Thursday, August 29, 2013

M*A*S*H, Michael Jackson, and Kraftwerk (??) AKA Songs From The '70s That Became UK #1 Hits In The '80s

The United Kingdom, as I mentioned earlier, is much smaller than the United States, at least in terms of geographical size - if not in spirit. The point is, imagine a song suddenly becoming popular in Texas. Probably happens all the time. Maybe some local DJ suddenly hears "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" for the first time in his life, and decides to play the hell out of it. But it would never hit #1. You know why? Because the rest of the country would sit there and say, "Texas, what the fuck?"

Well, imagine a country where local DJs revived old, obscure singles, but there was no one else around to say, "Britain, What the fuck?"

While filming M*A*S*H in 1970, director Robert Altman realized he needed a theme song:
Robert Altman had two stipulations about the song for Mandel; first, it had to be called "Suicide is Painless", secondly, it had to be the "stupidest song ever written". Altman tried to write the lyrics himself, but found that it was too difficult for his 45-year-old brain to write "stupid enough". Instead he gave the task to his 14-year-old-son, Michael, who apparently wrote the lyrics in five minutes ... During an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in the 1980s, Robert Altman said that his son had earned more than a million US dollars for having co-written the song while he only made US$70,000 for having directed the movie.
Fast-forward ten years. I'm sure the M*A*S*H TV show was still popular in May 1980, but why did "Suicide Is Painless" suddenly top the UK charts at that precise moment? According to Wikipedia, it was "championed by BBC Radio 1 DJ Noel Edmonds." That's it? I don't even think something particularly unusual took place in relation to either the TV show or the film at that time. The final episode, which once held the record for most watched television program in U.S. history, didn't even air until 1983. And the version of the song in the TV show was instrumental.

I mean, it's a lovely song and everything, but it oozes early '70s California singer-songwriter folkiness and I can't imagine what it must have sounded like on UK radio sandwiched between "Call Me" and "Xanadu." Sure, England, whatever. Why didn't some DJ just champion the Brady Bunch theme while they were at it? Three's Company?

After the massive success of Off The Wall, Michael Jackson's little old record company, Motown, decided to re-release some Michael Jackson solo song from 1975 that nobody really cared about the first time around. But maybe the British public thought, "What's this? A new Michael Jackson song? Even though it kind of sounds seven years old? Let's make it number one!" At least American audiences were a little more savvy; the song only peaked at #55 over here.

Kraftwerk were no strangers to fluke Top 40 hits. The last thing they ever expected was for their 22-minute, pioneering electronica track "Autobahn" to peak (as a single edit) at #25 in the U.S. and #11 in the UK. But at least "Autobahn" became a hit shortly after the band released it. When "The Model" appeared on The Man-Machine in 1978, well, big whoop. Somehow or other it ended up as the B-Side to 1981's "Computer Love," some random BBC DJ probably thought it was the bee's knees, and it shot to #1.

Of course, Kraftwerk were so "ahead of their time" that a Kraftwerk song from 1978 probably didn't sound all that different from a Human League or a Soft Cell song from 1982. Granted, I know their first language was not English, but these lyrics make ABBA sound like Elvis Costello:
She's a model and she's looking good
I'd like to take her home, that's understood
She plays hard to get, she smiles from time to time
It only takes a camera to change her mind

She's going out tonight but drinking just champagne
And she has been checking nearly all the men
She's playing her game and you can hear them say
She is looking good, for beauty we will pay

She's posing for consumer products now and then
For every camera she gives the best she can
I saw her on the cover of a magazine
Now she's a big success, I want to meet her again
All right, who was it? Was it Ralf? Or maybe it was Karl? Whoever was responsible, let me start by pointing out a couple of things: "champagne" does not rhyme with "men," and "magazine" does not rhyme with "again." Plus, you need to add an "out" between "checking" and "nearly"; no one "checks men." And maybe it's just me, but why does it feel like they kept running out of words in the middle of their lines, so they just threw a comma in there, tried to add an extra sentence, and hoped no one would notice? "'She's a model and she's looking good/I'd like to take her home' ... crap, that's not enough words, I need something else ... ah, what rhymes with good?"

