Sunday, September 29, 2019

Martika's Desperate Cry In The Dark AKA Drugs Are Bad Mmmkay?

Madonna. Bono. Prince. Cher. Singers for whom only one name is necessary. The surname is a vestigial remnant, a useless footnote from a childhood history no longer relevant to the adoring masses. For these singers, only one name is needed because there could be only one.

And so I give you:


In retrospect, Martika's ambitious attempt at singular nomenclature would put her more in the category of a Limahl than, say, a Sting, but sometimes, hey, you've just got to aim for the stars.

Remember that show Kids Incorporated? Neither do I, but apparently it served as a launching pad for the careers of such cultural behemoths as Jennifer Love Hewitt, Stacy Ferguson (AKA Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas), and one Marta Merrero (AKA Martika from ... Martika). By the time she turned 19, Martika set her sights on a recording career, and she had also apparently seen her fair share of the ugly side of '80s children's television programming. Per Wikipedia:
Martika wrote the song about a friend who was battling a cocaine addiction. "I was a little hesitant because I had only written two songs before and they were light songs. I came up to [producer] Michael [Jay] and said I wanted to write about drugs. It was the first time I got the nerve to write about something that was scary for me to talk about, so I did."
You let it all out there, girl! See, it was bold trailblazers like Martika who paved the way for the Liz Phairs and Alanis Morissettes and Courtney Loves of '90s rock. Although none of her lyrical intentions ever registered with me, and I doubt I'm the only one. Laugh if you will at her D.A.R.E.-level naivete, but it's that naked vulnerability that gives "Toy Soldiers" its power. I listen to "Toy Soldiers" and I don't hear a singer who is trying to be "cool," trying to "pose," or trying to sell me some horseshit about life being a bed of roses. No, I hear a singer who's a little bit terrified of the big bad world around her, but isn't going to let her fear prevent her from trying to be a kind, thoughtful, empathetic human being. I also hear an enormously cheesy power ballad, but Martika goes for the gold and doesn't blink.

Actually, you know what "Toy Soldiers" sounds like? "Toy Soldiers" sounds like the best Belinda Carlisle solo hit that Belinda never made. So this is Belinda's ultimate artistic legacy: the recorded works of Martika. Seriously, Martika pulls off the same tricky mixture of sweetness and angst, although her voice doesn't quite flap in the wind like Belinda's does. No, Martika's voice is more like a plastic soccer goal post: sturdy, and yet somewhat replaceable. Now that I think about it, she sounds a bit like Suzanne Vega (Anyone else expect her to break out with "I am sitting in the morning/At the diner on the corner"?). Except for the parts where Martika throws a little growl into the proceedings, like in her delivery of "How could I be so fine with this addiction?" at 1:43 - she's been secretly hiding Bonnie Tyler inside her chest and can barely keep her down! And could Suzanne Vega hit those eerie high notes in the outro? "All fall down! All fall down!" It's like Daryl Hall at chipmunk speed.

Then there's the backing track, which I might describe as a main course of "Time After Time" with a side dish of "Theme from Chariots of Fire," and perhaps a dessert of ... "Take My Breath Away"? Martika comes floating in on a neon wave of processed guitars and churning metronomes, and flutters away on a cloud of PG-13 hair metal solos. Just think: even in two short years (1991), there is no way in hell a ballad that sounded like this could have hit #1, but in 1989, the production here probably didn't even merit a double-take.

The video features everything from an ersatz "rippling water" effect and black-and-white footage straight out of a Guess ad, to shots of Martika's leather jacket-clad "boyfriend" handing over cash (for drugs?) near a payphone (at 3:48) and Martika and said boyfriend arguing violently in a stairwell (at 3:52). "If you don't get off that stuff for good, then it's over for us!" I'm also pleased to note that Martika has taken lessons from the Belinda Carlisle School of Music Video Choreography, which consists of crossing and uncrossing your arms, jerking your head backwards, clenching your fists, and spinning around copiously. In the second-to-last shot, our heroine, dressed in black, places a flower on a grave. Did her boyfriend ... OD? Is she paying respects to her treasured aunt Esmerelda? Is Martika standing at the grave ... of her own hit-making career? You see, for toy soldiers like Martika, victory is elusive, but the battle over ill-defined music video symbolism ... wages on.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

One Blog Post, Believing In Just "Two Hearts" AKA Phil's Medical Bills (And Drug Debt) Finally Lead To The Big Screen

You know, if Prince and Madonna could make it in the movies, then why not Phil Collins?

