Sunday, December 30, 2012

You Don't Get To Celebrate, Muni

In the barrage of significant milestones that have taken place in 2012, you may not have noticed that 2012 was the 100 year anniversary of Muni. I wouldn't have noticed it myself, aside from the fact that Muni told me. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Muni, the transit system decided to let its passengers ride for free on Friday. That was wonderful, except I'd already paid for a monthly FastPass and Muni's little anniversary gift saved me ... no money whatsoever. But I wouldn't be writing my bitter little blog post just to rain on Muni's self-generated parade. No, my friends, I'm writing this bitter little blog post because, seconds after the driver of my rail line on Friday morning announced that it was Muni's 100th anniversary and that everyone would be riding for free, the train crawled to a halt, and she added, "There's a delay at Church and Duboce, we don't know what the problem is, I don't know how long we'll be here, if you need to get downtown I suggest taking the 43 or the 44 bus."

So let me get this straight: on the day that Muni is celebrating its 100th anniversary, Muni makes me late for work? You know what, Muni? You don't get to celebrate. I mean, OK, you don't have to apologize, or feel sorry for existing for 100 years, or anything like that. But you don't get to be proud. You don't get to boast. You still don't work very well. The day you run like an exemplary transit organization, maybe then you can do a little celebrating. But not yet.

On a similar, more uplifting note: while waiting in line on Friday at the salad buffet place where I often grab lunch, I noticed a sign on the wall that read, "Beat The Scale! Your Salad Is Free If It Weights 1lb." Now, I read that sign and I thought, "First of all, who the hell is going to bother to put just enough food on their plate so that it weighs exactly 1lb.? Is that what this country's come to?" Then I thought, "I couldn't even guess how much a lb. of food is. I have a rough sense of how much 10lbs. is, or maybe even 20lbs., but just a lb.? Forget it." Then I thought, "And even if someone does manage to make their plate weight exactly 1lb., why would the cashier even point that out? It would have to be some crazy old lady who obsessively casts her eagle eye on the scale, waiting for that moment when she can claim, 'Aha! I beat you, scale!'"

I should also mention that this salad bar place has a little card with eight circles on it that they hand out, and every time you eat there, they put a sticker on the card, and when you fill up the card, you get to eat one meal for free. So I walked in there Friday with a card all filled up.

I approached the register and the cashier said, "Since your salad weighs 1lb., you get to eat for free today."

Get out of here.

I said to the cashier, "But I wasn't even trying to do it." He said, "That's OK, it's free." Then I said, "But your not supposed to tell me!" There was no use arguing. I kept my filled-up card for another day, and ate my free meal.

So there you go, Muni. You were bailed out by the salad buffet place.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fun Boy Three: Better Than The Specials

There, I said it. I know, I just enraged the five people who cared. But hear me out. The Fun Boy Three were catchier, funnier, weirder, more eclectic, more skillfully produced, and just ... better? Also, Terry Hall's hair became more interesting. For whatever reason, the three former lead singers of the revered ska revival band ditched the reggae for some sort of an offbeat African/Middle Eastern/Doo-Wop hybrid. However, they probably didn't influence anybody (other than Blur?) and they were only together for a couple of years. Even so, I stand by my statement.

Make up your own mind. Here's their debut single, "The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)."
I see a clinic full of cynics
Who want to twist the peoples' wrist
They're watching every move we make
We're all included on the list

The lunatics have taken over the asylum
The lunatics have taken over the asylum

Go nuclear the cowboy told us
And who am I to disagree
'Cos when the madman flips the switch
The nuclear will go for me

Oh, that Ronnie, what a guy. Sadly, although the ascendancy of Reagan and Thatcher may have seemed quite ominous to Terry Hall in 1981, the world survived their rule and has gone on to exist for at least several more decades. Hey, maybe the lunatics should take over the asylum more often. But like "99 Luftballons," for a song about how doomed we supposedly are, it's pretty catchy!

I'm also partial to "The Telephone Always Rings":

The Fun Boy Three could even breathe new life into a ubiquitous standard like Gershwin's "Summertime":

Yes, the Fun Boy Three seemingly had everything. Everything, that is, except a bizarre female doppelganger group.

Enter Bananarama.

Monday, December 24, 2012

John Belushi Lectures The Go-Go's About Using Coke ... And Then Offers Them Coke

On Miles Copeland's orders, the Go-Go's traveled to New York to record their debut album. But making a hit record was hardly the only activity on the band's mind:
Before leaving L.A., some of us had started to get into cocaine, though none more than me. I finally had enough money coming in to afford such an occasional indulgence. The funny thing was, I only knew one person who dealt it - a guy in a photo lab on Santa Monica Boulevard. I had to have him FedEx it to me in New York.
Ah yes, here comes the coke. But if Belinda thought she already knew how to do the dust, she had another thing coming. Time to meet a true master:
One day I got a package with half a gram in it and later that night I went with Kathy to the Mudd Club, where we were having a good time when John Belushi sidled up alongside us. John was one of my favorite comedians, and he was an equally big fan of the Go-Go's. He had seen us play the previous December at the Whiskey and partied with us a bit backstage afterward. After Kathy and I traded hellos with him and explained why we were in New York, I asked him if he wanted a hit of my coke.

Because of his reaction, I almost felt like I had insulted him. First his eyes widened, then he pulled Kathy and me close so we could hear him better, and then he proceeded to give us a stern lecture on the evils of drug use, fame, and the sycophant-filled world of show business. I was shocked. I felt kind of embarrassed and stupid for having offered him coke.

A week later, the phone in my hotel room rang at one in the morning. It was John. He said he was in the lobby and asked if he could come up. I said, "Sure, we're up." A moment later, I let him in and then stood back, shocked, as he blew past me like a blast of wind and circled the room. He was wild-eyed and obviously wired. He took a huge vial of coke out of his pocket, dumped it on his hand, and looked at me and Kathy and the other girls with the face of a toxic teddy bear.

"Do you want some?" he asked.
Uh ... wait a minute. What about that whole ... lecture?

Turns out Belinda hadn't been stupid for offering John Belushi coke. She'd been stupid for taking anything John Belushi said seriously.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

"Hooked On Polkas" - Part I

Beginning with "Polkas On 45" from Weird Al Yankovic In 3-D, Weird Al discovered the comedic value of the "polka medley." I can see him in the studio now: "I've got it - imagine if all the great pop hits of the day were randomly slapped together ... and covered in the style ... of a polka band. I don't even need to write my own lyrics!"

"Polkas On 45," being Weird Al's first polka medley ever, featured a few contemporary hits like "Every Breath You Take" and "Burning Down The House," but mostly drew from classic rock, sampling snippets of songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix. He probably figured, "Hey, this is the first and last time I'll ever do a polka medley. I mean, surely the gag will wear out its welcome, right?"

For his second polka medley, "Hooked On Polkas" from Dare To Be Stupid, Weird Al stuck exclusively to contemporary hits. (I managed to find a clip of the medley on YouTube, but it "contains content from SME and Warner Chappell, one or more of whom have blocked it in your country on copyright grounds"; little do SME and Warner Chappell realize, but their precious Weird Al polka medley is still available on YouTube ... as part of the complete album, which has been posted elsewhere and remains unblocked. Damn, I'm good. You can listen to the whole album if you'd like, but the medley begins at the 33:07 mark.)

Now, imagine hearing "Hooked On Polkas" in 1995. At the time, I recognized several of the tracks he'd crammed in there, such as "Footloose," "What's Love Got To Do With It," and "Owner Of A Lonely Heart," and I chuckled upon hearing them performed in such a bowdlerized fashion. But it's not very funny if you hear a polka version of a song you don't actually recognize, is it?

Now, imagine, years later, finally hearing the songs that Weird Al had performed with bicycle horns and hand claps as if he were playing at Cousin Morty's bar mitzvah. Yes: Weird Al's polka medleys introduced me to many a popular '80s song. See, what happened was, so much time had passed between these hits' heyday and 1995, I found myself listening to Weird Al's polka parody versions without ever having been exposed to the originals. This, I suppose, was amusing in its own roundabout way, although not in the way which Weird Al intended.