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Vacation: Recycled Beauty And The Beat Leftovers ... But You Say That Like It's A Bad Thing!

And so the Go-Go's basically slapped together a bunch of Beauty and the Beat leftovers and called it an album. Well yeah. But an album of Beauty and the Beat leftovers sounds pretty good to me! Vacation is the Go-Go's' Strange Days, their More Songs About Buildings and Food, their Communique. It's a sophomore album by a band that had a long gestation period, a deep concert repertoire, sudden success, and plenty of unused material left over.

Although I'm sure there are some weird, wily fans out there who just want to be contrarian and will say otherwise, let's get real here: Vacation is not as good as Beauty and the Beat. On the surface, all the same winning elements are there; the album even sports the same producer (Richard Gottehrer). It's hard to put my finger on it, but the magic just isn't as ... potent. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes, "the album has an appealing, radio-ready sound, but it's at the expense of the giddy sense of fun that made Beauty and the Beat such a vibrant record." It's missing that certain ... hunger, that certain ... urgency. While no one would mistake their debut for progressive rock, it was, in its own way, a kind of a concept album. Vacation just feels like a bunch of unrelated songs.

But disappointing Go-Go's albums are like disappointing days at summer camp: even when they're bad, they're good. Erlewine gives the album three stars. I'd go with four-and-a-half and call it a day. In their 2004 album guide, Rolling Stone gave it one-and-a-half stars, which is just absurd. A sub-par Go-Go's album is like a sub-par Velvet Underground album: there are only so many. Although Erlewine writes that "half the album is padded with filler," I can honestly say that, on an individual basis, I like every song on Vacation. And yet, I rarely actually sit down and listen to the album as a whole.

What does the lead singer have to say on the matter? From Lips Unsealed:
Unlike Beauty and the Beat, I liked Vacation when I first heard a mastered version of the entire album. I thought it was a good, strong, fun effort with one caveat: I hated the way my voice sounded. I could hear where I had difficulty singing and felt guilty that I had spent too much time partying and hadn't given it my all.
In other words, "I thought it was a great album, except my voice sounded like shit and I couldn't sing for shit and I was just a big, raging fuck-up and I felt like shit. Other than that, it was great!"

For reasons that I can't quite fathom, "Get Up And Go" was released as the second single from the album. To these ears, it mines the same Bo Diddley beat the Go-Go's had already mined to better effect on "How Much More" and "You Can't Talk In Your Sleep (If You Can't Sleep)," but hey, somebody at I.R.S. must have liked it. I think the public agreed with me, though, since the song only peaked at #50 (question: if a single peaks at #50, would you consider that a "hit"?). There was also, as Belinda puts it, "a hideous video with me wearing an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt and headband, a look that predated Flashdance - yuck." The clip used to be up on YouTube but it looks like someone has "blocked it in [my] country on copyright grounds," or possibly on "embarrassment grounds"? Instead, here's a clip from Solid Gold, featuring Belinda in her Sheena Easton phase (and here's a version of the song with audio that doesn't sound like it's coming from the apartment next door).

"Girl Of 100 Lists" is a Jane number that Belinda found really cute and clever but the rest of the band thought was kind of wimpy and juvenile. The song is probably all of those things. It's the kind of subject matter that people who didn't really know about the Go-Go's would assume was the main subject matter of every Go-Go's song, although to be fair, the list-keeping protagonist does seem to be tearing through men at an unhealthy rate:
Ghetto blasters, phony jewels
Cathedrals, castles, making up rules
Trashy novels and leather gloves
This is a list of the things I love

I am the girl of 100 lists
From what shall I wear
To who I have kissed
Check items off
Let nothing be missed
Sing I to myself and my 100 lists

