Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Janet Jackson B.C. (Before Control) AKA The Limits Of Nepotism

Just when the world thought it had enough Jacksons.

There are times when I forget that Janet Jackson is/was Michael Jackson's brother, and is/was indeed a member of the whole Jackson family entertainment enterprise. I'll bet there are times when Janet forgets it too. And who can blame her? I don't know if being a Jackson helped or hindered her, but you have to stop and think: what are the odds? There are plenty of siblings of pop superstars who don't amount to squat. For example, Paul McCartney's brother Mike had a couple of hits (in a band called The Scaffold, in which he went by the name of Mike McGear!), but that was it. The career of Janet Jackson wasn't written in the stars. I mean, not every family is blessed with the talent of, say, the Kardashians.

Because Janet Jackson was huge.

But even with the industry's greatest head-start, it wasn't a straight shoot to the top. People might remember Control coming out in 1986 and recall to themselves, "Yeah, what a great debut album!" Except ... hey, you know me too well. It wasn't even her second album. Come with me, if you will, to a world where Janet Jackson was the afterthought of the Jackson clan.

For a Jackson in 1982, getting a record contract was like a rich kid getting a shiny new sports car. Who cares if you really wanted one? Who cares if you didn't even know how to drive? Also, imagine a time when Janet Jackson was better known as an actress (!). From Wikipedia:
Jackson had initially desired to become a horse racing jockey or entertainment lawyer, with plans to support herself through acting. Despite this, she was anticipated to pursue a career in entertainment, and considered the idea after recording herself in the studio ... She began acting in the variety show The Jacksons in 1976. In 1977, she was selected to have a starring role as Penny Gordon Woods in the sitcom Good Times. She later starred in A New Kind of Family before joining the cast of Diff'rent Strokes, portraying Charlene Duprey for two years.
Horse racing jockey? That's like when I was in kindergarten and I used to tell people I wanted to grow up to be a fireman. Fireman? What the fuck did I know? Anyway, as far as I can tell, her first two albums were like vanity projects. Nevertheless, because (for reasons unknown to even the wisest of our contemporary philosophers) I love almost every last drop of '80s music, I would not say that Janet Jackson and Dream Street are particularly "bad." But what's interesting about them is that they are impressively ... generic. They possess no unique vision, or quirky character. They sound exactly like what you'd think they'd sound like. They sound like Off The Wall outtakes. They sound like Kool & The Gang's hairbrush lint. But hey, maybe some people are into that sort of thing.

Besides, when Everybody's Favorite Abusive Father is your manager, what do you really expect? Apparently, when he wasn't beating the skin pigment out of Michael, family patriarch Joe fancied himself some kind of record producer. Not everyone agreed, including AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine, who gives Janet Jackson two stars:
On her eponymous debut album, Janet Jackson demonstrates no distinctive musical personality of her own, which isn't surprising considering that she was in her teens. If her producers had concocted a sharper set of songs and more interesting beats, Janet Jackson might have been a pleasant set of sunny dance-pop, but as it stands, only "Young Love" stands out among the undistinguished, sub-disco thumpers and drippy ballads.

Ewww! Drippy! Time to wring out Joe's jheri curl. Her second album, Dream Street, plays more like Late Night Cough Syrup-Induced Hallucination Street. Weirdness abounds: "Two To The Power Of Love" is a duet with Pre-Beatles British pop legend Cliff Richard, while the title track was co-written by frequent Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder collaborator Pete Bellotte. Also, a certain Gloved One lends some unmistakable background whoops and hollers to "Don't Stand Another Chance."

I think if Dream Street had been Janet's last album, AMG would have given it four stars and designated it as the album "pick" and a hidden Jackson family gem, but in light of what followed, sure, another two star rating is fair. I'll say this: the closing trio of "Hold Back The Tears," "All My Love To You," and "If It Takes All Night" are better than their titles, seemingly generated by an Apple IIe "Name Your Top 40 Single" computer program, would suggest.

In the end, a family name can only get you so far - on the Billboard pop chart at least, as Janet Jackson hit #63, while Dream Street bottomed out at #147. Damn. We're talking about the peak of Thriller here. Even the Doors albums without Jim Morrison did better than that. However, on the R&B charts, she was not exactly a joke, with the albums peaking at #6 and #19, while "Young Love," "Say You Do," "Come Give Your Love To Me," and "Don't Stand Another Chance" all peaked in the R&B top 20.

Maybe her heart wasn't really in it. Maybe she just recorded those albums to get Dad off her back. Hey, not everybody's cut out to be a pop star - even a Jackson. Two flop albums should have been the end of this particular musical career. It turns out the only way for Janet to live up to the Jackson family name ... was to flee the Jackson family.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"Twisting By The Pool": Yuppie Rock Goes Sock Hop

It looks like after Love Over Gold, Mark Knopfler briefly lost his taste for the 14-minute long song, as he decided to turn Dire Straits' next release into a 14-minute long album. Well, 16 minutes, to be more precise, but talk about a giddy U-turn. The ExtendedancEPlay EP (I sense a pun in there somewhere) consists of four songs, none longer than five minutes, and none bearing any trace of meandering guitar heroics or brooding working-class malaise. I guess this was like Dire Straits' Zooropa, where they just cut loose for a little while and didn't try too hard to outdo themselves. That's the first U2 reference I've made in years. Hmm. Must have been the mashed potatoes I ate for lunch.

The main track off the EP, "Twisting By The Pool," a '50s dance craze pastiche complete with Little Richard-style piano pounding and backing vocals lifted straight from "At The Hop," is so campy, it's almost as campy as Elton John and Bernie Taupin's early rock n' roll homages like "Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock And Roll)" and "Whenever You're Ready (We'll Go Steady Again)." I said almost. When released as a stand-alone single, it hit #14 in the UK and #12 on the US Mainstream Rock chart, or so I've been told. The video features your standard boilerplate Dire Straits concert footage interspliced with shots of Hawaiian-shirted partygoers twisting in the vicinity of a so-called recreational water area, as well as women in swimsuits performing synchronized Busby Berkeley-style routines. That sexy secretary floating on a pool chair at 1:21 (reading the newspaper and sucking on what appears to be a Creamsicle) better be careful or she might end up soaking her brand new shirt and tie. Sadly, the record label could not convince the band members themselves to go for a swim; the sight of Mark Knopfler strutting his stuff in a two-piece might have really been something.

Even less characteristic, and even more rare, is "Badges, Posters, Stickers, T-shirts," a boogie-woogie retro-swing oddity where Knopfler paints a less-than-charitable portrait of a pair of groupies, whom, it is implied (according to one YouTube commentator), are from Leeds, since that's the accent Knopfler is supposedly using. Those Northerners, always up to no good! Perhaps the fine people of Leeds have tried to keep this track out of circulation, as it's barely made an appearance in the CD era, but once again, YouTube comes to the rescue:
Me and my mate we think you're great
Some we like and some we hate
I know him, I've seen him on the adverts
Got any badges, posters, stickers or t-shirts?

You were bloody great last time you come
I thought me 'ead was stuck in the bass drum
Bloody loud, me bloody head hurts
Got any badges, posters, stickers or t-shirts?

So how'd you get a start in show biz?
My mate's as good on the drums as he is
My mate thinks I'm bloody cracked
Please sign my jacket on the back

All them badges made of plastic
I think they're great, just fantastic
I'm unemployed, he's still at school
He gets annoyed 'cause I'm such a fool

You don't half sweat a lot up there
Haven't you got showers in here?
You're bloody great, my bloody head hurts
Got any badges, posters, stickers or t-shirts?

Yeah, me and my mate like AC/DC
Hot & sweaty, loud & greasy
My mom says we're a pair of perverts
Got any badges, posters, stickers or t-shirts?

We hitch-hiked here in pouring rain
Now we've missed the flamin' train
Hey! Can I have one of them lagers?
Thanks very much, mate
Can 'e have one?
A-one, a-two, a-one two three four

So, was this a new embrace of conciseness and playfulness for our man from Newcastle upon Tyne? Ha! Playfulness perhaps, but for any one of the 30 million proud owners of Brothers In Arms out there, as far as conciseness goes, they should know the answer to that one.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Axel F": The Unfaltering Glory of Harold Faltermeyer's Timeless And/Or Extremely Dated Theme

I love that the official name of the theme tune from Beverly Hills Cop is "Axel F." It is not called "Beverly Hills Cop Theme," not even with parentheses. Nor is it called "Axel Foley," which is the character's full name. No, it is simply called "Axel F," which suggests a certain intimate familiarity, like what one might find written on a hastily scrawled memo, taped to the police captain's desk. With "Axel F," we're on the "inside."

