Sunday, April 15, 2018

"Faith": Too Much Butt, Not Enough Rockabilly

In October 1987, the world was waiting for words of healing, words of insight. The globe cried out for a single phrase that would reach into the souls of the lost children like a thousand beams of holy divination. One man was ready to rise to the occasion. One man had been to the wilderness and had returned with the wisdom that spoke to the age's deepest wounds. Here ... were this man's words:

"I've got to have faith-uh-faith-uh-faith-ah!"

Full confession: I think the compositional elements of "Faith" are strong. The lyrics, if not overly-complex, are effective and memorable. The chord progression is pleasing. The usage of the Bo Diddley beat in a dance-pop context is surprising and fresh. I think the song deserved to be a big hit.


I've always sort of vaguely felt that "Faith" doesn't quite ... groove the way it should. It doesn't quite move the way it should. In other words, I'm not sure it was recorded as well as it could have been. It's too stiff. It's too meek. I sensed this as a kid. I sensed it when I listened to Faith in the late '90s. I sense it today. I recognize that George was aiming for a rockabilly "pastiche" that wouldn't necessarily be "actual rockabilly", and yet ... the song doesn't ... rock enough. It sounds like he just recorded a demo version with a cheap drum machine on it and thought, "Eh, good enough." With a ballad like "One More Try," you can get away with that, but sometimes you need to actually rock to do a rock song, you know? I feel like "Faith" should sound more like, say, Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." Now there's a rockabilly pastiche that really rocks. Instead, it came out more like an off-brand "Footloose." For instance, when some actual guitars show up for an actual, supremely twangy guitar solo in the middle, it makes me think, "Yeah! That's what this baby needs right here." In summary, I feel like the song was sort of a missed opportunity, in a way that his other big hits were not. But I'm not too worked up about it.

And I certainly can't complain about the vocals. George was one of those rare singers who could inject a bit of silliness into his singing without undermining the emotional intensity of the performance. My two favorite bits would have to be the "Bey-bae-uh!" at 1:50, followed by the "Mm-beyyyyyyyyyyyy-bae-uh!" at 1:59. Too bad nobody bothered to hire a drummer.

Then there is the infamous video, which may be better known by its alternate title, "George Michael's Butt." Yes, George Michael's butt appears in a starring role. If your idea of a great music video is one that features many, many shots of George Michael's jiggling hind quarters, then this, my friends, is your Citizen Kane. Granted, there are also numerous shots of the singer's other body parts, including his legs, his crotch, his glove-encased hand (question: Can you play guitar with a glove on your hand?), and even, occasionally, his face. My understanding is that George is extremely sexy in this video, but I'll have to take heterosexual women and homosexual men at their word. I feel like the video might have been just one big opportunity for George to turn himself on. Question: Do you think George Michael jerked off to his own videos?

Here's what I want to know: what's with the leather jacket that says "BSA" on it? I associate that acronym with a certain youth group that was not terribly fond of men of George's particular persuasion. Talk about a subversive political statement slipping under the radar! In the end, the budget for the "Faith" video must have stood in stark contrast to the amount of money that the song ultimately earned, as the tune with a video consisting of George Michael's butt wiggling in a white room next to a jukebox became the #1 Billboard hit of 1988. Perhaps the blow-dried record label skeptics, viewing the rough cut in an air-freshened conference room, just needed to have a little more  ... "faith" in their recording artist's butt. Professor Higglediggle writes:
Michael had confronted the hyperpotent reductivism of Judeo-Christian dialectics in prior works ("Last Christmas," "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)") but with "Faith" he (re)contextualized the (pre)existing symbolic domain in slightly more bold, if equally problematic, terms. With its conflation of the spiritual and carnal, the song situates itself in an almost Augustinian duality, Michael observing "When that love comes down without devotion" he recognizes the papal necessity of "showin' [her/him] the door," although he acknowledges the binary co-optation of gender norms with the doubtful aside "Well it takes a strong man baby," as if the "strong man" and his own marginalized position were ethically incompatible. The video renders this moral failure in stark visual terms by contrasting the spectral symbol of the old order (the metal crucifix dangling from Michael's right ear lobe) with the earthly symbol of the new order (Michael's gluteus maximus).

Sunday, April 1, 2018

"Hungry Eyes" And Saxophone Thighs AKA Eric Carmen Loses Control, Wins "Poofiest '80s Hair" Prize

Though my Cheesy '80s Nostalgia Club membership card might be revoked by this admission, I have never seen, nor have I ever been particularly inclined to watch, Dirty Dancing. It's a ... what's the word? What do they call 'em? It's a ... CHICK FLICK. That's what it is. I knew the word would come to me eventually. And if anyone ever gives me a hard time for refusing to see it, I'll just tell them sassily, "Nobody puts Little Earl in a corner."

