Sunday, July 30, 2017

I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) To Post About "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)"

Here's a sentence from 1986 written by no one ever:

"Can George Michael survive without Wham!?"

The man certainly had a lot to prove. And in order to prove it, he needed to find a heavy hitter, a big timer, a game-changer, someone who could show the world that he didn't need to coast on the back of Andrew Ridgeley. Someone who could, you know, actually sing with him.

Let me propose to you an idea for a duet. Two titans of soul music, joining forces to ascend the Church Spire of the Billboard Hot 100, to achieve a musical height together that would be unthinkable alone. But they couldn't be just any two singers. We're talking about assembling a dream duo of soul here. How about Aretha Franklin? Yeah. That's a good start. Can't go wrong with the Queen of Soul. OK, so Aretha Franklin, and ... who's the male gonna be? Let's see here. Al Green? Ray Charles? Sam Moore? Ronald Isley? Try none of the above.

How the hell did George Michael end up singing a duet with Aretha Franklin? And here's the more pertinent question: how did that duet end up being so fucking awesome?

Seriously. It would be like James Brown doing a duet with Madonna. It couldn't work. It shouldn't work.

It totally worked.

Aretha doesn't mess around. "Like ah warr-yah-that-fights ... and wins the baaaa-tuhl ... I knowwww the taste of vic-tahhry." This, my friends, this is the taste of victory. "Though I went-through-some-nights ... consuuuuuuumed by the shadows ..." She's feelin' it, she's definitely feelin' it. What have you got, Georgios?

"Mmmmmmm somehow I made it through the heartache, yes I did, I escaped/I found my way out of the darkness, I kept my faith." Not bad, Brit Boy! In case anyone doubted whether or not George truly kept his faith, Aretha assures us with a supportive "I know you did." How the hell would she know? She'd probably just met him!

Even so, the moment she met him, I'm guessing the first thing she did was take him to church, because on the chorus, Aretha and George climb up on that pew and raise their hands to the sky:
When the river was deep
I didn´t falter
When the mountain was high
I still believed
When the valley was low
It didn´t stop me
I knew you were waiting for me
Can I get an "Amen"? Favorite ad-libs:
  • 2:29: Aretha's "Whoahhhh-ahhhh!"
  • 2:54: Aretha does a melismatic "Whooo-hooo-uh-ooooh" which George follows with a gutteral "I knewwwww you were waitin'"
  • 3:04: Aretha really lets it all hang out now with an "I didn't faltaaaahhh, Lawd!" while George throws in an authoritative "When-the-val-ley-was-low"
  • 3:22: George really reaches back for "When the mountaaaaaaain was hi-iiiiigh" and I can just imagine Aretha giving him the side-eye and thinking, "What do you think you're doin' honey" because she barely reaches back for an "Ahhhhhhh! When the valley was lowwwww"
  • 3:38: George emits a simple "Yeahhh" but Aretha smothers it with a rising "Whuuuuuuhh-ahhhhh! Uhhhh-Yeah!" which starts at the very tippy tippy-toes of George's feet and ultimately lands on the moon by the time she's done with it
  • 3:44 George hits a nice groove with "Ohhhh-I sti-yillll believe" (OK, we got it, you believe), then Aretha gets masculine on his ass with a growling "You know it couldn't stop me, no," which George punctuates with a forceful "No"
  • 3:52: At this point I suspect George is just riffing on whatever the fuck Aretha seems to be doing; She shouts "Someday!" so he shouts "Someway!, then she shouts "Someplace!" so he shouts "Somehow!," which seems to have settled it. What is this, the Jets and the Sharks? Where's Tony and Maria when you need them?
"I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" managed to do what few hits have done before or since. It managed to unite eight different audiences at once: black and white, male and female, gay and straight, British and American. A record executive couldn't have drawn up more of a sure-fire hit if he'd generated some sort of "focus group hit record algorithm" in a state-of-the-art lab. Naturally, the song hit #1 in both the US and UK, making George the first artist in Britain whose first three singles all peaked at #1, which means that, just as Tom Brady's five Super Bowl rings clearly make him the greatest quarterback of all time, George Michael is clearly the greatest British singer of all time.

