Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Money For Nothing" And Your MTV Promotion For Free

Irony. Satire. Playing a "character." Quite common and acceptable tricks in the world of, say, classic theater, or modern television comedy. But, as Billy Joel ("It's Still Rock And Roll To Me") and Huey Lewis ("Hip To Be Square") had both discovered beforehand, Mark Knopfler learned the hard way that, in the world of Yuppie Rock, it's another matter entirely. From Wikipedia:
According to Knopfler, he was in New York and stopped by an appliance store. At the back of the store, they had a wall of TVs which were all tuned to MTV. Knopfler said there was a man working there dressed in a baseball cap, work boots, and a checkered shirt delivering boxes who was standing next to him watching. As they were standing there watching MTV, Knopfler remembers the man coming up with lines such as "what are those, Hawaiian noises?...that ain't workin'," etc. Knopfler asked for a pen to write some of these lines down and then eventually put those words to music.

"The lead character in 'Money for Nothing' is a guy who works in the hardware department in a television/​custom kitchen/​refrigerator/​microwave appliance store. He's singing the song. I wrote the song when I was actually in the store. I borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store. I wanted to use a lot of the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real..."
Little did that anonymous department store employee know, but one of those "yo-yos" getting his "money for nothing" and his "chicks for free" was standing right there next to him, witnessing his entire impromptu treatise. I can just see Knopfler now, hunched over an unused washer-dryer, jotting every stray comment down as fast as he could. "'Like a chimpanzee'? 'Maybe get a blister'? This is gold, I tell you, pure gold!!"
Now look at them yo-yo's, that's the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain't workin', that's the way you do it
Money for nothin' and your chicks for free

Now that ain't workin', that's the way you do it
Lemme tell ya, them guys ain't dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb

With those long, droning keyboard chords, the song may start out sounding like "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," but by the time the digitally souped-up drums kick in, it morphs into something more along the lines of ... Momentary Lapse Of Reason? Speaking of Dire Straits' British Yuppie peers, somehow one Gordon Sumner, AKA Sting, got roped into the shenanigans:
Sting was visiting Montserrat during the recording of the song, and was invited to add some background vocals. Sting has stated that his only compositional contribution was the "I want my MTV" line, which followed the melody from his song "Don't Stand So Close To Me."
Nonetheless, Sting's agent, or record company, or publicist, or somebody with a finger in the pie, insisted that Sting receive co-writing credit or else the song wouldn't be released. Talk about literally getting your money for nothing. I mean, at least Knopfler paid his dues with some blisters on his thumb. (Side note: I love that Sting just "happened" to be visiting Montserrat, you know, like Stings are prone to be doing every now and then.)

Initially, I had the four minute single edit of "Money For Nothing" on a mix tape and I thought it was so unfathomably awesome, and then one day I heard the eight minute version on classic rock radio and I said to myself, "Oh. My. God. Somehow, someway, I have got to get the long version. That shorter version ...eeeeuuuch!" That version was so yesterday's news. That version was for poseurs. The real Dire Straits fans out there only dealt with the long version. You know why I thought the longer version was better? Because it was longer.

One day, when I was a much older man, it dawned on me that the long version was just kind of ... long. The catch is that, with Dire Straits songs, the length tended to give Knopfler room to toss out his sharp, precise, ultra-tasty licks. But what if Knopfler had suddenly decided to substitute his trademark sound for something he found in, I don't know, Stevie Ray Vaughn's dumpster?:
Knopfler modeled his guitar sound on the recorded track after ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons' trademark guitar tone, as ZZ Top's music videos were already a staple of early MTV. Gibbons later told a Musician magazine interviewer in 1986 that Knopfler had solicited Gibbons' help in replicating the tone, adding, "He didn't do a half-bad job, considering that I didn't tell him a thing!"
So what we have here is a really long Dire Straits song ... where the guitar doesn't even sound that great! Eight minutes? Tell you what: You can play "Money for Nothing," while I'll just go into my room, listen to "Tunnel Of Love," and come back out when it's over.

Oh yeah, there's also this lyric:
The little faggot with the earring and the makeup
Yeah buddy, that's his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot, he's a millionaire
Yep, he just whipped out the "F" word. I have to say, back in the mid '90s, when I got into Brothers In Arms, usage of the word "faggot" was a great deal more ... casual than it is now, particularly amongst my fellow teenage males. So I can only image how casual it was in the mid '80s. Of course, Knopfler wasn't really calling anyone a faggot; the character in the song was calling someone a faggot. Nevertheless, Canadians don't take too kindly to that sort of thing. From Wikipedia:
In January 2011, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) ruled that the unedited version of the song was unacceptable for air play on private Canadian radio stations, as it breached the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' (CAB) Code of Ethics and their Equitable Portrayal Code. The CBSC concluded that "like other racially driven words in the English language, 'faggot' is one that, even if entirely or marginally acceptable in earlier days, is no longer so." The CBSC's proceedings came in response to a radio listener's Ruling Request stemming from a playing of the song by CHOZ-FM in St. John's Newfoundland and Labrador, which in turn followed the radio listener's dissatisfaction with the radio station's reply to their complaint about a gay slur in the lyrics ... On 31 August, the CBSC reiterated that it found the slur to be inappropriate; however, because of considerations in regard to its use in context, the CBSC has left it up to the stations to decide whether to play the original or edited versions of the song. Most of the CBSC panelists thought the slur was inappropriate, but it was used only in a satirical, non-hateful manner.
God damn Newfoundlanders, always bitching about something! I, as well as many others, do no personally find the usage offensive, but I have to say that such lyrics would probably not be able to fly today. Then again, look at Eminem! Here are some of Knopfler's thoughts:
Apart from the fact that there are stupid gay people as well as stupid other people, it suggests that maybe you can't let it have so many meanings – you have to be direct. In fact, I'm still in two minds as to whether it's a good idea to write songs that aren't in the first person, to take on other characters. The singer in "Money for Nothing" is a real ignoramus, hard hat mentality – somebody who sees everything in financial terms. I mean, this guy has a grudging respect for rock stars. He sees it in terms of, well, that's not working and yet the guy's rich: that's a good scam. He isn't sneering.
I'll tell you one group that definitely wasn't offended: MTV. I can just see the roomful of gel-clad executives hearing the acetate now: "Boys, I think we just found our new theme song." There was just one problem: Knopfler hated music videos:
Originally, Mark Knopfler was not at all enthusiastic about the concept of the music video. MTV, however, was insistent on it. Director Steve Barron, of Rushes Postproduction in London, was contacted by Warner Bros. to persuade Knopfler to relent. Describing the contrasting attitudes of Knopfler and MTV, he said:

