Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Brief Summary Of The Paisley Underground AKA When The Bangles Had Street Cred

And the Lord said: "Let there be Paisley." And out of this paisley muck, there arose two Petersons, and Hoffs, and a Steele.

The Paisley Underground was a group of like-minded L.A. bands who were inspired by and/or obsessed with late '60s psychedelic rock ... in the early '80s. When I first heard about this, it didn't sound that unique to me. "Come on, isn't every band inspired by late '60s psychedelic rock?" Well, in the '90s there was Britpop in the UK, and Elephant 6 in the US. But the more that I thought about it, the more I realized that it must have been really anomalous to be making fuzzy garage rock records in 1982, the era of "Physical" and "Hungry Like The Wolf." Somebody's parents forgot to put those Electric Prunes records in the basement, where the kids couldn't find them.

As '80s music scenes go, I'd say the Paisley Underground was not as strong as SST Records, but better than Madchester. There were about five or six core bands, with about three or four other peripheral bands, and nobody's 100% sure even to this day which bands were Paisley Underground and which were not, so take your pick. The Three O'Clock (formerly the Salvation Army) were like the scene's Hollies:

The Dream Syndicate were like the scene's Velvet Underground (of course, the VU did not consider themselves "psychedelic," but they certainly were "late '60s" and every Paisley Underground band eagerly aped their fuzzy, strung-out sound):

Green On Red were like the scene's Doors. The Long Ryders were like the scene's Flying Burrito Brothers. Rain Parade were like the scene's Pink Floyd. In addition, every band was trying to sound exactly like Big Star. In case you think I'm forgetting Game Theory (Tommy Roe?), True West (Paul Revere & the Raiders?), Thin White Rope (solo David Crosby?), the Pandoras (the female Troggs?), David Roback's post Rain Parade duo - and precursor to Mazzy Star - Opal (Nico?), and one-off Paisley Underground supergroup Rainy Day (Neil Young at his most narcoleptic?), well, I'm not.

Yet as exciting, quirky, and eclectic as all these groups were, only one of them would go on to achieve any modicum of fame and fortune. What special quality did the Bangles have that these other bands lacked? What sacred offering were they willing to sacrifice to the Top 40 gods that the Three O'Clock simply couldn't match? To paraphrase another '60s influence, the answer, my friend, is blowing in the smoggy Santa Ana wind.

So who was the model for the Bangles? Well, I'd say a little of all of the previously mentioned bands, but mostly I'd point to what is nowadays called "Sunshine Pop": The Mamas & The Papas, The Turtles, post-1965 Beach Boys, hell let's throw in the Association, the Grass Roots, and the Beau Brummels while we're at it. The Bangles ended up sounding like all the late '60s Southern California bands who were trying their hardest to sound British. Go ahead, listen to their first single, "Getting Out Of Hand," and try not to prance down Carnaby Street in a mini-skirt and a pillbox hat:

A couple of years later, the Bangles released their first EP, featuring "The Real World," which would have been the perfect theme to an MTV reality TV program in an alternate, and possibly better, universe. At this stage, these ladies were walking a lot more like a Liverpudlian than an Egyptian. The video looks like an outtake from an Austin Powers movie, with the girls (including early and soon to be replaced bassist Annette Zilinskas!) apparently playing in the Cavern Club, and nailing mod fashion even more thoroughly than the Jam did. Fab! Gear! Most amusingly, check out Susanna with short hair. I'm starting to think that Annette might have been the most attractive one of them all; Wikipedia claims she left "to focus on her own project," but come on, we know what really happened.

However, if the Bangles were hoping to spend the rest of the decade fooling around in their little retro world with their garage-dwelling comrades, well, the '80s had other plans.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"The Longest Time": The One-Man Doo-Wop "Like A Virgin"

I guess there was something about boinking Christie Brinkley that made Billy Joel feel like a horny street corner teenager all over again. Actually, make that an entire gang of horny street corner teenagers, because his new paramour filled him with the urge to pen and sing an entire multi-part harmony doo-wop song ... all by himself.
If you said goodbye to me tonight
There would still be music left to write
What else could I do
I'm so inspired by you
That hasn't happened for the longest time

Once I thought my innocence was gone
Now I know that happiness goes on
That's where you found me
When you put your arms around me
I haven't been there for the longest time
Sorry Madonna, I think you got beaten to the punch here - although, to be fair, hearing Billy Joel sing about rediscovering his carnal innocence is somehow less sexy than hearing Madonna sing about it. Nevertheless, on this one, Billy Joel was Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Anthony and the Imperials. In fact, aside from a bass guitar, he was the entire song. It's like if Prince were white, and couldn't play any instruments.

Because "The Longest Time" has made its irresistible presence known on the radio for, well, the longest fucking time, I think people have forgotten how weird this song truly is. It was released smack in the middle of the '80s, and yet there are no drums on it, no synthesizers, no keyboards, no tambourines or maracas or castanets or even a lousy dog whistle. And it was a hit (#14 pop, #1 Adult Contemporary). I have to say that it doesn't sound dated in any way whatsoever - mostly because when there's nothing on your record, there's nothing that can actually date. Roll over, Philip Glass: this shit is minimalist.

Mostly it just sounds like Billy having a lot of fun. "Ooh, I'm gonna do the bass part! And next I'm gonna do this other part! Roll the tape, Phil, I've got some falsetto crap I wanna try out." You can tell he really let himself go with the high harmony, particular with those recurring "Woo-ooh-woo-ooh"s (first one at 1:12). But I don't think this song was a stunt, or a gimmick. Here's a question: what would "The Longest Time" have sounded like with a more conventional, "rock band" arrangement? What's funny is that I'm wondering this for the very first time in my whole life, because the song has never seemed like it was missing anything.

The video hasn't aged too badly either, but I'm not sure I could say the same for Billy himself, since the premise is that he's sitting alone in the gym at a high school reunion, but in order to show that he's "aged," they just put some glasses on him and a couple of grey streaks in his hair. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a little optimistic.

Although several of his fellow aging classmates quickly join him in song, I must point out that none of these actors participated in the actual studio recording. In the end, all of them become a grating nuisance for the janitor, who, in addition to just trying to do is job, is apparently New York congressman Charlie Rangel. Something tells me he isn't quite as nostalgic about the "good old days" of '59 as Billy and his buddies are.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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