Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of 2014 (All Girl Edition)

Here we are, another year come and gone. 2014 was a bit of an off year when it came to entertainment. The world of film didn't make much of an impression on me (even though everyone told me I was required to love Guardians of the Galaxy, it was just another summertime spectacle that disappeared from my mind the moment I walked out of the theater). The world of videogames was rocked by the utterly baffling Gamergate controversy. And when it came to music... I basically just listened to a lot of Top 40 radio on my way to work. So what you'll find below is a bunch of Top 40 tunes that I found pleasant. Is my enthusiasm showing too much? This year I've also abandoned rankings, so here ya go:

Paramore - "Ain't It Fun"

Hey look! It's every teenage girl's favorite quasi-Christian rock band Paramore! I've never listened to one iota of Paramore before I heard this song, but during the summer this song really got caught in my head. The song bounces along and I while I like it I can't really relate to the message, that being: "Isn't it fun to be an adult now that you're old enough!". But what really makes the song memorable in my book is that Paramore have run with the Madonna playbook and deployed a black gospel choir beginning about halfway through. While the message the choir sings is a bit silly, I just can't help but get caught up in the gospel fervor of it. You'll notice I've linked to the "lyric video". I did this because the official video is the same as the radio version where some genius thought that the perfect place to fade out the song is right when the choir kicks in. Great job there, buddy.

Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Izalea - "Problem"

Ariana Grande is some Nickelodeon star turned ahem (clears throat)... musical artist. Everything about her screams entitled over-privileged diva whose parents probably paid her way to fame. And everything in this song is full of things that annoy me: the way she's not even trying to hide that she's lip synching, the misappropriation of the mod look when her song is clearly trying to be a throwback to doo-wop girl groups, the whispered rapping that forms the chorus, and Iggy Izalea who arguably has the most irritating voice I've ever heard on a human being.

Yet somehow I can't get this song out of my head. But if that were solely the case it could be just another All About That Bass, but I guess what I'm trying to say is... I like this song. Some sort of diabolical alchemy has occurred where all of these horrible elements have been mixed together and out comes this song I like. Also, Ariana Grande is ridiculously cute, though I feel awkward saying that because though she's 21 she looks like she's just turned 12. I also like the saxophone work, but then I always like saxophones. She could stand to work on her dance moves more (the quick cuts try to hide the fact that she's basically just standing around most of the video) and as others have said, she really needs to work on her enunciation. Her other songs "Break Free" and "Love Me Harder" are also pretty good if you're into that modern club sound (also: good luck trying to decipher what she's saying).

Taylor Swift - 1989 (the whole album)

What can I say about Taylor Swift that hasn't already been said? Before listening to her album 1989 I've never consciously known I was listening to a Taylor Swift song. Like Ariana Grande, she too seems to be overly-privileged, and I couldn't care less about her dating life, even though that seems to be the only thing she sings about. I'll just tell you what happened to me: When her album 1989 came out I initially heard the song "Out of the Woods" and thought "Wow, this is Taylor Swift?" because with all it's synthesizers I thought it was some spare track from Chvrches, who you might recall had my favorite song from last year.

It seems that Taylor Swift has decided to completely reinvent herself, no longer an ostensible country artist, she's now gone the pop music route. And while I'll have to turn in my goth-industrial membership card upon completion of this sentence, I really like her new album. If you want to hear what pop music sounds like in 2014 look no further than 1989. With the help of Max Martin she's gone ahead and made a great pop album.

Supposedly styled after what Swift considers music sounded like in 1989, the album does have a slight 80s feel to it (there's a hint of New Wave there too, though that was pretty much over by '89). I can listen to the first eight tracks without skipping any of them - even Madonna albums can't do that. I listen to a song, like it, think "okay, well the next one's gotta be filler", prepare to skip it, and then find that I've listened all the way through to the next song.

You might have noticed by this point that I haven't linked to any videos. Well, the album is fairly new and most of these songs aren't on there yet. Also, since she's currently the hot music industry property, there's a crackdown on unlicensed uploads. The only thing I can find are uploads where they've slightly sped up the song to avoid Big Brother's copyrighted musical detector, and I don't want you to suffer through a Chipmunks-sounding (Chippettes?) version. So far you can only watch the videos for "Blank Space" and "Shake It Off", neither video of which I'm a huge fan. My personal favorite song off the album, "Style", doesn't even have a video yet (though it's rumored to be the next single), but you can find various cover versions on Youtube.

I've only got one chance for redemption so let's make it a good one:

I seem to have a thing for including songs not from the current year on my best of the year lists, so I suppose this song is this year's entry. I'm been familiar with The Chameleon's "Swamp Thing" because it is a staple, no, perhaps the quintessential song, at my local goth club. I've heard this song played on the dank, sweaty dancefloors for 15 years, and it wasn't until this year I bothered to ask "What's the name of this song?". Now that I know I'm just plain old obsessed with it.

Let's just talk about that opening, I could just listen to it on repeat again and again. My favorite part is right at 1:37 where it sounds like the intro is over and the lyrics are going to kick in and they just let the music linger for another 10 seconds and I love it. And then the lyrics begin and they're just pure poetry:
I can already hear your tune
Calling me across the room
When the world and his wife
Are on my back again
Not enough pleasure
Too much pain
Then the drums come crashing in and I just lose my mind completely. The old man in me is telling you they just don't make music like this anymore!

Well, another year down. What will 2015 bring? Considering the Back to the Future Part II vibe in the air, here's hoping Huey Lewis and the News make a comeback. You heard it here first!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Next Time, How About Some Wings That Aren't Broken?

Like Major Major Major Major from Catch-22, the parents of Mr. Mister had a very cruel sense of humor. Granted, he was mercilessly spared ridicule throughout his childhood, but once he entered adult society, he surely must have had a terrible burden to bare. "What's your last name sir?" "Mister." "Perhaps you misunderstood, I need your last name." "Yes, it's Mister." "I'm sorry, Mr., I don't mean to be rude."

