Sunday, September 24, 2017

Not If I Get The Rhythm First

And you thought being addicted to love was bad. How would you like to be assaulted in the middle of the night by the rhythm?:
At night
When you turn off all the lights
There's no place that you can hide
No no
The rhythm is gonna get'cha

In bed
Throw the covers on your head
And pretend like you are dead
But I know it
The rhythm is gonna get'cha
Oh fuck me. Not even safe in my own bed? What if I hire a bodyguard? How about if I learn karate? I mean, there's got to be some way to keep the rhythm from getting me, right? Maybe the rhythm would be open to a little negotiation perhaps, a cash settlement, one half of my stamp collection? Can I at least "stall" the rhythm with a game of chess like in The Seventh Seal? Does it have to truly, genuinely "get" me?

With "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You," Gloria Estefan & the Machine Sound Machine, as they were now being billed, managed to do what no one would have thought possible: they created a "Conga" sequel that was not obviously worse and was not a carbon copy. It still sizzled with that spicy Latin flavor, but it carried a touch more ... menace this time.

As the track commences, the first thing to "get" the listener isn't actually the rhythm, but a tribal warlord chanting "oh-ey oh-ey," echoed by his lusty minions, and one massive, solitary BOOM on a drum so large and so deep it sounds like the Mariana Trench farting. Other little percussive noises quickly pop up from all directions, congas and shakers and all sorts of crazy knick-knacks, while a third group of warriors from (I assume?) a neighboring tribe enter with their own ominous chant of "Yah-ey-oh." Just when all these disparate elements seem to be settling into a groove, there's a giant chord blast from Satan's keyboard, suddenly all the villagers scatter, and we get a brief interlude from what appears to be ... the aluminum cans in your recycling bin? After eight bars, the world's most piercing horn section enters - horns so sharp they could cut Julio Iglesias's balls in half.

Gloria finally calms the cannibals down with her perky entrance, but on the chorus, the Wild Things briefly return: she's doubled up on her third "rhythm is gonna get you" by what sounds like Sloth from The Goonies, then the warlords chime in with a panther-esque "Whoo!" followed by a potent "BLOMP!" from the keyboard of Hades. I tell you what's gonna "get'cha" all right: the Miami Sound Machine's endless arsenal of state-of-the-art studio gimmicks! During the outro, a fourth pack of natives shows up with a comparably less threatening, but seemingly more schoolyardish, chant of "na-na na-na-na na-na," and then everyone sort of gathers around the bonfire and sings their bit before one last comical horn riff grinds the heathen ceremony to a sweaty halt.

For the video, the Machine From Miami That Emits Sound seems to have picked up on the Amazonian rain forest vibe of the song, as Gloria is decked out in full ceremonial face paint a la Captain Willard at the end of Apocalypse Now. And her arms are covered in ... hay? When Gloria Estefan's arms are covered in hay, you know she means business. Meanwhile the rest of the band, including a suddenly more civilized and hay-less Gloria, perform onstage at Miami's most glamorous tiki lounge. At 1:15, she seems to spot her own Surfer Lance in the crowd? One final question: just how many keytarists can one band have? A-ha! Maybe that's the secret to keeping the rhythm from getting you! One must brandish the sacred keytar.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Stevie Nicks Goes Aerobic Rock: Stand Back And Make Some Room On The Dance Floor

