Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Alan Parsons Project: Prog Goes Yuppie

The '80s might have been rough on a number of genres, but progressive rock really took it in the groin. I guess the double whammy of punk and MTV really didn't do middle-aged instrumental virtuosos playing side-long thematic suites about medieval goblins any favors. Sure, I suppose a lucky few, such as Styx and Yes, managed to shift with the spandex tide and remain successful, if not exactly relevant (sub-question: were Styx and Yes ever exactly relevant?). But some progressive rock acts not only managed to make it out of 1979 alive, but also managed to thrive. Say hello to the Alan Parsons Project.

Of course, nothing screams out "edgy rock and roll" like calling your band a "project." I mean, what, were they hoping to win first place in the local science fair? We'd already had the Jeff Beck Group, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, even the Bob Seger System, but in 1976, no one had ever seen the likes of the Alan Parsons Project.

However, it turns out that the Alan Parsons Project was an entirely appropriate name for the Alan Parsons Project. Just who was this "Alan Parsons," anyway? Well, once upon a time, there was an EMI Studios employee. This EMI employee broke into the industry by co-engineering a little album called Abbey Road. Then, a few years later, he achieved true fame among audiophiles by essentially co-producing another little album called Dark Side of the Moon. You know those pristine clock and airplane sounds? Alan Parsons. The random mumblings of Pink Floyd's roadie ("I dunno, I was really drunk at the time")? Alan Parsons. For most recording technicians, this would have been enough. Perhaps he could have remained satisfied as an in-demand studio engineer, but no, Alan Parsons wanted more.

Just what did Alan Parsons want? Well, he didn't sing, and he didn't really care much for performing. Apparently he just wanted to fart around in the studio and make little pet projects - sort of like Jeff Lynne, but without the orchestra. And yet, the thing was, he still wanted to capitalize on his name, so that people would know it wasn't just some random bozo's albums they were going to be buying. Even though he was teaming up with a songwriting partner-in-crime (the delightfully named Eric Woolfson), he still wasn't really putting together a proper "band." Hence: The Alan Parsons Project.

You know how Dungeons & Dragons and Sci-Fi geeks might sit around late at night in their friends' mom's basement and think up half-intriguing, half-silly ideas for concept albums that'll never get made? Well, the Alan Parsons Project actually went out and made those albums. "Hey, I got it, wouldn't it be cool if somebody did a concept album entirely out of ... Edgar Allan Poe short stories?" Behold: Tales Of Mystery And Imagination. "Dude, dude, someone should make an album based on Asimov's I, Robot!" Done and done. At a time when rock songwriting had finally earned the freedom to be uncompromisingly personal, Parsons and Woolfson's ultimate goal was to be about as impersonal as you could possibly get. They were openly writing songs out of other people's ideas!

Ah, but just when you thought they didn't have it in them, by their third album the Project started coming up with their own vague concepts that didn't happen to be based on any specific work (or works) of literature. For instance, Pyramid was based on ... Egyptian mythology? The $25,000 Pyramid? Your guess is as good as mine. Eve was even stranger: a concept album about misogyny. I think? See, when listening to Alan Parsons Project albums, it's probably best not to take their concepts too seriously. I'm not sure that Parsons and Woolfson did. Here's the album's closing track, sung by Lesley Duncan, who not only wrote "Love Song" (which Elton John covered on Tumbleweed Connection), but also sang backing vocals on that earlier Parsons project - you know, the one with the prism on the cover:

Oh, there's also the fact that the Project didn't have a lead singer. Instead, Parsons simply picked vocalists he liked and assigned different singers to different songs. There's nothing like random, generic stadium rock frontmen to breathe life into your cold, sterile studio productions. I think some of the singers brought something unique to the material, such as the Zombies' Colin Blunstone and the Hollies' Allan Clarke, but a lot of the time, such as on "Games People Play" from 1980's Turn of a Friendly Card (which, peaking at #16, became their biggest US hit single yet), I wonder if they just ended up turning the songs into Styx-lite.

The irony here is that, on Turn of a Friendly Card's second single, "Time," the Alan Parsons Project finally found its perfect lead singer: co-writer Eric Woolfson.

Eric Woolfson has the Calmest Voice Of All Time. His voice is like honey laced with Nyquil laced with Love Potion #9. As he quietly croons "Time/Keeps flowing like a river/To the sea," you'd have to poke me with a cattle prod to keep me from drifting off into a blissful dreamland. What the song has to do with gambling, however, I have absolutely no idea. Part of me wonders, with its closing lyric of "forevermore," if it might have simply been a leftover from Tales Of Mystery And Imagination.

Here's a question: why did the Alan Parsons Project spend four albums throwing their music into the hands of faceless British AOR also-rans, when the singer who perfectly complimented their style was sitting right there in front of them the whole time? Suddenly Woolfson steps in, sounding like the second coming of Pink Floyd's Rick Wright, and instead of experiencing any sort of complaint or backlash, the Project becomes bigger than ever before (with "Time" peaking at #15)! But a "project" couldn't have a real lead singer, could it? Could it?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Making Of Talk Show AKA This Is The Way The Go-Go's End: Not With A Bang But With An Album

How did the Go-Go's fall apart? Let me count the ways:

1) Drugs
2) Egos
3) Disappointing Sales
4) Drugs
5) Jealousy
6) Changing tastes
7) Did I mention drugs?

But before the Go-Go's bit the dust, they managed to make one more album. New producer Martin Rushent had quite the pedigree: The Buzzcocks, The Human League, The Stranglers, Altered Images, even engineering credits on T.Rex's Electric Warrior and Fleetwood Mac's Future Games (oh yeah!). But if he thought he could bring some much-needed discipline to the Go-Go's, well, he had another thing coming. From Lips Unsealed: "He was a lovely, low-key Englishman whose success had brought him a measure of wealth, stature, and a particular way of working. Then he ran into the Go-Go's; we were like a storm hitting his verdant Tudor studio in Berkshire." It turns out that, even while unraveling, the Go-Go's were still pretty hilarious:
Jane lectured me on the importance of my writing and getting songwriter credits on the album so I would make money, and Charlotte came over to my house numerous times to write with me, but I was too scattered to be creative ... It was no secret why. On some tapes we made of us trying to work, I could hear myself in the background snorting coke. On other tapes, I was on the phone arguing with Mike.
Come on Belinda, we need that follow-up to "Skidmarks On My Heart." I guess it was a tall order. I mean, how was she going to compose any lyrics if she couldn't even board an airplane?
I missed two flights in a row. I got to the airport okay, but I was too high to navigate the terminal and get on the plane. I caught a cab home after both false starts. On the third try, I had a big wad of coke with me and I went into the bathroom to do a line and figure out how to deal with everything. Realizing I couldn't deal, I decided to go home.

As I waited for a cab, I was positive that plainclothes detectives had me under surveillance. Several walked slowly past me, turned, and made eye contact, which I assumed meant they wanted me to know that they were aware of me. How? Well, either they had hidden cameras in the bathroom or they had noticed that I was completed gone. There was also the possibility that I was paranoid.
Yes, there is also that possibility as well. Nevertheless, this cat was starting to run out of nine lives - which brings me to another observation about the Talk Show era. For the most part, Belinda and the Go-Go's had been fortunate, sonically and visually, to avoid becoming too stained by the '80s, but around 1984, I think the '80s were finally starting to catch up with them. To put it another way, the Go-Go's were going through their Lesbian Phase. Like, all of them, at the exact same time. Short hair, short hair, and even shorter hair. While I still can't quite keep my eyes away, I must admit that Belinda's physical appearance during this period hit, shall we say, a bit of a rough patch. Some might suggest that she put back on a little of the weight that she'd lost from her punk days, but my issue isn't so much her weight as it is her hairstyle and fashion choices - if, given the woman's state of mind, you could even call them "choices." Belinda's appearance circa 1984 looks all the more bizarre considering her appearance circa 1986, only two measly years later. Let me just say this: if I told someone that Belinda Carlisle was my '80s Dream Woman and all they saw was a picture or a video of Belinda circa 1984, they might think I was insane. And I probably wouldn't blame them. However, out of this neon cocoon would burst a glistening butterfly.

Here's a clip from a behind the scenes show called Album Flash (apparently on Cinemax?) where the increasingly butch Belinda holds court on everything from old high school classmates to her childhood hobby of mutilating Barbie dolls. Highlights:

"I hated Barbie dolls. I liked the way they looked, but I remember, I used to get Barbie dolls, the first thing that would come off was the hair. I'd get scissors from my mom, and she's go, 'OK, don't cut their hair,' and I'd go, 'OK mom,' and I'd like, chop 'em up and they'd have little butch haircuts and stuff."

"When I go back to Thousand Oaks, a lot of the kids, you know, know that I went to Newbury Park High School and all that kind of stuff, and it's funny because people that used to torture me in high school now are my 'best friends.' It always works like that."

