Sunday, January 26, 2020

"Good Thing" The Fine Young Cannibals Never "Drove Us Crazy" With Some Crappy Follow-Up Album, Eh?

Well, at least they weren't those disrespectful, ungrateful young cannibals that you see roaming the streets at all odd hours, besmirching the good reputation of our town. No siree. Nothing but fine, upstanding, proper young cannibals in this band.

If someone had taken a poll, back around 1983 or so, asking close followers of the British Ska Revival who they might have thought, out of all the musicians involved, would form the nucleus of a spin-off group that would eventually release a massive US #1 album in 1989 that would feature two massive US #1 singles, I doubt many of those responding would have answered, "Well, the bassist and the guitarist from the English Beat, obviously."

One might have put some money on Graham "Suggs" McPherson, lead singer of Madness, a band that, unlike the English Beat, actually scored a US top 10 hit. It probably wouldn't have been a terrible stretch to envision Terry Hall and his Sideshow Bob haircut making a more forceful appearance on the American charts in one form or another, be it with the Fun Boy Three, a new line-up of the Specials, or some other off-the-wall side project yet to be conceived. If you'd have said English Beat lead vocalist Dave Wakeling and his toasting sidekick Ranking Roger, you would have been in the ballpark at least, as they went on to form General Public, something of a punk/ska supergroup (featuring members of the Clash, the Specials, and Dexys Midnight Runners!), which scored a US #27 hit with "Tenderness."

The top 30. Right. That's about what you'd expect from an English Beat side project. Well, Andy Cox and David Steele were, shall we say ... "hungry" for more. But just who were they going to find to assist them with devouring all that succulent human flesh?

Roland Gift has a singing style so choked and so pinched, he makes Robin Gibb sound like Tom Jones. If I'm in a less charitable mood, I might describe him as one of those singers who - Thom Yorke is another for me - equates "poor pronunciation" with "emotion" and "passion." Look, Sam Cooke didn't have to mumble and gurgle to sound soulful, you know? Let's just say that if I didn't like so many of the other elements in the Fine Young Cannibals' sound, Gift's idiosyncratic style might get on my nerves a bit more. As it is, I can roll with his Mick Jagger-circa-1981 vocal affectations.

Between 1990 and 2010, I always chuckled a bit whenever I thought about The Raw & the Cooked, because for about a year it must have seemed like the Fine Young Cannibals were going to be the biggest thing ever, and then POOF! - they vanished into the woods like a Donner Party casualty. "Ha ha ha," I thought to myself. "Can you believe all those people who got so excited about the Fine Young Cannibals?? Man, people are so clueless." Then, sometime around 2011, I actually listened to the album. You know what? I probably would have gotten excited about the Fine Young Cannibals too.

In all my years of '80s music fandom, I don't know if I've ever heard anything quite like it. Wikipedia lists the album's genre as "alternative rock/new wave/soul/dance-rock"; AMG's Jo-Anne Greene likewise refers to a "shopping list of genres" such as "Mod, funk, Motown, British beat, R&B, punk, rock, and even disco..." I mean hell, why not just throw in a steel guitar and cross country and western off the list too? But I don't think the album (which, to clarify, was actually the band's second) comes off like one of those intentionally eclectic Prince/Beck-style genre-hopping exercises. It just sounds like a bunch of British guys goofing around and making the kind of music they've always secretly been into. As a means for established new wave musicians to try a little something different in a low-key, unambitious way, without much in the way of heavy critical or commercial expectations, the Fine Young Cannibals remind me of the Tom Tom Club or the Power Station. And those Tom Tom Club and Power Station albums turned out pretty good!

For instance: In the Wacky and Yet Surprisingly Awesome Cover Version Hall of Fame, I think FYC's remake of the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love" might deserve its own wing (right next to Judas Priest's remake of "Diamonds and Rust" and Scissor Sisters' version of "Comfortably Numb"). It swings, it grooves, it shimmies, it shakes - makes me wonder what they could've done with "New Rose," "White Riot," or "12 X U," you know?

While the jangly "Don't Look Back" was the album's third most successful US single, I would place the third and fourth tracks, "I'm Not the Man I Used to Be" and "I'm Not Satisfied," only a notch or two behind the mega-hits on the enjoyment scale. If a couple of cuts seem to tread water, at least they're slotted towards the end of the album where I don't really notice them. At 35 minutes, The Raw & The Cooked is short and sweet and doesn't strain for unnecessary significance.

