Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mark Knopfler, "Skating Away" With My Heart

I love albums that take their title from the lyrics of a song on the album but not the actual title of a song on the album. For example: CCR's Willy And The Poor Boys ("Down on the Corner"), Simon & Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme ("Scarborough Fair/Canticle"), Roxy Music's Stranded ("Street Life"), Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True ("Alison"), De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising ("The Magic Number"), The Pixies' Doolittle ("Mr. Grieves"), Nirvana's Nevermind ("Smells Like Teen Spirit"), Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish ("For Tomorrow"), and, perhaps most famously, Dark Side Of The Moon ("Brain Damage/Eclipse"). Wait, you mean that song wasn't actually called "Willy and the Poor Boys?" That song wasn't actually called "Dark Side of the Moon"? You can go far in life once you start paying attention. Add, to this list, Making Movies and "Skateaway." According to Wikipedia, however, Mark Knopfler had actually written a song called "Making Movies," but thankfully it didn't make the cut; otherwise it would have ruined my whole paragraph.

Given that, unlike its predecessors, the third track on Making Movies is not a song about the challenges and pitfalls of romance, you'd be tempted to think that it would be a lighthearted change of pace. But Knopfler's artistry may have snuck up on you once again, because it might be the most aching, tender, anthemic track on the whole freaking album.

It begins with an absurdly slow fade-in, as Dire Straits' drummer is apparently bouncing a basketball in an abandoned alleyway. The organ comes in at 0:25, then Knopfler's nimble fingers make their presence known around 0:34, followed by the voice a few seconds later:
I seen a girl on a one way corridor
Stealing down a wrong way street
For all the world like an urban toreador
She had wheels on, on her feet
Well the cars do the usual dances
Same old cruise and the curbside crawl
But the rollergirl, she's taking chances
They just love to see her take them all
Interesting. A girl on roller skates, comically impervious to the dangerous traffic surrounding her, no big heart-wrenching love story, right? The music's got sort of a low-key bluesy groove, probably going to stay that way for the whole six minutes. Your sensitive and vulnerable soul shouldn't have to worry about being shattered, right? Uh-oh, the bridge sounds like trouble:
No fears alone at night
She's sailing through the crowd
In her ears the phones are tight
And the music's playing loud
Hmm, they're picking up some steam. Are they building towards something grand and sweeping? Nope, not yet at least, as Knopfler tosses off a fancy little guitar run, everything calms back down, and you're still OK:
Hallelujah here she comes, Queen Rollerball
Enchante, what can I say, don't care at all
You know she used to have to wait around
She used to be the lonely one
But now that she can skate around town
She's the only one
Hold on, it's that meddlesome bridge again, dangling the threat of Knopflerian majesty over your head. But this time, Pick Withers does a tasty drum roll, and you better brace yourself, because here it comes:
She gets rock 'n' roll in a rock 'n' roll station
In a rock 'n' roll dream
She's making movies on location
She don't know what it means
And the music make her wanna be the story
And the story was whatever was the song, what it was
Rollergirl don't worry
D.J. play the movies all night long
Daaaaaamn. Dire Straits just gave my heart an aneurysm. That chorus is like a glimpse into an entirely different song, from an entirely different universe (I think it's actually in a different key, which helps). Also, props to Roy Bittan for pounding out a choice piano chord or two, fleshing out the glory. That chorus is like the beautiful sound that Rollergirl hears in her head. Sure, on the outside, to her fellow ignorant city-dwellers, she might seem like some narcissistic little punk. But in her mind, she's the hero of an epic film that's screening on an endless loop - and there are no boring scenes.

To me, "Skateaway" is one of those luminous songs about the power of music. Music can turn the mundane into the fantastical, the dreary into the exciting, the insignificant into the essential. But Mark Knopfler manages to say this with the music, by juxtaposing the calm, repetitive verse with the soaring, intensely melodic chorus. The music makes me want to be the story, dude!

And the amazing part is, his singing range is so horizontal, he barely even hits the soaring notes he's actually written for himself, but those notes are so soaring, it feels like he hits them anyway. It's like how FDR always seemed like he was walking, even though he was merely holding on to his aides, or a cane, or a podium (yeah, I caught a little of that Ken Burns documentary last week). Here's how great this song is: Knopfler actually starts laughing at one point (around 2:56), and yet this does not reduce the song's emotional punch one lousy iota. Unquestionably the most beautiful moment in a song full of beautiful moments: during the second go-round of the chorus, right after Knopfler sings "DJ play the movies" at the 3:54 mark, his guitar hits a note so piercingly high, it doesn't sound like it came from a real guitar. It sounds like it came from a unicorn's tears, or a wood sprite's orgasm.

