Wednesday, July 1, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Midnight, huh?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Who's that man on the corner?"

"What man on the corner?"

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

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

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

"OK, OK. What are you thinking?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So what did you do?"

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Really? I thought it was a great song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop this madness!

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I call it "Southern Cal Silky" hair

This is my woman fo sho

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

The nose that Latoya is still trying to achieve.

I'd let her fart in my Corvette.

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

I give this song 5 lines of Coke 5/5

Less Coke,more Go Go's.

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

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

She actually makes that horrible eighties dance moves attractive.

And Darby puked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Zrbo Reviews: VNV Nation's Resonance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Zrbo points

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

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

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I am?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Well? How much did they go for?"

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

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Leave A Tender Courtroom Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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