Thursday, May 21, 2015

Zrbo Reviews: VNV Nation's Resonance

Every so often musical artists will come up with a way to repackage their music in an attempt to cast themselves as something else than their ascribed genre would suggest. Madonna threw all of her ballads together and released 1995's Something to Remember. Metallica got a symphony orchestra to accompany them live in 1999's S&M. Even Kiss got into the act with 2003's Kiss Symphony: Alive IV. With Resonance, or more fully, VNV Nation and the Babelsburg Film Orchestra's Resonance: Music for Orchestra, Volume 1, the band attempts to re-cast their music in a more classical fashion.

Though ostensibly an industrial act, VNV Nation have always shown a fondness for classical compositions. Frontman Ronan Harris has long cited classical composers such as Mozart, Wagner, and Gorecki as influences. And it shows in their music: nearly every VNV album has a nod to classical music. Beginning with their first album, 1995's Advance & Follow, with instrumental tracks such as "Amhrain Comhrac" and "Fiume", to the "Ode to Joy" sample that fittingly begins 1998's "Joy", through the band's dabbling in neo-classical (e.g., 2002's "Liebestod", 2005's "Colours of Rain", 2007's "As It Fades"), VNV have always relished in the clash between classical music and modern dance music.

Let's get this out of the way right now: this album is Ronan Harris's dream project. He pretty much states this in the liner notes. Originally meant to be a recording of a 2012 live performance at the "Gothik meets Klassik" festival in Liepzig, those tapes met some unfortunate production errors and had to be scrapped. Instead we get this more fully produced studio album, losing out on the live aspect of a classical performance (though perhaps that's for the better as Harris's live singing voice can be a bit rough: that's what years of whisky and cigarettes will do to a man's voice). His Irish brogue comes through a bit here too, with his "I's" sounding very pinched. For Harris I'm sure it was a delight to record this with the Babelsburg Film Orchestra in Potsdam right next door to the set where Metropolis was filmed, considering his love of that film.

Strangely, and perhaps unfortunately, Harris hasn't included a single one of VNV's classical style songs on Resonance. Instead we get a collection consisting mainly of ballads. Everything sounds exceptional; the recording quality here is really superb. The instruments are all clear and Ronan's voice sounds the clearest it's ever been (though he still has very little range). You can tell a lot of time went into the whole production. I can't begrudge them that. It's also kind of cute how they've given each song it's own fancy Italian music term.

If I have a problem with the album it's perhaps due to my own expectations. When a band announces they're going to perform with a full orchestra you expect perhaps something big, loud, and a bit grandiose. VNV Nation's music is impeccably suited for this. Following off of the band's collective name as well as the fervor that Harris is known to convey during live shows, VNV Nation's music can evoke images of a military march (following in a long industrial music tradition of military-appropriation) or a Riefenstahl-esque political rally. One only has to listen to the tracks "Pro Victoria", or the opening minute of Solitary (signals version). It all lends itself perfectly to some sort of big symphonic experience. The band has even dabbled in this symphonic sound before with the faux-orchestral "anachron" remix of "Legion" which is partly used in their live shows.

Instead what we get with Resonance is a much more subdued, even intimate affair. There's little sign of some massive orchestra backing the vocals. What we have instead comes across more like a mid-size music recital with the various instruments all feeling small and contained. The expected highs and crescendos aren't there.

Don't get me wrong, it does all sound quite lovely. But I was hoping for a bit more... wow factor. I came expecting something bombastic, something where the band's songs were amplified to a large spectacle. What I found instead was something much more reserved.

As I said above, I feel like an opportunity was lost here by not including more of VNV's instrumental tracks. While it's perfectly understandable that the tracks on Resonance are the band's well-known ballads and a smattering of other hits, I would have loved to have heard some deeper cuts.

For example, I was hoping we might get a version of one of my favorite b-sides "Distant (Rubicon II)", a song already in an orchestral style. Harris even debuted a new rendition of this song on tour about ten years ago (with this YouTube clip serving as the only remnant I can find, with perhaps the worst audio in history), and I've been waiting for them to release this new rendition for years. This would have been a perfect opportunity, but, no luck.

That's not to say Resonance doesn't have its moments. I was initially surprised when I heard that the album included two different versions of "Nova", an accomplished ballad off 2011's Automatic. Both versions are well done here, but the second version, "Nova (Largo)", is completely unexpected. It's been very slowed down (thus the "Largo") and given a treatment that I can only describe as Victorian chamber music. It's really quite unexpected.

Both of VNV's biggest ballads come across well here. It's a delight to hear actual strings at the beginning of "Solitary (Allegro con Spirito)" and "Standing (Moderato Declamando)". And though "Illusion" is perhaps my least favorite VNV song, hearing the actual piano keys on the "Andante Granzioso" version along with the accompanying strings gives the song a much more intimate feel.

When it comes to the non-ballads, the version of Sentinel here, "Moderato Sostenuto", gives the lyrics to this normally dance-heavy track the gravitas they deserve. "Resolution (Allegro con Fuoco)" a normally uptempo dance number, still comes through as uptempo here with the help of some well placed wood instruments.

In the disappointments category I'd include "Legion (Vivace con Affeto)", a remarkably short piece that doesn't reach the grand heights I'd expect a truly orchestral version of one of the band's best songs to reach. Once again, compare to the remix "Legion (anachron)" and hear what I mean (just listen to those final timpani drums!). The iTunes exclusive track, "Teleconnect, Part 2 (Adagio Sonora)", one of my personal favorites from their most recent album Transnational, fails to land. While the original consisted primarily of one long big buildup, here the buildup sounds somewhat meandering and tuneless so that when the lyrics do arrive at the end they don't hit with the same punch as in the studio version.

Overall, while the production on Resonance sounds superb, I can't help but feel mildly disappointed. It seems that VNV Nation missed a chance to go big here. Instead we get a much more subdued affair and while I'm sure this project is exactly what Ronan Harris wanted, speaking as a long time fan, it's not quite what I wanted when I first heard that VNV Nation were doing an orchestral album. The best praise I can give Resonance is that it's pleasant. However, none of the new renditions here are going to replace or become the new definitive version for me. As the album states, this is a "Volume 1", so perhaps one day we'll get those truly big sounding versions of those songs that are so deserving of it.

