Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Janet Jackson B.C. (Before Control) AKA The Limits Of Nepotism

Just when the world thought it had enough Jacksons.

There are times when I forget that Janet Jackson is/was Michael Jackson's sister, and is/was indeed a member of the whole Jackson family entertainment enterprise. I'll bet there are times when Janet forgets it too. And who can blame her? I don't know if being a Jackson helped or hindered her, but you have to stop and think: what are the odds? There are plenty of siblings of pop superstars who don't amount to squat. For example, Paul McCartney's brother Mike had a couple of hits (in a band called The Scaffold, in which he went by the name of Mike McGear!), but that was it. The career of Janet Jackson wasn't written in the stars. I mean, not every family is blessed with the talent of, say, the Kardashians.

Because Janet Jackson was huge.

But even with the industry's greatest head-start, it wasn't a straight shoot to the top. People might remember Control coming out in 1986 and recall to themselves, "Yeah, what a great debut album!" Except ... hey, you know me too well. It wasn't even her second album. Come with me, if you will, to a world where Janet Jackson was the afterthought of the Jackson clan.

For a Jackson in 1982, getting a record contract was like a rich kid getting a shiny new sports car. Who cares if you really wanted one? Who cares if you didn't even know how to drive? Also, imagine a time when Janet Jackson was better known as an actress (!). From Wikipedia:
Jackson had initially desired to become a horse racing jockey or entertainment lawyer, with plans to support herself through acting. Despite this, she was anticipated to pursue a career in entertainment, and considered the idea after recording herself in the studio ... She began acting in the variety show The Jacksons in 1976. In 1977, she was selected to have a starring role as Penny Gordon Woods in the sitcom Good Times. She later starred in A New Kind of Family before joining the cast of Diff'rent Strokes, portraying Charlene Duprey for two years.
Horse racing jockey? That's like when I was in kindergarten and I used to tell people I wanted to grow up to be a fireman. Fireman? What the fuck did I know? Anyway, as far as I can tell, her first two albums were like vanity projects. Nevertheless, because (for reasons unknown to even the wisest of our contemporary philosophers) I love almost every last drop of '80s music, I would not say that Janet Jackson and Dream Street are particularly "bad." But what's interesting about them is that they are impressively ... generic. They possess no unique vision, or quirky character. They sound exactly like what you'd think they'd sound like. They sound like Off The Wall outtakes. They sound like Kool & The Gang's hairbrush lint. But hey, maybe some people are into that sort of thing.

Besides, when Everybody's Favorite Abusive Father is your manager, what do you really expect? Apparently, when he wasn't beating the skin pigment out of Michael, family patriarch Joe fancied himself some kind of record producer. Not everyone agreed, including AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine, who gives Janet Jackson two stars:
On her eponymous debut album, Janet Jackson demonstrates no distinctive musical personality of her own, which isn't surprising considering that she was in her teens. If her producers had concocted a sharper set of songs and more interesting beats, Janet Jackson might have been a pleasant set of sunny dance-pop, but as it stands, only "Young Love" stands out among the undistinguished, sub-disco thumpers and drippy ballads.

Ewww! Drippy! Time to wring out Joe's jheri curl. Her second album, Dream Street, plays more like Late Night Cough Syrup-Induced Hallucination Street. Weirdness abounds: "Two To The Power Of Love" is a duet with Pre-Beatles British pop legend Cliff Richard, while the title track was co-written by frequent Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder collaborator Pete Bellotte. Also, a certain Gloved One lends some unmistakable background whoops and hollers to "Don't Stand Another Chance."

I think if Dream Street had been Janet's last album, AMG would have given it four stars and designated it as the album "pick" and a hidden Jackson family gem, but in light of what followed, sure, another two star rating is fair. I'll say this: the closing trio of "Hold Back The Tears," "All My Love To You," and "If It Takes All Night" are better than their titles, seemingly generated by an Apple IIe "Name Your Top 40 Single" computer program, would suggest.

In the end, a family name can only get you so far - on the Billboard pop chart at least, as Janet Jackson hit #63, while Dream Street bottomed out at #147. Damn. We're talking about the peak of Thriller here. Even the Doors albums without Jim Morrison did better than that. However, on the R&B charts, she was not exactly a joke, with the albums peaking at #6 and #19, while "Young Love," "Say You Do," "Come Give Your Love To Me," and "Don't Stand Another Chance" all peaked in the R&B top 20.

