Sunday, February 18, 2018

No Jacket Required, Great Sleeper Cuts Optional AKA Phil's X-Rated Attempt To "Thaw" The Cold War

Like all great '80s pop stars, from Michael Jackson to Madonna, it seems like the more popular Phil Collins got, the ... what's the word? The ... crappier he got. How come this never happened to performers in the '60s? Quick: name the great '60s pop stars who actually got crappier the more popular they became. Neil Diamond? Blood, Sweat & Tears?

No Jacket Required. It's got quite the resume. Sold 12 million copies in the U.S. alone. For perspective, the best-selling Genesis album of all time, Invisible Touch, only sold half that. Won the Album of the Year Grammy. Spawned four Top 10 singles. Hit #1 in countries that didn't even exist yet. Ended the Cold War. Invented the internet. All those achievements, and still ... somehow, I prefer his first two solo albums. There may have been "no jacket required," all right, but apparently tacky '80s production was mandatory.

Songs on No Jacket Required that don't really do much for me: "Only You and I Know," "I Don't Wanna Know," "Who Said I Would," "Doesn't Anybody Stay Together Anymore," "Inside Out" ... and you can probably throw "Sussudio" and "Don't Lose My Number" onto that pile, even though they were hits and they kind of make me chuckle. God, even the titles are bland. "Long Long Way to Go"? More like "Long Long Way to Go Before I Start Paying Attention to This Song." That particular cut contains a bit of the eerie, ambient atmosphere of "In the Air Tonight," except with a questionable trade-off: instead of the world's greatest drum entrance, we get smoky backing vocals from ... Sting? I guess he'd had enough of his harem of Taiwanese concubines that week and decided he'd pop over to Phil's studio for a change. At least "Doesn't Anybody Stay Together Anymore" has a funny story behind it. From a 1986 interview with Phil in Playboy:
You know, I was very happily married to Jill, my present wife, when I wrote it, but I had been divorced, my manager was getting divorced, a couple of good friends were getting divorced, and I thought, What's going on? Doesn't anybody stay together any more? The song came from that.
The answer is no, Phil. No, nobody stays the fuck together anymore, all right? And it's better that way. In the olden days, sure, people used to stay together, but you know what? They would spend every waking hour of their lives loathing each other and finding ways to passively-aggressively destroy each other's, and their children's, lives. For the record, Phil eventually divorced Jill.

Despite sounding like Prince's leftover throat mucus, "Don't Lose My Number" somehow climbed to #4, but maybe it was the tongue-in-cheek video that did it. Per Wikipedia:
Collins did not know what he would use as a video theme for "Don't Lose My Number", so he decided to create a video showing his decision process in selecting a theme for it. In the video, Collins talks to various "directors", who all give him bad ideas for the video. Their suggestions allow Collins to parody several other music videos of the time, including videos by Michael Jackson, "Weird Al" Yankovic, David Lee Roth ("California Girls"), Elton John ("I'm Still Standing"), The Police ("Every Breath You Take"), and The Cars ("You Might Think"), as well as movies such as Mad Max 2 and various samurai movies and Westerns.
Highlights: 1) "Gunfighter" Phil; 2) "Post-Apocalyptic" Phil; 3) Phil's office being taken over by an aerobics class; 4) "Fake blood! Great, isn't it?" "Yeah, but it's not really me though." 5) The catatonic Japanese director couple. Seriously, I know he catches a lot of flak, but ... how can you hate a guy who makes a video like this?

At any rate. I remember listening to No Jacket Required a couple of years ago, getting all the way to Track #10, and thinking, "Man, what a wash." Other than "One More Night" and "Take Me Home," she just wasn't doing it for me. I was expecting at least a few hidden "gems-nesis," you know? If I'd been listening to the LP, I would have been even more disappointed, because the album contains a CD-only bonus track called "We Said Hello Goodbye," and holy shit.