"Broken Wings" is another one of those songs I heard a thousand times as a kid, but for years I never knew the title or the artist's name or anything critical of that nature. I was hanging out with the same friend who clued me in as to the artist and title of "Oh, Sherrie." He added, "You know Mr. Mister, 'Broken Wings'?" "No, what the hell is that?" He pulled it up on YouTube. "Oh yeahhhh, of course I know that one, you think I'm an idiot?" Strangely, the band's "Kyrie" which was also a #1 hit, is one I don't really remember hearing at all. Sometimes, you play the post-'80s soft rock perennial rotation game, and sometimes, it plays you.

When rock critics in the early '70s expressed their concern that technology would inevitably sap popular music of its "soul," they were probably terrified that the future of music was going to sound like "Broken Wings." Its pure synthetic sheen would have given them Woodstockian nightmares. It's like taking a photocopy of a photocopy; you can barely hear the remnants of actual humans in the background. According to Wikipedia, "The song's hissing intro was an effect created by the sound of a crash cymbal played in reverse." So you mean someone actually played an actual cymbal? Yeah, OK, they twisted it around so it sounded alien and inorganic, but still, I'm kind of impressed.

And what's with the chorus? Is that supposed to be some kind of Beatles reference? Just to refresh you: "Blackbird," from the White Album, features the lyrics, "Blackbird singing in the dead of night/Take these broken wings and learn to fly." Any intended homage would have completely escaped my Beatles-ignorant six-year-old self. But "Blackbird," at least according to later McCartney interviews, was an allegory about the Civil Rights movement. Maybe "Broken Wings" was an allegory about yuppies being oppressed by "the man," AKA ... themselves?

For a song that practically blasts "1985" from an airhorn, the video for "Broken Wings" has aged impressively well. Looks like Mr. Mister went the "Boys of Summer" route and brought out the black & white film stock for this baby. Let's just face it, the video is a Yuppie's wet dream. Lead vocalist (and bassist!) wearing a strategically unbuttoned denim shirt? Check. And sunglasses? Check. Driving a convertible? Check. Down an endless, nondescript California highway? Check. With random shots of birds? Check. With a scene of the singer sitting in an empty church, praying for the salvation of his broken Yuppie soul? Check and check. I like the part at 2:12 where he flings the map out of the car. Yeah! You show that road map who's boss! Oh, and soak in that white trenchcoat thing he's wearing while the band "performs" in their spotless desert home. Honestly, is that Mr. Mister's real lead singer, or did they just hire a model? I mean, for a guy who looks like he just popped out of an Eddie Bauer catalog, he sure can hit the high notes.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"All He Wants To Do Is" Complain About Your Supposed Ignorance

It looks like everyone but the Pope was on board for Don Henley's second album, Building the Perfect Beast: in addition to the aforementioned Mike Campbell, we've got Lindsey Buckingham, Randy Newman, the Motels' Martha Davis, Sam Moore (of Stax Records' Sam & Dave fame!) two members of Toto (does it really matter which ones?), and Wikipedia even lists a certain Miss B. Carlisle with "backing vocals, harmony vocals," but if she's on here, I haven't the faintest idea where (sadly, "She's On The Zoom" was not included as a bonus track, so it must have been something else). I know this album sold three times as much, and received three times as much critical praise, as I Can't Stand Still, so call me a contrarian, but I really don't feel like there are as many hidden gems on this one. Let's be honest, without "Boys of Summer" tipping the scales, this wouldn't even be a contest.

I fear that "Man On A Mission" was Henley's attempt to sound like Split Enz, and the title track may have been the subconscious inspiration for Wang Chung's "Everybody Have Fun Tonight," but otherwise, I'm kind of fallin' asleep here. "Sunset Grill" peaked at #22, and I'd put it at about #22 on my list of favorite Don Henley solo songs; too much synthesizer, not enough condescension.

Nope, he saved all the condescension for "All She Wants To Do Is Dance," another lecture rock classic which, despite actually being written by Don's buddy Danny Kortchmar and not Don himself, still gives Don the chance to sound like a liberal douche. From Wikipedia:
The song's lyrics are a personal commentary, critical of then-modern American culture for being more concerned with self-gratification and hedonistic behaviors (e.g., dancing, partying, promiscuity, recreational drug use, etc.) than with serious issues such as domestic and foreign policies of their government. Ironically, it became a very popular dance song, peaking at #10 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs.
See Don, you fucked it up! You made it too danceable! Looks like Henley fell victim to what was known in '80s pop circles as "Born in the U.S.A." Syndrome, ie. when an artist assumes his audience understands what irony is, and/or cares. Like he was adding all that much to the conversation anyway. Oh wait, you mean terrible things are happening in the world, and Don Henley is making me feel guilty about them? Oh my God, I've totally changed my mind! Honey, where's my Che Guevara t-shirt?
They're pickin' up the prisoners and puttin' 'em in the pen
And all she wants to do is dance, dance
Rebels been rebels since I don't know when
And all she wants to do is dance
Molotov cocktail - the local drink
And all she wants to do is dance, dance
They mix 'em up right in the kitchen sink
And all she wants to do is dance

Crazy people walkin' round with blood in their eyes
And all she wants to do is dance, dance
Wild-eyed pistol wavers who ain't afraid to die
And all she wants to do is
And all she wants to do is dance
And make romance

Well, the government bugged the men's room in the local disco lounge
And all she wants to do is dance, dance
To keep the boys from sellin' all the weapons they could scrounge
And all she wants to do is dance
But that don't keep the boys from makin' a buck or two
And all she wants to do is dance, dance
They still can sell the army all the drugs that they can do
And all she wants to do is
And all she wants to do is dance
And make romance