4/5 Zrbo points

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Neutron Dance": Where Molecular Chemistry And R-Rated '80s Cinema Collide definition of "neutron":
noun, Physics.
1. an elementary particle having no charge, mass slightly greater than that of a proton, and spin of ½: a constituent of the nuclei of all atoms except those of hydrogen. Symbol: n.
Quite what this word has to do with dancing is one of the great riddles of our time. I've heard of the square dance, the line dance, even the Riverdance, but I can't say I've ever seen anyone do the Neutron Dance. It may be so small that one can only witness it through a high-powered microscope. Nevertheless, on their contribution to the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, the Pointer Sisters claim they have been doing it. So what exactly is this dance? For our answer, we turn to surprisingly prolific and eclectic songwriter Allee Willis, co-writer of everything from Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" to the Pet Shop Boys' "What Have I Done To Deserve This" to the Friends theme "I'll Be There For You" (!). It turns out the Neutron Dance isn't as harmless as it seems. From a interview:
It was not written for Beverly Hills Cop. It was written for a movie called Streets of Fire. This was a movie that came and went. And we were told that there was a scene on a bus that was leaving town after there had been this nuclear holocaust, and that a '50s doo-wop black group was going to be at the back of the bus that the lead couple was escaping on. And so Danny Sembello and I just met that day, he was the younger brother of Michael Sembello who had a hit at that time called "Maniac." I was very disinterested in songwriting at that point, and I'm writing with this kid who's never had a record before, and I just wanted to get him in and out. He was a phenomenal keyboard player, and I just said, "Play the most common sounding old fashioned '50s black music bass line that you can think of." And he just started doing the (sings rhythm for "Neutron Dance"). And I'm someone who could write a melody to a spoon falling on the table. So I literally sang that melody down. First time down, he just kind of followed and went to the right places. And then I said, "Let's just write this quick lyric." Because I knew everyone in town was competing to be in this movie, so I didn't really have a lot of confidence we would get it. And it was a very autobiographical lyric for what was going on with me at the time. I was very dissatisfied with songwriting, really feeling like I wasn't able to fully express myself through it, because I'm writing for other people, ultimately you're saying what they want to say ... And it was all this stuff going on in my life: "I don't want to take it anymore, I'll just stay here locked behind the door. Just no time to stop and get away, because I work so hard to make it every day." Really a lyric about all these things falling apart in your life, and you know what, just get it together and change your life.
So, in a way, "Neutron Dance" is a mid-life crisis song a la "Pressure" or "Dancing In The Dark"? And according to Willis, not all of the crises were conceived via dramatic license:
I used to have a little pink 1962 Corvair, and as we were writing this song, I look out the window, and there's someone out in front of my house trying to jimmy open the door of the Corvair. So I race out of the studio, and as I'm running out - and I tape everything - everything - so I have this, and I'm "Hey!" You hear me racing out of the room and screaming back at him, "Someone stole my brand new Chevrolet!" and that was that line. And when I saw that movie - I went to a pre-screening of it - it was mind boggling to me for many, many reasons, but the first one of which, "Neutron Dance," which is the song that opens the movie, on that line, "someone stole my brand new Chevrolet," this cigarette truck that Eddie Murphy is locked up in the back of, screaming through the streets of Detroit, slams into this Chevrolet. And "I'm just burning, doing the Neutron Dance," which to me meant someone could push the button tomorrow and we could all go up in smoke, so make your change now. On that line, a car explodes. I mean, I couldn't have written a better song for a movie scene if my life depended on it.
Ummm ... I'm not sure that an action sequence featuring a truck crashing into a Chevrolet truly captures the apocalyptic tenor of the chorus, but if she's satisfied, I'm satisfied. So in addition to being a mid-life crisis song, it's also another Secret Cold War Allegory song a la "1999" or "I Melt With You"? And here we were, thinking all these '80s songs were completely vapid and apolitical. Apparently Willis even ended up on the Soviet "enemies" list:
The Russian government named me as one of the most dangerous people living in the United States, because they mis-translated it as "neutron bomb." The first verse they translated as "a powerful nuclear explosion is approaching, it will annihilate everyone; who cares if you have no car, no job, no money, just dance, dance, dance." And this was a huge article in Pravda, and I was supposed to be going to Russia with BMI, and I wasn't let in the country. I mean, it was nuts.
Look out Communist Bloc: that Pointer Sisters song is going to topple your regime!! But what the KGB seems to have missed is that "Neutron Dance" is really about fighting for survival in a world gone berserk. It's like the "Stayin' Alive" of the '80s, or the cheesy dance-pop version of "The Message." There's some fairly bleak imagery here:
Industry don't pay a price that's fair
All the common people breathing filthy air (Lord have mercy)
Roof caved in on all the simple dreams
And to get ahead your heart starts pumping schemes
Lord have mercy! It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how the Pointer Sisters keep from going under. When your heart starts pumping schemes instead of blood, you know you've got a problem. And all this time I thought it was a song about electrons and laser beams (which is, if I'm not mistaken, the source of the fluttery sound I'm hearing every time the title is uttered during the chorus). For years I thought the lyric "I know there's a pot of gold for me" was actually "I know there's a particle for me." Turns out doing the Neutron Dance is more like signing up for food stamps.

And yet, in the music video, clearly the Pointer Sisters haven't let the perils of modern society get them down. Dressed in short neon skirts and clutching glowing florescent dildos, they're having more fun as movie theater ushers than I ever did back in college. Bronson Pinchot makes an appearance as the exasperated and ultimately ineffectual theater manager: "I don't want you stopping ... to go fix your make-up, to go make phone calls, to buy Raisinettes. Do you know how that works?" This guy must have dealt with a lot of slacking off in his day. But sadly the sisters have other plans, as they gradually take over the theater and encourage the audience to dance directly in front of the screen. Hey, I paid good money for these seats! One of the sisters also appears to be frantically spooling the film in the projection booth. Here's a word of advice: if your film is about to screen, and you've left it up to a Pointer Sister to piece it together in time, you really haven't delegated responsibility properly.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Can You Face The Value? AKA Never Trust A Turkish Soothsayer

You mean to tell me there's a whole album ... after "In The Air Tonight"? That's like when I found out there was a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. You mean there's stuff that happens after Dave travels beyond the infinite, ages a thousand years in a meticulously clean bedroom, and morphs into a giant space baby? To this day, I still haven't seen 2010, but maybe I should. I'm up for anything with Roy Scheider in it.

My point is, after the opening track, Phil didn't just impale himself on a Pez dispenser and end it all. No, he managed to face another day - several, in fact. But if you're thinking the rest of Face Value couldn't possibly outdo the opening track, well ... you'd be right. Still, I discovered some goodies.

On his solo debut, Phil threw all the rules out the window. See, what happened is that he didn't realize his solo career was going to becoming bigger than Genesis, so at this stage I think he was treating Face Value like a vanity project, an album where you do all the shit your band mates usually tell you not to do. Like mess with an actual Genesis song! While recording "Behind the Lines" for Duke, somebody played the tape back at double speed, and Phil thought, "Heh. This kind of sounds like a Michael Jackson song! I think I'm going to add some horns to it and put a re-make on my solo album!" Listen, a lot of things sound like a lot of things if you play them back at double speed. However, even though he did something stupid, it came out ... kind of awesome!

Witness the end of Side 1, where he dicks around with a couple of moody instrumentals. "Droned" sounds like one of Peter Gabriel's pseudo-African tone poem doo-dads, with Phil playing the drums with his own bare hands a la John Bonham's solo in "Moby Dick," except with some arguably tasteless "Oom-daka-daka-doom" chanting thrown in for good measure. But then it segues directly into another instrumental, "Hand in Hand," which sounds about as artistically credible as "Droned" for the first minute and thirty seconds, with some odd drum machine gurgling, another unexpectedly jarring (and human) drum entrance, and what sounds like eerily happy school children faintly singing "la la la." Then at 1:35, the Earth, Wind & Fire horns come in and immediately defecate over the entire track. I'm sitting here thinking, "Man, this could be Talking Heads with Eno right here," and then suddenly I realize, "Nope, wait, it's just Phil Collins doing the shitty horn thing again."

Then we've got the sad bastard ballads, the proto-"Against All Odds" numbers, if you will. He really lays it into his ex on "You Know What I Mean," unfortunately not a cover of Lee Michael's blue-eyed soul '70s hit:
Just as I thought I'd make it
You walk back into my life
Just like you never left

Just as I'd learned to be lonely
You call up to tell me
You're not sure if you're ready
But ready or not, you'll take what you've got and leave

Leave me alone with my heart
I'm putting the pieces back together again
Just leave, leave me alone with my dreams
I can do without you, know what I mean?

I wish I could write a love song
To show you the way I feel
Seems you don't like to listen
Oh but like it or not, take what you've got and leave

Leave me alone with my heart
It's broken in two and I'm not thinking too straight
Just leave, leave me alone with my dreams
You've taken everything else, you know what I mean?

Hey bitch, get off his back, all right? The guy's got a band and a solo career to juggle, he doesn't need your shit. "If Leaving Me Is Easy," which was actually a hit single in the UK, starts out like kind of like a snoozefest (even with Eric Clapton apparently on guitar, not that you can tell), but Phil transforms it into something distinctive (and unintentionally comical?) at the three minute mark by recording multi-tracked harmonies after (presumably) inhaling an entire tank of helium. Extra points for the random jazzy cello-and-violin bursts as well. What is he now, Frank Sinatra? "Hey get those broads ovah here and put some ring-a-ding-ding on that drum track, wouldja doll?"

Then without warning, in the middle of all this mopey Divorce Rock, he throws in a bouncy, jaunty, concise little McCartneyesque music hall number, "I'm Not Moving." Did the record label accidentally mix up the Face Value master tapes with a Split Enz outtake?

Then we get "Irish Potato Famine" Phil, with "The Roof Is Leaking," his attempt at a historical folk ballad a la The Band. What is this, Fiddler On The Roof?
The roof is leaking and the wind is howling
Kids are crying 'cos the sheets are so cold
I woke this morning found my hands were frozen
I've tried to fix the fire, but you know the damn thing's too old

It's been months now, since we heard from our Mary
I wonder if she ever made the coast
She and her young man, they both moved out there
But I sure hope they write, just to let us know

And me, I'm getting stronger by the minute
My wife's expecting, but I hope she can wait
'Cos this winter looks like it's gonna be another bad one
But Spring'll soon be here,
Oh God I hope it's not late

Ma and Pa lived here, and theirs before them
Tried their hardest to make it a home
Seems so long now since they passed over
Hope my children'll try to make it their own

So this was the inspiration for An American Tail. You know, correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like this couple picked a bad time to have a baby. Also, maybe there are some semantic differences between British and American English here, but can a fire become "old"? Sounds like a rhyming fail.

