Sunday, October 30, 2011

How Kool & The Gang Went Cosby

Once upon a time, back in 1969, a man named Robert Bell decided to go by the name of "Kool," and he began collaborating with some fellow musicians whom he then termed his "gang." This "Kool" and his so-called "gang" played a variety of what was then called "funk." Their songs boasted titles such as "Chocolate Buttermilk," "Raw Hamburger," "Electric Frog," "Funky Granny," and "Rated X." They didn't even have a lead singer. Who needs a lead singer when you're funky?

Among my peers, the most well-known track done by the funk-era Kool & The Gang is probably "Jungle Boogie," thanks to its usage in the opening credits of Pulp Fiction (Side note: did you know that '70s R&B actually existed before Quentin Tarantino discovered it?). The man delivering those guttural vocal ad-libs was apparently the band's roadie.

And who could forget their contribution to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the not-in-terribly-good-taste "Open Sesame"? I don't think lines like "Get on your camel and ride," or the comical usage of the "There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance" melody would go down too well in this day and age. But hey, there probably weren't too many Muslims in Studio 54, I'm guessing.

The '70s Kool & The Gang wasn't solely about high energy dance numbers, however. See "Summer Madness," their freaky, spaced-out version of a ballad.

But as every musician of the '70s quickly found out, the good times couldn't last forever. AMG gives the band's 1977 album The Force 1 1/2 stars. Lead single "Slick Superchick" peaked at #102. Suddenly, this gang wasn't so kool anymore.

Enter one James Taylor - who went by "J.T." in order to avoid confusion with the singer-songwriter of "Fire and Rain" fame.

One could argue that this James Taylor possessed even less of an edge than the other one. But with J.T. at the helm, Kool & The Gang not only returned to prominence, but swiftly eclipsed their earlier popularity.

Now, there are funk purists who adamantly claim that the '70s Kool & The Gang was the "real" Kool & The Gang, and that the version of the band that came to dominate radio in the '80s was watered down crap. These are probably the same people who think that Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd was the "real" Pink Floyd, or that Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac was the "real" Fleetwood Mac. These people were probably young adults in the '70s, they are probably 60 years old now, and nobody cares what they think anymore.

Yes, it's true that there might have been more "credibility" and "real emotion" in the early incarnation of Kool & The Gang. But here's how I see it. There were a lot of other bands like them. I mean, who wants to be just another good funk band? Better to be the absolute masters of a shitty genre than runners-up in a good genre, that's what I say.

And the thing is, I don't think it's quite as hard to make a good funk song as it is to make a good pop song. This coming from a songwriting genius, of course. But funk songs are like jams; at times, they're barely even songs. After a while they can get kind of samey. In my opinion, it takes more effort to write a song like "Cherish" than it does to write a song like "Jungle Boogie." The later Kool & The Gang songs have lyrics, and chord progressions. They're sturdier compositions.

But why do I have to choose, really? In the end, it's all kool with me.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Beatles: Rock Band Review

The Beatles were inarguably ahead of their time. As fellow blogger Little Earl used to remind me often, nearly all modern pop music has it's roots in what The Beatles did. Psychadelia? Check. Hard Rock? Check. Electronica? Check. Perhaps the only thing The Beatles didn't invent was dubstep. Indeed, they really forged new musical ground that continues to be explored to this day. It's too bad then that The Beatles: Rock Band comes well after it's time. That is meant as a great compliment - let me explain.

The videogame genre that's come to be known as the "music rhythm" genre began with the original Guitar Hero back in 2005. It soon developed a cult following, and with the release of Guitar Hero II a year later, seemed to explode in popularity. It became the party game, with friends lining up to take their turn on a plastic guitar. Through this plastic guitar with brightly colored buttons, players were expected to play along with a song by hitting the corresponding colored buttons as they were shown on screen. It was an elaborate karaoke of sorts, providing the thrill of being a guitar god without having to actually deal with the incredible difficulty of actually having to master true guitarmanship.

Soon a competitor came along in the form of Rock Band. Now people could play as a whole band, with plastic guitars, basses, drum kits, and microphones. Rock Band was definitely a step forward and took itself ever so slightly more serious than the Guitar Hero series. It was also around this time that the music rhythm genre began to become oversaturated. More and more versions kept being knocked out to bring in more cash: Guitar Hero 80s edition, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (complete with virtual G&R Slash as a playable character), Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Guitar Hero: Van Halen. These were all quick cash-ins, usually with little to no input by the featured artists, often featuring songs that supposedly 'inspired' the artist (seriously, a Foo Fighters song in Guitar Hero: Metallica, WTF!?).

