Friday, November 27, 2015

Belinda Feels The Payne AKA "Band Of Gold" ... On Solid Gold?

Prepare to feel the payne - the Freda Payne.

In 1970, Freda Payne hit #3 in the US and #1 in the UK with "Band Of Gold," one of the more unusual and enigmatic soul hits in an era full of unusual and enigmatic soul hits. Frankly, when I first heard "Band Of Gold" on oldies radio, I thought it was the Jackson 5. Now why would a ten-year-old Michael Jackson be singing about his wedding night? Didn't make any sense. Didn't. Make. Any. Sense. Later I learned that it was actually sung by an adult female. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

For years I thought of Payne as a one-hit wonder, but last year, while exploring '70s soul, I discovered that she actually had a couple of other Top 40 hits (including Vietnam protest single "Bring The Boys Home") as well as several R&B hits, and was one of the key artists on Invictus Records, the label begun by the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team after they finally got tired of being used and abused by Berry Gordy at Motown. So, I'm sorry Freda for not giving you your due. You weren't ten-year-old Michael Jackson and you weren't a one-hit wonder. But your biggest hit has still been misunderstood in a thousand and one ways. Let's take a look, shall we?
Now that you're gone
All that's left is a band of gold
All that's left of the dreams I hold
Is a band of gold
And the memories of what love could be
If you were still here with me

You took me from the shelter of my mother
I had never known or loved any other
We kissed after taking vows
But that night on our honeymoon
We stayed in separate rooms

I wait
In the darkness of my lonely room
Filled with sadness, filled with gloom
Hoping soon
That you'll walk back through that door
And love me like you tried before
OK, sounds simple enough to me. They went through the ceremony, groom changed his mind, didn't even take back the ring, hey, it happens. But everyone and their mother has an opinion about why, exactly, the couple "stayed in separate rooms." AMG's Steve Huey and Stephen Thomas Erlewine are absolutely convinced the song is about male impotence, but according to Wikipedia, the song has a huge gay following. Co-writer Ron Dunbar: "They said this song is a smash in the gay community. And I said, gay community? They said, yeah man, it's a smash. And I says, why is it that? And they said, well it's what the lyrics are saying. She said the guy couldn't make love to her so they figured he had to be gay!"

I think I know what happened. Maybe he was a serial killer ... in disguise. He suddenly spotted the FBI in the lobby, and had to flee. At any rate, nobody gets married like this anymore - at least not in most states; couples usually live together long before they even bother to have a ceremony. What would the modern equivalent be? "Now that you're gone/All that's left is a ... gift registry"?

Fast-forward to 1986. Belinda Carlisle needs material for a solo album. Somebody at the studio has a bright idea: why write new stuff when she can just ... cover an oldie? Listen Belinda, I love ya, but ... I don't know about this one. While Freda Payne sounds like she's trying to gently pick up the shattered remnants of her soul, Belinda sounds like she just got back from a Girl Scout meeting. And what's with the country accent? "Bay-yay-and of gold"? The backing track sure doesn't help. Q: What's worse than an electric sitar? A: A synthesized electric sitar. A concentrated dose of gratuitous echo arguably livens things up in the middle, but ultimately it just feels like this should be playing over the credits of an anime special. Suffice to say, it was a Grade-A flop-o-rama.

Comically enough, Belinda's handlers were not the only production team who mistakenly thought they smelled a mid-80's smash in this R&B staple: Jim Steinman convinced Bonnie Tyler to record a version the same year as Belinda's - which also, despite a slew of "dance remixes," went nowhere. Why did all these people suddenly think the sorrow-laden "Band of Gold" was destined to be a Hi-NRG '80s club hit? Despite their differing vocal styles, Bonnie's version sounds just as worthy of a Saturday morning anime's end credits as Belinda's.

Ah, but Belinda had one trick in her arsenal that the Welsh Wonder lacked: the stamp of approval from ... Freda Payne herself. I guess by 1986, Payne didn't have too much else going on. Why not crash the little white chick's revival of your song? Not only did Freda appear on Belinda's "dance remix" (a version so rare it's not even on YouTube!), she actually swallowed her pride and performed alongside Belinda on television. That's right, there could be only one show which truly deserved the honor of featuring a song titled "Band of Gold": Solid Gold.

Here we are, in the waning days of that broadcasting titan, 1986, and we know it's the waning days because ... the vocals are live? Solid Gold without the blatant lip-syncing? Dear God. What had the '80s come to? (Either that, or the dance remix features completely different vocals from the album version.) The ever-chipper Marilyn McCoo states, "When you put together two different performers like Belinda Carlisle and Freda Payne, the result is bound to be fascinating." You know what's she's really thinking to herself right there: "Bound to be 'fascinating' all right - fascinatingly shittt-tayyy.'" She goes on to say, "In this case, the result is a Top 10 dance record which will soon be released on the pop charts." Looks like we caught Ms. McCoo in a little white lie, since the song only peaked at #26 on the dance chart. Solid Gold, it's OK. You don't need a hit record as an excuse to let Freda Payne and Belinda Carlisle team up on your show.

And what a team they are! Belinda looks like she just attended the inaugural ball for her Republican governor husband, while Freda looks like she just got back from a wedding reception at Dr. Frank N. Furter's. The irony is ... I like this performance more than the recorded version! I guess Belinda needed the big stage and the bright lights to truly find the passion - either that, or the presence of the original singer right in front of her fucking face. "Uh-oh, I can't just phone it in this time." Check out these two at 2:22 ("Don't you know that I wait!"). They are tearing it up.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Back In The High Life: Could've Aimed A Little Higher, Steve

By 1986, it seems like the man who'd spent his entire career aspiring to be the next Ray Charles was now aspiring to be the next ... Phil Collins? Steve Winwood caught one whiff of "Easy Lover" and "Sussudio" and said, "Hot damn, that's it! I need to do this R&B thing, but ... with processed horns, and pseudo-exotic percussion! You know, make it really white-sounding!" Phil showed him the light, and there was no going back to the dark ages. Also, according the album cover, Winwood apparently found a second career as a model in cologne ads.

