Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Small Games of 2012 (Part 1)

2012 may not have brought about the apocalypse, but it did produce a slew of excellent small games. So excellent in fact that multiple media outlets have awarded the small games Journey and The Walking Dead game of the year. Journey comes from thatgamecompany, who brought us 2009's Flower. The Walking Dead, based on the comic/TV series, comes from Telltale Games. Unfortunately, I haven't played either (my Playstation 3 broke this summer so I haven't played Journey, and no matter what good words people say about The Walking Dead I'm just not that interested in zombies, even if those zombies are used as a metaphor for the human condition). Instead, I'll discuss here those small games that I did manage to play in 2012.  Ready?

To the Moon (Freebird Games)

To the Moon was a game with a great premise. You play the role of two scientists who have been summoned to a dying man's house. The man has a last wish, he wants to go "to the moon". These scientists have the means that will allow the dying man to accomplish this. Using a fancy machine the scientists are able to enter the dying man's mind and relive his memories, subtly altering them so that the dying man will have the memory of going to the moon. One part Inception, and one part Citizen Kane, the premise and overall idea of To the Moon is brilliant. The game utilizes a retro 16 bit art style, so it looks like an old Final Fantasy game from the 90's. While the gameplay itself isn't very deep- it's basically a point-and-click adventure- the story draws on a lot of emotional strings, from the gentle piano pieces that it uses, to the secrets the two scientists find in the dying man's memories. Even the idea of going "to the moon" may not have meaning it initially appears to.

Unfortunately much of the emotional impact the game is undercut by one of the scientist characters. Nearly every time something poignant happens, he's there to make some sassy or sarcastic comment. It's like watching the end of the movie Titanic with Rose about to say goodbye to Jack forever with the whole theater on the verge of tears when some guy blurts out "Hey buddy why don't you just get on the flotsam with her, ya big dummy!".

I kept thinking that the creators of the game thought up this grand emotional tale but didn't want to be seen as sissies by their guy friends, so they made sure to have a completely annoying and unnecessary character ruin several moments of potentially great emotional impact. Despite this, I guarantee that you will probably find yourself in tears as the final scene plays out.

Fez (Polytron)

I've already discussed my love of Fez and needless to say, I still think it was an absolutely fantastic game. A perfect homage to videogames of the 80's, Fez managed to make me feel like a kid all over again.

Alan Wake's American Nightmare (Remedy Entertainment)

A semi-sequel to 2010's Alan Wake (which I wrote about), this small downloadable title continues the adventure of the titular author who finds himself trapped in his own nightmares. Breaking free of "the dark place" from the first game, Alan Wake- ahem... wakes up in a semi-real bit of Arizona, having surrendered some of his memory in order to do so. The game tasks Alan with recovering those memories in a style reminiscent of Groundhog Day. While it continues with the same style of gameplay as the original, American Nightmare introduces a real nemesis, an alter-ego version of Alan named Mr. Scratch (whose name, in a small bit of brilliance, is never actually pronounced, with only the sound of a scratched record whenever anyone says his name). Mr. Scratch is an excellent foil to Alan, a womanizing douchebag who knows Alan's plans since he essentially is Alan.

Like the original, the game has excellent voice acting. Alan Wake really does come across as a real life horror novelist stuck in his own story. On top of this, the entire game is taking place inside an episode of "Night Springs" (think Twilight Zone) which is sold well by having the game narrated by a Rod Serling soundalike. While the gameplay itself isn't very challenging, the game has just enough flair and humor to recommend it. You can watch the first few minutes here to get a taste of just how self-aware this game is (for example, I love how the episode of Night Springs is "written by Alan Wake").

That's it for now, as soon as I finish up one last small game I picked up during the holiday Steam sale I'll be back with part 2.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

An Evolution of Hearts and Minds/AKA: Ronan learns to sing

I've been posting about my love of VNV Nation for years now, and after a recently successful in-person live Cosmic American get together fellow blogger Little Earl asked for a VNV playlist. Now, how could I resist a request like that?

Since there's so many good songs by VNV I had to decide what my emphasis would be. I came up with three options: A- a purely 'best of VNV' playlist, B- a mix that would emulate the style and flow of a VNV album, or C- a mix that would show how VNV Nation's sound has evolved over the years. I decided to go with C, with an emphasis on how Ronan Harris, over time, found his voice. In early works you can barely hear him growling in the background. But by the time you get to 2005's Homeward he's a regular crooner (well he still doesn't really have much range, but he sounds a hell of a lot better).