Stranger things have happened. I mean, look at Mark Wahlberg. Maybe Phil had a little Boogie Nights in him yet? Alas, it looks like Buster was a one-time deal and that Phil would just have to keep his genitals in his pants.

Now, if I told you that, once upon a time, Phil Collins had starred in a movie, and then I added that he never starred in another movie again, you would naturally assume that he gave a terrible performance in said movie, right? Full disclosure: I have never seen, nor do I plan to see, Buster. But those who have seen it say ... he did a fairly decent job. Well take a look at him now. Roger Ebert wrote that Collins played the role "with surprising effectiveness." Amusingly, the critical consensus is that, while the film has its flaws, Phil Collins's acting ... isn't actually one of them. Land of confusion indeed. Being American, I am not familiar with the 1963 Great Train Robbery upon which the film is based, but reading about it on Wikipedia makes me nostalgic for the days when trains actually carried cargo worthy of being robbed. Supposedly, the comedic tone of the film doesn't quite mesh with the amoral actions it depicts. Raise your hand if you predicted that a Phil Collins movie would be criticized for being too "dark." Apparently Prince Charles and Princess Diana were planning to attend the premiere, but Phil discouraged them from doing so as he wanted to keep them immune from the "controversy" surrounding the film's alleged "glorification" of violence. Dear God. Imagine the fallout from members of the royal family attending a Phil Collins train heist movie. The scandal! The outrage! The whole thing could have ended in divorce!

So with the early '60s serving as sonic inspiration, Phil cooked up one hell of a snappy soundtrack single. You might be listening to "Two Hearts" and thinking to yourself, "How the hell did Phil Collins completely nail that Motown sound?" Well, I'll tell you how he did it. He did it by co-writing the song with Lamont Dozier.

You know, Lamont Dozier? As in "Holland-Dozier-Holland"?

The songwriting team consisting of brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier was essentially responsible for writing every other Motown hit between 1963 and 1967 (another 25% were probably written by Smokey Robinson, and the remaining 25% were written by about twenty different people). They were a three-pronged hook machine, imbuing their vibraphone-laden choruses with ... I want to say a "jazzy" quality? We're talking "Heat Wave," "Baby Love," "I Can't Help Myself," "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)," "(Reach Out) I'll Be There" ... frankly, I have better things to do than name all the hits they wrote (like write a blog post about a Phil Collins soundtrack single, for instance). In fact, Phil had already covered one of those hits ("You Can't Hurry Love") and scored his own giant hit with it. How, precisely, he came into contact with Dozier is information that Wikipedia does not provide, but if it was a collaboration that did not generate the headline-grabbing pizzazz of "Phil Collins/Phillip Bailey," it was equally fruitful. Aside from the substitution of what sounds like a keyboard with a "vibraphone" setting for an actual vibraphone, "Two Hearts" generally keeps the '80s at bay. The strings swoop and soar in a decidedly non-'80s-like manner, the backing vocals add just the right amount of tension during the pre-chorus, and honestly, the bridge has to be the bridge to end all bridges! That "Collins/Dozier" songwriting credit on the back of the 45 is one of those tiny and yet heavily revealing details that makes an '80s pop scholar such as myself tilt his head back and say, "Ahhhhh ... so that explains it." Not that Phil hadn't already demonstrated a gift for concise, soulful, elegant pop on his own, but come on: having the D in "HDH" along for the ride didn't hurt.

