Monday, July 21, 2014

Why Don't You Tell Her About It Instead?

So, maybe the world didn't ask for a Billy Joel Motown homage, but with "Tell Her About It," the world certainly got one.

Although thirty years of department store shopping may have led you to believe that "Uptown Girl" and "The Longest Time" were the most ubiquitous hits from An Innocent Man, at the time, the album's biggest single, in the US at least, was actually "Tell Her About It," which hit #1 in 1983. For my part, I easily remember it as well as the others, since I came to know it as the snappy and energetic closing track on my '80s Tape. After some slower numbers near the end of that tape, such as Kenny Loggins' "Heart To Heart," and Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton's duet "We've Got Tonight," "Tell Her About It" was like a refreshing shot in the arm, sending the cassette out on a zippy high note.

I wouldn't say the song is a rip-off of any one Motown number in particular, although it does seem to lift that choppy rhythm from the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" that everyone from the Jam to Hall & Oates seemed to love so much. I'm also impressed by how Billy managed to reproduce the sloppier, more unpolished backing vocal sound that one can hear on just about every early '60s Motown hit (think the Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" or the Four Tops' "Baby I Need Your Lovin'") - a rougher style of back-up singing from a time when producers didn't seem to care very much about that stuff. In just a few short years, a series of uncoordinated "hey"s would quickly cease to make the grade.

But what "Tell Her About It" really did so well was set the tone for An Innocent Man's music videos: elaborate, winking, unapologetically nostalgic. Question: if you're at the peak of your stardom, and you're making the video for your next single, and you can do whatever the hell you want, what would you do? Well, when you're Billy Joel, the answer is easy: pretend you're on the Ed Sullivan Show:

The date: July 31, 1963. The time: 8:34 PM. The preceding act: Topo Gigio. The band name: B.J. and the Affordables. "Wait a minute," you're saying to yourself. "B.J. and the Affordables ... that wasn't a band." Was it though? Was it? (Also: notice that the Affordables are all black. Just sayin'.) Why, there's B.J. himself, in a slick pink suit and some suave sunglasses. He's got that studio crowd right where he wants them. But forget the studio; B.J. is being blasted all across America! He's in your staid suburban living room! He's in your sexy teenage slumber party! He's in your corporate department store window! He's in your hip black neighborhood bar! He's even in your Soviet spacecraft! (Why do I have the feeling such footage, if authentic, wouldn't be in color? I smell shenanigans.)

In fact, B.J. is not even limited by the laws of space and time, as he eventually appears on the very same street where he's also supposedly airing in the department store window at that exact moment, then he serenades the stuffy old parents in that suburban living room, and he even delivers pizza to the pajama-clad girls in that slumber party! I mean how ... does he do it.

Finally, don't miss the cameo by a certain comedian who doesn't get no respect. If I had a nickel for every time I got screwed over by Patrushka the Dancing Bear, why, I'd be a millionaire.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

She Bops; America Blushes

OK, so she's "bopping." What's the big deal? Wait. You mean to tell me she's talking about ... ?


And so, Cyndi Lauper joined the ranks of the Everly Brothers ("All I Have To Do Is Dream"), the Temptations ("Just My Imagination"), Neil Diamond ("Solitary Man"), and Billy Idol ("Dancing With Myself"), and recorded a hit song about ... that funny thing people do.
We-hell, I see them every night in tight blue jeans
In the pages of a blue boy magazine
Hey I've been thinking of a new sensation
I'm picking up a good vibration
Oop she bop

Do I wanna go out with a lion's roar
Huh, yeah, I wanna go south and get me some more
Hey, they say that a stitch in time saves nine
They say I better stop or I'll go blind
Oop she bop she bop

She bop, he bop, a-we bop
I bop, you bop, a-they bop
Be bop, be bop a-lu bop
I don't even understand
She bop, he bop, a-we bop
I bop, you bop, a-they bop
Be bop, be bop a-lu she bop

Hey, hey, they say I better get a chaperon
Because I can't stop messin' with the danger zone
No, I won't worry, and I won't fret
Ain't no law against it yet
But Cyndi, what are you fretting about? I mean, you wouldn't do anything that could possibly be considered illegal now would you? You're such a good little girl, aren't you? Come here schnoockums, lemme pinch your cheek, lemme pinch your cheek.

"She Bop" is one of those songs that, like the Kinks' "Lola," is just subtle enough, casual listeners might hear it on the radio for years and never quite catch on. Cyndi never comes right out and says, "Hel-lo! I'm talking about masturbation people!" She's a clever one, she is. "I'm picking up a good vibration"? Well, you know, the Beach Boys, those paragons of good Christian white American values, had that song called "Good Vibrations," and the Beach Boys wouldn't sing about masturbation, would they? "I can't stop messin' with the danger zone"? Oh, so now you're gonna tell me Kenny Loggins was talking about masturbation too? Ah, but once it is explained, the listener can never go back again. I love the cosmic shrug of "I don't even understand." Why do people do this? Why do people like doing this? Why are people afraid to talk about doing this? What does it all mean???

I'm not sure the song would really be all that great if it weren't for the chorus. The rest of the single kind of sounds like a slightly uninspired Devo rip-off. But that chorus! I particularly challenge you not to bop your head along when she gets to that little turnaround section of "I don't even understand." I actually prefer the album version over both the single mix and the video remix, but as long as they keep that chorus in there, they can't really foul this one up. Also, according to Wikipedia, "she recorded the song topless in a dark room and tickled herself under her arms." Well, as long as she didn't tickle herself anywhere else.