Well, we barely made the airport for the last plane out
As we taxied down the runway I could hear the people shout
They said, "Don't come back here Yankee!" but if I ever do
I'll bring more money
'Cause all she wants to do is dance
And make romance
Personally Don, I have no desire to either dance or make romance, and yet I still don't feel like joining the revolution. This song is sort of like Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World," but, you know, less funny. Also, in that one, I get the sense that Neil feels just as much fear and guilt about traveling in the third world as most of his American middle class audience would, whereas Don Henley just sounds like he's patting himself on the back for bothering to watch the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour. Plus, "Rockin' In The Free World" has those blistering electric guitar solos, whereas "All She Wants To Do Is Dance" has ... a keytar? The whole thing kind of sounds like Q*bert and Donkey Kong making love in a Trans Am, but I guess it takes all colors to make a rainbow.

For the video, Henley apparently traveled to a genuine war-torn Central American nation and commandeered the local hideout. Hmm. I didn't know Manuel Noriega was an Eagles fan.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Zrbo's Least Favorite Song of 2014

As a preamble to my favorite songs of the year, here we are with my least favorite song. Overall 2014 wasn't my favorite year in music as you'll see once we get to my favorites (spoiler: it's all Top 40). There was nothing that really swept me away. That being said, there sure was a lot of shit out there. Even then, it was pretty easy for me to choose which song annoyed me the most. After consulting with PricewaterhouseCoopers the winner is....

Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" is a textbook example that just because a song is catchy doesn't mean it's any good. Don't get me wrong, it is quite catchy, but dear god does it annoy me. To begin with, Ms. Trainor's vocals are gratingly nasal. It's like she had a cold the day the went to record the vocals. The throwback doo-wop motif is a novelty that quickly wears thin. Her white-girl-rapping is just annoying as hell. The lyrics are about body positivity, which I don't have a problem with per se, but as others have pointed out fall completely flat when put under scrutiny. To top it off, her follow up song sounds almost exactly the same. Finally, as for the video, they went way overboard on the pastels, ugh. Ladies and Gentlemen, here's your one hit wonder of 2014.

Now for something more positive...

Favorite Song/Video Combination

You may remember Kimbra from Gotye's massive hit "Somebody That I Used To Know". Kimbra is kind of like the southern hemisphere version of Bjork. She's from a small island nation (New Zealand), has an eccentric sense of style and taste, it's difficult to pin her to any specific genre, and her music works much better in tandem with her music videos. Not to diss Bjork but I've always found when listening to Bjork's songs on their own that they never enchanted me as much as they did when accompanied by one of her zany videos. I feel the same way about Kimbra. Watching her video for "Miracle" I can't help but feel the good vibes (she's effervescent in the enthusiasm she shows in this video) but when taken on it's own the song doesn't quite have the same pop as when it's accompanied by the video. And she really does pop in that bordering-on-risque red outfit, but once again, she really looks like she's having fun. The choreography reminds me a bit of fellow southern-hemispherian Kylie Minogue's video for Love At First Sight. Go ahead, watch, and have fun:

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Phil And His Danish Dealer's Little "Misunderstanding" AKA Put Up Your Duke

Even by the dawn of the '80s, Genesis still couldn't quite shake that pesky prog rock thing. Duke has a total running time of 55 minutes, and half of the songs are at least five minutes long. Come on guys, what did you think you were making here? Art? The people had spoken, and you knew what they wanted to hear: Phil Collins singing about his marital problems! Nobody needed a closing mini-suite titled "Duke's Travels/Duke's End." This was the '80s - get with the times. And don't take my word for it. Just listen to a man who surely must speak for all '80s music aficionados: Patrick Bateman:
I've been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that I didn't really understand any of their work ... all the albums before Duke seemed too artsy, too intellectual. It was Duke (Atlantic; 1980), where Phil Collins' presence became more apparent, and the music got more modern, the drum machine became more prevalent and the lyrics started getting less mystical and more specific (maybe because of Peter Gabriel's departure), and complex, ambiguous studies of loss became, instead, smashing first-rate pop songs that I gratefully embraced.
Yeah, OK, Bret Easton Ellis is trying to be a dick, but you know what? I sort of agree with the psychopath here! First of all, I love how, in Bateman's world, qualities like "artsy," "intellectual," "complex," and "ambiguous" are somehow undesirable in music. My problem isn't with "complex, ambiguous studies of loss." My problem with Peter Gabriel-era Genesis is that I never realized those songs were actually supposed to be "complex, ambiguous studies of loss." So is that what "The Battle of Epping Forest" was about? Now, Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here - I mean, that was a genuinely complex, ambiguous study of loss. I should mention that plenty of Phil Collins' songs were ostensibly studies of loss; they just weren't very, you know, complex, or ambiguous.

At any rate, although the band was still partially perching itself on the prog rock fence, fortunately Phil brought in a couple of simpler, more concise tracks left over from a potential solo album (yeah, like that was gonna fly), and donated them to the cause. For some reason Phil really wanted to turn one of them, a tender chronicle of a man trying his hardest to avoid admitting he's on the wrong end of an affair, into a slowed down cover of Led Zeppelin's "Fool in the Rain," while throwing in some Beach Boy harmonies in the back. And of course, let's not forget that impeccable, impeccable drumming:
There must be some misunderstanding
There must be some kind of mistake
I waited in the rain for hours
You were late

Now it's not like me to say the right thing
But you could've called to let me know
I checked your number twice, don't understand it
So I went home

Well I'd been waiting for this weekend
I thought that maybe we could see a show
Never dreamed I'd have this feeling
But seeing you is believing
That's why I don't know why
You didn't show up that night

Since then I've been running around trying to find you
I went to the places you always go
I rang your house but got no answer
Jumped in my car, I went round there
I still don't believe it
He was just leaving

No Phil, there's no misunderstanding at all. Your woman is doing you wrong, and you're gonna have to deal with it!