Nothing screams passion like gospel music, and nothing screams watered-down mid-'80s Yuppie Rock passion like "Higher Love," which rose higher and higher on the charts until it hit #1 in the summer of '86. As a composition, it's as melodically sound as a '60s soul classic, but I feel like the production does justice to the composition in the same sense that Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby does justice to The Great Gatsby. Question: why would you bring in a horn section only to make it sound like a cheap synthesizer? Only God and Steve Winwood would know. Most hilariously "soulful" touch: the moment at 3:09 where the black backing vocalists (including Chaka Khan!) turn "bring" into "braaaang." Oh, it's already been brought-en.

I can think of finer Steve Winwood songs than "The Finer Things," but did they reach #8 and feature James Ingram and Dan Hartman (of "I Can Dream About You" fame) on backing vocals? No, they did not. In Phil Collins/Genesis terms, this one's more of a "No Reply At All" than a "Misunderstanding," but, to paraphrase another Winwood song, I can roll with it.

Then there's "Back In The High Life Again," otherwise known as that song whose opening I always hear on the radio and I'll start thinking, "Awesome! Tom Petty's 'Free Fallin''! Oh, wait, nope, it's that crappy Steve Winwood song." To give credit where credit is due, he did whip out the mandolin five years prior to "Losing My Religion. " But just when you thought Winwood couldn't get more WASPy and non-threatening, he brings in James Taylor to sing backing vocals. ZZZZZZ. The video looks like a coffee commercial. I think I'll need the coffee too.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Miami Sound Machine: Not Actually A Machine, But Led Zeppelin Wasn't An Actual Zeppelin

Fifty years hence, when the young village children gather ceremoniously in the makeshift square carved out of an abandoned warehouse, after the civilized world has morphed into a post-industrial wasteland, and the youth begin to inquire as to the ways of their forefathers, they will drag me to the square. They will drag me to the center of the square and ask, "Oh great village elder! Please tell us what life was like in your time! What powerful message can you pass on to the last remaining children in your lineage? What words of wisdom from the olden days do you wish to share?" And I will take a deep breath, and with my creaky, withered lungs, I will utter these words:

"Come on shake your body baby do that conga I know you can't control yourself any longa feel the rhythm of the music getting stronga don't you fight it till you try to do that conga beat!"

It's become a bit of a running gag that every famous '80s artist I cover on the blog turns out to have had a long, convoluted, obscure career before becoming "famous overnight," but the Miami Sound Machine may have taken things a bit too far: by the time they'd released their first hit album, 1985's Primitive Love, they'd already recorded eight prior albums. Of course, one of the reasons those albums all flopped on the charts probably had something to do with the fact that the first seven of them weren't in English. Hey, Spanish might work on restaurant menus, but it wasn't going to cut it on MTV. Besides, only the Germans knew how to have non-English language MTV hits. And so, albums such as Otra Vez and A Toda Maquina have been forgotten in the lime juice of time, not even being blessed with a CD release.

Nope, Gloria and the boys were barely even a pimple on the acne-covered face of '80s pop until "Dr. Beat," which only made the dance charts in the US but became a Top 10 hit in the UK and most of Europe. As for the video, well, I figured Miami hospitals were poorly funded in the '80s, but I didn't realize they'd degenerated quite this far. This is just a guess, but any medical professional going by the name of "Dr. Beat" probably has very suspect credentials. Again, I'm no expert, but a saw, hammer, scissors, and power drill hardly seem like appropriate surgical tools.

It turns out that the Miami Sound Machine (consequently not the name of a very sweaty Edison invention) discovered an untapped niche in the musical landscape: latin jazz ... that was in English! All the pleasure of those hot Havana grooves, without the hassle of a  pesky foreign language. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ... "Conga."

Miami Sound Machine's other breakthrough was to combine percolating salsa percussion and sparkling piano with tacky '80s drum production and hideous synthesizer squiggles. But let's be honest here: in the world of 1986 Top 40 radio, it didn't take much to stand out. Sure, all Miami Sound Machine did was add some contemporary touches to a genre that already existed. But next to Survivor and Atlantic Starr ... that was enough! They sounded so ... Latin. Honestly, after downloading Primitive Love, I almost went ahead and deleted my Tito Puente anthology, but decided to hang onto it for sentimental reasons. Also, extra points for the way Gloria Estefan combines the last syllable of "conga" with the "I" which begins the next line, so that she technically sings "Come on shake your body baby do that cong(a/I) know you can't control yourself any longer." It's like a trans-sexual vowel sound.

The "Conga" video finds our beloved Dade County Sonic Device as unexpected guests at a prestigious Latin American ambassador's dinner held at the "Copacabana of Miami," or so we're being led to presume. Initially, when asked to follow a classical pianist, the band members have their doubts, but it turns out their spicy brew is just what the occasion called for (but how did they set up their equipment so quickly?). Even the ambassador ultimately succumbs to the charms of a leggy showgirl, while still managing to hang on to his monocle.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

You Can't Hurry Love, But You Can Cover It Very, Very Faithfully AKA Phil And Don's Ugly Altercation In An Indianapolis Strip Club

By 1982, everyone from Iggy Pop and David Bowie ("Lust For Life"), The Jam ("Town Called Malice"), and Hall & Oates ("Maneater") had nicked something or other from the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" (and with "Tell Her About It," Billy Joel was about to do the same). I guess Phil Collins sat back, watched it all go down, and decided, "Hell, if everyone's going to rip off 'You Can't Hurry Love,' somebody ought to just cover the damn thing outright."

