Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"Is It Really the Same?" / Georgie Fame

I'm in my usual post-Christmas CD-buying mode--ordering all the records other people didn't buy for me, despite the fact that I put them VERY CLEARLY on my Amazon wish list. Granted, most of the CDs on that wish list were wacky, all with some secret Nick Lowe connection (like the Mumford soundtrack, an anthology of Cajun music called Evangeline Made, and an old Starbucks Valentine's Day anthology of love songs, each of which seemed worth buying in order to get one obscure Nick track). But shopping through my Nick Lowe obsession, I discovered--eureka!--a new Georgie Fame anthology, called Somebody Stole My Thunder: Jazz-Soul Grooves 1967-1971. It's jam-packed with tracks I have on vinyl and have never been able to find on CD, and I'm thrilled to death.

If all you know of Georgie is manufactured pop hits like "Yeh Yeh" and "The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde," you do not know Georgie Fame. He may have started out as part of the Larry Parnes 1960s machine, the cute blond organist renamed George Fame (he's really Clive Powell), but en route to plastic pop success he spent his evenings blowing his fellow musicians' minds with brilliant blues-jazz gigs at London's Flamingo night club. He eventually screwed up the pop-star bit and soon was gigging with the Count Basie Orchestra and Van Morrison and just generally following his jazz muse. He's still at it, and still wonderful.

I can't remember how I got hold of Georgie's 1969 LP Seventh Son--I must have dug it out of some bargain bin in some record store, somewhere in the mid-70s--but it's the record that hooked me permanently on Georgie Fame. Only now do I realize that it was produced by Alan Price [insert here the usual loop of explanation about my Alan Price obsession]. Several of those Seventh Son tracks are on this anthology, and currently I'm grooving on "Is It Really the Same," truly one of the most copasetic tracks on the planet.

The base of it all is a loose-jointed organ riff, repeated to the point of hypnosis, picked up by the bass when the organ has to go mess around in some other register--as it quite frequently does. Somehow that syncopated riff manages to be lazy and jumpy at the same time, which is quite a feat. This song's about meeting an old lover unexpectedly, and having that whole welter of feelings roar back into action; you don't know yet whether you intend to do anything about it, but you're discombobulated for sure. That's where that nagging repeated riff is sheer genius. "Tell me / When I call your name / Is it / Really the same?" Georgie's vocals start out out like a trumpet improv, scatting the lyrics, playing with the rhythms, until he falls back into his husky lower register, pulsing like a trombone on the lines "What's it like / When you meet an old flame / Like me?" (An "old flame" -- like in Georgie's original back-up group, the blue Flames?)

When I first listened to Seventh Son, I knew all the rock conventions and none of the jazz ones; this improv stuff was all new to me--and I dug it. I know this track by heart now, so it's hard for me to judge whether it stands up to other jazz recordings I've gotten to know since. Frankly, I don't care. What I get from this record is a musician finally doing the music he wanted to do; he's intoxicated with it. At one point in the song he sings to the girl: "I got a feeling / When I saw you / My head was reeling / I wondered if you --/ But, then again / This kind of feeling / Could make me blue." I love that fitful break in the sentence; he's still feeling his way forward. We've got him in the moment, surfing on sheer emotion. And that's how jazz always works for me, when it's got no agenda, no diagram--let's just see where it goes.

I'm sorry I can't offer you a download; Georgie Fame's not the kind of artist whose music gets uploaded as MP3s. But I adore the fact that he's still working, not stuck in some oldies rut, and he's all about the music, not his own image (believe me, he could have done--he was that cute back in the day). He hasn't got that great a voice, though it's plenty expressive; he's no innovator on the keyboards, either. But he knows where the groove is, and he gets such sheer joy out of it, you can't help but groove with him.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"I'm Happy Just to Dance With You" / The Beatles

I have these phases when all I want to listen to is British Invasion music--a sort of fetal position I curl into when the world's hammering at me too hard. A dose of the Zombies "You Make Me Feel Good" or the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" or even Herman's Hermits' "Something Good" usually pulls me out of whatever funk I'm in. Shoot, Gerry and the Pacemakers' "Ferry Cross the Mersey" is enough sometimes (unless things are really bad, in which case I switch to "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying.")

It's so satisfying, I begin to wonder -- gee, were the Beatles really that much better than these other guys? But then I put on a Beatles track--just about any early Beatles track will do--and realize that they really were that good.