The mix also demonstrates the overall transition that VNV have undergone, how their music began in the depths of 90's EBM/Industrial music and transitioned into the "alternative electronic" (their words) of today. Ronan Harris has a real ear for production, and you can hear it in most of VNV's later tracks.

A few notes:  In order to keep this mix somewhat short I had to make a lot of hard choices. With eight albums under their belt, I started with just two songs from each album. I added a few additional songs from the "Empires" period (generally considered their tour-de-force), reduced their first album (Advance & Follow) to one song as well as 2007's "Judgement", and added in a version of Honour 2003, which was an updated remake of the original Honour, the song they are most known for. Since the mix focuses on Harris's voice, I did not include any instrumentals, something else VNV are generally good at - so no, there's no Electronaut here. I chose Youtube clips that included lyrics in the description (special thanks to user BartyMae for uploading nearly every VNV song with lyrics).


Thursday, January 24, 2013

"Our Lips Are Sealed" Becomes Early MTV Hit AKA The World Meets Belinda Carlisle ... And She Suddenly Looks Hawt

Once upon a time, Terry and Jane had a little secret. From a Jane Wiedlin interview with Songfacts.com:
In 1980 we were playing at The Whiskey on Sunset Strip, and The Specials were in town from England, and they came to see us, and they really liked us and asked us if we would be their opening act on their tour. I met Terry Hall, the singer of The Specials, and ended up having kind of a romance. He sent me the lyrics to "Our Lips Are Sealed" later in the mail, and it was kind of about our relationship, because he had a girlfriend at home and all this other stuff ... So I don't know how I got in the picture. And, you know, that's something that I did as a teenager, maybe I was 20. That's something I would never do now, knowingly enter into a relationship with someone who was with someone else. I mean, it was completely screwed on my part. Although I think when people do that, you really have to look at the person who's in the relationship, and they have to take the burden of the responsibility as well. Anyways, it was one of those things with the tragic letters, "I just can't do this." You know, "I'm betrothed to another." All that kind of stuff ... So it was all very dramatic. I really liked the lyrics, so I finished the lyrics and wrote the music to it, and the rest is history.
Well, isn't it nice to be Terry Hall? Your correspondence becomes hit songs. You don't even have to do anything!

Some time ago, I wrote that "Our Lips Are Sealed" sounded like a "fun, retro, early '60s girl group song that didn't strive toward anything profound," but I liked it anyway. Well, maybe it strove for something profound after all. As it would so often do, I think the Go-Go's sprightly sound camouflaged a very emotionally barbed situation:
Can you hear them?
They talk about us
Telling lies
Well, that's no surprise

Can you see them?
See right through them
They have no shield
No secrets to reveal

It doesn't matter what they say
In the jealous games people play
Our lips are sealed

There's a weapon
That we must use
In our defense

When you look at them
Look right through them
That's when they'll disappear
That's when we'll be feared
These are actually some pretty great lyrics! Hell, if you were merely just looking at them on a cold, indifferent page, you might imagine a song that sounded like any number of things. I mean, the Go-Go's performance is so bouncy and carefree, it took me a long time before I actually noticed how bitter and vengeful the words are. Silence as a weapon? Hey, better than just enjoying the silence - right, Depeche Mode?

In light of subsequent versions, some have gone on to say that the Go-Go's recording, and Belinda's "come on it's time to party" vocal style, may have masked the complexity of the lyrical content. While possibly true, this does not seem to me like a criticism. After all, "Our Lips Are Sealed" is many things to many people. In the Go-Go's hands, it was the perfect summer pop hit. As AMG's Stewart Mason writes in his song review:
 ...it's the small touches in the arrangement ... that elevate it from very good to outstanding: the backbeat-and-tambourines opening, the subtle organ line, the infectious "hey-hey-hey" that leads up to the chorus. The song's most transcendent moment, however, is the glorious bridge, sung by Wiedlin in a sweetly vulnerable falsetto that's even higher than her normal helium-pitched singing voice.
Yes, Jane was even honored with a brief lead singing role, which, off the top of my head, is her only such appearance on a Go-Go's recording. Likewise, Kathy lays down a tasty bass line, Gina rocks what the band considered a "disco" beat, and Charlotte churns out some chiming, Byrds-ish guitar licks. But when the song climbed the charts in late 1981, it wasn't Gina, Kathy, Charlotte, or Jane whom listeners noticed.