Out of the slimy ooze that was Giorgio Moroder, there arose a protege. And that protege was Harold Faltermeyer. Not content to merely work alongside the master on various soundtrack albums and Donna Summer releases, Faltermeyer finally carved out his own plaque in the Eurosleaze Hall of Fame with this nimble one-man show. But "one man" hardly means "one synth," as Wikipedia makes abundantly clear:
Faltermeyer recorded the song using five instruments: a Roland Jupiter-8 provided the distinctive "supersaw" lead sound, a Moog modular synthesizer 15 provided the bass, a Roland JX-3P provided chord stabs, a Yamaha DX7 was used for bell and marimba sounds and a LinnDrum was used for drum programming.
Whoa, look out for that supersaw. What's amazing about "Axel F" is the ebb and flow, the sturm und drang of all the different synthesizer parts. My tongue-in-cheek breakdown:
  • 0:00-0:14: The ominous main theme
  • 0:15: A synthesizer imitating that sound a record kinda makes when you turn it on while the needle is resting in the middle of a track (sort of a "whoosh")
  • 0:16-0:24: Freaky imitation bass line, with freaky imitation cymbals
  • 0:24: Imitation handclaps that always make me think of the very last seconds of "The Safety Dance" (it must have been a common button on that particular synth model)
  • 0:24-0:33: Behold the imitation bass drum!
  • 0:33-0:49: Everything all together now, goosed along by the new kid on the block, an imitation snare drum
  • 0:49-1:10: An alternate main riff (perhaps what Wikipedia calls "chord stabs"?), accompanied by the sound of what appears to be termites quietly munching in both stereo channels
  • 1:10-1:28: Funky breakdown, with imitation bass solo and munching termites; at 1:20 they're joined by what sounds like the flick of Tinkerbell's wand
  • 1:28-1:44: Back to the main riff, with imitation bass drum, meaner and leaner this time
  • 1:45-2:20 Sensual bridge with imitation marimbas; they multiply and multiply and they keep growing and growing and it seems like nothing will stop them until they finally meet their doom at the hands of ...
  • 2:19: Monster imitation drum fill
  • 2:21-2:41: Then it's back into the safe, comforting arms of the alternate riff (from 0:49-1:10)
  • 2:42: And the main theme drives us on home, Faltermeyer's fancy fingers taking us back where we began, all the pieces locking together in peerless mathematical symmetry, like an Escher illustration (but an Escher illustration starring Eddie Murphy)
  • 2:58: And, hey, one last dose of imitation handclaps for good measure

Rarely is the public granted the opportunity to see a master at work, but in the video for "Axel F," such is the opportunity we have been granted, for it stars, if I'm not mistaken, Mr. Harold Faltermeyer himself. I didn't realize that Faltermeyer also happened to be the neighborhood pedophile, or possibly former Major League pitcher Curt Schilling. It's also odd that he's sequestered himself in a top-secret computer laboratory, as I don't believe Beverly Hills Cops was an international cyber-thriller, but maybe there were complications going on behind the scenes that we didn't hear about. However, once he's spotted by Mystery Woman peeking through the Venetian blinds, things start to get a little weird. Right around 1:44, two things happen: 1) Faltermeyer, sans hat and sunglasses, suddenly busts out his synth equipment in the middle of the lab, which is, suspiciously, no longer in black & white, and 2) the hat-and-sunglasses Faltermeyer finds himself magically, and dangerously, transported smack into the midst of the Beverly Hill Cop action! See him jog alongside Eddie Murphy and Judge Reinhold (at 2:01 and 2:26), sneak up to Victor Maitland's mansion (1:57), and dodge the nefarious bullets of Maitland's henchmen (at 2:19)! Something about the whole deal doesn't seem right, as if Faltermeyer wasn't really in the footage to begin with. Besides, this ain't no beat for a rookie. He's in over his head. Sure, enough, in the last shot, it appears as though Faltermeyer has pushed his luck just a step too far, because here comes a giant semi-truck, look out!!!!!!!!

And so, Harold Faltermeyer's first hit ... was his last.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Belinda: The Weirdest Album Of 1986 AKA Can A Woman Simultaneously Grow Older ... And Younger?

There were some weird albums in 1986. The Butthole Surfers' Rembrandt Pussyhorse. Big Black's Atomizer. Public Image Ltd.'s Album/Compact Disc/Cassette (you guessed it: the name of the album depended on the format in which it was purchased). They Might Be Giants' debut. But there is one album that, in my humble opinion, is weirder than all of those albums combined. That album is Belinda Carlisle's solo debut, simply titled Belinda.

The weirdest thing about Belinda is that it is so utterly, completely ... normal. On the surface, Belinda is about as normal as a mainstream '80s pop album could possibly be. The production is not unique in any notable way, the instrumentation is entirely conventional, the lyrical content is standard romantic pablum. No, what makes Belinda the weirdest album of 1986 is that it reveals not the slightest trace of the performer's long and legitimate punk past.

I could understand a brief nod, a mild wink, a token acknowledgement. But nope. There's nothing. Nada. Not even a faint fingerprint. The unsuspecting listener could have purchased this album in 1986 without receiving the slightest inkling that the perfectly sweet young lady singing these songs was the same woman who once:
  • Wore trash bags as a dress
  • Slipped her menstrual fluid into alcoholic beverages in order to "cast spells" on boys
  • Allowed herself to be drenched in the spit of overly-enthusiastic British punk audiences
  • Posed, on camera, the eternal question: "Why can't girls jack off?"
Never have I seen, in all my years of popular music fandom, a transformation so thorough, so complete, so divorced from prior origins, as the transformation achieved here. It is without precedent. I would call it unbelievable, except it happened, and so I believe it. Belinda is like if HBO suddenly tried to pretend it was the Disney Channel. My father once said, amused at Las Vegas' attempt to turn itself into a family destination, "That's like hell trying to dress itself up and pretend that it's heaven." Of course, Belinda is like heaven trying to dress itself up and pretend that it's heaven, but I digress.

Belinda is like the goofy kid sister to Madonna's True Blue and Janet Jackson's Control. Whereas those two 1986 blockbuster albums peaked at #1, spun off multiple top ten singles, and went multi-platinum, Belinda peaked at #13, spun off one top ten hit, two flop singles, and went gold. Madonna and Janet Jackson sat in the studio and carefully crafted their marketing strategy down to every last bra-strap: which songs would be released as singles (and when), what the videos would like look, how to handle the concert choreography, etc. Belinda just went along with whatever the record label wanted her to do. True Blue and Control oozed ambition and ego. Belinda waved its little hand in the air and said, "Hey, look at me! I can be a hit album too!" But it wasn't entirely sure.

Somehow, in the chaotic climate that was 1986 popular music, Belinda found its perky little niche. Just to provide some perspective: on the 1986 year-end bestselling albums chart, Belinda finished at #83, a couple of spots below LL Cool J's Radio, and four places above Metallica's Master Of Puppets. It was a strange time, ladies and gentlemen.

While they weren't treated quite like Radio or Master Of Puppets, True Blue and Control were taken somewhat seriously by critics at the time. No music critic took Belinda remotely seriously at the time, and, actually, no music critic takes it seriously now. Well, that's not entirely accurate. Initially, in an old AMG review, Stephen Thomas Erlewine gave it three stars and sprinkled some mild praise its way:
Belinda Carlisle's first solo record was a distinct departure from the Go-Go's energetic, catchy new wave pop. Carlisle refashioned herself as an inoffensive mainstream pop singer and the makeover worked commercially, as well as artistically. The pop on Belinda may not be as infectious as the Go-Go's finest singles, yet it fit in well with the slick formats of mid-'80s radio and managed to be more memorable than many of the mainstream hits of the time, as the ingratiating hit "Mad About You" proves.
Well guess what? I just checked AMG, and it looks like ol' STE recently bumped that rating up to four stars and wrote a new, expanded review. Is Belinda is finally gaining some belated hipster props? As for its reception upon release, usually I'd say that the narrow-minded tastemakers of the day missed the boat and failed to spot an obvious classic, but honestly, with this one, I don't blame 'em. They were right to chuckle at this album. It's kind of a silly album. Sure, you and I know, with the benefit of hindsight, that Belinda went full-borne Yuppie, but people didn't see that coming at the time. Here was Belinda's chance to redefine herself, to tell the world what she was about as an artist and role model, and she came up with ... this? Did she have a single substantive thought in that bubbly blonde cranium of hers? I can understand the scorn or, more accurately, the indifference. However, in retrospect, I believe that Belinda is in need of some serious critical re-evaluation. Because there has never been - and will never be - another album quite like it.