"The problem was that Mark Knopfler was very anti-videos. All he wanted to do was perform, and he thought that videos would destroy the purity of songwriters and performers. They said, 'Can you convince him that this is the right thing to do, because we've played this song to MTV and they think it's fantastic but they won't play it if it's him standing there playing guitar. They need a concept.'"

Barron then flew to Budapest to convince Knopfler of their concept. Meeting together after a gig, Knopfler was reportedly still unimpressed, but this time his girlfriend was present and took a hand. According to Barron:

"Luckily, his girlfriend said, 'He's absolutely right. There aren't enough interesting videos on MTV, and that sounds like a brilliant idea.' Mark didn't say anything but he didn't make the call to get me out of Budapest. We just went ahead and did it."
This was clearly in the days before the "Yes Means Yes" movement. It's like one of those Woodward/Bernstein confidential source tricks: "I'm going to say a name, and if you don't say anything for ten seconds, then that means you confirm." Let's hear it for Mark Knopfler's girlfriend I guess. (Side note: doesn't Get Me Out Of Budapest sound like a great Dan Ackroyd/John Candy buddy comedy?)

And so, "Money For Nothing" became Dire Strait's first and only US #1 hit. The funny part is, at the time, this video must have seemed incredibly state-of-the-art and groundbreaking, but now ... I dunno. Most people's car dashboards probably have better graphics than this.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Live At The Roxy '86: What's A Solo Career Without A Superfluous Concert Video?

(He says in his best Troy McClure voice): Who among us can ever forget classic straight-to-video Go-Go's concert films such as Totally Go-Go's and Wild At The Greek? I know I can't. But if Belinda ever wanted to be taken seriously as a legitimate solo artist, she needed a straight-to-video concert film of her own. I am speaking, of course, about Live At The Roxy '86.

Now, being a solo artist in a comfy L.A. studio is all well and good; actually standing up on a stage in front of people who have paid to see you, and only you, is when shit gets real. This daunting task presented itself to Belinda as she finished her debut album. From Lips Unsealed:
Three and a half weeks later, I was onstage in a small San Diego club, and I wouldn't have blamed anyone watching my performance if they closed their eyes for a moment and thought they had stumbled into a surprise Go-Go's show. It happened to me. After all, my voice still had the trademark let's-get-this-party-going timber of the group's three previous gold albums, and as I pranced around barefoot in a simple print dress, I radiated the same sun-kissed, surfer-girl looks under the spotlight. But some key elements were different or missing, starting with three out of the four other Go-Go's.
Two things: 1) Only a few pages prior, hadn't she readily admitted that her looks had undergone a dramatic transformation? And 2) Talk Show didn't actually go gold, but whatever.
When I looked to my right, I still saw Charlotte on guitar and keyboards. Otherwise I was out there by myself. I was also singing brand-new material from my eponymous album, Belinda. I didn't have any proven hits to fall back on and get the crowd going. The only song people might have heard before was the first single, "Mad About You," which had been released days earlier.

No wonder before the show I was a bundle of raw nerves, knowing that I could no longer divide the responsibility up four other ways. The whole thing was on my shoulders. Once that spotlight hit me, there was no denying this next phase of my career. I was starting over.
Yup. No more coasting on the backs of Jane, Kathy, Gina, and Charlotte. Now she simply had to buckle down and coast on the back of .... Charlotte? Oh yes, and her ever-upbeat husband:
Morgan supplied the confidence I lacked. He sent roses to that warm-up gig and channeled positive energy to me a few nights later when I headlined three sold-out dates at the Roxy. I had played there with the Go-Go's. It represented a lot of good times. But seeing my name centered by itself on the marquee felt more frightening. It was one thing to affect a different image in a photo session and quite another to step out onstage and embody it.

The Roxy's audience was full of industry types and characters from the old scene, including Exene and some of her cohorts, who, I was told, came just to cackle. She was in the minority. The hometown crowd roared their approval.
Take that Exene! Belinda doesn't need your artistic credibility; the people have spoken. I mean, we should always side with the majority, right?

The video begins with a raw, feedback-heavy, audience-free sound check, as Belinda and her dream team of random mullet-sporting L.A. session players do a run-through of "I Never Wanted A Rich Man." This is our glimpse into the nuts and bolts of a Belinda concert, the hidden pressures, the secret agonies - like "Should I wear these earrings, or those earrings?" The oversized white tee is adorable, by the way. In an ever-articulate interview segment, she expands upon her artistic goals:
"When I started thinking about ... the solo album, I knew that I had to make some ... uh ... changes, musically, not just, you know, personally - that's fine, but ... professionally I felt it was important to ... uh ... go beyond the Go-Go's and really ... um ... really sort of think about what kind of growth was needed on the album."
"Personally"? Nobody was asking you about the "changes" you needed to make "personally," Belinda. Why did you assume we were suspicious about your personal issues? We weren't even thinking about that - honest!

Suddenly, fifty seconds into the second song, "Gotta Get To You," the video cuts from rehearsal footage to the full-blown concert, with Belinda clearly in the heat of battle, sporting the flower-print summer dress and lack of footwear as described (what if she'd stepped on a nail?), wiping the sweat from her immaculate forehead, clapping her hands over her head and generally working that stage like nobody's business. See how all that hard work and preparation paid off!