Although people seem to remember "Our Lips Are Sealed" as being some sort of monster hit, and arguably the Go-Go's most famous song, in reality it only peaked on the U.S. charts at #20 (although it climbed to #3 in Canada and #2 in Australia, where it is fondly known by the mondegreen "Alex the Seal"). But it had legs, as they say, sticking around long enough to place at #63 on Billboard's year-end Top 100 of 1982 list, slightly ahead of America's "You Can Do Magic," which originally peaked at #8, and A Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran (So Far Away)," which originally peaked at #4. That's pretty good. But ultimately, what probably made the song such a big hit in the public's mind was a certain video clip, filmed with some leftover Police budget money, which happened to be placed in heavy rotation by a brand new television network.

Which brings me to the other thing that probably helped: a certain lead singer must have lost a little weight, because by the time the Go-Go's filmed the video for "Our Lips Are Sealed," the formerly frumpy punk rocker now looked like this:

The sky cracked open, the trumpets blared, and peace and goodwill reigned throughout the earth. Gods wept, demons howled.

Hot Belinda was born.

Oh my dayum.

Ladies and gentlemen, here it was: the face that launched a thousand wanks. It's funny to think, of course, about the Belinda that people didn't see: the purple hair, the trashbag dress, the abusive stepfather, the witchcraft, the long nights in the basement of an L.A. porn theater, feasting on oatmeal and Sweet 'N' Low. Oh no, the very first time most young American males saw Belinda Carlisle, they saw this:

Suddenly, in this magical new incarnation, she was every teenage boy's high school dream. The video actually cuts back and forth between footage of the band driving around in a convertible and footage of the band performing at a club. I'm not saying Belinda doesn't look good in that sleeveless rainbow dress (or whatever it may happen to be), but I'm definitely going for the onstage Belinda here, with the sabertooth tiger necklace and that little gold ribbon in her hair - oh God, the ribbon!!

Judging by several YouTube comments, I am not alone in my opinion. But the anonymity of YouTube has granted viewers free license to state their appreciation in cruder, more vulgar terminology than the language I might use:
lead singer is fine as hell

Damn! That singer is a fuckin' CUTIE!! :D

Ahhhh Belinda Carlisle!! Massive childhood crush ha ha....

Rape me Belinda....PLEASE!!!

Oh Belinda, you should have never left me for fame and fortune. You know we could have lived out our lives in that quaint bungalow that the town folk called a "shed". It doesn't matter what they said Belinda! Its just the jealous games people play!

As a teen of 80's ,who in gods name need's viagra after seeing this!

These girls were responsible for my first real erection. Don't laugh. I've still got it!

Belinda Carlise is by far the HOTTEST BABE EVER in rock!! As one previous commentor noted," a nice tan a great smile."

Who would not want to Fuck the shit out Of Belinda, I was a kid when this video came out and I want to do it then.

God .... Belinda Carlisle was (is) so freaking hot.

I'm still hopelessly addicted to Belinda and Jane. If a cure comes along, I'll kick its ass!

Belinda C. Oww! And I'm gay, but she is hot.

Belinda was always going to go far with that voice, being hot helps

oh wow...there's something about BC with that ribbon in her hair...jzzzzz

Belinda Carlisle......sooooo hot.....want to touch the hiney.
Other commentators are slightly more critical:
Brenda Carlyle...is that what everyone is wanking off to? LOL....she looks like a female Thomas Dolby. Yeesh, get a life.

At least two of them are dikes, and Belinda is the only really attractive one...though she's a mental screw-up.

At 2.37 and 2.38 in the fountainpool she shows her underwear with an unshaved pussy :)
Wondering if she shaved her bikiniline.
Very untastefull.
Belinda 0-1 for your apperance.

lol it sounds like they're saying "they talk about us, selling my ass at a lacklustre price"

i love knowing Belinda was all fucked up

the sexual comments on this page is sad. as if Belinda would touch any of you with a barge pole
Of course, our ultimate teen dream queen clearly sensed how crucial MTV would be to the band's success, right? From Lips Unsealed:
I was clueless about the impact it would have on music, fashion, and pop culture.

Just to show where my head was at, I thought making a music video was a stupid idea. I had grumbled about it being a waste of time and asked why I had to do it. It just seemed ridiculous, and so I gave it a half-assed effort. I couldn't even be bothered to get out of the car when, after tooling around in the convertible, we pulled up in front of Trashy Lingerie and Jane did her solo, singing, "Hush, my darling." If you look close, you can see me hiding; I'm bent down but the top of my head shows.

