Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Alan Parsons Project: Prog Goes Yuppie

The '80s might have been rough on a number of genres, but progressive rock really took it in the groin. I guess the double whammy of punk and MTV really didn't do middle-aged instrumental virtuosos playing side-long thematic suites about medieval goblins any favors. Sure, I suppose a lucky few, such as Styx and Yes, managed to shift with the spandex tide and remain successful, if not exactly relevant (sub-question: were Styx and Yes ever exactly relevant?). But some progressive rock acts not only managed to make it out of 1979 alive, but also managed to thrive. Say hello to the Alan Parsons Project.

Of course, nothing screams out "edgy rock and roll" like calling your band a "project." I mean, what, were they hoping to win first place in the local science fair? We'd already had the Jeff Beck Group, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, even the Bob Seger System, but in 1976, no one had ever seen the likes of the Alan Parsons Project.

However, it turns out that the Alan Parsons Project was an entirely appropriate name for the Alan Parsons Project. Just who was this "Alan Parsons," anyway? Well, once upon a time, there was an EMI Studios employee. This EMI employee broke into the industry by co-engineering a little album called Abbey Road. Then, a few years later, he achieved true fame among audiophiles by essentially co-producing another little album called Dark Side of the Moon. You know those pristine clock and airplane sounds? Alan Parsons. The random mumblings of Pink Floyd's roadie ("I dunno, I was really drunk at the time")? Alan Parsons. For most recording technicians, this would have been enough. Perhaps he could have remained satisfied as an in-demand studio engineer, but no, Alan Parsons wanted more.

Just what did Alan Parsons want? Well, he didn't sing, and he didn't really care much for performing. Apparently he just wanted to fart around in the studio and make little pet projects - sort of like Jeff Lynne, but without the orchestra. And yet, the thing was, he still wanted to capitalize on his name, so that people would know it wasn't just some random bozo's albums they were going to be buying. Even though he was teaming up with a songwriting partner-in-crime (the delightfully named Eric Woolfson), he still wasn't really putting together a proper "band." Hence: The Alan Parsons Project.

You know how Dungeons & Dragons and Sci-Fi geeks might sit around late at night in their friends' mom's basement and think up half-intriguing, half-silly ideas for concept albums that'll never get made? Well, the Alan Parsons Project actually went out and made those albums. "Hey, I got it, wouldn't it be cool if somebody did a concept album entirely out of ... Edgar Allan Poe short stories?" Behold: Tales Of Mystery And Imagination. "Dude, dude, someone should make an album based on Asimov's I, Robot!" Done and done. At a time when rock songwriting had finally earned the freedom to be uncompromisingly personal, Parsons and Woolfson's ultimate goal was to be about as impersonal as you could possibly get. They were openly writing songs out of other people's ideas!

Ah, but just when you thought they didn't have it in them, by their third album the Project started coming up with their own vague concepts that didn't happen to be based on any specific work (or works) of literature. For instance, Pyramid was based on ... Egyptian mythology? The $25,000 Pyramid? Your guess is as good as mine. Eve was even stranger: a concept album about misogyny. I think? See, when listening to Alan Parsons Project albums, it's probably best not to take their concepts too seriously. I'm not sure that Parsons and Woolfson did. Here's the album's closing track, sung by Lesley Duncan, who not only wrote "Love Song" (which Elton John covered on Tumbleweed Connection), but also sang backing vocals on that earlier Parsons project - you know, the one with the prism on the cover:

Oh, there's also the fact that the Project didn't have a lead singer. Instead, Parsons simply picked vocalists he liked and assigned different singers to different songs. There's nothing like random, generic stadium rock frontmen to breathe life into your cold, sterile studio productions. I think some of the singers brought something unique to the material, such as the Zombies' Colin Blunstone and the Hollies' Allan Clarke, but a lot of the time, such as on "Games People Play" from 1980's Turn of a Friendly Card (which, peaking at #16, became their biggest US hit single yet), I wonder if they just ended up turning the songs into Styx-lite.

The irony here is that, on Turn of a Friendly Card's second single, "Time," the Alan Parsons Project finally found its perfect lead singer: co-writer Eric Woolfson.

Eric Woolfson has the Calmest Voice Of All Time. His voice is like honey laced with Nyquil laced with Love Potion #9. As he quietly croons "Time/Keeps flowing like a river/To the sea," you'd have to poke me with a cattle prod to keep me from drifting off into a blissful dreamland. What the song has to do with gambling, however, I have absolutely no idea. Part of me wonders, with its closing lyric of "forevermore," if it might have simply been a leftover from Tales Of Mystery And Imagination.