Sure, I enjoyed "I've Had the Time of My Life" when I was a youth, but now I just associate it with the kind of people who like Dirty Dancing. I mean, I'm not one of those people. I only like cheesy '80s music, not cheesy '80s movies. Jeez. Also, throughout the Summer of '88, I remember hearing the Top 40 station play this uptempo dance song, "Do You Love Me?," by some group called the Contours, and I thought it sounded slightly odd and out of step with the other hits of the era, without knowing quite why.

Another fact that escaped me at the time was that "She's Like the Wind" was not sung by some random generic pop singer, but by ... wait, really? That was Patrick Swayze? Singing? You might as well have told me that Jennifer Beals actually sang "Flashdance ... What a Feeling." Let's face it: he's not half-bad! I mean, he's not amazing. He's bland, but he's not any less bland than his '80s Top 40 contemporaries - a small victory of sorts for all you actors/secretly aspiring singers everywhere. More impressive is the fact that he co-wrote the song. And how would you like to be Wendy Fraser? Your biggest taste of fame was being "featured" on a Patrick Swayze single? Guess she'll take it.

But enough of that guy. Eric Carmen's got something to tell you. He's got this feelin' that won't subside. He looks at you and he fantasizes. I've got a question. What the fuck are "hungry eyes"? I didn't realize that eyes needed sustenance. I'm pretty sure that the "appetite" of a person's eyes, if such a desire existed, would hardly vary from one moment to the next. I mean, if someone could have "hungry eyes," then could they have "stuffed" eyes? Eyes that wouldn't even have room for one more thin mint wafer? And how exactly does one feed "hungry" eyes? With eye droplets? Take your eyes to Taco Bell? What happens if your eyes get hungry at 3:00 a.m.? Well, Jack In The Box is open all night I guess.

In 1987, the biological impracticalities of ocular nutrition were probably the last thing on Eric Carmen's mind; he just wanted a hit. You see, back in the man's younger days (i.e. 1972), Carmen was like a tougher, harder-rocking version of Paul McCartney. If anyone out there comes across a more perfect (or lustier) '70s pop song than the Raspberries' "Go All the Way," please send it to me. However, it turns out that, when he sang "Go All the Way," what he actually meant was, "Go all the way ... into shameless pop schmaltz." Sure, everyone's allowed a little artistic license here and there, and you can't expect a guy to repeat himself his whole career, but ... "All By Myself"? It's like he concluded that he was ripping off the wrong McCartney. Instead of ripping off rocking McCartney, he needed to rip off wimpy McCartney! Because nothing screams out "hit song" like Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2. Don't wanna be "all by [yourself] anymore"? Then why did you leave the Raspberries, buddy? Or maybe they left him - and judging by "All By Myself," one might understand why. And so Eric McCartmen continued to churn out a string of borderline Yacht Rock singles throughout the late '70s. By 1987, the guy was so washed up that he was starting to become an environmental beach hazard to seagulls, like those little plastic six-pack rings. Ah, but as with so many other singers who found themselves stranded on the Island of '70s Pop Has-Beens, a film soundtrack finally sailed to Carmen's rescue.

The list of sleazy '80s hits is a long one, but "Hungry Eyes" may very well be the sleaziest of the sleaziest. There's something about the syrupy combo of synthesized bass line, imitation vibraphone, and Rafferty-tastic sax solo that makes me feel like I just left a strip club that closes at 4:00 a.m. - and stumbled into the strip club across the street that closes at 5:00 a.m. The lyrics are voyeuristic and pervy and not particularly ashamed of it. And the video. Sweet Jesus, the video. Check out our man Eric at the commencement, lounging back in a dark warehouse, getting off on Dirty Dancing footage. The reel winds through the projector to its conclusion. He needs a new distraction. He begins dreaming of a sultry model in a low-cut dress, picking flowers. Then she's suddenly being projected onto the wall ... no, wait, she's there in the flesh, moving closer to Eric! Is she ... real? She brushes his cheeks with her hands. If looks could talk, Eric's stunned reaction at 0:58 would say, "Whoa. Dude. Who was that?" He pulls a Keanu. She walks away, turns around, and then she ... disappears! She's a ghost, Eric. You've got the hots for a ghost. I hate to break it to you, but those hungry eyes are going to need to find a more corporeal meal.