Maybe her heart wasn't really in it. Maybe she just recorded those albums to get Dad off her back. Hey, not everybody's cut out to be a pop star - even a Jackson. Two flop albums should have been the end of this particular musical career. It turns out the only way for Janet to live up to the Jackson family name ... was to flee the Jackson family.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"Twisting By The Pool": Yuppie Rock Goes Sock Hop

It looks like after Love Over Gold, Mark Knopfler briefly lost his taste for the 14-minute long song, as he decided to turn Dire Straits' next release into a 14-minute long album. Well, 16 minutes, to be more precise, but talk about a giddy U-turn. The ExtendedancEPlay EP (I sense a pun in there somewhere) consists of four songs, none longer than five minutes, and none bearing any trace of meandering guitar heroics or brooding working-class malaise. I guess this was like Dire Straits' Zooropa, where they just cut loose for a little while and didn't try too hard to outdo themselves. That's the first U2 reference I've made in years. Hmm. Must have been the mashed potatoes I ate for lunch.

The main track off the EP, "Twisting By The Pool," a '50s dance craze pastiche complete with Little Richard-style piano pounding and backing vocals lifted straight from "At The Hop," is so campy, it's almost as campy as Elton John and Bernie Taupin's early rock n' roll homages like "Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock And Roll)" and "Whenever You're Ready (We'll Go Steady Again)." I said almost. When released as a stand-alone single, it hit #14 in the UK and #12 on the US Mainstream Rock chart, or so I've been told. The video features your standard boilerplate Dire Straits concert footage interspliced with shots of Hawaiian-shirted partygoers twisting in the vicinity of a so-called recreational water area, as well as women in swimsuits performing synchronized Busby Berkeley-style routines. That sexy secretary floating on a pool chair at 1:21 (reading the newspaper and sucking on what appears to be a Creamsicle) better be careful or she might end up soaking her brand new shirt and tie. Sadly, the record label could not convince the band members themselves to go for a swim; the sight of Mark Knopfler strutting his stuff in a two-piece might have really been something.

Even less characteristic, and even more rare, is "Badges, Posters, Stickers, T-shirts," a boogie-woogie retro-swing oddity where Knopfler paints a less-than-charitable portrait of a pair of groupies, whom, it is implied (according to one YouTube commentator), are from Leeds, since that's the accent Knopfler is supposedly using. Those Northerners, always up to no good! Perhaps the fine people of Leeds have tried to keep this track out of circulation, as it's barely made an appearance in the CD era, but once again, YouTube comes to the rescue:
Me and my mate we think you're great
Some we like and some we hate
I know him, I've seen him on the adverts
Got any badges, posters, stickers or t-shirts?

You were bloody great last time you come
I thought me 'ead was stuck in the bass drum
Bloody loud, me bloody head hurts
Got any badges, posters, stickers or t-shirts?

So how'd you get a start in show biz?
My mate's as good on the drums as he is
My mate thinks I'm bloody cracked
Please sign my jacket on the back

All them badges made of plastic
I think they're great, just fantastic
I'm unemployed, he's still at school
He gets annoyed 'cause I'm such a fool

You don't half sweat a lot up there
Haven't you got showers in here?
You're bloody great, my bloody head hurts
Got any badges, posters, stickers or t-shirts?

Yeah, me and my mate like AC/DC
Hot & sweaty, loud & greasy
My mom says we're a pair of perverts
Got any badges, posters, stickers or t-shirts?

We hitch-hiked here in pouring rain
Now we've missed the flamin' train
Hey! Can I have one of them lagers?
Thanks very much, mate
Can 'e have one?
A-one, a-two, a-one two three four

So, was this a new embrace of conciseness and playfulness for our man from Newcastle upon Tyne? Ha! Playfulness perhaps, but for any one of the 30 million proud owners of Brothers In Arms out there, as far as conciseness goes, they should know the answer to that one.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Axel F": The Unfaltering Glory of Harold Faltermeyer's Timeless And/Or Extremely Dated Theme

I love that the official name of the theme tune from Beverly Hills Cop is "Axel F." It is not called "Beverly Hills Cop Theme," not even with parentheses. Nor is it called "Axel Foley," which is the character's full name. No, it is simply called "Axel F," which suggests a certain intimate familiarity, like what one might find written on a hastily scrawled memo, taped to the police captain's desk. With "Axel F," we're on the "inside."

