Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In The Air Tonight: The Secret Life And Twisted Psyche Of Philip D. Collins

Phil Collins. We all think we know him. He is that bald, diminutive little drummer in the sweater who sings about easy lovers and invisible touches and wishing it would rain down and all those other primal, existential issues. In fact, one of his songs is playing at your local supermarket right this very minute.

But there's another side to Phil Collins. A secret side, a troubling side, a disturbing side - a side that not even his closest friends and family members have been allowed to glimpse. To most of the general public, Phil Collins was the most tame, harmless, inoffensive pop star the '80s ever produced. Little did we know that underneath that vapid, non-threatening exterior, lay the tortured and twisted mind of a maniac.

I know what you're thinking. "Little Earl, quit yanking my chain." If only I were. I could certainly sleep much better at night, or hear "Take Me Home" in the lobby of my neighborhood bank and not break out into a cold sweat. But the terror of Phil Collins' music is real - all too real.

Back in March 2011, Rolling Stone published an interview titled "Phil Collins' Last Stand: Why The Troubled Artist Wants To Call It Quits," an interview which, by now, has achieved a certain infamy. Loyal readers may recall that I wrote a blog post about this very interview upon its publication, but just in case you're a little rusty, allow me to refresh you:
He's 59 and looks pretty much the way he's always looked: kind of small, kind of bald. He's wearing a green polo shirt, the collar popped. As a solo artist, he has sold 150 million records, which puts him right up there with the all-time greats ... Medically, he's got a few serious and life-altering problems: The hearing in his left ear is shot, and a dislocated vertebra in his neck has rendered him all but unable to pound on the drums that first made him famous ... Due to that neck injury, his hands can no longer hold the sticks. Worse, to him, he can't help his youngest kids build toys. He can't write his name with a pen. He has trouble wiping himself.
Yes, even God hates Phil Collins. But the most surprising twist of all might be that even Phil Collins hates Phil Collins:
He has been called "the Antichrist," the sellout who took Peter Gabriel's Genesis, that paragon of prog-rock, and turned it into a lame-o pop act and went on to make all those supercheesy hits that really did define the 1980s. So, he wants to move on. He could make another original album, but he knows that will bring a rehashing of all the old criticism. It's inescapable. Forget it. He'd rather spend his time in his basement, building up his collection of Alamo memorabilia, which, oddly enough, is his great consuming passion these days. "I sometimes think, 'I'm going to write this Phil Collins character out of the story,'" he says. "Phil Collins will just disappear or be murdered in some hotel bedroom, and people will say, 'What happened to Phil?' And the answer will be, 'He got murdered, but, yeah, anyway, let's carry on.' That kind of thing."
Alamo memorabilia? Yes, Alamo memorabilia:
Aligned in glass cases, mounted on the walls, secreted away in drawers and stacked in corners are muskets and rifles, Sam Houston's Bowie knife ("Just look at that!"), a signed copy of Davy Crockett's autobiography, a Davy Crockett military-service receipt, a howitzer, pistols, gunpowder pouches, a whole mess of horseshoes, Jim Bowie's visa allowing him to reside in Mexico, swords, musket balls, animal teeth, human teeth, maps, cannonballs, brass powder flasks, a painting of Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, a poster of John Wayne as Davy Crockett, a receipt for a saddle bought by John W. Smith, a courier who happened to be out on a run on the day of the fall of the Alamo and went on to become the first mayor of San Antonio.