We also tried to amuse ourselves by getting arrested. That's how we ended up frolicking in the water fountain at the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards. We thought if we jumped in, a cop would see us, stop, and there'd be a confrontation, which we would capture on tape. But nobody came to arrest us. Cars just slowed and some guys honked and whistled at us.
Hey, the Beatles had the same idea with the rooftop concert, but all that ended up happening was that some policeman simply knocked on the studio door and politely asked them to stop playing. At any rate, it's precisely that "don't give a shit" attitude that makes this video so precious. I mean, a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters could not re-create the video for "Our Lips Are Sealed." It is such a pure snapshot of the moment. Who wouldn't want to ride around in a convertible and jump into fountains all day? It makes being a Go-Go seem like the most awesome occupation in the world. Of course, little did people know, but these five fresh, lively young women feasted on elvish babies in their free time.

Meanwhile, as Miles Copeland watched the rough cut in his office, and saw that bright, angelic face fill the screen, the dollar signs began flashing across his eyes.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Madness' "Only" Hit AKA That Song About A House

In America in 1983, Madness came out of "nowhere" and released their "only" hit, "Our House."

When friends in college used to play "Our House" on the stereo, they would get this look on their faces which seemed to suggest thoughts such as "Who sings about their house? What a silly topic for a song!" But instead of this being an amusing insight, this was only an unintentional comment on the sad state of American pop music, where 95% of radio hits are generic love songs. When confronted with music that is not about a boy/girl relationship, the typical American listener does not know how to respond. He or she experiences discomfort and embarrassment, and covers up these feelings with defensive humor. The question, my friends, isn't "Who sings about their house?," but rather, "Why doesn't everybody sing about their house?"

I'm not surprised Madness didn't have many American hits; they were more British than the Queen's armpit hair. I am somewhat surprised, however, that their one big American hit happened to be "Our House." I mean, why "Our House"?

In one sense, it's simply another strong Madness single in a long line of strong Madness singles. It may not be their best song, but it is probably in the running. Is it slightly less "British" than their other singles? Did the presence of a string section make the song seem more "pop"?

On the other hand, "Our House" is arguably the kind of song that Madness had been working toward its whole career. Its sentiment is universal, its sound is stately and sweeping. There's nary a hint of ska to be found. Although it was not their biggest British hit, my guess is that even in the UK, it is probably their most well-known song.

I think the answer is that, while "Our House" is somewhat odd and kooky by typical American radio standards, it is less odd and kooky than songs about baggy trousers and joke shops. In other words, by Madness standards, "Our House" is relatively normal. It is just the right amount of odd: odd enough to be memorable, but not so odd that it simply bounces right off you.

Likewise, the video doesn't strike me as being one of Madness' strongest or poorest; if anything, the clip's goofy tone doesn't really do justice to the poignant, nostalgic flavor of the lyrics:
Father wears his Sunday best
Mother's tired, she needs a rest
The kids are playing up downstairs
Sister's sighing in her sleep
Brother's got a date to keep
He can't hang around

Our house, in the middle of our street
Our house, in the middle of our street

I remember way back then when everything was true and when
We would have such a very good time, such a fine time
Such a happy time
And I remember how we'd play, simply waste the day away
Then we'd say nothing would come between us, two dreamers

Wait, so if "way back then" was "such a happy time," then what does that say about the present? Does the present really stink? And who are the "two dreamers," and did something eventually come between them? These lines suggest that "Our House" is actually not a silly song about people's houses, but an elegy for lost youth and innocence.

You see, Madness songs are not mindless little ditties; they are three-minute works of literature. Madness singles are like mini-plays. Being fully aware of this, I was not surprised to learn about the existence of a Madness jukebox musical, which is called - surprise - Our House. Here's an excerpt of the plot summary:
Our House is the story of Joe Casey who, on the night of his sixteenth birthday, takes Sarah, the girl of his dreams, out on their first date. In an effort to impress her with bravado, he breaks into a building site overlooking his home on Casey Street, which is owned by Mister Pressman, a high-end property developer. The police turn up, at which point Joe’s life splits into two: the Good Joe, who stays to help, and Bad Joe, who flees.