Out of the slimy ooze that was Giorgio Moroder, there arose a protege. And that protege was Harold Faltermeyer. Not content to merely work alongside the master on various soundtrack albums and Donna Summer releases, Faltermeyer finally carved out his own plaque in the Eurosleaze Hall of Fame with this nimble one-man show. But "one man" hardly means "one synth," as Wikipedia makes abundantly clear:
Faltermeyer recorded the song using five instruments: a Roland Jupiter-8 provided the distinctive "supersaw" lead sound, a Moog modular synthesizer 15 provided the bass, a Roland JX-3P provided chord stabs, a Yamaha DX7 was used for bell and marimba sounds and a LinnDrum was used for drum programming.
Whoa, look out for that supersaw. What's amazing about "Axel F" is the ebb and flow, the sturm und drang of all the different synthesizer parts. My tongue-in-cheek breakdown:
  • 0:00-0:14: The ominous main theme
  • 0:15: A synthesizer imitating that sound a record kinda makes when you turn it on while the needle is resting in the middle of a track (sort of a "whoosh")
  • 0:16-0:24: Freaky imitation bass line, with freaky imitation cymbals
  • 0:24: Imitation handclaps that always make me think of the very last seconds of "The Safety Dance" (it must have been a common button on that particular synth model)
  • 0:24-0:33: Behold the imitation bass drum!
  • 0:33-0:49: Everything all together now, goosed along by the new kid on the block, an imitation snare drum
  • 0:49-1:10: An alternate main riff (perhaps what Wikipedia calls "chord stabs"?), accompanied by the sound of what appears to be termites quietly munching in both stereo channels
  • 1:10-1:28: Funky breakdown, with imitation bass solo and munching termites; at 1:20 they're joined by what sounds like the flick of Tinkerbell's wand
  • 1:28-1:44: Back to the main riff, with imitation bass drum, meaner and leaner this time
  • 1:45-2:20 Sensual bridge with imitation marimbas; they multiply and multiply and they keep growing and growing and it seems like nothing will stop them until they finally meet their doom at the hands of ...
  • 2:19: Monster imitation drum fill
  • 2:21-2:41: Then it's back into the safe, comforting arms of the alternate riff (from 0:49-1:10)
  • 2:42: And the main theme drives us on home, Faltermeyer's fancy fingers taking us back where we began, all the pieces locking together in peerless mathematical symmetry, like an Escher illustration (but an Escher illustration starring Eddie Murphy)
  • 2:58: And, hey, one last dose of imitation handclaps for good measure

Rarely is the public granted the opportunity to see a master at work, but in the video for "Axel F," such is the opportunity we have been granted, for it stars, if I'm not mistaken, Mr. Harold Faltermeyer himself. I didn't realize that Faltermeyer also happened to be the neighborhood pedophile, or possibly former Major League pitcher Curt Schilling. It's also odd that he's sequestered himself in a top-secret computer laboratory, as I don't believe Beverly Hills Cops was an international cyber-thriller, but maybe there were complications going on behind the scenes that we didn't hear about. However, once he's spotted by Mystery Woman peeking through the Venetian blinds, things start to get a little weird. Right around 1:44, two things happen: 1) Faltermeyer, sans hat and sunglasses, suddenly busts out his synth equipment in the middle of the lab, which is, suspiciously, no longer in black & white, and 2) the hat-and-sunglasses Faltermeyer finds himself magically, and dangerously, transported smack into the midst of the Beverly Hill Cop action! See him jog alongside Eddie Murphy and Judge Reinhold (at 2:01 and 2:26), sneak up to Victor Maitland's mansion (1:57), and dodge the nefarious bullets of Maitland's henchmen (at 2:19)! Something about the whole deal doesn't seem right, as if Faltermeyer wasn't really in the footage to begin with. Besides, this ain't no beat for a rookie. He's in over his head. Sure, enough, in the last shot, it appears as though Faltermeyer has pushed his luck just a step too far, because here comes a giant semi-truck, look out!!!!!!!!

