Friday, December 30, 2011

"Sex Dwarf" Didn't Get Marc Almond Imprisoned?

I wasn't too surprised to learn that Marc Almond is gay. But after spending some time with Soft Cell, I have to say that "gay" doesn't quite cover it. Marc Almond isn't just gay; the man is flaming like an Olympic torch.

Almond is like that kid in Drama class who simply loves being up on stage. He doesn't care whether you're laughing with him or laughing at him; he just wants your attention.

In his AMG review of Soft Cell's debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, William Ruhlmann writes:
At full album length, lyricist Almond's primary preoccupation, only suggested in "Tainted Love," was spelled out; this was a theme album about aberrant sexuality, a tour of a red-light district ... The insistent beats taken at steady dance tempos and the chilling electronic sounds conjured by Ball emphasized Almond's fascination with deviance; it almost seemed as though the album had been designed to be played in topless bars. British listeners saw through Almond's pretense or were amused by him, or both; more puritanical Americans tended to disapprove, which probably limited the group's long-term success stateside.
Count me among the amused. You may have already seen him preening and prancing in the "Tainted Love" video, dressed as a Greek god on Mount Olympus, taunting little girls like the Wicked Witch of the West. In the clip for "Bedsitter," Almond is clearly overjoyed to have discovered that, oh my God, there's a camera on me!

Then there's "What," which was apparently filmed in a Mondrian painting.

Oh, and he was also on Ecstasy:
During 1982, the duo spent most of their time recording and relaxing in New York City, where they met a woman named Cindy Ecstasy whom Almond would later confirm was his drug supplier (it was Cindy Ecstasy who introduced them to the new nightclub drug of the same name). The duo released a second album, a 6-track mini album entitled Non-stop Ecstatic Dancing which contained remixes of older material along with their new hit single "What!". Almond would later admit that the album was recorded and mixed under the influence of ecstasy.[8]
Never underestimate the power of a gay man on Ecstasy. Because nothing can prepare the unsuspecting listener for a pleasant little ditty known as "Sex Dwarf." AMG's Greg Prato writes:
"Sex Dwarf" is a sleazy anthem that features plodding keyboards, aggressive drums, and one of the ugliest vocal performances committed to record. It isn't that Marc Almond has a death metal throat, but instead it's the way he creeps and crawls over the track like a perverted lounge singer.
"Sex Dwarf" is the sound of Marc Almond rolling around in his own sleaze and smearing it all over himself lustily. Apparently there is even "an alternate cut of 'Sex Dwarf' on which singer Marc Almond appears to simulate a female orgasm with his voice." Is that so?

Now, I'm about to post the infamous music video for "Sex Dwarf," but first I want you to simply listen to it. Close your eyes and step inside "Sex Dwarf." You may have to wash yourself afterwards. The thing is, I can understand the female voice whispering "Sexxxx Dwaaaarf," but I still can't quite wrap my head around the peculiar male voice that follows with his own oddly pitched "Sexxxx Dwaaaarf." Is this the actual Sex Dwarf speaking? And just what is a Sex Dwarf, anyway? Is it different from just a regular old dwarf? Don't regular dwarfs have sex?

Ah, but all those questions take a back seat when confronted with the "Sex Dwarf" video, which, according to Wikipedia, "was banned for explicit, S&M-related content." Fortunately, YouTube is here to save the day. I now present, in all its glory, the original music video for Soft Cell's "Sex Dwarf," which features David Ball running around with a chain saw, topless women gyrating awkwardly on the floor, butchered meat being splattered all over the walls, and, obviously, a dwarf. But a word of warning: once you watch the "Sex Dwarf" video, you may never be the same again. [Edit: Surprise, surprise, it's been taken off YouTube. You'll have to hunt for it on the black market.]

Monday, December 26, 2011

Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" Was A Cover Version?

Do a Google search on 80s One Hit Wonders, and the first thing that will probably come up is Soft Cell's "Tainted Love." Actually, I just tried that, and it didn't come up. But anyway.

One surprising tidbit about Soft Cell, a duo consisting of singer Marc Almond and synthesizer player David Ball, is that they weren't really one hit wonders at all.

Guys, I just discovered something amazing, you're not going to believe it: America isn't actually the center of the world! Did you know that there are other countries in the world besides America? Like, there's this one that's called "England"? Well, apparently, in this "England," all those 80s bands that we've always thought of as One Hit Wonders (Madness, Gary Numan, Dexy's Midnight Runners, a-ha) actually had long, healthy careers. Guess the British public didn't get the memo that they needed to stop buying those artists' records, because the American pop culture zeitgeist had permanently and irrevocably deemed them One Hit Wonders, and that was that.

Nevertheless, while "Tainted Love" was far from Soft Cell's only UK hit, it was certainly the biggest. Come on, sing it with me:

Now I know I've got to -


Run away, I've got to -


Get away from the pain you drive into the heart of me

And nothing beats that BART car "doors are closing" percussion sound. But the real surprise about "Tainted Love" is that it wasn't written by Soft Cell. It wasn't even written by one of their contemporaries. Listening to the original version of "Tainted Love," you have to wonder how Soft Cell even got the idea to record it in the style they did in the first place:

Whoa. How did we get from that to this?

Gloria Jones' version is a pure mid-60s soul stomper in the mold of Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love." Soft Cell's version is ... well, it's hard to say exactly.

In his AMG biography of Gloria Jones, Richie Unterberger refers to Soft Cell's cover version as "wimpy." This strikes me as an inaccurate way to describe Soft Cell's rendition. Unterberger tends to be heavily biased against all mainstream pop music made after 1971, so the adjective he uses is not surprising, and reveals why he is probably not the best writer to be writing about post-60s pop (which, to his credit, he usually doesn't). Soft Cell's version of "Tainted Love" may be more "robotic," more "white," more "trashy," more "artificial," but it's not exactly "wimpy." If anything, compared to most of the pop singles of 1981, it's rather lean and mean. Christopher Cross covering "Tainted Love" would be wimpy. Toto covering "Tainted Love" would be wimpy. One thing's for sure though: the way Marc Almond sings it, the "love" described in the lyrics certainly sound a lot more "tainted."

The fact that "Tainted Love" is actually an old soul song finally explains why Soft Cell paired it together in a medley with The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go." I used to hear this version on the radio and I would think to myself, "Hmm, OK, that's a completely random segue right there." In reality, it was perfectly thematic. Unfortunately for Soft Cell, because they'd written neither song, they didn't receive any songwriting royalties. And this was their biggest hit! From Wikipedia:
Usually, an artist releasing a cover version as a single would opt to write the song that appears on the B-side as this would still entitle the artist to some songwriting royalties stemming from sales of that single. However, as Soft Cell wrote neither "Tainted Love" nor "Where Did Our Love Go" (the 7" B-side track), they lost the opportunity to make a greater sum of money from songwriting royalties stemming from one of the most popular songs of the 1980s. Almond expressed regret for this in his book, and attributed the error to naïveté.
Well, Marc Almond may have been naive in the ways of the music business, but, as we shall soon see, he was not quite so naive in the ways of love.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Human League Hated "Don't You Want Me"?

A few years ago, I was watching one of those VH1 "Top 100 Songs Of The '80s" specials or something of that ilk (Zrbo knows this story well), and suddenly Elton John appeared in a clip: "So I was driving on a country road in England one night and this song came on the radio and ... it just blew me away. I pulled over to the side of the road just so I could listen to this killer song."

Those throbbing drum machines. The way that incessant keyboard riff hits a series of extra rapid notes just as the verse begins. The bridge to end all bridges. Every element instantly conjures up some dank, dingy European night club smothered in strobe lights. This baby all but screams out "Worldwide #1 Hit."

The thrill that Elton John felt on that country road in 1981 must have been echoed by pretty much everybody else the first time they heard "Don't You Want Me." Everybody, that is, except the Human League. From Wikipedia:
The lyrics were originally inspired after lead singer Philip Oakey read a story in a "trashy US tabloid". Originally conceived and recorded in the studio as a male solo, Oakey was inspired by the film A Star Is Born and decided to turn the song into a conflicting duet with one of the band’s two teenage female vocalists. Susan Ann Sulley was then asked to take on the role. Up until then, she and the other female vocalist Joanne Catherall had only been assigned backing vocals; Sulley says she was chosen only through "luck of the draw".[3] Musicians Jo Callis and Philip Adrian Wright created a synthesizer score to accompany the lyrics which was much harsher than the version that was actually released. Initial versions of the song were recorded but Virgin Records-appointed producer Martin Rushent was unhappy with them. He and Callis remixed the track, giving it a softer, and in Oakey's opinion, "poppy" sound. Oakey hated the new version and thought it the weakest track on Dare!, resulting in one of his infamous rows with Rushent.[4] Oakey disliked it so much that it was relegated to the last track on the B side of the (then) vinyl album.