Here's a question: why did the Alan Parsons Project spend four albums throwing their music into the hands of faceless British AOR also-rans, when the singer who perfectly complimented their style was sitting right there in front of them the whole time? Suddenly Woolfson steps in, sounding like the second coming of Pink Floyd's Rick Wright, and instead of experiencing any sort of complaint or backlash, the Project becomes bigger than ever before (with "Time" peaking at #15)! But a "project" couldn't have a real lead singer, could it? Could it?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Making Of Talk Show AKA This Is The Way The Go-Go's End: Not With A Bang But With An Album

How did the Go-Go's fall apart? Let me count the ways:

1) Drugs
2) Egos
3) Disappointing Sales
4) Drugs
5) Jealousy
6) Changing tastes
7) Did I mention drugs?

But before the Go-Go's bit the dust, they managed to make one more album. New producer Martin Rushent had quite the pedigree: The Buzzcocks, The Human League, The Stranglers, Altered Images, even engineering credits on T.Rex's Electric Warrior and Fleetwood Mac's Future Games (oh yeah!). But if he thought he could bring some much-needed discipline to the Go-Go's, well, he had another thing coming. From Lips Unsealed: "He was a lovely, low-key Englishman whose success had brought him a measure of wealth, stature, and a particular way of working. Then he ran into the Go-Go's; we were like a storm hitting his verdant Tudor studio in Berkshire." It turns out that, even while unraveling, the Go-Go's were still pretty hilarious:
Jane lectured me on the importance of my writing and getting songwriter credits on the album so I would make money, and Charlotte came over to my house numerous times to write with me, but I was too scattered to be creative ... It was no secret why. On some tapes we made of us trying to work, I could hear myself in the background snorting coke. On other tapes, I was on the phone arguing with Mike.
Come on Belinda, we need that follow-up to "Skidmarks On My Heart." I guess it was a tall order. I mean, how was she going to compose any lyrics if she couldn't even board an airplane?
I missed two flights in a row. I got to the airport okay, but I was too high to navigate the terminal and get on the plane. I caught a cab home after both false starts. On the third try, I had a big wad of coke with me and I went into the bathroom to do a line and figure out how to deal with everything. Realizing I couldn't deal, I decided to go home.

As I waited for a cab, I was positive that plainclothes detectives had me under surveillance. Several walked slowly past me, turned, and made eye contact, which I assumed meant they wanted me to know that they were aware of me. How? Well, either they had hidden cameras in the bathroom or they had noticed that I was completed gone. There was also the possibility that I was paranoid.
Yes, there is also that possibility as well. Nevertheless, this cat was starting to run out of nine lives - which brings me to another observation about the Talk Show era. For the most part, Belinda and the Go-Go's had been fortunate, sonically and visually, to avoid becoming too stained by the '80s, but around 1984, I think the '80s were finally starting to catch up with them. To put it another way, the Go-Go's were going through their Lesbian Phase. Like, all of them, at the exact same time. Short hair, short hair, and even shorter hair. While I still can't quite keep my eyes away, I must admit that Belinda's physical appearance during this period hit, shall we say, a bit of a rough patch. Some might suggest that she put back on a little of the weight that she'd lost from her punk days, but my issue isn't so much her weight as it is her hairstyle and fashion choices - if, given the woman's state of mind, you could even call them "choices." Belinda's appearance circa 1984 looks all the more bizarre considering her appearance circa 1986, only two measly years later. Let me just say this: if I told someone that Belinda Carlisle was my '80s Dream Woman and all they saw was a picture or a video of Belinda circa 1984, they might think I was insane. And I probably wouldn't blame them. However, out of this neon cocoon would burst a glistening butterfly.

Here's a clip from a behind the scenes show called Album Flash (apparently on Cinemax?) where the increasingly butch Belinda holds court on everything from old high school classmates to her childhood hobby of mutilating Barbie dolls. Highlights:

"I hated Barbie dolls. I liked the way they looked, but I remember, I used to get Barbie dolls, the first thing that would come off was the hair. I'd get scissors from my mom, and she's go, 'OK, don't cut their hair,' and I'd go, 'OK mom,' and I'd like, chop 'em up and they'd have little butch haircuts and stuff."

"When I go back to Thousand Oaks, a lot of the kids, you know, know that I went to Newbury Park High School and all that kind of stuff, and it's funny because people that used to torture me in high school now are my 'best friends.' It always works like that."

(Also classic is Kathy's response, in another clip, to a question about what it means to be a "female" musician in rock: "Being a woman in the music industry is the same as being a man in the music industry. It really doesn't mean a thing to me. I mean, I don't think about it. Ever. Why should I?")

At any rate, while Belinda's brain was being buried in a snow storm, Jane's was experiencing a new kind of personal clarity:
Then, in the middle of making the album, Jane decided she wanted to sing some of the songs, and she kind of flipped out when she was told no.

As I knew, the word "no" was a hard thing for any of us to hear. We were not told no that often, certainly not as much as we should have been. I understood Jane's problem. She was cute, full of personality, and she wrote some of our best songs; she had an ego just like anyone else, yet she stood off to the side, and it bugged the crap out of her - until finally she blew.