And so, Harold Faltermeyer's first hit ... was his last.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Belinda: The Weirdest Album Of 1986 AKA Can A Woman Simultaneously Grow Older ... And Younger?

There were some weird albums in 1986. The Butthole Surfers' Rembrandt Pussyhorse. Big Black's Atomizer. Public Image Ltd.'s Album/Compact Disc/Cassette (you guessed it: the name of the album depended on the format in which it was purchased). They Might Be Giants' debut. But there is one album that, in my humble opinion, is weirder than all of those albums combined. That album is Belinda Carlisle's solo debut, simply titled Belinda.

The weirdest thing about Belinda is that it is so utterly, completely ... normal. On the surface, Belinda is about as normal as a mainstream '80s pop album could possibly be. The production is not unique in any notable way, the instrumentation is entirely conventional, the lyrical content is standard romantic pablum. No, what makes Belinda the weirdest album of 1986 is that it reveals not the slightest trace of the performer's long and legitimate punk past.

I could understand a brief nod, a mild wink, a token acknowledgement. But nope. There's nothing. Nada. Not even a faint fingerprint. The unsuspecting listener could have purchased this album in 1986 without receiving the slightest inkling that the perfectly sweet young lady singing these songs was the same woman who once:
  • Wore trash bags as a dress
  • Slipped her menstrual fluid into alcoholic beverages in order to "cast spells" on boys
  • Allowed herself to be drenched in the spit of overly-enthusiastic British punk audiences
  • Posed, on camera, the eternal question: "Why can't girls jack off?"
Never have I seen, in all my years of popular music fandom, a transformation so thorough, so complete, so divorced from prior origins, as the transformation achieved here. It is without precedent. I would call it unbelievable, except it happened, and so I believe it. Belinda is like if HBO suddenly tried to pretend it was the Disney Channel. My father once said, amused at Las Vegas' attempt to turn itself into a family destination, "That's like hell trying to dress itself up and pretend that it's heaven." Of course, Belinda is like heaven trying to dress itself up and pretend that it's heaven, but I digress.

Belinda is like the goofy kid sister to Madonna's True Blue and Janet Jackson's Control. Whereas those two 1986 blockbuster albums peaked at #1, spun off multiple top ten singles, and went multi-platinum, Belinda peaked at #13, spun off one top ten hit, two flop singles, and went gold. Madonna and Janet Jackson sat in the studio and carefully crafted their marketing strategy down to every last bra-strap: which songs would be released as singles (and when), what the videos would like look, how to handle the concert choreography, etc. Belinda just went along with whatever the record label wanted her to do. True Blue and Control oozed ambition and ego. Belinda waved its little hand in the air and said, "Hey, look at me! I can be a hit album too!" But it wasn't entirely sure.

Somehow, in the chaotic climate that was 1986 popular music, Belinda found its perky little niche. Just to provide some perspective: on the 1986 year-end bestselling albums chart, Belinda finished at #83, a couple of spots below LL Cool J's Radio, and four places above Metallica's Master Of Puppets. It was a strange time, ladies and gentlemen.

While they weren't treated quite like Radio or Master Of Puppets, True Blue and Control were taken somewhat seriously by critics at the time. No music critic took Belinda remotely seriously at the time, and, actually, no music critic takes it seriously now. Well, that's not entirely accurate. Initially, in an old AMG review, Stephen Thomas Erlewine gave it three stars and sprinkled some mild praise its way:
Belinda Carlisle's first solo record was a distinct departure from the Go-Go's energetic, catchy new wave pop. Carlisle refashioned herself as an inoffensive mainstream pop singer and the makeover worked commercially, as well as artistically. The pop on Belinda may not be as infectious as the Go-Go's finest singles, yet it fit in well with the slick formats of mid-'80s radio and managed to be more memorable than many of the mainstream hits of the time, as the ingratiating hit "Mad About You" proves.
Well guess what? I just checked AMG, and it looks like ol' STE recently bumped that rating up to four stars and wrote a new, expanded review. Is Belinda is finally gaining some belated hipster props? As for its reception upon release, usually I'd say that the narrow-minded tastemakers of the day missed the boat and failed to spot an obvious classic, but honestly, with this one, I don't blame 'em. They were right to chuckle at this album. It's kind of a silly album. Sure, you and I know, with the benefit of hindsight, that Belinda went full-borne Yuppie, but people didn't see that coming at the time. Here was Belinda's chance to redefine herself, to tell the world what she was about as an artist and role model, and she came up with ... this? Did she have a single substantive thought in that bubbly blonde cranium of hers? I can understand the scorn or, more accurately, the indifference. However, in retrospect, I believe that Belinda is in need of some serious critical re-evaluation. Because there has never been - and will never be - another album quite like it.

