Thursday, September 24, 2015

You Can't Hurry Love, But You Can Cover It Very, Very Faithfully AKA Phil And Don's Ugly Altercation In An Indianapolis Strip Club

By 1982, everyone from Iggy Pop and David Bowie ("Lust For Life"), The Clash ("Hitsville UK"), The Jam ("Town Called Malice"), and Hall & Oates ("Maneater") had nicked something or other from the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" (and with "Tell Her About It," Billy Joel was about to do the same). I guess Phil Collins sat back, watched it all go down, and decided, "Hell, if everyone's going to rip off 'You Can't Hurry Love,' somebody ought to just cover the damn thing outright."

Wait, that guy? Doing Motown? Phil Collins' disturbingly intense passion for '60s American R&B is no secret by now, but in 1982, it was, shall we say, not a musical style for which he was known. It would have been like Lionel Richie covering Jefferson Airplane. It shouldn't have worked. Many would say it didn't. But you won't find me among the many, because you know what? This is a cover version I can get behind.

Remember when I said that the problem with his cover of "Tomorrow Never Knows" was that it altered too much of the original without really re-inventing it enough? Well, Phil avoided that pitfall with "You Can't Hurry Love." I guess he figured he couldn't reinvent it, so instead he decided to be as faithful to the original as humanly possible. Here's his explanation, from Wikipedia:
The idea of doing 'Can't Hurry Love' was to see if Hugh Padgham and I could duplicate that Sixties sound. It's very difficult today because most recording facilities are so much more sophisticated than they were back then. It's therefore hard to make the drums sound as rough as they did on the original. That's what we were going after, a remake, not an interpretation, but a remake.
A remake! You got that? Don't dare call it an interpretation. "I want to smell the fumes of the Detroit auto plant in that bass. I want to taste the racial oppression in that tambourine." As far as precise recreations of highly era-specific sounds go, Lenny Kravitz is no slouch himself, but the champ would have to be Todd Rundgren and his album Faithful, in which the sonic obsessive reproduces all his favorite songs from 1966 and 1967, including disturbingly accurate renditions of "Strawberry Fields Forever," Dylan's "Most Likely You Go Your Way," Hendrix's "If 6 Was 9," and especially "Good Vibrations," where he regenerates every Beach Boy harmony and theremin solo down to the very last overdub. But Phil's version of "You Can't Hurry Love" is at least ... I don't know ... 85% of the way there?

Often a cover that's so similar to the original isn't worth listening to in its own right, but Phil put something tangy in the batter that makes this stand up as more than just a curiosity. His version has a certain snap to it, an appealing zip. If his goal was to "duplicate that Sixties sound," I think he failed - but he must have known he would fail. Despite Motown's recording studio being "state of the art" in 1966, most of the label's recordings from that era have a certain amount of unintended distortion and "fuzz" that would have been hard to reproduce even five years later, let alone fifteen. Just trying to record the song without consciously making it sound "80s" wouldn't have been enough. Phil would have needed to drag the tape through a gravel pit or something, like how comedy editors make a freshly-shot piece of film look "old." Everything sounds too clear, too pristine. But if it doesn't sound "exactly" like the original, I also must say that it doesn't sound very "80s" either, and with Phil Collins, that is really saying something. I don't remember hearing this cover as a child, and when I heard it on the radio in the '90s, I actually assumed it had been a much more recent recording! I thought it was post-superstar Phil indulging in Motown nostalgia, but it turns out it was pre-superstar Phil indulging in Motown nostalgia.

Of course, the perceptive listener will realize that as true to the original as this version is, it differs from the original in a number of ways, and I know, because I just played them back to back. First of all, his version is in a different key. Second, he adds a classy string section, which swoops and zig-zags nimbly in the background, whereas the original actually had no string section at all (although it might feel like it did). This could have been flirting with disaster, but I think it's a nice touch. Third, most shockingly, whereas the original featured a brass section, Phil's version has no horns at all. None! I mean, here's a song where the horns might have actually belonged. Phil piled on the horns every chance he got. What could have possibly led to this uncharacteristic moment of restraint?