Before the release of Dare!, two of its tracks—"The Sound of the Crowd" and "Love Action (I Believe in Love)"—had already been released as successful singles. To promote the new album, Virgin released "Open Your Heart" in October 1981, which hit #6 in the UK Singles Chart. With a hit album and three hit singles in a row, Virgin's Chief Exectutive Simon Draper decided to release one more single from the album before the end of 1981. His choice, "Don't You Want Me", instantly caused a row with Oakey who did not want another single to be released because he was convinced that "the public were now sick of hearing The Human League" and the choice of the "poor quality filler track" would almost certainly be a disaster, wrecking the group's new found popularity. Virgin were adamant that a fourth single would be released and Oakey finally agreed on the condition that a large colour poster accompany the 7" single, because he felt fans would "feel ripped off" by the "substandard" single alone.[5]

"Don't You Want Me" was released in the UK on 27 November 1981. To the amazement of the band (and especially Oakey[6]), it shot to number one on the UK charts. This success was repeated six months later in the U.S., with "Don't You Want Me" hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks. Billboard magazine ranked it as the sixth-biggest hit of 1982. The single was certified Gold by the RIAA the same year for sales of a million copies. Today, the song is widely considered a classic of its era. Oakey still describes it as overrated, but acknowledges his initial dismissal was misguided and claims pride in the track.
Umm ... yeah, it's kind of overrated, aside from being, you know, your best song. Sure, I've got a copy of Dare! (known among my friends as the last album that rock critic Lester Bangs listened to before he died - which raises the question: did he find Dare!'s dissimilarity to his treasured '60s guitar-based rock so terrible that it ultimately killed him?). The first nine songs are cute, they're pleasant, and then I get to Track 10, and it's simply in a whole different ... if you'll excuse the expression ... league. Philip, buddy, it's not even a contest. How about this: maybe you could write some more songs that you don't like and then record them, please?

Also, Susan Ann Sulley was 17? No wonder why their relationship sounds so convincingly sketchy. I love it when Oakey sings, "But don't forget it's me who put you where you are now/And I can put you back down too," and then he follows that up with "Don't, don't you want me?" Like, "You're my little bitch and you'll do whatever I want. Hey, why don't you like me?" Hmm, maybe I could give you a hint?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Zrbo's 5 Favorite Songs Of The Year

Can you guess which one isn't from 2011?

Here we are again folks, the end of another year means it's time to start rolling out the 'best-of' lists. Let's take a walk down memory lane to see what songs I most enjoyed from the past year. These might not necessarily be the best songs of the year, just the ones I found myself listening to again and again. I guarantee at least one surprise.

Lady Gaga - "The Edge of Glory"

Ok, so I like Lady Gaga, can you really fault me? After all, I was somewhat obsessed with Madonna about a decade ago, and since Lady Gaga is basically the modern day equivalent (though don't tell that to Gaga apparently) you can see why I might like her. Though I didn't find her newest album to be as good as I had hoped, I've still managed to find myself liking at least a few of the new songs, The Edge of Glory being one. I first heard this song when Lady Gaga performed it on American Idol while wearing some sort of amazonian inspired headdress while perched on top of a giant wall making love to some dancer/model before committing mock suicide (sounds about right). The song starts innocently enough, but really gets good once she starts ratcheting up the intensity with "I'm on the edge with you.. with you... WITH YOU!!!". Throw in some deliciously 80s sax courtesy of the late Clarence Clemons right before he passed away, and you have a great little pop song. Surprisingly, this isn't really one of my favorite LG videos, I prefer to just listen to it, but here's the fairly tame video for your viewing pleasure.

Michael McCann - "Icarus"

It's well established here that I'm a big videogame fan, so here's the obligatory videogame bit. Taken from this year's Deus Ex: Human Revolution, sequel to one of the greatest games of all time, Icarus is just a fantastic bit of cyberpunk inspired music that still manages to send chills down my spine every time I hear it. The music just oozes style, perfectly fitting the technological dystopia of the near future found in the game. It might also help that I'm currently reading Snow Crash. Best part - I haven't even gotten around to playing the game yet.

Sergio Mendes - "Alibis"

I mean this completely un-ironically. Ever since fellow blogger Little Earl posted this song in his 80s mix tape series I've had this song inexplicably stuck in my noggin. Sure, it's definitely not from 2011, but it doesn't mean that a 25+ year old gem can't sneak it's way onto the list. It's just deliciously infectious without needing all that signal processing that's meant to get your attention, and Joe Pizzulo's voice is so, so smooth. To top it off, this video is such a great relic from a different time. I've constantly found myself singing this song out loud as I go about my daily business. Damn, I might have to go listen to it again right now.

VNV Nation - "Space & Time"

It's a year in which a new VNV Nation came out; ergo, a VNV track must appear in my list. The lead off track from VNV Nation's album Automatic, this song is so very quintessentially VNV while also managing to be something very different. There's the inclusion of electro-harpsichords, Ronan Harris' voice is more 'punchier' than ever (it sounds like he's eating those opening lines), and there's even the vaguest hint of something approaching dubstep during the break (without delving into it so much as to sound like he's riding the fad). All in all, a great track from a great album.

And the winner is...(drumroll)...

Within Temptation - "Faster"

When I first heard this song earlier this year I literally (not figuratively) stopped in disbelief at what I was hearing. This was Within Temptation, the same symphonic metal band I had heard back in the early 2000s when I was living in Germany - the band that had that hokey looking Pagan-metal aesthetic? I wasn't even aware they were still around. The only song of theirs I still listened to was their cover of Kate Bush's Running up that Hill (also with the hokey Pagan-metal aesthetic). Now here they were with a video that actually looked professionally made and sounded good - really good.

A little Internet research later I learned that not only is Within Temptation still around, but they've become the biggest musical export out of the Netherlands (what does that say about a country's music when their most popular band does metal - imagine them nestled up there on the chart next to Beyonce and Kanye).

Apparently in the intervening years since I left Europe they've been working hard, pushing out a slew of albums. Their latest album, The Unforgiving, is actually pretty damn good. They took their sound in a more mainstream direction, something that I think works greatly to their benefit. It's also a dreaded concept album with characters and a plot, complete with an entire comic book (sorry, graphic novel) series penned by some actual known guys in the biz. I've watched the entire accompanying short film that goes along with the album and it isn't terribly good. But this song, Faster, just rocks my socks off.

Sounding like it should be featured during the credits of some Jerry Bruckheimer film accompanied by explosions, Faster not only rocks, but the video looks good too. Lead singer Sharon den Adel is just an amazing bombshell to look at (can you believe she just finished two back-to-back pregnancies?), with gorgeous eyes the likes which haven't been seen since Susanna Hoffs from the Bangles. Where on earlier albums her voice could occasionally sound shrill (waif metal? - did I just invent a new genre?), here she sounds much more confident and sultry. You can't even detect a hint of a Dutch accent, almost like she's been taking vocal lessons from a country music artist.

An energizing rocker all around, this one is great to listen to while driving, though a little dangerous. It's my top pick for 2011.


Rebecca Black - Friday: It's like an anti-song critique of everything wrong with pop music nowadays, yet it's somehow stupidly infectious.

VNV Nation - Streamline: I initially thought this song was a bit of filler, but it's grown on me more than any other song on Automatic. Everything after the first chorus is sheer bliss.

Within Temptation - Sinead: Here's WT doing what's essentially a dance song, far removed from anything metal. I love the concept for this video - they're the band playing in the nightclub where a scene from the album's story is taking place.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Little Earl's Fun New Wave Surprises

I love punk. But I love New Wave more. New Wave is like punk with all the good stuff thrown back in.

They're basically the same genre, when it comes down to it. You can't talk about New Wave without talking about punk. But I am going to try.

I could not adequately discuss the cultural significance and musical legacy of punk without dedicating several blogs to the topic. Instead, I am just going to post this link:

Hell, while I'm at it, let's do the same thing for New Wave:

Now let me bring you up to speed with some videos:

The moral of the story is, soon punk hit the '80s. In my opinion, any '70s punk band who still tried to play punk in the '80s didn't really get it. The point of punk wasn't to play fast, two minute songs with shitty sound quality. The point of punk was to do whatever the hell you wanted to do. And what's more punk than totally selling out? Exactly.