(Also classic is Kathy's response, in another clip, to a question about what it means to be a "female" musician in rock: "Being a woman in the music industry is the same as being a man in the music industry. It really doesn't mean a thing to me. I mean, I don't think about it. Ever. Why should I?")

At any rate, while Belinda's brain was being buried in a snow storm, Jane's was experiencing a new kind of personal clarity:
Then, in the middle of making the album, Jane decided she wanted to sing some of the songs, and she kind of flipped out when she was told no.

As I knew, the word "no" was a hard thing for any of us to hear. We were not told no that often, certainly not as much as we should have been. I understood Jane's problem. She was cute, full of personality, and she wrote some of our best songs; she had an ego just like anyone else, yet she stood off to the side, and it bugged the crap out of her - until finally she blew.

I suppose we could have talked it out, but that wasn't the way I handled problems. My way was to ignore them, to pretend they didn't exist. If I didn't confront Jane, she wouldn't confront me about any of my problems. And that's pretty much the way the Go-Go's functioned in general.

One day Jane just couldn't take it anymore. She smashed the mirror in her hotel room and flew back to the States. When she returned, she had decided to leave the band and pursue a solo career, though she kept that news from us for a few more months.
And if she kept that news from the other Go-Go's, she certainly kept that news from the public. Thus, as we look at all the various clips from 1984, we're treated to the spectacle of Jane Wiedlin dutifully pretending to still be excited about her role in the band while secretly loathing every remaining second of it. Here's a clip from a dressing room in Utica, NY, with Belinda in full Grace Jones mode and Jane holding enough grease in her hair to fry an omelette.

So if you're thinking that a Go-Go's without Jane wouldn't be any kind of Go-Go's at all, well, you would be right.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Zrbo's Favorite Song of the Year

As I said in the introduction, this year's music offerings didn't really impress me all that much. I wasn't that impressed with Covenant's latest album Modern Ruin, nor with VNV Nation's Transnational. A lot of the songs that were the big hits of the year like Blurred Lines and Get Lucky failed to really connect with me. However, there was one band that I discovered a few months back that I've really taken a liking to, and that band is.... (opens envelope)...

#1 - Chvrches - Gun

Supposedly Chvrches are some sort of up-and-coming indie/critical darling, but I actually happened to catch them for the first time when I was flipping channels on regular old TV. It was the video for The Mother We Share, another song that I also could have picked for my top spot, both it and Gun are equally good, it just comes down to preference.

Anyways, Chvrches are from Scotland and lead singer Lauren Mayberry apparently has a Masters Degree in Journalism, which I suppose makes her intellectual or something. Her fragile voice reminds me of shoegazing group Cranes (and wouldn't you know it but look who wrote a good deal of those AMG reviews for Cranes... Mr. Ned Raggett strikes again). AMG says Chvrches are "synth pop inspired by Kate Bush and Prince". And they seem to live up to that description as I've found a video of them performing a cover of Prince's "I Would Die 4 U" at Minneapolis' First Avenue appropriately. So that's it, watch the psychedelic video and enjoy.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Night And Day: Joe Jackson Goes Full Yuppie

And then Joe Jackson ... became Billy Joel.

Well, that's probably not how he'd put it, but pretty much, yeah.

And he started selling like Billy Joel too. Although Night And Day was Joe Jackson's most commercially successful record (peaking at #3 in the UK and #4 in the US), most rock critics don't necessarily think that it's his best record. Well, I do. But saying that it is his best album is not to say that it is a perfect album. Night and Day is almost two albums, in fact - and not necessarily a "night" album and a "day" album (come again?). On the one hand it's Joe's "latin jazz" album, and on the other hand it's his "Cole Porter/Irving Berlin/Rodgers & Hart/Great American Songbook" album. It's like he wanted to do two albums and he sort of combined them into one, or maybe he was eating chips and salsa while watching a Busby Berkeley marathon, I don't know. In some ways, this mixture doesn't exactly "work," but compared to the rest of the Top 40 music of 1982, I'd say it certainly beats the competition. Not everyone is quite as generous as I am, however; even though Stephen Thomas Erlewine gives the album four-and-a-half stars, his actual AMG review is surprisingly critical and harsh:
1982 will forever be known as the year that the punks got class -- or at least when Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello, rivals for the title of Britain's reigning Angry Young Man -- decided that they were not just rockers, but really songwriters in the Tin Pan Alley tradition ... In retrospect, the ambitions of these two 27-year-olds (both born in August 1954, just two weeks apart) seem a little grandiose, and if Imperial Bedroom didn't live up to its masterpiece marketing campaign (stalling at number 30 on the charts without generating a hit), it has garnered a stronger reputation than Night and Day, which was a much more popular album, climbing all the way to number four on the U.S. charts, thanks to the Top Ten single "Steppin' Out." Night and Day had greater success because it's sleek and bright, entirely more accessible than the dense, occasionally unwieldy darkness of Imperial Bedroom. Plus, Jackson plays up the comparisons to classic pop songwriting by lifting his album title from Cole Porter, dividing the record into a "night" and "day" side, and then topping it off with a neat line drawing of him at his piano in a New York apartment on the cover. All of these classy trappings are apparent on the surface, which is the problem with the record: it's all stylized, with the feel eclipsing the writing, which is kind of ironic considering that Jackson so clearly strives to be a sophisticated cosmopolitan songwriter here. He gets the cosmopolitan, big-city feel down pat; although the record never delivers on the "night" and "day" split, with the latter side feeling every bit as nocturnal as the former, his blend of percolating Latin rhythms, jazzy horns and pianos, stylish synths, and splashy pop melodies uncannily feel like a bustling, glitzy evening in the big city. On that front, Night and Day is a success, since it creates a mood and sustains it very well. Where it lets down is the substance of the songs. At a mere nine tracks, it's a brief album even by 1982 standards, and it seems even shorter because about half the numbers are more about sound than song. "A Slow Song" gets by on its form, not what it says, while "Target" and "Cancer" are swinging Latin-flavored jams that disappear into the air. "Chinatown" is a novelty pastiche that's slightly off-key, but nowhere near as irritating as "T.V. Age," where Jackson mimics David Byrne's hyper-manic vocal mannerisms. These all fit the concept of the LP and they're engaging on record, but they're slight, especially given Jackson's overarching ambition -- and their flimsiness is brought into sharp relief by the remaining four songs, which are among Jackson's very best ... If all of Night and Day played at this level, it would be the self-styled masterpiece Joe Jackson intended it to be. Instead, it is a very good record that delivers some nice, stylish pleasures; but its shortcomings reveal precisely how difficult it is to follow in the tradition of Porter and Gershwin.
Well, fine, Mr. Erlewine, let's see you try to make a New Wave/Latin jazz-pop/Tin Pan Alley album. In essence, while I agree with many of these observations, I'm not sure Erlewine really sees the forest for the trees. He sounds like someone who heard that the album was great, and then when he actually listened to it, he felt disappointed. I, on the other hand, heard that the album was pretty good but not a classic, and so when I actually listened to it, I felt like it slightly surpassed my expectations. OK, so Joe didn't quite fulfill his ambitions. Why punish a guy for trying to be ambitious ... in the '80s? All right, so he focused a little too much on the surface textures. Why is that a "problem"? Why does everything need to have "shortcomings"? Hardly any other mainstream '80s pop albums contained so many ideas. If it's a mess, at least it's an inviting mess. Imperial Bedroom can go to hell. That's my two cents. All right, Stephen, we're cool now.

At the time, I think most people were too shocked by the sudden appearance of Joe Gershwin to complain that he didn't quite measure up to his predecessors George and Ira. I mean, if there were those expecting Joe to slip back into his fiery power pop mode after the "stylistic detour" of Jumpin' Jive, the sprightly, percussive sizzle of "Another World" quickly put that notion to rest (although the hypnotic mood is almost derailed by his less-than-soothing vocal entry). "I was so low/People almost made me give up trying/Always said no/Then I turned around/Saw someone smiling/I stepped into another world." Uh ... are you sure you're talking about New York, Joe? Well, the Big Apple is Little Earl's favorite city in the whole wide world, so he certainly doesn't need to convince me. Jackson is putting on a top hat, coat and tails, he's about to hit the town like an '80s Fred Astaire, and I'm about to join him. He may not be able to dance like Fred Astaire, but with that thin, partially balding physique, he certainly has the visual resemblance nailed.

Suddenly, on Track 2, [Billy] Joe[l] Jackson attempts to locate a suitable Chinese restaurant, only to end up in the wrong part of town, while employing a racially insensitive accent and Oriental musical motif along the way. Most darkly comic line: "I took a right/Then I took a wrong turn/Someone asked me/For a quarter/It didn't seem to fit/He didn't look much like a Chinaman." You and Christopher Columbus, Joe.

