Sunday, March 29, 2020

"Lovesong" And "Enjoy The Silence": Music For Depressed Guys With Girlfriends

Back in college, my former co-blogger Yoggoth and I used to have a term we would employ to describe certain acts whose music we enjoyed despite not really feeling like we belonged in those acts' target audience. The term was "Music for guys with girlfriends" - the two of us clearly being, and forever destined to be, "guys without girlfriends." For instance, we both agreed that, despite their respective artistic merits, Frank Sinatra, Van Morrison, Bob Marley, Prince, and Pearl Jam were obviously "music for guys with girlfriends." They were music for men who took the presence of attractive women in their lives for granted. One day, while discussing certain prominent alternative acts from the '80s, I proceeded to riff on this term. I said to Yoggoth, "You know what the Cure and Depeche Mode are?" "What?" "Music for depressed guys with girlfriends."

See, if you were actually depressed, you would be listening to something more like Nick Drake, or Joy Division, or Elliott Smith, or Sly & the Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On, or Big Star's Third/Sister LoversThat is music that is actually depressing. The Cure and Depeche Mode? They're music for guys who want to think that their lives are really depressing, when in all likelihood, 99% of the human race probably would love to have the "problems" those guys have. The Cure and Depeche Mode were for comfortable suburban teens who never bothered to make the effort to discover the truly depressing stuff.

Because despite their ostensibly gloomy trappings, "Lovesong" and "Enjoy the Silence" are, as far as I can tell, essentially two songs about guys with girlfriends singing about how awesome their girlfriends are.

Let's back up a bit. Here's how you know that '80s British alternative rock, by 1990, had finally crashed into the mainstream. Back then, I didn't know my Robert Smith from my Smiths (or even my Robert Smith from my Mark E. Smith), and yet even I, the least "alternative" ten-year-old in existence, knew these two songs. I did not know the names of the artists responsible for these two songs, nor did I care. But I knew them like I knew "Love Shack" and "She Drives Me Crazy." They were ubiquitous patches in the quilt that was Herbert Walker Memories. We're not talking "Blue Monday" or "How Soon Is Now?" here - British alternative songs that everyone claims to have been listening to in the '80s even though I personally do not remember ever hearing them in the '80s. I mean, I couldn't have given two shits about British alternative rock, and yet if even I heard these two songs, that should tell you something about how big they were. You might say they were the tips of two very mascara-smeared icebergs.

Another thought: although I enjoy both Disintegration and Violator quite a bit, they are on my list of "Albums With An Obvious Opening Track That Don't Feature The Obvious Opening Track As The Opening Track." It's quite an impressive list. For instance, how much more would I like Thriller if the opening track were "Billie Jean" instead of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," or Physical Graffiti if the opening track were "Kashmir" instead of "Custard Pie," or Achtung Baby if the opening track were "Mysterious Ways" instead of "Zoo Station," or Sublime if the opening track were "What I Got" instead of "Garden Grove"? Conversely, there are certain albums I probably wouldn't enjoy quite as much if they didn't start with such an unequivocal bang. What if Mellow Gold didn't kick off with "Loser," or Elvis's first album with "Blue Suede Shoes," or Face Value with "In The Air Tonight," or Bridge Over Troubled Water with ... "Bridge Over Troubled Water"? I feel like an album can weather a few rough patches if it's got a winner at the top, but the converse is not so true. You better not fuck up the choice of opening track, is what I'm saying. "But wait," you respond, "The Cure and Depeche Mode had no way of knowing that 'Lovesong' and 'Enjoy the Silence' were going to be the biggest singles from their respective albums, so how could they have known to put them first?" But see, I know they were the biggest singles from the album, and so it's perfectly clear to me, in retrospect, that they should have been placed first. Great bands have to predict the future, OK? I'm sure some 17-year-old Arizona teenager dressed in her finest Hot Topic couture is bristling at my flippant dismissals of "Plainsong" and "World In My Eyes," but hey, it's the internet and I can say what I want.

