Sunday, December 23, 2018

Hey Now, Hey Now, Don't Dream You Only Had One Big U.S. Hit Single

Why didn't they just ... move into a bigger house? Build an extra room? Get a futon? Maybe one of the guys could've slept in the car? Look at it this way: at least the rent was probably cheap. On the other hand, "Crowded House" was probably a much stronger name than the band's original choice, "The Mullanes." Yowsers.

While these days he's serving as the awkward new substitute for Lindsey Buckingham in the international conglomerate otherwise known as Fleetwood Mac, back in the day, Neil Finn wasn't even the main singer/songwriter in his former band. Hell, he wasn't even the main Finn brother in his former band. That said, older brother Tim, either with Split Enz or solo, never had an American hit the size of "Don't Dream It's Over." Though Crowded House more or less feels like a one-hit wonder, it turns out they actually had another Top 10 U.S. single: "Something So Strong" peaked at #7. Apparently it wasn't "strong" enough to stay in the popular consciousness, because I don't remember hearing it much at the time, nor have I heard it much since. I'm sure it has its partisans; it sounds like a Paul Carrack B-side to me. But you know what? If Americans only remember Crowded House for one song (they were regular fixtures on the UK and Australian singles charts all the way into the late '90s), well, it's one hell of a song:
There is freedom within
There is freedom without
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup
There's a battle ahead
Many battles are lost
But you'll never see the end of the road
While you're travelling with me

Hey now, Hey now
Don't dream it's over
Hey now, Hey now
When the world comes in
They come, they come
To build a wall between us
We know they won't win

Now I'm towing my car
There's a hole in the roof
My possessions are causing me suspicion
But there's no proof
In the paper today
Tales of war and of waste
But you turn right over to the TV page

Now I'm walking again
To the beat of a drum
And I'm counting the steps to the door of your heart
Only shadows ahead
Barely clearing the roof
Get to know the feeling of liberation and release
Here's how great of a song "Don't Dream It's Over" is: I only realized, just now, after 30 years of having listened to this sucker, when I copied and pasted these lyrics, that the lines hardly even rhyme! Hey man, rhymes are just walls people are trying to build between Neil Finn and his poignant, abstract observations, OK? The lyrics have this intriguingly vague '80s mixture of "We're gonna make it, baby" relationship imagery and "The Cold War's almost over, I can taste it" political hopefulness. Besides, when you've got a massive, jangly guitar that's jangling all the way into next Tuesday (particularly at 1:21 and 2:46), who needs rhymes? Not to mention a hymn-like organ and those eerily high-pitched harmonies on the octave-jumping chorus. Yep. They built this one to last.

Whether I like it or not, "Don't Dream It's Over" is one of those songs that immediately, unavoidably ... takes me back. I find its sad, aching quality two-fold: I feel the sadness that the song itself conjures, and I also feel the sadness of all the time that has passed since this song was blanketing the radio waves, and the sadness of all the ways in which my life has changed in thirty years, both "within" and "without." It's the kind of song I can't listen to too closely, or I'll get crushed by the weight of those pesky little things called ... what are those things called again? You know, they used to be in pop songs all the time but they rarely have them anymore? Wait, it's coming to me ... "emotions"! That's what they're called. The moment the song is over, I kind of want to put on "Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car," just to lighten the mood.

One more observation: I remember listening, back in high school, to a radio special about the history of rock and roll, and after airing a segment about John Lennon's assassination, the program promptly played "Don't Dream It's Over." As a result, for years, I assumed this song was somehow related to Lennon's death, or the "end of the '60s," but if it is, Wikipedia sure doesn't have anything to say about it. I've often wondered why that radio special would have chosen to play this particular song in relation to that event; "Don't Dream It's Over" didn't even come out until 1986, by which point the phenomenal success of Yoko Ono's solo career had long rendered John a distant memory. But recently I recalled that "God" on Plastic Ono Band contains the iconic lyric, "The dream is over." Surely Mr. Finn was aware of this lyric somewhere in the back of his mind, yes? Indeed, in 1986 it surely must have felt like "the dream," however one chose to define it, most definitely was over. Hell, Lennon proclaimed the dream "over" ... in 1970! By 1986 "the dream" must have looked like a shriveled corpse soaked in formaldehyde, floating face-up in the neighbor's algae-ridden pool. "Tales of war and of waste/But you turn right over to the TV page"? Damn right I do. Who wants to hear about Nicaragua and AIDS? What time is Perfect Strangers on? But Neil Finn hadn't given up on the dream, damn it. Bruce Hornsby, you've got company.

The tastefully surreal video was apparently a nice resume-builder for future The Crow/Dark City director Alex Proyas. I know that things work a little differently in New Zealand than they do here in the northern hemisphere, but you'd think they'd do something about that floating, shattering dish problem they seem to have. Hey now, hey now, somebody get a dustpan.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of 2018

Another trip around the sun and another year of music. I had a bit of a difficult time ranking my favorite songs but in the end I think I'm satisfied with what I came up with. Also, for those who've followed my Top 5 lists in the past, this is the first list in quite a few years where I haven't thrown in a retro song (can you believe it?). And now, the envelope please...

5. Holygram - "Signals"

These guys have definitely been in a goth club before. Holygram bill themselves as a post-punk/new wave act from Cologne, but you wouldn't be able to tell these guys are German at all. They sound straight up like they came out of 1982 with a sound similar to The Cure, and they look like... members of Oasis? Anyways, I like this song, though if I have a complaint it's that they're emulating the sound but not necessarily bringing anything new to the table. In fact, most of their songs sound remarkably similar, even if it is a good sound.

4. Charli XCX & Troy Sivan - "1999"

"Is this my generation's Bryan Adams' "Summer of 69"?" I asked myself when I first heard this song. The parallels are there: a song sung about a nostalgic year when the artist in question wasn't even really old enough to enjoy said nostalgic year (and yes, I know what Adams' song is really about, but just go with me here). Bryan Adams was only ten in 1969, Charli XCX was just seven in 1999. "1999" isn't particularly ground shaking, but it's an effective piece of pop that, besides the well made video, I've found stuck in my head for longer than I care to admit.

And what a video! Yes, it's just a collection of visual references designed to make those of a certain age say "I get that reference!". There's Jack and Rose from Titanic! The Spice Girls! Eminem! That guy from The New Radicals! They're all here!

You could argue that the song is a bit self defeating. I imagine Charli XCX's main audience is perhaps a bit too young to effectively remember (or to have even been alive) in 1999, and those that would be old enough to appreciate the song and it's video references are not really Charli's target audience. But anyways, I find it kind of bubblegum fun and I hope you do too.

3. Day Twelve - "Move" (Still mix) and "Move" (Neuroticfish remix)

That's right, two versions of the same song! I came across Day Twelve when I was listening to the latest Psy'Aviah album (who previously appeared on one of my Top 5's) and came to the realization that all of my favorite Psy'Aviah songs were sung by the same vocalist, Mari Kattman. So I found her Bandcamp page and came across this old band of hers (that did a total of one album) and fell quickly in love with it. I've listened to their album Fin more than any other album this year, and it was a bit tough to decide just which song to choose. I almost went with "The Basement" which is, ahem, a song about being trapped in a basement knowing you won't survive the night, but the whole thing is sung in the style of... sultry lounge music? It's worth a listen.

Anyways, I instead went with these two versions of the song "Move". The original is okay, but these two mixes bring out different sides to the song. The "Still mix" is the original stripped down to just Kattman and a piano. I would describe it as sounding like a Tori Amos song. Then there's the "Neuroticfish remix" which is the same song but made for dancing. The two versions are so drastically different it's almost hard to tell they're the same song. The real treat of the song however is what Kattman does with her voice in the original and Neuroticfish versions. She goes from singing to screaming and back to singing, sometimes all in the space of a single line. It's impressive, though understandably an acquired taste.

2. 45 seconds of "Big Enough" by Kirin J. Callinan

Here's an unusual first for Zrbo's Annual Top 5 list: a snippet of a song! Yes, there's an entire song that this 45 second clip belongs to but let's face it: it's not very good and really it's just there so Mr. Callinan could have a pretense for these 45 seconds. These magnificent, glorious 45 seconds.

Yes, it's basically just a silly bit that's most likely cynically produced just to "go viral" but dammit, whenever I hear these 45 seconds I just find myself with a big goofy smile on my face. Even if I'm having a bit of down day, I know I can just put this on and for a brief moment at least I'll be laughing my ass off. Watch the full video if you must, but it's not really worth watching more than once. It's really just kind of a big goofy eurodance number. The heart of it is these 45 seconds, and it's better just to listen to the clip going in blind not knowing what you're about to witness - just relax and enjoy the cowboy man. Also, turn up the volume for maximum enjoyment.

1. VNV Nation - "Armour"
It's pretty much a given that in a year when a new VNV Nation album comes out you're going to find a song of theirs on my annual list. This year's album Noire had a host of excellent songs, and it was tough for me to pick just one (I limit this list to one track per artist). I was tempted to choose the contemplative "God of All", or I could have chosen the Erasure-esque "Wonders" which has severely grown on me. But I'm going to go with my gut and choose the first song from the album the band first chose to debut at this summer's Klaffenbach festival in Germany.