I suppose we could have talked it out, but that wasn't the way I handled problems. My way was to ignore them, to pretend they didn't exist. If I didn't confront Jane, she wouldn't confront me about any of my problems. And that's pretty much the way the Go-Go's functioned in general.

One day Jane just couldn't take it anymore. She smashed the mirror in her hotel room and flew back to the States. When she returned, she had decided to leave the band and pursue a solo career, though she kept that news from us for a few more months.
And if she kept that news from the other Go-Go's, she certainly kept that news from the public. Thus, as we look at all the various clips from 1984, we're treated to the spectacle of Jane Wiedlin dutifully pretending to still be excited about her role in the band while secretly loathing every remaining second of it. Here's a clip from a dressing room in Utica, NY, with Belinda in full Grace Jones mode and Jane holding enough grease in her hair to fry an omelette.

So if you're thinking that a Go-Go's without Jane wouldn't be any kind of Go-Go's at all, well, you would be right.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Zrbo's Favorite Song of the Year

As I said in the introduction, this year's music offerings didn't really impress me all that much. I wasn't that impressed with Covenant's latest album Modern Ruin, nor with VNV Nation's Transnational. A lot of the songs that were the big hits of the year like Blurred Lines and Get Lucky failed to really connect with me. However, there was one band that I discovered a few months back that I've really taken a liking to, and that band is.... (opens envelope)...

#1 - Chvrches - Gun

Supposedly Chvrches are some sort of up-and-coming indie/critical darling, but I actually happened to catch them for the first time when I was flipping channels on regular old TV. It was the video for The Mother We Share, another song that I also could have picked for my top spot, both it and Gun are equally good, it just comes down to preference.

Anyways, Chvrches are from Scotland and lead singer Lauren Mayberry apparently has a Masters Degree in Journalism, which I suppose makes her intellectual or something. Her fragile voice reminds me of shoegazing group Cranes (and wouldn't you know it but look who wrote a good deal of those AMG reviews for Cranes... Mr. Ned Raggett strikes again). AMG says Chvrches are "synth pop inspired by Kate Bush and Prince". And they seem to live up to that description as I've found a video of them performing a cover of Prince's "I Would Die 4 U" at Minneapolis' First Avenue appropriately. So that's it, watch the psychedelic video and enjoy.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Night And Day: Joe Jackson Goes Full Yuppie

And then Joe Jackson ... became Billy Joel.

Well, that's probably not how he'd put it, but pretty much, yeah.

And he started selling like Billy Joel too. Although Night And Day was Joe Jackson's most commercially successful record (peaking at #3 in the UK and #4 in the US), most rock critics don't necessarily think that it's his best record. Well, I do. But saying that it is his best album is not to say that it is a perfect album. Night and Day is almost two albums, in fact - and not necessarily a "night" album and a "day" album (come again?). On the one hand it's Joe's "latin jazz" album, and on the other hand it's his "Cole Porter/Irving Berlin/Rodgers & Hart/Great American Songbook" album. It's like he wanted to do two albums and he sort of combined them into one, or maybe he was eating chips and salsa while watching a Busby Berkeley marathon, I don't know. In some ways, this mixture doesn't exactly "work," but compared to the rest of the Top 40 music of 1982, I'd say it certainly beats the competition. Not everyone is quite as generous as I am, however; even though Stephen Thomas Erlewine gives the album four-and-a-half stars, his actual AMG review is surprisingly critical and harsh:
1982 will forever be known as the year that the punks got class -- or at least when Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello, rivals for the title of Britain's reigning Angry Young Man -- decided that they were not just rockers, but really songwriters in the Tin Pan Alley tradition ... In retrospect, the ambitions of these two 27-year-olds (both born in August 1954, just two weeks apart) seem a little grandiose, and if Imperial Bedroom didn't live up to its masterpiece marketing campaign (stalling at number 30 on the charts without generating a hit), it has garnered a stronger reputation than Night and Day, which was a much more popular album, climbing all the way to number four on the U.S. charts, thanks to the Top Ten single "Steppin' Out." Night and Day had greater success because it's sleek and bright, entirely more accessible than the dense, occasionally unwieldy darkness of Imperial Bedroom. Plus, Jackson plays up the comparisons to classic pop songwriting by lifting his album title from Cole Porter, dividing the record into a "night" and "day" side, and then topping it off with a neat line drawing of him at his piano in a New York apartment on the cover. All of these classy trappings are apparent on the surface, which is the problem with the record: it's all stylized, with the feel eclipsing the writing, which is kind of ironic considering that Jackson so clearly strives to be a sophisticated cosmopolitan songwriter here. He gets the cosmopolitan, big-city feel down pat; although the record never delivers on the "night" and "day" split, with the latter side feeling every bit as nocturnal as the former, his blend of percolating Latin rhythms, jazzy horns and pianos, stylish synths, and splashy pop melodies uncannily feel like a bustling, glitzy evening in the big city. On that front, Night and Day is a success, since it creates a mood and sustains it very well. Where it lets down is the substance of the songs. At a mere nine tracks, it's a brief album even by 1982 standards, and it seems even shorter because about half the numbers are more about sound than song. "A Slow Song" gets by on its form, not what it says, while "Target" and "Cancer" are swinging Latin-flavored jams that disappear into the air. "Chinatown" is a novelty pastiche that's slightly off-key, but nowhere near as irritating as "T.V. Age," where Jackson mimics David Byrne's hyper-manic vocal mannerisms. These all fit the concept of the LP and they're engaging on record, but they're slight, especially given Jackson's overarching ambition -- and their flimsiness is brought into sharp relief by the remaining four songs, which are among Jackson's very best ... If all of Night and Day played at this level, it would be the self-styled masterpiece Joe Jackson intended it to be. Instead, it is a very good record that delivers some nice, stylish pleasures; but its shortcomings reveal precisely how difficult it is to follow in the tradition of Porter and Gershwin.
Well, fine, Mr. Erlewine, let's see you try to make a New Wave/Latin jazz-pop/Tin Pan Alley album. In essence, while I agree with many of these observations, I'm not sure Erlewine really sees the forest for the trees. He sounds like someone who heard that the album was great, and then when he actually listened to it, he felt disappointed. I, on the other hand, heard that the album was pretty good but not a classic, and so when I actually listened to it, I felt like it slightly surpassed my expectations. OK, so Joe didn't quite fulfill his ambitions. Why punish a guy for trying to be ambitious ... in the '80s? All right, so he focused a little too much on the surface textures. Why is that a "problem"? Why does everything need to have "shortcomings"? Hardly any other mainstream '80s pop albums contained so many ideas. If it's a mess, at least it's an inviting mess. Imperial Bedroom can go to hell. That's my two cents. All right, Stephen, we're cool now.

