Saturday, December 27, 2014

Steve Winwood: Before He Went Yuppie

Before the '80s, no one would have dared utter the phrases "Steve Winwood" and "credibility problem" in the same sentence. As far as most people were concerned, Winwood, no matter what band he was playing in, was one soulful, tasteful dude. Steve Winwood was like the Eric Clapton of keyboards. And like Clapton, the material on which his legacy was, is, and forever will be based was not actually released under the name "Steve Winwood." Many have been the Generation X-er to hear someone talk about "how amazing Eric Clapton is," only to think, "'Lay Down Sally'? 'Wonderful Tonight'? That shit really ain't that amazing." No, no, no, it's the earlier stuff, man. The Yardbirds, Cream, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers ... you had to be there. And so, by the same token, allow me to briefly but informatively explain how another one of Britain's '60s rock legends completely lost his edge and rode the one-way train to Yuppieville.

Whether or not the world wanted a 15-year-old British Ray Charles, the world got one. Calling Steve Winwood's first band "the Spencer Davis Group" was a bit like calling the Jimi Hendrix Experience "the Noel Redding Experience," but they probably didn't know what they had on their hands (and it was probably best to not put too much pressure on the kid - not that he seemed to care). There were other Spencer Davis Group hits in the UK, but the two that most people remember are "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm A Man" from late 1966/early 1967, prime examples of wild, gritty white guy R&B that are right up there with ubiquitous oldies from the Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds, and Them. Brace yourself ... for the Hammond B-3 organ:

Yes, Steve Winwood was going to kick ass and take names. But then the Summer of Love hit, with all its incense and sitars and tie-dyed toilet paper, and Winwood had other ideas.

I'm talking about Traffic. At first, Winwood wasn't necessarily the "leader" of Traffic, but that's quickly what he became. Traffic are one of those bands that nobody really dislikes, but they don't have the hipster cache of contemporaries like the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd. They weren't overly pompous or self-important (like the Moody Blues or Yes), but they weren't very irreverent or aggressive (like Roxy Music or The Move) either. Oh come on, we're talking about a great era here, and Traffic recordings couldn't help but be soaked in that era's special glow. I'm not sure how many highlights I want to post. Should I go with debut single "Paper Sun"? Surreal jungle adventure "Forty Thousand Headmen"? Surprisingly effective stab at British folk-rock "John Barleycorn"? I think I'm just going to do two lengthy ones: 1) 1967's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" (with a "Hey Jude" coda, a whole year before "Hey Jude"!) and 1971's hypnotic eleven-minute progressive rock excursion "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys." Light a candle, pull up a rug, and let your spirit wander:

Imagine only being familiar with Steve Winwood's '80s Top 40 synth-cheese, and then discovering this stuff. Welcome to my world.

Of course, smack in the middle of Traffic's existence, Winwood inevitably teamed up with Clapton, although the resulting group, Blind Faith, only lasted one album. But ... but ... it's Winwood! And Clapton! Ironically, I think my favorite Blind Faith performance wasn't actually released on that album. It's the "electric" version of Winwood's "Can't Find My Way Home," which showed up years later on his boxed set The Finer Things, and is now also on the Deluxe edition of Blind Faith, which also features four fifteen-minute songs named "Jam #1," Jam #2," etc. If you're wondering whether Winwood and Clapton could possibly jam too much, there's your answer.

I don't know why, since it was basically Winwood's show, but Traffic broke up in 1974. The man wandered in the wilderness for a little while. There was his jazz fusion period (Stomo Yamashti's Go?). Then, out of nowhere, he finally released his first solo album in 1977. AMG's William Ruhlmann writes:
Rock fans had been waiting for a Steve Winwood solo album for more than a decade, as he made his way through such bands as the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic. When Winwood finally delivered with this LP, just about everybody was disappointed ... That great voice was singing the songs, that talented guitarist/keyboardist was playing them, and that excellent songwriter had composed them, but nothing here was memorable, and the long-awaited debut proved a bust.

It doesn't sound all that bad to me, but no, the late '70s were simply not Steve Winwood's time. He needed a new decade, one with the numeral "eight" in it, to truly shed his artistically legitimate past and forge a new, schlockier identity.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

So This Was Early Wham!, Huh? AKA George Michael: Godfather Of Gay Hip-Hop

Just when I thought I knew you, Georgios.

Until this very moment, I'd never quite understood why music writers and their cohorts have treated Wham! as a distinct artistic entity separate from George Michael. Wasn't Wham! basically George Michael's early career under a funny, gimmicky name? Why do people talk about Wham! as if it was its own "thing"? That's like treating the Tubeway Army as its own "thing," or the Stone Poneys as their own "thing." Nowadays, people just admit that the Tubeway Army was basically Gary Numan, or that the Stone Poneys were basically Linda Ronstadt, so the record companies just add "Are Friends Electric?" or "Different Drum" to their artists' respective "best of" compilations and everybody's happy. Besides, didn't Wham! only have three or four hits anyway?

Not so fast, my American friends. Because once again, the Yanks missed out on the early chapter of a revered British performer (or perhaps dodged a bullet?). It is time to tell you about Wham!'s first album, Fantastic. This album spawned not one, not two, but four UK Top Ten singles, none of which made a mark across the pond. Four hit singles? Must have been quite the album, right? Well, once you hear early Wham!, you might understand why George Michael is glad it still bears the name "Wham!" and not "George Michael."

The All Music Guide gives Fantastic one-and-a-half stars. Some excerpts from William Cooper's review:
With Fantastic, George Michael and partner Andrew Ridgeley introduced themselves as leather jacket-clad, street-smart "rebels" ... much of the material on Fantastic suffers from the duo's pretentious, tough-guy posturing ... Michael's smart-aleck, self-conscious lyrics are often unintentionally hilarious ... Fantastic isn't a good album, but it's oddly entertaining ... Unfortunately, that probably wasn't George Michael's intention. But even he might get a good laugh out of it.
And yet, inquiring minds wanted to know, so I gave it a listen. Maybe I have the taste of a three-year-old, but I actually kind of like this shit! What I didn't count on, though ... was the rap.

Oh yes. Before George Michael set his sights on becoming the next Marvin Gaye, apparently he set his sights on becoming the next Sugarhill Gang. If you've ever heard Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and thought, "This is pretty good, but I wish they were white, British, and gay," then Fantastic is the album for you.

Exhibit A: "Young Guns (Go For It!)." It turns out Wham!'s whole illustrious career was, arguably, a BBC programming accident. From Wikipedia:
The song was Wham!'s first hit, although it came with some help from the BBC music programme Top of the Pops, which invited Wham! on to the show as a last-minute replacement for another act which had pulled out. It helped that the producer of Top of the Pops had seen them previously on another programme: Saturday Superstore. Wham! were just outside the Top 40 threshold of the UK Singles Chart at the time, which meant they had not climbed high enough in normal circumstances to get on the show, but they were recruited nonetheless as the highest-placed artists still climbing the charts from outside the 40.
The BBC probably figured, "Well, these guys are obviously a flash-in-the-pan, what's the harm, really?" Once the British viewing audience caught a glimpse of the previously unknown George Michael, who at first glance is wearing a leather vest, although one could arguably claim that the leather vest is wearing him, they surely must have realized that Elvis Costello was not about to perform "Shipbuilding." Throw in a quasi-teddy boy flat-top hairdo, and who could resist?

As for the "rap": it's an anti-marriage, pro-bachelorhood saga pitting the carefree male pal of a young man against that young man's commitment-hungry girlfriend. I mean, yeah. Who wants to marry some girl when you can hang out with your shirtless biker buddy, right?
Hey sucker
(What the hell's got into you?)
Hey sucker
(Now there's nothing you can do)

Well I hadn't seen your face around town awhile
So I greeted you, with a knowing smile
When I saw that girl upon your arm
I knew she won your heart with a fatal charm
I said "Soul Boy, let's hit the town!"
I said "Soul Boy, what's with the frown?"
But in return, all you could say was
"Hi George, meet my fiancee"

Young Guns
Having some fun
Crazy ladies keep 'em on the run
Wise guys realize there's danger in emotional ties
See me, single and free
No tears, no fears, what I want to be
One, two, take a look at you
Death by matrimony!
For this Top of the Pops performance, Andrew Ridgely attempts to play the uncertain young man, but fittingly, he merely mouths to the sound of George's voice from the studio recording. Also of note: the female in this little drama is played by Shirlie Holliman of future Pepsi & Shirlie fame (the black woman here would soon marry Paul Weller, and Pepsi eventually became her replacement - although Coca-Cola would argue that Pepsi can never be a suitable replacement for anything).