From the first time I heard "Armour" I fell in love with it. It's a somewhat typical style of song that VNV does, a sort of self-affirmational. With lyrics describing the singer donning his metaphorical armor as the world has failed him, it's the song I needed in 2018. As a said in my review of the album, this song is like candy to my ears, and  thus it takes it's place as my favorite song of the year.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Invisible Touch; Highly Visible Sales Figures AKA Phil's First Experience With Ghost Sex

Anyone in the mood for a little role-playing? Let's say you're the jocular, prematurely balding frontman/drummer for your increasingly successful/increasingly ridiculed rock group Genesis. Your latest solo album, No Jacket Required, has just sold more copies than there are grains of sand on your Malibu beachfront property. It's your first day back at the studio with your old band mates. Now, what I want you to do is to ... re-create that conversation. My version might go something like this: "Hey, so ... guys ... ready to lay down another Genesis classic? What's that? My solo album? (chuckles awkwardly) Oh, yeah, don't worry about that, just a little side thing, pfft, I mean ... I'm still the same old Phil, we're still the same ol' Genesis, right?" (pats Mike and Tony on the back with more force than is necessary) Cheerio lads, keep calm and carry on, stiff upper lip!"

Of course, if anyone could have approached this situation with unfathomable levels of denial, it would have been Phil Collins. But our man P.C. may have lucked out, given that his other accomplices in this triumvirate didn't appear to possess a jealous bone in their passive little Yuppie bodies. I guess Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks looked at each other and thought, "Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em .. and, hell, we're already joined anyway."

The line on Invisible Touch is that it's simply No Jacket Required, Part Deux, rather than an actual Genesis album. In a three-star review, AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes:
Delivered in the wake of Phil Collins' massive success as a solo star, Invisible Touch was seen at the time as a bit of a Phil Collins solo album disguised as a Genesis album, and it's not hard to see why. Invisible Touch is, without a doubt, Genesis' poppiest album, a sleek, streamlined affair built on electronic percussion and dressed in synths that somehow seem to be programmed, not played by Tony Banks. In that sense, it does seem a bit like No Jacket Required, and the heavy emphasis on pop tunes does serve the singer, not the band, but it's not quite fair to call this a Collins album, and not just because there are two arty tunes that could have fit on its predecessor, Genesis. There is a difference between Collins and Genesis -- on his own, Phil was lighter, and Genesis was often a bit chillier. Of course, the title track is the frothiest thing the band ever did, while "In Too Deep" and "Throwing It All Away" are power ballads that could be seen as Phil projects, but "Land of Confusion" was a protest tune and "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" was a stark, scary tale of scoring dope (which made its inclusion in a Michelob campaign in the '80s almost as odd as recovering alcoholic Eric Clapton shilling for the brewery). But those songs had big hooks that excused their coldness, and the arty moments sank to the bottom, obscured by the big, bold pop hooks here -- pop that was the sound of the mainstream in the late '80s, pop that still effortlessly evokes its time.
If Erlewine seems to offer the album his grudging approval, Patrick Bateman can hardly restrain himself from holding back the superlatives:
Invisible Touch (Atlantic; 1986) is the group's undisputed masterpiece. It's an epic meditation on intangibility, at the same time it deepens and enriches the meaning of the preceding three albums. It has a resonance that keeps coming back at the listener, and the music is so beautiful that it's almost impossible to shake off because every song makes some connection about the unknown or the spaces between people ("Invisible Touch"), questioning authoritative control whether by domineering lovers or by the government ("Land of Confusion") or by meaningless repetition ("Tonight Tonight Tonight"). All in all it ranks with the finest rock 'n' roll achievements of the decade and the mastermind behind this album, along of course with the brilliant ensemble playing of Banks, Collins and Rutherford, is Hugh Padgham, who has never found as clear and crisp and modern a sound as this. You can practically hear every nuance of every instrument.
And I'm sure that Bateman, tossing and turning on his satin sheets in his spotless apartment, desperately attempting to pass away the evening under the grip of chronic insomnia, visions of severed limbs and screaming victims running through his head, was truly listening to every nuance of every instrument. To quote The Who, "sickness can surely take the mind where minds can't usually go." And if this is what Bateman calls "fine rock 'n' roll," I wonder what his idea of easy listening pop music is.

One must observe, in a twist of irony, that Genesis's most commercially successful long-player might also be its most atypical. I imagine fans of "Supper's Ready" and "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight," unlike Mr. Bateman, probably recoil in horror at the sound of winery tour gems such as "In Too Deep" and "Throwing It All Away." To be honest, though, I'm impressed that Genesis's big "sellout" album still has some fairly weird, arty stuff on it regardless. They could have gone full Huey Lewis & the News, but no. A creepy five-minute instrumental called "The Brazilian"? Not exactly "Hip to Be Square," you feel me?

And just how "soft rock" was "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight," a nine-minute epic that, in Erlewine's words, is "a stark, scary tale of scoring dope"? You know what's sad? Despite the nature of its subject matter, I'll bet supermarkets still play this song anyway. How about the fact that it has three different bridges (at 2:28, 3:16, and 4:30) and each of them appears only once? I'm not familiar enough with Blade Runner to comment on whether the video recreates its post-apocalyptic dread successfully; all I know is that I feel like I need to wear a surgical mask merely every time I view it. I mean, when the air is purple? That's not a good sign. Mike Rutherford apparently figured his collar would protect him from the carcinogens; it's so high, it's practically brushing up against the helicopters circling overhead.

My main issue with Invisible Touch is that, "The Brazilian" aside, I find the second half of the album Letdown City - even with the inclusion of another huge Top Five hit ("Throwing It All Away"). But how's this for a first half: "Invisible Touch," "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight," "Land of Confusion," and "In Too Deep"? It's like Boom, Boom, Boom, BOOM. Does Exile On Main St. have a side one that features four Top Five hits? I didn't think so.

"Invisible Touch" became the band's first and only US #1, which unquestionably makes it their best and most artistically satisfying song. Oddly, you'd think that, by 1986, the music Phil was making with the people he'd been playing with since 1970 would have come out sounding less dated than the music he was making on his own ... but you would be wrong. At least "Against All Odds" featured a real, acoustic piano. Right off the bat, "Invisible Touch" reeks of synths, drum machines, and Ray-Bans. I'm not complaining - just an observation. Right before the solo at 2:09, it appears that Tony Banks must have opened a giant can of dung beetles directly over his Emulator II and promptly turned that can upside down.

At least time has not altered the beguiling mystery of the lyrics. "She seems to have an invisible touch." Wait a second, is he in love with a ... dead girl? Maybe ... she's a ghost! "She reaches in, and grabs right hold of your heart"? You know what I picture whenever I hear that line? I picture that voodoo priest in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, literally reaching in and grabbing hold of that guy's heart. And that's what this girl does to Phil? That's pretty fucked up. "Well I don't really know her/I only know her name"? Wait a minute. Wait a minute. He doesn't even know her? It's like he's sitting in the lunch room in seventh grade, drawing little hearts on his Trapper Keeper. Why do I have the feeling that Phil hasn't really thought this particular attraction through?

The video features the kind of almost-humor that rich white rock stars who spend too much time together would find hysterical, and no one else. Phil holds a tiny camera over his eye and shouts, "I can direct videos! It's no problem!" Hardy-har-har. Phil screws up the miming of the opening drum fill! Wacka-wacka-wacka. Tony pretends to play drums! Hi-Yo. Phil pretends to play the electric guitar ... with his teeth! I can't breathe, I'm laughing so hard. Phil pretends his drum sticks are a microphone! I just snorted milk through my nose. Phil pretends to head-butt the camera ... without actually head-butting it! Who turned on the laughing gas? Phil flashes the camera ... but his shirt's still on! Tears are streaming down my face, simply streaming.

I remember, some time right around 1991, when I was heavily into the habit of taping songs off the radio, I heard this Phil Collins ballad come on, and I pressed "Record," convinced that I was recording "One More Night." I kept waiting for the song to eventually morph into "One More Night," and then after about two minutes had gone by, I realized that I was taping a Phil Collins song that was not "One More Night," at which point I promptly ceased recording. I now had, committed to tape, the middle two minutes of this "imposter" "One More Night." I then proceeded, for several months afterward, to listen to this oddly-edited portion of the mystery Phil Collins hit. That hit ... was "In Too Deep."

Like "One More Night," it's mopey, it's gloopy, it's drippy, and yet ... it's like the sweetest Phil sauce on the juiciest Phil steak. Patrick Bateman knows what I'm talkin' 'bout:
In terms of lyrical craftsmanship and sheer songwriting skills this album hits a new peak of professionalism ... Yet as danceable as the album is, it also has a stripped-down urgency that not even the overrated Bruce Springsteen can equal. As an observer of love's failings Collins beats out the Boss again and again, reaching new heights of emotional honesty on "In Too Deep"; yet it also showcases Collins' clowny, prankish, unpredictable side. It's the most moving pop song of the 1980s about monogamy and commitment.
There you have it. The most moving pop song about monogamy and commitment of the entire decade - even more moving than "I Want Your Sex." Also, I know American Psycho was intended as satire, but if I admit that, like Bateman, I'd rather listen to Phil Collins than Bruce Springsteen, does that make me Jeffrey Dahmer?

For the video, the band seems to have hijacked the set of Jefferson Starship's "Be My Lady." The studio recording of "In Too Deep" features the rare appearance on Invisible Touch of an actual, organic instrument, although I believe it's an electric guitar being played, while in the video Mike Rutherford is seen playing an acoustic. That's a hell of a lot more accurate than the misrepresentation perpetuated by Tony Banks, who in the video pretends to play a grand piano, while the keyboard sound that's featured on the recording is anything but: it's like some elvish video game instrument, where each lightly-emitted note bounces around in its little hobbit cave for three seconds before evaporating into the mystical morning dew.

As always, Phil drew his lyrical inspiration from some ... unexpected places. Per In the Air Tonight:
It was after a show in Hong Kong. I was in my dressing room, tripping on a homemade brew of mescaline, angel dust, and nail polish - a potent concoction I dubbed "El Caballo Loco" - when suddenly ... she appeared before me.

