"Fine, I don't care, just give me some more."

"Maybe I run out, maybe I don't have no more."

"You've got a boatload of that shit, do I look like an idiot?"

"I no answer that question. But no more freebies, Senior Collins."

"Yeah, OK, whatever you want, we'll figure something out."

In the back of my mind, I still couldn't shake my curiosity. Was it some kind of amphetamine, maybe laced with a narcotic, touched off with a hallucinogen?

"Seriously Julio, where did you get this stuff?"

"You ever go racing?"

"What, like car racing?"

"No, horse racing."

"Once or twice. Why?"

"I have connections, at the race track. My pequeña helper friends ... they not made for people."

Suddenly Julio held his hands out in the air, as if he were holding on to two reins, tilted his head back, and made a whinnying sound.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Unrepeatable Brilliance Of Madonna's First Album AKA Was Madonna ... Aerobic Rock?

I didn't want to talk about Madonna. I swear, your honor. For starters, plenty of people have already written about Madonna. She's an easy subject. Cultural Studies majors have their pick of angles: feminism, sexuality, Kabbalah, cone bras, candle wax experimentation - you name it. I, on the other hand, prefer to highlight the less heralded careers, the critically ignored discographies, the secret treasures of the '80s. Second, I kind of already did write about Madonna. Back in 2010, as something of a precursor to my '80s obsession, I shed some light on the hidden compositional origins of Madonna's biggest hits in my series "Madonna And Michael Jackson: Songwriters?"

Also, personally, I relate to Madonna about as much as I relate to a potted plant. One day at the library, not too long ago, I found myself reading the first part of a Madonna biography. For many of my favorite artists, I feel like the story of the artist is so crucial to the art. You want to know the "story" of Madonna? Here's the story of Madonna. Imagine someone who starts out with a very shallow goal, and manages to achieve that very shallow goal. That's the story of Madonna. Madonna wanted "attention." She didn't seem to care whether it was positive attention or negative attention; she just wanted attention. You know the saying, "There's no such thing as bad publicity"? That could have been Madonna's life manifesto. Granted, it's a bit more complicated than that (her mother died when she was five, which may or may not explain everything), but it's sort of like if Veruca Salt ended up inheriting the chocolate factory.

Basically, I need to say something about Madonna's first album. I need to say something about it because it has got to be, in its own '80s dance-pop way, the most magnificent album ever made. And I need to explain why. I need to explain it not so much for my readers, but for myself.

There once was a brief, shining moment when Madonna didn't actually know she was "Madonna." That moment was on her first album. Ever since then, I feel like I can detect at least the faintest hint of self-consciousness or calculation. "Pure" is not a word one would typically associate with Madonna, but her debut album is pure. It is so entirely of the moment. It is so completely fluffy, so utterly disposable, so blatantly shallow, that, ironically, it achieves a kind of singular depth. No one could consciously set out to make this album. An album this great can only be made by people who aren't actually trying to make a great album.

And the moment Madonna started trying to "think" about her music, her music lost a little bit of its purity. Sure, Madonna released other excellent singles throughout the rest of her career, but they didn't quite have that same ... magic. It's like a rainbow. The moment you try to chase a rainbow, it disappears. You can't find the damn rainbow. Where the hell did the rainbow go? What I'm saying is that Madonna spent the next thirty years trying to chase a fucking rainbow. AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine knows what I'm talking about:
Although she never left it behind, it's been easy to overlook that Madonna began her career as a disco diva in an era that didn't have disco divas. It was an era where disco was anathema to mainstream pop, and she had a huge role in popularizing dance music as a popular music again, crashing through the door Michael Jackson opened with Thriller. Certainly, her undeniable charisma, chutzpah, and sex appeal had a lot to do with that -- it always did, throughout her career -- but she wouldn't have broken through if the music wasn't so good. And her eponymous debut isn't simply good, it set the standard for dance-pop for the next 20 years. Why did it do so? Because it cleverly incorporated great pop songs with stylish, state-of-the-art beats, and it shrewdly walked a line between being a rush of sound and a showcase for a dynamic lead singer. This is music where all of the elements may not particularly impressive on their own -- the arrangement, synth, and drum programming are fairly rudimentary; Madonna's singing isn't particularly strong; the songs, while hooky and memorable, couldn't necessarily hold up on their own without the production -- but taken together, it's utterly irresistible. And that's the hallmark of dance-pop: every element blends together into an intoxicating sound, where the hooks and rhythms are so hooky, the shallowness is something to celebrate. And there are some great songs here, whether it's the effervescent "Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday" or the darker, carnal urgency of "Burning Up" and "Physical Attraction." And if Madonna would later sing better, she illustrates here that a good voice is secondary to dance-pop. What's really necessary is personality, since that sells a song where there are no instruments that sound real. Here, Madonna is on fire, and that's the reason why it launched her career, launched dance-pop, and remains a terrific, nearly timeless, listen.
It's funny to think of an album that sounds so unapologetically '80s as being "timeless," but what is time, really? What is space? Why are we here? Erlewine calls Madonna a "disco diva," but I think the more chronologically appropriate term would have to be "Aerobic Rock diva." Yes, Madonna, you were Aerobic Rock. Let's just face it. You danced in your videos, you wore bracelets, your shirt occasionally slipped over your shoulder ... guilty as charged.

