Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sailing On A Billy Ocean

You're probably sitting at home, thinking, "Why can't there be more R&B singers from Trinidad and Tobago?" Precisely, my friends. Precisely.

OK, so Billy Ocean moved to London when he was eight. But come on, London didn't put the "ocean" in "Billy Ocean," you know what I mean? A man never forgets hits roots, and even though he had several UK hits in the late '70s, it wasn't until the former Leslie Sebastian Charles painted a sultry portrait of a mythological creature from his homeland that he transcended the Atlantic ocean, and several others.

Apparently Ocean's record company thought it could milk the song for all it was worth by releasing it with region-specific lyrics; according to Wikipedia, "The song was recorded under different titles for different parts of the world—resulting in versions such as 'European Queen' and 'African Queen'." Come on, was that really necessary? I mean, the song was popular enough in America and Britain without needing to be called "American Queen" or "British Queen." Hell, Britain already has a queen. And America already has several, like Richard Simmons, and Gore Vidal.

Besides, in a way, "Caribbean Queen" had already been a worldwide smash. The four note synth riff; the eerie, swirling strings, the guitar lick drenched in echo ... where have I heard this all before?

Growing up with a song can sometimes blind you to its obvious similarities with another. I never, even for five seconds, realized until about six months ago that "Caribbean Queen" is a total rip-off of "Billie Jean." My God. It was right under my nose all this time and I never noticed it!

But let's face it - if you're going to rip off a song, it might as well be "Billie Jean." I mean, this in no way makes me like "Caribbean Queen" any less than I already did. It's a good rip-off!

At any rate, I have this image in my mind: the morning after discovering his Caribbean Queen, Billy Ocean picked up a guitar, sat out on his front porch, and sang "Suddenly" to the world.

Are you sure it's love, Billy, or maybe just a cold?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Discography Rediscovered: Jam & Spoon's "Kaleidoscope"

After a long hiatus, the Discography Rediscovered series is back. This time I'm taking a listen to Jam & Spoon's 1997 album "Kaleidoscope".

I first heard this album my freshman year of college. My roommate at the the time (Hi Joe!) was big into electronic music, I think we were still calling it 'techno' back then. He belonged to one of those old monthly CD subscription clubs (remember those?), and he would periodically get a few CDs delivered to him. One day he received Kaleidoscope. I remember enjoying it at the time, but my roommate did not and he never really listened to it again, I think he might have even trashed the thing, I don't really remember.

I had the album in the back of my mind whenever I would visit a record store (remember those?), but I could never seem to find it. Then one day, possibly on a break from working summer camp, I found myself at Streetlight Records in Santa Cruz perusing the electronic music section and I spied this album sitting there. I promptly scooped it up and have been pleased ever since.

It's hard to find a whole lot of info on Jam & Spoon. They were a German duo who, according to AMG were "pioneers of trance" in the early 90s. Recently I learned that one of them, Markus Loeffel (last name there being German for 'spoon'), passed away a few years ago at age 39. Too many drugs one would think.

Back to the album at hand: Kaleidoscope isn't rated all that highly among Jam & Spoon's works, and I realize that on some level it's not necessarily an amazing or profound piece of work. At its core it's just an easy album of light trance, complete with light dance beats and a sexy sounding woman singing vocals. It's such an easy listen that I would venture to say that I probably listen to this album from start-to-finish more than any other album in my collection. I can put it on track one and just let the whole thing play through. It's got a great flow, moving from mid-tempo dance numbers to moody experimental pieces, and back again.

I have no idea what inspired Jam & Spoon to make this album, but if I had to concoct a story, I'd say that Mr. Jam and Mr. Spoon had just gotten back from Ibiza having enjoyed plenty of time listening to Spanish guitar while sipping mojitos on the beach (after a long night of clubbing). The whole thing has a laid back vibe and features plenty of Spanish guitar. Just listen to the opening track Garden of Eden. It's like I'm there on the beach while Santana plucks at his guitar in the background.

The album is helped by the aforementioned sexy sounding female vocalist, Plavka. (Damn if she doesn't look sexy too). She just makes the whole thing all the more enjoyable. Her vocal skills aren't going to blow you away or anything, but she provides just the right amount of sultriness to keep you listening.

