Friday, October 30, 2009

EIGHTIES CHEESE WEEK

"Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" / Wham!

Here's the trouble -- after a week immersed in 80s cheese, it doesn't sound so cheesey to me any more. I'm thinking -- is it fair to make fun of Yes just because, in the last stutter of their prog-rock decline, they released an overproduced dance-rock hit like "Owner of a Lonely Heart"? Did Christopher Cross ever pretend to be anything more than the mellow soft-rock crooner of "Sailing"? Am I going to mock the glossy synth-pop of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," just because I associate it too closely with Tom Cruise in Top Gun? Can I deny that I still enjoy the perky pleasure of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fu-un"?

And then it hit me -- Wham! There is no song that better sums up the slick plastic club beat of the 1980s than "Wake Me Up Before You Go." No, wait, excuse me, it's "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" -- that second syllable is essential to this deliriously frivolous track. Of course it's "go go" so that they can rhyme it in the chorus with "yo-yo" ("don't leave me hanging on like a yo-yo") and "solo" ("'Cause I'm not planning on going solo"). Clever, hunh?

Remember in the movie Zoolander, where Derek Zoolander and his male model buddies go out for a double orange mocha frappuchino to lift their spirits? It's this infectious track on the car radio that inspires the guys to goof around the gas station, playfully spraying each other with gasoline. For just one moment -- before a tossed match incinerates them -- we can bask in their carefree frolic. The minute you hear that song, it signals that the characters are shallow mindless hedonists addicted to glitz.

This single hit the clubs in 1984, almost a parody of itself from the very beginning. Wham! didn't last long -- they broke up in 1985 -- just long enough to spawn the career of George Michael, who was one half of the duo (his partner was Andrew Ridgeley). I couldn't tell you a single other song by George Michael; as far as I'm concerned, he only exists to provide Craig Ferguson with punchlines for his late-night talk show monologue. But I gather he's made a fortune as a Pop Star of the First Magnitude, at least over in the UK. The plot line of this song is absurdly simple: He complains that his girlfriend's been cheating on him -- not by sleeping with another man, but by going out dancing (hence the "go-go"). Tonight, he cajoles, he wants her to dance with him -- in bed. Hey, you expected profundity?

The joyous spirit of doo-wop dances through this song, with its upward swooping vocals, handclap percussion, and irresistibly syncopated beat. Although there are enough drums and keyboards to bring it squarely into the disco camp, the flat, foregrounded sound reminds me more than anything else of the sound of a 1960s transistor radio tuned to an AM station. The sound isn't retro, exactly, but the spirit is.

And I have to say, there's some nifty word play in some of these verses -- like the opener: "You put the boom boom into my heart, / You send my soul sky high when your lovin' starts. /Jitterbug into my brain, /Goes bang bang bang till my feet do the same." Or the later verse, that proclaims, "You get the gray skies outta my way, / You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day. / Turn a bright spark into a flame, / My beats per minute never been the same."

I'm posting a video because you really have to watch these guys sell this song; that's the whole point. The perfectly coiffed hair, the groovy dance moves, the tight white pants and blinding white teeth -- it was a whole package. Totally 80s.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

EIGHTIES CHEESE WEEK

"More Than This" / Roxy Music

To a non-fan like me, it was glaringly obvious that Roxy Music was all about the ego of Bryan Ferry. Other talents might pass in and out (Brian Eno during their glam-art-prog phase, Paul Carrack in the disco-soul reincarnation) but it was always Ferry that mattered, he of the broad shoulders, strong jaw, and winsome black forelock. Only a guy who looked like a suave 1930s film version of Heathcliff could make it look sexy to sing with such a high falsetto.




I never listened to Roxy Music before this song exploded in America in 1982-83, so I'll eternally think of Ferry in that leather jacket and bow-tie, gyrating so earnestly on the More Than This video. (Awful dancing, BTW -- even David Byrne managed to dance better than this, once he'd found he had a pelvis.) It immediately struck me as the fakiest piece of crap I'd ever heard. I hate overproduced music, and this was over-the-top lush, full of shimmering synths and splashy drums and pling-y electric guitars. Ferry sings for about the first two minutes and the rest just zones out into mesmerized instrumentals.

Ferry has said this was about a doomed love affair; the video, with its luminous cross hanging behind Ferry, implies that it's about God, or Jesus. For all I know it's about a woman who left him to enter a nunnery, which would definitely be an option for me. Those vague arty lyrics don't help, either. He offers us no particulars, just knee-jerk poetic images like dead leaves and wind and sea tide, interspersed with ruminations about knowing and learning. All very deeply felt, of course, brooding and melancholy. The chorus hints at some deeper meaning: "More than this /There is nothing / More than this / Tell me one thing / More than this / There is nothing." But more than what, Bryan? Please tell us.