Oh yeah, before I forget, there's even a semi-optimistic ode to his bounce-back girlfriend, "This Must Be Love," which, as Wikipedia helpfully points out, "focused on Collins' then new romance at the time with Jill Tavelman, who would be his second wife (and second divorce)." You can't blame a man for trying.

Of course, the only way to bring your soul-baring divorce album to a proper close ... is with a cover song. And wait until I tell you which cover song. Face Value ends with a cover of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." Yes, that "Tomorrow Never Knows." You know, the one where John Lennon quoted that Timothy Leary book that was based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead? The one with all the swirling psychedelic tape loops and surreal studio effects that make it sound like you're being attacked by demonic sea gulls? The one that closes Revolver? This could only mean one thing: Face Value = Revolver. I mean, they both close with the same song. Science!

Phil could've saved his cover of "Tomorrow Never Knows" for a fun B-side, but at the end of the album? What. The. Fuck. Now, there are two things you could do with a cover of "Tomorrow Never Knows": 1) You could try to do an extremely faithful recreation (like Phil would shortly do with "You Can't Hurry Love"), or 2) You could make a radical re-interpretation that doesn't sound anything like the original. I feel like Phil did neither. His version sounds only slightly different from the original, but not different enough. It's like one of those Tim Burton re-makes. On the other hand, he did tack an extremely faint a cappella rendition of "Over The Rainbow" onto the end, which may or may not have been the world's most bizarre tribute to John Lennon.

At any rate, it turns out the most uninteresting aspect of Phil Collins' first solo album is its title. Or is it? From In The Air Tonight:
I was on holiday, visiting an ancient market in Istanbul, when I strolled past a colorful soothsayer's table. "You! Come closer!" A shriveled old man pointed his crooked finger at me. He wore a burgundy cloak over his head, and silver beads down his chest. As I leaned in, his tiny eyes expanded beneath the folds of skin. "Yes, I believe ... do you know who you are?"

"Um, Phil Collins? You ... want an autograph?"

He didn't seem to understand. "Why yes, it must be ..." He ran and brought another elderly fellow from the next booth over to confirm his suspicions. "Your face ... is it remarkable. I believe you are none other than the reincarnation of Assyrian emperor Ulutulu III!"

"I am?"

"Yes! There is no mistaking it! Thousands have been waiting for a replica of these very features!"

"Well ... what do you think I should do?"

"Sir, a proposal. For only $200 dollars, I make five casts of your face. I sell these five exclusive casts on the Turkish black market for $5,000 each. The value of these artifacts ... cannot be overstated!"

I thought about it for a second. "Hold on, let me call my manager."

I scrambled back to my hotel room. I got Walt on the phone, who sounded skeptical, but he couldn't shake my enthusiasm. His only suggestion was that I write up a short legal contract, to guarantee that I would receive a fair amount of proceeds from the lucrative sales. As I drafted the document, Rot Rot poked his furry little head out from under a basket of clothes.

"This merchant sounds like a swindler, like a con man," my hedgehog pal opined. "I wouldn't trust him with my belt buckle."

"Now listen! I've spent my whole life being told that I'm plain-looking, that I've got this omnipresent 'smirk,' that I look like a hobbit with a birth defect, etc. etc. Finally someone is telling me that my face has valueValue, Rot Rot. Now don't you try to crush my dreams."

I raced my way back to the market. The old man took me into a khaki tent, laid me down into a chair, and proceeded to place a sticky plaster onto my profile. The room smelled of moldy turnips and hashish. He made five casts, all the while regaling me with fantastical stories of Ulutulu III, who, frankly, did sound a lot like me. An owl gazed at us from his cage in the corner. "Oh, and one more thing," he said as he peeled away the material. "In order for casts to reach full value, you must record re-make of 'Tomorrow Never Knows'." When the merchant finished up, I gave him $200 and told him I would call him in a month to claim my piece of the earnings. He bowed graciously and wished me well.

We'd just finished a show in Auckland when Mike asked me, "Hey, whatever happened to that Turkish guy who claimed he was going to make a fortune off your face?" "Oh yeah!" I'd practically forgotten all about it. I spent hours on the phone, arguing with the Turkish police, the local customs agent, even a pair of underage concubines, until I finally recognized the voice of the merchant on the other line.

"Well? How much did they go for?"

"Ahhh, yes. Mistake made, I am sorry. You are reincarnation of Ulutulu II, not Ulutulu III. Not nearly as much value for the face. Please forgive."

So, it turns out my face was worthless after all. But anyway, that's why it's called Face Value.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Leave A Tender Courtroom Alone

If the last two singles from An Innocent Man - also the last two songs in the album's running order - haven't quite received the airport lounge ubiquity treatment that the other singles have, don't worry, someday they will. Billy didn't even put them on his ludicrously selling (23 x platinum?) Greatest Hits Vol. I & II; instead they had to wait for the post-retirement Vol. III (!). Nevertheless, I have to say they sum up the album's themes with (relative) grace and panache, and almost represent the last time Billy didn't sound like he was desperately trying to play the role of '80s superstar (*cough* The Bridge and Storm Front *cough*).

"Leave A Tender Moment Alone" is one of the few songs on the album that doesn't reek of Brinkley. It's a slow jam, but not tortured or desperate like the title track. Here Billy is playing the queasy high school freshman, panicking over how to handle that delicate back seat ritual at the drive-in. According to Wikipedia, it's an homage to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, but perhaps in Billy's mind, the Miracles once put out an imaginary single where Stevie Wonder showed up to play harmonica. At first I thought it was Billy himself making that chrome squeal (I think he played harmonica on "Piano Man" and some other songs), and I didn't realize he could play it so well! That's because it was actually played by Belgian jazz musician Toots Thielemans, who coincidentally also played the harmonica on "Too Late For Goodbyes" even though Julian Lennon pretended to play it in the video, so there you go. Also like "An Innocent Man," Billy attempts to sing some iffy falsetto notes, to semi-soulful, semi-awkward effect, but overall the song's got that effortlessly melodic and breezy magic that Billy seemed to be farting out at this point. Although it went #1 Adult Contemporary, I think it got robbed with a mere pop peak of #27.
Even though I'm in love
Sometimes I get so afraid
I'll say something so wrong
Just to have something to say

I know the moment isn't right
To tell the girl a comical line
To keep the conversation light
I guess I'm just frightened out of my mind

But if that's how I feel
Then it's the best feeling I've ever known
It's undeniably real
Leave a tender moment alone

Yes I know I'm in love
But just when I ought to relax
I put my foot in my mouth
Cause I'm just avoiding the facts

If the girl gets too close
If I need some room to escape
When the moment arose
I'd tell her it's all a mistake

But that's not how I feel
No that's not the woman I've known
She's undeniably real
So leave a tender moment alone

Finally, we come to "Keeping The Faith," which peaked at #18 in its own right, but makes more sense as the album's closing track, because it is, if you will, what a college professor might call the album's "thesis statement." "Keeping The Faith" is deliberately the one song on An Innocent Man with highly personal lyrics that could have never passed for early '60s radio fare. It is more or less Billy's sheepish explanation for the entire album. I just imagine some fan, with requisite Brooklyn accent, giving him a hard time after listening to tracks one through nine: "Hey Billy, what's with all the oldies crap, eh? You obsessed with some kind of 'golden age' or somethin'?" Right on cue, here is the man's well-reasoned reply:
If it seems like I've been lost
In "let's remember"
If you think I'm feeling older
And missing my younger days
Oh, then you should have known me much better
'Cause my past is something that never
Got in my way
Oh, never, huh? Billy quickly undercuts this declaration by proceeding to spend several minutes playing "let's remember":
We wore old matador boots
Only Flagg Brothers had them with a Cuban heel
Iridescent socks with the same color shirt
And a tight pair of chinos
I put on my shark skin jacket
You know the kind with the velvet collar
And ditty-bop shades