Only a couple of songs strike me as outright boring; I find the rest either purely poptastic or head-scratchingly, misguidedly memorable in that "Why, Belinda? Why?" sort of way. Unlike most of her solo albums, which feel more disjointed, Belinda has a genuine thematic cohesion (the theme being "Can I really pull this off guys?"). In summary, after Beauty And The Beat, this is my favorite Belinda-related long player.

What does the defendant have to say for herself? From Lips Unsealed:
For the next eight months, I worked on Belinda, my first solo album. I dove in without thinking about any of the pressure-packed issues I would face later on when I actually stepped out publicly and faced critics, Go-Go's fans, and the new reality that I was on my own. I moved quickly, sticking to the relatively safe and familiar pop territory for which I was known. Should I have tried to develop an edgier sound or gone back to my punk roots? In retrospect, I wish I had pushed it to a harder place. But I wasn't in that headspace. Nor did I have that kind of creative freedom as a new artist.
Wasn't in that "headspace"? "Wasn't in that headspace?" She jumped off the diving board and did a massive cannonball into the Swimming Pool of Slick Top 40 Cheese, and all she can say for herself is that she "wasn't in that headspace"? I think that's the best answer we're ever going to get. To be fair, she makes a nice point about lacking "creative freedom as a new artist." But wait a second. By that logic, when John Lydon formed Public Image Ltd., he didn't have any "creative freedom as a new artist." When Morrissey left the Smiths, he didn't have any "creative freedom as a new artist." But you know what? They made the music they wanted to make anyway. Because it was important to them. I think Belinda could have had creative freedom if she'd wanted it. She just didn't want to make "meaningful" music that badly. She liked playing the video vixen. And another thing: she says she stuck to "the relatively safe and familiar pop territory for which I was known." Well, the Go-Go's were certainly radio-friendly, but as "safe and familiar" as this? Belinda makes the Go-Go's sound like Throbbing Gristle.

Another funny thing happened when Belinda went solo: she became the unofficial heir to the sunny California pop throne. Everyone from former band mates and fellow '80s contemporaries to '60s and '70s L.A. baby boomer studio veterans wanted to chip in to the Golden Girl's new career:
I was working with veteran producer Michael Lloyd, and we chose Paula's infectious pop song "Mad About You" as a starting point ... I also relied heavily on Charlotte, who had five songwriting credits on the album. Plus Michael and I chose songs from such proven hitmakers as Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham, Split Enz' Tim Finn, Tom Kelly, Billy Steinberg, and the Bangles' Susanna Hoffs.

The album was rounded out by musical contributions from Duran Duran's Andy Taylor and session legends David Lindley and Nicky Hopkins, among others. The danger of employing so many disparate talents, of course, was ending up with an album that didn't have a personality of its own. But after hearing an early compilation, I thought the album was good ... It was like the romantic pop that I had listened to when I was growing up and lying in front of the stereo speakers. Like all my solo albums since, it reflected where I was at the time ... I was proud of it.
Well I'm proud of it too Belinda, but it sure helped that you picked a dynamite team. It reminds me of Ringo's first proper solo album, the one from 1973 with an endless cavalcade of guest stars. "Belinda's doing a solo album? I'm in!" For those who don't know, Nicky Hopkins was arguably the greatest session pianist in late '60s Britain, playing on laughably famous tracks by the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and even the Beatles' "Revolution" (it might ring a bell), and David Lindley was the ultimate early '70 L.A. singer-songwriter go-to man, playing with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, and Rod Stewart, as well as his own band Kaleidoscope. How the hell Belinda got them to show up on her album is a question probably even she couldn't answer.

But perhaps I'm burying the lede here. Some of you may have scanned the above excerpt and noticed, "Wait a second, did she just say that one of the songs on her album was written by Susanna Hoffs??" Oh yes. Belinda and Susanna, teaming up for recorded posterity. It's like a collaboration between the Beatles and the Stones ... but better. To clarify, the song was actually a collaboration between Susanna Hoffs and ubiquitous professional songwriters Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg. Remember those guys? You know, the guys who wrote "Like A Virgin"? Remember this quote?:
"I wasn't just trying to get that racy word virgin in a lyric. I was saying ... that I may not really be a virgin — I've been battered romantically and emotionally like many people — but I'm starting a new relationship and it just feels so good, it's healing all the wounds and making me feel like I've never done this before, because it's so much deeper and more profound than anything I've ever felt."
Yeah - those guys. Well who needs Madonna when you've got Belinda and Susanna, know what I'm sayin'? At any rate, this is quite a pedigree for a forgotten Belinda album track. So what does this legendary meeting of the '80s pop minds sounds like? Uhhh ... it sounds like cheesy corporate crap, but God help me, I love it anyway. It's got a bouncy piano-and-bass riff that was probably ripped off from some Motown song I can't place right now (my brain keeps thinking of Spiral Staircase's "More Today Than Yesterday," but I don't think that's quite it, nor is that Motown), and Belinda comes in with a purr-rific "Ooooh ... yeahhhh" before the synthesized bells start chiming on the somewhat anti-climactic chorus. Final verdict: strangely riveting, but arguably doesn't live up to the hype.

Then there's Charlotte's "I Never Wanted a Rich Man," which she must have written with Belinda in mind (either that or Fiddler On The Roof?), because although Belinda may have never wanted a rich man, she definitely found one, a reality which turns this set of lyrics into a peculiar psychodrama:
I never wanted a rich man
Just someone with soul
It was on the day I met you
I vowed to never let you go

I never knew much about romance
Always used my lucky charms
I learned it all in just one lesson
When you first held me in your arms

Open up your heart
Let me inside
If you listen to your intuition
We'll have a chance tonight

Keep me in your heart
And hold on tight
If you read into my intuition
We'll find a way tonight

I put away all my heroes
And all the lovers I have known
Even though I've had my share
I've spent too many nights alone

Don't need to look for fame or fortune
I have found my paradise
You've got the whole world in your hands
And a fortune in your eyes
Well, Morgan had a fortune in his eyes ... and his wallet. Oh, and get a load of that soulful organ riffing. Perhaps this is where Nicky Hopkins made his presence known, although the playing sounds more like that of his fellow session buddy Billy Preston.

Let's see here. "From The Heart," which looks like it was co-written by Charlotte and her ... brother (?) sounds like it came from the spleen rather than the heart, and the same goes for "Gotta Get To You," which was probably another Go-Go's leftover, as it was co-written by blink-and-you-miss-her Jane replacement Paula Jean Brown, along with "Mad About You" co-writer James Whelan, plus Charlotte, and even Belinda herself. It's got a ham-fisted arena rock bombast and lyrics that don't seem to fit Belinda's life circumstances (she didn't need to "get to" anyone because she'd just found Morgan - hello!), but I know it well because it's also on the American version of Belinda's Greatest Hits, presumably because it ... carried a Belinda co-writing credit? I could think of about five other songs from this album that would have made for a better selection, but they didn't ask me.

Even "Shot In The Dark" would have been a better selection. Another apparent Go-Go's leftover by Brown and Whelan, it is the epitome of throwaway retro-'60s pop froth, with a grotesquely synthesized bass line, fake bongos, and what sounds like ... steel drums? Belinda's gone Caribbean! To quote the infamous opening lines of Greil Marcus' review of Dylan's Self Portrait, "What is this shit?" If you called this song completely horrendous, I wouldn't argue with you for long, but for reasons that I suppose I'll take to my grave, I can't help but admire it.

Oh, one more thing: great album cover. It's probably the least dated piece of the whole product. She looks like a ballet dancer poised between performances. She leans on a chair, suspended in time, a woman from any age, or no age. From Lips Unsealed:
When it came time to shoot the album cover, I knew I had the opportunity to do something special. I let the music inspire the image. I came up with the idea of modeling it after Ann-Margret's great look from Viva Las Vegas, in black tights and a sweater. Since people were making that comparison, why not? Matthew Ralston, the photographer, liked the idea, and so we went with it ... The resulting photo was stark and classy yet still pop. It sure didn't look like old pictures of me in which I always seemed as if I had just hit the deli tray, that's for sure. I thought it conveyed a slightly more grown-up vibe.
And now we come to the existential question posed by Belinda, a question for which there may be no true answer: can a woman grow "older" and "more sophisticated" while simultaneously reverting helplessly into a "childlike," "pre-adolescent" state? This album argues "Yes."

