Sunday, February 26, 2017

How "These Dreams" Of An '80s Comeback ... Turned Into Heart's Worst MTV Nightmare

Yes, "What About Love," but what about Heart? Were the Sisters Wilson about to regret their thorough and complete change in musical and visual style? Their next single appeared to answer that question with a resounding cry of defiance:


This one rocketed up to #4, a height they'd never even reached in the '70s. The first few notes of the song make it sound as though it's going to be a karaoke backing track version of the Emotions' "The Best of My Love," but then a little combo synth/guitar lick kicks in out of the blue to say "Hey! All-Natural, Organic Cheesy '80s Rock Here!" The video finds Heart on a massive sound stage surrounded by billowy pink sheets and copious amounts of netting. While Nancy appears to be wearing Robert Plant's hair, Ann appears to be wearing ... Robert Smith's? Honest question: had Capitol Records outlawed normal guitars? Did they stipulate in the band's contract that they could only play those cartoonish lightning bolt guitars? Also: video being docked a few points for lack of anvils.

Of course, when they weren't rocking out, the Wilson sisters were busy spending their evenings in absurdly opulent bedrooms, folding silk scarves, trying on questionable outfits, and drinking wine, as the video for "Nothing At All" demonstrates. They also had a panther infestation on the premises. And you thought mice were a pain. I gotta tell you, when that panther follows Ann into an elevator at the end, and then several seconds go by, I have to admit I get a little bit concerned, but when the door opens, the panther has turned back into ... her precious little kitty cat! Awwww. That's right. Ann Wilson can tame even the wild beasts of the night. Nevertheless, I would have to designate this only the second-best '80s video to feature a panther (hard to top "Maneater").

It's also hard to top three consecutive top ten hits, but I guess that's what Bernie Taupin can do for you. According to Wikipedia, Taupin and "poor man's Elton John" Martin Page initially offered "These Dreams" to Stevie Nicks, who said no way Jose, but Heart jumped all over that shit. And when did Stevie Nicks ever have a solo #1 hit? That's right: never. And instead of Ann singing lead, for some reason Nancy ended up taking the reins on this one. As secondary lead singers in bands go, how does this evaluation sound: not quite Pete Townshend, but better than Keith Richards?

I don't remember hearing the other singles from Heart as a kid, but "These Dreams" instantly makes me think of sitting in the parking lot waiting for my parents to come out of the supermarket, or some other equally unpleasant scenario. The one lyric that always puzzled the crap out of me was "Every second of the night/I live another life." Being roughly six years old at the time, I remember thinking about that line in depth, almost taking it literally. "So does that mean that you die every second, and then you're reborn? So basically you would live ... let's do the math here ... like 32,400 lives in the course of one evening? How could you even do anything in such a short lifespan? The moment you're born, you'd just die again. You couldn't even get up to go to the bathroom. You'd just be dead. That's crazy!" Although it was the first time I devoted intense analysis to an enigmatic Bernie Taupin lyric, it would not be the last. Maybe if I hadn't heard the song so much at the time, I'd like it more now, but let me just say that I'm currently listening to it for blogging purposes only. Basically, every second of this song, I wish I was listening to another song.

Although Nancy Wilson herself appears to have no regrets about her signature moment of glory, or at least the audio portion of it, in general she does not sound terribly fond of this particular phase of Heart's career. Here's a lengthy excerpt from an interview she gave with The Believer in 2007:
NW: But you know, Ann and I have been through some challenging times together, especially trying to lead our band through the ’80s.

BLVR: What was tough about that time?

NW: The way that MTV was changing the landscape. Things were shifting away from the artistry of rock music—away from writing good songs—and tilting toward the commercial side. Suddenly record companies were putting a lot of pressure on bands to look a certain way, to have a certain image, to sound a certain way… and to sell a lot of records. One of the things that happened as a result was that certain bands, like Heart, who used to have their own voice were suddenly forced to start performing songs written by other people.

BLVR: Who were those other people?

NW: A whole stable of L.A. hit-makers. The labels made us and other bands record those songs because they wanted a sure thing—something that would become a radio hit. Before that point, we’d always written all our own stuff. We barely even did covers, except for some Led Zeppelin songs. But when MTV came along, things got a lot more corporate, fast. And we were not naturals to that way of doing things. Of course, we were lucky to be able to put our stamp on some songs, to really make them ours. I mean, I still loving singing “These Dreams.” Bernie Taupin wrote the words for that one.

BLVR: The guy who wrote all those songs with Elton John? Like “Tiny Dancer”?

