Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Heaven Is A Place On Earth"; Hell Is A Place For Anyone Who Badmouths Belinda Carlisle's Biggest Hit

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without catchy '80s pop songs, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the listening public. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of '80s radio. And God said, Let there be an extremely catchy '80s pop song: and there was Belinda Carlisle.

And God saw the Belinda, that she was good: and God divided the Belinda from the Go-Go's.

And God called the extremely catchy '80s pop song "Heaven is a Place on Earth."

Pretty sure that's how the Bible begins. I dunno, it's been a while. Maybe my translation's a little funky. But no other explanation for the creation of "Heaven is a Place on Earth" is remotely plausible. Despite published evidence stating that Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley composed the piece, I am partially convinced that it was written by God himself. The song is simply too catchy to have been created by mere man. One would expect a flaw somewhere, a weakness, a defect ... but there is none. It was not written, but merely transcribed from the heavens.

"Heaven is a Place on Earth" might very well be ... The Catchiest Song of All Time (TM).

"Heaven is a Place on Earth" is the only Belinda Carlisle song, either with the Go-Go's or solo, that has truly become ... what's the word? Ubiquitous. It is one of those '80s pop songs that will just always ... be. To use Jungian terminology, it has entered our collective unconscious. Let me put it this way: if you accost a random person on the street, and ask them if they know who Belinda Carlisle is, that person might say they do not. You could sing them every song Belinda ever sang in her 36 year recording career, and they might not know any of them.

But they will know this one.

It is a soundtrack staple, having been featured in everything from Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion and American Wedding to Love and Other Drugs and Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, not to mention (as every other recent comment on the song's YouTube page will remind you) the finale of the "San Junipero" episode of Black Mirror.

It is the song that Belinda Carlisle's fame rests on. It is, and is perhaps forever destined to remain, her ultimate, lasting legacy. It is also catchier than the themes from Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, The Andy Griffith Show, and I Dream of Jeannie put together. They say men have died from being unable to escape the eternal pull of the song's ingratiating chorus. If what they say is true, then I can't possibly imagine a sweeter way to die.

"Heaven is a Place on Earth" was Belinda's only #1 US hit, either solo or with the Go-Go's. Sometimes you only get one. But you know what? Belinda can always say that she's had just as many Billboard #1 hits as Pink Floyd, Chuck Berry, and Neil Young have had (and more than Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Dylan ever had!). It reached the summit for precisely one week in December 1987, preceded by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes's "I've Had the Time of My Life" and swiftly followed by George Michael's "Faith." But it was not merely a domestic triumph. Like "Don't You Want Me," "Every Breath You Take," "Careless Whisper," or "West End Girls," it was one of those '80s singles that refused to recognize pesky international boundaries. It became a massive hit on a global scale. It was one of those songs that just seemed to scream out "Number One With a Bullet." It may have even been, in the words of Jane Wiedlin's buddies Sparks, the "Number One Song in Heaven."

You'd think I'd be able to recall when I first heard "Heaven is a Place on Earth," but I cannot. The moments that define one's life, lost in the dustbins of memory. I don't remember particularly hearing it around the time of its release, and yet, when I heard the song in the early '90s, I feel like I was hearing a song I'd definitely heard already. In 1998, I borrowed one of those "80s Classic Ballads CDs" from a fellow camp counselor, thinking I would throw the keepers onto a tape I had lying around solely for the purpose of recording random songs that didn't fit on any other cassette (ah, the days before the mp3). Well, most of the '80s Classic Ballads I deemed non-Classic enough for my tape, but I saved some room for "Heaven is a Place on Earth." That was one I definitely needed in my collection somewhere. I found it hard to believe that I didn't have it on a tape already. Talk about a no-brainer.

A year or so before my Paul-like conversion into the Church of Carlisle, I was on my lunch break, enjoying some passable Indian food and perusing the local paper, when I noticed an article in the entertainment section. It was an interview with someone I'd never heard of: songwriter Rick Nowels. But when the article mentioned that he was the co-author of Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth," I immediately put down the paper, looked up toward the dingy ceiling of the food court, and thought, "Say no more." I mean, give the man a medal. Dude didn't need to write another decent song for the remainder of his pathetic career. Belinda knows what I'm talkin' about. From Lips Unsealed: "I heard the song the day after it was written. Rick sat at a piano, and Ellen sang. It was like they were showing me a newborn baby." Yes, and like Jesus, "Heaven is a Place on Earth" came into the world so that mankind could be saved. "I've had few reactions like the one I had after hearing them. I knew the song, even better than a hit, was a classic." Yeah, sure Belinda. Easy to say in retrospect.