I took a fresh pack of Luckies
And a mint called Sen-Sen
My old man's Trojans
And his Old Spice aftershave
Combed my hair in a pompadour
Like the rest of the romeos wore
A permanent wave, yeah
We were keeping the faith
Whoa old man, easy on the details. This is like Billy's version of "Ya Got Trouble" from The Music Man, where Meredith Willson tries to name as many bygone American products as he can within the span of five minutes (incidentally, both songs mention "Sen-Sen," which therefore must have been popular between at least 1910 and 1960). No, Billy, I don't know the kind with the velvet collar. I do, however, know what Trojans and Old Spice are. I feel like I'm sitting around the retirement home while everybody talks about all that forgettable cultural detritus that each generation takes pride in, because there's a kind of pride in simply living through an era, whether the future of the human race will care about it or not. That said, Billy's nostalgia isn't entirely rose-colored:
Learned stickball as a formal education
Lost a lot of fights
But it taught me how to lose O.K.
Oh, I heard about sex
But not enough
I found you could dance
And still look tough anyway

I found out a man ain't just being macho
Ate an awful lot of late night drive-in food
Drank a lot of take home pay
I thought I was the Duke of Earl
When I made it with a red-haired girl
In a Chevrolet
We were keeping the faith
So sure, he's reminiscing, but he's not willing to pretend that everything back in his youth was "perfect." He lost fights. He should have learned more about sex than he actually did. Making it with the red-haired girl did not instantly catapult him to neighborhood dukedom. Still, "Keeping The Faith" is almost in danger of becoming a proto-"We Didn't Start The Fire" that's just one big list, when ... wait! What's this surprisingly insightful bridge here?:
You can get just so much from a good thing
You can linger too long in your dreams
Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies
'Cause the good ole days weren't always good
And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems
Ah, yes. Like Owen Wilson in Midnight In Paris, Billy catches himself before he declares the present era a cultural wasteland. "All right, I had fun making my awesome oldies album, but now it's time to embrace the present." The irony is that, while "tomorrow" might have seemed pretty good to Billy Joel from the vantage point of 1983, I don't think his last three albums were the best way to illustrate that maxim; as Stephen Thomas Erlewine suggests in the album review, An Innocent Man "unwittingly closes Joel's classic period." If anything, "Keeping The Faith" is more successful lyrically than sonically. Did Phil Ramone just pull the horn section out of a freezer? Didn't he know that you have to cut the horn section in half, turn it inside out, and stick it back in the microwave for five more minutes, because otherwise it won't cook right?

"Ah," you say, "but where's the tacky video?" Just chill, Billy's got you covered. The video finds our piano-playing hero "on trial" in "Music Court," but for what crime, exactly, no one can say. In a set-up straight out of Mr. Deeds Goes To Town and numerous other sentimental courtroom dramas, Billy hasn't spoken a word in his defense until the very, very end of the trial. Quite how Billy failed to earn an Oscar nomination for his acting performance here ("You know, judge? They say justice is blind; I sure hope it ain't deaf") is beyond me. And what kind of court room has a bench that doubles as a jukebox? All I know is that once he slips that over-sized coin into the "slot," he's got the jury in the palm of his hand. Given that, by the end of the video, the judge is dancing his way down the courtroom steps, I think it's fair to say that Billy has "won" the trial. We also get appearances by a certain future Mrs. Joel (as the red-haired girl in the Chevrolet), Richard Pryor, and even, God bless the '80s, a winking Joe Piscopo. You know, for a (tender) moment there, I'd almost lost the faith.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Beverly Hills (Cop) 9021-Oh Yeah!!!

When I was six years old, I think I had a fairly different definition of "great movie" than I do now, because I totally thought that Beverly Hills Cop was a great movie. It was great because 1) there was that scene where Eddie Murphy put a banana in a car's exhaust pipe, which was the funniest thing ever, 2) the guy who played Balki from Perfect Strangers was in it, and 3) it had that awesome, awesome soundtrack.

My family had the soundtrack on cassette, and we played it in the car nonstop. I would stare at the list of artists in wonder, forming opinions based on incomplete information. I was not aware, for instance, that Glenn Frey had been in the Eagles, or that Danny Elfman had been in Oingo Boingo, or that Patti LaBelle had been in ... LaBelle. As far as I was concerned, these artists' musical histories began and ended with the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack.

A couple of years ago, deep in the thick of my newfound '80s nostalgia, I caught the opening of Beverly Hills Cop on TV. "God, I haven't seen this since I was a kid," I said to myself in a tone of misplaced curiosity. So, I decided to record it and watch the rest over a week or so. Well, maybe I'm a party pooper, but the first thing I realized was this: Beverly Hills Cop is completely implausible! Perhaps I am ignorant in the ways of 1980s law enforcement, but I feel like if any police officer tried to behave the way Axel Foley behaves in Beverly Hills Cop, he would have his badge immediately revoked and would be knee-deep in lawsuits, criminal charges, and overwhelmingly negative 24-hour news coverage. Hey, I don't know, maybe police officers acted like that all the time, and still act like that, and I'm just naive. But Axel Foley spends the whole movie bluffing his way into restaurants and mansions and countless potentially fatal situations without any sort of clear objective, legal preparation, or even a back-up plan. Not that realism is Beverly Hills Copsaim, mind you. I just thought I would point this out.

So, now that I know a bit more about cinema than I did when I was six years old, I've realized that Beverly Hills Cop is, essentially, a mildly amusing, highly cartoonish early Jerry Bruckheimer production with a message that boils down to something like, "Look at how scared all these rich white people are of a black guy!" Some other observations: 1) as a kid, it seemed like Beverly Hills Cop was such an intense action movie!! Watching it now, the action seems impressively tame, with only a couple of cars blowing up at a time, and editing that almost gives the viewer a sense of where people "are" and what they're "doing," which we simply cannot have; 2) Once upon a time, back in 1984, merely making fun of gay people counted as comedy. You didn't have to make fun of gay people in a certain way, or include some sort of cultural commentary in your gay impersonation. You simply had to impersonate a gay person, for no particular reason, and people would laugh at this.

So, tastes change, but my younger self was entirely correct about at least one aspect of Beverly Hills Cop: the soundtrack is still awesome. Maybe I'm a pushover these days, but asking me to remove even one single track from this album would be like Sophie's Choice. For the most part, the soundtrack delves into a genre I've hardly explored on this blog, a genre that's probably best described as "electro-funk." Most of these guys were trying to be Prince or Rick James, or both. For example, Rockie Robbins does his best "1999" rip-off with "Emergency":

Junior and Shalamar actually seem to be doing more of a Michael Jackson thing with "Do You Really (Want My Love)" and "Don't Get Stopped In Beverly Hills," respectively, the former perhaps a highly perverse re-make of The Move/ELO's "Do Ya," and the latter featuring the requisite imitation Eddie Van Halen "Beat It" solo (although by the fade-out, it ends up sounding more like Stevie Wonder's "Maybe Your Baby"):

Kind of makes you want to get stopped in Beverly Hills, doesn't it? Although sadly not featured on the soundtrack album, the Purple One himself did, in a roundabout fashion, make a musical appearance in the film (during the - if I may say so - fairly ludicrous strip club scene), via notorious female pet project Vanity 6 and the infamous "Nasty Girl."

What I'm trying to say is, the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack is so loaded, it's got great songs on it that aren't even on it. From Wikipedia:
In 1981, Prince, himself a rising musical star, suggested that his three female friends—his girlfriend Susan Moonsie, Boston native Brenda Bennet, and his personal assistant, Jamie Shoop form a girl group that would be called "The Hookers". Prince's vision was that the three women would perform in lingerie and sing sensual songs with lyrics about sex and fantasy.
Such a noble, noble vision.
Prince had been wanting to mentor a girl singer or group since the late 70s when he saw the film A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kirstofferson. The original trio recorded a few demos before Prince met Denise Matthews, a nude model and Canadian B movie actress, in January 1982. Prince was so taken by Matthews' charisma that he decided she would be the perfect frontwoman for his "Hookers" project. Around this time, Prince and Matthews began a romantic relationship. With Matthews' arrival, Shoop was dropped from the group. Matthews was eventually re-christened Vanity. Prince had originally suggested that Matthews use the stage name "Vagina" (to be pronounced /vaginÉ‘/); she declined and renamed herself "Vanity" instead. Other versions of the story suggest that it was Prince himself who coined the name "Vanity", as he said that looking at Matthews was like looking in a mirror at the female version of himself. With the new trio finalized, Prince renamed the group Vanity 6 (the number representing the group's breast count).
If only all musical groups formed with such lofty aspirations. To the surprise of very few, the project quickly fell apart (morphing into the equally short-lived Appolonia 6) and Vanity later became a born-again Christian preacher. Hey I'd study the Bible with her, if you know what I mean.

