Sunday, January 29, 2017

Michael Of George: A Few Words, A Brief Pause (Plus: Professor Higglediggle's Unique Take)

And here I was, making fun of Wham!'s trip to China, having a jolly old time. Well then. It looks like Father Figure: The Socio-Political Implications of George Michael In The Post-Modern Landscape has taken an unexpected turn for the somber.

Nevertheless, I come to praise George, not to bury him. I must ask myself questions. Intense, probing questions. First of all: does the artist's death alter the goal at hand, or merely reinvigorate it? I tend to prefer writing about '80s pop star careers that haven't been given the kind of scrutiny one could find elsewhere. It's odd to see so many others scrutinize a career I'd already been scrutinizing so scrutinizingly. On the other hand: no, this only confirms my resolve, buttresses my belief, strengthens my commitment. The truth is, the essential nature of George Michael's '80s catalog has not changed. It was already fixed within history - and outside history - even though the man behind the art continued to live on into the '90s and the '00s, and then ultimately departed once and for all. Observations made about "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)" while George was alive hold just as much relevance today as observations one might make about "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)" now that George is no more. We must continue to laugh, to observe, to mock, to admire. I truly believe that George ... *sigh* ... would have wanted it that way.

In the midst of all the tributes, I couldn't help but be curious what Professor Horton J. Higglediggle, author of the obscure but invaluable tomé which I have been referencing so frequently, might have thought of Mr. Michael's passing. Surely he could be counted on for a slightly more idiosyncratic observation, a pointed requiem, a eulogy devoid of cliché and excess sentiment. Although notoriously slow in responding, Professor Higglediggle has, at last, sent me a brief reply, which I thought I would share with you:
Ah yes - a comment on the supposedly premature departure of the subject of my study (although here we must note that only recently in anthropoid evolution has 53 been considered "premature," but this attitude is anathema to the current cultural grievance construct, I understand).

The residual media commodification is an unfailingly regrettable process, normally a marginal and insignificant aspect of the artistic recontextualization that occurs upon expiration. However, one curious item standing out amid the pre-existing symbolic clutter of Michael's cessation strikes me as quite worthy of discussion - more discussion than it has appeared to receive. It must be noted that Mr. Michael shed this mortal coil on December 25 - Christmas Day. Although many individuals experience termination on this date - indeed, statistically, as many as on any other date - few have come to appreciate the singular irony of December 25, 2016 having literally been Mr. Michael's last Christmas. Much has been made of Mr. Bowie exiting only days after releasing his final album, a final meta-conceptual flourish appended to the career of the ever-conceptual changeling. Not to be outdone by an idol, Mr. Michael's eerily appropriate date of ascension serves as the macabre wink to the hyper-libinal cosmos, a last act of ideological reductionism, only to be appreciated by the non-commodified subcultural elite - a semiotic slippage which, I assume, will fail to be improved upon in the near future.

On a different note: 10 years and still going. How about them apples? That sure is a long time to be blogging. While the world may never know if Little Earl's time might have been better spent doing something arguably more productive over the last ten years ... what's done is done. He certainly never would have guessed, in January 2007, that he would still be blogging on the same silly blog ten years later, or that the blog would have taken a swift and seemingly irreversible turn toward '80s music at about the halfway mark. He has seen co-bloggers come and go (it appears Herr Zrbo may still be with us); since January 2007, his fellow Cosmic Americans have gotten married, sired children (some more than one), and I believe one co-blogger even ended up getting a divorce! Little Earl's life, while a little different as well, is not quite so different, but through the ups and downs, one constant has always been there. He couldn't say what the future holds for this strange Blogspot apparatus with its low-quality graphic design, but on this occasion he'd simply like to stop and utter a hushed, dignified ... "Holy shit."