Collins' delight in all this seems total. "Just look at that overcoat pocket pistol! Just feel that! This is the Bowie knife I was talking about! And this was supposed to be Bowie's boot knife! Look at that! Want a horseshoe? Here, take a horseshoe!"
Phil Collins is one sick dude. It gets sicker:
"At one point, the Mexicans were killing each other. It was dark, and you killed anything that moved. And then when they attacked the last line of defense, it was hand-to-hand fighting and they went around decapitating all the bodies and making sure they were dead. 'What must that have been like?' I think. And you have things like that coming over your head all the time." He bites his nails. "I'm fascinated by what people will do to each other," he goes on. "Actually, I'm sort of interested in the gory details of life."
Well, me too, Phil, but at least I know where to draw the line:
"I have had suicidal thoughts. I wouldn't blow my head off. I'd overdose or do something that didn't hurt. But I wouldn't do that to the children. A comedian who committed suicide in the Sixties left a note saying, 'Too many things went wrong too often.' I often think about that."
At this point in my original blog post, I vehemently admonished Phil not to do anything rash: 
My God Phil! Don't do it! We love you! Really! It's just not worth it, man. Those haters, man, they're just jealous. Did they ever play on Brian Eno's Another Green World? Did they ever perform on both stages of Live Aid? Didn't think so. You are Phil Fucking Collins. And don't let anybody tell you differently.
Well, not only does he seem to have heeded the call, but it turns out this Rolling Stone interview was just the beginning. For I have discovered a text that will change the way you see Phil Collins - and the way you see the world.  Ladies and gentlemen, Phil's soul-bearing search for self-examination has finally borne fruit. He has done what many brave rock stars have done before him, and yet none have been braver in doing it than Phil. He has wrestled with the cavernous beast inside him, and pinned that beast to paper. I have in my hands a rare copy of Phil Collins' 2013 memoir, In The Air Tonight: The Secret Life And Twisted Psyche Of Philip D. Collins.

How I got my hands on a copy is a story unto itself (let's just say it involved Condoleeza Rice and a 6-pack of Mountain Dew). Turns out the book is available only through a small Bulgarian publisher, in an extremely limited edition. Nevertheless, I cannot allow it to languish in obscurity. This man's story must be told, and it must be told now. For only by telling the real story of Phil Collins, can we truly understand his art, and wipe away the years and years of critical injustice. If you doubt the stunning power of this book, allow me to quote a harrowing passage from the introduction:
Coughing, drooling, cursing, I groped my way through the shelves of that Halifax hotel bathroom, looking for just one more dose of horse tranquilizer. I'd barely made it through the show alive, but thankfully the audience didn't even notice when I'd fouled up the keyboard part to "That's All," and I think I'd forgotten the lyrics to "Don't Lose My Number," but they didn't care. Everyone in that stadium was having a good time ... everyone, except the singer. The sick, pathetic singer. Anyway, that concert seemed like it belonged to another world by then. The bottle of tranquilizer that Emilio had given me back in Montreal wasn't nearly strong enough, and besides, it wasn't even the right kind. He'd given me Azaperone, but what really got me off was Haloperidol and Immobilon. This other stuff just wasn't doing it. It was 3:00 in the morning, but I couldn't wait. I put on a coat, stuffed with $100 bills, and stumbled my way into the Nova Scotian night.
Toto, I have a feeling we're not talking about Alamo memorabilia anymore. Still, although at times the material in the book can be shocking and depraved, for the committed '80s music fan, these stories are crucial - necessary even. However, I must warn you: once you read In The Air Tonight, you will never hear Phil Collins' music the same way again - although you may wish you could.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Prime Time" For The Alan Parsons Project To Take MTV By Storm

Michael Jackson? Pfft. Duran Duran? Pshaw. What MTV really needed ... was the Alan Parsons Project.

Think about it. If there's a band that might have been tailor-made for MTV, in some ways that band was the Alan Parsons Project. They didn't tour, they didn't care to lip-sync on Solid Gold, and they demonstrated a pronounced fondness for pseudo-literary storytelling. What better playground to give life to their geeky comic book and sci-fi fixations than the music video format? And yet, for whatever reason, the Project didn't bother to make any videos until the release of 1984's Ammonia Avenue. But when they did ... boy, they brought the heat.

By this time, of course, everyone and their mother thought the Alan Parsons Project had found its natural lead singer ... everyone, that is, except for Alan Parsons. Arista tried to persuade Parsons to use Woolfson as often as possible, presumably as a way to give the band an identifiable, marketable "sound," but Parsons still retained some private notion of using "real" singers, whatever that may have meant. I can just see the record company meeting now: "At the very least, can't he sing lead on the singles? Come on Alan, we're trying to sell some fucking records here."