Props to the funky bass player laying down the imitation "Rapper's Delight"/"Good Times" groove while George rocks the mic, but it's the chorus that hints at the silky, soulful George Michael sound to come; check out that tasty self-harmonization on the line "danger in emotional ties." Also, after the exclamation, "Death by matrimony" (clearly the most gruesome kind of death), I like the rapid-fire series of synth notes suggesting wimpy conjugal gunshots. The crowning touch would have to be the rapid flashing of the word "Wham!" repeated across the screen Warhol-style in the final seconds. In short, "Young Guns (Go For It!)," both song and television performance, is the most ridiculous pile of nonsense I have ever seen. Naturally, the song shot to #3 and turned Wham! into megastars.

So hey, why stop rapping now? Because next came "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)," an ode to the joys of registering for unemployment, which I assume in the UK was a bit easier to do than in the US ("DHSS," a chant in the song, stands for Department of Health and Social Security). "Wham Rap!" is sort of a conservative's worst fears realized: if young people can receive money without working, then maybe ... they won't work!
Hey everybody take a look at me
I've got street credibility
I may not have a job
But I have a good time
With the boys that I meet "down on the line"
I said D-H-S-S
Man the rhythm that they're givin'
Is the very best
I said B-1, B-2
Makin' claims on your name's
All you have to do

Wham! Bam!
I am! A man!
Job or no job
You can't tell me that I'm not
Do! You!
Enjoy what you do?
If not, just stop
Don't stay there and rot
I'm not sure if this one is painfully shallow or oddly profound, but I've probably just spent more time analyzing "Wham Rap!" than Wham! themselves ever did. I mean, you could forgive the British public for thinking this "Michael George" fellow wasn't going to last: he's openly bragging about sitting on his ass and not amounting to anything!

The most unintentionally revealing moment in the video arrives at 2:20, after the lyrics "If you're a pub man/Or a club man/Maybe a jet black guy with a hip hi-fi/A white cool cat with a trilby hat/Maybe leather and studs is where you're at," when Mr. Michael promptly appears in leather trousers, jacket, and cap, looking a little too comfortable for the occasion.

In hindsight, it's tempting to ask oneself, "How could people not realize that he ... you know ... 'buttered his toast with the other side of the knife,' " but I think this topic was a little trickier back then, because, let's face it, most British male pop singers of that era came off as slightly gay anyway. Quick: name one that didn't come off as slightly gay. Adam Ant? Nope. Robert Smith? Nope. That guy from the Human League? Nope. Sting? Nope. Probably Phil Collins, and that's about it.

Professor Higglediggle provides the appropriate cultural perspective. From Father Figure:
By appropriating African-American inner city culture and transmogrifying it into coded homosexual behavioral tropes, Wham! turned embryonic Old School hip-hop into a Hegelian dialectic between black struggle and British effeminacy. The vernacular of the "street" became the vernacular of the "bath house." With "Young Guns (Go For It)" and "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)," Michael and Ridgeley subverted the macho braggadocio of Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC and utilized it to dance along the liminal space between hetero-normative cool and the outlandishness of Queer Theory. They dared to suggest, to a nescient public, that one could indeed embody both "gay" ... and "ghetto."

Monday, December 15, 2014

Thus Spoke Zrbothustra (after the rain)

“Silence is worse; all truths that are kept silent become poisonous.” - Friedrick Nietzsche

I suppose it's time to break that silence. Yes, your good pal Herr Zrbo is here, after a long bout of ... having a kid.  I am now indeed a father to a little Gollum of a daughter. Now, let's not get ahead of ourselves here - I don't know just how much I'll be contributing now that I'm back, but you'll at least see my annual favorite songs of the year returning shortly. But enough with the small talk, let's get to what we really came here for:

After the drenching rains we've recently had come through California (not that that's where we're based, we are Cosmic Americans after all, adrift in both time and space) I caught myself singing Nelson's "After the Rain." The last time that Little Earl and I met during our annual Cosmological Congress I mentioned to him how I was currently into rock music from right before when Nirvana/"alternative music" hit the airwaves in the early '90s - those last glorious days when the '80s and its associated "hair metal" took one final breath before suffocating under the rain-drenched mopings of Seattle-based grunge.

Nelson are a perfect fit in this category that I don't have a name for (late hair metal?). Identical twin brothers Matthew and Gunnar Nelson were one of the last hair metal bands with a hit. The single "After the Rain" hit #6 on Billboard in late June of 1990, with their other hit "Love and Affection" hitting number #1. This put Nelson into the history books - well, at least the Guinness Book of World Records - as being the only family to reach number one record status in three successive generations (Ozzie and Harriet Nelson being the first, their father Ricky Nelson the second). Just over a year later, in September of 1991, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would hit America by storm. Coincidentally, the album After the Rain remained in the charts for 64 weeks. You do the math.

Let's just watch this beast of a video. That opening with the drunk belligerent stepdad in what I presume is a trailer is pretty dark stuff. It's certainly not a tacky '80s anti-drug commercial. Yeah kid, go listen to that Nelson on your headphones, because when the song is over you're still going to be living in a nightmarish shit hole.

But then.. the kid is off on a hilarious vision quest complete with Native American appropriation. But... who are those two identical dreamboats with the outrageously long blond hair? Why, it's Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, sons of teen idol Ricky Nelson!

And what locks of hair they are! What teenage girl wouldn't go head over heels for Nelson? That's fairly indicative of late hair metal as well; it seemed increasingly tailored to a female audience. Just check out nearly any song by contemporaries Slaughter or Winger - these songs are made for chicks to dig, you dig? Don't believe me? How about that Full House episode where DJ scores tickets to see Slaughter. If you were a hair metal rocker in 1990 America, you could have any 13 year old girl you wanted. Seriously. (Confession time: little Zrbo really liked Nelson as well).

Back to the video. Enter: the arena. Yes, another staple of any good hair metal video is to highlight your band's "live" chops by having the video filmed "live" in a massive arena filled with adoring fans. Look at the smoke, look at the lights, look at those explosions, look at all the people having fun ... all in some sort of rock garden arena!

It's the little things:
  • The long velour coats that match the softness of Nelson's hair
  • One band member didn't get the memo and brought along his acoustic guitar
  • @3:28 The classic hair metal video trope of the drummer pointing the stick at the camera
  • @3:54 There's a Yacht Rocker in the audience... or at least a guy sporting a Captain's hat
  • @4:10 Are they identical twins or are they lovers 'cause they're getting awfully close
And then the kid wakens back in his shit hole - was it all just a dream? But what's this! What a twist!

And that's it for our time with Nelson. I think you can still see them performing at the Santa Cruz boardwalk on occasion, watery remnants of a time when big hair was the thing. These washed out rockers pouring out their hearts in a gush, no, a rain of emotions. All right, enough water-based puns for now. Back to the Gollum.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Meet James Mason: Belinda Carlisle's Father-In-Law

Yes, meet James Mason - although Belinda herself never did: he died only a few months before Belinda and his son Morgan's paths ever crossed. Ah, but the boundaries of connection often have a way of extending far beyond this mortal coil, and so, despite the esteemed British actors' (most likely) complete ignorance of a certain '80s all-girl New Wave band, he and that band's lead singer will be forever linked in the celebrity family tree.

In an era when major Hollywood leading men (like Paul Newman, William Holden, or Burt Lancaster) were relatively straightforward and conventionally masculine, James Mason was a bit of, shall we say, an "Odd Man Out." I'm sure at various times he must have played more conventional heroes, but if so, those aren't the roles for which he's remembered. No, Mason was the inscrutable English gentleman, part ambivalent anti-hero, part seething everyman. He spoke with an immediately recognizable and often imitated wheezy refinement, as if he'd turned his natural lung power down from a 10 to about an 8. Even when he was professing his undying love for someone, he always seemed like he was about five seconds away from sending in the pit bulls to tear her limbs apart. Underneath the surface, his characters might have been pathetic victims or evil geniuses, but you usually needed about twenty minutes to figure out which one it was going to be.

His wishy-washy intellectualism was perfect for the role of Brutus in 1953's Julius Caesar, a Shakespeare adaptation that everyone in Hollywood thought was going to be a prestigious flop, but turned out to be a surprise hit. Or rather, everyone thought that the casting of Marlon Brando ("that no good, mumbling, Method acting punk from A Streetcar Named Desire, who didn't even seem like he could stand up straight to save his life!") as Marc Anthony was the worst casting decision in the history of cinema. But about halfway through the film, Brando not only demonstrated that he could learn his lines, he could deliver them better than the creme de la creme of British theatre legends surrounding him. Dude could set that iambic pentameter on fire. Although it was Brando who received top billing (and stole the buzz), in terms of total screen time, Mason was essentially the lead. Sure, he didn't bring the raw sex appeal, but he brought the tortured British grativas. Brutus is that special, unique politician who carefully thinks all his actions through, has all the right motives, even has the genuine long-term interests of the public at heart, and yet still does the wrong thing (you know, murder somebody). Nobody could do "guilt-ridden philosopher-statesman" like my boy James.