And then, at 3:58, it all turns to dust again as the band brings everything back down to lazy-ville, as if the rock and roll dreams in Rollergirl's head could never be taken seriously by the jaded truckers and cab drivers surrounding her. Nope, it'll just be her little secret. Rollergirl skates off into the neon night, and that chorus never happened.

Like the videos for "Tunnel of Love" and "Romeo and Juliet," I'm not sure if the claustrophobic, hermetically sealed vibe of the studio-crafted video for "Skateaway" really captures the "bustling, real-world city boulevard" feel I get from the song, but it still has its fun and/or surreal charms, particularly the slow-motion shots of Rollergirl (apparently played by the ex-patriate daughter of a Nigerian president!) skating through the faceless masses. For me, the most powerful part of the video might be the very last minute, which simply consists of a single uncut shot of the band playing in front of what appears to be the Dawn of Man. For Dire Straits, I think the music really was the story.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Day The Go-Go's Died (Or Did They?) AKA It Ain't Over Till The Slightly Overweight Belinda Sings

Rome fell to the Huns. Napoleon lost one battle too many. The British Empire collapsed under the weight of its own antiquated colonialism. Sooner or later, all great things must come to an end. And so it was ... with the Go-Go's. From Lips Unsealed:
The five of us rehearsed with the intention of making a new album. We tried to come up with our own songs and we worked through songs outside writers had submitted. The record company wanted more creative control over the band's next steps. We didn't like it, but we didn't have any better ideas.

Frustrated at every turn and no good at communicating with one another, the band dissolved into factions, with Charlotte and me pitted against Kathy and Gina, and Paula left uncomfortably alone on the periphery as we fought during rehearsals. The demos we recorded sounded terrible ... the band had lost its creative center. It no longer felt like the Go-Go's.
Ah, yes, the druggies vs. the rhythm section. Or rather, the (both soon to be relatively sober?) superstar lead singer and chief composer/multi-instrumentalist vs. the two most expendable band members. Not to give it away, but I don't think this was going to end well for the bassist and drummer.
I finally met secretly with Charlotte, who agreed with me that after two months of work the only decent, Go-Go's sounding song we had was "Mad About You," which Paula had brought in. Otherwise the band wasn't working anymore. It was early May 1985. We had an album to record and a tour to set up. But both struck us as unlikely. The lack of material aside, the dynamics were way off and no one was getting along. Charlotte and I decided it was time to call it a day.

We talked it through until we assured ourselves that the band had stopped moving forward artistically and that we as individuals were stifled. We could do other things. I had already been approached about doing a solo album. Though that hadn't been an option when the band was my top and only priority, it sounded viable now, and Charlotte was amenable to working with me.
Hmmm. A solo album, eh? A new song called "Mad About You"? Sneaky, sneaky Belinda, pulling that little ace out of your sleeve, at just the right moment. And secretly roping Charlotte into your handy getaway plot! Dealing that ace could've cost you all your chips, but oh ... how you hit the jackpot.
The two of us called a meeting with the other girls on the second Friday of the month and broke the news that we wanted to end the band. Kathy and Gina were not just shocked, they were blindsided and fought back with anger and bitterness at the way we handled the situation. Kathy insisted we were overreacting and had overcome worse, but I kept to the basic premise: the band wasn't working, the songs were terrible, and the chemistry wasn't there.
But why let that stop you? It didn't stop Kiss. At any rate, there it was: the Go-Go's finally sealed their lips for good. Wait, what's that you say? Ah, but that's another tale for another time - one that is not without its share of intrigue, although between you and me, it couldn't quite measure up to the next twist in our saga, perhaps the most gripping twist of all.

You see, in a more ordinary universe, this would have been the end of the Belinda Carlisle story. Former Go-Go's lead singer fades away in a haze of garish leggings and coke. Ah, but fortunately, the universe in which we live is no ordinary one. It turns out that fate had other plans in store for the erstwhile Dottie Danger. And if you thought a story this good couldn't possibly get any better, well think again buddy.