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Abacab? How About Aba-drab? AKA Phil's Close Shave With The "Man On The Corner" In San Diego

And so, for a couple of years there, Phil Collins didn't quite realize that his solo career was going to be bigger than his Genesis career. To paraphrase The Wizard Of Oz, "Pay no attention to the man behind the drum kit." La la la la la. So Abacab is just another Genesis album, released only a few months after Face Value, and yet the band still tries to carry on with some sort of respectable art-rock approach. The album apparently puts Stephen Thomas Erlewine's knickers in a twist:
Duke showcased a new Genesis -- a sleek, hard, stylish trio that truly sounded like a different band from its first incarnation -- but Abacab was where this new incarnation of the band came into its own. Working with producer Hugh Padgham, the group escalated the innovations of Duke, increasing the pop hooks, working them seamlessly into the artiest rock here. And even if the brash, glorious pop of "No Reply at All" -- powered by the percolating horns of Earth, Wind & Fire, yet polished into a precise piece of nearly new wave pop by Padgham -- suggests otherwise, this is still art rock at its core, or at least album-oriented rock, as the band works serious syncopations and instrumental forays into a sound that's as bright, bold, and jagged as the modernist artwork on the cover.
I dunno. Personally, after the marital exorcism that was Face Value, I find Abacab kind of ... ho hum. It's like getting a cell phone for the very first time, and then going back to a landline for a month because, I mean, the cell phone couldn't be your "real" phone, could it? Yes it could, Phil. Yes it could. Where are all these "pop hooks" of which Erlewine speaks? Maybe I'm just the odd man out here; Patrick Bateman seems to agree with AMG Guy on this one:
Abacab (Atlantic; 1981) was released almost immediately after Duke and it benefits from a new producer, Hugh Pagham, who gives the band a more eighties sound and though the songs seem fairly generic, there are still great bits throughout: the extended jam in the middle of the title track and the horns by some group called Earth, Wind and Fire on "No Reply at All" are just two examples. Again the songs reflect dark emotions and are about people who feel lost or who are in conflict, but the production and sound are gleaming and upbeat (even if the titles aren't: "No Reply at All," "Keep It Dark," "Who Dunnit?" "Like It or Not").
Eh ... Patrick, you're reaching. Let's face it, the stylistic experiments are still too ... safe, the lyrics not ... ridiculous enough. It's like Phil didn't want to admit he'd finally jumped the shark. Oh, but the shark had been jumped. He hadn't just jump the shark, he'd jumped the entire cove. At times on Face Value, and often in his subsequent career, Phil would aim for the Grand Statement, often to unintentionally humorous effect, but at least it'd be entertaining. The songs on Abacab don't seem to be about anything - other than quality musicianship, which is not an acceptable theme. No, it would take another album before the full "Philness" would infect Genesis proper. In other words: I can't make fun of this.

No one even knows any of the songs on Abacab. Here is an album released smack in the middle of the '80s' most unstoppable hit streak, and yet I've never heard a single one of these tracks while waiting in the hair salon. Oh, there were some minor hits: "Abacab" hit #26, "No Reply At All" hit #29, "Man On The Corner" hit #40, and the band even released an extra single recorded at the same sessions, "Paperlate," which hit #32. But none of these songs will give you and your friends that instant jolt of nostalgic recognition when you're sitting around late at night trying to listen ironically to Phil Collins. None of these songs became ubiquitous. And what the hell does "Abacab" even mean? According to Wikipedia:
The title is taken from the structure of an early version of the song. Guitarist Mike Rutherford explained in an interview that the band labelled various sections of the song with letters of the alphabet, and at one point the sections were ordered A-B-A-C-A-B. Rutherford commented that the completed song no longer followed this format, but the name was kept nevertheless.
Sure guys, whatever. At least "Man On The Corner" was a nice preview of the liberal guilt to come, sort of the proto-"Another Day In Paradise" in its quasi-self-serving concern for homeless people:
See the lonely man there on the corner
What he's waiting for, I don't know
But he waits every day now
He's just waiting for something to show

And nobody knows him, and nobody cares
'Cause there's no hidin' place
There's no hidin' place
For you

Lookin' everywhere at no one
He sees everything and nothing at all, oh
When he shouts, nobody listens
Where he leads, no one will go, oh

Are we just like all the rest?
We're lookin' too hard for somethin' he's got
Or movin' too fast to rest
But like a monkey on your back, you need it
But do you love it enough to leave it all?

"We're looking too hard for somethin' he's got"? Like what, a shopping cart? Come on Phil. It's not like homeless people are enlightened hippie gurus or something. He's not the Fool on the Hill. But Patrick Bateman doesn't bother splitting hairs:
My favorite track is "Man on the Corner," which is the only song credited solely to Collins, a moving ballad with a pretty synthesized melody plus a riveting drum machine in the background. Though it could easily come off any of Phil's solo albums, because the themes of loneliness, paranoia and alienation are overly familiar to Genesis it evokes the band's hopeful humanism. "Man on the Corner" profoundly equates a relationship with a solitary figure (a bum, perhaps a poor homeless person?), "that lonely man on the corner" who just stands around.
Terrific. But just who was that man on the corner? According to In The Air Tonight, it wasn't a homeless person at all:
Near the end of the Face Value tour, I was about 95% positive that the Feds were on my tail. Wish I'd given a rat's ass; once you've got a solo album under your belt, you start to feel pretty damn invincible, and no federales were about to kill my high.

I had a connection in San Diego, a Samoan guy with a white goatee named Rob. He was co-owner of a cab company, ABA Cab. It was Friday night in the Gaslamp District. I'd just finished getting a full-body massage from a Transvestite named Sarah Jane; that's where the song "Me And Sarah Jane" came from, in case you were wondering. But yeah, at midnight I was supposed meet him on 4th Ave., across from the plaza. They had a payphone in the hotel lobby, and I could dial straight into his dispatch.

"Midnight, huh?"

"Yeah, I'll just pull up outside, no problem. Listen, I'm a little low on some of the horsie juice, I know that's your favorite, but I got somethin' even better, it's from one of my buddies at Sea World - killer whale tranquilizer. They use this shit on Shamu!"

"Fine, sure, just get it to me by midnight."

"I'm tellin' ya Phil, you're gonna be riding the white whale tonight."

But as I waited in the lobby, I noticed a man standing across the street, next to the liquor store, wearing a trench coat and a fedora. A few minutes later, Rob pulled up in front of the hotel. The payphone rang.

"Phil, hey, I'm right outside, come on and get the goods."

"Who's that man on the corner?"

"What man on the corner?"

"That guy in the trench coat, across the street."

"Oh yeah, I see him. I don't know, Phil. Should I turn my blinders on?"

"No, keep it dark, keep it dark!"

"OK, OK. What are you thinking?"

"It's the Feds! They're on our tail."

"The Feds? You sure? Maybe it's just some guy out having a good time. Lemme ask him."

Rob's voice pierced through the evening's warmth. "Hey mister! What do you want! You want something?" The man stood unnervingly still.

"Phil, there's no reply - no reply at all. What do you want me to do?"

I thought for a moment. "Can we take him out?"

"You mean call up my guys? Yeah, no problem, I can take him out." Rob suddenly drove around the corner. Five minutes later, another cab pulled up to the mysterious stranger. The door swung open, they shoved him inside, and the cab sped away. Another ten minutes later, Rob pulled up in front of the hotel again, and I met him in the cab.

"So what did you do?"

"Well, we shot him three times in the stomach, stabbed him four times in the chest, wrapped his body in a duffel bag, and threw him in the alley over there. Anyway, here's your stuff. Don't take too much of it at once, you might grow a blowhole."

So the name was a tribute to Rob for taking that guy out. But I had Mike tell the whole thing about "A-B-A-C-A-B" and the "song structure" and all that crap, because, you know, you don't want the Feds on your back.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Just Another Purple Monday AKA C'mon Bangles, Let's Go Make Some Chart Noise

So after one impressive, if mostly under-the-radar, album, and one random Leonard Nimoy video, the Bangles began attracting some ... unusual fans. One of those unusual fans also happened to be unusually powerful. This particular fan ... Hmmm. How can I describe him? Let's just say he wore lacy underwear, he liked purple a little too much, and he wrote about thirty-five songs per day.