Anyway, if sheltered '80s listeners hadn't figure out the song's true topic from the lyrics alone, I think the video would have removed any remaining ambiguity. In a world of fast-food automatons, Cyndi steams up the windows of an automobile while thumbing through a copy of Beefcake magazine. Then she imagines she's a contestant on "Uncle Siggy's Masterbingo" (Uncle Siggy apparently being Sigmund Freud). Then she rides a motorcycle into a cartoon world where she finds herself at a gas station with "self service" (wink wink). Finally, there's the showstopping closer, where after a shameful trial, she finds herself banished to a '30s movie set, wearing sunglasses (because she's "gone blind," nudge nudge). Ah, but from offstage, someone throws her a hat and a cane, and she launches into a terrifically choreographed Busby Berkeley dance routine up an endless staircase! I don't even understand.

Friday, July 11, 2014

There's No Replacing Jane Wiedlin (But The Go-Go's Sure Tried)

Hey, sometimes it can work. The Rolling Stones replaced Brian Jones. The Velvet Underground replaced John Cale. Roxy Music replaced Brian Eno. The departure of a key founding member doesn't automatically mean a band is on its last legs, right? Right?? But most of the time ... yeah, it's over.

Creedence Clearwater Revival thought they could continue on without Tom Fogerty; they lasted one more album. R.E.M. thought they could continue on without Bill Berry; they lasted five more albums, but come on, does anybody really count those? Or you can be the Who and try to replace your dead drummer, but at that point they probably should have just started calling themselves "Pete Townshend and Friends."
Toward the end of the INXS tour, Jane informed us that she was leaving the group. She said she would stay through the tour's last stop in Texas in October, but then she was going out on her own. When asked why, she said that she'd simply had enough and needed to do her own thing. She had considered leaving before, she said, but stayed through this album and tour out of loyalty to the band.

I had plenty of sympathy for Jane, and I understood if she wanted to sing and write all the material on her own album. My big fear was the future of the Go-Go's, and likewise my future, which was tied to the band ... We'd been together for seven years. All of us had grown up and changed. We weren't kids anymore. Now we had lawyers and business managers ... From our very first two-and-a-half song gig at the Masque, I had performed every Go-Go's show with Jane standing to my left. They amounted to hundreds of shows and many times that number of rehearsals. I couldn't begin to recount all the times she had laughed, frowned, and cursed at me. She had always been there.
You could do it without her, Belinda! You were like Dumbo, and Jane was your magic feather. You didn't need her to fly.

It's quite impressive how well the band managed to hide the inner turmoil as they stumbled to the finish line. For example: this clip from The Tonight Show with guest host Joan Rivers (while introducing them she gushes, "my daughter Melissa's favorite group!"), where everybody comes off like Best Friends Forever (and yes, the Go-Go's are promoting an album named Talk Show on an actual talk show). Money quote from Rivers: "You're all so good looking, there's not one dog in the group!"

Meanwhile, the party continued unabated:
The Summer Olympics had started on July 28 and the city was filled with athletes and parties. The air crackled with electricity, especially at night. I attended a night of events and a party at the invitation of Tom Hintnaus, an Olympic pole vaulter who was more famous as a Calvin Klein underwear model ... We had a good time together and I liked hanging around the athletes. We played three shows at the Greek Theatre, and each night the front was filled with Olympians from different countries.
Or, as one of Belinda's friends put it, "Which country is she representing tonight?" Footage of the Greek Theatre concerts ended up being released as the Wild At The Greek home video, which is to Totally Go-Go's what Talk Show is to Beauty And The Beat: it may lack the rawness, energy, and distinctiveness of its predecessor, and is overall just smothered in a lot more '80s sauce, but it's still the Go-Go's and therefore it is beyond criticism. Belinda is captured here in her Zsa Zsa Gabor phase, wearing some sort of ruffled pink chiffon (?) top, and with her voice sounding like she just ate a peanut butter and gristle sandwich, it's fair to say that she's taking this concert less seriously than you are. Meanwhile, Jane is continuing to keep every Los Angeles store that sells hair gel in business, Charlotte is, from the looks of it, sporting the same brand of sleeveless sweatshirt that Eddie Murphy wears at the end of Beverly Hills Cop, Kathy just came back from the Cincinnati Bengals' souvenir shop, and Gina is dressed in a Trapper Keeper. Also, Charlotte's eyes are sockets of sheer junkie terror; stare at them too long, and you may lose your soul. The highlight would have to be the clip of "Vacation" where a stray beach ball finds its way onto the stage. Belinda thinks she's taken care of it, but when the menacing little beast returns and finds Kathy's noggin (around 1:05), the lead singer becomes temporarily impotent.

We played our last show together in San Antonio. A story headlined "Go-Go's to Go On" appeared the next day in the Los Angeles Times. Jane followed with a letter to fans that asked for "understanding about [her] departure." She called her years with the band the best in her life, adding, "The other girls have been great about it and I wish them all the future success and happiness in the world. I hope that we will all look at this as a positive step towards more good music for everyone."

I hoped so, too. But after we returned to Los Angeles and began talking with our management about replacing Jane and preparing for our next gig, a spot in January's massive, multiday Rock in Rio festival, I didn't know if it would be possible to carry on. I didn't know whether we could sell the new Go-Go's to the fans - or if we could sell it to ourselves.

Hmm, I wonder where she's going with this. The ultimate irony, of course, is that Jane Wiedlin, who actually played an instrument, wrote songs, and deliberately chose to go solo, didn't end up being nearly as successful as Belinda Carlisle, who played nothing, could barely write six lines of lyrics, and didn't even want to leave the Go-Go's! Ah, but if the story of Belinda Carlisle actually made any sense, then what fun would Adventures With Belinda Carlisle be?
... as we dealt with Jane's departure, Kathy, Gina, Charlotte and I decided that Kathy would switch from bass to guitar, her original instrument, and we would look for a new bassist. Word went out, and more than two hundred hopefuls applied for the job, including high school girls and moms. They sent in demo tapes, photos, letters, and videos telling us why they would make a perfect Go-Go.

We had a blast going through the material and watching the tapes. Some of the demos were downright awful, and others were hysterically funny; thinking back, they remind me of American Idol's early audition rounds. After rehearsing with the ten best, we brought back three or four finalists. One girl was patently wrong; with big, puffy lips and long legs, we joked she looked too much like a supermodel. Then there was Paula Jean Brown, who not only played well enough, she matched in every other way.

