Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Miami Sound Machine's Surprise Ticket To Glory: Not Sounding Latin

"Conga" established the perfect formula for the Miami Sound Machine: cheesy latin-tinged '80s dance-pop. But with their two follow-up singles from Primitive Love, the group refined this formula in a revelatory fashion: they removed the words "latin-tinged." Now their dance-pop kind of just sounded ... like everybody else's! Were these the hot new singles by the Pointer Sisters? Whitney Houston? Sheena Easton? Who cared? They were hits!

First up: the perky "Bad Boy," which hit #8, but hopefully no actual bad boys actually hit Gloria Estefan during the making of this song. I don't think Emilio was that type. For reasons that elude me, two music videos were made for "Bad Boy." The first video is cute and hokey, but for some reason Vevo only uploaded half of it and the clip cuts off abruptly at the 2:11 mark. Not up to your usual standard, Vevo! If anyone really wants to see the shocking conclusion of Gloria's attempt to woo a Ricky Nelson-esque Hollywood heartthrob while prancing around Miami Beach, the full video is on Daily Motion.

Apparently, that video wasn't deemed worthy enough, as somebody decided to make a second, even weirder one. Now, what's the first thing you think of when you think about the Miami Sound Machine's "Bad Boy"? Why, the Andrew Lloyd-Weber musical Cats, of course. Apparently, "Bad Boy" was a Jellicle Song for Jellicle Cats, and Gloria found herself being invited to a magical Jellicle Ball. I knew these cats were bad, but ... flipping through a copy of Playcat? That's pretty bad. They also consume copious amounts of cat liquor, as well as KitKats. And boy, do they play a mean fish skeleton xylophone. At the end of it all, her WASPy boyfriend wants to know what the deal is. "So tell me the truth. You're seeing another guy." Gloria gives the only appropriate response: "Uh ... not exactly." She's seeing cats, dude. Get your head out of your ass. Not only that, but the ending even suggests that ... you've been dating a cat. You better get tested bro.

But just when everyone began wondering if Gloria Estefan was the Cuban Irene Cara, "Words Get In The Way" hit the airwaves and made everyone wonder if Gloria Estefan was actually the Cuban ... Karen Carpenter? Holy A&M! It's like they replaced Hal Blaine with a soulless drum machine and shoved Karen's tortured ghost out to the mic. Who knew those Latinos had so much suburban dread locked deep inside them? This one rocketed to #5, and clearly Gloria could see where her bread and butter lay.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

When You Multiply Robert Palmer, Two Guys From Duran Duran, And The Drummer From Chic ... To The Nth Power

Other bands, when the shit hit the fan, devolved into bruised rib cages and broken collar bones; Duran Duran merely went on "hiatus." I guess a proper break-up would have required too much testosterone. Nope, they amicably decided to explore two separate side projects. Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, and Roger Taylor formed Arcadia, who essentially sound like Duran Duran, so I'm not sure what the point was there. They were Duran Duran minus two guys who didn't sing anyway. According to Wikipedia, their #6 hit "Election Day" still gets trotted out as background music during election coverage by news networks who think they're being clever.

The other Taylors of Duran Duran, John and Andy, however, were sick of all that synth-pop hogwash and wanted to rock out. Which is why they teamed up with ... former Chic drummer Tony Thompson? First of all, just as I'd never realized that Duran Duran had a guitarist, I'd never realized that Chic had a drummer. I suppose they were as much of a funk band as a disco band, so it makes sense. Still, I'd heard of Nile Rodgers, even Bernard Edwards, but ... Tony Thompson? Normally the drummer in a band is an afterthought, but with the Power Station, the drums are turned way up in the mix. You can't miss 'em. Basically, if your idea of great music is extremely loud hair metal guitar coupled with extremely loud and overly-aggressive drumming, then the Power Station is the band for you.

But every great hard rock/synth-funk '80s band needs a singer. Wouldn't you know it, but at that exact moment, a certain artistically restless Yuppie Rocker was down on his luck and needed a tight ensemble to play behind him. From Wikipedia:
The original plan for this one-album project was for the three musicians (Taylor, Taylor and Thompson) to provide musical continuity to an album full of material, with a different singer performing on each track. Those who were approached included Mick Jagger, Billy Idol, Mars Williams (who eventually contributed brass to the album), Richard Butler (of The Psychedelic Furs), and Mick Ronson.