Good Joe, having stayed to help Sarah, is sent to a ‘correctional facility’ for two years. On his release, finding that his past prevents him from getting a good job, he struggles to make ends meet. Despite managing to buy himself a second-hand car, he convinces himself that he is an embarrassment to all who care about him – especially Sarah, whose new college lifestyle reading law is complicated by Callum, a fellow student. In an effort to keep up with this guy, Good Joe is beguiled by his ‘mate’ Reecey into helping stage a break-in for some easy money – is caught and this time sent down.
I can already see the choice of numbers: "House of Fun," then "Driving In My Car," followed by "Embarrassment," then "Shut Up" - why, a Madness musical writes itself! Somehow or other the plot revolves around Joe's mother trying to keep a developer from destroying the cherished family ... you guessed it.

I think there's another reason why Madness are mainly known in the U.S. for "Our House": it was probably their last truly great single. Americans caught Madness Fever at precisely the wrong time. Sure, the group stuck around for a few more years, but the spirit faltered. The production grew dated, the lyrics became more generic - go and listen if you want. In that sense, "Our House" wasn't just an elegy for lost youth, but also for the band's artistic peak. I think if Madness had been able to follow up "Our House" with, say, "Night Boat To Cairo" or "Cardiac Arrest," they might have made a bigger splash over here. But instead, they had to sit back and let their earlier catalog spread the legacy. For those who bothered to find it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

How Joan Jett's "Runaway" Solo Success Improved Former Band's "Reputation"

Before my recent '80s conversion, I never understood the big deal about Joan Jett. As with the Go-Go's, I used to hear critics talk about how she was a pioneer for females in rock and some mumbo jumbo of that nature. For what? One big hit single that she didn't even write? And it wasn't even that great of a song anyway. So when I'd see her name listed with potential nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I had to wonder if I'd missed something.

I think I had.

Before Joan Jett fronted the Blackhearts (whoever they happened to be), she was a member, though not lead singer, of a notorious all-female band called the Runaways. The Runaways are probably more famous now than they were when they were actively performing. A couple of years ago, a movie came out about the Runaways starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, and when a movie comes out about a '70s band and it's starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, people might tend to think that the band must have been really significant. Turns out there's still some debate over just how significant the Runaways were. I love a good rock scholar fight just as much as the next blogger. In his AMG bio of the band, Steve Huey writes:
Often dismissed during their existence as a crass marketing gimmick, the Runaways have grown in stature over the years as the first all-female band to make a substantial impression on the public by playing loud, straight-up, guitar-driven rock & roll. Since all of the members were teenagers (some of whom were still learning to play their instruments when they passed their auditions), the band's music was frequently raw and amateurish, but it neatly combined American heavy metal with the newly emerging sound of punk rock. In the media, the Runaways were victims of their own hype, supplied by maverick promoter/manager Kim Fowley. Fowley's insistence on a sleazy jailbait image for the group made it easy for the press to dismiss them as nothing but a tasteless adolescent fantasy -- an impression bolstered at the time by the admittedly erratic quality of their music. But in the end, the Runaways' sound and attitude proved crucially important in paving the way for female artists to crank up the volume on their guitars and rock as hard as the boys; plus, they produced one undeniably classic single in the rebel-girl manifesto "Cherry Bomb."
But in his review of The Mercury Albums Anthology, Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes:
Anybody won over to the Runaways via the charms or Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning will find this to be much too much -- really, they’ll be satiated by a quick download of “Cherry Bomb” -- as this is intended for connoisseurs of sleaze and those under the impression that the female foursome were pioneers not at all under the skeevy thumb of Kim Fowley. Both groups may find what’s contained on Mercury Albums Anthology somewhat underwhelming: the Runaways plodded as much as the plundered, hammering out three-chord riffs that had more to do with frizzy-haired metal than any kind of proto-punk ... the lasting impression of this double-disc set is that the Runaways' myth is always better than their music.
In other words, the Runaways may have been influential, but that doesn't mean they were particularly good.

A band always looks better, however, when one of its members goes on to display legitimate talent in a solo career. But while the Runaways sounded like '70s bar band rock and heavy metal, Jett leaned more toward punk and, intriguingly, glam rock. She recorded her first album without even having a record deal, and as with the Runaways, I'm not sure how many people actually heard this material at the time. But in retrospect, I think solo Joan Jett was already an improvement. Her first small hit, "Bad Reputation," sounds to me like the Great Lost Ramones Song.

Her first album also included a cover of '70s glam rocker Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me? (Oh Yeah)," which became a hit only after Jett had broken through with "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." Of course, the statement "Do You Wanna Touch Me?" has a very different meaning now that Glitter is a convicted child molester, but I'm sure Jett meant no such harm.