You won't find a Roland TR-808, LinnDrum, or Oberheim DMX in these waters. There's nary a trace of MiniMoog bass to be heard. Instead, an elegant grand piano gives way to pastoral strings. During the chorus, Phil finds himself smothered in a swirling haze of neo-psychedelic guitar that suddenly evaporates, only to leave behind a pinging, heavily treated piano straight out of Pink Floyd's Meddle. But here's the biggest shock of all: When the drums come in about halfway through, they're completely free of gate, or fence, or hedge, or chicken wire: they actually sound like ... how can I put this? Drums!

Perhaps the title is a bit of a giveaway, but "We Said Hello Goodbye" is supremely Beatle-esque, or perhaps more accurately, Lennon-esque. Let's call it the best song Julian Lennon never wrote. It reminds me of something from a mid-'90s Elton John album, perhaps Made In England or The Big Picture - which is a compliment, I think? Hell, even Phil's arch-nemesis Noel Gallagher would've killed to have come up with a tune this haunting as an Oasis B-side. The song makes me feel like it's about 9:30pm and I'm sitting in the living room of my beautiful house in Marin, surrounded by trees and my white upper middle-class opulence. Now here's some Divorce Rock I can get behind. I find it perversely hilarious that Collins added this keeper to the CD as a "bonus" track. Phil, you're a maniac, really you are.

Finally: what's the deal with the outerwear-clarifying album title? From Wikipedia:
The album is named after an incident at The Pump Room restaurant in Chicago, Illinois. Collins, entering the restaurant with former Led Zeppelin lead vocalist Robert Plant was denied admittance because he did not meet the restaurant's dress code of "jacket required" for dinner while Plant was allowed in. Collins was wearing a jacket and argued about it. The maitre d'hotel argued that the jacket was not "proper". Collins said in an interview with Playboy that he was, at that point, never so mad in his life. After the incident, the singer often appeared on shows such as Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, denouncing the restaurant and telling his story. The management of the restaurant later sent him a complimentary sport coat and an apology letter, stating that he could come to the restaurant wearing whatever he wanted.

"I thought of different things to do. Like maybe going down there wearing the right kind of jacket and ordering a drink and just pouring it onto the floor and saying, 'Well, I've got a jacket on! You can't do anything to me.' Maybe I should smash a few photographs on the wall, a bit of the Robert Plant attitude. But I did nothing, of course. I just moaned about it."
Yes, of course Phil. You did nothing. You simply let them step on you, like you were an insignificant little gnat who crawled out of the three-year-old cream cheese, just as you've let people step on you your whole entire life. When will you finally stand up for yourself?

Of course, loyal readers know that Phil's whole "Sweater Vest Pushover" image is just a ruse, a ploy, to cover up his many, many misdeeds, and that the actual Phil Collins is one seedy hombre. Here's the real story behind the album's title:
I was relaxing in my favorite porn theater, The Mauve Glove, in Boulder, Colorado, watching Six Fists for Sister Sara, taking a break from another grueling tour schedule. After the lights went up, I wandered around back and chatted with the owner, my good friend Alexei Tsorotov, who I always called Billy (a nickname I gave him after a drunken incident in Fort Collins involving a pistol shootout and a transgender bull - can't go into it right now). Alexei mixed up a special concoction of Russian vodka and horse tranquilizer just for me (the man knew how I rolled). I'm telling you, nothing beats a shot of Tsorotov's vodka with crushed ice. Mmmm!

"Phil! You touring Soviet Union someday?"

"You never know, Billy. Why do you care? You live in the States."

"Ahh, but if you ever tour Leningrad, you must stay with my cousin Tatiana. She is very ..." He held up his hands to his chest and made two giant circles with his fingers.

"I'll bet she is. You know me and Russian women. Hey, why don't you invite your cousin to Boulder? We can make a porn together."