By 1985, Belinda Carlisle had already demonstrated that she was no stranger to stunning career transformations, having morphed from grungy punk rebel to adorable New Wave princess. But that initial makeover would be small potatoes compared to what was to come. The '80s listening public failed to anticipate her most bizarre and seemingly unfathomable transformation yet. With the aid of a brand new (and rich) Hollywood husband, a little break in the consumption of the white powder, some strategic dieting and exercise, and the eager embrace of an impressively sanitized musical style, in 1986, Belinda Carlisle would finally assume the role she had been born to play, would finally claim her title as the unquestioned, uncontested, the one and only ... Queen Of Yuppie Rock.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Girls Just Want To ... Sing Sappy Aerobic Rock Ballads?

After just one song, did the world think it knew Cyndi Lauper? Well, Cyndi had other ideas. Or rather, maybe that was the idea all along. According to Wikipedia, "Initially Epic Records wanted 'Time After Time' as the album's lead-single. However, Lauper claimed that releasing a ballad first defines an artist in a certain way, noting that she could have been known as a balladeer and that it could have killed her career." The irony being, of course, that after She's So Unusual, Cyndi ended up primarily becoming known as a balladeer, but at least it was her choice.

Nonetheless, I'm still on the fence over how well her idiosyncratic vocal style, so suitable for dance-pop, works with balladry. For instance: when she sings "And darkness has turned to grey," the word "grey" almost sounds like "crack," and just another couple of lines later, the word "OK" almost manages to have three syllables in it. Also, usually when I say that a song sounds "incredibly, inescapably '80s," that's the highest praise in the world, but because, simply as a composition, "Time After Time" feels so much like a classic pop standard, I kind of wonder if the production, particularly the overpowering, synthesized bass line that sounds like it flowed right out of Giorgio Moroder's bowels, does the song a bit of a disservice. I almost wish I could hear what "Time After Time" would have sounded like if it had been been recorded by the Beatles. But that's probably true of any song. Well, maybe not "The Macarena."

Based on the opening minute of the video, it might be fair to say that Cyndi herself still had reservations about coming off too "sensitive" and "touchy-feely": she's lying in bed in a trailer, mouthing every word to the Marlene Dietrich film The Garden Of Allah, apparently clutching a giant porcelain dog. But once the song starts, things get a little squishy: she imagines seeing her mother in a doorway (the same real-life mother from the "Girls" video), fights with her boyfriend (after he teases her for getting a haircut that looks like she accidentally fell on a grate), and finally gives a dramatic train station goodbye that could have come straight out of an old Hollywood tear-jerker. According to Wikipedia, Cyndi's tears were real. By the end of it all, this video is actually kind of genuinely ... sad. Like, for reals.
Although it was the final hit off She's So Unusual, I have to say that "All Through The Night" kicks just as much fluorescent bracelet ass as the other three. The original version, by its songwriter Jules Shear, sounds like some sort of klezmer polka karaoke number, but somehow Cyndi heard a hit in there. Beginning with a sparkling synthesizer arpeggio (I'm pretty sure that's what it's called, and if it's not, well, that's what it's called now), the single quickly establishes an introspective, late night, after-party vibe, with a touch of the same slightly reggae flavor that "Girls" utilized. As opposed to the original version, Cyndi maximizes the power of the chorus by 1) keeping the verses really spare and percussion-free, and 2) letting a male voice join her on the chorus, almost turning the song into a duet. Then, at about the 2:10 mark, we're treated to a synthesizer solo that was apparently played by Pac-Man (or possibly Mrs. Pac-Man - my sources differ).

I suppose her singing is strident and affecting, but again, thanks to her interesting pronunciation choices, at times it's just so ... unusual. Some examples:
  • She turns the word "crying" into "kwy-ing."
  • In the line, "And it goes running," she puts the stress on "it." Seriously, who puts the stress on "it"?
  • For years I thought the word "meter" was actually "needle" and she simply just inserted a rogue "t" in there.
  • I thought "we won't reach back" was "we want respect." Was Rodney Dangerfield supposed to do this at some point?
  • I thought "same without saying" was "sadness outside." Still kind of works.
  • I thought "what by day they lack" was "what binding they lack." Why was the need for binding so urgent? God, if they only had some binding!
However, smart choice to let the chorus repeat an extra time (around 3:10). It's like the sound of a couple that just wants to let the magical evening linger a little longer before they have to say goodbye. It's like when you "fall back" in Daylight Savings Time and you realize that even though you'll still have to go to work in the morning, at least you get to stay up an extra hour and play video games.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Uptown Girl": Auto Shops Sure Have Changed Since The '80s

So, there's this guy you know, and for all intents and purposes, he's a lot like you. He's kinda goofy, fun to be around, not too attractive, not too ugly, but you can identify with him. Suddenly, he snags this girlfriend who's like a supermodel. OK, that's nice, good for him, but you don't really want to hear about it too much. However, he can't believe his good fortune and he thinks everyone in the world is as excited about it as he is and it's all he ever wants to talk about. Also, it's 1983. And that guy is Billy Joel.