Wait, that guy? Doing Motown? Phil Collins' disturbingly intense passion for '60s American R&B is no secret by now, but in 1982, it was, shall we say, not a musical style for which he was known. It would have been like Lionel Richie covering Jefferson Airplane. It shouldn't have worked. Many would say it didn't. But you won't find me among the many, because you know what? This is a cover version I can get behind.

Remember when I said that the problem with his cover of "Tomorrow Never Knows" was that it altered too much of the original without really re-inventing it enough? Well, Phil avoided that pitfall with "You Can't Hurry Love." I guess he figured he couldn't reinvent it, so instead he decided to be as faithful to the original as humanly possible. Here's his explanation, from Wikipedia:
The idea of doing 'Can't Hurry Love' was to see if Hugh Padgham and I could duplicate that Sixties sound. It's very difficult today because most recording facilities are so much more sophisticated than they were back then. It's therefore hard to make the drums sound as rough as they did on the original. That's what we were going after, a remake, not an interpretation, but a remake.
A remake! You got that? Don't dare call it an interpretation. "I want to smell the fumes of the Detroit auto plant in that bass. I want to taste the racial oppression in that tambourine." As far as precise recreations of highly era-specific sounds go, Lenny Kravitz is no slouch himself, but the champ would have to be Todd Rundgren and his album Faithful, in which the sonic obsessive reproduces all his favorite songs from 1966 and 1967, including disturbingly accurate renditions of "Strawberry Fields Forever," Dylan's "Most Likely You Go Your Way," Hendrix's "If 6 Was 9," and especially "Good Vibrations," where he regenerates every Beach Boy harmony and theremin solo down to the very last overdub. But Phil's version of "You Can't Hurry Love" is at least ... I don't know ... 85% of the way there?

Often a cover that's so similar to the original isn't worth listening to in its own right, but Phil put something tangy in the batter that makes this stand up as more than just a curiosity. His version has a certain snap to it, an appealing zip. If his goal was to "duplicate that Sixties sound," I think he failed - but he must have known he would fail. Despite Motown's recording studio being "state of the art" in 1966, most of the label's recordings from that era have a certain amount of unintended distortion and "fuzz" that would have been hard to reproduce even five years later, let alone fifteen. Just trying to record the song without consciously making it sound "80s" wouldn't have been enough. Phil would have needed to drag the tape through a gravel pit or something, like how comedy editors make a freshly-shot piece of film look "old." Everything sounds too clear, too pristine. But if it doesn't sound "exactly" like the original, I also must say that it doesn't sound very "80s" either, and with Phil Collins, that is really saying something. I don't remember hearing this cover as a child, and when I heard it on the radio in the '90s, I actually assumed it had been a much more recent recording! I thought it was post-superstar Phil indulging in Motown nostalgia, but it turns out it was pre-superstar Phil indulging in Motown nostalgia.

Of course, the perceptive listener will realize that as true to the original as this version is, it differs from the original in a number of ways, and I know, because I just played them back to back. First of all, his version is in a different key. Second, he adds a classy string section, which swoops and zig-zags nimbly in the background, whereas the original actually had no string section at all (although it might feel like it did). This could have been flirting with disaster, but I think it's a nice touch. Third, most shockingly, whereas the original featured a brass section, Phil's version has no horns at all. None! I mean, here's a song where the horns might have actually belonged. Phil piled on the horns every chance he got. What could have possibly led to this uncharacteristic moment of restraint?

Oh, and fourth, Phil loved this song so much that apparently he never bothered to learn what the real lyrics were. That's right. He spent hours and hours trying to painstakingly recreate every nuance from the original arrangement, but he couldn't take five minutes to go hunt down the actual lyrics. It's like he did the vocals in one take, and stuck with the same misheard verbiage he'd been using for years while singing along in the car. Whereas Diana Ross sings "I need to find, find someone to call mine," Phil sings, "I need to find time for someone to call mine." Come on Phil. Time is the one thing that the singer has plenty of. Don't you even know what this song's about? And whereas Diana sings "You got to trust, give it time/No matter how long it takes," Phil sings, "Just trust in the good time/No matter how long it takes." This was the easiest part of the job, Phil.

Finally, as if one video of Phil pretending to be a one-man band wasn't enough ("I Missed Again"), here's another. You'd think that, since they were all the same person, they could have timed their choreography a little more skillfully, but I guess not. Also, you can tell one of the back-up singers fancies himself a real rebel, because he's wearing sunglasses.

At any rate, Phil's charming story about paying affectionate homage to a cherished genre of his youth sounds nice, but his true motives for recording a cover of "You Can't Hurry Love" were a little less admirable. Many rock fans know the story behind Elvis Costello's Get Happy!! From Wikipedia:
During the American concert tour for Armed Forces in April 1979, Costello engaged in a drunken argument with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett in a Columbus, Ohio, Holiday Inn hotel bar, during which he referred to James Brown as a "jive-arsed nigger," then upped the ante by pronouncing Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger." Costello apologized at a New York City press conference a few days later, claiming that he had been drunk and had been attempting to be obnoxious to bring the conversation to a swift conclusion, not anticipating that Bramlett would bring his comments to the press.
And so legend has it that Costello recorded Get Happy!!, an album steeped in the sounds of '60s R&B, in order to prove that he wasn't a racist. Although barely publicized at the time, Phil Collins fell into an eerily similar trap just a year or two later. From In The Air Tonight:
We were in Indianapolis on the Abacab tour. I had some time to kill, so after "riding the white horse," if you know what I mean, I headed over to a strip club. I was tripping like I'd never been tripping before, and in the mood for some tasty Midwestern flesh. I sat down at the bar and started counting out my dollar bills. Suddenly Don Henley walked in. That smarmy fucker. He waved hello and immediately wandered over.

"Hey, Phil! Didn't know you were in town!"

'Don, nice to see you." I really wasn't in the mood and was hoping to keep it brief. But Mr. Deadhead Sticker On A Cadillac wasn't taking the hint.

"You wanna go golfing tomorrow? There's some great links out by the Speedway."