At around 1:57, Ghost Babe suddenly reappears in a blue-tinted rain forest wearing a new gold (but equally low-cut) dress. At 2:46, we realize that, not only is she a sexy Ghost Babe, but she can play a mean sax! There's one final twist. Eric sits down at an outdoor cafe and sees Ghost Babe leaning against a building, her glove-encased arms wrapped around a rather un-photogenic fellow who looks like he just forked over an impressive sum of money to be with her. He turns his head to kiss her, and when he turns back around, Ghost Babe is suddenly ... some Asian chick? I'm telling you man, too many lonely nights watching Dirty Dancing in a dark warehouse can take you to some weird places. Luis Bunuel, eat your heart out. Favorite YouTube comments:
Jeez that girl can blow a horn...

You know shlt gets serious when babe busts out the saxophone.

i dont think the lady playing the saxophone was the in studio performer

it may be just me but it does not look like that chick is actually playing that sax

she could've at least moved her fingers hahaha

Amazng that she can change the notes of the saxophone just by swaying to the tune without changing her fingering

Every woman in the world young or old should be offered the opportunity to look like they are playing a saxophone to this song with a city night green screen!

director: "you know what guys, let's have the model do the sax solo, why the hell not? And we'll shoot upskirt to distract everyone from how absurd it is, even in 1987."

This song has to be inspired by the way my uncle's dog looks at me while eating pizza.

I get weird looks in the bakery when I sing this to donuts. I don't care, it's how I feel.

I didn't know Robert Downy Jr. had such a great voice.

I want to hear this song covered by Eric Cartman.

this song makes me think of cannibalism. I can picture a serial killer playing this song while he devours human flesh. it's creepy.
Well, when you're hot, you're hot, and Carmen didn't pussyfoot around. Though "Make Me Lose Control" followed "Hungry Eyes" by mere months, apparently someone had fed the Chia Pet on his head in the meantime. It's like a whole new 'do - or two of them! The song's main bass-and-piano riff is like a shameless cross between the chord progression from "Twist and Shout" and the bossa nova rhythm from "Under the Boardwalk," with a chorus that pays homage to (rips off?) the Righteous Brothers' "You're My Soul and My Heart's Inspiration." As I understand it, Mike Love, I assume fresh from a late night "Kokomo" recording session, also makes an appearance on backing vocals, giving the tune some much-needed "shameless pseudo-Happy Days Baby Boomer pandering" cred. Of course, nothing compliments '50s rock 'n' roll nostalgia like ... glossy '80s production! And we know how all those classic oldies always featured a tight a capella rendering of the chorus followed by ... heavily phased supersonic turbo-powered studio effects (at 4:06). Take it away, YouTubers:
He lost control of that

Dude has a serious case of Lady Hair! And spray tan was not even invented yet.

No chick wants a dude with better hair than her !

I bet that hair can cure cancer.

That hair style alone caused the ozone layer to be depleted by 1% that year.

Yeah I think if Eddie Money & Richard Marx's mullets had gotten together & also gotten it on, Eric Carmen's hairdo is what their baby would look like. Haha.

he looks a little bit like Billy Joel with Tina Turners wig

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Heaven Is A Place On Earth"; Hell Is A Place For Anyone Who Badmouths Belinda Carlisle's Biggest Hit

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without catchy '80s pop songs, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the listening public. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of '80s radio. And God said, Let there be an extremely catchy '80s pop song: and there was Belinda Carlisle.

And God saw the Belinda, that she was good: and God divided the Belinda from the Go-Go's.

And God called the extremely catchy '80s pop song "Heaven is a Place on Earth."

Pretty sure that's how the Bible begins. I dunno, it's been a while. Maybe my translation's a little funky. But no other explanation for the creation of "Heaven is a Place on Earth" is remotely plausible. Despite published evidence stating that Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley composed the piece, I am partially convinced that it was written by God himself. The song is simply too catchy to have been created by mere man. One would expect a flaw somewhere, a weakness, a defect ... but there is none. It was not written, but merely transcribed from the heavens.

"Heaven is a Place on Earth" might very well be ... The Catchiest Song of All Time (TM).

"Heaven is a Place on Earth" is the only Belinda Carlisle song, either with the Go-Go's or solo, that has truly become ... what's the word? Ubiquitous. It is one of those '80s pop songs that will just always ... be. To use Jungian terminology, it has entered our collective unconscious. Let me put it this way: if you accost a random person on the street, and ask them if they know who Belinda Carlisle is, that person might say they do not. You could sing them every song Belinda ever sang in her 36 year recording career, and they might not know any of them.