As the night (or day?) wears on during Joe's subterranean journey through the Manhattan streets, he appears to pop in and out of several clubs. Yes, as Erlewine notes, cuts like "Target" and "Cancer" are more like improvised interludes than full-fledged songs, but not every song has to be a hit single, you know? Besides, on an album that reveals a much more socially outgoing Joe, "Cancer" allows him to show his more pessimistic, and somewhat libertarian, side. It's like he's trying to say, "Why don't you just ban fun while you're at it?" At least while he's busy complaining, he's pairing up his grouchiness with a delectable salsa groove. We're all going to die of cancer - but I can dance to it!
Everything gives you cancer
Everything gives you cancer
There's no cure, there's no answer
Everything gives you cancer

Don't touch that dial
Don't try to smile
Just take this pill
It's in your file

Don't work hard
Don't play hard
Don't plan for the graveyard

Don't work by night
Don't play by day
You'll feel all right
But you will pay

No caffeine
No protein
No booze or

"A Slow Song," the show-stopper closer that was Joe's admirable attempt to write a "song about songs," has a nice dramatic build-up and some memorable turns of phrase, but I think Joe forgot to write a chorus:
Music has charms they say
But in some people's hands
It becomes a savage beast
Can't they control it
Why don't they hold it back

You see my friend and me
Don't have an easy day
And at night we dance not fight
And we need the energy
If not the sympathy

But I'm brutalized by bass
And terrorized by treble
I'm open to change my mood but
I always get caught in the middle

And I get tired of DJ's
Why's it always what he plays
I'm gonna push right through
I'm gonna tell him too
Tell him to
Play us
Play us a slow song

Yes, DJ, play us a slow song - just not this one. Maybe some Boyz II Men, "End of the Road"? But I digress. If songs about Chinatown and lung cancer were all that Night And Day had going for it, then sure, it would be all style and no substance. But, as Erlewine mentioned, there are a few other songs on the album that are "among Jackson's very best." You'll notice I put an ellipse there, so that you wouldn't see which songs he was talking about. That's because, just as Joe surprised his '80s Yuppie public, I wanted to give an equal surprise to my '00s "post-pseudo-slacker-Generation iPod" readers. (Note to self: need a better name for my generation?)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of the Year: Numbers 3 and 2

#3 Lady Gaga - Aura/Burqa (demo version)

I must have a thing for Lady Gaga. Yes, I've heard the complaints. "She's ripping off Madonna" / "she's trying to hard to be provocative" / "it's just pop music." Gaga's pretty much guilty on all three counts, but it doesn't matter because even though the music may just be gussied up pop music, it's interesting gussied up pop music. Take the demo that leaked earlier this year for the song that would end up being simply called "Aura". I prefer this version to the more polished final cut we got on the album ARTPOP. I like how the song sounds like it's all over the place. It begins with twangy guitars out of some Robert Rodriguez mock B-movie, then moves into some modern dubstep thing with lots of stutters and breaks. By this time you may be thinking "what the heck am I listening to?" and just then the song bursts into a delectably sugary sweet chorus that would even make ol' Madonna smile. I love it.


#2 Benny Mardones - Into the Night

And here's my requisite retro pick of the year. I'd never heard this song until Little Earl posted an entry about it this past summer. At first I liked the song ironically, mainly for the dated music video. But after a while the song clawed its way into my head and now I unabashedly adore it. It begins almost lazily, but slowly builds in intensity so that by the end of the song you've got the full on "slowly dipping his toes into a vat of acid" screams as Little Earl so eloquently described. Here's to you and your pedophilic ways Mr. Mardones, earning you my number 2 spot for 2013.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of the Year: Numbers 5 and 4

#5 VNV Nation - Teleconnect Part 2

I found VNV Nation's newest album, Transnational, to be a bit of a letdown. While it's managed to grow on me somewhat since posting my review, the album is not the band's strongest. Lead man Ronan Harris has slowly changed the band over time from an industrial music outfit to a band that (expertly) produces synthy pop ballads, or as one commenter put it: Ronan Harris is the Phil Collins of industrial music.

There's definitely some truth to that statement. But damn if the band isn't just so good at creating synth-filled ballads. Take my number 5 pick of the year, the final track off Transnational, Teleconnect Part 2. Nearly the entire song is just one big synthy buildup. All that energy is released during the final two minutes with some exquisitely empowering lyrics that are just so quintessentially VNV in their sentiment.

#4 Emeli Sandé - Next to Me

I'm exposed to a lot of Top 40 at my work and sometimes a song will work its way into my brain, even songs from a genre I usually have zero interest in or opinion of. Next to Me is some sort of pop-gospel hybrid with a dash of that indie-folk sound that seems to be all the rage. I'm not even sure what she's talking about (I think it's about God, but who knows?). Anyways, I didn't expect to like this song so much and I bet you didn't expect to see it on this list, so we're both even.

Next time: three followed by two.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Laura": He's Just Not That Into You - But Man, He's Really Into The Beatles

Ever had that one friend of the opposite sex who just ... couldn't take a hint? That one girl who simply couldn't figure out that, as the saying goes, "he's just not that into you"? "Laura" is that girl.

"Laura" may be the best '80s song about guilt - not that I can name any others, but hey, I'm in a bold mood. It's the Mamas & the Papas' "I Saw Her Again" of the '80s. Let's just say that if there are any other '80s songs about guilt, we don't really need them, because "Laura" pretty much covers it:
Laura, calls me
In the middle of the night
Passes on her
Painful information
Then these careless fingers
They get caught in her vice
Til they're bleeding
On my coffee table

Living alone isn't all that
It's cracked up to be
I'm on her side
Why does she push the poison on me?

Has a very hard time
All her life has
Been one long disaster
Then she tells me
She suddenly believes she's seen
A very good sign
She'll be taking
Some aggressive action

I fight her wars while she's
Slamming her doors in my face
Failure to break was the
Only mistake that she made

Here I am
Feeling like a fucking fool
Do I react the way exactly
She intends me to?

Every time I think I'm off the hook
She makes me lose my cool
I'm her machine
And she can punch all the keys
And she can push any button I was programmed through
It's a dance as old as time. Here's this guy, he really wants to make a good clean break, this twisted dynamic needs to go, it's no good for him, and hell, it's not even good for her, but he just ... can't ... do it. Chuck Klosterman writes:
"Laura" is about a relentlessly desperate woman (possibly his ex-wife, possibly someone else, possibly somebody fictional) who is slowly killing the narrator by refusing to end a relationship that's clearly over. Making matters worse is the narrator's inability to say "no" to Laura, a woman who continues to sexually control him ... This is a song about someone whose life is technically and superficially perfect, but secretly in shambles. It's about having a dark secret, but - once again - not a cool secret. This is not a sexy problem (like heroin addiction), or even an interesting one ... it's mostly just exhausting, and that's how it feels.
Well, exhaustion never felt this good. Billy goes all-out to capture the protagonist's agonizing, crawling, suffocating claustrophobia. "Laura" probably contains some of the most artful, twisted, and dense lyrical couplets in Billy Joel's entire catalog. We've got poison, vice grips, electric chairs, umbilical chords - it's like a bad David Lynch movie:
Laura, calls me
When she needs a good fix
All her questions
Will get sympathetic answers
I should be so
To all of her tricks
She's surviving
On her second chances

Sometimes I feel like this
Godfather deal is all wrong
How can she hold an umbilical chord
For so long?
I used to hear "I'm on her side/Why does she push the poison on me?" as "I'm on her sidewinder/She pushed the poison on me," which is wrong, but it kind of works too. I also I used to hear "umbilical cord" as "a musical chord," but if Billy's comments in a 1982 British radio interview are to be believed, then it's definitely "umbilical cord":
I didn't really want to give the person in the song a sex. What I referred to as "Laura," it's a woman obviously but I didn't mean it to be that. I meant it to be anyone who knows how to give you guilt. For a lot of people, it's mom. Only mom knows how to stick that knife in, how to turn the blade. For some people it's pop, for some people it's the wife or the husband, or the kids, in reverse. But really it's about anyone who knows how to push the right button.
This would jibe with Klosterman's story of eventually asking Billy about meaning of the song in an interview, where Billy hinted that the "umbilical cord" line was "a complete giveaway line." Sounds like a ... great relationship. I just have one question: did Billy Joel's mother happen to know about this?

At any rate, mother/lover/sister or whoever the hell she may be, Laura is an absolute pro. Billy pulls out all the stops in the last verse, which arguably features the best use of the word "absolution" in a pop song ever: "Laura loves me/Even if I don't care/That's my problem/That's her sacred absolution/If she had to/She would put herself in my chair/Even though I/Faced electrocution." That's the kind of devotion that you'd actually rather not receive. Thanks, Laura, but no thanks.

To the shock of Billy Joel fans everywhere, at the start of the first bridge, the Piano Man even drops an "F" bomb in there. This ain't your grandma's Huey Lewis record! When I was fourteen I thought the cursing was cool, then later I thought it was laughable, but these days I just kind of forget that it's there. Hmm, I wonder why "Laura" never received much radio play?

