Sunday, July 22, 2018

Belinda Takes Britain (AKA The Belinda Invasion)

While they may have been America's Sweethearts, the Go-Go's never exactly "made it" in the U.K. Despite the Terry Hall connection, their version of "Our Lips are Sealed" peaked at #47, a chart placing which was easily surpassed by that of the Fun Boy Three's own version two years later (#7). Vacation, the album, hit #75, aaaaand ... that was about it. Don't ask me to come up with an explanation. Maybe the nation that had produced the Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the X-Ray Spex expected their female rockers to be a little more ... rockier? Maybe the Brits had gotten their fill of retro '60s girl group revivalism from Blondie? Maybe, as I partially suspect, I.R.S. Records lacked strong overseas distribution infrastructure? Poor international distribution is, after all, the reason why R.E.M. ultimately left I.R.S. in 1987 to sign with Warner Brothers, and how did that decision go? Hold on, let me take a quick glance at their international discography page on Wikipedia, and ... yup, I'd say that decision worked out fairly well for them.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of Belinda Carlisle's solo career, then, is that, to Europeans, she seemingly arrived out of "nowhere" in early 1988 with "Heaven is a Place on Earth," and suddenly created an entirely new fan base that possessed virtually no familiarity with her former band, or her former image. Talk to anyone today in the U.S., and they would probably think of Belinda as the lead singer of the Go-Go's, who also happened to have had a few big solo hits in the late '80s, but whose main claim to fame was the band she fronted. Talk to anyone today in the U.K., and they would almost exclusively think of Belinda as a solo singer, and they might be dimly aware of Belinda having once been in some all-girl band, in the sense that most Americans might be dimly aware that Billy Idol had once been in some punk band. I'm serious!

And once Belinda took Britain by storm, she never looked back.

Allow me to demonstrate, if I may, the seismic force that Belinda brought to her invasion of the Commonwealth by showing you this clip of Belinda performing "Heaven is a Place on Earth" at the 1987 Prince's Trust concert. For several years, this clip was the single most-viewed Belinda Carlisle clip on YouTube (since surpassed by the proper, Vevo-endorsed "Heaven" music video itself). The Prince's Trust, according to my sources, is a charity founded by Prince Charles for the purpose of "helping young people." Kind of a vague mission, no? Well, who am I to judge? The Prince's Trust began holding a series of all-star concerts in the late '80s. Now, who better to "help young people" - young men in particular - than Belinda Carlisle in her smokin' hot prime, amirite? The YouTube user who posted the video adds the qualifier, "This is definitely not her best performance because she was sick, but I still think she did a great job :)". So what I want to know is: if this is what she sounded like on a sick day, then how unfathomably rip-roarin'-rockin' would she have sounded if she'd been healthy? Sure, there are a couple of bum notes - her voice cracks awkwardly at both 1:56 and 2:58 ("Baby ey-ah was afraid before") - but ... it's kind of hot! All that means is just that she's too fired up to let smooth technique get her way, you know? I also catch a mic feedback squeal here and there, but I feel this merely adds to the compelling chaos. Belinda wasn't some manufactured studio concoction, my friends. Belinda could walk the walk, and she could talk the talk.

Indeed, one aspect of Belinda as a performing artist that may have gone unnoticed by the casual observer is that she ... hated lip-syncing. Hated it. Couldn't stand it. Tried to avoid doing it whenever possible. It's funny that Belinda pursued a musical style that couldn't have gotten further away from punk if it had hopped on a rocket ship to Mars, and yet, somehow, some way, some stray, leftover bits of punk attitude must have remained behind that Revlon-smothered facade. In other words, no matter how tame the material, she always tried to show up on that stage and give the crowd a performance that was real.

Here in this clip we see a Belinda that's raw, that's sloppy, that's going on feel, rather than meticulous tonal perfection. Not every note's flawless? She doesn't give a damn. That's rock and roll, baby. I have seen more live Belinda Carlisle clips than a reasonable person would care to admit, but I am amazed at how rarely she has phoned it in - no matter how drunk, no matter how high, no matter how disoriented. She would just grab that audience by the throat and say, "Fuck you! I'm a star!" Even if she felt like shit that night, she got up onto that stage and she gave it all she had. Some performers know no other way.