"I'm Happy Just To Dance With You"--minor song off of A Hard Day's Night (although, let's be honest, there is no such thing as a minor Beatles song). The minute we hear those first abrupt strums, we know what song it is; it pitches us right away into the uneasy yearning of C# minor and an edgy samba beat. George, taking the lead vocal for once, plunges us right into the action, a quick cinematic cut: "Before this dance is through / I think I'll love you too." The melody is jumpy, excited, breathless. But it resolves into major chords, as he marvels at the joy of this moment: "I'm so happy when you dance with me." Flashing forward to another possible future, he insists "I don't want to kiss or hold your hand" (forget that earlier Beatle song about hand-holding; this is young and innocent George singing this time). No, really, luv, just dancing--it's so great, that's ALL I WANT.

This is no simple pop song. I love how it balances on the fulcrum between this perfect moment and that as-yet-unspoiled future; I hate to get all English-major-y, but this is exactly what makes Keats' "To Autumn" such a great poem. Everything that might ruin things is in the future too -- "If somebody tries to take my place / Let's pretend we just can't see his face." The whole drama is ready to be played out, but right now he's in control of it. When it happens, it could get messy; no, it will get messy, even he knows that. That's why he's savoring this moment, hyper-aware, poised on the threshold. Isn't that the essence of being an adolescent?

Sometimes when I listen to this song, I'll hear another version of events: the suave charmer working the angles (that would be angel-faced Paul McCartney's contribution). In this alternate universe, our singer knows that girls are suckers for a boy who isn't just interested in sex. All those innocent claims--that's the quickest way to get past her defenses. There'll be plenty of time later to get what he really wants.

You can't tell me this song isn't about sex. This was 1965; dancing was all that good kids were allowed to do, which is why pop songs turned it into a metaphor for intercourse. But this song is much, much more subversive. George actually ticks off the next steps--kissing, holding hands, hugging, holding tight--and rules them out; you can almost hear him tsk-tsk. Yet all the while, that sinuous samba beat, those minor chords, the percussive guitar work, keep pushing us somewhere else--into the dark corners of the school gym, where the crepe paper streamers are already starting to straggle to the floor.

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I have to say it -- I'd hate to be a kid today, listening to a steady diet of contemporary music. A lot of it is excellent, but there's no suggestiveness left, no mystery. You have no doubt what they're about; "I want to feel you inside me" is about as vague as it gets. Personally I find this song much sexier.

It's astonishing, really, when you think what songwriting machines Lennon and McCartney were for a couple of years: "Oh, yeah, we'd better write a tune for George, okay, here's one," and it turns out to be something this brilliant. Minor track? I think not.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"This Year's Girl" / Elvis Costello

My New Year's resolution: Stop worrying about whether I write too often about the same few artists, and 'fess up to the truth--most of the time the songs in my head are just an endless loop of Nick Lowe, the Kinks, and Elvis Costello. Not that I'm complaining.

Elvis' 1978 album This Year's Model was, is, and always will be one of the Great Albums of My Life. I distinctly remember the first time I heard it, the afternoon when my friend Craig sat me down on the futon in his sublet on East 12th Street and told me he had found a new artist I really had to listen to. I can still hear the needle being set down on the vinyl, the hiss of the stereo before it found the groove. Then, wham! Elvis' frantic half-whispered "I don't wanna kiss you, I don't wannna touch" and an abrupt crash of drums, guitar, and assertive organ, and we were off to the races.

"This Year's Girl"--it's sort of the title track, sorta not. After his out-of-nowhere debut My Aim Is True, on this album Elvis was dealing with his new celebrity, and his violent ambivalence about the ultra-trendy scene. (Violent ambivalence--is that a contradiction in terms? Not with Elvis. Back then Elvis could muster violent feelings about anything.)

"This Year's Girl" gets right to the heart of it, to his disgusted fascination with some It Girl or other. I always imagine her like Julie Christie in that devastating 1960s film Darling: bopping down a London street, her blond hair perfectly bouffant, swinging a tiny purse by a long strap. No matter how horrible she's been to Dirk Bogarde, I still want to be her. Same thing with Elvis' love-hate object: On one level I despise her as much as he wants me to, but there's another side of me that still desires her It-ness. And Elvis does too; he just can't shake it. He hates himself for it. Face it: Who doesn't want to be, or be with, This Year's Girl?