I could sort of sense at the time that I was experiencing a joke that I was not "in" on. For example, why was Weird Al shouting such nonsensical lyrics as "She looks so great/Every time I see her face/She puts me in a state/Ooh, a state of shock"? What forgettable pop hit was this? And why was he proclaiming "We're not gonna take it"? Take what? What was it that he was not going to take? Or "Bang your head/Mental health will drive you mad"? Or "So why don't you use it/Try not to bruise it/Buy time, don't lose it"? Or "Relax, don't do it/When you wanna go to it/Relax, don't it/When you wanna come/Relax, don't do it/When you wanna sock it to it"?

After listening to a Weird Al polka medley, you might come to the conclusion that most '80s pop song lyrics are completely ridiculous and make no sense. Let's take these one by one.

Question: does the presence of Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger automatically turn a song into a hit single, even if it kind of ... stinks? I.e. if a Jackson/Jagger collaboration falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

I'm guessing that young American teenagers listened to "We're Not Gonna Take It" by Twisted Sister and thought that they were being rebellious. But don't you think that, if it's 1984, and you really wanted to be rebellious, you would have been listening to something like Black Flag? Or hell, even if we stick with metal, how about Ride The Lightning?

What goes for Twisted Sister goes double for Quiet Riot. Quiet Riot are mostly known for "Cum On Feel The Noize," which was actually a cover of a song by '70s glam rock group Slade. Is it sad when your biggest hit was actually a cover? If it's any consolation, Quiet Riot did have another, smaller hit with "Metal Health." Listening to Weird Al's rendition, I thought the lyrics were "mental health will drive you mad," not "metal health will drive you mad." Because why would Weird Al be singing about metal?

Duran Duran's "The Reflex" was a #1 hit in both the US and UK, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. It has the same problem all the other crappy Duran Duran songs have - a lot of noises are being made but none of them blend together in a pleasing fashion. I think Simon Le Bon manages to sing "Why-eye-eye-eye-eye" in a more irritating manner than even Weird Al does - and Weird Al was trying to be irritating.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Zrbo's Five Favorite Songs of the Year

It's nearing the end of the year, so it's time to start rolling out those year-in-review lists.  Here's my selection for my favorite songs of the year.  And yes, just like last year, you may notice that some of these songs aren't necessarily from 2012.

#5 - Psy'Aviah - "Timor"

My fifth favorite song of the year is a Shakira song. No, really! Belgian duo Psy'Aviah (not to be confused with that other Psy who dominated 2012) deliver a fresh take on a song from a completely unexpected artist and genre. While the song has a completely different structure and delivery than the original, the underlying political themes still come through. Psy'Aviah's album "Introspection-Extrospection" is also my favorite album of the year. Oh, and hey, look who uploaded that video!

#4 - Pepsi & Shirlie - "Heartache"

In last year's list I included a song that was most definitely not from 2011, and this year the trend continues. It may be 25 years old, but Pepsi & Shirlie's "Heartache" is like True Blue-era Madonna musical gold. While this version is fine, I've actually been listening to the extended remix more often.

#3 - Armin van Buuren featuring Sharon den Adel - "In and Out of Love"

I realize it's just a trite piece of euro-trance, but there's something about this song that has me hooked. Maybe it's that piano riff that gets stuck in my head, or maybe it's because I'm somewhat in love with Sharon den Adel (who was also on this countdown last year). Considering that it's one of the most watched videos on Youtube though, someone else out there must also be hooked. Like the previous entry, I've been listening to the extended/album mix more than the original.

#2 - The Gregory Brothers - "Oh my Dayum"

I was seriously tempted to put this song at number one I love it so much. I've probably listened to it an average of once a day since I first heard it. I've already discussed my love for it here on this blog. I'm not sure what else to say besides DAYUM!

#1 - Covenant featuring Necro Facility - "Lightbringer"

The album this song is from came out late last year but I didn't appreciate it until I saw Covenant live in San Francisco a few months ago. Covenant continue to turn out some great tunes, and Lightbringer is no exception. Turn up the volume for maximum danceable effect.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Further Madness

By 1982, Madness were probably assuming that, as long as their music remained disarmingly chipper, their lyrics could be as dark as humanly possible. "Cardiac Arrest" put that notion to the test:
The song was written by Chas Smash and Chris Foreman and tells a story of a workaholic who suffers a fatal heart attack on his way to work. The song received little if any airplay, other than on the Top 40 show, on BBC Radio 1 due to deaths in the families of two DJs; this was cited as one reason for the record's disappointing chart position. It was the first Madness single since "The Prince" not making it to the top 10.
Now, just read these lyrics and imagine what sort of music might fit in here:
Never get there at this rate
He's caught up in a jam
There's a meeting this morning
It's just his luck oh damn

His hand dives in his pocket
For his handkerchief
Pearls of sweat on his collar
His pulse-beat seems so brief

Eyes fall on his wristwatch
The seconds pass real slow
Gasping for the hot air
But the chest pain it won't go

Tried to ask for help
But can't seem to speak a word,
Words are whispered frantically
But don't seem to be heard
What about the wife and kids?
They all depend on me
Naturally, the music is extremely jaunty and exuberant:

While "Driving In My Car" returned them to the Top 10, the provincial English references were arguably starting to approach self-parody by this point:
I've been driving in my car, it's not quite a Jaguar
I bought it in Primrose Hill from a bloke from Brazil
It was made in fifty-nine in a factory by the Tyne
It says Morris on the door, the G.P.O. owned it before
I drive in it for my job, the governor calls me a slob
But I don't really care, give me some gas and the open air

I've been driving in my car, it don't look much but I've been far
I drive up to Muswell Hill, I've even been to Selsey Bill
I drove along the A45, I had her up to 58
This copper stopped me the other day, you're mistaken what could I say
The tyres were a little worn, they were O.K., I could have sworn
I like driving in my car, I'm satisfied I've got this far
Say wot? We've got "Primrose Hill," "Tyne," "bloke," "Muswell Hill" - this is Anglo overload! Indeed, this might be the most "Madness" Madness song ever, and not necessarily in a good way. We've got actual honest-to-goodness honking car horns, bells, whistles ... even a saxophone bridge that sounds like it was lifted from a Supertramp song. Keep your eye out, however, for the Fun Boy Three, who around the 2:00 mark attempt, and fail, to hitch a ride in Madness' extreme Britmobile.

Unlike "Driving In My Car," the sentiment in "House Of Fun" was universal: young people trying to get laid.
The lyrics tell the story of a boy on his 16th birthday attempting to buy condoms at a chemist. The UK age of consent is 16, and he makes a point of stating that he is "16 today and up for fun". However, the boy is misunderstood by the chemist, as he asks for the condoms using slang euphemisms, such as "box of balloons with a featherlight touch" and "party hats with the coloured tips". The confused chemist behind the counter eventually informs the boy that the establishment is not a joke shop, and directs him towards the "House of Fun".

N-n-n-n-n-n-no no miss
You misunderstood
Sixteen big boy
Full pint in my manhood
I'm up to date
And the date's today
So if you'll serve
I'll be on my way

Welcome to the House of Fun
Now I've come of age
Welcome to the House of Fun
Welcome to the lion's den
Temptation's on his way
Welcome to the House of

None of which was the least bit apparent to me until I read the Wikipedia article, of course. While the song, which became Madness' only UK #1, wasn't even released in the US, apparently the video ended up in heavy MTV rotation, thus laying the groundwork for Madness' only "hit." Indeed, that hit, which I need not name, helped to also turn an earlier Madness song, "It Must Be Love," into a smaller US hit as well (it peaked at #33). Yes, technically, Madness had two American hits. What does Selsey Bill have to say about that, eh?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Zrbo Reviews: Halo 4 (343 Industries, 2012)

Reviewing Halo 4 is no easy task. As the first in a new trilogy of an already storied franchise, reviewing Halo 4 is perhaps a good exercise for what critics will face when reviewing the new Star Wars movies when they inevitably arrive. Developer 343 Industries has the weight of a massive franchise to carry, with huge expectations to meet, and they mostly succeed.

