Sunday, August 18, 2019

The One Paula Abdul Song I Will Straight Up Defend

Like the approval ratings for ol' Herbert Walker himself, my level of affection for certain artists from the 1989-1990 era has, shall we say, risen and fallen. Paula Abdul may have been Forever Your Girl, but I would not say that all of her four #1 hits (!) from that album have "forever" held up over the years. For instance, the title track sounds like the theme for an all-star ABC sitcom that sadly never was (starring, perhaps, Joey Lawrence, Will Smith, and Alyssa Milano?). "Cold Hearted" now strikes me as a less effective "Maneater," trudging through a well-worn chord progression (Pebbles's "Girlfriend" would like a word) to uncertain effect (judging from the relative apathy in Paula's voice, I feel like this guy's heart is probably lukewarm at worst). "Opposites Attract" is sort of a Gershwin/Porter-style standard on autopilot (for two more plausible, and acidic, '80s treatments on the same theme, I would recommend Billy Joel's "A Room of Our Own" and the Go-Go's' "We Don't Get Along"). But like Madonna and Janet before her (or even Alice Cooper and Kiss for that matter), I can recognize that the chief appeal of Paula Abdul in her heyday wasn't exactly her musical output.

Unnecessarily harsh YouTube users will often insult contemporary pop singers by saying something along the lines of "XXX can't even sing, she's just a fucking dancer." The thing is, if you said this to Paula Abdul, she might actually agree with you.

Paula Abdul was a dancer. She was better than the average dancer. After helping choreograph several of Janet Jackson's Control videos, some opportunistic record executive must have droolingly backed her into a corner at some record release party and laid out a persuasive spiel: "Look Paula baby, you see Janet? You think Janet's got the greatest vocal range? Fuck no. But can Janet make great dance-pop? You God damn right. You could do the same thing. You got looks, you can dance ... think about it baby." And so, Paula Abdul became a dancer with a recording career. How did she do this, you ask? Well, you see, once upon a time, there was this television channel, and it made certain kinds of things possible that simply weren't possible before.

Back in the day, the release of every Paula Abdul single from Forever Your Girl felt like a mini-event - at least to my brother in me as we sat in our parents' car on the way to the mall. The thing is, I don't know if I genuinely liked Paula's singles as songs, or simply as cool music videos that happened to have songs associated with them. I remember my brother and I sitting in the back seat, listening to her singles on the radio, and spending the whole length of the song talking about the "awesome video!" She was dancing with a rapping cartoon cat! What could top that? In hindsight, I can't say I would strongly recommend Paula's old hits to a contemporary listener. It's like reminiscing about MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, or "Do the Bartman." You sort of just had to be there.

Except for "Straight Up."

For this child of the '80s at least, "Straight Up" holds up. You know why? "Straight Up" is lean, it's mean. "Straight Up" hits hard. Whoever was responsible for "Straight Up" (possibly someone other than Paula?) wrapped up all their whistle-ready hooks and playful synth riffs into one seamless, raunchy little package (Wikipedia is giving me the possibly made-up name of Elliot Wolff). "Straight Up" appears fun and fluffy on the surface, and yet it has a sinister, accusatory bite to it. Take the best tracks from Madonna, Janet, or the Boys of Pet Shop, and let me tell you something: "Straight Up" could straight up go toe-to-toe with any of them. What's funny is that, as a kid, I did not prefer "Straight Up" to her other hits in any way. But now, it's the only one I genuinely enjoy.