Having never paid close attention to the lyrics of "Two Hearts" (because ... I have a life?), I initially assumed that they portrayed the more melancholy side of romance, given the minor key nature of the music. Then one day I realized that the sentiment of the song is relentlessly upbeat, the singer essentially stating that he and his lover are practically joined via their aortas for all of eternity. (Confession: until about, oh, an hour ago, I always thought the chorus was "Two hearts/Living in just one mind," which doesn't make any sense, because organs live in the body, not the mind, right? But I think the actual lyric is "Two hearts/Believing in just one mind," which doesn't make any sense either, but at least it feels slightly more poetic. Since when is a mind something you "believe" in? Whatever, I give up.) Given the aching sweep of the melody, I feel like the Hallmark-level nature of the lyrics are a kind of a letdown. My ears tell me that this should be a sad song, not a happy one. The words don't quite do justice to the tune. Basically, I think Phil phoned it in. Maybe he thought, 'Well, this is supposed to be a classic '60s-style radio hit, not another scathing divorce lament. I better make it lovey-dovey." Yes, I know, I'm complaining about the superficiality of the lyrics in a Phil Collins song. But with a series of hooks this ingratiating, it could have been something even more special! As it is, I would call it a perfect "sounding" single that I like to pretend doesn't have lyrics. It's two mismatched moods living in just one Phil Collins song.

Less heralded is Buster's other Collins/Dozier collaboration, "Loco In Acapulco," performed by the (then still active!) Four Tops. Phil also recorded a curiously minimalist cover of Wayne Fontana's "Groovy Kind of Love" for the film, although the original came out in 1966 so he really seemed to be fudging the historical timeline there. Jeez Phil! And somehow even that went to #1 in the US.

Once again, Phil treated the music video for a Motown homage as another excuse to live out his early rock & roll TV variety show fantasies. Here he stars as not only the blasé projectionist, but as the singer, bassist, keyboardist, and drummer of new British beat group the Four Pound Notes ("Yeah, well, there used to be, uh ... five of us Tony"). I feel it is my sacred blogger duty to mention that Phil had already done this "playing every member of the band" bit twice before (in the videos for "I Missed Again" and "You Can't Hurry Love"), but it is also my sacred blogger duty to mention that ... even the third time around, it's still amusing! As keyboardist, Phil seems to be going for the Stephen Stills look, while as bassist, he seems to be going more for the, let's say, Peter Asher (of Peter and Gordon) look. Meanwhile, the drummer is apparently a hardcore jazz guy (and, given the sunglasses, I'm guessing a junkie), slumming it for a quick buck.

I know I grumbled about the lightweight nature of the lyrics, but if Phil is to be believed at least, perhaps I should take that back. From In The Air Tonight:
There'd been signs for years, obviously, but by the time they found me lying unconscious on the floor of a gay bar in Oaxaca wearing a French maid's outfit, I knew things had really gotten out of control. They say that, for 148 seconds at least, I was legally dead. But anyway, after a couple of jolts from the defribrillator, they tossed me on a cot and rushed me on a chopper straight to Cedars Sinai.

The doctor came in wearing a cheap toupee and the sort of solemn countenance that not even Keith Richards could fail to be unnerved by. "Mr. Collins, I'm afraid ... there's only one way to say this ... you've got heart problems."

"What do you mean?"

"Look, it's really none of my business, but ... let's just say I didn't spend six years at UCLA Medical School for nothing. I know the x-rays of a horse tranquilizer addict when I see one, OK?"

I let out a heavy sigh. "Look, Doc, I know, I've got a problem, but I just need to get through this one more solo tour, and then I'll go clean, I swear!"

"Damn it, Collins, don't you get it? You don't turn things around this very minute, you're gonna be just another dead balding drummer with a Rolodex full of ex-wives! This is your wake-up call, man!" The doctor literally grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me vigorously with his arms. "You've got to get ... yourself ... together!"

My head slumped toward the floor. "OK, OK. Just ... what's the diagnosis?"