Finally, in 2009, came word that The Beatles had given the Rock Band franchise permission to do a Rock Band version of The Beatles. Only this time things would be different, the surviving Beatles (and Yoko, don't forget Yoko) would have direct control on what was to be featured and how it all would be presented. They even went so far as to insist that their name be featured before the familiar Rock Band title, and thus we ended up with the magnificent The Beatles: Rock Band.

It's such a terrible shame then that The Beatles: Rock Band (TB:RB) was one of the last specific-band music games to come out. If only it had been the first, all the other titles would have benefited greatly, because the design of TB:RB is fantastic. Everything about the game screams quality.

The art style is superb, with cartoony looking versions of the fab four that have a somewhat whimsical look about them, apparently crafted under strict guidance from Apple Corps. (actually the whole game seems to have been strictly overseen by them, whoever 'they' are). The presentation is fantastic, taking you on a chronological journey, starting you off playing in the Cavern Club, to the Ed Sullivan show and all places inbetween, ending up on the roof of the Apple Corps. rooftop. For songs recorded at Abbey Road the game has added in "dreamscape" venues, with abstract whimsical nods to various songs (watch this to get what I mean).

This chronological progression really lets you see how the band progressed musically. The songs performed in the Cavern Club feel much more raw and live than the later tracks performed at Abbey Road studios which feel much more processed and musically dense. This is all helped by the various photos and short movies that you unlock as you progress. Some, if not most of these short movies are never before seen snippets and outtakes from various performances, movies, and interviews, though Little Earl would have to be the final judge on just how rare these really are.

TB:RB feels more than just a game, it's like an interactive history lesson that lets you play along. I feel like I actually learned stuff about The Beatles that I didn't previously know (like how the white album doesn't have more than two songs in a row sung by any given member). Ok, it's not going to wow a true afficianado, but for someone uneducated in Beatles lore, it offers a terrific overview of what The Beatles were about.

 It's like an interactive history lesson that let's you play along

There's all sorts of little details that make this package work. Like when you pick a song to play, in the first few seconds before the song plays there's audio of the band warming up to play the song, with perhaps a few practice chords or John muttering to someone to turn an amp up. Or how between each musical venue a short montage plays showing you some famous scenes and audio snippets to show what the band was up to. Perhaps the most impressive is the opening to the game, with an amazingly done montage that takes you through the full gamut of The Beatles (seriously, I could watch this a hundred times and still enjoy it).

Overall The Beatles: Rock Band is superb package. I haven't even yet mentioned that the game supports not only the typical Rock Band staples such as guitar, bass, and drums, but the game allows for two microphones to be hooked up for vocal harmonies. My only disappointment with this game is that I wish it had been even more of a history lesson. As it is there's only something like eight short movies that you can unlock, I would have been fine with twice as much. But really, there's not much to complain about. It's just such as shame that this game came out  in late 2009 after the music rhythm genre had already reached saturation, which resulted in poor sales. If this had come out earlier it could have laid the foundation for all sorts of music-games-as-history-lessons. Imagine a Pink Floyd: Rock Band, or Nirvana: Rock Band. Instead the only thing to come out since is... Green Day: Rock Band, ugh. Well, one can dream, but in the meantime I've gotta get back to my game and see if I can earn my 5 stars on Helter Skelter.  5/5 Zrbo points.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

How Lionel Richie Went Cosby

By the mid-'70s, the once mighty Motown empire was finally beginning to decline. The Jackson 5 jumped ship to sign with CBS. Only two original members of the Temptations remained. Diana Ross became swallowed up by her own ego. Marvin Gaye became swallowed up by his own penis. Things were looking grim. No one expected a young funk band from Alabama to make much of a difference.

I never understood why a band would name itself after a computer, but hey, that's cool. The Commodores' first hit, "Machine Gun," sounded like it could have been music from a video game, and was used to great effect in the "rise of Dirk Diggler" portion of Boogie Nights.

Then there is "Brick House," staple of frat house comedies and Tyler Perry movie trailers, otherwise know as "She's a brick...HOWZ."

But few people realize that the band who made "Brick House," a song as gritty and funky as anything by The Isley Brothers or The Ohio Players, was the same band who gave birth to the undisputed champion of Cosby Rock:

I can see it now. "Guys, this funk stuff is cool, but you know what I really like? Ballads. Can we try some ballads?" "I don't know, Lionel, that stuff is for pussies." "Aw, come on, just one song? Let's see how it does. If it flops, it flops."