When you sit back in your easy chair with a cherry Slurpee and think about music that Prince would be into, you probably wouldn't think of the Bangles. But you probably didn't think he'd change his name to a giant symbol either. From an A/V Club interview with Susanna Hoffs:
It was all very mysterious. I got a call … We were working with Peggy and David Leonard, a husband-and-wife engineer team who had done a lot of stuff with Prince in Minneapolis, and then I guess everybody came west, and they were working in studios in L.A. ... Anyway, somehow word got to me to go to Sunset Sound and pick up the cassette from Prince. It was the old days of cassettes, you know. There were two songs on it, and one of them was “Manic Monday.” I didn’t actually see Prince that day, because… I don’t know, either he wasn’t there or he just wasn’t coming out of the studio or something. [Laughs.] But I just got the tape and played it on the way back to the studio where The Bangles were, and we immediately thought that “Manic Monday” was… [Hesitates.] I’ve got to look for that tape, ’cause there was another song on it, and… I have it somewhere—thank God I didn’t throw it out!—but I just haven’t had a chance to go through my old box of cassette tapes. I should probably do it soon, because that tape’s going to start degrading! [Laughs.] But it was cool. The title was really great. It just reminded me of “Manic Depression,” the Hendrix song, and had kind of a psychedelic thing. And then it had these great harmonies, and I don’t know, there were a lot of things about it where I just thought, “This is a really good fit for The Bangles."
And Susanna's instincts ... were correct. Aside from Hendrix, there's also a definite hint of the Mamas & the Papas' "Monday, Monday," which would've made it an even more obvious fit. However, I don't believe it's accurate to say that Prince wrote the song for the Bangles (originally it was intended for Apollonia 6), but he was certainly making his presence known one way or another. According to various sources, right around 1985, either Prince became a little infatuated with the whole Paisley Underground scene (naming his new label Paisley Park Records, building a new complex called Paisley Park Studios, and releasing the psychedelically-tinged Around the World in a Day, the one with "Raspberry Beret" on it), or he was trying to sleep with Susanna Hoffs; no one's quite sure, least of all Susanna. From an MTV Hive interview:
I heard that he wrote “Manic Monday” for the Bangles because he had a crush on you. Is that true?

I would never be able to speak for him in any way, so it’s all conjecture. I know he liked the band, and he invited us on many occasions to jam with him in the studio, just for fun. It was a big thing having Prince’s endorsement. But I couldn’t speak for him in terms of what the motivation was.

If “Manic Monday” was Prince’s way of trying to woo you, he could’ve done better.

Really? I thought it was a great song.

Oh, it was. But when you rhyme “Sunday” with “Funday,” that’s some lazy seduction.

Well yeah, but there’s a lot of stuff in the song that’s suggestive. “Let’s go make some noise” and all that. So who knows? I haven’t talked to Prince in a very long time. Not since the ’80s. I couldn’t begin to guess at what he was thinking.
Nor could anyone else. In fact, if I ever meet the man who can tell me what Prince is thinking, I'll give him a million dollars. The man, I mean, not Prince. Prince is rich enough as he is. Anyhow, I suspect the lustful gazes of Mr. Rogers Nelson were both welcome and unwelcome, but as far as I know, no banging of the Bangle ultimately occurred. Nor did he even write the song as "Prince," instead using the pseudonym "Christopher." What was wrong with this guy? He couldn't even give his pseudonym a last name? If mystery was his game, it was all for naught, since everybody figured out it was Prince, probably because the verse melody sounds exactly like "1999" ("I was dreaming when I wrote this/Forgive me if I go astray"), but it's hard to imagine his pinched, fluttery voice singing this instead of Susanna's summery coo. As another Bangle says, "It was a Banglefication of a Prince arrangement. He had a demo, that was very specifically him. It was a good song, but we didn't record it like 'This is our first hit single! Oh my God! I can feel it in my veins!' "
Six o'clock already
I was just in the middle of a dream
I was kissin' Valentino
By a crystal blue Italian stream
But I can't be late
'Cause then I guess I just won't get paid
These are the days
When you wish your bed was already made

It's just another manic Monday
I wish it was Sunday
'Cause that's my funday
My I don't have to runday
It's just another manic Monday

Have to catch an early train
Got to be to work by nine
And if I had an aeroplane
I still couldn't make it on time
'Cause it takes me so long
Just to figure out what I'm gonna wear
Blame it on the train
But the boss is already there

All of the nights
Why did my lover have to pick last night
To get down
Doesn't it matter
That I have to feed the both of us
Employment's down
He tells me in his bedroom voice
C'mon honey, let's go make some noise
Time it goes so fast
When you're having fun
Of course, this being a Prince song, there has to be a section about the bone-rattlingly awesome sex the singer's been having, but these days Susanna has stopped singing "C'mon honey, let's go make some noise" altogether, on the grounds that it's "a corny line" and "something I'd never say." Oh, but Prince sure would've said it. He probably just said it last night.

As for the Bangles' whole "60s garage rock/sunshine pop" sound: there's maybe a teenie weenie sliver of it still present, perhaps in that synthesized harpsichord at the start, and the mildly folkie harmonies, but it was right about here where the Bangles kind of gave up and just apathetically agreed to sound like a slick '80s Top 40 band. Yeah, they're singing harmonies, but can you even tell it's them? Biggest production mistake: the decision to use an imitation string section on the chorus. Even Prince used a real string section on "Raspberry Beret."

And the video looks just like a thousand other videos, although, with its cross-cutting between sepia-tinted and black & white footage, occasional usage of the fish-eye lens, some dizzying time-lapse photography, and the girls' surprisingly bohemian wardrobe, it kind of anticipates an early '90s video. So it's still a dated video, it's just six or seven years ahead of time in it's "dated-ness"! Just swap out the Bangles with the Spin Doctors, but keep the same exact footage, and who could tell the difference?

In the end, while it's not my favorite Bangles single, I think it still deserved to be the band's first real mega-hit; it peaked at #2 in the US, UK, and Canada, ironically blocked from the US #1 spot by ... Prince's "Kiss". But the true legacy of "Manic Monday," which might have been Prince's secret agenda all along, is that the Bangles quickly became ... The Susanna Hoffs Show. The other three girls were really about to wish it was Sunday.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Never Ask For Whom The LaBelle Tolls; She Tolls For Thee

In 1984, Patti LaBelle must have been the biggest singer in the universe. At least that was the conclusion I arrived at while looking at the credits for the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack back in elementary school. Because she didn't just have one song on the album, she had two. I mean, not even Shalamar had two songs on that album.

And then, I didn't hear the name Patti LaBelle for a long time.

Ages later, I heard about this group from the '70s called LaBelle. Any relation to that legendary soulstress on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack? Indeed, a direct relation. "Lady Marmalade" didn't really appeal to me for years (the chorus sounded like gibberish and/or French), but a little while back I downloaded the full Nightbirds album, and holy Superdome, this is some nasty - I mean nasty - New Orleans R&B. But I guess the group never topped it, and to paraphrase the title of her infamous duet with Michael McDonald, Patti headed out "on her own."

Pop success eluded her (although she scored a couple of R&B hits) until that fateful rendezvous with Jerry Bruckheimer and/or destiny, where she landed the opening cut on the soundtrack, "New Attitude," which hit #17. I feel like if the distraught woman from "Neutron Dance" eventually got her act together, and then wrote a song about it, that song would have been "New Attitude":
Running hot
Running cold
I was running into overload
It was extreme

I took it so high
So low
So low, there was no where to go
Like a bad dream

Somehow the wires uncrossed
The tables were turned
Never knew I had
Such a lesson to learn

I'm feeling good from my hat to my shoe
Know where I am going and I know what to do
I've tidied up my point of view
I've got a new attitude

I'm in control, my worries are few
'Cause I got love like I never knew
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
I've got a new attitude
Hey, so I just found out that she sings "like I never knew" and not "Aaaahm ooh-pah-doo!" as I had thought for all these years. Let it also be said that the producer, a certain Harold Faltermeyer, inserts just the right amount of that squiggly "tire screech" synth effect wherever necessary. Now, for the first minute and forty-five seconds of the video, Patti looks like a reasonably fashionable young African-American woman, but at the 1:45 mark, she suddenly transforms into ... a Japanese toilet brush? I didn't realize getting a new attitude meant sticking your fingers in an electrical socket. Maybe those wires hadn't quite uncrossed yet.

