Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Split Enz: Two Finns From New Zealand

How much of an achievement is it to be the greatest '80s band from New Zealand? While you think of the answer to that question, let me tell you about Split Enz.

A couple of years ago, I downloaded History Never Repeats - The Best of Split Enz, and I liked it. So then I downloaded the bands' first seven albums. Which is ... all of their albums, except for two. You know what? They're all pretty good.

Initially, under the leadership of Tim Finn and Phil Judd, Split Enz began as sort of a poppy progressive rock band in the vein of Supertramp or 10cc (even enlisting Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera as the producer of their second album). But right around 1977, Judd left and was replaced by Tim's younger brother Neil. Partly because the music scene was shifting, and partly because Neil could barely play the guitar, Split Enz' songs, such as "My Mistake," became zippier and more concise.

According to Wikipedia, "their 'look' – a mixture of the weird and the whimsical – drew on influences like the circus, music hall, gothic horror, Expressionist cinema, pantomime, psychedelia, surrealism, and modern art – all filtered through the band's bizarre demeanour and crazed on-stage antics." It was as if the group were trying to say, "Hey British bands: you think you're eccentric? We're from New Zealand, bitches, and this is eccentric."

By their fourth album Frenzy, Split Enz began displaying a noticeably heavier influence from British New Wave acts such as XTC and Elvis Costello, as "I See Red" demonstrates. Looks like Tim forgot to take his meds that day.

But soon, little brother Neil was all grown up and writing singles of his own! "I Got You" was the band's biggest hit, reaching #1 in Australia, #12 in the UK, and #53 in the US. Sure, #53 doesn't sound like much of a hit (the album it appeared on, True Colours, did peak at #40, which means that, technically, Split Enz had a US Top 40 album), but apparently the video became an early MTV staple, at least according to a very reliable source: Belinda Carlisle. From Lips Unsealed:
When I think back on those early days of MTV, all I remember seeing is a lot of the Split Enz hit "I Got You." I noticed them because of a funny thing that happened a year earlier when I was living at Disgraceland. It was the night we were having one of the more infamous parties in that place's history, an event we had dubbed the Forbidden Foods Party. It was girls only - no boys allowed. About thirty of us got together, and the two requirements for admission were that you had to wear a negligee and bring the most fattening food you could find.

We were in the middle of this party, drinking from a giant bowl of alcohol punch, dancing around, eating, and acting crazy, when there was a knock at the door. We opened it and Neil Finn and some of the guys from Split Enz were standing there. They said they had just come to town and heard there was a party, so they showed up. It made perfect sense to me. What do you do when you get to town? You find out where the party is and go. So I told them to come on in and enjoy themselves.
Wait, what about the "girls only" thing? Aw, forget it.
How could they not? There were thirty girls prancing around half-naked, eating pizza, French fries, cannolis, and cream puffs. They didn't know what hit them. To this day, whenever I see Neil, he says, "Do you remember that party?" And there's always a twinkle in his eye.
I'll bet there is.

At any rate, after Neil and the others thankfully survived the Forbidden Foods Party, the band released a couple more albums and continued to have Top 10 hits in Australia, such as Neil's "One Step Ahead," but they still couldn't quite capitalize on the success of "I Got You." And that, as they say, was the enz of Split Enz.

However, Neil eventually formed Crowded House, a group which occasionally featured Tim but was essentially led by Neil, and in 1987 they had a small hit with some song that nobody really remembers.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Pat Benatar: Androgynous Name, But All '80s Woman

If you put the words "woman," "rocked," and "80s" into a Google search engine, the first thing that would probably pop up is a picture of Pat Benatar.

Pat Benatar had the ultimate '80s rocker name: "Pat" is androgynous, and "Benatar" sounds like a cross between a Bengal tiger and a centaur. In addition, Pat Benatar's period of commercial success is exclusively confined by the '80s; she had her first Top 40 hit in 1980 and her last in 1988. She is '80s incarnate.