Just a year later, Mason again ended up being overshadowed by another co-star, and another legendarily volatile Hollywood icon, Judy Garland, in 1954's A Star Is Born. Ironically, it was the more stable Mason who played the declining film actor Norman Maine, while the doomed Garland played the young starlet Esther Blodgett, whose fame quickly surpasses that of her mentor/lover. I remember Garland doing a lot of singing, but unfortunately I don't recall Mason giving the ol' razzle dazzle a try. Mostly he just slowly, agonizingly self-destructs. There are about an hour's worth of scenes in which Norman somehow embarrasses Esther in public, whines about how terrible he feels about it, claims that she'd be better off without him, and then does something embarrassing again. You want the dark side of the Hollywood dream? Mason is your man.

The award for "Best Cortisone Addiction Movie" has to go to 1956's Bigger Than Life - which Mason also produced and co-wrote - in which Mason plays yer all-American dad (with an incongruous English accent) who slowly loses his marbles after becoming addicted to the experimental new prescription drug. Although the film was ostensibly a searing family drama, I think director Nicholas Ray secretly played certain scenes for laughs, such as the infamous climax in which Mason goes so far off his rocker that he threatens to sacrifice his own son to God with a pair of scissors. Yep, this one was out there.

More nakedly out there, but no less controversial for it, was Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of Lolita, in which Mason plays the one and only Humbert Humbert. I remember reading Lolita and thinking, "Well, even though I already know that James Mason plays Humbert Humbert in the movie, honestly, if I could have cast anyone as Humbert Humbert ... I think I would have gone with James Mason!" He has just the right mixture of erudition, class, caution, and buried perversity. For two-and-a-half hours, Humbert's ambitions are continuously thwarted, as he attempts to outwit Lolita's mother, the mysterious rival Clare Quilty, and Lolita's own faltering interest. You'll never root so hard for a pedophile in your life.

And that's just the tip of the James Mason iceberg. We've got North By Northwest, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Georgy Girl, The Verdict - look, I haven't even seen most of these. Apparently the man was not picky with his roles; that's how his filmography includes such titles as Escape From Zahrain, The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go, Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!, The Flower in His Mouth, Evil Under the Sun, and Hot Stuff. Certain British thespians who made the transition to Hollywood (such as Laurence Olivier or Alec Guinness) might have expressed some concern at the effect their roles would end up having on their acting reputation; James Mason was not one of those people. He was like the Nicolas Cage of his day: send him a script, and it was as good as a "Yes."

But sadly, or perhaps mercifully, the role of father-in-law to the Queen of Yuppie Rock is the one role he never got the chance to play. I'm inclined to believe that if he'd lived to see it, the story of his son and new bride would have struck him as one even more implausible than the most far-fetched plots in his tawdriest of film scripts.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"Les Boys": Knopfler Goes Fosse?

If Side 1 of Making Movies is like the original Star Wars trilogy, Side 2 is more like the prequels: ostensibly cut from the same cloth, not as good, but still kind of enjoyable if you're high enough. All right, fine, the four remaining songs aren't really that disappointing. "Expresso Love" is a nice mid-tempo rocker that probably sounds too much like "Tunnel of Love" for my taste. Come on Mark, you're supposed to wait at least one album before you rip yourself off. It might be the closest thing to a "happy" love song on Making Movies, but Knopfler delivers the seemingly optimistic lyrics ("She was made in heaven/Heaven's in the world/Is this just expresso love?/You know I'm crazy for that girl") with plenty of uncertainty and caution. He's flying high on a new fling, but maybe that's just the caffeine talking.

If "Hand In Hand" is probably my least favorite cut on the album, I'm not saying that I skip it. Roy Bittan provides some nice piano tinkling, but doesn't it feel like Knopfler is preparing himself for his inevitable foray into Adult Contemporaryland? With its break-up sentiments, it certainly fits the mood though ("If I've been hard on you, I never chose to be/I never wanted no one else/I tried my best to be somebody you'd be close to/Hand in hand like lovers are supposed to").

Although "Solid Rock" is actually about Knopfler's longing for emotional and/or geological stability, and is not an attempt to describe its own musical qualities, with its chuggin Stonesy energy, the song is more or less a chunk of "rock" that is "solid." He's moved on from obsessing about a particular woman and is now trying to formulate a more universal state of mind through which he can deal with "struggle and strife," as he would put it later:
Because the heart that you break
That's the one that you rely on
The bed that you make
That's the one you gotta lie on
When you point your finger 'cause your plan fell through
You got three more fingers pointing back at you

What about the fifth finger? Has it been severed in a horrific accident? Anyway, if Side 2 is like the Star Wars prequels, then the closing track, "Les Boys," is like Revenge of the Sith. And you know what? I enjoyed Revenge of the Sith! But not every Star Wars fan did, and not everybody enjoys "Les Boys." Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that "the record runs out of steam toward the end, closing with the borderline offensive 'Les Boys' ..." You know what I say? Borderline offensive is the best kind of offensive.

"Les Boys" is, apparently, Knopfler's semi-affectionate ode to German gay bars:
Les boys do cabaret
Les boys are glad to be gay
They're not afraid now
Disco bar in Germany
Les boys are glad to be
Up on parade now

Les boys got leather straps
Les boys got SS caps
But they got no gun now
Get dressed up, get a little risque
Got to do a little S&M these days
It's all in fun now

Les boys come on again
For the high class whores
And the businessmen
Who drive in their Mercedes Benz
To a disco bar in old Munchen

They get the jokes that the D.J. makes
They get nervous and they make mistakes
They're bad for business
Some tourists take a photograph
Les boys don't get one laugh
He says they're useless

Late at night when they've gone away
Les boys dream of Jean Genet
High heel shoes and a black beret
And the posters on the wall that say
Les boys do cabaret
Les boys are glad to be gay
Say what? Did Knopfler accidentally cover an unreleased David Bowie song? How did we go from abandoned fairgrounds in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to disco clubs in Munich? If each song on the album is a miniature "movie," then this one stars Liza Minnelli and she's wearing lacy black stockings and a bowler hat. And Chet Atkins is sitting in the corner for some reason.

If Making Movies is a great "break-up album," one could argue that "Les Boys" has absolutely nothing to do with relationships or heartbreak and is therefore completely out of place on it. But on an album that's otherwise so heavy, I find "Les Boys" a refreshing change of pace. It is so goofy, so playful, whenever it comes on, I just have to smile. I can almost hear Monty Python announcing, "And now for something completely different!" You know what it is? It's campy. And how many Dire Straits songs could you say are campy?

But on a deeper level, I think this song is more related to the albums' themes than it might initially seem to be. I feel like "Les Boys" is Knopfler's way of saying that, despite all the pain that comes from relationships (which he's just spent the previous six songs describing), eventually you can come out of it OK and enjoy life a little. Yeah, it isn't quite On The Beach and "Ambulance Blues," but if it's always darkest before the dawn, "Les Boys" is like Making Movies' silly little dawn. Knopfler spends most of the album wrestling with the concept of romance, and he struggles to reconcile the ideal with the reality. Suddenly, he's in a gay club in Munich, watching this freaky subculture appropriate Nazi imagery for kinky giggles, and quite obviously, these guys aren't trying to reconcile anything with anything. Why take love so seriously? Maybe it's supposed to be messy. Maybe it's supposed to be illogical. Maybe it's all just a farce. Maybe love isn't a movie, and what we really need to do is just throw out the script. Maybe Les Boys ... are really on to something.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Brief Summary Of The Paisley Underground AKA When The Bangles Had Street Cred

And the Lord said: "Let there be Paisley." And out of this paisley muck, there arose two Petersons, and Hoffs, and a Steele.

The Paisley Underground was a group of like-minded L.A. bands who were inspired by and/or obsessed with late '60s psychedelic rock ... in the early '80s. When I first heard about this, it didn't sound that unique to me. "Come on, isn't every band inspired by late '60s psychedelic rock?" Well, in the '90s there was Britpop in the UK, and Elephant 6 in the US. But the more that I thought about it, the more I realized that it must have been really anomalous to be making fuzzy garage rock records in 1982, the era of "Physical" and "Hungry Like The Wolf." Somebody's parents forgot to put those Electric Prunes records in the basement, where the kids couldn't find them.