"Thanks, but I got plans." Betty Lou was really doing her thing on stage, sporting a tie-dyed halter top and a lavender g-string. The Miracles' "Shop Around" came on the stereo system.

"Oh man!" Don slapped my arm in excitement. "Smokey Robinson! God, I love Motown, don't you Phil?"

The former Eagle and current douchebag was starting to get on my nerves. I just wanted him to shut his yapper and let me enjoy the show.

"No, I hate Motown."

He reared back in shock. "Hate Motown? Nobody hates Motown. Phil, you love Motown, I know you do."

"It's all crap."

"You don't mean that. You can't mean that Phil. What about Marvin Gaye?"

"Marvin Gaye was an uppity, smelly-assed n****r."

"Oh really?" Don looked as though I'd insulted his sister.

"Yeah! And Tammi Terrell was a skanky, thugged-up crackwhore n*****r bitch!"

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah! And Stevie Wonder was a talentless, braille-reading, harmonica-sucking cornrow-kneading coon!!"

The next morning, Don told all his buddies at the golf club what I said. When they called me to tell me I was a racist pig, I tried to explain that, you know, I was high on horse tranquilizer and I was just trying to get Don to leave me alone and let me enjoy the God damn pole dancing. But I saw that a more meaningful gesture was needed. So I did that cover of the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love." Turned out pretty well, I have to say.


Editor's Note: In an effort to take his professional/employment life a little more seriously, Little Earl has decided that he may not continue to post on Cosmic American Blog with the same level of frequency he has demonstrated in the past. One post every two weeks? One post every month? Shorter posts in general? Little Earl cannot say. But, contrary to popular belief, the blog and its ongoing series "Little Earl Loves The Music Of The '80s" may be highly enjoyable, but it is not particularly financially lucrative. If, one fine day, he finds himself in a more stable professional situation, he may return to his former prolificacy.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

But What Has "What Have You Done For Me Lately" Done For Me Lately?

So, after the sonic mouthwash that was Dream Street, Janet Jackson decided to rebel against her family - in two ways. One of those ways turned out to be a bad idea, and the other one of those ways turned out to be a great idea.

The bad idea was marrying James DeBarge - you know, of the DeBarges, AKA that Motown singing family that was even more fucked up than the Jacksons were? Those Jacksons certainly tried to warn her, stating words, I'm sure, to the effect of "That boy is just no good!" But did she listen? Sometimes a Jackson just has to find things out the hard way. The marriage apparently lasted a year before she managed to get it annulled.

The great idea was firing her father as manager and producer, instead hiring John McClain as her new manager (A&M Records' senior vice president of artists and repertoire, not, sadly, the protagonist of Die Hard), and hiring a Minneapolis duo named Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as her new producers. Personally, I have a hard time taking anyone who goes by the name of "Jimmy Jam" too seriously, but when the music's this good, he can call himself whatever the hell he wants to.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were originally part of the Prince entourage as members of The Time. According to AMG, although the Time did go on tour and play songs live as their own unit, in the studio, Prince wrote and played almost all of The Time's material himself. Well you know what, Prince? You just weren't Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis' R&B superstar, OK?

So Janet needed producers, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis needed a singer. They didn't need a great singer, and while I would not be the first to suggest that Janet does not have the most powerful set of pipes, she's got a certain girlish passion that's effective and distinctive. It's funny, years and years passed before I stopped and thought one day, "You know, Janet Jackson's voice is kind of ... weak!" Because the way she's used it, it's rarely seemed like a shortcoming. Although it sure helps to pick the right collaborators, is all I'm sayin'. Wikipedia calls the duo's sound "a fusion of rhythm and blues, rap vocals, funk, disco and synthesized percussion." That's not a genre name. Let's just call it ... Minneapolis Funk. Ooh yeah! I guess Jam and Lewis weren't too concerned about fame and glory, because they could have easily put their own names on the Control record sleeve. In the AMG review from the old print edition, William Ruhlmann writes, "... the album is primarily a production showcase; it may be tailored to Janet's persona, but the real artists are Jam and Lewis."

Well, whoever was in charge picked a great lead-off single. According to Wikipedia, the song was "originally penned for one of Jam and Lewis's own records. Jam remembered, 'She was sitting outside in the lounge and said, "Man, that's a funky track. Who's that for?" And we said, "It's for you", and she said, '"Oh, cool."'" So not only were they good producers, they were also good liars! Well, it turns out one positive thing did come out of that ill-advised DeBarge marriage, because the three of them re-wrote the lyrics of that Jam & Lewis demo to express Janet's feelings on the matter. Merely speaking from her own personal experience, she managed to speak for millions of fed up girlfriends everywhere.

In the annals of great spoken word openings, the intro for "What Have You Done For Me Lately" must rank at or near the very peak. In its pitch-perfect recreation of black female barbershop banter, it has never been equaled:
Friend: What's up girl?
Janet: He stood me up again.
Friend: Again?
Janet: Mmm-Hmm.
Friend: Well what's up with this guy? Do you really like him that much?
Janet: Yes honey, I love him. He is fine. He does a lot of nice things for me.
Friend: I know he used to do nice stuff for you, but what has he done for you laaaaate-leeeeee?
Yes, Janet, what has he done for you laaaaaate-leeeee? See, this is the exact element that was missing from Janet's first two albums: a sense of spontaneity. She didn't have to come up with a little twenty second intro, but she went the extra mile and did. It reflected an element of risk - precisely what was absent under Daddy's discretion. Here, Janet may have been drawing the ire of the presumably honorable boyfriends of the world, but the long-suffering girlfriends of the world must have gleefully nodded their heads in sympathy. In other words, "What Have You Done For Me Lately," like almost all the singles from Control, has the quality that I believe Greek philosopher Aristotle once defined in Poetics as "tude."