At the time, I think most people were too shocked by the sudden appearance of Joe Gershwin to complain that he didn't quite measure up to his predecessors George and Ira. I mean, if there were those expecting Joe to slip back into his fiery power pop mode after the "stylistic detour" of Jumpin' Jive, the sprightly, percussive sizzle of "Another World" quickly put that notion to rest (although the hypnotic mood is almost derailed by his less-than-soothing vocal entry). "I was so low/People almost made me give up trying/Always said no/Then I turned around/Saw someone smiling/I stepped into another world." Uh ... are you sure you're talking about New York, Joe? Well, the Big Apple is Little Earl's favorite city in the whole wide world, so he certainly doesn't need to convince me. Jackson is putting on a top hat, coat and tails, he's about to hit the town like an '80s Fred Astaire, and I'm about to join him. He may not be able to dance like Fred Astaire, but with that thin, partially balding physique, he certainly has the visual resemblance nailed.

Suddenly, on Track 2, [Billy] Joe[l] Jackson attempts to locate a suitable Chinese restaurant, only to end up in the wrong part of town, while employing a racially insensitive accent and Oriental musical motif along the way. Most darkly comic line: "I took a right/Then I took a wrong turn/Someone asked me/For a quarter/It didn't seem to fit/He didn't look much like a Chinaman." You and Christopher Columbus, Joe.

As the night (or day?) wears on during Joe's subterranean journey through the Manhattan streets, he appears to pop in and out of several clubs. Yes, as Erlewine notes, cuts like "Target" and "Cancer" are more like improvised interludes than full-fledged songs, but not every song has to be a hit single, you know? Besides, on an album that reveals a much more socially outgoing Joe, "Cancer" allows him to show his more pessimistic, and somewhat libertarian, side. It's like he's trying to say, "Why don't you just ban fun while you're at it?" At least while he's busy complaining, he's pairing up his grouchiness with a delectable salsa groove. We're all going to die of cancer - but I can dance to it!
Everything gives you cancer
Everything gives you cancer
There's no cure, there's no answer
Everything gives you cancer

Don't touch that dial
Don't try to smile
Just take this pill
It's in your file

Don't work hard
Don't play hard
Don't plan for the graveyard

Don't work by night
Don't play by day
You'll feel all right
But you will pay

No caffeine
No protein
No booze or

"A Slow Song," the show-stopper closer that was Joe's admirable attempt to write a "song about songs," has a nice dramatic build-up and some memorable turns of phrase, but I think Joe forgot to write a chorus:
Music has charms they say
But in some people's hands
It becomes a savage beast
Can't they control it
Why don't they hold it back

You see my friend and me
Don't have an easy day
And at night we dance not fight
And we need the energy
If not the sympathy

But I'm brutalized by bass
And terrorized by treble
I'm open to change my mood but
I always get caught in the middle

And I get tired of DJ's
Why's it always what he plays
I'm gonna push right through
I'm gonna tell him too
Tell him to
Play us
Play us a slow song