Pick up your laundry, doctor's at ten
We're out of toothpaste, rehearsal again
Stop by the bank and cash my pay
These are the things I must get done today

Ricky and Danny and Terry and Jim
Dean lasted six months, don't forget him
Perhaps some day this list will end
Till then I tally my gentlemen friends
This particular YouTube clip has excerpts from some sort of hilarious Go-Go's fanzine comic strip called "Motel Madness" ("C'mon Go-Go's, this is important. You've got to go the mall! The mayor's wife is expecting you!" "You lured us here under the pretense of a pajama party and now you tell us this! C'mon, girls, let's split!").

"Beatnick Beach" was another one of Belinda's amusing attempts at writing lyrics, but it lacks the despondent edge of "Skidmarks On My Heart," and with its campy '60s references ends up being a little closer to "We Got The Beat." As with that song, I think Gina manages to elevate "Beatnick Beach" through the sheer power of her energetic drumming. The opening "One, Two, G-O, G-O!" chant may be the most cartoonishly girl power-ish moment in the band's entire discography:
Dance to the poetry
It's gonna be just you and me
We'll groove on that groovy beat
It'll be boss keen neat yeah

The gang they'll all be there
Join the fun and don't be a square
We'll lip sync a go-go
Just like the Lloyd Thaxton show yeah

Beatnik Beach
It's really neat
Limbo down
Hit the ground

Put on your paisleys
Put on your black beret too
Join all us beatniks
Nothing better could happen to you yeah

Well, keep working on it BC. Like all good Go-Go's albums, Vacation ends on a dreamy, desperate, and slightly delusional note with "Worlds Away," which was name-checked to nice effect by Bret Easton Ellis in Less Than Zero. I can definitely see Clay, the novel's tortured protagonist, lounging by the poolside, strung out on coke and alcohol, staring into the crystal-clear water, trying to figure out whether he last slept with a boy or a girl, zoning out to this song on his headphones:
Walking around it's clear
I'm worlds away
Thinking with only half my mind
Found myself wanting
To be sleeping
To be dreaming
To be worlds away

Slip into bed the sheets are
Cold and smooth
My tension melts to a quiet warm
Find myself waiting
To be sleeping
To be dreaming
To be worlds away

I wanna be worlds away
Apart from the day to day
I know I'll be okay
When I get worlds away
Worlds away
Worlds away

There are a couple of other great songs on Vacation I need, and I mean need, to talk about, but I've decided to work them skillfully into a few of my upcoming posts. In the big-screen movie version of Lips Unsealed (which you know I must some day make), there are certain songs that are just tailor-made to be playing on the soundtrack alongside specific moments in this woman's life. For Belinda Carlisle, you see, life and art were one and the same.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Bucks Fizz: If Only ABBA Had Been British, And Only From The '80s

You know, the original ABBA were great and everything, but there was just something ... missing. For years, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Then finally, it hit me. You know what they needed? They needed to be British.

Like ABBA before them, Bucks Fizz rose to fame by winning the Eurovision contest. Unlike ABBA, they did it by incorporating a tacky skirt-ripping routine into their performance. Released in 1981, "Making Your Mind Up" sounds more like ABBA circa 1974 than ABBA circa 1981. I mean, they nailed the style to a T; they were just ... a little bit behind?