The first and biggest single off Ammonia Avenue was "Don't Answer Me," which peaked at #15 and sounds to me like the Alan Parsons Project covering ELO covering the Ronettes, with a bit of "Making Love (Out Of Nothing At All)" thrown in for good measure, but at least it sported an inventive, deliberately cheap, Saturday morning cartoon-style animated video.

No, the real gem off Ammonia Avenue was its opening track, "Prime Time." Don't be fooled by its peak position of #34 on the Billboard Hot 100, as it climbed to #10 on the Adult Contemporary chart and rocketed all the way to #3 on the Mainstream Rock chart! Well, to be honest, I might have never known the song myself if it hadn't closed out Side 1 of my cherished '80s Tape.

Less than generous listeners might accuse "Prime Time" of being a re-write of "Eye in the Sky," with the similar "chugging" guitars and a somewhat identical verse melody. But those people aren't even fit to clean Alan Parsons' jock strap, because by the time you come around to the chorus, it's clear that "Prime Time" is a whole different animal. If the chorus of "Eye in the Sky" suggested hidden rage buried beneath the surface, on "Prime Time," that rage comes exploding to the forefront. "It's gonna be my turn tonight," Woolfson croons. Turn to what? Fuck you up?
Well even the longest night won't last forever
But too many hopes and dreams won't see the light
And all of the plans I make won't come together

Something in the air
Maybe for the only time in my life
Something in the air
Turning me around and guiding me right

And it's a prime time, maybe the stars were right
I had a premonition, it's gonna be my turn tonight
Gonna be my turn tonight
Usually Alan Parsons Project albums began with the requisite placid instrumental (for instance, "Eye in the Sky" was preceded by "Sirius"), but on Ammonia Avenue, Parsons just decided to slip the opening instrumental into the song proper, although the single edit (and thus the edit that I'd become familiar with on my tape) simply cut to the chase right around 0:35. Anyway, this is some pretty calm shit until the pre-chorus, which begins with the ominous lines, "There's something in the air," followed by even more ominous back-up singers repeating the already ominous line, plus some ominous chord changes to boot (the key word here is "ominous"). Finally, at 1:45, she arrives: The Ultimate Alan Parsons Project Chorus. It's prime time all right - prime time for Eric Woolfson to rock you in the balls. They layer on just the right amount of vocal overdubs to milk those raunchy, growling guitar chords for all they're worth. Because that random session guitarist, whoever he happens to be, is merely hiding in the wings, waiting for his moment to shine.

At 3:10, that moment arrives. He becomes the nice beneficiary of what sounds like Automatic Double Tracking, as his solo dances with itself across the separate stereo channels. When the pre-chorus arrives, he ascends with majestic upward leaps, until he descends and descends and his solo bites the bluesy dust at 3:48, just in time for Woolfson to re-appear. It's like the sound of something simultaneously sublime and terrible slowly, slowly sucking you under. I'll tell you whose turn it is tonight: it's the Alan Parsons Project's secret guitarists' turn. And after that final chorus, he continues to make the most of the fade-out.

If you'd think it wouldn't be easy to capture the vibe of something simultaneously sublime and terrible slowly, slowly sucking you under in a video, then you haven't seen the clip for "Prime Time." Here Parsons and Woolfson take the opportunity to get off on their sick little Twilight Zone fetish and tell what is sort of a short, dialogue-free horror film, rather than concern themselves with the literal lyrics of the song. In fact, when I first searched for "Prime Time" on YouTube and I found this video, I assumed it was something like a fan-made clip. When I realized it was actually the official video, I thought, "Fuck yeah Alan Parsons." It's amazing when you listen to a song for thirty years, and then one day you see the video, and it perfectly complements, if not exactly matches, any previous mental images you'd already associated with the song in your mind.

