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.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

You Thought Your Mormon Tongan R&B Band Was Hot Stuff?

The Jets, eh? Am I the only one wondering where the hell Bennie is? I mean, the members of this band better have electric boots, or I'm gonna be pissed. At the very least, someone needs to be sporting a mohair suit, or I want my money back. I mean, I read it in a magazine - and would the press ever lie to me? Alternatively, do you think the performers in this particular ensemble snapped their fingers as they strutted down derelict Manhattan alleyways and belted "When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day" in jazzy syncopation? Or wait, wait, here's a third possibility: maybe they played back-up for Joe Namath!

No, sadly, these particular Jets did none of those things. Here's one thing they did do: become the world's greatest Mormon Tongan R&B band. Now, I know what you're thinking. You're about to tell me, "Little Earl, they were probably the world's only Mormon Tongan R&B band." Which could be true for all I know, but does that really lessen the achievement?

The Wolfgramms, or at least eight out of the seventeen Wolfgramm siblings (seventeen? Better step it up guys), were like the Osmonds, but more ... Tongan. Like Debarge but more ... law-abiding. Like Prince (both artists hailed from Minneapolis), but more ... reserved. Have you ever wondered if it would be possible to make R&B music that is almost entirely devoid of sex? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ... the Jets.

The Jets were so family friendly that I actually saw them perform at the San Mateo County Fair one year. I couldn't believe that the Jets were actually coming to my very own county fair. In person! Didn't they have, like, stadiums to fill or something? But the Jets didn't care about the fame and the glory. They were in it for the people. For years afterward, I wondered if my mind had simply made the Jets up. No one mentioned them for decades. It turns out that they were real.

Or were they? I kind of feel like this is a band that was invented by a room full of cynical TV execs for the sole purpose of starring in a lucrative after-school program, complete with lunchbox and backpack marketing tie-ins. Sort of like Jem and the Holograms, but more ... Tongan and Mormon. Except, no, I think the Jets were just naturally "jetting." They were a self-made phenomenon, living the cheesy '80s pop dream. Check out the video of their first hit, "Crush On You." Up next: Double Dare! Amusingly enough, I just read their Wikipedia article and discovered that the Jets recorded a full-length version of the theme song for Rescue Rangers.

Apparently their LDS elders had no objection to "Cross My Broken Heart" appearing on the Beverly Hills Cops II soundtrack alongside more risque fare such as "I Want Your Sex." Tossing out those morals in a quest for the almighty dollar, eh Jets?

The Jets may have stolen Prince's cutesy spelling schtick with "Rocket 2 U," but if they'd ever bothered to sit down and listen to an actual Prince song, this family's reaction probably would have been more like "Rocket 2 Ewww." I feel like they deliver the line "Baby I can rock it all night" with about as much libidinal urgency as the neighborhood nun.

Frankly, the uptempo stuff may have satisfied the Jets' Minneapolis club crowd, but that wasn't where their bread and butter truly lay. Where they really brought that Pacific Island heat ... was in the slow jams. First up, "You Got It All," and this one does indeed have it all: sterling compositional pedigree (Rupert Holmes, he of "Escape [The Pina Colada Song]" fame), sweet and smoldering lead vocals from the second-youngest member of the family, 13-year-old Elizabeth Wolfgramm (boy, those Tongan girls sure grow up fast), smooth sax break ... it's a lite rock monster.

See, the Jets' ballads are all about the concept of "less is more." It's not what they do, it's what they don't do. Sure, "You Got It All" and "Make It Real" kind of sound like two eight-year-olds farting around on a Casio keyboard in their living room, but who needs all the bells and whistles when you've got that 13-year-old Mormon Tongan power? Like the punchline in that old Mormon joke says, "Bring 'em, and bring 'em young." Actually, on closer listen, I do detect some gnarly guitar pyrotechnics on "Make It Real" (check out the solo at 3:02 and the little fill at 3:49). Don't tell me the Jets also featured the Mormon Tongan Hendrix? Talk about stacked. Even though "Make It Real" describes a darker romantic scenario than the rosier "You Got It All," which would normally give it a leg up in my book, I might have to give the edge to "You Got It All" and its ultra-smooth Yacht Rock backing vocals. It's like a cross between Vanity 6 and Air Supply.

Final thought: what were the other nine Wolfgramm siblings doing this whole time? Selling Girl Scout cookies?