Despite only making it to #41 pop, in my mind "Stir It Up" looms just as large in Patti's legend, and it did make #5 R&B, and also accompanied a better scene in the movie (if I recall correctly - it's all a blur). For starters, 1) it's got a synth riff that could've toppled the Ottoman Empire; 2) it's got a pseudo-gospel chorus that the Pointer Sisters would've stolen a thousand brand new Chevrolets for; and 3), it's got a sax solo that could've cracked Glenn Frey's balls. The two best YouTube comments: "In the 80's, jazz-saxophone players were always hanging out on rooftops. It was actually a pretty big problem at the time" and "Came here for Bob Marley actually haha." No, it's not that "Stir It Up" - but Patti LaBelle might be the only singer who could've won a contest with Bob Marley for most untameable hair.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Everything I "Wants" In A Wham! Song AKA Remix Hijinx

Back when I had a record player in college, my friends and I found Make It Big in the dollar section of the record store and we bought it, mainly so that we could make fun of the album cover. But one day, on a whim, I put it on the turntable. I figured I knew only two songs from the album: the first ("Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go") and the last ("Careless Whisper"). I'd heard that "Freedom" had been a hit too, but aside from knowing that Oasis had cheerfully plagiarized its melody for a B-side, I didn't know what it sounded like. Suddenly, I got to Track #2, "Everything She Wants." I swiftly realized I had been mistaken. For there was a third song from Make It Big that I had heard repeatedly throughout my childhood. And it was a good one.

Funny, I'd never connected the song title with the music, possibly because the title was not in the chorus, but then again, the same is true of "Careless Whisper." (Side note: who did George Michael think he was, Bob Dylan? This was some serious "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" shit).

Of the three US #1 hits produced by Make It Big, "Careless Whisper" may be more famous, "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" may be more ... infamous, but, when push comes to shove, my favorite of the three is "Everything She Wants." It is, to lazily paraphrase the title, "everything I want" in an '80s pop song. It is five minutes of unfathomable perfection, 300 seconds of unquestionable magnificence, one twelfth of an hour of unending tastiness. If a terrorist group took me hostage and said, "Either we destroy 'Everything She Wants' from the universe, or we'll kill you," I mean, hey, it's been a nice life, but make it quick.

Bizarrely, AMG's ever-reliable Stephen Thomas Erlewine dismisses the song as "merely good bubblegum" (but for some reason drools all over "Freedom"). "Merely good bubblegum"? Yeah, and the Titanic was merely a big boat. I'm more inclined to agree with the author of the song himself. From Wikipedia:
Although Michael bemoaned much of Wham!'s material as he began his solo career, "Everything She Wants" remained a song of which he was proud, and he continued to perform it in his shows. Furthermore, Michael remarked in an interview (to promote 25 Live tour) that "Everything She Wants" is his favourite Wham! song.
Looks like George Michael and I agree on something, because it's my favorite Wham! song too. I have listened to "Everything She Wants" precisely 78,433 times, and yet I still wonder what it is that makes it so gooooooood. It doesn't sound like it could have been very expensive to make. It doesn't fully re-invent the time honored structure of the popular song. It just ... hits all my '80s sweet spots.

"Everything She Wants" starts out with a drum machine, but the drum machine continues to lope along for what seems like a longer than normal time period of about eight bars. It's the Pink Floyd method; George is testing the listener's patience, leaning back in the thrall of absolute studio power. Ah, but this just sets the stage for the main event at this freaky circus, for at the 0:17 mark, in comes...

1) The "squishy" synth. I don't know what he did to get it to make that "squishy" sound, but it's outrageous, simply outrageous. It sounds like someone sticking his palm on a giant pile of Play-Doh. Well, to be more precise, there are really two parts to the squishy synth: a high-pitched part on the far right channel, and a bass part in the center. Both parts are glorious. But one doesn't even have time to digest the wonder of the squishy synth before, at 0:20, the next epic element comes in:

2) The vocal echo. It has to be the cheapest effect in the book, but hey, Victor Hugo didn't need an iPad to write Les Miserables, you know what I'm saying? It works like this: George's initial, unprocessed vocal appears in the center, but then an echo of his vocal shortly appears on the right channel, and then another echo appears on the left channel! It's like he's singing a "round" .. with himself! Row, row your fuckin' boat, George, that's what I say. I also like his choice of introductory vocal ad libs, to get us warmed up: first there's a feathery "a-ha-ha," followed by a sultry "oh yeah," and topped off with a whispered and supremely aerobic "work!" But if you think he's about to couple this intoxicating musical puree with some cutesy, run-of-the-mill pop lyrics, you're in for a surprise.

"Everything She Wants" describes a situation. In real life, it is, I imagine, a common situation, but in the world of pop music, it is rarely captured in such detail. "Everything She Wants" is the story of a newly married couple who are quickly finding out that they may have ... jumped the gun. Perhaps their union ... was a mistake. George sings from the viewpoint of the husband, and given that, obviously, the song is not autobiographical, he does something fascinating with it. He turns the husband into ... kind of a jerk! This is an '80s pop song with an unsympathetic protagonist! It's like the Barry Lyndon of '80s dance-pop, the Five Easy Pieces of Top 40 fluff. Granted, I've never met this guy's wife. Maybe she's a pain, but last time I checked, no one forces you to get married, and no one forces you to stay married - at least not anymore. Nevertheless, I find this scenario 100% plausible:
Somebody told me
"Boy everything she wants is everything she sees"
I guess I must have loved you
Because I said you were the perfect girl for me

And now it's six months older
And everything you want and everything you see
Is out of reach, not good enough
I don't know what the hell you want from me
Oh, so you got more than you bargained for, hey buddy? Domestic bliss not all it was cracked up to be? So far so groovy, but then George shakes things up a little bit with:

3) A wordless bridge, dropping the echo effect but double-tracking several overdubbed mini-Georges who bounce around the stereo channels. Their words are words to live by: "A-ha-ha, a-ha-ha, oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, a-ha-ah, a-ha-ha, doo-doo-doo la la la la la." George very obviously did not sing these overdubs in one continuous take. In fact, the "doo-doo-doo"s sound like one solitary "doo" that was electronically rewound Max Headroom-style, while the following "la la"s were quite clearly spliced in afterwards. This bridge seems to retain the feel of the verses, but all that changes with one magical chord at 1:24. This chord is like the moment in The Wizard of Oz where everything goes from black & white to color. This chord is like that moment when you finally get your car to start after seventeen tries. This chord is everything.

George comes in with a completely new melody that is bold but not cheerful, strong but not comforting. His voice soars into the upper register as he bemoans his doomed relationship situation: "Somebody tellll meeeee, oh-ooh-oh!" Yeah, but then he sneaks in another vocal overdub, this time in a much lower register, almost like a bass singer in a doo-wop song, adding in sing-songy fashion, "Won't-you-tell-me," which is pushed ever downward by what sounds like ... shimmering, synthesized bells! You can literally feel the song moving up and down. My head literally bounces back and forth every time I hear the "Won't-you-tell-me" line. And then "lead singer" George swoops right back in with a much higher "Why I work so hard for youuuu!" This chorus deserves the Nobel Prize. In what category, I'm not sure. Physics? All the different chord changes and melodic hooks interlock in perfect interstellar harmony, like the world's greatest Einstein equation ... but with synthesizers!

The squishy synth gives a squishy little solo, and then this "Jaded Yuppies In Love" scenario takes an even more bitter turn:
Some people work for a living
Some people work fun, girl I just work for you
They told me marriage was a give and take
Well you show me you can take, you've got some givin' to do

And now you tell me that you're having my baby
I'll tell you that I'm happy if you want me to
But one step further and my back will break
If my best isn't good enough, then how can it be good enough for two
I can't work any harder than I do
I give 'em about two years tops, but he better be prepared to pay some child support. My guess is, she'll take one more step and his back will literally break in half. He's pissed off that she's pregnant! The popular idea in our society of today is that, when your wife tells you she's pregnant, it's supposed to be this unsurpassed moment of unequivocal joy. But the reality for many couples is probably a lot messier. And I stand in awe (awe I tell you!) of George Michael for writing a pop song which, smack in the middle of the '80s, portrays a young man who is experiencing "everything" society tells people they should "want"  from their lives... but he hates it! He's like, "Bitch, you're draggin' me down!"

The exhausted protagonist vents one last time in the bridge, where George pulls most of the instrumentation back, turns the echo up even higher than it'd already been turned to, and presses the "bongos" button on the drum machine:
Why do I do the things I do? (I do I do)
I'd tell you if I knew (I knew I knew)
My God! (God God)
I don't even think that I love you
You "think"? You "think" you don't even love her? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that you definitely don't love her. Better luck with Wife #2.