But "Laura" is the tale of two obsessions. While the lyrics describe a woman's obsession with a waffling male, the music reveals Billy Joel's complete and total obsession with the Beatles. Although ELO, Todd Rundgren, XTC, and Tears for Fears might beg to differ, Beatles homages don't come more blatant than "Laura." There are so many sonic references, I decided to make a list:

1) The intro, with its baroque, descending cello line: sounds like the intro to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"
2) The tempo: reminiscent of druggy Lennon White Album songs like "I'm So Tired" and "Sexy Sadie"
3) The choppy guitar chords: straight out of "Oh! Darling"
4) The "ah ah" backing vocals: probably flew in from the "Oh that magic feeling" section of "You Never Give Me Your Money"
5) The sudden, jarring double-tracking of Billy's voice: utilized in "Run For Your Life," "I Am the Walrus," "Hey Bulldog," and countless other Lennon vocal mixes
6) The guitar solo: vintage Harrison circa 1969
7) The massive echo on the drums: "Instant Karma!" anybody?

The song is so chock-full of Beatles bits that the surviving members could have sued for plagiarism. But they probably had better things to do. At the very least, you have to admire the ability of the musicians in Billy Joel's band to emulate the style so accurately. In the end, the nice thing about "Laura" is that, as much as the music reveals a strong case of Beatlephilia, the narrative has nothing to do with the Beatles or any particular Beatles song. Although, come to think of it, Laura does sound an awful lot like a description of Yoko.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of the Year: The Introduction

Here we are again, another year nearing its end and Zrbo back to give you a dose of the music that got him through 2013.  To tell the truth I wasn't all that impressed with the music I heard this year. A lot of the songs that made it big I thought were fine, but nothing to write home about. Everyone seemed to be raving about Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" though I thought it was just OK. "Blurred Lines" stole the summer, but does anyone really know the lyrics outside of the title words? Or maybe it's just that I'm not too keen on Pharrell Williams, since he was in both songs. Frankly Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" provides more punch than most of the other hits of the year. There was one band that I discovered though who managed to make an impression, and we just might be seeing them somewhere in my top 5.

But before we get to the list (which I've decided to break into several posts at the old recommendation of Mr. Earl), let's begin with a couple of other tracks. First off is perhaps the oddest song of the year. Here's a song that seemed to fly under the radar that featured a cast of characters that I don't usually go in for (and "featuring" so many artists I'm not sure who it's actually supposed to be by). Let's see, you've got Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am (groan), Puff "I lost track of what my name is anymore" Daddy (Diddy? P. Dids? Diddinator?), Lil Wayne, some other guys I don't know... and Britney Spears sporting a fake British posh accent - oh, and this is apparently a "remix".

I'm honestly not sure what to make of this song. Why do they look like rotating action figures? Just why is Britney pretending she's Victoria Beckham? Considering the combined star power of these people why does the video look like it was filmed in an hour on a blank stage? I don't know, but it's so silly I can't prevent myself from chuckling whenever I watch this.

Ok, now that we're done analyzing the downfall of mankind, here's perhaps my LEAST favorite song of the year:

I'm not entirely sure why this songs irritates me so much, but it does. It sounds very late 90s to me, like it should be on a compilation alongside Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5". Anyways, I wouldn't quite say I hate it, but I strongly dislike it, and whenever it comes on the radio I change the dial as fast as I can.

That's it for the introduction, stay tuned to hear my actual top 5!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"I Want A New Drug/Duck/Ghost" AKA Who You Gonna Call? My Lawyer

When Ray Parker, Jr. came out with the theme from Ghostbusters, everybody and their mother apparently thought, "Hey that sounds just like Huey Lewis and the News' 'I Want a New Drug'!" Everybody, except for four-year-old me, of course, who'd never heard "I Want a New Drug," but who had recently been scared shitless by a (possibly ill-advised?) theatrical viewing of Ghostbusters.

Years later I would see lists of Huey Lewis' hit song titles, and I was always confused by the title "I Want a New Drug." I thought drugs were bad, mmm-kay? Why would Huey Lewis, quite clearly a morally upright and decent person, be advocating drug use? Was the song supposed to be ironic? Was he playing a character? Even now, I'm looking at the lyrics and I have no idea why he's talking about drugs. According to Patrick Bateman, "not only is it the greatest antidrug song ever written, it's also a personal statement about how the band has grown up, shucked off their bad-boy image and learned to become more adult," but I'm not entirely buying it. Besides, nobody says, "I want a new drug." That's like saying "I want a new school." It just sounds awkward. Maybe you'd say, "I want to take a different kind of drug," but not "I want a new drug."

At any rate, in the late '90s I finally heard "I Want a New Drug," and you want to know the funny thing? It didn't even occur to me that the song sounded like "Ghostbusters." If anything, I would have assumed that Huey Lewis had ripped off Ray Parker, Jr. He certainly wasn't ripping off himself. "I Want A New Drug" is sort of Huey Lewis' stab at Aerobic Rock, and he stabbed well: not only did the song peak at #6, but it managed to top the Dance Club Play chart. I don't think Michael Jackson had anything to worry about.

The video featured the debut of Huey's now-iconic red sportcoat/black t-shirt/shades look, and, funny, but he keeps spotting the same girl everywhere he goes. Matter of fact, isn't that the same girl from the "Heart and Soul" video? Well by golly, it is! Her name is Signy Coleman, and fellow '80s blogger Noblemania managed to track her down recently:
How were you cast?

It was very funny. My agent said, “They’re looking for punk rockers so I want you to put some of that spray stuff in your hair and put on torn fishnet stockings.” I said, “Lynn, I’m not doing that. I don’t look anything like a punk rocker.” I said I’ll put on high heels but that’s about the extent of it. I went to the audition and there were 50 of the most hardcore punk rockers I’ve ever seen. I turned around to leave and the director popped his head out of the room they were casting in and said, “Hey, miniskirt, where are you going?” He pulled me in and said they were also looking for a girl who’s the opposite and stands out in the crowd of these unusual characters. I was asked to pretend to flirt with guy across the room, which I like to believe I had a little experience with at that point.

Did you have to audition for the second video (“I Want a New Drug”), or were you asked to be in it because of the first video?

I was just asked. They were filmed about a year apart. That one was more difficult. They had me on a boat in the bay when it was cold. The concert footage in it was real concert footage. Girls who are Huey fans are hardcore Huey fans. Right before they were about to start they walked me across the stage and put me dead center and there were girls in the front row of the audience who had all kinds of unladylike things to say to me. I won’t repeat them! The crew had to handpick a group of people to surround me so I didn’t get my hair ripped out, particularly when Huey leaned in to kiss me.
Lesson No. 1: Don't fuck with Huey Lewis fans. Lesson No. 2: Huey Lewis goes wherever he wants, even when it makes no sense. From Wikipedia: "The video is rather fast and loose with Bay Area geography: it starts with him driving toward downtown San Francisco, then on a ferry headed from Marin County toward San Francisco...then boarding a helicopter that flies over downtown back toward Marin County where the concert seems to be held." Hey, this was in the days before GPS, OK?

So, another solid hit, another tongue-in-cheek video - that it's, moving along, right? Not so fast.

One day, Huey was listening to the radio, minding his own business, when he heard a brand new song that sounded strangely ... familiar:
When the similarities between this song and the theme song of the 1984 film Ghostbusters were heard, Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr. for plagiarism, claiming that Parker had stolen the melody from "I Want a New Drug". Lewis had been approached to compose the main theme song for the film, but had to decline because of his work on the soundtrack for Back To The Future. The two parties settled out of court. Details of the settlement (specifically, that Columbia Pictures paid Lewis a settlement) were confidential until 2001, when Lewis commented on the payment in an episode of VH1's Behind The Music. Parker subsequently sued Lewis for breaching confidentiality.
Well, yeah. When something's confidential, it's confidential - even fifteen years later. Ray Parker, Jr. never forgets, bitch. OK, so maybe he ripped off "I Want a New Drug." But you know what? He actually made it ... better. Let's face it, "Ghostbusters" is funkier, catchier, and heavier than "I Want A New Drug" ever was. At the very least, it may be the most danceable song about ghosts ever written (with the arguable exception of "The Monster Mash"). Besides, the song always makes me think of the movie Ghostbusters, which is, you know, a great movie. "I Want a New Drug" just makes me think of the D.A.R.E. program. If anything, the song Ray Parker, Jr. actually ripped off was the Bar-Kays' "Soul Finger," but let's not split hairs. Maybe Huey was just pissed off that, in a delicious irony, "Ghostbusters" only made it to #6 on the Dance Club Play chart, but hit #1 on the pop chart.

The "Ghostbusters" video didn't quite have the same budget as the Ghostbusters movie, but it does have more neon furniture, and more celebrity cameos (Irene Cara? Peter Falk?!). At about the 3:08 mark, the damsel in distress shows up in some sort of light blue button-up blouse that's also a skirt (?), but in a strange way I find it kind of hot.