"Phil, you know how tricky it is with the embassy and such -"

"Nonsense! I've got connections at the embassy like you wouldn't believe. I'll handle the whole thing. Just get Tatiana over here, and maybe a couple of her friends, you know, if they're up for a little 'adventure'."

"I can get a crew together in two weeks."

"Is Fyodor available? If we can get Fyodor to direct, I think we'd be all set."

"I call Fyodor. He has tight schedule, but maybe he can do it."

"We'll do one of those ski resort pictures, you know, where it's 20 degrees outside but their nipples get all erect." I gazed off toward the Rocky Mountains and lost myself in thought. "You know how they call this the 'Cold War'? How about a 'Cold Porn'?" I leaned toward Alexei with a grin on my face.

"Phil, you are always funny with the jokes. I make some calls tomorrow."

"I've got to skip town, you know, the next show, but tell me know it goes." I grabbed a pen and paper. "Billy, don't you lose my number."

So after the show in Salt Lake City, I got a call from Alexei. "Phil, I communicate with my cousin, and her friends Olga and Katarina, they all excited to come to Boulder for the film."

"Nice work! So what's the plan now?"

"You see, they not have much money, they are asking me what to bring, and it is a long, long way to go. They are confused. I am telling them it is a porno, and yet I am telling them it will be cold."

"So where's the confusion?"

"They want to know if they need to bring a jacket. In Soviet Union it is the law to wear jacket."

I thought for a moment. "Well, if they feel like bringing one, they can bring one, but if they don't, it's OK."


"This is America, all right? Just tell 'em: 'no jacket required'!"

"Yes, Phil. That's good."

"What about Fyodor?"

"I think he can do it."

"What about his DP? What's that guy's name? Michael or something?"


"Yeah, that's it. Can he do the film?"

"Ahh. He and Fyodor had falling out. They not working as team like before."

"Man." I let out a sigh. "Doesn't anybody stay together anymore?"

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Never Gonna Hear "Never Gonna Give You Up" The Same Way Again AKA I'll Have What That Bartender's Having

There once was a song. Those who heard this song were hard-pressed to name any aspect of the song that was remarkable in any way whatsoever: not the melody, not the lyrics, not the production. It was the most generic pop song in the history of popular songs. Naturally, given the tastes of the 1987/1988 record-buying public, this impressively generic song became a #1 hit in virtually every country in the Western world.

Sometimes, late at night, alone in the dark, I ask myself why. Why "Never Gonna Give You Up"? Why Rick Astley? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do fools fall in love? Why do hot dogs come in packages of ten, but hot dog buns come in packages of eight? Some possible answers:
  1. An invisible race of aliens secretly invaded planet Earth in 1987 and implanted "Never Gonna Give You Up" receptor chips into our feeble humanoid brains. Thus, when the song hit the airwaves, we were instinctively inclined to enjoy it, without fully being able to articulate why. 
  2. Stock Aitken Waterman deliberately gave the rhythm track the same number of beats per minute as the human heart. Listening to "Never Gonna Give You Up" is like ... listening to life itself. 
  3. Homo sapiens are nothing but a bunch of masochistic, self-loathing nihilists, and in late 1987/early 1988, we eagerly relished the opportunity to achieve this ultimate act of self-hatred. 
Valiant attempts, but still somehow unsatisfactory. Occasionally, a phenomenon comes along that simply cannot be explained, like the unicycle, or Pauly Shore. I'm afraid the initial popularity of "Never Gonna Give You Up" will remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of our age.