Fashion-wise, the clip finds Belinda in her Geena Davis phase, wearing some type of tight black dress/bodysuit (?), with a light green skirt that she had apparently borrowed from ... Wilma Flintstone? Why would she be wearing the green skirt if she was already wearing the black thing? Because. I wonder if the bass player behind her in polka dot shirt and tight leather pants might be in the wrong band. Astute viewers might also recognize Charlotte Caffey singing backup, alongside the infamous Donna DeLory (the brunette of the three), who would spend a much lengthier stint (20 years?) singing backup in Madonna's touring band. They're barely audible, but Belinda doesn't sound like she needs 'em anyway. I think they were mostly there to keep Belinda entertained; check out the conspiratorial glance she gives them at 3:37. Indeed, "Heaven" seems to rock harder overall in this stripped-down live context, with the keyboard carrying almost the entire melody, and the substitution of actual drums for what I believe was a drum machine on the original adding particular oomph. The muted backing certainly creates a different vibe from the massive wall of ethereal vocal overdubs and assorted Rick Nowels tchotchkes featured on the studio recording. Favorite YouTube comments:
Belinda is off key here a bit and her skirt is ridiculous but I'd still do her.

i like that she is wearing clothes unlike today's popstars! cough miley cough

I love it that by todays (pop star) standards Belinda is FAT here. 

Belinda's career ended way too soon. There were so many more faps to've been had. 

The prince is fapping up in the balcony omg did I just say that ( : o

Watch Belinda Carlisle as she delivers her hit song, while dressed in a black leotard and a kitchen apron.

Belinda - dump the 80s and come to me...

dangity dang belinda

The bass player's using a Steinberger! You don't see that anymore...

Wow... if this is the type of performance that needs a "She was sick" disclaimer that that says a whole lot about the quality of live performers we have these days. Even when she's not at her best, Belinda is lightyears better than most of the live shit I have heard for quite some time now. Rock the fuck on, girl.

I would give my left nut just to jam with Belinda for half an hour.

man känner bara för att sjunga med hela tiden =)
How much did Belinda hate lip-syncing? Belinda hated lip-syncing so much that when she went on Top of the Pops to bask in her British triumph ("Heaven is a Place on Earth" peaked at #1 in the U.K. for two weeks in January 1988), she actually performed the vocals ... live. Live? On Top of the Pops? Talk about a rebel. The thing is, she sounds so effortlessly on top of this particular piece of pop, I'll bet most viewers hardly even noticed - also, they possibly didn't notice because the rest of the instrumentation is not live. Her back-up band certainly seems to be having fun with the prerequisite TOTP miming, particularly the two guitarists at 2:31, right before the key change, who bang their heads as if they were miming to Def Leppard - and perhaps, in a way, they might as well have been. Remarkably (disturbingly?), Belinda somehow looks a bit thinner here than she did at the Prince's Trust concert, even though this clip had ostensibly been filmed only a short while afterward. Here she's rocking some sort of female power suit, complete with blazer, skirt, and bow on the lapel. It's her "Sexy CEO" look. Hey, I'd buy stock in that company, you know what I'm saying? Let us stop, for a moment, if we may, to admire the absolute perfection of her hair. Seriously, that might be the most perfect hair I've ever seen. It's so perfect, it's almost a pity she had to perform in it. Millions of impressionable young Britons must have sat in front of the telly and said to themselves, "Blimey, who's the American bird with the catchy tune? And when does the next clip of her come on, please?" As one viewer put it in the YouTube comments section years ago (I think the comment is long gone by now), "This is back when Belinda was an 11." Yes indeed. To paraphrase Spinal Tap, this Belinda does go up to 11.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

George Michael: "Father" Of Incest Pop? (Go "Figure") AKA Sexiest Cab Driver Ever

The pop songs in which a male singer refers to his loved one as "baby" are too numerous to mention, but with "Father Figure," I think George Michael finally took this incestuous notion to its proper, logical conclusion.

