Sunday, February 17, 2019

What Were We Really Going To Do Instead, Roll Against It?

Personally, I would prefer to roll in perpendicular relation to it, but if I ultimately must roll "with" it, I suppose I will.

The Ray Charles of Yuppie Rock scored some mighty ubiquitous hits in his day, but he never quite rocked the Montgomery Ward parking lot like he did during that magical Summer of '88. At the time it seemed like "Roll With It" would come on the radio first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and every hour in between; whether one enjoyed or loathed the single, one simply just had to ... roll with it. The rest of the accompanying album, which I figured I might as well listen to in preparation for this blog post, doesn't quite hit me the way the title track hits me. "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do?" No, Steve, I don't know what the night can do. I hope it can do more for me than the tracks on Roll With It that aren't "Roll With It" can do.

Back in 1988, I had no idea what Motown was, so I had no idea that this was a Motown "homage," and I certainly had no idea who Junior Walker and the All-Stars were, but apparently, per Wikipedia, someone else did: "Publishing rights organization BMI later had Motown songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland credited with co-writing the song due to its resemblance to the Junior Walker hit '(I'm a) Roadrunner.'." (Spoiler alert: this same Dozier might soon be making an unexpected guest appearance in a Phil Collins post near you.) The sax break with the key change also calls to mind the solo from Aretha Franklin's "Respect." My cherished illusion of '80s Steve Winwood as an artist of unimpeachable integrity and originality has just been shattered, I tell you, shattered!

Meanwhile, he's mangling his lyrics worse than peak John Fogerty. I decided to play a little game here. I attempted to guess what the lyrics were, and then I went and looked them up to see how well I did. The results:
Guess: I'm done knocking on your door/I'm tellin' you, oh nevermore
Actual: Hard times knocking on your door/I'll tell them you ain't there no more
Mine almost has more of an Edgar Allen Poe flavor to it.
Guess: People there gettin' down and out/You shouldn't work, it's all about
Actual: People think you're down and out/You show them what it's all about
In my version, it's a bitter commentary on Thatcher-era unemployment.
Guess: Nairobi Monday/You'll get there baby
Actual: Now there'll be a day/You'll get there baby
Hey, maybe "Nairobi Monday" was slang for really sweltering heat or something.
Guess: You'll lift bad times, we get high/There'll be no good times on your mind
Actual: You'll leave bad times way behind/Nothing but good times on you mind
A dark warning about the perils of substance abuse?

Frankly, I think I prefer my lyrics to the real ones.

Winwood used the video, filmed in tasteful black and white by a pre-Paula Abdul/Madonna/George Michael, etc. David Fincher, to finally live out his chitlin' circuit fantasies. It's a smokin' hot day in this Southern roadside bar, but Steve is getting down with the local blues pickers and sharecroppers' daughters like he was raised with them from birth. Fincher tries admirably to sexy up a Steve Winwood video, inserting shots of: a woman wiping her sweaty Southern bosom with a rag (0:30), a couple making out in a doorway behind an exhausted-looking black girl in a 'do rag (1:21), a vaguely Latin-looking couple attempting to do the Lambada right in the middle of the dance floor (1:28), a bookish fellow in glasses and tie (possibly anticipating Fincher's later video for "Rock the Cradle"?) being thrown to the floor by what appears to be a younger, wilder, less inhibited Miss Daisy (2:10), a woman trying to audition for one of the Fly Girls on In Living Colour but clearly having found her way to the wrong set (3:00), a lady sensually pressing her lipstick against a napkin (3:12), and finally, an old, wrinkled gentleman popping the top button off his shirt (3:45). I feel like erotic slow-motion shots of this sort are ultimately more effective when the individual on camera is Madonna instead of, say, Grampa Joad, buy hey, everybody's got to start somewhere. I mean, if Madonna's agent isn't calling yet, you better take that Steve Winwood offer, and you better like it. I've never heard Fincher's thoughts on this clip. Perhaps the first rule of the "Roll With It" video is not to talk about the "Roll With It" video.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Another #1 Hit From Faith? Don't Make A "Monkey" Out Of Me

So the "monkey" he's talking about in "Monkey" is the other guy's penis, right?

Bueller? Bueller? Anybody? I can't be the only one who thinks this. It is entirely possible, of course, that, in all matters George Michael, I simply assume the most plausible interpretation is the gayest interpretation.