"She looks like she could be one of us," I said.

"She doesn't act like it," Kathy said, meaning Paula seemed like a straight arrow.

"Give her a couple of months," Gina added.

"Yeah, we'll corrupt her," Kathy said.
No Paula! Don't do it!!!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The White Winged Dove Needed A Thesaurus

Sings a song sounds like she's singing, "Ooh, baby, ooh, said ooh"? Not much of a song is it? I mean, if I were a white winged dove, I'd sure have a better song to sing than that.

Seriously, that chorus is like something you would make up in your living room at 3:00 in the morning and then revise at some point later on when you realized you were actually going to put it on a record. First of all, there are too many variations of the word "sing" in one sentence, and secondly, after such a portentous build-up, it all culminates in a meaningless stream of infantile gobbledygook. It is ridiculous. It is a chorus so ridiculous, in fact, that it only could have worked ... in the '80s.

The human race may not know a bigger fan of Fleetwood Mac than yours truly, but does that mean I'm a fan of "Stevie Nicks"? Consequently, is there anybody who's a fan of Stevie Nicks but not Fleetwood Mac? "Yeah, those other people were annoying, they just got in the way of all the potions and capes and things." I'm pretty sure there are even some casual music fans, God help them, who think that Fleetwood Mac is Stevie Nicks. Well, Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, Bob Welch, Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer, and Peter Green would like a word with you. Saying Stevie Nicks is Fleetwood Mac is like saying that Daniel Craig is James Bond. You may think you've just demonstrated that you know what you're talking about, but all you've done is instantly given yourself away.

Although Fleetwood Mac didn't break up in the '80s - they released two hit albums in fact - they didn't really become part of the '80s. Stevie Nicks, on the other hand, became part of the '80s. The enchantress embraced it: the sleaze, the raunch, the neon, the hairspray, the drugs, etc. Let's just admit it, her '80s sound owed more to Pat Benatar and Bonnie Tyler than it ever did to Joni Mitchell and Carole King. In short, Fleetwood Mac were more like a '70s band that hung around in the '80s. But solo Stevie Nicks? She was a Woman Who Rocked ... In The '80s.

Of course the most rocking, and most '80s, Stevie Nicks song is that one about the dove and the wings and the white and the edging and the singing and the coming away and the whoo-wooing. And no, it is not called "Just Like the White Winged Dove," nor is it called "Just Like the Wild One Does" or "Just Like The One-Winged Dove" or whatever else your brain seems to hear. And what the hell is she talking about, anyway? For 34 years, the casual listener has probably assumed this song was just a bunch of mystical Wiccan nonsense. But according to Stevie Nicks, it was actually a eulogy of sorts to two people who died within a week of each other: her uncle and John Lennon (!).

First, there's that bewildering title. Apparently is was accidentally inspired by a conversation Nicks was having with Tom Petty's wife Jane:
She was telling me about Tom, about when she met him, and she has an incredible Southern accent...and she said that she met him at the age of seventeen, but I thought she said 'edge,' and she said 'no ... age' and I said, 'Jane, forget it, it's got to be 'edge.' The 'Edge of Seventeen' is perfect.
To quote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Then a pair of tumultuous events gave her new inspiration:
Although Nicks had originally planned to use the title for a song about Tom and Jane Petty, the deaths of both her uncle Jonathan and John Lennon during the same week of December 1980 inspired a new song for which Nicks used the title. Nicks's producer and friend, Jimmy Iovine, was a close friend of Lennon, and Nicks felt helpless to comfort him. Soon after, she flew home to Phoenix, Arizona, to be with her uncle Jonathan, who was dying of cancer. She remained with her uncle and his family until his death.
OK. Raise your hand if you caught any of that from these lyrics. I wonder if it's just a story Nicks made up in retrospect. Well, this part does seem to be about visiting her uncle in the hospital:
Well then suddenly
There was no one left standing
In the hall
In a flood of tears
That no one really ever heard fall at all
When I went searchin' for an answer
Up the stairs and down the hall
Not to find an answer
Just to hear the call
Of a nightbird singin'
(Come away)
(Come away)
But where's the part about John Lennon? "But the moment that I first laid eyes on him/All alone on the edge of seventeen"? Well, Nicks would have only been about fifteen when Beatlemania hit, but hey, close enough. "With the words of a poet/And a voice from a choir/And a melody/ Nothing else mattered"? John Lennon didn't have a voice like a choir. He had a voice like a juvenile delinquent. A soulful and sensitive juvenile delinquent, sure, but a juvenile delinquent nonetheless. Whatever. I'll just take her word for it.

Then there's that guitar riff, which her band member Waddy Wachtel claims to have lifted from The Police's Regatta de Blanc album track "Bring On The Night." Apparently, Stevie did not know this until shortly after the song's release, and when she finally heard the Police song, she freaked out, went up to Wachtel and said something along the lines of, "Don't ever do that again!" What, don't ever craft the insistent guitar riff for your signature song again? Taken care of.

Also, I know that Lindsey Buckingham isn't singing backing vocals, but the guy she found to sing backing vocals sounds just like Lindsey Buckingham. Is this just a subconscious thing that happens with all these solo performers? Don Henley finds a guy who sounds just like Glenn Frey, Stevie Nicks finds a guy who sounds just like Lindsey Buckingham ... I'll say one thing: for better or worse, at least no one could have mistaken Yoko or Linda for either Paul or John.

Even the drummer in this live clip looks just like Mick Fleetwood, but it's not Mick Fleetwood. Also, check out the intense moment at 3:34 where Stevie starts speaking in tongues, and also the last minute or so where she wanders across the stage clutching bouquets of flowers, like an exhausted beauty pageant contestant, as well as a Snoopy stuffed animal (whom she promptly thanks). He's a beagle, not a dove, but close enough.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Early '70s Prog-Rock Heyday Of Genesis AKA Phil Collins: Sex Fiend

Once upon a time, Phil Collins was just a drummer. And all the continents used to be scrunched together. So they tell me. It's kind of weird to think of Phil Collins as "just" a member of a band, and not even a very important member at that. I mean, he didn't even join Genesis until their third album!