"Well, it's not merely the horse tranquilizer. I'm picking up traces of paint thinner, varnish, whale antiseptic ... I mean, stuff I haven't seen in years. Your heart's shot to hell. I don't even know how you're still alive."

"Probably that Belgian lab experiment from when I was a kid."

"Your what?"

"Never mind. So what are we talking about here, a heart transplant?"

"I'm afraid it's much worse than that. What we're going to need is a medical miracle, a procedure that's never been done before."

"I don't follow."

"You don't need another heart. I'm afraid the only thing that can save you is ... two hearts."

I blinked three times.

"There's a hospital in Portugal that's pulled off a similar procedure in a goat, but ... it's never been tried in a human."

"Two hearts ... living in just one mind?"


"But ..." I poked gingerly at my shriveled chest. "Where will you find the room?"

Well, obviously, they figured it out. I had every intention of turning over a new leaf, I did. I'd been given a second chance - it was a sign from God, right? But about three days after the surgery, I found myself in a foul mood (I think I caught "In Too Deep" slipping from #4 to #6 in the charts), and I figured, "Well, between the two hearts, they can probably withstand more usage than just the one, you know?" So ... I went right back on the stuff.

About a month later, I got a call from Hans - you know, my dealer in Copenhagen - demanding this, that, and the other thing.

"Phil, you still owe me twenty thousand krone, you lying prick!"

"All right, all right, all right! but listen Hans, I'm dead broke, I mean really broke. You know what I just had to pay for?"


"I had to pay for an extra heart in my chest."


"Didn't come cheap."

"Phil, I do not give a fuck about you and your extra hearts. Either pay up or I am sending the big boys."

"No! no! OK, there's gotta be something, a favor I can do, some kind of benefit concert, like that whole Live Aid thing, you name it, I'll do it."

There was a pregnant pause. "Well ... you know ... I have a friend, a film producer, he is involved with this movie about a train robbery..."

"You need someone to do the soundtrack?"

"Well, yes, of course, but what he really needs is ... a lead actor."

I let out a snort. "Hans, forget it. I can't even keep my own pants on these days, let alone star in a fucking movie."

"Twenty thousand krone, Phil, twenty thousand krone ..."

So ... I took the part. And I wasn't half-bad! Had a lot of fun making it. Ran into Lamont Dozier in an adult bookstore in Simi Valley one day, started gushing about how much I loved his work, how he could really use a comeback opportunity, how I had this whole soundtrack album to do, and how Erica's Daughter was a much hotter read than the sequel, Emily's Daughter. Great track, "Two Hearts." But yeah, all the budget money for the video I had to send straight to Hans, so we didn't have any money left over for actors. I told the director no problem, I could do it all myself. Wasn't anything I hadn't done before.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Soul II Soul: R&B Goes British, Positive, Afrocentric, Says "Whoops! Can't Have This"

You thought Boyz II Men knew how to work a roman numeral? Get a load of Soul II Soul.

I have a foggy memory of sitting at home on a typical 1989 afternoon, catching a particular video on television, and thinking to myself, "You know, these black musicians currently dancing on my TV screen are not dancing like the typical black musicians I usually see dancing on my TV screen. Who are these particular black musicians, and where did they come from?" One day I received the answer, and explanation, I was looking for:

Britain. They came from Great Britain.

This ... explained ... everything.

Now, I could be entirely mistaken, but I have the feeling that the African-American experience is slightly different from the, uh ... African-British (I doubt that's the term?) experience. Maybe it's the accents. Maybe it's the fish and chips. Maybe it's the superior educational system. But even at nine years of age, I could sense that Soul II Soul were not cut from the usual American R&B mold that I was familiar with. They looked like the bohemian, cafe-dwelling, poetry-reading, jazz and Earth, Wind & Fire-listening kind of black. They looked like they celebrated Kwanzaa, quoted Langston Hughes and James Baldwin to each other, and had posters of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in their bedrooms. Just look at their song titles. You didn't usually see tracks called "African Dance" or "Jazzie's Groove" on Bobby Brown albums, is what I'm saying.

