Friday, November 27, 2015

Belinda Feels The Payne AKA "Band Of Gold" ... On Solid Gold?

Prepare to feel the payne - the Freda Payne.

In 1970, Freda Payne hit #3 in the US and #1 in the UK with "Band Of Gold," one of the more unusual and enigmatic soul hits in an era full of unusual and enigmatic soul hits. Frankly, when I first heard "Band Of Gold" on oldies radio, I thought it was the Jackson 5. Now why would a ten-year-old Michael Jackson be singing about his wedding night? Didn't make any sense. Didn't. Make. Any. Sense. Later I learned that it was actually sung by an adult female. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

For years I thought of Payne as a one-hit wonder, but last year, while exploring '70s soul, I discovered that she actually had a couple of other Top 40 hits (including Vietnam protest single "Bring The Boys Home") as well as several R&B hits, and was one of the key artists on Invictus Records, the label begun by the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team after they finally got tired of being used and abused by Berry Gordy at Motown. So, I'm sorry Freda for not giving you your due. You weren't ten-year-old Michael Jackson and you weren't a one-hit wonder. But your biggest hit has still been misunderstood in a thousand and one ways. Let's take a look, shall we?
Now that you're gone
All that's left is a band of gold
All that's left of the dreams I hold
Is a band of gold
And the memories of what love could be
If you were still here with me

You took me from the shelter of my mother
I had never known or loved any other
We kissed after taking vows
But that night on our honeymoon
We stayed in separate rooms

I wait
In the darkness of my lonely room
Filled with sadness, filled with gloom
Hoping soon
That you'll walk back through that door
And love me like you tried before
OK, sounds simple enough to me. They went through the ceremony, groom changed his mind, didn't even take back the ring, hey, it happens. But everyone and their mother has an opinion about why, exactly, the couple "stayed in separate rooms." AMG's Steve Huey and Stephen Thomas Erlewine are absolutely convinced the song is about male impotence, but according to Wikipedia, the song has a huge gay following. Co-writer Ron Dunbar: "They said this song is a smash in the gay community. And I said, gay community? They said, yeah man, it's a smash. And I says, why is it that? And they said, well it's what the lyrics are saying. She said the guy couldn't make love to her so they figured he had to be gay!"

I think I know what happened. Maybe he was a serial killer ... in disguise. He suddenly spotted the FBI in the lobby, and had to flee. At any rate, nobody gets married like this anymore - at least not in most states; couples usually live together long before they even bother to have a ceremony. What would the modern equivalent be? "Now that you're gone/All that's left is a ... gift registry"?

Fast-forward to 1986. Belinda Carlisle needs material for a solo album. Somebody at the studio has a bright idea: why write new stuff when she can just ... cover an oldie? Listen Belinda, I love ya, but ... I don't know about this one. While Freda Payne sounds like she's trying to gently pick up the shattered remnants of her soul, Belinda sounds like she just got back from a Girl Scout meeting. And what's with the country accent? "Bay-yay-and of gold"? The backing track sure doesn't help. Q: What's worse than an electric sitar? A: A synthesized electric sitar. A concentrated dose of gratuitous echo arguably livens things up in the middle, but ultimately it just feels like this should be playing over the credits of an anime special. Suffice to say, it was a Grade-A flop-o-rama.

Comically enough, Belinda's handlers were not the only production team who mistakenly thought they smelled a mid-80's smash in this R&B staple: Jim Steinman convinced Bonnie Tyler to record a version the same year as Belinda's - which also, despite a slew of "dance remixes," went nowhere. Why did all these people suddenly think the sorrow-laden "Band of Gold" was destined to be a Hi-NRG '80s club hit? Despite their differing vocal styles, Bonnie's version sounds just as worthy of a Saturday morning anime's end credits as Belinda's.

Ah, but Belinda had one trick in her arsenal that the Welsh Wonder lacked: the stamp of approval from ... Freda Payne herself. I guess by 1986, Payne didn't have too much else going on. Why not crash the little white chick's revival of your song? Not only did Freda appear on Belinda's "dance remix" (a version so rare it's not even on YouTube!), she actually swallowed her pride and performed alongside Belinda on television. That's right, there could be only one show which truly deserved the honor of featuring a song titled "Band of Gold": Solid Gold.

Here we are, in the waning days of that broadcasting titan, 1986, and we know it's the waning days because ... the vocals are live? Solid Gold without the blatant lip-syncing? Dear God. What had the '80s come to? (Either that, or the dance remix features completely different vocals from the album version.) The ever-chipper Marilyn McCoo states, "When you put together two different performers like Belinda Carlisle and Freda Payne, the result is bound to be fascinating." You know what's she's really thinking to herself right there: "Bound to be 'fascinating' all right - fascinatingly shittt-tayyy.'" She goes on to say, "In this case, the result is a Top 10 dance record which will soon be released on the pop charts." Looks like we caught Ms. McCoo in a little white lie, since the song only peaked at #26 on the dance chart. Solid Gold, it's OK. You don't need a hit record as an excuse to let Freda Payne and Belinda Carlisle team up on your show.

And what a team they are! Belinda looks like she just attended the inaugural ball for her Republican governor husband, while Freda looks like she just got back from a wedding reception at Dr. Frank N. Furter's. The irony is ... I like this performance more than the recorded version! I guess Belinda needed the big stage and the bright lights to truly find the passion - either that, or the presence of the original singer right in front of her fucking face. "Uh-oh, I can't just phone it in this time." Check out these two at 2:22 ("Don't you know that I wait!"). They are tearing it up.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Back In The High Life: Could've Aimed A Little Higher, Steve

By 1986, it seems like the man who'd spent his entire career aspiring to be the next Ray Charles was now aspiring to be the next ... Phil Collins? Steve Winwood caught one whiff of "Easy Lover" and "Sussudio" and said, "Hot damn, that's it! I need to do this R&B thing, but ... with processed horns, and pseudo-exotic percussion! You know, make it really white-sounding!" Phil showed him the light, and there was no going back to the dark ages. Also, according the album cover, Winwood apparently found a second career as a model in cologne ads.

Nothing screams passion like gospel music, and nothing screams watered-down mid-'80s Yuppie Rock passion like "Higher Love," which rose higher and higher on the charts until it hit #1 in the summer of '86. As a composition, it's as melodically sound as a '60s soul classic, but I feel like the production does justice to the composition in the same sense that Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby does justice to The Great Gatsby. Question: why would you bring in a horn section only to make it sound like a cheap synthesizer? Only God and Steve Winwood would know. Most hilariously "soulful" touch: the moment at 3:09 where the black backing vocalists (including Chaka Khan!) turn "bring" into "braaaang." Oh, it's already been brought-en.

I can think of finer Steve Winwood songs than "The Finer Things," but did they reach #8 and feature James Ingram and Dan Hartman (of "I Can Dream About You" fame) on backing vocals? No, they did not. In Phil Collins/Genesis terms, this one's more of a "No Reply At All" than a "Misunderstanding," but, to paraphrase another Winwood song, I can roll with it.

Then there's "Back In The High Life Again," otherwise known as that song whose opening I always hear on the radio and I'll start thinking, "Awesome! Tom Petty's 'Free Fallin''! Oh, wait, nope, it's that crappy Steve Winwood song." To give credit where credit is due, he did whip out the mandolin five years prior to "Losing My Religion. " But just when you thought Winwood couldn't get more WASPy and non-threatening, he brings in James Taylor to sing backing vocals. ZZZZZZ. The video looks like a coffee commercial. I think I'll need the coffee too.