Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Mad About You" (Song): The Little Solo Singer That Could

Usually, lead singers who go solo have been itching to go solo. They've been silently waiting for that moment when they're able to finally tell their jealous band mates to stuff it. They're ready to show those clowns that they don't need anybody else. Lead singers who go solo have a plan, a vision, a style, and they're eager to share it with their fans in a way their band mates simply never understood.

Then, there is Belinda Carlisle.

Now, I'm not saying a solo career like Belinda's didn't take "effort" and "hard work," but in a way, yes, that is exactly what I'm saying. Belinda's solo career seems like that rare instance of a solo career essentially falling into a person's lap. If Belinda's solo career was a Broadway musical, it would have been called How To Succeed In '80s Pop Music Without Really Trying. Whereas other lead singers would have rung up their record company and demanded, "I wanna do this, I wanna do that," Belinda's approach was more along the lines of, "I dunno guys, should I make a record? What songs should I do? I dunno, what songs do you wanna do?" Making a solo album was not, as far as I can tell, a burning desire in this particular artist's soul. But the Go-Go's fell apart, and hey, she needed to do something. In Lip Unsealed, she describes her predicament with what might be my absolute favorite quote in a book full of favorite quotes: "I had less than $20,000 to my name when I moved in with Morgan ... I had blown God only knew how much money on drugs, travel, clothes, and even a racehorse I purchased on a whim for some ghastly sum. I needed to work."

A racehorse? Oh man. Where did she even keep it? She can't just leave us hanging like that. However, keep in mind that once she officially married Mr. Mason, any financial concerns were probably rendered moot, but you get the idea. She was a singer. Singers sing. Quite what they sing, on the other hand, depends on what people want to hear.

The point is, this relative lack of direction could have, nay, should have been a recipe for what the English politely call "dog shit." Now, the Go-Go's had been a successful band. The public heard Belinda Carlisle's voice, and they heard awesome music. What the public did not quite know was that Belinda Carlisle didn't exactly have much to do with all that awesome music. One could even argue that Belinda contributed the least to the Go-Go's music. OK, OK, I'm playing devil's advocate here; the Go-Go's without Belinda would have been nothing. Nothing! But my point is this: if it's 1985, and you're looking at Belinda's musical skills on paper, your expectations for her solo career are fairly, shall we say, low.

Ah, but there are moments in the story of our species where something indescribable happens, where magic takes over from logic, where the pop music gods blow on the dice and roll a pair of sixes. Belinda Carlisle's solo career ... was one such moment.

It all started with a Go-Go's leftover. Soon-to-be-rendered futile Jane replacement Paula Jean Brown had co-written (along with two guys named James Whelan and Mitchell Young Evans - I wonder what their stories are?) a charming little number called "Mad About You." Well, the Go-Go's obviously weren't about to record it, so why let a winner go to waste? Belinda said, "I'll have that, thank you very much." In terms of song structure, I suppose it was not markedly different from her former band's material. Although the lyrics were more romantically optimistic than the Go-Go's' patented (but often ignored) anguish and angst, when coupled with the singer's new image, this probably turned out to be an unanticipated piece of the single's appeal. Rather, I'd say it was the glossy, vaguely digitized production that most strongly differentiated it from her previous band's work. Imagine Kate Pierson going solo and sounding like Kenny Loggins. I can just see Miles Copeland sitting in the control room now: "Uh, Belinda, you really think the I.R.S. Records fanbase is going to go for this shit?" I.R.S. Records fanbase? Get your head out of the sand, Miles. Belinda's going for a whole new demographic, baby. Well, I'm distorting history a little to suit my own ends; Miles Copeland actually loved "Mad About You," and he would not be alone. Is it my favorite solo Belinda song? That's like naming my favorite star on the American flag. They're all shining beacons of hope and freedom.

It commences with a tacky bass and drum intro mimicking a heartbeat (somewhat reminiscent of Vacation album track "This Old Feeling," to be honest). Once the overly-processed acoustic guitars and strangely ill-defined keyboards come in, you know that she's playing a new game here, one with new rules. To paraphrase The Wizard of Oz: "Toto, I have a strange feeling Belinda's not even trying to be punk anymore." Oh, but when that scratchy tickle of a voice comes in, she washes away all doubts. New sonic backdrop, but same mother fuckin' Belinda:
I'm mad about you
You're mad about me babe
Couple of fools run wild
Aren't we
Following these lines, in both stereo channels, Belinda is attacked by some kind of ... synthesized glockenspiel? Then the drums kick into double time. This jet airplane is preparing for take-off:
Pushing the day
Into the night time
Somewhere between the two
We start to see
There's a great anticipatory chord under "see" that just dangles for a few seconds. It's like the Chord That Stops Time. Then, with a hint of growling guitar and semi-hideous '80s drum fill, suddenly we're soaring through the Clouds of Belinda Land. But what's this? She has two old friends flying beside her. Yes, on backing vocals, it's ... it's ... Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin!