Oh, and fourth, Phil loved this song so much that apparently he never bothered to learn what the real lyrics were. That's right. He spent hours and hours trying to painstakingly recreate every nuance from the original arrangement, but he couldn't take five minutes to go hunt down the actual lyrics. It's like he did the vocals in one take, and stuck with the same misheard verbiage he'd been using for years while singing along in the car. Whereas Diana Ross sings "I need to find, find someone to call mine," Phil sings, "I need to find time for someone to call mine." Come on Phil. Time is the one thing that the singer has plenty of. Don't you even know what this song's about? And whereas Diana sings "You got to trust, give it time/No matter how long it takes," Phil sings, "Just trust in the good time/No matter how long it takes." This was the easiest part of the job, Phil.

Finally, as if one video of Phil pretending to be a one-man band wasn't enough ("I Missed Again"), here's another. You'd think that, since they were all the same person, they could have timed their choreography a little more skillfully, but I guess not. Also, you can tell one of the back-up singers fancies himself a real rebel, because he's wearing sunglasses.

At any rate, Phil's charming story about paying affectionate homage to a cherished genre of his youth sounds nice, but his true motives for recording a cover of "You Can't Hurry Love" were a little less admirable. Many rock fans know the story behind Elvis Costello's Get Happy!! From Wikipedia:
During the American concert tour for Armed Forces in April 1979, Costello engaged in a drunken argument with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett in a Columbus, Ohio, Holiday Inn hotel bar, during which he referred to James Brown as a "jive-arsed nigger," then upped the ante by pronouncing Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger." Costello apologized at a New York City press conference a few days later, claiming that he had been drunk and had been attempting to be obnoxious to bring the conversation to a swift conclusion, not anticipating that Bramlett would bring his comments to the press.
And so legend has it that Costello recorded Get Happy!!, an album steeped in the sounds of '60s R&B, in order to prove that he wasn't a racist. Although barely publicized at the time, Phil Collins fell into an eerily similar trap just a year or two later. From In The Air Tonight:
We were in Indianapolis on the Abacab tour. I had some time to kill, so after "riding the white horse," if you know what I mean, I headed over to a strip club. I was tripping like I'd never been tripping before, and in the mood for some tasty Midwestern flesh. I sat down at the bar and started counting out my dollar bills. Suddenly Don Henley walked in. That smarmy fucker. He waved hello and immediately wandered over.

"Hey, Phil! Didn't know you were in town!"

'Don, nice to see you." I really wasn't in the mood and was hoping to keep it brief. But Mr. Deadhead Sticker On A Cadillac wasn't taking the hint.

"You wanna go golfing tomorrow? There's some great links out by the Speedway."

"Thanks, but I got plans." Betty Lou was really doing her thing on stage, sporting a tie-dyed halter top and a lavender g-string. The Miracles' "Shop Around" came on the stereo system.

"Oh man!" Don slapped my arm in excitement. "Smokey Robinson! God, I love Motown, don't you Phil?"

The former Eagle and current douchebag was starting to get on my nerves. I just wanted him to shut his yapper and let me enjoy the show.

"No, I hate Motown."

He reared back in shock. "Hate Motown? Nobody hates Motown. Phil, you love Motown, I know you do."

"It's all crap."

"You don't mean that. You can't mean that Phil. What about Marvin Gaye?"

"Marvin Gaye was an uppity, smelly-assed n****r."

"Oh really?" Don looked as though I'd insulted his sister.

"Yeah! And Tammi Terrell was a skanky, thugged-up crackwhore n*****r bitch!"

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah! And Stevie Wonder was a talentless, braille-reading, harmonica-sucking cornrow-kneading coon!!"