A few of the ingredients that do it for me:
  1. The "trumpet" synth. I'm a sucker for "trumpet" synth. You know what Van Gogh's problem was? He didn't have enough trumpet synth. Otherwise he might have snapped out of it. The trumpet synth is cute and playful, and yet it adds just enough of a hint of sass.
  2. The wah-wah guitar that "answers" the trumpet synth: roll over Isaac Hayes.
  3. The blazingly loud multi-tracked electric guitar that pulses through the entire song: Obviously this is a dance-pop song, but do you hear that guitar? Listen to that virile buzz underneath the chorus. It brings almost a stadium rock feel to what could have otherwise been electronic goo.
  4. The brief, metallic synth riff that pushes the bridge into the chorus and sounds like a robotic spider rapidly climbing its way up Paula's skirt
  5. Paula's quasi-rapping during the bridge ("I've-been-fooled-be-fore-would-n't-like-to-get-my-love-caught-in-the-slam-min-door") which then culminates in a surprisingly high-pitched "pleeeeeeease?"
  6. The call-and-response backing vocals during the second verse that dart out from behind Paula in the center channel to stake out their territory on the left and right channels: "Time's standing still/waiting for some (waiting for some) small clue/(Ah-let me tell you now) I keep getting chills/When I think your love (when I think your love) is true." They've got Paula's back, jack.
  7. "False" ending: After Paula's "please, please, a-please please", the backing track seems to simmer down noticeably (the guitar intruding much less frequently), while Paula chants a highly abridged version of the chorus ("Straight up now tell me ... tell meeee"). Part of me always assumes this is the start of the fade-out, and while I enjoy this section, a piece of me is always a little disappointed that this is the alleged fade-out, because, for all its merits, it is a bit "low energy." But guess what, I'm in luck, because it's not the actual fade-out. Wisely, the full-fledged, guitar-heavy chorus comes back with guns a-blazing, and the song fades out on that. Phew!
To say I'm not too fond of the other singles from the album is not to say that I don't admire the artistry behind the videos. First of all, one wouldn't think that the film taste of budding young auteur David Fincher and former Laker Girl Paula Abdul would possess much overlap, and yet this just goes to show you how All That Jazz is one of those films that has a little something for everyone. You like bitter, self-loathing, semi-autobiographical, genre-bending late '70s cinema? You'll love All That Jazz. You like none of those things, but you like great dancing? You'll love All That Jazz! I remember viewing Bob Fosse's singular "feel-bad" musical with my co-blogger Herr Zrbo several years ago, and during the "Air-otica" scene, he suddenly turned to me and he said, in a moment of blinding epiphany, "I think I just realized that Paula Abdul's video for 'Cold Hearted' is basically a shot-by-shot re-make of this scene.'" Honestly, until he pointed it out to me, I hadn't realized it either. I knew co-bloggers were good for something. And "Opposites Attract" (not directed by Fincher) is like the best bonus feature the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? DVD release never had.

Unlike the clips for "Opposites Attract" or "Cold Hearted," the video for "Straight Up" sports no obvious gimmick, nor does it cash in on a cinematic reference near and dear to Little Earl's heart. I just find it more compulsively watchable. Every frame oozes ... style. Fincher appears to have employed the grainiest black and white film stock he could find (perhaps one might more accurately describe it as "dark blue and white"?) and the longest telephoto lenses he could get his hands on, making Paula seem as if she's being filmed from 50 yards away and one gentle tap on the cameraman's arm would cause her to fly right out of the frame. Speaking of tap: this is one of those rare instances where the fact that a music video doesn't immediately begin with the song in question doesn't bother me one bit. There's also something laughably simple and yet inherently pleasing about the sight of Paula strutting and swaying in her little mini-trench coat in front of a background that is solid black on the left and solid white on the right. It's like she's dancing the tango with the Parallel Lines album cover. Now I may be able to name more Blondie songs I like than Paula Abdul songs I like, but I'll tell you one thing: Debbie Harry's dancing couldn't hold a candle to Paula's.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

"Leave A Light On": Belinda + Beatle = Beautiful Bliss

If three separate European explorers, traveling up the California coast in succession, could fail to discover San Francisco Bay, then perhaps I could be forgiven for initially failing to care very much for Belinda Carlisle's "Leave a Light On."