The entire album just flows nicely. After the first track we get the two 'hits' of the album Kaleidoscope Skies followed by the dancy Right in the Night (Fall in Love with Music), which really seems so incredibly tame compared to modern dance tracks. Soon we get into something a bit more experimental with the superbly named Warm Dead Dog. Next up is Flame, which just screams "put this track on while you make out!". Later we get El Baile, which features a Spanish guitar loop while some guy yells commands to dance in Spanish, gradually becoming a more trance infused affair. Near the end of the album we get Mark Runs the Voodoo Down, which evokes a great late night mood with it's use of saxophone. Finally we get the duo I Pull My Gun Once and I Pull My Gun Twice, which consists of a ridiculous sounding German repeating the lines "I pull my gun once/I pull my gun twice/I pull the trigger to your head/because it feels so nice" while a monstrous guitar plays which gradually gives way to some trance.

There's really nothing extraordinary about Kaleidoscope. I don't think it broke any boundaries or was even particularly noted among fans of 90's trance. It's just an easy listen. The music is never terribly complicated and the dance tracks feel light and breezy, as well as dated, compared to anything you might hear nowadays in the electronic music scene. This is a great album to listen to while tripping out, making love, on a long car trip, or just relaxing.

I had a friend looking for this album for years with no luck, I think it might never have had a proper American release (my copy has some German on it which makes me think it was printed there). In fact, it seems difficult to find any of their albums. I would reckon that the copy I found at Streetlight was just some import someone had sold to them (maybe through bizarre serendipity it was my roommate's copy?). The last time I heard anything from Jam & Spoon was when I was in Austria and they released an album that featured a few guest vocalists. The one track worth listening to off that album is Cynical Heart, featuring Jim Kerr, who you might remember was the lead singer from Simple Minds.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Grisly Fate Of DeBarge

DeBarge were supposed to be the Jackson 5 of the '80s. Well, they got at least half of it right.

Like the Jackson 5 before them, DeBarge were, on the outside, a Motown family group with sweet, cuddly little songs. But on the inside, DeBarge may have succumbed to the ugliest, most depressing downward spiral of any band of the '80s. And I'm about to tell you all the sordid details!

It started out so well. The band, consisting of brothers Mark, Randy, James, Eldra (or "El" as he came to be known), and sister Bunny, experienced their first big taste of success in 1983 with the ballad "All This Love." To make the Jackson 5 aspirations complete, James even married a young Janet Jackson. It would seem that the world was at DeBarge's feet. Listen to how lovely and magical, here in the initial glow of stardom, they sound:

And the world was at their feet, if by "world," you mean "Dianne Warren." You know, Dianne Warren. What's that, you say? Name doesn't ring a bell? I'll bet these names ring a bell: Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me," Toni Braxton's "Unbreak My Heart," LeAnn Rhimes' "How Do I Live," Aerosmith's "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing." Oh, her. Yes, Dianne Warren is the undisputed champion of shitty late '90s adult contemporary ballads. I am not, shall we say, particularly fond of that period of her work.

However, in 1983, Warren was just another struggling songwriter when she wrote her first hit, Laura Branigan's "Solitaire." She didn't quite know what to do with "Rhythm of the Night" until someone at Motown decided to recycle the calypso sound of "All Night Long" and shove that sweet little DeBarge family on top of it.

Look at them, so effervescent and carefree.  Little did they realize, but the shit was about to hit the fan.

The suits at Motown started whispering in El DeBarge's ear: "Drop that loser family of yours; what you need to do is go solo." A hit single from the Short Circuit soundtrack, paired with drugs, can probably make a DeBarge think he's capable of anything.

Bobby and Chico DeBarge (I guess there were always plenty of spare DeBarge siblings just lying around?) were brought on to replace him. James and Janet's marriage was annulled after one year. OK, so they hit a little rough patch, surely they'd sort this out?
That same year, Bobby and Chico DeBarge were arrested for drug trafficking in their native Grand Rapids hometown. They were eventually convicted of drug charges and sentenced to two different prisons to serve their sentences.
Come on. Couldn't they have at least put the brothers in the same prison? OK, fine, so it's just a little drug trafficking, nothing we haven't seen before, they can recover, probably served their time and came out nice and rejuvenated?
Bobby DeBarge died at a hospice in Grand Rapids after contracting AIDS after years of heroin addiction.
OK, so things didn't work out for Bobby, but everyone else was probably fine, right? El looked like he had a sharp head on his shoulders, let's see how he did:
In 2001 he was arrested for cocaine possession and was given probation. In 2006 he was arrested again for possession of a controlled substance and was once again given probation. In 2007 he was arrested in a domestic dispute and was held without bail. The charges were later dropped. Later that year he was arrested yet again and charged with cocaine possession and given probation again. However, he was once again arrested in 2008 for possession of crack and drug paraphernalia, breaking the terms of his probation. For this violation he was immediately sentenced to two years in state prison in California. On March 20, 2012, El was arrested in Encino for possession and sale of narcotics. The singer, however, was not charged because a Los Angeles district attorney found insufficient evidence.
OK, well, at least he didn't die from AIDS, at least not yet, so that's probably a step up. How about the other brothers?
James DeBarge recently was sentenced to prison for drug offenses.
Tommy DeBarge, who also suffered drug addiction, is under kidney dialysis but has nonetheless continued to perform, sometimes with surviving members of Switch and with his family members. Randy DeBarge and Mark DeBarge are said to have "incurable diseases" according to their mother.
"Incurable diseases"? Like what, AIDS? I mean, if it was AIDS, then the family would just say it was AIDS, because they certainly didn't have any problem letting people know that Bobby had AIDS. So what kind of diseases are we talking about here? Elephantitis? Leprosy?