Question: Are there any actual instruments being played on this song? It's like scrolling through a news website and realizing that none of the actual stories on that site were even written by that site. I feel like I hear a string section, but is that really a string section? I feel like I hear horns, but are they really horns? Is this song just one giant illusion? Indeed, "Never Gonna Give You Up" could be considered Stock Aitken Waterman's most notorious display of studio magic - or should I say black studio magic? Best/worst production choices:
  • The faint echo of Rick Astley's voice that can be heard over the instrumental intro at 0:08 and 0:16 - it's like a foreshadowing of the horror to come 
  • The significantly heavier echo applied to the end of the second line of each verse ("So! do I-do-I-do-I," "Too shy, to say-it-say-it-say-it"). Please, somebody, help, let me out of here!-here-here-here... 
  • The silky bridge, with its choir of female sirens cooing "Ooh ... give-you-up," punctuated by Rick's gruff, spasmodic "Nevah-gonna-give! Nevah-gonna-give!", followed by a repeat of the second verse with all the "instruments" stripped away, leaving only Rick and whatever the hell that thing is that's making all those throbbing noises 
"Never Gonna Give You Up" was one of those songs I used to hear on the radio all the time and I never once gave it a moment's thought. I don't believe I particularly cared for it much. I used to get it mixed up with Rick Astley's other big hit, "Together Forever," and I also used to get Rick Astley mixed up a little bit with Michael McDonald, if you can imagine that. They both sound more black than they really are. That said, at least Michael McDonald sort of looks the way he sounds; Rick Astley looks like he'd sound like, I dunno, Morrissey? The point is, soft rock stations couldn't get their fill of "Never Gonna Give You Up." They wanted to have Rick Astley's baby. Then one day, I forgot about the song, and I didn't really miss it.

Fast-forward to 2008. A friend suddenly tells me about this new internet meme revolving around some cheesy song from the '80s. He tells me he's not familiar with the song. He sends me a link to the video. I instantly chuckle, and boast my extreme familiarity with the piece. Hey, I was grooving to "Never Gonna Give You Up" before the internet even existed, you damn kids! Actually, I hated the song back in the day, but I'll take my pop music street cred wherever I can find it.

The moment I heard about Rickrolling, I understood exactly why it was humorous. "Never Gonna Give You Up" was the epitome of inane, flavorless late '80s pop. There was absolutely nothing interesting about it. Suddenly, the song's utter lack of artistic value was what made its employment as a running gag so surreal and, dare I say, appropriate. The song was stupid. The meme was stupid. Somehow, like the invisible finger that forms above your nose when you place your two index fingers together and let your eyes lose focus, two stupid ideas met in a new, hidden dimension, and formed a brilliant idea.