Not everyone was quite so impressed. Certain listeners have suggested that the song is a ripoff of either Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name," "Livin' on a Prayer," or both - a resemblance that, frankly, had never occurred to me prior to hearing someone mention it, but then again, despite their pending induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I've probably spent about five brain cells in my entire existence thinking about Bon Jovi. Of course, anyone who refers to Belinda Carlisle's definitive masterpiece as a mere "Bon Jovi ripoff" should die in a flaming inferno, but ... you know, I just listened to all three songs in a row and ... hmmm. I've heard less plausible accusations, let's just say that. Both "You Give Love a Bad Name" and "Heaven is a Place on Earth" begin with an a cappella rendition of the chorus, followed by a solely instrumental rendition. And the big chord change in "Heaven" between "worth" and "ooh heaven" does, if one squints, seem a bit similar to the change in "Livin' on a Prayer" between "there" and "oh whoa, livin'." Maybe. And all three songs kind of share the same tempo. And all three songs feature a shameless T.U.K.C. (Totally Unnecessary Key Change) at the end. You know what? If Belinda ripped off Bon Jovi even a teenie tiny bit, she took whatever was good about those Bon Jovi songs and made it about a thousand times better. You know why Belinda's song is better? Because it's being sung by Belinda Carlisle, and those other songs are being sung by Bon Jovi. You mean to tell me that Mr. Watered Down Housewife Rock Working Class Malaise can even compete for one second with Ms. Yuppie Superbabe Extraodinaire? Ha! Bon Jovi fans are just jealous. That said, the electronica band Orbital has been known to mash up "Heaven" with "You Give Love a Bad Name" in concert performances of "Halcyon + On + On," which, I have to say, works well enough to hinder my argument. Amusingly, Nowels himself claims he was mainly inspired by Prince (!).

In what may have been a Wikipedia prank, several years ago a sentence on the song's Wikipedia page claimed that the melody was an interpolation of an aria from Bach's Christmas Oratorio, which seemed to explain why the song feels so supernaturally seamless. I knew that wily Rick Nowels couldn't have just pulled a chorus like that out of thin air! And if you're going to rip somebody off, it might as well be Bach, right? (Ask Procol Harum). But alas, I downloaded Bach's Christmas Oratorio, listened to the aria in question, and heard no blatant resemblance to any aspect of "Heaven is a Place on Earth." The sentence is no longer on the Wikipedia article. I think we might have to give this one to ol' Ricky Boy (and Shipley) after all.

Because you want a hook? This song's got a hook.

Some songs take a little time to get going. Other songs just grab you by the balls right from the first note and say "Come here big fella." "Heaven" doesn't "begin" so much as descend from the sky on a magic puffy cloud of '80s production goo. A single solitary pound of the bass drum acts as the clarion call to a new age, as Belinda and her back-up seraphs (including, apparently, Michelle Phillips) enter the arena, smothered with more echo than a Ricola commercial, while Thomas Dolby (!) doubles the melody on some sort of imitation glockenspiel doodad. You thought your '80s hit had an intro? This is an '80s hit with an intro. You're stuck, you're in, you can't turn back. If this intro could talk, it would say, "For the next four minutes, you're mine, baby, all mine." As the chorus enters its third bar at 0:08, I hear a really dated-sounding bass de-tuning, but otherwise the quasi-Gregorian glory of the opening has aged about as poorly as God has.

I've been pondering for years - no exaggeration - what exactly it is about the chorus of "Heaven is a Place on Earth" that makes it so ... "heavenly"? You will say that it's catchy. Yes, it's catchy, but a lot of choruses are catchy. This one is catchy, and also ... more. I think it has something to do with the rhythm of the words, the sustained pauses, not just the notes but the silence between the notes, that give it a kind of ... confidence. The first few words "Ooh, baby do you" all exist on the same repeated note, like an incantation, a mantra. The melody only begins to rise on "know what that's worth." The initial repetition brings a semblance of comfort, as if we're safe in the arms of the world's greatest Belinda Carlisle song, and once we know we're safe, we can now follow her on this journey to another realm.