Perhaps the musician who had the clearest vision for how to improve "I Want a New Drug" was not Ray Parker, Jr., but Weird Al. Over the course of three minutes and thirty seconds, Yankovic unleashes every potentially groan-inducing duck pun known to man: "I'll tie him up with duck tape"; "The duck stops here"; "Show me how to get down"; "One that won't smell too foul" - the man could go all night. The only thing missing was a music video with Signy Coleman in a duck suit.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Silence Of The Go-Go's AKA The Affair Between Belinda Carlisle And Jonathan Demme That Nobody Knew About For 25 Years

Not every singer can act, although many try. One singer who did not try particularly hard was Belinda Carlisle. On a whim, in 1983, she took a bit part in a movie called Swing Shift, playing a big band singer. I don't believe she had any dialogue; she just sang on a stage like she always did. In the words of Buck Owens, "All I have to do is act naturally."

Look at the way she ... stands there! So believable! So convincing! At the time, the movie became famous for spurring the romance between Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, but little did we know that it also spurred a brief romance between Belinda and the film's director, Jonathan Demme. From Lips Unsealed:
I hit it off with Jonathan, who was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Mike. In his late thirties, Jonathan was brilliant, clever, funny, way hip, knowledgeable about music, and adorable. One day on the set, as I stood amid the clutter of cameras and lights, he came up alongside me and with a playful twinkle in his eye that was pure Jonathan, he said, "So how does somebody get a date with you?"

"Just ask," I said.
Wait, Jonathan Demme? You mean to tell me that Jonathan Demme managed to shag Belinda Carlisle? You mean the same guy who'd just directed this?:

And who was about to direct this?:

And who, eight years later, would eventually direct this?:

Damn. Way to go, Jonathan Demme. And he didn't even tell anyone? Dude's got class.

You'd think that, given all the media frenzy surrounding the supposed American dream couple that was Belinda Carlisle and Mike Marshall, somebody would have noticed that one half of this couple was having an affair with a major Hollywood director. But apparently no one did.
I began seeing Jonathan on the sly. I had a great time with him. He was smart, talented, and funny. We shared common interests and knew some of the same people. All these things made me ask myself, Why was I with Mike? Friends of mine, those who hadn't dropped me because they were put off by Mike, asked the same thing: What do you see in him?

My gay friend and sometime assistant, Jack, had the best line. One day, after Mike made some off-putting comment about him when he'd called (like "it's your fag friend"), Jack simply said, "Honey, I don't get it. He's not even cute."

But like many women, I was unable to step outside of the hold he had on me ... As I made a salad one night, he yelled at me for cutting the lettuce instead of tearing it. I stood there with lettuce leaves in each hand and thought, What's wrong with me that I can't leave this guy?
Get a clue, Belinda!
Sadly, Jonathan eventually gave up on me. Though we had a great time together, he saw that I wasn't going to leave Mike, not for him, not for something that was healthy and made sense. I have a hunch that Jonathan also realized he was competing not only against a Dodger but also against another equally fucked-up relationship of mine - with cocaine.

My sister was the only one honest enough to say something to my face. I had taken her to a Dodgers game, and as we entered the VIP section, she turned to me and said, "Belinda, I hate to say this, but you look really old."

I was just shy of turning twenty-five.
Well, to be fair, back then, twenty-five was pretty old.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Beat Crazy And Jumpin' Jive: Joe Jackson Inches His Way Towards Yuppie Rock

But before he went Yuppie, first he went reggae.

There are many styles for which I might have thought Joe Jackson's gifts would be suited, but reggae was probably not one of them. When I think of reggae, I think "mellow," and when I think of Joe Jackson, well, I don't think "mellow." Perhaps he got high one night, had an epiphany, and thought, "I need to do a cover of 'The Harder They Come.' Like, now."

That rasta spirit bled into 1980's Beat Crazy, which is often described as Joe Jackson's "reggae" album, although it only departs from his pre-established persona in subtle ways. If anything, I like it more than his first two albums, for some impalpable reason. The title track is certainly a slammin' slice of Jamaican Joe, featuring shared vocals from his bassist, who has an arguably better singing voice than Joe does. Joe probably thought, "Hmm, last time I do that."

But the second cut, "One To One," is the most prominent glimpse yet of the piano-playing, jazz-pop crooner Joe to come. While the opening sounds suspiciously like CCR's "Someday Never Comes," once those big, bright chords flow out from Joe's supple fingers, it's clear we're not about to be treated to a piece of swamp rock. Judging by the lyrics, it sounds like Joe has finally begun to achieve some dating success, only it's been a pyrrhic victory, as the political beliefs of his girlfriend are starting to annoy the crap out of him:
Tried to call you yesterday
But you were at the Monday Club
Or a Communist demonstration
Who cares
You're going somewhere everyday
Vegetarians Against the Klan
Every Woman Against Every Man

One to one
What's wrong
What's wrong with one to one
Just once
Just me and you
'Cause one to one is real
And you can't hide, just feel
That three's a crowd

I agree with what you say
But I don't wanna wear a badge
I don't wanna wave a banner like you
Though I don't mind it if you do
You're beautiful when you get mad
Or is that a sexist observation

Vegetarians Against The Klan? I think that's one rally I'd actually like to attend. Still, the lounge moments on Beat Crazy are far outweighed by the usual blistering diatribes like "Someone Up There" and "Biology." He also uses the N-word on "Battleground," to artistically negligible effect, but it doesn't bother me too much; at least he didn't pull a John Lennon or a Patti Smith and stick it in the song title.

At any rate, reggae was one thing, but big band swing was another. Joe really threw everybody a curveball with his fourth album, 1981's Jumpin' Jive, a full-blown stylistic homage to Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway. As AMG's William Ruhlmann writes, "In the U.S., the album was not so much 35 years behind the times as 15 years ahead of them; had it appeared in the mid-'90s, it would have fit right in with releases by the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy as part of the neo-swing movement." Well, I like the album about as much as I like Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy albums, which is to say, not very much. Jumpin' Jive is basically ... a tribute album. OK, fine Joe, you proved you could recreate the genre to perfection, but did you add your own twist to the sound? I mean, how is Jumpin' Jive is any different from just some local neighborhood wedding band? Still, you've got to give him points for completely confusing the shit out of his audience.

Next time around, Joe would not only confuse the shit out of his audience, but find a whole new audience out of which he could not confuse the shit (given that they would be discovering him for the very first time and would not have had any idea of what he was "supposed" to sound like). For you see, far from being a temporary stylistic detour, in retrospect Jumpin' Jive was the work that truly set the stage for the emergence of a New Joe. This New Joe would be jazzy. He would be elegant. He would live in a beautiful apartment in Manhattan's Upper West Side. He would sip cocktails while wearing a tuxedo.

In short, this new Joe would be ... wait for it ... wait for it ...

Yuppie Joe.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Nylon Curtain: Yuppie Rock Goes Psychedelic / "Allentown": Billy Joel Meets 1982 ... And He Doesn't Like It

And then Billy Joel went psychedelic.

Boy, if you thought Glass Houses was weird, then get a load of The Nylon Curtain.

One doesn't hear too much about The Nylon Curtain these days. On the Acclaimed Music website, for instance, the album doesn't even make an appearance on their "Best albums of 1982" list - and they list about 80 albums! Yes, Amy Grant's Age To Age and Captain Beefheart's Ice Cream For Crow garner some votes, but no love for The Nylon Curtain.

But man. If you want to know the truth, The Nylon Curtain has got to be, by mainstream early '80s standards at least, one of the darkest, weirdest, most ambitious, complex, honest, acerbic, and just all-around fascinating albums of its era. It's a big, heaping plate of '80s malaise, created by just the man for the job. Who better to tackle the least sexy topics of the early '80s than the early '80s' least sexy rock star?

Most reviews will mention that The Nylon Curtain is Billy Joel's "political" album, and to some extent that's true, although only two songs are overtly "political" and even those are open to interpretation regardless. The interesting part about The Nylon Curtain is that it's also Billy Joel's "divorce" album, as he divorced his first wife Elizabeth just prior to the album's creation. Maybe he figured, "Well, if I'm already chronicling the collapse of American society in the Reagan years, I might as well chronicle the collapse of my marriage while I'm at it."

But there's more! If, lyrically, The Nylon Curtain is Billy Joel's "political/divorce" album, then musically, it is his "Beatles" album. You see, after boldly confronting the musical present on Glass Houses, Billy Joel swiftly changed tack and decided to boldly confront the musical past. What happened to cause this sudden turnaround? Did he realize he could not single-handedly vanquish the forces of punk and New Wave? Yeah, not exactly. What happened is that John Lennon got shot. The louse.

I'm often fond of saying that Billy Joel is what Paul McCartney's solo career should have sounded like if McCartney's solo career had been any good, but in an interesting twist, on The Nylon Curtain, Joel spends most of his time trying to sound like John Lennon. He never sings about this directly, but the ghost of the Lennon assassination hangs over this album like a sticky film of goo. Amusingly enough, I have actually read, in two different books, that Lennon was something of a Billy Joel fan and expressed his admiration for both "Just The Way You Are" and Glass Houses to certain friends before he died (an opinion which, had it become more widely known, would have shattered the fragile value systems of the era's rock critics). Even more amusing is that Julian Lennon, upon hearing The Nylon Curtain, became so impressed with the sound of it, he hired the album's producer, Phil Ramone, to produce his own debut album (!). Talk about a pop music mobius strip.