Yes, DJ, play us a slow song - just not this one. Maybe some Boyz II Men, "End of the Road"? But I digress. If songs about Chinatown and lung cancer were all that Night And Day had going for it, then sure, it would be all style and no substance. But, as Erlewine mentioned, there are a few other songs on the album that are "among Jackson's very best." You'll notice I put an ellipse there, so that you wouldn't see which songs he was talking about. That's because, just as Joe surprised his '80s Yuppie public, I wanted to give an equal surprise to my '00s "post-pseudo-slacker-Generation iPod" readers. (Note to self: need a better name for my generation?)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of the Year: Numbers 3 and 2

#3 Lady Gaga - Aura/Burqa (demo version)

I must have a thing for Lady Gaga. Yes, I've heard the complaints. "She's ripping off Madonna" / "she's trying to hard to be provocative" / "it's just pop music." Gaga's pretty much guilty on all three counts, but it doesn't matter because even though the music may just be gussied up pop music, it's interesting gussied up pop music. Take the demo that leaked earlier this year for the song that would end up being simply called "Aura". I prefer this version to the more polished final cut we got on the album ARTPOP. I like how the song sounds like it's all over the place. It begins with twangy guitars out of some Robert Rodriguez mock B-movie, then moves into some modern dubstep thing with lots of stutters and breaks. By this time you may be thinking "what the heck am I listening to?" and just then the song bursts into a delectably sugary sweet chorus that would even make ol' Madonna smile. I love it.


#2 Benny Mardones - Into the Night

And here's my requisite retro pick of the year. I'd never heard this song until Little Earl posted an entry about it this past summer. At first I liked the song ironically, mainly for the dated music video. But after a while the song clawed its way into my head and now I unabashedly adore it. It begins almost lazily, but slowly builds in intensity so that by the end of the song you've got the full on "slowly dipping his toes into a vat of acid" screams as Little Earl so eloquently described. Here's to you and your pedophilic ways Mr. Mardones, earning you my number 2 spot for 2013.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of the Year: Numbers 5 and 4

#5 VNV Nation - Teleconnect Part 2

I found VNV Nation's newest album, Transnational, to be a bit of a letdown. While it's managed to grow on me somewhat since posting my review, the album is not the band's strongest. Lead man Ronan Harris has slowly changed the band over time from an industrial music outfit to a band that (expertly) produces synthy pop ballads, or as one commenter put it: Ronan Harris is the Phil Collins of industrial music.

There's definitely some truth to that statement. But damn if the band isn't just so good at creating synth-filled ballads. Take my number 5 pick of the year, the final track off Transnational, Teleconnect Part 2. Nearly the entire song is just one big synthy buildup. All that energy is released during the final two minutes with some exquisitely empowering lyrics that are just so quintessentially VNV in their sentiment.

#4 Emeli Sandé - Next to Me

I'm exposed to a lot of Top 40 at my work and sometimes a song will work its way into my brain, even songs from a genre I usually have zero interest in or opinion of. Next to Me is some sort of pop-gospel hybrid with a dash of that indie-folk sound that seems to be all the rage. I'm not even sure what she's talking about (I think it's about God, but who knows?). Anyways, I didn't expect to like this song so much and I bet you didn't expect to see it on this list, so we're both even.

Next time: three followed by two.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Laura": He's Just Not That Into You - But Man, He's Really Into The Beatles

Ever had that one friend of the opposite sex who just ... couldn't take a hint? That one girl who simply couldn't figure out that, as the saying goes, "he's just not that into you"? "Laura" is that girl.

"Laura" may be the best '80s song about guilt - not that I can name any others, but hey, I'm in a bold mood. It's the Mamas & the Papas' "I Saw Her Again" of the '80s. Let's just say that if there are any other '80s songs about guilt, we don't really need them, because "Laura" pretty much covers it:
Laura, calls me
In the middle of the night
Passes on her
Painful information
Then these careless fingers
They get caught in her vice
Til they're bleeding
On my coffee table

Living alone isn't all that
It's cracked up to be
I'm on her side
Why does she push the poison on me?

Has a very hard time
All her life has
Been one long disaster
Then she tells me
She suddenly believes she's seen
A very good sign
She'll be taking
Some aggressive action

I fight her wars while she's
Slamming her doors in my face
Failure to break was the
Only mistake that she made

Here I am
Feeling like a fucking fool
Do I react the way exactly
She intends me to?

Every time I think I'm off the hook
She makes me lose my cool
I'm her machine
And she can punch all the keys
And she can push any button I was programmed through
It's a dance as old as time. Here's this guy, he really wants to make a good clean break, this twisted dynamic needs to go, it's no good for him, and hell, it's not even good for her, but he just ... can't ... do it. Chuck Klosterman writes:
"Laura" is about a relentlessly desperate woman (possibly his ex-wife, possibly someone else, possibly somebody fictional) who is slowly killing the narrator by refusing to end a relationship that's clearly over. Making matters worse is the narrator's inability to say "no" to Laura, a woman who continues to sexually control him ... This is a song about someone whose life is technically and superficially perfect, but secretly in shambles. It's about having a dark secret, but - once again - not a cool secret. This is not a sexy problem (like heroin addiction), or even an interesting one ... it's mostly just exhausting, and that's how it feels.
Well, exhaustion never felt this good. Billy goes all-out to capture the protagonist's agonizing, crawling, suffocating claustrophobia. "Laura" probably contains some of the most artful, twisted, and dense lyrical couplets in Billy Joel's entire catalog. We've got poison, vice grips, electric chairs, umbilical chords - it's like a bad David Lynch movie:
Laura, calls me
When she needs a good fix
All her questions
Will get sympathetic answers
I should be so
To all of her tricks
She's surviving
On her second chances