The next morning, Don told all his buddies at the golf club what I said. When they called me to tell me I was a racist pig, I tried to explain that, you know, I was high on horse tranquilizer and I was just trying to get Don to leave me alone and let me enjoy the God damn pole dancing. But I saw that a more meaningful gesture was needed. So I did that cover of the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love." Turned out pretty well, I have to say.


Editor's Note: In an effort to take his professional/employment life a little more seriously, Little Earl has decided that he may not continue to post on Cosmic American Blog with the same level of frequency he has demonstrated in the past. One post every two weeks? One post every month? Shorter posts in general? Little Earl cannot say. But, contrary to popular belief, the blog and its ongoing series "Little Earl Loves The Music Of The '80s" may be highly enjoyable, but it is not particularly financially lucrative. If, one fine day, he finds himself in a more stable professional situation, he may return to his former prolificacy.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

But What Has "What Have You Done For Me Lately" Done For Me Lately?

So, after the sonic mouthwash that was Dream Street, Janet Jackson decided to rebel against her family - in two ways. One of those ways turned out to be a bad idea, and the other one of those ways turned out to be a great idea.

The bad idea was marrying James DeBarge - you know, of the DeBarges, AKA that Motown singing family that was even more fucked up than the Jacksons were? Those Jacksons certainly tried to warn her, stating words, I'm sure, to the effect of "That boy is just no good!" But did she listen? Sometimes a Jackson just has to find things out the hard way. The marriage apparently lasted a year before she managed to get it annulled.

The great idea was firing her father as manager and producer, instead hiring John McClain as her new manager (A&M Records' senior vice president of artists and repertoire, not, sadly, the protagonist of Die Hard), and hiring a Minneapolis duo named Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as her new producers. Personally, I have a hard time taking anyone who goes by the name of "Jimmy Jam" too seriously, but when the music's this good, he can call himself whatever the hell he wants to.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were originally part of the Prince entourage as members of The Time. According to AMG, although the Time did go on tour and play songs live as their own unit, in the studio, Prince wrote and played almost all of The Time's material himself. Well you know what, Prince? You just weren't Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis' R&B superstar, OK?

So Janet needed producers, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis needed a singer. They didn't need a great singer, and while I would not be the first to suggest that Janet does not have the most powerful set of pipes, she's got a certain girlish passion that's effective and distinctive. It's funny, years and years passed before I stopped and thought one day, "You know, Janet Jackson's voice is kind of ... weak!" Because the way she's used it, it's rarely seemed like a shortcoming. Although it sure helps to pick the right collaborators, is all I'm sayin'. Wikipedia calls the duo's sound "a fusion of rhythm and blues, rap vocals, funk, disco and synthesized percussion." That's not a genre name. Let's just call it ... Minneapolis Funk. Ooh yeah! I guess Jam and Lewis weren't too concerned about fame and glory, because they could have easily put their own names on the Control record sleeve. In the AMG review from the old print edition, William Ruhlmann writes, "... the album is primarily a production showcase; it may be tailored to Janet's persona, but the real artists are Jam and Lewis."

Well, whoever was in charge picked a great lead-off single. According to Wikipedia, the song was "originally penned for one of Jam and Lewis's own records. Jam remembered, 'She was sitting outside in the lounge and said, "Man, that's a funky track. Who's that for?" And we said, "It's for you", and she said, '"Oh, cool."'" So not only were they good producers, they were also good liars! Well, it turns out one positive thing did come out of that ill-advised DeBarge marriage, because the three of them re-wrote the lyrics of that Jam & Lewis demo to express Janet's feelings on the matter. Merely speaking from her own personal experience, she managed to speak for millions of fed up girlfriends everywhere.