Of course, Belinda had one advantage the other former Go-Go's did not: she had the ability to convincingly perform any song from the Go-Go's catalog, because ... wait a minute ... she had originally sung them! And at this stage, since no one in the audience had even heard her new solo stuff, those old hits sure came in handy. For the Roxy shows, she picked "We Got The Beat," "Lust To Love," and "Head Over Heels." But just because she could perform them didn't mean she could out-do them; while her new back-up band emits a strong level of competence, they can't quite summon the necessary chaotic desperation and reckless abandon to the material (I miss Gina's jittery thunder in particular). And Charlotte, who is one person, ends up singing all the harmony lines that had originally been sung by Charlotte, Jane, and Kathy, who were three people. Instead we get things like surprise (but not such a surprise) guest Andy Taylor doing his best Eddie van Halen at the end of "Head Over Heels."

During the "We Got The Beat" video segment, the boys in the band take the time to share some of their thoughts. One of the musicians declares with pride, "This is the first album that she has out on her own, so this is very important to her and we all want it to be right." I hate to burst the guy's bubble, but it might have been more important to him than it was to Belinda. Still, I admire his code of honor. He adds, "This is actually what I've always wanted to do, is be the hired gun, on the road with a ... with a major star." Is it just me, or do I detect a slight pause before he uses the phrase "major star"? He had to stop and think for a moment. "Hmmm ... is she really a 'major' star? Just how much of a star is she? Well, she's kind of a star. I passed up a Streisand tour for this shit!"

I hung on Morgan afterward, grateful he was there and more grateful that he had stuck with me through some very tough times. I almost believed him when he said that I had given a performance that surpassed everyone's expectations but his.
So was Morgan her new magic feather? Close. It looks like Belinda had found a new magic feather even more reliable than Morgan: yuppie booze.
I was also open about the challenges I faced offstage. I told Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn, as well as other reporters, that I had been on the road to physical ruin and needed serious help getting my act together. Though I stopped short of admitting my cocaine addiction, I did say that I attended twelve-step meetings. It was a good story, and I wasn't lying when I said that I probably would have been "broke, alone and desperate" if I didn't change my ways.

However, deep down I knew that I wasn't being entirely truthful with them or, more important, with myself. Prior to the Roxy shows, I had a glass of wine in my dressing room. What was one glass of wine? Most of the time I didn't even finish a whole glass. I drank only enough to take the edge off the jitters I always had before going onstage.

It was like there were two versions of me. There was the insecure Belinda who couldn't believe people would pay money to see her. Then there was the Belinda who drank a glass of wine and turned into a singer. At that point, anything was possible.
And I mean anything.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Nasty": And The Winner For "Best Anti-Sexual Assault Song Of The '80s" Goes To ...

For years I missed the point of Janet Jackson's "Nasty." This is an error I'm blaming entirely on Janet's peers. See, I thought that, in the universe of '80s pop, "nasty" was a good thing. Didn't Prince write, in Vanity 6's "Nasty Girls," "Tonight, don't you wanna come with me/Do you think I'm a nasty girl?" "Nasty girl" being a desirable trait, yes? And in the same exact year as Janet's song, didn't Gloria Estefan declare, "Bad, bad, bad, bad boys/You make me feel so good"? So was Janet saying she liked nasty boys? I was all mixed up. Were these Terminator time travel rules, or Back To The Future time travel rules?

It turns out Janet meant "nasty" as in "unpleasant," "mean," "hostile." It was not a compliment. According to Wikipedia, she was walking around Minneapolis during the recording of Control when she came across an undesired element:
The danger hit home when a couple of guys started stalking me on the street. They were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening. Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down. That's how songs like "Nasty" and "What Have You Done for Me Lately" were born, out of a sense of self-defense. Control meant not only taking care of myself but living in a much less protected world. And doing that meant growing a tough skin. Getting attitude.
Or maybe getting some ... mace? I heard brass knuckles are good too. The message is slightly ironic considering Janet's eventual slide into the kind of sexual explicitness that would make even Madonna reach for her cone bra. Then again, Janet isn't saying she doesn't have a raunchy side: "I'm not a prude, I just want some respect/So close the door if you want me to respond." I dig it, I dig it. There's a time an a place for it, guys. Then she whips out the most brutal retort since "I know you are but what am I":
'Cause "privacy" is my middle name
My last name is "control"
No my first name ain't "baby," it's "Janet"
Miss Jackson if ya nasty!
Here is what I love about this put-down: it establishes separate tiers to her dismissiveness! If you're good, you can call her "Janet," but if you're extra-special bad, you're relegated to the painfully formal "Miss Jackson." By the way, just to clear things up, my blogger first name isn't "Dude," it's "Little" - "Mr. Earl" if you're nasty.

The song itself sounds like a pinball machine that came to life and started playing dance-funk. The keyboard has been programmed to this heavily processed "horn blast" effect, and it shouldn't be the main riff of anything, but according to Jimmy Jam, that was the appeal:
It [had] a factory sound that was in there... more of a sound-effect type of sound ... I've always been - probably from being around Prince - interested in using unorthodox types of things to get melodies and sounds. That was a very unmelodic type of sound, but we found a way to build a melody around it.
And the end result is a backing track that feels a bit ... what's the word? Dirty? Grungy? Grimy? Help me out here, Janet: "The only nasty thing I like is a nasty groove." A-ha! See? Even Janet herself is a culprit in my semantic confusion.