There was a lot I already thought I knew about '80s New Wave. But thanks to The Pitchfork 500, I suddenly made some shocking new discoveries. No, this isn't the last you've heard of Cosby Rock. But please join me, if you will, on a journey I would like to call "Little Earl's Fun New Wave Surprises."

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Spielberg Face

I almost feel like I should let Little Earl handle this one. Here's a terrific short video on Spielberg and his dramatic use of the close-up face, with the authors going so far to say it's Spielberg's defining technique. Watch and decide for yourself.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Just" The Ultimate Cosby Rock Anthem

Like George Benson, Grover Washington, Jr. was a jazz musician who did the crossover dance. Somehow or other, he roped Bill Withers into his game.

Withers had been laying low for quite a while since his peak in the early '70s. Not many soul musicians drew inspiration from folk, but Withers did this and he did it well. "Ain't No Sunshine," "Use Me Up," "Lean On Me" - hating Bill Withers is like hating ice cream. Suddenly, in 1982, on the wings of Grover Washington, Jr.'s sexy sax, Withers' congenial magic filled the airwaves once more.

I don't think any record sleeve so completely captures the spirit of its single the way the record sleeve for "Just The Two Of Us" does. You've got a saxophone, and a glass of wine. It's nighttime. Done.

"Just The Two Of Us" may, in my opinion, be the ultimate Cosby Rock anthem. It is so the epitome of Cosby Rock, a version was even recorded by...Bill Cosby:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"The trailer is like a comedy sketch parodying 'horse films' "

So there's this movie coming out called "War Horse" directed by Steven Spielberg. You may have heard of him, but have you seen the trailer? It's gotta win the award for hokiest looking piece of schmaltzy Oscar-bait drama I've ever seen. It's just completely unreal. The first time the trailer came on TV me and the wife totally thought we were being set up for a joke, half expecting Jim Carrey to pop out with a reveal for Ace Ventura 3. It would at least be more appropriate.

I delved into the dangerous waters of the IMDB message boards to see if anyone else agreed with me and I came back with the title of this post, ripped straight from a thread made by someone else with a bit of sense. I mean, C'MON, this has got to be parody, right, right?!?

There's just too many awful cliches to count. Luckily, someone on IMDB started counting for me:

- The girl standing up in her car dumbfounded at a horse walking past her like it's the first creature of it's kind to ever walk on earth.
- The single teardrop trailing down the girls face.
- "That's my 'orse!"
- The general sepia tone.
- That shot of the countryside.
- A STEVEN SPIELBERG FILM and the rest of them embarrassing title cards.

I'll add quickly:

- Includes the 'untameable horse' cliche.
- Gratuitous glamor shots of a horse riding in some idyllic countryside.
- Includes British people fighting in war to give everything more gravitas.
- Old man/Werner Herzog lookalike spouting off old-timey wisdom.

By the time the words "This Christmas" appear near the end I just can't take it anymore and double, nay, triple over in laughing. "Stop it, stop it!", I say like when you're being tickled and you can't breathe anymore. It's just SO bad that it's HILARIOUS. The sad part though is that I found more than one thread on IMDB with people saying the trailer brought them to tears. These must be the same people who shop at Wal-Mart and get excited to see Shrek 7: Back in the Shrek. I, for one, will not be seeing this movie, no matter how much praise it may get. Also - HORSES!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

George Benson: How Jazz Went Cosby

Q. What's lamer than a funk musician going pop?

A. A jazz musician going pop.

You see, jazz is already kind of lame as it is, and half the time you're on the border of easy listening, but you think you're all cool and special because you're playing jazz. Better to just abandon any pretense of high art and head straight for the dentist office.

George Benson knows what I'm talking about. In the '60s, Benson was a real, legitimate jazz guitarist. At least that's what people tell me; not knowing the difference between good jazz and shitty jazz myself, I'm just going to have to take everybody's word for it. AllMusic's Richard Ginell writes, "He can play in just about any style -- from swing to bop to R&B to pop -- with supreme taste, a beautiful rounded tone, terrific speed, a marvelous sense of logic in building solos, and, always, an unquenchable urge to swing". You know me, I'm always a sucker for a "rounded tone" and "terrific speed" (wink wink).

But George Benson could do one thing most jazz musicians could not: he could sing. Initially, the man wasn't in a big rush to exploit his vocal prowess. Although he played jazz, he always had a fondness for pop music, doing instrumental versions of AM radio staples like The Monkees' "Last Train To Clarksville," The Association's "Along Comes Mary," and The Mamas & The Papas' "California Dreamin' " in his own groovy way. His 1973 version of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" will fuck you up. He even recorded an entire album-length tribute to Abbey Road.

But Benson never fully crossed the line until 1976, when he had a left-field pop hit with a version of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade":

Suddenly, George Benson was a pop star. And he liked it.

I'm pretty sure I heard "Breezin'" somewhere in the background of a Yacht Rock episode:

Then there was his tasty re-make of The Drifters' "On Broadway," which I and many others will forever associate with the opening sequence of All That Jazz:

Yeah, these were pop hits, but they still sounded somewhat like jazz. No, George needed to kick his sell-out phase into high gear. Enter Quincy Jones.

Fresh from the success of Off The Wall, Jones and frequent Michael Jackson songwriter/funkiest Englishman alive Rod Temperton teamed up with Benson for "Give Me The Night." As far as I'm concerned George, the night is all yours:

Suddenly the George Benson guitar sound was everywhere. Listen to the opening notes of "Too Hot" or the solo in "Hello," for instance. Funny thing is, by the time of "Turn Your Love Around," I don't even think Benson was bothering to play guitar on his own recordings:

The metamorphosis into Cosby Rock ... was complete.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Take That, Berkeley!

Hey, so Berkeley, you think you're all political and protesty and at the forefront of civil rights and everything? Well guess who just completely stole your thunder? UC Davis, that's who. Yeah, safe, calm, inoffensive little UC Davis. That's right. Guess whose protestors are getting pepper sprayed in the face? Not Berkeley's protestors, I can tell you that. Guess whose chancellor is being asked to resign? Not Berkeley's chancellor. Oh yeah.

Sorry Berkeley, you're just yesterday's news. Nobody cares about your pathetic little protests anymore. I mean, when was the last time a protest at Berkeley gave birth to an internet meme (known as "Casually Pepper Spray Cop")? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hey, Speak For Yourself Lionel, I Didn't Say Anything

There must have been something about Gregory Hines movies that brought out the best in '80s pop stars. Like Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins before him, Lionel Richie couldn't resist the charms of the Soundtrack Song.

I can see our proverbial studio executive now: "You know what we need? A movie about two ballet dancers! But wait - one of them's Russian, and the other one's American! We'll call it White Nights. Fellas it's a hit! Get me Baryshnikov on the phone! And Hines! And Isabella Rossellini!"

So is "Say You, Say Me" about the Cold War? Lionel better hope so, because as far as I can tell, it's not about anything at all. The melody and production are so powerful, though, nobody really cared. Maybe Lionel caught a glimpse of a majestic dystopian future:
I had a dream, I had an awesome dream
People in the park, playing games in the dark
And what they played was a masquerade
From behind the walls of doubt, a voice was crying out
Maybe it's not about the Cold War, but about the War of the Worlds? The War on Drugs? Will we ever find hope in this cold and heartless world?

Then all of a sudden, the song starts going cray-zay:
So you think you know the answers, oh no
Well the whole world's got you dancing, that's right I'm telling you
Time to start believing, oh yes
In even you who are, you are a shining star
Maybe, just maybe, we can break free from the prison of modern life. But no, the moment of possibility vanishes, and we're back to where we started.

You know, Lionel, just say whatever you want.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Where Kool & The Gang Searingly Chronicle The Breakdown Of All The Marriages They Foolishly Instigated

So you've taken Kool & The Gang's advice and gotten yourself hitched. A lifetime of joy and marital bliss awaits you, right?
At seventeen we fell in love
High school sweethearts,
love was so brand new
We took the vows of man and wife
Forever, for life
I remember how we made our way
A little patience, the times we prayed
Can't imagine that this love is through
Feelin' the pain, girl when you lose
Wait a second, "This love is through"? But you said...what didn't tell me about this, Kool & The Gang.
Flyin' high we never took the time
To stop and feel the need
Funny how those years go by
Changing you, changing me
I remember love's fever
In our hearts, girl and in our minds
Can't imagine that this love is through
Feelin' the pain, girl when you lose
Oh great, now you tell me. Thanks a lot, Kool & The Gang. As J.T.'s voice soars into the open night, I can practically taste the court papers and child support on my lips:

"It's so so hot baby, yes it's so hot, I just can't take it, I can't stand no more baby, we were once lovers! We took our vows, of man and wife, foreeevaaahhh!"