At any rate, for other soundtracks, R&B goodies such as these would have been plenty of material to package a bunch of leftover pre-recorded crap around. But the Beverly Hills Cop Soundtrack had other ideas.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Two Great '80s Lennon Singles (Yes, You Read That Right)

But wasn't he ...? Didn't he get ...? Oh, you thought I meant ... no, no, no, not that Lennon. Although that Lennon actually did have a huge posthumous hit in 1984 ("Nobody Told Me"). But it turns out that that Lennon had a son, then more or less abandoned him, but then the son grew up to be a musician. And he was bigger than his father ever was. OK, not exactly. Bigger than Jesus, maybe, but not his father.

Still, there were so many stylistic options for Julian Lennon. Expand upon his dad's folk-rock sound? His whimsical, psychedelic sound? His lean, bitter early solo sound? Nope. When Julian Lennon entered the musical arena, he did so in a genre he felt he could call his own: Yuppie Rock.

In 1984, the first three things people probably thought of when they heard about Julian Lennon were 1) his father, 2) his father, and 3) his father. Now watch as I, thirty years later, more or less do the same thing. Because his father was John Lennon! I mean ... dude!

On the one hand, you could say that the only reason Julian Lennon managed to have two big hits in 1985 was because his father was You Know Who. That's how he got a record deal in the first place, that's how he got studio assistance from savvy industry veterans when debut artists usually don't, that's how he got a solid marketing push, and, most disturbingly, perhaps his slight vocal similarity to You Know Who, and the public's unconditional love of anything remotely Beatle-related (aside from Yoko) is how he managed to sell some records. "John Lennon is gone ... but, hey look, his son will save us!"

Yeah, sure, Julian's voice sounds like one particular shade of John's. He sounds a little like John's most calm, passive ballad voice. I am about to be a bit unfair to Julian, but here are some of the ways his voice does not sound like John's. It's not as: raw, piercing, energetic, raunchy, desperate, wounded, or passionate. But that's OK! How many other singers' voices are? John had a once-in-a-lifetime combination. Julian shares maybe two out of John's twenty-six vocal qualities. But for a lot of people, that was close enough.

Naturally, for his debut album, Julian decided he needed to sound like Billy Joel's The Nylon Curtain, so he tracked down Billy's long-time producer Phil Ramone. Listening to the songs from Valotte, it almost sounds like I'm listening to Julian Lennon trying to imitate Billy Joel trying to imitate John Lennon, but why split hairs? Like a mini-Beatles discography, Julian's two big hits were quite different from each other. We've got the ballad, and we've got the uptempo number.

Back in college, when I had a record player, I found Valotte in the discount bin, bought it on a whim, and listened to the title track. I give you this back story just to make it clear that I felt I was under no obligation to like his music. But you know what? I thought was a good song! I played it on repeat without listening to the rest of the album, and then I gave the album away when I moved. But I don't care whose name is on the spine, this is a keeper. It's got a pretty and yet unpredictable melody filled with surprising chord changes. Also, with its lyrical references to valleys and rivers and pebbles, it makes me think of sitting around a house in New England or Oregon on a late afternoon, contemplating my sad Yuppie existence. Screw Beethoven's 6th; this is pastoral, '80s-style.

OK, so it kind of sounds like the Beatles. Here's what Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes: "Its elegant evocation of late-period Beatles -- deliberate but not self-conscious -- invited some carping criticisms that Julian was riding on his father's coattails when the reality is this: any pop singer/songwriter of Julian's generation was bound to be influenced by the Beatles." Exactly! That's like telling Sophia Coppola not to be influenced by her father. What filmmaker would not be influenced by Francis Ford Coppola? How do you not sound like the Beatles? That's like telling Bob Marley's kids not to sound like Bob Marley. That's like when John Fogerty got sued for plagiarising himself. When you're writing songs, you can't start thinking about those things. Of course, that didn't prevent the public from reading hidden meanings into these rather open-ended lyrics:
Sitting on the doorstep of the house I can't afford
I can feel you there
Thinking of a reason, well, it's really not very hard
To love you even though you nearly lost my heart
How can I explain the meaning of our love
It fits so tight, closer than a glove

Sitting on a pebble by the river playing guitar
Wonderin' if we're really ever gonna get that far
Do you know there's something wrong
'Cause I've felt it all along

I can see your face in the mirrors of my mind
Will you still be there
We're really not so clever as we seem to think we are
We've always got our troubles
So we'll solve them in the bar
As the days go by, we seem to drift apart
If I could only find a way to keep hold of your heart

Sitting in the valley as I watch the sun go down
I can see you there
Thinking of a reason, well, it's really not very hard
To love you though you nearly lost my heart
When will we know when the change is gonna come
I've got a good feeling and it's coming from the sun
Is he singing ... to his father? Oh please, he could be singing about anybody. Yeah, if I squint hard enough, I suppose some of this sounds like a "message" to John, like "I can see your face in the mirrors of my mind/Will you still be there?" But with other lines, like "Wonderin' if we're really ever gonna get that far," I don't think that works. How could Julian and John "get that far" if John was already dead?

The truth is, John was barely a part of Julian's life. In fact, Julian claims to remember hanging out more with Paul McCartney than with his own father! It must be frustrating to instantly be associated with a person you hardly knew and, in many ways, actively resented. Note to the public: there were many other people in Julian Lennon's thoughts beside his father, so he probably wasn't writing about him all that much. Also, I wouldn't say Julian was the world's most dynamic lyricist, so it's not too hard to over-interpret lyrics this semi-cliched. Case in point: his other major hit, "Too Late for Goodbyes":
Ever since you've been leavin' me, I've been wantin' to cry
Now I know how it feels for you, I've been wanting to die
But it's much too late for goodbyes
Yes it's much too late for goodbyes
Pretty deep. Is he saying it's too late to say goodbye to his father ... because he's dead? Julian himself said it was about breaking up with his girlfriend, but come on, that's no fun. The point is, as a wordsmith, he wasn't exactly Billy Joel, let alone Lennon Sr., but forget it, because the song itself is a dynamic slice of bone-crunching dance-pop. Check out the funky bass plucking around 3:05!

What's weird is that I didn't become a Beatles fan until 1991, and I remember reading about Julian Lennon's solo career, but I had no idea what he sounded like, and then one day I heard "Too Late For Goodbyes" on the radio and realized that this massive hit from my childhood that I'd heard a million times was by ... Julian Lennon! Hey, my five-year-old self didn't even know who John Lennon was, and I still liked the song, so who needs nepotism?

Actually, the weirdest part about Julian Lennon's two big '80s hits isn't how much he kinda sorta sounded like his father, but that the two videos were directed by the croaking last gasp of legendarily violent Western director Sam Peckinpah (!).

Who the what now? Years ago, I read a biography of Peckinpah which explained that Julian's video producer was throwing out names of potential video directors, and when someone suggested Peckinpah, the producer gasped and said something like, "Oh God, that's all we need, he'll go and film an ultra-bloody re-enactment of John's murder! In slow motion!" But then his assistant reminded him of other, more meditative Peckinpah films like The Ballad Of Cable Hogue (probably my second favorite film of his after The Wild Bunch), and the producer realized the grizzled old coot was capable of a lighter touch when it suited him. And so, the videos for "Valotte" and "Too Late For Goodbyes" turned out to be the last works Peckinpah ever directed, as he died a few months later in a haze of booze and burnt scorpion carcasses.

Which is cool, except I would have never known Sam Peckinpah "directed" these videos unless somebody told me, as there is, in my opinion, nothing distinctive about them. I know he wasn't exactly in his artistic prime, but they look like the "making-of" documentaries of the videos, not the videos themselves. Let's just say John Landis didn't have anything to worry about.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Mad About You" (Song): The Little Solo Singer That Could

Usually, lead singers who go solo have been itching to go solo. They've been silently waiting for that moment when they're able to finally tell their jealous band mates to stuff it. They're ready to show those clowns that they don't need anybody else. Lead singers who go solo have a plan, a vision, a style, and they're eager to share it with their fans in a way their band mates simply never understood.