Or at least, that was the angle at the time. But courtesy of In The Air Tonight: The Secret Life And Twisted Psyche Of Philip D. Collins, we finally know the real story:
We were remixing some tracks in Denmark. I found out the hard way, as the saying goes, that five Frederikssund prostitutes is about four too many. At any rate, I had a connection at the Copenhagen zoo, a guy named Hans, he was supposed to hook me up with some heavy equestrian juice, if you know what I mean. We were talking some primo, primo shit. It would've turned Mr. Ed into a fucking unicorn. So Hans promises me that it'll be waiting for me in my hotel room the minute I get back from the studio. I can already taste the tranquilizer in my veins. I get back around 10:00PM, and sure enough, there's a box on the dresser. I was gonna need the needle for this one. I pulled out my custom-made horseshoe - you can do it with a normal spoon, but they say you really should cook it in a horseshoe to get that perfect "flavor." I opened up the box and grabbed the bag, but, God damn it, it was the wrong color. Forgive me for getting a bit technical here, but pure horse tranquilizer, in liquid form, is sort of a golden brown, whereas this was like a light grey. Hans had screwed me over - big time. I checked the print on the bag, and in the midst of several "oxides" and "amyls" were the words "giraffe anesthesia." I grabbed the phone.

"You sent me the wrong shit!"

"Who is this?"

"It's Phil! So what the fuck is this, Hans? I got a bag of ... giraffe anesthesia!"

"You did? No, I told them what you like, they were going to get you the good stuff."

"Well there must've been some kind of misunderstanding!"

"Look, Phil, I'll sort it out."

"Damn straight you will. I'm just supposed to sit around all night without my fix?"

"No, I don't know what to tell you, there was some kind of mistake, that's all."

"Yeah, like me trusting a fucking zookeeper, that was the mistake. Now get your puny little Danish ass over here and make sure you bring the right shit."

Copenhagen was about 45 minutes from the studio. I figured I could hold out that long. Rot Rot popped out from underneath a sweater in my duffle bag.

"What's the matter, Philip?"

"Oh nothing, they just sent me the wrong stuff, that's all. Now I've got to kill some time until they get here."

"How about another round of Riddle-Diddle?"

"No Rot Rot, I'm sick of Riddle-Diddle. You always win anyway. I was just watching the telly, but I turned it off."

"Well ... turn it on again."

So I caught a couple of episodes of Are You Being Served?, dubbed in Danish. Where the fuck was Hans? My back started itching. I almost thought about trying the giraffe anesthesia, but Rot Rot talked me out of it. I got impatient and walked down to the lobby. It was raining fairly steadily, but I decided to stand outside by the taxis. I didn't care. Finally a cab pulled up. Hans ran out with a box in his hand.

"Construction! Can you believe it? They're doing construction in Lillerod! Anyway, sorry Phil, here it is."

I raced up to my room, poured a solid dose into my horseshoe, let that lighter do its magic, and sank back on the bed.

"Philip, aren't you a bit concerned that your little 'hobby' is getting out of hand?"

"Listen Rot Rot, I've got it under control. I know what I'm doing."

"I saw the panic in your eyes tonight."

"You know what? How about I give you a dose of hedgehog anesthesia? How does that sound?"

Just then a car drove by, blasting "Fool In The Rain." That's when it hit me. I got up from the bed, stumbled my way to the piano, changed the whole scenario around to make it sound like a kind of adultery thing, and there you go.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Steve Winwood: Before He Went Yuppie

Before the '80s, no one would have dared utter the phrases "Steve Winwood" and "credibility problem" in the same sentence. As far as most people were concerned, Winwood, no matter what band he was playing in, was one soulful, tasteful dude. Steve Winwood was like the Eric Clapton of keyboards. And like Clapton, the material on which his legacy was, is, and forever will be based was not actually released under the name "Steve Winwood." Many have been the Generation X-er to hear someone talk about "how amazing Eric Clapton is," only to think, "'Lay Down Sally'? 'Wonderful Tonight'? That shit really ain't that amazing." No, no, no, it's the earlier stuff, man. The Yardbirds, Cream, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers ... you had to be there. And so, by the same token, allow me to briefly but informatively explain how another one of Britain's '60s rock legends completely lost his edge and rode the one-way train to Yuppieville.

Whether or not the world wanted a 15-year-old British Ray Charles, the world got one. Calling Steve Winwood's first band "the Spencer Davis Group" was a bit like calling the Jimi Hendrix Experience "the Noel Redding Experience," but they probably didn't know what they had on their hands (and it was probably best to not put too much pressure on the kid - not that he seemed to care). There were other Spencer Davis Group hits in the UK, but the two that most people remember are "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm A Man" from late 1966/early 1967, prime examples of wild, gritty white guy R&B that are right up there with ubiquitous oldies from the Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds, and Them. Brace yourself ... for the Hammond B-3 organ:

Yes, Steve Winwood was going to kick ass and take names. But then the Summer of Love hit, with all its incense and sitars and tie-dyed toilet paper, and Winwood had other ideas.

I'm talking about Traffic. At first, Winwood wasn't necessarily the "leader" of Traffic, but that's quickly what he became. Traffic are one of those bands that nobody really dislikes, but they don't have the hipster cache of contemporaries like the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd. They weren't overly pompous or self-important (like the Moody Blues or Yes), but they weren't very irreverent or aggressive (like Roxy Music or The Move) either. Oh come on, we're talking about a great era here, and Traffic recordings couldn't help but be soaked in that era's special glow. I'm not sure how many highlights I want to post. Should I go with debut single "Paper Sun"? Surreal jungle adventure "Forty Thousand Headmen"? Surprisingly effective stab at British folk-rock "John Barleycorn"? I think I'm just going to do two lengthy ones: 1) 1967's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" (with a "Hey Jude" coda, a whole year before "Hey Jude"!) and 1971's hypnotic eleven-minute progressive rock excursion "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys." Light a candle, pull up a rug, and let your spirit wander:

Imagine only being familiar with Steve Winwood's '80s Top 40 synth-cheese, and then discovering this stuff. Welcome to my world.