Only a couple of songs strike me as outright boring; I find the rest either purely poptastic or head-scratchingly, misguidedly memorable in that "Why, Belinda? Why?" sort of way. Unlike most of her solo albums, which feel more disjointed, Belinda has a genuine thematic cohesion (the theme being "Can I really pull this off guys?"). In summary, after Beauty And The Beat, this is my favorite Belinda-related long player.

What does the defendant have to say for herself? From Lips Unsealed:
For the next eight months, I worked on Belinda, my first solo album. I dove in without thinking about any of the pressure-packed issues I would face later on when I actually stepped out publicly and faced critics, Go-Go's fans, and the new reality that I was on my own. I moved quickly, sticking to the relatively safe and familiar pop territory for which I was known. Should I have tried to develop an edgier sound or gone back to my punk roots? In retrospect, I wish I had pushed it to a harder place. But I wasn't in that headspace. Nor did I have that kind of creative freedom as a new artist.
Wasn't in that "headspace"? "Wasn't in that headspace?" She jumped off the diving board and did a massive cannonball into the Swimming Pool of Slick Top 40 Cheese, and all she can say for herself is that she "wasn't in that headspace"? I think that's the best answer we're ever going to get. To be fair, she makes a nice point about lacking "creative freedom as a new artist." But wait a second. By that logic, when John Lydon formed Public Image Ltd., he didn't have any "creative freedom as a new artist." When Morrissey left the Smiths, he didn't have any "creative freedom as a new artist." But you know what? They made the music they wanted to make anyway. Because it was important to them. I think Belinda could have had creative freedom if she'd wanted it. She just didn't want to make "meaningful" music that badly. She liked playing the video vixen. And another thing: she says she stuck to "the relatively safe and familiar pop territory for which I was known." Well, the Go-Go's were certainly radio-friendly, but as "safe and familiar" as this? Belinda makes the Go-Go's sound like Throbbing Gristle.

Another funny thing happened when Belinda went solo: she became the unofficial heir to the sunny California pop throne. Everyone from former band mates and fellow '80s contemporaries to '60s and '70s L.A. baby boomer studio veterans wanted to chip in to the Golden Girl's new career:
I was working with veteran producer Michael Lloyd, and we chose Paula's infectious pop song "Mad About You" as a starting point ... I also relied heavily on Charlotte, who had five songwriting credits on the album. Plus Michael and I chose songs from such proven hitmakers as Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham, Split Enz' Tim Finn, Tom Kelly, Billy Steinberg, and the Bangles' Susanna Hoffs.

The album was rounded out by musical contributions from Duran Duran's Andy Taylor and session legends David Lindley and Nicky Hopkins, among others. The danger of employing so many disparate talents, of course, was ending up with an album that didn't have a personality of its own. But after hearing an early compilation, I thought the album was good ... It was like the romantic pop that I had listened to when I was growing up and lying in front of the stereo speakers. Like all my solo albums since, it reflected where I was at the time ... I was proud of it.
Well I'm proud of it too Belinda, but it sure helped that you picked a dynamite team. It reminds me of Ringo's first proper solo album, the one from 1973 with an endless cavalcade of guest stars. "Belinda's doing a solo album? I'm in!" For those who don't know, Nicky Hopkins was arguably the greatest session pianist in late '60s Britain, playing on laughably famous tracks by the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and even the Beatles' "Revolution" (it might ring a bell), and David Lindley was the ultimate early '70 L.A. singer-songwriter go-to man, playing with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, and Rod Stewart, as well as his own band Kaleidoscope. How the hell Belinda got them to show up on her album is a question probably even she couldn't answer.