Like most of my countrymen, until I got my hands on Soul II Soul's debut album, Club Classics Vol. One (Retitled Keep On Movin' in the US, presumably because the label assumed American consumers would have been too stupid to realize it was not, in fact, a compilation), I had only ever heard two Soul II Soul songs: "Keep On Movin'" and "Back To Life (However Do You Want Me)". These two singles - breezy, elegant, suave, and almost melancholy, but possessing just enough muscle to stand out from the usual Quite Storm fare - were sung by Caron Wheeler. Hence, I concluded - erroneously, but not without company I imagine - that Caron Wheeler (not to be confused with the Sundays' equally enchanting Harriet Wheeler) was the "lead singer" of a mainly song-oriented group named Soul II Soul. My conclusion, though understandable, was WRONG, TOTALLY WRONG.

It turns out that Soul II Soul were more of a dance/electronica/DJ-oriented collective that didn't really focus on recording proper "songs" with verses and choruses per se, or even lyrics. Soul II Soul, God bless them, cast those oh so American musical boundaries aside. Wikipedia lists their genre as "soul/neo soul/dance/R&B/rap/British soul/reggae," but I feel like "neo soul" would have just about covered it (in a way, they were knocking on the door of trip-hop). Some of the tracks on Club Classics Vol. One feature lead singers other than Wheeler, some feature light rapping, and others are flat-out instrumentals. What I'm trying to say is that, if you're wondering why a group that released two excellent hit singles didn't release more of those excellent singles, it's probably because the listening public heard Soul II Soul's other songs that didn't have Caron Wheeler's voice on them and thought, "Wait a minute, this is Soul II Soul? But where's the lead singer?" See guys? You thought you could be all "utopian" and "collectivist" and "boundary-free," but let me tell you something: it doesn't help the brand. Even the Alan Parsons Project, for crying out loud, eventually caved on the lead singer question. But Soul II Soul refused to sell their soul. To paraphrase Graham Nash, "Was the money you didn't make worth the price that you didn't pay?"

But wait, there's more! Not only did Caron Wheeler sing nothing else on the album aside from the singles, but the version of "Back to Life" that appears on the album isn't even the hit version, but rather a radically different, virtually a capella mix. It's like that time in college I was perusing my friend's CD collection, grabbed 2Pac's All Eyez On Me from the rack, and said, "Yeah! Put on 'California Love'!" only to watch him grimace and explain, "Uh ... the version on the album is just this weird remix, it's not the version you actually want to hear." Buzz kill. Oh the problems music consumers used to have that we simply don't have anymore.

So, Soul II Soul's videos. At the time, they might have seemed like a glimpse into R&B's future, but in retrospect they're more like a glimpse into Cornel West's wet dream of R&B's future. So many dreads, so many weaves, so many beads, so many dashikis, so many multi-colored 'do rags ... it's like Maya Angelou on acid. And when was the last time you saw violinists in an R&B video? I almost wished these two videos could just ... keep on moving and not stop. Instead, the moment they end, I find myself coming back to life, back to reality - and, honestly, compared to a Soul II Soul video, my reality is pretty bland. Favorite YouTube comments:
As a kid I swore she said "yellow is the color of some rain". I thought she was saying that sometimes life pisses on you 😂!

Yellow is the color of some race. I used to think that's what she was singing. lol

the summer of '89, i remember brothas bumpin this in their Ford Escorts. the sound systems were more expensive than the car.

This song reminds me of a funny incident that happened back in 1990 when this song was popular and on the radio. I was a sophomore in high school and our class was waiting outside for our teacher. But then we were informed that our teacher was out sick and to wait outside for the substitute. So we were wondering who our sub was going to be and this old lady was walking toward the classroom. Then I guess one of my fellow classmates was hoping the old lady wasn't going to be our sub. As the old lady was coming to open the door, the guy started singing "Keep On Movin, Keep On Movin Don't Stop, No." Man, we just started busting out laughing.