Of course, smack in the middle of Traffic's existence, Winwood inevitably teamed up with Clapton, although the resulting group, Blind Faith, only lasted one album. But ... but ... it's Winwood! And Clapton! Ironically, I think my favorite Blind Faith performance wasn't actually released on that album. It's the "electric" version of Winwood's "Can't Find My Way Home," which showed up years later on his boxed set The Finer Things, and is now also on the Deluxe edition of Blind Faith, which also features four fifteen-minute songs named "Jam #1," Jam #2," etc. If you're wondering whether Winwood and Clapton could possibly jam too much, there's your answer.

I don't know why, since it was basically Winwood's show, but Traffic broke up in 1974. The man wandered in the wilderness for a little while. There was his jazz fusion period (Stomo Yamashti's Go?). Then, out of nowhere, he finally released his first solo album in 1977. AMG's William Ruhlmann writes:
Rock fans had been waiting for a Steve Winwood solo album for more than a decade, as he made his way through such bands as the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic. When Winwood finally delivered with this LP, just about everybody was disappointed ... That great voice was singing the songs, that talented guitarist/keyboardist was playing them, and that excellent songwriter had composed them, but nothing here was memorable, and the long-awaited debut proved a bust.

It doesn't sound all that bad to me, but no, the late '70s were simply not Steve Winwood's time. He needed a new decade, one with the numeral "eight" in it, to truly shed his artistically legitimate past and forge a new, schlockier identity.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

So This Was Early Wham!, Huh? AKA George Michael: Godfather Of Gay Hip-Hop

Just when I thought I knew you, Georgios.

Until this very moment, I'd never quite understood why music writers and their cohorts have treated Wham! as a distinct artistic entity separate from George Michael. Wasn't Wham! basically George Michael's early career under a funny, gimmicky name? Why do people talk about Wham! as if it was its own "thing"? That's like treating the Tubeway Army as its own "thing," or the Stone Poneys as their own "thing." Nowadays, people just admit that the Tubeway Army was basically Gary Numan, or that the Stone Poneys were basically Linda Ronstadt, so the record companies just add "Are Friends Electric?" or "Different Drum" to their artists' respective "best of" compilations and everybody's happy. Besides, didn't Wham! only have three or four hits anyway?

Not so fast, my American friends. Because once again, the Yanks missed out on the early chapter of a revered British performer (or perhaps dodged a bullet?). It is time to tell you about Wham!'s first album, Fantastic. This album spawned not one, not two, but four UK Top Ten singles, none of which made a mark across the pond. Four hit singles? Must have been quite the album, right? Well, once you hear early Wham!, you might understand why George Michael is glad it still bears the name "Wham!" and not "George Michael."

The All Music Guide gives Fantastic one-and-a-half stars. Some excerpts from William Cooper's review:
With Fantastic, George Michael and partner Andrew Ridgeley introduced themselves as leather jacket-clad, street-smart "rebels" ... much of the material on Fantastic suffers from the duo's pretentious, tough-guy posturing ... Michael's smart-aleck, self-conscious lyrics are often unintentionally hilarious ... Fantastic isn't a good album, but it's oddly entertaining ... Unfortunately, that probably wasn't George Michael's intention. But even he might get a good laugh out of it.
And yet, inquiring minds wanted to know, so I gave it a listen. Maybe I have the taste of a three-year-old, but I actually kind of like this shit! What I didn't count on, though ... was the rap.

Oh yes. Before George Michael set his sights on becoming the next Marvin Gaye, apparently he set his sights on becoming the next Sugarhill Gang. If you've ever heard Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and thought, "This is pretty good, but I wish they were white, British, and gay," then Fantastic is the album for you.

Exhibit A: "Young Guns (Go For It!)." It turns out Wham!'s whole illustrious career was, arguably, a BBC programming accident. From Wikipedia:
The song was Wham!'s first hit, although it came with some help from the BBC music programme Top of the Pops, which invited Wham! on to the show as a last-minute replacement for another act which had pulled out. It helped that the producer of Top of the Pops had seen them previously on another programme: Saturday Superstore. Wham! were just outside the Top 40 threshold of the UK Singles Chart at the time, which meant they had not climbed high enough in normal circumstances to get on the show, but they were recruited nonetheless as the highest-placed artists still climbing the charts from outside the 40.
The BBC probably figured, "Well, these guys are obviously a flash-in-the-pan, what's the harm, really?" Once the British viewing audience caught a glimpse of the previously unknown George Michael, who at first glance is wearing a leather vest, although one could arguably claim that the leather vest is wear him, they surely must have realized that Elvis Costello was not about to perform "Shipbuilding." Throw in a quasi-teddy boy flat-top hairdo, and who could resist?