In summary: despite "looking tougher" and "rocking harder," the Runaways were no Go-Go's, solo Joan Jett is actually pretty good, and sometimes my unconscious sexism gets in the way of my discovering good music.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Women Who Rocked - In The '80s

As I have established by now (and will continue to establish going forward), the Go-Go's rocked. But if you thought they were the only women in the '80s who rocked, well, you've got another thing coming.

Of course, there were women who rocked long before the '80s: Brenda Lee, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Tina Turner, Suzi Quatro, Patti Smith, Heart, Siouxsie Sioux, etc. etc., so on and so on. But I think the women who rocked in the '80s managed to rock without necessarily being "women who rocked." By that time, they were simply "rocking musicians who happened to be women." "But wait," you're saying, "if their gender wasn't a specific part of their appeal, then why are you about to do a blog series lumping all these artists together simply based on their gender?" Precisely, my friends. Precisely.

You see, the women who rocked in the '80s differed from their predecessors in one important respect: when they rocked, they rocked cheesily. These women needed to rock, tasteful production or smart fashion choices be damned. I suppose if they could rock again today, they would do it all differently. But fortunately for us, they can't. They rocked, in the '80s, and it's all over.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

"Lust To Love" AKA How The Go-Go's Transitioned From Punk To Pop

From Lips Unsealed:
We were back in L.A ... when the label messengered a copy of the finished album to us. We ran out excitedly to the parking lot and listened to it from the start to finish in someone's car. Our hopes were so high and before we pushed the Play button we were all shushing one another. Then the drums kicked into the first cut, "Our Lips Are Sealed," and we quieted down. We let the next ten tracks play without too many comments either way, and finally, after about thirty-five minutes, we just looked at one another for reactions.

We weren't happy - or as happy as we had hoped. In the studio, we thought we were making a great punk album. On hearing the final version, it sounded more pop than we had anticipated.

We weren't going for anything as hard as Margot had wanted, but we'd had more of an edge in mind. Everyone had little criticisms. In my case, I was horrified by my vocals. They had been sped up and I found it painful to hear myself race through those songs.

We took our case to Miles, who said no. As he explained, he got exactly what he wanted from us.
I can see Miles now, leaning back in his leather chair, cigar in hand: "It's great, I love it, shut up, get out of here!"

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where the Go-Go's had remained a little more punk. Occasionally I am of the opinion that they lost something in the transformation. For instance, on Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go's, there is a terrific early rehearsal version of "He's So Strange," featuring some wild and grungy guitar work from Jane and Charlotte, and what is arguably the most intense and unhinged singing performance you might ever hear from Belinda Carlisle. Although I can't find that version on YouTube [Edit: Finally found it!], here is a somewhat similar performance filmed at New York's Peppermint Lounge in 1981, where Belinda twists around on her knees, trying to do her best Iggy Pop impersonation. The band re-recorded the song on their second album, Vacation, and it sounds noticeably tamer. I can't really listen to the later version without wishing it sounded more like the earlier version.

But then there are songs like "Lust To Love."

Before signing with I.R.S., the Go-Go's recorded a demo version of "Lust To Love," which appears on Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go's, and like "He's So Strange," this is the version I heard first. I thought it was infectiously catchy and fun, even though it sped by in one big blur and the lyrics were completely incomprehensible. What the hell were they singing, anyway? "Lost In Love"? What was this, Air Supply?

Then I heard the version on Beauty and the Beat. The album was produced by Richard Gottehrer, who was in many ways a perfect match for the Go-Go's: he'd written '60s pop songs such as "My Boyfriend's Back" and "I Want Candy," and had also produced Blondie's first two albums. The first thing Gottehrer told the band to do was to slow down. "Slow down? Why would we want to do that?" But I think Gottehrer was on to something.

Some of the Go-Go's still aren't sure. Here's what Gina says in the booklet for the 30th Anniversary edition of the album:
We were a punk band in many ways, but when we got into the studio with Richard, he slowed everything down. Instead of our songs being a minute and a half long, they were two and a half minutes. You could really feel the pop influences, and we all have very, very different influences. Richard is a great songwriter himself, so naturally he really focused on the songs, the arrangement and making sure they were in the best form they could be. At first, we didn't like the way it was recorded, but the songs were so good, they really did shine through, and you just couldn't keep that record down.
In other words, she still hates the production, even today! Charlotte's not sure either:
Richard had a certain idea of how to produce us. If we'd done it the way we originally wanted, I don't think we'd have had the career we've had so far. What he did was take the essence of the songs and find the melody. At first we weren't happy with it, but the record did indeed sound like us. We were just a little rougher around the edges when we played live. We played every note on the record, so it was definitely us, but he brought out the cleaner tones as opposed to the more distorted ones.
In other words: our producer wanted to sell some fucking records! Well, too late the change it now. I almost wish the band had recorded punkier demos of every single song on the album so that I could see which ones might have suffered or improved with the change. But in the case of "Lust To Love," I think the change was welcome. First of all, in this later version, I could actually hear the lyrics:
It used to be the fun was in
The capture and kill
In another place and time
I did it all for thrills