Well, what it's really about is the verse's odd melodic intervals, which give Ferry opportunity to jump back and forth between that beguiling high register and his manful lower voice. Every time he switches to the falsetto, it's like he's saying "Look at me, I'm a sensitive guy!" Then he switches low again -- "But I still have testosterone, ladies!" Then he coyly ducks his head, flashes his blindingly white teeth, gives us his best profile, and shakes the raven forelock down in front of his bedroom eyes.

Years later, when I finally discovered Style Council, I realized what Roxy Music was trying to do, bringing soul into the disco era; the difference is that Paul Weller was writing the songs for Style Council, and they had backbone. For all its aural lushness, that pillow of synthesized sound, "More Than This" is just stupid. The only people I know who really liked it also happened to have the hots for Bryan Ferry (a substantial population, I must say). Until Robert Palmer came along with "Addicted to Love" and proved that a handsome guy in a suit could still sing with irony and wit....

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

EIGHTIES CHEESE WEEK

"I Melt With You" / Modern English


The mushy soft rock hits that began this decade were really a holdover from the 1970s, like a nasty cold that just wouldn't go away. But as it oozed along, the 1980s became a musical Petri dish in which bad musical ideas bred like viruses, spawning a new race of slick, faux-sincere pop trash. I'm afraid I know this music far better than I ought to, thanks to a 2-CD package called Eighties Wave! put out by Entertainment magazine. My kids were hooked on this for several months when they were toddlers -- and why not? Culture Club, Tears for Fears, the Thompson Twins, Wang Chung, A Flock of Seagulls, Haircut One Hundred, the Vapors -- all produced glossy, gimmicky tunes with cartoonlike voices and an unmistakeable beat.

video

Prime among them was Modern English's one big hit, from their 1982 album After the Snow. Not that I bought the album -- it was never a good bet to buy the album for any of these 80s pop bands, since quality usually fell off drastically after the one hit track. (Although I did buy Culture Club's Kissing To Be Clever and enjoyed it hugely, for reasons I can no longer fathom.) But for a while, when "I Melt With You" was saturating the airwaves (it hit the States in 1983, and oddly enough, again in 1989), I was convinced it was a good song.

Instead of overproduction, "I Melt With You" offered a refreshingly amateur mix of jangly surf guitars, autopilot drumbeats, and crudely reverbed vocals, with all the mumbly glottal diction of punk rockers (Modern English, who hailed from Colchester, England, started out as a punk band named -- get this -- The Lepers). Even when synths get layered into the mix, it's only a splash of color, a sort of knee-jerk contrapuntal riff. And defying the conventions of ponderous anthemic build-up, this song deliberately strips out the instruments a couple of times, so the singers can hollowly intone, as if hypnotized, "The future's / open /wide!" Whatever that meant.

So here's the big question: why isn't this song sexy? It should be, if you look at the lyrics of the chorus: "I'll stop the world and melt with you /You've seen the difference and /It's getting better all the time / There's nothing you and I won't do [okay, that line's a little kinky] / I'll stop the world and melt with you." That one word, that verb "melt," should be so delicious. I did read somewhere that the song is supposedly set at the moment of nuclear apocalypse, with the two lovers clasping each other, their bodies fusing. It's an intriguing idea, but ultimately I don't buy it. That storyline would at least be romantic; there's no romance here.

No, the haggard vocals, that inexorable ticking beat, the hard metallic surface of the instrumentation, make this song anything but soft and melting. Aggression and paranoia run through the first verse: "Moving forward using all my breath / Making love to you was never second best / I saw the world thrashing all around your face / Never really knowing it was always mesh and lace." Even if you knew that Modern English's previous album was titled Mesh and Lace (I didn't), the S&M subtext is hard to miss. And yeah, the second verse pays lip service to noble ideals, throwing out lame catch phrases like "dream of better lives" and "imaginary grace" and "a pilgrimage to save this human race," but it's way too vague to convince anybody.

In this song -- and in so many other New Wave songs -- love isn't an emotion, it's a conditioned reflex. No orgasm, just spasm. I listen to it now and wonder, "What was I thinking?" But of course I wasn't thinking. Hello? It was the Eighties.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

EIGHTIES CHEESE WEEK

"Total Eclipse of the Heart" / Bonnie Tyler

If we have the Bee Gees to blame for Air Supply, then I think Stevie Nicks should have to take credit for the new breed of rock chicks that started yelping all over the airwaves in the 1980s. I didn't mind the New Wave girls, like Debbie Harry of Blondie, Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics, or Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders -- at least they had saucy wit and girl-power toughness. (Hooking up with Ray Davies, though, Chrissie -- I'll never forgive you for that.) No, the ones I really couldn't stand were the Top-40 belters -- Pat Benatar, Laura Branigan, Irene Cara, and Welsh rocker Bonnie Tyler. Long before the term "diva" was co-opted to mean any female singer with a big voice, these babes were tearing out their vocal cords on every speaker within earshot.