Then, there is Belinda Carlisle.

Now, I'm not saying a solo career like Belinda's didn't take "effort" and "hard work," but in a way, yes, that is exactly what I'm saying. Belinda's solo career seems like that rare instance of a solo career essentially falling into a person's lap. If Belinda's solo career was a Broadway musical, it would have been called How To Succeed In '80s Pop Music Without Really Trying. Whereas other lead singers would have rung up their record company and demanded, "I wanna do this, I wanna do that," Belinda's approach was more along the lines of, "I dunno guys, should I make a record? What songs should I do? I dunno, what songs do you wanna do?" Making a solo album was not, as far as I can tell, a burning desire in this particular artist's soul. But the Go-Go's fell apart, and hey, she needed to do something. In Lip Unsealed, she describes her predicament with what might be my absolute favorite quote in a book full of favorite quotes: "I had less than $20,000 to my name when I moved in with Morgan ... I had blown God only knew how much money on drugs, travel, clothes, and even a racehorse I purchased on a whim for some ghastly sum. I needed to work."

A racehorse? Oh man. Where did she even keep it? She can't just leave us hanging like that. However, keep in mind that once she officially married Mr. Mason, any financial concerns were probably rendered moot, but you get the idea. She was a singer. Singers sing. Quite what they sing, on the other hand, depends on what people want to hear.

The point is, this relative lack of direction could have, nay, should have been a recipe for what the English politely call "dog shit." Now, the Go-Go's had been a successful band. The public heard Belinda Carlisle's voice, and they heard awesome music. What the public did not quite know was that Belinda Carlisle didn't exactly have much to do with all that awesome music. One could even argue that Belinda contributed the least to the Go-Go's music. OK, OK, I'm playing devil's advocate here; the Go-Go's without Belinda would have been nothing. Nothing! But my point is this: if it's 1985, and you're looking at Belinda's musical skills on paper, your expectations for her solo career are fairly, shall we say, low.

Ah, but there are moments in the story of our species where something indescribable happens, where magic takes over from logic, where the pop music gods blow on the dice and roll a pair of sixes. Belinda Carlisle's solo career ... was one such moment.

It all started with a Go-Go's leftover. Soon-to-be-rendered futile Jane replacement Paula Jean Brown had co-written (along with two guys named James Whelan and Mitchell Young Evans - I wonder what their stories are?) a charming little number called "Mad About You." Well, the Go-Go's obviously weren't about to record it, so why let a winner go to waste? Belinda said, "I'll have that, thank you very much." In terms of song structure, I suppose it was not markedly different from her former band's material. Although the lyrics were more romantically optimistic than the Go-Go's' patented (but often ignored) anguish and angst, when coupled with the singer's new image, this probably turned out to be an unanticipated piece of the single's appeal. Rather, I'd say it was the glossy, vaguely digitized production that most strongly differentiated it from her previous band's work. Imagine Kate Pierson going solo and sounding like Kenny Loggins. I can just see Miles Copeland sitting in the control room now: "Uh, Belinda, you really think the I.R.S. Records fanbase is going to go for this shit?" I.R.S. Records fanbase? Get your head out of the sand, Miles. Belinda's going for a whole new demographic, baby. Well, I'm distorting history a little to suit my own ends; Miles Copeland actually loved "Mad About You," and he would not be alone. Is it my favorite solo Belinda song? That's like naming my favorite star on the American flag. They're all shining beacons of hope and freedom.

It commences with a tacky bass and drum intro mimicking a heartbeat (somewhat reminiscent of Vacation album track "This Old Feeling," to be honest). Once the overly-processed acoustic guitars and strangely ill-defined keyboards come in, you know that she's playing a new game here, one with new rules. To paraphrase The Wizard of Oz: "Toto, I have a strange feeling Belinda's not even trying to be punk anymore." Oh, but when that scratchy tickle of a voice comes in, she washes away all doubts. New sonic backdrop, but same mother fuckin' Belinda:
I'm mad about you
You're mad about me babe
Couple of fools run wild
Aren't we
Following these lines, in both stereo channels, Belinda is attacked by some kind of ... synthesized glockenspiel? Then the drums kick into double time. This jet airplane is preparing for take-off:
Pushing the day
Into the night time
Somewhere between the two
We start to see
There's a great anticipatory chord under "see" that just dangles for a few seconds. It's like the Chord That Stops Time. Then, with a hint of growling guitar and semi-hideous '80s drum fill, suddenly we're soaring through the Clouds of Belinda Land. But what's this? She has two old friends flying beside her. Yes, on backing vocals, it's ... it's ... Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin!

You mean to tell me she had two Go-Go's singing backup on her first solo recording? Isn't that cheating? Hey, what did I say about a new game, with new rules? This is Belinda Carlisle; she can do whatever the hell she wants. I'm not surprised that Charlotte was involved, since she essentially acted as Belinda's right-hand woman for a couple of years (given that she, you know, actually understood how to make music) playing on Belinda's first two solo albums, and even co-writing several of the songs. But Jane? I would have thought the wounds were still a little raw at this point. Didn't Jane pretty much want to kick Belinda in the balls? Maybe she figured, "Well, Belinda's solo career's got no chance, I might as well throw her a bone." Ha! To be honest, the two of them together almost sound like multi-tracked Belindas, but I'll take Wikipedia's word for it. And so it is that "Mad About You" is not just Belinda's first solo song, but practically the last official Go-Go's song of the '80s, because 1) it was genuinely being considered for the Go-Go's' non-existent fourth album, and 2) three out of five Go-Go's actually perform on it. Of course, once the video came out, there was no mistaking this for a mere Go-Go's song. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This song has one of those choruses that just ... it just ... it just wraps around your ears and gives them a back rub. It has this sneaky ... cool to it. I mean, it sounds like the simplest chorus of all time. When it seems like it's about to rest, it's on the move again. Maybe it's something about the interplay between Belinda's full-throttled lead and Charlotte and Jane's coy, teasing responses. A recently added sentence on Wikipedia states, "Part of the appeal of the song's chorus lies in the rapid-fire kick drum double stroke pattern on every bar, performed using either a single or double bass pedal," which, now that I've listened for it, is totally true, although next to that sentence is a "[citation needed]," so perhaps I should remain skeptical. Honestly, there's so much '80s studio gloop on the recording, I kind of assumed it was a drum machine!

The show goes on. She sings the first part of the second verse in the upper range of her voice: "Something 'bout you/right there beside me/Touches the touched part of me/Like I can't believe." "Touches the touched?" Just go with it. Then she drops back down an octave for the second part: "Pushing the night/Into the daytiy-iy-ime/Watching the sky's first light/While the city sleeeeeeps..." See, she's exploring her range. It's her solo career.

Then at 1:54, there's more lifeless keyboard, only to be broken up at 2:07 by a fiery guitar solo from ... Duran Duran's Andy Taylor! Because the first thing people think of when they think of Duran Duran is, "What an amazing guitarist!" You mean Duran Duran even had a guitarist? Oh they did, and in 1986 ... guess what he was doing? He was rocking out with Belinda Carlisle is what he was doing. I love the part right around 2:22 where Taylor's solo burns out in a blaze of glory, but there's this ridiculous echo effect on the last note and it bounces around for another few seconds, like an inescapable cry from the depths of Satan's lair. Belinda delivers a couple of soft, seductive "I'm mad about you"s, until the meek studio crew somehow manages to gather enough energy to build back up to the chorus, and then she really lets it rip in the fade-out. At 2:58 and 3:25, I can just picture her in the studio, blond locks flowing over her sweaty forehead, as she clenches her fists Lou Gramm-style, head tilted back, and wails "I'm mad about yoooouuuu!" Belinda is giving it all she's got right there. At 3:09, Taylor throws in some ear-shredding riffs for good measure, the hard-rocking icing on the proverbial '80s MOR cake.