You mean to tell me she had two Go-Go's singing backup on her first solo recording? Isn't that cheating? Hey, what did I say about a new game, with new rules? This is Belinda Carlisle; she can do whatever the hell she wants. I'm not surprised that Charlotte was involved, since she essentially acted as Belinda's right-hand woman for a couple of years (given that she, you know, actually understood how to make music) playing on Belinda's first two solo albums, and even co-writing several of the songs. But Jane? I would have thought the wounds were still a little raw at this point. Didn't Jane pretty much want to kick Belinda in the balls? Maybe she figured, "Well, Belinda's solo career's got no chance, I might as well throw her a bone." Ha! To be honest, the two of them together almost sound like multi-tracked Belindas, but I'll take Wikipedia's word for it. And so it is that "Mad About You" is not just Belinda's first solo song, but practically the last official Go-Go's song of the '80s, because 1) it was genuinely being considered for the Go-Go's' non-existent fourth album, and 2) three out of five Go-Go's actually perform on it. Of course, once the video came out, there was no mistaking this for a mere Go-Go's song. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This song has one of those choruses that just ... it just ... it just wraps around your ears and gives them a back rub. It has this sneaky ... cool to it. I mean, it sounds like the simplest chorus of all time. When it seems like it's about to rest, it's on the move again. Maybe it's something about the interplay between Belinda's full-throttled lead and Charlotte and Jane's coy, teasing responses. A recently added sentence on Wikipedia states, "Part of the appeal of the song's chorus lies in the rapid-fire kick drum double stroke pattern on every bar, performed using either a single or double bass pedal," which, now that I've listened for it, is totally true, although next to that sentence is a "[citation needed]," so perhaps I should remain skeptical. Honestly, there's so much '80s studio gloop on the recording, I kind of assumed it was a drum machine!

The show goes on. She sings the first part of the second verse in the upper range of her voice: "Something 'bout you/right there beside me/Touches the touched part of me/Like I can't believe." "Touches the touched?" Just go with it. Then she drops back down an octave for the second part: "Pushing the night/Into the daytiy-iy-ime/Watching the sky's first light/While the city sleeeeeeps..." See, she's exploring her range. It's her solo career.

Then at 1:54, there's more lifeless keyboard, only to be broken up at 2:07 by a fiery guitar solo from ... Duran Duran's Andy Taylor! Because the first thing people think of when they think of Duran Duran is, "What an amazing guitarist!" You mean Duran Duran even had a guitarist? Oh they did, and in 1986 ... guess what he was doing? He was rocking out with Belinda Carlisle is what he was doing. I love the part right around 2:22 where Taylor's solo burns out in a blaze of glory, but there's this ridiculous echo effect on the last note and it bounces around for another few seconds, like an inescapable cry from the depths of Satan's lair. Belinda delivers a couple of soft, seductive "I'm mad about you"s, until the meek studio crew somehow manages to gather enough energy to build back up to the chorus, and then she really lets it rip in the fade-out. At 2:58 and 3:25, I can just picture her in the studio, blond locks flowing over her sweaty forehead, as she clenches her fists Lou Gramm-style, head tilted back, and wails "I'm mad about yoooouuuu!" Belinda is giving it all she's got right there. At 3:09, Taylor throws in some ear-shredding riffs for good measure, the hard-rocking icing on the proverbial '80s MOR cake.

Catchy tune - it's what I might call the "gleaming essence of a 1986 fluffy pop confection," playfully innocent and yet slightly adult, like a Christmas card from Larry Flynt  - but would it play in Peoria? Well, if Belinda had any doubts that she could pull off this whole solo thing, the performance of her first single quickly put those to rest, as it rocketed up to #3 in the US (and #1 in Canada!), right alongside the likes of "Papa Don't Preach," "Stuck With You," "Sledgehammer," and "Higher Love." I don't know if it inspired the name of the Helen Hunt-Paul Reiser sitcom, but according to one '80s music blog I read a couple of years ago, it plays in the background of a scene from Growing Pains where Tracey Gold's character has a pillow fight with her friends during a slumber party, and if that isn't true, it should be. Also, how could we forget its appearance on the soundtrack to the Jennifer Garner body-swapping rom-com 13 Going On 30?

And so, the woman was on her way. But like many a memorable '80s hit, the recording itself ... was only half the story. See, talking about "Mad About You" without talking about its accompanying music video is like talking about the Grand Canyon without talking about its depth. It's like talking about the Burj Khalifa without talking about its height. It's like talking about The Great Gatsby without talking about Gatsy. The video for "Mad About You" is a work of such mesmerizing visual power and cultural heft, it deserves a post of its own. And I think it's going to get one.


Herr Zrbo said...

You've got a couple of spelling errors, unless Belinda has a second book called Lip Unsealed and The Great Gatsby has a character named Gatsy. Or maybe you were just too excited when writing about your love.

Little Earl said...

You never heard about Gatsy? He was Gatsby's Italian dentist from the Bronx. One of my favorite characters. And yes, Belinda did write a second book called Lip Unsealed, after a terrible mishap with a lamination machine that accidentally coated her entire lower lip.

Anyway, King of the Comma Splice, think of it this way: look at how many words I spelled RIGHT.