The moral of the story is: if you've ever thought about being a singing family on Motown ... don't do it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Belinda Witnesses The Last Gasp Of The Sex Pistols (Live And In Person)

Or so she claims. The Sex Pistols' final concert in San Francisco on January 14, 1978 is one of those shows, like Woodstock, that more people claim to have seen than could have possibly been there. Another such gig, the Sex Pistols' July 20, 1976 concert at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester, was supposedly attended by Morrissey, Mark E. Smith, future members of Joy Division, and future members of the Buzzcocks. I think even nine year old Noel Gallagher was playing pinball in the back.

And so it is that perhaps just as many West coast punks claim to have been "there" to witness the Sex Pistols implode in front of their very eyes. Some forward-thinking individual brought a video camera, and I just discovered that the entire concert is on YouTube, so at this point I probably have as valid a claim to having "attended" as anybody. OK fine, I'm sure Belinda is telling the truth, but even she seems to have taken someone else's word for it:
Word spread that the Sex Pistols were going to play at the Winterland Ballroom on January 14 in San Francisco ... I went up with Theresa and a group that included Connie and others. She recalls us checking into a Chinatown hotel, trashing the room, and then being unable to find another place to stay, all of which is likely true. I just don't remember any of it. I was probably on acid.
Well there you go.
It was a miracle the Sex Pistols even made it onto the stage after a three-week tour across the southern U.S. that filled the underground with talk of new highs and lows of self-destructive behavior. It was all part of their larger-than-life reputation, which, in a way, transcended anything they played that night, though as I recall, the show we saw was brilliant.
I still get goose bumps when I picture Sid Vicious poised at the edge of the stage, in his leather pants, billowy white shirt, and black vest, grasping the microphone with both hands. I remember his hair sticking straight up and the violent way he thrashed through the band's songs. By the end of the night, he was shirtless, and his skinny white torso was full of gashes that were dripping with blood, while Johnny Rotten was kneeling on stage, chanting, "This is no fun. This is no fun."
No fun indeed. After telling the audience, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Rotten left the stage and, as it turned out, the band.

The Sex Pistols may have flamed out, but their legacy lived on. Some of the well-known bands that may not have existed without direct inspiration from these depraved anarchists: The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Adam & The Ants, The Cure, U2, and ...

... the Go-Go's?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Jeffrey Osborne - No Relation To Ozzy

Like Lionel Richie and Kool & The Gang before him, Jeffrey Osborne may have risen to prominence as a funk/disco artist, but his heart was in Cosby Rock.

As the lead singer of L.T.D., Osborne had a #4 hit in 1977 with "(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again."

But every time he turned around, R&B trends shifted behind him.

Clearly, Osborne needed to be singing inspirational MOR ballads:

Or maybe he needed to be singing sleazy, pseudo-Rick James funk numbers (with requisite imitation "Beat It" guitar solo):

Damn it, '80s, make up your mind!

Editor's note: According to several YouTube commentators, that "requisite imitation 'Beat It' guitar solo" I was just making fun of was actually performed by Brian May of Queen (!). Hey Michael Jackson, you can have Eddie Van Halen.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

James Ingram: Quincy Jones' Little Buddy

In 1981, Quincy Jones was so hot, he could basically just release an album featuring all of his buddies singing on it, even if nobody knew who the hell his buddies were, and expect people to buy it. That album was The Dude. And although it featured contributions from Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, the two hit singles from the album, "Just Once" and "One Hundred Ways," were sung by a performer who, at that time, was a complete unknown. But Cosby Rock, and the world, would never be the same.