When I first downloaded Belinda's Her Greatest Hits about nine years ago (in a dense haze of guilty pleasure delirium), there were certain singles I was aiming to hear, and "Leave a Light On" was ... not one of them. Didn't remember the song from my youth, even though after a quick glance at her Wikipedia page I learned that it had been a fairly sizable US hit for her (#11, a height she would never again reach stateside). I hardly even noticed it. Sounded like a Bryan Adams album track. Kinda slick, kinda glossy, too many instruments spoiling the broth, not enough room to swing a cat. It passed through me like water, or like something even more bland than water (IV fluid?).

Then I read the song's Wikipedia entry and learned that the guitar solo had been played by George Harrison. You know ... I couldn't put my finger on it but suddenly the song started to get ... a whole lot better. I listened to it a couple more times. Yeahhhhh. I was kinda into it now. George Harrison? Making a guest appearance on a Belinda Carlisle song? Hare fuckin' Krishna. You know what? Screw my initial reaction. This song was magnificent, I had always thought so from the very first moment I'd heard it, and no one could tell me otherwise.

That's right. While Paul McCartney was busy teaming up with a cool new wave kid (Elvis Costello) in order to sprinkle some critical credibility onto himself, George Harrison was teaming up with a much better-looking cool new wave kid of his own. I mean, who needs erudite wordsmithery when you've got that hot, hot Yuppie bod? (Her cleavage on the single sleeve alone could, I fear, swallow a small Pacific island.)

Come on. I guess I shouldn't have even been that surprised. Isn't it only natural that one of the members of my favorite group of all time (clichéd choice, I know) ended up collaborating with my favorite female singer of the '80s (less clichéd choice)? The Zelig-like career of Belinda Carlisle had everything, so of course her stream of cosmic dust would have inevitably overlapped at one point or another with the Beatles' stream of cosmic dust. Talk about a match made in Little Earl heaven. Discovering this information made me feel just a bit more validated. See, my life-consuming obsession with Belinda Carlisle wasn't so unreasonable after all. Even George Harrison liked her! Fandom = justified.

So how exactly did the so-called "Quiet One" end up playing guitar on some silly little Valley girl's record? According to Belinda, she simply asked him on a whim. From Lips Unsealed:
Rick said we should try to get someone cool and with a distinctive style to play the lead guitar part. I thought for a moment and said, "What about George Harrison?" I had met George briefly a few years earlier in San Remo, Italy, and Morgan, through his work on Sex, Lies, and Videotape, knew someone who was close to the former Beatle and able to get word to him. George responded right away, saying he'd love to help out.
So is that how it works where you're Belinda Carlisle in 1989? Just make some outlandish suggestion and watch it come to fruition? Hey, you know what? I need someone to help give me basketball lessons. Yeah, OK, how about Michael Jordan? No wait, I need someone to help me buy a gift for my niece. Oh, I've got an idea - how about Santa Claus? In the words of Belinda's humble session guitarist, it's all too much for me to take.
He had worked with very few artists, so I was honored. I absolutely loved the work he eventually did. After he passed away, his widow, Olivia, told a mutual friend that she had found an old Runaway Horses cassette as she went through some of his stuff. She said, "Please tell Belinda that George really loved her voice."
Well that makes two of us, George, that makes two of us. Man. How would you like to be able to walk this earth and tell yourself, every day of your life, that George Harrison loved your voice?  Maybe that makes up for Belinda's horrible Dickensian childhood just a little bit? Sort of like how Harry Nilsson said that having John Lennon produce Pussycats almost made up for his father having abandoned him ... almost. Here's Rick Nowels's version of how the whole business went down:
I met George Harrison at a party in Los Angeles in 1987 and he complimented me on "Heaven Is A Place On Earth" which I had produced and co-written for Belinda. A year later when I was working on Runaway Horses, we decided to contact George to see if he was interested in playing on a couple of tracks for the album. George said he would be happy to play, and to send him the tapes, and tell him what we wanted and what songs to play on. I wrote him very specific notes and asked him to play on "Leave A Light On" and "Deep Deep Ocean." I arranged "Leave A Light On" with a sixteen bar solo instead of an eight bar solo to give George some room to stretch. After I got the tapes back, to my delight, George called me at A&M Studios and asked if it was all right and said I owed him a beer.
And, as far as I know, to this very day, Rick Nowels still owes George Harrison that beer. Per the internet, even the guest guitarist himself was unusually proud of his playing on the track:
The best slide solo I ever played was on ... what's her name? That girl singer who used to be with that all-girl band? ... Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go's! That's who it was. I played on one of her albums. One of the slide solos had its own little tune which related to the tune Belinda was singing, but it's also a little composition in its own right, which I was really pleased with.
You know, if George was happy with it, then I'm happy with it. According to one message board, there's a video clip of George and Eric Clapton being interviewed either before or during their tour of Japan in 1991 (the link is sadly dead and my attempt to scour the earth for this footage has gone for nought), in which Eric talks about how distinctive George's guitar playing is, and that he keeps hearing other people try to play like George, such as, for instance, this random session guitarist on a track by some redhead girl whose name he can't remember. After some discussion, George mentions to Eric that the random session guitarist who was trying to play like George Harrison ... was probably George Harrison! A few comments down on this same message board, someone theorizes, as another possible explanation for why, given the thousands of recording artists he could have guested with, he ended up guesting on a stupid Belinda Carlisle song, "Would the fact that Belinda was a super HOT babe at the time have anything to do with it?" Couldn't have hurt.

