Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Walk Like An Egyptian," Glance Sideways Like A Short, Jewish Californian

All right, let's unroll this random papyrus scroll that's been sitting on my desk and see what we've got here:
In 1986, Dr. Pierre Fouchet and Dr. Wei-Yin Sing, on an archeological mission sponsored by the International Excavation Society, came across a heretofore undiscovered tomb twenty-seven miles from Cairo. There inside the ancient shrine, they spotted a jewel-encrusted chest. After gingerly wiping off the dust, they found a message scrawled in hieroglyphics, which their guide quickly translated for them:

"Ridiculous Pop Hit, Only To Be Released In The 1980s"

Dr. Fouchet pried open the chest with a crowbar, and a smattering of phrases, paired with a cartoonishly Middle Eastern melody, instantly filled the spidery cavern. The song quickly climbed its way out of the shrine and proceeded, like an oriental snake-charmer, to hypnotize the Top 40 airwaves of the day. Fouchet and Sing, sadly, were never heard from again.
I mean really now. Explain this to me:
All the old paintings on the tomb
They do the sand dance, don't you know
If they move too quick
They're falling down like a domino

All the bazaar men by the Nile
They got the money on a bet
Gold crocodiles
They snap their teeth on your cigarette

Foreign types with the hookah pipes say
Ay oh whey oh, oy oh whey oh
Walk like an Egyptian
Wait, who's doing the walking? What does "Ay oh whey oh" mean? Why does Vicki Peterson sound like she's from Minnesota all of a sudden ("dohn-cha know")? And did ancient Egyptians even have cigarettes? And who else would have hookah pipes aside from foreign types? I'm not done here:
The blonde waitresses take their trays
They spin around and they cross the floor
They've got the moves
You drop your drink then they bring you more

All the school kids so sick of books
They like the punk and the metal band
When the buzzer rings
They're walking like an Egyptian

All the kids in the marketplace say
Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh
Walk like an Egyptian
So are we still in Egypt? Does Egypt even have schools with buzzers in them? Or blonde waitresses? It never ends. What does Susanna have to say for herself? From a 2011 interview with MTV Hive (titled "The Bangles Never Made A Sex Tape"):
I have a question about “Walk Like an Egyptian.” I watched the video a lot as a teenager, and then at least a half dozen times preparing for this interview. For the life of me, I can’t figure it out. What the hell is that song about?

Well, we didn’t write it. And to be honest, we weren’t totally sure what it was about either.

I knew it!

It was written by this guy named Liam Sternberg, and I heard somewhere that it had something to do with a time he was on a ferry crossing a river somewhere in Europe. It was very windy or something, and there was waves, something was causing people to walk in a funny way. Apparently that was the inspiration.

I would accept that explanation if anywhere in the lyrics he mentioned “ferries” or “wind” or “waves.” But he doesn’t. It’s all gold crocodiles and cops in donut shops.

I know, it’s kind of vague. I just watched that movie To Kill a Mockingbird. And there’s a scene where Scout and her brother, I forget his name, says, “Let’s walk like Egyptians.” And then they do a funny walk. I watched that scene and I was wondering if maybe Liam had subliminally remembered that movie as a kid and maybe that’s where it came from.

But you don’t know?

I really don’t.

This interview is over!

[Laughs.] I’m sorry!
In another interview with the AV Club, she expands further:
I was up at Columbia on the A&R floor, talking to David Kahne about songs, and he said, “God, I’ve got this crazy song. It’s really cool—I don’t know what you’ll think of it, but …” So now I’m curious. I say, “Okay, play it for me.” So he played me a demo of Marti Jones singing “Walk Like An Egyptian.” Apparently Charlie Sexton had also covered it. It was written by Liam Sternberg, who was from Ohio and had some involvement with Chrissie Hynde from the early Ohio music days, the scene there. Anyway, great guy. So the song had been covered a couple of times or demoed a couple of times, but I heard the Marti Jones thing, and I was immediately struck by how cool it was. She did a really great vocal on it. It was very deadpan, very cool. I liked it. And I think the idea was that we were thinking, y’know, the album had a certain flavor to it, but it might be nice to have something with a very different kind of groove to it, a different attitude, just to kind of make the album seem more well-rounded in a certain way. I guess that’s what David was thinking. At any rate, the band decided, “Yes, let’s go for it. Let’s go ahead and record it.” And we recorded it at the Sound Factory.
And that should have been the end of that. But this was the '80s. And the '80s naturally said, "But wait, there's more!":
You know, as soon as I started having a copy to play for my friends, before it came out, I was amazed that so many people were struck by the song. I guess I had gotten familiar with it and had gotten past that first response where it struck me as very quirky but very original, but I never, ever thought it would be a single, so the reaction to it sort of surprised me initially. But it just sort of kept building. It was the third single on the record, and it ended up being maybe our biggest single in America. I don’t know, maybe “Eternal Flame” was bigger in Europe. But it really caught on. It was such a slow build, though ... It was a series of very unexpected things that just kind of all came together in just the right way to make that song a hit. I think it just genuinely caught on with people. I don’t think the record company even had to do that much. They sort of just let it happen. They had given up early on, because like I said, it was really slow. It was people calling into radio stations and requesting it. It started developing its own momentum, as I recall. That’s always good when that happens.
Is it? Is it???

Because "Walk Like An Egyptian" became the biggest thing ever. Although it hit #1 in December of 1986, due of the way Billboard compiles their year-end lists, it was named the #1 song for the entire year of 1987. "Walk Like An Egyptian" is one of those '80s songs people used to play to me in college, with a nostalgic grin on their faces, while saying, "Dude, the '80s!" I did remember hearing it a couple of times as a kid (not often), thinking it was funny, but in my college years I had little patience for such misplaced affection. However, as with many emblematic '80s hits, I didn't really care for it until I approached the decade with fresh ears about six years ago, and then I found that, no matter how hard I tried, I ... just ... couldn't ... resist.

I'm sure fans of the Paisley Underground Bangles already weren't too keen on the rest of Different Light, but "Walk Like An Egyptian" is definitely the point where they felt the Bangles jumped the shark. Honestly though - has jumping the shark ever felt so good? "Egyptian" genuinely reeks of that "anything goes" spirit. I think the key to its success is that the Bangles really commit to the absurdity. There's not a wink to be found. The Bangles don't sing it "silly"; they sing it like they'd sing anything else in their repertoire. They think they're doing a Kinks cover! They take this verbal mish-mash and they rock out.

There's also the fact that it seems to employ some sort of vaguely politically incorrect stereotype of "Middle Eastern" music. First of all, the song opens with a gong sound. Are gongs even ... Egyptian? Aren't they more Chinese, or Mongolian? Are we entering an opium den or something? And then there's this rhythmic "chopping" sound. What the hell is that? Is that like Egyptian guys doing karate? Where's Carl Douglas when you need him? And how about "Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh"? That's about as ethnically accurate as the Tomahawk Chop.

It's also impressive that, as much of a departure as the song is, the Bangles still manage to infuse it with their signature mid-'60s garage fuzz-rock verve. After all, quasi-middle eastern drones were all over the place in psychedelic rock. I'm not saying this could've been performed by the Yardbirds or the Strawberry Alarm Clock, exactly, but ... it's got that heavily reverbed, Bo Diddley groove to it, you know? It still works with the Bangles' whole aesthetic. It's like "Psychotic Reaction" or "Green Tambourine." It's far out, man. Best parts:
  1. Right after every "Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh," all the instruments drop out aside from the (synthesized?) tambourine, leaving each singer to seductively intone the title
  2. After Vicki's (impressively gnarly) guitar solo, the instruments drop out as they do in the chorus, but this time, the band simply whistles mysteriously for several seconds
  3. Once Susanna finishes her verse and the band kicks back in (at 2:56), there's this ... noise, it sounds like someone trying to ... unsuccessfully start a car?
I should note that on their biggest hit, the Bangles split up lead singing duties: Vicki took the first verse, Michael took the second, and Susanna took the third. This famously left out Debbie, who not only didn't get a verse, but didn't even play drums! (They used a drum machine.) She still won't shut up about it even today. From the band's VH-1 Behind the Music episode: "Yes, ironically it's the signature song! It's the song everyone always talks to me - my friends are like 'Walk Like an Egyptian'! I'm like 'Oh God, please,' you know, because, it's just, you know, unfortunately, had a lot of bad memories for me."

How did she ever cope with the terrible trauma?? Let it be said, however, that being given a verse on "Walk Like an Egyptian" may not have been quite the honor after all. From the MTV Hive interview:
What are you thinking about when you sing that song? What do the lyrics mean to you?

Mostly I’m thinking, “Please don’t let me forget the words!” I have forgotten the words during shows to such a degree that I plaster the stage with little Post-It notes, just in case. And it’s so bizarre because it only happens on the songs that I’ve been singing for thirty years. I could sing those songs in my sleep, and I probably do. But for some reason, I start tricking myself. It’s a mind game. I’ll be up on stage singing, and in the middle of a song this little voice in my head will go, “Who are you kidding? You only think you know this song. You’ve forgotten everything!” And sure enough, I’ll stumble on a line and I can’t find my way back.

I feel like I should test your lyric memory right now.

No! No!!

The panic in your voice tells me this is a good idea.

This is a terrible idea. Because you’ll probably trip me up and it’ll be really bad.

Let’s just do one “Walk Like an Egyptian” verse: “All the Japanese with their yen/ The party boys call the Kremlin.” What comes next?

Um. [Laughs.] See, it’s like the alphabet. If you start in the middle, you’re going to have trouble.

Do you want a hint?

No, no, I can do this. [Long pause.] Let’s see, let’s see. [Long pause.] It’s got to be in order! That’s my problem.

“And the Chinese know (oh whey oh)…”

“They walk the line like Egyptians!” [Laughs.] Thank you. It’s very complicated. It’s like a beat poem. I don’t know what Liam was thinking.
Another observation: the lyrics, with their quasi-rapping nature, feel like they should be sung by, I don't know, a British singer, or maybe a New Yorker, but the Bangles sound so ... Californian. They don't sound jittery enough, or something. It feels like David Byrne or Neil Tennant would have been able to pull it off more naturally. The Bangles kind of sound like they're about to go skateboarding. Listen to the way Michael Steele sings "then they bring ya more" or "when the buzz-ah rings"; she drops too many letters from the words. Susanna takes it even further, turning "if you want to find all the cops, they're hanging out in the donut shop" into "if you wanna find all the cops, they're hangin' out in the donut shop." It's also hilarious how she, perhaps unintentionally, sexes up these rather unsexy phrases, singing "And the Chinese know-uh" and "All the cops in the donut shop say-uh" with little extra breaths at the end, like she's still in "Manic Monday" mode:
Slide your feet up the street, bend your back
Shift your arm, then you pull it back
Life's hard you know (oh whey oh)
So strike a pose on a Cadillac

If you want to find all the cops
They're hanging out in the donut shop
They sing and dance (oh whey oh)
They spin the clubs, cruise down the block

All the Japanese with their yen
The party boys call the Kremlin
And the Chinese know (oh whey oh)
They walk the line like Egyptian

All the cops in the donut shop say
Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh
Walk like an Egyptian
Walk like an Egyptian
Which brings me, of course, to the video. It opens, unlike the studio recording, with the Bangles on stage, Vicki shouting fiercely into a microphone, "OK we're gonna do one more ... Yeah!" Wait, so is this the "real" video, or just some live footage? Oh no, it's the real video all right, just with a trendy pseudo "live" opening! As Debbie begins to shake that tambourine, the camera reveals that the Bangles have arrived, not from North Africa as stated, but apparently sub-Saharan Africa, as they seem to have just popped out of the jungle, their hair having mated with a particularly fluffy species of moss (Susanna's appears to have been dyed purple, but on closer inspection, that may just be the ridiculous back-lighting). At 0:40, the camera cuts to a studio shot of the girls in full Egyptian garb, which makes one realize just how short Susanna really is.

Over the course of the video, the camera takes us out of the concert hall and into the streets, where we are treated to the sight of various New York city-dwellers and passersby attempting to, as it were, "walk like Egyptians." This includes everyone from businessmen, window washers, firefighters, little old ladies, and dogs to, surprisingly, Princess Diana, Muammar Quaddafi, even the Statue of Liberty (!). All the cool kids are doing it!

And then of course, there are The Eyes. From that same MTV Hive interview:
How about that sideways glance you do in “Walk Like an Egyptian.” You know what I’m talking about?

Oh yeah yeah.

Your gaze shifts from right to left in that really flirty way. When I was 14, that absolutely killed me.

I guess it’s become an iconic moment in that video, and I didn’t even realize it was happening. We shot it in this soundstage warehouse in New York, and the audience was all contest winners from a radio show. I knew the camerawoman, Nancy Schreiber, because she’s worked with my mom before, who’s a filmmaker. Nancy was all the way in the back, somewhere behind the crowd, and I guess she was using a long lens because I didn’t even know she was filming me. I had this habit I’d adopted from touring, where I’d find one or two people in the audience and make eye contact with them during the entire show, just to anchor it. I’d single out a person to the left of me and a person to the right of me, and that’s who I’d sing to. And that’s what I was doing when we were shooting the video. But I had no idea the camera was so tight on my face.

So you’re like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, when she was all, “I didn’t know they were filming my beaver!”

[Laughs.] Right, right. And that’s the truth, sometimes you don’t know where the camera is. They don’t always tell you. And maybe it’s for the best. If the camera was really close, right up in my face, I would’ve been more nervous and self-conscious. It was just something that I do when I sing live, and I was caught in an unguarded moment.

Have you always known that your eyes were such a commodity?

I don’t know if I’d go that far.

I would. Do you ask for a crate of Visine in the Bangles contract rider?

What? No, no, no.

You get pink eye and the band is over.

[Laughs.] That’s so funny. No, there’s nothing like that. It’s interesting the things that people associate with the Bangles and with me. It’s all just part of the lore.
Indeed, I have heard it said, in ancient Egyptian mythology, that the eyes of the short Hebrew Bangle were known to be powerful enough ... to raise a mummy from the dead.

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