But truth be told, I never much cared for Pat Benatar. I always thought "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" was annoying. I thought "Love Is A Battlefield" was one of those songs people only liked because it was cheesy and from the '80s, not because it was actually good. But leave it to Little Earl to discover the hidden gems of the Benatar catalog.

Originally, Benatar had been training to be an opera singer, then she decided she wanted to be Liza Minnelli, and obviously ended up being neither. But the woman had some serious range, which gave her "hard rock" songs kind of a funny, high-pitched quality, as displayed on her first hit, "Heartbreaker," which climbed to #23 in 1980. I can't really tell if she's supposed to like the guy ("You're the right kind of sinner/To release my inner fantasy") or hate the guy ("You're a heartbreaker/Dream maker/Love taker/Don't you mess around with me"), but who cares, it rocks.

"Treat Me Right" was another dynamite slice of Benatar's patented "hard rock that's basically a pop song."

Say it's 1981, and you bought yourself a brand new copy of Benatar's Crimes Of Passion. You were lured in by "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," maybe "Treat Me Right," possibly even "You Better Run," a song that holds the distinction of being the second video ever played on MTV. Suddenly you come to an album track called "Hell Is For Children."
They cry in the dark, so you can't see their tears
They hide in the light, so you can't see their fears
Forgive and forget, all the while
Love and pain become one and the same
In the eyes of a wounded child

Because Hell
Hell Is For children
And you know that their little lives can become such a mess
Hell Is For children
And you shouldn't have to pay for your love with your bones and your flesh

It's all so confusing, this brutal abusing
They blacken your eyes, and then apologize
You're daddy's good girl, and don't tell mommy a thing
Be a good little boy, and you'll get a new toy
Tell grandma you fell off the swing
Uh ... what the deuce? You were trying to rock out to Pat Benatar and then suddenly you got hit with a song about ... child abuse?

Party foul.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Tommy James Finds Himself With A Hit In The '80s - And Not For The Last Time

She may have been talented in many ways, but Joan Jett doesn't appear to have been the most prolific songwriter; most of her big hits have been cover versions of other people's songs. But hey, Elvis didn't write songs, either. Anyway, its not what you cover, but how you cover it.

"Crimson and Clover" was a #1 hit for Tommy James & the Shondells in 1969. Tommy James is the kind of artist who had about a thousand hits that everyone still knows, but nobody realizes that they were all by Tommy James & the Shondells. That's partly because his hits didn't always sound the same, and partly because he had no unifying artistic vision. Also, at a time when rock bands were starting to make albums, Tommy James was churning out shamelessly catchy singles. In a sense, "Crimson and Clover" was hipper and edgier than most of them, with its trippy lyrics, spaced-out wah-wah guitar solo, and infamous vocal phasing where it sounds like someone is hitting Tommy James repeatedly in the chest.

Well, Joan Jett does away with all that. She strips the song to its balls. It's almost as if she had no time to rehearse or add any extra flourishes and she just had to do it in one take and not fuck anything up. No trippy wah-wah guitar solo for her. The woman even bites roses in half, all right?

But that's the key to a good cover: come up with some cool production and don't ruin what was already good about the song to begin with. Rule #1: if a cover version of a song just makes you really want to go listen to the original version, then you blew it.

For example: Jett's cover of Sly & The Family Stone's "Everyday People"(!). Perhaps not all Joan Jett covers of #1 hits from 1969 are created equal. While the appeal of the original "Crimson and Clover" was rooted in its abstract lyrical imagery and studio trickery, the appeal of the original "Everyday People" was rooted in its soulful groove and sincere plea for racial tolerance, or, in other words, it was Sly & the Family Stone. I have no doubt that Jett loved Sly & the Family Stone. Well look, I love Sly & the Family Stone too, but you don't see me trying to do a glam rock cover version of "Everybody Is A Star" now, do you?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Why Beauty And The Beat Is The Greatest Album Of All Time

I used to keep a list of all my favorite albums by year of release. It was quite a sight to behold. I think 1969, 1970, and 1973 were the overall champions, but even so, I had at least one album per year for every year from about 1964 through 2001. Every year, that is, except for one: 1981. Once I thought I had it when I added The Clash's Sandinista! to the list, but nope - released in December 1980. Damn. Well, the moment I heard Beauty and the Beat, I knew: I had finally found my 1981 album.