Maybe it's no coincidence that at the dawn of the 1980s, just as working girls in power suits were striving to shatter corporate glass ceilings, the women of rock set out to kick the asses of their wimpy soft rock male counterparts. All these babes cultivated the hard edges of their voices -- no soft-focus girly sopranos here. Bonnie Tyler's first hit, "It's a Heartache," paid tribute to Rod Stewart, and her voice, like his, is equal parts grit and sob, perfectly calculated to sing about desperation and desire. In fact (fun facts to know and tell), Tyler's distinctive voice developed after an operation for nodules on her vocal cords; apparently she violated doctor's orders and started singing too song after the operation. At first she thought that huskiness was the end of her singing career. She was wrong.

What really made Tyler's 1983 album Faster Than the Speed of Night a megahit, though, was the no-holds-barred arrangements of her producer, Jim Steinman, the guy who made Meat Loaf a star. The album version of this song clocked in at 6:58 -- nearly seven minutes -- though it was truncated to four-and-a-half minutes to get radio play. Of course I'm giving you the unedited version here, for total schlock effect, as well as the cheesiest dissolve effects available on my moviemaker program. Might as well go whole hog.

video

Building a song to a bombastic climax was de rigueur in the 1980s. Steinman, however, was crafty enough to know that a song couldn't sustain that level of intensity for seven minutes; the song keeps retreating to wistful interludes where it's just Bonnie and her piano (well, really Roy Bittan's piano), before rolling back in with the Rick Derringer guitar licks, a tsunami of synths, a thunderstorm of percussion (hi there, Max Weinberg!). How to funny to find all these Springsteen sidemen here, since IMO Bruce himself is still addicted to those 1980s overblown endings.

How could this song fail to be a hit? It's got not one but three addictive hooks. The first is the call-and-response duet with Rory Dodd, as she babbles about her emotions ("Every now and then I get a little bit helpless till I'm lying like a child in your arms") while his distant voice nobly exhorts her, "Turn around, bright eyes!" Ah, there are those strong, understanding arms she can collapse into. I read somewhere that Steinman was inspired by the Heathcliff-Cathy romance in Wuthering Heights. Oh, yeah, Emily Bronte was totally thinking of this song when she wrote that book.

Next Bonnie launches into a Meat Loaf-style voice rip, declaiming "And I need you now tonight / And I need you more than ever /And if you only hold me tight / We'll be holding on forever." Yes, "hold me tight" -- wink wink -- that's always been pop-speak for "screw my brains out." Then (the Steinman touch) things suddenly hush up as she ruefully sings, "Once upon I was falling in love / Now I'm only falling apart / There 's nothing I can do / A total eclipse of the heart." Wipe a tear away and start it all over again -- you've got four more minutes to fill up.

The lyrics paint her as a needy, pathetic mess, but those bulldozer vocals send the opposite message. If I were a guy, I'd be terrified of this chick. This song may have single-handedly set feminism back 20 years. And Bonnie Tyler followed it up with the even more desperate "Holding Out For A Hero," featured in the film Footloose, which served as an anthem for an entire generation of love-starved single gals in the Looking for Mr. Goodbar era. Oh, man, am I glad the 80s are over.

Monday, October 26, 2009

EIGHTIES CHEESE WEEK

"I'm All Out of Love" / Air Supply

Frankly, I don't know if I can cover this all in just one week...but I've been beseiged lately by screeching echoes of the 1980s, quite possibly the worst decade in the history of pop music. I'm not just talking disco (hey, I liked the Pointer Sisters and Donna Summer), the goofy excesses of New Wave and power pop, or even heavy metal (which, as you may well guess, I am constitutionally incapable of listening to). No, the stuff that's been haunting me is the truly awful Top-40 radio hits of the era, with MTV serving as an accessory to the crime. . . .

Surely no band in the 1980s did more to lower the quality of mainstream pop than Air Supply. The term "soft rock" had to be invented to explain what this duo -- English singer/guitarist Graham Russell and Australian singer Russell Hitchcock -- were doing to the noble art of the pop song. Well, okay, the Bee Gees had already pointed that bus downhill (remember "How Deep Is Your Love"?) but Air Supply took off the parking brake and stomped on the accelerator.

video


This hit single came out in 1980, starting the decade with an anguished whimper. It came from their megahit LP Lost in Love, which also gave the world the unforgettable (and oh how I've tried to forget it) "Every Woman in the World." Two years later they would assault the airwaves again with "Even the Nights Are Better," and would top even these abominations in 1985 with the excruciating "Power of Love (You Are My Lady)."

The Air Supply formula was simple: Take two saccharine tenor voices; have them wail in close harmony about passionate love, using only superlatives and ultimatums; load up the tracks with bombastic strings and whaling percussion; and whip it all up in a sea of doubled vocals and reverb. Got a chorus? Repeat it at least four times, building the volume and the frenzy each time.