James Ingram was a singer just skilled enough, and yet just generic enough, to slide into the background of the '80s and be all over the place, without anybody really noticing. For instance, he sang two extremely prominent leads along with Ray Charles at the end of "We Are The World." Younger viewers may watch the clip of "We Are The World" today and wonder, "Who the hell is that guy singing with Ray Charles?" Who the hell is that guy? That guy is James Fucking Ingram. And how, they may ask themselves, did James Ingram end up singing prominently with Ray Charles on "We Are The World"? Because. He was Quincy Jones' little buddy.

In fact, Ingram became the master of the '80s duet: the infamous "Yah Mo B There" (with Michael McDonald - I am not going to post it again, although Lord, I am tempted), "Somewhere Out There" (with Linda Ronstadt - anybody remember An American Tail?), and, while we're at it, who can forget "What About Me?" (with Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes)?

But Ingram's ultimate crowning achievement with the form would have to be his #1 1983 duet with the equally competent, equally quotidian Patti Austin, "Baby, Come To Me." Of course, having Quincy behind the boards always helps. Oh, and a little background vocal assistance from Michael McFuckin'donald.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Where Little Earl and Herr Zrbo's Interests Intersect

This past Saturday this picture came across my Twitter feed. On the left is Marty O'Donnell, head audio director for Bungie Studios, maker of one of my favorite series of games, Halo (he also penned this gem, no joke). On the right is some guy from a band my parents used to listen to, something like The Beets, I can't remember but I'm fairly certain it had to do with vegetables. Bungie has moved on from the Halo series and the studio is currently working on a new top secret game, and from what Bungie is teasing here, it looks like this Sir Paul guy might be involved (and his Twitter feed proves it).

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Pointer Sisters: They May Be Excited, But You Better Not Be

How many times have you heard a pop song where the woman is desperately dreaming for some super-suave ladies' man on a big white horse to come in and sweep her off her feet? Not the Pointer Sisters. See, the Pointer Sisters love you for who you are. The Pointer Sisters understand the appeal of the "nice guy."

Here is the rare '80s hit to praise passivity and humility over action and confidence. "He's So Shy" is so bouncy, so sweet, so ingratiating in every way, I wish I could tell you more about how much I adore this song ... if I wasn't so painfully shy!

And why does everybody have to be in such a rush these days? Whatever happened to taking your time?

The Pointer Sisters were so full of positivity and good nature, they weren't even afraid to encourage their weird-sounding, super-deep voiced sister to sing now and then. I'm pretty sure when most people heard "Automatic," they thought, "All right, a great new Stevie Wonder song!" And then they found out it was the Pointer Sisters. "So wait, you mean to tell me ... that's a woman?" Ruth Pointer - and what a woman she is. Does she have a stray testicle somewhere?

So let me pose a thought experiment to you: it's 1984, the Pointer Sisters are putting out a song called "Jump (For My Love)," and you need to make a video. What else is going on in 1984? The Summer Olympics! Come on guys, this video makes itself!

Finally, before I get too excited to talk about anything else other than the sheer, unbridled majesty of the Pointer Sisters, there is "I'm So Excited." When the Pointer Sisters initially released the song in 1982, nobody actually got all that excited; it peaked at #30. But in the wake of "Automatic" and "Jump (For My Love)," the song was re-released, and this time listeners mustered up the appropriate level of excitement; it peaked at #9, going on to become arguably their best-known hit (and with the Pointer Sisters, that is saying something). Check out the extended 12" version, where all the instruments drop out of the mix at the end except for the bass and bongos and the sisters can barely stop themselves from jamming! The song is also, if I'm not mistaken, the unofficial marketing theme for Cialis. Remember tiger: they make look excited, but underneath, what they really want is a shy guy with a slow hand. Hell, they're so excited, they're even wearing sunglasses in the bath tub.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Belinda's Five Seconds In The Germs AKA Adventures With Dottie Danger

Ah, to be a punk band. Where the only requirement is to show up - and sometimes not even that. I mean, if there's anything funnier than the thought of Belinda Carlisle being in the Germs, it's the thought of Belinda Carlisle being in the Germs ... as the drummer. Even when she eventually became famous in a band, she still didn't play anything! What exactly was the plan here?
We jammed in Georg's garage and started messing around with lyrics ... Georg was the only one who played an instrument, but actual proficiency was not a requirement in a punk band.

In the spirit of Johnny Rotten, we adopted noms de punk. Bobby became Darby Crash. Georg became Pat Smear. Theresa came up with Lorna Doom. And I chose Dottie Danger.