Sometimes I feel like this
Godfather deal is all wrong
How can she hold an umbilical chord
For so long?
I used to hear "I'm on her side/Why does she push the poison on me?" as "I'm on her sidewinder/She pushed the poison on me," which is wrong, but it kind of works too. I also I used to hear "umbilical cord" as "a musical chord," but if Billy's comments in a 1982 British radio interview are to be believed, then it's definitely "umbilical cord":
I didn't really want to give the person in the song a sex. What I referred to as "Laura," it's a woman obviously but I didn't mean it to be that. I meant it to be anyone who knows how to give you guilt. For a lot of people, it's mom. Only mom knows how to stick that knife in, how to turn the blade. For some people it's pop, for some people it's the wife or the husband, or the kids, in reverse. But really it's about anyone who knows how to push the right button.
This would jibe with Klosterman's story of eventually asking Billy about meaning of the song in an interview, where Billy hinted that the "umbilical cord" line was "a complete giveaway line." Sounds like a ... great relationship. I just have one question: did Billy Joel's mother happen to know about this?

At any rate, mother/lover/sister or whoever the hell she may be, Laura is an absolute pro. Billy pulls out all the stops in the last verse, which arguably features the best use of the word "absolution" in a pop song ever: "Laura loves me/Even if I don't care/That's my problem/That's her sacred absolution/If she had to/She would put herself in my chair/Even though I/Faced electrocution." That's the kind of devotion that you'd actually rather not receive. Thanks, Laura, but no thanks.

To the shock of Billy Joel fans everywhere, at the start of the first bridge, the Piano Man even drops an "F" bomb in there. This ain't your grandma's Huey Lewis record! When I was fourteen I thought the cursing was cool, then later I thought it was laughable, but these days I just kind of forget that it's there. Hmm, I wonder why "Laura" never received much radio play?

But "Laura" is the tale of two obsessions. While the lyrics describe a woman's obsession with a waffling male, the music reveals Billy Joel's complete and total obsession with the Beatles. Although ELO, Todd Rundgren, XTC, and Tears for Fears might beg to differ, Beatles homages don't come more blatant than "Laura." There are so many sonic references, I decided to make a list:

1) The intro, with its baroque, descending cello line: sounds like the intro to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"
2) The tempo: reminiscent of druggy Lennon White Album songs like "I'm So Tired" and "Sexy Sadie"
3) The choppy guitar chords: straight out of "Oh! Darling"
4) The "ah ah" backing vocals: probably flew in from the "Oh that magic feeling" section of "You Never Give Me Your Money"
5) The sudden, jarring double-tracking of Billy's voice: utilized in "Run For Your Life," "I Am the Walrus," "Hey Bulldog," and countless other Lennon vocal mixes
6) The guitar solo: vintage Harrison circa 1969
7) The massive echo on the drums: "Instant Karma!" anybody?

The song is so chock-full of Beatles bits that the surviving members could have sued for plagiarism. But they probably had better things to do. At the very least, you have to admire the ability of the musicians in Billy Joel's band to emulate the style so accurately. In the end, the nice thing about "Laura" is that, as much as the music reveals a strong case of Beatlephilia, the narrative has nothing to do with the Beatles or any particular Beatles song. Although, come to think of it, Laura does sound an awful lot like a description of Yoko.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of the Year: The Introduction

Here we are again, another year nearing its end and Zrbo back to give you a dose of the music that got him through 2013.  To tell the truth I wasn't all that impressed with the music I heard this year. A lot of the songs that made it big I thought were fine, but nothing to write home about. Everyone seemed to be raving about Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" though I thought it was just OK. "Blurred Lines" stole the summer, but does anyone really know the lyrics outside of the title words? Or maybe it's just that I'm not too keen on Pharrell Williams, since he was in both songs. Frankly Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" provides more punch than most of the other hits of the year. There was one band that I discovered though who managed to make an impression, and we just might be seeing them somewhere in my top 5.

But before we get to the list (which I've decided to break into several posts at the old recommendation of Mr. Earl), let's begin with a couple of other tracks. First off is perhaps the oddest song of the year. Here's a song that seemed to fly under the radar that featured a cast of characters that I don't usually go in for (and "featuring" so many artists I'm not sure who it's actually supposed to be by). Let's see, you've got Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am (groan), Puff "I lost track of what my name is anymore" Daddy (Diddy? P. Dids? Diddinator?), Lil Wayne, some other guys I don't know... and Britney Spears sporting a fake British posh accent - oh, and this is apparently a "remix".