Love me and I'll leave you
I told you at the start
I had no idea that you
Would tear my world apart

And you're the one to blame
I used to know my name
But I lost control of the game
Even though I set the rules
You've got me acting like a fool
When I see you I lose my cool

Lust to love
Was the last thing I was dreaming of
Now all I want is just to love
Lust has turned to love
Whoa. Dude. This is actually kind of ... heavy. It's like a dark, doom-laden ballad. This girl just wanted to goof around and have fun, but now she's being sucked in by more serious feelings ... and she doesn't like it! You know, now that I could actually comprehend the lyrics, I really dug them!

But that's not all. Charlotte, possibly at Gottehrer's suggestion, added a nice piano overdub and, if I'm not mistaken, even a little keyboard overdub between the first chorus and the second verse, all of which is completely absent from the earlier version. These seemingly insignificant touches, in my opinion, give the song quite a bit of extra drama and grandeur. It's like New Wave opera!

But the best change of all is how slowing the song down improved Belinda's vocal performance. My three favorite moments:

1. (0:18) "In another puu-lace and timmmmme" - the enunciation, so precise!
2. (2:12) On the "I" in "I used to know my name," she lets out this little squeal - oh God, the squeal!!
3. (3:44) She goes for the big finish on that very last "Luuuuu-huuuuve," her voice smothered with echo, fading into the dark, brutal night.

We've come a long way from aimless screaming, folks. Goes to show what a little studio time can do. On the demo version, when the chorus comes around, Belinda sounds like she can barely keep up with the speed of the whole thing. It's like, wait, is this song about something? Suddenly, on the album version, you can taste the despair, you can bask in the agony of this poor young woman. It's not hard, of course, to guess where the emotion came from; all Belinda probably had to do was to think of her fucked up childhood for about five seconds, and presto.

Listening to the early demo version, the Go-Go's sound like a fun Buzzcocks-style punk-pop band that might deserve a nice little cult audience, but certainly wouldn't sniff the Top 40.  Listening to the album version, the Go-Go's sound like a band that should be blasting out of your car radio on streets all across America. Even the backing vocals are better, for God's sake.

At any rate, I don't believe in alternative universes. The Go-Go's left their punk roots behind, and that's that.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Hooked On Polkas" - Part II: Weird Al, Trevor Horn, Yes, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Q: Want to know how to have an instant UK #1 hit? A: Hire a hot producer, promote the single with outrageous homosexual imagery, and get banned by the BBC. It worked for Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

For about five seconds, Frankie Goes To Hollywood were the biggest band in the world. In England. In 1984. Their debut album, Welcome To The Pleasuredome, topped the British charts and produced three #1 hits in a row, including "Two Tribes" and "The Power Of Love." The album also included a version of Edwin Starr's "War" that featured a Ronald Reagan impersonator reciting dialogue such as "Then of course there is revolutionary love, love of comrades fighting for the people, and love of people, not an abstract people, but people one works with; when Che Guevara talked of love being at the center of revolutionary endeavor, he meant both," and a version of Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run" that manages to be less bombastic than the original - and this is Frankie Goes To Hollywood we're talking about here. But the song that made them infamous in both the US and the UK, then and for all time, was "Relax."

It turns out that Frankie Goes To Hollywood wasn't much of a band at all. Mostly it was just producer Trevor Horn.

Trevor Horn was the brainchild behind the Buggles. Yes, that Buggles.

In the most obvious career move ever, Horn and fellow Buggle Geoffrey Downes joined progressive rock dinosaurs Yes. While Horn didn't remain an official member of the band for more than one album, he produced two more, including 90125, which featured the shockingly non-progressive rock comeback hit "Owner of a Lonely Heart" (also skewered in Weird Al's polka medley along with "Relax").