Catchy tune - it's what I might call the "gleaming essence of a 1986 fluffy pop confection," playfully innocent and yet slightly adult, like a Christmas card from Larry Flynt  - but would it play in Peoria? Well, if Belinda had any doubts that she could pull off this whole solo thing, the performance of her first single quickly put those to rest, as it rocketed up to #3 in the US (and #1 in Canada!), right alongside the likes of "Papa Don't Preach," "Stuck With You," "Sledgehammer," and "Higher Love." I don't know if it inspired the name of the Helen Hunt-Paul Reiser sitcom, but according to one '80s music blog I read a couple of years ago, it plays in the background of a scene from Growing Pains where Tracey Gold's character has a pillow fight with her friends during a slumber party, and if that isn't true, it should be. Also, how could we forget its appearance on the soundtrack to the Jennifer Garner body-swapping rom-com 13 Going On 30?

And so, the woman was on her way. But like many a memorable '80s hit, the recording itself ... was only half the story. See, talking about "Mad About You" without talking about its accompanying music video is like talking about the Grand Canyon without talking about its depth. It's like talking about the Burj Khalifa without talking about its height. It's like talking about The Great Gatsby without talking about Gatsy. The video for "Mad About You" is a work of such mesmerizing visual power and cultural heft, it deserves a post of its own. And I think it's going to get one.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

See Phil Fake His Music - Literally! AKA When Poodlephobia Consumes A Man

Here's my simple rule for most Phil Collins songs: no horns = good; horns = not as good. But clearly, Phil thought otherwise. From Wikipedia:
According to Classic Albums, in what was then considered a controversial move at the time, Collins, who grew up listening to American R&B as a child in Chiswick, decided to incorporate an R&B horn section, hiring the Phenix Horns, who played backup for Earth, Wind & Fire. Collins refused to listen to friends who had advised him not to use the horns and they would play a major role for most of his solo career.
He refused to listen! You know, Phil, I don't mean to discourage genre experimentation, but maybe those friends of yours were on to something. I, too, grew up listening to American R&B as a child, but you don't see me hiring Earth, Wind & Fire's horn section, now, do you? Strangely enough, Atlantic Records CEO Ahmet Ertegun, a man who nurtured actual R&B talents such as Ray Charles, The Drifters, Aretha Franklin, and The Coasters, didn't seem to have a problem with it, stating in the Classic Albums documentary, "Face Value is a record which has a lot of black influence. And that's also one of the things that made it an international hit. His feelings and his soul are expressed in terms very much influenced by black American music." Well ... sure. Phil Collins' feelings and soul might be expressed in terms influenced by black American music, but does the end result of that expression equal black American music? The record buying public obviously said "Yes!" - and theirs is the only vote that counts.

And so we come to the second single from Face Value, "I Missed Again," which may have been overshadowed by its notorious predecessor, but at the time was a fairly substantial hit (#19 in the US and #14 in the UK). I heard it some years ago and thought it was kind of crappy, but now I'm more or less down with it, in that shrugging "whatever, it's Phil Collins" sort of way. Still not sure about those horns though; they make the song sound like it's from 1985, not 1981. According to Wikipedia, "The original demo was entitled, 'I Miss You, Babe' and the lyrics were made much sadder. He re-wrote the lyric, gave the song a different tempo, and re-titled it 'I Missed Again' in an effort to make it funny as opposed to sad..." Of course, a song can be both funny and sad, as many of my favorite songs are. But the video is unmistakably one and not the other, unless you find the idea of a man pretending to play several different instruments sad. Naturally, he proves himself to be a highly skilled air drummer, a decent air keyboardist, and a passable air vocalist, but, as one YouTube commentator put it, "Dudes air bass was just a little off." Actually, I'm having a hard time differentiating between his air guitar and his air bass guitar, but they're both a touch sloppy, although the licking of the finger seems like an impressively accurate move.

Other YouTube comment highlights:
The 3 dislikes are probably his ex-wives(!)

Listen to that sax solo played with a phaser effect. THAT is some hardcore New Wave studio trickery, and indeed, some serious 1981 action.

He was a walking CONVERSE billboard....

This is almost as awkward to watch as the final 30 seconds of the Michael McDonald - sweet freedom video
But that's not all! Witness the following exchange. Comment #1: "Dang he was so friggin hot...OMG." Comment #2: "??? OK....if you think so. Not quite what I expected to read in the comments." Then again, when you're reading the comments in a Phil Collins video, you can expect the unexpected. One fearless viewer tries to speculate as to the deeper origin of the lyrics: "This is the song he wrote about peeing in the middle of the night with the light off =P." Good guess, but I'm afraid this anonymous YouTube commentator has missed again, for the song's true inspiration was the result of a traumatic childhood incident involving a breed of dog that most of us find adorable. Most of us. From In The Air Tonight:
For some people, it's clowns. For other people, it's spiders. For me, it's poodles. They are the most shiver-inducing creatures on God's green earth. If I could, I would wipe every fucking poodle out of existence. Their putrid odor, their offensive curls, their sickly little legs, their arrogant manner of walking ... I can't sleep at night thinking about it. I've never spoken a word about this to anyone. Yes. I suffer from ... acute poodlephobia.

Once when I was about four years old, I was walking through the park, preparing to enjoy a freshly-purchased ice cream cone my auntie Gladys had procured for me. Pecan fudge, I believe. It was everything a boy could have wanted. Out of the bushes, an old, wrinkly lady appeared, stinking of moth balls and gin, dressed in a white coat with fur trimming. Following behind her was ... yes, that's right. It was her poodle. Their appearances were disturbingly identical. "Say hello to the nice young boy!" the lady shouted, suggesting she was hard of hearing. Only, instead of hello, that loathsome creature extended her palm, reached up to my cone, and swatted it out of my hands and onto the ground. "Bad girl! Very bad girl!" The woman turned and squinted right into my heartbroken eyes. "I'm terribly sorry, boy. She's never like this, I don't know what's gotten into her." She picked up her little beast and began rubbing its head. "Isn't that right? Isn't that right? Yes it is! Yes it is little schnookums!"

I knew, from that moment on, that all poodles needed to die.

We were on break from the Duke tour, but all I could think about was how to exterminate as many poodles as possible. I tossed and turned in my silk pajamas, with visions of severed poodle limbs and red-stained fur filling my dreams. One morning I borrowed a rifle from my neighbor. I knew there was a dog show out in the countryside near Cambridge. This was my chance! And yet, all along the leisurely drive there, I wondered to myself, "How can I shoot those poodles ... without getting caught?" The question never properly resolved itself, but I was too full of hatred to turn back.

I parked up on a hillside, and knelt behind the bushes. There were scads of people around. Obviously I didn't want to harm any people; I love people, as everyone knows. It was those offensive poodles I was after. I knew there would be a moment or two when the humans would wander inside, eat the hors d'oeuvres, and leave the poodles out in the open, ripe for the picking. Finally, around 1:00 PM, their morally and spiritually bankrupt owners stepped into the showroom sans pets. I loaded my M-16 and began to fire. There was one crucial detail that I didn't count on, however: I'm a rather sloppy marksman. I aimed right for a slender little pink one, but ... damn it! I missed! I tried for a corded Standard black, but I simply wasn't on target. "I missed again!," I muttered to myself. I knew my window was closing. I went for a Toy poodle (with a Scandinavian clip - I know my breeds), but the bullet merely pierced a nearby car windshield. "Bollocks!" I cursed to no one in particular. "Did I miss again? I think I missed again!" By this time some of the attendees began running outside, screaming and hollering, and I believe I heard someone shout, "Call the police!" so I packed up my weapon and drove on home. A tune started to come to me. I kept repeating those words, and it sounded like a dynamite chorus I had there.

Got home, made a demo, and almost forgot about the poodles for a little while. Feels good to let the music flow. I started picturing the video, where I would mime all the instruments. What a cute idea! So, that's the story of "I Missed Again."

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Beware the Baltimora

Are you familiar with those Japanese horror Ring movies? The ones where you are given a certain tape or DVD and told that even if you just momentarily watch the tape you are forever doomed? I have not watched those films myself, but I have read the frantically scribbled notes left by some of several of their victims. Most of the writing is incomprehensible scrawls, the last remnants of a mind losing its last shred of sanity. But the one word I can keep making out over and over again is... "Baltimora".

Once you listen to the chorus your soul is forever doomed. Doomed to have one of the greatest forgotten hits of the 80s run through your head over and over again. There's something hypnotic about that chorus with its repeating "oh oh ah oh" (though like in Monty Python's Funniest Joke in the World I dare not type out the entirety of it lest I too go mad).