I'm honestly not sure what to make of this song. Why do they look like rotating action figures? Just why is Britney pretending she's Victoria Beckham? Considering the combined star power of these people why does the video look like it was filmed in an hour on a blank stage? I don't know, but it's so silly I can't prevent myself from chuckling whenever I watch this.

Ok, now that we're done analyzing the downfall of mankind, here's perhaps my LEAST favorite song of the year:

I'm not entirely sure why this songs irritates me so much, but it does. It sounds very late 90s to me, like it should be on a compilation alongside Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5". Anyways, I wouldn't quite say I hate it, but I strongly dislike it, and whenever it comes on the radio I change the dial as fast as I can.

That's it for the introduction, stay tuned to hear my actual top 5!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"I Want A New Drug/Duck/Ghost" AKA Who You Gonna Call? My Lawyer

When Ray Parker, Jr. came out with the theme from Ghostbusters, everybody and their mother apparently thought, "Hey that sounds just like Huey Lewis and the News' 'I Want a New Drug'!" Everybody, except for four-year-old me, of course, who'd never heard "I Want a New Drug," but who had recently been scared shitless by a (possibly ill-advised?) theatrical viewing of Ghostbusters.

Years later I would see lists of Huey Lewis' hit song titles, and I was always confused by the title "I Want a New Drug." I thought drugs were bad, mmm-kay? Why would Huey Lewis, quite clearly a morally upright and decent person, be advocating drug use? Was the song supposed to be ironic? Was he playing a character? Even now, I'm looking at the lyrics and I have no idea why he's talking about drugs. According to Patrick Bateman, "not only is it the greatest antidrug song ever written, it's also a personal statement about how the band has grown up, shucked off their bad-boy image and learned to become more adult," but I'm not entirely buying it. Besides, nobody says, "I want a new drug." That's like saying "I want a new school." It just sounds awkward. Maybe you'd say, "I want to take a different kind of drug," but not "I want a new drug."

At any rate, in the late '90s I finally heard "I Want a New Drug," and you want to know the funny thing? It didn't even occur to me that the song sounded like "Ghostbusters." If anything, I would have assumed that Huey Lewis had ripped off Ray Parker, Jr. He certainly wasn't ripping off himself. "I Want A New Drug" is sort of Huey Lewis' stab at Aerobic Rock, and he stabbed well: not only did the song peak at #6, but it managed to top the Dance Club Play chart. I don't think Michael Jackson had anything to worry about.

The video featured the debut of Huey's now-iconic red sportcoat/black t-shirt/shades look, and, funny, but he keeps spotting the same girl everywhere he goes. Matter of fact, isn't that the same girl from the "Heart and Soul" video? Well by golly, it is! Her name is Signy Coleman, and fellow '80s blogger Noblemania managed to track her down recently:
How were you cast?

It was very funny. My agent said, “They’re looking for punk rockers so I want you to put some of that spray stuff in your hair and put on torn fishnet stockings.” I said, “Lynn, I’m not doing that. I don’t look anything like a punk rocker.” I said I’ll put on high heels but that’s about the extent of it. I went to the audition and there were 50 of the most hardcore punk rockers I’ve ever seen. I turned around to leave and the director popped his head out of the room they were casting in and said, “Hey, miniskirt, where are you going?” He pulled me in and said they were also looking for a girl who’s the opposite and stands out in the crowd of these unusual characters. I was asked to pretend to flirt with guy across the room, which I like to believe I had a little experience with at that point.

Did you have to audition for the second video (“I Want a New Drug”), or were you asked to be in it because of the first video?

I was just asked. They were filmed about a year apart. That one was more difficult. They had me on a boat in the bay when it was cold. The concert footage in it was real concert footage. Girls who are Huey fans are hardcore Huey fans. Right before they were about to start they walked me across the stage and put me dead center and there were girls in the front row of the audience who had all kinds of unladylike things to say to me. I won’t repeat them! The crew had to handpick a group of people to surround me so I didn’t get my hair ripped out, particularly when Huey leaned in to kiss me.
Lesson No. 1: Don't fuck with Huey Lewis fans. Lesson No. 2: Huey Lewis goes wherever he wants, even when it makes no sense. From Wikipedia: "The video is rather fast and loose with Bay Area geography: it starts with him driving toward downtown San Francisco, then on a ferry headed from Marin County toward San Francisco...then boarding a helicopter that flies over downtown back toward Marin County where the concert seems to be held." Hey, this was in the days before GPS, OK?

So, another solid hit, another tongue-in-cheek video - that it's, moving along, right? Not so fast.

