Saturday, November 15, 2014

Father Figure: The Socio-Political Implications Of George Michael In The Post-Modern Landscape

When I was a youth, I found it difficult to resist making fun of George Michael. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. My mother used to have a tape of Johnny Mathis in our car. I don't even remember what was on it; all I know is I used to make fun of it. One day in 1988, I was standing outside Denny's with my father, and we'd just heard "Faith" on the car radio. I exaggerated every one of the singer's vocal tics: "I got to have faith-uh-faith-uh-faith-uhhhh." Then I added, to my father's amusement, "God, that guy is worse than Johnny Mathis."

But what does an eight-year-old know? Here's the cold, hard truth. Impulsive mockery of "Faith" aside, I've always, secretly, stealthily, loved George Michael. He just has that certain something. He's light, but not disposable, danceable, but not shapeless, outrageous, but not insincere. He is blatantly of his time, and yet still grounded in the spirit of the classics.

So, I like George Michael. You like George Michael. Who doesn't like George Michael? Find me someone who doesn't like George Michael, and I will personally frame him in a Beverly Hills public restroom gay sex sting. But while you may have spent your entire life enjoying the music of the former Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, you may have never considered it anything more than relatively well-crafted, if mostly frivolous, dance-pop. Nothing too insightful, nothing too groundbreaking - certainly nothing to give Morrissey any concern that his title of "most scathingly articulate British songwriter of the '80s" was somehow up for grabs. I can't say I blame you; I felt the same way too.

That is, until now. I have little patience for what passes in contemporary university departments as "Cultural Studies" or "Sociology" or "Socio-Cultural Studies" or whatever ungainly term that collection of insular snots happens to prefer to use. My tolerance for post-modern "analysis" of television programs, fan fiction, Hollywood blockbusters, music sub-genres and the like is fairly low. However, now and then, I am prompted to make an exception. Every so often, a study comes along that is so revealing, so edifying, so illuminating, that I must grant a reprieve in my disdain for the bastions of higher learning. Recently, I have come upon such a study.

The study goes by the intimidating name of Father Figure: The Socio-Political Implications Of George Michael In The Post-Modern Landscape. The author, one Professor Horton J. Higglediggle of the University of New South-Southwest Wales, is not an author with whom I was familiar, but after reading his tome, I must confess that I put on a George Michael album and felt as though I was listening to a wholly unfamiliar creation. Lyrics that initially seemed trite or banal suddenly seemed quite venomous and controversial. Instead of being the Elton John of the '80s, it turns out George Michael was more like the George Orwell of the '80s, with Faith being his 1984 (and Make It Big his Animal Farm?). And just as a child may pick up Animal Farm and be entirely unaware of the Soviet subtext, so it is that we as a collective society have been listening to "Careless Whisper" and "One More Try" for decades now and never once managed to grasp the true message.

From the introduction:
Just as filmmaker and German emigre Douglas Sirk, dismissed in his day as a shameless generator of "women's pictures," is now seen as a cutting ironist who managed to critique the mid-20th century American dream from within the very omphalos of the Hollywood system, purportedly crafting "middlebrow fare" while quietly sneering at Eisenhowerian social mores, we now must acknowledge that the inimitable George Michael, at the height of his fame ridiculed as the essence of pop pin-up triviality, needs to be understood as a poison creampuff, an artist who quietly mocked the very Thatcherite hands that fed him while allegedly promoting its seductive ideology. Michael was the semiotic Trojan horse of British pop, the symbol of a culture's own imminent destruction, ostentatiously hiding in plain sight, seemingly innocuous and yet secretly ruinous.

As a masculine sex symbol, and yet as a closeted gay man, Michael simultaneously represented the "other" as well as the "other"s "other." Michael's "otherness" secretly lent his mainstream appeal an air of subversiveness, as if the "other" and the "anti-other" could relate to his persona in equal measure. Given that his creative dissonance acted as the summation of an interplay of "others," the performer who served as the cultural construction "George Michael" ultimately refused to serve as either an "other" or a "pseudo-other."
Makes sense to me. All I know is that the music of no "other" '80s performer has moved me in quite the manner that George Michael's has, but for years, I never knew why. Professor Higglediggle has, once and for all, lifted the veil.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Belinda And Morgan Mason: Love At Third Sight AKA Every Queen Of Yuppie Rock Needs A King

No one goes Yuppie alone. No, even the most determined of us need some kind of push, some outside source of momentum. It comes when we least expect it, and in the form of the most unlikely vessels. For Belinda Carlisle, that vessel was a man named Morgan Mason.

It must have seemed like a far-fetched proposition in 1984. This was one '80s wild child who couldn't be tamed. Belinda was forever destined to tumble from man to man, leaving a trail of white dust and Solid Gold appearances in her wake. But alas, 'twas not to be. It turns out that all this godless heathen needed was the right preacher to show her the Yuppie light. From Lips Unsealed:
I went on a few dates and for some odd reason received a flurry of calls from political types, guys with Washington, DC, connections. One guy was the son of a senator. Another was a lawyer who remarked that he had been part of a congressional hearing that was covered on the news and asked if I had seen him. Uh, no, I hadn't. I didn't know how my name got on those politicos' list - who knows, maybe it was date-a-rock-star month in DC - but I thought it was funny.

Then, in early December, with 1984 coming to a close, my DJ friend Rodney Bingenheimer called out of the blue and said a guy with whom he was peripherally acquainted had contacted him about being set up with me. His name was Morgan Mason, and as Rodney explained, he came with an impressive pedigree and resume. He was the oldest of two children of actor James Mason and his socialite wife, Pamela. As a child, he had appeared in several movies, including The Sandpiper with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He had worked in Ronald Reagan's White House as deputy chief of protocol and special assistant to the president for political affairs. In 1982, he had left the White House and signed on as a vice president of the international PR firm Rogers & Cowan. He had also dated Joan Collins.

Being the son of famous parents didn't impress me. In Hollywood, "children of" were a dime a dozen and often the last people I would have wanted to date. His White House connection didn't impress me either, as I barely knew who Ronald Reagan was.
Uhhhhh ... he was the president? You know, of the United States? Seriously, Belinda? I'd like to think she's exaggerating here, but I have my suspicions. I mean, he'd already been president for four years. Oh man, what would her intensely political L.A. punk contemporaries have said?
I found the last bit about him having dated Joan Collins funny.

"Oh, I'm never going to get along with someone who went out with Joan Collins," I said. "Forget it."

"But he really wants to meet you," Rodney said ... I agreed to meet him at a party for a new Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hills ... He was probably a nice guy, which didn't appeal to me at all. How could I possibly get along with anybody who had worked in Washington and dated Joan Collins?
I wasn't there long before one of the junior publicists grabbed my arm and took me to meet Morgan. He was outfitted from head to toe in Brooks Brothers. He looked very straitlaced and unlike anyone I had ever dated. When we were introduced, he was utterly, almost rudely dismissive and totally uninterested in me. Wasn't he the one who wanted to meet me? Yet he wasn't nice. I didn't get it.