Was it a ghost? An apparition? A hallucination? I couldn't say. All I knew was ... she was hot! Picture a cross between Jacklyn Smith and Sally Field, with a little bit of Andie MacDowell thrown in for good measure. You know, sultry, but intelligent. She spoke in an eerie, high-pitched whisper.

"I've been waiting - waiting here so long," she cooed, although her lips hardly seemed to move.

"Who - who are you?" I asked.

"My name is Serserio the Undead."

"What - what do you want?"

"I want to feed off your life force."

"Oh. OK. Uh, like, how exactly?"

But Serserio clearly wasn't the chatty type. She began ... merging with me. But not. I mean, I can't explain it. We started making love, but ... not human love. It's like she just reached in ... and grabbed hold of my heart. She seemed to have ... how can I put this?

An invisible touch.

Crazy, I know. I mean, I was turned on at first, but then as the night wore on, a panic washed over me. She had something I just couldn't trust. Something ... mysterious. As we danced and shifted in the moonlight, I tried to step away, but that's when the horror truly set in: I was in too deep. I couldn't pull myself out of her! She was like a load on my back that I couldn't see - I tried to shake her loose, cut her free, get her away from me ... I was in too deep. That simple. She had me so I just couldn't sleep.

"Tonight, tonight, tonight," she moaned.

I was asking all kinds of questions to myself, but I wasn't finding the answers. I cried at the top of my voice, but it quickly dawned on me that .. no one was listening!

"I can feel your eyes go through me," she whispered, "but ... I don't know why."

"Maybe because ... you're a ghost?" I said.

Finally, she released me from her spectral grip. "I love you but ... I just can't take this." At that, she slipped out of my being and vanished through the window. I felt the sensation of black fur on my arms. It was like I was tumbling, tumbling from another realm. I was coming down like a monkey ... but it was all right. I heard a pounding on the door.

"Phil, you in there?"

I glanced furtively around the room and gathered my senses. I turned the deadbolt. It was Rusty, our tour manager.

"Phil, you OK?"

"Yeah, yeah ... I'm fine."

"What the hell's going on in here?"

"Oh man ... I was ... she's gone."

"Who's gone?"

"You're not going to believe this, but-"

"Hiding another groupie in the bathroom, eh?"

"No, no, this girl ... this is going to sound crazy, but she had, like, an invisible touch."

"Oh really? Who was she?"

"Well, I didn't really know her. I only knew her name."

"What was her name?"

"Serserio the Undead."

He glanced at me with head askew. "Phil, you been doing any of that 'Caballo Loco' again?"

"Maybe. You should have seen her, though. She crawled under my skin ... I don't think I'll be quite the same."

"Just get some sleep, all right? Plane leaves at 6:30 AM." He threw me a Coors Lite and slammed the door.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"The Way It Is": Yuppie Rock Even A West Coast Gangsta Could Love

Though they certainly tried, when it came to '80s Guilt Rock, I don't know if Phil Collins, Bono, Don Henley et al. ever topped Bruce Hornsby & the Range's "The Way It Is."

In December of 1986, two weeks after Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name" peaked at #1 on the US Billboard charts, and one week after Peter Cetera and Amy Grant hit the pole position with "The Next Time I Fall," Bruce Hornsby & the Range topped that very same chart with "The Way It Is." If I may, allow me to share with you the extremely fun, sexy, feel-good, party 'til you drop lyrics  of "The Way It Is":
Standing in line, marking time
Waiting for the welfare dime
'Cause they can't buy a job
The man in a silk suit hurries by
And as he catches a poor old lady's eye
Just for fun he says
"Get a job"

That's just the way it is
Some things will never change
That's just the way it is
Ah, but don't you believe them

Said hey little boy
You can't go where the others go
'Cuz you don't look like they do
Said hey old man
How can you stand to think that way
And did you really think about it
Before you made the rules
He said, son

That's just the way it is
Some things will never change
That's just the way it is
Ah, but don't you believe them

Well they passed a law in '64
To give those who ain't got a little more
But it only goes so far
Because the law don't change another's mind
When all it sees at the hiring time
Is the line on the color bar
Geez. Can you say "buzzkill"? Somebody wasn't doing enough coke at the strip club that week.

I love cracking jokes about vapid hair metal and pre-packaged dance-pop as much as the next '80s music blogger, but every once in a while, you know, I've got to give the '80s listening public a little bit of credit. Because how did this song become a #1 hit? There's not a single deployment of the word "baby" in it, let alone "babe," "girl," or even "honey." Here's a word that should have automatically disqualified it from receiving significant radio play: "welfare." He says "welfare." On a hit single! The label should have, like, bleeped it out or something. Oh, and on top of that, he's sprinkling these absurdly jazzy piano solos all over the place. It's like if Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett decided to go electro-pop. I'll give Hornsby this much: if his goal was to scale the charts, he sure didn't make it easy on himself.

On the other hand, I can see why the song became a hit. It became a hit ... because good lord, it's catchy. Who gives a crap about all the depressing socio-political mumbo jumbo he's singing about? Listen to that piano riff! I was six years old when the song came out, and even though most of the subject matter undoubtedly flew right over my brilliant (for six) little head, you better believe I was singing along. Talk about a toe-tapping groove. And Hornsby's voice doesn't croak and wheeze like Dylan or Leonard Cohen or somebody who obviously only got a record deal on the strength of their lyricism. He sounds like yer average soft rock crooner. It's a death trap.

In fact, "The Way It Is" sounds for all the world like an '80s "comeback" hit from a former '60s superstar, not the second single from an artist's debut album. Granted, Hornsby was roughly 30 years old at the time, but he somehow managed to come across as if he'd already released fifteen records and was still recovering from the bad acid he'd dropped at Watkins Glen. It's a little unclear to me exactly who the "Range" were, as the instrumentation seems to consist of Hornsby's fluttering piano and eight brand new synthesizers. (Side note: who names their band "the Range"? People cannot be a "range." Range, as in open countryside, where the deer and the antelope play, right? And doesn't your band have to be plural? You can't be "Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker." Or maybe he meant the kitchen appliance. Maybe their original name was "Bruce Hornsby and the Hot Plate.")

Now I'm as sharp as they come, but I have to admit that the last verse has never made complete sense to me, and it seems like it was intended to be this powerful, emotionally affecting verse, so the fact that I've never understood it ... has always irked me. What, precisely, is a "color bar"? Aren't those the blocky graphics you see when your TV isn't working right? That's probably not what he's talking about. Maybe he's referring to a line on a job application where the applicant is asked to state his or her "color"? Now, I don't know what job applications looked like in the '80s, but I'm fairly certain this is illegal in 2018 (applications might ask for "ethnicity" but not "color" - if even that). I think his point is that bias still persists among employers even though the law has rendered "explicit" bias illegal, but if so, I'm not sure he made it terribly clear. AMG's William Ruhlmann describes the song as "a brave if somewhat clumsily written attack on the heartless right-wing politics of the mid-'80s ... The boldness of the statement and the lovely piano theme more than compensate for the awkward writing ..." OK, cool, so it's not just me then!

One line I think I do understand is the last line of the chorus. In the verses, Hornsby lists several socio-economic situations that sound bleak and hopeless, and then, in the chorus, at first he seems to suggest apathy, but it turns out that he's merely been parroting other people's apathy, because his own stance is, "Ah, but don't you believe them." That line really turns the whole song around. You know what? I'm with Hornsby on this one. Change is slow, change is stubborn, but that doesn't mean that "some things never change." In fact, a sure-fire way to guarantee that something unpleasant will never change is to declare that "it'll never change." Let me whip out a little MLK here: "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. Bee-otch."

He probably didn't say that last part.

But I know who probably thought he did. Before I explored rap in earnest, I would always come across writers who described Tupac as some sort of "socially conscious" gangsta rapper. When I eventually sat down and listened to Me Against the World and All Eyez On Me, well ... if I squinted and tilted my head, I could sorta kinda see two or three songs that seemed to address "social issues," but compared to, say, Public Enemy or Ice Cube, he seemed like weak tea to me. I guess Death Row was merely waiting 'til he croaked (the dead no longer needing to constantly maintain a "bad ass thug incapable of sensitive introspection" image) to release some of his more thoughtful work.

Wait a second, is that a sample of ...? Oh yeah. That's right. Tupac took Bruce Hornsby to the ghetto. Can I see the members of the Range put their hands in the air and wave 'em like they just don't care? One, two, three and to the f'oh, Bruce Hornsby & the Range is at the d'oh, ready to make an entrance so back on up, 'cause you know they 'bout to ... rip that piano up? Notice how, when a '90s rapper chose to sample a political song from the '80s, he didn't sample a track from some polemical indie band like the Minutemen or Minor Threat that rock critics were drooling over; he sampled Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is." Because hey, that was the kind of white "political" rock that actually made its way to his neighborhood! Black inner city kids probably weren't listening to SST Records.

One "change" I never quite understood about "Changes" is why Pac (or his posthumous production team) altered the chorus of "The Way It Is" from "Some things'll never change" to "Things'll never be the same." Isn't Tupac's whole point that, actually, so many things (the War on Drugs, black-on-black crime, the disproportionate amount of black men in prison) are still the same? What does Tupac's disembodied ghost have to say about this thematic inconsistency? Of course, there are those who claim he's been dead for 20 years. Ah, but don't you believe them.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

"One More Try"? More Like "Let's Film This Video In Only One Try"

Minimalism. It worked for Hemingway. It worked for Beckett. It worked for every cross-legged Japanese monk who ever jotted down a haiku in a bucolic spring garden. But what their brands of minimalism were clearly lacking ... was stubble.

"One More Try" is '80s pop music stripped to its barren, brutal core. There is nowhere to hide, no relief from the endless onslaught of Michaelian passion. All must bow to the unadorned intensity of the piece. "One More Try" is like George Michael's version of "In the Air Tonight" ... but sexier. It's George, an organ, a drum machine, and God, alone in a room, face to face, battling it out for the sanctity of one man's soul. And the drum machine is arguably winning.