Here's a little context: imagine it's the early '70s, and someone tells you that King Crimson's Michael Giles, the Moody Blues' Graeme Edge, Yes' Bill Bruford, or even Pink Floyd's Nick Mason are one day going to become an '80s Top 40 Singer/Songwriter/Superstar. You'd tell them to go perform a 21-minute drum solo and get the fuck out of here. "And who's the president? Ronald Reagan? Yeah, right, future boy."

But the joke was on all of us, although the punchline wouldn't arrive for years, decades, centuries even. Perhaps the punchline of the Phil Collins saga has yet to truly arrive at all.

Phil Collins singing lead vocals - in 1971! Thought they'd throw the new guy a bone, eh? Little did they realize, they were opening Pandora's Box...

The conventional wisdom is that early Genesis is artistically superior to later Genesis, and that Peter Gabriel is artistically superior to Phil Collins, but as Hall & Oates once sang, I can't go for that. First of all, I'm already halfway inclined to roll my eyes at early '70s progressive rock, despite the fact that I actually like it. The eight minute-long songs, the ostentatious album covers, the adolescent, pseudo-Tolkien lyrics - we all know how this was going to turn out. The most rewarding feature of prog rock is its supposed instrumental and compositional complexity, but given that I am not a musician and I possess essentially zero understanding of music theory, that selling point doesn't go very far with me. In other words, I don't mind if a song is eight minutes long and the musicians are playing something absurdly challenging, as long as it's catchy.

So, Peter Gabriel. I just think he's kind of boring. His lyrics on the early Genesis albums seem vaguely interesting without ever being truly gripping. He paints a lot of pictures, but I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what any of the songs are actually about. He's got plenty of imagination, but I never feel any sort of intimacy or sense of personal connection. It's like if John Lennon only wrote "I am the Walrus" or "Mean Mr. Mustard" but didn't bother to also write songs like "In My Life" or "Julia." Peter Gabriel could only do the surreal, indirect, mythological thing. And the same goes for the music! There's a lot of stuff happening, but rarely does anything genuinely register. Every time I sneeze I hear a keyboard solo. You know, Pink Floyd also wrote side-long suites that shifted between distinct musical segments, but ... they always had the hooks. Those killer, killer hooks. Early Genesis albums are the kind of albums where, when I'm listening to them, I feel like they'll grow on me with repeated listens. Except I've listened to them four or five times now. I don't know if I'm willing to go so far as to say that later Genesis is "better" than early Genesis, but personally, I don't know if it's any worse. Maybe I'm just a little contrarian bastard, but I don't mind post-Gabriel Genesis, because I was never really in love Gabriel-era Genesis to begin with. Go climb up Solsbury Hill and be done with it already.

At any rate, apparently Phil was the band's secret weapon, because regardless of what I think, according to most rock critics, Genesis hit its artistic stride once he stepped behind that fateful kit. From 1971 to 1974, Genesis released one album per year, and only one of those albums currently receives less than five stars on AMG. Honestly, Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England By The Pound, and The Lamb Dies Down On Broadway all pretty much sound the same to me, but what do I know? The point is, the band didn't just score with the critics, but the public as well. After Foxtrot, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, and - in his own humble, percussionist way - Phil Collins, became stars.

Fame, of course, changes a person. One minute you're just a naive little lad from London, the next minute you're a veritable deity of rock and roll eminence. The benefits kick in: the money, the limos, the clothing, the all-you-can-eat buffets. But along with the benefits come ... the temptations. Perhaps they're one and the same? On the surface, it seems like Phil Collins was one of those rare rock stars who managed to steer clear of the standard showbiz sins. Quite the contrary - particularly in regards to the ladies.

While Phil may have been quite ignorant in the ways of women when he first joined Genesis, he proved a quick study:
I'd had a few awkward, fumbling encounters before - timid public school creatures who'd never pulled their socks down past their ankles, daughters of china shop owners who giggled at the slightest mention of knickers. So, my first tour with Genesis was quite the "initiation," shall we say. It all started with Phyllis and Virginie, otherwise known as the Killer Diller Sisters. The Killer Diller Sisters were actually half-sisters: Phyllis was Jamaican, and Virginie was Jamaican and French-Canadian, but anyway, they were really into doing things with condiments. Phyllis was into mustard, and Virginie was into relish. She "relished" it, if you will. I'll never forget that one night in Munich with a porcupine and an electric screwdriver. Oh Jesus. I went into that tour a boy, but I came back a man.

Yet nothing could have prepared me for the Australian tour with Dandelion. Dandelion was an absolute fiend. Her father was a former KGB agent and she had a thing for torture. After a show in Melbourne, well ... I don't want to incriminate anybody, but let's just say I'll never think of an egg beater the same way again. Not to mention those poor aborigine girls covered in Worcester sauce. I'm pretty sure that would have been illegal in most NATO countries. There was a night with a clamp where Dandelion went a little too far and I broke my toe. I had to take a week off from drumming. I told the press I accidentally fell down the stairs. Looks like they bought it.