I asked him for a cigarette and he nonchalantly tossed one at me. "Here," he said, before turning his back and disappearing into the crowd. I thought, How dare he! It was like a scene from a 1940s movie.

A couple of days later, [my friend] Diane and I were having a girlfriends' lunch at La Scala Boutique ... I spotted Morgan at one of the black booths ... a few minutes later, he got up and came over to our table. He was in another beautiful suit, with his hair perfect. He was extremely dapper and self-confident. He asked, "What's going on?" and dropped his business card on the table. I shrugged. "Nothing." He smiled and said, "Well, if anything is going on, you have my card."

As soon as he was gone, I turned to Diane and made a face as if I had just tasted sour milk.

"Ewwwww!" I said. "He's just so arrogant."
"Like, omigod! He's just so ... grody. He's worse than like, breaking a nail."
But I guess, at least in retrospect, Morgan knew what he was doing, because I couldn't stop thinking about him. I had tickets to a Hall and Oates concert on December 21 at the Forum and wanted to invite him ... two nights later, Morgan picked me up in a limo. I was still living in the hideous condo left over from my Mike Marshall debacle and felt like I had to explain why I lived there when it wasn't really me. But within seconds the long black chariot was whisking us to the Forum and the two of us were talking as if we had been friends for years. We got along ridiculously well. It was instantaneous and one of the biggest surprises of my life.
I guess Hall & Oates really knew the M.E.T.H.O.D. of Modern Love, eh?
We had a blast at the show, which was great, and then flashed our VIP passes to get into the after-party at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant Spago. After five minutes, Morgan suggested grabbing dinner on our own and he spirited me away to a cozy corner booth at Trader Vic's, a landmark Beverly Hills hideaway, where we ordered giant Scorpion drinks and pretty much decided we wanted to get married and spend the rest of our lives with each other.
Well, why be picky? Laugh if you must; their friends certainly did, but those cautionary chortles quickly turned into sad sighs of envy. They have remained married to this very day.

Of course, Morgan Mason probably thought he'd scored the catch of a lifetime. But little did he know, his beautiful new bride wasn't quite the perfect all-American pop princess she appeared to be. For those of you thinking that Morgan hit the '80s pop jackpot, well, in the words of those wise philosophers Poison, "Every rose has its thorn." Yes, he got to marry Belinda Carlisle. But let your little schadenfreude hearts be warmed by this thought: he also had to put up with years of 1) out-of-control drug abuse, 2) eating disorders, 3) rampant low self-esteem, 4) various degrees of dishonesty, 5) mood swings, 6) career stagnation, and 7) absentee parenting - and not necessarily in that order. In other words, good luck, Morgan: you're gonna need it.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Band Named The Cars, A Song Named "Drive": Not As Dumb As It Sounds

If I told you there was a band named the Cars and they had a song called "Drive," you would probably think that was stupid. Sometimes, context is everything: "Drive" actually came out on the Cars' fifth album, long after they had established themselves and their slyly automotive moniker. Ric Ocasek just happened to write a song called "Drive," OK? Is that any worse than Pete Townshend writing a song called "Who Are You"?

If you actually knew the Cars prior to 1984, you would have found "Drive" even more confusing. The Cars - masters of clinical, deadpan dispassion - writing a haunting ballad? With the singer actually sounding like he cared slightly? The DJ didn't mislabel the new Tears For Fears single, did he? The Cars had tried slower numbers before, even going back to "Moving In Stereo" on the first album, and I'm also partial to Shake It Up's "I'm Not The One," but they always sounded a little arch and disinterested, as if someone was forcing them to be a band against their will. They sounded about as passionate as you'd be if you'd just stepped out to grab some Chinese food at 9:30PM only to realize that the place had already closed at 9:00PM.

I had a slightly different experience with the Cars' discography. I became familiar with their late '70s classic rock staples ("Just What I Needed," "Good Times Roll," "My Best Friend's Girl," "Let's Go") in my teens, so when I learned that the very same band had also recorded "Drive," one of those omnipresent synth-rock hits from my childhood that I heard everywhere and yet nowhere in particular, it didn't seem possible. The late '70s Cars make me think of the mid-90s, but "Drive" instantly transports me back to long afternoons of watching The Smurfs, drinking Hi-C, and playing Pole Position at the local Round Table.

Even at their most synthesized, the Cars usually still sounded like a rock band, but "Drive" exists in a Sea of Synthesizer, where nary a guitar can be found. Was a drummer even present? There are about three different kinds of synthesizer: 1) the one in the back, on the right channel, playing long, sustained notes, 2) the one on the left channel, wheezily churning out a three-note riff, and 3) my favorite, coming in around 0:13, sounding like imitation bells (arguably the best kind of bells?). But it's the wall of processed backing vocals that give "Drive" that eerily artificial atmosphere of death, sounding like an '80s version of 10cc's "I'm Not In Love." As with "Time After Time," the song sounds so '80s, I'm not sure that the production actually presents the composition in the strongest light. I'd almost like to hear a version of "Drive" on solo acoustic guitar. Get on it, somebody.

But enough about the backing vocals that sound like an army of cyborg cumulus clouds fucking each other; the lead singing doesn't sound like typical Cars lead singing either, and I don't think that's simply because it's coming from Ben Orr, as opposed to Ocasek. Orr had already sung lead on several Cars songs, including some of their biggest hits, but like Ocasek, he usually sounded as though his native language wasn't English and he'd just learned all the lyrics phonetically in the studio at the behest of their manager in a desperate attempt to appeal to the American market. On "Drive," Orr actually sings the lyrics, and it turns out they're kind of poignant:
Who's gonna tell you when
It's too late?
Who's gonna tell you things
Aren't so great?

You can't go on
Thinkin' nothing's wrong
But now
Who's gonna drive you home

Who's gonna pick you up
When you fall?
Who's gonna hang it up
When you call?
Who's gonna pay attention
To your dreams?
And who's gonna plug their ears
When you scream?

Who's gonna hold you down
When you shake?
Who's gonna come around
When you break?
Can't she just ... call a cab? OK, seriously, this one is for all those self-destructive types out there who are in need of a little "reality check." I like how the singer starts out by describing broader life situations such as "things not being so great" or "having dreams" but then ends with the more immediate concern of who, precisely, will be able or willing to take care of this person "tonight." "Listen girl, you can continue to live in denial as long as you choose, but you actually have a specific problem that you need to solve now." And the question just hangs there, the implication being, "Who's gonna drive you home? Because it might not be me this time, baby."

And so, the Cars pulled off a haunting ballad, with a haunting video to match, though it turns out the person who was shortly going to need a ride home was actually Ric Ocasek's then-wife Suzanne, because during the making of the video Ocasek met and began a relationship with Czech swimsuit model Paulina Porizkova. Geez Ric. At least Billy Joel waited until he got a divorce. Here the troubled little Paulina sits in an empty room in a white hospital gown, drawing scribbles on the walls with crayons, fiddling with her flawless hair under the kind of intense venetian blind glare not seen since Double Indemnity, swaying back and forth like a child, then laughing, then crying, all the in span of just a few minutes (or so we're led to believe). Can anyone help this poor little supermodel who just can't take it anymore?