Those who declare Disintegration a "classic album" do not bother me, but I find the praise a bit puzzling. I wish I found all the songs as diverse and energetic as "Lovesong," "Fascination Street," and "Lullaby." I feel like there are 1) too many songs on the album; 2) too many songs that feature the same tempo; 3) too many songs with minimal chord changes; 4) too many songs with synths imitating strings. But it's all listenable, when you're in that "My parents need to stop flipping through my diary" sort of mood.

Yet "Lovesong" sports the compact, catchy, jangling glory I seek. No seven minutes of moody atmospheric noodling here. On the contrary, it's like the Cure doing late '60s L.A. sunshine pop. There's an organ straight out of Ray Manzarek's worst peyote trip, an omnipresent tambourine that Michelle Phillips would've been proud to shake, and a piercing, distorted guitar riff that Neil Young might have laid down in a stoned stupor, not remembering the next morning that he'd even played it. Other highlights: the synth so successfully imitating strings that, for most of my life, I simply assumed they were strings; the extra guitar part around 2:15 that, though electric, almost carries a "flamenco" feel. I mean hell, if this song hadn't been a giant US hit, then no Cure song would have been.

The video finds Robert Smith re-enacting a deleted scene from The Dark Crystal, crouching among an array of sexy stalagmites, the light rendering his skin the same hue of blue as his shirt; I guess you could say he was feeling rather "blue" in this video (*cough*). I love how, in the opening shot, as the camera pans downward, we initially see what appears to be a particularly thick patch of moss in the left-hand corner, or perhaps a thorny black bush? But no - after a few more tantalizing seconds, this strange blob of twigs reveals itself to merely be ... Robert Smith's hair!

The casual listener and viewer might be forgiven for assuming, based on Smith's mopey delivery and the so-called expression (or lack thereof) on his face, that the song is a howl of psychological despair, but nope. "Whenever I'm alone with you/You make me feel like I am home again." "However far away, I will always love you." This isn't depressing at all! According to Wikipedia, "Robert Smith originally wrote the song for his long-time girlfriend and then fiancée, Mary, as a wedding present." Music for depressed guys with girlfriends? More like music for depressed guys with fiancées.

Then there's "Enjoy the Silence." "All I ever wanted, all I ever needed/Is here in my arms"? Not depressing! (Unless he's singing about a blow-up doll a la Bryan Ferry.) Of course, a synth-pop song can still be great even if it's not depressing. I suppose no song is "perfect," but if there's any way "Enjoy the Silence" could have been improved, I'd like to know exactly how, mister. Right off the bat, it commences with a bouncy, see-saw rhythm that implores the listener to gently tap toes. Notice how it employs the same "synth that kinda sounds like a human singing 'Aah'" effect previously utilized in Cutting Crew's "I Just Died In Your Arms," although I would say to more menacing, artistically credible effect. And let's not forget the gently-plucked guitar figure smothered in more delay than an Amtrak schedule.

"Enjoy the Silence" is one sneaky little slice of gloom, for while appearing to repeat its basic motifs, a closer listen reveals continuous shifts from beginning to end, so that one's attention never flags. There's the initial two-chord vamp that kicks off the song and which returns every now and again, almost like it's the song's default "resting position" (it makes me think of a video game character that simply jogs in place, waiting for the touch of the joystick to bring it to life again). Then there's the verse melody, which isn't quite the chorus melody and isn't quite the two-chord vamp either, but I'll be damned if it isn't all tonally related somehow (where's a musicologist when you need one?).

But what Depeche Mode brought that their peers sometimes forgot were the BEATS. Depeche Mode's beats hit hard. They had force. Their hooks were catchy, but they never neglected the pure physical side of the music. I doubt that many Depeche Mode fans listened to hip-hop, but Depeche Mode themselves were surely following all the trends in rap, house, techno, ambient, etc. They brought the funk. And they knew how to pace themselves. The beat sounds plenty hard enough at the start of the track, and continues at that volume all the way through the first verse, but once the chorus hits, the beat suddenly grows twice as loud and hits twice as hard. I also love the little "breakdown" section after the first chorus, as if the song is saying, "Hold on buddy, let me recharge myself ... all right, ready to go!" Then on the second chorus, they add this bass-heavy "laser beam" sound that flies at your ears from both stereo channels, like you're listening to the track in the womb. I swear to God (who, based on a blasphemous rumor, I've heard has a a sick sense of humor) - Depeche Mode took every little trick they'd ever learned in their entire recording career, from the Vince Clarke years on down, and poured it all into this brooding little monster.