As '80s music scenes go, I'd say the Paisley Underground was not as strong as SST Records, but better than Madchester. There were about five or six core bands, with about three or four other peripheral bands, and nobody's 100% sure even to this day which bands were Paisley Underground and which were not, so take your pick. The Three O'Clock (formerly the Salvation Army) were like the scene's Hollies:

The Dream Syndicate were like the scene's Velvet Underground (of course, the VU did not consider themselves "psychedelic," but they certainly were "late '60s" and every Paisley Underground band eagerly aped their fuzzy, strung-out sound):

Green On Red were like the scene's Doors. The Long Ryders were like the scene's Flying Burrito Brothers. Rain Parade were like the scene's Pink Floyd. In addition, every band was trying to sound exactly like Big Star. In case you think I'm forgetting Game Theory (Tommy Roe?), True West (Paul Revere & the Raiders?), Thin White Rope (solo David Crosby?), the Pandoras (the female Troggs?), David Roback's post Rain Parade duo - and precursor to Mazzy Star - Opal (Nico?), and one-off Paisley Underground supergroup Rainy Day (Neil Young at his most narcoleptic?), well, I'm not.

Yet as exciting, quirky, and eclectic as all these groups were, only one of them would go on to achieve any modicum of fame and fortune. What special quality did the Bangles have that these other bands lacked? What sacred offering were they willing to sacrifice to the Top 40 gods that the Three O'Clock simply couldn't match? To paraphrase another '60s influence, the answer, my friend, is blowing in the smoggy Santa Ana wind.

So who was the model for the Bangles? Well, I'd say a little of all of the previously mentioned bands, but mostly I'd point to what is nowadays called "Sunshine Pop": The Mamas & The Papas, The Turtles, post-1965 Beach Boys, hell let's throw in the Association, the Grass Roots, and the Beau Brummels while we're at it. The Bangles ended up sounding like all the late '60s Southern California bands who were trying their hardest to sound British. Go ahead, listen to their first single, "Getting Out Of Hand," and try not to prance down Carnaby Street in a mini-skirt and a pillbox hat:

A couple of years later, the Bangles released their first EP, featuring "The Real World," which would have been the perfect theme to an MTV reality TV program in an alternate, and possibly better, universe. At this stage, these ladies were walking a lot more like a Liverpudlian than an Egyptian. The video looks like an outtake from an Austin Powers movie, with the girls (including early and soon to be replaced bassist Annette Zilinskas!) apparently playing in the Cavern Club, and nailing mod fashion even more thoroughly than the Jam did. Fab! Gear! Most amusingly, check out Susanna with short hair. I'm starting to think that Annette might have been the most attractive one of them all; Wikipedia claims she left "to focus on her own project," but come on, we know what really happened.

However, if the Bangles were hoping to spend the rest of the decade fooling around in their little retro world with their garage-dwelling comrades, well, the '80s had other plans.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"The Longest Time": The One-Man Doo-Wop "Like A Virgin"

I guess there was something about boinking Christie Brinkley that made Billy Joel feel like a horny street corner teenager all over again. Actually, make that an entire gang of horny street corner teenagers, because his new paramour filled him with the urge to pen and sing an entire multi-part harmony doo-wop song ... all by himself.
If you said goodbye to me tonight
There would still be music left to write
What else could I do
I'm so inspired by you
That hasn't happened for the longest time

Once I thought my innocence was gone
Now I know that happiness goes on
That's where you found me
When you put your arms around me
I haven't been there for the longest time
Sorry Madonna, I think you got beaten to the punch here - although, to be fair, hearing Billy Joel sing about rediscovering his carnal innocence is somehow less sexy than hearing Madonna sing about it. Nevertheless, on this one, Billy Joel was Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Anthony and the Imperials. In fact, aside from a bass guitar, he was the entire song. It's like if Prince were white, and couldn't play any instruments.

Because "The Longest Time" has made its irresistible presence known on the radio for, well, the longest fucking time, I think people have forgotten how weird this song truly is. It was released smack in the middle of the '80s, and yet there are no drums on it, no synthesizers, no keyboards, no tambourines or maracas or castanets or even a lousy dog whistle. And it was a hit (#14 pop, #1 Adult Contemporary). I have to say that it doesn't sound dated in any way whatsoever - mostly because when there's nothing on your record, there's nothing that can actually date. Roll over, Philip Glass: this shit is minimalist.

Mostly it just sounds like Billy having a lot of fun. "Ooh, I'm gonna do the bass part! And next I'm gonna do this other part! Roll the tape, Phil, I've got some falsetto crap I wanna try out." You can tell he really let himself go with the high harmony, particular with those recurring "Woo-ooh-woo-ooh"s (first one at 1:12). But I don't think this song was a stunt, or a gimmick. Here's a question: what would "The Longest Time" have sounded like with a more conventional, "rock band" arrangement? What's funny is that I'm wondering this for the very first time in my whole life, because the song has never seemed like it was missing anything.

The video hasn't aged too badly either, but I'm not sure I could say the same for Billy himself, since the premise is that he's sitting alone in the gym at a high school reunion, but in order to show that he's "aged," they just put some glasses on him and a couple of grey streaks in his hair. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a little optimistic.

Although several of his fellow aging classmates quickly join him in song, I must point out that none of these actors participated in the actual studio recording. In the end, all of them become a grating nuisance for the janitor, who, in addition to just trying to do is job, is apparently New York congressman Charlie Rangel. Something tells me he isn't quite as nostalgic about the "good old days" of '59 as Billy and his buddies are.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Father Figure: The Socio-Political Implications Of George Michael In The Post-Modern Landscape

When I was a youth, I found it difficult to resist making fun of George Michael. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. My mother used to have a tape of Johnny Mathis in our car. I don't even remember what was on it; all I know is I used to make fun of it. One day in 1988, I was standing outside Denny's with my father, and we'd just heard "Faith" on the car radio. I exaggerated every one of the singer's vocal tics: "I got to have faith-uh-faith-uh-faith-uhhhh." Then I added, to my father's amusement, "God, that guy is worse than Johnny Mathis."

But what does an eight-year-old know? Here's the cold, hard truth. Impulsive mockery of "Faith" aside, I've always, secretly, stealthily, loved George Michael. He just has that certain something. He's light, but not disposable, danceable, but not shapeless, outrageous, but not insincere. He is blatantly of his time, and yet still grounded in the spirit of the classics.

So, I like George Michael. You like George Michael. Who doesn't like George Michael? Find me someone who doesn't like George Michael, and I will personally frame him in a Beverly Hills public restroom gay sex sting. But while you may have spent your entire life enjoying the music of the former Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, you may have never considered it anything more than relatively well-crafted, if mostly frivolous, dance-pop. Nothing too insightful, nothing too groundbreaking - certainly nothing to give Morrissey any concern that his title of "most scathingly articulate British songwriter of the '80s" was somehow up for grabs. I can't say I blame you; I felt the same way too.

That is, until now. I have little patience for what passes in contemporary university departments as "Cultural Studies" or "Sociology" or "Socio-Cultural Studies" or whatever ungainly term that collection of insular snots happens to prefer to use. My tolerance for post-modern "analysis" of television programs, fan fiction, Hollywood blockbusters, music sub-genres and the like is fairly low. However, now and then, I am prompted to make an exception. Every so often, a study comes along that is so revealing, so edifying, so illuminating, that I must grant a reprieve in my disdain for the bastions of higher learning. Recently, I have come upon such a study.

The study goes by the intimidating name of Father Figure: The Socio-Political Implications Of George Michael In The Post-Modern Landscape. The author, one Professor Horton J. Higglediggle of the University of New South-Southwest Wales, is not an author with whom I was familiar, but after reading his tome, I must confess that I put on a George Michael album and felt as though I was listening to a wholly unfamiliar creation. Lyrics that initially seemed trite or banal suddenly seemed quite venomous and controversial. Instead of being the Elton John of the '80s, it turns out George Michael was more like the George Orwell of the '80s, with Faith being his 1984 (and Make It Big his Animal Farm?). And just as a child may pick up Animal Farm and be entirely unaware of the Soviet subtext, so it is that we as a collective society have been listening to "Careless Whisper" and "One More Try" for decades now and never once managed to grasp the true message.

From the introduction:
Just as filmmaker and German emigre Douglas Sirk, dismissed in his day as a shameless generator of "women's pictures," is now seen as a cutting ironist who managed to critique the mid-20th century American dream from within the very omphalos of the Hollywood system, purportedly crafting "middlebrow fare" while quietly sneering at Eisenhowerian social mores, we now must acknowledge that the inimitable George Michael, at the height of his fame ridiculed as the essence of pop pin-up triviality, needs to be understood as a poison creampuff, an artist who quietly mocked the very Thatcherite hands that fed him while allegedly promoting its seductive ideology. Michael was the semiotic Trojan horse of British pop, the symbol of a culture's own imminent destruction, ostentatiously hiding in plain sight, seemingly innocuous and yet secretly ruinous.