It's nearly impossible to review Halo 4 without taking a look at it's reason for being. Franchise creator Bungie has moved on to develop its own new franchise (codenamed Destiny), leaving Microsoft, the owner of the Halo franchise, to find a new developer. Instead of hiring an established development studio Microsoft went ahead and created its own. Enter 343 Industries (named after 343 Guilty Spark, one of my favorite characters of the series). Microsoft was not stupid in doing this: Halo is its multi-million AAA premier franchise, and the folks there knew they had to get everything just right. They made plenty of good decisions. First, they brought on former Bungie member Frank O'Connor as the Franchise Development Director. Frank, or Frankie as he's generally known to the Halo community, has been deeply involved with the integrity of the franchise since Halo 2, the keeper of the never-seen "Halo Bible", ensuring story cohesion and integrity throughout the games. Next Microsoft poached some of the best talent in the game industry, bringing people in who worked on the highly acclaimed Metroid Prime games, former Bungie staffers, and as Halo 4 Executive Director the amazingly named Kiki Wolfkill to helm the project.

Seriously, that really is her name

On top of the burden of assembling a new team, there was the problem of finding a story to tell. At the end of Halo 3 the war had been won; Halo 3: ODST was a nice, moody side story; Halo: Reach was a prequel. Everything was wrapped up nice and tight. Again, going back to the Star Wars analogy, creating a new trilogy in the Halo universe must be what it's like over at Disney right now, trying to come up with a new story while honoring what came before. Luckily for 343 Industries, Bungie left them an out.

I've spoken before about how I thought the end of Halo 3 was a brilliant move. As in many blockbuster trilogies there's the question of what to do with the hero at the end. Do we have him (or her) make the big noble sacrifice, securing freedom and safety for the world through their death, or do we have them overcome the odds and win, coming home to a hero's welcome and living happily ever after? Bungie did neither. Series protagonist Master Chief saves the galaxy but instead of making it home to celebrate with everyone else, he's in a sort of limbo, adrift on a derelict spaceship thousands of light years from nowhere, sleeping in a cryosleep tube, with only his holographic Artificial Intelligence companion Cortana to watch over him. Those who were willing to go all the way and complete Halo 3 on its highest difficulty (or who were lazy and just went to Youtube) were treated to a tease of the derelict ship approaching some sort of planet. And that's exactly where 343i picks up the story.

We're not in Kansas

Halo 4 does two things incredibly well: the core gameplay is nigh perfect, arguably the best it's ever been in the series, and second, for the first time a Halo story has a strong emotional core.

Instead of opening on the adventures of Master Chief, the game begins with an exceptionally executed cinematic. We're treated to a scene of Dr. Halsey, the ethical boundaries pushing scientist who created  the supersoldier 'Spartan' program, of whom Master Chief was one of the first. Halsey is being interrogated by someone unknown. The scene has arguably more depth than anything in the Halo franchise before it. It not only gives us an understanding of who the Spartans are and why they were created, but provides the thematic thread of the story by questioning these soldiers' humanity. Are these Spartans saviors or brainwashed killing machines? Lastly, I want to point out the technical achievement of this scene. It may not come through on a Youtube quality video, but the CGI in this scene is incredible. I would swear that Halsey is an actual actress, not a digital creation. Simply phenomenal work.

The game proper picks up with Master Chief being awoken in his cryosleep tube by Cortana (who has never looked so well defined or... sexy). The derelict ship is being boarded as it drifts towards this unknown planet. Cortana, who has served as the series way of guiding you and providing details and insight, is going a little crazy. In the established Halo fiction Artificial Intelligences begin to deteriorate after a certain amount of time, entering a state known as 'rampancy' where they essentially think themselves to death. This provides the impetus for the rest of the story.

This is where things get interesting, as that motivation is kind of odd. While the first two entries in the series portrayed Cortana as your computer sidekick, Halo 3 began hinting that there was something more between this blue hologram and the cybernetically enhanced Master Chief. Halo 4 pushes this even further, moving the relationship towards that of a love story, though never quite going so far as to verbalize that, leaving players to ponder just what the relationship is that these two have. It's actually quite well done, and there's something about that never-actually verbalized love makes the relationship, and Cortana's deteriorating situation, that much more powerful. And it ties in wonderfully with that opening scene. While Master Chief becomes almost robotic in his killing, Cortana's increasingly volatile state seems to make her more human - after all, in order to be crazy you have to exhibit some sort of emotion.

They're in love... I think?

Eventually Master Chief and Cortana are sucked inside of the mystery planet, known as Requiem, which turns out not to be a planet at all, but a completely artificial hollow world built by the ancient long-vanished civilization dubbed 'the Forerunners'. The Chief fights his way through new and interesting foes, uncovering ancient secrets and mysteries. The game is quite fun, though at times the encounter design isn't quite up to par with previous games. Also, the story and your motivations become a little muddled, though I've found this to be an issue with all Halo games.

And a little muddled is probably what someone would feel like if they hadn't played a Halo game before. If you aren't familiar with the fiction, you would rightly feel confused as various elements are brought to light. In fact, the entire plot of the game is pulled from these hidden computer terminals you could find in Halo 3. These terminals provided a backstory that was arguably better written and more compelling than the surface story. They detailed the fall of the Forerunner civilization by simplifying that downfall in the form of two lovers, the Librarian and the Didact, penning letters to each other as a soldier might send letters to his wife from the front lines. There's a fairly exceptional scene in Halo 4 where this story is brought to the forefront, but, if you hadn't played a Halo game or read the terminals from Halo 3 you would have no idea what's going on. Even if you had found the terminals you might not understand what's going on as they progressively revealed more story as you played on higher difficulty levels, so you could only get the full story if you played through Halo 3 on the highest difficulty AND found all the secret terminal locations.

This leads me to a few of the game's faults. The story presented involves knowing the Halo universe in detail and often involves the player having to go outside the game to get more of those details. An example: once again there are hidden terminals in Halo 4 that provide access to short cinematics that fill in some of the backstory. But in order to view these you need to go to the 'Halo Waypoint' app or website, log in, and view them. Why these cinematics aren't on the game disc itself is beyond me.

Most of my other gripes are mainly concerned with technical issues. 343 Industries has revamped Halo 4's multiplayer (where most players spend most of their time anyways) to be more competitive with the juggernaut that is the Call of Duty series. While many of the changes are controversial (essentially adding in the perk-unlocking system that the Call of Duty series is known for) I have actually come to enjoy them. But in the process they trimmed some of the options that have become staples that the Halo franchise was known for. For example, 1-flag capture the flag has been removed (where one team is defending the flag and the other is trying to get it), precision editing in the Forge level editor has been stripped out, and the campaign theater mode is missing (which allowed you to rewatch your story-mode games, edit movies, and take screenshots). These features have become such a reliable part of the franchise that they've become known as 'legacy features'. There's been some talk that some of these features may be patched in later, but for now they seem like oddly missing gaps.

Another misstep is in the music. As I mentioned recently, Marty O'Donnell and his music are out, Neil Davidge of Massive Attack fame is in. The music works decently, and it does have a few memorable moments, but all in all it's just somewhat lacking. As one reviewer noted, the music seems much too reactive. I'll just go ahead and quote him as I think he says it best:
The music gets sad, exciting, or ominous in all the right places. But it is reactionary. It builds upon feelings I am already feeling. In previous Halo games, O’Donnell’s music would actually change the way I played. As The Silent Cartographer [level] begins, O’Donnell’s thunderous drums and pounding cello lines prepared me for a battle that wasn’t even on the screen yet. By the time my [ship] touched down on the beach, my adrenaline was already pumping. I hit the ground and slammed head on into the awaiting Covenant forces with everything I had. I played aggressively, because the music made me aggressive. This is the power Marty O’Donnell’s music commands, and it is noticeably missing from Halo 4.
The second thing of note with the music is how hard it is to hear. Someone in the audio department had a field day adjusting volume sliders. Mainly, the guns in the game sound loud, really loud. It makes them feel visceral and powerful. But no one bothered to turn up the music, leaving the score often times obscured by the sounds of really loud guns going off in your face. There's one brief moment when the classic Halo monks can be heard, while it's not until the credits that we at least get a reworking of the classic 'Never Forget', though it's oddly and unfortunately not included on the official soundtrack.