The group then invited eclectic soul singer Robert Palmer to record vocals for the track "Communication". When he heard that they had recorded demos for "Get It On (Bang a Gong)", he asked to try out vocals on that one as well, and by the end of the day, the group knew that they had found that elusive chemistry which distinguishes successful bands. Before long, they had decided to record the entire album with Palmer.
So, if Arcadia sounds like Duran Duran, then The Power Station sounds like ... Robert Palmer. Never mind that the band wasn't really his idea. Of course, part of the reason the Power Station sounds like Robert Palmer is because "Addicted To Love" and much of Palmer's subsequent solo material ended up sounding like The Power Station (and actually featured backing from the other Power Station members). Which came first: the chicken or the egg? The Taylor or the Palmer? Either way, thanks to this freak collaboration, Palmer found himself with two US Top Ten hits - his first. Just when his career seemed dead in the water, the Power Station gave him that extra ... what's the word? Power.

It's always risky to cover a distinctive rock classic, let alone what is arguably the Holy Grail of glam rock singles, T. Rex's "Get It On (Bang A Gong)." The risks here were twofold: 1) how could an artist improve upon a song so magnificent, a song featuring Marc Bolan's most imitated guitar riff, without merely producing a re-tread of the original? And 2) how could another singer make his way through an absurd set of lyrics penned by the man I once dubbed "the world's greatest 'bad' lyricist"? How does one croon "Well you look like a car/You've got a hubcap diamond-starred halo" or "You're an untamed youth/That's the truth, with your cloak full of eagles" or "Well you're slim and you're weak/You've got the teeth of the hydra upon you" without sounding like a developmentally-challenged doofus?

Be the Power Station, that's how.

The first blasphemous alteration the Power Station makes is that Andy Taylor doesn't quite reproduce the proper Bolan riff note-for-note. Bolan's riff, as any self-respecting teenage male from 1972 could have told you, features three descending notes in the middle. But Andy Taylor says to hell with all that, essentially turning the riff into one staccato note. This ain't Phil Collins covering "You Can't Hurry Love," all right? The other smart touch, as befitting such a smartly-dressed man, is that Palmer sort of mumbles, groans, and grunts his way through the lyrics, treating them more like sexy gibberish than thoughtful poetic expression. Instead of sounding silly, he sounds like he's about to whip out his bondage gear. John Taylor even gets a bass solo! Did T. Rex's version have a bass solo?

Mostly it just sounds like a bunch of musicians who never expected to be playing together, suddenly finding a groove and not really concerning themselves with the results. So, despite all the potential pitfalls, the Power Station's cover of "Get It On (Bang A Gong)" rocks in a crunchy, danceable, radio-friendly fashion, as the original T. Rex version did, while managing to sound nothing like the T. Rex version. And look what happened: the single hit #9 in the US and #22 in Britain. Also, I'm partially convinced that Tony Thompson is banging a drum kit full of literal gongs, but the video, at least, suggests otherwise. It looks like the Power Station have found themselves jamming in a post-apocalyptic Manhattan apartment with a surprisingly reckless Alice in Wonderland. The only thing this video needs is more pink, green, and aqua. Oh, and why are there shots of the Twin Towers ... with airplanes in the background? What did they know and when did they know it???

In addition to being glam rock aficionados, apparently the Power Station were also big Billy Wilder aficionados, unless they had something else on their minds other than the Jack Lemmon/Tony Curtis/Marilyn Monroe comedy when they conceived "Some Like It Hot." Maybe it was a song about Kung Pao chicken. But yes, as the title implies, this one has a Latin/Caribbean feel, complete with peppy and supremely processed '80s horns. It's like they made the ultimate Miami Sound Machine hit ... before anyone had even heard of the Miami Sound Machine. Well, some like it hot and some like a hit: this one peaked at #6 in the US and #14 in the UK. As for the video, it sure looks pretty hot in that papier mache desert. Well, not only do some like it when Robert Palmer dresses up like a priest, but some men like it when they have a sex change: the "girl" in the video is actually the trans-sexual model Caroline Cossey, otherwise known as "Tula." All the references to shaving suddenly make a little more sense now. And you thought Caitlyn Jenner was a trailblazer.