According to Wikipedia, the video is based on John Collier's short story "Evening Primrose," and not on either the movie Mannequin or the '80s children's show Today's Special, as I had assumed. In this strange nocturnal netherworld, two young lovers have apparently been trapped as mannequins, and can only come back to life when tacky, flashing lights appear. But rather than pull me out of the video world, I think the low-budget effects, when coupled with the extremely high-budget production values of the song itself, somehow combine make the clip even more disturbing. Creepiest/most awesome parts:
  1. When the woman finds herself trapped in an alleyway and all the lifeless mannequins slowly begin to take her "back" (3:24)
  2. When the man walks by the department store window, realizes his lover has once again become one of "them," and he pounds his fists on the glass in campy agony (3:50)
  3. She comes back alive (although when she "crashes" through the window it looks like they just shot a Barbie doll flying through Saran Wrap), but the man turns back and sees a mannequin's head slowly, slowly turning (4:31). You're not out of the clear yet, you two!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"Steppin' Out": The Glistening Summit Of Yuppie Rock

Not every genre needs to have a crowning achievement, but if Yuppie Rock had one, it would be Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out."

Imagine if you took the best elements of Yuppie Rock - the glitz, the glamour, the style, the sensitivity, the drum machine - and combined them all together into one song. That song would be "Steppin' Out."

But just as Dorothy lived in ignorance of the true power of her ruby slippers until the very end of The Wizard of Oz, so it was that I'd experienced the power of Joe Jackson's biggest US hit my entire life, but not until one random spring day in 2001 did I truly realize it.

I suppose I'd been hovering around the edges of such a discovery for several years. Of course, I knew "You Can't Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want)" from its inclusion on The '80s Tape, and sometimes KFOG would play "Breaking Us In Two," another Joe Jackson song which I liked as well, even though it vaguely reminded me of another '80s song I'd heard before and couldn't name. But just from those two songs, I somehow sensed that I had a deeper connection to the Joe Jackson.

Let's go a little deeper. In high school, I used to have an old Microsoft CD-ROM called Music Central, and I used to stay up late at night reading some of the brief but informative artist biographies included on the disc. This was back in the days before the All Music Guide, or the internet - or the All Music Guide on the internet (if any civilization could ever be so lucky).

So one night I clicked on Joe Jackson's bio. There was no mention of either "You Can't Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want)" or "Breaking Us In Two," which I thought was odd, given that those were the only two fucking Joe Jackson songs I'd ever heard of, but there was a full sentence about a song called 'Steppin' Out": "The hauntingly hummable 'Steppin' Out' with its mantric bass line and crisp piano is a superbly crafted pop song that won him many new admirers." "Hauntingly hummable"? "Crisp piano"? Sounded like a pretty good song to me. Maybe I needed to try and hear it somewhere. Ah, but this was still in the days before downloading, or YouTube. One couldn't just "hear" a song at the click of a button. Oh how did we live?

Nevertheless, every now and then, I would see a CD copy of Night and Day in the library music rack, and I would wonder about checking it out. After all, it had "Breaking Us In Two" on it, and I was curious if Music Central's observations about "Steppin' Out" were accurate. I even liked the album cover. But damn it, I had other fish to fry. I wasn't about to check out a CD from the library just based on mild curiosity. Library checkouts were important.

Fast-forward three or four years. I'm sitting in a car in Redwood City, feeling rather bored, listening to the radio, flipping between stations. Suddenly I catch a song right in the middle. It's a song from the early '80s that I'd heard a million times as a kid, though I quite possibly haven't heard it since then. I'm instinctively familiar with its mantric bass line and crisp piano. Funny, but I can swear I recognize the singer's garbled wail. Then it hits me: Joe Jackson. I listen to the chorus. My God. Could it be? This radio staple from my youth that never really stood out from all the other department store hits? This ... was "Steppin' Out"?

And so I've prepared you for the terrifying twist. It turns out I didn't need to go hear "Steppin' Out" ... because I had already heard it.

It was a revelation. I saw a bright, blinding light and a flaming bush. "Ohhhh," I thought with wonder. "So that's 'Steppin' Out.' " Turns out my CD-ROM was right. I also realized why "Breaking Us In Two" had reminded me of another '80s song; it had reminded me of "Steppin' Out"! Now I needed to get my hands on it. I didn't yet have access to a music downloading program, so this was going to be tricky. When I got back to college, I asked a housemate to download it for me and then I had him put it on a shared network.