As a masculine sex symbol, and yet as a closeted gay man, Michael simultaneously represented the "other" as well as the "other"s "other." Michael's "otherness" secretly lent his mainstream appeal an air of subversiveness, as if the "other" and the "anti-other" could relate to his persona in equal measure. Given that his creative dissonance acted as the summation of an interplay of "others," the performer who served as the cultural construction "George Michael" ultimately refused to serve as either an "other" or a "pseudo-other."
Makes sense to me. All I know is that the music of no "other" '80s performer has moved me in quite the manner that George Michael's has, but for years, I never knew why. Professor Higglediggle has, once and for all, lifted the veil.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Belinda And Morgan Mason: Love At Third Sight AKA Every Queen Of Yuppie Rock Needs A King

No one goes Yuppie alone. No, even the most determined of us need some kind of push, some outside source of momentum. It comes when we least expect it, and in the form of the most unlikely vessels. For Belinda Carlisle, that vessel was a man named Morgan Mason.

It must have seemed like a far-fetched proposition in 1984. This was one '80s wild child who couldn't be tamed. Belinda was forever destined to tumble from man to man, leaving a trail of white dust and Solid Gold appearances in her wake. But alas, 'twas not to be. It turns out that all this godless heathen needed was the right preacher to show her the Yuppie light. From Lips Unsealed:
I went on a few dates and for some odd reason received a flurry of calls from political types, guys with Washington, DC, connections. One guy was the son of a senator. Another was a lawyer who remarked that he had been part of a congressional hearing that was covered on the news and asked if I had seen him. Uh, no, I hadn't. I didn't know how my name got on those politicos' list - who knows, maybe it was date-a-rock-star month in DC - but I thought it was funny.

Then, in early December, with 1984 coming to a close, my DJ friend Rodney Bingenheimer called out of the blue and said a guy with whom he was peripherally acquainted had contacted him about being set up with me. His name was Morgan Mason, and as Rodney explained, he came with an impressive pedigree and resume. He was the oldest of two children of actor James Mason and his socialite wife, Pamela. As a child, he had appeared in several movies, including The Sandpiper with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He had worked in Ronald Reagan's White House as deputy chief of protocol and special assistant to the president for political affairs. In 1982, he had left the White House and signed on as a vice president of the international PR firm Rogers & Cowan. He had also dated Joan Collins.

Being the son of famous parents didn't impress me. In Hollywood, "children of" were a dime a dozen and often the last people I would have wanted to date. His White House connection didn't impress me either, as I barely knew who Ronald Reagan was.
Uhhhhh ... he was the president? You know, of the United States? Seriously, Belinda? I'd like to think she's exaggerating here, but I have my suspicions. I mean, he'd already been president for four years. Oh man, what would her intensely political L.A. punk contemporaries have said?
I found the last bit about him having dated Joan Collins funny.

"Oh, I'm never going to get along with someone who went out with Joan Collins," I said. "Forget it."

"But he really wants to meet you," Rodney said ... I agreed to meet him at a party for a new Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hills ... He was probably a nice guy, which didn't appeal to me at all. How could I possibly get along with anybody who had worked in Washington and dated Joan Collins?
I wasn't there long before one of the junior publicists grabbed my arm and took me to meet Morgan. He was outfitted from head to toe in Brooks Brothers. He looked very straitlaced and unlike anyone I had ever dated. When we were introduced, he was utterly, almost rudely dismissive and totally uninterested in me. Wasn't he the one who wanted to meet me? Yet he wasn't nice. I didn't get it.

I asked him for a cigarette and he nonchalantly tossed one at me. "Here," he said, before turning his back and disappearing into the crowd. I thought, How dare he! It was like a scene from a 1940s movie.

A couple of days later, [my friend] Diane and I were having a girlfriends' lunch at La Scala Boutique ... I spotted Morgan at one of the black booths ... a few minutes later, he got up and came over to our table. He was in another beautiful suit, with his hair perfect. He was extremely dapper and self-confident. He asked, "What's going on?" and dropped his business card on the table. I shrugged. "Nothing." He smiled and said, "Well, if anything is going on, you have my card."

As soon as he was gone, I turned to Diane and made a face as if I had just tasted sour milk.

"Ewwwww!" I said. "He's just so arrogant."
"Like, omigod! He's just so ... grody. He's worse than like, breaking a nail."
But I guess, at least in retrospect, Morgan knew what he was doing, because I couldn't stop thinking about him. I had tickets to a Hall and Oates concert on December 21 at the Forum and wanted to invite him ... two nights later, Morgan picked me up in a limo. I was still living in the hideous condo left over from my Mike Marshall debacle and felt like I had to explain why I lived there when it wasn't really me. But within seconds the long black chariot was whisking us to the Forum and the two of us were talking as if we had been friends for years. We got along ridiculously well. It was instantaneous and one of the biggest surprises of my life.
I guess Hall & Oates really knew the M.E.T.H.O.D. of Modern Love, eh?
We had a blast at the show, which was great, and then flashed our VIP passes to get into the after-party at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant Spago. After five minutes, Morgan suggested grabbing dinner on our own and he spirited me away to a cozy corner booth at Trader Vic's, a landmark Beverly Hills hideaway, where we ordered giant Scorpion drinks and pretty much decided we wanted to get married and spend the rest of our lives with each other.
Well, why be picky? Laugh if you must; their friends certainly did, but those cautionary chortles quickly turned into sad sighs of envy. They have remained married to this very day.

Of course, Morgan Mason probably thought he'd scored the catch of a lifetime. But little did he know, his beautiful new bride wasn't quite the perfect all-American pop princess she appeared to be. For those of you thinking that Morgan hit the '80s pop jackpot, well, in the words of those wise philosophers Poison, "Every rose has its thorn." Yes, he got to marry Belinda Carlisle. But let your little schadenfreude hearts be warmed by this thought: he also had to put up with years of 1) out-of-control drug abuse, 2) eating disorders, 3) rampant low self-esteem, 4) various degrees of dishonesty, 5) mood swings, 6) career stagnation, and 7) absentee parenting - and not necessarily in that order. In other words, good luck, Morgan: you're gonna need it.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Band Named The Cars, A Song Named "Drive": Not As Dumb As It Sounds

If I told you there was a band named the Cars and they had a song called "Drive," you would probably think that was stupid. Sometimes, context is everything: "Drive" actually came out on the Cars' fifth album, long after they had established themselves and their slyly automotive moniker. Ric Ocasek just happened to write a song called "Drive," OK? Is that any worse than Pete Townshend writing a song called "Who Are You"?

If you actually knew the Cars prior to 1984, you would have found "Drive" even more confusing. The Cars - masters of clinical, deadpan dispassion - writing a haunting ballad? With the singer actually sounding like he cared slightly? The DJ didn't mislabel the new Tears For Fears single, did he? The Cars had tried slower numbers before, even going back to "Moving In Stereo" on the first album, and I'm also partial to Shake It Up's "I'm Not The One," but they always sounded a little arch and disinterested, as if someone was forcing them to be a band against their will. They sounded about as passionate as you'd be if you'd just stepped out to grab some Chinese food at 9:30PM only to realize that the place had already closed at 9:00PM.

I had a slightly different experience with the Cars' discography. I became familiar with their late '70s classic rock staples ("Just What I Needed," "Good Times Roll," "My Best Friend's Girl," "Let's Go") in my teens, so when I learned that the very same band had also recorded "Drive," one of those omnipresent synth-rock hits from my childhood that I heard everywhere and yet nowhere in particular, it didn't seem possible. The late '70s Cars make me think of the mid-90s, but "Drive" instantly transports me back to long afternoons of watching The Smurfs, drinking Hi-C, and playing Pole Position at the local Round Table.

Even at their most synthesized, the Cars usually still sounded like a rock band, but "Drive" exists in a Sea of Synthesizer, where nary a guitar can be found. Was a drummer even present? There are about three different kinds of synthesizer: 1) the one in the back, on the right channel, playing long, sustained notes, 2) the one on the left channel, wheezily churning out a three-note riff, and 3) my favorite, coming in around 0:13, sounding like imitation bells (arguably the best kind of bells?). But it's the wall of processed backing vocals that give "Drive" that eerily artificial atmosphere of death, sounding like an '80s version of 10cc's "I'm Not In Love." As with "Time After Time," the song sounds so '80s, I'm not sure that the production actually presents the composition in the strongest light. I'd almost like to hear a version of "Drive" on solo acoustic guitar. Get on it, somebody.

But enough about the backing vocals that sound like an army of cyborg cumulus clouds fucking each other; the lead singing doesn't sound like typical Cars lead singing either, and I don't think that's simply because it's coming from Ben Orr, as opposed to Ocasek. Orr had already sung lead on several Cars songs, including some of their biggest hits, but like Ocasek, he usually sounded as though his native language wasn't English and he'd just learned all the lyrics phonetically in the studio at the behest of their manager in a desperate attempt to appeal to the American market. On "Drive," Orr actually sings the lyrics, and it turns out they're kind of poignant:
Who's gonna tell you when
It's too late?
Who's gonna tell you things
Aren't so great?