But perhaps I'm burying the lede here. Some of you may have scanned the above excerpt and noticed, "Wait a second, did she just say that one of the songs on her album was written by Susanna Hoffs??" Oh yes. Belinda and Susanna, teaming up for recorded posterity. It's like a collaboration between the Beatles and the Stones ... but better. To clarify, the song was actually a collaboration between Susanna Hoffs and ubiquitous professional songwriters Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg. Remember those guys? You know, the guys who wrote "Like A Virgin"? Remember this quote?:
"I wasn't just trying to get that racy word virgin in a lyric. I was saying ... that I may not really be a virgin — I've been battered romantically and emotionally like many people — but I'm starting a new relationship and it just feels so good, it's healing all the wounds and making me feel like I've never done this before, because it's so much deeper and more profound than anything I've ever felt."
Yeah - those guys. Well who needs Madonna when you've got Belinda and Susanna, know what I'm sayin'? At any rate, this is quite a pedigree for a forgotten Belinda album track. So what does this legendary meeting of the '80s pop minds sounds like? Uhhh ... it sounds like cheesy corporate crap, but God help me, I love it anyway. It's got a bouncy piano-and-bass riff that was probably ripped off from some Motown song I can't place right now (my brain keeps thinking of Spiral Staircase's "More Today Than Yesterday," but I don't think that's quite it, nor is that Motown), and Belinda comes in with a purr-rific "Ooooh ... yeahhhh" before the synthesized bells start chiming on the somewhat anti-climactic chorus. Final verdict: strangely riveting, but arguably doesn't live up to the hype.

Then there's Charlotte's "I Never Wanted a Rich Man," which she must have written with Belinda in mind (either that or Fiddler On The Roof?), because although Belinda may have never wanted a rich man, she definitely found one, a reality which turns this set of lyrics into a peculiar psychodrama:
I never wanted a rich man
Just someone with soul
It was on the day I met you
I vowed to never let you go

I never knew much about romance
Always used my lucky charms
I learned it all in just one lesson
When you first held me in your arms

Open up your heart
Let me inside
If you listen to your intuition
We'll have a chance tonight

Keep me in your heart
And hold on tight
If you read into my intuition
We'll find a way tonight

I put away all my heroes
And all the lovers I have known
Even though I've had my share
I've spent too many nights alone

Don't need to look for fame or fortune
I have found my paradise
You've got the whole world in your hands
And a fortune in your eyes
Well, Morgan had a fortune in his eyes ... and his wallet. Oh, and get a load of that soulful organ riffing. Perhaps this is where Nicky Hopkins made his presence known, although the playing sounds more like that of his fellow session buddy Billy Preston.

Let's see here. "From The Heart," which looks like it was co-written by Charlotte and her ... brother (?) sounds like it came from the spleen rather than the heart, and the same goes for "Gotta Get To You," which was probably another Go-Go's leftover, as it was co-written by blink-and-you-miss-her Jane replacement Paula Jean Brown, along with "Mad About You" co-writer James Whelan, plus Charlotte, and even Belinda herself. It's got a ham-fisted arena rock bombast and lyrics that don't seem to fit Belinda's life circumstances (she didn't need to "get to" anyone because she'd just found Morgan - hello!), but I know it well because it's also on the American version of Belinda's Greatest Hits, presumably because it ... carried a Belinda co-writing credit? I could think of about five other songs from this album that would have made for a better selection, but they didn't ask me.

Even "Shot In The Dark" would have been a better selection. Another apparent Go-Go's leftover by Brown and Whelan, it is the epitome of throwaway retro-'60s pop froth, with a grotesquely synthesized bass line, fake bongos, and what sounds like ... steel drums? Belinda's gone Caribbean! To quote the infamous opening lines of Greil Marcus' review of Dylan's Self Portrait, "What is this shit?" If you called this song completely horrendous, I wouldn't argue with you for long, but for reasons that I suppose I'll take to my grave, I can't help but admire it.