This is what we came for Neil

Overall, Halo 4 is a fairly amazing accomplishment. The team at 343 Industries had the unenviable task of being a new studio working on an established franchise with a devoted fanbase. They not only managed to create a game that feels like a Halo game, but they arguably created a much more emotionally engaging story than any previous Halo titles. On top of that, they created an exceptionally good looking game, pushing the boundaries of current generation console hardware. Seriously, those opening and closing cinematics would make Pixar jealous. There are some odd missteps however, mainly in the technical and audio department, though there's some hope that these can be rectified through patches.

Ultimately Halo 4 provides a terrific foundation for the new trilogy. The world has more surprising stories to offer, and I'm excited to see where they go with the work they put into character development, and most importantly, I can't wait to see where they take the Master Chief both physically and emotionally. Disney - the bar has been set, your move.

4.5/5 Zrbo points

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Meet Miles Copeland: The Founder Of I.R.S. Records

*courtesy of the Dash Cafe

Ever wonder what it would be like to be the son of an American CIA officer and a Scottish intelligence agent who grows up to found a record label? Miles Copeland doesn't. From Wikipedia:
Miles was born in London, England, to Miles Axe Copeland, Jr., a CIA officer from Birmingham, Alabama, United States, and Scottish Lorraine Adie, who was in British intelligence. Due to Miles Jr.'s profession, the family moved throughout the Middle East, in particular Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. As a result, Miles and his brothers became fluent in Arabic.
One of those Arabic speaking brothers happened to be Stewart Copeland, drummer for the Police. While trying to get the Police signed to a major label, Miles founded a new record company with the intention of giving New Wave acts a leg up in the industry.

For years, I simply knew I.R.S. as "R.E.M's record label." Rock writers would always talk about I.R.S. as some sort of significant label, but the only band I ever consciously realized was actually signed to I.R.S. was R.E.M. I mean hey, that's a pretty good act to have. All five of the albums the band released on I.R.S. in the mid-'80s were more or less great. And you couldn't miss that logo on the LP and CD covers. If all I.R.S. ever did was sign R.E.M., then they would have had a legacy worth remembering. But while I will now admit that R.E.M. was probably the most significant act ever signed by I.R.S., they would have to be my second-favorite act. What I didn't know was that, long before Europe began handing out free radios, the label's biggest band was the Go-Go's.

The Go-Go's made I.R.S.

Also, I.R.S. made the Go-Go's. Let's just say it was a mutually beneficial arrangement.

You see, by 1981, the Go-Go's had become an extremely popular concert attraction, but could not, for the life of them, get a record deal. Do you know why?

Because they had vaginas.

None of the major record labels wanted to sign the Go-Go's, because they were all girls. That's it. Liked the music, thought they were talented, but said they were missing penises. Actually told them to find a boy and insert him into the band - even just one. According to Charlotte, “They basically said, ‘No, we can’t sign you because you’re an all-girl band.’ Literally said that." In a 1994 interview, Jane observed, "In 1980, a record company wouldn't think twice about saying 'Oh, we don't want to sign you because you're girls.' I mean, no one would dare say that in 1994. They might think that, but they'd never say it out loud."

Well, back in 1980, they would say it out loud. But oh, my friends, the Go-Go's would have the last laugh. And so would Miles Copeland III.

Miles Copeland is the one person in the Go-Go's story who comes closest to being a father figure. He was, shall we say, the man of the house. While working on Urgh! A Music War, which prominently featured the Police, as well as several other acts who were either signed or soon to be signed to I.R.S., such as the Cramps, Oingo Boingo, and Wall of Voodoo, he started sniffing the Go-Go's out. From Lips Unsealed:
In April, following months of back-and-forth between Miles and Ginger, he finally signed us to I.R.S. Records. We were very excited to finally get a deal and have the chance to make an album, but in private we shared disappointment that we weren't getting a million-dollar advance from a big label, which had been our dream and probably would have happened if our band hadn't been all female ... at that point, we said a collective Screw it, screw everyone, we'll show the entire industry.
Indeed, show the industry they did. Those clueless record label executives who turned down the Go-Go's have now gone down in history as spiritual heirs to legendary Decca Records A&R man Dick Rowe, who passed on the Beatles in 1962, famously uttering the words, "Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein."
We officially signed on April 1, 1981, and celebrated over dinner and drinks - lots of drinks - at Kelbo's, a kitschy Polynesian restaurant in West Los Angeles ... After dinner, we went with Miles to the premiere of the movie he was creative consultant for, Urgh!: A Music War, and I was impossible. I had done a bunch of coke at the restaurant and taken a quaalude before we left. Buster was out of town and I brought a cute skateboarder for company. We sat right in front of Miles and made out through the entire movie.

At one point during the film, I got up to go to the bathroom and glanced over at my new boss. I felt his steel-blue eyes cut through me like a carving knife. Too wasted to care, I smiled and waved.

He probably wondered what he had invested in. No, on second thought, he knew exactly what he was doing. He was going to make a Go-Go's album and I think he had the same feeling the rest of us did - that it was going to be great.
Miles Copeland would ultimately be right about two things: the Go-Go's album was going to be great, and Belinda Carlisle was going to be impossible - for thirty years.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Having Internet Problems

I'm posting this from work. No, I am not going to start posting about '80s music from work. We're having internet problems at my apartment. Might not be fixed until Monday, possibly even later. So don't think I'm slacking off this weekend, because I'm not. I know the world can't wait for my next post about '80s music, but my hands are tied.

Maybe an internet cafe can save me. My readers will not be denied!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

James Brown's "Living In America"/Weird Al's "Living With A Hernia"

When I think of the '80s, I don't usually think of The Godfather of Soul.

Released in 1986, "Living In America" became Brown's first Top 40 hit in a decade, and as of this writing, his last (sure, he's dead, but come on, that never stopped 2Pac). However, I'm wondering just how glad Brown was to have been living in America just a couple of years later, when he was arrested for drugs and weapons charges, then led police on a high-speed car chase, and was ultimately sentenced to six years in prison (of which he served three). I suppose one could say that James Brown "served for his country."

But before all that image-burnishing, there was Rocky IV. I'm not sure if "Living In America" was written specifically for Rocky IV, but it might as well have been.

I remember my roommates in college catching Rocky IV on TV and laughing copiously; I wandered in and out of the room, and did not feel like I was missing a cinematic treasure. I just read the plot summary on Wikipedia. Let me get this straight: over-the-hill Apollo Creed challenges a young and studly Soviet boxer who's pumped up on steroids to a fight, Apollo dies in the ring, Rocky avenges Apollo's death by training in the Russian mountains with an axe and a sled, he beats the chemically enhanced Soviet boxer using nothing but his hard work and determination, and then he gives a big speech about the Cold War? Hmmmm. I seem to recall the first Rocky being at least somewhat plausible. I mean, why not have Luke Skywalker swoop down and blow up the Death Star while we're at it? And have hobbits and oompa-loompas help Rocky train?

Ah, but thanks to Weird Al, whenever I hear "Living In America," I never think of Rocky Balboa saving the free world from communism. Oh no. I always think of a man with a very painful medical condition.

"Living With A Hernia" became the lead-off track to Polka Party, which, according to Wikipedia, "holds the dubious honor of being the lowest charting studio album released by Yankovic." I'm not sure how Weird Al managed to receive parody permission from a man with such a bad attitude, but props to the Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness for being willing to go along with jokes about intestines. It also probably helped that at the time, James Brown and Weird Al shared record labels.