However, "Drive" quickly became associated with a group of people in much more need of assistance than Czech supermodels: starving African children (it's always the starving African children). During the Live Aid broadcast in 1985, the song served as the soundtrack to a montage (introduced by David Bowie!) of famished Ethiopians. When a shot of an emaciated child found itself serendipitously accompanied by the line "Who's gonna plug their ears/When you scream," a thousand white people's wallets split open from the sheer strain of liberal guilt. Famine-porn montage aside, the Cars actually performed "Drive" during the concert, and for a song that seemed like such a studio creation, I have to say that it translated to the stage better than I would have guessed. But I'm thinking at least half the inebriated concertgoers began wondering, as they soaked in the majesty of Ben Orr's sunglasses, "My God, he's right - who is going to drive me home tonight?"

Monday, October 27, 2014

Look Out America, Here Come Those Genesis Hit Singles AKA Phil's Close Shave With A Sinister L.A. Cult

And then it was 1978, and then one of the members of Genesis whom no one really noticed was in Genesis decided to leave, and the group basically sounded the same without him as they did with him, and, in the end, it only left more room for Phil Fucking Collins to do his thang. I guess Steve Hackett just couldn't "hack it." Boo-yah! Too bad, because ...And Then There Were Three... not only became Genesis' most successful album in the US to that point (peaking at #14), but it became the first Genesis album to generate an honest-to-goodness American hit single. Screw this prog shit, we wanna get on the radio. Here's the supposed "background" from Wikipedia:
The song started from a chord sequence by guitarist Mike Rutherford, who also claimed he wrote the lyrics in about five minutes. At the time, the band usually wrote songs individually. Keyboardist Tony Banks was quoted: "It was our only truly group-written number. Mike played the riff, then I started playing a chord sequence and melody line on it, which Phil then centralized around. It worked so well as a very simple thing; it was enough as it stood. I'd just written a simple love lyric for "Many Too Many," and I think Mike was keen to try the same thing. Maybe "Follow You Follow Me" was almost too banal, but I got used to it. I think we find it much easier to write long stories than simple love songs." Collins has described it as "a great rhythm track" but claimed it "was not intended to be a hit single."
Sure, Phil, play it coy; we know what your real intentions were. While "Follow You Follow Me" might sound like a solid slice of romantic blandness (Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes, "Its calm, insistent melody, layered with harmonies, is a perfect soft rock hook, although there's a glassy, almost eerie quality to the production"), the true story of its origins is as lurid and shocking as any in the Genesis catalog. From In The Air Tonight:
We were in Long Beach, a couple of days early before a show. I saw a few fliers that looked intriguing. "The Motherlode: Discover your true purpose. Only $5.95." My true purpose? I mean, who could pass that up?

When I showed up to the seminar, though, I knew I'd gotten more than I'd bargained for. The lecture hall was covered in tin foil. Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1 was emanating from the speakers. Suddenly, the lights dimmed, and three men wearing bright green loincloths and balancing tortoises on their heads stepped into the room. "We are the Motherlode. Together we will show you the path to love and beauty. But first, you must prove that you are ready." The man in the middle pointed to a young college kid in the audience. "What is your name, sir?"

"Uh, Joe."

"Please step forward Joe." Joe haltingly made his way to the front. "Now, Joe, to prove that you are ready to experience your true nature, you must go into this closet and ... rape a tortoise."

Joe stood there mute.

"Are you afraid, Joe?"

"No, no, I just ... do I really need to ... you know?"

"It's all right, Joe. Please, all of the Motherlode, join in with me and say, 'It's all right, Joe.'"

"It's all right, Joe," we chanted in unison.

Five minutes later, Joe came out with a golden jewel around his neck. So, you know, that's where "It's Alright Joe" came from.

Then we were taken into another room where an elderly woman sat tied to a metal chair. A disembodied male voice filled the room. "We have now brought you deep into the Motherlode. As a member of the Motherlode, you must not be swayed by cheap sympathy. Obey your orders, not your instincts. To test your dedication, we will now perform a ritual with Lady Delphi. Please do not interrupt the ritual. Lady Delphi may make requests. Please ignore these requests. We shall begin."

Suddenly a spotlight shone on Lady Delphi. Just a few seconds later, the rope around her wrists and ankles burst into flame. She began shrieking and hollering, "Untie me please! Untie me please!" One of my fellow neophytes, horrified at the scene, stepped forward to assist her, but the disembodied voice shouted, "The lady lies! The lady lies!" The would-be rescuer stepped back for a moment, but his concern overcame him and he began reaching for the rope. A trap door opened beneath him and he let out a blood-curdling scream. "Will no one help me?," the lady continued to cry. Personally, after what happened to the first fellow, I wasn't going to chance it. Without the slightest warning, the flames died out, the rope fell from the lady's body, she stood up, took off what had apparently been a mask, and revealed herself to be a beautiful young female. "Those who remain have proven their faith," the disembodied voice said. "Others have revealed themselves unworthy of the truth and the light." So yeah, that was the inspiration for two songs, actually, "Burning Rope" and "The Lady Lies." You'd think some of our fans would've figured this crap out already.

Anywhoo, I looked around and there were five men dressed as Big Bird standing on the side of the room. "Many are the false icons of our age."

"Many too many," said the Big Birds.

"Join with me now."

"Many too many. Many too many." All my fellow attendees slowly began chanting. I didn't want to rock the boat. "Many too many. Many too many."

The five Big Birds walked into the center of the room and huddled together. Then five other men dressed as Cookie Monster proceeded to flog the Big Birds with massive whips.

"Be not like the many, be like the few."

The Big Birds scattered and the Cookie Monsters slowly took off their fur to reveal jumpsuits lined with rhinestones. Now they were all wearing Elvis masks.

"When you follow the Motherlode, you are following yourself. You are following yourself, and you are following us, for to do one is to do the other. I will follow you, will you follow me? Say with me now: follow you, follow me."

"Follow you, follow me."

"Follow you, follow me."

Strobe lights then came on and we were led into a hallway. I was getting a little bored of the whole thing, to be honest. I walked past what looked like a door, with a little slit of light showing through the side. I pushed against it and suddenly found myself out in broad daylight. My face recoiled at the sight of the mid-day L.A. sun. I caught a cab, went back to the hotel, and started telling the guys what happened.

"Pretty bizarre, huh?"

"Phil, do you know where you were?"

"No, where?"

"You were in a cult."

"What are you talking about?"

"You were in a cult, man. You're lucky you got out of there alive. Didn't you hear about this Jonestown thing?"

"What Jonestown thing?"

They shook their heads in bemused dismay. "Oh, Phil, never mind."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Allnighter: Glenn Frey, Yuppie Sex God

(Note: For some reason, Mr. Frey and/or his legal team have put a copyright claim on all YouTube clips featuring songs from The Allnighter, which is odd, considering every song from No Fun Aloud is readily available on the site, and considering this album is 30 years old and wasn't even that popular when it came out. Why The Allnighter, Glenn? Why? Think of all the top-notch publicity Cosmic American Blog was about to give your sleazy 1984 opus! Nonetheless, I have decided to go ahead with my post, and if at some point these tracks pop up on YouTube, I'll just add them in later. In the meantime, if you're simply too curious, you can acquire the discussed recordings using your medium of choice.)