She's the girl you can't get away from -- "See her picture in a thousand places / 'Cause she's this year's girl. / You think you all own little pieces of this year's girl." Elvis, the master of clever almost-rhymes nobody ever used before, scornfully declares: "Forget your fancy manners / Forget your English grammar, / 'Cause you don't really give a damn / About this year's girl." Oh, yeah? Who doesn't give a damn? He may not use the first person, but it's pretty hard not to connect the singer himself with leering images like "You want her broken with her mouth wide open" or "You see yourself rolling on the carpet / With this year's girl." Jeez, with fantasies that vivid, who needs to actually make it with this babe?

He knows there's no there there. "Never knowing it's a real attraction, / All these promises of satisfaction, / While she's being bored to distraction / Being this year's girl." Can't you just see her sullen mouth and vacant eyes? It might be Bebe Buell, might be Paris Hilton; it doesn't really matter who she is. In the bridge, he tries to imagine her perspective --"Time's running out / She's not happy with the cost" -- but he can't identify, not like he can with the sick longings of her admirers. The jerky punk rhythms, those bashing drumbeats, Elvis's stabbing staccato vocal gulps--this goes way past social satire, into self-flagellation. At the end, he spits out rhyme upon rhyme, image after desperate image: "Those disco synthesizers, Those daily tranquilizers, / Those body building prizes, Those bedroom alibis, /All this, but no surprises for this year's girl." And whirling around it all are Steve Nieve's minor-key organ riffs, a funhouse sound that tips from cheesiness into cruelty.

When I first fell in love with Elvis, I was an eager 20-something, freshly moved to the Big City, ready to make my mark on the scene. I wanted to be This Year's Girl, not to see her put down by a skinny English punk in nerdy glasses. But then, I'm an absolute sucker for snarky lyrics and biting wit; how could I resist Elvis Costello?

This Year's Girl sample

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"I Go To Sleep" / The Kinks

You can usually tell a true Kinks fan by whether they know this song--surely the greatest unreleased song in the Kinks catalogue. This song is so plangent, so haunting, so unforgettable--it could have been a hit, should have been a massive hit.

Here's the story. In 1965 Ray Davies cut a demo of the tune (now included as a bonus track on the reissued Kinda Kinks album), but it was never properly recorded, not even on the The Great Lost Kinks Album. Apparently the Kinks' manager at the time, Larry Parnes, took the song from Ray and sold it to other artists, first Peggy Lee and then (brace yourselves) Cher. I've never been able to find the Peggy Lee track, which appeared on her out-of-print 1965 LP Then Was Then, Now Is Now; I did hear the Cher version once and it's just as atrocious as you'd expect. I'd love to hear Peggy Lee's take, though--her sultry intelligence would perfectly fit this number. I imagine Peggy Lee's version was similar to jazz singer Judith Owen's wonderful cover version, on her 2006 CD Here. (Note to self: Blog some day soon about the gifted and delightful Judith Owen.)

The less said the better about the Pretenders' 1981 recording of "I Go To Sleep," the version most people know. Chrissy Hynde's habit of ripping the guts out of every song she sings absolutely destroyed this tender, haunting little song. There's a whiny cover out now by Sia that doesn't seem like much of an improvement to me, either. But then I'm prejudiced--that original demo is so beautiful, it's pretty much impossible to top.

I've read that Ray Davies wrote this the night his daughter Victoria was born. That's a very cool image, the exhausted young father looking at his sleeping infant and being awed by the immensity of this new life. However, Ray (ever the professional songwriter) re-cast it as a romantic love song, and it works so well that way, I think I'll stick with it. Because this isn't a song about looking at a sleeping loved one--it's a song about sleeping alone, yearning for your lover to be there. That's the ultimate loneliness, isn't it?

The demo recording is, oddly enough, just about perfect, so underproduced, such a light touch. Ray's wispy voice skips over the cascading staccato words of the verse: "When I look up from my pillow / I dream you are there / With me. / Though you are far away / I know you'll always be near / To me." He sounds groggy, unfocused, disorientated. The chorus switches to a more legato line, but still drifting and vague: "I go to sleep, / Sleep, / And imagine that you're there / With me." In that half-state between waking and dreaming, he's groping for some sort of contentment -- but the way that last line wavers and stutters, ending on an unresolved chord, it's pretty clear that the sleep thing is just not happening.