Of course, "Careless Whisper" and "A Different Corner" were still quasi-Wham! songs, so the video for "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" was George's first true opportunity to present a new "solo" image to the public, and while the mountain of expectations may have been high, Lord, he didn't falter. That's right, it was time for ... the leather jacket, sunglasses, earrings, and six millimeter stubble. At first he enters a dark, cavernous room with a giant screen on the wall (did every record label have one of those lying around?), and he stares up at footage of Aretha. Uh-oh. Don't tell me this was another one of those deals where the producers couldn't work out the artist's schedules and had to film their bits separately. Come on, we need some hot George on Aretha action here! A full two-and-a-half minutes go by until we finally see - yes! - George slide into the frame with Aretha. See? I knew they were waiting to show me that they'd made it to the same set at the same time.

Suddenly the screen in the background starts showing images of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrill, and I'm thinking, whoa, that's ballsy. You guys really want to be comparing yourselves to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, eh? And then the screen starts showing images of Sonny and Cher, and I'm thinking, OK, that's a little more appropriate - if anything, sort of a downward comparison. I would put George Michael and Aretha Franklin right in the middle: not as great as Marvin and Tammi, but better than Sonny and Cher. Yes, better than Sonny and Cher, even though George and Aretha only recorded one duet ever, and Sonny and Cher recorded hundreds. Look at it this way: no bad songs!

Let's turn, once again, to Professor Higglediggle for a more academic analysis:
Michael's presence of "whiteness" acts as an ethnomusicological co-opting of Franklin's authentic "otherness," which serves to situate her Africanist transnationalism merely as a reductivist codification of "soul." In a perhaps unintended parallel, Franklin's heterogeneity serves to recontextualize Michael's ambiguous phallic capital under a rubric of mediated familial cohesion. By consenting to Michael's reification, Franklin doubles as Michael's African-American "beard," while simultaneously essentializing the British homosexual white male fantasy of "being able to hold one's own" with an "American soul legend," a fantasy which can only be realized in the figmental realm of audience formation, the lyric's invocation of sacred Judeo-Christian imagery (e.g. "river," "valley,") serving to circumvent the repressive inequity of the pairing.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Late '80s Heart: Just Couldn't Leave Those Power Ballads "Alone"

Here's the deal: If you're gonna do a power ballad, you might as well go big. I want to ask a question, in all sincerity: Has anyone ever criticized a power ballad for being ... too powerful? No. No one has ever made such a preposterous statement. It would be like criticizing a swan for being too graceful, a sword for being too sharp, a Bond villain for being too dastardly. It would be absurd.

Well, what if your song's about being alone? Isn't that kind of a ... quiet emotion? Maybe to the outside observer, perhaps, but on the inside, and if you're, I dunno, 16 years old, it's big. It's an emotion so big, it took not one, but two Wilson sisters to fully capture the scope of that pain. Indeed, very few pieces of music have been able to express the sheer magnitude of despair that confronts those in the throes of solitude. Heart's 1987 power ballad, in this regard, may stand (wait for it ...)


Once again, Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly (AKA the "Like A Virgin" guys) secretly scored a ubiquitous '80s #1 hit without anyone noticing who in the hell they were. From Songfacts:
Tom Kelly and I were signed to Epic Records and we made one album under the name i-Ten. It was sort of made out to look like a group, but it was really just the two of us.

We made this album and it was co-produced by Keith Olsen and Steve Lukather. I wasn't really happy with the way it turned out, but it did have some good songs on it. One of the songs on it was 'Alone.' The album was titled Taking A Cold Look. It didn't do much although it has sort of a cult following in Europe.

The most prominent song on it was 'Alone.' Tom and I recorded it for that record and just sort of set it aside when that record didn't succeed ... I just put those songs in a drawer and forgot about them, but then Tom and I were having a good deal of success with 'Like a Virgin' and 'True Colors' and then we heard that Heart was looking for a power ballad and Tom said, 'What about 'Alone'?' I winced and said, 'Oh, I don't really want to look at that song.' He said, 'What do you mean? That's perfect.'

We took the song out and sure enough it was relatively easy to do because we liked everything about the song except the first line of the chorus. The version on i-Ten, the lyric said, 'I always fared well on my own.' Both lyrically and melodically it felt very stiff and unappealing. So I did a minor change on the lyric and it said, 'Til now, I always got by on my own,' and Tom changed the melody and gave it much more movement and almost a slightly R&B feel on the first line of the chorus. That really lifted the chorus, and then all of the sudden I liked the song again.
"I always fared well?" No, no, no. Sometimes it really is the little touches. Could you image, say, "I've been suffering recently from a lack of satisfaction"? Or "There's a lady who I believe is fairly certain that all that glitters is gold"? It's gotta scan right.