I probably listened to "Steppin' Out" for a week straight. Well, maybe not a week, but that's not as far off as you'd like to hope. I was transfixed. I was demented. I was infatuated. Eventually I got a little sick of it and found that I was able to listen to other songs beside that ... one. But it was difficult. Let me tell you why.

Most '80s songs that I remember from my childhood seem to strike me in about the same way as a grown-up as they did when I was little. But when I re-discovered "Steppin' Out," well ... this was different. I tried to think back to any memories of hearing it as a kid. I had just assumed it was another piece of MOR aural wallpaper, like "Maneater" or "Arthur's Theme." But now, hearing the song as a mature adult, I could suddenly grasp the very abstract and thoughtful sentiments in the lyrics that had completely escaped me as a toddler. It was like finding out that a cheesy '80s song had actually been written by Bob Dylan. My experience of listening to the song had changed, because I had changed. And that mixture of nostalgia combined with newfound perspective was a mixture I had rarely experienced in my music-listening habits. No new song could ever tap into that personal reservoir of feeling that "Steppin' Out" was tapping into, unless I could go back in time and play it for my past self (quick, get Zemeckis on the phone). Re-discovering "Steppin' Out" was like hearing a song that was simultaneously extremely familiar and yet brand new. Or maybe it was just really fucking catchy.

Like much of my favorite pop music, "Steppin' Out" is about the desire to escape. But if it suggests escape, it also suggests desperation and doubt, as if the escape you're about to embark upon won't last forever, and soon enough you'll have to come back to the normal world and deal with your everyday problems. Ah, but for that one moment - riding in that cab, cruising around Manhattan, basking in the glow of the neon lights, staring into that beautiful woman's eyes - God damn it, you're free. Tell 'em, Joe:
The mist across the window hides the lines
But nothing hides the colour of the lights that shine
Electricity so fine
Look and dry your eyes

So tired of all the darkness in our lives
With no more angry words to say
Can come alive
Get into a car and drive
To the other side

Me babe - steppin' out
Into the night
Into the light
You babe - steppin' out
Into the night
Into the light

Are young but getting old before our time
We'll leave the T.V. and the radio behind
Don't you wonder what we'll find
Steppin' out tonight

Can dress in pink and blue just like a child
And in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile
We'll be there in just a while
If you follow me
But all of that's just a sterile Madison Ave. fantasy without the music. Oh man, the music. Let me give this a shot:

The synthesized bass line and drum machine fade up slowly, establishing a mood that is hypnotic but also a little sinister, as if the song is creeping up on you like steam out of a manhole. That "manic" bass line sort of fades into the background, and you start to forget that it's there, but it plays throughout the entire song on an endless loop, like a cab that drives around Manhattan all night long and never stops (you like these similes?). The piano comes in, playing a chord sequence that seems as though it is about to resolve itself and yet never quiet does. By the time the song reaches full volume, Joe plays the chord sequence an octave higher, but there's something else too, something that makes the chords shimmer and glisten in your ears. It's ... bells! There's motherfuckin' bells! Another nice touch is the organ, which is buried far back in the mix, but it's ever-present and contributes to the sense of constant forward motion. This song is unstoppable.

And then Joe begins to sing. As I mentioned before, Joe Jackson's voice can be an acquired taste, but here, it's like magic on a Coney Island cotton candy stick. Every strangled syllable, every tangled consonant, captures that sad, urgent yearning for escape. And if anyone else were to sing, "We/So tired of all the darkness in our lives/With no more angry words to say/Can come alive," it wouldn't necessarily mean all that much, but coming from Joe Jackson, the world's most curmudgeonly bastard, the lines take on an added dimension. I mean, here is a man who has certainly said his fair share of angry words, now finding himself, if only momentarily, turning the corner.

