Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Belinda: The Weirdest Album Of 1986 AKA Can A Woman Simultaneously Grow Older ... And Younger?

There were some weird albums in 1986. The Butthole Surfers' Rembrandt Pussyhorse. Big Black's Atomizer. Public Image Ltd.'s Album/Compact Disc/Cassette (you guessed it: the name of the album depended on the format in which it was purchased). They Might Be Giants' debut. But there is one album that, in my humble opinion, is weirder than all of those albums combined. That album is Belinda Carlisle's solo debut, simply titled Belinda.

The weirdest thing about Belinda is that it is so utterly, completely ... normal. On the surface, Belinda is about as normal as a mainstream '80s pop album could possibly be. The production is not unique in any notable way, the instrumentation is entirely conventional, the lyrical content is standard romantic pablum. No, what makes Belinda the weirdest album of 1986 is that it reveals not the slightest trace of the performer's long and legitimate punk past.

I could understand a brief nod, a mild wink, a token acknowledgement. But nope. There's nothing. Nada. Not even a faint fingerprint. The unsuspecting listener could have purchased this album in 1986 without receiving the slightest inkling that the perfectly sweet young lady singing these songs was the same woman who once:
  • Wore trash bags as a dress
  • Slipped her menstrual fluid into alcoholic beverages in order to "cast spells" on boys
  • Allowed herself to be drenched in the spit of overly-enthusiastic British punk audiences
  • Posed, on camera, the eternal question: "Why can't girls jack off?"
Never have I seen, in all my years of popular music fandom, a transformation so thorough, so complete, so divorced from prior origins, as the transformation achieved here. It is without precedent. I would call it unbelievable, except it happened, and so I believe it. Belinda is like if HBO suddenly tried to pretend it was the Disney Channel. My father once said, amused at Las Vegas' attempt to turn itself into a family destination, "That's like hell trying to dress itself up and pretend that it's heaven." Of course, Belinda is like heaven trying to dress itself up and pretend that it's heaven, but I digress.

Belinda is like the goofy kid sister to Madonna's True Blue and Janet Jackson's Control. Whereas those two 1986 blockbuster albums peaked at #1, spun off multiple top ten singles, and went multi-platinum, Belinda peaked at #13, spun off one top ten hit, two flop singles, and went gold. Madonna and Janet Jackson sat in the studio and carefully crafted their marketing strategy down to every last bra-strap: which songs would be released as singles (and when), what the videos would like look, how to handle the concert choreography, etc. Belinda just went along with whatever the record label wanted her to do. True Blue and Control oozed ambition and ego. Belinda waved its little hand in the air and said, "Hey, look at me! I can be a hit album too!" But it wasn't entirely sure.

Somehow, in the chaotic climate that was 1986 popular music, Belinda found its perky little niche. Just to provide some perspective: on the 1986 year-end bestselling albums chart, Belinda finished at #83, a couple of spots below LL Cool J's Radio, and four places above Metallica's Master Of Puppets. It was a strange time, ladies and gentlemen.

While they weren't treated quite like Radio or Master Of Puppets, True Blue and Control were taken somewhat seriously by critics at the time. No music critic took Belinda remotely seriously at the time, and, actually, no music critic takes it seriously now. Well, that's not entirely accurate. Initially, in an old AMG review, Stephen Thomas Erlewine gave it three stars and sprinkled some mild praise its way:
Belinda Carlisle's first solo record was a distinct departure from the Go-Go's energetic, catchy new wave pop. Carlisle refashioned herself as an inoffensive mainstream pop singer and the makeover worked commercially, as well as artistically. The pop on Belinda may not be as infectious as the Go-Go's finest singles, yet it fit in well with the slick formats of mid-'80s radio and managed to be more memorable than many of the mainstream hits of the time, as the ingratiating hit "Mad About You" proves.
Well guess what? I just checked AMG, and it looks like ol' STE recently bumped that rating up to four stars and wrote a new, expanded review. Is Belinda is finally gaining some belated hipster props? As for its reception upon release, usually I'd say that the narrow-minded tastemakers of the day missed the boat and failed to spot an obvious classic, but honestly, with this one, I don't blame 'em. They were right to chuckle at this album. It's kind of a silly album. Sure, you and I know, with the benefit of hindsight, that Belinda went full-borne Yuppie, but people didn't see that coming at the time. Here was Belinda's chance to redefine herself, to tell the world what she was about as an artist and role model, and she came up with ... this? Did she have a single substantive thought in that bubbly blonde cranium of hers? I can understand the scorn or, more accurately, the indifference. However, in retrospect, I believe that Belinda is in need of some serious critical re-evaluation. Because there has never been - and will never be - another album quite like it.