And so, the world was introduced to Janet 2.0. The verses almost have a rap feeling, with Janet being joined by a male voice (either Jam's or Lewis', I'm not sure which) mixed quietly in the background, but it's key - key - because it makes Janet's accusations sound like they have some serious authority behind them. Like, "Hey, if you think I'm making this shit up about you, just tell it to my armed bodyguard right here":
Used to be a time when you would pamper me
Used to brag about it all the time
Your friends seem to think that you're so peachy keen
But my friends say neglect is on your mind
Who's right?

What have you done for me lately?
Ooh ooh ooh yeah
What have you done for me lately?
Ooh ooh ooh yeah

Used to go to dinner almost every night
Dancin' 'til I thought I'd lose my breath
Now it seems your dancing feet are always on my couch
Good thing I cook or else we'd starve to death
Ain't that a shame?
On paper, the non-rhyming chorus looks lazy, but in practice, it feels extra snappy, like "I'm so right-on about what a crappy boyfriend you are (and we both know it) that I don't even need to say anything else other than 'ooh ooh ooh yeah.'" Then suddenly there's a super-sparkly bridge with a super-sparkly melody, hinting at a kinder side to Janet, as if to say, "See, I can be a really nice girl when I'm actually being treated fairly. But you're not ever going to see that girl again unless you get your act together Mister":
I never ask for more than I deserve
You know it's the truth
You seem to think you're God's gift to this earth
I'm tellin' you no way
Right around 2:53 there's a hot keyboard solo, accompanied by some choice Janet ad-libs ("Get with it!"; "Let me know"), which, after some rapid-fire beat slams at 3:09, morphs into some jazzy piano tinkling straight out of "Holiday," peppered with a fetching series of "dee-dee-doos" from Janet, who brings it all to an unexpectedly positive ending with the exclamation, "This is wild, I swear!" For someone bitching out her ex-husband, she sure sounds like she's having a pretty good time.

The good times in the studio must have carried over to the video, likely the first Janet Jackson clip most people ever saw, where Janet's talented choreographer, a certain Miss Paula Abdul, plays the role of Janet's concerned friend, although I doubt it was Paula's voice on the actual recording. The action takes place in what appears to be a pitifully underfunded diner, where key appliances such as cash registers and jukeboxes had to be painted into the walls (and all the customers seem to be afflicted with a terrible shoulder-shimmying condition). Don't miss the disgruntled diner chef, who at 2:47 looks up from the counter with a facial expression which all but says, "Damn kids, always dancing in my diner!"

Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Last Christmas": You Don't Want To Know What's In George Michael's Stocking

There's a very short list of Christmas songs that don't make me dry heave: Elvis' "Blue Christmas," Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," Elton John's "Step Into Christmas," Weird Al's "Christmas At Ground Zero" ... that might be about it. Well, I'm feeling generous, so let's make room for "Last Christmas." Why does Wham!'s contribution to this highly suspect genre make the cut? You could say that, in the spirit of irritatingly catchy Christmas songs, the chorus repeats and repeats and refuses to go away, sort of like Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogies. The chord progression is your standard '50s-style melody that's been used a thousand times before; according to Wikipedia, the publishers of Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" actually sued for plagiarism, and although I can arguably see the resemblance, that's almost like George Lucas suing J.K. Rowling for using a young male protagonist as the centerpiece of a story about good vs. evil (the case was eventually settled out of court). No, I think "Last Christmas" avoids my Christmas music wrath because instead of being a facile celebration of WASPy good tidings, it's actually a bitter break-up song. This is one depressing Christmas single:
Last Christmas I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away
This year to save me from tears
I'll give it to someone special

Once bitten and twice shy
I keep my distance but you still catch my eye
Tell me baby do you recognize me?
Well it's been a year, it doesn't surprise me

(Happy Christmas) I wrapped it up and sent it
With a note saying "I love you," I meant it
Now I know what a fool I've been
But if you kissed me now I know you'd fool me again
In other words, the guy got his heart broken ... on Christmas! That is fucked .... up. Instead of churning out the standard "peace and goodwill" holiday cheer, George Michael wrote about the shittiest Christmas ever, and how he trusted that girl (or guy?), and how once upon a time he believed in snowflakes and candy canes and little green elves, but now he knows that the world is a cold and heartless place, and our lives are all nasty, brutish, and short, and that he's never going to have faith in the human race again. Now this is a Christmas song I can get behind. Plus, as with most Wham! songs, he's been very creative with the vocal overdubs, layering a soft, fluttery army of Georges behind a characteristically soulful lead.

It seemed like a surefire Christmas #1 (which in the UK is actually a thing), but then Bob Geldof and Midge Ure had to go and release their damn "Do They Know It's Christmas" guiltfest and spoil Wham!'s holiday cheer. Then again, George Michael also sang on "Do they Know It's Christmas," so in a sense, he spoiled himself.

The video is your one and only chance to see George Michael in a parka. Wham! sure seemed to get around; this time they absconded to Switzerland for a weekend of skiing and gondola riding. Wikipedia helpfully explains the plot of secret romantic intrigue:
It becomes clear early on that the character of Ridgeley's girlfriend (played by model Kathy Hill) was previously in a relationship with Michael, and that the song is aimed at her... There is a brief flashback to "Last Christmas" showing Michael's character presenting her with a jewelled brooch. In the present time, Ridgeley is wearing the brooch, suggesting that the girl gave the same gift to her new love after her and Michael parted ways. On numerous occasions Michael presents a thoughtful, confused expression, suggesting his conflicting emotions... Her seeming indifference to Ridgeley's open displays of affection makes the viewer wonder if Ridgeley's heart is the next to be broken. However, at the end of the video everyone leaves properly "paired off," so perhaps it's being suggested that Michael has worked out his conflicts and confusion and now realizes he is after all with the right girl.
Actually, I think I know what happened here: she found out that he's not exactly that "kind of guy." Last Christmas, he gave her a Barbra Streisand album and a book of pastry recipes, and she started getting a little suspicious. And doesn't he look a little too excited about decorating the Christmas tree? And maybe all those mountain peaks are phallic symbols? In his trailblazing analysis, Prof. Higglediggle expands upon this theme:
Perhaps Wham!'s most polymorphous gesture of moral subterfuge, "Last Christmas," regarded in its day as a lightweight holiday novelty, was a reified attack on the Judeo-Christian social order. Opening a neologistic dialectic on this most sacred of religious holidays, Michael situated his deviant lifestyle as an invocation for ritual play, turning the usual ode to the Lord and Savior into veiled swipe at homosocial bonding. "Last Christmas" wrestles with the holy firmament beneath the British (mono)theistic ethos, normalizing the sinful and banishing the conventional. One could argue, although I hesitate to do so, that for a homosexual to pen a musical work intended as a tribute to the celebration of the birth of the Son of God was a new form of codified blasphemy, rivaling the impact, in the European tradition, only of Caravaggio's Saint Matthew and the Angel or Bernini's The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. However, one would have to recontextualize the presence of a post-Marxist interpretive framework, which may simply not be present here.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Heat May Be On, But Glenn Frey's Blood Runs Ice Cold