And ooh, baby, do you know how enigmatic these lyrics are? I love songs that begin with a question. "Blowing in the Wind." "With a Little Help From My Friends." "Layla." "Free Bird." "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." "Bohemian Rhapsody." "Comfortably Numb." It pulls the listener in, adds an air of mystique. "Ooh baby do you know what that's worth?" What is what worth? Who is she talking to? What the hell's going on? It's a mystery. Come to think of it, upon closer inspection, the lyrics of "Heaven" don't actually ... make a lick of sense. "They say in heaven love comes first"? Who says this? Have you ever heard anyone say this? "We'll make heaven a place on earth"? I don't think that sentence is phrased correctly. I think what's intended is something more like "We'll make earth a place that's more like heaven." I mean, you could make heaven a place on earth, but how many square miles would that "place" be? And just where, precisely, would you put it? Everything's already been placed here. You'd have to dislodge something. "And the world's alive/With the sound of kids on the street outside"? Is that supposed to be a welcome sound? I know whenever I hear kids on the street outside, I feel like clenching my fist in the air and telling those kids to take that racket elsewhere, but maybe Rick Nowels thinks it's romantic.

Whatever. Belinda's fiery, magnetic delivery renders the details moot. She lays into this sucker like it's "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" When she throws that little growl into "Baby" at the start of "Baby I was afraid before" ... yowsers! Call the lion tamer! Unfortunately, by the time she gets to "But I'm not afraid anymore," the claws are out and nothing's going to tame this beast. I'm not sure how afraid she was "before," but when she exclaims that her fear has vanished entirely, well I, for one, believe her. It's like she's ripping her shirt open, declaring to anyone within earshot, "Come on, world, gimme your worst!" Maybe someone in the studio realized this song was pop fluff, but apparently nobody told Belinda.

At around 2:22, the backing vocalists fade mystically into the murk while the band vamps on some new chords. At 2:33, 2:41, and 2:48, the dense fog of back-up singers lets out an eerie "Heaaaaa-vuuuuuuhn" that sounds like it flew in from either the coda of Fleetwood Mac's "Sara" or an all-female Def Leppard cover band. After some tinny-sounding cymbal noises (arguably the only wart on this perfect beast), all of the instruments simmer down apart from the bass, while Belinda repeats her entreaties about the miracle of living and not being afraid anymore and such (retaining every ounce of passion from the prior delivery of those lyrics). Well, it's a good thing she's not afraid, because suddenly heaven turns to hell as the apocalypse begins raining down from the sky and instrumental chaos ensues - there's weird buzzing droning thingies and backwards cymbals and all sorts of demonic goings-on. Is Belinda going to be swallowed up and eaten by the hideous '80s Production Beast? No! What's this? She's saved by a lightning-quick drum roll and what may arguably be the finest example of a T.U.K.C. in all of '80s pop. Talk about a deus ex machina swooping down from the heavens at the last minute.

Discussion of the song's heavenly (and/or charmingly ridiculous) video to follow.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

VNV Nation Intros Ranked

Each VNV Nation album opens with an intro track, often instrumental but occasionally spoken word, that establishes the theme and mood for that particular album. Often times these intros transition into the first real song on the album, though not always. In anticipation of VNV Nation's first new album in five years, I thought I'd go through and rank VNV Nation's intro songs. I've taken into consideration how well each track helps establish the theme of the album, how well it builds flow or transitions into the next song, and how good the song is in general. We'll start at the bottom and move up from there. Here we go:

10. "Intro" - Matter + Form (2005)

Coming in last on this list but first on the "most appropriately titled for this list" is Matter + Form's "Intro". Even though I've placed it dead last I do kind of like this track. It feels ominous, the sound of something swirling, preparing to let loose. "Intro" doesn't flow into the lead-off song "Chrome" and feels almost perfunctory, like the band knew they needed an intro track and just slapped this one together in an hour. At least it doesn't outlast its welcome, clocking in at a svelte 1:30.

9. "On-Air" - Automatic (2011)

I came very close to ranking this one at the bottom. "On-Air" consists mainly of static old-timey radio noises, a similarly old-timey set of strings, all of which then transitions into some light piano. It certainly fits the tone of the album Automatic, with its Metropolis-like cover art and it's retro-futurist lyrical concepts, but as a song it's just kind of languid and, well, a little boring. Though it transitions into a lovely piano, it doesn't build or establish much energy. It's a shame too, because the album is otherwise one of the band's best.