Then there was Carmelita. I'd heard Carmelita was bad news, but once you get going with this stuff, it's difficult to stop, you know what I mean? Carmelita was a one-legged Chilean dancer with a fetish for sea creatures. So, we were supposed to fly out to Buenos Aires on Friday, but a storm shut down the airport, Mike and I started drinking some tequila shots, a couple of dares were made, one thing led to another, and before you know it, you're tied to a bedpost with a one-legged Chilean dancer wearing sea anemonies on her breasts. It should have ended there - I mean, a couple of band mates and a drunken late-night escapade in Buenos Aires, no harm, no foul, right? And it would have - if Peter hadn't snuck in with a hand-held Super 8 and filmed the whole nonsense. Silly me, flying out of Buenos Aires the next morning, the odor of mollusks in my hair, thinking I'd never have to worry about Carmelita again. But that sweet, sweet nymph of the tide pools would quickly come back to haunt me.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (Kojima, 2010)

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is the fifth entry in the storied Metal Gear Solid franchise (and the umpteenth entry in the entire Metal Gear franchise). Whereas the previous entry Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots featured series protagonist Solid Snake as an aging war veteran grappling with his purpose as a soldier in a near future world overrun by private military contractors, MGS: Peace Walker goes back to the past. If you'll recall, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater took place against the backdrop of the 1960s Cold War between the USA and USSR. In an ambitious piece of storytelling MGS3 told the story not of Solid Snake, but of his father, Naked Snake. MGS3 used the backdrop of the Cold War to tell the story of how Naked Snake would become the series antagonist Big Boss, in a move somewhat similar to how the Star Wars prequels told the story (however poorly) of Anakin becoming Darth Vader. It's just that MGS3 did it much, much better and is widely considered the best entry in the series.

Taking place in 1974, Peace Walker details how Big Boss and his band of mercenaries set out to create their perfect little haven from the world, known in later games as "Outer Heaven". The location for this outing is a unique one in videogames, taking place in the jungles of Costa Rica. Series director and mastermind Hideo Kojima uses this setting as a place to further elaborate on the machinations of the Cold War powers, with the Soviets and Americans vying for control of the Central America region in a bid for geographic supremacy.

The use of Costa Rica isn't just window dressing either. There's a certain character in the game who will go into exhaustive detail of the history of the country, its geography, its inhabitants, its flora and fauna, even why its coffee tastes so good. It's all rather excessive and rather unnecessary, and it doesn't help that the character relating all this info is rather precocious. It's really just another sign of Kojima's typical penchant for excessive detail.

What's also on display here is Kojima's usual blending of the hyper real with the hyper absurd. A perfect example: during the mission briefings a character will go into great detail on the grim implications of Cold War strategies and maneuvers, but while the mission is underway the enemy's state of mind is conveyed using Looney Tunes like "zzz's" hovering over a soldier's head to indicate that he's sleepy. This is such a well known aspect of the MGS series that the "!" mark appearing over an alerted soldier's head and the accompanying sound effect are absolutely iconic among gamers.

This leads to Kojima's unabashedness for breaking the fourth wall. Many modern games try to keep hidden that they are actually games that you're playing, often with tutorial sections given in-game reasons for existing (such as the tutorial stage being a boot camp where the player is being trained). Kojima dispenses with this notion - he wants to remind you that what you are playing is a game. This is quite noticeable in the often diegetic way that characters talk about functions in the game. A character might say something like "Remember Snake, hit the X button to reload your weapon!", with no attempt made to hide this mechanic behind some in-game veil.

Speaking of absurd, this character's name is 'Hot Coldman'

The game structure of Peace Walker is noticeably different than previous franchise entries. The game uses a mission structure where the player can choose which mission to undertake and the order in which to undertake them. I found this to be a refreshing approach to the standard MGS game, and I enjoyed that many of the missions were much shorter than in previous games. The player can even repeat the same mission again and again. This gives the game a stripped down approach, with many of the more advanced tactics of previous entries having been removed. This change in game structure is most likely due to the fact that Peace Walker was initially released as a game for the Playstation Portable, Sony's answer to Nintendo's Game Boy. Peace Walker was made available in the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection on the Playstation 3, where the first three entries in the series, along with Peace Walker, were given the high definition treatment to bring them up to modern graphical standards (this was the version I played).

Overall I greatly enjoyed Peace Walker. The stripped down approach to the gameplay and mission structure kept things feeling fresh, and the plot moved Big Boss's story forward in a big way. The game also makes great use of a comic book-like art style. This was initially seen very briefly back in Metal Gear Solid 2 when pictures of the Illuminati-like "Patriots" were shown in a hand drawn sketch style. In Peace Walker it's been expanded so that nearly all of the cutscenes are done in this style. It looks great.

Hideo Kojima has pretty abandoned the notion that MGS 4 would be the last entry in the franchise, having recently released MGS: Ground Zeroes as a sort of prequel to the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, which looks to continue the story of Big Boss and how he ultimately becomes a symbol of evil (watch the trailer here). In a bit of a controversial move, Kojima dumped long time Snake voice actor David Hayter for... Keifer Sutherland. From the previews I've watched, it's just plain weird to hear Sutherland's voice coming out the mouth of Snake, even if  both actors share a similarly gravelly voice. Well, I suppose I better start playing Ground Zeroes, until next time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

No Fun Aloud; However, Bad Puns Acceptable

Glenn Frey probably figured that if he couldn't compete with his erstwhile partner in the intellectual depth department, he could at least one-up him in the lame pun department. Despite the brilliant wordplay, however, the title of No Fun Aloud is only partly accurate: while very few listeners would consider it loud, I think even Oscar the Grouch would have a hard time denying that this album is at least several buckets of fun. Take the opening track, "I Found Somebody," which sounds like Frey's attempt to re-write "The Long Run," presumably to make sure that he would get to sing lead this time instead of that cunt Henley.