"But didn't Billy Joel already sound a lot like the Beatles anyway?" you say. Well sure, like any pop singer of the '70s, of course Billy Joel had always been heavily influenced by that Liverpudlian foursome. However, on The Nylon Curtain, he wasn't merely influenced by the Beatles. He was the Beatles. Turn your head and spit and you'll hit a White Album or an Abbey Road lick. It's a full-on Beatles revival. Hey, if you're gonna rip off a band, you might as well rip off the best. I suppose one could accuse Joel of being derivative, but the nice thing about The Nylon Curtain is that, while the music owes much to the Beatles, the lyrics are firmly rooted in the life and times of Billy Joel circa 1982. And those were some zany times, let me tell you.

The Nylon Curtain is such a deranged Yuppie Rock stew, I might end up breaking the whole thing down song-by-song when all is said and done, but for now let's just take if from the top. Perhaps more Dylanesque than Beatlesque, the stately "Allentown" quickly wipes away any lingering memories of the goofy, drunken spirit so prevalent in "You May Be Right" and "Sometimes A Fantasy." But, somebody tell me: whose idea was it to throw in those little grunting "machinery" noises? What is this, a Spike Jones record?
Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
Filling out forms, standing in line
Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance, danced with them slow
And we're living here in Allentown

But the restlessness was handed down
And it's getting very hard to stay

Well we're waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard, if we behaved
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
Iron and coke, chromium steel
And we're waiting here in Allentown

But they've taken all the coal from the ground
And the union people crawled away

Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face

Well I'm living here in Allentown
And it's hard to keep a good man down
But I won't be getting up today

Sure makes you want to visit, doesn't it? Of course, Allentown could be any town, in any state, in any decade even (perhaps our own). What I like about "Allentown" is that Billy doesn't try to offer any solutions; he simply paints the picture and scratches his head. Maybe working class Americans didn't deserve more, but they certainly expected more. "They threw an American flag in our face," as he puts it. You want a job? Here's Ronald Reagan's big fat grin instead.

"Allentown" is almost a description of the apocalypse, but it's like the world's most boring, drawn out apocalypse. Everything is just slowly, gradually becoming ... worse. The coal's gone, the unions are fleeing, the factories are evaporating ... I mean, if you actually visit Allentown, I'm sure it just looks like some crummy Rust Belt city, but when I listen to the song "Allentown," I almost see a darkly curling, Edvard Munch-ian sky overhead, while vultures and crows pick at the bones of the abandoned machinery. It expresses such a deflating sense of apathy and defeat. When he sings, "It's hard to keep a good man down," I'm thinking, "Yeah, that's right, this is America, we're gonna take Midwestern industrial decline and kick it in the ass." That's the vision we have of ourselves; we're gonna be Bruce Willis and we're going to blow shit up and take care of business. But the protagonist of "Allentown" just shrugs, "I won't be getting up today." Hey ... wait a minute. This isn't the movie I paid to see. And there's not enough butter on my popcorn! "Allentown" is like paying to see an overly-hyped action movie, realizing halfway through that it's one big letdown, and there is no refund. Or, as Joel would put it by the end of the album, "Where's the orchestra?"

It speaks to Billy Joel's red-hot popularity that a song this depressing managed to become a sizable hit; according to Wikipedia, in a strange case of longevity, although "Allentown" only peaked at #17, it spent six consecutive weeks in that spot. Well congratulations. In the video, Billy is a modern-day Woody Guthrie, strumming an acoustic guitar on a park bench, but he seems a bit oblivious to the glistening male torsos around him. It turns out that in 1982, Billy was still a little green when it came to picking up certain signals; perhaps after touring enough times with Elton John, he's learned a thing or two. Here are some recent comments:
That's the gayest video. I just realized, I was watching it the other day. The director was Russell Mulcahy, he's a terrifically talented director, but he had an opportunity to get a bunch of naked guys in a room, takin' a shower. I didn't think about it. "OK, they're in the army, they're in a factory, they're takin' a shower" ... and there's a lot of this throughout the video - I just saw this recently, I said, "There's another bunch of naked guys, and there's another bunch of naked guys!" I didn't pick up on it back then, but man, that's a gay video.
Billy Joel: putting the "gay" in post-war industrial decline.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Joe Jackson: Before He Went Yuppie

No, he wasn't banned from baseball during the Black Sox scandal, and no, he wasn't Michael Jackson's father either. This Joe Jackson was better than both of those Joe Jacksons combined - and he was certainly better than your Average Joe.

In fact, at the start of his career in the late '70s, the perfect adjective for Joe Jackson wasn't "average"; it was "angry." Once upon a time, Joe Jackson was an Angry Young Man. Well, officially, he was one of three Angry Young Men, the other two being Graham Parker and Elvis Costello. Graham Parker never really made it in America, and never really made it into my music collection either; I find him a little too coarse and "pub rock," without any real pop instinct to help make the lyrics stick. Elvis Costello bounced right off me at first, but I grew to appreciate the Bespectacled One in college - after I'd first exhausted the catalog of every other singer-songwriter of the '60s and '70s. But when all is said and done, Joe Jackson is the Angry Young Man who remains closest to my Angry Young Heart.

Let me put it this way: Elvis Costello's linguistic prowess was probably more nimble, and his musical output was more reliably consistent, whereas Joe Jackson's lyrics were occasionally awkward and some of his musical ideas could be overly-ambitious or ill-conceived. But I think because Jackson took bigger risks, he was able to really soar once in a while, while Costello seemed to stay in his tasteful little box. In baseball terms, Costello may have had the higher batting average, but Jackson probably hit more home runs. Also, I never quite understood what Elvis Costello was so angry about; his life seemed pretty OK. But Joe Jackson ... I mean, yeah. If I were Joe Jackson, I would have been pissed too. In summary: a friend of mine once referred to Elvis Costello as "a man with a thousand words and nothing to say." Joe Jackson may have used less words, but I think he ultimately had more to say.

He also had a lot more instruments to play. Even more so than Paul Weller or Sting, Joe Jackson was a trained musician in punk's clothing. He studied classical music at the Royal Academy of Music in London and could play piano, saxophone, violin, and oboe (!), but you'd never know from it listening to his first album, 1979's Look Sharp!, on which he hardly played any instruments at all. Instead, he mostly just stood at the mic and tried to sound like a punk rocker, while a guitar-heavy trio bashed away behind him. I was already familiar with Jackson's early '80s jazz-pop hits by the time I heard Look Sharp!, and it was jarring to hear just how ... simple he sounded. It was like listening to Rachmaninoff play the Moonlight Sonata. "Come on, Joe! You can write big sweeping hooks! What's with this two chord crap?" But I guess no one knew this at the time, and Joe didn't care. Over the years, this early sound has grown on me, but I still find it a bit odd to hear a musician deliberately "dumb down" his music. I mean, who wants to watch Usain Bolt play table tennis?

The melodies may have been more conventional, but Jackson's persona already stood out like a sore thumb. Unlike the vast majority of rock music, Look Sharp! was an album made by a guy who had not been very ... successful with women. Joe Jackson was not, shall we say, the most attractive singer; between the prematurely balding hair, bony cheeks, crooked teeth, and more of a snout than a proper nose, he looked like a cross between a skeleton and a pig. You've got to give him this: Joe Jackson was one musician who definitely did not make it on his looks.

Nor did he make it on his voice, which nevertheless happens to be one of my favorite singing voices of the '80s. How shall I describe it? Joe Jackson's voice is like a garbled slur. When he holds a note he almost approximates the sound of a wailing toddler. But that voice is distinctly his. Give me three seconds and I can recognize the sound of Joe Jackson, any time, anywhere.

On Look Sharp!, Jackson wasn't so much an Angry Young Man as an Angry Young Romantic Failure. Not only had he never succeeded with girls, but he was firmly convinced that he never would, either. And it was pissing him off! His early lyrics capture the full scope of that stage in a dorky man's life: the jealousy, the longing, the resentment, the attraction, the helplessness, the bluster ... rinse and repeat. Joe Jackson lived in a world where every single person around him seemed to have more success with relationships than he did. I'd like to say that I never identified with his predicament, but I would be lying. I'd also like to say that I've grown out of this stage, but I would probably be lying there as well.