As for the "rap": it's an anti-marriage, pro-bachelorhood saga pitting the carefree male pal of a young man against that young man's commitment-hungry girlfriend. I mean, yeah. Who wants to marry some girl when you can hang out with your shirtless biker buddy, right?
Hey sucker
(What the hell's got into you?)
Hey sucker
(Now there's nothing you can do)

Well I hadn't seen your face around town awhile
So I greeted you, with a knowing smile
When I saw that girl upon your arm
I knew she won your heart with a fatal charm
I said "Soul Boy, let's hit the town!"
I said "Soul Boy, what's with the frown?"
But in return, all you could say was
"Hi George, meet my fiancee"

Young Guns
Having some fun
Crazy ladies keep 'em on the run
Wise guys realize there's danger in emotional ties
See me, single and free
No tears, no fears, what I want to be
One, two, take a look at you
Death by matrimony!
For this Top of the Pops performance, Andrew Ridgely attempts to play the uncertain young man, but fittingly, he merely mouths to the sound of George's voice from the studio recording. Also of note: the female in this little drama is played by Shirlie Holliman of future Pepsi & Shirlie fame (the black woman here would soon marry Paul Weller, and Pepsi eventually became her replacement - although Coca-Cola would argue that Pepsi can never be a suitable replacement for anything).

Props to the funky bass player laying down the imitation "Rapper's Delight"/"Good Times" groove while George rocks the mic, but it's the chorus that hints at the silky, soulful George Michael sound to come; check out that tasty self-harmonization on the line "danger in emotional ties." Also, after the exclamation, "Death by matrimony" (clearly the most gruesome kind of death), I like the rapid-fire series of synth notes suggesting wimpy conjugal gunshots. The crowning touch would have to be the rapid flashing of the word "Wham!" repeated across the screen Warhol-style in the final seconds. In short, "Young Guns (Go For It!)," both song and television performance, is the most ridiculous pile of nonsense I have ever seen. Naturally, the song shot to #3 and turned Wham! into megastars.

So hey, why stop rapping now? Because next came "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)," an ode to the joys of registering for unemployment, which I assume in the UK was a bit easier to do than in the US ("DHSS," a chant in the song, stands for Department of Health and Social Security). "Wham Rap!" is sort of a conservative's worst fears realized: if young people can receive money without working, then maybe ... they won't work!
Hey everybody take a look at me
I've got street credibility
I may not have a job
But I have a good time
With the boys that I meet "down on the line"
I said D-H-S-S
Man the rhythm that they're givin'
Is the very best
I said B-1, B-2
Makin' claims on your name's
All you have to do

Wham! Bam!
I am! A man!
Job or no job
You can't tell me that I'm not
Do! You!
Enjoy what you do?
If not, just stop
Don't stay there and rot
I'm not sure if this one is painfully shallow or oddly profound, but I've probably just spent more time analyzing "Wham Rap!" than Wham! themselves ever did. I mean, you could forgive the British public for thinking this "Michael George" fellow wasn't going to last: he's openly bragging about sitting on his ass and not amounting to anything!

The most unintentionally revealing moment in the video arrives at 2:20, after the lyrics "If you're a pub man/Or a club man/Maybe a jet black guy with a hip hi-fi/A white cool cat with a trilby hat/Maybe leather and studs is where you're at," when Mr. Michael promptly appears in leather trousers, jacket, and cap, looking a little too comfortable for the occasion.

In hindsight, it's tempting to ask oneself, "How could people not realize that he ... you know ... 'buttered his toast with the other side of the knife,' " but I think this topic was a little trickier back then, because, let's face it, most British male pop singers of that era came off as slightly gay anyway. Quick: name one that didn't come off as slightly gay. Adam Ant? Nope. Robert Smith? Nope. That guy from the Human League? Nope. Sting? Nope. Probably Phil Collins, and that's about it.

Professor Higglediggle provides the appropriate cultural perspective. From Father Figure:
By appropriating African-American inner city culture and transmogrifying it into coded homosexual behavioral tropes, Wham! turned embryonic Old School hip-hop into a Hegelian dialectic between black struggle and British effeminacy. The vernacular of the "street" became the vernacular of the "bath house." With "Young Guns (Go For It)" and "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)," Michael and Ridgeley subverted the macho braggadocio of Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC and utilized it to dance along the liminal space between hetero-normative cool and the outlandishness of Queer Theory. They dared to suggest, to a nescient public, that one could indeed embody both "gay" ... and "ghetto."

Monday, December 15, 2014

Thus Spoke Zrbothustra (after the rain)

“Silence is worse; all truths that are kept silent become poisonous.” - Friedrick Nietzsche

I suppose it's time to break that silence. Yes, your good pal Herr Zrbo is here, after a long bout of ... having a kid.  I am now indeed a father to a little Gollum of a daughter. Now, let's not get ahead of ourselves here - I don't know just how much I'll be contributing now that I'm back, but you'll at least see my annual favorite songs of the year returning shortly. But enough with the small talk, let's get to what we really came here for:

After the drenching rains we've recently had come through California (not that that's where we're based, we are Cosmic Americans after all, adrift in both time and space) I caught myself singing Nelson's "After the Rain." The last time that Little Earl and I met during our annual Cosmological Congress I mentioned to him how I was currently into rock music from right before when Nirvana/"alternative music" hit the airwaves in the early '90s - those last glorious days when the '80s and its associated "hair metal" took one final breath before suffocating under the rain-drenched mopings of Seattle-based grunge.

Nelson are a perfect fit in this category that I don't have a name for (late hair metal?). Identical twin brothers Matthew and Gunnar Nelson were one of the last hair metal bands with a hit. The single "After the Rain" hit #6 on Billboard in late June of 1990, with their other hit "Love and Affection" hitting number #1. This put Nelson into the history books - well, at least the Guinness Book of World Records - as being the only family to reach number one record status in three successive generations (Ozzie and Harriet Nelson being the first, their father Ricky Nelson the second). Just over a year later, in September of 1991, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would hit America by storm. Coincidentally, the album After the Rain remained in the charts for 64 weeks. You do the math.

Let's just watch this beast of a video. That opening with the drunk belligerent stepdad in what I presume is a trailer is pretty dark stuff. It's certainly not a tacky '80s anti-drug commercial. Yeah kid, go listen to that Nelson on your headphones, because when the song is over you're still going to be living in a nightmarish shit hole.

