Sunday, October 27, 2019

"Summer Rain," Yuppie Pain AKA Belinda Goes Buckmaster

A sullen widow cries in the dark. A train whistle howls in the distance. An unrelenting torrent of droplets pelts the glass pane. Humanity gazes achingly into the fevered belly of its own corroded soul. The Midwestern sky dramatically severs itself in two as the American Dream groans with Rockwellian rage. I bring you ... Belinda Carlisle's "Summer Rain."

During that first fateful listen to Belinda's Her Greatest Hits in December of 2010, I must admit that I was not terribly impressed with the material I had not heard on the radio before, which was about ... 70% of the work before me? That said, "Summer Rain," at least, struck me as "pleasant." "Hey, if you've gotta fill out your greatest hits collection with a bunch of random album tracks, you could do a hell of a lot worse," is roughly what I thought, in between clicks of Mahjong Titans. Turns out that, despite my never having heard it before, "Summer Rain" had actually been a hit - not a huge hit, mind you, but a respectable one: it peaked at #30 in the US and #23 in the UK. In fact, it is, to date, her very last US Top 40 hit, Go-Go or solo (to be fair, she's still around and, hey, maybe a remix of one of those tracks from her Kundalini yoga album sung in Gurmuhki - I am not making this up - could always catch on out of nowhere). Amusingly enough, the single did best in Australia, peaking at #6; supposedly, there is an Australian "Summer Rain" dance that the audience performs whenever Belinda sings this Down Under (which I imagine is more impressive than the dance she performs in the video).

But, as with "Leave a Light On," it was a tiny detail I spotted on the song's Wikipedia page that made me do a Jim Carrey-style double-take and re-evaluate my initial indifference. Hold on, did I just read that the string arrangement was done by ... Paul Buckmaster?

You mean the Paul Buckmaster?

The same Paul Buckmaster who devised the string arrangements for David Bowie's "Space Oddity"? The Rolling Stones' "Moonlight Mile"? Harry Nilsson's "Without You"? Carly Simon's "You're So Vain"? You mean the same Paul Buckmaster who crafted all those haunting string arrangements on my cherished early '70s Elton John albums? You know, the self-titled album, Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, etc.? We're talking "Your Song," "Burn Down the Mission," "Levon," "Have Mercy On the Criminal." That Paul Buckmaster?

Let's get something straight here. Landing Paul Buckmaster would not have been like landing some random record industry professional to write your string arrangements for you. Landing Paul Buckmaster would have been like landing George Harrison to play your guitar solo for you. Buckmaster string arrangements were distinctive pieces of work. Buckmaster string arrangements were vigorous, brooding, forceful, bold, violent. Buckmaster string arrangements rocked you like a guitar riff rocked you. Buckmaster string arrangements grabbed you by the lapel and said, "Did you just say that string arrangements are only meant to be heard in the background?" Buckmaster's string arrangements were prominent.

Now, I don't know if it was Rick Nowels, or Rick Nowels's buddy, or someone further on up the MCA chain who got Paul Buckmaster to do the string arrangement for "Summer Rain," but I do know this: Belinda knew what she was getting. How do I know this? In Lips Unsealed, she goes out of her way to state that Elton John was one of her musical heroes (I swear to God, we have the exact same taste in music). And sure, lots people are casual Elton John fans who wouldn't know Paul Buckmaster from Grandmaster Flash, but, come on, she knew. Just check out this recently-posted cover of "I Need You To Turn To," a deep cut from Elton's self-titled 1970 breakthrough album, and tell me that she wasn't stoked back in 1989 that she snagged Paul Buckmaster to do the string arrangement on "Summer Rain." Yeah. She knew.

So after seeing that little factoid on Wikipedia, I thought to myself, "All right, guess I need to listen to this shit again." And ... you can see where this is going. The Buckmaster/Elton John connection got my initial attention, but I quickly realized that what I had on my hands here was another sleeper Belinda gem. Sure, it might have received some airplay in 1990, but it hasn't received any airplay since - and I'm not entirely sure why that is, because I'd rather hear "Summer Rain" in the department store than the umpteenth airing of "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You." I'd put "Summer Rain" up there with anything else Belinda ever did, and coming from me, by God, that is saying something. So would she; Belinda has gone on record as stating that "Summer Rain" is probably her personal favorite of all her solo tracks. "Summer Rain" dares to give Yuppie Rock a good name.

Because "Summer Rain" is bleaker than Leonard Cohen's worst nightmares. From Wikipedia: "The song is about a man who goes away to war and leaves his wife, saying that nothing will change—they will be together forever and always ... The song is set in the present as his widow sings it, remembering the last time she saw him." She's singing the song to her DEAD LOVER. This is some poetic melancholy shit people. And here I was, just assuming it was another bland love song with a string arrangement that was not done by Paul Buckmaster. Never judge a book by its cover:
Whispering our goodbyes, waiting for a train
I was dancing with my baby in the summer rain
I can hear him saying "nothing will change"
Come dance with me baby, in the summer rain

I remember the rain on our skin
And his kisses hotter than the Santa Ana winds
Whispering our goodbyes, waiting for a train
I was dancing with my baby in the summer rain

I remember laughing 'till we almost cried
There at station that night
I remember looking in his eyes

Oh my love, it's you and that I dream of
Oh my love, since that day
Somewhere in my heart I'm always
Dancing with you in the summer rain

Doesn't matter what I do now
Doesn't matter what I say
Somewhere in my heart I'm always
Dancing with you in the summer rain
You see, "Summer Rain" is a bit more ... narrative-driven than B.C.'s usual fare. To paraphrase Linda Rondstadt and Aaron Neville, I don't know much about songwriters Robbie Seidman and Maria Vidal, but I know I love them, since they provided a refreshing change of pace from the usual Nowels-Shipley Hallmark-fest ("Love Never Dies," "Vision of You," etc.). Do the lyrics explicitly mention her lover's death? Do the lyrics of "American Pie" explicitly mention Buddy Holly? It's called subtlety, people. The most blatant hint is the line "It was the last time that I saw him, in the summer rain." Maybe he just skipped town after he got back from duty. Look, who am I to question Wikipedia? I also hope that Seidman and Vidal were not intending the story to take place in Southern California, despite the reference to the Santa Ana winds, as any native Californian knows that it does not rain in the summer. Period. Sure, about once every three to four years there will be a freak summer thunderstorm, but it's on the rare side. In fact, if it actually did rain in California in the summer, I might be finishing this blog post from my home computer and not my work computer instead (thank you, PG&E). And one more thing: Southern California is not a region littered with trains. I imagine Belinda and her doomed soldier to be waving their tearful goodbyes somewhere in the South, or the Midwest. I expect the geographical references in my forgotten Belinda Carlisle Yuppie Rock hits to be accurate, damn it.

So yes, I came for the string arrangement (which, like all Buckmaster arrangements, caresses the track in its dionysian grip, and which can be heard more extensively on the album mix), but I stayed for the melodrama. A couple of nice touches: 1) the verses are powered along by what sounds like a marimba (how many Belinda songs can claim that?); 2) the low, buzzing drone of guitar right before the second and third chorus, like a hive of cicadas lurking in the humid evening gloom. The overall air of restraint arguably makes the grimness of the lyrics all the more effective, as if Belinda is too catatonic to vent her grief properly. She's too dead inside to aim for true catharsis.

I feel ambivalent about Belinda letting her inner country singer loose on her delivery of the word "dayy-aynce," but nothing gets me going like the sight of Belinda in a long black short-sleeved dress (with just the right hint of cleavage) "dayy-ayncing" in an old rustic barn while CGI clouds zoom eerily past the window. I believe this was her "early 1990" look: hair still red, but straightened out and clipped just above her shoulders, with a dose of (fake?) black eyelashes. And if you were expecting me to complain about the sight of Belinda drenched by rain, you are going to be mistaken. What else? The director really went for that 4th of July/Main Street U.S.A. aesthetic, complete with sepia-tinted shots of brass band and an impressively WASPy fake family standing next to Belinda on the ol' family porch, waving cluelessly in slow motion (your son is never coming back, you fools!). My favorite shots are the ones of Belinda in a long black trenchcoat (0:04, 1:31, 2:45, 3:10, 3:27), strolling dejectedly along the seaside. Let's call this her "sexy grieving widow" look. And how about all those sexy shots of fighter planes, gravestones, sonar screens, and radar dishes? After putting it off for several years, I just recently re-watched The Deer Hunter, and, honestly, throw in a couple of shots of sadistic Vietcong guards forcing Belinda's hubby to play Russian roulette in a bamboo cage, and this video would pretty much amount to the same thing.

There seems to be an amusing tug of war in the YouTube comments between those praising Belinda for her "classiness" as opposed to the female stars of today, and those pointing out that Belinda might have been even more fucked up than the skankiest pop whores of 2019, but just knew how to hide it better. Why argue when the correct answer is "all of the above"?
Wearing a long black dress, still looks hotter than most of the pop singers today.

a video from a time when women didnt need to dress like whores to sell their music.

Oh the memories... One of Belinda's most beautiful love songs! She looks so Beautiful and classic, reminds me of a younger Priscilla Presley. I think she looked great as a Blonde, but have always loved that fierce Auburn on her!

I would dance with Belinda in the Summer Rain, sunshine, or in the snow if I had to!

heres the difference between now and then.....belinda was hot and sexy but her career didnt depend on it because she was a real musician. she could sing, she could write songs and as a guy i genuinely liked her music. the same cant be said for 99 percent of todays female pop stars. the 80s had a balance between sexuality and innocence where i not only wanted to fuck her but wouldnt mind waking up next to her every day, where todays women, my urge is to fuck them then send them packing.

eh? sorry to contradict but this was the era when madonna was masterbating on stage wearing JPG conical bras!

She was very luck to get off so easily with the American public. Belinda and crew did more coke and partied more than Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan or any of the other divas out there today. Of course Belinda had talent. :D

no one, no female singer, that I can think of, can ope their throat and just let it out like Belinda Carlisle!!!!! One in a million, baby!

Such a perfect pop song. Runaway Horses deserves a Pitchfork review getting a 10 and hipsters discovering the greatest pop album of the late 80s!

Why is she sniffing her armpit?

she's not - ever seen flamenco dancers? B smell like summer rain if you are wondering - she's perfect and extraordinary.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

"Rhythm Nation": A Dangerously Unstable, And Yet Extremely Funky, Young Republic

I've heard of Woodstock Nation, Red Sox Nation, even Fast Food Nation, but what precisely is a "Rhythm Nation"? Is it a nation where only terrific dancers are allowed to become citizens? A nation where only percussionists are allowed to vote? A nation where every presidential candidate is obligated to begin their stump speech by beatboxing? I'm about 98% certain that Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis had no idea either; they probably thought the phrase just sounded cool - and they were right!

I mean, I'd rather live in a Rhythm Nation than some of the other nations out there. Who do you think they put on their currency? James Brown? Bo Diddley? Etc. etc. And yet, how to make this Rhythm Nation a reality? The trio sat in their Minneapolis studio late one night and asked themselves this critical question: "What would a Rhythm Nation sound like?" The answer: lots of snappy, metallic, clanging stuff! And brief, repetitive samples of Janet saying "bass-bass-bass"! You know, a bunch of chaotic, punchy, hi-tech noises that imitate malfunctioning hard drives!

I get the feeling that Jam and Lewis were trying to conjure up an aural experience that would have, in 1989, evoked "the future," but in 2019 mostly evokes a "1989" idea of the future. Which is fine, because if they'd actually created a song that had managed, against all odds, to capture the sound of a pop music single from 2019, I probably wouldn't like it very much.

How to create a "Rhythm Nation":
  1. Sample the guitar break from Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)"
  2. Place twenty frying pans on the studio floor and whack the hell out of them for five minutes
  3. Pick out three eerie descending chords on an organ and play them very slowly
  4. Chant out a string of pseudo-slogans and vaguely political phrases that sound anthemic and uplifting on first listen but might not hold up to deep intellectual scrutiny
Works for me! For some reason, "Escapade" continued to garner airplay long after 1990, but I went for about twelve years without ever hearing "Rhythm Nation" on the radio even once, which is funny, because at the time, it was about as ubiquitous as hearing my classmates blurt out "Don't have a cow, man." When I did finally hear it again, I thought, "Well, they sure were using a towering pile of slightly dated production effects, but my nine-year-old self was correct: this song was a serious banger." Let's face it, there is a lot of rhythm in "Rhythm Nation." I fear that if it contained any extra rhythm, it might simply devolve into one long, sustained, five-minute beat. But unlike, say, that Missy Elliott song where she sounds like she's humping a buffet table in an Indian restaurant, "Rhythm Nation" still has melodic hooks and vocal harmonies and all the secret goodies that I crave. It doesn't just smack me over the head for five minutes with one idea.

Is it just me, or does the way in which Janet & Co. bark out that chorus (which to my nine-year-old brain sounded something like "People-Uck-A-Wuck-A-Duck, Wuck-A-Duck-A Wuck-A-Ducka-A-Duck, Of Life") possibly owe more to glam rock than the hip-hop that might have been their actual reference point? And then they mix it up with a little Gregorian chant, as a disembodied, seemingly all-male choir responds with "We are a part of the rhythm nation," successfully demonstrating their military, and spiritual, unity. Another great touch is Janet's little interjections of "Sing it up!" Every time she peppers one of those in there, frankly, I feel inspired to charge into battle against the evil anti-rhythmic forces that threaten to destroy our fiercely pro-rhythmic kingdom. Just when they seem to be repeating themselves, Janet, Jam, and Lewis throw in a gonzo, head-spinning bit like the one around the 1:46 mark, after Janet sings "Things are getting worse/We have to make 'em better." Without warning, all the instrumentation vanishes, leaving Janet and her sisters-in-rhythm to harmonize a capella for about five seconds (I believe they sing "It's time dooo gethuh something get togeh-thuh!") before a squiggly synth and a quick shout of "Come on now" propel us right back into the chorus. Long story short: this song totally gets me going! (Note: the lyrics of that section are actually "It's time to give a damn, let's work together." Did not know this until today.)

What I'm saying is that "Rhythm Nation" was not a case of false advertising. It's propulsive in a way that most late '80s R&B arguably was not. When Janet was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, predictable howls of protest arose from the basements of angry Judas Priest and Iron Maiden fans worldwide, but here's what Def Leppard's Joe Elliott had to say: "Janet Jackson, for all her success ... People might argue that it's not rock & roll, but that 'Rhythm Nation' stuff kicked ass." And I know what he means. Hell, "Rhythm Nation" probably rocks harder than a lot of Def Leppard songs!

I've always assumed that working deep in the bowels of a factory would be a tedious, hazardous, soul-crushing experience, but damn was I off.  Virtually overnight, the video for "Rhythm Nation" must have tripled the number of job applications submitted to industrial warehouses nationwide. When they finally shut those thick metal doors at night ... it's time to get the party started! If Bob Fosse, Devo, and R. Lee Ermey had ever collaborated on a music video, they might have ended up choreographing something like this. At least the edits are spaced infrequently enough so that I can get the sense of Janet & Co. genuinely dancing their fancy dance. But here's what I'm picturing: about five seconds after the video ends, some little old lady in horn-rimmed glasses pokes her head out of the office door and yells, "All right, kids, you had your fun, now get back to work!"