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Walk Of Life"? Should've Called It Brothers In Legs Then

Man, did Brothers In Arms sell a lot of copies. For a while there it was probably out-selling toilet paper. Stand back in awe: it stayed at #1 in the US for nine weeks, #1 in the UK for 10 weeks, and #1 in Australia for 34 weeks. The little chart at the bottom of the album's Wikipedia page lists 18 countries where the album hit #1 (shame on you, Italy and Norway), and this chart still leaves out other countries where it topped the charts, including Denmark, Spain, and Yugoslavia. And to think: if only Yugoslavia had splintered up by 1985, Brothers In Arms might have gone to #1 in even more countries.

Now is the time to admit that, when I was 15, I added to this pile. I figured any album that was so commercially successful must also have been great. The same logic had led to the purchase of Frampton Comes Alive! about a month prior, but I suppose I hadn't learned my lesson. Hey, I wanted the long version of "Money For Nothing," I vaguely remembered "Walk Of Life" from '80s radio ... it felt like the right move. I brought the cassette home, popped it in the player, and sat on the bed, intensely scanning the lyric booklet as the album played, trying to grasp the hidden significance of every garbled phrase. For a year or so, it seemed to me that the album merited this sort of close attention. Then I realized one day that perhaps it did not.

In preparation for writing this blog post, I have ended up listening to Brothers In Arms for the first time in about, say, ten years. Maybe if I'd initially heard it the way I hear most albums now - by putting it on casually in the background, only paying closer attention if the album draws me in - I would feel like listening to it now and then, but instead, hearing it again, I cringe a little, knowing that I spent so much time analyzing something that didn't quite deserve that level of analysis. In hindsight, I feel like the lyrics manage to be occasionally interesting without being as deep as I assumed they were when I was 15 - which, given that some of the other artists I loved when I was 15 were artists like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Elton John, is not an experience I'm particularly used to having. I have very few teenage musical regrets!

While not a "gimmick" album, Brothers In Arms was one of the first to really be promoted as a whole "compact disc experience." From Wikipedia:
Brothers in Arms was the first album to sell one million copies in the CD format and to outsell its LP version. A Rykodisc employee would subsequently write, "[In 1985 we] were fighting to get our CDs manufactured because the entire worldwide manufacturing capacity was overwhelmed by demand for a single rock title (Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms)."
"Muffy, would you buy me some caviar, a diamond necklace, and that new Dire Straits compact disc?" "Yes, Buffy, certainly my dahling."

Most of the songs are looooooooong, with long intros and even longer outros. They're almost gratuitously long, as if Knopfler just wanted to take advantage of the extra CD capacity. And thus began a trend, my friends, a terrible, terrible trend. Apparently, on the LP version, several of the songs were shortened by a minute or so, and I can see how that version might actually be preferable. Mainly, upon revisiting the thing, the album strikes me as, oh, you know, dated. Sitting around the console in Monserrat, I'm sure they all thought it sounded "state of the art," but everything's way too processed and filtered. It sounds like the Miami Vice episode that's playing in your nightmares. "The Man's Too Strong" still strikes me as kind of cool: more industrialized, almost like "Welcome To The Machine." The other songs need to drink some caffeine before they doze off completely.

That said, I still like "Walk Of Life." For starters, it's only four minutes long. Second, it doesn't sound like a synthesizer that's taking a massive dump on my ears. It's an actual, you know, pop song. The album's co-producer didn't even want it on the album, thinking it was at odds with the other material. And the thing is, he was right - but for the wrong reason! Thankfully, he was outvoted by the band.

Keyboards! Keyboards! Step right up and get your keyboards! You want a graceful, churchy one? We've got one right at the start here, to lull you in. You want a cheesy, roller rinky one? Oh boy, have we got the keyboard riff of your wet dreams! Pair it up with some well-timed acoustic guitar strums and eight teasing pounds on the bass drum, and you are off to the races my friend. Even Mark Knopfler's iffy attempt to roam out of his five note range at the end ("Hmm, you do the walk of ligh-high-hife") can't derail this sucker.