NW: Yep. Those are his lyrics in “These Dreams.”And there are other songs we still love to perform from that era ... But the real problem of the ’80s was the hit we took in terms of artistic integrity. Though we were able to put songs we’d written on every single one of our albums during that period, the ones that the label would focus on—the ones that would get turned into the big singles—were written by other people.

BLVR: I think there’s a public perception that since you were a big rock band—since you were Heart—you could always do whatever you wanted. But it sounds like there weren’t real choices so much as things you had to do to survive.

NW: Yep. It actually makes my feet hurt right now, to think about it.

BLVR: Your feet?

NW: Oh, yeah. For the videos, we’d get stuffed into these awful outfits—tiny stiletto boots and corsets and bustiers. Then there’d be all these smoke machines. [Fakes a choking fit] And a ton of hair spray was involved! It seemed like a fun dress-up party at first, but it got kind of old when we were expected to do it all the time. Ann or I would be like, “Uh, why don’t we try something different?” And the label would say [faking a deep-throated voice]: “No, babe! That’s the image that sells, babe! Lick your lips and suck in your cheeks!” We had our own ideas about what our image should be. Softer. More like what it used to be. A kind of Led Zeppelin look. But when we’d take those ideas to the designers, they’d come back to us with clothing that looked nothing like what we’d described.

And shooting videos during that period could get pretty ridiculous. We’d do them in two or three days; and everyone would be on cocaine, especially the director; and no one would sleep; and they’d call you in for your close-up at six in the morning.

BLVR: Looking back, is there any one video that you just wish you could just strike off the map?

NW: [Singing like Cher] “If I could turn back time!” Although, there was another one—I think it was “What About Love” but I can’t remember; one of those power ballads—and for it, the director wanted me to put on a harness and jump off a tall building in a fog. He worked on me for days, trying to convince me to do it. I really didn’t want to, but finally he wore me down. I said, “If it looks stupid, we don’t use it—and I get the final say.” He was like, “OK, OK, just put on the harness!” So I totally did it. And of course, it looked stupid and felt even more stupid.

BLVR: Did it go in the video?

NW: Nope. But that kind of thing was the epitome of the ’80s. In every video, people wanted a big rock punch line—a visual hook, something no one had ever seen before. You know, like: “Act Three really has to rock, dude.”
But the thing is ... those record execs were right! That image was totally selling like nobody's business! Look, Heart, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the '80s kitchen. At any rate, I wouldn't quite say that Act Three in the video for "These Dreams" happens to particularly "rock," but neither do Act Two or Act One, as far as I can tell. And since when did music videos have "acts" anyway? While I can't discern the three acts, here is my list of the top seven most ridiculous images in this video:
  1. Nancy gently massaging a pool of water, with a creepily orange sky and papier-mache mountains behind her
  2. Two hooded members of ISIS (I assume?) holding a giant picture frame with the image of Ann Wilson in it, and then the camera just smashes right into the glass (1:27)
  3. Nancy frantically crawling on the sand, trying to escape something (those guys from ISIS?), finally catching her breath aside what appears to be a giant rook from a giant chess board (1:33)
  4. Nancy marching down a massive staircase into a hidden pool of water, being escorted by twenty hooded ISIS guys holding flashlights (2:35)
  5. Heart's two male guitarists flopping face up into that same damn pool of water ... only to eerily pop out of the water just a few moments later! (3:02)
  6. Nancy standing on a grid-patterned platform ... with hands poking through! (2:25)
  7. Nancy rising out of a hot tub ... surrounded by more hands! So many hands! (3:19)

Well, "These Dreams" probably figured it would be Heart's only #1 hit, but it turned out that, in barely just a year or so, it would not find itself ... alone.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

That Time Belinda Became A Mermaid And Sang With The Beach Boys

So you're the Beach Boys, celebrating your 25th anniversary in 1986, even though you haven't been artistically relevant since about 1971, and you're doing a network television concert special on Waikiki Beach. Who do you invite to come out and sing "Wouldn't It Be Nice" with you? Why, Belinda Carlisle, of course!

Further cementing her status as the '80s female heir to the '60s California pop sound, Belinda simultaneously brought contemporary Top 40 cred and genuine Beach Boy respect to the proceedings. What the network executives may not have counted on, however, was that Belinda had become ....

A mermaid.

From the depths of the Pacific, out she rose, the shining emerald incarnation of Neptune's daughter, dripping with the mist of warm, tropical Yuppie hotness. Or maybe just wearing a very tacky dress. Seriously, what kind of a dress is that? Did she get lost on her way to the Enchantment By The Sea ball? I mean, where's Flounder and Sebastian? Whatever. Wish I could be a part of her world, you know what I'm sayin'? Belinda can flap her fins on my beach any day.