Fittingly, the video for "Nasty" is a nasty piece of work. I am no expert in the art of body movement, but "Nasty" has to feature some of the finest dancing ever seen in an '80s music video, Jackson or otherwise. Of course, the choreographer and former Laker Girl responsible for these moves can be spotted sitting next to Janet in the movie theater, but it's one thing to be given imaginative choreography, and it's another thing to get out there and do it (but is that really Janet doing the back flip at 0:10?). Also, conveniently, all the quasi-rapey street scum in the world of this video are capable of matching Janet move for move - even the liquor store clerk in the spandex top! Now that is one nasty outfit. And I don't mean the good kind of nasty.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Why Whisper Carelessly When You Can Let The Sax Can Do All The Talking? - Part II: A Tale Of Two Artist Credits

So where were we? Ah, yes, "Careless Whisper, Mach II." There are actually two different "final" versions of "Careless Whisper": the more familiar single mix, and the longer, not exactly obscure album mix, which features a minute and-a-half prelude not present on the single. George Michael goes ... prog? The latter version begins with about 25 seconds of ethereal synthesizer wash. It's like Tangerine Wham!. Then BOOM, in comes the flamenco guitar we know and love, coupled with some questionable Vocoder "dah-dah"ing. Suddenly, the wounded beast enters:
Time can never mend
The careless whispers of a good friend
To the heart and mind
Ignorance is kind
There's no comfort in the truth
Pain is the hole you'll find
And then, let there be drums. Of course, here is where the single mix begins, and I think I prefer the way the single version instantly plunges me into the melee. Also, note that the initial verse of the album mix is actually the second verse of the single mix, but in the album mix, it's like we're getting a little "flash-forward." It's like Tarantino. What's in the briefcase? What's in the saxophone? Same thing. I also like how he does a little Michael Jackson breath, turning "kind" into "kind-ahh!"

Other highlights:
  • During the chorus, as well as behind the sax breaks, on the second beat, there's this little percussive ... "pop!" It's like a woodblock, except softer? It makes me feel like I'm walking along a sandy beach on the North African coast as the sun sets. Maybe they found the studio where Lionel Richie had recorded "All Night Long" and raided the percussion closet. Note the tambourine tap on the fourth beat, almost as if the percussive "pop!" and the tambourine are "dancing" together.
  • 3:34 - As lead vocalist George sings "Should have known better than to cheat a friend," behind him appear a cluster of background Georges, like the cliched angels (or devils) on one's shoulder in cartoons, admonishing him with a sultry "Should've known better ... yeah."
  • The five-hankie third verse, complete with jarring synth blasts for added tension. "Tonight the music seems so loud/I wish that we could lose this crowd." It's turned out all wrong, baby, all wrong! Then George throws too many syllables into one line, as if he's straining to break free from the emotional prison he finds himself in: "Maybe it's better this way/We'd-hurt-each-other-with-the-things-we-want-to-say." I guess his earlier rap experience came in handy on that one. Then he does what no man should ever do, which is live his life in shouldas and couldas: "We could have been so good together/We could have lived this dance forever." Sure, and the South "could have" won the Civil War. Spare me. Finally, George unleashes a cry so agonizing, it must have almost single-handedly brought about the violent destruction of Wham!: "But nowwwwww ... who's gonna dance with me?" To quote Thomas Wolfe, you can't go home again.
  • After one final poignant saxophone blast, George fleshes out the murky scenario with some ad libs: "Nowwwww thaaaaat you're gone..." Now that she's gone? I thought they were still on the dance floor together. I don't get it. "Was what I did so wrong, so wrong that you had to leave me alone?" So did he cheat on her? I thought the whole point was that he was cheating on someone else with her. I'm still lost. Wisely, George realizes the futility of clarifying the nebulous plot and eventually reverts to wordless scatting (along the lines of "doo-dah, ba-dah-uh dah-uh) as the sinister Vocoder men make their return amidst the guitar noodling and bongo patting.
A brief note on the video: despite his passionate kisses with a comely female, George seems more excited by the rope swing he's fondling. Also, earlier I said the song makes me feel like I'm walking along a sandy North African beach as the sun sets; the video was actually shot in Miami, but honestly, same difference. Water, sunsets, hotel patios, generic high-rises - I definitely get a Tropic of Cancer feel from this bad boy.

But what truly makes "Careless Whisper" a landmark moment in '80s pop music, and western civilization, is that, in several ways, it is the first "solo George Michael" song. First of all, just listen to the recording itself. Brooding, silky, sensual - serious. This isn't your grandmother's Wham! Our little George has grown up; no more playing  the "cute" and "disposable" pop pin-up. Listen closely and you can hear traces of the future: the Spanish guitar flourishes in "Father Figure," the deserted late-night ballroom ambiance of "Kissing A Fool" and "Cowboys And Angels," the resigned fatalism of "Praying For Time." Allow me, in fact, to propose a new method of historical categorization. Instead of B.C. and A.D., perhaps we should start employing BCW and ACW: "Before 'Careless Whisper'" and "After 'Careless Whisper'." Let me know what you think.

Noting the stark stylistic departure, the record company must have sniffed the winds of change. Despite the song appearing as the eighth and final track on Make It Big, an album very obviously credited to "Wham!," Epic decided, in the UK and most global markets, to credit the single release to "George Michael." However, in the US, Canada, and Japan, the single bore a highly amusing credit. According to Wikipedia, "In the U.S.—so as not to confuse American listeners just being exposed to Wham!—the single was billed as 'Wham! featuring George Michael'."

Hold on a minute. "Not to confuse American listeners"? The irony here, of course, is that this awkward appellation could have been applied to every single Wham! recording ever. I mean, what sort of illusion were they trying to preserve here? "Well, we can't release it as 'George Michael,' because everyone will think he's going solo, and Wham! will be in chaos. But we don't want to release it as simply 'Wham!,' because this is obviously a special work that stands apart from regular Wham! fare, and our record-buying public deserves to know this." Some things just can't be done half-assed. Either it's "Wham!" or it's "George Michael," but enough of this "Wham! featuring George Michael" horseshit.