Only a couple of songs strike me as outright boring; I find the rest either purely poptastic or head-scratchingly, misguidedly memorable in that "Why, Belinda? Why?" sort of way. Unlike most of her solo albums, which feel more disjointed, Belinda has a genuine thematic cohesion (the theme being "Can I really pull this off guys?"). In summary, after Beauty And The Beat, this is my favorite Belinda-related long player.

What does the defendant have to say for herself? From Lips Unsealed:
For the next eight months, I worked on Belinda, my first solo album. I dove in without thinking about any of the pressure-packed issues I would face later on when I actually stepped out publicly and faced critics, Go-Go's fans, and the new reality that I was on my own. I moved quickly, sticking to the relatively safe and familiar pop territory for which I was known. Should I have tried to develop an edgier sound or gone back to my punk roots? In retrospect, I wish I had pushed it to a harder place. But I wasn't in that headspace. Nor did I have that kind of creative freedom as a new artist.
Wasn't in that "headspace"? "Wasn't in that headspace?" She jumped off the diving board and did a massive cannonball into the Swimming Pool of Slick Top 40 Cheese, and all she can say for herself is that she "wasn't in that headspace"? I think that's the best answer we're ever going to get. To be fair, she makes a nice point about lacking "creative freedom as a new artist." But wait a second. By that logic, when John Lydon formed Public Image Ltd., he didn't have any "creative freedom as a new artist." When Morrissey left the Smiths, he didn't have any "creative freedom as a new artist." But you know what? They made the music they wanted to make anyway. Because it was important to them. I think Belinda could have had creative freedom if she'd wanted it. She just didn't want to make "meaningful" music that badly. She liked playing the video vixen. And another thing: she says she stuck to "the relatively safe and familiar pop territory for which I was known." Well, the Go-Go's were certainly radio-friendly, but as "safe and familiar" as this? Belinda makes the Go-Go's sound like Throbbing Gristle.

Another funny thing happened when Belinda went solo: she became the unofficial heir to the sunny California pop throne. Everyone from former band mates and fellow '80s contemporaries to '60s and '70s L.A. baby boomer studio veterans wanted to chip in to the Golden Girl's new career:
I was working with veteran producer Michael Lloyd, and we chose Paula's infectious pop song "Mad About You" as a starting point ... I also relied heavily on Charlotte, who had five songwriting credits on the album. Plus Michael and I chose songs from such proven hitmakers as Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham, Split Enz' Tim Finn, Tom Kelly, Billy Steinberg, and the Bangles' Susanna Hoffs.

The album was rounded out by musical contributions from Duran Duran's Andy Taylor and session legends David Lindley and Nicky Hopkins, among others. The danger of employing so many disparate talents, of course, was ending up with an album that didn't have a personality of its own. But after hearing an early compilation, I thought the album was good ... It was like the romantic pop that I had listened to when I was growing up and lying in front of the stereo speakers. Like all my solo albums since, it reflected where I was at the time ... I was proud of it.
Well I'm proud of it too Belinda, but it sure helped that you picked a dynamite team. It reminds me of Ringo's first proper solo album, the one from 1973 with an endless cavalcade of guest stars. "Belinda's doing a solo album? I'm in!" For those who don't know, Nicky Hopkins was arguably the greatest session pianist in late '60s Britain, playing on laughably famous tracks by the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and even the Beatles' "Revolution" (it might ring a bell), and David Lindley was the ultimate early '70 L.A. singer-songwriter go-to man, playing with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, and Rod Stewart, as well as his own band Kaleidoscope. How the hell Belinda got them to show up on her album is a question probably even she couldn't answer.