As he escorts her out to the stage, Al Jardine asks the immortal question, "Are you ready to become a Beach Girl?" (he almost says "Beach Boy" but corrects himself). Right on cue, Belinda responds with deadpan glee, "Well I've been waiting all my life." I feel like what these two are really thinking here is, "We're not the sweet and wholesome California pop stars everyone at home thinks we are, right? But let's just keep that our little secret." Al Jardine's like, "Man, I've screwed more women and scored more drugs than the entire population of Moloka'i, but the Beach Boys are a family band, all right? Yeah, girl, you know what the deal is here." The amazing part is, Belinda really had been waiting all her life to become a Beach Girl. Her banter is simultaneously canned as hell and endearingly genuine.

While she makes her way to the front, Mike Love, dressed in typically douchey Jimmy Buffett-style white cap and open chested Hawaiian shirt, raises his hands to the air and shouts, "Welcome our own California Girl! Belinda Carlisle!"

But the moment that rippling, baroque Brian Wilson melody flows out of that swaying mermaid body, I'm in California pop heaven. (Note: although he's not too visible in this particular clip, I think they did drag Brian's partially functioning frame out there at some point.) Belinda's wild honey voice, when united with the sound of fragile genius, can't help but put a smiley smile on my face. It's like two lovers after sunset, having only met at sunrise, discovering for the first time how their intertwined bodies are creating such a natural blend of passion and longing. It's a union that was meant to be.

Listen to that smoldering desire on display. This was Belinda's secret childhood fantasy - to be on-stage with the Beach Boys, fronting them, owning them, making every word hers and hers alone! You can tell she not only loves the song, but has lived it, wrestled with it, subsumed it. My point is: this was just some low-budget anniversary special. I don't know who came on before her, or who came on after, but Belinda could have just phoned it in. Instead, she's caressing every fucking note. One might argue that she's coming on a little too strong, at the end, for instance, trying to scream instead of harmonize. She almost thinks she's singing "Blitzkrieg Bop" here. The needle's going into the red a little bit, but that's OK, she's excited.

The funny thing is, if you watch closely, you realize she had plenty of time to rehearse, because this was actually pre-recorded. Notice at about 0:29, where Belinda points her mic in Al's direction, but you can still hear her singing, "You know it's gonna make it that much better." How did she do that? Then she remembers, "Oh yeah, I'm supposed to be singing this part!" - and she quickly recovers. But here's a detail I don't understand: she screws up the lyrics. Instead of singing, "And after having spent the day together, hold each other close the whole night through," she sings "night" twice. And yet, if this had been pre-recorded, why wouldn't they have just fixed that? Was there not enough time? Jesus. And so, actually, it was impressive that Belinda remembered to screw up the lyrics on the telecast in the exact same spot she'd screwed up the lyrics on the pre-recording!

Suddenly the timpani pounds, and then Belinda goes into a little spiel: "You guys are great, it's great to be a Beach Girl, and you said 'Together for 25 years' ... and you're really the band of gold." Then she hops down onto her very own special stage, with body language that practically says, "OK, get lost Beach Boys, this is my show now," and launches into a rockin' version of "Band of Gold." Nice, Belinda, very nice - honoring the Beach Boys and promoting your latest record at the same time. Good stuff. The strange part is, although she's obviously singing to the cheesy backing track from her own recording, this time her vocals are live. You can hear her miss a couple of words when she catches her breath. The vocals fade when she pulls the mic away from her mouth. In other words, live. Why would one song be pre-recorded and the other song live? Who was running this show? But here's the shocking truth: her live performance of "Band of Gold" kicks the studio version's buttocks. Seriously. If she'd laid into it in the studio like she lays into it here, the thing might have actually gone somewhere. You can tell she knows she's in the zone by the sultry brush of the hair and the authoritative crowd point at 2:56. The assembled onlookers are either too stunned by Belinda's golden visage and vocal sublimity to move, or they're thinking, "OK, who's on next?" Even the totem pole looks confused.

Favorite YouTube comments:
Belinda must have had the first wardrobe malfunction. The designer of that dress should have had to wear it afterwards.You could tell she was getting very frustrated about it.

This is THE example of 1980s beauty, when self-reflexive young artists like Belinda Carlisle could combine many past styles and influences: vintage glamor, California golden girl, mixed with the current 198Os oversized shoulders and rich, Dyanasty hues. Also, her hair style was perfect mid-1980s, new wave/preppy blond bob - slightly grown out. Her tan, frosted lips, and totally awesome upbeat demeanor bring her to life!

Beautiful Belinda, ugly dress

...that was a LONG way to go, to try to justify a very bad pun.

i thought she was wearing a sleeping bag. still what a dream girl, hummana hummana