George spends the last minute of the song throwing everything that was already great about the song back into the pot. First he switches back to the verse melody, but adds some robust (and probably synthesized?) hand claps, coupled with some Richard Simmons-esque grunts of "Work! Work!," and sprinkles it with more of the aforementioned "doo-doo-doo la-la-la-la-la"s. But he wisely lets the song fade out to the minor key chorus melody, the doomed husband left wailing in the night, wondering how it all went wrong so quickly. At 4:47, George lets out an inhumanly falsetto "Sommmmmmebody tell me!" that adds an extra dose of poignancy to this cad's screed. Aaaaand "scene."

Except not. In a more perfect world, this would be the conclusion of the "Everything She Wants" saga. But no, there is the "remix." See, when Wham! put out "Everything She Wants" as a single in the UK (paired with "Last Christmas"), they decided to put it out as a remix. Why remix perfection? That's the question I have. But that would be fine if the remix had been treated like a silly remix. Instead, either George Michael, or the record company, (or both) have decided that this remix should now be the more widely available version of "Everything She Wants." You won't find the original version on any Wham! "best of" collection. When George performs the song live these days, he does it in the style of the remix. Most questionably of all, the official video produced for the song features ... the remix!

Stop this madness!

That spellbinding introduction? The remix totally fucks with it. There are these extra keyboard notes that come in too early. Way too early. There are extra drum hits that don't need to be there, extra synthesized horns that don't belong ... it's like remixing "Yesterday," and then adding a brand new verse in the middle. That's right, a new verse, with a whole different melody! I'm not even going to print out the lyrics to it.

Here's what I don't get. Every version of the song that I've ever heard on the radio, ever heard at a gas station, ever heard in a restaurant, is the 5:00 "album" version. Maybe in England the remix was the hit version, but in England they also still take the royal family seriously, so there you go. I don't even like to hear the remix by accident. I'm not even going to embed the video, but, for the curious, here's the link.

Interestingly, Prof. Higglediggle and I find ourselves entirely at odds on this subject:
In its inceptive album mix, "Everything She Wants" is a shockingly banal Wham! recording, an artistic misfire from a consistently trenchant and piquant act. While the casual Wham! fan might be impressed with its theme of domestic conflict, the subject matter here, normally an area of immense strength for the duo, is protrusive, meretricious, not at all as subversive and ironic as "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" or "Club Tropicana," vastly superior efforts at societal exposition. The musical arrangement is underdressed, weak, devoid of invention and appeal, a seemingly naked attempt at "catchiness" or "poppiness." The single's few desirable qualities are only brought to the fore by a redeeming remix, which rescues the au courant slant of the language via additional embellishments. The remix becomes an integral commentary on the married couple's evolution, as if the album mix were the husband's misguided effort, the remix now the wife's revision. The extra verse, evidently, represents the much-dreaded offspring, shoehorning its way into a composition which the husband clearly feels it does not belong, but in a fitting twist, is easily the most memorable element of this otherwise humdrum offering.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Robert Palmer: Before He Went Yuppie (AKA Robert Palmer: Proto-Yuppie?)

To paraphrase Noah Cross from Chinatown, you may think you know Robert Palmer, but believe me, you don't. "Hey, it's that 'Addicted to Love' guy! It's cool how he came out of nowhere with a killer video like that." Yes, "nowhere" - or to be more specific, ten years and seven albums of nowhere. Yuppie Rockers don't grow on trees, you know.

But if this Yuppie Rocker could have grown on trees, they would have been palm trees. Either palm trees, or those big drippy weeping willow-looking thingies you always see in pictures of plantations, because on Palmer's first couple of albums, he thought he was a funky New Orleans R&B singer. The thing is, when you're being backed by the Meters and covering Allen Touissant, you practically are a funky New Orleans R&B singer. Also, by chance, if anyone reading this happens to be looking for the great lost Little Feat album, Palmer's early albums are it, since that critically revered '70s boogie band played back-up on most of the songs, and he covered several Lowell George numbers as well. Here's the Touissant-penned title track from his first album, Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, back when he thought he was the white reincarnation of Al Green. When people think of Robert Palmer, they don't think of music that sounds like this:

I know I didn't. I figured, "Well, if I'm going to write about the guy, I guess I better hear some of his early albums." And then "some" turned into "all of them except one," because, hey, each AMG review sounded kinda interesting, and then before I knew it, I woke up in an outhouse in Baton Rouge smothered in Robert Palmer mp3s. I thought a Best Of was gonna do it, but it turns out there's way more Robert Palmer than anyone other than his former agent can claim to know and understand. And his catalog is fairly consistent - although not exactly predictable. As I dug deeper and deeper, an existential question crept into my mind: Just exactly what kind of a singer was Robert Palmer? He was a little bit bar band rock, a little bit reggae, a little bit disco, a little bit blue-eyed soul, a little bit New Wave, and a little bit easy listening - you know, the usual. I was trying to think of a similar artist. AMG lists everyone from Foreigner to Bryan Ferry to Chic to the Knack (!). And the thing is, those all work! He was like the bastard child of Jimmy Cliff and Eddie Money. Despite all the shifts in musical style, however, there was one quality of Palmer's which remained constant: style. The man was like the James Bond of pop music, perennially prepared to pose for a Calvin Klein ad, with not even a single strand of hair out of place. Robert Palmer was suave before suave was "in." He was, if you will, proto-Yuppie.

So I thought this would be easy and I could just post a couple of videos and move on to the crap we all know, but now I find I've come to a crossroads. It's the worst kind too: the Robert Palmer crossroads. How do you sum up the '70s output of Robert Palmer? What happens to a dream deferred?

Well, you've got the reggae Robert Palmer. Here's his cover of "Pressure Drop" from his second album, which sounds more like the Doobie Brothers than Toots & The Maytals, but hey:

Then he moved to the Bahamas. I don't know if people are aware of this, or it's possible they forgot, but Palmer actually started having hits in the late '70s. Although his first three albums were solid from top to bottom (I actually haven't heard Some People Can Do What They Like, but I'll do what I like and assume it sounds like the other ones), he didn't sniff the charts until Double Fun's "Every Kind of People," which peaked at #16 in 1978. It's not so much "reggae" as it is "Caribbean," and the verses sound a little like Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," which Palmer eventually covered in the '90s, so I guess that shouldn't be too surprising.

And how could I skip "Bad Case Of Lovin' You (Doctor Doctor)," which hit #14 in 1979? Like the Rascals with "Good Lovin'" before him, Palmer seems to misunderstand what exactly it is that doctors do. Here he is doing a great Jimmy Fallon impersonation, about thirty years too early:

Honorable mentions: "How Much Fun," "Give Me An Inch," "Trouble," "Which Of Us Is The Fool," "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)," "Best Of Both Worlds," "You're Gonna Get What's Coming," "Can We Still Be Friends," "Jealous," "Woman You're Wonderful." Surprise all your friends at an upcoming house party with a killer '70s Robert Palmer mix.

Anyways, the existence of early Robert Palmer always confused the hell out of me. "You mean that's the same guy who did 'Addicted to Love'? How could he have had a hit in 1979 and then have done nothing for so many years?" Well, as any Eastern sage will tell you, it is impossible to do nothing, but the point is, in the years leading up to his MTV glory days, as we shall see, Robert Palmer mostly continued to do what he'd already been doing. Here was a '70s singer who didn't need to go and transform into a Yuppie. He let the Yuppie ... come to him.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Mad About You" (Video): Pure, Uncensored Belinda Porn

They did it to Soft Cell, and they did it to Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but for some inexplicable reason, MTV decided not to ban the video for Belinda Carlisle's "Mad About You," although they very well could have. In fact, the network had the courage to air it smack in the middle of the day (!). So was she nude? Was she topless? Oh no, nothing quite so coarse and vulgar. No, in this particular video, Belinda Carlisle was just really, insanely, outrageously hot.

I mean H-O-T-T-T-T-T. Like "call the fire department" hot. Like "I need to jump into a pit of lava to cool myself down" hot. I'm talkin' ooh la la, "send the children out of the room" hot. This video is obscene. This video is inappropriate for males under the age of 18. It is NSFW. Basically, the video for "Mad About You" is three minutes and forty-one seconds of pure, undiluted, unfiltered Belinda Porn. It is the Jolt Cola of Belinda videos.