Although he'd already smothered himself in plenty of vaseline on No Fun Aloud, for his second solo album, The Allnighter, Glenn Frey slid even further into his unique soft-core L.A. universe. This album is like ten different Viagra commercials. What I really want to know is: what, exactly, inspired Frey pick up his guitar and think, "You know what the music scene really needs right now? It needs this." I picture him listening to a Prince record and feeling the thrill of competition. "He thinks he can make sexy music? I can make sexy music."

At first glance, the title track seems to be about L.A.'s most inexhaustible gigolo, but I'm starting to think it's actually about a vibrator. Tell me what you think:
Lonely girl, rainy night
Lookin' for that number
She needs someone to treat her right
There's plenty of men she could call
But she wants him most of all
Oh God, I hope he's home tonight
She needs a love from a real exciter
She needs the allnighter

The allnighter
He's the one, the one she calls
When she gets that feeling
Some nights she just can't stop herself
He's tough and tender, a soul bender
Ain't no service he can't render
He touches her like nobody else
He brings out the love, love, love deep inside her
He's the allnighter

Now when all the stimulation lets you down, down, down
And there ain't no medication layin' around, 'round, 'round
Ya feel your little heart begin to pound and pound
He's a satisfier of that one desire

Other guys come and go
They may try, but they don't know
Every girl needs special care
Oh, he's so bad, he's so good
He makes it feel just the way it should
Nobody else can take her there
He's the real thing, the pure delighter
He's the allnighter
"There's plenty of men she could call/But she wants him most of all"? "He's tough and tender, a soul bender"? I'm sure there are some supremely bendable sex toys around. "Every girl needs special care"? "Nobody else can take her there"? I think I'm on to something.

Then there's "Sexy Girl," which climbed all the way up to #20 on the strength of it's Huey Lewis-esque bouncy beat and biting guitar fills, but here's a general rule for aspiring songwriters: if you have to put the word "sexy" in your song title, your song probably isn't very sexy (see: Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"; Air's "Sexy Boy"). Here, Glenn composes a slightly toned down Penthouse Forum letter in which he shares with us his good fortune in real estate matters:
She moved in next door to me
And she showed me her world
What a neighbor
Thanks for the favor
She's a very sexy girl

She's a sexy girl (sexy girl, sexy girl)
She's a very sexy girl
She's a sexy girl (sexy girl, sexy girl)
She's a very sexy girl

I got a feeling I can't go wrong
'Cause every time I see her
It's like hearing my favorite song
She's already down the steps
She's way down the block
But my heart keeps beating faster
And it just won't stop

I love to take her walkin'
And when we started talkin'
I'd tell her she's the finest I've ever seen
She'd look into my eyes,
But then I'd realize
I'm holding on to a dream

Stop any man walking down the street
Ask him what kind of girl he'd like to meet
There's not one thing in the whole wide world
He'd rather see than a sexy girl
At least the video (currently muted, but screw it, I'm embedding it anyway) is a little more realistic: when Frey shows up to the girl's door with a bottle of champagne, she says hello ... and so does her football jersey-wearing boyfriend. Still, Glenn makes less of a spectacle of himself than the fat, balding, Hawaiian shirt-wearing neighbor whose garden hose mimics his erectile behavior.

But it's not all fun and Hustler on The Allnighter. With "Smuggler's Blues," perhaps the musical step-child of his buddy Bob Seger's "The Fire Down Below," Frey spins a bluesy drug dealing tale so gritty it would make Tony Montana blush:
There's trouble on the streets tonight
I can feel it in my bones
I had a premonition
That he should not go alone
I knew the gun was loaded
But I didn't think he'd kill
Everything exploded
And the blood began to spill

So baby, here's your ticket
Put the suitcase in your hand
Here's a little money now
Do it just the way we planned
You be cool for twenty hours
And I'll pay you twenty grand

I'm sorry it went down like this
And someone had to lose
It's the nature of the business
It's the smuggler's blues

The sailors and pilots
The soldiers and the law
The pay offs and the rip offs
And the things nobody saw
No matter if it's heroin, cocaine, or hash
You've got to carry weapons
'Cause you always carry cash

There's lots of shady characters
Lots of dirty deals
Every name's an alias
In case somebody squeals
It's the lure of easy money
It's gotta very strong appeal

Perhaps you'd understand it better
Standin' in my shoes
It's the ultimate enticement
It's the smuggler's blues

See it in the headlines
You hear it ev'ry day
They say they're gonna stop it
But it doesn't go away
They move it through Miami
Sell it in L.A.
They hide it up in Telluride
I mean it's here to stay

It's propping up the governments
In Columbia and Peru
You ask any D.E.A. man
He'll say "There's nothin' we can do"
From the office of the President
Right down to me and you

It's a losing proposition
But one you can't refuse
It's the politics of contraband
It's the smuggler's blues
If you're thinking this practically sounds like an episode of Miami Vice, well ... so did the producers of Miami Vice. According to Wikipedia, "The single 'Smuggler's Blues' helped to inspire the Miami Vice episode of the same name, and Frey was invited to star in that episode, which was Frey's acting d├ębut." I'm not sure if the video is a truncated version of the episode or something else entirely, but you know what? He's not half bad!

But if "Smuggler's Blues" gives the listener an impression of moral ambivalence, on "Better In The U.S.A.," Frey picks a side and he ain't afraid to admit it. Perhaps he heard Don Henley's "Them And Us" and thought, "You what Don? I can do a better Cold War song than you can." When the Beatles recorded "Back In The U.S.S.R." and turned it into a Chuck Berry/Beach Boys pastiche, they were joking. But Glenn decided to write the same exact kind of song about the U.S., and I think he was actually serious. "Better In The U.S.A." reads like a Fox News rant about how liberals should stop complaining about all of America's flaws because, hey, Russia's worse! Well, the Soviet Union probably was worse, but that's not saying much. This might have made a good television short narrated by Charlton Heston, but as an '80s pop song, it's kind of awkward:
Well, they look to the east, they look to the west
The Third World wonders, which way's the best
We got freedom, we got soul
We got blue jeans and rock 'n' roll

Man there ain't no choice
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better in the U.S.A.)
You can be what you want
Say what you wanna say (It's better in the U.S.A.)
How can I make you understand
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better in the U.S.A.)