Unlike most of their big hits, "All Out Of Love" is a break-up song, which just meant that the singers could wail a little more miserably. The story, however, is pretty vague -- at first it just seems like he's away on a trip ("I'm lying alone with my head on the phone [OUCH!] / Thinking of you till it hurts"), but in the chorus, it seems that they've totally split up: "I'm all out of love, I'm so lost without you / I know you were right, believing for so long / I'm all out of love, what am I without you / I can't be too late to say that I was so wrong." Hmmm. So she was the one who held it together, he was a schmuck, and now he's trying to get her back.

In the second verse, however, he's pleading with her to come carry him home (from where? why can't he carry his own self home?). So perhaps they're just on a self-imposed "break." (Why does that term always make me think of Ross and Rachel from Friends?). "What would you say if I called on you now," he wheedles, "and said that I can't hold on?" The self pity is almost unbearable. And then there's that odd bridge, where he whimpers over and over, "What are you thinking of?" I just don't get what that has to do with anything.

Well, it wouldn't be the first pop song with a muddled story line. But that seems like an awful cheat, given the overblown emotion of that pompous production. After all, it was the 80s, the era of big hair, wide lapels, shoulder pads, and platform shoes; no wonder pop music also became a grandiose cartoon of itself. The sad thing is, I feel as if this era sucked love dry of all genuine romance, leaving pop music with only two modes: crude sex (hip hop) and neurosis (indie pop). What a shame.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"You Make Me Feel Good" / The Zombies

Don't have much to say about this song, actually -- though I did spend the afternoon experimenting with this little movie, which seems the most reasonable way to post the entire song on this blog without embedding a downloadable mp3 (sorry, but giving away music I don't own isn't really my thing). Besides, I think it's always fun to have an image to look at too.

video

"You Make Me Feel Good" was the B-side of the first single I ever owned, the Zombies' "She's Not There" (one of the first songs I ever wrote about on this blog -- click here to read that post) . I am deliriously uncritical about all those tracks from the Zombies' all-too-brief 1960s heyday. They've recently reformed, and are still wonderful, but guys in their early 60s just can't do the yearning adolescent thing the way they could when they were 20.

Generally I prefer the tracks where Colin Blunstone sings lead -- that angelic choirboy voice of his sent shivers up my spine then, and still does today. On this B side, however, I hear Rod Argent singing lead instead. While Rod's voice isn't as angelic, it adds a note of urgency that works just right for this song. Oddly enough, they keep trading the vocals back and forth -- not in simple classic call-and-response, but handing it back and forth, Rod for the verses and Colin for the refrain.

Sure, the song is all about how happy he is with his girlfriend -- as the chorus puts it, "So good, so good, don't have to justify why / I feel so good, so good, so good / Never thought could be so good to me." But the way Argent sings it, it's not all sweetness and light. There is, in fact, a lurking subtext, and it's all about sex. Notice how it starts out in the middle of a conversation: "You don't need any reason, do you baby?" Reason for what? You might well ask. Rod never spells it out, though; he simply hands the vocal over to honey-voiced Colin, who finishes the pleading refrain, "But if you need a reason, / I'll give one to you / [oh, yeah] You make me feel good / [what, oh yeah] You make me feel good!"

I have learned that in pop songs, when they won't call something by name, it's sex they're talking about. I didn't make this connection back in 1964, but now I see it plain as day -- he's buttering up his adorable teenage girlfriend so she'll sleep with him. That accounts for the groan at the edge of Rod's voice, for all the impatient mmms and oh yeahs and harmonized moans that burst out through the song. That accounts for the insistent foregrounded drumbeat, for the winsome organ intro, for those un-hunh electric guitar curls that punctuate the verses. For a guy who claims to be contented, he's practically squirming off the sofa. But he's a nice suburban kid too, not some over-sexed thug; he's trying to win her over with psychology. For a certain sort of girl, that's the only way to get in.

None of those other British Invasion bands did sincere longing the way the Zombies did. The Beatles and the Stones were more menacing, the Kinks and the Who neurotic, Herman's Hermits safe and cuddly. The Zombies struck other notes as well, but this sort of song was their specialty -- and man, did they do it right.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Moonshadow" / Cat Stevens

This is the way it works. For days I had "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" stuck in my head, thanks to that obnoxiously ubiquitous iPhone commercial. (I tell myself it's just a fond flashback of Bud Cort dancing around a cemetery in Harold and Maude, but I know better.) So I surrender to the inevitable and go onto iTunes to download that song. While I'm looking for it, though, I run across this other Cat Stevens song and I'm instantly hooked.

I remember "Moonshadow" very well - it was the standout song from Teaser and the Firecat , Stevens' valiant 1971 follow-up to his phenomenal Tea For The Tillerman. Like every other girl in my class, I owned both in vinyl, but years later when it came down to replacing the LPs with CDs, Tillerman made the cut, not Teaser. "Moonshadow" vanished into the twilight zone of forgotten tracks -- until today.

