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.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Specials: How Special, Really?

Q: What's black, white, and British all over?

In the '90s, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a few of my peers listening to ska revival bands. Every now and then I heard someone mention a band called the Specials. I assumed they were a band from the '90s. Later I learned they were a band from the late '70s and early '80s, and that they were part of the British New Wave. I liked a lot of other New Wave bands, so I figured I would like the Specials. Allmusic gave their debut album five stars. It was produced by Elvis Costello! Should be right up my alley.

I'll say one thing, The Specials certainly had a dynamic stage presence: four white instrumentalists, two black singers from Jamaica (Neville Staple and Lynval Golding), and a third singer, who was probably the whitest white guy in the world.

Terry Hall sounds like he just stepped out of a cabaret wearing a top hat and cane. He eternally seems like he's about five seconds from completely losing interest in you. He could be Damon Albarn's long-lost uncle. Terry Hall doesn't sound like he should be anywhere near reggae. But that's why it works, I suppose.

At any rate, when I finally did listen to the Specials' debut album, I thought it was ... boring. It didn't seem to set itself apart from a million other bands who've played ska and reggae. Here, for example, is their cover of the 1967 Dandy Livingstone song, "A Message To You, Rudy."

Kind of ... bland, right? I started to wonder if critics had praised The Specials only because of the novelty of a British band performing that type of music during that particular era. Another example: An EP featuring a live version of the album's "Too Much Too Young" as its headlining track went to #1 in the UK in 1980. I probably find the lyrics, a serio-comic tale about teen pregnancy, more interesting than the music, which is kind of repetitive and slightly gets on my nerves:
You've done too much
Much too young
Now you're married with a kid
When you could be having fun with me

Ain't you heard of the starving millions
Ain't you heard of contraception
Really want a program of sterilization
Take control of the population boom
It's in your living room
Keep a generation gap
Try wearing a cap

Sure, I got it: the Specials had a genuine appreciation for ska and were sincere in their attempt to popularize it. But that's not enough! I mean, the Clash didn't simply mimic the reggae artists they liked; they added their own punk guitar rage and indecipherable Joe Strummer vocals to the mix. They performed reggae with their own distinct voice.

The Specials' debut album just sounds like a ska tribute bar band down the street. There's a lot of slow, unfocused jamming. I expected it to be tighter, poppier, funkier, heavier. However, it turns out that the Specials did record some songs that more closely match my earlier expectations; they're just not on the debut album. Maybe Elvis Costello did a crappy job?

Witness the band's first single, "Gangsters," which is more of what I expected the Specials to sound like. "Why must you record my phone calls?/Are you planning a bootleg LP?" Hall deadpans into the mic. I dig this surf rock/lounge-pop feel.

I also like some of the singles from their second album, the imaginatively titled More Specials, such as "Rat Race," with its kitschy '60s keyboards and wry British educational references that would have never found their way onto a genuine reggae record:
You're working at your leisure to learn the things you'll need
The promises you make tomorrow will carry no guarantee
I've seen your qualifications, you've got a Ph.D.
I've got one art O level, it did nothing for me

Working for the rat race
You know you're wasting your time
Working for the rat race
You're no friend of mine

Now this is a bit more like it! Turns out the Specials were actually a singles band. That said, the band's finest single ... was yet to come.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

When The British Revived Ska

For obvious reasons, '70s British punk musicians were all passionate fans of ... reggae.

Look, I don't understand it either, but just take my word for it. Maybe it was reggae's frequently political lyrics, or its minimalist production values. Maybe British white kids saw reggae as a more authentic kind of black music than the relatively corporate disco of the era. Whatever the reason, they loved it. Not only did they love it, but they wanted to play it.

The first British reggae-tinged punk act I gave my serious attention to was the Clash. Hell, I liked the Clash's reggae more than actual reggae! When I started to read about the so-called British Ska Revival, I imagined that I would really like it, and that it would sound a lot like the Clash.

It didn't. In fact, after my initial exposure to the British Ska Revival, I was not terribly impressed. I dismissed it and ignored it for years. But upon revisiting the entirety of New Wave, I can admit that my initial diagnosis was premature. The things is, I didn't actually manage to hear the best British Ska Revival songs, most of which were singles, not album tracks. So I am changing my tune, mon.

Almost every British New Wave act, from Elvis Costello to Nick Lowe to Joe Jackson to XTC, tried a little bit of reggae, or ska, or rocksteady, or whatever they liked to call it (to be honest, I'm not sure I know the difference). The Police titled their second album Regatta De Blanc ("White Reggae"). But the official British Ska Revival was a specific "scene" that revolved around the 2-Tone record label, and three bands in particular. In this series, I am going to tell you about those three bands.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Early Go-Go's Mischief And Mayhem - Part II

After the Go-Go's third show in 1978, Belinda stepped off the stage "feeling like we had played our best show yet...":
But then I popped a cassette of that show into the tape player of a friend's car. Until then, I had never heard myself sing. I was horrified. I sounded terrible. I could carry a tune, but barely. I also screamed more than I sang.

I hit the Stop button, put my hands over my face, and thought, Oh my God, I need to take some vocal lessons.

More daunting than vocal lessons, however, was the unreliability of their drummer, Elissa Bello, who "frequently missed rehearsals and didn't seem to be taking the band seriously enough." Um, like the rest of the Go-Go's were?

Gina was a talented, serious, and trained drummer from Baltimore who had come to L.A. with Edie and the Eggs, and art-house group fronted by Edith Massey, a favorite actress of cult movie director John Waters.