Imagine the conversation at the record company when George handed this one in. "Nice George, it's really lovely, killer demo, so ... what's the final version going to sound like?"

"This is the final version."

Jaw, meet floor.

And it's nearly six minutes long! He practically dares the listener to lose patience. But I'm with you Georgie Boy, I'm with you to the bitter end. Frankly, when I was a kid, I probably did find this song a bit boring, but when I was a kid I also ate uncooked Top Ramen noodles with the MSG-laden flavor mix sprinkled in between the crevices, so what the fuck did I know? I'll tell you what I didn't know: I didn't know what true heartbreak was. Actually, even now I'm not sure I know what true heartbreak is. But what I know is that George knows.

I also know this: "One More Try" couldn't have skated by on such a sparse arrangement if it hadn't been, at its core, a fundamentally well-structured composition. Sure, production-wise, it sounds like a hit from 1988, but compositionally, this sucker could have been a hit in 1968. Think of what Otis Redding or Etta James might have done with it on a muggy summer night at Muscle Shoals. Do I even detect a little Pachelbel's "Canon In D" in the chord progression? Screw 1968; it could've even been a hit in 1688. Like the never-ending "Canon," "One More Try" circles and circles and circles without ever seeming capable of resolving its underlying tension, as a wary, bruised George pleads desperately with a potential new lover that he just isn't ready to love again, damn it, oh, fine, what the hell. Indeed, when the backing slows to an agonizing crawl in those last few seconds and George finally finds it within himself to open his wounded heart to humanity once more, it's like one of those moments at the end of a Bresson film; as with Michel in his jail cell at the end of Pickpocket, or the donkey in the field at the end of Au Hasard Balthazar, one senses all discord finally turning to harmony, and the work reaches an unexpected but entirely logical state of grace (sheesh, I'm starting to sound like Professor Higglediggle here). Note, also, that the very last lines are the only time George even sings the title of the song. He could have called it "Ain't No Joy For An Uptown Boy," but that wouldn't have quite captured the mood of the piece, I suppose.

Of course, Pachelbel and Bresson don't exactly ooze sultry R&B vibes. I can sit here and tell you how soulful "One More Try" is, but don't take my word for it: in addition to hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it also, somehow, some way, topped the Billboard R&B chart. And George Michael was many things, but one of those many things was not black. Look out, Hall & Oates.

I guess George was feeling cocky at this point, because when it came time to shoot the video, he decided to make it even more minimalist than the song itself. As the camera fades up, we find George sitting pensively in a dusty room, obscured in shadow, with a ghostly light pouring in through two stained glass windows behind him. And then the camera holds that shot. And holds it. And holds it.

And it's mesmerizing.

You can't turn away! There's not a single cut, and yet one feels an entire narrative of longing, doubt, regret, and hesitation unfolding before one's eyes. The viewer doesn't even get treated to a close-up of his singing, bearded visage until the 2:47 mark. Now that's balls. It probably took them about twenty minutes to film the video, and about ten minutes to edit it. I'll bet half the budget simply went to George's makeup. And why is there so much dust in the room? Did they think about vacuuming? Or maybe they could have just opened up one of those stained glass windows, you know, let a little air in. Wait. Maybe that grey haze is supposed to be George's aura. And why are the love seat and the floor covered with sheets? Is George squatting in someone else's posh London apartment? No, I've got it: they were trying to protect the upholstery from his continually dripping sexiness. Professor Higglediggle's analysis:
The boldly static image that opens the piece attempts to confront the psychologically dormant and/or sociologically neutered viewer with a (re)contextualized (re)creation of that very dormancy and impotence, partially echoing Warhol's antagonistic, neo-subversive Empire and Sleep, only lacking those works' intangible post-Brakhage elan. The artist's failure/refusal to properly decorate, light, or heat ("I'm so cold inside") his dwelling suggests his nominal inability to live within the capitalist framework of Thatcherite England, although the income generated by his music ironically further propagated the system he sought to oppose. Furthermore, Michael's toothless plea, "Cause teacher, there are things/That I don't want to learn" may be read as ineffective anti-authoritarian posturing, what Barthes referred to as Doxa, as opposed to the preferred Para-Doxa. However, his pseudo-rejection of this educational figure may be refer, in a Lacanian sense, to buried childhood trauma, given that the "last teacher [he] had made [him] cry."

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"Sign Your Name" ... Once You Decide On A Name, Slender Soul Boy

Let this much be said about Terence Trent D'arby: the man was not afraid of coming off as ridiculous. From Wikipedia:
Terence Trent D'Arby was born Terence Trent Howard in Manhattan in 1962. His mother is Frances Howard, a gospel singer teacher and counselor; she married Bishop James Benjamin Darby, who became his stepfather and raised him, hence "his last name changed and later he completed it with the apostrophe."
Hold on a second. Hold the phone. You mean to tell me the apostrophe ... was not originally part of his name? Who adds an apostrophe to their name? Just for the hell of it? I ask you! You know what? I've made a decision. I shall henceforth be known as "L'ittle Earl."

Watching his videos, one realizes that D'arby may have been skinnier than Calista Flockhart, but believe it or not, the guy was once a professional boxer (!):
He trained as a boxer in Orlando and in 1980 won the Florida Golden Gloves lightweight championship. He received an offer to attend boxing school in the United States Army, but he went to college instead. He enrolled at the University of Central Florida but quit a year later, enlisting in the U.S. Army. He was posted at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and then served in the 3rd Armored Division, near Frankfurt, West Germany. He was formally court-martialed and dishonorably discharged by the army in April 1983 after going absent without leave.
So, let me get this straight: he landed a spot in the army, but decided to attend college instead ... and then he dropped out of college to join the army ... only to go AWOL? And I thought I was a confused young man. To make a long story short, he released his debut album Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby in 1987, famously claiming that it was the most important album since Sgt. Pepper. Well I'm sure it was the most important album since Sgt. Pepper ... to him. Possibly even more important. What I want to know is, in the mind of Terence Trent D'Arby, what exactly was it about the album that made it quite that "important"? Probably the apostrophe. And what precisely is the "hardline"? Where can I find the softline?

At any rate, no mercurial '80s self-contained R&B genius's career arc would have been complete without a bizarre name change, and D'Arby didn't d'isappoint:
He adopted a new Buddhist name, Sananda Maitreya, which he has said relates to a series of dreams he had in 1995, though it does not appear that he has spent much time in India. He legally changed his name six years later on October 4, 2001, explaining, "Terence Trent D'Arby was dead ... he watched his suffering as he died a noble death. After intense pain I meditated for a new spirit, a new will, a new identity."
Hey man, do what you gotta do.

D'arby occupies an intriguing spot on the R&B sp'ectrum. He's part-Stevie Wonder, part-James Brown ... with a touch of MJ, a dash of Prince, even a pinch of ... Sade? If I suggest that he anticipated early '90s neo-soul, do I sound like I know what I'm talking about? He was like the proto-Kravitz, or the proto-Seal. Milli Vanilli may have stolen his hair.

"Wishing Well" (not to be confused with Go West's "The King of Wishful Thinking") was the album's biggest US hit, peaking at #1, but it's not really my favorite single of his. In just the first few seconds, D'arby sets off my Affected Singing Alert with his delivery of lines like "undah-neath the sycamoh tuh-raaaay-uh" and a lyric that surely isn't "erotic and my jizz flow through my hair" but definitely sounds like it. It's like he's flashing a giant neon sign outside my hotel window that says "SOULFUL" -  and I'm trying to sleep, pal! The recurring "imitation whistle" synth riff makes the song sound like something Stromboli would have forced Pinocchio to dance to merrily while being held captive against his will.

For me, it's all about "Sign Your Name," a D'arby song that I might actually play late at night while attempting to fall asleep. The album's opening track, "If You All Get to Heaven," may have included the lyric "Say a prayer for my camel as I ride through the desert," but "Sign Your Name" is the actual sound of Terence Trent D'arby riding his camel through the fucking desert. Yes, this is another linchpin of the Summer of '88's "Egyptian Thing," one that is perhaps even more Egyptian than "Father Figure" or "Nite and Day." The track flows along languidly on a bed of congas, cowbells, minor key synth chords (the opening progression reminds me a bit of Bob Marley's "Is This Love"), and Nefertiti kisses.

But as a kid, I couldn't stand "Sign Your Name." I remember hearing it repeatedly during the Summer of '88 (it peaked at #4), and finding it ... weird, and annoying. First of all, I couldn't figure out what he was saying in the chorus. I thought the lyric was "Cyanade across my heart/I want you to be my lady." You know, "cyanade"? Like a combination of cyanide and lemonade? Hey, it could have been a thing. I was also irritated that the lyrics in the chorus didn't really rhyme; I kept expecting a counterpart to "heart," but he merely repeats it, rhyming "lady" with "baby" instead.

Twenty years passed. Egyptian dynasties rose and fell, like so many birds looking into the sun. When I finally heard the song again, I realized how sadly underdeveloped my eight-year-old taste in music had been. Now I'm into "Sign Your Name" about as heavily as D'arby was into random name changes. For a supposed "80s R&B ballad," it oozes an eerie, surreal atmosphere, particularly thanks to the swirling, Beatle-esque string section that pops up around the bridge, rendering the artist's Sgt. Pepper comparisons not entirely absurd (and did "Strawberry Fields" ever feature a layer of silky smooth doo-wop backing vocals?). I do roll my eyes slightly at D'arby's melismatic, Wonder-licious "Hey-eyyy-aaayy-aaayy!" at 3:55, but, you know, when you've envisioned a song this beguiling, you've kind of earned the right to let your inner Stevie loose.