But then.. the kid is off on a hilarious vision quest complete with Native American appropriation. But... who are those two identical dreamboats with the outrageously long blond hair? Why, it's Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, sons of teen idol Ricky Nelson!

And what locks of hair they are! What teenage girl wouldn't go head over heels for Nelson? That's fairly indicative of late hair metal as well; it seemed increasingly tailored to a female audience. Just check out nearly any song by contemporaries Slaughter or Winger - these songs are made for chicks to dig, you dig? Don't believe me? How about that Full House episode where DJ scores tickets to see Slaughter. If you were a hair metal rocker in 1990 America, you could have any 13 year old girl you wanted. Seriously. (Confession time: little Zrbo really liked Nelson as well).

Back to the video. Enter: the arena. Yes, another staple of any good hair metal video is to highlight your band's "live" chops by having the video filmed "live" in a massive arena filled with adoring fans. Look at the smoke, look at the lights, look at those explosions, look at all the people having fun ... all in some sort of rock garden arena!

It's the little things:
  • The long velour coats that match the softness of Nelson's hair
  • One band member didn't get the memo and brought along his acoustic guitar
  • @3:28 The classic hair metal video trope of the drummer pointing the stick at the camera
  • @3:54 There's a Yacht Rocker in the audience... or at least a guy sporting a Captain's hat
  • @4:10 Are they identical twins or are they lovers 'cause they're getting awfully close
And then the kid wakens back in his shit hole - was it all just a dream? But what's this! What a twist!

And that's it for our time with Nelson. I think you can still see them performing at the Santa Cruz boardwalk on occasion, watery remnants of a time when big hair was the thing. These washed out rockers pouring out their hearts in a gush, no, a rain of emotions. All right, enough water-based puns for now. Back to the Gollum.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Meet James Mason: Belinda Carlisle's Father-In-Law

Yes, meet James Mason - although Belinda herself never did: he died only a few months before Belinda and his son Morgan's paths ever crossed. Ah, but the boundaries of connection often have a way of extending far beyond this mortal coil, and so, despite the esteemed British actors' (most likely) complete ignorance of a certain '80s all-girl New Wave band, he and that band's lead singer will be forever linked in the celebrity family tree.

In an era when major Hollywood leading men (like Paul Newman, William Holden, or Burt Lancaster) were relatively straightforward and conventionally masculine, James Mason was a bit of, shall we say, an "Odd Man Out." I'm sure at various times he must have played more conventional heroes, but if so, those aren't the roles for which he's remembered. No, Mason was the inscrutable English gentleman, part ambivalent anti-hero, part seething everyman. He spoke with an immediately recognizable and often imitated wheezy refinement, as if he'd turned his natural lung power down from a 10 to about an 8. Even when he was professing his undying love for someone, he always seemed like he was about five seconds away from sending in the pit bulls to tear her limbs apart. Underneath the surface, his characters might have been pathetic victims or evil geniuses, but you usually needed about twenty minutes to figure out which one it was going to be.

His wishy-washy intellectualism was perfect for the role of Brutus in 1953's Julius Caesar, a Shakespeare adaptation that everyone in Hollywood thought was going to be a prestigious flop, but turned out to be a surprise hit. Or rather, everyone thought that the casting of Marlon Brando ("that no good, mumbling, Method acting punk from A Streetcar Named Desire, who didn't even seem like he could stand up straight to save his life!") as Marc Anthony was the worst casting decision in the history of cinema. But about halfway through the film, Brando not only demonstrated that he could learn his lines, he could deliver them better than the creme de la creme of British theatre legends surrounding him. Dude could set that iambic pentameter on fire. Although it was Brando who received top billing (and stole the buzz), in terms of total screen time, Mason was essentially the lead. Sure, he didn't bring the raw sex appeal, but he brought the tortured British grativas. Brutus is that special, unique politician who carefully thinks all his actions through, has all the right motives, even has the genuine long-term interests of the public at heart, and yet still does the wrong thing (you know, murder somebody). Nobody could do "guilt-ridden philosopher-statesman" like my boy James.

Just a year later, Mason again ended up being overshadowed by another co-star, and another legendarily volatile Hollywood icon, Judy Garland, in 1954's A Star Is Born. Ironically, it was the more stable Mason who played the declining film actor Norman Maine, while the doomed Garland played the young starlet Esther Blodgett, whose fame quickly surpasses that of her mentor/lover. I remember Garland doing a lot of singing, but unfortunately I don't recall Mason giving the ol' razzle dazzle a try. Mostly he just slowly, agonizingly self-destructs. There are about an hour's worth of scenes in which Norman somehow embarrasses Esther in public, whines about how terrible he feels about it, claims that she'd be better off without him, and then does something embarrassing again. You want the dark side of the Hollywood dream? Mason is your man.

The award for "Best Cortisone Addiction Movie" has to go to 1956's Bigger Than Life - which Mason also produced and co-wrote - in which Mason plays yer all-American dad (with an incongruous English accent) who slowly loses his marbles after becoming addicted to the experimental new prescription drug. Although the film was ostensibly a searing family drama, I think director Nicholas Ray secretly played certain scenes for laughs, such as the infamous climax in which Mason goes so far off his rocker that he threatens to sacrifice his own son to God with a pair of scissors. Yep, this one was out there.

More nakedly out there, but no less controversial for it, was Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of Lolita, in which Mason plays the one and only Humbert Humbert. I remember reading Lolita and thinking, "Well, even though I already know that James Mason plays Humbert Humbert in the movie, honestly, if I could have cast anyone as Humbert Humbert ... I think I would have gone with James Mason!" He has just the right mixture of erudition, class, caution, and buried perversity. For two-and-a-half hours, Humbert's ambitions are continuously thwarted, as he attempts to outwit Lolita's mother, the mysterious rival Clare Quilty, and Lolita's own faltering interest. You'll never root so hard for a pedophile in your life.