Like his former (and future) band mate, Frey took the expanded leeway of a solo debut to demonstrate his interpretive skills. If you've ever listened to Frankie Ford's New Orleans R&B classic "Sea Cruise" and thought, "You know, this would be pretty good, if only it were slower, blander, stiffer, and whiter," then boy, has Glenn Frey got a cover version for you. But he was probably better off generating his own rollicking Saturday night roadside bar vibe instead of plundering someone else's. Exhibit A: "Party Town."
I got sick of my job, sick of my wife
Sick of my future and sick of my life
I packed up my car and I got some gas
And told everybody they could kiss my ass

I'm goin' to Party Town (yeah, yeah)
I wanna party down (yeah, yeah)
I wanna have some fun
I wanna fool around
I'm goin' to Party Town

The sun comes up, the sun goes down
Doesn't really matter in Party Town
They go all day and they go all night
They keep on goin' until they get it right

Right here in Party Town (yeah, yeah)
They really party down (yeah, yeah)
Man it's a Party Town (yeah, yeah)
You know they all got their own
And they pass it all around

Well I'm burnin' like a blowtorch in my prime
Everybody here is a friend of mine
I met a little girl a couple shooters ago
She's teachin' me everything I don't know

About Party Town (yeah, yeah)
They really party down (yeah, yeah)
You know they love to ball
They do it in the hall
Right here in Party Town

"Well I'm burnin' like a blowtorch in my prime"? Is that how they described Gonorrhea in the '80s? "They do it in the hall"? With Glenn Frey standing right there? Was he like the parental chaperon or something? Also, could someone please clarify: are we talking about Party Town, Oregon, or Party Town, Washington? I just want to make sure I end up in the right Party Town, that's all.

But if you think Frey was just one carefree, mellow, easygoing dude, "All Those Lies" is a chilling reminder that, despite appearances, this Yuppie Rocker was locked in a Sisyphean struggle with his ever-present demons. The verse melody bears a passing resemblance to the upcoming "You Belong To The City," which raises the critical scientific conundrum: can an artist plagiarize his future self?
I woke up shakin' in a cold, cold sweat
I got so much goin' on, what did I forget?
I know there's somethin', but it got so late
I need someone to help me get my story straight
Who told shorty, who told you?
And who else knows about the things I do?
It's my own business, it's my own fun
So don't you breathe a word of this to anyone

All those lies - I hope I can remember
All those lies - I'm a bad pretender
All those lies - comin' back to haunt me
All those lies - I get the feeling like they want me

Listen, baby, you can take my word
Don't you believe a single lie you've heard
They're all out to get me and then get you
There's just no tellin' what these kind of people will do
They're sayin' certain things behind my back
I can't believe you'd listen to those one eyed jacks
They look you in the eye, say it with a smile
They wanna see you sad and lonely all the while

All those lies - I hope I can remember
All those lies - I'm a bad pretender
All those lies - it's a bad situation
All those lies - tryin' to ruin my reputation

There's some bad wheels in motion, tryin' to run us down
Spreadin' dirty lies in this dirty little town
Ooh baby, you know I wouldn't dare
You know how much I love you, you know how much I care

Finally, No Fun Aloud goes out on top with the double whammy of "She Can't Let Go," which could go toe-to-toe with "An Innocent Man" in the Drifters rip-off sweepstakes, and "Don't Give Up," which sounds as if Journey got punched in the balls by George Clinton and then tried to record a song afterwards. In sum: with his solo debut, Frey established himself as the goofy McCartney to Henley's more topical Lennon. "You know what, Don? You can go ahead and try to be an 'artist,' but, hey man, I just want to have a good time."

Friday, June 20, 2014

It's A Cruel Summer, But A ... Kinder Indian Summer?

Ah yes, Bananarama. The last we'd heard of Keren, Sara, and Siobhan, they were the Fun Boy Three's little pet project/spin-off group. Nothing too serious, nothing too complex ... certainly not destined for any longevity. Of course, due to the Newtonian laws of '80s pop irony, it was inevitable that Bananarama would outlast their predecessors. Honestly, I think the Fun Boy Three might have survived if they'd simply been able to find an "a" to put in their name; tragically, their sister group had monopolized every last one of them.

So out of the ashes of the ska revival, there arose a dance-pop trio. I'm not exactly sure what the members of Bananarama did, but whatever they did, on "Cruel Summer," they did it right. At least one fact cannot be debated: best use of xylophone/vibraphone/kalimba ever. Or whatever it is. Possibly an ancient pile of bones? But that little quasi-xylophone riff is the hook my friends, that is the hook. Also, bonus points for the jangly Johnny Marr-esque rhythm guitar on the chorus, and the eerie, droning background vocals that precede and follow same chorus.

I think what ultimately makes "Cruel Summer" linger is that, like "Vacation" before it, it's a summer single that is actually kind of sad. School's out, the weather's nice, you're supposed to be having a good time, but instead you're just sitting around depressed! Which is even more depressing than it would normally be, because ... it's summer! As the Rolling Stones put it in a slightly darker song, "I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes/I have to turn my head until my darkness goes." Did I just compare "Cruel Summer" to "Paint It Black"? You decide.
Hot summer streets
And the pavements are burning
I sit around
Trying to smile
But the air is so heavy and dry
Strange voices are saying
What did they say
Things I can't understand
It's too close for comfort
This heat has got right out of hand

It's a cruel, cruel summer
Leaving me here on my own
It's a cruel, cruel summer
Now you've gone
You're not the only one

The city is crowded
My friends are away
And I'm on my own
It's too hot to handle
So I got to get up and go
The group does sound rather casual about its misery. I love the playful pause after "It's a cruel," which is followed by a meek little "cruel!" Why do I get the feeling that this summer isn't all that cruel? Also, what's with the line "You're not the only one"? Does that even make sense? Or did it just sound good when they were writing it? He's not the only one who's gone? Sure he is. He's not the only one who's depressed in summertime? Jesus, it's like a Magic Eye poster. If I stare at it any longer my head is going to explode.

The song peaked at #8 in the UK but didn't do a thing over here until it was featured in the greatest cinematic achievement of its age, otherwise known as The Karate Kid. Bananarama on, Banamarama off. In this case, it was Bananarama on: the single hit #9 stateside.