I guess it's fair that if we ask our artists to turn their suffering into art, then occasionally we have to let them turn their adolescent glee into art. I don't really begrudge Billy Joel too much for Christie Brinkley, since a) for most of his career, he seemed pretty depressed, b) eventually they got divorced and his songwriting dried up, and c) the whole concept of their marriage is pretty funny. Also, I like the songs she inspired.

Amusingly enough, according to Wikipedia, "Uptown Girl" may not have even initially been inspired by Christie Brinkley, but rather by another '80s supermodel Billy had been dating just prior to Brinkley: Elle MacPherson. Oh you have got to be kidding me. If you didn't want to punch him before, you really want to punch him now.

Although Billy conceived "Uptown Girl" as a Four Seasons homage, the final product probably has more meat on its bones than "Sherry" or "Big Girls Don't Cry" ever did. Those old Four Seasons mixes tended to feature extremely wide stereo separation between the rhythm track and the vocals (which was quite prevalent during that era, and which some people hate but I really love). On "Uptown Girl," however, all the instruments are essentially mixed in the center, almost like a mono mix. Well, I guess Billy Joel isn't Lenny Kravitz. But what this means is that "Uptown Girl" plays thicker and louder than any of those early '60s hits, and it may even be catchier (!). "Uptown Girl" has more hooks in it than an annual pirate convention (not sure if those exist, but hey, just go with it). Let's count them:
  1. The initial "Ah-ah-ah-ah"s from the backing vocalists (0:12)
  2. The verse melody (0:20)
  3. The "And when she knows what she wants" melody, which is sort of a bridge or a pre-chorus (except I don't think the song actually has a chorus) (0:49)
  4. The sudden minor key twist of the "She'll see I'm not so tough" section, which leads back into the verse (1:04)
  5. The "Oh-oh-oh" hook, which sounds like a modified version of Hook #3, but is actually a bit different (1:27)
That's five different hooks, all piled on top of each other, and they just keep coming! The interplay between Billy's lead vocal and the backing vocals is very creative as well, somewhat reminding me of the way McCartney and Harrison's backing vocals zig-zag behind Lennon in "Help!" Here's my feeble attempt to write it out:
And when she knows
(And when she)
What she wants
From her ty-yiy-yime
(Wants from her ty-yiy-yime)
And when she wakes up
(She wakes up)
And makes up
(Makes up her)
Her my-yiy-mind
We're not talking beginning level Tetris here.

While the single was a big hit in America, it was ginormous in Britain, hitting #1 for five weeks, becoming the second best-selling song of the year there (behind "Karma Chameleon"), and apparently elevating Billy to a whole new level of UK stardom, dragging his whole back catalog into the charts along with it (much like what Born In The U.S.A. would do with Springsteen a year later). I mean, what was it, specifically, about "Uptown Girl" that made the UK think it had been missing out on all those years of Long Island brilliance?

At any rate, Billy probably figured, "Well, as long as I've got Christie Brinkley lying around, I might as well stick her in my video." The clip for "Uptown Girl" must surely feature the least authentic depiction of a New York City mechanic's shop in celluloid history, with grungy auto workers eagerly breaking out into song. It's like the opening scene from West Side Story: why have I always had the feeling that real-life gang members didn't prance around in leotards and display unparalleled grace and poise? By the same token, I'm pretty sure there weren't too many auto shops with black guys wearing frilly little crop tops, but I could be mistaken. Then again, if Christie Brinkley showed up at my auto shop, perhaps I might have found myself in the mood to sing too.

This is also your chance to watch two people who, I assume, were not particularly adept at dancing (one being a singer and the other being a model) dance for three minutes. Oh, and not only is she better looking than he is, but she's also taller (or maybe it's the shoes?). But who's idea was the hat? Since when did girls from "Uptown" wear black cowboy hats? The whole time I'm thinking, "Hey, Christie, ditch the hat." And sure enough, she does.

Here's how I know I'm getting old: A couple of years ago I was over at a friend's place and he was listening to the radio, which was tuned to an "oldies" station. Suddenly "Uptown Girl" came on. No, no, no. See "Uptown Girl" was supposed to be an homage to oldies, not an actual oldie itself. But the kids, the damn kids, they can't even tell the difference these days.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Drummer Takes Over Genesis, No One Notices AKA That First Intoxicating Taste Of Horse Tranquilizer

Usually, when a band announces that it will be replacing its departing lead singer with its drummer, that is not a good sign.