Here's the strangest part of all: since Rickrolling became a thing, I actually like the song now. Perhaps this is what Karl Marx meant by his remark about history repeating itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Of course, as any true Rickrolling aficionado will tell you, half of the appeal of the meme is in the laughably dated, relentlessly clean-cut video, which, until 2008, I had never seen. Allow me, if I may, to perform a shot-by-shot analysis of the first 18 seconds of this music video:
  1. Close-up of Astley's ginger-coated skull bobbing up and down behind the tip of a microphone and in front of what appears to be a massive stained glass window with an oddly pinkish tint to it, although the movement of Astley's head against the background seems to suggest low-budget usage of a green screen. 
  2. Medium shot of Astley bobbing in the same manner as in Shot #1, again standing behind a (now more visible) microphone, and again in front of this supposed stained glass window, the medium shot revealing his outfit, which consists of a grey sport coat, a striped polo shirt, black belt, and khaki slacks. The shirt is tucked into his slacks, which seem to be pulled up unnervingly high - even for 1987. 
  3. Unexpected close-up of Astley's nondescript shoe. 
  4. Slightly more interesting close-up of Astley's hand. 
  5. Return to the medium shot, featuring Astley bending his elbows and wiggling his arms, but not, apparently, in time with the music. 
  6. Return to the close-up, mercifully sparing us his ill-advised elbow movements. 
  7. We're back to the elbow-jutting in another medium shot. I spoke too soon. 
  8. Close-up of Astley, now in an entirely new setting: it appears to be an ancient stone building with Renaissance-style arches. He's also wearing an entirely new wardrobe, consisting of a tan trench coat and a black turtleneck sweater. The enthusiasm of his smile is somewhat unsettling. One can also detect an occasional flash of light in the background. Is there ... a fireplace somewhere off camera? Did they film this in a lightning storm? During an air raid? What's going on back there? 
  9. Wide shot of Astley in front of the same brick building, featuring the same eerie flashes of light, but, as with Shot #8, revealing no explanation of the source. 
  10. Medium shot of Astley in front of the brick building that's almost as bland as he is. (Is the flickering light supposed to be from ... the reflection of water? Is he standing by a canal??) 
  11. A medium shot of a blonde-haired woman with a yellow ribbon in her hair, wearing a sleeveless black top, dancing in front of the "stained glass window" seen earlier. Initially her back is to the camera, and then, without warning, she spins around and reveals her wholesome, chipper face to the world. 
  12. Slightly wider shot of what appears to be a different blonde-haired woman with a yellow ribbon in her hair, as her black garment clearly has sleeves on it, while the other woman's does not. She performs some type of retro disco move with her left arm while dancing in front of the same pink-tinted "window" image. 
  13. Now we come to a third setting, this time in broad daylight. Rick is wearing sunglasses and a long-sleeve button up light blue shirt, possibly tucked in to an appallingly high-waisted pair of slacks, possibly not, leaning against a fence. This must be "Outdoorsman Rick." 
  14. Slightly wider shot of Outdoorsman Rick, the camera panning around his body as he shuffles his legs, claps, and punches an imaginary foe, again not in any apparent rhythm. And yes, the waist on his slacks is just as frighteningly high as it was on his first pair of slacks. 
  15. Close-up of another blonde woman, standing outdoors and wearing sunglasses like Rick, but also wearing some sort of lightly tie-dyed sleeveless summer dress, twirling gaily in front of a building with white bricks. The camera gradually zooms out as she twirls. 
  16. Close-up of the same woman twirling, although perhaps not capturing the same exact twirl as before. 
I ask you: has any video, within its first 18 seconds, ever crafted a mood quite as powerful? True, the piece arguably never surpasses the aesthetic precision of its majestic opening, but then again, how many videos ever could? Indeed, the next thirty seconds or so merely recycle bits of the already-revealed imagery (Stone Building Rick, Outdoorsman Rick), aside from a cryptic shot of a gyrating shadow (possibly Rick's?) at 0:30. Nothing new truly enters the picture until the 0:51 mark, where we are suddenly presented with a black bartender in a white shirt and red suspenders who pauses from wiping the counter to promptly turn his head and glare off towards the back of the room with an expression that seems to say, "Whoa man, what the hell's going on back there? Looks like they're having a good time." Sure enough, after a quick cut to another shot of Rick and the Dancing Blondes, the camera cuts back to our suspendered mixologist, who is now flipping a glass and bobbing his head in what I might describe as an "All right, I can get into this!" gesture. Ladies and gentlemen, that's not the only thing he's about to flip. This dude's just getting started.

At 1:18 he truly begins to break out of his shell as he spins and spins with more vigor than the Tazmanian Devil, then leaps into the air and ... does a jumping jack! Who knew Carl Lewis was in the "Never Gonna Give You Up" video? At 1:34 he starts to jog on an (I presume?) invisible treadmill, and then at 1:42, WHOA, look out, he does a backflip over the entire freaking bar! All I can say is, whatever they're paying this bartender, it's clearly not enough. When he pops up again at 2:07, he's changed out of his suffocating bartender wardrobe and is now sporting the athletic gear he clearly feels liberated in, as he bounces buoyantly against a chain-link fence. Then at 2:25, he does a full somersault under the Renaissance arches, pausing robotically upon completion, as if he were dancing to Herbie Hancock's "Rockit." But wait, he's still got one more moment of glory in him: at 2:46, he runs up the brick wall, tumbles backwards, and lands on his feet with a thousand-watt grin. All well and good, but what I'm wondering is: while he's busy prancing around and flying through the air and having a grand old time ... who the hell's manning the bar?