In the official music video, the girls demonstrate, as they prance around New York in grimy, baggy overalls, that they may have abandoned their ska roots, but not their tomboy image. Still, if you're worried that Bananarama would never give in to temptation and transform into trashy MTV sex objects, don't worry: they would. Nope, at this stage they simply hitch a ride on a semi and get chased around Brooklyn by Boss Hogg (who, when he eventually catches up to the girls, shows he can really bust a move!). Good thing there weren't any real cops around, because according to Siobhan Fahey, the band was only able to make it through the cruelty of this particular summer with the assistance of everyone's favorite '80s chemical:
"It was August, over one hundred degrees. Our HQ was a tavern under the Brooklyn Bridge, which had a ladies' room with a chipped mirror where we had to do our makeup."

After an exhausting morning, the band returned to the tavern for lunch. They made the acquaintance of some of the local dockworkers, who upon learning of their situation shared vials of cocaine with them. "That was our lunch" said Fahey, who had never tried the drug before. "When you watch that video, we look really tired and miserable in the scenes we shot before lunch, and then the after-lunch shots are all euphoric and manic."
Welcome to America, girls. Welcome to America.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Don, Belinda, And Jane On The "Zoom" (And Maybe A Few Other Things)?

The VisionQuest soundtrack. Need I say more? All right, guess I need to say a little more.

Most people may remember the VisionQuest soundtrack, if at all, as the source of Madonna's #1 hit (and first attempt at trying to seem acceptable to your parents), "Crazy For You." As discussed several years ago on this blog, more hardcore Madonna fans also know the VisionQuest soundtrack as the only place to find the Madonna obscurity "The Gambler."

All well and good, but hardly the end of the story. Nothing against Journey's "Only The Young," Dio's "Hungry For Heaven," Sammy Hagar's "I'll Fall In Love Again," and The Style Council's "Shout To The Top," but, without a doubt, for reasons I am about to explain, the VisionQuest soundtrack's most notorious track would have to be Don Henley's "She's On The Zoom."

She's on the what? Uh, Don ... "Zoom" is not a noun. That's like saying, "He picked up the Bam!" Is it like being on a Segway? I'm guessing Henley wasn't too proud of the track, as it has never appeared on any legitimate Henley album or collection. No, there is only one place to find "She's On The Zoom," and that is on the VisionQuest soundtrack. And to be fair, it is kind of crappy. But its quality or lack thereof is not what makes this song notable. What makes it notable, my friends, is that the backing vocalists are none other than Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin.

OK, OK, hold on a second, what was going on here? I wanna know: how exactly did this go down? Who was hanging out with whom? Did Belinda and Jane end up across the hall in the same studio as Don one night, and maybe he figured, 'Oh, fuck yes, I'll get the Go-Go's on my awesome soundtrack song!" Here's what I really want to know: exactly how much coke was in the studio that night? Ten grams? Twenty? I don't really know how much coke is a lot of coke. But whatever it was, it must have been a lot. I mean, you've got Don Henley and Belinda Carlisle in the same room. Actually, Don had probably outgrown the dust by that point, but I know another singer who certainly hadn't.

When did this even happen? The VisionQuest soundtrack came out in 1985, right around the time the Go-Go's broke up, and I think Jane had already left by that point anyway. My impression of that period is that Jane would have been too pissed off at Belinda to be cruising around L.A. with her more popular band mate late at night, looking for recording sessions to crash, teaming up for backing vocals, but I suppose not. The lure of the Henley is strong. I'm going to guess early 1984.

I can just see the scene several months later. Record label: "Hey Don, we need another song for the VisionQuest soundtrack, you got anything good? What's this one, 'Boys of Summer' - that kind of sounds promising." "No, no, get your hands out of there, that's all stuff for my next solo album." "Come on Donnie, we need a song, you've gotta have something lying around." "Oh yeah, there's that shitty one I tossed off at three in the morning in a blurry haze while partying with two of the Go-Go's, here, take that one."

Let's hear it for Wikipedia, because otherwise I'm not sure I would have ever caught this memorable guest spot. Although I do feel like I would have been able to recognize the big C's forceful quiver anywhere. And let's face it: not just any pair of backing vocalists could have summoned up quite the proper amount of incredulity needed on "Pictures of his car???" In the end, this whole episode is a such perfect illustration of why I love, and am endlessly amused by, Belinda Carlisle's career. I mean, here we have the rare instance of Madonna and Belinda Carlisle appearing on the very same album. But while Madonna sings lead vocals on a dramatic, career re-defining number one hit, Belinda sings blink-and-you-miss'-em backing vocals on a freaking Don Henley throwaway. And yet, the thing is, I'm pretty sure I know which singer had more fun providing her contribution.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Just How Innocent Could A Man Really Be (With A Girlfriend Like That)?

See, you get a supermodel girlfriend, and let me tell you, your priorities change. Vietnam? Unemployment? Touring Norway while pumping your veins full of heroin? For Billy Joel in 1983, that stuff was so "last album." Christie Brinkley made Billy Joel forget the late '60s even happened. On An Innocent Man, he was feeling so innocent, it was like JFK hadn't even been blown away, and what else did he have to say?
After I did The Nylon Curtain and we went on the road, I wanted to do something that was 180 degrees in the other direction. I'd gotten divorced, and I started dating these different women, I was going out with models ... I was a rock star, a single guy who was a rock star, I was like amazed at my good fortune at the time, and I started dating Christie Brinkley at the time too, and I started writing songs about these experiences. I kind of felt like a teenager all over again. All those songs that I remembered from the early '60s - the R&B songs and the Four Seasons and Motown music and soul music - that's how I felt ... I was kind of re-living my youth.
Oh my God, I totally know the feeling!

Jesus. Just looking at it makes me sick.

So after getting the late period Beatles out of his system, Billy went back even further, further, to early '60s pre-Beatles pop: doo-wop, girl groups, Motown, Atlantic Records. He went back to music that, like the Beatles, was also great, but great in a very different way. The funny thing is, I don't know if this was really a stylistic departure so much as a return to the piano-based, New York-flavored sound of The Stranger and 52nd Street, except with less of a singer-songwriter feel and more of a Top 40 bent.