Well, one man's song about marital troubles is another man's song about safe sex:

While I'm at it, let's not forget Lil' Kim's sampling of "Ladies Night" on her "Not Tonight" remix, featuring Missy Elliott, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, Da Brat, Angie Martinez, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, SWV, Total, Xscape ... and basically every female rapper ever.

That might genuinely be too hot for me.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lionel Goes Country

We all have certain ambitions in life. Some of us want to run a marathon. Some of us try to climb Mt. Everest. Some of us hope to win an Oscar. Lionel Richie wanted to write a hit country music song.

Other black singers had gone there before. Let's not forget Charley Pride, who managed to sound exactly like a white country singer except, holy shit, he's black.

Ray Charles decided to tackle country on his own terms, performing country songs in an R&B style, ending up with a unique, new kind of genre entirely.

But by the '80s, it had been a while.

Now, if you stop to think about it, country elements had been lying latent in Lionel's songs as far back as "Easy" and "Sail On." But no, "country elements" weren't enough for the man. Lionel wanted to pen an official "country music song." Well, if he couldn't sing it himself, maybe he could get some white guy to do it. Enter Kenny Rogers.

"Lady" wasn't just a #1 country hit, it was also a #1 pop hit. Perhaps feeling encouraged, and willing to test his powers to the limit, Lionel did not stop there. Thanks Kenny, it was fun, but no, he wanted a country hit under his own damn name.

"Stuck On You" (do I hear faint traces of Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight"?) became the fourth straight Top Ten hit from Can't Slow Down, peaking at #3. But I doubt Lionel cared much about that. No, what he really cared about was that the song climbed all the way to #24 on the country charts. #24!

Ladies and gentlemen, Lionel Richie had finally become an official country music singer.

You ride 'em, cowboy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Where Kool & The Gang Definitely Don't Promote Marital Sex

Here's a Kool & The Gang song not likely to be played at a wedding reception. Even fans of their '70s incarnation can get behind this one; to quote one YouTube user, "Didn't care much for their 80's output, but this song is a banger!"

The band was apparently hoping it would be considered a rocker. I'm staring to come under the impression that every single '80s R&B artist, at some point, tried to do their own "Beat It." Kool & The Gang released a couple of different mixes of "Tonight." The version that appeared on my '80s Tape was, oddly enough, the "album" mix. They also released an "AOR Mix," with a different and slightly longer guitar solo, presumably in an attempt at having a crossover "Album Oriented Rock" hit. Didn't work, I'm presuming.

What's always struck me about "Tonight" is that, while the lyrics appear to describe a 16-year-old guy losing his virginity, the song doesn't sound particularly happy or idyllic. Instead, it sounds kind of freaky and menacing. Maybe it wasn't such a great night after all. When J.T. leaps into a piercing falsetto at the end, proclaiming "Oh tonight, I wanna da-aaa-ance with you," I mean, I'm glad he wants to dance, but I wouldn't want him dancing anywhere near me.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hello? Is It The Most Unintentionally Hilarious Video Of The '80s You Were Looking For?

There are cheesy '80s music videos. And then there is Lionel Richie's "Hello."

Some artists viewed the new possibilities of the music video format as an opportunity to push the limits of visual creativity. Lionel Richie took it as an opportunity to push the limits of cheese.

The song "Hello" itself is already on the sappy side. "I've been alone with you inside my mind/and in my dreams I've kissed your lips a thousand times." Yeah, Lionel, like you're the first person to ever write a love song. But when that little chord swoops in after the word "for," and he slides into the chorus, I have to admit, I'm a goner.

But they needed to create a whole new category of cheese to accurately measure the cheese level in this video. You see, Lionel's a college professor (or a student teacher? a high school teacher?), she's a student, he's in love with her. Pretty corny. Except there's just one twist: she's blind.

Oh! Snap! Boo-yah!

No, Lionel, don't go there - wait - just - don't - but - aaaaaaaaaaaaand he went there.

It's hard to know what to say. There's the embarrassing play dialogue ("It isn't good for you Billy Boy. Too many memories, too many ghosts." "It's what I know - this, and the can."). There's the late night phone call. And finally, there is the sculpture. Oh, the sculpture.

You know what? I'll just let the YouTube users take it from here:
That statue needs a heavy douching of jerry curl juice to portray him accurately

No one has ever captured my jerry curl in clay......I'm jealous

Lionel Richie Chia Pet Head. On sale now!

Do you think that the bust of Lionel that looks nothing like him still exists? It's probably worth a fortune. I would love to own it. It would really tie the room together.

how does she put her makeup on??

Why is she reading with the lights on?

obviously pretending to be blind for a scholarship

Hello? Is it me you're looking for? Oh, sorry... I'll try back later. Do you know when she'll be in? Around 9, you say? I apologize for the mixup again, take care now.

What subject is he teaching? Mackin' 101

Yo, how come no one notices that Lionel Ritchie is singing in the middle of class out of nowhere.

Lionel, what the f*ck kinda shirt are you wearing @3:47? its like a striped button up tank-top-vest with pockets...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Where Kool & The Gang Single-handedly Create Your Wedding Reception Playlist

For reasons that remain unclear to this day, in the '80s Kool & The Gang took it upon themselves to make the jobs of wedding DJs the world over just a little bit easier. Don't know what to play at a wedding? Just pop in a Kool & The Gang Greatest Hits CD and you're all set.

"Celebration" may not only be heard at weddings, but also at birthdays, bar mitzvahs, Quinceaneras, and freed hostage welcoming parties (see: Iran Hostage Crisis, 1981). Personally, I will forever associate the song with Oakland A's home victories, but the tune can be applied to virtually any sporting event, aside from those held in Cleveland, where fans have nothing to celebrate.

Depending on at what point you play the video for "Get Down On It" at your reception, sickness may be unintentionally induced. As one YouTube user put it, "Guy who made the video had just found the 'ghosting' function and thought 'hey thats pretty cool!' "

Meanwhile, the video for "Fresh" was apparently a rare collaboration between Bob Fosse and Ridley Scott:

Imagine chewing on your steak, and then turning around to find that...Kool & The Gang have taken over your favorite all-night diner! "Hey, get that keyboard off the table, you're scratching the paint."

But the mother of all Kool & the Gang wedding reception songs has to be "Cherish." "Cherish" is to '80s wedding reception songs as "Just The Way You Are" is to '70s wedding reception songs. It is a wedding reception unto itself.

But see, what I like about "Cherish" is that it is not specifically about weddings, or even about romance. According to AMG, the band was recording in the Bahamas, and "while working along the beach, lead singer James 'J.T.' Taylor watched the band members' children happily at play and thought to himself 'how blessed we are. God has been good to us and we should cherish it.' " His falsetto at the 3:33 mark is so sweet, it almost makes me want to cherish something. Like my sarcasm.

The video is like a perfect four-minute distillation of every Time-Life "Romantic Classics" infomercial ever made, complete with seagulls, bonfires, and tiki torches. I warn you: the sheer wholesomeness of these images may cause blindness.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Dear God, Something Terrible's Happened, Why Can't Lionel Richie Slow Down??

In 1982, Lionel released his first solo album, simply called Lionel Richie. The album was an immediate success and boasted three hit singles: "Truly," "You Are" (which brightened up my '80s Tape) and "My Love," a song I heard on the radio a couple of months ago and kept waiting for it to slip into the chorus of "Easy," and then I realized that after a while Lionel Richie's ballads all just blend together and become one big Lionel stew.

But in retrospect, Lionel Richie was merely a warm-up for the MOR onslaught that was Can't Slow Down.

Imagine a record executive sitting around his penthouse in 1983, smoking a cigar, thinking, "Man, if only I had an album that was just like Thriller, but much wimpier." Can't Slow Down is that record.

Picture an emasculated hybrid of "Beat It" and "Bille Jean" and you might have "Running With The Night." Who needs a scorching guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen when you can have a scorching guitar solo from...Toto's Steve Lukather?