I hear the same propaganda, day after day
It's gettin' so hip, to knock the U.S.A
If we're so awful, and we're so bad
You oughta check the nightlife in Leningrad

Man it ain't even close
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better in the U.S.A.)
If you could see behind the curtain
Life is cold and gray (It's better in the U.S.A.)
How can I make you understand
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better, it's better)

Nobody's perfect and change comes slow
It's really up to you which way you wanna go
You can move to the left or move to the right
You can stand in the dark, you can stand in the light

Drivin' on the beach on a night in June
Me and my baby and the lover's moon
We're playin' sweet soul music, got it turned up loud
Makes me feel so good, makes me feel so proud

Man there ain't no choice
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better in the U.S.A.)
They'd be movin' here from Moscow
If they could only find a way (It's better in the U.S.A.)
How can I make you understand
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better)

We got burgers and fries (In the U.S.A.)
We got the friendly skies (In the U.S.A.)
We got the beautiful girls (In the U.S.A.)
They got the beautiful curls (In the U.S.A.)
We're drivin' beautiful cars (In the U.S.A.)
We're diggin' movie stars (In the U.S.A.)
We get to make romance (In the U.S.A.)
We let the little girls dance (In the U.S.A.)
It's better baby!
Nice sweater, baby
What'd you say, you and me go for a little drive?
Come on
Leave it to Glenn Frey to turn a patriotic anthem into an excuse to pick up an unsuspecting female.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday": Where The Soul Of Aerobic Rock Dances Eternally In The Cosmos

Ten million light years from now, when the Bleeblox species of the planet Yurkurk in the Beta Luxus System can barely receive any signal from 1980s Planet Earth, when all the last remnants of '80s culture have been swallowed up by the inevitable pull of dark matter, only a few musical blips will remain. "Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday" will be those blips.

These three singles are indestructible. Sledgehammer, chainsaw, liquid nitrogen - no weapon that currently exists could destroy them. Whatever it is that makes up this beast we call "80s music," these three singles contain its secret essence. Someone who did not know anything about '80s music, and listened to these three singles, and didn't like them, would probably never like '80s music.

To be honest, I used to not like "Lucky Star" very much either. Yeah, it was on the Immaculate Collection, but whenever I made Madonna "best of" mixes for my friends, I usually left it off. Of course, I was an idiot, and must now beg forgiveness from the dance pop gods for offending them so. What once sounded gratingly simplistic and annoying now sounds delightfully uncomplicated and infectious. Question: is the gurgling synthesizer at the start supposed to make us think of a "star"? Or maybe it's Madonna's subtle homage to the Who's "Baba O'Riley"? Honestly, I don't have much to say about "Lucky Star" that hasn't already been said better by AMG's Stewart Mason in his song review (previously referenced by Zrbo in the comments section of my old post on "Into The Groove" from about five years ago), other than that "Borderline" was apparently released after "Lucky Star." Well, no AMG writer's perfect:
Madonna had released four singles before "Lucky Star," with "Holiday" and "Borderline" reaching the Billboard Top 20 and "Everybody" and "Burning Up" doing less well. "Lucky Star" had been the song that got Madonna signed to Sire Records in the first place, however, and it would be her commercial breakthrough, reaching number four in the summer of 1984 and becoming one of her defining early hits, thanks hugely to a simple but powerfully effective video that simply showed Madonna, with a pair of backup dancers, showing off both her moves and her body against a simple white backdrop. As a video, it's about 500 times sexier than the entire Sex coffee table book. As a song, "Lucky Star" just feels slight on casual exposure, but a closer listen makes it sound downright minimalist, and consciously so. A simple chorus based on an everyday children's rhyme, sketchy verses that seem to have no function other than to propel the song into that chorus, and a funky guitar-and-electronic-percussion bridge, the song is dead simple and given an absolutely bare-bones arrangement and antiseptically clean production, but for some reason, it works. It's near impossible to hear this song without dancing, even if you don't look one-hundredth as good as Madonna while you're doing it.

Although I do find the video compelling, I can't help but feel that Madonna ... creeps me out a little. She's like the Denny's of Sexy: sure, it gets the job done, but where's the warmth? While ostensibly trying to praise her artistry, some of the intellectuals quoted on the song's Wikipedia page might unintentionally confirm my opinions:
Author Peter Goodwin, in his book Television Under the Tories: Broadcasting Policy 1979–1997, commented that although "Lucky Star" is not a narrative video, in the clip Madonna plays at least four characters:—the person in sunglasses looking; a break-dancing girl; an androgynous social dancer; and a seductress. The juxtaposition of all these characterizations portray Madonna as a narcissistic self-lover. Images of Madonna's body writhing against the white background generates the question whether she is addressing her lover or herself in the song. According to Goodman, Madonna creates an eroticized woman for her own pleasure only. Time noted that "[s]he's sexy, but she doesn't need men [...] she's kind of there all by herself."
Then what does she need us for? Oh who cares, it's still a great single. On the album, the silence following the fade of "Lucky Star" is broken by a gentle, lightly ringing keyboard intro, reminiscent of the one at the start of Stephanie Mills' "Never Knew Love Like This Before." Mason writes:
"Borderline" ... is a pure treasure, one of those unabashedly commercial pop songs that also manages to at least hint at deeper emotions ... Slower in tempo than the rest of the album, but with enough of a backbeat and a wiggly synthesizer bass line to keep it from being a ballad, "Borderline" hits a slinky groove from its vibraphone-like intro all the way to the throaty scatting Madonna does just as the song starts its fade out.
Well, I do tend to cringe slightly every time she sings "Keep pushing me-uh, keep pushing me-uh, keep pushin' my luuh-huuv..." Keep pushing what, Madonna? Oh, you mean keep pushing your genitals? Don't know where I got that idea. After having spent years listening to the Immaculate Collection mix of "Borderline" (which, as far as I can tell, is not too different from the single mix), these days I really enjoy listening to the slightly longer, less over-exposed album mix.

Some of the key differences:
  1. There's a drum machine in the right channel that is more prominent in the album mix. Usually (watch in disbelief as I attempt to demonstrate my knowledge of musical terminology) a drum machine will place the accent on the second and fourth beats in the measure. But what I love about this drum machine in "Borderline" is that the accent is on the first beat of the measure. You'd think that would be really annoying, but I am totally into it. The thing is, the more prominent drum machine in the center channel is still placing the accent on the second and fourth beats, so the sense of "conventional" rhythm is still there, but there's an unusual sense of contrast. Oh yeah!
  2. In the single mix, right after the line "Cause you've got the best of me," there's a prominent synthesizer riff, but on the album version, that riff is missing. This should bother me, but I'm kind of digging the empty space right there.
  3. There are several extra lines of lyrics that were edited out of the single mix, mostly beginning around the 4:00 mark, featuring such probing insights as "Keep on pushing me baby/Don't you know you drive me crazy," "Look what your love has done to me/Come on baby, set me free," and "You cause me so much pain, I think I'm going insane/What does it take to make you see?" It's like hidden easter eggs on the DVD!
The reason you can tell "Borderline" was released after "Lucky Star" is because it has a genuine video with an actual budget, although I don't know if bigger equals better. According to Wikipedia, there was an actual plot this time:
The accompanying music video portrayed Madonna with a Latin-American man as her boyfriend. She was enticed by a British photographer to pose and model for him, but later returned to her original boyfriend ... Posing for the photographer, Madonna looks towards the camera with challenge in her eyes thus depicting sexual aggression. At one moment in the video, she starts spraying graffiti over some lifeless classical statues thus portraying herself as a transgressor who breaks rules and attempts at innovation. With the video Madonna broke the taboo of interracial relationships. Although at first it seems that Madonna denies the Hispanic guy in favour of the photographer, later she rejects him thus implying her desire to control her own sexual pleasures or going over the established pop borderlines with lyrics like "You just keep on pushing my love, over the borderline". The contrasting image of Madonna, first as a messy blonde in the Hispanic sequence and later as a fashioned glamorous blonde, suggested that one can construct one's own image and identity ... The British photographer and his studio is decorated with the classical sculptures and nude statues holding spears in a phallic symbol. In contrast, phallic symbols portrayed in the Hispanic neighbourhood included a street lamp which Madonna embraces and a pool cue held erect by Madonna's boyfriend.
Eh. I prefer the videos where she's just doing her aerobic dance moves with her club buddies. Just look at the way she stares at the camera during the "da da da" fade-out. Yes, Madonna, I can see you there.