When Phil Collins became the new front man for Genesis, I'm sure many had their doubts. "Yeah, right, and why didn't Ringo front the Beatles?" It was a plan so crazy, it just might work. Well, as with Pink Floyd after the loss of Syd Barrett, Genesis not only survived, but thrived: while The Lamb Dies Down On Broadway peaked at #10 in the UK and #41 in the US, A Trick Of The Tail peaked at #3 in the UK and #31 in the US, while Wind & Wuthering peaked at #7 in the UK and #26 in the US. It kind of makes you wonder, besides wearing funny costumes, how much Peter Gabriel actually did. I mean, when the Doors recorded those albums without Jim Morrison, you definitely noticed.

The reason nobody noticed is because Genesis, for a couple of albums at least, sounded exactly the fucking same. It may seem odd to say it (after so many years of solo stardom for each of them), but back then, Phil Collins' voice sounded a lot like Peter Gabriel's. Do a blind taste test, and see if you can tell the difference. And again, I'm not trying to be contrarian, but I think I actually like A Trick Of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering more than the Gabriel albums. Seriously! The music sounds more relaxed, more spacious, not quite so busy, not so self-consciously "arty." Yeah, fine, I guess the lyrics aren't quite as "intellectual," but Peter Gabriel can go save his rock operas about Puerto Rican New York street hustlers for someone else; I just want to hear some tasty prog-pop hooks.

Which is not to say that post-Gabriel Genesis didn't have its thematic inspirations. Initially, I assumed the lyrics on Tail and Wind were simply fanciful, fairy tale imagery, but in his disturbingly candid and riveting memoir In The Air Tonight, Collins reveals their surprising origins:
  • "Dance on a Volcano" was actually "Dutch slang for having to take an extra-fiery shit. We used to say, 'Gentlemen, excuse me, I have to go 'dance on a volcano,' if you know what I mean.'"
  • "Entangled" was actually about "a particularly unfortunate bondage session with a 73-year-old deaf woman in Tokyo. See, with S&M, communication is key."
  • "Robbery, Assault & Battery" was "actually about a real robbery, assault & battery. Tony and I were in Jacksonville, huffing Alligator pee, and we robbed a 7-11 with a crowbar and some jumper cables. I beat the daylights out of a clerk with a can of WD-40. Took the two best lawyers in Florida to get us out of that one."
  • "One for the Vine" was about "two little orphan kids my uncle used to keep in a cage in his basement. He'd walk down there and feed them plant food. He used to dangle it from a little dropper, and he'd give a drop to the kids, and then he'd give some to the ivy that was growing all over the wall. So he used to say, 'One for the children, and one for the vine.'"
  • "Your Own Special Way," often referred to as Genesis' first proper love song, was actually an ode to a particularly insatiable groupie with custom-made dentures. "She had her own special way, all right."
  • On the other hand, certain songs with evocative titles were simply products of creative license. "'Blood on the Rooftops,' I didn't get that from anything, I just pulled it out of thin air. No blood, no rooftops."
And so, the little drummer that could became the little front man that could, surprising everyone in the universe, even himself. But if it seems like it was a win-win situation for all concerned, the ugly truth is that the transition came at a price:
Being the drummer was like attending university on a full scholarship. All the perks of adulthood, none of the drawbacks. You could drink all night, shag all day, pound the skins, crash on the floor, and nobody expected any different. Playing with house money. Being the front man was like graduating at 23 and heading straight into a position the bank. The party was over.

Night after endless night, the demands never ceased. "Phil, the equipment's missing!" "Phil, the record label thinks the new album cover is offensive!" "Phil, I'm pregnant with your child, and so is my cousin!" After a while, I just couldn't deal. Like many rock and roll legends before me, I sought out some ... assistance.

At first, it wasn't a big deal. Tony always had a bottle of uppers he used to carry around, just some run-of-the-mill amphetamines. We had a show in Indianapolis and I was wiped out. I took a couple to get through it. That was all right for a little while. One night in Pittsburgh I cut my skull on a hatchet (during some rougher than usual cos-play with a Mongolian call girl), and I could barely crawl out of bed the next morning. They gave me a dose of lidocaine and some valium and shoved me out there. I couldn't understand why the audience was turning into a bunch of toads and badgers, but Mike told me later I was merely hallucinating. Apparently we played well. Funny, I've never read Wind in the Willows.