But perhaps I'm burying the lede here. Some of you may have scanned the above excerpt and noticed, "Wait a second, did she just say that one of the songs on her album was written by Susanna Hoffs??" Oh yes. Belinda and Susanna, teaming up for recorded posterity. It's like a collaboration between the Beatles and the Stones ... but better. To clarify, the song was actually a collaboration between Susanna Hoffs and ubiquitous professional songwriters Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg. Remember those guys? You know, the guys who wrote "Like A Virgin"? Remember this quote?:
"I wasn't just trying to get that racy word virgin in a lyric. I was saying ... that I may not really be a virgin — I've been battered romantically and emotionally like many people — but I'm starting a new relationship and it just feels so good, it's healing all the wounds and making me feel like I've never done this before, because it's so much deeper and more profound than anything I've ever felt."
Yeah - those guys. Well who needs Madonna when you've got Belinda and Susanna, know what I'm sayin'? At any rate, this is quite a pedigree for a forgotten Belinda album track. So what does this legendary meeting of the '80s pop minds sounds like? Uhhh ... it sounds like cheesy corporate crap, but God help me, I love it anyway. It's got a bouncy piano-and-bass riff that was probably ripped off from some Motown song I can't place right now (my brain keeps thinking of Spiral Staircase's "More Today Than Yesterday," but I don't think that's quite it, nor is that Motown), and Belinda comes in with a purr-rific "Ooooh ... yeahhhh" before the synthesized bells start chiming on the somewhat anti-climactic chorus. Final verdict: strangely riveting, but arguably doesn't live up to the hype.

Then there's Charlotte's "I Never Wanted a Rich Man," which she must have written with Belinda in mind (either that or Fiddler On The Roof?), because although Belinda may have never wanted a rich man, she definitely found one, a reality which turns this set of lyrics into a peculiar psychodrama:
I never wanted a rich man
Just someone with soul
It was on the day I met you
I vowed to never let you go

I never knew much about romance
Always used my lucky charms
I learned it all in just one lesson
When you first held me in your arms

Open up your heart
Let me inside
If you listen to your intuition
We'll have a chance tonight

Keep me in your heart
And hold on tight
If you read into my intuition
We'll find a way tonight

I put away all my heroes
And all the lovers I have known
Even though I've had my share
I've spent too many nights alone

Don't need to look for fame or fortune
I have found my paradise
You've got the whole world in your hands
And a fortune in your eyes
Well, Morgan had a fortune in his eyes ... and his wallet. Oh, and get a load of that soulful organ riffing. Perhaps this is where Nicky Hopkins made his presence known, although the playing sounds more like that of his fellow session buddy Billy Preston.

Let's see here. "From The Heart," which looks like it was co-written by Charlotte and her ... brother (?) sounds like it came from the spleen rather than the heart, and the same goes for "Gotta Get To You," which was probably another Go-Go's leftover, as it was co-written by blink-and-you-miss-her Jane replacement Paula Jean Brown, along with "Mad About You" co-writer James Whelan, plus Charlotte, and even Belinda herself. It's got a ham-fisted arena rock bombast and lyrics that don't seem to fit Belinda's life circumstances (she didn't need to "get to" anyone because she'd just found Morgan - hello!), but I know it well because it's also on the American version of Belinda's Greatest Hits, presumably because it ... carried a Belinda co-writing credit? I could think of about five other songs from this album that would have made for a better selection, but they didn't ask me.

Even "Shot In The Dark" would have been a better selection. Another apparent Go-Go's leftover by Brown and Whelan, it is the epitome of throwaway retro-'60s pop froth, with a grotesquely synthesized bass line, fake bongos, and what sounds like ... steel drums? Belinda's gone Caribbean! To quote the infamous opening lines of Greil Marcus' review of Dylan's Self Portrait, "What is this shit?" If you called this song completely horrendous, I wouldn't argue with you for long, but for reasons that I suppose I'll take to my grave, I can't help but admire it.

Oh, one more thing: great album cover. It's probably the least dated piece of the whole product. She looks like a ballet dancer poised between performances. She leans on a chair, suspended in time, a woman from any age, or no age. From Lips Unsealed:
When it came time to shoot the album cover, I knew I had the opportunity to do something special. I let the music inspire the image. I came up with the idea of modeling it after Ann-Margret's great look from Viva Las Vegas, in black tights and a sweater. Since people were making that comparison, why not? Matthew Ralston, the photographer, liked the idea, and so we went with it ... The resulting photo was stark and classy yet still pop. It sure didn't look like old pictures of me in which I always seemed as if I had just hit the deli tray, that's for sure. I thought it conveyed a slightly more grown-up vibe.
And now we come to the existential question posed by Belinda, a question for which there may be no true answer: can a woman grow "older" and "more sophisticated" while simultaneously reverting helplessly into a "childlike," "pre-adolescent" state? This album argues "Yes."

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