Their next #1 hit, 1982's "The Land of Make Believe," sounds more like ABBA circa 1978 (think "Take a Chance on Me" or "The Name of the Game"), but hey, at least they were working their way a little closer to the present, right? Maybe at this rate they would soon catch up to ABBA circa 1982. Amusingly, Bucks Fizz's lyrics might actually be more simplistic than ABBA's, which, given that Bucks Fizz didn't even write their own material, and that ABBA managed to do so despite their native language not even being English, is really saying something. Here the band extols the virtues of the world of imagination:
Stars in your eyes little one
Where do you go to dream?
To a place we all know
The land of make believe

Tapping at your window
Voices whisper, "Will you come and play?"
Not for all the tea in China
Or the corn in Carolina
Never, never ever
They're running after you babe

Run for the sun little one
You're an outlaw once again
Time to change, Superman
Will be with us while he can
In the land of make believe
This TopPop clip sadly cuts off the dopey spoken word portion at the end, where some child actress fresh from "There's No One Quite Like Grandma" tells us enchantingly, "I've got a friend who comes to tea/And no one else can see but me/He came today, but had to go/To visit you, you never know," but in its defense, it does include a shirtless black bodybuilder, a mysterious juggler, and a lifetime's supply of dry ice.

I'm not sure if "My Camera Never Lies" finally caught up to ABBA's contemporary sound, or was more of a prime slice of Aerobic Rock, sounding more like Olivia Newton-John or Sheena Easton. I'm also kind of getting a Styx/"Mr. Roboto" vibe.

True story: I downloaded a Bucks Fizz Greatest Hits album (why not?), and I have to confess, some of their smaller hits are actually pretty good slices of shitty, disposable pop. "If You Can't Stand The Heat" is the song that someone finally wrote in order to take advantage of the phrase "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," and it also boasts a chorus that Roxette would have undergone an Ingmar Bergman marathon for. "Talking in Your Sleep" is a highly faithful and yet strangely effective cover of the Romantic's American hit.

In other words, you like your pop big, stupid, and catchy? Bucks Fizz may be your band.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Shakin' Stevens: If Only Elvis Had Been British, And From The '80s

Americans may have invented '50s rock 'n' roll, but we seem to have gotten over it. For some reason, Great Britain has romanticized and venerated the genre with a passion has been directly inverse to the size of its original contribution. Maybe music that, for us, seems quaint and passe, seems exotic and glamorous to our Transatlantic cousins. I guess it wasn't that unusual in the late '50s to like rock 'n' roll in America, but it was sort of a whole statement of personal identity in England. Still, how do you explain Shakin' Stevens?

Shakin' Stevens was a relatively straightforward rockabilly revivalist who performed competent cover versions of slightly obscure oldies. He wasn't a New Wave artist. He didn't do anything surprising, or offer much of a modern twist on the genre, or even write much of his own material. And he had four UK #1 hits.

"This Ole House," originally a hit for Rosemary Clooney in 1954, was obviously not inspired by the long-running Bob Vila home improvement show of the same name.

"Green Door" was originally a US #1 hit for Jim Lowe in 1956. According to Wikipedia, "An oft-repeated urban legend has developed saying the song refers to London's first lesbian club (1930-1985) which was in Bramerton Street in Chelsea." If Shakin' Stevens was aware of this interpretation, he certainly didn't show it.

The zydeco-flavored "Oh Julie," which I find somewhat more inventive and a little less derivative than his other material, was a number Stevens actually wrote himself. See, if only Stevens had realized earlier on that he needed to be the "rockabilly/cajun revivalist," he might have made it over here.

Or maybe he could have given Paul McCartney a run for his money in the synth-rockabilly Christmas market. "Wonderful Christmastime" or "Merry Christmas Everyone"? Pick your holiday poison.

Friday, August 9, 2013

"Shaddap You Face" and "Japanese Boy" AKA I Guess It Was OK To Stereotype Italians and The Japanese Back Then

Mexicans? Nope. Jews? Probably not. Blacks? I wouldn't suggest it. But apparently, as Joe Dolce and Aneka demonstrated, it was perfectly acceptable in the '80s to string a bunch Italian or Japanese stereotypes together and make a hit song out of it.

Joe Dolce was an American from Ohio who moved to Australia and released "Shaddap You Face" in 1980. The lyrics, as well as Joe's delivery, make fun of Italians. And ... that's it. That's the whole song. There's no moral, no life lesson, no spiritual epiphany. It's just a bunch of Italian stereotypes. Didn't Weird Al do this better with "Lasagna"?