In the second verse, the plot thickens (this is classic songwriting craft, something Ray Davies had--and still has--to the very tips of his fingers). He just happens to mention "Each tear that flows from my eyes / Brings back memories of you / To me." Oho, so that's it -- that's why he can't sleep, because they've split for some reason; she's not just off on a business trip, but something bad happened. In the bridge, he rouses himself a little, to protest "I was wrong, / I will cry, / I will love you to the day I die. / You alone, / You alone and no one else, / You were meant for me," but the diminished key sounds tentative and tortured, all mixed up with self-pity and confusion and regret. By the last verse, when he gets back to the home melody, it's not much comfort: "When morning comes once more / I have the loneliness you / Left me. / Each day drags by until / Finally night time descends / On me." This is the song of a soul in hell, and he's way too numb to scream and yell about it --which makes it even more painful and sad.

Years later the Kinks would do a whole album of insomniac songs called Sleepwalker, but the germ of it all seems to be in this plaintive 1965 demo. The title may be "I Go To Sleep," but it's anything but sweet dreams. Breaks my heart, everytime I hear it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

"Shake and Pop" / Nick Lowe

As most of you know, I am completely soft in the head for Nick Lowe. Of course I already possess the CD Jesus of Cool, which I bought as an import, as well as an autographed 1978 vinyl copy of the US version, Pure Pop for Now People (apparently the US record company wouldn't release a record comparing anybody to Jesus, not after the John Lennon incident). Nevertheless, I have just pre-ordered both the CD and the LP of Jesus Of Cool's momentous 30th-anniversary re-issue. My only excuse is that it promises bonus tracks. Okay, okay, I already have those bonus tracks from a CD called the Wilderness Years, but still. Like I said, soft in the head.

Jesus of Cool should have been re-released years ago; hell, it should never have gone out of print. What's wrong with the world? This 1978 album, Nick's first solo effort, is just bursting with creative mischief. Unofficially it was really a Rockpile album, since his Rockpile mates Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, and Terry Williams all played on it. But you wouldn't have known that from the record cover, which didn't list the musicians; there wasn't even a tracklist, let alone liner notes. Nope, just a load of pictures of an unshaven Nick in different outfits, striking solemn poses with various guitars.

I could do an entire post about the different photos on the two releases, and another about the different track orders. (I suppose the whole point of making the two records so different was to give collectors and completists--like me--an incentive to buy both, and of course I fell for it.) But for today, I'll just write about one of my favorite songs, the one that got left off of the US version.

"Shake and Pop" falls into a full category of Nick Lowe satires about the music industry. My favorite is the deeply ironic "I Love My Label" (also on The Wilderness Years); on this album alone we get three other gems on the subject, "So It Goes," "Music For Money," and "They Called It Rock." To be honest, "Shake And Pop" is just a reworking of "They Called It Rock"--Nick Lowe is pop music's most efficient recycler, pinching riffs, chord patterns, and tunes from everybody, including himself. But it does have different lyrics and a different rhythm, scrapping the rockabilly bounce of TCIR for a chugging power-pop beat overlaid with frenzied honkytonk piano fills (Dave Edmunds? who knows?).

That darker, more aggressive arrangement suits this cynical little story about a one-hit wonder band. In verse 1, their first record hits the charts and they become media darlings: "Someone in the newspaper said it was art / Disco Casanova had it heavy on the breath / The local teeny bopper band was playing it to death." The predictable buzz surrounds the boys, with phones ringing and personal appearances that have them "jetting out to Rio and some other sunny spots." They are HOT.

The bridge is particularly snarky: "Hey long distance it’s a rock and roll romance/ CBS are gonna pay a great big advance / Hey Atlantic come on take a chance / Arista say they love it but the kids can’t dance to it." (I can't help thinking of that publicity stunt Jake Riveria cooked up to have Elvis Costello busking outside the hotel where CBS executives were staying, complete with London bobbies showing up to arrest him.)

Verse three delivers the tragic denouement--"They cut another record / It never was a hit / Someone in the newspaper said it was shit"--and how things played out for the band members: "The drummer is a bookie / The singer is a whore / The bass player’s selling clothes he never woulda wore." And lo and behold, there's the bass player on the album cover, posing in an outlandish bunch of clothes. Like I said, bursting with creative mischief.

Check it out: Jesus of Cool pre-order