Finally, there is "Holiday." I've probably said this about an '80s song before, and I'll probably say this about an '80s song again, but this time, I mean it: "Holiday" is the perfect '80s song. And can you ask for a more perfect "first hit"? Although it only originally peaked at #16, the radio kept on playing it and playing it and they've never really stopped. It's kind of sad to think that Madonna never topped her first hit, but hey, the Pet Shop Boys never topped theirs either. Again, after listening to the Immaculate Collection mix for so long, hearing the original version is like tasting chocolate chip ice cream for the first time - all over again. The intro alone is its own scoop of perfection:
  1. It all begins innocently enough, with the basic keyboard melody (perhaps owing something, as I mentioned a couple of years ago, to ABC's "The Look Of Love") plus the drum machine and imitation tambourine (?) for the length of one bar. Promising, very promising.
  2. Ah, but then another keyboard comes in, playing a much higher riff, in the second bar, sounding like hot fudge being poured over your already delicious sundae.
  3. There's an emphatic, synthesized "bwonk," and the rhythm ... explodes.
  4. We've now got a cowbell in the left channel (according to Wikipedia, played by Ms. Ciccone herself!).
  5. Also, the entrance of the bass line, which, as everyone knows, is the bass line to end all bass lines.
  6. These additions stand alone for two bars, but then a chicken scratch guitar straight from Parliament's "Flash Light" jumps in on the right channel, and another synthesizer trying to sound like a guitar spreads itself across both channels.
  7. Two more bars pass, and the apathetic ladies come in. Mason writes, "In the tradition of Chic's very similar 'Good Times,' Madonna sings the 'Holiday/Celebrate' chorus so completely deadpan that it sounds like she's being sarcastic ..."
And so, an entire minute and five seconds has passed before Madonna has even started singing. Houdini himself never devised such an entrance. By this point, the song can do no wrong. A little staggered vocal overdubbing here ("If we took a holiday/Ooh yeah, ooh yeah"), a little Latin salsa piano there ... it goes on for six freaking minutes and I wouldn't change a thing. A thing. Not even some Yoko Ono caterwauling could kill this vibe.

I'm not sure the same level of praise can be directed toward the video, however. There may be no larger discrepancy between the level of familiarity with a hit single and its accompanying music video than in the case of "Holiday." I'm getting conflicting information as to whether this was even released, and Madonna probably issued a court order requesting that it be wiped from the earth, but here it is. Boy, this video is cheap - cheaper than even "Lucky Star." It makes "Everybody" look like Raiders Of The Lost Ark. There are a total of about three different camera angles. And here's the real question: why are they dancing in front of Ichabod Crane's bedroom? The whole thing feels like they just wanted to film it and get it over with so they could hurry up and go take a holiday.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Bangles: That "Other" '80s Girl Band AKA If Pope Francis And Jesus Had A Fistfight, Who Would Win?

Everybody lumps the Go-Go's and the Bangles together. Somewhere in the world, somebody just did exactly that, maybe like five seconds ago. A lot people probably don't even know which band came first, although it's really not that hard. True, they were both all-female bands, they were both active in the '80s, and they both enjoyed roughly the same amount of commercial success. You're probably thinking I'm about to tell you the similarities end there. Actually, they don't.

Like the Go-Go's, the Bangles started out as part of a very specific Los Angeles alternative music scene. In the case of the Go-Go's, that scene was L.A. punk, but in the case of the Bangles, that scene was the delightfully named Paisley Underground. And like the Go-Go's, the Bangles became pretty much the only band from their scene to hit the big time and infiltrate the Top 40, MTV, etc.

Although in reality the two bands were almost contemporaries (with the Bangles even releasing their first single as early as 1981, the same year as Beauty And The Beat), I think it's more accurate to say that the Bangles were what you'd get if you'd added three years to the Go-Go's. Handily, this three year addition actually describes the differences in the two bands' sounds. While the Go-Go's drew on the pre-British Invasion girl group, surf rock, and Brill Building pop of 1961-1963 (the Beach Boys, the Shangri-La's, The Shirelles, The Ventures, Lesley Gore), the Bangles drew on the post-British Invasion American folk-rock, garage rock, sunshine pop, and early psychedelic rock of 1965-1967 (the Byrds, the Turtles, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas & the Papas, Nuggets-style garage bands). So they followed the Go-Go's by about three years in both '60s musical influences, and actual '80s popularity!

Every so often the chattering classes will debate the question of which '80s all-girl band was better. But saying that the Bangles were better than the Go-Go's is like saying that Mars is better than Earth. I mean, yeah, Mars is cool and everything, but the best planet is obviously Earth. For me, the Go-Go's simply held more ... drama. The Bangles seemed calmer, more well-adjusted, not as outrageous or comical. Plus, unlike the Go-Go's, most of the Bangles' biggest hits were written by outside songwriters. Also, the Bangles slid further into MOR cheese than the Go-Go's ever did, although perhaps if the Go-Go's had stayed together longer they would have done the same. Let me put it this way: imagine if Belinda had released her solo material under the Go-Go's' name; that's sort of what happened to the Bangles. As for chart superiority, consider this one a draw: while the Bangles never had an album as big as Beauty and the Beat, the Go-Go's never had a single as big as "Walk Like an Egyptian." Still, even if, in my opinion, the Bangles were not as great as the Go-Go's, that doesn't mean they were not also great.

Then there is the question of Belinda vs. Susanna. Although I appreciate Susanna Hoffs' physical appeal (with those sultry ebony eyes and long flowing Jewish locks) and am sympathetic to those who may feel particularly enthusiastic about it, there is no legitimate argument here. It's like Pope Francis vs. Jesus. You may admire Pope Francis, but if Jesus and Pope Francis has a fistfight, I don't need to tell you who would win.

Although it must have been somewhat irritating for the Bangles to hear themselves constantly be compared to a prior band, if you have it in your head that some sort of "rivalry" developed between the Go-Go's and the Bangles, here's the funny part: they were actually friends! Yes Virginia, sometimes all your most precious dreams really do come true. I'm not saying they were good friends, but they probably got along with each other better than, say, they got along with their own band members.

Look at that photo. It's like the Million Dollar Quartet. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but allow me at least fifty. Look at the difference between the facial expressions of Jane, Belinda, et al. and Susanna. The Go-Go's are like, "Aw, look, it's our little sister band! Isn't that cute?" And Susanna is like, "Nobody gonna compare me to anybody. I shouldn't even be standing here."