The song quickly becomes a contest to see how many words Weird Al can come up with that end in "-ation." We've got: "aggravation," "ruination," "location," "humiliation," "irritation," "medication." I'll bet if the situation called for it, he could've come up with more. There's also a highly educational section where he names several different types of hernias, in lieu of Brown's naming several different American cities. I mean hell, I already know the names of American cities.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Specials Release Crowning Achievement, Promptly Disappear Like Ghosts

I wouldn't have pegged early '80s Britain as a bouquet of roses, exactly, but I was surprised to learn about the true depth of urban turmoil and violence during that era. From Wikipedia:
In 1981, the United Kingdom suffered serious riots across many major cities in England. They were perceived as race riots between communities, in all cases the main motives for the riots were related to racial tension and inner-city deprivation. The riots were caused by a distrust of the police and authority. The four main riots that occurred were the Brixton riot in London, the Handsworth riots in Birmingham, the Chapeltown riot in Leeds, and the Toxteth riots in Liverpool.
Really? I associate riots with late '60s Detroit or Watts, or modern day Egypt and Libya, not '80s Britain. Things must have been pretty shitty. At any rate, trouble had probably been brewing for quite some time. In 1980, Specials keyboardist Jerry Dammers wrote a song called "Ghost Town," which he says was inspired by the industrial decline of the band's hometown, Coventry (think every other Bruce Springsteen song), not any particular riot per se. But just as the song started climbing the charts, riots broke out in Brixton. Suddenly "Ghost Town" was "prophetic" and "captured an era." I suppose it did, but none of that would have mattered if the song stank.

It didn't.

I remember reading years ago about how great "Ghost Town" was - how it was so "relevant" and "incisive." But after I found the Specials' debut album so disappointing, I figured, "Yeah, it's probably not that good."

I was wrong.

The sound of wind. A hypnotic, funky reggae beat. A minor key, vaguely Middle-Eastern keyboard melody.
This town, is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place, is coming like a ghost town
Bands won't play no more
Too much fighting on the dance floor
This song is ... spooky! They even start making this high-pitched, Native American war cry sound. It's like a barren, Spaghetti Western landscape - but with ska.

In the '80s, meaningful social commentary and commercial success did not, shall we say, go hand in hand. But every once in a while, I guess one snuck through the cracks.

So, the start of a terrific new era for the Specials? No, just the opposite. As with the English Beat and "Save It For Later," right when the Specials were arguably discovering their true artistic powers, they broke up. Well, officially, Jerry Dammers kept releasing music under the name "the Specials," but the band's three lead singers (Lynvald, Neville, and Terry) left to form a group that, although not as highly regarded as the Specials, is a group I actually like more.

Prepare yourself ... for the Fun Boy Three.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Margot Olaverra and Kathy Valentine: The Pete Best And Ringo Starr Of The Go-Go's

If the Go-Go's were the female L.A. Beatles of the '80s (and they obviously were), then Margot Olaverra was their Pete Best. Like Best before her, Olaverra suffered through the difficult, unglamorous years with her band, only to be kicked out at the last minute and be denied even the tiniest sliver of fame and fortune.

Pete Best's main problems were threefold: 1) he couldn't play the drums very well, 2) he was boring and he had no sense of humor, and 3) he was better looking than the other Beatles. Clearly, the addition of Ringo swiftly solved all three issues in one fell swoop. Margot's fatal flaw? She didn't want to actually be in a successful band:
She was still a committed punk and felt that we were selling out with pop-sounding music. She was against anything that sounded too polished and commercial. But that was the direction in which we were headed ...  She didn't take care of herself and missed rehearsals, and when she was there she was contrary and argumentative.

One day, as we struggled with the bridge to a new song, she stopped playing, which brought the song to a halt, and looked at us with a frustration that I found impossible to read. Then it became apparent that she didn't like what we were doing.

"Why can't we play songs like X?" she said.

I felt like she left rehearsals and bitched about us to her friends, like Exene Cervenka of X, who seemed to turn against us, especially me. I already felt like Exene thought I was a stupid, silly girl anyway.

In December, Margot was diagnosed with hepatitis A. It was another sign that she wasn't taking care of herself. We had to go to a clinic and get hepatitis shots, which put me in a foul mood. But we turned the situation into an opportunity to make a lineup change before the very important Whiskey gigs.
Kathy had been playing professionally since her teens in Austin, Texas. At sixteen, she had moved to London, and then three years later she'd come to L.A. and co-founded the Textones. She knew one of our roadies and immediately fit right in ... Onstage, she played as if she had been doing it for years. I looked at her at one point and thought, "We have to keep her."
Let's see...Kathy could play better, she wrote her own songs, she didn't care about militant punk ethos ... can you say "no brainer"?

But alas, Margot couldn't read the writing on the wall. Like the Beatles before them, the Go-Go's passed the painful duty on to their manager:
In January, Ginger was charged with the messy job of firing Margot. She was told that since she was the manager she had to do it. It was a chickenhearted move on our part, but none of us could handle the dirty work.

Margot responded as expected. She protested, cried, begged, and denied any of the problems we raised really existed. Ginger kept responding, "It was the band's decision."
Yeah, but it was the manager's misfortune to have to sit there and tell her it was the band's decision! At any rate, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, and with the addition of their spunky new bass player, the Go-Go Alliance was finally complete: "With Kathy on board, we were a unified group. We eliminated the tension and added a talented new songwriter all in the same move."

Even though they'd just kicked out their most hardcore punk member, the Go-Go's didn't entirely abandon their gritty side. Belinda moved into an apartment that had become infamously known in the L.A. punk scene as Disgraceland:
Clothes were piled high as people, food had been left on every possible surface, the walls were filled with random scribbles and band posters, and it was as dirty as you would expect from a party pad that had the same hours as a 7-Eleven. It never closed.

I built a small altar in my room at Disgraceland. Even though Pleasant and I had serious boyfriends, we would cast spells on boys we liked. We would put a small amount of our period blood in a vial and surreptitiously drop it into the drink of whichever unsuspecting boys we were crushing on that night. It was something we had read in a book, and every time we did it, I laughed hysterically, thinking, If only they knew.

Bad Belinda! Bad!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Urgh! A Music War

Once upon a time, there was no such thing as YouTube. I know, it was a dark and scary place. Sinners were stoned to death in the town square. Children ate each other to stay alive. If you were a fan of music that wasn't necessarily mainstream, and you wanted to see a few of those bands perform, what could you do? Go to a ... concert? Like that was going to happen.

Lucky for you, there was Urgh! A Music War.

Urgh! A Music War is a concert film, containing about twenty different concerts. Each band gets one song. It's like a sloppy, messy snapshot of the Punk/New Wave scene. Household names perform right next to acts that probably never even got a record deal. The requirements for inclusion most likely ran about as deep as "Is your band interesting?"

If you've got two hours to spare, you can watch the whole film. It's currently on YouTube, in its entirety. Yes, the dark days are over. But just in case you have a life, let me whittle down some of the highlights:

Here's Gary Numan performing "Down In The Park" from what appears to be the inside of a gigantic Rubik's cube.

Joan Jett gives a spirited rendition of "Bad Reputation," presumably after having just crawled out of the jungle.

The Police demonstrate their impeccably white musicianship with three numbers (is that an English Beat tank top I see Sting wearing?).

A still-unsigned Go-Go's even make an appearance. From Lips Unsealed:
As I recall, we were shot performing "We Got The Beat" in the back of a truck as it cruised down Sunset. I wore a red Chinese dress and weighed about 175 pounds - excess baggage from London and New York. At the time, Ginger was offering all of us ten dollars for every pound we lost.
As we shall soon see, that was clearly money well spent.

They're followed in the film by the Dead Kennedys, whose Jello Biafra appropriately begins ranting about "skinny tie wimpola pop bands." Seriously, though, screw Jello Biafra.

I'm assuming that not every band in Urgh! A Music War liked every band in Urgh! A Music War. Uncompromising post-punk acts such as Gang of Four, Pere Ubu, the Au Pairs, and Magazine shared theatrical space with the Police, UB40, and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. But veiled disdain for your artistic peers is what this era was all about.

Finally, there's Invisible Sex, who run around the stage in pink bunny suits. According to Wikipedia, this "appears to be their single public outing." If the only contribution of Urgh! A Music War to rock history was that it preserved a performance by Invisible Sex, then the film was entirely worth it on those merits alone.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Elegance of Halo's Title Screens

November 6, 2012 saw the release of Halo 4, the newest installment in Microsoft's premier franchise. I'll save my review for another post. For now I wanted to share something that's otherwise completely innocuous: the Halo title screen. Ever since I picked up the original Halo I've been in love with the music. Series composer Marty O'Donnell (and Flintstone's jingle creator) created an amazing soundtrack for the series, one that eschewed from games of the time by incorporating elements of classical music, world music, and, most memorably, Gregorian chant. Each of these elements are distilled into the Halo title screen, that initial screen that greets you every time you boot up the game. Let's take a look at them.

Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)

The ur-Halo title screen begins with Halo's iconic Gregorian monks while the camera swoops around the ring-world structure. Ahh, it's like I'm in an Enigma video. The music shifts to a bit of classical style music, and then moves into the marvelously named Rock Anthem for Saving the World, another of Halo's iconic themes. Notice the touch of world music with the tribal sounding female vocals in the background. Future Halo titles generally dropped the world influences and pushed more into the classical direction.

Halo 2 (2004)

The sequel's title screen includes the iconic Halo monk chant adding in some female voices and instrumentation. Then the music shifts briefly to one of my favorite pieces of music, Unforgotten, before heading back into some more monkish chant, with some female monks thrown in for good measure (monkettes?). Instead of showing the titular Halo ring, now the screen pans around the (fictional) African city of New Mombassa under attack, highlighted in a purple silhouette. I like to think there's a certain solemnity to Halo's title screens, the combination of music and images providing a sort of soothing calmness, something you wouldn't expect out a game that requires you to mercilessly kill aliens.

Halo 3 (2007)
The third Halo entry was Bungie Studios's biggest to date, needing to show off the chops of the new Xbox 360 hardware. They didn't disappoint. For me, this is my favorite screen of the bunch. As the camera whips around the alien Covenant ships uncovering a gigantic alien artifact in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, we're treated to a full suite of wonderful music. Again, it begins with the monk chant, moves into the appropriately named Choose Wisely, moves quickly through the energizing Movement, finishing up the definitive version of Unforgotten, this time relabeled Never Forget (@3:16), which at about 4:10 brings in the piano keys which to me sound, however briefly, that it's going to transition into My Heart Will Go On. This is a classy, elegant title screen if there ever was one.

Halo 3: ODST (2009)
The next entry in the franchise, Halo 3: ODST, was a bit of a departure. Instead of continuing where the series left off, we're presented with a side story. This one follows a group of ODSTs (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) partaking in a mission that was concurrent with the events of Halo 3. The game was inspired by film noir, with the main character finding himself alone at night in the alien-occupied city of New Mombassa. Your character was much more vulnerable than the normal series protagonist and the game's atmosphere accentuated this. Here Marty O'Donnell utilized saxophone to great effect. The title screen shows main character "The Rookie" in a moment of calm before being dropped into the nighttime city (this is the best video I could find, ignore the visuals and concentrate on the music). The saxophone creates just that bit of tension and mystery that was crucial to the nighttime atmosphere of the story.

Halo: Reach (2010)
2010's Halo: Reach was a prequel to the original Halo, showcasing the fall of the planet Reach to the Covenant invaders. Going into the game, it was already established that this was going to be a losing battle, and the music reflects that. The horns have been more emphasized, giving it a more somber tone. After a brief introduction that includes a bit of a tribal beat, we're presented with a simple matte painting of one of Reach's vistas. The horns are mournful, almost Taps-like, but the music still sounds like Halo.

Halo 4 (2012)

And so here we are now in 2012 with Halo 4. What makes this iteration particularly notable is that Microsoft brought on a new team of developers to helm the franchise, 343 Industries, with former developer Bungie having moved on to other pastures. A new studio means an entirely new team. Gone is Marty O'Donnell as lead audio director. To compose the music for this game 343i brought in Neil Davidge of Massive Attack fame. Gone are many of the more classical elements of the music (with most of O'Donnell's work almost completely removed to many fans chagrin), replaced with more chilly electronica, which is appropriate not only because of Davidge's familiarity with the genre, but fits in well with the new alien setting. That being said, the title screen defies this new sound and takes its cues from the more classical, mournful music of O'Donnell. It even brings back that element of world music with the prominent female vocals and the piano keys and horn that pick up halfway through. A beautiful title screen, I've found myself just watching this for a few minutes before actually playing the game.

Well, thanks for indulging me as I reminisce here. I'll be writing up my review sometime soon (hint: it's good). In the meantime, back to shooting aliens, pew pew pew!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The English Beat: Saved Their Best Song For Later

Occasionally a British band will try to release their debut album in the United States, only to find out that some obscure American band is already using the same name. This is how Squeeze became U.K. Squeeze, how Suede became the London Suede, and how the Beat became the English Beat.

There wasn't much that was particularly English about the English Beat, however. Their first album, I Just Can't Stop It!, like the Specials' debut, is considered one of the defining Ska Revival albums. Also like the Specials' debut, I listened to it years ago and it passed through me like water. Again, it sounded well-intentioned but boring - just another bunch of English kids who didn't bring enough of a twist to their fandom. Witness the first single from the album, a cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Tears of a Clown" (like Madness, the English Beat released their debut single on 2 Tone Records, but signed elsewhere afterwards). I can hear an interesting ska cover of "Tears of a Clown" somewhere in my head, but I don't think this is it. The novelty-ish aspect of the cover is reinforced by the guy in the background at the end of the song singing "Tears of a clon." Tears of a clon? Really, mon?

However, the band did have a great logo.

Also, their lead singer, Dave Wakeling, arguably had more marbles in his mouth than Paul Weller or Joe Strummer. But get him pontificating on the meaning of English Beat songs, and he's pretty entertaining. Here's an excerpt from his interview for the AV Club's "Set List" series, where he explains the inspiration for another popular hit from the debut album, "Mirror In The Bathroom":
The lyrics were written when I was working on a construction site. I’d had a couple of drinks the night before, and forgot to hang up my clothes to dry for the next day. It gets very wet on those construction sites, and it was the winter, so it was a snowy wet. I got into the bathroom and realized my clothes were all on the floor in a wet, sandy pile. So I hung them up and thought, “Well, if I steam them, at least I’ll be puttin’ ’em on warm.” I had a shower, and then I was shaving in the mirror, with the hangover and the wet clothes, and the thought of trying to break up frozen sand to put into the concrete machine was not that tasty. And I started talking to myself in the mirror, and said, “Dave, we don’t have to do this, mate. We don’t have to do this.” And in the mirror behind me, the door of the bathroom had a tiny little latch on it, and I said to myself, “The door’s locked. There’s only me and you. Just me and you here. We don’t have to do this.” And of course we did, because we needed money for Guinness that night. [Laughs.]

So on the motorbike we got, and skidded our way back to the construction site. And while I was on the bike, I was pondering it. “The door is locked, just you and me.” Had a nice feel to it. “Mirror In The bathroom.” That’s a great idea, but you can’t have a pop song called “Mirror In The Bathroom,” can you? That’s stupid. You’re meant to have pop songs called, “I Love You, Lady,” or something.

Still, I probably wouldn't have given the English Beat a second look until I heard "Save It For Later," a single from their third album, when it was included on the Pitchfork 500. By this time the band had more of a '60s R&B than a ska sound - well, it's more like a "if '60s R&B, ska, and the Byrds had a three-way, while 'Strawberry Fields Forever' watched" sound, but whatever, they're British. As with their earlier material, I didn't think much of it at first, but for some reason it grew on me.
Two dozen other dirty lovers
Must be a sucker for it
Cry, cry, but I don't need my mother
Just hold my hand while I come
To a decision on it

Sooner or later
Your legs give way, you hit the ground
Save it for later
Don't run away and let me down
Sooner or later
You hit the deck, you get found out
Save it for later
Don't run away and let me down
You let me down
Although only a minor hit in both the UK and US at the time, this song has become, unbeknownst to me, something of an '80s classic. Theories abound as to the song's meaning: Ned Raggett writes that it "remains one of the few pop songs about holding off on sex instead of taking the plunge," while others claim it's about oral sex. In the AV Club interview, however, Wakeling says something entirely different:
It started off as a dirty schoolboy joke. The phrase “save it for later” is meant to be “save it,” comma, “fellator.” As in, “Leave it as it is, cocksucker.” [Laughs.] But we didn’t have the term “cocksucker” in England at the time. We didn’t really learn that one ’til we came to America. So it wasn’t really a putdown, because we didn’t really use that term to put down people at the time, and I don’t think they do very much in England now, either. Anyways, that was the nature of the joke.