And that's just the tip of the James Mason iceberg. We've got North By Northwest, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Georgy Girl, The Verdict - look, I haven't even seen most of these. Apparently the man was not picky with his roles; that's how his filmography includes such titles as Escape From Zahrain, The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go, Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!, The Flower in His Mouth, Evil Under the Sun, and Hot Stuff. Certain British thespians who made the transition to Hollywood (such as Laurence Olivier or Alec Guinness) might have expressed some concern at the effect their roles would end up having on their acting reputation; James Mason was not one of those people. He was like the Nicolas Cage of his day: send him a script, and it was as good as a "Yes."

But sadly, or perhaps mercifully, the role of father-in-law to the Queen of Yuppie Rock is the one role he never got the chance to play. I'm inclined to believe that if he'd lived to see it, the story of his son and new bride would have struck him as one even more implausible than the most far-fetched plots in his tawdriest of film scripts.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"Les Boys": Knopfler Goes Fosse?

If Side 1 of Making Movies is like the original Star Wars trilogy, Side 2 is more like the prequels: ostensibly cut from the same cloth, not as good, but still kind of enjoyable if you're high enough. All right, fine, the four remaining songs aren't really that disappointing. "Expresso Love" is a nice mid-tempo rocker that probably sounds too much like "Tunnel of Love" for my taste. Come on Mark, you're supposed to wait at least one album before you rip yourself off. It might be the closest thing to a "happy" love song on Making Movies, but Knopfler delivers the seemingly optimistic lyrics ("She was made in heaven/Heaven's in the world/Is this just expresso love?/You know I'm crazy for that girl") with plenty of uncertainty and caution. He's flying high on a new fling, but maybe that's just the caffeine talking.

If "Hand In Hand" is probably my least favorite cut on the album, I'm not saying that I skip it. Roy Bittan provides some nice piano tinkling, but doesn't it feel like Knopfler is preparing himself for his inevitable foray into Adult Contemporaryland? With its break-up sentiments, it certainly fits the mood though ("If I've been hard on you, I never chose to be/I never wanted no one else/I tried my best to be somebody you'd be close to/Hand in hand like lovers are supposed to").

Although "Solid Rock" is actually about Knopfler's longing for emotional and/or geological stability, and is not an attempt to describe its own musical qualities, with its chuggin Stonesy energy, the song is more or less a chunk of "rock" that is "solid." He's moved on from obsessing about a particular woman and is now trying to formulate a more universal state of mind through which he can deal with "struggle and strife," as he would put it later:
Because the heart that you break
That's the one that you rely on
The bed that you make
That's the one you gotta lie on
When you point your finger 'cause your plan fell through
You got three more fingers pointing back at you

What about the fifth finger? Has it been severed in a horrific accident? Anyway, if Side 2 is like the Star Wars prequels, then the closing track, "Les Boys," is like Revenge of the Sith. And you know what? I enjoyed Revenge of the Sith! But not every Star Wars fan did, and not everybody enjoys "Les Boys." Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that "the record runs out of steam toward the end, closing with the borderline offensive 'Les Boys' ..."You know what I say? Borderline offensive is the best kind of offensive.

"Les Boys" is, apparently, Knopfler's semi-affectionate ode to German gay bars:
Les boys do cabaret
Les boys are glad to be gay
They're not afraid now
Disco bar in Germany
Les boys are glad to be
Up on parade now

Les boys got leather straps
Les boys got SS caps
But they got no gun now
Get dressed up, get a little risque
Got to do a little S&M these days
It's all in fun now

Les boys come on again
For the high class whores
And the businessmen
Who drive in their Mercedes Benz
To a disco bar in old Munchen

They get the jokes that the D.J. makes
They get nervous and they make mistakes
They're bad for business
Some tourists take a photograph
Les boys don't get one laugh
He says they're useless

Late at night when they've gone away
Les boys dream of Jean Genet
High heel shoes and a black beret
And the posters on the wall that say
Les boys do cabaret
Les boys are glad to be gay
Say what? Did Knopfler accidentally cover an unreleased David Bowie song? How did we go from abandoned fairgrounds in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to disco clubs in Munich? If each song on the album is a miniature "movie," then this one stars Liza Minnelli and she's wearing lacy black stockings and a bowler hat. And Chet Atkins is sitting in the corner for some reason.

If Making Movies is a great "break-up album," one could argue that "Les Boys" has absolutely nothing to do with relationships or heartbreak and is therefore completely out of place on it. But on an album that's otherwise so heavy, I find "Les Boys" a refreshing change of pace. It is so goofy, so playful, whenever it comes on, I just have to smile. I can almost hear Monty Python announcing, "And now for something completely different!" You know what it is? It's campy. And how many Dire Straits songs could you say are campy?

But on a deeper level, I think this song is more related to the albums' themes than it might initially seem to be. I feel like "Les Boys" is Knopfler's way of saying that, despite all the pain that comes from relationships (which he's just spent the previous six songs describing), eventually you can come out of it OK and enjoy life a little. Yeah, it isn't quite On The Beach and "Ambulance Blues," but if it's always darkest before the dawn, "Les Boys" is like Making Movies' silly little dawn. Knopfler spends most of the album wrestling with the concept of romance, and he struggles to reconcile the ideal with the reality. Suddenly, he's in a gay club in Munich, watching this freaky subculture appropriate Nazi imagery for kinky giggles, and quite obviously, these guys aren't trying to reconcile anything with anything. Why take love so seriously? Maybe it's supposed to be messy. Maybe it's supposed to be illogical. Maybe it's all just a farce. Maybe love isn't a movie, and what we really need to do is just throw out the script. Maybe Les Boys ... are really on to something.