Then there was the time Lionel Richie tried to sound Jamaican. "People dancing all in the street/Feel the rhythm all in their feet/Life is goooood, whyyyylde and sweet." Dude, Lionel, you're from Alabama. You're not fooling anybody.

But clearly all the partygoers are having too good of a time to care about the man's dubious accent; even the policeman can't resist joining in on the fun. As one YouTube user put it, "This song stopped me from killing myself with a spoon today."

Also: did you know that Lionel Richie is huge in the Middle East? According to ABC News, "Grown Iraqi men get misty-eyed by the mere mention of his name. Iraqis who do not understand a word of English can sing an entire Lionel Richie song." Fittingly, on the night American tanks invaded Baghdad, Iraqis celebrated by blasting "All Night Long" throughout the streets. Probably not the kind of party Lionel had in mind.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Shat is Back

Yes folks, the Shat is back! Back with a new album that is. An album... of covers! Have you ever wanted to hear Shatner sing Space Oddity? How about She Blinded me with Science? Or maybe you're in the mood for some 90's Floyd with Learning to Fly? All these and more await on Shatner's "Seeking Major Tom", an album of space-themed covers. Here's Bohemian Rhapsody for you (which curiously takes its cues from the Halo 3 Superbowl halftime commercial, as well as Halo 3's opening cinematic). Enjoy!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

How Kool & The Gang Went Cosby

Once upon a time, back in 1969, a man named Robert Bell decided to go by the name of "Kool," and he began collaborating with some fellow musicians whom he then termed his "gang." This "Kool" and his so-called "gang" played a variety of what was then called "funk." Their songs boasted titles such as "Chocolate Buttermilk," "Raw Hamburger," "Electric Frog," "Funky Granny," and "Rated X." They didn't even have a lead singer. Who needs a lead singer when you're funky?

Among my peers, the most well-known track done by the funk-era Kool & The Gang is probably "Jungle Boogie," thanks to its usage in the opening credits of Pulp Fiction (Side note: did you know that '70s R&B actually existed before Quentin Tarantino discovered it?). The man delivering those guttural vocal ad-libs was apparently the band's roadie.

And who could forget their contribution to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the not-in-terribly-good-taste "Open Sesame"? I don't think lines like "Get on your camel and ride," or the comical usage of the "There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance" melody would go down too well in this day and age. But hey, there probably weren't too many Muslims in Studio 54, I'm guessing.

The '70s Kool & The Gang wasn't solely about high energy dance numbers, however. See "Summer Madness," their freaky, spaced-out version of a ballad.

But as every musician of the '70s quickly found out, the good times couldn't last forever. AMG gives the band's 1977 album The Force 1 1/2 stars. Lead single "Slick Superchick" peaked at #102. Suddenly, this gang wasn't so kool anymore.

Enter one James Taylor - who went by "J.T." in order to avoid confusion with the singer-songwriter of "Fire and Rain" fame.

One could argue that this James Taylor possessed even less of an edge than the other one. But with J.T. at the helm, Kool & The Gang not only returned to prominence, but swiftly eclipsed their earlier popularity.

Now, there are funk purists who adamantly claim that the '70s Kool & The Gang was the "real" Kool & The Gang, and that the version of the band that came to dominate radio in the '80s was watered down crap. These are probably the same people who think that Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd was the "real" Pink Floyd, or that Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac was the "real" Fleetwood Mac. These people were probably young adults in the '70s, they are probably 60 years old now, and nobody cares what they think anymore.

Yes, it's true that there might have been more "credibility" and "real emotion" in the early incarnation of Kool & The Gang. But here's how I see it. There were a lot of other bands like them. I mean, who wants to be just another good funk band? Better to be the absolute masters of a shitty genre than runners-up in a good genre, that's what I say.

And the thing is, I don't think it's quite as hard to make a good funk song as it is to make a good pop song. This coming from a songwriting genius, of course. But funk songs are like jams; at times, they're barely even songs. After a while they can get kind of samey. In my opinion, it takes more effort to write a song like "Cherish" than it does to write a song like "Jungle Boogie." The later Kool & The Gang songs have lyrics, and chord progressions. They're sturdier compositions.

But why do I have to choose, really? In the end, it's all kool with me.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Beatles: Rock Band Review

The Beatles were inarguably ahead of their time. As fellow blogger Little Earl used to remind me often, nearly all modern pop music has it's roots in what The Beatles did. Psychadelia? Check. Hard Rock? Check. Electronica? Check. Perhaps the only thing The Beatles didn't invent was dubstep. Indeed, they really forged new musical ground that continues to be explored to this day. It's too bad then that The Beatles: Rock Band comes well after it's time. That is meant as a great compliment - let me explain.

The videogame genre that's come to be known as the "music rhythm" genre began with the original Guitar Hero back in 2005. It soon developed a cult following, and with the release of Guitar Hero II a year later, seemed to explode in popularity. It became the party game, with friends lining up to take their turn on a plastic guitar. Through this plastic guitar with brightly colored buttons, players were expected to play along with a song by hitting the corresponding colored buttons as they were shown on screen. It was an elaborate karaoke of sorts, providing the thrill of being a guitar god without having to actually deal with the incredible difficulty of actually having to master true guitarmanship.

Soon a competitor came along in the form of Rock Band. Now people could play as a whole band, with plastic guitars, basses, drum kits, and microphones. Rock Band was definitely a step forward and took itself ever so slightly more serious than the Guitar Hero series. It was also around this time that the music rhythm genre began to become oversaturated. More and more versions kept being knocked out to bring in more cash: Guitar Hero 80s edition, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (complete with virtual G&R Slash as a playable character), Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Guitar Hero: Van Halen. These were all quick cash-ins, usually with little to no input by the featured artists, often featuring songs that supposedly 'inspired' the artist (seriously, a Foo Fighters song in Guitar Hero: Metallica, WTF!?).

Finally, in 2009, came word that The Beatles had given the Rock Band franchise permission to do a Rock Band version of The Beatles. Only this time things would be different, the surviving Beatles (and Yoko, don't forget Yoko) would have direct control on what was to be featured and how it all would be presented. They even went so far as to insist that their name be featured before the familiar Rock Band title, and thus we ended up with the magnificent The Beatles: Rock Band.

It's such a terrible shame then that The Beatles: Rock Band (TB:RB) was one of the last specific-band music games to come out. If only it had been the first, all the other titles would have benefited greatly, because the design of TB:RB is fantastic. Everything about the game screams quality.

The art style is superb, with cartoony looking versions of the fab four that have a somewhat whimsical look about them, apparently crafted under strict guidance from Apple Corps. (actually the whole game seems to have been strictly overseen by them, whoever 'they' are). The presentation is fantastic, taking you on a chronological journey, starting you off playing in the Cavern Club, to the Ed Sullivan show and all places inbetween, ending up on the roof of the Apple Corps. rooftop. For songs recorded at Abbey Road the game has added in "dreamscape" venues, with abstract whimsical nods to various songs (watch this to get what I mean).

This chronological progression really lets you see how the band progressed musically. The songs performed in the Cavern Club feel much more raw and live than the later tracks performed at Abbey Road studios which feel much more processed and musically dense. This is all helped by the various photos and short movies that you unlock as you progress. Some, if not most of these short movies are never before seen snippets and outtakes from various performances, movies, and interviews, though Little Earl would have to be the final judge on just how rare these really are.

TB:RB feels more than just a game, it's like an interactive history lesson that lets you play along. I feel like I actually learned stuff about The Beatles that I didn't previously know (like how the white album doesn't have more than two songs in a row sung by any given member). Ok, it's not going to wow a true afficianado, but for someone uneducated in Beatles lore, it offers a terrific overview of what The Beatles were about.

 It's like an interactive history lesson that let's you play along

There's all sorts of little details that make this package work. Like when you pick a song to play, in the first few seconds before the song plays there's audio of the band warming up to play the song, with perhaps a few practice chords or John muttering to someone to turn an amp up. Or how between each musical venue a short montage plays showing you some famous scenes and audio snippets to show what the band was up to. Perhaps the most impressive is the opening to the game, with an amazingly done montage that takes you through the full gamut of The Beatles (seriously, I could watch this a hundred times and still enjoy it).