Now I'm seduced once more by its fey charm. Yesterday I was pondering the childlike quality of late-1960s Donovan; moving on to Cat Stevens is a totally logical transition. Like a nursery rhyme, it begins with its chorus, a frothy bit of fairy-tale imagery: "I'm being followed by a moonshadow, / Moonshadow, moonshadow, / Leaping and hopping on a moonshadow, / Moonshadow, moonshadow." All that repetition is almost like an incantation. Then come the verses, which follow a consistent pattern -- "If I ever lose my hands [eyes /legs /mouth] . . . I won't have to work [cry /walk /talk] no more." It's an old folk song device; the fun lies in predicting how the singer will complete the pattern each time.

None of which adequately explains why this is such a splendid little song. You just can't resist its glorious sense of optimism -- the lighthearted skipping rhythm, the dancing melody, are so joyful, especially sung in Stevens' warm timbre, over that nimble, delicate acoustic guitar. Stevens has said in interviews that it was inspired by a visit to Spain, where one night he stood by the sea under moonshine so strong that he could see his own shadow. I love the idea of that transfiguring nature experience.

Of course, in true Cat Stevens fashion, it's edged with darkness -- all those physical losses in the verses. I've read that when Stevens was young, he nearly died of tuberculosis; melancholy always shadows his songs. This song could so easily misfire, with its relentless verse-by-verse translation of tragedy into triumph. It's just a whisper away from the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who continues to taunt his attacker while his limbs are hacked off one by one. ("Come back here and I'll bite your legs off!") But that perky formula saves it -- all those disasters remain imaginary, held at bay by his buoyant positive spirit.

Ever since Cat Stevens turned into Yusuf Islam, listeners have been suspicious of anything that sounds like a coded religious message in his songs. There is something provocative about that bridge: "Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light. / Did it take long to find me? and are you gonna stay the night?" But get over it folks -- this is the sort of anthropomorphic stuff you'll find in hundreds of children's picture books, and Stevens didn't convert to Islam until 1977, long after he wrote "Moonshadow." Stevens' sense of childlike wonder seems totally sincere to me, and nearly 40 years later, it still seems fresh and lighthearted and uplifting.

Let's just hope no one decides to spoil this one with a tacky commercial, ok?

Moonshadow video

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Green Tambourine" / The Lemon Pipers

Sometimes I'll hear a song like this, a half-forgotten hit from my tender youth, and I nearly swoon with love for it. Don't tell me it's just nostalgia, that everybody feels this way about "their" music. No, I'm convinced that the music my generation grew up on ( this one hit #1 in February 1968) was deeply, radically better than whatever our parents listened to at the same age. The stuff our kids are listening to today? A mere shadow. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

It's not really fair to call "Green Tambourine" a one-hit wonder -- that makes it sound cheesy and second-rate, when in fact it's anything but. Perhaps a better term would be what Glenn in a recent comment termed "Martian music": It comes out of nowhere, a perfect gem with no obvious reason for existing. The Lemon Pipers never had another serious hit, though it's not their fault -- they were a blues-jam rock-and-roll band from Ohio that never enjoyed the sort of smartly crafted pop songs that their label, Buddah Records, steered them towards. (The old story, eh?) This song was written by professional songwriters, Paul Leka and Shelly Pinz, whose offices were across the hall from Buddah's New York headquarters, and apparently the Lemon Pipers only performed it because they knew the label would drop them if they didn't. Later, they got out of their contract so they could reassert control over their own music -- and were never heard from again.

Oddly enough, the lyrics of the song reflect this music-for-money conundrum. It's the song of a street busker, begging passersby for spare change: "Drop your silver in my tambourine / Help a poor man fill his pretty dream / Give me pennies I'll take anything / Now listen while I play [echoing ay-ay-ay-ay] / My green tambourine." (Why a green tambourine? Because it rhymed, probably, but it's still a beguiling detail -- hippies were always painting their stuff weird colors.) There's no pretense of art, as the singer admits in the third verse: "Money feeds my music machine." Surely the Lemon Pipers could see the irony of that.

It isn't played as cynical satire, though. Are you kidding? This was the hippie era; street people were seen as romantic outsiders, not ragged bums. Besides, the main thing about this track isn't the story, it's the psychedelic swirls of sound laid over the lyrics. Listen to the spiraling string accents, the little guitar fiddles, the spinning ratchets and jangly triangles, the sitar in the instrumental break (you couldn't have a proper psychedelic track without a sitar, could you?). Vocals dissolve into a wobbly echo at the end of each verse, and the tinny rattle of the tambourine is foregrounded out of its own speaker. Even though it only lasts for two and a half minutes -- no endless "In-a-gadda-da-vida" jams here -- it's actually quite mesmerizing while it lasts.

For some reason " Green Tambourine" is often referred to as the first bubblegum song. Knowing the kind of crap that came later, I hesitate to call this "bubblegum." I think of bubblegum music as having nonsense lyrics (like "Sugar Sugar" or "Yummy Yummy Yummy") and being way more cheerful than this song, which keeps sliding into minor chords and the unresolved C# on "play." Okay, there's a childlike quality to the song, but that was the hippie-dippie vibe -- listen to some of Donovan's stuff from this era if you want to talk childlike quality. To me it sounds earnest, not pre-digested pap. But then again, it's not surprising that a #1 hit would spawn a lot of cheap imitations, and once the hitmakers got their hands on it, the whole psychedelic sound devolved into meaningless goop.