We broke the news to Elissa, who was understandably upset and ended up telling people that she'd been booted because she was dating a girl whose ex was our manager, and blah blah blah. It wasn't true. Elissa was fired because she wasn't reliable and it became obvious we needed a drummer with serious talent and attitude.
Well, it certainly sounds like Elissa had the attitude, just maybe not the talent (also: do I still detect some sour grapes, more than thirty years later?). Soon to be dumped bassist Margot Olaverra frequently displayed issues of her own:
At some point in the evening, whether we were playing or partying, she would end up on the stage in whatever club we were in, shouting, "Where is my purse? Somebody stole my purse!" Then she cried. Then she got mad at everyone, grabbed the microphone, and shouted, "Motherfuckers, give me back my purse!"

People got so used to it they rolled their eyes and said, "There she goes again." As far as I know, here purse was never stolen.
Maybe it was part of the act. Hell, in the punk scene, you could be disturbingly weird on-stage, intentionally, and receive praise for it!
In July, Devo played at the Starwood, and the Ohio art school grads were so good they subsequently ended up being the house band at the Whiskey.

I was a huge fan of Devo, but I was always intimidated around Mark Mothersbaugh and the other guys. It wasn't for any reason other than that they were smart college graduates who had a well-thought-out vision, and I feared not understanding whatever it was they were talking about.
That's OK Belinda, no one else really understood it either.

But she probably felt like a Mensa member compared to a certain Van Halen frontman:
In his memoir, David Lee Roth said he screwed one of the Go-Go's. Not true - unless there was some hanky-panky I didn't know about. He may have exaggerated a close encounter the two of us had one night outside the Whiskey following a Van Halen show. He was entertaining a gaggle of girls on the sidewalk, and I was walking to the Rainbow from my apartment. As I passed by, he grabbed me and we made out on the corner.

Till that moment, we had never met. I'm not even sure that should be counted a meeting.
Oh, I think it counts, Belinda.

But soon, two contemporary British bands would do more for the Go-Go's than merely intimidate them with their art school intellect, or their lips.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Greg Kihn Band's "Jeopardy"/Weird Al's "I Lost On Jeopardy"

Greg Kihn was a Huey Lewis-esque bar band rocker with a penchant for punny album titles (Next of Kihn, Kihnspiracy, Rockihnroll, Kihnsolidation, Kihntagious, Citizen Kihn ... it goes on). In 1983, he released the #2 hit "Jeopardy," which featured some killer music, but some rather generic lyrics:
Where were you
When I needed you
Well you could not be found
What can I do
Oh I believed in you
You're running me around

Well you can take it as a warning
Or take it anyway you like
It's the lightning not the thunder
You never know where it's gonna strike

Our love's in jeopardy, baby ooh
Our love's in jeopardy, baby ooh

It was a good jam, but something - hard to say what, exactly - was missing. Only one man knew what that special something was. I can practically see him sitting there in his basement, the light bulb appearing over his head. "Hmm ... 'Jeopardy'..."

Suddenly, in the hands of Weird Al, a mundane love song became the dark, twisted tale of an overly-confident game show contestant.

While the song's video is excellent, there is something to be said for simply listening to "I Lost On Jeopardy" on its own; with less visual distractions, the angst of the protagonist really seeps in. However, it's fascinating to see what Jeopardy used to look like before Alex Trebek took over, and before the "answers" were displayed by a block of actual television monitors on the wall. Someone on YouTube commented, "Why didn't he get the actual host, and use the actual set?" Umm ... Weird Al did get the actual host, and he did get the actual set. Did you know that Jeopardy goes back to 1964? In fact, in the early '80s, the show had briefly gone off the air, but the popularity of "I Lost On Jeopardy" helped bring it back in its new and improved incarnation. Also, keep your eye out for the real Greg Kihn in a "hey everybody, I'm a good sport" cameo.

In another sign of Weird Al's new-found industry clout, not only did "I Lost On Jeopardy" feature then-current host Art Fleming in the video, it also featured announcer Don Pardo, who delivers this scathing monologue over the guitar solo:
That's right Al
You lost
And now let me tell you what you didn't win
A twenty volume set of the Encyclopedia International
A case of Turtle Wax
And a year's supply of Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat
But that's not all
You also made yourself look like a jerk in front of millions of people
And you brought shame and disgrace on your family name for generations to come
You don't get to come back tomorrow
You don't even get a lousy copy of our home game
You're a comple-hete loo-hoo-ser
Admit it: this is probably what most of us feel like saying to failed game show contestants (announcers included), but we're just too polite to go there. There's this pathetic notion on game shows and thousands of other contests held daily in small towns all across America, in summer camps, in high schools, in retirement homes, that you should be given points for "trying," and that even if you come in last, you should still win "something." You know what? Maybe you just failed, OK? Maybe you don't deserve our charity. As if a case of Turtle Wax is going to make you feel any better.

But as brilliant as Don Pardo's brutal contestant takedown is, the greatest moment of the song, in my opinion, occurs immediately afterward. Here is Weird Al, he's just been completely raked over the coals by the show's announcer, he should be a shambling wreck of a man, but he simply jumps right back in with an enthusiastic "Don't know what!" His failure has essentially bounced right off him. I find this oddly inspiring. Instead of sounding utterly despondent, he only sounds mildly miffed. "Guess it just wasn't my night," he surmises. That one little moment, I think, says miles about the boundless optimism of the American spirit. The man should be crushed and ruined, but nope, he's still dreaming of doing better "next weekend on The Price Is Right." In America, hope springs eternal.