What's particularly hilarious about this credit is that "featuring" is usually applied to a guest vocalist who is not actually a permanent member of the group. For example, if "Under Pressure" had been credited to Queen featuring David Bowie (although I don't believe it was), that would have made sense. Examples of guest artists being credited as "featuring" in rap are legion. But how could George Michael be the guest vocalist ... of his own band? And you want to know what the biggest irony is? Apart from "Wham Rap!" and "Club Tropicana," "Careless Whisper" is one of the only Wham! songs to actually feature a co-writing credit from Andrew Ridgeley! Yes, the greatest Wham! song Ridgeley ever co-wrote ended up going down in history as the inaugural salvo of George Michael's solo career.

The unique ability of "Careless Whisper" to exist as both a "Wham!" and "George Michael" recording serves as a source of fascination for our esteemed Professor Higglediggle:
Few works of popular art have circumnavigated the liminal space between "band" and "solo" as "Careless Whisper" has. This dualism can be read as a further codification of George Michael's status as both a heteronormative symbol and homosexual signifier. Belonging neither to the construct of "Wham!" nor "George Michael," Michael's status can thus be iterated as both dominant and subdominant in the sociohistorical realm, reinforcing the myth of collective enterprise while at the same time subverting it, allowing Michael to bring an element of (inter)textual play to his performance as an artist who refuses to exist within the commodified boundaries of the record industry dialectic. One could arguably read "Careless Whisper" as a discursive confession directed from Michael toward Ridgeley, the lines "Guilty feet have got no rhythm" and "Time can never mend/The careless whisper of a good friend" revealing the catalyzing assemblage of motivations as Michael prepares to leave his partner. Alternately, the text could be interpreted as a vociferation of agony from Ridgeley to Michael, the lines "Should have known better than the cheat a friend" and "But now who's gonna dance with me?" suggesting Ridgeley's peripheral awareness of his perfunctory role in the duo. The ability of "Careless Whisper" to be read and (re)read through the lens of several reductionist frameworks, both normative and marginal, is one of the work's most apotheosized, if potentially problematic, qualities.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Wheel Of Palmer (Early '80s Edition): Which Style Will It Land On?

Oh to be Robert Palmer in the early '80s - to be able to treat your singing career like a magician's card trick. Pick a style, any style!

As slapped-together albums that consist of three-fifths live versions of old songs and two-fifths studio versions of new songs go, Maybe It's Live has got to be near the summit. Seriously though, awkward contract-fulfiller it may have been, I have to admit that Palmer's live versions of his late '70s sleeper cuts are energetic, and one of the studio cuts is a version of the Persuaders' "Some Guys Have All The Luck" where Palmer changes the lyrics around and slightly re-writes the song a la his version of "Not A Second Time." A couple of years later, Rod Stewart had a bigger hit with a more faithful version, and this is the one most people know, so hearing Palmer's renegade version is sort of like hearing an early demo of an extremely famous song where the best parts aren't where you expect them to be and it's sort of annoying. I prefer Rod's version, and, judging by this priceless live clip, perhaps Palmer was partial to it as well:

Released in 1983, Pride strikes me as a slight re-tread of Clues ... but I liked Clues! The closest thing the album had to a hit was a cover of The System's "You Are In My System." For the video, I suppose Palmer decided to interpret "system" along the lines of "computer system," as opposed to ... digestive system? (Also, if you don't want girls zooming around your apartment on roller skates, you should just install carpeting.)

Then there's the album's title track, a sardonic lamentation of the decade's then-prevalent fitness trend, set to a reggae riddim:
You want her attention
Well you'll have to wait
She's in the gymnasium
Reducing weight
In shorts or a leotard
Despite her age
The girl's gonna exercise
Your life away

Sister don't you jog it all away
Sister don't you run it all off
Sister don't you jog it all away
Sister don't you rough it all up

What an idea of fun
To get it on the run
I don't know why you do
What has come over you?

The style in the discotheque
Is cheap and nice
Please tell Miss Fonda
To reduce her price
Anorexia, nervosa, mannequin
All this physicality
Will wear you thin

Hey Olivia Newton-John
What you say?
Hey Olivia Newton-John
What you say?

She used to yield like flesh
Now it's all muscle
She used to yield like flesh
Now it's all muscle

We used to ride tandem and have lots of fun
But bicycles for exercise are made for one

I guess the man preferred some flab. Side question: how the hell would he have known whether Olivia Newton-John's skin had stopped yielding or not? Did they have a secret fling or something? "Want You More" sounds like a robot that drank too much WD-40 the night before. There's also a random cover of Kool & The Gang's "You Can Have It (Take My Heart)." Seriously, out of all the gems in the Kool & The Gang catalog, he picked that one? What was the plan here, Bob? As AMG's Tim DiGravina writes, "Palmer stumbles somewhat as producer, too often offering up cheesy synth horns and failing to end songs in a satisfying way. Too many of the songs simply stop on a dime, and others fade out randomly, giving the impression they've been edited for the airwaves or that they're demos." Jeez. Get it together man. The album ends with "The Silver Gun," which is six minutes of Palmer chanting in Urdu. The man's gone Pakistani!

Imagine it's 1983, and you're Robert Palmer's agent. Your client has been kicking around the biz for ten years now, and his albums are selling less, not more. The guy can't figure out if he's Gary Numan or J.T. Taylor. Looks like you won't be able to afford that condo in Boca Raton after all. You believe in the dude's talent, but God damn it, this has got to be the end of the line.

Well have faith, exasperated agent, because your man's still got a few more tricks up his sleeve. Trick #1: fronting a techno-funk supergroup with the surprisingly amenable leftovers of Duran Duran.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hello, I Must Be Going! ... To Hell AKA Phil's Shocking Confession Falls On Deaf Ears

If you thought Phil Collins got all the divorce bile out of his system with his first solo album, well, think again. Jovial title aside, Hello, I Must Be Going!, or at least half of it, continues the ex-wife venting from Face Value, but you know what I say? Petulant Phil is better than sentimental Phil. For an album with only one real hit, I'm surprised to announce that Hello, I Must Be Going! still delivers the yuppie goods - but I think it takes a few songs to find its groove. "I Don't Care Anymore" and "Do You Know, Do You Care?" sound like "In The Air Tonight" re-writes, only with the drawback that the crushingly intense drumming actually comes in right from the start. Fans of the tacky, overly-processed Phil Collins horn section will get their "phill" from "I Cannot Believe It's True" and "It Don't Matter To Me" (sadly not a Bread cover).