Overall The Beatles: Rock Band is superb package. I haven't even yet mentioned that the game supports not only the typical Rock Band staples such as guitar, bass, and drums, but the game allows for two microphones to be hooked up for vocal harmonies. My only disappointment with this game is that I wish it had been even more of a history lesson. As it is there's only something like eight short movies that you can unlock, I would have been fine with twice as much. But really, there's not much to complain about. It's just such as shame that this game came out  in late 2009 after the music rhythm genre had already reached saturation, which resulted in poor sales. If this had come out earlier it could have laid the foundation for all sorts of music-games-as-history-lessons. Imagine a Pink Floyd: Rock Band, or Nirvana: Rock Band. Instead the only thing to come out since is... Green Day: Rock Band, ugh. Well, one can dream, but in the meantime I've gotta get back to my game and see if I can earn my 5 stars on Helter Skelter.  5/5 Zrbo points.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

How Lionel Richie Went Cosby

By the mid-'70s, the once mighty Motown empire was finally beginning to decline. The Jackson 5 jumped ship to sign with CBS. Only two original members of the Temptations remained. Diana Ross became swallowed up by her own ego. Marvin Gaye became swallowed up by his own penis. Things were looking grim. No one expected a young funk band from Alabama to make much of a difference.

I never understood why a band would name itself after a computer, but hey, that's cool. The Commodores' first hit, "Machine Gun," sounded like it could have been music from a video game, and was used to great effect in the "rise of Dirk Diggler" portion of Boogie Nights.

Then there is "Brick House," staple of frat house comedies and Tyler Perry movie trailers, otherwise know as "She's a brick...HOWZ."

But few people realize that the band who made "Brick House," a song as gritty and funky as anything by The Isley Brothers or The Ohio Players, was the same band who gave birth to the undisputed champion of Cosby Rock:

I can see it now. "Guys, this funk stuff is cool, but you know what I really like? Ballads. Can we try some ballads?" "I don't know, Lionel, that stuff is for pussies." "Aw, come on, just one song? Let's see how it does. If it flops, it flops."

If only. Instead, "Easy" unleashed a monster. The song became the Commodores' biggest hit yet (not to mention an "easy" target for Faith No More, who recorded an amusingly faithful cover version in 1993). The real Lionel Richie had finally stepped out from behind the funky facade. "Issac Hayes? Pfft. How about Barry Manilow? With a dash of Glen Campbell? Now we're talking."

The rest of the group gleefully rode the ballad train. "Still," "Three Times A Lady"...funk? What's funk? We've never heard of this "funk" that you speak of. Close your eyes, and "Sail On" is practically a Yacht Rock song.

Apparently the Commodores are sailing through the clouds here and not the ocean. Maybe they couldn't find any stock footage of a boat and had to settle for stock footage of a hang glider instead. I like the part where Lionel's band mate can't recall whether the lyrics are "Sail on, honey" or "Sail on, sugar." It's a big difference, buddy, get it right.

By 1981, Lionel was doing sweeping duets with Diana Ross.

"Endless Love" was billed as "Lionel Richie and Diana Ross," not "The Commodores and Diana Ross." The writing was on the crossover wall. He stuck around for one last uptempo dance number, "Lady (You Bring Me Up)," before finally sailing on to easier pastures.

For the rest of the band, though, it probably felt more like Monday morning than Sunday morning.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cosby Rock

In September 1984, The Cosby Show made its television debut. According to Wikipedia:
For Cosby, the new situation comedy was a response to the increasingly violent and vulgar fare the networks usually offered... The show had parallels to Cosby's actual family life: like the characters Cliff and Claire Huxtable, Cosby and his wife Camille were college educated, financially successful, and had five children. Essentially a throwback to the wholesome family situation comedy, The Cosby Show was unprecedented in its portrayal of an intelligent, affluent, African-American family.
I never really watched The Cosby Show. I don't honestly know much about it. But for the purposes of this blog series, I find Cosby a fitting symbol - a representative, if you will, of a certain shift in '80s black popular culture. Bill Cosby is emblematic of the way in which '70s African-American edginess gradually slid into '80s African-American tameness. And as television went, so did music. Ladies and gentlemen: I give you "Cosby Rock."

In perhaps a mixed sign of our nation's racial progress, I think it's fair to say that in the world of '80s pop music, exceedingly vacuous, non-threatening, yuppified pop songs were not solely the province of white people. True, since the beginning of American popular music, black musicians have often aimed at the middle of the road, but mostly out of necessity. Come off too dangerous, and white people weren't going to buy your music.

The difference with '80s R&B, however, is that - and correct me if I'm wrong here - the focus toward the middle of the road seems to have been more of a deliberate choice. In the '70s, mainstream audiences had demonstrated great acceptance toward gritty, often political funk from artists such as Sly & The Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, and Stevie Wonder. In other words, white people could handle the heavy stuff. No, these '80s R&B singers wanted to make sentimental crap. But such is the beauty of true American freedom: You have the freedom to churn out Adult Contemporary schlock, if that's what you really want to do.

But I wouldn't want anyone to be fooled by some pseudo-narrative of black upward mobility. It was the '80s. Everybody was still fucked. It's just that nobody really wanted to sing about it. Well, a few people did. We called them "rappers." But come on, like that was ever going to make it. No, the future was obviously George Benson and Billy Ocean.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Michael McDonald Gets His Own Joke

So after all this, you might ultimately be wondering: what is Michael McDonald really like? Does he think he's cool? Does he think he's ridiculous? Is he in on his own joke?

Ladies and gentlemen, I think I've found the answer. He is.

Back in 1999, many unsuspecting viewers of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut reached the credits and were initially hit with a punk version of "What Would Brian Boitano Do?" Suddenly, after about a minute and forty-five seconds, a cheap, '80s-style keyboard entered, and a husky, soulful voice began crooning:
The eyes of a child, so innocent and pure
A child's heart is full of song
Take their tiny hand and lead them to the light
As adults we see pain in the world, and it sometimes don't seem right

But through the eyes of a child
The world seems magical
There's a sparkle in their eyes
They've yet to realize the darkness in their soul
The beauty of their smile
Adventurous and wild
Life is kind of gay, but it doesn't seem that way
Through the eyes of a child
Could it really's...Michael McDonald!

Here, according to Parker and Stone, is how it went down:
Having him come in and record that, he was just like, he was fucking perplexed. He said something like, "Beggars can't be can pay me in food...can I crash at your guys' place...yeah it's been kind of lame lately...I gotta do whatever I can." He was great, he did a really good job on that song. He did Michael McDonald really well.
It truly is a treat to hear one of the iconic voices of my childhood belt out lines such as "Spread your wings and fly to the brightest star/If you want I can even get my friend Steve to detail your car - for like 20 bucks." He sounds like he means it.

Additionally, in a recent interview with Time Out New York, McDonald displays an impressive self-awareness. Some excerpts:

You should know going into this that I’ve had “I Keep Forgettin’ ” stuck in my head for 25 years now. I think I’m technically insane.

Well, that’s good to hear.

That “Regulate” song by Warren G and Nate Dogg? Didn’t help.

It’s funny. To my kids, that’s the good version of the song. They say, “Why couldn’t you have written it that way?” They love that record—but not because of anything I did.

As a guy with prematurely graying hair myself, I want to thank you for being a role model.

I wish I had a choice in that one, but yeah, you’re welcome.

You wore it proudly—like Steve Martin!

I wish I could say that I was that way from the beginning. It was only after two or three humiliating episodes where the record company told me, “We’re not going to shoot a video unless you dye your hair,” and I looked like Mr. Chocolate Kiss from Clairol. It had to get really ugly before I decided that I would never dye it again.
All well and good. But what we really want to know is: has he heard of Yacht Rock? Nothing could have prepared me for his delightful answer:

Have you ever owned a yacht?

No, but I thought Yacht Rock was hilarious. And uncannily, you know, those things always have a little bit of truth to them. It’s kind of like when you get a letter from a stalker who’s never met you. They somehow hit on something, and you have to admit they’re pretty intuitive.

Have you at least lived near a marina?

No, I never did. Although a couple summers ago, when I opened for Steely Dan, I’d do the encore with them and come out in a little captain’s hat, like Alan Hale Jr. We all wore them onstage.

And not one of you owns a yacht?

Not that I know of. Well, David Crosby owns a sailboat. But I’m not sure he counts.
The man has not only seen Yacht Rock; he liked it. Sometimes, the universe really is a wonderful place. The interviewer manages to squeeze a few more juicy morsels out of him:

Okay. So what’s the craziest thing you ever did with Kenny Loggins?