"Green Tambourine" sounded great in 1968 when it first came out; hearing it unexpectedly the other day, I felt that old shimmer of delight all over again. If you can't smell the pot on this song, at least you can get a whiff of incense (with no peppermints).

Green Tambourine video

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"I Live On A Battlefield" / Nick Lowe

As I close in on 500 posts from nearly 2 years of blogging, there are occasional days when the song haunting my brain is something I've already written about. The problem's even worse in Nick Lowe Season. I'm seeing Nick tonight at the City Winery, and I'm sorry, I just can't think about anything else.

I don't know what tonight's set will include, but there's a good chance he'll haul out this song, as he often does lately. When I saw him a couple weeks ago at the Apollo, taping a segment of Elvis Costello's TV show Spectacle, Nick himself made a winking comment about how many of his best-loved songs are so "dreary." But though "Battlefield" is all about heartbreak and misery, it's hardly a mournful dirge; Nick rescues it with wit and spunk and verve. It's simply a fabulous number, and I could hear it every day of my life.

So pardon me for raiding my own back pages, but here's what I wrote a year and a half ago, on yet another day when the only tune in my head was "I Live On A Battlefield...."

...On 1994’s brilliant Impossible Bird, “I Live On A Battlefield” doesn't seem like a downer at first; it has a brisk tempo, with drums and a chugging electric guitar. But that's just because this soul survivor needs adrenaline to deal with life’s onslaught. “I live on a battlefield,” he says ruefully, “surrounded by the ruins of the love withheld,” and Nick keeps up the battle metaphor, verse after verse. For all the rollicking country-western sound, I picture a smoke-hung line of trenches straight out of World War I, and mud-spattered Nick staggering through barbed wire -- “I stumble through the rubble / I’m dazed, seeing double.” (Note the vowel echoes, the alliteration. The man is a POET.)

With a wail, he declares, “My new home / Is a shellhole filled / With tears and muddy water / And bits of broken heart.” He even translates the metaphor for us: “Though one way not one single drop of blood has spilled / It’s no less horrifying / Sweet memories of a bygone situation / Now shattered, lord, and battered / Lie scattered all around,” lobbing extra rhymes at us like hand grenades (similarly, later, he gives us “my new home is one of desolation / And scenes of a devastation / There is no consolation”).

That perky tempo, those call-and-response back-up vocals, keep it just humorous enough. He’s got no time for self-pity; THIS IS WAR. I grin, and then I wince, because, yeah, it sure looks familiar. Sigh.


Couldn't have said it better myself.....


I Live On A Battlefield sample

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

"Tomorrow" / Paul McCartney

I spend way too much time messing around creating iPod playlists, I'll admit. Sometimes they work, sometimes they're just stupid. Recently, I've been experimenting with playlists that feature artists who all have the same first name -- "Doing Daves," "Going to the Johns," that sort of thing. The best one of these so far is my "Peter and Paul" playlist, which features everyone from Herman's Hermits (Peter Noone) to the Who (Pete Townsend) to the Jam (Paul Weller) and the Replacements (Paul Westerberg). I've even got a little Paul Simon and Peter Frampton in there (I'm sorry, but "Show Me The Way" is so bad it's good).

Naturally I agonized -- agonized! -- over which Paul McCartney track to include. Even setting aside the Beatles catalogue, I had way too many songs to consider from Paul's solo albums, not to mention the entire Wings oeuvre. After a long happy afternoon spent transferring the vinyl to digital, I'm amazed to find how much I still love those Wings albums.

Wild Life, for example. The first Wings album (it came out in 1971), it may be Paul McCartney's most stoned-out sonic ramble, but the very looseness of the jamfest endears it to me. It's one of the very few entire albums that I keep complete on my iTunes; I can't lose a single track, and I MUST listen to it in order -- no surprise, considering how many hours I spent in my college dorm room blissing out on Wild Life.

Wild Life's "Tomorrow" was my final choice for the "Peter and Paul" playlist, and I'll tell you why. To me it's the final proof that Paul McCartney is the world's greatest living composer. Notice that I say "composer," not "songwriter," because let's face it -- sometimes Paul McCartney's lyrics are embarrassingly stupid. There, I've said it. And I'm a words person; my devotion to Ray Davies, Elvis Costello, and Nick Lowe is largely driven by the wit and brilliance of their lyrics. If I can remain besotted with Paul McCartney for 45 years, it must be because his tunes are the best.

(This is all assuming that his enormous personal charms don't matter. Which of course they do. But still.)