(Side note: I'm not as puzzled by those who praise Violator as a "classic" album, which I find more consistent, more uniform, and more mood-sustaining than Disintegration, but it's also shorter, so that helps. Still, I have this nagging sensation that it wasn't optimally sequenced. They threw all the strongest songs in the middle! Who does that? The album appears to build and build all the way up to ... "Blue Dress" and "Clean"? We're not exactly talking "Brain Damage/Eclipse" here. Still, if that cute goth guy ignored me in Physics class all day, I would totally put this on when I got home.)

Although I'm all in favor of grainy shots of Dave Gahan trudging through Alpine meadows and Scandinavian fjords, the best part of the video has to be the brief black-and-white shots of the band standing in the "silence" while wearing leather jackets and looking sexily glum. Just from the artsy-fartsy combination of slow motion footage interspersed with subliminal flashes of rose stalks alone, I could have guessed that the director had an "ijn" somewhere in his name without knowing anything else about him. (But yes, I know who Anton Corbijn is.)

One more memory involving me and a co-blogger. At the tail end of high school, I found myself riding in a car one day with a young Herr Zrbo (yes, we go back that far), and when "Enjoy the Silence" came on the radio, he proceeded to enter into a mildly harmless rant which went something along the lines of "Oh God, fucking Depeche Mode, this is that song for all those stupid couples who feel like 'No one understands us!' and 'Everyone just hates us 'cause we're so in love!' Gimme a break." I probably laughed and concurred in agreement, but, honestly, I kinda liked the song myself. The irony here is that the person in that car who complained the most about "Enjoy the Silence" is now married with offspring, whereas I am the one sitting on my ass blogging about music for depressed guys with girlfriends. Maybe I should have complained more when I had the chance.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

"La Luna": Belinda Goes Latin AKA My New Nickname For Belinda Carlisle: Lazy Madonna

Want a surefire way to make me chuckle? Just compare Belinda Carlisle's career to Madonna's. Somehow, I never fail to find amusement in this comparison, and not because it's hardly a fair comparison at all. Pop music is not a contest, but if it were, you might say that Madonna got to the finish line so far ahead of Belinda, she had time to cook breakfast, eat it, and clean the fucking dishes before Belinda even appeared over the horizon. Doesn't matter. I can't help but root for the underdog. Madonna Madonna Madonna, everybody's always blabbing about Madonna, but call me the captain of Team Carlisle.

The funny thing is, as my completely healthy and reasonable fascination with the career of this erstwhile Go-Go slowly gathered momentum in the fashion of the giant boulder that menaces Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I began to notice something: Madonna and Belinda Carlisle's careers have continuously intersected in kooky, unexpected ways. I'm not talking about anything blatant or deliberate. Nothing that's entered the realm of common knowledge. I'm talking about a series of little dinky connections, the kind that only true '80s pop aficionados could spot. For example:
  1. Mary Lambert directed the video for the Go-Go's' "Turn to You"; Lambert directed the videos for Madonna's "Borderline," "Like a Virgin," "Material Girl," "La Isla Bonita," and "Like a Prayer"
  2. Donna De Lory briefly sang back-up for Belinda circa 1987; De Lory sang back-up for Madonna from 1987 to 2006 and was a prominent member of her touring "entourage," if you will
  3. Rick Nowels produced and co-wrote almost all of Belinda's solo material; Nowels co-wrote three songs with Madonna on her Ray of Light album
  4. Tony Ward starred in the video for "I Get Weak"; Ward starred in the videos for "Cherish," "Justify My Love," and "Erotica"
  5. Sandra Bernhard famously hung out with Madonna in the late '80s; Bernhard has less-famously hung out with Belinda for decades
  6. Madonna released two songs on the VisionQuest soundtrack; as I discovered years ago, Belinda sang backing vocals on a throwaway Don Henley track that also appeared on the VisionQuest soundtrack
I'm sure I could come up with a few more connections if I tried, but hey, I've got to go to work tomorrow. What I find truly amusing about all this is that, as far as I'm aware, their paths have always managed to crisscross without ever truly, officially colliding. Take the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, where Madonna humped the stage in a wedding dress and gave, to use a phrase I tend to avoid, an "iconic" performance, while Belinda merely stumbled out onto the stage in a blurry daze with Kathy Valentine to present an award to Iggy Pop. The orbits of these two planets have even hovered toward each other as recently as the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, where Belinda fronted her longtime band in their 2,738th rendition of "We Got the Beat," while Madonna, as I understand it, showed up later in the program to pay tribute to Prince (who, if you can believe it, was briefly her lover?).