If only. Instead, "Easy" unleashed a monster. The song became the Commodores' biggest hit yet (not to mention an "easy" target for Faith No More, who recorded an amusingly faithful cover version in 1993). The real Lionel Richie had finally stepped out from behind the funky facade. "Issac Hayes? Pfft. How about Barry Manilow? With a dash of Glen Campbell? Now we're talking."

The rest of the group gleefully rode the ballad train. "Still," "Three Times A Lady"...funk? What's funk? We've never heard of this "funk" that you speak of. Close your eyes, and "Sail On" is practically a Yacht Rock song.

Apparently the Commodores are sailing through the clouds here and not the ocean. Maybe they couldn't find any stock footage of a boat and had to settle for stock footage of a hang glider instead. I like the part where Lionel's band mate can't recall whether the lyrics are "Sail on, honey" or "Sail on, sugar." It's a big difference, buddy, get it right.

By 1981, Lionel was doing sweeping duets with Diana Ross.

"Endless Love" was billed as "Lionel Richie and Diana Ross," not "The Commodores and Diana Ross." The writing was on the crossover wall. He stuck around for one last uptempo dance number, "Lady (You Bring Me Up)," before finally sailing on to easier pastures.

For the rest of the band, though, it probably felt more like Monday morning than Sunday morning.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cosby Rock

In September 1984, The Cosby Show made its television debut. According to Wikipedia:
For Cosby, the new situation comedy was a response to the increasingly violent and vulgar fare the networks usually offered... The show had parallels to Cosby's actual family life: like the characters Cliff and Claire Huxtable, Cosby and his wife Camille were college educated, financially successful, and had five children. Essentially a throwback to the wholesome family situation comedy, The Cosby Show was unprecedented in its portrayal of an intelligent, affluent, African-American family.
I never really watched The Cosby Show. I don't honestly know much about it. But for the purposes of this blog series, I find Cosby a fitting symbol - a representative, if you will, of a certain shift in '80s black popular culture. Bill Cosby is emblematic of the way in which '70s African-American edginess gradually slid into '80s African-American tameness. And as television went, so did music. Ladies and gentlemen: I give you "Cosby Rock."

In perhaps a mixed sign of our nation's racial progress, I think it's fair to say that in the world of '80s pop music, exceedingly vacuous, non-threatening, yuppified pop songs were not solely the province of white people. True, since the beginning of American popular music, black musicians have often aimed at the middle of the road, but mostly out of necessity. Come off too dangerous, and white people weren't going to buy your music.

The difference with '80s R&B, however, is that - and correct me if I'm wrong here - the focus toward the middle of the road seems to have been more of a deliberate choice. In the '70s, mainstream audiences had demonstrated great acceptance toward gritty, often political funk from artists such as Sly & The Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, and Stevie Wonder. In other words, white people could handle the heavy stuff. No, these '80s R&B singers wanted to make sentimental crap. But such is the beauty of true American freedom: You have the freedom to churn out Adult Contemporary schlock, if that's what you really want to do.

But I wouldn't want anyone to be fooled by some pseudo-narrative of black upward mobility. It was the '80s. Everybody was still fucked. It's just that nobody really wanted to sing about it. Well, a few people did. We called them "rappers." But come on, like that was ever going to make it. No, the future was obviously George Benson and Billy Ocean.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Michael McDonald Gets His Own Joke

So after all this, you might ultimately be wondering: what is Michael McDonald really like? Does he think he's cool? Does he think he's ridiculous? Is he in on his own joke?

Ladies and gentlemen, I think I've found the answer. He is.

Back in 1999, many unsuspecting viewers of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut reached the credits and were initially hit with a punk version of "What Would Brian Boitano Do?" Suddenly, after about a minute and forty-five seconds, a cheap, '80s-style keyboard entered, and a husky, soulful voice began crooning:
The eyes of a child, so innocent and pure
A child's heart is full of song
Take their tiny hand and lead them to the light
As adults we see pain in the world, and it sometimes don't seem right

But through the eyes of a child
The world seems magical
There's a sparkle in their eyes
They've yet to realize the darkness in their soul
The beauty of their smile
Adventurous and wild
Life is kind of gay, but it doesn't seem that way
Through the eyes of a child
Could it really's...Michael McDonald!