The most impressive thing about Madonna's debut is that it manages to be so emotionally affecting despite the fact that its lyrics consist of the most cookie-cutter, cliche-ridden claptrap you've ever come across in your whole entire life. It makes "Moon/June/Spoon" sound like The Aeneid. A fifth-grader's desk carvings carry more intellectual heft. Here's a sampler:
Don't put me off, 'cause I'm on fire
And I can't quench my desire
Don't you know that I'm burning up for your love
You're not convinced that that's enough

I know you're gonna take your love and run
I know you think I'm the foolish one
I know you're gonna turn around and say goodbye

You say that you need my love
And you're wantin' my body, I don't mind
Baby all I've got is time
And I'm waiting to make you mine

You say you wanna stay the night
But you'll leave me tomorrow, I don't care
All of your moves are right
We can take it anywhere, this

Everybody, come on, dance and sing
Everybody, get up and do your thing
Everybody, come on, dance and sing
Everybody, get up and do your thing

Let the music take control
Find a groove and let yourself go
When the room begins to sway
You know what I'm trying to say

You must be my lucky star
'Cause you shine on me wherever you are
I just think of you and I start to glow
And I need your light and baby you know

Starlight, starbright first star I see tonight
Starlight, starbright make everything all right
Starlight, starbright first star I see tonight
Starlight, starbright yeah
"Starlight, starbright, first start I see tonight"? It's literally a nursery rhyme. But lest you think I'm bothered by the album's lack of linguistic creativity, think again. Here's the central irony of Madonna's career: the more effort Madonna seemed to put into her lyrics, the more I think her songs started to sound contrived. On that first album, she simply just ... was.

The first couple of times I listened to Madonna, I thought there were some hit singles and some filler. Eventually I realized that the whole thing is of a piece. With an album like this, either all of the tracks are filler, or none of them are. In other words, put this album on the turntable at a party and you don't ever have to worry about lifting the needle.

Take "Everybody." "Everybody" is barely even a song. It was, of course, Madonna's very first single, recorded a whole year prior to everything else on the album, and the funny part is, I can tell that it was her first single, but it doesn't matter one bit. What I love about "Everybody" is that it sounds so ... low-budget. It sounds like it was recorded in the basement of a gym with a Casio keyboard and a microphone. But damn, she wants to be a star. Just listen to her hilariously "improvised," wannabe Cinemax come-on at the start: "I know you've been waiting ... yeah ... I've been watching you ... yeah ... I know you wanna get up ... yeah ... come on." Save it for your agent, Madge.

Amusingly, Sire Records promoted the single on R&B stations and did not feature a picture of Madonna on the record sleeve, in an initial attempt to pass off Madonna as black (!). But this short-lived marketing scheme came to swift and sudden end the moment the (equally low-budget) video came out. It looks like it was filmed for a local access channel. Up next: a Gilligan's Island re-run.