Let's not forget ABC's The Lexicon Of Love (discussed elsewhere), avant-garde synthpop collective The Art of Noise, former Sex Pistols manager (!) Malcolm McLaren, Grace Jones, a couple of late '80s Pet Shop Boys songs ... the list goes on. Hell, Trevor Horn could probably receive a blog series of his own, though I doubt I'll give him one. The point is, he was hot.

While basking in his hot producer-ness, he caught Frankie Goes To Hollywood on TV, playing an early version of "Relax":
Horn described the original version of "Relax" as "More a jingle than a song", but he preferred to work with songs that were not professionally finished because he could then "fix them up" in his own style ... Ultimately lead vocalist Johnson was the only band member to perform on the record; the only contribution by the other members was a sample crafted from the sound of the rest of the band jumping into a swimming pool. Horn explained years later, "I was just . . . look, 'Relax' had to be a hit." Despite the band's absence from the record, Horn said, "I could never have done these records in isolation. There was no actual playing by the band, but the whole feeling came from the band."
Sure it did. The band may not have performed the music, but they certainly performed on some level:
ZTT initiated the ad campaign for "Relax" with two quarter-page ads in the British music press. The first ad featured images of Rutherford in a sailor cap and a leather vest, and Johnson with a shaved head and rubber gloves. The images were accompanied by the phrase "ALL THE NICE BOYS LOVE SEA MEN" and declared "Frankie Goes to Hollywood are coming ... making Duran Duran lick the shit off their shoes ... Nineteen inches that must be taken always." The second ad promised "theories of bliss, a history of Liverpool from 1963 to 1983, a guide to Amsterdam bars".
Sign me up.
On 11 January 1984, Radio 1 disc jockey Mike Read expressed on air his distaste for both the record's suggestive sleeve (designed by Anne Yvonne Gilbert) and its lyrics. He announced his refusal to play the record, not knowing that the BBC had just decided that the song was not to be played on the BBC anyway. In support of their disc jockey, BBC Radio banned the single from its shows a reported two days later (although certain prominent night-time BBC shows — including those of Kid Jensen and John Peel — continued to play the record, as they saw fit, throughout 1984). The now-banned "Relax" rose to number 2 in the charts by 17 January, and hit the number-one spot on 24 January. By this time, the BBC Radio ban had extended to Top of the Pops as well, which displayed a still picture of the group during its climactic Number One announcement, before airing a performance by a non-Number One artist ... The ban became an embarrassment for the BBC, especially given that UK commercial radio and television stations were still playing the song. Later in 1984 the ban was lifted and "Relax" featured on both the Christmas Day edition of Top of the Pops and Radio 1's rundown of the best-selling singles of the year.
Well all's well that ends well. So surely the video was scandal-free, right?
The original video was directed by Bernard Rose and depicted a gay S&M parlour where the band members were admired by muscular leathermen, a bleached blonde drag queen and a large-bodied gentleman dressed as a Roman emperor. The video featured a scene where one of the band members wrestled a live tiger, to the admiration of the clubgoers, and ended where the "emperor" was so excited he shimmied out of his toga. Filmed in the unused East London theatre Wilton's Music Hall, it was promptly banned by both the BBC and MTV, resulting in the production of a substitute video directed by filmmaker Brian De Palma to coincide with the release of his film Body Double.
Here's the original video. It's no "Sex Dwarf," but what is?

Now here's the "substitute" video. Will someone please tell me what makes the "substitute" video any less questionable than the original video?

Not only are there several different "Relax" videos, but the band (and Trevor Horn) also released an endless variety of "Relax" mixes. There's the "New York" mix, the "Sex" mix, the "Disco" mix, the "From Soft To Hard" mix, the "Come Fighting" mix, the "Warp" mix ... it goes on.

All this hubbub seemed to overshadow the supposed musical merits, or lack of merit, of the song itself. Honestly, when I listen to "Relax," I hear a somewhat generic if vaguely amusing '80s dance-pop single, nothing more and nothing less. It fascinates me to no end that such an ordinary song could spark so much outrage. I mean, why would "Relax" be banned, but not "Ghost Town"? OK, so he says "come." That means it's about sex? If anything, the song's about not having sex, since he sings "Relax, don't do it," which you might assume to be a suggestion not to have sex, but I guess the BBC can do whatever it wants.

And yet, now that all the dust has settled, whenever I hear "Relax," I'll never think of the controversy, the BBC ban, or even Trevor Horn's production. Nope, all I'll think of is Weird Al playing an accordion and making raspberry noises on Dare To Be Stupid.