Oh right, then there's this whole other part of the song that's not the guitar solo played by George Harrison. Frankly, it's grown on me. The lyrics strike me as a possible riff on Creedence's "Long As I Can See the Light," without Creedence's mournful late-night exhaustion. The walloping production arguably doesn't do justice to the composition; I'd almost like to hear someone play this song alone on an acoustic guitar, just to let it breathe a bit and see what happens. Also, the longer Belinda holds her notes, the more her vibrato tends to go a bit haywire, like a motor that slides out of its moorings from the force of the torque. Since less-than-superb singing could never be Belinda's fault, I blame Rick Nowels. Amusingly, if my research hasn't misled me, the woman belting out "Darling leave the light on!" during the fade-out in a gospel-soaked wail a la Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is" is not a Martha Wash-style heavy-set black woman, but the extremely white and extremely blonde Bekka Bramlett (daughter of blue-eyed soul duo Delaney and Bonnie, whom George Harrison and Eric Clapton famously toured with in 1969 - for those of you out there looking for another bizarre connection in this whole saga). I should mention that, while it charted respectably in America, "Leave a Light On" was actually almost as much of a massive global hit as "Heaven is a Place on Earth" had been, peaking at #4 in the UK and #5 in Australia, and arguably being her second best-known song in most countries. Huh. You learn something new every day.

Once again MCA spent the big bucks and lured Peter Care into directing another Belinda music video. Somehow her hair has become redder and curlier; let's call this her Debra Messing phase. Perhaps she was leery of spending another video shoot for Care freezing her ass off on a beach near Half Moon Bay, because this time she's cruising the Nevada desert (although it can certainly get cold at night), for what purpose it is hard to say (prowling for drugs?). Check out these splendid fashion choices:
  • Long white sleeveless dress, sort of "ruffled," and cowboy boots (Yee-haw!), occasionally paired with jean jacket
  • Green off-the-shoulder top with ... orange tights?
  • Droolingly form-fitting lacy black dress
  • Another long white sleeveless dress, but this one's more like a "gown," with pointy cones over her little Belindas, plus heels - this is more like her "Elizabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas" look
  • Shawl and sunglasses - let's call this her "Thelma and Louise" look
It's amusing to see 1989-era Vegas look so modest and low-key. I don't even think the MGM Grand had been built yet. I mean, what did people even do there? Gamble?