Not only did "Walk of Life" reach #7 in the US and #2 in the UK, but it even received region-specific videos. The British video featured the requisite concert footage spliced with shots of a subway busker giving it all he's got. Perhaps that one was deemed a bit too "British," because with the American video, they certainly didn't make that mistake.

It's time for ... Sports Bloopers! How much do you think it cost to get the rights to all this stuff? Well, considering the giant pile of money the album made, I'm sure they were able to afford it. Favorite YouTube comments:
Studies have shown that it is impossible to listen to this song and not smile.

This song I've found can make almost anyone dance. This huge guy on the road crew directing traffic, He was about 6'5 and 300 pounds, I pulled up with this song cranked and he went to getting down. Then on I-85 in Atlanta, Traffic completely stopped from a wreck, Again I had this song cranked, a pickup truck beside me had a bed with about 4 mexicans on it and they all started dancing.

My Dad always tells the story of the time he went to Italy. He stayed in this tiny Inn in the middle of nowhere, and when he told the Innkeeper he was American, he said: "You Americano, you like the Rock and Roll!" and put this record on
Finally, there is the Walk of Life Project. The Walk of Life Project poses one simple hypothesis: "'Walk of Life' by Dire Straits is the perfect song to end any movie." From an article on Slate published back in March 2016:
It can take a long time for humanity to figure out the best use for a new technology. Hedy Lamarr imagined the radio-frequency–hopping technology she invented would be used for torpedoes, not cell phones. The Internet was around for 30 years before it changed the world forever. And now, 120 years after their first public exhibition, Peter Salomone has perfected motion pictures. As is so often the case, the secret turned out to be Dire Straits.
Like you or I, Mr. Salomone must have been sitting at his computer farting around one day when a bolt of goofy inspiration struck. But unlike you or I, he had the drive, the vision, the know-how to truly go through with his hare-brained scheme.

See the endings of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, Planet of the Apes, and Star Wars the way they were truly meant to be seen. This gag isn't just running; it's practically galloping.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of 2016

The year I gave up on popular music.

This was a strange year for me musically. It would seem that I just didn't hear anything new this year that caught me ear. That's due either to me not paying as much attention to pop culture as I used to, or the other more pressing matters that affected the global stage this year, or perhaps my own interests solidifying into what I already listen to. Either way, you won't find much music from 2016 on this list. Here we go.

5. "Hee Haw"

This didn't gain very much viral fame as it frankly deserved. It basically sums up our current state of things. Washington has been reduced to a Hee Haw singalong.

4. "Flashbeagle"

Hear me out. When I was very little I was obsessed with Snoopy and the Peanuts. To this day I still have a bunch of Snoopy paraphernalia lying around. One of my earliest Snoopy related memories is dancing like a maniac to "Flashbeagle" while some babysitters looked on. The song comes from the animated special "It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown" created around the time that Flashdance and aerobic rock were greatly in vogue.

There's actually two different videos of Flashbeagle circulating around. There's one here that's basically the straight song as it appeared in the animated special. But the second video, posted above, is much more entertaining. It's got parts of the animated special but it's interspersed with "making of" segments. While it's kind of neat to see how they rotoscoped the quite impressive moves of Marine Jahan (also Jennifer Beals' body double for Flashdance) the real gem is here is the shots of the vocalists singing in the studio.

You've got schlubby Joey Scarbury, "known" for "Theme from The Greatest American Hero (Believe it or Not)", and Desiree Goyette, known for voicing various animated figures such as Nermal and Betty Boop. I love how we're led to believe we're watching the actual studio recording, with Desiree looking particularly over-enthused. But then the illusion is ruined when at 40 seconds Desiree looks straight into the camera completely ruining the notion that this was not pre-planned.

