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.