No, it's near the end of the album where Phil finally whips out the Sad Bastard Ballads, priming the world for the stunning breakthrough known as "Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)." "Don't Let Him Steal Your Heart Away" is one more pathetic last attempt by the world's greatest balding drummer to keep that woman from deserting him for another, perhaps less balding, lover. Although topped off with an elegant string section straight from "Jealous Guy" or "#9 Dream," which should have made it another Adult Contemporary Collins cornerstone, it was only released as a single in the UK, where it stalled at #45 - just like his marriage?
You were lonely and you needed a friend
And he was there at the right time with the right smile
Just a shoulder to lean on
Someone to tell you it'll all work out alright

Don't let him steal your heart away
No, don't let him steal your heart away

You can look at him the way you did me
And hold him close say you're never letting go
But any fool can see you're fooling yourself
But you ain't fooling me

And don't pack my suitcase, I'll be back
And don't take my pictures off a' the wall
Oh, did you hear me?
Don't let him change a thing 'cos I'll be back
Jus tell him to pack his things and get out of your life
And just give me one more chance
I'll show you I'm right, I'm right

Don't touch those pictures, woman. Of course, no Phil Collins solo album is complete without a smoky, sinewy jazz-funk instrumental, and this time it's "The West Side." This one seriously makes me want to wake up at 3:00am, give the prostitute a $100 bill, hop into my Alfa Romeo, and drive along the waterfront while dangling my cigarette out the window.

With the closing track, "Why Can't It Wait 'Til Morning," Phil unleashes the flute, oboe, and French horn, taking us on a trip to a bucolic English countryside cottage where we can sit beside a stream with Winnie the Pooh and the Velveteen Rabbit. This time, Phil's reasoning amounts to "Hey baby, I'm too drunk right now, let's get divorced in the morning." It's like the proto-"One More Night." There's also the line, "You're going nowhere without me" - an airtight argument that always works in break-ups:
Why can't it wait 'til morning?
We can talk about it then
'Cos I've had a drink too many
And my troubles, well I ain't got any

Why can't it wait 'til daylight?
Things will seem much clearer then
I'm tired and my eyes are weary
And I just want you lying here with me

So close your eyes
I'll make it oh so nice

Well I don't wanna think about what we've said
And I don't wanna know why we hurt ourselves
'Cos I just wanna hold you so close to me
It'll take care of itself and I wanna sleep

So why can't it wait 'til next time?
'Cos that time may never come
Stay here with your arms around me
You're going nowhere without me

A hint of creepiness, perhaps, but hands down, the creepiest song on Hello, I Must Be Going! would be "Thru These Walls." Let's take this one verse at a time:
I can hear thru these walls
I can hear it when they're foolin' around
I can hear thru these walls
And I hear every sigh, every sound
I can hear thru these walls
In the dark with the shades pulled down
Every word that they say
Every move they make feels it's coming my way
Uhhh ... is Phil playing detective? Is he a CIA agent, extolling the pleasures of wiretapping, or perhaps another balding European - that guy from The Lives Of Others? Unusual, but not that creepy. Yet.
My favorite moment
Putting the glass up next to the wall
Though I see nothing, I hear it all
Putting my sign up
Do not disturb me, speak or shout, inside out
Ooh mind my clothes, they're all laid out
Mmmmm-kaaaaaay. So he's a voyeuristic pervert who's listening to other people have sex in his apartment building while he's jerking off? And what do his clothes have to do with anything? The Creep-O-Meter's jumping into the red here.
I can see thru my windows
I can see the girls and the boys
I can see thru my windows
And I can imagine the noise
I can see thru my windows
I can see them playing with toys
Oh I hope it won't end
If I promise not to touch, just be a friend
I think Phil just broke the Creep-O-Meter. Listening to couples have sex, that's one thing, but girls, boys, toys ... that's a whole different can of gated reverb. "If I promise not to touch"? Like I'm gonna give you the benefit of the doubt on that one. Can you say, "most sketchy Phil Collins song ever"?
Life is so lonely
And I don't get high off just being me
I like pretending
Wanting to touch them, wanting to see
It's only normal
Creeping behind you, now don't shout, 'cause it's alright
They keep the windows locked and the door shut tight
Yep, "it's only normal," getting high off sitting around in your room with your clothes all laid out, peeking at children through windows. Move along folks, nothing to see here.
Ooh I'm feeling like I'm locked in a cage
No way in, no way out, and it gets so lonely
Am I really asking a lot
Just to reach out and touch somebody
'Cause when I look thru my windows or open my door
I can feel it all around me
Aww. Damn it Phil, now I kinda feel bad for the guy. And they say Phil Collins is some sort of family-friendly "lightweight." This is more fucked up than Black Sabbath! It's like he listened to "Every Breath You Take" and thought, "Nope, not pervy enough."

You're probably thinking he toned down the stalker flavor for the video. No way, Jose. After seeing this video, you'll never want to sit in a rocking chair again. We've got close-ups of clock hands intercut with children bouncing on balls. Phil sits on a bed, wearing a dark brown coat that's, um, seen better days, while the shadows of an amorous couple dance behind him. During the line "Ooh my clothes, they're all laid out," he shimmies his fingers over his wardrobe with a little too much relish. At 2:53, he even starts passionately caressing his face with a soiled rag. David Lynch, eat your heart out.