Why Dottie Danger? It sounded cute and angry at the same time.

Darby and Pat had been down this road before. They'd started a band after being kicked out of high school. They called it Sophistifuck and the Revlon Spam Queens - a great name. But when they couldn't get all those letters on a t-shirt, they renamed themselves the Germs.
Sophistifuck and the Revlon Spam Queens: now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a band name. To make a long story short, the more mundanely named Germs booked a show at the Orpheum Theatre in April 1977, but sadly, Dottie Danger was not able to strut her stuff. In a supreme moment of irony, what ultimately prevented Dottie Danger from remaining in the Germs ... was germs.
... as the date drew near, I got very sick and was diagnosed with mononucleosis. I had to drop out of the band and move back home with my parents for three months. Becky Barton, another girl from my high school art class, took my place. She called herself Donna Rhia.
Donna Rhia. Funny.
Anyway, as I recall, about eight people showed up to hear the band ... People didn't just casually go check out a punk band, not one like the Germs.

You had to want to see Darby.

Among all his screaming and histrionics, he stuck the microphone in a jar of peanut butter and covered his body in red licorice. As Pat recalled, they were thrown off the stage in five minutes ... But we thought that was a huge success. The band had played in public!
Even though Dottie's health improved, the band soldiered on without her, and shortly released their first single, "Forming," which probably is the only Germs song I genuinely like. The reason I like it is ... how can I put this? "Forming" is about as basic of a production as you could make, while still being able to claim that you recorded a commercially releasable song. The band used a two-track tape machine. All the instruments were recorded onto one channel, and Darby's vocals were recorded on the other. There is a heap of echo on everything, but apparently that was not deliberate; someone just forgot to turn the echo button off. "Forming" is literally garage rock; it was basically recorded in Pat Smear's garage. Either that, or his living room; same difference. But because of this extremely primitive recording method, "Forming" stands out to me from the band's later, more conventionally recorded material - and the more conventionally recorded material of every other late '70s punk band, for that matter.

Then there are the amusingly sloppy lyrics: "Rip them down, hold me up/Tell them that I'm your gun/Pull my trigger I am bigger than." Bigger than what, Darby? The guy couldn't even finish his own thoughts. Nothing beats the outro, however, where Darby stops singing entirely and simply rambles on the spot: "Anyone, anytime, anyhow ...whoever buy this shit ... is a fucking jerk ... he's playing it all wrong, the drums are too slow, the bass is too fast, the chords are wrong, he's making the ending too long ... nah, quit." Now that's how you end a punk song.

At any rate, Dottie Danger may have receded into the dustbins of history, but Belinda remained:
After recovering from mono, I stayed connected to the Germs as their publicist, which meant I put up flyers in record stores. I also announced the band before shows and stood off to the side of the stage, handing Darby his peanut butter, licorice, and salad dressing.
Oh really? I still wasn't fully convinced that any of this was true. I needed some hard evidence. Enter Germicide: Live At The Whiskey. Here is the opening of Greg Prato's AMG review:
Although punk rock was initially said to be one-dimensional and devoid of instrumental technique, many bands proved to be adept at both playing their instruments and writing songs (X, the Minutemen, the Police, the Dead Kennedys, etc.). As evidenced on the live release Germicide: Live at the Whiskey 1977, California's the Germs were not one such band. This lo-fi live set shows that the group barely knew how to play their instruments, play in time, keep a steady tempo, or truly function as a live band.
Indeed, the highlight of the album is, unsurprisingly, a cover version: the sloppiest rendition of the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar" you are ever likely to hear. But according to Wikipedia, Belinda "can be heard introducing the band." Introducing the band? How? Saying what? God damn, I needed to hear this.

Then a little bit of fear kicked in. I mean, what if it wasn't all that interesting? What if she sounded like an idiot? What if it was just a big letdown?

Clearly, I should have known better.

Ladies and gentlemen, I now give you Belinda Carlisle's recorded debut - the first words ever uttered for public consumption by America's future Yuppie princess. They are profound words, striking words - words, indeed, to live by.

The clip actually begins with an introduction of an introduction of an introduction. Some anonymous fellow introduces DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, a Los Angeles music legend in his own right, who then announces, "Right here on this stage, a young lady who used to be a member of this group, she's gonna explain to you why she's not in the group anymore..." The young woman finally steps up to the microphone. Here, and I quote, are her exact words:

"The reason why I'm not in the group anymore is because they're too dirty for me. And they're sluts. Anyway, here's the group you've all been waiting for ... the Germs!"

She already had a gift.