Her second single, "Burning Up," is some serious, serious Aerobic Rock, complete with raunchy pseudo-heavy metal guitar and tacky vocal effects ("I'm on fih-ah" in particular gets mangled by a robot). As for the video, I guess they had a little more budget money for this one. They were able to afford: a Grecian bust with glowing eyes; a goldfish bowl; a blue convertible; a laser that catches hats like a pole - it goes on. They got their hands on some state-of-the-art equipment too. First, she gets trapped in a little diagonal rectangle a la Superman II. Then there's a dissolve more mind-blowing than that shot in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the bone turns into a spaceship: Madonna leans against a door and finds herself ... in a boat! The jet-setting quasi-European dude even drives the convertible through water! Then they realized they could "freeze" the frame, turn it black and white, and make it "flip" like a photo album. Maybe it's cool the first time, but by the fifth time I'm like, "OK, show me what else you got." At 3:20, she almost rips off her white dress, but the director was probably screaming, "Madonna, wait, that's half our budget!" The quasi-European guy then appears to hit Madonna head-on, but in the next shot ... she's now driving the convertible! According to Wikipedia, this is a moment of incisive socio-political commentary:
Author Robert Clyde Allen in his book Channels of Discourse compared the video with that of "Material Girl". According to him both the videos have an undermining ending, while employing a consistent series of puns and exhibiting a parodic amount of excess associated with Madonna's style. The discourses included in the video are those of sexuality and religion. Madonna's image of kneeling and singing about 'burning in love' performed the traditional ideological work of using the subordination and powerlessness of women in Christianity to naturalize their equally submissive position in patriarchy. Author Georges-Claude Guilbert in his book Madonna As Postmodern Myth commented that the representation of the male character becomes irrelevant as Madonna destabilizes the fixing and categorization of male sexuality in the video.
Or maybe it was just a throwaway gag?

"I Know It" works the same retro-girl group territory as Blondie and the Go-Go's, albeit using a tacky drum machine instead of a genuine band, with Madonna effectively replicating the "girl we just found on the Brooklyn street corner and brought into the studio on a whim" quality that all the great girl group records boasted. Is it just me, or the chorus sound like it's a bridge? And does the fluttery synthesizer sound like it was lifted from the theme for Reading Rainbow?

Before I forget, gotta give a shout-out to "Think Of Me" and "Physical Attraction," which both manage to sustain the album's precious atmosphere of seeming vapidity. Still, as delectable as all these cuts are, they are not the songs that truly send this album into that rarefied dance-pop air. You know which three songs I'm talking about. Aw, fuck, they need a post of their own. Guess I'm not done talking about Madonna.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Belinda And The Brazilian Drug Lords, Part II AKA When Rod Stewart Doesn't Get His Beauty Sleep

And so, in January 1985, young Belinda Carlisle finally found herself in the Brazilian coke dealer's mansion. Would she make it out alive? Would she become further and further ensnared into the Rio de Janeiro criminal underworld? Most importantly, would she score that ever-elusive $5.00 per gram coke? From Lips Unsealed:
I couldn't tell who was in charge and didn't want to look around because I immediately saw a couple of guys holding guns and knew better than to see more than I had to. In fact, I had a very strong feeling that I shouldn't have ever gone into that place, and I would have excused myself and left if a guy hadn't stepped forward and in broken English asked what I wanted.

What I wanted was not to get shot. But I didn't say that.
Smart move.
Actually, I didn't say anything. I was too scared.

"How much do you want?" the guy asked again.

"A gram," I said.

He glared at me with disdain and disbelief.

"We don't sell grams," he said.
"A gram? A gram? What kind of a dog and pony show do you think we're running here, lady?"
I decided it was best not to explain that I had heard you could get grams for five dollars, and that's why I was there. I thought about how much I should buy. I didn't feel like asking what the minimum amount was they did sell. Apparently he didn't feel like waiting for me to figure out something to say. He asked if I wanted half an ounce.

I said okay and paid whatever he said it cost, which wasn't much given the amount I was taking with me.

I wanted to hug the cabdriver for waiting when I saw his car still out front. I was thrilled when we pulled in front of the hotel, and I gave the driver a generous tip. I stood in the lobby for a moment and took several deep breaths.
So, children, the moral of the story is, if you make an ill-advised trek to a Brazilian drug dealer's mansion, everything will work out just fine.
I went up to my room and took the coke out of my purse. I couldn't wait to look at this package that could have cost me my life. I opened it and saw more coke than I had ever seen. I set it on the coffee table. It was like a little white mountain. I couldn't believe it.