In the annals of great spoken word openings, the intro for "What Have You Done For Me Lately" must rank at or near the very peak. In its pitch-perfect recreation of black female barbershop banter, it has never been equaled:
Friend: What's up girl?
Janet: He stood me up again.
Friend: Again?
Janet: Mmm-Hmm.
Friend: Well what's up with this guy? Do you really like him that much?
Janet: Yes honey, I love him. He is fine. He does a lot of nice things for me.
Friend: I know he used to do nice stuff for you, but what has he done for you laaaaate-leeeeee?
Yes, Janet, what has he done for you laaaaaate-leeeee? See, this is the exact element that was missing from Janet's first two albums: a sense of spontaneity. She didn't have to come up with a little twenty second intro, but she went the extra mile and did. It reflected an element of risk - precisely what was absent under Daddy's discretion. Here, Janet may have been drawing the ire of the presumably honorable boyfriends of the world, but the long-suffering girlfriends of the world must have gleefully nodded their heads in sympathy. In other words, "What Have You Done For Me Lately," like almost all the singles from Control, has the quality that I believe Greek philosopher Aristotle once defined in Poetics as "tude."

And so, the world was introduced to Janet 2.0. The verses almost have a rap feeling, with Janet being joined by a male voice (either Jam's or Lewis', I'm not sure which) mixed quietly in the background, but it's key - key - because it makes Janet's accusations sound like they have some serious authority behind them. Like, "Hey, if you think I'm making this shit up about you, just tell it to my armed bodyguard right here":
Used to be a time when you would pamper me
Used to brag about it all the time
Your friends seem to think that you're so peachy keen
But my friends say neglect is on your mind
Who's right?

What have you done for me lately?
Ooh ooh ooh yeah
What have you done for me lately?
Ooh ooh ooh yeah

Used to go to dinner almost every night
Dancin' 'til I thought I'd lose my breath
Now it seems your dancing feet are always on my couch
Good thing I cook or else we'd starve to death
Ain't that a shame?
On paper, the non-rhyming chorus looks lazy, but in practice, it feels extra snappy, like "I'm so right-on about what a crappy boyfriend you are (and we both know it) that I don't even need to say anything else other than 'ooh ooh ooh yeah.'" Then suddenly there's a super-sparkly bridge with a super-sparkly melody, hinting at a kinder side to Janet, as if to say, "See, I can be a really nice girl when I'm actually being treated fairly. But you're not ever going to see that girl again unless you get your act together Mister":
I never ask for more than I deserve
You know it's the truth
You seem to think you're God's gift to this earth
I'm tellin' you no way
Right around 2:53 there's a hot keyboard solo, accompanied by some choice Janet ad-libs ("Get with it!"; "Let me know"), which, after some rapid-fire beat slams at 3:09, morphs into some jazzy piano tinkling straight out of "Holiday," peppered with a fetching series of "dee-dee-doos" from Janet, who brings it all to an unexpectedly positive ending with the exclamation, "This is wild, I swear!" For someone bitching out her ex-husband, she sure sounds like she's having a pretty good time.

The good times in the studio must have carried over to the video, likely the first Janet Jackson clip most people ever saw, where Janet's talented choreographer, a certain Miss Paula Abdul, plays the role of Janet's concerned friend, although I doubt it was Paula's voice on the actual recording. The action takes place in what appears to be a pitifully underfunded diner, where key appliances such as cash registers and jukeboxes had to be painted into the walls (and all the customers seem to be afflicted with a terrible shoulder-shimmying condition). Don't miss the disgruntled diner chef, who at 2:47 looks up from the counter with a facial expression which all but says, "Damn kids, always dancing in my diner!"

Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Last Christmas": You Don't Want To Know What's In George Michael's Stocking

There's a very short list of Christmas songs that don't make me dry heave: Elvis' "Blue Christmas," Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," Elton John's "Step Into Christmas," Weird Al's "Christmas At Ground Zero" ... that might be about it. Well, I'm feeling generous, so let's make room for "Last Christmas." Why does Wham!'s contribution to this highly suspect genre make the cut? You could say that, in the spirit of irritatingly catchy Christmas songs, the chorus repeats and repeats and refuses to go away, sort of like Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogies. The chord progression is your standard '50s-style melody that's been used a thousand times before; according to Wikipedia, the publishers of Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" actually sued for plagiarism, and although I can arguably see the resemblance, that's almost like George Lucas suing J.K. Rowling for using a young male protagonist as the centerpiece of a story about good vs. evil (the case was eventually settled out of court). No, I think "Last Christmas" avoids my Christmas music wrath because instead of being a facile celebration of WASPy good tidings, it's actually a bitter break-up song. This is one depressing Christmas single:
Last Christmas I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away
This year to save me from tears
I'll give it to someone special