It begins with soft, metallic clanging, like wind chimes shifting in the breeze. Then there is a demonic "unwinding" noise, akin to a drawbridge slowly descending over a moat, or the doors of the Taj Mahal opening one massive hinge at a time, perhaps. With a gigantic WHOOSH, out comes that diabolical instrument, unleashed into the night: the saxophone.

On a soundtrack dominated by electro-funk, Glenn Frey showed up with the Yuppie Rock, and this time, he brought the heat.

The heat was not without its irony however. Just as Kenny Loggins, a perfectly capable songwriter, didn't write "Danger Zone," so Glenn Frey, a man who surely knew his way around a pop composition or two, didn't actually write "The Heat Is On." I know, I just shattered all your childhood dreams. We can take a moment to rest, if you need it.

"Danger Zone," of course, was written by the producer of the Top Gun soundtrack, the supremely lubricative Giorgio Moroder, and so it's only fitting that "The Heat Is On" was co-written by one of Moroder's proteges, and the producer of the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, the only slightly less lubricative Harold Faltermeyer. So yes, Glenn Frey didn't actually compose what arguably turned out to be his biggest solo hit. I'm almost positive that Don Henley has never avoided an opportunity to remind Glenn of this little factoid every chance he gets. In sound, style, and attitude, though, "The Heat Is On" is much closer to "Footloose" than "Danger Zone," with its Winwood-esque keyboards, giddy hand claps, and "get up and rock this party" chorus (although this song probably hasn't rocked a party in a long, long time - maybe your step-dad's retirement party?).

But that's not the most amusing part. The most amusing part about the fact that Frey didn't write "The Heat Is On" is that the lyrics, with their overall nebulousness and pseudo-tough guy posturing, still fit in perfectly with the man's whole wannabe badass aesthetic. In other words, if he didn't come up with this shit, he easily could have. What exactly is the titular "heat" in question?
The heat is on
On the street
Inside your head
On every beat
And the beat's alive
Deep inside
The pressure's high
Just to stay alive
'Cause the heat is on
Is he cooking Top Ramen or something? Is it wintertime? Why the hell is the heat on? You're jacking up the energy bill buddy. Well, I guess he's supposed to be talking about cops, you know, the "law," the "fuzz," the "man." Maybe it's a prescient statement on global warming. No wait, I think I've got it: it's a song about gonorrhea.

The video features another in a long line of '80s film editors (possibly Jude Law's uncle?) who fancy themselves rock stars. Listen dude, you better leave the rocking out to Glenn Frey and his hypnotically androgynous sax player. As far as Glenn's gender is concerned, of course, there can be no doubt, as he's sporting some prominent chest hair, as well as a serious five o'clock shadow. If the "heat" is really "on," he should probably shave that thing. Most unintentionally hilarious moment(s): Glenn taking a break from his patented "eyes closed" singing method in order to stare directly into the camera and, after four suspenseful drum beats (or, as we're somewhat led to believe, microphone fist pounds), provocatively mouth the word "on" (1:35 and 2:24).

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"I Feel The Magic" All Right - In My Groin AKA Belinda's Hair Gets Its Own Solo Career

Looking for the gooeyist, chewiest, frothiest, bubbliest '80s pop song in the history of the universe? Fellow Cosmic Americans, I give you Belinda Carlisle's "I Feel The Magic."

If any of her old punk and New Wave fans and peers might have kinda sorta found the charm in "Mad About You," after hearing "I Feel The Magic," they probably ran for the hills. With the first one, they figured, "Yeah, OK, she wants to dip her toes into a little mainstream pop, just to see what it feels like, get it out of her system, whatever, cool, let's move on." But "I Feel The Magic" is so ... bouncy. It's so aggressively bouncy. It's like Lesley Gore's "Sunshine, Lollipops And Rainbows" on androstenedione. It is the point where Belinda gleefully demonstrated that she didn't give a shit how ridiculous her solo career got. It is Miles Copeland's worst nightmare.

While finding stylistic inspiration in the '60s girl group sound was certainly nothing novel for our newly crowned Queen of Yuppie Rock (her former band having tapped that source in about half its material), "I Feel The Magic" shows Belinda doing it without much of the ironic twist or sly wink that the Go-Go's brought to the task. I think songs like "We Got The Beat" or "Skidmarks On My Heart" were trying to send up the corniness of the original genre, mock it a little. "I Feel The Magic" embraces that corniness with a big cuddly hug. I'm pretty sure Belinda heard the demo and said, "Ooh, this is just like all those Motown and Phil Spector songs I used to sit around and listen to in my bedroom! I wanna do a song like that!" In the past, her band mates might have intervened, but now ... there was no one to stop her. Well, Charlotte could have stopped her, except for the fact that she co-wrote the thing. At any rate, maybe Super-Gooey Belinda was a little too much for the American public; whereas "Mad About You" soared to #3, "I Feel The Magic" petered out at #82. I guess not enough people felt the magic?