His persona was fully formed right from the opening track, "One More Time," which, aside from being a riveting album opener, was also used to questionable effect in a Taco Bell commercial a couple of years ago:
Tell me one more time as I hold your hand, that you don't love me
Tell me one more time as teardrops start to fall
Shout it to me and I'll shout it to the skies above me
That there was nothing after all

Baby, baby, tell me that you never wanted my loving
Baby, baby, tell me that you never, tell me, tell me
One more time, one more time, say you're leaving, say goodbye
One more time, one more time, say you're leaving, say goodbye

Tell me one more time that we never had a thing in common
Tell me one more time as you turn and face the wall
Tell me I should know you were never my kind of woman
Tell me we were fools to fall

Joe Jackson may have been a self-loathing virgin, but he was a self-loathing virgin who could make a hit record. I have to laugh at how Elvis Costello tried desperately for seven years to have a US Top 40 single, and yet Joe Jackson managed to have one right off the bat (don't worry, Declan, you'd get there). "Is She Really Going Out With Him?," title taken from the Shangri-La's' "Leader of the Pack," peaked at #21 and became the ultimate frustrated loner anthem. I'm not sure how a single this quasi-punk managed to make it on American radio, but I guess it was just pop enough and lyrically quirky enough to appeal to a broader public. Joe does grace the track with a light sprinkling of piano in the opening and on the bridge, foreshadowing the Joe Jackson sound of the future. It's funny, but there is something intangible about the sound of Joe's voice when combined with the piano that instantly transports me back to the early '80s, even when the song itself is not one I remember from that time.
Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street
From my window I'm staring while my coffee grows cold
Look over there! (Where?)
There's a lady that I used to know
She's married now, or engaged, or something, so I am told

Is she really going out with him?
Is she really gonna take him home tonight?
Is she really going out with him?
'Cause if my eyes don't deceive me,
There's something going wrong around here

Tonight's the night when I go to all the parties down my street
I wash my hair and I kid myself I look real smooth
Look over there! (Where?)
Here comes Jeanie with her new boyfriend
They say that looks don't count for much
If so, there goes your proof

But if looks could kill
There's a man there who's more down as dead
Cause I've had my fill
Listen you, take your hands off her head
I get so mean around this scene

Nice guys finish last, as they say. But Joe's wrath was all-encompassing and not just reserved for the women who scorned him. On "Sunday Papers," for instance, he sarcastically extols the virtues of the British newspaper business:
Mother doesn't go out any more
Just sits at home and rolls her spastic eyes
But every weekend through the door
Come words of wisdom from the world outside

If you want to know about the bishop and the actress
If you want to know how to be a star
If you want to know about the stains on the mattress
You can read it in the Sunday papers, Sunday papers

Mother's wheelchair stays out in the hall
Why should she go out when the TV's on
Whatever moves beyond these walls
She'll know the facts when Sunday comes along

If you want to know about the man gone bonkers
If you want to know how to play guitar
If you want to know 'bout any other suckers
You can read it in the Sunday papers

Brother's heading that way now I guess
He just read something made his face turn blue
Well I got nothing against the press
They wouldn't print it if it wasn't true

If you want to know about the gay politician
If you want to know how to drive your car
If you want to know about the new sex position
You can read it in the Sunday papers

Boy, do I! The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? Speaking of staying the same, Jackson's second album, I'm The Man, mined similarly bare-bones, cynical loser territory as his debut, but if his persona wasn't quite as fresh this time, neither had it worn out its welcome just yet. "Geraldine and John" is like an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story set to a reggae beat; I almost picture Dick and Nicole Diver strutting around a European country club, trying in vain to keep their bourgeois secrets from each other:
See the bright red sports car, see the happy couple
See their clothes so white and their skin so pink
See them playing squash gotta keep their bodies supple
How they kiss goodnight but tomorrow they'll be thinking
All day long, all day long

Geraldine and John
See the happy couple, so inseparable
And the beat goes on
And for better or worse
They are married but of course
Not to each other

Geraldine and John gotta keep it under cover
See they scheme and sweat but it's all worthwhile
Now he goes back home to a wife who's not a lover
Now her eyes are wet but tomorrow she'll be smiling
All day long, all day long

Yuppie hypocrisy: makes an Angry Young Man want to puke, I tell you. I mean, there's no way that Joe Jackson would ever turn into anything remotely like Geraldine and John right? Right???

Oh, there's a way. But it would take some time.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Belinda And The Ugly Dodger Boyfriend - Part II AKA "We Don't Get Along"

So Belinda, that Mike Marshall fellow ... how did it go?

"Mike came out for some dates and brought along his hard-partying teammate Bob Welch, who was a great guy, though not without his own troubles. He and Charlotte took a liking to each other."

Wait, Bob Welch? He of the 1990 Oakland A's, Cy Young Award, 27 win season? You've got to be kidding me. Bob Welch dated Charlotte Caffey? This is awesome. Glad to know at least some of these guys weren't complete assholes. But I guess those "troubles" to which Belinda refers were troubles with the bottle, which you can read all about in Welch's book, Five O'Clock Comes Early: A Cy Young Award-Winner Recounts His Greatest Victory. Either he picked the best, or worst, band to hang out with, depending on your point of view. Too bad they got swept by the Reds.

In February, I joined Mike for spring training at the Dodgers' complex in Vero Beach, Florida. There was nothing for me to do. While he worked out with the team, I went to Bible study sessions with the other Dodger wives and girlfriends, which I found was as torturous as Sunday School when I was a kid.

By the time we returned to L.A., our relationship was fodder for gossip columns and tabloids. Writers dug up old photos of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, Hollywood and baseball's most famous couple. They had wed in January 1954 and nine months later Monroe filed for divorce, citing mental cruelty.

My relationship with Mike followed a similar course, minus the marriage. Once the season began, Mike turned into a different person and living with him was difficult. He blamed me for his strikeouts, groundouts, errors, and anything else that went wrong. I fretted about what kind of mood he would wake up in in the mornings. I was constantly afraid of doing something that would upset him. I walked on eggshells; sometimes it felt like it was a minefield.

In many ways, my life with Mike reminded me of growing up with my dad when he drank. Mike wasn't an alcoholic, but he created a volatility that, although unhealthy, was very familiar ground to me. A few times I reminded myself of my mother as I yelled back at him.
Sounds like a match made in '80s sports/pop music heaven. Here's an amusing interview with Belinda from the Mike Marshall period, probably filmed during the band's hiatus between Vacation and Talk Show. This interview sets the template for every Belinda Carlisle interview of the next twenty years: a unique combination of vagueness, confessionalism, defensiveness, and bemusement. Watch as she pontificates on everything from the role of females in pop music to her and Mike's ill-fitting role as the Monroe and DiMaggio of the '80s. It looks like sitting out in all that sunlight is making her eyes hurt.

Shortly after we settled into the Marina del Rey apartment, I was at my lawyer's office and asked one of his assistants if they knew of a coke dealer in the Marina. I needed a connection closer than Hollywood. My lawyer's assistant made a call and gave me a slip of paper with a number on it and said it was okay for me to call.

I went home and it turned out that the dealer lived on the floor directly below mine. I couldn't believe my good fortune.

"You're in the same building as me?" I said.

"Yeah, the same one," he said. "I've seen you around."

He told me his apartment number.

"I'll be right there," I said.

Mike never picked up on the frequent visits I made downstairs. He was too into himself to notice I was high out of my mind. As he slept, I sat on the floor of his walk-in closet, snorting lines till the sun came up. On game days, I showed up at Dodger Stadium just before the opening pitch, and I was always loaded. I had no idea how I made those drives back and forth without an accident.
That would make two of us.

Let's stop for a moment and contemplate this delightful little scene. Coked-out pop celebrity Belinda Carlisle, cruising down 101, probably incapable of reciting the alphabet, dodging cars left and right, pulling up to Dodger Stadium at the very last minute ... which, knowing Dodger Stadium, would be about the third inning. Zing!
At the stadium, I sat in the section reserved for the players' wives and girlfriends. These were women with the big hair, jewelry, and designer outfits. They had their own social pecking order. I was not a part of their hierarchy. It was like being a guest at a club where they don't allow those of your skin type or religion. In my case, I was a nonconformist, drugged-out rock star. I was a celebrity in my own right, not dependent on Mike in any way. They also hated me for all the attention I received from dating Mike.

Not that I cared. I had nothing in common with them, plus I was coked up to my eyeballs and focused on Mike's play on the field only so I could gauge how he was going to treat me at home.

I've been told our relationship helped inspire playwright Neil Simon to pen the movie The Slugger's Wife. If only he had known the truth!
It turns out that not even Neil Simon gained all that much out of this doomed affair. From Wikipedia:
The Slugger's Wife was a total critical and commercial failure. The film has a 0% favorable rating on the Rotten Tomatoes web site. A New York Times review of March 28, 1985 written by Janet Maslin began: "It's a shock to find Neil Simon's name attached to something as resoundingly unfunny as this." The film was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Original Song for the song "Oh, Jimmy!"
Mike Marshall: not even worth a good Neil Simon/Hal Ashby movie.

But he was worth a good chapter in Lips Unsealed, and in the (as yet unfilmed) movie adaptation, the song that needs to be playing over the cheesy montage of Mike and Belinda fighting and bickering in the Dodger clubhouse is "We Don't Get Along."