It's clear that Phil really spent some time with these thoughts. As one YouTube commentator put it, "How many artists put themselves in the point of view of the lonely pervert." Because Phil is quite obviously playing a character here. Or is he? From In The Air Tonight:
No matter how frank I got in my songwriting, no matter how ugly and nasty I became, no matter how many anti-social fantasies I tried to express in my art, it just never seemed to register. No, all anybody could ever see was the "cherubic little drummer man." I would write about scoring horse tranquilizer and all they ever said was, "He's writing about his divorce." I would write about killing poodles, and all they ever said was, "Oh hey, he's writing about his divorce again." There was just no way to win.

One night, I finally decided that I would have to spell it right out. Twenty stories high, in big neon lights, so no one could miss it. Yes. I would write my most searingly confessional work yet. A song so honest, no one could fail to see it as anything other than a desperate howl of pain. A song so perverted, I could finally stop playing this happy-go-lucky "game" with the public and be seen as the demented, homicidal man I truly was. I called it "Thru These Walls."

Just as the release date approached, I sat in my room with Rot Rot.

"This is the end of the line. I'm tired of pretending."

"Oh, Phillip, there's no use fighting it," my hedgehog friend replied.

"No, Rot Rot, the jig is up."

"Don't you see? It's too late. Your image is already set in stone."

"Ha! They'll change their tune real quick once they get a load of these lyrics. And the video, Rot Rot, the video!"

"Oh Phillip, you could write a song about strangling your dear auntie with a ball of twine and they wouldn't even blink an eye."

"That's where you're wrong!" I said. "That's where you're dead wrong."

I wrote a letter on pink stationary, confessing all my crimes, ready for the moment when Scotland Yard and the London tabloids would rush to my door and ask me, "Is it true, Phil? Is it really all true?" I sat in my study, playing backgammon, waiting for a knock on the door. I waited one day. Nothing. Two days. Nothing. An entire week went by, and I realized that Rot Rot was right. There would be no media frenzy. The song only peaked at #56.

"Wow, isn't it amazing how Phil can get inside the mind of that character?" They said. "What an imagination that Phil has, to sound like such a pervert, even though he's perfectly harmless!"

Oh, fate, what a cruel, cruel trick you've played on that cherubic little drummer man!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Stock Aitken Waterman: They Came, They SAW, They Produced Tacky Dance-Pop

And there sat dance music in the early '80s, so "innovative," so "underground," so "trendsetting." Who, oh who, could come along and render that dynamic club sound more "digestible," more "formulaic," more "assembly line"?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you ... Stock Aitken Waterman.

"Stock Aitken Who-terman?" you say? The truth is, this lethal production triumvirate has had a deep and irrevocable impact on you pop music life, whether you've been aware of it or not. You heard their records as a child. Even though the team has been long-defunct, you're still hearing their records now. Like the pink bathtub ring in The Cat In The Hat Comes Back, conventional methods cannot get rid of their hits.

Stock Aitken Waterman were not a law firm, but they might as well have been. Unlike, say, Detroit techno contemporaries Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson (do I know my shit or what?), Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Pete Waterman saw mid-'80s electronic music as a chance to make money - piles and piles of money. Who cares about generating endless good vibes amongst your fellow outcasts until the sun rises; producing electronic music is all about climbing the charts! Stock Aitken Waterman were like Motown, only without any redeeming social value whatsoever. They found the lowest common denominator, and aimed lower.

Like all great artists who ultimately sanitized an alternative scene for the masses, Stock Aitken Waterman scored their first hit with a single by camp icon Divine: "You Think You're A Man." According to Wikipedia, Divine performed the song on Top of the Pops, "which resulted in a barrage of complaints." Such as ...? At any rate, little did she (he?) know what she (he?) was unleashing.

Next came Hazell Dean's "Whatever I Do," which despite peaking at #4 in the UK, has escaped my attention until now. I feel like I've suffered cardiac arrest on a treadmill and gone to Aerobic Rock Heaven. Let's call it "New Order For Kids." Also, if you're thinking that Hazell Dean sounds like she was trying to be the next Laura Branigan, well, so was Laura Branigan; the Queen of Aerobic Rock recorded the song herself a couple of years later, in a version produced by ... Stock, Aitken Waterman.

But SAW, as they are known to their many fans, were just warming up. Their inchoate producing career was more dead than alive until they teamed up with Dead Or Alive, whose "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" hit #1 in the UK and #11 in the US. Based on the evidence presented in the video, it appears that lead singer Phil Burns managed to steal Cher's hair, Boy George's eyeliner, Adam Ant's eyepatch, and Vishnu's arms - quite the quadruple whammy.

Funny but, at this point, Stock Aitken Waterman still had a whiff of "alternative" or "club" about them, which would simply not do. No, what they needed to do was find was an act who was equally jazzed about trading any lingering indie cred for Billboard glory.

Enter, once again, Bananarama.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of 2015

Another year, another top 5. Here we go:

#5:  Halo 5 - "Kamchatka"

In my review of Halo 5 I didn't really touch upon the music. If you'll recall, for Halo 4 they brought in Neil Davidge of Massive Attack fame to do the soundtrack and, well, it wasn't received terribly well. As Endgadget said: "Think of it like Disney replacing John Williams' iconic Star Wars score with something by Randy Newman and you're about halfway there."

For Halo 5 343 Industries set about rectifying that mistake by bringing in composer Kazuma Jinnouchi. Luckily it worked out and the music in Halo 5 is brought back in line with the sound of other Halo games. Kamchatka is perhaps my favorite off the new soundtrack. I like how it how it incorporates the more electronic sound from Halo 4 while still being its own thing. Also, the build up at the beginning reminds me a bit of Vangelis's "Chariots of Fire".

#4:  VNV Nation - "Standing (Moderato Declamando)"

VNV Nation finally made the album that frontman Ronan Harris has been wanting to make for years: VNV songs accompanied by an orchestra. As I said in my review of Resonance, I was left mildly disappointed. The songs didn't quite have the bombast I had wanted or expected. I have however found myself frequently listening to the Moderato Declamando version of "Standing". It doesn't hurt that "Standing" is also one of my favorite songs by the group. Gone are the pulsing beats of the original that made it a dance floor hit, replaced instead with Ronan's voice and classical instrumentation. While I still prefer the original, this is the only track off of Resonance that's managed to make it's way into my regular playlist.