This, after all, is the guy who wrote "Yesterday"; you'd expect "Tomorrow" to be a momentous sequel, just like Paul followed up his Beatle song "Blackbird" with Band on the Run's "Bluebird." But no, "Tomorrow" is slight and sloppy, with gauzy background oooh's, a plinky piano, and Paul warbling in his higher register. And the lyrics? Totally amateur. "Ooooohhh, baby, don't you let me down tomorrow, / Holding hands we both abandon sorrow, / Oh, for a chance to get away tomorrow" -- it's awkward, meaningless pap.

Well, hold on there. Actually, the song is written in an Italian verse form called terza rima, in which the first and third lines of a three-line verse not only rhyme, but are the exact same word. (I knew my English major would come in handy one day.) In classic terza rima, the end word of the middle line should become the first and third endings of the next tercet (the pattern is aba bcb cdc, etc.), but it's really hard to sustain that in English, where we don't have so many similar word endings. Paul's next verse is just another aba tercet: "Hey, baby's got a lazy day on Sunday, / Here's a pound, we hang around 'til Monday, / Oh, baby don't you let me down on Sunday." Clearly Sunday and Monday are introduced because they are the only days of the week that rhyme. The laziness of this lyric-writing is astounding.

Even this half-assed terza rima gets abandoned in the bridge, which offers a trite pastoral vision with weak, convenient rhymes: "Bring a bag of bread and cheese and find a shady spot beneath the trees / Catch a breath of country air and run your pretty fingers through my hair." (Just don't get the cheese in the hair, or vice versa.) The second time, he serves up different lyrics for the bridge, but they're no better: "Honey, pray for sunny skies so I can speak to rainbows in your eyes. / Let's just hope the weather man is feeling fine and doesn't spoil our plan." As if the weather depended on a TV meteorologist's moods. I'm tempted to wince every time I hear these lyrics.

And yet I could listen to this song all day. Instead of wincing, I find myself grinning affectionately at Macca's goofy exuberance. I feel buoyed by the song's soaring, up-and-down melody, that complexly layered syncopation that makes your heart skip. (Nobody knows how to play with the beat like a bassist.) It begins as a music hall softshoe shuffle, morphs into that jazzy bridge, switches into an anthemic rock phase, and winds up in full rockabilly mode, with Paul doing his best Elvis, building into wild wails and a driving bass line for the coda. He takes that simple, mindless song through all its changes, propelled by a sure sense of its infectious groove.

It's a song that always, ALWAYS, makes me feel joyful. That magic trick is what we need from music, and nobody -- nobody -- does it better than Sir Paul.

Tomorrow sample

Friday, October 02, 2009

"1-2-3" / Len Barry

Len who? Yeah, that's what I said too. This was the second blast-from-the-past song I heard in the restaurant the other night, after "Baby Now That I've Found You", and I was convinced that at least this one was genuine Motown -- if not Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, then at least the Impressions or the Four Tops.

But no, it turns out that this 1965 soul classic was released by Decca, and singer Len Barry -- born Leonard Borisoff -- was a white guy, a blue-eyed soul man who grew up in a black neighborhood in West Philadelphia. He was originally one of the Dovells, whom you may know from their hit "Bristol Stomp" (for some reason, that got no airplay in Indianapolis, but I know Philly-area folks remember it instantly). Barry co-wrote this song with John Madera and Dave White, although nowadays the songwriting credit legally has to be shared with the Motown hit machine of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who successfully claimed Barry had ripped the song off from a Supremes number, "Ask Any Girl." It does sound vaguely similar -- though nowhere near as close as, say, "My Sweet Lord" is to "He's So Fine" -- but to me "Ask Any Girl" is staid and boring, while "1-2-3" is a juicy number indeed.

"1-2-3" was a Top Ten hit that fall, in both the US and the UK, and even I remember briefly tearing my ears away from the Beatles to dig this song. It was all over the airwaves -- who could ignore it? It percolates with a snappy syncopated rhythm, emphatic slapping drums, echoing back-up vocals, and exultant horn fanfares. Barry's voice has a nice gritty texture, adding urgency and desire to what would otherwise be a well-crafted bit of fluff. It follows that classic Brill Building three-verses-and-a-bridge structure, with parallel imagery in each verse -- counting numbers in the first ("One two three / Oh that's how elementary / It's gonna be"), alphabet in the second ("A-B-C / Fallin' in love with you was / Easy for me"), and simple math in the third ("One and one are two / I know you love me, and oh / Oh how I love you." That's a ready-made line of imagery, which the Jackson Five would exploit a few years later with their song "ABC."

But basically it's a pleading song -- no story, no testifying, no celebration, just a guy intent on the chase. He and the girl definitely aren't together yet, no matter how assured he sounds. In the verse, he promises her (with his back-up friends chiming in) "it's easy (it's so easy) / Like takin' candy (like takin' candy) / From a baby." To my mind, this odd cliche is the very heart of the song -- that's the phrase I remember most. Maybe he just latched onto a convenient turn of phrase, a trite simile for "easy," but it adds all sorts of layers to the song. After all, isn't taking candy from a baby mean? Though he's urging her to take that candy with him, we can't help feeling a shadow of predatory behavior; that's the knife edge this song skates along. Face it; he does intend to take advantage of her -- when he says he wants her to "fall in love," he really means "have sex with me." Still, Barry's vocals artfully keep things more sincere than sinful. He's not forcing her -- he wants her to want it too.