I haven't even got to the animated bits yet though. It's fascinating to see how Snoopy is the "cool" one wearing his ripped aerobic gear, but the dance floor is still straight up from the disco era complete with the multi colored lighted tile floor. You can sense the transition that was taking place in American dance floors as the new 80s style dance was being performed in aging disco clubs. Even the adults in the room (adults in a Snoopy cartoon?) seem to be in awe of Snoopy's "new" style and moves. Am I reading too much into a Snoopy cartoon?

The song is incredibly cheesy but I just love how Desiree and especially Joey are giving it their all. Then there's the little things like the crashes of thunder and epic string flourishes that give the song a decidedly epic 80s dance floor feel. I distinctly remember seeing this version of the video when I was younger and I'm terribly glad that someone made it available online.

3. Stevie Nicks - "Stand Back"

I've known this song for years but as I was driving across a bridge back in March it came on the radio and it just lodged itself deep in my skull. It's really all about that snazzy keyboard riff, provided by Prince in a perfectly Dave Chappelle-ready story.

And then there's the video. On the shortlist for "videos most indicative of their time" we've got some serious early 80s music video tropes. There's no less than billowy drapery, big hair, synchronized dancers that look like they just came off the set of All That Jazz or possibly the video for Beat It, berets a la Red Dawn, various neon lights, and even a treadmill because aerobics!

Then at around 2:40 we change venues from a darkly lit studio to something resembling the men's condo from Three Men and a Baby. What I love is how sincere everyone seems to be taking it. They are really *feeling* that jam. It's a great video and a great song from start to finish.

2. Echo Image - "Things I Know"

Isn't it great when you discover new music from a band that you thought were no longer producing music? That's how I felt earlier this year when I discovered "Things I Know" from Norwegian synthpop group Echo Image. Having only released one album back in 2001 they seemed to disappear from the music world. Well, it looks like I wasn't paying enough attention. Back in 2010 Echo Image released "Things I Know", and now it looks like they released a compilation album back in April, with possibly more to come.

The strange thing about "Things I Know" is that it sounds exactly like Echo Image did back in 2001. If you didn't tell me this was a more recent song I would have thought it was just a B-side I had never heard from their heyday. And in this age of the post-2016 election it wins my award for favorite chorus of the year:
I feel the world is not my own
But I believe the things I know
I feel the world is without love
And died long ago
Who can resist the part near the end when criminally underused Trine Bilet drops in to sing the chorus while the trance euphoria kicks in? Not me.

1. Overwatch - "Victory Theme"

Not the most interesting number one, but let me explain. The game Overwatch is easily my favorite game of the year. Because I've been playing it so much I hear the music a lot. The whole soundtrack is great. The World Could Always Use More Heroes is just utterly triumphant, and Rally the Heroes is this bit of music that plays near the end of a match that just perfectly matches the tenseness of the finale of any given match.

However, my personal favorite is the Victory theme. The reason I've heard it so many times it because it plays at the end of every match. Many Overwatch fans will tell you they like the Victory theme too, but most of them are referring to the part near the beginning where the horns and percussion blast triumphantly.

Me, my favorite part occurs immediately after this, when the game throws you into a post-match lobby while you wait a bit until the next match starts. That's when, at around 32 seconds, that wonderful synth line kicks and manages to be simultaneously tense and vaguely calming. In particular there's this little bit that starts around 56 seconds. That part right there is my favorite piece of music this year. I have had that little synth riff running through my head nonstop for months now and every time I play a match it's right there waiting for me. Game of the year and music of the year, all in a nutshell.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Changing Winds Of Grace Slick AKA Kantner Finally Throws The Nuclear Furniture

Ah, Grace Slick. Your family tried to raise a good little girl, but you were simply having none of it. Private schools and a promising modeling career at a high-end department store just weren't enough to steer this all-American ingenue away from a life of hardcore leftist radicalism. Select highlights (or lowlights?) from Wikipedia:
In 1968, Slick performed "Crown of Creation" on The Smothers Brother Comedy Hour in blackface and ended the performance with a Black Panther fist. In an appearance on a 1969 episode of the Dick Cavett Show, she became the first person to say "motherfucker" on live television during a performance of "We Can Be Together" by Jefferson Airplane.