Honestly, I want to keep making fun of it, but the sad truth is that I unequivocally adore this song as I unequivocally adore anything ever touched by the precious hand of Belinda. Seriously, anyone else think this should have been way bigger than it was? As a shameless piece of '60s retro-fluff, it's right on the money. First of all, listen to that raging army of bells and tambourines in the background. A couple of years ago I recall reading a YouTube exchange (I think it's gone now) where one commentator wrote, "This sounds like a Christmas song," and another commentator responded, "With Belinda, it's always Christmas." Precisely, my friend, precisely. Then there are the comical saxophone interjections taken, perhaps accidentally, from Coasters songs like "Yakety Yak" and "Along Came Jones," although the solo kind of reminds me of the sax solo from Supertramp's "It's Raining Again," which probably wasn't the idea. The single would have been even more of a spot-on homage if it weren't for the ill-advised drum production (particularly egregious at the start of the chorus), which probably dates the song faster than a Micro Machines reference. Then there is also the employment of the term "angel baby," which conjures up recollections of Rosie & the Originals' "Angel Baby" and Shelly Fabares' "Johnny Angel." To summarize the plot of the piece, last night (AKA 1984) Belinda gave up on herself, and then "in a dream," she saw Morgan's face, so, now she "feel[s] the magic like [she] never felt before":
Last night I gave up on myself
I hit the bed, tell me what should I do
And in a dream I saw your face
It's more than just a face
You make me want to give my heart away

I feel the magic
Like I never felt before
I imagine that it's always been there
I feel the magic
There's an angel looking after me
Angel baby give me more and more

Today I woke up by myself
I hit the streets, I wondered what should I do
I never noticed from the start
That I could feel alive again
That I could feel a part of
Sometimes you really have to bounce back from a coke addiction and marry a Yuppie husband in order to bring the necessary level of conviction to cheese this musty.

Now, hard as it may be to believe, but the video for "I Feel The Magic" is even fluffier than the song is. It is literally fluffy. The video should've sported the subtitle, "Belinda's Hair." There must have been an army of stylists sitting around off-camera, just blow-drying her hair to perfection. Not to mention the make-up people, the wardrobe consultants, skin lotion experts, etc. etc. Then again, this was still IRS Records we're talking about. It looks like it was filmed in an abandoned warehouse, and they just shoved Belinda onto a sound stage with a camera and a bunch of cute outfits and let the magic roll. Just take the opening shot. She's cooing "ooh ooh" in a partially unbuttoned light blue button-up blouse while her golden locks flutter all around her. Why is it so windy in there? Somebody close the window. Then she's running around, being chased by a giant spotlight, wearing a red sweater that's sliding off her shoulders. Did she just break out of prison? Turn on the rest of the lights! A couple of shots later, she's sitting down in the red sweater, and her hair's all wet. Did she just get out of the shower or something? Maybe the blow-drying stylists were on their lunch break? Get her a towel! At this rate, maybe she should have just done a shampoo ad. Oh wait a second, she actually did:

Oh, then she's in a purple business suit, her hair pinned up in a bun (almost looking red - a look which I thought came a little later?), leaning against a model of the Eiffel Tower (that just happened to be there?), and smoking a cigarette. It's funny to read YouTube comments which chastise her for smoking in a music video. Believe me, cigarettes were the least of this woman's vices. One person wrote, "She's smoking? YUCK, SICK!," but another commentator quickly added, "She's smoking alright. Smoking hot!" Nice one. Other highlights:
Very close to "Mad About You" video era, at her absolute peak of hotness, and that is a REALLY high level of hotness.

How could she ever wake up by herself ?

She's the most beautiful woman who ever drew a breath.

perfect toe tappin hips gyrating belinda carlisle we salute you

I've got some magic for you to feel too...

Sexy. Black tank, blue denim shirt. Oh man.

The song is unmemorable, like most of her songs, (the only two that mattered were Heaven Is A Place On Earth and Circles In The Sand), but I fully remember now why I was crushing so hard on this hot as hell woman back in the 80's. Her look, her smile, just unreal, so damn beautiful.
"Unmemorable"? You know what, buddy? You're unmemorable. So then she twirls around in a denim shirt over a ... black sleeveless dress? Whose idea was that? We even get some of the "avant-garde" green tinted low-res footage previously seen in the "Mad About You" video. Honestly, the woman's physical charms at this stage of her career were plentiful, but this video might be a little too much - even for me. "Mad About You" had some subtlety to it; "I Feel The Magic" is just so "in your face." Watch as she cozies up to the wall (1:22), plops down onto a conveniently-placed love seat (1:35) ... dear God. Could it be? Had Belinda finally transformed into ... Snuggle the fabric softener bear?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Zrbo Reviews: Psy'Aviah's The Xenogamous Endeavor

Belgian based Psy'Aviah continues to lurk around the periphery of the electronic mainstream with output that sounds solid but doesn't ever receive much buzz. It's a real shame, because with each album the act continues to deliver with more consistency by diversifying their sound. Released last year, but only having reached my ears recently, Psy'Aviah's newest album, The Xenogamous Endeavor, is really quite excellent.

I first became aware of Psy'Aviah a few years ago when I somehow stumbled upon them while browsing YouTube. Based out of Antwerp, what initially drew me towards the band was that it was an electronic/EBM/industrial band fronted by a female. In the male dominated genre of EBM, Psy'Aviah sounded like a breath of fresh air. Front woman Emélie Nicolaï wasn't just your typical Euro-sounding female dubbed over some trance music. Songs such as "My List" and "Song of Independence" were personal and distinctly feminine (the former is a song about what the singer is looking for in a man), a far cry from the usual shouty-growly vocals of males in the genre. Long time readers of this blog may remember that I chose Psy'Aviah's cover of Shakira's "Timor" as one of my favorite songs of 2012.