In the video, D'arby comes off less like a Prince wannabe and more like a young Marlon Brando who accidentally found himself trapped inside Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy. He's the bad boy motorcycle rebel with a bohemian, sensitive side. He'll stare down rival suitors in a bar ... and then bring a teddy bear home to the daughter of that hot single mom. All I'm saying is, if he ever wants joint custody of that girl, he better be prepared to sign his name.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Zrbo Reviews: VNV Nation's Noire

It's been five years since futurepop mavens VNV Nation released a studio album. Much has happened in that time, both for the band and in the world at large. The band released Resonance, an orchestral album of some of their biggest hits, followed by tours throughout Europe accompanied by a classical orchestra. More recently the band announced the departure of drummer Mark Jackson, meaning the pretense of the band as a duo, drummer Mark Jackson and frontman Ronan Harris, had finally dissolved. The band had always been Harris's creation anyway, with Jackson serving as a sort of wingman. The ground was set for a new era of VNV Nation.

In those five years the world changed too. Gone are the days of a perceived bright sunny Obama-led future, when Osama bin Laden had been defeated and the world looked to have pulled itself up from a Great Recession. That feeling has been replaced with the fracturing Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the rise in nationalism, the weakening of alliances, and the realization that our democratic institutions aren't as strong as we thought.

This all brings us to Noire, the tenth studio album by VNV Nation. As the album title makes clear, Noire is a darker affair. The wistful longings for a perfect future have been replaced with dour warnings of impending doom. Whereas on 2011's Automatic Harris sang an upbeat song called "Gratitude", Noire contains numerous worries about the end of days.

Now, don't be mistaken, because VNV have long flirted with the idea of the eschatological. The 2000 remix album Burning Empires gave us the song "Further" which pondered: "At the end of days, at the end of time/When the sun burns out, will any of this matter?", and Futureperfect's "Carbon" asked "In 10,000 years, what will be our legacy?". Noire makes the danger feel more immediate - more a matter of decades rather than millenia.

Noire marks many firsts for the band. It's the first VNV Nation album that doesn't feature the band's iconic torch and flame logo on the cover. At thirteen tracks it's their longest album to date, and at just shy of 74 minutes nearly exhausts the amount a CD can fit. Regarding album structure, this is the first VNV album to eschew an instrumental or spoken word intro track. And where the band would usually end each album with a track that pulls the themes of the album together in some uplifting and anthemic way (see "Perpetual", "Where there is Light", and "Radio" to name a few), here the final song is aggressive and chilling in its urgency.

At times Noire recalls VNV's early albums, such as Advance & Follow or Praise the Fallen. Many of the songs are also lyrically dense, bringing back a lyrical complexity that more recent albums have at times skimped on. The production is superb. Noire is at times a dark, brutal beast, but at other times contains some of the most delicious melodies the band has ever produced. There's also a sense that Harris is toying with the acoustics more, something perhaps inspired by his time working on the orchestral Resonance project. And, while it almost sounds obvious, given this is the band's 10th album, and with Harris approaching elder-statesmanhood in the genre, there's an overwhelming sense of maturity to be found here.

Let's dive in.


The album begins with the menacing "A Million". Over a foreboding drone Harris begins with an intonation of something resembling a prophecy or prayer telling of a coming end. The track morphs from there utilizing a steady beat. There's an interesting callback lyrically to "Teleconnect (Part 2)", the final track from the previous album Transnational, where Harris sang of finally fighting his demons. Here at the beginning of Noire he suggests the fight continues with the lines: "I know you too well and I know you by name/I fought you, I defeated you time and again". The final lines of "A Million" offer a glimmer of hope that love will conquer all, but in contrast to the rest of the song they feel almost unearned.

The first time I heard "A Million" I was a bit caught off guard - not only is it not a typical VNV instrumental opener, it's the complete opposite: a dark club track with gloomy lyrics fortelling the end of days. After repeated listens though it's really grown on me, and it's nice to see the band break out of it's typical introductory formula.

The album then shifts gears and gives us "Armour". Harris sure does love British spellings (see "Honour" and "Colours of Rain"). Alongside some perky synths Harris sings of donning his metaphorical armor when he tires of the world. That may sound a bit cheesy, but Harris has always had a certain earnestness in his voice that helps sell his lyrics, and I absolutely love the lyrics here.

"Armour" also experiments with acoustics, or more specifically the sound of Harris's voice. I had seen the song performed live (on YouTube) before the album was released and so I had a certain expectation of how it would sound on the album. But here Harris has unexpectedly done something to his vocals that make them sound like they're floating above the music, almost a little dream-like. There's also a deliberate stiltedness in his delivery, note how in the opening when he sings "when I falter when I tire/of a world that leaves me cold inside" the slight pause between the two lines.

At first I thought these were odd choices but after a few listens I've warmed up to them and now "Armour" is quite possibly one of my favorite songs in the band's entire catalog. It's like candy to my ears and at just over four minutes it feels like every second is utilized perfectly. There's also a lot of well used VNV references that will sound familiar to long time fans (e.g., tempests, mortals, being lost at sea), which help give it the makings of a VNV classic.

"God of All" follows and brings back that similar drumbeat from Automatic finale "Radio", the one I described as "despite being unrelentingly thumping, has a surprising amount of bounce to it". There's always been a slight mystery as to what Harris's religious leanings are (ex-Catholic? Atheist? perhaps Buddhist?) and "God of All" seems to directly address that relationship. The chorus, in keeping with the theme of the album, seems to suggest we've lost our way. This track has excellent placement coming right after the energizing "Armour", and stands as one of my favorites.

"Nocturne No. 7" functions as a palette cleanser and could be seen as marking the end of the first act of the album. This piece is obviously inspired by Harris's time with Resonance as we get a quiet, meditative, piano piece - it's like being at a somber piano recital. It's beautiful but at over six minutes it's perhaps a big of an indulgence on Harris's part.

"Collide" is next and follows wonderfully in that VNV tradition of the quiet, slowly building ballad that we've seen before with songs such as "Endless Skies" or "Secluded Spaces". "Collide" has an acoustic bigness, a depth to it, again demonstrating how much Ronan has learned from his time with Resonance. It starts off slow and introspective, transitions into something Vangelis-like in the middle, and turns into a full-on heart pounding ballad by the end. There's also the introduction of a sort of dreamy 80s synth that will return later in the album. I love the production on this one. At this point in his career Harris is just an ace at making these kinds of ballads and I'm not sure how he's ever going to top this one.

Next up is "Wonders", a mid-tempo number with a dreamy 80s feel. The synth has an almost vaporwave sound to it. Harris has great delivery on this one. It's like a melancholy Erasure song or even Pet Shop Boys. My only critique is that the opening line about about memories playing "like films on the wall" is nearly identical to the one expressed in 2005's "Arena" ("Before me plays the endless film").

"Immersed" and "Lights Go Out" share the role of the obligatory VNV album industrial dance floor-filler (see "Chrome", "Control", or Transnational's "Retaliate") and do their job admirably. "Immersed" takes a while to get going and, while it does have a fast beat, it's almost like a slow burn where before you know it you're immersed in the dance (pun intended). It ends somewhat abruptly but that works in its favor. There's echoes of Nitzer Ebb in its barking "Give me love" refrain.

"Lights Go Out" begins (and ends) with repeated air horn blasts but then dives immediately into another strong dance number. It's the song on the album with the most artifice - here Harris inhabits the role of a fictional character dancing in a nightclub during the world's end (at the fictional Club Vertigo). Despite that, the song has a nice grit to it, like it's something that would be playing in the basement of some dance club at the end of the world. In fact, I swear I've heard this very song playing in some nightclub at some point. It's like a revved up version of The Cure's "One Hundred Years". There's some fun lines here like: "Out with the old war, in with the new/dressed to the nines/atomic chic looks so good on you". I appreciate that it's a svelte four minutes long - it gets in, does its job, and gets out.

"Guiding" marks what could be seen as the end of the album's second act. Again, it's an instrumental, but this time it has more electronic elements to it (but still no beat). It reminds of "As It Fades" from 2007's Judgement. There's a bit of that dreamy 80s sounds again.

"When is the Future" brings back the energy in perhaps the most most straightforward track on the album. This one sounds the most like VNV and could have come from nearly any album of theirs from the past 15 years. That's not meant as a dis - this is a very confident track and feels almost effortless. It's got some of that electro-harpsichord we haven't heard since Automatic's "Space & Time". I love the lyrics and delivery on this one. In another VNV first we get the band's first official music video, where we follow the back of Ronan's head as he wanders around Tokyo.

"Only Satellites" is a fun, poppy song. It's got a strong pump-your-fist-along-to-the-beat/we-can-prevail feel. On a more positive album this would have been the album closer.

"Requiem for Wires" marks the end of the album's third act. A third and final beatless instrumental that recalls maybe the instrumental "PTF2012" from Praise the Fallen, or maybe even the hidden untitled track from the same album (remember when albums had hidden tracks?). This song reminds me strongly of music by Disasterpeace, especially something like the song "Compass".

The album ends on the monumental denouement of "All Our Sins", and boy what a doozy. In keeping with the album's theme, "All Our Sins" sounds like the final song you might hear before armageddon. The closest antecedent that I can think of comes from way back on VNV's first album: the Gaelic tinged "Amhran Comhrac". Maybe this is due to the song's unusual rhythm. It reminds me of VNV's early work but with a much more modern polish and production. The song starts off intense and just ramps up the bombast from there. It's also the albums longest song, clocking over seven minutes in length. It ends in a long orchestral crescendo, complete with timpani drums and blaring horns. I lamented in my review of Resonance that for orchestral renditions of VNV's songs they didn't sound big or grand enough as I'd have liked. This is like Ronan Harris's response to that criticism, giving me a big middle finger and going as big as possible. I'm not sure it's necessarily my preferred song on the album, but it's certainly memorable.