You can't go on
Thinkin' nothing's wrong
But now
Who's gonna drive you home

Who's gonna pick you up
When you fall?
Who's gonna hang it up
When you call?
Who's gonna pay attention
To your dreams?
And who's gonna plug their ears
When you scream?

Who's gonna hold you down
When you shake?
Who's gonna come around
When you break?
Can't she just ... call a cab? OK, seriously, this one is for all those self-destructive types out there who are in need of a little "reality check." I like how the singer starts out by describing broader life situations such as "things not being so great" or "having dreams" but then ends with the more immediate concern of who, precisely, will be able or willing to take care of this person "tonight." "Listen girl, you can continue to live in denial as long as you choose, but you actually have a specific problem that you need to solve now." And the question just hangs there, the implication being, "Who's gonna drive you home? Because it might not be me this time, baby."

And so, the Cars pulled off a haunting ballad, with a haunting video to match, though it turns out the person who was shortly going to need a ride home was actually Ric Ocasek's then-wife Suzanne, because during the making of the video Ocasek met and began a relationship with Czech swimsuit model Paulina Porizkova. Geez Ric. At least Billy Joel waited until he got a divorce. Here the troubled little Paulina sits in an empty room in a white hospital gown, drawing scribbles on the walls with crayons, fiddling with her flawless hair under the kind of intense venetian blind glare not seen since Double Indemnity, swaying back and forth like a child, then laughing, then crying, all the in span of just a few minutes (or so we're led to believe). Can anyone help this poor little supermodel who just can't take it anymore?

However, "Drive" quickly became associated with a group of people in much more need of assistance than Czech supermodels: starving African children (it's always the starving African children). During the Live Aid broadcast in 1985, the song served as the soundtrack to a montage (introduced by David Bowie!) of famished Ethiopians. When a shot of an emaciated child found itself serendipitously accompanied by the line "Who's gonna plug their ears/When you scream," a thousand white people's wallets split open from the sheer strain of liberal guilt. Famine-porn montage aside, the Cars actually performed "Drive" during the concert, and for a song that seemed like such a studio creation, I have to say that it translated to the stage better than I would have guessed. But I'm thinking at least half the inebriated concertgoers began wondering, as they soaked in the majesty of Ben Orr's sunglasses, "My God, he's right - who is going to drive me home tonight?"

Monday, October 27, 2014

Look Out America, Here Come Those Genesis Hit Singles AKA Phil's Close Shave With A Sinister L.A. Cult

And then it was 1978, and then one of the members of Genesis whom no one really noticed was in Genesis decided to leave, and the group basically sounded the same without him as they did with him, and, in the end, it only left more room for Phil Fucking Collins to do his thang. I guess Steve Hackett just couldn't "hack it." Boo-yah! Too bad, because ...And Then There Were Three... not only became Genesis' most successful album in the US to that point (peaking at #14), but it became the first Genesis album to generate an honest-to-goodness American hit single. Screw this prog shit, we wanna get on the radio. Here's the supposed "background" from Wikipedia:
The song started from a chord sequence by guitarist Mike Rutherford, who also claimed he wrote the lyrics in about five minutes. At the time, the band usually wrote songs individually. Keyboardist Tony Banks was quoted: "It was our only truly group-written number. Mike played the riff, then I started playing a chord sequence and melody line on it, which Phil then centralized around. It worked so well as a very simple thing; it was enough as it stood. I'd just written a simple love lyric for "Many Too Many," and I think Mike was keen to try the same thing. Maybe "Follow You Follow Me" was almost too banal, but I got used to it. I think we find it much easier to write long stories than simple love songs." Collins has described it as "a great rhythm track" but claimed it "was not intended to be a hit single."
Sure, Phil, play it coy; we know what your real intentions were. While "Follow You Follow Me" might sound like a solid slice of romantic blandness (Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes, "Its calm, insistent melody, layered with harmonies, is a perfect soft rock hook, although there's a glassy, almost eerie quality to the production"), the true story of its origins is as lurid and shocking as any in the Genesis catalog. From In The Air Tonight:
We were in Long Beach, a couple of days early before a show. I saw a few fliers that looked intriguing. "The Motherlode: Discover your true purpose. Only $5.95." My true purpose? I mean, who could pass that up?

When I showed up to the seminar, though, I knew I'd gotten more than I'd bargained for. The lecture hall was covered in tin foil. Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1 was emanating from the speakers. Suddenly, the lights dimmed, and three men wearing bright green loincloths and balancing tortoises on their heads stepped into the room. "We are the Motherlode. Together we will show you the path to love and beauty. But first, you must prove that you are ready." The man in the middle pointed to a young college kid in the audience. "What is your name, sir?"

"Uh, Joe."

"Please step forward Joe." Joe haltingly made his way to the front. "Now, Joe, to prove that you are ready to experience your true nature, you must go into this closet and ... rape a tortoise."

Joe stood there mute.

"Are you afraid, Joe?"

"No, no, I just ... do I really need to ... you know?"

"It's all right, Joe. Please, all of the Motherlode, join in with me and say, 'It's all right, Joe.'"

"It's all right, Joe," we chanted in unison.

Five minutes later, Joe came out with a golden jewel around his neck. So, you know, that's where "It's Alright Joe" came from.

Then we were taken into another room where an elderly woman sat tied to a metal chair. A disembodied male voice filled the room. "We have now brought you deep into the Motherlode. As a member of the Motherlode, you must not be swayed by cheap sympathy. Obey your orders, not your instincts. To test your dedication, we will now perform a ritual with Lady Delphi. Please do not interrupt the ritual. Lady Delphi may make requests. Please ignore these requests. We shall begin."

Suddenly a spotlight shone on Lady Delphi. Just a few seconds later, the rope around her wrists and ankles burst into flame. She began shrieking and hollering, "Untie me please! Untie me please!" One of my fellow neophytes, horrified at the scene, stepped forward to assist her, but the disembodied voice shouted, "The lady lies! The lady lies!" The would-be rescuer stepped back for a moment, but his concern overcame him and he began reaching for the rope. A trap door opened beneath him and he let out a blood-curdling scream. "Will no one help me?," the lady continued to cry. Personally, after what happened to the first fellow, I wasn't going to chance it. Without the slightest warning, the flames died out, the rope fell from the lady's body, she stood up, took off what had apparently been a mask, and revealed herself to be a beautiful young female. "Those who remain have proven their faith," the disembodied voice said. "Others have revealed themselves unworthy of the truth and the light." So yeah, that was the inspiration for two songs, actually, "Burning Rope" and "The Lady Lies." You'd think some of our fans would've figured this crap out already.

Anywhoo, I looked around and there were five men dressed as Big Bird standing on the side of the room. "Many are the false icons of our age."

"Many too many," said the Big Birds.

"Join with me now."

"Many too many. Many too many." All my fellow attendees slowly began chanting. I didn't want to rock the boat. "Many too many. Many too many."

The five Big Birds walked into the center of the room and huddled together. Then five other men dressed as Cookie Monster proceeded to flog the Big Birds with massive whips.

"Be not like the many, be like the few."

The Big Birds scattered and the Cookie Monsters slowly took off their fur to reveal jumpsuits lined with rhinestones. Now they were all wearing Elvis masks.

"When you follow the Motherlode, you are following yourself. You are following yourself, and you are following us, for to do one is to do the other. I will follow you, will you follow me? Say with me now: follow you, follow me."

"Follow you, follow me."

"Follow you, follow me."

Strobe lights then came on and we were led into a hallway. I was getting a little bored of the whole thing, to be honest. I walked past what looked like a door, with a little slit of light showing through the side. I pushed against it and suddenly found myself out in broad daylight. My face recoiled at the sight of the mid-day L.A. sun. I caught a cab, went back to the hotel, and started telling the guys what happened.

"Pretty bizarre, huh?"

"Phil, do you know where you were?"

"No, where?"

"You were in a cult."

"What are you talking about?"

"You were in a cult, man. You're lucky you got out of there alive. Didn't you hear about this Jonestown thing?"

"What Jonestown thing?"

They shook their heads in bemused dismay. "Oh, Phil, never mind."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Allnighter: Glenn Frey, Yuppie Sex God

(Note: For some reason, Mr. Frey and/or his legal team have put a copyright claim on all YouTube clips featuring songs from The Allnighter, which is odd, considering every song from No Fun Aloud is readily available on the site, and considering this album is 30 years old and wasn't even that popular when it came out. Why The Allnighter, Glenn? Why? Think of all the top-notch publicity Cosmic American Blog was about to give your sleazy 1984 opus! Nonetheless, I have decided to go ahead with my post, and if at some point these tracks pop up on YouTube, I'll just add them in later. In the meantime, if you're simply too curious, you can acquire the discussed recordings using your medium of choice.) [Edit: they're more or less up on YouTube now, and Glenn is dead.]