Here's how you know Madonna's and Belinda Carlisle's destinies are truly intertwined: Madonna was born the day before Belinda. Read that sentence again carefully. I don't just mean that Madonna's birthday is one day on the calendar ahead of Belinda's. Oh no. Madonna was literally born the day before Belinda. Madonna Ciccone was born on August 16, 1958. Belinda Carlisle was born on August 17, 1958. They are almost the same exact age. Do you know what that means? Do you know what that means?


Kinda weird though. Right?

All these shared colleagues and communal moments, and yet, I don't believe the two of them have ever actually met each other. If they have, Belinda has never mentioned it, although she's frequently expressed genuine admiration for her contemporary. Judging from an infamous scene in Truth or Dare, however, the same might not be said of Madonna. Once upon a time, the clip was on YouTube, but if I recall correctly, it features Madonna sitting in her dressing room, looking snotty and bored, while the aforementioned Donna De Lory sings a snippet of "Heaven is a Place on Earth" (a song that, as Belinda's backing vocalist, she would have known quite well), as a female companion continuously pounds her back, thus generating an exaggerated approximation of Belinda's prominent vibrato. As De Lory does this, Madonna mutters something like "These girls annoy me." You know what probably annoyed Madonna? The fact that, no matter how many more records she sold, no matter how much more seriously rock critics took her music, no matter how many more pretentious journalistic think-pieces she inspired, she would never approach the effortless physical majesty that was late '80s Belinda Carlisle. And Madonna wasn't the type to let that kind of superficial shit roll off her back.

Anyway. What I'm trying to say is this: the comparison had been bubbling around in my brain for a while, but I couldn't quite condense it into a simple, marketable phrase. Then one day, it came to me:

Lazy Madonna.

BOOM. That's why they pay me the big bucks, people. Belinda Carlisle's career is exactly what Madonna's career might have looked like ... if Madonna had been much, much lazier. Which is not to suggest that Belinda has been lazy. She has achieved more in her lifetime than I ever will. I mean this in the most flattering way possible. Belinda's laziness is part of her charm. Who can relate to Madonna? She's like a giant amorphous blob of ego. Belinda is all too mortal, all too human, but therein lies the beauty of life itself.

Belinda is like the In-N-Out to Madonna's McDonald's. In-N-Out is a successful franchise. Many who eat there tend to prefer it to McDonald's. But would anyone dare to suggest that In-N-Out has had a bigger impact on the fast food industry than McDonald's? Or, in baseball terms, Belinda is like the Kenny Lofton to Madonna's Barry Bonds. Lofton was a fun player, made the All-Star team, had some priceless playoff moments. Most MLB players would kill to have had the kind of career that Kenny Lofton had. Many fans might be personally more fond of Lofton than they are of Bonds. But Bonds was simply on another level. They were not equals.

I used to feel ashamed of myself for daring to think of Belinda as a performer even remotely comparable to Madonna. One day I took a peek at the All Music Guide, to see if they had any light to shed on the matter. I looked up Madonna and clicked on the "Similar Artists" tab. And there, at the very end of a long list of artists, I mean the absolute last name listed, was Belinda Carlisle. I had to smile wryly to myself. It's like someone at AMG was thinking, "Yeahhhh, I guess, she's sorta kinda like Madonna, maybe if you're generous." She just barely squeaked in. (Curiously, on the same page now, Belinda is the tenth name listed, out of roughly fifty. I think my blog series might have raised her standing?)