Well, if it was Top 40 he was going for, it was Top 40 he got. An Innocent Man was Billy's Thriller, his Sports, his Born In The U.S.A., his Can't Slow Down, where the album ultimately consisted of more hit singles (six) than non-hit singles (four). The radio milked this one for all it was worth. Like a lot of blockbuster '80s albums, though, I don't really know if it's a "classic" album, even if I think there are more "classic" songs on it than non-classic. Let's say this: I don't think, song for song, it holds together as well as The Nylon Curtain does, but if I were making a "Best of Billy Joel" mix tape, I would include more songs from An Innocent Man on it than I would from its predecessor. We're talking about some of the core canon here.

Quick run-down on the album tracks: "Easy Money" sounds like someone chopped Wilson Pickett's balls off and dropped them in a glass of New Coke, "Careless Talk" sounds like your orthodontist shot Dion & the Belmonts on safari, then stuffed and mounted them in his lobby, and "Christie Lee" sounds like Little Richard ate a bowl of Raisin Bran mixed with Metamucil and left the microphone on while he took a shit. I used to think "This Night" was actually pretty good until the day I heard Beethoven's Piano Sonata #8 (Pathetique) and realized that Billy Joel had stolen the chorus ... from Beethoven! Procol Harum turning Bach into haunting psychedelic pop ("A Whiter Shade of Pale") is one thing, but turning Beethoven into ... doo-wop? I guess when your girlfriend is Christie Brinkley, you start to think you can get away with anything. But the singles. Oh man, the singles.

Despite being the title track, "An Innocent Man" is, ironically, one of the album's least representative cuts, and even thought it was the third biggest hit off the album (peaking at #10), I think it's been sort of lost in the blinding glare of "Uptown Girl," "The Longest Time," etc. And yet, it might actually be the album's most sophisticated, mature single. In other words, when I hear of people who claim to hate Billy Joel, I just want to play them "An Innocent Man" and say, "How can you hate such a crystalline torch song/traditional pop standard?" It's like hating Sinatra. You can't even call yourself American. There are a lot of qualities in Billy's music that I imagine listeners would find irritating, but to me, "An Innocent Man" possesses almost none of these. If you don't like "An Innocent Man," then ... I got nuthin'.

Although I certainly get that Porter/Gershwin vibe, I think the musical reference point Billy was actually going for was the Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk," with a touch of Ben E. King for good measure. It certainly boasts the best usage of a triangle since "Spanish Harlem." Well, although the bass line is supposed to be from "Under the Boardwalk," I always thought it sounded a bit like the one from Steely Dan's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," which itself was lifted from Horace Silver's "Song of My Father" ... so I guess everybody gets a pass.

While stylistically, with its early '60s homages, it's of a piece with the rest of the album, its bitter, defensive lyrics set it apart from the other songs' giddy celebrations of young romance. Methinks this was the last final holdover from his first divorce, and Billy thought it too strong to keep off the album. Elizabeth Joel, ladies and gentlemen - still making the hits happen. Or perhaps Billy was caught with three underage Guatemalan prostitutes, the judge asked him if he had any defense, and here it was. The point is, while it's no "Laura," "An Innocent Man" is definitely the darkest song on An Innocent Man, but it's not dark so much as it's moody. It starts out soft and gentle, Billy's philosophical lyrics gelling nicely with the sway of the Drifters bass line:
Some people stay far away from the door
If there's a chance of it opening up
They hear a voice in the hall outside
And hope that it just passes by

Some people live with the fear of a touch
And the anger of having been a fool
They will not listen to anyone
So nobody tells them a lie
Actually, whenever I hear a voice in the hall outside, I usually shout, "Hey, who is it? Why are you in my hallway?" But never mind. Billy's lulled you into a cozy vibe, you think you can just lay back and relax, but the bridge suddenly gets intense: "I know you're only protecting yourself/I know you're thinking of somebody else/Someone who hurt you." And then swoop! He takes you right back to the cozy vibe again:
But I'm not above
Making up for the love
You've been denying you could ever feel
I'm not above doing anything
To restore your faith if I can

Some people see through the eyes of the old
Before they ever get a look at the young
I'm only willing to hear you cry
Because I am an innocent man
And then Billy sits on a tack because WHOA, what a high note. I'll bet you didn't even think he could hit a note that high. He didn't either, and he couldn't - at least not for much longer: "I had a suspicion that was going to be the last time I was going to be able to hit those notes, so why not go out in a blaze of glory? That was the end of Billy's high note." Indeed it was. In subsequent live performances, one will hear a young male back-up vocalist take over as Billy approaches the chorus. But at least he captured it for posterity.

Now that I think about it, "An Innocent Man" might be Billy's best performance as a pure singer. No one has actually spent very much time talking about Billy Joel as a singer, but without a great vocal performance, this song wouldn't be nearly as effective. He soars high on the choruses, he swoops down on the verses ("you've been de-ny-ing you could ever feel" - seriously, you try it sometime), he's hushed, then he's full-throated - the man's covering left, center, and right field.

Honestly, I can't tell if the song is from the point of view a guy trying to convince a girl who's still bitter over a previous break-up to open up and love again (the lines about restoring faith, or never believing promises again) or if it's about a previously established couple that's falling apart (the lines about resurrecting a love, or going back to the start), but whatever man, he sells it. There's even a second bridge that's more dramatic than the first ("You know you only hurt yourself out of spite/I guess you'd rather be a martyr tonight!") which slides right back into the soothing Drifters verse:
That's your decision
But I'm not below
Anybody I know
If there's a chance of resurrecting a love
I'm not above going back to the start
To find out where the heartache began

Some people hope for a miracle cure
Some people just accept the world as it is
But I'm not willing to lay down and die
Because I am an innocent man
Well, in the eyes of the law, he may be an innocent man, but if it's a crime to create a timeless Yuppie Rock ballad, then I'm afraid Billy Joel is guilty as charged.