Occasionally, to add some variety, the band would employ a guest vocalist. There was also some guy who was part of the group who would sing on a track or two, but I never paid much attention to him.

Turns out I didn't know a hell of a lot. That "guy", Yves Schelpe, is the actual brains behind the outfit. On The Xenogamous Endeavor Emélie is nowhere to be found (left the band perhaps?), instead replaced by a revolving door of various Euro-sounding females. And though I just dissed those generic Euro-sounding females, the thing is, strangely, I really like this album.

This is Psy'Aviah's most diverse album yet. It starts with the energizing "Long Way", an energy building song that sits somewhere between electro-industrial and pop, that gets the album moving. Then it moves into "Sacrifices" which may be my favorite track. There's a confidence and flow in the way guest vocalist Mari Kattman delivers those verses that's just addicting. At first it was just another song, but with repeated listens it's gotten stuck in my head and refuses to dislodge.

The middle of the album is perhaps its weak point. "Our Common End" and "Bevor Ich Sterbe" are perhaps a bit too slow while "Deliverance" tries a bit too hard to sound edgy.

At two-thirds through, when your typical album might begin to lose steam, comes a streak of terrific songs leading to the end, each one remarkably different than the last.

That streak begins with "On My Mind", a mid-tempo number that begins with vocalist Lisa Nascimento repeatedly whispering "Hours/minutes/seconds/days". The first few times I found this terribly annoying, partly because of her peculiar accent. Now, however, I enjoy how it serves as the buildup to that slinky beat, plus I like how the whispering is incorporated later on when it's brought back to match the beat.

But it only gets better from there. Next up is "The Parts You Can't See". Reminding me a bit like a track by the band Air, the song has a nice, chill feel with the comparisons to Air only exacerbated by a french-sounding chanteuse (Kyoko Baertsoen) on vocals.

Jumping genres again, next is "Never Enough". The best way for me to describe "Never Enough" is to say it sounds uncannily like a Lady Gaga cut. Even the vocal delivery could be mistaken for Gaga. It's dance mixed with pop, and sounds great.

"Get Your Tickets" is a spoken word, almost hip-hop track that deploys more F-bombs per second than should reasonably be allowed. It reminds me greatly of KFMDM's 1996 song "Dogma", which also utilized a confident, assertive female spoken word track to great effect. Here it's by Suzi Q. Smith. It's absolutely not safe for work.

And just like that, the album immediately shifts gears to a stoned beat and a wailing guitar with "Last of Us". Finally the album ends with the instrumental "In Uthenera (Leliana's Song)". It really sounds like it's from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, complete with harp and female vocals singing in a language I can't identify (elvish? gibberish?).

It's a shame that Psy'Aviah already used the title Eclectric for one of their previous albums because The Xenogamous Endeavor couldn't be more eclectic. It's a mishmash of industrial, EBM, and euro-pop, with a dash of hip-hop and electro-clash thrown in for good measure. The band began firmly in more industrial territory and has been slowly experimenting around with different sounds with each album. One of their previous albums, Introspection/Extrospection had hinted at experimentation with different genres, but with The Xenogamous Endeavor they've really gone all out.

Overall this is an absolutely solid album and I highly recommend it. 5/5 Zrbo points.

Highlights: Sacrifices, On My Mind, The Parts You Can't See, Get Your Tickets

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

He's Got New Wave Right In The Palmer Of His Hand

Quick: which thirtysomething late '70s blue-eyed soul/bar band singer totally tried to latch onto New Wave? Let me give you a ... clue.

Many mainstream pop musicians tried to go New Wave in the '80s, but I think Robert Palmer actually did. Clues isn't just an imitation New Wave album; I think it actually is one. Not only did he cover a song by Gary Numan, he actually co-wrote a song with Gary Numan. Not only did he try to pilfer Talking Heads' drum sound, he pilfered Talking Heads' actual drummer.

Hold on a second. So apparently Palmer was hanging out at his preferred recording studio in the Bahamas around the same time Talking Heads were recording Remain In Light, and I guess at some point Palmer played "percussion" on that album - although with Talking Heads and Brian Eno, that could have involved anything. Eno album credits have included instruments such as "snake guitar" and "uncertain piano." Palmer could have played, who knows, "dragonfly bongos." But when it came time to record his own album, I guess he used Chris Franz on "Looking For Clues."

"Looking For Clues" sounds like either a sped up version of LTD's "Back In Love Again" or an off-key version of Paul McCartney's "Coming Up," but I might like it more than either (best part: the moment right after the chorus where half the percussion completely drops out for a couple of seconds and it sounds like the entire song is getting stuck in the tape machine). I first heard it on Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the '80s, Vol. 3. I remember downloading the collection and thinking, "Robert Palmer on a New Wave compilation? Should he really be on there?" Oh, he should be on there all right. In fact, when the song first came on, I wasn't looking at my mp3 player and I started to wonder, as I so often do, who the artist was. When I looked and saw "Robert Palmer" I was like ... wuuuuut.

Here's another question for you: is this the "real" music video, or just a clip from some random European show that was slapped together an hour before airtime with the cast of a local children's theatre troupe?

"Johnny And Mary" stalled at #44 in the UK and didn't do squat in the US, but it was a top ten hit in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and every other country successfully invaded by the Nazis, so there you go. It is also the winner of Little Earl's "Best Video Featuring Mimes" award.

The album also includes a not-terrible-at-all cover of  the Beatles' "Not A Second Time," sort of an obscurity in the sense that Cadmium is an obscure element on the Periodic Table: in other words, for those whose business it is to be knowledgeable in such matters, it's not really that obscure. But how's this for balls: Palmer covered a Beatles song ... and wrote a new verse of his own! At least he didn't insist on altering the writing credit. Is it just me, or is there something funny about the sound of "Lennon/McCartney/Palmer"?