Although he'd already smothered himself in plenty of vaseline on No Fun Aloud, for his second solo album, The Allnighter, Glenn Frey slid even further into his unique soft-core L.A. universe. This album is like ten different Viagra commercials. What I really want to know is: what, exactly, inspired Frey pick up his guitar and think, "You know what the music scene really needs right now? It needs this." I picture him listening to a Prince record and feeling the thrill of competition. "He thinks he can make sexy music? I can make sexy music."

At first glance, the title track seems to be about L.A.'s most inexhaustible gigolo, but I'm starting to think it's actually about a vibrator. Tell me what you think:
Lonely girl, rainy night
Lookin' for that number
She needs someone to treat her right
There's plenty of men she could call
But she wants him most of all
Oh God, I hope he's home tonight
She needs a love from a real exciter
She needs the allnighter

The allnighter
He's the one, the one she calls
When she gets that feeling
Some nights she just can't stop herself
He's tough and tender, a soul bender
Ain't no service he can't render
He touches her like nobody else
He brings out the love, love, love deep inside her
He's the allnighter

Now when all the stimulation lets you down, down, down
And there ain't no medication layin' around, 'round, 'round
Ya feel your little heart begin to pound and pound
He's a satisfier of that one desire

Other guys come and go
They may try, but they don't know
Every girl needs special care
Oh, he's so bad, he's so good
He makes it feel just the way it should
Nobody else can take her there
He's the real thing, the pure delighter
He's the allnighter
"There's plenty of men she could call/But she wants him most of all"? "He's tough and tender, a soul bender"? I'm sure there are some supremely bendable sex toys around. "Every girl needs special care"? "Nobody else can take her there"? I think I'm on to something.

Then there's "Sexy Girl," which climbed all the way up to #20 on the strength of it's Huey Lewis-esque bouncy beat and biting guitar fills, but here's a general rule for aspiring songwriters: if you have to put the word "sexy" in your song title, your song probably isn't very sexy (see: Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"; Air's "Sexy Boy"). Here, Glenn composes a slightly toned down Penthouse Forum letter in which he shares with us his good fortune in real estate matters:
She moved in next door to me
And she showed me her world
What a neighbor
Thanks for the favor
She's a very sexy girl

She's a sexy girl (sexy girl, sexy girl)
She's a very sexy girl
She's a sexy girl (sexy girl, sexy girl)
She's a very sexy girl

I got a feeling I can't go wrong
'Cause every time I see her
It's like hearing my favorite song
She's already down the steps
She's way down the block
But my heart keeps beating faster
And it just won't stop

I love to take her walkin'
And when we started talkin'
I'd tell her she's the finest I've ever seen
She'd look into my eyes,
But then I'd realize
I'm holding on to a dream

Stop any man walking down the street
Ask him what kind of girl he'd like to meet
There's not one thing in the whole wide world
He'd rather see than a sexy girl
At least the video (currently muted, but screw it, I'm embedding it anyway) [Edit: it's gone now, but at least the audio is up] is a little more realistic: when Frey shows up to the girl's door with a bottle of champagne, she says hello ... and so does her football jersey-wearing boyfriend. Still, Glenn makes less of a spectacle of himself than the fat, balding, Hawaiian shirt-wearing neighbor whose garden hose mimics his erectile behavior.

But it's not all fun and Hustler on The Allnighter. With "Smuggler's Blues," perhaps the musical step-child of his buddy Bob Seger's "The Fire Down Below," Frey spins a bluesy drug dealing tale so gritty it would make Tony Montana blush:
There's trouble on the streets tonight
I can feel it in my bones
I had a premonition
That he should not go alone
I knew the gun was loaded
But I didn't think he'd kill
Everything exploded
And the blood began to spill

So baby, here's your ticket
Put the suitcase in your hand
Here's a little money now
Do it just the way we planned
You be cool for twenty hours
And I'll pay you twenty grand

I'm sorry it went down like this
And someone had to lose
It's the nature of the business
It's the smuggler's blues

The sailors and pilots
The soldiers and the law
The pay offs and the rip offs
And the things nobody saw
No matter if it's heroin, cocaine, or hash
You've got to carry weapons
'Cause you always carry cash

There's lots of shady characters
Lots of dirty deals
Every name's an alias
In case somebody squeals
It's the lure of easy money
It's gotta very strong appeal

Perhaps you'd understand it better
Standin' in my shoes
It's the ultimate enticement
It's the smuggler's blues

See it in the headlines
You hear it ev'ry day
They say they're gonna stop it
But it doesn't go away
They move it through Miami
Sell it in L.A.
They hide it up in Telluride
I mean it's here to stay

It's propping up the governments
In Columbia and Peru
You ask any D.E.A. man
He'll say "There's nothin' we can do"
From the office of the President
Right down to me and you

It's a losing proposition
But one you can't refuse
It's the politics of contraband
It's the smuggler's blues
If you're thinking this practically sounds like an episode of Miami Vice, well ... so did the producers of Miami Vice. According to Wikipedia, "The single 'Smuggler's Blues' helped to inspire the Miami Vice episode of the same name, and Frey was invited to star in that episode, which was Frey's acting d├ębut." I'm not sure if the video is a truncated version of the episode or something else entirely, but you know what? He's not half bad!

But if "Smuggler's Blues" gives the listener an impression of moral ambivalence, on "Better In The U.S.A.," Frey picks a side and he ain't afraid to admit it. Perhaps he heard Don Henley's "Them And Us" and thought, "You what Don? I can do a better Cold War song than you can." When the Beatles recorded "Back In The U.S.S.R." and turned it into a Chuck Berry/Beach Boys pastiche, they were joking. But Glenn decided to write the same exact kind of song about the U.S., and I think he was actually serious. "Better In The U.S.A." reads like a Fox News rant about how liberals should stop complaining about all of America's flaws because, hey, Russia's worse! Well, the Soviet Union probably was worse, but that's not saying much. This might have made a good television short narrated by Charlton Heston, but as an '80s pop song, it's kind of awkward:
Well, they look to the east, they look to the west
The Third World wonders, which way's the best
We got freedom, we got soul
We got blue jeans and rock 'n' roll

Man there ain't no choice
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better in the U.S.A.)
You can be what you want
Say what you wanna say (It's better in the U.S.A.)
How can I make you understand
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better in the U.S.A.)

I hear the same propaganda, day after day
It's gettin' so hip, to knock the U.S.A
If we're so awful, and we're so bad
You oughta check the nightlife in Leningrad

Man it ain't even close
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better in the U.S.A.)
If you could see behind the curtain
Life is cold and gray (It's better in the U.S.A.)
How can I make you understand
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better, it's better)

Nobody's perfect and change comes slow
It's really up to you which way you wanna go
You can move to the left or move to the right
You can stand in the dark, you can stand in the light

Drivin' on the beach on a night in June
Me and my baby and the lover's moon
We're playin' sweet soul music, got it turned up loud
Makes me feel so good, makes me feel so proud

Man there ain't no choice
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better in the U.S.A.)
They'd be movin' here from Moscow
If they could only find a way (It's better in the U.S.A.)
How can I make you understand
It's better in the U.S.A. (It's better)

We got burgers and fries (In the U.S.A.)
We got the friendly skies (In the U.S.A.)
We got the beautiful girls (In the U.S.A.)
They got the beautiful curls (In the U.S.A.)
We're drivin' beautiful cars (In the U.S.A.)
We're diggin' movie stars (In the U.S.A.)
We get to make romance (In the U.S.A.)
We let the little girls dance (In the U.S.A.)
It's better baby!
Nice sweater, baby
What'd you say, you and me go for a little drive?
Come on

Leave it to Glenn Frey to turn a patriotic anthem into an excuse to pick up an unsuspecting female.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday": Where The Soul Of Aerobic Rock Dances Eternally In The Cosmos

Ten million light years from now, when the Bleeblox species of the planet Yurkurk in the Beta Luxus System can barely receive any signal from 1980s Planet Earth, when all the last remnants of '80s culture have been swallowed up by the inevitable pull of dark matter, only a few musical blips will remain. "Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday" will be those blips.

These three singles are indestructible. Sledgehammer, chainsaw, liquid nitrogen - no weapon that currently exists could destroy them. Whatever it is that makes up this beast we call "80s music," these three singles contain its secret essence. Someone who did not know anything about '80s music, and listened to these three singles, and didn't like them, would probably never like '80s music.