Oh, one more thing: great album cover. It's probably the least dated piece of the whole product. She looks like a ballet dancer poised between performances. She leans on a chair, suspended in time, a woman from any age, or no age. From Lips Unsealed:
When it came time to shoot the album cover, I knew I had the opportunity to do something special. I let the music inspire the image. I came up with the idea of modeling it after Ann-Margret's great look from Viva Las Vegas, in black tights and a sweater. Since people were making that comparison, why not? Matthew Ralston, the photographer, liked the idea, and so we went with it ... The resulting photo was stark and classy yet still pop. It sure didn't look like old pictures of me in which I always seemed as if I had just hit the deli tray, that's for sure. I thought it conveyed a slightly more grown-up vibe.
And now we come to the existential question posed by Belinda, a question for which there may be no true answer: can a woman grow "older" and "more sophisticated" while simultaneously reverting helplessly into a "childlike," "pre-adolescent" state? This album argues "Yes."

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Abacab? How About Aba-drab? AKA Phil's Close Shave With The "Man On The Corner" In San Diego

And so, for a couple of years there, Phil Collins didn't quite realize that his solo career was going to be bigger than his Genesis career. To paraphrase The Wizard Of Oz, "Pay no attention to the man behind the drum kit." La la la la la. So Abacab is just another Genesis album, released only a few months after Face Value, and yet the band still tries to carry on with some sort of respectable art-rock approach. The album apparently puts Stephen Thomas Erlewine's knickers in a twist:
Duke showcased a new Genesis -- a sleek, hard, stylish trio that truly sounded like a different band from its first incarnation -- but Abacab was where this new incarnation of the band came into its own. Working with producer Hugh Padgham, the group escalated the innovations of Duke, increasing the pop hooks, working them seamlessly into the artiest rock here. And even if the brash, glorious pop of "No Reply at All" -- powered by the percolating horns of Earth, Wind & Fire, yet polished into a precise piece of nearly new wave pop by Padgham -- suggests otherwise, this is still art rock at its core, or at least album-oriented rock, as the band works serious syncopations and instrumental forays into a sound that's as bright, bold, and jagged as the modernist artwork on the cover.
I dunno. Personally, after the marital exorcism that was Face Value, I find Abacab kind of ... ho hum. It's like getting a cell phone for the very first time, and then going back to a landline for a month because, I mean, the cell phone couldn't be your "real" phone, could it? Yes it could, Phil. Yes it could. Where are all these "pop hooks" of which Erlewine speaks? Maybe I'm just the odd man out here; Patrick Bateman seems to agree with AMG Guy on this one:
Abacab (Atlantic; 1981) was released almost immediately after Duke and it benefits from a new producer, Hugh Pagham, who gives the band a more eighties sound and though the songs seem fairly generic, there are still great bits throughout: the extended jam in the middle of the title track and the horns by some group called Earth, Wind and Fire on "No Reply at All" are just two examples. Again the songs reflect dark emotions and are about people who feel lost or who are in conflict, but the production and sound are gleaming and upbeat (even if the titles aren't: "No Reply at All," "Keep It Dark," "Who Dunnit?" "Like It or Not").
Eh ... Patrick, you're reaching. Let's face it, the stylistic experiments are still too ... safe, the lyrics not ... ridiculous enough. It's like Phil didn't want to admit he'd finally jumped the shark. Oh, but the shark had been jumped. He hadn't just jump the shark, he'd jumped the entire cove. At times on Face Value, and often in his subsequent career, Phil would aim for the Grand Statement, often to unintentionally humorous effect, but at least it'd be entertaining. The songs on Abacab don't seem to be about anything - other than quality musicianship, which is not an acceptable theme. No, it would take another album before the full "Philness" would infect Genesis proper. In other words: I can't make fun of this.

No one even knows any of the songs on Abacab. Here is an album released smack in the middle of the '80s' most unstoppable hit streak, and yet I've never heard a single one of these tracks while waiting in the hair salon. Oh, there were some minor hits: "Abacab" hit #26, "No Reply At All" hit #29, "Man On The Corner" hit #40, and the band even released an extra single recorded at the same sessions, "Paperlate," which hit #32. But none of these songs will give you and your friends that instant jolt of nostalgic recognition when you're sitting around late at night trying to listen ironically to Phil Collins. None of these songs became ubiquitous. And what the hell does "Abacab" even mean? According to Wikipedia:
The title is taken from the structure of an early version of the song. Guitarist Mike Rutherford explained in an interview that the band labelled various sections of the song with letters of the alphabet, and at one point the sections were ordered A-B-A-C-A-B. Rutherford commented that the completed song no longer followed this format, but the name was kept nevertheless.
Sure guys, whatever. At least "Man On The Corner" was a nice preview of the liberal guilt to come, sort of the proto-"Another Day In Paradise" in its quasi-self-serving concern for homeless people:
See the lonely man there on the corner
What he's waiting for, I don't know
But he waits every day now
He's just waiting for something to show