Some other favorite bits:

2:06 - right after "getting old before our time," a sparkling little piano twinkle
2:31 - an even stranger twinkle, right before the start of the final verse, which sounds more like a synthesizer than a piano
3:17 to 3:40 - the manic bass line drops out completely, while the piano, bells, organ, and drum machine riff off each other, like a car hovering in the air after hitting a jump, waiting to land
3:46 - Joe does this little piano flourish that is simply divine, dahling

That about covers it. Well, I should also mention that the song instantly transports me to the beautiful New York City of my dreams, which should probably not be confused with the slimy, muggy, rank, dank, overcrowded, rat-infested, flesh-and-blood New York City in which people actually live and breathe, but let's forget about that for a moment. Oh, there's also an official video for "Steppin' Out," in which a hotel maid imagines what it would be like to live for one just night in the shoes of her wealthy guests (and it turns out Joe's doing a little imagining himself), but this time I really have to say that, as nice as it is, here is one music video that really does not do justice to the images the song conjures up in my head. Because the images that "Steppin' Out" conjures up in my head ... are some serious images! At least it was filmed in New York, which is a start. But "Steppin' Out" may be that rare '80s song in which the music is so evocative, I'm afraid it may render even the best video superfluous.

Monday, February 10, 2014

"Turn To You": Belinda's Least Favorite Go-Go's Song

"Turn To You," the second single off Talk Show, is sort of the Forgotten Go-Go's Hit. To be fair, it wasn't exactly the biggest hit, peaking at #32, just barely becoming the band's fifth and last US Top 40 entry. Well, on paper "Our Lips Our Sealed" didn't peak too high either, but that one had legs, as they say.

The song was co-written by Charlotte and Jane, and according to Wikipedia, it was written about Charlotte's relationship with previously discussed then-Dodgers pitcher/future A's pitcher/perennially alcoholic boyfriend Bob Welch. One look at the lyrics and I guess we shouldn't be too surprised that the union did not last:
You act so tough
But I know what you're doing
You think falling in love
Means falling to ruin
You build your walls so high
You act your life out all alone
You don't want to let me see
That your heart's not made out of stone

There may be some explanation
Why you feel the way you do
The world makes its rotations
But I just want to turn to you

Come on let me turn to you
Please let me turn to you
Why not let me turn to you
Just want to turn to you

It has a lot to do
With the first time that we met
The wild dance in your eyes
Made up for what was never said
Gotta get my message
Stop spending all our precious time
Because before you know it
We'll be down to our last dime
Although the lyrics have a pleading, desperate quality, the Go-Go's tear through the song with a hard-charging abandon that simultaneously keeps the words from sounding whiny while perhaps not giving them their full emotional due. But who cares, it rocks.

Of course, there's also the notorious music video directed by Mary Lambert. Before Lambert teamed up with Madonna to film five of the Ciccone's most iconic videos ("Borderline," "Like A Virgin," "Material Girl," "La Isla Bonita," and "Like A Prayer"), before she filmed Janet Jackson's "Control" and "Nasty" videos, before she filmed other clips for the Eurythmics, Sting, and Whitney Houston (to name a few), before she directed Pet Sematary, Pet Sematary II, Halloweentown II: Kalabar's Revenge, and the infamous Mega Python vs. Gatoroid (starring Debbie Gibson and Tiffany), she directed the video for the Go-Go's' "Turn To You."

The setting appears to be a high school prom during the early '60s, but here's the catch: the Go-Go's play men, and they play women. In the same video. At the same time.

Four of the five Go-Go's appear in drag as the house band, rocking "Turn To You" of course, while Gina, amusingly, plays the drums in a towering bouffant wig. The other Go-Go's are disturbingly effective as men. As many YouTube commentators have noted, Belinda shares an eerie resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio here. My default stance of gazing at my '80s Dream Woman, in this particular instance, takes me to some uncomfortable places. Another observer commented that Jane in drag is the spitting image of the Animals' bassist Chas Chandler. But out on the dance floor, Belinda, Jane, Charlotte, and Kathy are back to being women, albeit women with absurdly campy wigs, while this time Gina is the one in drag (looking, actually, pretty much like she always does). Oh, and Rob Lowe is in it too.