8. "Anthem" - Advance and Follow (1995)

Some purists will call this sacrilege: "How could he place the first song off VNV's first album so low?!" Well, "Anthem" is a relic of a very young VNV Nation who emerged from a 90s industrial scene where the use of obscure samples was de rigueur. "Anthem" seems to be composed almost entirely of samples from TV, movies, and radio.  The use of air raid sirens near the end is neat, though they would be put to better use in a later intro (see below). I do like "Anthem", and one time I just happened to be watching a documentary when I heard the Laurence Olivier sample used to close out the track which jolted me awake like you wouldn't believe.

7. "Prologue" - The Solitary EP (1998)

"Prologue" is a bit like "Anthem" if that song was stripped of all of its percussion and samples and was left with nothing but the air raid sirens. That's nearly all it is - just a building series of air raid sirens with some backing strings. It evokes the feeling that the end of all wars has come, like Judgement Day is upon us, or, perhaps more modernly, reminds me of 9/11.

6. "Chosen" - Praise the Fallen (1998)

"Chosen" is the first intro on our list that contains actual words. I say words because this track and the other intro track (see below) are spoken word more than songs containing actual sung lyrics. "Chosen" is also remarkable due to it being the only VNV Nation track that doesn't use words penned by the band.

"Chosen" is basically a condensed rendition of the short story "Boule de Suif" by Guy de Maupassant. The track is from VNV's early days, when war as a metaphor was the primary lyrical driver. "Chosen" starts tense, with an unending, almost menacing minor chord. The story, delivered in near monotone, describes the horrors of war in a beautifully grotesque manner (or is it grotesquely beautiful?). I used to have the entire thing memorized. The menace eventually fades as the intro transitions into some strings, and finally some piano. After this tenseness has finally washed away I love how the next song "Joy" begins right out of the gate with that proud exclamation from Schiller's "Ode to Joy".

5. "Firstlight" - Empires (1999)

Now we're getting somewhere. "Firstlight" is the opener from VNV's most celebrated album, Empires. It starts off slowly, almost minimalist, and builds from there. It establishes well the palette of sounds the album uses. The only reason it doesn't rank higher is because this track is repeated at the end of the album where it transitions into a pulsing meditation featuring some of VNV's best lyrics.

4. "Pro Victoria" - Of Faith, Power and Glory (2009)

The most martial sounding intro of the bunch, "Pro Victoria" sounds like a rhythmically synchronized ancient Roman army preparing themselves for war. It also sounds like it owes an awful lot to Purcell's "Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary" (I swear those are the same horns in both songs). This song works well on multiple fronts - it builds in such a way that by the end it's got this hypnotizing, almost tribal rhythm, and it works thematically with its martial rhythm serving as a taste of an album about conflict.

3. "Generator" - Transnational (2013)

The most recent entry into this list, "Generator" has a fantastic construction. The track sounds just like its name - a generator coming to life. Starting with nothing more than an initial hum, listening to the track is like hearing an entire factory slowly come to life. To top it off it glides effortlessly into the song "Everything".

2. "Foreword" - Futureperfect (2002)

This one wins the award for most inspiring intro. "Foreword" captures the idealism that lies at the heart of the band's oeuvre. With a simple spoken word phrase repeated in multiple languages over Elger's "Nimrod", "Foreword" instantly establishes the tone and ideals of 2002's Futureperfect. Then, just as gently as it came in, the track transitions into a kind of sonar or radio beeping (I think it's meant to evoke an old radio transmission) ending with a series of violent crashes that push it into the next track "Epicentre". It's a solid intro.

1. "Prelude" - Judgement (2007)

We've made it to #1, what I consider the best VNV Nation intro. "Prelude" is the complete package, just a beauty to listen to. In 4 minutes and 10 seconds it tells a whole story, almost like a condensed film. It's got a cinematic quality to it, helped in part by Judgement's album cover. A friend once told me when she first put on the album she thought she had slipped a Tangerine Dream disc in instead. I can imagine so many scenes playing out to this track. The first time I heard this I was driving in the mountains and it was the perfect accompaniment to the quiet, untouched landscape. Just a wonderful piece of music.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Get Into Your What, Billy Ocean?

Here's an exchange that does not sound sketchy in any way whatsoever:
Billy Ocean: Hey (hey), you (you) ... get into my car!
Random Back-up Singer: Who me?
Billy Ocean: Yes you! Get into my car! Ohhhhhhh ... Aah! Hey!
What could possibly go wrong?