Some albums alter the course of popular music forever. Some albums tie up everything that came before them and influence everything that comes after. Some albums shake the very foundation of rock 'n' roll to its core.

The Go-Go's' Beauty and the Beat ... is probably not one of those albums.

But some albums manage to capture the energy of life in all its chaotic splendor. These albums are made by artists who are too busy actually living their lives to stop and realize just how skillfully their music is expressing their feelings. Beauty and the Beat is the essence of being young and confused and excited and terrified and bitter and hopeful all at once. Beauty and the Beat is the sound of having nothing to lose and everything to gain. Beauty in the Beat is the sound of God and Satan making love in your living room.

On the surface, the album is a collection of seemingly conventional pop songs. If someone put a gun to my head and demanded to know just what makes this album so amazing, I'm not sure I could explain it in a word or two. I would also probably run for my life and call the police. But the point is, Beauty and the Beat is not great because it explodes the boundaries of rock 'n' roll. You want boundaries exploding? Try Remain In Light, or Closer. No, Beauty and the Beat is great because every song is fucking great.

At some point, when not ingesting animal tranquilizer and tying up unsuspecting teenage boys in their basement, Charlotte and Jane happened to turn into a terrific songwriting duo. They complimented each other perfectly: Charlotte with her classical training, and Jane with her primitive, intuitive, "I don't even know how to plug in my amplifier" approach.

Indeed, I'm a sucker for the underdog. That's partly why I love the Beatles, or Elvis, or Ray Charles, or ABBA, or Oasis, or any number of acts whom no one at the time expected would achieve the success they did. No, the Go-Go's did not know that the album was going to be successful while they were making it. But I know that the album was going to be successful, and somehow that influences my affection for it.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that the album is "infectiously cheerful pop" and radiates "an exuberant sense of fun." "Infectious" and "exuberant" perhaps, but "fun" and "cheerful"? Clearly Mr. Erlewine wasn't listening closely enough. Nearly every song on Beauty and the Beat is full of angst and anguish.  If this album had a motto, it would be, "Let's party really hard so that we don't have to think about how depressed we are."

Although only two measly cuts were released as singles (as Erlewine writes, "So big were these two hits that they sometimes suggested that Beauty and the Beat was a hits-and-filler record, an impression escalated by the boost the Go-Go's received from the just-launched MTV"), to these ears at least, every track is pretty much an A, except for maybe "Automatic," which is about a B+ (still, a B+ is pretty good). That said, I'd like to write about four songs in particular.

The third song on the album is the Go-Go's' addition to the immense catalog of songs named "Tonight", featuring works by David Bowie, Elton John, Def Leppard, The Soft Boys, Nick Lowe, Ozzy Osbourne, The Raspberries, and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, among many others, although the Go-Go's actually named the song using the less common variation, "Tonite," so you've got to hand it to them (let's also not forget Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight" and Genesis' "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" while we're at it). But none of those Tonites sounded quite like this one:
The street lights are shining bright
The billboards are shedding their light
And my crowd's hanging around tonite

There's a charge in the air
It's kind of electric out there
And we're all out on the town
Action - gonna track it down
Gonna turn some heads tonite

There's nothing, there's no one to stand in our way
Get dressed up and messed up, blow our cares away
Our mind's set on seeing this night through till day
We rule the streets tonite, until the morning (light)

Although the lyrics seem to suggest triumph and escape, what I really hear, the way the band performs it, is mostly desperation and self-destruction. But the great thing about the song is that it's a little bit of all of that. As the user who published the clip on YouTube put it, "The Go-Go's just make you want to party with wild abandon and give in to all your hedonistic desires."