Apparently Lambert had this whole idea of playing around with androgyny, and at times you sort of lose track of who is pretending to be whom. The three weirdest/funniest moments: 1) When the "male" Gina cuts in between the "female" Charlotte and Rob Lowe, while seconds later, Rob Lowe and his buddies point to the "female" Gina on-stage, collectively admiring her beauty; 2) the "female" Charlotte gives flowers to the "male" Belinda on-stage; 3) the "male" Belinda hops into the passenger seat next to the "female" Jane and leans in for a ... kiss? Isn't that Go-Go's incest right there?

But now we come to the real reason why "Turn To You" is the Forgotten Go-Go's Hit: Belinda hated it. She hated it then and she hates it now. For some mysterious reason, she's just never liked the damn thing. And you can't make the lead singer sing a song she doesn't like. Despite the fact that, technically, it is one of the Go-Go's' actual hits, she has managed to convince the rest of the band to permanently retire it from the touring set list. From Lips Unsealed:
And then there were those I didn't get. "Turn to You," for instance, was one of my least favorite songs (the video was even more hideous, I thought), and yet the Rolling Stone album review that would appear a few months later called that particular tune the "best in the bunch." Go figure.
Yes, go figure. I have one observation: if she thought the video was so "hideous," she certainly went along with it, didn't she? In spite of Belinda's attempts to suppress the song and write it out of the band's history, "Turn To You" lives on in the hearts of A.V. Club commentators, as these responses to the posing of the question "Best Go-Go's song" attest:
'Turn to You'. if only because its one of the few later Go-Go's tunes where Belinda really lets go vocally. and the guitars are louder than they needed to be, which is a good thing. it rocked.

"Turn To You" just flucking rocks. LeadingExpert is right: both the over-cranked guitars and the note-bending Belinda make the song so effective. The song builds -- subtly, gradually -- throughout the solo. And, just before the final verse, when the rhythm guitar kicks in after the one beat rest...

Yep, my vote is also for Turn To You. I love it when Belinda really belts out 'Now GET MY MESSSSSAGGEEE.' Best part of the song.
Sorry, Belinda, looks like you're out-voted on this one.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Play it Again, Zrbo: On Pacing

There's many aspects to what can make a videogame great. These can include aspects like solid core mechanics, such as those found in Tetris, or great level design, like in the Super Mario series. One aspect often overlooked is the pacing of a game. A well paced game, one that ratchets up the stakes just right, must balance a rising sense of difficulty with a satisfying level of accomplishment. Many modern games often lean to hard on the latter, patting you on the back for the most mundane of things (which last year's Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon parodied to the extreme during it's tutorial). Games on the other end feel too hard or punishing without the feeling of much gain. But sometimes a game gets it just right, finding that equilibrium between success and tension.

I recently replayed Resident Evil 4 and Portal 2, and I walked away from both games with an admiration of their exquisite pacing.

I've already written before about the opening of Resident Evil 4. Arriving in a remote Spanish village, hero Leon Kennedy must rescue the president's daughter. It couldn't possibly be a stupider premise (to begin with, why would the government send just one man?). But that's beside the point. The game is paced marvelously well.

In my previous post on the game I wrote about the opening level and how not 10 minutes into the game, when the player has just gotten used to the basic mechanics, the game throws a huge angry mob at the player in a nailbiting sequence. While this sequence is most definitely a difficulty spike, it sets the player up for the rest of the game. Once you've gotten past this initial encounter, arguably the game's most difficult, the player feels that they're able to accomplish what's to come. Leon will plow through dozens of zombie-like townsfolk, work his way through an old castle filled with occultist zombified monks, and finally traverse an island military base. The difficulty comes on so smooth you'd think this might be the videogame incarnation of the Alan Parsons Project (though you won't doze off, I can guarantee that much). The frequency with which upgrades are doled out, the increasingly difficult scenarios the player is placed in, and the way the game moves you from one set piece to the next all conspire to make Resident Evil 4 an expertly paced game.