#3:  Diana Ross - "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"

Time for the retro pick. I've never paid much attention to Motown or Diana Ross before (shoot me) but I completely dig this song. And though I'm not usually the biggest fan of spoken word, I really like it here, and the moment at 4:18 is pure bliss. Listening to this song is like going to church, I feel the soul.

#2:  Carly Rae Jepson - "All That"
You may have noticed Carly Rae Jepson's E-MO-TION album on other end of the year lists, and as pop albums go it surely deserves to be there. Similar to my top pick from last year, the production on this album is superb. With a definite nod to the sounds of the 80s (which seem to be quite in vogue), E-MO-TION would make a young Debbie Gibson or Tiffany weep in envy.

Really, I could have picked any one of several tracks. I could have chosen the exuberant "I Really Like You" (with its bizarre video featuring Tom Hanks), and I've seen other reviewers choose dark horse "Run Away With Me" as best pop song of the year (that chorus!). But in the end I went with "All That", a song best described by AMG as a "seemingly long-lost slow jam". And what a slow jam it is! It makes me feel like I'm back at a junior high dance with my arms strapped awkwardly around some girl's waist. It brings to mind other late 80s jams like Stevie B's "Because I Love You (the Postman Song)". Now, where did I put my Hypercolor shirt?

#1:  Psy'Aviah- "Long Way"
If you bothered to read my review of Psy'Aviah's The Xenogamous Endeavor then you would have seen this pick coming. This is my favorite album of the year, showing a diversity of sound but still rooted in electronic/EBM/industrial. Like my #2 pick, I could have chosen any number of songs. There's "Sacrifices", or "On My Mind" (which came very close to being my #1), or any other number of tracks. But in the end I went with the album opener "Long Way". It's not the most lyrically dense song, but what I like is that it's short, punchy, and gets to the point. There's no flab, no extended outro, just a quickly building dance track. And like all the best songs, the louder you turn it up, the better it sounds. It also fits my life this year as I underwent some major life changes (like moving to a new state and buying a house), so it seems fittingly appropriate.

That's it for 2015, thanks for reading!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Why Whisper Carelessly When You Can Let The Sax Can Do All The Talking? - Part I: Early Whispers

Blow along with me now:

Bwah Bwah-da-da-da Bwah-da-da ... Bwah-da-da-da Bwah-da-da ... Bwah-da-da-da-duh ... Bwah-da-da-da Da-da-da-da ...

Like the sirens calling Odysseus, like the Piper luring the children of Hamlin, there is a saxophone solo that snakes its way through the night, sliding deeper and deeper into the recesses of your subconscious being. It cannot be resisted. It can only be tamed.

The first notes soar into the air like a lithe swan, gliding and swerving in the dewy morning's mist, dipping and weaving ever so cautiously, then suddenly swooping down, down, down into the translucent water, like a soul without remorse, only to rise out of the liquid like a Phoenix burning in the desert sun.

One meditative afternoon, Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou found himself listening to early '80s Top 40 radio, observed the endless litany of saxophone solos, and thought, "Hmmm. You know, these are close, but no one's really ... mastered it. You know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna do the ultimate saxophone solo."

"Careless Whisper" was born.

Even the title is elusive. No, it's not called "I'm Never Gonna Dance Again." I remember looking in a Billboard chart book in the '90s and seeing that Wham! (and/or George Michael - see Part II) had had a massive #1 hit in 1985 with a song called "Careless Whisper." "Wow," thought my ignorant younger self, "I wonder what 'Careless Whisper' sounds like. Sure was popular at the time. Maybe it just fell out of radio rotation." The phrase "careless whisper" is, of course, mentioned in the verse, but come on, that title was a pretty artsy-fartsy move.

"Careless Whisper" is the Doomed Love Affair Ballad to end all Doomed Love Affair ballads. It is the Anna Karenina of '80s pop songs, the Brief Encounter of Yuppie Rock, the Titanic of easy listening radio staples - even more so than the theme tune from Titanic! George doesn't give us all the juicy details, but I think it boils down to this: while involved with someone, he started fooling around with another girl (or guy?), things got serious, and now he's realized that the best course of action for all involved is to end it once and for all - on the dance floor. I don't see why his feet feel so guilty; I mean, they only danced together. Maybe his girlfriend's the brutally jealous type, you know, the kind who can't even watch her boyfriend dance with another girl. Something else I've always wondered: don't all those people in the ballroom hear George singing his aching ballad in the middle of the floor? Alternate theory: "Careless Whisper" is the story of a professional dancer at the height of his powers, whose jealous dancing partner smashes his foot with a club a la Tonya Harding, thus destroying the promise of a decades-long career.

Ever heard the early version of "Careless Whisper" produced by Jerry Wexler? Oh yes. The same Jerry Wexler who worked with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, etc.? Turns out George Michael traveled to Muscle Shoals in Alabama to work specifically with Wexler, but Michael didn't like how the song came out and decided to re-record it himself. Well guess what? Thanks to the magic of YouTube, here's what "Careless Whisper" sounds like in an alternate universe. I have to say, probably because the final version has become so overexposed, I enjoy this early take. I'm into the Bernard Herrmann-esque string section, the lounge piano, the vocal double-tracking on unexpected lines, and even a couple of small lyrical changes ("But now it's never gonna be/That way"?), but the organ does come on a little strong under the last chorus. A few YouTube commentators claim this version could have never been a hit, but I think I would dispute that, if required to ever do so. What's funny is that, even at this stage, the saxophone solo was already set in stone, note for freaking note. It's like the sax solo existed before the song did. It's like the sax solo existed before time did.