After consistently putting out albums every two years from 2005-2013 and after my mild disappointment with 2013's Transnational I had hoped that Ronan Harris might take some time off and find some new inspiration to draw upon. It seems the inspiration came to him, as the world changed significantly in the intervening years, and Noire feels like a response to that. As a long time fan, it was a long wait, but what we've ended with is a near masterpiece. Most bands put out their best work in their first few albums and then produce facsimiles of that sound for the rest of their days, rarely reaching those heights again. VNV Nation seems to work in the opposite direction, aging like a fine wine, or perhaps more appropriately a fine whiskey. Their albums on the whole just get better and better with each new release.

Noire occasionally zigs when I expected it to zag. It delivers a bleak message, but one that presents the tiniest bit of hope. For the entire duration of VNV Nation Ronan Harris has been delivering the message that if we just work together, we can build a better future. With Noire Harris is telling us that our time has come, that either we take this last chance to act now, or we let it all crumble to dust.

4.75/5 Zrbo points

Sunday, October 14, 2018

"I Get Weak," But Frothy Belinda Power Ballads Give Me Strength AKA When Two Dianes Collide

In the Random House Unofficial Guide to '80s Pop Stardom (woe to the aspiring Yuppie Rocker who failed to carry a copy), there must have been a sentence along these lines, somewhere on - or at least near - the front page: "If you're going to dive into the shamelessly slick, radio-friendly, songwriter-for-hire waters of the music business ... you better go all in." This, my friends, is what late '80s Belinda Carlisle understood so well. And so it was that Belinda, like a sailor in a brothel on shore leave, tried out every L.A. tunesmith she could get her hands on - and which is how she became the next recipient of the golden touch of one Dianne Warren, who, by 1988, was riding high on the glories of "Rhythm of the Night" and "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" (and had yet to bless us with such Macy's Fitting Room classics as "If I Could Turn Back Time," "Because You Loved Me," "Un-Break My Heart," and "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing"). From Lips Unsealed:
Then the great songwriter Dianne Warren came into the studio one day and played me "I Get Weak." Few people know the quality of Dianne's voice; it's gravelly and soulful and always moves me. "I Get Weak" was a perfect example. As she sang the final chorus, I literally felt weak myself.
Quick, someone fetch Belinda her smelling salts!

"I Get Weak" is one of those late '80s hits that has always just kinda sorta been "around," but, unlike its predecessor in the Belinda discography, has never, as far as I'm aware, become an object of kitsch or nostalgia or has in any way taken on further cultural significance. That said, it was arguably Belinda's second biggest solo hit, at least in the US, where it peaked at #2 (it hit #10 in the UK), kept out of the top spot by "Never Gonna Give You Up," which, as a few YouTube commentators have suggested, possibly makes Belinda the first person to ever be Rickrolled? Personally, I used to have a challenging time dissecting the lyrics of the chorus, originally hearing it as "I Can't Weep," or even the more nonsensical "I Can't Wheat." Perhaps it was an anthem for the gluten-intolerant? Maybe Belinda was an early pioneer for dietary justice. Talk about an unheralded trailblazer! Later I realized that ... those were not the lyrics.

When the first rush of Belinda Fever hit me around ... oh, I guess it's about eight years ago now (Jesus, what's happened to my life?), I felt that "I Get Weak" was, for lack of a better word, probably a little "weaker" than her other big smashes, lacking, say, the gothic majesty of "Heaven is a Place on Earth" or the semi-autobiographical sweetness of "Mad About You." "I Get Weak" was just a chunky, catchy, glossy, upbeat pop song, without any of the hidden drama of "Circle in the Sand" or "Summer Rain." These days, I don't give a shit what I thought eight years ago. All four minutes and eighteen seconds of "I Get Weak" give me the special tinglies. You want to hear a chunky, catchy, glossy, upbeat pop song that hits all the sweet spots? Here you freakin' go.

To get down to brass tacks, "I Get Weak" is all about the "whoa-oh" bridge. Sure, the stuff before that is cute. The track opens with three massive drum thwacks, followed by an even more massive keyboard hook and a couple of guitars that chug away on opposite sides of the stereo spectrum. But at 0:47, things get weird. First some faint "ooohs" appear in the background, then a couple of forceful cymbal strokes ratchet up the tension underneath the words "completely" and "lose," which seems to unleash the background singers, a veritable Warren tsunami whose "ooohs" increase in such volume that they threaten to drown out Belinda's lead, and then suddenly the song wobbles back and forth precariously on a melodic see-saw, Belinda literally sounding like she's trying to "steady" herself from her weakness as she sings "Whoaaaaa, whoa-oh, whoa-oh, whoa." Great Gadzooks! Is Belinda about to tumble to her MOR doom? Hark, but what's this? The chorus arrives at 1:06, and not only does Belinda recover, she lets it rip into next Tuesday. Hey, who's the weak one here: her or me?

The thing is, I think Belinda's distinctive vibrato gives the song an ironic tension that, in the hands of more conventionally "powerful" future Warren interpreters such as Toni Braxton or Celine Dion, it might not otherwise have had. Not many singers can sound fragile and vulnerable one moment and tough as Jackie Chan's femur the next. Vocal highlights:
  • 0:20: As she draws out "When I'm with youuuu," she sounds so ... lusty.
  • 0:27: "My tongue is tie-ie-ie-ie-ied" - she literally sounds like her tongue is tied right there; fortunately, Rick Nowels must have jumped up and untied it before Belinda proceeded to choke to death.
  • 0:37: "Can't eat, can't sleep" - Now that Belinda has gone into detail about her struggles with an eating disorder around the time of Heaven on Earth, I have to say, I feel like this line carries a bit more punch to it these days.
  • 1:42: As the chorus winds down, her singing starts to become a little, well, "weak," and I'm kind of wondering if she's up to the task of keeping her energy level up throughout the rest of the song, you know, and then out of nowhere she growls out "Ah-I get weak!!" with the force of a thousand yuppie volcanoes and I instantly cower in the corner and pray to Almighty God that Belinda doesn't blast me off the face of the earth.
  • 4:07: The third time through the chorus, she intentionally stutters on the word "eye," gradually allowing it to morph into the "I" at the start of "I get weak." Clever, clever!
As if one Belinda Carlisle video wasn't enough, Diane Keaton decided to direct two. I'll have to dock this one a couple of points for a discernible lack of wall-humping and globe-fondling, but other than that, it's not bad. The key visual concept appears to be that the video is more or less in black and white aside from a few random objects such as bed sheets, ribbons, flames, flowers, Belinda's red lips, etc. You know that scene in Schindler's List with the girl in the red coat? It's like that, only bleaker. I'm not sure what the thematic purpose of this effect is. Maybe, when you're weak, you can't see videos in full color? One perhaps unintended consequence of this trippy color effect is that it makes Belinda, at least in the section from 0:20 to 1:06, look disturbingly pale rather than disturbingly gorgeous (as one might describe her appearance in the remainder of the clip). I mean, I know she was doing drugs and everything, but come on, she didn't look that pallid. Give me the Belinda in the blue satin dress and long black gloves (starting at 1:52) instead! Now here, ladies and germs (former Germs?), was a woman capable of the kind of old-fashioned Hollywood glamour that the '80s, frankly, didn't deserve. You know that section in "Vogue" where Madonna lists all those mid-20th century fashion icons? She should have just recited Belinda Carlisle's name twenty times in a row and called it a day. Q: How can you look absolutely stunning while hardly revealing any actual skin? A: Be Belinda Carlisle in the "I Get Weak" video, that's how. For example, what the hell is she wearing at the start of this clip? It's like a ... long overcoat, a long skirt, a white t-shirt, black boots ... she's covered from head to toe and yet, she's still so hot, she's literally setting boxes of chocolates on fire. To be fair, she is showing a decent amount of cleavage in that blue dress, but somehow it's ... tasteful cleavage. I mean, petals fall from the sky when she dances. Petals!

I would also be remiss if I failed to mention the identity of the hunk on the video screen, a certain Tony Ward, better known as "One of Madonna's Boyfriends." Indeed, after serving as the catalyst for Belinda's weakness, Ward went on to appear in the videos for "Cherish," "Erotica," and most notoriously, "Justify My Love." I'm no expert on these matters, but some YouTube commentators feel he might actually be a bit "weak" in the heartthrob department:
Great song from the 80s..but imo, they could've gotten a better looking guy than who they picked for this video.

Weird video since the guy she is weak over isnt good looking at all. lol

Sorry but I find him too Sean Penn-ish. Doesn't work for me.
Sure, but has he interviewed any Mexican drug lords lately? Also, if what various YouTube commentators intimate is true (that Ward got his start in gay porn), the resulting controversy surrounding "Justify My Love" supposedly wouldn't have phased him one bit. I mean, abandoning the lucrative promise and glamour of gay porn for ... Madonna and Belinda Carlisle videos? That's pretty weak. Other YouTube comments that got a chuckle out of me:
if she said she was in love with me, i wouldnt question it

Teenage me thought that she was finer than frog hair.

Belinda was adorable when you can make those bizarre hairstyles look good you know you're a pretty girl.

Belinda if your seeing this I’m still a stud at 54. Let’s hook up

Late '80s-early '90s Belinda Carlisle was every guy's dream. Period. I remember when she was on Letterman during this period in her career -- and he was just a babbling idiot. And I'm not saying that to disparage Dave; he just could not believe his eyes that a woman could be that gorgeous. I got to see her on tour when she opened for Robert Palmer in the summer of '86. Eleventh row, floor. Oversized, lime-green top, chunky bracelets, and purple heels. Oh, yeah. She was awesome.