Portal 2, one of my favorite games of 2011, is another game I had the pleasure of replaying recently. It too is paced remarkably well. The zany opening gives way to calm exploration as your character is thrust back into this science-facility-gone-wrong. Time has passed from the first game and mother nature has taken her toll on the facility, with plants and roots having overrun many of the opening puzzle rooms. If you're paying attention you'll even notice that the first few rooms are actually the opening puzzles from the original game. While Portal 2 is much longer than the original, the momentum of the game never lets up as the designers at Valve have made the difficulty curve so smooth that you'll be accomplishing mind-bending puzzles before you know it. The storytelling is also quite good, as over the course of the game you'll come to know the origins of the murderous HAL-like GLaDOS as well as the history of the Aperture Science facility itself. Just like they did with Half Life 2, Valve know how to craft a well paced videogame adventure.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Power Of "Love" And/Or Blockbuster Movie Marketing AKA Zemeckis Accidentally Goes "Back In Time," Almost Erases Own Theme Song

If anyone had started to worry by 1985 that, after the whole "I Want A New Drug"/"Ghostbusters" fracas, Huey Lewis might have missed out on his chance to do a movie theme song, well they needn't have worried for long. As he tells a restless barroom audience at the beginning of the theme's full clip, "Now I know it's been a few years, but Hollywood finally called! That's it, your favorite group is in the movie business. And I know it's a good song, and, I mean, it's gotta be a good movie, they've even got jackets." Black leather jackets.

Sometimes a great movie can have a shitty theme song, and sometimes a shitty movie can have a great theme song. But sometimes a great movie can have a great theme song. Back To The Future is one such movie, and "The Power of Love" is one such theme song.

From the very opening two-chord synth blast, the tune jumps out of the speakers stronger and harder than a bad girl's dream (and that's pretty damn strong). The verse melody has sort of a smoky, low-key vibe, with a touch of bluesy weariness (I wonder if that's Chuck Berry's cousin Marvin playing the snaky guitar solo?), which is what makes that switch into the major key of the chorus so inspiring; the verse suggests that the song is going to be a downer, but then the chorus hits you with the force of 10,000 gigawatts. Personally, I'm more familiar with the power of love to make a man weep rather than sing, but when Huey belts out, "Don't need money/Don't take fame/Don't need no credit card to ride this train," I feel like I could punch a thousand Biff Tannens in the face a thousand times.

Well, it may take neither money nor fame to ride that proverbial train, but "The Power Of Love" certainly earned Huey Lewis and the News plenty of both; the song became their first US #1 hit, and their biggest UK hit at #9. The single was so killer that it probably would have become one of their biggest hits regardless, but I'm sure the extra Hollywood promotion didn't exactly hurt. So the perfect pairing of song and film was always going to be Huey Lewis' and Robert Zemeckis' density, right? That's what they've told you at any rate. The truth is more shocking. Incredibly, "The Power of Love" almost didn't get made. The Universal Studios PR department did its best to suppress the behind-the scenes drama, but in a rare interview for a Lithuanian radio program a couple of years ago, Zemeckis finally shared a surprising story:
Well, we were on the set one day, and I was fooling around with the DeLorean between takes, and suddenly the door slammed shut on me, all the lights and the electrodes started flickering, and ... it just took off. There was a blinding flash, and I finally got the car under control. When I stepped on the breaks and opened the door, you know, I couldn't believe it, but it was 1945! I tried to find Christopher Lloyd to maybe figure out how to get back to the set and finish the movie and everything, but everybody was looking at me funny and nobody took me seriously. I couldn't buy anything because they didn't think my '80s money was real. So I tried to rob a nice young lady, and it turns out that nice young lady was Huey Lewis' mom, and she was supposed to be robbed by Huey Lewis' dad just a couple of minutes later, because that's how they met. But it took me a little while to figure that out. I went back to the DeLorean to listen to "The Power of Love" on the cassette deck, but it started ... fading out, and sounding all distorted and drenched in static. The song was disappearing! I realized I had messed with the whole space-time continuum! So finally I had to hunt down Christopher Lloyd, who was only 7 years old, but I convinced him that I was really from the future, and we hatched a zany plan to get Huey Lewis' mom and dad back together, and then I played this really far-out version of "My Ding-A-Ling" at the school dance, and everything worked out OK. But yeah, we almost didn't get the song in the movie."
Great scott!