Once bitten and twice shy
I keep my distance but you still catch my eye
Tell me baby do you recognize me?
Well it's been a year, it doesn't surprise me

(Happy Christmas) I wrapped it up and sent it
With a note saying "I love you," I meant it
Now I know what a fool I've been
But if you kissed me now I know you'd fool me again
In other words, the guy got his heart broken ... on Christmas! That is fucked .... up. Instead of churning out the standard "peace and goodwill" holiday cheer, George Michael wrote about the shittiest Christmas ever, and how he trusted that girl (or guy?), and how once upon a time he believed in snowflakes and candy canes and little green elves, but now he knows that the world is a cold and heartless place, and our lives are all nasty, brutish, and short, and that he's never going to have faith in the human race again. Now this is a Christmas song I can get behind. Plus, as with most Wham! songs, he's been very creative with the vocal overdubs, layering a soft, fluttery army of Georges behind a characteristically soulful lead.

It seemed like a surefire Christmas #1 (which in the UK is actually a thing), but then Bob Geldof and Midge Ure had to go and release their damn "Do They Know It's Christmas" guiltfest and spoil Wham!'s holiday cheer. Then again, George Michael also sang on "Do they Know It's Christmas," so in a sense, he spoiled himself.

The video is your one and only chance to see George Michael in a parka. Wham! sure seemed to get around; this time they absconded to Switzerland for a weekend of skiing and gondola riding. Wikipedia helpfully explains the plot of secret romantic intrigue:
It becomes clear early on that the character of Ridgeley's girlfriend (played by model Kathy Hill) was previously in a relationship with Michael, and that the song is aimed at her... There is a brief flashback to "Last Christmas" showing Michael's character presenting her with a jewelled brooch. In the present time, Ridgeley is wearing the brooch, suggesting that the girl gave the same gift to her new love after her and Michael parted ways. On numerous occasions Michael presents a thoughtful, confused expression, suggesting his conflicting emotions... Her seeming indifference to Ridgeley's open displays of affection makes the viewer wonder if Ridgeley's heart is the next to be broken. However, at the end of the video everyone leaves properly "paired off," so perhaps it's being suggested that Michael has worked out his conflicts and confusion and now realizes he is after all with the right girl.
Actually, I think I know what happened here: she found out that he's not exactly that "kind of guy." Last Christmas, he gave her a Barbra Streisand album and a book of pastry recipes, and she started getting a little suspicious. And doesn't he look a little too excited about decorating the Christmas tree? And maybe all those mountain peaks are phallic symbols? In his trailblazing analysis, Prof. Higglediggle expands upon this theme:
Perhaps Wham!'s most polymorphous gesture of moral subterfuge, "Last Christmas," regarded in its day as a lightweight holiday novelty, was a reified attack on the Judeo-Christian social order. Opening a neologistic dialectic on this most sacred of religious holidays, Michael situated his deviant lifestyle as an invocation for ritual play, turning the usual ode to the Lord and Savior into veiled swipe at homosocial bonding. "Last Christmas" wrestles with the holy firmament beneath the British (mono)theistic ethos, normalizing the sinful and banishing the conventional. One could argue, although I hesitate to do so, that for a homosexual to pen a musical work intended as a tribute to the celebration of the birth of the Son of God was a new form of codified blasphemy, rivaling the impact, in the European tradition, only of Caravaggio's Saint Matthew and the Angel or Bernini's The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. However, one would have to recontextualize the presence of a post-Marxist interpretive framework, which may simply not be present here.