Another of the album's raging downers is "Fading Fast," sort of an '80s version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Walk On By." In an interview clip in the Totally Go-Go's concert video, Belinda stares blankly into space and explains, "I sorta like 'Fading Fast,' 'cause, um, I can relate to that about ten times over in my life, like getting rid of people that I don't want to see anymore and that keep on haunting you. I can relate to that one pretty much." Yeah I'll bet.
You thought that I was on your side
And I'd do anything for you
But you found out yesterday that you were wrong
I opened up the door, I said we were through

And now you're calling me
You want me back again
But I've just got to turn my head
And start to pretend
I've never seen you
You're someone I don't know
Are you just another boy
That I met long ago

You can talk about old times
They don't mean a thing to me
You're fading fast, out of my memory

So basically she dumps the guy, but she still feels like shit. This is "bright and fun," eh?

At any rate, you're probably wondering, did Belinda ever actually do anything in this band besides cast spells on boys with her menstrual fluid and snort coke? Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you "Skidmarks On My Heart."

Although Charlotte composed the music to "Skidmarks On My Heart," the lyrics were written by none other than our inimitable lead singer. The words may not be particularly intellectual or profound (and some of the rhymes are a bit of a stretch), but as a pastiche of early '60s hot rod songs, they are, in their own way, rather brilliant:
You sure know how to hurt a girl
Fewer hugs and no more kisses
Just water for your carburetor
And bearings for your pistons
Rev her engine for your pleasure
Caress and fondle her steering wheel
When you moan and hug her gear shift
Stop! Think how it makes me feel

Skidmarks on my heart
You've got me in fifth
You're burning rubber like my love

I buy you cologne
You want axle grease
You say get a mechanic
I say get a shrink
I need promises
You need Motor Trend
Our love needs an overhaul
Or this may be the end

Bravo, Belinda, bravo.

Almost all the tracks on Beauty and the Beat are, on the surface at least, some variation of a love song. But there is one track, "This Town," that expresses larger cultural commentary. The town in question, of course, is Los Angeles.
We all know the chosen toys
Of catty girls and pretty boys
Make up that face, jump in the race
Life's a kick in this town

This town is our town
It is so glamorous
Bet you'd live here if you could and be one of us

Change the lines that were said before
We're all dreamers, we're all whores
Discarded stars like worn out cars
Litter the streets of this town

Ladies and gentlemen: irony! See, the catch is, although the Go-Go's seem to be saying that their town is "so glamorous" and that you should want to live in L.A. and be one of them, what they really mean is that L.A. is phony and sleazy and you do not want to live there and be one of them.

And here is where Belinda is the Go-Go's' secret weapon. No, she didn't have anything to do with the writing of this song. But every single vocal choice she makes in this particular performance is perfect. I mean perfect. The first time she sings "It is so glamorous," she sings it as if there's a period after every word, like "It. Is. So. Glamorous." You can practically feel the sarcasm dripping from her supposedly sweet and innocent California lips. The implication is, "You see this image, and you think you want to be exactly like me. But believe me, folks, you don't want to be anything like me." And I believe her. And the way she sings "bet" right afterward, with a little snarl - I can practically taste the self-loathing. And on the last go-round of the chorus, she does some other wonderful things like add these aching high notes to "it's our town" and then does some funky scanning with "I'll bet you'd live here ... ifyoucould and be oneofus." Yes! Yes! Yes!!!

There's something extra poignant about these five supposedly healthy and attractive young women already being so cynical and jaded about life in Los Angeles and the world in general. You mean I wasn't the only 22-year-old who thought everyone was full of shit? And this was only their first album. Didn't anybody tell them they were supposed to wait until their second album before they started complaining about how much L.A. stinks?