But still, I needed something to give me that "jolt" I was really looking for. Whatever I tried, it just didn't have that "kick," that certain "dazzle." There was show in Miami. Due to go on in three hours. I'd gotten into a bout of fisticuffs the night before with the father of a 15-year-old cheerleader (she told me she was 19, there was an ostrich involved, etc. etc.). I felt like eight dog turds stacked on top of each other. I was passed out in the hotel lobby when a janitor tapped me on the arm.

"You OK?"

It was a Cuban fellow, with a gold necklace and a tattoo of a cross on his arm.


"You look malo, man, muy malo."

"Huuh? What do you want? What is it?"

"You in that group, yes? Los Genesis?"

"Yeah. Got a show in two hours."

He let out a laugh. "You? Show in dos horas? Dos horas? You not ready for no show, man." Suddenly he leaned in and whispered to me. "I got something can help."

"Look, pal, I'll handle it. Just stay out of my business."

"You do concert no problem." He then pulled an opaque brown vial out of his pocket. "These little ninos ... like power from los dioses."

"I don't want it."

"Hey man, is your funeral."

I held out my hand, he dropped a few tablets into my palm, and I groggily slid them into my pocket.

"You need more? You look for Julio." And with that, he jiggled his key ring and headed to the storage closet.

"Smartass," I muttered to myself. But after denting the leather seat for another hour, I stumbled to the bathroom and wiped my face over the sink. I stared into those sunken drummer eyes. "What the hell." I popped two tablets into my mouth and stuck my lips under the faucet.

We were doing a sound check. Just as I began to sing a snippet of "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)," it ... hit me. This feeling. It was like ... an electricity and gasoline blood transfusion. It was like if sex and death went to college together - and studied the same major. My eyes became laser beams, my arms became jackhammers, my legs became pistons. I thought to myself, "Dear God, I am not a praying man, but I will do whatever you ask, pay any price, suffer any burden, as long as you let me feel this way for the rest of my life."

They say it was one of the greatest Genesis concerts of all time. We played a 96-minute version of "Supper's Ready" - 28 of those minutes consisting of my drum solo. Over the years, at least five different couples have confessed to me that after they returned home from that concert, they conceived a child. From the first note to the last, magic was in the air.

The next morning, I rushed down to the lobby. Where was that blasted janitor? Suddenly I heard a whistling in the hallway.

"Ah, Senior Collins! You do a good show last night! I never see drumming like this, not even in Cuba."

I pulled him into an open closet. ""What is it?" I demanded.

"What is what? Why you whisper, man?"

"What is it?"

"Ah, you mean my little helper friends." He slowly grinned.

"Don't play games, just tell me what it is!"

"As long as it works, why you care?"

"Fine, I don't care, just give me some more."

"Maybe I run out, maybe I don't have no more."

"You've got a boatload of that shit, do I look like an idiot?"

"I no answer that question. But no more freebies, Senior Collins."

"Yeah, OK, whatever you want, we'll figure something out."

In the back of my mind, I still couldn't shake my curiosity. Was it some kind of amphetamine, maybe laced with a narcotic, touched off with a hallucinogen?

"Seriously Julio, where did you get this stuff?"

"You ever go racing?"

"What, like car racing?"

"No, horse racing."

"Once or twice. Why?"

"I have connections, at the race track. My pequeña helper friends ... they not made for people."

Suddenly Julio held his hands out in the air, as if he were holding on to two reins, tilted his head back, and made a whinnying sound.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Unrepeatable Brilliance Of Madonna's First Album AKA Was Madonna ... Aerobic Rock?

I didn't want to talk about Madonna. I swear, your honor. For starters, plenty of people have already written about Madonna. She's an easy subject. Cultural Studies majors have their pick of angles: feminism, sexuality, Kabbalah, cone bras, candle wax experimentation - you name it. I, on the other hand, prefer to highlight the less heralded careers, the critically ignored discographies, the secret treasures of the '80s. Second, I kind of already did write about Madonna. Back in 2010, as something of a precursor to my '80s obsession, I shed some light on the hidden compositional origins of Madonna's biggest hits in my series "Madonna And Michael Jackson: Songwriters?"