I did several lines and thought it was the purest, smoothest coke I'd ever put up my nose. Seconds later, I felt a strong, familiar jolt that erased the scare of men with guns and put me in a better frame of mind.
Mmmm, that's the stuff. Menacing drug dealers? What menacing drug dealers? That little white mountain can turn all your troubles into rainbows and leprechauns. So I guess the other lesson here is: You want the good stuff? You ain't gonna get it from your Santa Monica landlord.

Wait, weren't we in Rio from something else? Oh, that's right, the Rock In Rio Festival! How was Rod the Mod doing?:
As the sun came up, Rod was irritated that he had not gotten any sleep because he had a show that night. He said he had never stayed up all night, never, which I found hard to believe, considering his reputation ... That night, the thirteenth, we played the first of our two shows ... Afterward, we were sweaty and spent, and intending to go back to to hotel and clean up - that is, until Rod sent for me, along with Kathy, and insisted we sit on the side of the stage as he performed. He wanted to, he said, be able to look over at me and see that I felt as tired and miserable as him.
Lest you think she's making this up (as I did), check out the 37:45 mark of this clip, where, before launching into a supremely Rodified cover of "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay," Stewart declares, "And this is for the Go-Go's, my mates here! The Go-Go's, this is dedicated to them." The audience seems confused, indifferent, or both. (Note: don't worry, I did not watch all 76 minutes of this clip, but merely managed to magically slide to the relevant location).

In the meantime, Charlotte was partying so hard that she got kicked out of Ozzy Osbourne's dressing room. It was a story that became legendary among rockers, and years later Charlotte, who got sober, famously remarked, "How bad do you have to be to get kicked out of Ozzy's dressing room?"
The implied answer: pretty fucking bad!

Personal problems aside, we had another problem that was bigger than all of us. The Go-Go's just wasn't fun anymore. I had felt it when we had rehearsed in November and December for Rio, and I knew it when we finally went onstage that first night. I didn't feel any more spirit either on the eighteenth when we played our second show, which found us between two incredibly enthusiastic, inspired bands - the B-52's, whose set included guests Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from the Talking Heads, and the closing act, Queen, who, with Freddie Mercury out front, dazzled the worldwide audience.

And to think: only a decade earlier, little Dottie Danger had been running around in an L.A. hotel hallway with Lorna Doom, Darby Crash, and Pat Smear, like an obsessed teenage fan, trying to catch a glimpse of the man with whom she would now share a stage. But if she was worried that she couldn't compete with her hero ... well, she was probably right:
By comparison, I felt like the Go-Go's played without a heartbeat. One thing about rock and roll - you can have the best songs in the world, but if you don't bring passion to the stage you might as well not show up. We came to that realization. It just took a little time.
Oh come on, they couldn't have been that bad. Ah, but thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can see for yourself just how bad the post-Jane Go-Go's were. I mean here they are, in front of the biggest worldwide audience the Go-Go's would ever have, an entire continent having heard for so many years about L.A.'s legendary all-female rock band, millions of listeners eager to discover for themselves what all the fuss is about, and ... they get this?:

Woof! This has got to be the most lethargic Go-Go's performance I have ever seen. First of all, is Belinda auditioning for the circus? Or maybe she just got back from painting her apartment? Then it took me a couple of seconds before I realized, hold on a minute, there is no Jane. It's like a Where's Waldo illustration where there really is no Waldo. The "hush my darling" bridge is sung by ... Paula? It's mixed so quietly, I can't even tell, but you know, when the rest of the band sounds this shitty, it doesn't even matter. Most stunningly of all, Gina can't even keep a steady tempo; she's dragging everything down when she usually propels everything forward. No, not ... not Gina too! Dear God. Just put the poor creature out of its misery already.

Truth be told, the audience doesn't even seem to care. I mean let's be honest, was the Go-Go's' performance any less lethargic than Rod Stewart's? Either way, I think this just goes to show that, when all is said and done, that little white mountain can only get you so far in life.