Baltimora, or as some call him "Shub-Niggurath" or "the Unspeakable One", was an Irish pop star based out of Italy (how does that that work again?) who had a brief hit of fame with 1985's "Tarzan Boy", where it hit #3 in the UK and #13 in the U.S. Just check out the video above and relish in its garishness.

Or check out Baltimora on American Bandstand. I love how the audience spontaneously gets up and starts dancing. Also check out the fashions, I love the guy just to the right sporting the black shirt, white jacket, and black gloves. Stay classy 1985.

At that same American Bandstand appearance Baltimora was interviewed by Dick Clark (known in some dark circles as "The Ageless One"). Dick Clark asks him about his ambitions and Baltimora confesses that Tarzan Boy is a bit of a novelty song but that he plans to work on a more serious effort soon. As far as I can tell, Baltimora never made that second album.

Baltimora sure racked up those frequent flyer miles in 1985. Here's Baltimora on some show I've never heard of called "Peter's Pop Show" whose Wikipedia entry looks to be in Czech but IMDB tells me was a West German program. Check out those backup dancers:

Finally, here's Baltimora performing in an unnamed location (the third layer of Hell?). I only included this clip because, as one of the commenters points out, it features David Koresh on drums:

Alas, after writing this piece I discovered that Baltimora's physical form passed away in 1995 due to AIDS. Strangely I found this out through this site I've never heard of before: You can view his tombstone here. I have to confess that I feel like a bit of a dick now for writing such a snarky post. Rest in peace Mighty Baltimora, rest in peace.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Wake You Up Before I Go-Go? Ever Heard Of An Alarm Clock, Asshole?

Some days, you're in the mood for Stravinsky. Some days, Thelonious Monk. Maybe a little Husker Du, or My Bloody Valentine. Other days, you're in the mood for "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go."

I mean come on. "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" is one of those songs that is everything it desires to be. Call it vapid, call it disposable, call it whatever derogatory term of your choosing, and it just doesn't care. In the words of another irrepressibly cheerful '80s hit, ain't nothing gonna break its stride, ain't nothing gonna slow it down.

Quick aside: I remember hearing "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" on the radio at some point in the '90s, feeling fairly confident that it was an old George Michael song, and then a DJ came on at the end and said, "And that was Wham! with 'Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." "Wham!"? Who the fuck was "Wham!"? You mean I'd been spending all these years believing, erroneously, that this was George Michael? Gosh, it was really uncanny. Their lead singer sounded just like him.

Like "A Hard Day's Night" or "Tomorrow Never Knows," the title arose from a moment of unintentional verbal whimsy. From Wikipedia: "Michael's inspiration for the song was a scribbled note left by his Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley for Andrew's parents, originally intended to read "wake me up before you go" but with "up" accidentally written twice, so Ridgeley wrote 'go' twice on purpose."

And inspiration struck. Here Wham! renders, in vivid terms, the terrifying scenario of a man wholeheartedly intending to go-go, but unable to do so as a result of the tragic oversight of his partner's refusal to interrupt his slumber:
You put the boom-boom into my heart
You send my soul sky high when your lovin' starts
Jitterbug into my brain
Goes a bang-bang-bang 'til my feet do the same

But something's bugging you
Something ain't right
My best friend told me what you did last night
Left me sleepin' in my bed
I was dreaming, but I should have been with you instead

Wake me up before you go-go
Don't leave me hanging on like a yo-yo
Wake me up before you go-go
I don't want to miss it when you hit that high

Wake me up before you go-go
'Cause I'm not plannin' on going solo
Wake me up before you go-go
Take me dancing tonight
I wanna hit that high (yeah, yeah)
Geez, why didn't you just wake him up? The man can't wake himself. Also, note the irony in the line "I'm not plannin' on going solo," as that is exactly what George Michael was planning to do. He was a two-faced liar. Witness the line "You're my lady/I'm your fool." Lady? Lady? Oh really now. But like Elton John and Freddie Mercury before him, George Michael gleefully played with pop song conventions and it didn't matter whether or not he could really "be" the man singing here. It was a put-on, and the audience was (mostly) in on the joke. Hence the winking humor of the final verse, where, in a shocking twist, he attempts to turn his love interest's egregious mistake into an unexpected opportunity for romance:
Cuddle up, baby, move in tight
We'll go dancing tomorrow night
It's cold out there, but it's warm in bed
They can dance, we'll stay home instead
That's some quick thinkin' there, Georgie boy.

Oh, and NEWSFLASH: this is a catchy song. Right off the bat, you know Wham! is not trying to compete with "This Charming Man" for British indie cred; there's a bouncy keyboard, fingersnaps, and a comical bass voice emitting the word "jitterbug." He even rhymes "go-go" with "yo-yo," for God's sake! I have seen the future of rock and roll, and its name is Wham! The backing "woo hoo" vocals were probably an homage to the Supremes' "Come See About Me" ("I've been crying"/"Woo hoo"/"'Cause I'm lonely"/"For you"), but I think some stray horn players from a Phil Collins session accidentally stumbled into the wrong studio, because I'm not sure if they're in the right place.

For all its status as the epitome of '80s pop fluffiness, to me, "Wake Me Up" doesn't really sound dated. I guess it's no surprise that a Wham! homage to '60s Motown has aged a little better than, say, a Wham! homage to early '80s hip-hop. But plenty of '80s bands ripped off the style of '60s pop. I think George Michael almost captured the sound of '60s pop. And if you can capture the sound of '60s pop in the '80s, then obviously your song is still going to sound good in the '00s. It's like how The Graduate (great movie, don't get me wrong) feels a little more dated than Bonnie and Clyde, because while both movies were made at the same time, The Graduate was set in the '60s, and Bonnie and Clyde was set in the '30s. Yes, I just compared "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" to Bonnie and Clyde ... and it worked.

Also, without references to the DHSS and trilby hats and the like, "Wake Me Up" sure was a lot less "British" than Wham's earlier material, and I guess it just tapped into the Yankee zeitgeist, because it broke them wide open in the US (or perhaps I should say "him"), becoming the first of ten #1 singles for George Michael in America (all right, I'm counting Wham! and all those duet things in there). I mean, the Rolling Stones only had eight. The video wasn't particularly "British" either, though it did smack of something else that usually didn't appeal to mainstream America in those days.

Now, I really don't mean to keep sticking with this angle, but I'm sorry, the video for "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" has got to be gayer than Liberace's bathtub. First of all, "Choose Life"? Were Wham! trying to make an ill-advised anti-abortion statement here? Apparently not. According to Rolling Stone, "the shirt's designer is pro-choice and it relates to respecting life by shunning violence and war," and another website claims it was trying to promote an "anti-drug, anti-suicide message." Uhh ... first of all, I don't know about how this came across in 1984, but that slogan suggests something very different today. And secondly, I'm sure the gravity of the message really came across in a fucking Wham! video.
And look how everything is so white and clean! Are we in heaven? I know we're not in Iowa. Naturally, at about the one minute mark, Wham! magically switches from hideous white outfits to ... hideous day-glo outfits! George is now wearing a blindingly pink long-sleeve top, blue and white athletic shorts (which are disturbingly short), and yellow fingerless gloves. This was staying in the closet? Meanwhile, Andrew thinks he's on safari. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, "He shot an elephant in a music video; how he got into a music video, I'll never know." Finally, around 2:34, I believe somebody screwed up in the film lab and failed to develop the footage properly, as George, Andrew & Co. become evil black-faced sand people.

So yes, I know "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" is mindless pop trash, but I love it anyway. Or is it? Professor Horton J. Higglediggle writes:
Initially reduced to the status of an inane retro Motown homage, "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" nefariously doubles as an exegesis on language duality in the ontological mode. The unnerving echolalia of the title serves as a rhetorical motif for the contemporary youngster, yearning to disavow himself from the sociological binds of the prior generation, and yet proving himself unable to (re)negotiate the cultural signifiers of the symbolic "father." He cannot be "woken up" before he "go-goes," for to do so would undercut the patriarchal structure of the modern dance (sub)culture. "Hitting that high," would, in this instance, be a severe negation, deflation, subjugation, and appropriation of the dominant form of the preceding generations, i.e. "jitterbugging." He is caught in between the slipperiness of language and the fixed meaning of dancing. Therefore, the singer finds himself in an irrevocable bind, both desiring not to be "left hanging on like a yo-yo," but not entirely pleased to be "staying home instead."
Well I'll be.