But even if a rivalry had genuinely begun to brew, it couldn't have lasted long, since the Go-Go's imploded just as the Bangles first rose to prominence. Mostly, it sounds like the Go-Go's were just too entertaining to hate. From a recent interview with Hoffs:
The problem with the Bangles is that we had a lot of juicy stuff but nobody knows about it because we were very discreet. But the Go-Go's were less discreet [laughs].

The funny thing was the Bangles had less of a good girl image on the outside, and the Go-Go's had this Little Miss Sunshine, sweet American pie image. But they were just crazy! I mean, they were just wild, wild chicks, and they'll tell you that themselves [laughing]. And the Bangles had this other image of kind of being a garage rock band, a little bit less, you know, 'shiny with a bow in our hair.'

I know Belinda and she's great and I can tell you I've had some of the craziest nights of my life with her, oh my God! She's completely fantastic.
Oh we know, Susanna. Believe me, we know. Just one request: next interview, provide more details please?

So, in sum: the '80s were blessed with more superstar all-female rock bands than basically every other decade combined. But long before "Eternal Flame," first there was the Paisley Underground. The Paisley What-erground, you say? All right, give me a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mark Knopfler, "Skating Away" With My Heart

I love albums that take their title from the lyrics of a song on the album but not the actual title of a song on the album. For example: CCR's Willy And The Poor Boys ("Down on the Corner"), Simon & Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme ("Scarborough Fair/Canticle"), Roxy Music's Stranded ("Street Life"), Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True ("Alison"), De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising ("The Magic Number"), The Pixies' Doolittle ("Mr. Grieves"), Nirvana's Nevermind ("Smells Like Teen Spirit"), Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish ("For Tomorrow"), and, perhaps most famously, Dark Side Of The Moon ("Brain Damage/Eclipse"). Wait, you mean that song wasn't actually called "Willy and the Poor Boys?" That song wasn't actually called "Dark Side of the Moon"? You can go far in life once you start paying attention. Add, to this list, Making Movies and "Skateaway." According to Wikipedia, however, Mark Knopfler had actually written a song called "Making Movies," but thankfully it didn't make the cut; otherwise it would have ruined my whole paragraph.

Given that, unlike its predecessors, the third track on Making Movies is not a song about the challenges and pitfalls of romance, you'd be tempted to think that it would be a lighthearted change of pace. But Knopfler's artistry may have snuck up on you once again, because it might be the most aching, tender, anthemic track on the whole freaking album.

It begins with an absurdly slow fade-in, as Dire Straits' drummer is apparently bouncing a basketball in an abandoned alleyway. The organ comes in at 0:25, then Knopfler's nimble fingers make their presence known around 0:34, followed by the voice a few seconds later:
I seen a girl on a one way corridor
Stealing down a wrong way street
For all the world like an urban toreador
She had wheels on, on her feet
Well the cars do the usual dances
Same old cruise and the curbside crawl
But the rollergirl, she's taking chances
They just love to see her take them all
Interesting. A girl on roller skates, comically impervious to the dangerous traffic surrounding her, no big heart-wrenching love story, right? The music's got sort of a low-key bluesy groove, probably going to stay that way for the whole six minutes. Your sensitive and vulnerable soul shouldn't have to worry about being shattered, right? Uh-oh, the bridge sounds like trouble:
No fears alone at night
She's sailing through the crowd
In her ears the phones are tight
And the music's playing loud
Hmm, they're picking up some steam. Are they building towards something grand and sweeping? Nope, not yet at least, as Knopfler tosses off a fancy little guitar run, everything calms back down, and you're still OK:
Hallelujah here she comes, Queen Rollerball
Enchante, what can I say, don't care at all
You know she used to have to wait around
She used to be the lonely one
But now that she can skate around town
She's the only one
Hold on, it's that meddlesome bridge again, dangling the threat of Knopflerian majesty over your head. But this time, Pick Withers does a tasty drum roll, and you better brace yourself, because here it comes:
She gets rock 'n' roll in a rock 'n' roll station
In a rock 'n' roll dream
She's making movies on location
She don't know what it means
And the music make her wanna be the story
And the story was whatever was the song, what it was
Rollergirl don't worry
D.J. play the movies all night long
Daaaaaamn. Dire Straits just gave my heart an aneurysm. That chorus is like a glimpse into an entirely different song, from an entirely different universe (I think it's actually in a different key, which helps). Also, props to Roy Bittan for pounding out a choice piano chord or two, fleshing out the glory. That chorus is like the beautiful sound that Rollergirl hears in her head. Sure, on the outside, to her fellow ignorant city-dwellers, she might seem like some narcissistic little punk. But in her mind, she's the hero of an epic film that's screening on an endless loop - and there are no boring scenes.

To me, "Skateaway" is one of those luminous songs about the power of music. Music can turn the mundane into the fantastical, the dreary into the exciting, the insignificant into the essential. But Mark Knopfler manages to say this with the music, by juxtaposing the calm, repetitive verse with the soaring, intensely melodic chorus. The music makes me want to be the story, dude!

And the amazing part is, his singing range is so horizontal, he barely even hits the soaring notes he's actually written for himself, but those notes are so soaring, it feels like he hits them anyway. It's like how FDR always seemed like he was walking, even though he was merely holding on to his aides, or a cane, or a podium (yeah, I caught a little of that Ken Burns documentary last week). Here's how great this song is: Knopfler actually starts laughing at one point (around 2:56), and yet this does not reduce the song's emotional punch one lousy iota. Unquestionably the most beautiful moment in a song full of beautiful moments: during the second go-round of the chorus, right after Knopfler sings "DJ play the movies" at the 3:54 mark, his guitar hits a note so piercingly high, it doesn't sound like it came from a real guitar. It sounds like it came from a unicorn's tears, or a wood sprite's orgasm.

And then, at 3:58, it all turns to dust again as the band brings everything back down to lazy-ville, as if the rock and roll dreams in Rollergirl's head could never be taken seriously by the jaded truckers and cab drivers surrounding her. Nope, it'll just be her little secret. Rollergirl skates off into the neon night, and that chorus never happened.

Like the videos for "Tunnel of Love" and "Romeo and Juliet," I'm not sure if the claustrophobic, hermetically sealed vibe of the studio-crafted video for "Skateaway" really captures the "bustling, real-world city boulevard" feel I get from the song, but it still has its fun and/or surreal charms, particularly the slow-motion shots of Rollergirl (apparently played by the ex-patriate daughter of a Nigerian president!) skating through the faceless masses. For me, the most powerful part of the video might the very last minute, which simply consists of a single uncut shot of the band playing in front of what appears to be the Dawn of Man. For Dire Straits, I think the music really was the story.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Day The Go-Go's Died (Or Did They?) AKA It Ain't Over Till The Slightly Overweight Belinda Sings

Rome fell to the Huns. Napoleon lost one battle too many. The British Empire collapsed under the weight of its own antiquated colonialism. Sooner or later, all great things must come to an end. And so it was ... with the Go-Go's. From Lips Unsealed:
The five of us rehearsed with the intention of making a new album. We tried to come up with our own songs and we worked through songs outside writers had submitted. The record company wanted more creative control over the band's next steps. We didn't like it, but we didn't have any better ideas.