During her hospital stay after [daughter] China's birth, Slick joked to one of the attending nurses that she intended to name the child "god" with a lowercase g, as she "wished for the child to be humble."

Slick was dragged off a San Francisco game show for abusing the contestants.

Slick and Tricia Nixon, former President Richard Nixon's daughter, are alumnae of Finch College. Slick was invited to a tea party for the alumnae at the White House in 1969. She invited political activist Abbie Hoffman to be her escort and planned to spike President Richard Nixon's tea with 600 micrograms of LSD. The plan was thwarted when they were prevented from entering after being recognized by White House security personnel, as Slick had been placed on an FBI blacklist.

In 1971, after a long recording session, Slick crashed her car into a wall near the Golden Gate Bridge while racing with Jorma Kaukonen. She suffered a concussion and later used the incident as the basis of her song "Never Argue with a German if You're Tired (or 'European Song')," which appears on the Bark album (1971).

Despite her retirement, Slick has appeared a couple of times over the years with Paul Kantner's revamped version of Jefferson Starship when the band played in Los Angeles. The most recent appearance was during a post-9/11 gig during which she came on the stage initially covered in black from head to toe in a makeshift burqa. She then removed the burqa to reveal a covering bearing an American flag and the words "Fuck Fear".
The girl had moxie, all right. And not even Jefferson Starship's long, agonizing slide into faceless corporate arena rock was going to dull the edges on this particular knife.

Slick didn't have a huge presence on Winds of Change's "Be My Lady," which hit #28 and at least still kind of sounded like Jefferson Starship's mellow late '70s singles such as "Count On Me" and "With Your Love," as opposed to, I dunno, Foreigner. The video features Mickey Thomas in a series of Escher illustrations: The corner of a house ... without a house! The stairway that leads ... back to itself!

But the Chrome Nun (as David Crosby was fond of calling her) certainly made her presence known on "Out of Control." Ever wonder what happens when 40-year-old ex-hippie Baby Boomers suddenly listen to punk one day and decide, "Yeah, I can do that!" This is what happens. Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, and Poly Styrene, look out, 'cause here comes Grace Slick.

The album's title track petered out at #38. Apparently the video was filmed on the set of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, with Grace Slick as Tinkerbell's older drug-addicted sister and Mickey Thomas as Bernie (from Weekend at Bernie's). Oh, and of course there's wind! Lots of wind!

By Nuclear Furniture, you can really sense Paul Kantner's tolerance finally reaching its breaking point. From Wikipedia: "Before the sessions came to a close, he stole the master tapes, put them in his car and drove around San Francisco for a few days and wouldn't bring them back until the band mixed the album in a way more to his liking." Well, I suppose that's one way to deal with deep disappointment in your band's new direction: take the album hostage! "No Way Out" hit #23 (#1 Mainstream Rock), and its complete dissimilarity to "White Rabbit" must have finally convinced Kantner to take the one pill that made him smaller. The video finds Mickey and his girlfriend accidentally stumbling into a laboratory run by ... sci-fi wizards? He becomes psychologically interrogated by ... Father Guido Sarducci? And Grace Slick is running around speaking like a munchkin? And some shirtless dude with a porn 'stache (I think he's the drummer) is lifting weights in bed, staring at a Japanese geisha who's dancing in front of a Mao poster? I give up on this one.

Last but not least: were you secretly hoping that Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick would run for president as "Mick & Slick"? In the "Layin' It On The Line" video, you get your wish, along with cameos by ... Willie Brown? Timothy Leary? G. Gordon Liddy? The Residents? Hey, at this point, they've got my vote. Maybe they can spike their tea with LSD once they get there.