You mean to tell me that the "monkey" in question is simply the clingy love interest of George's object of affection? "Why can't you set your monkey free?" Wink wink. "Always giving in to it"? Notice he doesn't say "Always giving in to him," he says "Always giving in to it" - it being, quite obviously, the guy's penis. He's always pleasuring himself instead of pleasuring George. Clear as a bell.

Maybe referring to a lover as a "monkey" is a British thing? I've heard the term "gorilla" be used to refer to a person, even "chimp," but "monkey"? Is that like a girlfriend who can't figure out how to pull an orange out of a jar or something? The only romantic/sexual term I know involving "monkey" would be "spanking the monkey." One racially provocative theory on YouTube is that the song is about a black guy who's trying to steal George's girlfriend/boyfriend. A better theory on YouTube is that the song is actually about being with a partner who's wrestling with drug addiction. This might explain George's frustration at having to "share my baby with a monkey" and other lyrics such as "Don't look now, there's a monkey on your back."

Whatever. I'm sticking with the penis theory.

I recall most of the hits from Faith being about as inescapable as breakfast cereal commercials (side question: what exactly does a toucan have to do with loops flavored like fruit?), but ... I have absolutely zero recollection of hearing "Monkey" in 1988. I first heard it when I borrowed a copy of Faith from my local library in the summer of 1999. I had read that the song ended up becoming the fourth US #1 hit from the album. A #1 hit that I had never actually heard? Curious. Maybe it had charted on pure commercial momentum, and then sank from the airwaves, a la "Batdance" or "Who's That Girl"? Maybe it ... stank? I mean, if it was any good, I surely would have heard it at some point on the radio, right? You couldn't go to the mall for five seconds without hearing "Father Figure" or "One More Try" blast through the JC Penney doors (not even in 1999!).

Well, when I finally got around to "Monkey" on the ol' CD from the library ... hot damn. Talk about a slammin', jammin', first-rate slice of Georgios funk.

"Monkey" is like the best Rick James/Debbie Gibson collaboration that never was. It's simultaneously bubblegum and tough as nails. Check out George's version of what I can only term vocal "scratching" at 0:34 ("like you did just then-then, th-th-then, then-just-then, just-just-just do it again"). What is this, Grandmaster George and the Furious Stubble? And get a load of that bridge! Rick Nowels probably shook his head with shame the minute he heard it, knowing he would never be able to approach its slinky, momentum-generating perfection. And to think I assumed this had just been a "tag-along" #1, eh? Au contrere, mon frere. As #1 hits from Faith go, "Monkey" might have been even more deserving of that appellation than "Faith" itself.

However. There's a catch.

The album version of "Monkey" that I came to know and love wasn't, as far as I can tell, the version that was actually a hit. That version was a Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis remix, which is the version featured in the music video. Listen. My admiration for Jam & Lewis's work with Janet Jackson knows no bounds, but ... I find this remix inferior to the album mix. They took out all the bass! And they added a bunch of extra organ chords to the chorus. You know what they did? They monkeyed around with "Monkey."

Which is fine, of course, for a club release, or a B-side. But if this had been August 1988, and I had heard the album version of "Monkey" on the radio, and then went out and bought the single version, I can tell you one thing: I would have been pissed. (The remix is even the version that appears on Ladies & Gentlemen: the Best of George Michael - it's like the "Everything She Wants" nonsense all over again.) Or is the Jam & Lewis mix the mix that was actually played on the radio? In that case, maybe "Monkey" didn't deserve to go to #1 after all. Professor Higglediggle adds:
Through employment of an unusual simian metaphor, Michael's "Monkey" dissects the post-colonial tension between British subjugation and African resistance, the singer's admission "I hate your friends/But I don't know how and I don't know when/To open your eyes" illustrating Frantz Fanon's concept of the divided self-perception of the Black Subject as discussed in Black Skin, White Masks, although potentially Michael acknowledges white European culpability with the statement "If I keep on askin' baby/Maybe I'll get what I'm askin' for." Jam & Lewis's single mix can be read as an attempt to re-appropriate Michael's cultural appropriation of black R&B, marking the track, in both versions, as a twin access of racial expression, although one that does not entirely avoid the trap of Levi-Strauss's conception of animal myth.