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.