And nobody knows him, and nobody cares
'Cause there's no hidin' place
There's no hidin' place
For you

Lookin' everywhere at no one
He sees everything and nothing at all, oh
When he shouts, nobody listens
Where he leads, no one will go, oh

Are we just like all the rest?
We're lookin' too hard for somethin' he's got
Or movin' too fast to rest
But like a monkey on your back, you need it
But do you love it enough to leave it all?

"We're looking too hard for somethin' he's got"? Like what, a shopping cart? Come on Phil. It's not like homeless people are enlightened hippie gurus or something. He's not the Fool on the Hill. But Patrick Bateman doesn't bother splitting hairs:
My favorite track is "Man on the Corner," which is the only song credited solely to Collins, a moving ballad with a pretty synthesized melody plus a riveting drum machine in the background. Though it could easily come off any of Phil's solo albums, because the themes of loneliness, paranoia and alienation are overly familiar to Genesis it evokes the band's hopeful humanism. "Man on the Corner" profoundly equates a relationship with a solitary figure (a bum, perhaps a poor homeless person?), "that lonely man on the corner" who just stands around.
Terrific. But just who was that man on the corner? According to In The Air Tonight, it wasn't a homeless person at all:
Near the end of the Face Value tour, I was about 95% positive that the Feds were on my tail. Wish I'd given a rat's ass; once you've got a solo album under your belt, you start to feel pretty damn invincible, and no federales were about to kill my high.

I had a connection in San Diego, a Samoan guy with a white goatee named Rob. He was co-owner of a cab company, ABA Cab. It was Friday night in the Gaslamp District. I'd just finished getting a full-body massage from a Transvestite named Sarah Jane; that's where the song "Me And Sarah Jane" came from, in case you were wondering. But yeah, at midnight I was supposed meet him on 4th Ave., across from the plaza. They had a payphone in the hotel lobby, and I could dial straight into his dispatch.

"Midnight, huh?"

"Yeah, I'll just pull up outside, no problem. Listen, I'm a little low on some of the horsie juice, I know that's your favorite, but I got somethin' even better, it's from one of my buddies at Sea World - killer whale tranquilizer. They use this shit on Shamu!"

"Fine, sure, just get it to me by midnight."

"I'm tellin' ya Phil, you're gonna be riding the white whale tonight."

But as I waited in the lobby, I noticed a man standing across the street, next to the liquor store, wearing a trench coat and a fedora. A few minutes later, Rob pulled up in front of the hotel. The payphone rang.

"Phil, hey, I'm right outside, come on and get the goods."

"Who's that man on the corner?"

"What man on the corner?"

"That guy in the trench coat, across the street."

"Oh yeah, I see him. I don't know, Phil. Should I turn my blinders on?"

"No, keep it dark, keep it dark!"

"OK, OK. What are you thinking?"

"It's the Feds! They're on our tail."

"The Feds? You sure? Maybe it's just some guy out having a good time. Lemme ask him."

Rob's voice pierced through the evening's warmth. "Hey mister! What do you want! You want something?" The man stood unnervingly still.

"Phil, there's no reply - no reply at all. What do you want me to do?"

I thought for a moment. "Can we take him out?"

"You mean call up my guys? Yeah, no problem, I can take him out." Rob suddenly drove around the corner. Five minutes later, another cab pulled up to the mysterious stranger. The door swung open, they shoved him inside, and the cab sped away. Another ten minutes later, Rob pulled up in front of the hotel again, and I met him in the cab.

"So what did you do?"

"Well, we shot him three times in the stomach, stabbed him four times in the chest, wrapped his body in a duffel bag, and threw him in the alley over there. Anyway, here's your stuff. Don't take too much of it at once, you might grow a blowhole."

So the name was a tribute to Rob for taking that guy out. But I had Mike tell the whole thing about "A-B-A-C-A-B" and the "song structure" and all that crap, because, you know, you don't want the Feds on your back.