So, the two big hits. They were hits, they were big, and you know why. On "She Drives Me Crazy," Gift really emits that "three-year-old toddler" sex appeal; at times I get the impression that he needs a quick diaper change. On the borderline incomprehensible verses, he kind of sounds like a painfully shy schoolgirl forced to give a book report in front of the entire class. I used to think he sang, "She drives me crazy/And no one cares." Yes, you're right! No one cares about this stupid crush you have, Roland. But damn, what a snare sound. Honestly, until I read the album's Wikipedia page, I had no idea just how much thought and energy went into that one simple effect:
...the unique snare drum "pop" sound on "She Drives Me Crazy" was created by [producer David] Z recording the snare drum portion separately. A speaker was then placed on top of the snare drum, and a microphone below. The original recording of the snare drum part was played back through the speaker and re-recorded. Reflecting on creating the snare sound with Mix Online in 2001, David Z said: "I took the head off a snare drum and started whacking it with a wooden ruler, recording it through a Shure 57 microphone. As I did that, I started twisting the hell out of the [API 550] EQ around 1 kHz on it, to the point where it was starting to sound more like a crash. I blended that with a snare I found in the Linn itself, which was a 12-bit machine, so it sounded pretty edgy to start with." Dan Daley of the website added:
But the coup de grace for the sound was when Z pumped the processed and blended sample through an Auratone speaker set upside down atop another snare drum, which rattled the metal snares and gave the result some ambience and even more high end. The whole thing was limited slightly and then sent to a track on a roll of Ampex 456 running on a Studer A800 at 15 ips. Only a slight amount of reverb was added to the track later on. The sonic result was closer to a hollow wood block sound than any snare found on a conventional rock record...
Personally, I would have increased the lower end on the Shure 57, ran the echo through an Ampex 236, not a 456, and placed the microphone behind an EK-XG with anti-reverb limiter, but that's just me. I guess it still came out sounding pretty good regardless. The deliberately artificial percussion pushes the song into dance-pop territory, but the roaring guitar pushes it right back into rock, and the whole track is like a giant see-saw between these two impulses, and in the end, I think we all came out the winners in this battle.

As white British '80s Motown homages go, "Good Thing" just might give "Town Called Malice" and "High Fidelity" a run for its money. The opening guitar strum kicks things off like a gun at a race track, and the bridge, with its "whoo-hoo-hoo" backing vocals, sounds like Holland-Dozier-Holland snorting Smokey Robinson's coke with Norman Whitfield rolling up the bills. But how many Motown singles sported a boogie woogie piano solo as hot as this one's? Small epiphany: I just realized that the sound at 2:05 is not, as I had assumed for years, a saxophone playing exactly two notes, but Roland Gift singing "Waaah-haaah." The man could have had a second career as a saxophone impersonator. His closing "Good gaaah! Gooh!" suggests an attack of involuntary esophagospasms, but the backing vocalists don't sound the least bit concerned (and the video is like an extended three-minute riff on the Quadrophenia album cover).

So then what the hell happened? Why did an album that hit such an artistic and commercial sweet spot become Gift, Cox, and Steele's last meal? From Wikipedia:
The band's record label and manager had never previously experienced success the size of The Raw & the Cooked, and "they didn't know how to handle it." In the words of Gift, "they kept saying to us our next record had to be even bigger which was really stupid. That was one of the main things that killed it for me." As such, the band never recorded a follow up album, and after a hiatus that began in 1992, their first and only song recorded and released after the album was "The Flame" for their 1996 compilation album The Finest, and they subsequently disbanded. Gift said "We just stopped wanting to do it. You might wake up one day and think 'I'm out' but you don't realise it's been at the back of your mind for a while. It was hard to stick to how we appraised the band originally, which was to make great music."
Well, sometimes even the most ravenous cannibals simply lose their taste for carrion.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Something Happened To "Something Happened On The Way To Heaven" On The Way To Supermarket Hell AKA Phil Hits Rock Bottom And Even The Doggie Knows It

This one doesn't mess around. Before you even have a chance to ask yourself, "Hmm, in what manner is this particular Phil Collins song going to commence?," BLAM! You're down on the mat with blood coming out of your nose and the referee's already counting to ten.

The peppy little intro to "Something Happened On the Way to Heaven" has always conjured up an image in my mind of Phil Collins as a congenial game show host jogging out from behind the curtain to greet the contestants at the start of the broadcast. "Welcome back to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire! And now, here's your host, Phil Collins!" It's like the late '80s equivalent of the instrumental rendition of Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose" that plays as the Blues Brothers take the stage. Scratch that: it's like the theme music for Fox Sports Sunday, complete with synthesized bass blasts, buzzing guitars, and ear-piercing trumpets. I can practically hear Joe Buck chiming in now: "It's a beautiful afternoon here at Mile High Stadium, where the Denver Broncos host the Kansas City Chiefs with the AFC West championship on the line."

The above observation aside, I don't have a whole lot to say about "Something Happened On the Way to Heaven," other than that I love it from start to finish and top to bottom, just like every other Phil Collins hit I love to death, even though I probably shouldn't. To quote Phil's clear artistic equal, Radiohead, "Everything is in its right place." Quite what heaven has to do with any of this I have no idea. It's certainly a little avant-garde that the title only appears once, in the middle of a verse. Didn't this song come out around the same time as All Dogs Go to Heaven? For that presumably coincidental reason, I've always associated it with an animated canine voiced by Burt Reynolds, but that's probably way off base. However, I just glanced at the song's Wikipedia page and smiled knowingly to myself, as I recognized that the photo used on the single sleeve is a still from Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death, a highly surreal, sweet, romantic, off-beat film that never seems to make "Greatest Films" lists but which I highly recommend to anyone who has a taste for post-war British cinema (perhaps even more highly than The Red Shoes).