We mostly worked a lot when we would get together. Kenny, he’s one of those guys who was a more serious artist; I was just a schlub. He was like, “C’mon, let’s get this right,” and I was like, “Got any beer?”

I’m thinking that your tenure in the Doobie Brothers probably wasn’t drug-free.

Not exactly, no. Not everybody had the same problems that I had, but there was a few of us who did the dust.

Did fans almost expect that kind of stuff from you?

I don’t want it to sound like I’m bragging about smoking pot, but there was a time when that was a big part of our day. Smoking in the morning was normal. But a lot of things became normal to me. Seizures, pissing my pants, waking up in a hotel room with the New York City police at the foot of my bed became normal. It’s not like I’m proud of it.
I'm proud of it, Michael. We're all very proud.


Thus ends our adventures in Yacht Rock - or at least the collection of artists featured heavily in the Yacht Rock web series. In reality, the show has only dipped its toes into the vast ocean that is early '80s soft rock. I have vague plans of starting a series on great Yacht Rock one hit wonders, as well as a series on Yacht Rock's late '80s sister genre, Yuppie Rock. But all in due time. For now, it's on to a discussion of a genre to which I have decided to bestow the name "Cosby Rock."

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Yacht Rock: Episode 12

And now, my friends, we come to the final episode of Yacht Rock, and let me tell you, it's a doozy. Somehow our dear Channel 101'ers have managed to wrap up every loose end and every stray reference into one loving little send-off. Even Christopher Cross makes a comeback!

Supposedly the episode is in 3-D, but I can't really attest as to whether that works or not. And yes, just what was Dan Ackroyd doing at the "We Are The World" session? Not only was he not a singer, he wasn't even American.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Michael McDonald Does His Own Soundtrack Song!

One day our middle-aged, soulful crooning maestro must have looked up and noticed that Loggins was running laps around him in the hit soundtrack department. I guess he figured "better late than never."

And what better movie to write a song for than the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines flick Running Scared. You know, Running Scared.

By this time McDonald's salt & pepper looks were firmly more salt than pepper. And what a surprise when, at the 2:40 mark, Michael McDonald finds himself in the movie with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines! Look at the infectiously great time everyone is having. Little do they know, but it's 1986, and the party's about to be over.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Kenny Meets Giorgio

Kenny Loggins loved movie soundtracks. Giorgio Moroder loved movie soundtracks. Kenny, meet Giorgio; Giorgio, meet Kenny.

According to Wikipedia, "Moroder originally asked Bryan Adams to record this song, but he was said to have rejected it because he had disliked the jingoism expressed in Top Gun." Obviously Kenny Loggins had no qualms about any of that. Don't you know anything, Bryan Adams? If you want to make it as an '80s rock star, check your values at the door.

Hilariously, "the rock group Toto was also supposed to perform the song, but due to legal matters, it was passed to Loggins." Luckily fate intervened, because Toto were about as dangerous as a sponge. By comparison, danger is Kenny Loggins' middle name. Just look at the video. Kenny appears to be residing in the highly dangerous zone of ... his bedroom. Nothing spells "danger" like a ceiling fan.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Oily Robot Magic Of Giorgio Moroder

The greatest minds in all of fiction could not have invented Giorgio Moroder. He is an instant parody of himself. He is also a genius.

But Giorgio was an Italian nobody until he met up with Donna Summer in 1975. I don't know who convinced who to do what, but at the end of it all, a vaguely pornographic 17-minute long disco epic called "Love To Love You Baby" was born.

The peak years of the Summer/Giorgio (I must only call him by his first name) collaboration would need to be discussed at another time. "Last Dance," "Hot Stuff," "I Feel Love" - just get yourself a copy of On The Radio. Suffice to say, their late '70s disco hits influenced a generation of electronic artists, and Giorgio never met a synthesizer he didn't like. But alas, all good things must come to an end, and eventually disco faded.

The death of disco would have killed lesser producers. How did Giorgio survive? Like Kenny Loggins, he discovered the next best thing: movie soundtracks.

What better way to escape from a Turkish prison than to the hypnotic, throbbing sounds of "The Chase" from the Midnight Express soundtrack (a gem I might have missed if not for its inclusion on the Pitchfork 500)?

Fresh off their crossover dance hit "Heart Of Glass," Blondie suddenly got the urge for a piece of the Giorgio action. Well, they wanted Giorgio, and they got Giorgio. "Call Me," from the American Gigolo soundtrack, became the #1 Billboard hit of 1980.

Doing his part to boost the popularity of leg warmers and off-the-shoulder sweaters everywhere, Giorgio may have created the very apotheosis of Aerobic Rock in Irene Cara's #1 hit "Flashdance...What A Feeling," from the Flashdance soundtrack.

Most observers would have suggested that pairing Giorgio Moroder with the German silent classic Metropolis was not a good fit. Giorgio thought otherwise.

Finally, in 1986, Giorgio teamed up with another unlikely partner: the U.S. Air Force. Somewhere deep down in that sleazy European body of his, he found a crumb of American patriotism and let his synth flag fly. I'll tell you what takes my breath away: Giorgio Moroder's surprising love for my country, that's what.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Zrbo Reviews: VNV Nation's Automatic

Several years ago I found myself driving across the Dumbarton Bridge one early morning.  I don't remember what my intended destination was, but I do remember that the experience was somewhat surreal.  It was early in the morning so a heavy bank of fog was still hovering just off the bay.  Driving along the Dumbarton, with it's span sitting just above water level, the heavy fog obscured any visible sign of land, to the point where I could see nothing but the road, the bay, and the electrical towers running parallel.  It felt as though I were driving on some infinite road in the middle of an infinite ocean.

This surreal experience was accentuated by the sounds of VNV Nation pumping through my car.  I was listening to a somewhat forgotten b-side named Weltfunk from one of the Genesis singles off of their 2002 album Futureperfect.  Weltfunk, loosely translated from German as 'world radio' or 'world transmission', is an instrumental piece, one that makes me think of a parade march for an old art deco inspired World's Fair if they had had synthesizers and drum machines back then.  It's the sound of progress-through-technology from a more innocent age.  This feeling is accentuated by the radio noise that creeps in near the end of the track, almost like the listener is slowly losing the signal.  Driving along this infinite-looking concrete bridge, coupled with the electrical towers and lines running alongside me, I felt as though I were driving into this imagined perfect future.  Weltfunk was perfect for the retro-future/art deco vibe that VNV Nation presented on Futureperfect.  With 2011's Automatic this song now feels like a prototype, invoking the same mood that VNV Nation presents the listener with on their new album.

VNV Nation are a duo, composed of Irishman Ronan Harris, and London-born Mark Jackson.  Working out of their Hamburg studio, Ronan is the real heart of VNV Nation, while Mark provides backup (the Ringo?).  Sprung from the depths of the gloomy underground electro-industrial scene, for the past decade and a half the two have been developing their own unique musical style, one they (perhaps inadvertently) ended up naming 'futurepop'.  While the term may cause long time fans to roll their eyes, it's a perfectly apt descriptor for the style and tone of music VNV Nation have been producing: a mixture of electronica, industrial, dance, and synthpop, the theme of the music being a nod towards the future and the things humanity could be if we put aside our differences.

VNV albums carry a certain DNA in their structural layout.  Each album seems to follow a certain rhythm, with mandatory instrumental (or spoken word) intros, followed usually by an uptempo track, with an instrumental to bring down the energy in the middle, then the album is built back up with a ballad, and ends on some sort of inspirational or experimental track that perhaps encapsulates the theme of the album.  In a sense VNV albums are clichéd, the fan taking comfort in the expected rhythms of each album's structure.  At this point I've come to realize that Ronan Harris has been doing this on purpose. He's not so much run out of ideas, rather he's been busy perfecting an art, each release a slightly more refined and mature iteration of the previous one. He's like a chef, creating and recreating a dish, serving up variations, all similar but none quite the same, until he hits just the right balance of flavors.  Automatic is no exception to this rule: it is structured the way all VNV albums are, and is another great addition in an already amazing catalog.

Automatic begins, as it should, with an instrumental opener to get us in the mood and give us a taste of the theme of the album.  Like with Futureperfect, and more specifically the song Weltfunk, Automatic takes it's stylings from retro-futurism, with art deco inspired cover art (see above), like some sort of missing title card from Metropolis.  The album begins with with On-Air, a three and a half minute bit beginning with some old fuzzy radio noise, like someone changing frequencies on a very, very old radio.  Eventually it morphs into a bit of light piano, but overall it doesn't work too well.  While Matter and Form's Intro was also just a bit of noise, it was so brief that it never outlasted it's welcome.  However, On-Air just dwells around a bit too long, with the opening radio fanfare repeated obnoxiously, and then the song just doesn't really go anywhere.  Typically VNV openers set the stage, getting you excited to hear what's next. 2007's Judgement began with the cinematic Prelude, while Futureperfect's spoken Foreword worked wonderfully with it's inspiring multi-lingual message.  On-Air just doesn't go very far and comes across a bit boring, a problem we'll encounter later on in another instrumental track.  It's a shame then that On-Air falls flat, as what follows is very much worth listening too.

The second track, and the first real song, on a typical VNV album is usually an uptempo, anthemic dance number. 1999's Empires cemented this with Kingdom, which acts like some sort of VNV Nation mission statement. Every VNV album since has given us something good here, and Automatic does not disappoint. Space & Time is classic VNV Nation. It starts really well too, almost to the point where I wish Ronan had broke with tradition and just started the album on this track, just bolting straight out of the gate.

The band usually leaves the third slot space to another dance number, but usually something a bit more mid-tempo or exploratory. Usually these songs are good, but not quite as anthemic as the previous track, almost like Ronan doesn't want to upstage the leadoff song.  Ronan discards this notion and gives us the terrific Resolution.  Borrowing heavily from euphoric trance, Ronan's voice guides us along in an inspirational sing-along in an absolutely perfect piece of unadulterated futurepop complete with the full trance drop-it-out/bring-it-back bridge.  Both of these first two songs are phenomenal ear candy and get the album moving along nicely.

Control is Automatic's nod to VNV's industrial/EBM roots, a rant that finishes with Ronan repeatedly chanting "Put the switch to automatic/I want control!". This song has a perfect opening with terrific energy and just pulls the listener in immediately with rebelliously fun lyrics like "I don't want 15 minutes or a reason why/I want a stainless steel road stretching off to the sky".  If you know your VNV Nation then you'll find Ronan's inspiration here in what I call the VNV-rant song.  These rant songs are a remnant of early VNV tracks like Honour where Ronan barked his lyrics more than sung them.  However, the VNV-rant was truly cemented in the song Chrome from 2005's Matter and Form, and since then has shown it's head in songs like Testament, Nemesis, and Tomorrow Never Comes.  Just like Chrome, Control gets experimental halfway through, with Ronan poking around on knobs and buttons on the old vintage synthesizers he's so fond of, to the point where the song breaks down almost completely two-thirds through, only to have Ronan somehow bring it all back.  It's a fun song that will probably get a lot of play in the clubs, though my only complaint is that once the chorus kicks in Ronan doesn't give us anymore verses, just the repeated "I want control!".

After such an energetic and powerful tune, Ronan, in typical VNV style, gives the listener a break by bringing the energy back down with Goodbye 20th Century - perhaps bringing the energy down a little too much.  Once again, we get old radio sounds which evolve into a light piano, and as before it just doesn't work.  While I understand Ronan's desire to place this track here, it's too slow and pretty much just kills any momentum, with the song coming across as an On-Air part 2.  This might have worked better as the album closer, such as Judgement's As It Fades did (which I described as sounding like something from Lord of the Rings), but it's just too slow for it's own good.

The album recovers with Streamline, a mid-tempo bit with Ronan delving more into the retro-future theme through lyrics such as "streamlined simplicity for a twenty-first century" and "electronic alchemists in the new metropolis/enlightened living through practicality".  The song fulfills it's obligation by getting the album moving again, and brings us to one of the albums best songs.

The seventh track to greet us, Gratitude, is a delightful welcome.  With a nice rhythm running through it, Gratitude finds Ronan giving some personal insight into the things that he's thankful for.  That sounds a bit corny, but it's refreshing to hear Ronan singing about people real to him, as opposed to the usual unknown "you" he substitutes in many tracks.  He even references his father in this song, the first time in any VNV Nation song where a personal figure was specifically named [edit: I've been corrected, apparently he says 'former self' not 'father's self']  (alas, we'll probably never get to know who Ronan was singing about in the haunting vocal version of Forsaken from 1998's Solitary EP).  Actually, I'm not entirely sure if the whole song is meant for his dad or for multiple people as it becomes a bit muddled partway through.  Either way, this is a truly great song, with a terrific rhythm and pacing and sweet chorus that manages to elevate itself above sappiness.

Nova (shine a light on me) is Automatic's ballad.  It's a nice song with a nice sentiment and adequately fulfills its purpose as the song VNV get to perform live while loved ones in the audience hold each other.  If that sounds cynical, then it just goes to show how skilled VNV are when it comes to delivering ballads.  Earlier in the band's career it was a complete novelty to see a band associated with the underground club culture of electro-industrial sing a ballad.  At this point in their career however, we've been given a ballad on each and every album, and they've begun to blur together a bit.  I'm not saying Nova is bad or even clichéd, it's just that some of their earlier ballads seemed to have a bit more heart to them (see Standing) no matter how much Ronan may turn up his broguish crooning here.

The second-to-last track is Photon.  If you know your VNV Nation then you know how they like to include a long danceable instrumental track somewhere on their albums.  Empires birthed Saviour (and later Saviour [Vox] ), Futureperfect begat Electronaut, Matter and Form featured Lightwave, Judgement generated Momentum (har) which added some spoken word, and 2009's Of Faith, Power and Glory continued the spoken word instrumental (how else do I describe it?) with Art of Conflict.  Photon is a fine addition to this lineage (and the name is so similar to Lightwave and Momentum that one wouldn't be blamed for confusing which song was which) and it allows us to move on to the final song off of Automatic

Radio begins with some synthesized blips and bloops and then partway through adds a thudding drum beat to provide some rhythm.  Radio functions as the album's final departing message, with VNV albums usually giving the listener something profound and stirring to ponder.  This song is exactly that, and brings us all the way back to Weltfunk, with the radio as a metaphor for broadcasting VNV Nation's vision that "one should strive to achieve, not sit in bitter regret".  In fact, attentive listeners of this song can hear the distant crackle of a radio between Ronan's opening lines, while the beat that kicks in, despite being unrelentingly thumping, has a surprising amount of bounce to it.  This song takes a while to sink in, but provides some great payoffs.  There's a certain urgency to Ronan's voice here that creates just the mildest bit of uneasiness, something the unrelenting rhythm accentuates.  Rather than go with something wondrous and whimsical like Futureperfect's album closer Airships, here we are given something with just a little bit more edge, but something that fittingly caps off an album devoted to retro-futurism.  Lastly, I have to point out that the song's length is 7:47, a number I'm curious if Ronan deliberately chose (we've seen Mark and Ronan hanging out in front of vintage planes before).

Like it's earlier cousin Weltfunk, Automatic presents us with a vision of a world from a more innocent age, where it was hoped that technology would one day provide for and unite all people's of the Earth.  As VNV Nation's music has progressed, the lyrics have become a tad bit simpler, with the synthesizers given a bit more room to breathe.  Gone are the days of overwrought lyrics and harsh industrial noise.  Though some fans may lament that VNV are no longer the industrial band they once were, it's amazing to see just how far they've come in terms of style and sound.  What began as an infusion of more trance into their earlier sound with the album Futureperfect, has slowly evolved into a wonderfully distinct sound that really sets VNV Nation apart from any of their contemporaries.  I also have to note how amazing Ronan has become in the production department.  Everything on this album sounds smooth and polished, with the synths sounding amazingly powerful.  Ronan is known to toy with his collection of vintage synthesizers, and it would seem that he's become quite proficient in their use.  At this point I wouldn't mind seeing Ronan provide some production on another band's album just to see how he'd fare.

I remarked in my review of Of Faith, Power and Glory that "with each new release Ronan Harris not only expands on the group's sound, but shows that he still has a good ear turned to the club scene. Not a single bleep, bloop, or synth seems misplaced... VNV Nation's strength comes from their ability to meld industrial anthems with catchy hooks and emotive lyrics."  At the time of that writing I thought Of Faith, Power and Glory was the pinnacle of VNV Nation's sound, and could act as a perfect final album for the band if they so chose.  Instead I was completely mistaken, as it seems that it was only with that album that they finished laying the foundation for their future, or, in their own words, "all great things to come".  Like my surreal morning drive across that bridge, VNV Nation are heading down that same stretch of highway and they understand where they're going better than ever.  4.5/5 Zrbo points.