The song begins with a piano that initially seems to be alone, although on closer inspection it is paired with what may have been intended to sound like a ticking clock, but perhaps more closely resembles a squeaking shoe. Enter Ann Wilson, seemingly not bothered by the rodent in the studio:
I hear the ticking of the clock
I'm lying here, the room's pitch dark
I wonder where you are tonight
No answer on the telephone

And the night goes by so very slow
Oh I hope that it won't end though
OK, you're thinking, so it's another soft rock ballad a la "These Dreams." That's cool, but where's the rocking Heart of yore? And then BAM.

What I think separates "Alone" from its power ballad peers is that the power totally comes out of nowhere and it's like holy shit where did all that power come from? In the blink of an eye, the song goes from Howard's End to The Crow. At first it seems like Ann is merely taking a pleasant little stroll in the moonlight, but then it turns out she's accompanied by a vast and insatiable army of warlocks and sea serpents and stuff:
Till now I always got by on my own
I never really cared until I met you
And now it chills me to the bone
How do I get you alone?
How do I get you alone?
The best touch is the sudden harmonies added by (I imagine) Nancy and Ann that accompany the line "I never really cared until I met you." It's the way they split across the stereo channel with such precision, like a laser beam refracting. I just want to tell the ungrateful guy she's trying to woo, "Hey, she may look quiet and shy, but underneath, she'll come at you like a coven of feral witches - just give her a chance buddy."

Then the song slips back into sensitive ballad mode. The thing is, if you think too hard about the lyrics of "Alone," you realize that it basically describes an embarrassingly well-worn unrequited love song scenario that's not original or insightful in any way whatsoever. But if you forget about that for a second and just listen to it, you can't help but be touched in your ... you know ... that thing in your chest region?

Then there is the second chorus. Oh man, the second chorus. What's amazing about the second chorus is that the song has already revealed its "I'm going to suddenly go from serene and peaceful to explosive and fiery" gimmick and you figure there's no way it could be as effective the second time around. But it's better. At 1:56, the drummer performs this agonizingly slow, monstrously heavy drum fill that sounds like it's coming from Ringo's evil fairy stepmother. In the first chorus, Ann started singing right off the bat, but this time, there are a couple of extra bars that are merely instrumental, and it creates this unprecedented sense of anticipation. "Where's Ann? Why isn't she singing? Is she hurt? Is she ... dead?" Oh she's alive all right. Here is my best rendering of her soul-piercing battle cry:


And then she sings the chorus. Sit the fuck down.

The rest of the song just sort of rides the inertia from that second chorus all the way to the denouement, although Ann finds one last chance to shine around 3:09 with two jet engine-level cries of "Uh-lowwwwwwwwww-wn-uh!" You can practically smell the burnt fuel residue emanating from her lungs.

So, the video. It begins with some creative staging, as Nancy sits in the foreground playing a grand piano, her hair apparently having been dyed in apricot juice, while Ann, dressed in funereal black, leans on a balcony in the distance. At 0:30 we get a nice close-up of her mascara-smothered visage, but then ten seconds later we get another close-up, and suddenly she's wearing a veil. She's a widow! Dude! She's literally grieving over the death of her fleeting love for some random superficial crush.
But what about the chorus? Something crazy's gotta happen at the chorus, right? Well how about the piano exploding? Oh, and now the rest of the band is on stage and there's an audience with flashing lights and blah blah blah, but honestly: how hard do you have to be playing your '80s power ballad to make your piano explode? Do you think the insurance covered that?

Then at 1:38, the Wilson sisters find themselves in the world's most purple-saturated room. Seriously, what was the conversation like on that set? "Not enough purple! Bob, I wanna see purple bleeding out of my eyeballs!" Where's Barney and Grimace when you need them? And then, then, at 1:54, we have what might very well be the best use of a horse in an '80s music video, full stop. Nancy Wilson, for no apparent reason, is suddenly riding a fucking horse. Hi-Ho Silver, girl, that's what I say. Hi-Ho Silver.

Two final observations: 1) By the end of the video, in half the close-ups of Ann, she's wearing the veil, and in the other half, she's not. Was this a gaffe? Intentional? What does it mean? 2) I love the close-up of Nancy at 3:22 - it's like her post-power ballad sexy satisfaction face. You did it, Heart. You shagged that power ballad harder and longer than anyone had ever shagged a power ballad before. Take a well-deserved nap.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

That Time Belinda Met Sammy Davis, Jr. (Plus: That Time Belinda Dated ... Dave Mustaine?)

Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew, cover it with chocolate and a miracle or two? Belinda Carlisle, obviously. You don't even need me to answer that. But who can also take an unexpected compliment from Sammy Davis, Jr.?

Our erstwhile Go-Go certainly was no stranger to surreal, unexpected celebrity encounters: who can forget that awards show with Marvin Gaye, that random smooch from David Lee Roth ... hell, we could even go all the way back to Darby Crash and Pat Smear while we're at it. But there was something about the combined effect of a new Hollywood royalty husband and a sustained cocaine hiatus that managed to generate a heightened amount of extra-bizarre Belinda celebrity juxtapositions. While she never met her husband's father, she certainly spent plenty of time with Morgan's mother (and James Mason's ex-wife), Pamela Mason, who, judging by Belinda's description at least, must have been quite the character. From Lips Unsealed:
By the time I met her, she was more famous as a hostess than anything else. She had parties almost every night, which was how Morgan had grown up. I came in toward the tail end of that run and met scads of amazing people. Over the years, I met George Burns (he was charming), Stewart Granger (boisterous and handsome), Dick Van Dyke (I talked to him about Mary Poppins, whose songs I sang as a little girl), Glenn Ford (a lovely man), Gregory Peck (wonderful), Milton Berle, Robert Wagner, Anthony Perkins, Berry Berenson, and Walter Matthau, who was always seated next to me at dinners. Every time I saw that I was next to him, I thought, Oh God, not him again. He was so cranky that making conversation was a chore. But I was young, naive, and limited in what I had to say, and now I realize how lucky I was to have known him.
Walter Matthau, cranky? In real life? I cannot believe it. I ... just ... cannot believe it. "Oh God, not him again." No kidding. That would be awkward. "Hey, soooo ... Mr. Matthau, have you heard the new Pet Shop Boys album?" "There hasn't been a great band leader since the day Glenn Miller died. Who the hell are you? Pass me the Polident!" This whole description of these dinners seems like pure invention. Can you picture a young Belinda Carlisle in the same room as A) George Burns; B) Milton Berle; C) Gregory Peck; D) More than one of them at the same time?

And yet, the most mind-melting encounter of all appears to have been the time Belinda claims she met the only one-eyed black Jewish member of the Rat Pack in a Hollywood restaurant:
"I went up to him and drooled all over him in Chasen's. It was a few years before he died. He knew everything about me and the Go-Go's. On his way out, he came up to my table, snapped his fingers, looked at me and said, 'Baby, you're a vision of nowness.' I just about died. That was the best line I'd ever had from anybody!"

The best line - from anybody! And God knows she must have gotten plenty of lines. Unfortunately, I don't even get enough lines to bother to rank them. Apparently this encounter changed her life, as she still talks about it to this day, and even named the last chapter of Lips Unsealed "Vision of Nowness." Belinda, has it occurred to you that maybe Sammy said that to all the girls?

And now, from the opposite side of the musical spectrum, a story that's a little too good to be true - meaning it probably isn't. But don't let that stop you from repeating it. Allow me to quote a passage from Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine's Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir:
At one point in the mid 1980s, I was set up on a date with Belinda Carlisle, the former lead singer of an almost freakishly popular girl band called the Go-Go's and at that time a solo artist. In this case, I was more than happy to suspend my feelings about pop and metal making strange bedfellows. Belinda was gorgeous, and she was, at the time, ubiquitous (as well as single). I have no idea if she was a fan of Megadeth or of heavy metal in general. I know only that through an intermediary I was to meet her and we were to embark on an honest-to-goodness "date." Belinda came to the Music Grinder one day while we were starting to mix So Far, So Good ... So What! Unfortunately, her timing could have been better. Moments before she arrived, I had finished snorting a balloon of heroin. As she knocked at the door I chucked the empty balloon behind a dresser and lit up a joint - better the sweet smell of weed than the acrid odor of smack. Belinda walked in, looking positively radiant - and sober, I should add - and smiled.

"Hello," she said.

I tried to choke back a lungful of smoke, but to no avail.

"Whoo-huh!" I barked, a cloud of gray filling the air.

Belinda turned on her heel and walked right back out of the room. And that was the end of that particular love story. It was, I guess, doomed from the very beginning.
I think I have to cry foul on this one - either that, or Mustaine's memory is a little hazy (and based on the content of the passage, I don't find that too hard to believe). Belinda had already met Morgan before she ever went solo, and before she got (temporarily) sober. In other words, by the time her solo career started, she was already off the market. Peace sells ... but who's buying this anecdote?