If I could have sex with a voice, it would be her's.

i remember the single of this came out in the dead of winter 1988,i bought the cassingle and drove all around syracuse getting drunk and mooning people cranking this tune.

I hate to break this to you, Belinda, but from the symptoms you’ve described here you’re not in love; you have MS.

At the end when he she covers his mouth and his head falls back and kind of smiles, it's like she's preventing him from screaming as the cloroform kicks in.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

What Have I Done To Deserve "What Have I Done To Deserve This?"?

Gather around children: has Grandpa ever told you about the heyday of the '60s British Pop Diva?

Better get comfortable. One of my favorite subgenres of '60s pop is one that either rock scholars have barely acknowledged, or one that I happen to have personally defined: the genre of the "60s British pop diva." This was a thing, yes? Granted, it wasn't a particularly large genre. Some genres contain a roll call of hundreds of artists, and maybe a critic could reduce the key artists to a list of six. Well, the '60s British pop diva genre was literally a genre of six. Sure, I suppose you had your Twinkles and your Jackie Trents, but let's get real here: when we're talking about '60s British pop divas, we're talking about Petula Clark, Cilla Black, Marianne Faithful, Lulu, Sandie Shaw ... and Dusty Springfield.

While the boys were having all their fun please pleasing her and getting off their clouds and wanting to be with her all day and all of the night and falling to ruin in the House of the Rising Sun and whatnot, the girls were off shopping downtown and giving their hearts to Sir with love and sleeping in the subway, dahling. You know what the best of these songs sound like? Imagine someone melting down the entirety of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg into a three-minute pop single. That's what the best of these songs sound like.

In general, the '60s British pop diva was a transatlantic phenomenon, but Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw never really caught on over here like the other four. Petula Clark had two #1 hits in the US, Lulu had "To Sir With Love," and Marianne Faithful dated Mick Jagger, so everyone in America certainly knew who she was. Despite having several of her singles written by Lennon-McCartney, Cilla Black only managed to have one US Top 40 hit, "You're My World," which peaked at #26, but at least she beat out Sandie Shaw, whose biggest US hit, "Girl Don't Come," peaked at #42. Shaw released arguably the best version of Bacharach-David's "(There's) Always Something There To Remind Me," which hit #1 in the UK, but most of my Stateside peers are almost certainly more familiar with Naked Eyes' radically reinvented synth-pop version.

And then ... there was Dusty Springfield. Of all the '60s British pop divas, Springfield probably garners the most critical respect, the most admiration from fellow musicians, the most "street cred." For example, the only '60s British pop diva to receive a five-star rating on AMG for anything, be it an album or compilation, is Dusty Springfield. It is said that she had more "soul." Springfield was probably the only '60s British pop diva who could have sung a duet with Martha Reeves on television and not have looked like an idiot. Like Shaw and Black, she also benefited from the Bacharach-David songbook, scoring big hits in the US with "Wishing and Hoping" and "The Look of Love." Her 1969 album Dusty In Memphis always shows up on "greatest album" lists (and, despite my initial skepticism, is an album I enjoy almost as much as I think I'm supposed to). But by 1987, the hits had long dried up. Pondering her future in the world of entertainment, she may have spent many long nights sitting by the fire, scotch in hand, thinking to herself, " I don't know-whoa, how I'm gonna get through, how I'm gonna get through."

Fast-forward to 1987. As it went with '60s British pop, so it went with '80s British pop: some acts made it across the pond, some didn't. I've always been quietly impressed that, unlike peers such as, say, the Smiths, the Pet Shop Boys somehow managed to become highly popular on mainstream American radio. Not impressed with the band, mind you, but impressed with Americans. What do you think it was? Neil Tennant's milder, less pronounced accent? Their choice of genre (fey dance-pop rather than jangly guitar-rock)? Their wholesome, strait-laced, conservative Christian lifestyle?

That said, while the Pet Shop Boys may have scored several U.S. Top 40 hits in the '80s, I don't personally remember hearing too many of those hits in my youth. I first heard "West End Girls" on alternative rock radio in the '90s. When I acquired the Discography collection in college, most of the tracks, I have to say, were unfamiliar to me. But when "What Have I Done to Deserve This" came out of my CD player that day, well ... talk about Flashback City. For several years now, I've been harboring plans to eventually add a "synth-pop" series to Little Earl Loves the Music of the '80s, but at the rate I'm currently going, I may be living in an underground bunker and subsisting solely off the flesh of sewer rats by the time I get around to it. Obviously, the Pet Shop Boys are (were?) to receive a thorough treatment in such a series. However, this song is so Summer of '88 that I simply had to post on it now. I mean had to. While I probably enjoyed the track back in 1988, I possessed complete ignorance of key details, such as, for example, the fact that it represented the re-emergence of Dusty Springfield, what the phrase "pour the drinks" meant, or even what a gay person was.

It seems strangely fitting, given their respective levels of success in the U.S. or lack thereof, that when the Smiths chose to resurrect a '60s British pop diva, they chose Sandie Shaw, while when the Pet Shop Boys chose to resurrect a '60s British pop diva, they chose Dusty Springfield. From Wikipedia:
Despite having established themselves as a group, Morrissey and Marr still harboured ambitions that they would be recognized as songwriters by having their songs covered by others. Their top choice was singer Sandie Shaw, who had scored several hits throughout the 1960s and was one of the most prominent British vocalists of her era. In the summer of 1983, Marr and Morrissey began asking Shaw to cover their song "I Don't Owe You Anything", which they had conceived with her in mind to perform. The pair sent Shaw various letters coupled with song demos. Shaw was sceptical at first; she was discouraged by the negative media attention that accompanied the Smiths song "Reel Around the Fountain", and when she received a copy of "Hand in Glove" in the mail, she reportedly exclaimed to her husband "he's started sending me pictures of naked men with their bums showing!"
Eventually the unbridled enthusiasm of the two Mancunians won out, and in 1984 Shaw recorded a version of the Smiths' debut single, "Hand in Glove," with Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce providing back-up. The song peaked at #27 in the UK, but didn't make a peep over here. While I'm glad Shaw was good-humored enough to acquiesce to Morrissey and Marr's odd bit of obsessive hero worship, the final product strikes me as more along the lines of a wacky stunt, rather than a natural, logical collaboration.

By contrast, whereas the Smiths had simply asked Shaw to reinterpret material that had originally been birthed in an entirely different context, and then let her ham it up, the Pet Shop Boys wrote a fresh new track for their cherished heroine, and then conceived it as a playful duet. What I think makes "What Have I Done to Deserve This" sweet without being contrived is that it does not, in any obvious way, reference Springfield's past work (unlike the way that, say, Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight" references Ronnie Spector's "Be My Baby"). No siree, not the Pet Shop Boys. These two were above the cheap gimmick, the easy lure, regurgitated hook. Rather, they simply let her join in on another highly contemporary, devilishly deadpan Pet Shop Boys single. As a result, her appearance doesn't feel to me like a token one, or an appearance given out of pity. She sounds like she belongs, which makes the final product quietly inspiring (she also apparently borrowed Rod Stewart's hair and wardrobe for the video). "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" is gentle sound of the triumph ... of the survivor. Perhaps somewhat annoyed that fellow '60s survivor Grace Slick never needed to have a "comeback" in the first place, I almost feel like Springfield slips into her best Grace Slick impression during the fade-out, eager to show her how it's done as she belts, "We don't have to fall apart, we don't have to fight/We don't need to go to hell and back every night." Hell and back, indeed. What had Dusty Springfield done to deserve this comeback? As far as Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were concerned, a hell of a lot.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Benefit Concert So Nice, Phil Played It Twice AKA Who Could Have Possibly Conquered Their Crippling Addiction ... On The Concorde?

Like a kid running up a downward-moving escalator (as the whole family watches on with a mixture of mild protestation and grudging admiration), Phil Collins decided to get "cute" with Live Aid. You know why they set up Live Aid on two separate stages, on two separate continents? To make it as easy as possible for as many performers from the U.S. and the U.K. as possible to participate on the same day. The whole point was that no one would have to fly across the ocean in a panic to play both concerts. Because who in their right mind could possibly play two different cities on two different continents on the same day? You'd have to be a maniac. You'd have to be a masochist. You'd have to be a madman.

On July 13, 1985, Phil Collins played at Wembley Stadium in London. Then, just a few hours later, he played at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. And if they'd asked him to play at a third stadium on a third continent, he would've done that too.

Sure, they were broadcasting both concerts on worldwide television, so in theory, neither audience on either continent was going to be denied their fill of Phil. But what if you'd wanted to see Phil Collins ... in person? I mean, just imagine little Johnny from New Jersey, who had been desperately hoping to see his personal role model and number one favorite singer-drummer in all of Christendom, suddenly learning that Phil was going to be playing at Wembley instead. You would have never seen a child's heart - so pure, so precious - be crushed so cruelly. And imagine little Pete, who lived in West London, hearing that the one and only Chiswick, Middlesex legend himself, Phil Collins, was going to be playing in that refuge of traitors to the Crown, Philadelphia, which was an affront to all that was sacred and Arthurian! But this way, both little Johnny and little Pete were able to receive their utmost wish. Phil was thinking of the children, the children.

First up: London. His shirt suggests a sudden escape from a chain gang, which is fitting, as his music conveys the profound sadness of an ancient Negro spiritual. Those in the crowd who were expecting tom-tom fills and synthesized brass, however, would've been caught completely off-guard. At Live Aid, Phil Collins traveled light. Say hello to Elton Collins. Phil sat at the piano, solamente, and played only two songs, "Against All Odds" and "In the Air Tonight" (apparently because they were the only two songs of his he knew how to play in their entirety on the piano).

