Friday, June 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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