Also, personally, I relate to Madonna about as much as I relate to a potted plant. One day at the library, not too long ago, I found myself reading the first part of a Madonna biography. For many of my favorite artists, I feel like the story of the artist is so crucial to the art. You want to know the "story" of Madonna? Here's the story of Madonna. Imagine someone who starts out with a very shallow goal, and manages to achieve that very shallow goal. That's the story of Madonna. Madonna wanted "attention." She didn't seem to care whether it was positive attention or negative attention; she just wanted attention. You know the saying, "There's no such thing as bad publicity"? That could have been Madonna's life manifesto. Granted, it's a bit more complicated than that (her mother died when she was five, which may or may not explain everything), but it's sort of like if Veruca Salt ended up inheriting the chocolate factory.

Basically, I need to say something about Madonna's first album. I need to say something about it because it has got to be, in its own '80s dance-pop way, the most magnificent album ever made. And I need to explain why. I need to explain it not so much for my readers, but for myself.

There once was a brief, shining moment when Madonna didn't actually know she was "Madonna." That moment was on her first album. Ever since then, I feel like I can detect at least the faintest hint of self-consciousness or calculation. "Pure" is not a word one would typically associate with Madonna, but her debut album is pure. It is so entirely of the moment. It is so completely fluffy, so utterly disposable, so blatantly shallow, that, ironically, it achieves a kind of singular depth. No one could consciously set out to make this album. An album this great can only be made by people who aren't actually trying to make a great album.

And the moment Madonna started trying to "think" about her music, her music lost a little bit of its purity. Sure, Madonna released other excellent singles throughout the rest of her career, but they didn't quite have that same ... magic. It's like a rainbow. The moment you try to chase a rainbow, it disappears. You can't find the damn rainbow. Where the hell did the rainbow go? What I'm saying is that Madonna spent the next thirty years trying to chase a fucking rainbow. AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine knows what I'm talking about:
Although she never left it behind, it's been easy to overlook that Madonna began her career as a disco diva in an era that didn't have disco divas. It was an era where disco was anathema to mainstream pop, and she had a huge role in popularizing dance music as a popular music again, crashing through the door Michael Jackson opened with Thriller. Certainly, her undeniable charisma, chutzpah, and sex appeal had a lot to do with that -- it always did, throughout her career -- but she wouldn't have broken through if the music wasn't so good. And her eponymous debut isn't simply good, it set the standard for dance-pop for the next 20 years. Why did it do so? Because it cleverly incorporated great pop songs with stylish, state-of-the-art beats, and it shrewdly walked a line between being a rush of sound and a showcase for a dynamic lead singer. This is music where all of the elements may not particularly impressive on their own -- the arrangement, synth, and drum programming are fairly rudimentary; Madonna's singing isn't particularly strong; the songs, while hooky and memorable, couldn't necessarily hold up on their own without the production -- but taken together, it's utterly irresistible. And that's the hallmark of dance-pop: every element blends together into an intoxicating sound, where the hooks and rhythms are so hooky, the shallowness is something to celebrate. And there are some great songs here, whether it's the effervescent "Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday" or the darker, carnal urgency of "Burning Up" and "Physical Attraction." And if Madonna would later sing better, she illustrates here that a good voice is secondary to dance-pop. What's really necessary is personality, since that sells a song where there are no instruments that sound real. Here, Madonna is on fire, and that's the reason why it launched her career, launched dance-pop, and remains a terrific, nearly timeless, listen.
It's funny to think of an album that sounds so unapologetically '80s as being "timeless," but what is time, really? What is space? Why are we here? Erlewine calls Madonna a "disco diva," but I think the more chronologically appropriate term would have to be "Aerobic Rock diva." Yes, Madonna, you were Aerobic Rock. Let's just face it. You danced in your videos, you wore bracelets, your shirt occasionally slipped over your shoulder ... guilty as charged.

The most impressive thing about Madonna's debut is that it manages to be so emotionally affecting despite the fact that its lyrics consist of the most cookie-cutter, cliche-ridden claptrap you've ever come across in your whole entire life. It makes "Moon/June/Spoon" sound like The Aeneid. A fifth-grader's desk carvings carry more intellectual heft. Here's a sampler:
Don't put me off, 'cause I'm on fire
And I can't quench my desire
Don't you know that I'm burning up for your love
You're not convinced that that's enough

I know you're gonna take your love and run
I know you think I'm the foolish one
I know you're gonna turn around and say goodbye

You say that you need my love
And you're wantin' my body, I don't mind
Baby all I've got is time
And I'm waiting to make you mine

You say you wanna stay the night
But you'll leave me tomorrow, I don't care
All of your moves are right
We can take it anywhere, this

Everybody, come on, dance and sing
Everybody, get up and do your thing
Everybody, come on, dance and sing
Everybody, get up and do your thing

Let the music take control
Find a groove and let yourself go
When the room begins to sway
You know what I'm trying to say

You must be my lucky star
'Cause you shine on me wherever you are
I just think of you and I start to glow
And I need your light and baby you know

Starlight, starbright first star I see tonight
Starlight, starbright make everything all right
Starlight, starbright first star I see tonight
Starlight, starbright yeah
"Starlight, starbright, first start I see tonight"? It's literally a nursery rhyme. But lest you think I'm bothered by the album's lack of linguistic creativity, think again. Here's the central irony of Madonna's career: the more effort Madonna seemed to put into her lyrics, the more I think her songs started to sound contrived. On that first album, she simply just ... was.