Like "Vacation," "We Don't Get Along" was an old Kathy song which she'd originally written for the Textones, but the Go-Go's decided to recycle it for themselves. Although at a quick glance the lyrics don't appear to be particularly profound, upon closer inspection they are actually quite clever. The trope of using "opposites" in song lyrics is as old as John McCain, probably best exemplified by George and Ira Gershwin's "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off" ("You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to/You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to"). Well, Kathy spins that on its head by naming a quality, and then pairing it with that same quality, but with a negative in front of it. She names what something is not, and then names that very same something. So she's naming opposites, but in the opposite way from what you'd expect. Whoa. For example: instead of "I'm really serious/You're really silly," the lyric is, "I'm not very serious/You want me to be straight." Instead of "I'm right on time/You're too late," the lyric is, "I'm not out of time/But you think I'm too late." This is brilliant! Kathy doesn't keep it up for the whole song, eventually reverting to the conventional naming of opposites, but who cares? Just that first verse alone seals it for me:
I'm not very serious
You want me to be straight
I'm not out of time
But you think I'm too late
I'm not feeling desperate
You think I can't wait

Somehow you always get me wrong
Somehow you always take things wrong
Somehow you always get me wrong
Well I guess we just don't get along

You always go to sleep
When I stay up all night
You say I'm wrong
When I'm thinkin' you're alright
I just wanna talk things over
You just wanna fight

You leave me broken
And you don't realize
Everything is all right
And then you apologize
The things that really matter to me
They just pass you by
Still, sometimes a great song is not enough; you need a great band to flesh out a quality tune to its full potential. Here's the original version of "We Don't Get Along," as performed by the Textones (Kathy is not the lead singer):

Not bad, I guess. Now, here's the version by the Go-Go's:

Holy smokes! Everything about this version is better: better drummer, better singer, better backing vocals, better guitar solo, better rhythm guitar (Jane sounds like she's strumming that thing as if her life depended on it) ... better everything. As one YouTube commentator put it, "This song kicks so much ass I have to clock in several times a day to listen to it."

But as we know, Belinda wouldn't have needed to dig too deep to summon the required emotional commitment to this set of lyrics. She just needed to look up from the lines of coke on the floor of the walk-in closet, and take one quick peek at her ugly Dodger boyfriend.

Friday, November 8, 2013

"It's Still Rock And Roll To Me": Fanfare For The Dorky Man

Not everybody in 1980 was reading the NME and the Village Voice. What about those common masses, that "silent majority," the vast waves and waves of American listeners blowing across the continent like fields of wheat, who didn't understand the first thing about punk and New Wave? What about all those people who weren't hip enough to "get it"? Where was the anthem for them?

With "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me," William Martin Joel gave them that anthem.

For years, I never really understood the lyrics to "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me," which, in July 1980, became Billy Joel's first #1 single. Then one day it hit me. There wasn't one person singing; there were two. "Two?" you say. "But that's ... that's impossible!" In the world of Billy Joel, anything is possible.

See, "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me" is a miniature piece of theater, a dialogue between opposing viewpoints, an intellectual confrontation writ large. In one corner we have Yer Average Guy, represented by a solitary Billy Joel voice, smothered in disorienting echo. In the other corner we have Sleazy Rock Critic/Journalist/Press Agent Guy, represented by a double-tracked Billy Joel, compressed and echo-free. This batch of lyrics I found on the internet clarifies things quite handily with the necessary quotation marks:
What's the matter with the clothes I'm wearing?
"Can't you tell that your tie's too wide?"
Maybe I should buy some old tab collars?
"Welcome back to the age of jive
Where have you been hidin' out lately, honey?
You can't dress in trash till you spend a lot of money"
Everybody's talkin' 'bout the new sound
Funny, but it's still rock and roll to me

What's the matter with the car I'm driving?
"Can't you tell that it's out of style?"
Should I get a set of white wall tires?
"Are you gonna cruise the miracle mile?
Nowadays you can't be too sentimental
Your best bet's a true baby blue Continental"
Hot funk, cool punk, even if it's old junk
It's still rock and roll to me

Oh, it doesn't matter what they say in the papers
'Cause it's always been the same old scene
There's a new band in town
But you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine
Aimed at your average teen

How about a pair of pink sidewinders
And a bright orange pair of pants?
"You could really be a Beau Brummel baby
If you just give it half a chance
Don't waste your money on a new set of speakers,
You get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers"
Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
It's still rock and roll to me

What's the matter with the crowd I'm seeing?
"Don't you know that they're out of touch?"
Should I try to be a straight `A' student?
"If you are then you think too much
Don't you know about the new fashion honey?
All you need are looks and a whole lotta money"
It's the next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
It's still rock and roll to me
One way I can tell that Billy really captured the fickle finger of fashion is that I don't understand half the trends he's referencing. "White wall tires"? "Sidewinders"? Why is he talking about snakes?

Speaking of snakes, the music has a tense, lean feel that mimics New Wave quite effectively, whether that was Billy's intention or not. I could almost swear that Tina Weymouth is playing the throbbing bass line which opens the song - and is that Dave Edmunds on guitar adding some tight rockabilly fills? That said, the two undisputed best parts: 1) the drum roll at 1:22, and 2) Billy's sustained, solitary "Ooooh" at 2:10 (Note: Billy's vocals in the video are live, but the backing track is from the studio recording).

The man's enemies - and there were many - most likely looked at "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me" as further evidence that Billy Joel was an obnoxious brat. It's like when a Republican hears a Democrat describe his positions, or vice versa. The opposition completely exaggerates and distorts your views beyond all recognition. I can just imagine some rock critic sitting there listening to this song, his veins popping out of his neck as he clenches his fist, muttering, "We're not like that at all! Billy Joel doesn't understand my problem with his music. I hate his music because of this, not that. Geez!"

But the point of "Its Still Rock And Roll To Me" is that Billy Joel, possibly like most people, heard rock critic lingo and though, "What the hell are they talking about?" Perhaps it wasn't brave, perhaps it wasn't necessary, but at least someone, someone, finally stood up for the clueless dorks of the world.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Huey Gave Her His Heart, But She Wanted His Soul

I was once having a conversation about '80s music with my (former?) co-blogger Yoggoth a few years ago, long before I started writing about it with renewed attention. "I had an interesting realization," he told me. "I kind of realized that a lot of '80s music is sort of weird and dark. Like, even the mainstream, Top 40 music. Compare that with the '60s or the '70s, where the pop fluff was blatantly bright and feel-good or what have you. Even the extremely commercial '80s music is kind of disturbing."

Prime example: "Heart and Soul." The lead single from Sports, "Heart and Soul" was written by bubblegum glam veterans Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn ("Ballroom Blitz," "Mickey") and peaked at #8 in the fall of 1983.  Most Huey Lewis & The News hits are fairly cheerful and wholesome, but "Heart and Soul" is a little bit ... creepy. On my '80s Tape, it was sandwiched right between Kool & The Gang's "Tonight" and the Alan Parsons Project's "Prime Time," two other songs with a vibe that one might also describe as creepy. As a kid, I always thought of that section of the tape as the "Zombie" section. Perhaps I'd just watched a zombie cartoon right before an impressionable listen, perhaps not. Either way, the song used to disturb me just a little. Based on the lyrics, an elliptical depiction of a one-night stand, one gets the sense that this femme fatale may have captured more of Huey's "soul" than his "heart":
Two o'clock this morning
If she should come a calling
I couldn't dream of turning her away
And if it got hot and hectic
I know she'd be electric
I'd let her take her chances with me
You see, she gets what she wants

'Cause she's heart and soul
She's hot and cold
She's got it all
Hot loving every night

Can't you see her standing there
See how she looks, see how she cares
I let her steal the night away from me
Nine o'clock this morning
She left without a warning
I let her take advantage of me
You see, she got what she wanted
For a Huey Lewis & The News song, this is one twisted psychodrama. Basically Huey got used ... but he liked it. There's not even a hint of regret or remorse. It is almost, to use Patrick Bateman's term, "nihilistic."

When I rediscovered my '80s tape in the mid-90s, "Heart and Soul" was not one of my favorite songs on it, even though I really liked Huey Lewis & The News (even in the mid-'90s). However, these days it pretty much rocks my socks. It has this menacing, sinister quality that sets it apart from the band's other material. I like the odd percussion touches, such as the cowbells and the little drumstick rattles. The verses are sort of languid, but the chorus has this really nasty hard rock crunch - probably the nastiest and hardest hard rock crunch Huey Lewis ever had. Which, granted, isn't very hard and nasty, but, you know.

The threatening vibe extends into the video, which perfectly matches the imagery I already associated with the song as a child: a wild, mysterious, hedonistic night in the heart of San Francisco. Based on the last shot, it looks like the band might have filmed it around Potrero Hill, the Western Addition, or possibly North Beach? Throw in some vampires, cowboys, bearded railroad barons in top hat and monocle, and Cyndi Lauper's long-lost sister, and you've got yourself a prime 1983 music video, my friends. Just watch out for what's behind that door.