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.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Zrbo Reviews: Halo 5: Guardians (343 Industries, 2015)

It's been three years since Halo 4, the first Halo game not made by Halo creators Bungie. Handled now by Microsoft's internal game studio 343 Industries, Halo 5: Guardians is the debut Halo game for Microsoft's Xbox One game console. Considering the Halo franchise is the standard bearer for the Xbox brand as a whole, the game has a lot to prove.

Last time we were here when Halo 4 debuted it was the beginning of a new era for Halo. Halo 4 was the start of a new trilogy, helmed by a company that wasn't its creator (sound similar to another space opera soon to debut?). Halo 4 mainly succeeded by actually making an attempt to humanize its characters. Series hero Master Chief was finally given some actual thoughts and feelings and was left reeling at the end of Halo 4 (SPOILERS!) with the death of longtime AI companion Cortana.

Originally Cortana was a way for the game to allow for some dialogue in a game otherwise viewed from the perspective of a near mute cyborg. In contrast to Master Chief's gruffness, Cortana was plucky, chatty, and yes, attractive to the eyes. Halo 3 started hinting that perhaps there was something more to this relationship between a half-human cyborg and his AI companion. Halo 4 nearly gave us a love story, with Cortana sacrificing herself at the end in what amounted to a poignant scene of loss, or at least as poignant as you can get for a first person game primarily involving the shooting of aliens. Halo 4 was generally well received.
Who do you believe? Locke or Chief? Eh, it doesn't matter anyway.

In the build up to Halo 5: Guardians the marketing hinted at a story of the Chief going rogue. This seed began in Halo 4 with the Chief at one point defying orders. Presenting Chief as going rogue looked to put a fresh spin on the series. The marketing introduced a new character, Agent Locke, presenting a contrast to the Chief by hinting that there were going to be two sides to this story and that perhaps Chief wasn't as innocent as we thought he was. This was a great setup, basically causing us to question the hero we've always rooted for. What did Chief do to lose the trust of his bosses, and more importantly, the trust of the people who saw him as a hero?

Unfortunately, 343 Industries seems to have wasted this potential. The marketing was fairly misleading (IGN posted an article saying that the marketing outright lied to you). While Chief does defy orders during the course of the game, you could hardly say what he does constitutes as "going rogue". There's a lot of setup with very little payoff. Not only that, but 343 Industries went back to the well by delivering a campaign similar to Halo 2's, where the game was split between playing as two different characters. Here it's Master Chief and Spartan Locke. One of the gripes here is that the majority of the game you play as Locke while there's only a handful of levels where you play as the Chief. There's also a few levels that attempt to do something new where there's no actual gunplay, but just you walking around investigating and talking to people. While these levels are not unwelcome, on further playthroughs these levels can be completed in about 30 seconds. Considering we get to play so little as series star Master Chief, I wonder if the resources spent on these combat-less levels would have been better spent giving us at least one more level playing as the Chief.

The story's not terrible but it's incredibly easy to see where it's going by the end of the second level, and it never really deviates from that easy to spot trajectory. All in all, after the setup of Halo 4 it seems a lot of potential was squandered here, and that's what makes the story somewhat disappointing.

Multiplayer is where the fun is really at.

That all being said, the game nearly redeems itself by giving us arguably the best Halo gameplay we've ever had. If you want to play Halo online against other people, and this is where 98% of player's time is going to be spent anyways, Halo 5 can't be beat.

Halo 4's multiplayer gameplay missed the mark by chasing the tail of the Call of Duty series. Since Call of Duty 4's debut in 2007 (just months after the release of Halo 3, arguably the high point of the Halo series) the CoD formula has come to dominate mulitplayer online first person shooters. Halo 4 caved in to the CoD formula by providing loadouts, basically allowing players to choose their starting weapons and other various powers. While I could see how it seemed like a good idea at the time, in the end it just didn't quite work, with players leaving Halo 4 multiplayer behind faster than they've left previous Halo games.

Halo 5 rectifies this by going back to what made Halo fun. Gone are the Call of Duty style loadouts and perks. Now everyone begins with even starts - same weapons, same abilities, making it the game of skill that earned the series its fans. This is classic Halo, but 343 Industries has updated the Halo formula and brought it into the modern age. The weapons feels fantastic, and each feels unique.

A trend in recent first person shooters has been providing new movement options and new ways to get around the battlefield. Halo 5 follows this trend by adding the clamber mechanic. It essentially means you can climb over things, or grab onto ledges and pull yourself up. I've found that this mechanic works wonderfully, adding whole new ways to traverse maps and provides for new tactical options. Once I got the hang of it I could traverse maps like a master gymnast. This, combined with a few other new moves, such as sprinting, shoulder-charging, and the difficult-to-pull-off-yet-incredibly-satisfying-when-you-do ground pound maneuver, gives the classic Halo gameplay a much needed overhaul.

There's a few nitpicks I have. The new Warzone gametype, a mode that combines fighting other players as well as computer controlled enemies, can be a welcome change from the usual game modes but I've found that with the addition of more players on the battlefield (12v12, the largest a Halo game has ever had) things become a little too chaotic. I find Warzone fine as an occasional diversion, but not something I'm itching to play over and over.

The other nitpick is with the graphics, or maybe really it's the art direction. The graphics look pretty good for an Xbox One game, but maybe not as good as I would have hoped. Also, 343 Industries continues to over-complicate the armor you can choose for your character. Everything is overwrought and busy, nothing looks simple and clean. And worst of all, the armor all looks very plasticky. I've yet to find a piece of armor for my character (and you can collect literally hundreds) that looks good. If only they'd have gone back to Halo: Reach and followed how Bungie did the armor designs for that game.

Overall, what Halo 5: Guardians lacks in story, it more than makes up for it with the multiplayer gameplay. I personally can't get enough of it, with the conclusion of each match giving me that "one more game" feeling.

Zrbo points (campaign): 2.5/5
Zrbo points (multiplayer): 5/5

Friday, November 27, 2015

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

Prepare to feel the payne - the Freda Payne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 5, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No, I hate Motown."

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

"It's all crap."

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

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

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

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

"Oh yeah?"

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

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


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