"Shaddap You Face" might have been tailor-made for something like Dr. Demento's show, where it was played frequently in the US. But how do you explain the song topping the charts in the UK, Australia, and several other countries besides? According to Wikipedia, "The original release sold over 6 million copies and has remained the most successful Australian-produced single in Australian music history for 33 years straight, with sales of over 350,000+ copies." Some audiences are too easy.
Slightly more understandable, but arguably more tasteless, is Aneka's "Japanese Boy." And no, Aneka was not her real name:
Written by Bob Heatlie and produced by Neil Ross, the song was recorded by Scottish folk singer Mary Sandeman. Realizing that the name didn't fit the song, they decided to come up with a name to put to the single. Leafing through the telephone directory, they came upon the name of Aneka.
Umm ... isn't that just some ersatz, quasi-Japanese-sounding name? Why not just call her Fuji, or Yamaha, or Iwo Jima while we're at it? And didn't they just compose some ersatz, quasi-Japanese-sounding melody to go with it? Why not just have her sing, "Me build steleo system and eat flied lice"? I mean hell. My roommate's Top Ramen Cup O'Noodles is more authentically Japanese than "Japanese Boy."

Or maybe this was just Britain's revenge for World War II? We won the war, so now we get to insult your defeated nations with tacky, politically incorrect '80s pop songs?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Belinda And The Ugly Dodger Boyfriend - Part I

Mike Marshall, outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, 1981-1989. Career stats: 148 home runs, 530 RBIs, .270 batting average. National League All-Star, 1984. World Series champion, 1988. Boyfriend of Belinda Carlisle, 1982-1984.

Yes, long before Matt Kemp and Rihanna, there was Mike Marshall and Belinda Carlisle. From Lips Unsealed:
One night I received an unexpected call in my hotel room from a young man who said his name, Mike Marshall, and then paused in a way where I could tell he expected me to recognize who he was. I didn't.

"I play for the Los Angeles Dodgers," he said.

I still didn't recognize his name, but I knew the Dodgers. As a girl who was never able to get the football player in high school, I realized I had something even better on the line: a professional ballplayer. Not just any old ballplayer either. He was an L.A. Dodger.

I don't know if it was boredom or intrigue, or a combination of both, but I was interested. When I asked him to tell me about being a Dodger, he explained he was considered a good player, and that he'd actually won the minor league Triple Crown the year before and was now in the major leagues, which was pretty exciting.

"So are you good?" I asked teasingly.

"I hit a home run my first time up to bat at Dodger Stadium," he said.

"Yeah, but are you good?"
Oh, Jesus. This is going to end poorly.
The first call turned into a nightly occurrence that I looked forward to. I liked the back-and-forth volley with this strange man. Without him knowing, I tooted up during the call and spewed what I described as my coke rap.

Our conversations quickly moved past playful flirtations and turned into more intimate explorations. It was like a game of Truth or Dare - a drug in and of itself.

I had no idea what Mike looked like or that his teammates had nicknamed him Moose for his thick, lumbering physique. He was a Dodger; that was intriguing enough ... We finally arranged to rendezvous before our show in Santa Cruz. When I saw him for the first time, I didn't think he was handsome or cute. I don't know what image I had in mind, but he reminded me of Lurch, the butler on the old TV series The Addams Family.

However, as I repeatedly told my friends later on, almost as if I needed to convince myself, he was a Dodger.
No, see, Belinda. As any self-respecting Giants fan can tell you, that is exactly why you don't want to date him. And of course he was ugly. He was a Dodger. Come on. Dodgers players torture little girls, exploit third world labor, leave the toilet seat up, and basically do every horrible thing a human being can possibly do.

Still, I can't exactly picture Belinda dating Jack Clark. In other words, if you were determined to date an ugly baseball boyfriend, Belinda, I'm glad you chose a Dodger.