This is Phil Collins unplugged, unadorned, unfiltered, uncensored. This is Grade A, Raw, Organic, Locally Sourced Phil - no preservatives, no artificial flavors. This is one man reaching out to the world and giving it a popsicle - not one of those popsicles made from a giant vat of corn syrup, but a popsicle made from real fruit juice. Although there are 72,000 people in the stadium, Phil's performance is so intimate and personal, I'm partially convinced he thought he was merely serenading the glass of water resting on the piano in front of him. The recorded evidence suggests he was quite aware of the size of his audience, however; he appears to be terrified out of his mind, muttering to himself "Let's see if I can get through this" before commencing. The piano slip-up at 1:09 merely reinforces the spontaneous intensity of the occasion. By the end, Phil practically leans into every chord, his shoulders sagging with exaggerated relief as he crosses the finish line.

Curiously, "In the Air Tonight" takes on more of a feathery, regal quality in this piano-and-vocals setting. Intentionally or not, the echo traveling throughout the stadium partially duplicates the eerie atmospherics of the studio original. That said, when he reaches the point where the massive drum fill would normally come in, he pauses, slyly turns to the camera as if to say, "Were you waiting for something?" and then proceeds with his piano-playing. Toward the end he even starts throwing in some fancy fingerwork as he shreds his vocals to their MOR core. You know what Bob Geldof was feeling in the air that night? All the piles and piles of money that were supposedly coming in to supposedly help feed the starving African children, that's what.

Then, the Concorde flight. Not even Charles and Diana's wedding was covered so breathlessly. Here's a clip of the BBC interviewing Phil as he boards:

And yes, here's a clip of the BBC interviewing Phil ... in mid-air. Maybe it's just me, but does the connection sound a bit ... static-y? I mean, if not for the little caption at the bottom saying "PHIL COLLINS TALKING LIVE FROM CONCORDE," I'd honestly have no idea who they were talking to. It could've been Bigfoot for all I can tell. Hell, maybe they faked this whole thing! Just look at that airplane footage and tell me that's the actual footage of Phil's actual flight. At any rate, if Phil was hoping his little stunt would attract significant media attention ... he was right. Maybe it's easy to yawn in retrospect, but here's what I'm thinking: It's just an airplane! They travel fast! Get over it people!

I think Jack Nicholson and Bette Midler, who appear to have been MCs at the Philadelphia concert, might have been feeling the same way I do about this whole deal. Do they strike anyone else as being somewhat less than sincere in their amazement at Phil's feat? Bette sounds like she's being forced to act excited at gunpoint, while Jack sounds like he'd just smoked a spliff backstage and couldn't give a crap who flew in from where:
Bette: Yes, Jack?!

Jack: Do you know that ... uh ... Phil Collins just arrived here from London?

Bette: He did?

Jack: Flew over on the Concorde.

Bette: No ... kidding!

Jack: The only man that's gonna play both sides of the concert.

Bette: That is unbelievable!

Jack: Unbelievable, isn't it? In this day and age.

Bette: Un-be-liev-a-ble!

Jack: Miracles can be wrought.

Bette: It's beyond me. I tell ya, if I didn't know, I would say that that was impossible. But ... the truth is ... everything is possible. We can beat time, we can beat hunger, if we just pull together. Jack Nicholson and I are thrilled to be standing in front of ... PHIL COLLINS!
Yes, Bette. If Phil Collins can perform on both stages of Live Aid, then ... then ... nothing can hold us back as a species.

Although Phil appears to have grabbed a new shirt (possibly from his Wembley co-performer Sting?), he performs the exact same repertoire he performed in London. What's with the cameraman stealing Phil's towel (at 2:50)? Hey, Phil flew all the way across the ocean, all right? Dude's exhausted. He needed that towel! Besides, if you're a cameraman who's going to swipe a towel from Phil Collins's piano, couldn't you at least point the camera in a different direction while you're snatching it?

During this second version of "In the Air Tonight," when Phil pauses at the "drum fill" moment, instead of leaving him in silence, the audience begins singing the drum fill. That's right, singing it. As one YouTube commentator put it, "Wait a second, was certain sections of the crowd actually singing back the iconic drum fill? That is bad ass!" City of Brotherly Love, that's what I'm talkin' about. Way to step up. I love the moment during the broadcast where the producers superimpose Phil's face over the massive crowd (around 2:22), as if to suggest that Phil and the audience have truly become one. You'd also think Phil might have held something back at this point, but the outro might be even more spine-tingling in this version than in the London version. He's like the T-1000 - not even an exploding truck of liquid nitrogen could defeat him.

But seriously ... I enjoy these versions quite a bit. They demonstrate that Phil Collins could actually sing "live," without the "aid" of Auto-Tune, or multi-tracking, or other devious studio tricks. For just a few moments, he is the only person performing on the stage, and yet ... he is utterly compelling. We are in the presence of a true star.

The truth is, Phil couldn't have given a flying (across the Atlantic) fuck about Ethiopian famine, or raising funds for charity, or bringing two continents together, or any of that crap. In the end, the entire purpose of his Live Aid stunt was, once again, just to score some drugs. From In the Air Tonight:
It was four in the morning, July 13, 1985. I was sitting on the john in my London flat, my eyes redder than Satan's testicles. Remember that stash of horse tranquilizer I'd finally tracked down in that Stockholm gym? Gone, all gone. I needed another fix ASAP. I was prepared to do anything necessary to get my hands on some more shit - I mean anything. If I'd needed to suck off every single Taylor in Duran Duran for another batch, by God, I would have done it. I called Julio.

"Senior Collins! Why you awake ahora? What is el tiempo in London?"

"Save me the lecture, I need more shit."

"What about the Swedish stuff?"

"I'm out, I tell you! Had the last bit of it two days ago."

"Felipe, Felipe. I cannot work miracles. Do I look like Santa Claus to you?"

"Ho ho ho, you Cuban cunt. You know where I can find some more. Don't hide out on me."

"Un momento." Julio paused in thought. "Ah! I know a guy in Philadelphia."


"I can hook you up."

"But ... I'm in London!"

"Take the next flight then."

I called the airport. The first flight to Philadelphia out of Heathrow was leaving in ... twelve hours? And it was going to take six hours in the air? No no no. I simply wasn't going to be able to make it that long. I needed a better plan, and fast. I opened the front door and grabbed the morning paper. Then it came to me. It was right there on the front page:

Live Aid.

I thumbed through my Rolodex and found Bob Geldof's number.

"Phil? It's 5:00 am!"

"I've got an idea."

"Listen, I've got a thousand logistical details to look after, you already said no to the concert, telling me those Ethiopian children could, and I quote, 'choke on a fucking chicken bone for all I care.' What do you want?"

"I changed my mind."


"I ... I want to do the concert."

"Uh ... that's great Phil! That's great. I'm not ... uh ... sure where I can fit you in, this is pretty last minute, you know? You're in town, right?"


"Hmm. Sting's doing a set around 3:00pm, maybe I can ... squeeze you in there somewhere?"

"Bob, hear me out."

"You'll have to just sit at a piano or something, we won't have time to rehearse a full band. I don't know if Sting will be up for it, but it can't hurt to ask -"



"I want to play London ... and Philadelphia."

The phone grew silent.

"I want to do both shows."

"Listen, Phil, I know you haven't been thinking too clearly lately, there've been rumors going around that you've got some substance abuse issues, I never pay attention to that kind of talk myself, but ... what the fuck are you talking about?"

"Here's the plan: I play in London, you arrange a flight for me on the Concorde, and then I play in Philadelphia. We'll make a whole big 'thing' out of it."

"Sure, but ... what's the point of that?"

"The point? The point? The point, Bob, is that people will see how much fucking effort I'm going through on behalf of the starving fucking children, that they will fork over their hard-earned money for your stupid fucking cause, all right?"

I barely got to Wembley in one piece. You know that piano flub? I made that flub, not out of nervousness, but out of horse tranquilizer withdrawal. I swear, if I'd had to play more than two songs, I would have slit Sting's throat right there on the stage.

We got to the airport. "Out of my fucking way, everybody! Phil Collins needs to get on the fucking Concorde to save the fucking starving children, all right?" A little old curly-haired lady was waiting to get on board; I sprayed her with a can of mace. Suddenly, we were in the air. It was happening.

I had smuggled on board Rot Rot, my cherished hedgehog friend, who people kept trying to tell me was imaginary, but I never listened to them.

"We're on the fucking Concorde, Rot Rot! Right in the middle of Live Aid! Isn't this fucking crazy?"


"The BBC's about to interview me! In the air! Tonight!"

My spindly companion looked me directly in the eyes. "Philip. I've held my tongue for a long time. But listen to me carefully. I think you have a problem."

"Problem? What are you talking about? They said it couldn't be done, but I'm doing it! I'm playing both concerts! On the same fucking day! Against all odds, dude!"

"You know why you're really doing this concert. You can't fool me. You need help."

"Help? Help? I can quit any time I want to."

"Oh, Phillip. Listen to yourself."

"Look, just enjoy the fucking flight, all right? I'm going to do the same two songs I just did, and then I'm going to play drums for the Led Zeppelin reunion! Isn't that wild??"

He gazed down longingly at the Atlantic churning beneath us. "Honestly, Phillip, I miss those carefree days of yore."

I let out a sigh. "Me too, Rot Rot, me too." I stared out at the wispy nimbus formations floating by me. "Just this one more score, and then I'll scale it back, all right?" I reached into my bag and gave him a tickle.

Soon as we landed, I took a limo to the stadium, and met Julio's connection in a run-down restroom near the parking kiosk. He gave me a shot right in the butt, and I was good to go. You can see that my second performance was just about mistake-free. That was probably why. Anyway, great concert, Live Aid. Glad I did it.