George's musical achievements are many, but it's time to give credit where credit is due: although it faces stiff competition from the Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me," Benny Mardones's "Into the Night," and Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire," "Father Figure" may be the statutory rape anthem of the '80s. Despite George's proclamation that he has "had enough of crime," I would surmise that there is one crime he still hasn't quite had enough of. In fact, not only is he willing to be this underage girl's (or boy's?) "father," but also, potentially, her "preacher," her "teacher" - indeed, "anything" she might have in mind. Anything? How about cowboy, construction worker ... maybe a cop?

But don't misunderstand me. The vaguely predatory nature of "Father Figure" is not a bug, but a feature. It gives what could have been a bland ballad a distinctively menacing edge. Take the incestuous jailbait out of "Father Figure," and what have you got? Nothing. Nada. Bupkus. You've got a Whitney Houston album track. It needs its pubescent longing.

Or maybe not, given that the melody is arguably the most hauntingly seductive one that George ever came up with. Indeed, "Father Figure" is George Michael's chief contribution to what my eight-year-old self dubbed the Summer of '88's "Egyptian Thing." No snake charmer from the Arabian Nights could have conjured up a synth riff as beguilingly hypnotic as the one that first appears between 0:09 and 0:18. Hey, you ride that camel, George, that's what I say. You ride that camel all night long. One has to admit, Georgios the Greek sets quite the Mediterranean mood here: gentle "cymbal" taps to start with, then two "bass drum" beats followed by finger snaps and some sort of "sandpaper" percussion effect. The spell is so enchanting that the listener may not even notice the tinkling piano that enters at the start of the second verse, but it's what those in the business call a "nice touch."

The chorus almost shows up without warning, as a gang of female gospel vocalists pop up and make the religious undertones of the words "father" and "preacher" just a tad more explicit. Those random session pros sure have got the jailbait "spirit," all right. They've got it so bad, in fact, that they practically drown out George's "lead" singing. Seriously, just listen closely to that initial chorus. For a #1 hit, this is kind of a ... weird mix, you know? George sort of "whisper-grunts" the phrases "it would make me ... very happy ... please let me" in counterpoint to the back-up singers, as if he's afraid of getting caught with his hands in his teen sexpot's pajama bottoms.

Suddenly, during the bridge, the mood takes a turn for the intense, with the melody shifting dramatically as George really, really tries to convince his underage object of conquest that she should totally, totally trust him: "So when you remember the ones who-have-lied/Who said that they cared but then laughed-as-you cried/Beautiful darling, don't think of meeeeeeee/because all I ever wanted..." And BOOM: the main melody returns reassuringly, along with some smoldering Spanish guitar, and, frankly, if I were this girl, at this point I'd sleep with the guy no matter what our age gap might be.

By the start of the third bridge, the intensity seems to have died down again, as the back-up singers coo "Greet me with the eyes of a child," but then George really lets it rip (with generous application of echo) on "Just hold on! Hold on! And I won't let you go-ohhhhh, mah baby!" This time through the chorus, he is right out in front and not ashamed to hide his taboo inclinations. All that pent-up longing for a Lolita to call his own comes pouring out at 5:03 ("I will be yoah-hooooe!") and 5:06 ("fahhh-thuuuuh!"), culminating in the magnificently shameless and undisguised exhortation "I'll your dadd-ay, whoa!" All the instrumentation recedes as George, alone in the dark, puts one last little flourish on this bad boy: "Till the end of ... tyyyme," pausing before the word "time" as if he's glancing around for the nearest alleyway to duck through. The Egyptian synth riff takes a final bow, and the curtain closes. For one more evening at least, this devious patriarch is safe from society's disapproving censure.

