Monday, July 31, 2017

Smackdown!

A new feature here, in which I take two related songs and put them head to head. Please let me know if you have any ideas for song pairs for future Smackdowns!

"Space Oddity" / David Bowie
vs.
"Rocket Man" / Elton John

Well, I'll grant you, this could be an unfair contest. As you, my faithful readers, probably already know, I'm a longtime Bowie fan, and this was the song that started me on that road.

Whereas, in the entire 10 years and 1000+ posts of this blog, I have never yet written about Elton John.

But this is not a foregone conclusion, I promise you. I don't NOT like Elton John; I own an album or two of his, and I find that I know vast swaths of the lyrics to his songs. I acknowledge his enormous talent. And once I began thinking of "Rocket Man," I've found that it has an incredible earworm power. Once I start thinking about "Rocket Man," I cannot remember how "Space Oddity" goes.

So bring on the Smackdown. Let's start with the statistics. "Space Oddity" came first, released in July 1969, cleverly (or cynically) coinciding with the Apollo 11 moonwalk launch; it anchored Bowie's second album, David Bowie (which in the US was soon retitled Space Oddity, for obvious cashing-in reasons). "Rocket Man" popped up 3 years later, in April 1972, and was the major hit off Elton's 4th studio album, Honky Chateau. "Rocket Man" hit #2 on the UK charts and #15 on the US Billboard rankings, whereas "Space Oddity" reached #1 on the UK charts and #6 in the US, but only when it was re-released in 1975. So did "Space Oddity" tee up the public for "Rocket Man," or vice versa?

Now let's go to the videotape:


Daffy, isn't it?

Now here's Elton's production. Or rather, here's a lovely video that was created years later, inspired by Elton's song. Hopefully this levels the playing field a bit.

 
A point of order here: When we talk about "Rocket Man," let's distinguish between the music, which is Elton all the way, and the lyrics written by Bernie Taupin. My private theory is that Bernie Taupin's genius accounts for at least 60% of Elton John's success. And the poignancy of this song is mostly lyrics-driven. In "Space Oddity," Bowie doesn't mention his wife until the third verse ("Tell my wife I love her very much"), and even then Ground Control cuts him off precipitately ("She knows!"). But Taupin leads off with the wife, the job, the routine nature of astronauting: "She packed my bags last night, pre-flight / Zero hour, nine a.m. / And I'm gonna be high as a kite by then / I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife / It's lonely out in space / On such a timeless flight."
 
He later mentions wistfully "Mars ain't no place to raise your kids . . . In fact it's cold as hell," and, while he's "burning up my fuse up here alone" (a masturbation reference?), his main concern is that he's not worthy of the hero title ("I'm not the man they think I am at home"). I hear here shades of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," which is way more about the isolation of fame than it is about The Wizard of Oz. Taupin admits he was influenced by the Bowie song (how could he not have been?), but also by a Ray Bradbury story ("The Rocket Man," in the collection Illustrated Man) and by the experience of watching a shooting star. 
 
For his part, Elton translates this into a song packed with octave-jump vocals and melodic lines that swoop up and down in parabolas of flight. Yes, his verses stick to Bowie's example, all minor keys and monotones and chromatics, but the choruses soar, with earworm hooks galore. 
 
Bowie, however, hangs onto the creepy, ominous tone for most of his song. Singing as Ground Control, he reaches into his dark low end of his range; he doubles his own vocals, and lays over a chillingly whispered countdown. His Major Tom is more sci-fi ("Take your protein pills and put your helmet on"), even if he's a product of media hype -- "And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear". (Echoes of the Stones' "Satisfaction" -- "but he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke / The same cigarettes as me".)  Bowie said he wrote this song to test out a new studio toy, the Stylophone keyboard (those spacenik synths in the background); the title puns on the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a little jab at the U.K.'s nonexistent space program. So far, it's an arty, satirical song, hardly the star-maker Bowie needed at this point in his career.  
 
But then he becomes Major Tom -- he leaves the capsule and everything goes haywire. He's "floating in a most peculiar way" -- I dig his singsongy delivery there -- he's helplessly "sitting in a tin can,"  and his circuit goes dead. (Oh, and I forgot to mention -- there's a line of thought that Bowie's song was about taking heroin.) Now the melody turns lyrical, switching to major key, and Bowie's lovely upper tenor sings wistfully about how "the stars look very different today." The magic of space travel (or, if you prefer, drug use) breaks through the glass.
 
And now there's dramatic tension. Ground Control is in panic mode, urgently repeating "Can you hear me Major Tom?" while the good major ruefully notes that "Planet Earth is blue / And there's nothing I can do...." It's terrifying, it's existential, and yet it's strangely liberating. What was that poster tagline from the movie Alien? "In space, no one can hear you scream..."  
  
Smackdown?
 
I vote for Bowie. But I'd love to hear from you. Which of these songs takes the prize in your opinion? 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

First song on the Shuffle...

"Long Long Time" / Linda Ronstadt

A tale of two technologies.

When I moved to England in 1975, I had to leave behind my assiduously curated LP collection -- I had no space for a turntable, let alone a meter-high stack of vinyl. I took with me only a cassette player and a handful of cassette tapes, diligently recorded from my favorite albums, which I created by hand, punching buttons on a tape recorder in my bedroom in Indianapolis. Remember cassettes? So compact, so light -- eight-track tapes looked clunky next to them.