And so it is that the Summer of '88 can arguably lay claim to the "rapiest" pop song of all time. To be fair, we never find out just what occurs after Billy makes his questionable proposition. Perhaps the object of his affection climbs into his automobile, perhaps she simply ignores him, perhaps she calls the cops ... who can say? He's simply conjuring a hypothetical scenario here. We never discover if she actually gets into the titular car. Although the details are impressively vague, you have to admit he delivers a pretty tempting sales pitch. He'll be the sun shining on you? I'd take that. He'll be your non-stop lover, get it while you can? You'd have to be a fool to turn that down, an utter fool. He expresses, with confidence, that he is her "man," and having just met her five minutes ago, he certainly would know. Remember my (semi-retired) term Cosby Rock? I think "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" really might be Cosby Rock.

Let's back up a moment. Say you're the super-producer behind AC/DC, Def Leppard, the Cars, and other legendary '80s hard rock titans. What do you do next? Why, team up with Billy Ocean, of course! Yes, "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" was co-written and produced by the one and only Robert John "Mutt" Lange, though I'm guessing that, these days, he leaves this one off his resume. According to Wikipedia, the track was "based on a line in the Sherman Brothers' song (famously covered by Johnny Burnette as well as Ringo Starr) 'You're Sixteen.' " Of course, rockabilly heartthrob Johnny Burnette singing "You're sixteen, you're beautiful, and you're mine" doesn't quite give off the same Humbert Humbert alarm bells as a bearded, 33-year-old Ringo doing the same, but hey, no one tells Ringo Starr what to sing and what not to sing, OK? It seems like one particularly goofy revision of Ringo's served as the direct inspiration for Messrs. Ocean and Lange: Whereas Johnny Burnette crooned "You walked out of my dreams/Into my arms," a presumably inebriated Ringo Starr gave it the nonsensical twist "You walked out of my dreams/And into my car." And they say Ringo's solo career wasn't influential.

Now fast-forward a bit. You're a big time Hollywood studio executive, you've got a movie in the pipeline starring the two Coreys called License to Drive. You need a song for the soundtrack, but so far, your ideas just aren't cutting it. Suddenly you hear an advanced pressing of Billy Ocean's hot new single. Why, it's a match made in heaven! He's singing "Get into my car." License to drive. BOOM. You can finally afford that condo in Pacific Palisades.

All right, so the lyrics don't quite carry the same tone of playful jouissance these days as they probably did back in 1988, but honestly, has sexual assault ever sounded like such a blast? How about the little breakdown at the three minute mark, where Billy and his fellow band of merry would-be felons engage in a "What'd I Say"-style call and response bit ("I said open the door!" "Get in the back!" "Foot on the floor!" "Get on the track!" "Yeah." "Yeah!" "Yeah." "Yeah!" "Hey." "Hey!" "Hey - Let's go!"), followed by the inevitable sax solo? Or the psychedelic haze of vocal effects at 3:45 that precedes the equally inevitable Totally Unnecessary Key Change (TM)? What are you waiting for baby? Get into the dude's car already!

If anyone out there was doubting Billy Ocean's true PG intentions, one only need watch the video. Billy pulls up to a car wash, but there's just one catch: he's in a convertible! Do you know what happens if you drive a convertible into a car wash? Some crazy shit, that's what happens. True, he pulls the top down, but he appears to leave the windows open for some undisclosed reason. Once in the magical car wash, Billy's white Porsche transforms into several different makes and models of various cars in various colors. Suddenly ... cartoon water rises up over Billy's head! Not just any water, but cartoon water. He holds his nose for about five seconds, but then lets go and starts singing, as if he wasn't really underwater at all. It's like he's driving through an ocean: a Billy Ocean. Once the chorus arrives, he proceeds to serenade an orange fish. Then, at 1:26, the purple duck appears. Yes, Billy's best friend in this video is a purple duck lugging a green ghetto blaster around on his shoulder. You know the type, always causing trouble.

It gets weirder. At 2:31, the three spheres on top of the gas pumps become sentient and join in on backing vocals. Then Billy whisks his girl to the drive-in, where the man up on the screen is ... Billy Ocean? And now he's wearing a giant white shirt that's like a trench coat, except it's not? And the purple duck jams away on the sax. (Side question: they had drive-in movie theaters in England?) Then, during the Totally Unnecessary Key Change, Billy steps out of the screen ... and onto the stage! It's like he's getting out of our dreams, and into our car. Sadly, his purple duck compadre remains trapped inside the screen, but hey, he must have known the deal when he signed up for this gig.