To be honest, I used to not like "Lucky Star" very much either. Yeah, it was on the Immaculate Collection, but whenever I made Madonna "best of" mixes for my friends, I usually left it off. Of course, I was an idiot, and must now beg forgiveness from the dance pop gods for offending them so. What once sounded gratingly simplistic and annoying now sounds delightfully uncomplicated and infectious. Question: is the gurgling synthesizer at the start supposed to make us think of a "star"? Or maybe it's Madonna's subtle homage to the Who's "Baba O'Riley"? Honestly, I don't have much to say about "Lucky Star" that hasn't already been said better by AMG's Stewart Mason in his song review (previously referenced by Zrbo in the comments section of my old post on "Into The Groove" from about five years ago), other than that "Borderline" was apparently released after "Lucky Star." Well, no AMG writer's perfect:
Madonna had released four singles before "Lucky Star," with "Holiday" and "Borderline" reaching the Billboard Top 20 and "Everybody" and "Burning Up" doing less well. "Lucky Star" had been the song that got Madonna signed to Sire Records in the first place, however, and it would be her commercial breakthrough, reaching number four in the summer of 1984 and becoming one of her defining early hits, thanks hugely to a simple but powerfully effective video that simply showed Madonna, with a pair of backup dancers, showing off both her moves and her body against a simple white backdrop. As a video, it's about 500 times sexier than the entire Sex coffee table book. As a song, "Lucky Star" just feels slight on casual exposure, but a closer listen makes it sound downright minimalist, and consciously so. A simple chorus based on an everyday children's rhyme, sketchy verses that seem to have no function other than to propel the song into that chorus, and a funky guitar-and-electronic-percussion bridge, the song is dead simple and given an absolutely bare-bones arrangement and antiseptically clean production, but for some reason, it works. It's near impossible to hear this song without dancing, even if you don't look one-hundredth as good as Madonna while you're doing it.

Although I do find the video compelling, I can't help but feel that Madonna ... creeps me out a little. She's like the Denny's of Sexy: sure, it gets the job done, but where's the warmth? While ostensibly trying to praise her artistry, some of the intellectuals quoted on the song's Wikipedia page might unintentionally confirm my opinions:
Author Peter Goodwin, in his book Television Under the Tories: Broadcasting Policy 1979–1997, commented that although "Lucky Star" is not a narrative video, in the clip Madonna plays at least four characters:—the person in sunglasses looking; a break-dancing girl; an androgynous social dancer; and a seductress. The juxtaposition of all these characterizations portray Madonna as a narcissistic self-lover. Images of Madonna's body writhing against the white background generates the question whether she is addressing her lover or herself in the song. According to Goodman, Madonna creates an eroticized woman for her own pleasure only. Time noted that "[s]he's sexy, but she doesn't need men [...] she's kind of there all by herself."
Then what does she need us for? Oh who cares, it's still a great single. On the album, the silence following the fade of "Lucky Star" is broken by a gentle, lightly ringing keyboard intro, reminiscent of the one at the start of Stephanie Mills' "Never Knew Love Like This Before" [Edit: probably because both songs were co-written by the same guy - Hello McFly!]. Mason writes:
"Borderline" ... is a pure treasure, one of those unabashedly commercial pop songs that also manages to at least hint at deeper emotions ... Slower in tempo than the rest of the album, but with enough of a backbeat and a wiggly synthesizer bass line to keep it from being a ballad, "Borderline" hits a slinky groove from its vibraphone-like intro all the way to the throaty scatting Madonna does just as the song starts its fade out.
Well, I do tend to cringe slightly every time she sings "Keep pushing me-uh, keep pushing me-uh, keep pushin' my luuh-huuv..." Keep pushing what, Madonna? Oh, you mean keep pushing your genitals? Don't know where I got that idea. After having spent years listening to the Immaculate Collection mix of "Borderline" (which, as far as I can tell, is not too different from the single mix), these days I really enjoy listening to the slightly longer, less over-exposed album mix.

Some of the key differences:
  1. There's a drum machine in the right channel that is more prominent in the album mix. Usually (watch in disbelief as I attempt to demonstrate my knowledge of musical terminology) a drum machine will place the accent on the second and fourth beats in the measure. But what I love about this drum machine in "Borderline" is that the accent is on the first beat of the measure. You'd think that would be really annoying, but I am totally into it. The thing is, the more prominent drum machine in the center channel is still placing the accent on the second and fourth beats, so the sense of "conventional" rhythm is still there, but there's an unusual sense of contrast. Oh yeah!
  2. In the single mix, right after the line "Cause you've got the best of me," there's a prominent synthesizer riff, but on the album version, that riff is missing. This should bother me, but I'm kind of digging the empty space right there.
  3. There are several extra lines of lyrics that were edited out of the single mix, mostly beginning around the 4:00 mark, featuring such probing insights as "Keep on pushing me baby/Don't you know you drive me crazy," "Look what your love has done to me/Come on baby, set me free," and "You cause me so much pain, I think I'm going insane/What does it take to make you see?" It's like hidden easter eggs on the DVD!
The reason you can tell "Borderline" was released after "Lucky Star" is because it has a genuine video with an actual budget, although I don't know if bigger equals better. According to Wikipedia, there was an actual plot this time:
The accompanying music video portrayed Madonna with a Latin-American man as her boyfriend. She was enticed by a British photographer to pose and model for him, but later returned to her original boyfriend ... Posing for the photographer, Madonna looks towards the camera with challenge in her eyes thus depicting sexual aggression. At one moment in the video, she starts spraying graffiti over some lifeless classical statues thus portraying herself as a transgressor who breaks rules and attempts at innovation. With the video Madonna broke the taboo of interracial relationships. Although at first it seems that Madonna denies the Hispanic guy in favour of the photographer, later she rejects him thus implying her desire to control her own sexual pleasures or going over the established pop borderlines with lyrics like "You just keep on pushing my love, over the borderline". The contrasting image of Madonna, first as a messy blonde in the Hispanic sequence and later as a fashioned glamorous blonde, suggested that one can construct one's own image and identity ... The British photographer and his studio is decorated with the classical sculptures and nude statues holding spears in a phallic symbol. In contrast, phallic symbols portrayed in the Hispanic neighbourhood included a street lamp which Madonna embraces and a pool cue held erect by Madonna's boyfriend.
Eh. I prefer the videos where she's just doing her aerobic dance moves with her club buddies. Just look at the way she stares at the camera during the "da da da" fade-out. Yes, Madonna, I can see you there.

Finally, there is "Holiday." I've probably said this about an '80s song before, and I'll probably say this about an '80s song again, but this time, I mean it: "Holiday" is the perfect '80s song. And can you ask for a more perfect "first hit"? Although it only originally peaked at #16, the radio kept on playing it and playing it and they've never really stopped. It's kind of sad to think that Madonna never topped her first hit, but hey, the Pet Shop Boys never topped theirs either. Again, after listening to the Immaculate Collection mix for so long, hearing the original version is like tasting chocolate chip ice cream for the first time - all over again. The intro alone is its own scoop of perfection:
  1. It all begins innocently enough, with the basic keyboard melody (perhaps owing something, as I mentioned a couple of years ago, to ABC's "The Look Of Love") plus the drum machine and imitation tambourine (?) for the length of one bar. Promising, very promising.
  2. Ah, but then another keyboard comes in, playing a much higher riff, in the second bar, sounding like hot fudge being poured over your already delicious sundae.
  3. There's an emphatic, synthesized "bwonk," and the rhythm ... explodes.
  4. We've now got a cowbell in the left channel (according to Wikipedia, played by Ms. Ciccone herself!).
  5. Also, the entrance of the bass line, which, as everyone knows, is the bass line to end all bass lines.
  6. These additions stand alone for two bars, but then a chicken scratch guitar straight from Parliament's "Flash Light" jumps in on the right channel, and another synthesizer trying to sound like a guitar spreads itself across both channels.
  7. Two more bars pass, and the apathetic ladies come in. Mason writes, "In the tradition of Chic's very similar 'Good Times,' Madonna sings the 'Holiday/Celebrate' chorus so completely deadpan that it sounds like she's being sarcastic ..."
And so, an entire minute and five seconds has passed before Madonna has even started singing. Houdini himself never devised such an entrance. By this point, the song can do no wrong. A little staggered vocal overdubbing here ("If we took a holiday/Ooh yeah, ooh yeah"), a little Latin salsa piano there ... it goes on for six freaking minutes and I wouldn't change a thing. A thing. Not even some Yoko Ono caterwauling could kill this vibe.

I'm not sure the same level of praise can be directed toward the video, however. There may be no larger discrepancy between the level of familiarity with a hit single and its accompanying music video than in the case of "Holiday." I'm getting conflicting information as to whether this was even released, and Madonna probably issued a court order requesting that it be wiped from the earth, but here it is. Boy, this video is cheap - cheaper than even "Lucky Star." It makes "Everybody" look like Raiders Of The Lost Ark. There are a total of about three different camera angles. And here's the real question: why are they dancing in front of Ichabod Crane's bedroom? The whole thing feels like they just wanted to film it and get it over with so they could hurry up and go take a holiday.