Once I was over in England, I frugally supplemented my meager collection by buying greatest hits collections on cassette. Which is how I ended up with two of the most seminal albums I own: Changesonebowie and Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits.

It was an impulse buy, really. I wasn't particularly a Linda Ronstadt fan, although I had loved her debut single with the Stone Poneys and, I swear, I saw her perform live once at a bowling alley in Western Massachusetts in 1974. I may have hallucinated that particular incident, but I'm sticking to it.

With limited musical options, I listened to those cassettes over and over. And, if you're not familiar with the technology, know that skipping tracks is super-hard on a tape cassette -- yeah, I listened to those albums straight through, track after track. They are INGRAINED in my musical consciousness.

Here's my party line on Linda Ronstadt -- she was a genius at covering songs that the original artists did better. Song after song on that album only teed me up to become fans of Bonnie Raitt ("Love Has No Pride"), Neil Young ("Love Is a Rose"), the Everly Brothers ("When Will I Be Loved"), Martha and the Vandellas ("Heat Wave"), and Buddy Holly ("That'll Be the Day"). I'll give Linda the edge on "Desperado," which I maintain she delivered better than her backing bandmates Don Henley and Glenn Frey, who'd soon go on to win fame as The Eagles. (Don't say it. DON'T say it. I already know what you're thinking...)

But this song? This song, her 1970 first solo hit record, written by her Laurel Canyon friend Gary White -- this one is Linda's triumph, forever.
   

 
 
"Long Long Time" appeared on Linda's 1970 LP Silk Purse, which she recorded in Nashvillle -- a gutsy move for a California folkie. Linda went full-on country on this album, covering Hank Williams and Mel Tillis, and even twanging up the Goffin-King classic "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow."
 
But "Long Long Time" doesn't go Opry. The arrangement stays clean, with acoustic guitar picks and a baroque string section, all the better to highlight Linda's go-for-broke vocals. The refrain lays it all on the table: "'Cause I've done everything I know / To try and make you mine / But I think I'm gonna love you / For a long long time."
 
That's the ultimate irony of this song: She may be pledging to love him for ages, but in fact the love affair is already over, done, kaput.  That long long time? It's a long long time of agony, frustration, and loss. And so she throws her heart into her voice, yelps and howls and all, protesting her martyrdom.
 
I love how the lyrics alternate platitudes ("take things in stride," "time washes clean," "wait for the day," "life's full of flaws") with the grim reality of loss. She knows now that she was fooling herself all the time, that he was playing her all the time ("you fell all over girls you never knew").  Harshest line? "Living in the memory of a love that never was." There's a hair shirt for you.
 
And so, in the grand tradition of Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells, Linda Ronstadt laid it all on the line, identifying with the losers in love. Holding nothing back. Because, at this point, why?
 
It's pretty much a genius track, when you think about it. Thank you, Shuffle.   
 
 

Monday, July 17, 2017

It's Been Too Long....

Far be it from me to blame Donald Trump's presidency for everything . . . but I have to say, I haven't felt in the mood for writing about pop songs lately. However, I'll take a page from New York City's post-9/11 scrappiness, and make a stand here:  No vainglorious pettifogging bully is going to stop me from writing about the music I love.

Although it just might take a little time for me to get back into the groove. So here's my solution:  I'll just set the iTunes shuffle on, and write about the first song that comes up. Cross your fingers!

"Girl Talk" / Georgie Fame

Oh, my. Every since "Yeh Yeh" hit the airwaves in 1964, I've been a fan of this Brit charmer. So just imagine my delight when, in my most intense fangirl mode for Alan Price, I discovered that he and Georgie Fame had teamed up for a British TV series (and a couple of diggable albums). Not only that, Georgie had recorded an album with the Count Basie orchestra, fulfilling his ultimate goal of becoming a jazz musician. Wikipedia doesn't even show it, but I own that LP. It introduced me to the music of Mose Allison and a whole lot more. (Here's a crib sheet for that whole complicated music heritage...)

And so when in the year 2000, Georgie Fame wanted to go full-on jazz, Go Jazz Records made it happen . . .


Born Clive Powell, he was molded into a pop star by Larry Parnes, who forced him to change his name and to sing the sorts of tunes that had worked for Parnes' other clients like Billy Fury and Marty Wilde. But Clive/Georgie really just wanted to be a jazz pianist -- and so when the pop frenzy died down, Clive -- who'd already established himself with a sizzling residency at the London's Flamingo club -- drifted jazzward. He secured career stability by becoming Van Morrison's go-to keyboard player, and then took his free time to do what he wanted to.

Gotta love that.

The title of this 2000 album has some ambitious literary connections, to Dylan Thomas and Federico Garcia Lorca. Well, jazz has always tied itself to serious poetry. But there's nothing stuffy about the relaxed groove of this track. First off, there's the sexy syncopation of the musical phrasing. Then there's the flirtatious lyrics ("She bats her eye / You wanna fly / She sighs her sigh / You wanna cry / Hands on her hip / You wanna flip....") Wowza. And then there's that copasetic sax line, winding around, like a beckoning finger. Come here, big boy...

So while Larry Parnes' other "stars" have faded, Georgie Fame survives. Canny career moves have something to do with that, but I like to think it's also just about talent. This guy had the chops to impress Alan Price, and Van Morrison, and those savvy Flamingo audiences.  He gets a groove that transcends pop and jazz classifications. And when the day is done? I'm pretty darn happy just sitting here listening to the groove . . .