I say all this as a prelude to a discussion of Belinda's 1989 single "La Luna." If Belinda Carlisle is Lazy Madonna, then "La Luna" is Belinda Carlisle's "La Isla Bonita." It is Rick Nowels deciding that, hey, if Madonna can sprinkle a little pico de gallo onto her otherwise Anglocentric pop confections, then damn it, so can Belinda. Behold as Belinda tangos through a soundscape of spidery flamenco guitar, prickly castanets, and feisty ... I want to say ... chopping blocks? (I demur to anyone else who can more accurately describe the percussion sound that drives the chorus.)

I can just see Rick and Ellen now. "How do we make our cheesy Belinda ballad a little more ... cosmopolitan, a little more ... Mediterranean?" A song called "The Moon"? Borrrr-ing. Ah, but a song called ... "La Luna" ... now's that exotic, that's mysterious. It's like "The Moon" ... but in Spanish. Muy bueno, mis amigos. Especially effective is the quick name-drop of Marseille, which, to any of my fellow Count of Monte Cristo fans out there, should instantly evoke tales of vengeful lust and passionate intrigue.

Belinda hams it up nice and convincingly on the verses, although during the pre-chorus she seems to hit the lower limits of her register, as if she is dipping her throat in the moonlit sea, only to soar abruptly upward on the chorus toward the celestial body in question, the droplets flowing from her fiery locks. By the time the chorus arrives, the castanets, chamber maids (fine, back-up vocalists), and acoustic minstrels seemingly link arms and form a circle in the village square, and frankly, I half expect someone to shout out "Olé!" Suddenly after the second chorus, the flamenco guitarist finds himself in a dank, cobblestone-littered alley, face-to-face with a sexy, menacing violinist. The duel is on! Her eyelids flicker in the moonlight, luring him onward, onward! Then after the bridge, our fiddling she-devil clones herself and surrounds poor Belinda with the sweet sounds of her strings. What can save her? What else: a key change! Amusingly, "La Luna" may sport the best Stephane Grappelli-style violin fade-out this side of Bob Dylan's Desire (heard in full on the album mix).

"La Isla Bonita" hit #4 in the US and #1 in the UK. So if, as I propose, Belinda is Lazy Madonna, then how did "La Luna" do? Fittingly, it didn't do squat over here, and managed to peak in Britain at a whopping ... #38. Ay Carumba. To say that it deserved better is to say that a starving orphan deserves better, but that's OK. "La Luna" is here any time people want a taste of its sultry carnal magic.

The video finds our former Dottie Danger wearing the Contact Lenses of Death. I mean come on, Belinda's eyes were naturally beautiful, but I'm pretty sure they weren't that beautiful. They didn't leap out of her skull with the incandescent radiance of glistening jewels. Those have got to be lenses people. It's like her eyes have been dipped in a fairy godmother's kiss. They're not even blue, they're some kind of hyper-blue. At any rate, Belinda spends most of the video stretching, posing, and flipping that wavy red hair in her luxurious bed, having apparently become Marie Antoinette, clutching a strategically-placed sheet to her chest, trying not to accidentally freeze her entire kingdom with her eyes. Is it just me, or does this castle possess some surprisingly bright candles? Interspersed are images of Belinda's court arriving at what appears the be the erotic costume ball from Eyes Wide Shut (the violinist apparently being played by Rumpelstiltskin), as well as oddly anachronistic shots of modern day Belinda strolling around an unspecified European city, looking decidedly un-sorceress-like, and some studly piece of Eurotrash who could go toe-to-toe with George Michael in a stubble contest. Dios mio! Favorite YouTube comments:
i"m sure those eyes have killed many times... innocently or not

She is so god damn beautiful in this video clip with such an angel's voice. PS: Stephanie don't break up with me over this comment pls

They must have airbrushed out the angel's wings on Belinda's back.

I think Belinda Carlyle would look great covered in gooey custard.

She looks like she's trying to shoo away flies with her hair at the start.


Given that Belinda is sitting down for 90% of this vid, she sells it 100%.

I'd eat raisins out of that juicy fart box of hers, and I fucking hate raisins!