All right, fine, I guess I better listen to the lyrics?

Aaaaaand ... I'm back. Sounds like another bitter break-up song. Which ex-wife was this written about again?

I'd like to single out the magnificent bridge, which is the the kind of bridge that pop songs don't seem to feature anymore, where a sudden key change descends from on high, utterly transforming the feel of the track for about twenty seconds before swiftly returning to the celestial kingdom from whence it came. Phil had more beautiful bridges in his arsenal than the metro areas of New York and San Francisco combined. Hi-Yo!

And then, Phil finally provided the world with the doggie daydream video it was longing for. Given that this was 1989, I think the likeliest explanation is that Phil and the boys were killing time in the hotel room, happened to catch an episode of America's Funniest Home Videos on TV, and concluded, "You know what people love more than anything? Dogs doing stupid stuff. Let's film a video ... from the point of view ... of a dog!" I mean sure, Madonna and Paula Abdul could get all "fancy" with David Fincher if they felt like it, but as far as Phil Collins was concerned, nothing beats the cinematic power of a back-up singer stepping in dog shit and a bass player's shoe receiving an unexpected sprinkling of dog pee. George Michael, you can keep your sexy supermodels: Phil Collins's videos have dog pee. Not to mention evocative "doggie daydream" sequences a la Fellini, where our canine friend fantasizes that he's A) the hero of a silent film and B) the main guest at a royal feast (frankly, he'd probably be just as satisfied with Purina). Roll over Anita Ekberg. No, I mean, literally roll over, you've become a dog and you're starring in a Phil Collins video.

Surprisingly, according to Phil, the "heaven" reference is a tad more significant than it initially appears to be. From In The Air Tonight:
It had been a long, sweet ride, but by '88, the market for horse tranquilizer was finally bottoming out. Crack was the thing now, but that shit was for ghetto kids - I rolled with class, you feel me? It was time to either kick the juice for good, or get creative.

I just couldn't take the first step. I couldn't admit I had a problem - not to my ex-wives, not to Rot Rot, not even to my drum kit. I decided to get creative.

Me and a roadie raided a Sussex race track just before dawn. I tell you, there's nothing a crowbar, a blowtorch, and a can of WD-40 can't do. I got back to the country house and, having absentmindedly locked myself out, crawled through the doggie door in the kitchen. As the humiliation swept over me, the words of Julio, my number one dealer who, having read the writing on the wall, had finally retired to St. Kitts & Nevis two months prior, rang in my ears: "You can't mix it too pure, Felipe. You need to lace it with a diluting agent. You can't shoot what the horse shoots. You dance with death, hombre." Fuck that asshole, I thought to myself as I pressed play on my VHS copy of Slutty Step-Wives of Slovenia, which, I had to admit, wasn't quite as good on the 32nd viewing as it had been on the 31st viewing, then dashed to the kitchen, where I promptly poured the bag of tranquilizer into a blender, along with a bottle of cough syrup and a squirt of chocolate milk, slammed the lid onto that sucker, and hit "puree."

The first couple of minutes were sheer equestrian bliss, but then ... well, I knew something was wrong, terribly wrong. My patented gated reverb drum sound began to ring in my head, drowning out my thoughts, smothering me with its nightmarish din. Suddenly I was floating up, up, up toward the light. This is it, I thought. Julio was right all along. I'd had one shot of horse tranquilizer too many. I was finally about to meet my end.

Figures from the past twirled by me, in a manner reminiscent of the figures from Dorothy's life in Kansas twirling by her window as she clings to her bed inside the tornado. I saw the Turkish soothsayer, the Mauritanian circus performer, that FBI agent we bumped off in San Diego - they were all spinning around me, laughing, cackling. There was Phillip Bailey, and Frida from ABBA, and Bob Geldof. Away in the distance, I caught a glimpse of an imposing figure. It seemed like ... St. Peter at the pearly gates? Or was it Gabriel the angel, blowing his horn? As I came closer, a chill ran through my bones.

It was Peter Gabriel.

"Phil, now that you're dead, I'm going to re-join Genesis and re-record all of your Genesis songs ... with my vocals!" He chortled with gusto, his head tilted back, his eyes gleaming. "And then I'm going to re-record all your solo songs ... with my vocals!!"

"No! No ... where am I? There's been a mistake, I tell you, I've got to go back!"

Suddenly one of my ex-wives appeared, and then another one, and then another one. Ex-wives kept multiplying and multiplying, and before I knew it, I was surrounded by 16 ex-wives. "You have a choice to make, Phil." They were speaking to me in unison. "You can die like this. Or you can return to earth, on one condition."

"Yes, what's that? I'll do it! You name it, I'll do it."

"You finally quit that stuff ... for good."

Something happened on the way to heaven. What happened was that, after years of struggle, I finally came to terms with my horse tranquilizer addiction.

The choice, while difficult, was clear. I tumbled back to earth. When I came to, I felt a warm liquid seeping through my pants. The dog was peeing on my leg. This was the final indignity. I crawled up off the floor, took a deep breath, and poured the rest of that chemical crap down the garbage disposal. From that moment on, I pledged to soothe my troubles with a perfectly acceptable substitute: