Saturday, May 26, 2018

Summer, y'All!

"Dance This Mess Around" / The B-52s

I don't care what astronomers says -- summer begins Memorial Day weekend. (Or as I have always thought of it -- being from Indianapolis -- Race Weekend.)  The thermometer has found its groove in the 80s and 90s, and if there's rain, it's a thunderstorm. Fireflies begin to haunt the shrubbery at dusk, and mosquitoes sharpen their whine to a sonic sneer. Granted, school isn't out yet, but honestly, it should be. (Am I right, kids?)

Summer means parties -- dance parties if you got 'em. And who is my all-time favorite dance party band?

Every lick of this song is purtnear darn perfect. No onanistic instrumental solos, just clockwork guitar and drums with occasional hysterical cries of electric organ. It's all about the beat, and the improv comedy of those three lead singers, riffing off each other, all non sequiturs and cryptic catch phrases. Like, "Why don't you dance with me? I'm not no Limberger!"  (Originally I heard this as "limber girl," which also makes sense if you squinch your mind just so...).

Then there's Fred Schneider proclaiming, "They do all sixteen dances!!!" Well, I only count nine, and some of those are dances I know I've never heard of (maybe they were big in Athens, Georgia, where the B-52s got their start, but even so -- you tell me, have you ever danced the Camel Walk, the Hypocrite, or the Aqua Velva?) I could fake it, but still.

And as things whip to a delirious height, they fill in with vintage dance hit nonsense, "Hibby hibby forward hibby forward hibby hibby hibby shake." But let's not overlook the tightness of this band, with their razor-sharp attention to the cresting drama of the track.

And who doesn't think this five or six times a week?: 
Kate (or is it Cindy? They switched wigs so often, I never knew which was which): "Hey, doesn't that make you feel a whole lot better?"
Fred and Cindy (or is it Kate?) reply, "What you say?"
Kate (or Cindy), "I'm just ask-ing!"

A mantra for summer. Personally, it makes me feel a whole lot better . . . if you're asking.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

"Moonbeam Song" / Harry Nilsson

In honor of the royal wedding (because of course) . . . well, I don't have much to say about the royal wedding. Prince Harry is cute and all, but I have my own Prince Harry.

I realize I've been very selfish about sharing him with you, though. In the past two or three years, Harry Nilsson has vaulted into my Top Ten Music Guys of all time, and yet -- compared to Ray Davies and Graham Parker and Elvis Costello and (bestill my heart) Nick Lowe -- I have hardly ever written about him on this blog.

So making up for lost's a particular beauty from Harry's 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson. (How could you NOT love an artist who comes up with a title like that?) With its upward-dancing melodic lines, slouchy tempo, and free-association lyrics, it's a total charmer. This song has no purpose in life but to be lovely -- and boy, is it.


1. God gave Harry Nilsson this voice. Razor-true pitch, mellow timbre, vast register (three and a half octaves -- crazy huge) -- he had it from the get-go. Note how in this song he keeps switching the keys upward, over and again, knowing that he could morph into endlessly higher keys. He could scat like nobody's business, he had melisma that would put Mariah Carey to shame. He had no training, and he abused his instrument like hell (no one, and I mean NO ONE, could party like Harry Nilsson in his prime).  But that voice, that voice -- the angels were watching over him.

2. In 1963, Little Richard remarked upon hearing a Nilsson demo track, "My! You sing good for a white boy."

3. Harry Nilsson almost never performed live. The first time he did, he had such miserable stage fright, he hardly ever did it again. His entire legacy is based on recorded work. Even when he had a hit ("Everybody's Talkin' At Me," "Without You," "Me and My Arrow") he'd never go on tour to promote it. That's why he never had bigger hits.

4. On his 1967 Pandemonium Slide Show album, Harry's cover of the Beatles' "You Can't Do That" snuck in references to so many other Beatles songs (listen to the track and try to count them all), the Fab Four themselves sat up and took notice.

5. Beatles roadie/manager Mal Evans arranged for Harry to fly to London and meet with all of them individually. (Read Alyn Shipton's 2013 bio Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter for the details, but basically, Paul felt threatened, John shrewdly co-opted him, George could care less, and Ringo became one of Harry's greatest party pals of all time.)

6. Harry's other party pals were Keith Moon of the Who and Micky Dolenz of the Monkees. (Drummers are the most fun.) What I wouldn't give to have been a fly on the wall of those famously debauched evenings . . . .

7. London-loving Nilsson bought a flat on Curzon Place which he lent to other musicians when he wasn't in town. Both Jimi Hendrix and Mama Cass died there. Talk about a curse.

8. 1973, at the Troubador in West LA, Harry and John Lennon were thrown out for heckling the Smothers Brothers. Infamously, John -- who was in the middle of his year banished from Yoko -- wore a Kotex taped to his head to cover a cut. It's a detail you can't forget.

9. After John Lennon's death in 1980, Harry Nilsson became a tireless campaigner for gun control laws.

10. He died of heart failure in 1994 at the age of 52. Too soon, too soon.

I heartily recommend the 2006 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?) and the 2008 compilation For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson. Go do your homework, people.

Harry, we hardly knew ye. Peace on you.

Friday, May 18, 2018

"Smalltown Boy" / Bronski Beat

In my 1980s music burrow, I never discovered this song, never knew it existed. Way too disco-ey, way too drum-track auto play for my tastes, and so idiosyncratically British that, living by then in New York, I quite possibly never heard it at the time. (On the other hand, if Culture Club made it across the ocean....)

I can't even remember how it eventually swam into my consciousness a couple years ago. But it is now an indispensible part of my road trip playlist. This is the song I save up for the end of a long highway drive -- and when that synth intro kicks in, I can't help it, I always giggle like mad.

Just look at this video, and try to reconstruct how bold it must have felt back in 1984 (the Orwellian echoes of that date seem all too appropriate). That's lead singer Jimmy Somerville, he of the to-die-for falsetto, playing the starring role. He and his co-founder, keyboardist Steve Bronski were both Glasgow lads, back when Glasgow was all gritty and grayness, before it rediscovered its Rennie Mackintosh cool. Imagine being a gay boy growing up there. No wonder getting out of town seemed like their only option.  
What grabs me about most this track is, strangely enough, the very synth-laden over-produced sound that made me hate most music of the 1980s. Why does it work in this song when it repels me in so many others?
It's all circular hooks and refrains, repeated in a sort of minor-key trance. It's heavy on the reverb (I picture cold deserted concrete underpasses), though every once in awhile a shrill wail of despair erupts -- only to be beaten back down to the trudging mono-beat and those see-saw two-note phrases, "Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away." Running away is a knee-jerk reflex, a survival tool, and I'm feeling boxed in myself, claustrophobic and paranoid and -- oh, wait, is THAT what it feels like?
"You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case /  Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face" -- it's damn haunting. It's an anthem for outcasts and misfits of all stripes, gay and otherwise. He's crossing a sort of Rubicon; who knows if he'll ever come back. My bets are he won't.
And yeah, the song goes on for 5 minutes, which is longer than a song should be. But somewhere in there I get hypnotized by the repetitions, by that insistent rhythm track, and lose my moorings. I'm numbed, I'm panicking, I'm fighting for air.