It was a song really about not knowing what to do, because you knew people looked at you as though you were a man, but you knew you didn’t know how to operate in a man’s world. You still were responding to things the same way as you always had as a boy. And it’s a scary thing, really, being scared of all the implications of your life and not knowing what else to do other than to try and bravely march forward into the dark regardless. It’s been hard to describe. People ask, “What’s that song about?” Well, it’s about nothing. It’s about not knowing anything. [Laughs.] Or feeling like you know nothing, and grasping in the dark for your place in the world, and trying to do it with a wry humor. It’s like your legs give way, and every time you try to stand up and pretend to be a man, the boy in you would flip over in front of everybody and you’re embarrassed again, y’know? Particularly I suppose as you try and learn how to deal with girls turning into women. They could say one thing and you’d go bright red, look at the floor and start shuffling around like you just got told off by your teacher at school.
Somehow, without picking up on any of that, I knew that the song was about something enigmatic and mysterious. A song doesn't always need to be "about" something to be about something, you know what I mean?

Besides, sometimes a single can just capture a "moment." And "Save It For Later" catches that great moment in '80s British pop where bands who started out in such a stylistically narrow scene finally began branching out and performing whatever kind of music they liked. I mean, why cover a Motown song in a ska style, when you can write your own Motown-style song and record it in a Motown style?

Above all, "Save It For Later" (and its accompanying video) just radiates this whole aura of cool. It's like a room full of intelligent people with great taste in everything. As those elegant strings swirl over the fade-out, I imagine dancing the night away on the banks of the Seine, cocktail in hand, marveling at the majesty of life. Work with me, here.

But alas, just as they might have been hitting a new peak, the English Beat broke up. Wakeling and fellow vocalist Ranking Roger went on to form General Public, while guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele found another singer, came up with a ridiculous new band name, and had a couple of hits in 1989 that you might have heard somewhere.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Men Without Hats' "The Safety Dance"/Weird Al's "The Brady Bunch"

While listening to Weird Al's second album In 3-D, I heard a track called "The Brady Bunch" that stood out to me from the other cuts and had a melody I didn't recognize. The lyrics went like this:
You can watch Mister Rogers
You can watch Three's Company
And you can turn on Fame
Or the Newlywed Game
Or the Addams Family

Say, you can watch Barney Miller
And you can watch your MTV
And you can watch 'till your eyes fall out of your head
That'll be OK with me
And you can watch...TV
I remember thinking, "Damn, for a Weird Al original, this is really catchy!" Of course, it wasn't an original. It was a parody of Men Without Hats' "The Safety Dance."

This may be the rare instance of a Weird Al parody that is actually not as weird as the original song. Men Without Hat's lead singer and songwriter, Ivan Doroschuk, sounds like he's a robot that is running low on batteries. Particularly unnerving is the way his voice drops when he sings the word "Say," as if his computer programming has momentarily frozen. Even stranger than his delivery are the enigmatic lyrics:
We can dance if we want to
We can leave your friends behind
'Cause your friends don't dance and if they don't dance
Well they're no friends of mine
Say, we can go where we want to
A place where they will never find
And we can act like we come from out of this world
Leave the real one far behind
And we can dance
And sing!

We can go when we want to
The night is young and so am I
And we can dress real neat from our hats to our feet
And surprise 'em with the victory cry
Say, we can act if want to
If we don't nobody will
And you can act real rude and totally removed
And I can act like an imbecile
So obviously the song is about ... safety? Dancing? Dancing safely? Numerous theories floated around, from "a celebration of safe sex" to "a warning about nuclear proliferation." But the true inspiration was a little less dramatic:
The writer/performer, Ivan Doroschuk, has explained that "The Safety Dance" is a protest against bouncers stopping dancers pogoing to 1980s New Wave music in clubs when disco was dying and New Wave was up and coming. New Wave dancing, especially pogoing, was different from disco dancing, because it was done individually instead of with partners and involved holding the torso rigid and thrashing about. To uninformed bystanders this could look dangerous, especially if pogoers accidentally bounced into one another (the more deliberately violent evolution of pogoing is slam dancing). The bouncers did not like pogoing so they would tell pogoers to stop or be kicked out of the club. Thus, the song is a protest and a call for freedom of expression. Other lyrics in the song include references to the way pogoing looked to bouncers, especially "And you can act real rude and totally removed/And I can act like an imbecile".
Little did Doroschuk realize just how much of an imbecile the world wanted him to act like. The song peaked at #3 in the U.S. and #6 in the U.K. Men Without Hats were on their way!

Which brings me back to "The Brady Bunch." In the second half of his parody, Weird Al doesn't even come up with his own lyrics. He simply starts singing the Brady Bunch theme, word for word, to the melody of "The Safety Dance." In this fashion, Weird Al demonstrates that he can parody a song that is already funny, and although it might not end up being as funny as the original, it can still be its own sort of funny. Have you ever started making stuff up late at night with your friends? "The Brady Bunch" is sort of like that. Maybe it was a good idea, maybe it wasn't, but damn, you were having too much of a good time to care.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Sadness Of Madness?

"Baggy Trousers," the first single from Madness' second album, Absolutely, probably seemed like more of the same nuttiness as before, with its aggressive vibraphone playing and its gleeful, if unsentimental, recollection of boyhood antics:
Lots of girls and lots of boys
Lots of smells and lots of noise
Playing football in the park
Kicking pushbikes after dark
Baggy trousers, dirty shirt
Pulling hair and eating dirt
Teacher comes to break it up
Back of the 'ead with a plastic cup

Oh what fun we had
But did it really turn out bad
All I learnt at school
Was how to bend not break the rules
Oh what fun we had
But at the time it seemed so bad
Trying different ways
To make a difference to the days

"Embarrassment," however, was a different bag of chips:
Primarily written by Lee Thompson, the plot of the song reflected the unfolding turmoil following the news that his teenage sister, Tracy Thompson, had become pregnant and was carrying a black man's child. The subsequent rejection by her family, and the shame felt, was reflected in the song. As Thompson was on the road with the band, he only heard snippets of the story, through phone calls and letters, but this was enough for him to piece the story together.

Received a letter just the other day,
Don't seem they wanna know you no more,
They've laid it down given you their score,
Within the first two lines it bluntly read.

You're not to come see us no more,
Keep away from our door,
Don't come 'round here no more
What on earth did you do that for?

Our aunt, she don't wanna know, she says,
What will the neighbours think, they'll think,
We don't that's what they'll think, we don't,
But I will, 'cause I know they think I don't

Our uncle he don't wanna know, he says,
We are a disgrace to the human race, he says,
How can you show your face,
When you're a disgrace to the human race?
Wot's this all about? Madness attempting social commentary? Well, if you're worried that a song about teenage pregnancy and racism might not be any "fun," worry no more. In fact, the tension between the indignation in the lyrics and the peppiness of the music is, in my opinion, something that makes "Embarrassment" soar. Hell, there's even tension between the lyrics and the lyrics: while the parents in the song are harsh and unforgiving, the band itself is, one can assume, more sympathetic to the girl's plight. Had Madness mastered the concept of the unreliable narrator?

Not only were the band branching out lyrically, but musically as well: instead of the usual ska vibe, "Embarrassment" employs a Motown beat straight out of early Supremes songs such as "Baby Love" and "Where Did Our Love Go?" I find myself instinctively tapping my feet to a story about a family excommunicating their daughter. Not an easy thing to make someone do.

Indeed, there is nothing like the sound of an already strong band truly coming into its own. It's not that Madness were profoundly altering their style or their subject matter, but that they were adding new elements while still retaining all the old elements that made them "Madness." It's like they were simultaneously aging and staying young ... at the same time!

More overtly glum was the first single from their third album, "Grey Day":
After eating I go out,
People passing by me shout
I can't stand this agony
Why don't they talk to me?

In the park I have to rest
I lie down and I do my best,
The rain is falling on my face
I wish I could sink without a trace

In the morning I awake,
My arms my legs my body aches,
The sky outside is wet and grey,
So begins another weary day
So begins another weary day
Sounds like Madness suddenly needed to be put on suicide watch. (Side note: how come the British seem to do these types of songs so well?)