The first couple of times I listened to Madonna, I thought there were some hit singles and some filler. Eventually I realized that the whole thing is of a piece. With an album like this, either all of the tracks are filler, or none of them are. In other words, put this album on the turntable at a party and you don't ever have to worry about lifting the needle.

Take "Everybody." "Everybody" is barely even a song. It was, of course, Madonna's very first single, recorded a whole year prior to everything else on the album, and the funny part is, I can tell that it was her first single, but it doesn't matter one bit. What I love about "Everybody" is that it sounds so ... low-budget. It sounds like it was recorded in the basement of a gym with a Casio keyboard and a microphone. But damn, she wants to be a star. Just listen to her hilariously "improvised," wannabe Cinemax come-on at the start: "I know you've been waiting ... yeah ... I've been watching you ... yeah ... I know you wanna get up ... yeah ... come on." Save it for your agent, Madge.

Amusingly, Sire Records promoted the single on R&B stations and did not feature a picture of Madonna on the record sleeve, in an initial attempt to pass off Madonna as black (!). But this short-lived marketing scheme came to swift and sudden end the moment the (equally low-budget) video came out. It looks like it was filmed for a local access channel. Up next: a Gilligan's Island re-run.

Her second single, "Burning Up," is some serious, serious Aerobic Rock, complete with raunchy pseudo-heavy metal guitar and tacky vocal effects ("I'm on fih-ah" in particular gets mangled by a robot). As for the video, I guess they had a little more budget money for this one. They were able to afford: a Grecian bust with glowing eyes; a goldfish bowl; a blue convertible; a laser that catches hats like a pole - it goes on. They got their hands on some state-of-the-art equipment too. First, she gets trapped in a little diagonal rectangle a la Superman II. Then there's a dissolve more mind-blowing than that shot in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the bone turns into a spaceship: Madonna leans against a door and finds herself ... in a boat! The jet-setting quasi-European dude even drives the convertible through water! Then they realized they could "freeze" the frame, turn it black and white, and make it "flip" like a photo album. Maybe it's cool the first time, but by the fifth time I'm like, "OK, show me what else you got." At 3:20, she almost rips off her white dress, but the director was probably screaming, "Madonna, wait, that's half our budget!" The quasi-European guy then appears to hit Madonna head-on, but in the next shot ... she's now driving the convertible! According to Wikipedia, this is a moment of incisive socio-political commentary:
Author Robert Clyde Allen in his book Channels of Discourse compared the video with that of "Material Girl". According to him both the videos have an undermining ending, while employing a consistent series of puns and exhibiting a parodic amount of excess associated with Madonna's style. The discourses included in the video are those of sexuality and religion. Madonna's image of kneeling and singing about 'burning in love' performed the traditional ideological work of using the subordination and powerlessness of women in Christianity to naturalize their equally submissive position in patriarchy. Author Georges-Claude Guilbert in his book Madonna As Postmodern Myth commented that the representation of the male character becomes irrelevant as Madonna destabilizes the fixing and categorization of male sexuality in the video.
Or maybe it was just a throwaway gag?

"I Know It" works the same retro-girl group territory as Blondie and the Go-Go's, albeit using a tacky drum machine instead of a genuine band, with Madonna effectively replicating the "girl we just found on the Brooklyn street corner and brought into the studio on a whim" quality that all the great girl group records boasted. Is it just me, or the chorus sound like it's a bridge? And does the fluttery synthesizer sound like it was lifted from the theme for Reading Rainbow?

Before I forget, gotta give a shout-out to "Think Of Me" and "Physical Attraction," which both manage to sustain the album's precious atmosphere of seeming vapidity. Still, as delectable as all these cuts are, they are not the songs that truly send this album into that rarefied dance-pop air. You know which three songs I'm talking about. Aw, fuck, they need a post of their own. Guess I'm not done talking about Madonna.