But there's another emotion I get from "This Town" beside self-loathing and cynicism, and that's pity. Not pity for themselves, but pity for an American culture that elevates the lifestyle Southern Californians are supposedly living to such desirable heights. It's like they're saying, "We wish life really wasn't this way. We wish our culture valued other things. But it doesn't." There's a tremendous sense of waste.

And yet, the Go-Go's manage to say all of this by not saying this. And that, my friends, is why I proclaim, only half-jokingly, that Beauty and the Beat is the greatest album of all time.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Orange You Glad The Fun Boy Three Discovered Bananarama?

Perhaps hoping to re-create the male-female dynamic the Specials had briefly experienced when the Go-Go's made a cameo appearance on their second album, the Fun Boy Three decided to collaborate with a previously unknown female trio going by the vowel-challenged name of Bananarama. From whence did this "Bananarama" appear?
The trio were ardent followers of the punk rock and post-punk music scene during the late 1970s and early 1980s and often performed impromptu sets or backing vocals at gigs for such bands as The Monochrome Set, Iggy Pop, The Jam, Department S, and The Nipple Erectors.
Ah yes, the Nipple Erectors - their future seemed so bright. Pity the bassist had to die in a sewage accident. Speaking of sewage accidents, here's a tidbit about Malcolm McLaren:
During this early period Bananarama were approached by Malcolm McLaren, who offered to manage the group. McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, Adam and the Ants, and Bow Wow Wow, and notorious for generating scandal, proposed some new material that was sexually suggestive, and did not fit with what at the time was the band's tomboyish and straightforward image. Bananarama passed on both the material and McLaren as their manager.
The girls were clearly better off with the Fun Boy Three, as "It Ain't What You Do (It's That Way That You Do It)" demonstrates.

While that song was officially credited to "the Fun Boy Three with Bananarama," their next collaboration, a quirky cover of the Velvelette's "He Was Really Saying Something," was credited to "Bananarama with Fun Boy Three." Key distinction, apparently. Although the Velvelettes were an obscure Motown group and "He Was Really Saying Something" was only a minor hit, I must boast that I in fact knew the song and even had the original version in my mp3 collection. Take that, Terry Hall!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Joan Jett Suspiciously Claims To Love Rock 'N' Roll

I've always felt that songs about rock and roll are kind of stupid. If a song wants to rock, it should just rock; it shouldn't sit around and talk about how much it's rocking. Did "Jumpin' Jack Flash" stop and say, "Hey, look at me everybody, I'm totally rocking right now"? No. No it did not. Did "Purple Haze" pull over to the side of the road and say, "Hot damn, I am really rocking like nobody's business"?

That's why I always thought Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" was kind of silly. I mean, if you really loved rock and roll that much, you wouldn't need to tell me; it would already be understood. In fact, the more you tell me how much you love rock and roll, the more I'm inclined to doubt that you really do. Me thinks the Joan doth protest too much.

I also thought it was silly how she brags about some attractive young man "moving on and he was with me - yeah me." I mean, he wasn't moving along with me, was he? No, he was moving along with you. Why should I care about your flirting success and not mine?

However, it turns out that Joan Jett didn't actually write "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" (it was written in the mid-70s by an obscure British band named the Arrows), which makes the declaration a little less self-serving. Instead of "Hey, look at me, I'm trying to create a rock anthem," it's more like, "Hey, I found this song that somebody else wrote in the '70s that I really dig, so I'm going to use it to rock out." Having discovered that piece of information, and also appreciating all manner of '80s music anew, I have to say that I now like this song and agree with those who are inclined to share their supposed affection for rock and roll.

If pressed, I have to admit that the song does, indeed, rock. The guitars crunch. The drums pump. The vocals shred. It's not false advertising. On the other hand, certain mustachioed tunesmiths may have agreed with my original view that such blatantly anthemic statements are ripe for ridicule.