Frustrated at every turn and no good at communicating with one another, the band dissolved into factions, with Charlotte and me pitted against Kathy and Gina, and Paula left uncomfortably alone on the periphery as we fought during rehearsals. The demos we recorded sounded terrible ... the band had lost its creative center. It no longer felt like the Go-Go's.
Ah, yes, the druggies vs. the rhythm section. Or rather, the (both soon to be relatively sober?) superstar lead singer and chief composer/multi-instrumentalist vs. the two most expendable band members. Not to give it away, but I don't think this was going to end well for the bassist and drummer.
I finally met secretly with Charlotte, who agreed with me that after two months of work the only decent, Go-Go's sounding song we had was "Mad About You," which Paula had brought in. Otherwise the band wasn't working anymore. It was early May 1985. We had an album to record and a tour to set up. But both struck us as unlikely. The lack of material aside, the dynamics were way off and no one was getting along. Charlotte and I decided it was time to call it a day.

We talked it through until we assured ourselves that the band had stopped moving forward artistically and that we as individuals were stifled. We could do other things. I had already been approached about doing a solo album. Though that hadn't been an option when the band was my top and only priority, it sounded viable now, and Charlotte was amenable to working with me.
Hmmm. A solo album, eh? A new song called "Mad About You"? Sneaky, sneaky Belinda, pulling that little ace out of your sleeve, at just the right moment. And secretly roping Charlotte into your handy getaway plot! Dealing that ace could've cost you all your chips, but oh ... how you hit the jackpot.
The two of us called a meeting with the other girls on the second Friday of the month and broke the news that we wanted to end the band. Kathy and Gina were not just shocked, they were blindsided and fought back with anger and bitterness at the way we handled the situation. Kathy insisted we were overreacting and had overcome worse, but I kept to the basic premise: the band wasn't working, the songs were terrible, and the chemistry wasn't there.
But why let that stop you? It didn't stop Kiss. At any rate, there it was: the Go-Go's finally sealed their lips for good. Wait, what's that you say? Ah, but that's another tale for another time - one that is not without its share of intrigue, although between you and me, it couldn't quite measure up to the next twist in our saga, perhaps the most gripping twist of all.

You see, in a more ordinary universe, this would have been the end of the Belinda Carlisle story. Former Go-Go's lead singer fades away in a haze of garish leggings and coke. Ah, but fortunately, the universe in which we live is no ordinary one. It turns out that fate had other plans in store for the erstwhile Dottie Danger. And if you thought a story this good couldn't possibly get any better, well think again buddy.

By 1985, Belinda Carlisle had already demonstrated that she was no stranger to stunning career transformations, having morphed from grungy punk rebel to adorable New Wave princess. But that initial makeover would be small potatoes compared to what was to come. The '80s listening public failed to anticipate her most bizarre and seemingly unfathomable transformation yet. With the aid of a brand new (and rich) Hollywood husband, a little break in the consumption of the white powder, some strategic dieting and exercise, and the eager embrace of an impressively sanitized musical style, in 1986, Belinda Carlisle would finally assume the role she had been born to play, would finally claim her title as the unquestioned, uncontested, the one and only ... Queen Of Yuppie Rock.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Girls Just Want To ... Sing Sappy Aerobic Rock Ballads?

After just one song, did the world think it knew Cyndi Lauper? Well, Cyndi had other ideas. Or rather, maybe that was the idea all along. According to Wikipedia, "Initially Epic Records wanted 'Time After Time' as the album's lead-single. However, Lauper claimed that releasing a ballad first defines an artist in a certain way, noting that she could have been known as a balladeer and that it could have killed her career." The irony being, of course, that after She's So Unusual, Cyndi ended up primarily becoming known as a balladeer, but at least it was her choice.

Nonetheless, I'm still on the fence over how well her idiosyncratic vocal style, so suitable for dance-pop, works with balladry. For instance: when she sings "And darkness has turned to grey," the word "grey" almost sounds like "crack," and just another couple of lines later, the word "OK" almost manages to have three syllables in it. Also, usually when I say that a song sounds "incredibly, inescapably '80s," that's the highest praise in the world, but because, simply as a composition, "Time After Time" feels so much like a classic pop standard, I kind of wonder if the production, particularly the overpowering, synthesized bass line that sounds like it flowed right out of Giorgio Moroder's bowels, does the song a bit of a disservice. I almost wish I could hear what "Time After Time" would have sounded like if it had been been recorded by the Beatles. But that's probably true of any song. Well, maybe not "The Macarena."

Based on the opening minute of the video, it might be fair to say that Cyndi herself still had reservations about coming off too "sensitive" and "touchy-feely": she's lying in bed in a trailer, mouthing every word to the Marlene Dietrich film The Garden Of Allah, apparently clutching a giant porcelain dog. But once the song starts, things get a little squishy: she imagines seeing her mother in a doorway (the same real-life mother from the "Girls" video), fights with her boyfriend (after he teases her for getting a haircut that looks like she accidentally fell on a grate), and finally gives a dramatic train station goodbye that could have come straight out of an old Hollywood tear-jerker. According to Wikipedia, Cyndi's tears were real. By the end of it all, this video is actually kind of genuinely ... sad. Like, for reals.
Although it was the final hit off She's So Unusual, I have to say that "All Through The Night" kicks just as much fluorescent bracelet ass as the other three. The original version, by its songwriter Jules Shear, sounds like some sort of klezmer polka karaoke number, but somehow Cyndi heard a hit in there. Beginning with a sparkling synthesizer arpeggio (I'm pretty sure that's what it's called, and if it's not, well, that's what it's called now), the single quickly establishes an introspective, late night, after-party vibe, with a touch of the same slightly reggae flavor that "Girls" utilized. As opposed to the original version, Cyndi maximizes the power of the chorus by 1) keeping the verses really spare and percussion-free, and 2) letting a male voice join her on the chorus, almost turning the song into a duet. Then, at about the 2:10 mark, we're treated to a synthesizer solo that was apparently played by Pac-Man (or possibly Mrs. Pac-Man - my sources differ).

I suppose her singing is strident and affecting, but again, thanks to her interesting pronunciation choices, at times it's just so ... unusual. Some examples:
  • She turns the word "crying" into "kwy-ing."
  • In the line, "And it goes running," she puts the stress on "it." Seriously, who puts the stress on "it"?
  • For years I thought the word "meter" was actually "needle" and she simply just inserted a rogue "t" in there.
  • I thought "we won't reach back" was "we want respect." Was Rodney Dangerfield supposed to do this at some point?
  • I thought "same without saying" was "sadness outside." Still kind of works.
  • I thought "what by day they lack" was "what binding they lack." Why was the need for binding so urgent? God, if they only had some binding!
However, smart choice to let the chorus repeat an extra time (around 3:10). It's like the sound of a couple that just wants to let the magical evening linger a little longer before they have to say goodbye. It's like when you "fall back" in Daylight Savings Time and you realize that even though you'll still have to go to work in the morning, at least you get to stay up an extra hour and play video games.