See him in the bridge, a lawyer of love, laying out all his arguments: "Baby, there's nothing hard about love / Basically, it's as easy as pie / The hard part is living without love" -- ah, there a classic rhetorical feint, painting a dire picture of the alternatives. And at the end of the bridge his voice wobbles just so, as he exclaims, overwhelmed by desire: "Without your love / Baby, I would die!"

We know how to count, know our ABC's; this song pleases us by checking off familiar mantras. But that syncopation doesn't play by the rules; the song is full of lagging pauses at the beginning of lines, filled in by horn toots or back-up echoes. In the bridge, he's playing behind and in front of the beat, swinging us into the groove of his passion. We're leaning forward, waiting for him to hit the phrases, longing to hear that other shoe drop. Even though nothing is settled by the end of the fade-out, the momentum of desire has already clinched the deal. She'd have to have a heart of stone to say no.

1-2-3 video

Thursday, October 01, 2009

"Baby, Now That I've Found You" / The Foundations

I've had it up to HERE with my slow computer and its small hard drive -- I finally ordered a new one, which should be arriving next week. Once it comes, I promise I'll begin to post mp3s so you can all listen properly to the songs I write about. But if you're of a certain age, I'm betting you know this song already.

A few nights ago, this came on the sound system at an Italian restaurant we were eating at in our neighborhood, and it triggered an immediate, visceral response in me. I can remember singing this song at the top of my lungs when I was an adolescent, madly in love with some gangly boy or other (the name Bruce Jordan rings a bell). It came out in the fall of 1967, and I'll bet I assumed it was a Motown song: It certainly had all the earmarks -- the handclaps, the horn section, the passionate r&b lead vocals.

In fact, however, this was a British band, though it wasn't a bunch of white English boys pretending to be soul singers. No, the Foundations were Britian's first multiethnic group, with West Indians and even a Sri Lankan joining the English musicians in the band. (And here I thought all that had started in the early 80s with the English Beat). Their better-known song is probably "Build Me Up, Buttercup," but that one sounds definitely more pop and less soul. By the time they recorded that (1968) the original vocalist, Trinidadian Clem Curtis, had left and was replaced by a chap from Barbados, Colin Young. Ain't the British Empire grand?

In this earlier single, though, the sound is still pure soul, and I love it to death. The conceit is simple: a guy has found a girl and intends to hang onto her, even though his prospects are dicey. As a female listener, I responded intensely to the idea that a guy was willing to expend energy to keep a relationship together -- how refreshing!

The structure of this song is radical: It starts out with a chorus, and spins back around to that chorus over and over, with a kind of emphatic persistence that's perfect for the song's theme. "Baby," Curtis begins, leaning lovingly into that long sustained vowel sound, "now that I've found you I can't let you go / I'll build my world around you." Oh, ladies, this is music to our ears. A man expressing naked need? It must be a soul record. He shifts from those long statements into short urgent messages -- "I need you so / Baby, even though /You don't need me / You don't need me." Ah, there's the killer. He has to repeat it, as if he can't believe it. This chick has this guy wrapped around her finger, and she doesn't even appreciate it! This triggers what I like to think of as the Offstage Response -- we the listeners are dying to butt in, to divert this guy's devotion to our own service.

We move to a single verse, classic call and response, for the explication, as the singer describes how he first fell in love and the back-up guys underscore his persistence. Melodically, however, the sweet spot of this song is the bridge, when Curtis chromatically croons: "Spent a lifetime looking for somebody / To give me love like you." The key shifts in to minor as he regretfully adds, "Now you've told me that you wanna leave me," only to burst out willfully, "Darling, I just / Can't let you!" and swings into those exuberant chorus again -- twice, before he reiterates that bridge and then hammers away with the chorus again. It's as if saying it will make it so. Baby I need you Baby I need you Baby I need you!

Fellas, let me tell you, we women are sick and tired of doing all the heavy lifting. What we really want is to find a guy who'll cling to us like a bur, who's made an intelligent choice and chooses ME. This is intoxicating. All the brakes are off, passion is rocketing into the sky, and the man is the one expressing lifelong devotion. Of course it's a pop song; of course it's just hormones making him think this is a now-and-forever kind of love. Do I care? No; I want to believe that he is true. I didn't attach this song to the particular singer (did I even know who Clem Curtis was when this song came out?), but I adopted this song's ferocity and made it my own. Singing along in the back of a car, I could split into two: I was the singer, and I was the one the song was being sung to. It's two and a half minutes of raw romantic lust, with horns, and I defy you to resist its infectious charm.

Baby, Now That I've Found You sample