One day, Huey was listening to the radio, minding his own business, when he heard a brand new song that sounded strangely ... familiar:
When the similarities between this song and the theme song of the 1984 film Ghostbusters were heard, Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr. for plagiarism, claiming that Parker had stolen the melody from "I Want a New Drug". Lewis had been approached to compose the main theme song for the film, but had to decline because of his work on the soundtrack for Back To The Future. The two parties settled out of court. Details of the settlement (specifically, that Columbia Pictures paid Lewis a settlement) were confidential until 2001, when Lewis commented on the payment in an episode of VH1's Behind The Music. Parker subsequently sued Lewis for breaching confidentiality.
Well, yeah. When something's confidential, it's confidential - even fifteen years later. Ray Parker, Jr. never forgets, bitch. OK, so maybe he ripped off "I Want a New Drug." But you know what? He actually made it ... better. Let's face it, "Ghostbusters" is funkier, catchier, and heavier than "I Want A New Drug" ever was. At the very least, it may be the most danceable song about ghosts ever written (with the arguable exception of "The Monster Mash"). Besides, the song always makes me think of the movie Ghostbusters, which is, you know, a great movie. "I Want a New Drug" just makes me think of the D.A.R.E. program. If anything, the song Ray Parker, Jr. actually ripped off was the Bar-Kays' "Soul Finger," but let's not split hairs. Maybe Huey was just pissed off that, in a delicious irony, "Ghostbusters" only made it to #6 on the Dance Club Play chart, but hit #1 on the pop chart.

The "Ghostbusters" video didn't quite have the same budget as the Ghostbusters movie, but it does have more neon furniture, and more celebrity cameos (Irene Cara? Peter Falk?!). At about the 3:08 mark, the damsel in distress shows up in some sort of light blue button-up blouse that's also a skirt (?), but in a strange way I find it kind of hot.

Perhaps the musician who had the clearest vision for how to improve "I Want a New Drug" was not Ray Parker, Jr., but Weird Al. Over the course of three minutes and thirty seconds, Yankovic unleashes every potentially groan-inducing duck pun known to man: "I'll tie him up with duck tape"; "The duck stops here"; "Show me how to get down"; "One that won't smell too foul" - the man could go all night. The only thing missing was a music video with Signy Coleman in a duck suit.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Silence Of The Go-Go's AKA The Affair Between Belinda Carlisle And Jonathan Demme That Nobody Knew About For 25 Years

Not every singer can act, although many try. One singer who did not try particularly hard was Belinda Carlisle. On a whim, in 1983, she took a bit part in a movie called Swing Shift, playing a big band singer. I don't believe she had any dialogue; she just sang on a stage like she always did. In the words of Buck Owens, "All I have to do is act naturally."

Look at the way she ... stands there! So believable! So convincing! At the time, the movie became famous for spurring the romance between Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, but little did we know that it also spurred a brief romance between Belinda and the film's director, Jonathan Demme. From Lips Unsealed:
I hit it off with Jonathan, who was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Mike. In his late thirties, Jonathan was brilliant, clever, funny, way hip, knowledgeable about music, and adorable. One day on the set, as I stood amid the clutter of cameras and lights, he came up alongside me and with a playful twinkle in his eye that was pure Jonathan, he said, "So how does somebody get a date with you?"

"Just ask," I said.
Wait, Jonathan Demme? You mean to tell me that Jonathan Demme managed to shag Belinda Carlisle? You mean the same guy who'd just directed this?:

And who was about to direct this?:

And who, eight years later, would eventually direct this?:

Damn. Way to go, Jonathan Demme. And he didn't even tell anyone? Dude's got class.

You'd think that, given all the media frenzy surrounding the supposed American dream couple that was Belinda Carlisle and Mike Marshall, somebody would have noticed that one half of this couple was having an affair with a major Hollywood director. But apparently no one did.
I began seeing Jonathan on the sly. I had a great time with him. He was smart, talented, and funny. We shared common interests and knew some of the same people. All these things made me ask myself, Why was I with Mike? Friends of mine, those who hadn't dropped me because they were put off by Mike, asked the same thing: What do you see in him?

My gay friend and sometime assistant, Jack, had the best line. One day, after Mike made some off-putting comment about him when he'd called (like "it's your fag friend"), Jack simply said, "Honey, I don't get it. He's not even cute."

But like many women, I was unable to step outside of the hold he had on me ... As I made a salad one night, he yelled at me for cutting the lettuce instead of tearing it. I stood there with lettuce leaves in each hand and thought, What's wrong with me that I can't leave this guy?
Get a clue, Belinda!
Sadly, Jonathan eventually gave up on me. Though we had a great time together, he saw that I wasn't going to leave Mike, not for him, not for something that was healthy and made sense. I have a hunch that Jonathan also realized he was competing not only against a Dodger but also against another equally fucked-up relationship of mine - with cocaine.

My sister was the only one honest enough to say something to my face. I had taken her to a Dodgers game, and as we entered the VIP section, she turned to me and said, "Belinda, I hate to say this, but you look really old."

I was just shy of turning twenty-five.
Well, to be fair, back then, twenty-five was pretty old.