I'm not sure if anyone behind making of the video intended it to be as such. After all, Belinda was the recording artist, and usually the recording artist is featured in the video. It just so happens that this particular recording artist, at this particular time in her life, was radiating Chernobyl levels of hotness. This video is like a love letter to that unexpected hotness. The camera roams around her figure like an art historian would roam around Michelangelo's David. Here is the Renaissance Ideal, the Ultimate Human Form ... wearing a baggy turtleneck sweater and hoop earrings.

Rarely, and I mean rarely, has a music video so successfully projected a specific image of an artist. Say I'm the marketing guy behind this clip. Here are some of the "key words" I've scribbled down in the proposal: Beach; Romance; Los Angeles; All Grown Up; California; Carefree; Palm Trees; Yuppie Husband; Convertible; Jogging; Hotness. This isn't just a video, it's a lifestyle. It plays like an advertisement for Southern California: "Where you can drive your car to the beach every day and dance awkwardly in the sand with Belinda Carlisle." Of course, an image is often just that: an image. Disturbingly enough, Belinda's life during this period may have actually been as enjoyable as it appears to be in this video, which makes me a little sick, but I can console myself with the thought that her enjoyment would last about fifteen seconds. From Lips Unsealed:
The "Mad About You" video, directed by Leslie Lieberman, was a fun, romantic postcard that fit with the song. We shot it in Santa Monica's Ocean Park, overlooking the beach and on the sand itself. I wore a black cocktail dress, swept my hair back, and put on a pair of sunglasses. It was simple and classy and felt to me like it fit the song.

My favorite part was that Morgan played my dreamy love interest. He didn't want me kissing anyone else.

Fine with me. I didn't want to kiss anyone else.
Awwwwww. Just wait you two, the headaches would be right around the corner.

See, the problem with establishing such an appealing new image ... is that one has to maintain that appealing new image. Ah, but in this clip, none of those concerns seem to even be on Belinda's radar screen. In this clip, there's nary a problem to be found. She's got Morgan, she's got a cute new look, she's got a catchy new single ... to paraphrase Gershwin, who could ask for anything more? The American public is often wrong about a variety of things, but sometimes, I think it can pick up on the synergy between the life of an artist and the song she's singing. Some great performers can slip inside a persona and sell a lyric that has nothing to do with their immediate circumstances, but it seems to me that Belinda rarely needed to take such measures, or "fake" her art, as there always seemed to be some cosmic unity between her biography and her material. In other words, this video is real, y'all. A little narcissistic, a little hedonistic, perhaps, but real. The "Mad About You" video captures Belinda at the absolute peak of her "Belinda-ness," if you will. She is healthy, "sober," married to Mr. Hollywood Royalty, launching a brand new solo career where she's the star ... it is all right here, forever preserved in amber, permanently sealed in carbonite.

And she doesn't even know how hot she is. Which is hot! She's cavorting around in front of the camera like it's no big deal! My fellow YouTube commentators can hardly handle it either:
Goddamn she's so HOT. In the Name of the Father the Son and the Holy..Spirit. Amen

I was a metalhead by the end of the decade, but Belinda was hot as fuck!

I'm not usually one for blondes but... Jesus! She's living proof that God is a man.

I call it "Southern Cal Silky" hair

This is my woman fo sho

her face is what every women out there is getting plastic surgery to achieve

The nose that Latoya is still trying to achieve.

I'd let her fart in my Corvette.

Does anyone here think she farts? I don't. And even if she did I'm sure they would be the kind that makes your mouth water for more.

I give this song 5 lines of Coke 5/5

Less Coke,more Go Go's.

First thing I like is she is genuine and not putting on an act. She is incredibly bubbly and youthful. Fun.Extremely attractive because she has the whole package.
Although I wonder how much of that bubbly energy wasn't chemically induced.

I wish she would have come to me for sex therapy to treat her drug addiction. even if she didn't get better, I would have!!

She actually makes that horrible eighties dance moves attractive.

And Darby puked

Did that just say IRS records, or am I just hallucinating because it's April 15th?

How cool is Belinda Carlisle? Cool enough to have Andy Taylor sitting in her back yard to rip off a screaming guitar solo when she requires it. That's how cool.

I was born in 1990, and even though the 80s tend to have a connotation of being cheesy and superficial, I think this is a fantastic example of a perfect pop video. Fashion-wise, Belinda is such an inspiration, even today. She looks so sexy even though she's wearing a black baggy turtleneck thing for half of the video. Why is it that nowadays Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry can't seem to get through a performance without prancing around in their panties and a pair of boots?
Exactly! Whatever happened to the good ol' days, when women dressed tastefully in music videos ... and saved all the depravity for the tour bus? And what's with the obsession over Belinda's farts? Various YouTube viewers have struggled to come up with suitable reference points for her hotness, comparing her with everyone from - get a load of these names - Edie Sedgewick, Lee Remick, and Grace Kelly (old-fashioned glamour) to Michelle Pfeiffer, Reese Witherspoon, and Elizabeth Banks (slightly more contemporary beauties). And guess freakin' what? None of those comparisons do her justice. Imagine if Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn absconded to Paris together and conceived a secret love child, and you might, might be getting somewhere near the ballpark. Allow me, if I may, to break down the distinct varieties of hotness:

1) 0:01 - The black cocktail dress. Normally not my thing, but I'm going for it here. The sunglasses are also a nice touch.

2) 0:14 - The black turtleneck sweater. On paper, this should have been a disaster, but she pulls it off like no woman has before or since. She's wearing a turtleneck sweater ... at the beach! The attractiveness of this situation defies the laws of physics, but as everyone knows, Belinda can bend the fabric of space and time.

3) 0:16 - Some sort of ... long-sleeve black dress with white buttons down the front? Hold on, I think it's actually a blouse-and-sweatpants combination. I have no idea what to call this thing. Note that this is Belinda's third outfit in the video (fourth if you count the brief shot with the jean jacket - also hot) and only 16 seconds have passed. At the 0:30 mark, she stands in front of a mirror, with the blouse ... oh God I can't even say it ... the blouse ... unbuttoned. She's showing us her bra. Like it's nothing. Like it's just a normal day in the world of Morgan and Belinda. "Hold on honey, let me button this up, yes, I love you too."

4) 0:34 - Another outfit that is also black, but I think it's actually a different outfit. It's like a V-neck blouse/black skirt deal? She grabs a record and starts gyrating against her reflection in the glass. Gyrating!

5) 0:48 - Now she's at some flower market in a floral-print shirt (or dress)? She's in like ten different places at once!

6) 1:00 - Now she's in a studio, with a solid beige background, wearing what may be the same black turtleneck sweater she's wearing on the beach, or possibly an entirely different black turtleneck sweater (you've seen one black turtleneck sweater, you've seen them all). Occasionally the image of palm trees and typically dense L.A. traffic is superimposed onto her angelic face.

7) 1:28 - And now we come to the most terrifying outfit of all: the light green shoulder-less flower-print summer dress. This is seriously not cool, people. We need a parental advisory sticker on these scenes. Of course, that's quickly interrupted with more shots of Belinda showing the world her bra. There is no rest. The flower-print dress comes back with a vengeance at 2:40, where she and Morgan start dancing in front of us. Dancing! Stay on that couch, Morgan. It's not nice to show off.

And ... we're safe. I think that's it. Other amusing bits not related to her attire:
  • 1:54 - First cameo: Charlotte Caffey, back-up singer and former bandmate, fresh out of rehab and glad to be along for the wacky Belinda solo career ride.
  • 2:08 - Second cameo: Duran Duran's Andy Taylor, who not only played the guitar solo in the studio, but showed up to mime the guitar solo in the video! This thing had "hit" written all over it.
  • 2:29 - Belinda leans over the side of a convertible and begins to serenade the camera like she wants to have its baby. At 2:34 she leans back and appears to be ... fellating the air?
  • She may have acquired an entirely new look, but she clearly has not acquired any new dancing skills. Her moves range from clutching her shoulders while making an X with her arms, to spinning a little, to jogging very slowly. I just wonder what Austin Powers-style directions they gave her. "Look like you're grooving with the music, Belinda! Let your instincts take you over, baby! Yes! Yes!"
  • Every so often, the video switches to this grainy, green-tinted film stock. The "Mad About You" video is going avant-garde on us! Either that, or even the film stock agreed that Belinda was so hot, it decided, independently of the director, to tone down the clarity in a noble effort to spare the delicate eyes of sensitive viewers.