I suppose I'm playing up the predatory nature of the song a bit much, because honestly, "Father Figure," like any classic '80s ballad, can be interpreted in a number of ways, as the video certainly demonstrates. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ... the sexiest cab driver in the history of film. Imagine if Travis Bickle had been sexy instead of psychotic. Let's see how this sounds: "You talkin' to me ... honey?" Kinda works? George's co-star in this sordid affair was one Tania Coleridge, later known as Tania Harcourt-Cooze. Initially I assumed Tania was just some random supermodel with a boring background, but whoa, was I off. From Wikipedia:
The daughter of Major William Duke Coleridge, 5th Baron Coleridge of Ottery St Mary, a Major in the Coldstream Guards, and his first wife Everild Tania Hambrough, she is directly related to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge ... Born in Kenya, she followed her father's British Army career until her parents divorced in 1977 when she was 11 ... Completing a fine arts diploma in London, she joined the punk rock revolution, and would hang out on the Kings Road, Chelsea ... Having met Willie Harcourt-Cooze in her late teens, she married the Venezuelan-based businessman in 1993. Using the funds from the sale of his London flat and his family's money, the couple purchased a 1,000 acres (400 ha) cocoa hacienda in Choroni, and planted more than 50,000 Criollo cocoa trees ... She came to public prominence again in 2008 with the airing of the fly-on-the-wall documentary, Willie's Wonky Chocolate Factory, centred on her husband's efforts to be one of the first Britons since the Cadbury family to grow, import and produce their own chocolate.
Hold on a second. We've got Victorian poet ancestors, Kenyan births (take that Obama!), Venezuelan chocolate magnates, pun-laden British documentary titles ... and that's not even mentioning the video for "Father Figure"! I guess dating a cab driver really would have been slumming it for this girl. I love the moment in the video at 0:27 where the cab comes into view and behind the wheel we see ... George Michael. But not just any George Michael, it's the "iconic" George Michael: sunglasses, stubble, crucifix earrings, leather jacket ... it's the Faith-era George in all his flawless glory, and he's driving a fucking cab. Consider my disbelief ... suspended.

At first it's not really clear if these two know each other. We see George in his bedroom, tacking magazine cuttings of Tania up onto his wall in a shrine-like manner, then we see Tania backstage with her pasty white rivals, prepping for a runway show. Suddenly, BOOM, at 1:53, George starts getting his hetero on, and you realize that these two are in more than just a "driver/passenger relationship" if you know what I mean. Shots of their not-at-all-fictional lovemaking are juxtaposed with shots of Tania strutting her stuff for the paparazzi in some type of business suit with a ... cone bra/corset thingy? Whatever she's wearing, the point is, she's got "it." But you know where she gets her "it" from? Her secret cab driver boyfriend, that's where. At 2:11, the camera pans across her brightly-lit dressing room, where she's being delicately, attentively dressed (or undressed?), and then gradually wanders into the shadows, where George lurks mysteriously, lighting a cigarette, giving her the hidden mojo she needs without dragging her down into his rough-and-tumble milieu.

Later, a charming photographer tries to coax the right "look" from Tania, while George surreptitiously peaks through the door in the back (at 3:00). I mean, the photographer's cute and sensitive and all, but he can't give her the animalistic passion that Mr. Cabbie can. Sometimes the pressure can gnaw at the most poised professional, as the brief "freak out" montage beginning at 4:41 illustrates: Tania slaps George, pushes her photographer, and even tosses her lipstick apparatus onto the table in supremely diva-esque fashion. God, life as a supermodel is so hard, you know? But ultimately, she gets back out there on the runway, as the faceless crowd greets her adoringly. Little do they know about the brutal, private agonies, about the sacrifice it takes for her to get there, but George knows. At 5:07 there's a brief shot of George with his head against the pillow, opening his eyes, as if he's saying, "Don't forget me, baby, I made you who you are." Finally, at 5:18, while she's out on that runway working what God gave her, she spots her lover (ex-lover?) in the audience, standing there anonymously, emotionlessly. But sometimes, nothing need be said. A glance can say it all.

As always, Professor Higglediggle offers a rather opaque take:
Often read as a vigorous embrace of the commodity scientism of patriarchal attachment, "Father Figure" can potentially be (re)read as a denial of the overworked codes of pre-sexualized discourse, albeit from within a heterocentric framework. The singer's rejection of the pre-existing, pseudo-hegemonic order ("Sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime") acts as a post-Nietzschean declaration of liberated ideals ("Anything you have in mind"). The interstitial suggestions of ephebophilia ("put your tiny hand in mine," etc.) sit uneasily against the singer's inequitable occupation (cab driver) and desire to mediate the taboo of underage courtship with filial duty.