If "Embarrassment" was a tragic song with upbeat music, "Shut Up" was a comical song with sinister music. According to Wikipedia, the single "tells a story of a criminal who, despite obvious evidence, tries to convince people he is not guilty." While the lyrics of the song, and the melody of the verses, suggest a silly atmosphere, the chorus feels very dark and foreboding, with heavy guitar chords and forceful piano playing which seems to bounce between off-key ragtime goofiness and classical piano-style grandeur:
I tell you I didn't do it
'Cause I wasn't there
Don't blame me, it just isn't fair
You listened to their side
Now listen to mine
Can't think of a story
Sure you'll find me some time

Now pass the blame and don't blame me
Just close your eyes and count to three
(One two three)
Then I'll be gone and you'll forget
The broken window, T.V. set

At this point, Madness were churning out clever, snappy, complex British pop gems without even breaking a sweat. A sweat, I tell you! The band may have had bigger and more famous hits than songs like "Embarrassment" and "Shut Up," but these are probably my favorite Madness singles nonetheless.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Go-Go's Tour England With Madness And Get Spat On

So what does the British Ska Revival have to do with the Go-Go's? Funny you ask. From Lips Unsealed:
In December 1979, we opened at the Whiskey for Madness, an English ska band whose recently released first album, One Step Beyond..., was earning them raves and a handful of hits, including "One Step Beyond...," "The Prince," "My Girl," and "Night Boat to Cairo." They hit the town with a unique sound and the fun attitude of English boys out for a good time.

At sound check, I clicked with the group's lead singer, Graham McPherson, who went by the name Suggs. By showtime, we were flirting and having a good time watching each other onstage. Afterward, everyone from both bands went back to their hotel, the Tropicana, and partied pretty hard. I woke up next morning in a chaise lounge next to the pool.
Sounds pretty mild by her standards.
After Madness left town, Suggs wrote me a few letters and sent me some English cigarettes. I knew he liked me, but I didn't let myself imagine anything developing since I knew from following the bands in the English magazines that he was involved with punk beauty Betty Bright. Still.
Get a grip on yourself, Belinda! He's taken.
A few months later, Madness returned to L.A. and I don't know why I let myself, but I hoped Suggs would try to start something. He didn't. I heard he might have had a dalliance with a cute waitress, but that was mere rumor and I didn't want to turn my quaint romantic fantasy into a disappointment...
Let it go already!
That decision was probably smart, too, because Madness liked us and before they left town they invited the Go-Go's to open for them on their UK tour that spring and summer. We jumped at the opportunity.
And so, our young kitschy heroines crossed the ocean and toured Britannia. Initially harboring glamorous visions of Trans-Atlantic stardom, reality soon set in:
Even beer was a luxury. When we toured with Madness, we waited for them to finish their preshow dinner and then dug through the trash for the scraps they threw out. I still managed to gain thirty pounds over the next two months thanks to the Nutella I smeared on white bread every morning.
Mmmmm. At least it sounds like a step up from the oatmeal and Sweet 'N' Low she was living on earlier. While overseas, the band also hung out with the Specials and sang backing vocals on the closing track of More Specials, a cover of Guy Lombardo's "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)." I can't detect Belinda too well, but Jane stands out like a sore thumb.

The Go-Go's finding camaraderie with the British Ska Revival bands? Sounds odd at first, but when you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. Like the 2-Tone groups, the Go-Go's came out of a thriving punk scene, but found themselves gravitating toward the pop side of things. Of course, it would be wonderful to say that British punk audiences embraced the group as immediately as Madness and the Specials did, but that wasn't exactly the case:
They were young, angry neo-Nazi extremists who hated everyone, including us - and that was before we played the first song. Once they saw we were five girls from Los Angeles, they yelled vile things and called us terrible names. They spit on us too. They called it "gobbing."
"Gobbing"? Great. Only in England would they come up with a special name for spitting on people (and why do I get the feeling that British punks would probably spit on you, even if they liked you?).
They ran up to the stage, coughed up a wad of spit, and hocked it at us ... I never saw the gobs coming, but I felt my stomach turn after they hit. There were stories about performers getting sick after being hit in the eye or accidentally swallowing someone else's spit. We came offstage covered in snot, and I cried afterwards, as did the other girls.
I believe this is what they call in the business "paying your dues." Now just imagine, if you will, these same young women only a couple of years later, their image splattered all over MTV, being passed off as America's squeaky-clean sweethearts. On this particular tour, they may have been squeaky, but they were most definitely not clean.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Madness, I Tell You, Madness!

With all due respect to the Specials, if you're looking for the best British Ska Revival band, you're looking for Madness.

Having not been too taken by the Specials, I waited a little while on Madness. But about five years ago, I downloaded Divine Madness, one of their singles collections, and I must tell you that I did not regret it.

Madness are like a big ball of zany. When I listen to a Madness song, I picture seven funny Cockney pub dwellers dressed in bow ties and bowler hats all standing on the doorstep of a house, and the leader suddenly shouts "Go!" and they burst through the door and start rearranging all the furniture and tilting the paintings on the wall and turning the sinks on and off like the Cat in the Hat, and then they put everything back in place and exit the front door with split-second precision, and the house is completely quiet again and you don't even have time to figure out what just happened.

Madness, a band of seven like the Specials, and featuring lead singer Graham McPherson (otherwise known as Suggs), dubbed their own style of music "the Nutty Sound." Although ska may be a large part of the Nutty Sound, there is no mistaking Madness for mere reggae revivalists. You see, the band also had a prominent fondness for what you might call "music hall" or "Vaudeville." Honking saxophone breaks, plinking piano solos, vibraphones, "horror soundtrack" vocal interjections ... Madness weren't a ska revival band, they were a Victorian-era carnival sideshow!

The band's first single, "The Prince," was released on 2 Tone Records, the label founded by the Specials' keyboardist Jerry Dammers. Apparently, bands could sign a contract with 2 Tone allowing them to leave the label after releasing just one single, which is what Madness ultimately did. But artistically, the connection between the two groups would remain.

"One Step Beyond..." Madness' second single and first UK Top 10 hit, was, more importantly, the opening track on their debut album, and it functioned as the perfect statement of purpose. "Hey you! Don't watch that, watch this! This is the heavy heavy monster sound!" And with that ... they're off. Before the fat kid in bed can even figure out what's going on, the song comes to a crashing halt. I can just see young, impressionable British children sitting in front of their TVs at home in 1980, seeing this for the first time, thinking, "Wait, who were those guys?"

"Those guys" were Madness, my friends, and they were here to stay. Pressured by their new record company, the group released another track from One Step Beyond..., "Night Boat To Cairo," as the headlining cut of an EP. Something tells me the band didn't actually travel to Egypt to film this clip:
After the decision to issue the Work Rest and Play EP, a promotional music video was needed. However, there was a lack of time before the release, and not enough to make an effective video. Therefore, Madness filmed a karaoke type video in front of a blatantly chroma keyed backdrop of an Egyptian pyramid, with the lyrics appearing on screen in "bouncing ball" style as Suggs sang them.  During the long instrumental sections of the song, the band often ran around the set, marching and performing their signature "Nutty Train".

Despite the video's poor effects and unprofessional feel, it became very popular with fans, possibly due to the carefree nature and fooling around of the band onscreen (likely attributable to the large amount of alcohol they consumed while filming).
I see. Let's hear it for the bouncing ball, because without it, I genuinely could not decipher these lyrics. In my head it was always "Something something something ... banks of the River Nile ... something something."

But just as the world thought it was picking up on Madness' whole modus operandi, their third single, "My Girl," revealed a quieter, more vulnerable, more observational side to the group:
My girl's mad at me
Been on the telephone for an hour
We hardly said a word
I tried and tried but I could not be heard

Why can't I explain?
Why do I feel this pain?
'Cause everything I say
She doesn't understand
She doesn't realize
She takes it all the wrong way

"Pain"? "Wrong"? Who kidnapped Madness and fed them downers? At the time, the downbeat nature of "My Girl" probably seemed like an exception to the nuttiness. In truth, it was a sign of things to come.