Here, according to Parker and Stone, is how it went down:
Having him come in and record that, he was just like, he was fucking perplexed. He said something like, "Beggars can't be can pay me in food...can I crash at your guys' place...yeah it's been kind of lame lately...I gotta do whatever I can." He was great, he did a really good job on that song. He did Michael McDonald really well.
It truly is a treat to hear one of the iconic voices of my childhood belt out lines such as "Spread your wings and fly to the brightest star/If you want I can even get my friend Steve to detail your car - for like 20 bucks." He sounds like he means it.

Additionally, in a recent interview with Time Out New York, McDonald displays an impressive self-awareness. Some excerpts:

You should know going into this that I’ve had “I Keep Forgettin’ ” stuck in my head for 25 years now. I think I’m technically insane.

Well, that’s good to hear.

That “Regulate” song by Warren G and Nate Dogg? Didn’t help.

It’s funny. To my kids, that’s the good version of the song. They say, “Why couldn’t you have written it that way?” They love that record—but not because of anything I did.

As a guy with prematurely graying hair myself, I want to thank you for being a role model.

I wish I had a choice in that one, but yeah, you’re welcome.

You wore it proudly—like Steve Martin!

I wish I could say that I was that way from the beginning. It was only after two or three humiliating episodes where the record company told me, “We’re not going to shoot a video unless you dye your hair,” and I looked like Mr. Chocolate Kiss from Clairol. It had to get really ugly before I decided that I would never dye it again.
All well and good. But what we really want to know is: has he heard of Yacht Rock? Nothing could have prepared me for his delightful answer:

Have you ever owned a yacht?

No, but I thought Yacht Rock was hilarious. And uncannily, you know, those things always have a little bit of truth to them. It’s kind of like when you get a letter from a stalker who’s never met you. They somehow hit on something, and you have to admit they’re pretty intuitive.

Have you at least lived near a marina?

No, I never did. Although a couple summers ago, when I opened for Steely Dan, I’d do the encore with them and come out in a little captain’s hat, like Alan Hale Jr. We all wore them onstage.

And not one of you owns a yacht?

Not that I know of. Well, David Crosby owns a sailboat. But I’m not sure he counts.
The man has not only seen Yacht Rock; he liked it. Sometimes, the universe really is a wonderful place. The interviewer manages to squeeze a few more juicy morsels out of him:

Okay. So what’s the craziest thing you ever did with Kenny Loggins?

We mostly worked a lot when we would get together. Kenny, he’s one of those guys who was a more serious artist; I was just a schlub. He was like, “C’mon, let’s get this right,” and I was like, “Got any beer?”

I’m thinking that your tenure in the Doobie Brothers probably wasn’t drug-free.

Not exactly, no. Not everybody had the same problems that I had, but there was a few of us who did the dust.

Did fans almost expect that kind of stuff from you?

I don’t want it to sound like I’m bragging about smoking pot, but there was a time when that was a big part of our day. Smoking in the morning was normal. But a lot of things became normal to me. Seizures, pissing my pants, waking up in a hotel room with the New York City police at the foot of my bed became normal. It’s not like I’m proud of it.
I'm proud of it, Michael. We're all very proud.


Thus ends our adventures in Yacht Rock - or at least the collection of artists featured heavily in the Yacht Rock web series. In reality, the show has only dipped its toes into the vast ocean that is early '80s soft rock. I have vague plans of starting a series on great Yacht Rock one hit wonders, as well as a series on Yacht Rock's late '80s sister genre, Yuppie Rock. But all in due time. For now, it's on to a discussion of a genre to which I have decided to bestow the name "Cosby Rock."

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Yacht Rock: Episode 12

And now, my friends, we come to the final episode of Yacht Rock, and let me tell you, it's a doozy. Somehow our dear Channel 101'ers have managed to wrap up every loose end and every stray reference into one loving little send-off. Even Christopher Cross makes a comeback!

Supposedly the episode is in 3-D, but I can't really attest as to whether that works or not. And yes, just what was Dan Ackroyd doing at the "We Are The World" session? Not only was he not a singer, he wasn't even American.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Michael McDonald Does His Own Soundtrack Song!

One day our middle-aged, soulful crooning maestro must have looked up and noticed that Loggins was running laps around him in the hit soundtrack department. I guess he figured "better late than never."

And what better movie to write a song for than the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines flick Running Scared. You know, Running Scared.

By this time McDonald's salt & pepper looks were firmly more salt than pepper. And what a surprise when, at the 2:40 mark, Michael McDonald finds himself in the movie with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines! Look at the infectiously great time everyone is having. Little do they know, but it's 1986, and the party's about to be over.