"Humble" is not the first adjective that comes to mind when one thinks of Stevie Nicks, but after the release of Bella Donna, it would have been difficult to accuse her of sounding conceited if she had said to herself, "Who the hell needs Fleetwood Mac?" Her solo debut, commercially at least, ended up turning Stevie Nicks into the next Madonna. Or maybe the first Madonna. Somehow the rest of the Mac cajoled her into tagging along for Mirage, and yet, as the poets of yore understood too well, the wild heart still yearns to break free - free to slide back into the same exact solo album formula, that is. From AMG's William Ruhlmann:
Stevie Nicks was following both her debut solo album, Bella Donna (1981), which had topped the charts, sold over a million copies (now over four million), and spawned four Top 40 hits, and Fleetwood Mac's Mirage (1982), which had topped the charts, sold over a million copies (now over two million), and spawned three Top 40 hits (including her "Gypsy"), when she released her second solo album, The Wild Heart. She was the most successful American female pop singer of the time. Not surprisingly, she played it safe: The Wild Heart contained nothing that would disturb fans of her previous work and much that echoed it ... the songs were largely interchangeable with those on Bella Donna, even down to the obligatory duet with Tom Petty. Nicks seemed to know what she was up to -- one song was called "Nothing Ever Changes." As a result, The Wild Heart sold to the faithful ... and that was appropriate: if you loved Bella Donna, you would like The Wild Heart very much.
True enough, and yet, there was a new twist or two - like Stevie trying to actually sound like Madonna. A new generation of female pop stars was daring to challenge her supremacy, and it was time to protect her turf. Stand back, aerobo-bitches! I probably shouldn't even be referencing Madonna here, as there's another '80s superstar who played a much more relevant role in the creation of "Stand Back." From Wikipedia:
She wrote it on the day of her marriage to Kim Anderson on January 29, 1983. The newlyweds were driving up to San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara when Prince's song "Little Red Corvette" came on the radio. Nicks started humming along to the melody, especially inspired by the lush synthesizers of the song, and "Stand Back" was born. They stopped and got a tape recorder and she recorded the demo in the honeymoon suite that night. Later, when Nicks went into the studio to record the song, she called Prince and told him the story of how she wrote the song to his melody. He came to the studio that night and played synthesizers on it, although his contribution is uncredited on the album. He and Nicks did agree however to split the publishing royalties on the song 50-50. Then, she says, "he just got up and left as if the whole thing happened in a dream."
So did she have, like, the Prince bat signal or something? "Prince, need ur help, come 2 the studio, it's urgent!" And so he buckled up his ass-chaps, hopped into the Purple-mobile, and laid down the funky licks that saved the day. And then, just like that, in a puff of lavender perfume ... he was gone! It turns out that Dave Chappelle's skits weren't comedy, but documentary. Of course, the real guest star might have been Toto's ever-present axeman Steve Lukather, whose piercing MOR riffs are surely what took the single to #5.

Too bad the Purple One didn't stick around to help with the video, which my co-blogger Herr Zrbo discussed briefly back in January, where he referred to it as being, with chilling accuracy, "on the shortlist for 'videos most indicative of their time'." If you're looking at this video and wondering why it looks so cheap and tacky, apparently there's a good reason for that:
Two videos were filmed for the single. The first, which was never aired and is referred to as the "Scarlett Version", was a lavish production directed by Brian Grant and features Nicks in a Gone with the Wind type scenario. Upon seeing the completed video, Nicks rejected it as, according to Grant, she felt she looked fat.
What. A. Diva. Oh. My. God. Stevie, come over here with me a second, let's have a chat. Listen to me very carefully. Would you rather release a well-made video where you look "fat," or a shoddily-made video where you look like ... I dunno, a hungover witch who wandered into a Jazzercise class by accident? In the words of Wikipedia, "As an alternative, a second video was made on a much lower budget than the original." You don't saaaaay. For better or ill, the "second" clip for "Stand Back" set the template for every '80s Stevie Nicks music video to follow. Invariably, they all feature the following elements, not necessarily in this order:
  1. Stevie staring directly into the camera, standing behind a microphone. Like, in every video. Just look at all the screen captures. Uh, Stevie ... you do know that you don't need a microphone in a music video, right? You can just lip-sync. Maybe she didn't feel comfortable on the set without her "lucky microphone." Maybe it was like her security blanket.
  2. Stevie's alarmingly massive hair blowing in the breeze, usually backlit in some grotesquely unflattering manner - a look which one YouTube commentator describes as Stevie in her "hot mess" phase
  3. Brief shots of Stevie twirling in her shawl as the moonlight drifts through the glass panes of a gothic-looking ballroom
  4. Dancers. Lots of dancers.
With "Stand Back," we get #3 at 0:07, #1 and #2 at 0:23, and finally, #4 at 0:56, when Stevie and her presumed lover twirl leftward and up pops ... a gang of wacky '80s breakdancers straight from a Nickelodeon after-school special! Their outfits all look outrageously dated, but none of them achieve quite the level of frisson as the one worn by the female dancer in the red beret, sleeveless flannel vest (?), short black skirt, nylons, and red tie (!). Stand back, or your eyes might be harmed irreparably by this outfit. You know when Yeats penned the line, "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?" I think he was referring to this outfit.

