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.