And then. And then! The dancers burst through a saloon door (is there going to be a gunfight?) to reveal Stevie standing on a ... giant neon treadmill? She's gone Tron! And then the director must have thought, "Hmmm, we need more shots of the dancers dry-humping each other in a black room with smoke and excessive backlighting. And jumping in mid-air in slow-motion." Finally, at 4:25, she unleashes a demonic "Why don't you taaaaaaaaake...," although in the video she steals a little of her back-up vocalist's glory on " home." But hey, at least she didn't look "fat," right?

The Wild Heart's second single, "If Anyone Falls," peaked at #14 and then, I assume, started falling down the charts. Let's see if the video hits all the marks on the checklist. We've got #3 at 0:22, #2 at 0:48, and #4 at 0:55, but ... what's this? She's staring directly at the camera ... without a microphone in front of her! Was Stevie ... evolving? Most random moment: Stevie and her merry band of witches riding a carousel at 3:21.

By the time of her third solo album, Rock A Little, Stevie was actually, contrary to the title, doing the rock a lot. According to Wikipedia, "The vocal style is distinctively huskier and nasal (many claim this was due to increasing cocaine abuse) than on previous recordings." Don't let the party stop! If you think "Talk To Me," which hit #4, sounds a bit like John Waite's "Missing You," that might be because the same guy co-wrote both songs. All right, let's see how the video measures up on the ol' checklist. We've got #1 and #2 at 0:31, and ... wait a minute ... she's back to standing in front of a mic again! Stevie, Stevie. You were making such progress, only to let it all slip away in a cloud of coked-out hubris. We finally get #4 at 1:48. Unfortunately, I don't quite see #3 here, although she does twirl around in a well-lit art gallery.

"I Can't Wait" couldn't wait to slide out of the charts after climbing no higher than #16, and might seem relatively insignificant in the Nicks oeuvre, but in retrospect, it marked the unheralded entrance of a certain Rick Nowels into the pop music scene. From the liner notes to Timespace: The Best of Stevie Nicks:
To understand this song, you sort of have to let yourself go a little crazy. Love is blind, it never works out, but you just have to have it. I think this was about the most exciting song that I had ever heard. My friend, Rick, whom I had known since I was 18 and he was 13, brought over this track with this incredible percussion thing, and gave it to me asking me if I would listen to it and consider writing a song for it. I listened to the song once, and pretended not to be that knocked out, but the second Rick left, I ran in my little recording studio and wrote 'I Can't Wait.' It took all night, and I think it is all about how electric I felt about this music. And that night, that SATURDAY night, Rick and I went into a BIG studio and recorded it. I sang it only once, and have never sung it since in the studio.
If Wikipedia is to be trusted, those are Stevie's caps, not mine. That must have been a BIG studio. And on a SATURDAY night, too. Not just Saturday, but SATURDAY. Nowels and Jimmy Iovine seem to be more fond of synthesized bells than even Stock Aitken Waterman. As for the checklist: I see #4 at 0:28, #1 and #2 at 0:47, but I don't really see a clear #3 here, although she does twirl around both on the Busby Berkeley staircase, and inside the medieval dungeon with a giant pane of glass, so it's daaaaamn close. Also, I think I see Mick Fleetwood at 1:57? From Wikipedia:
Nicks says that she did drugs on the set of all her videos of the era however, regarding the video for "I Can't Wait" she said in I Want My MTV: "I look at that video, I look at my eyes, and I say to myself, 'Could you have laid off the pot, the coke, and the tequila for three days, so you could have looked a little better? It just makes me want to go back into that video and stab myself."
I'm afraid it's much too late for that, Stevie. It's much too late.

Little could the world have known, however, that while the Stevie Nicks-Rick Nowels partnership was never destined for greatness, Rick Nowels's partnership with another late '80s pop diva with an equal, if not greater, fondness for a certain Colombian powder would turn out to be a match made in ... erm ... "heaven."