But they will know this one.

It is a soundtrack staple, having been featured in everything from Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion and American Wedding to Love and Other Drugs and Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, not to mention (as every other recent comment on the song's YouTube page will remind you) the finale of the "San Junipero" episode of Black Mirror.

It is the song that Belinda Carlisle's fame rests on. It is, and is perhaps forever destined to remain, her ultimate, lasting legacy. It is also catchier than the themes from Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, The Andy Griffith Show, and I Dream of Jeannie put together. They say men have died from being unable to escape the eternal pull of the song's ingratiating chorus. If what they say is true, then I can't possibly imagine a sweeter way to die.

"Heaven is a Place on Earth" was Belinda's only #1 US hit, either solo or with the Go-Go's. Sometimes you only get one. But you know what? Belinda can always say that she's had just as many Billboard #1 hits as Pink Floyd, Chuck Berry, and Neil Young have had (and more than Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Dylan ever had!). It reached the summit for precisely one week in December 1987, preceded by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes's "I've Had the Time of My Life" and swiftly followed by George Michael's "Faith." But it was not merely a domestic triumph. Like "Don't You Want Me," "Every Breath You Take," "Careless Whisper," or "West End Girls," it was one of those '80s singles that refused to recognize pesky international boundaries. It became a massive hit on a global scale. It was one of those songs that just seemed to scream out "Number One With a Bullet." It may have even been, in the words of Jane Wiedlin's buddies Sparks, the "Number One Song in Heaven."

You'd think I'd be able to recall when I first heard "Heaven is a Place on Earth," but I cannot. The moments that define one's life, lost in the dustbins of memory. I don't remember particularly hearing it around the time of its release, and yet, when I heard the song in the early '90s, I feel like I was hearing a song I'd definitely heard already. In 1998, I borrowed one of those "80s Classic Ballads CDs" from a fellow camp counselor, thinking I would throw the keepers onto a tape I had lying around solely for the purpose of recording random songs that didn't fit on any other cassette (ah, the days before the mp3). Well, most of the '80s Classic Ballads I deemed non-Classic enough for my tape, but I saved some room for "Heaven is a Place on Earth." That was one I definitely needed in my collection somewhere. I found it hard to believe that I didn't have it on a tape already. Talk about a no-brainer.

A year or so before my Paul-like conversion into the Church of Carlisle, I was on my lunch break, enjoying some passable Indian food and perusing the local paper, when I noticed an article in the entertainment section. It was an interview with someone I'd never heard of: songwriter Rick Nowels. But when the article mentioned that he was the co-author of Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth," I immediately put down the paper, looked up toward the dingy ceiling of the food court, and thought, "Say no more." I mean, give the man a medal. Dude didn't need to write another decent song for the remainder of his pathetic career. Belinda knows what I'm talkin' about. From Lips Unsealed: "I heard the song the day after it was written. Rick sat at a piano, and Ellen sang. It was like they were showing me a newborn baby." Yes, and like Jesus, "Heaven is a Place on Earth" came into the world so that mankind could be saved. "I've had few reactions like the one I had after hearing them. I knew the song, even better than a hit, was a classic." Yeah, sure Belinda. Easy to say in retrospect.

Not everyone was quite so impressed. Certain listeners have suggested that the song is a ripoff of either Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name," "Livin' on a Prayer," or both - a resemblance that, frankly, had never occurred to me prior to hearing someone mention it, but then again, despite their pending induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I've probably spent about five brain cells in my entire existence thinking about Bon Jovi. Of course, anyone who refers to Belinda Carlisle's definitive masterpiece as a mere "Bon Jovi ripoff" should die in a flaming inferno, but ... you know, I just listened to all three songs in a row and ... hmmm. I've heard less plausible accusations, let's just say that. Both "You Give Love a Bad Name" and "Heaven is a Place on Earth" begin with an a cappella rendition of the chorus, followed by a solely instrumental rendition. And the big chord change in "Heaven" between "worth" and "ooh heaven" does, if one squints, seem a bit similar to the change in "Livin' on a Prayer" between "there" and "oh whoa, livin'." Maybe. And all three songs kind of share the same tempo. And all three songs feature a shameless T.U.K.C. (Totally Unnecessary Key Change) at the end. You know what? If Belinda ripped off Bon Jovi even a teenie tiny bit, she took whatever was good about those Bon Jovi songs and made it about a thousand times better. You know why Belinda's song is better? Because it's being sung by Belinda Carlisle, and those other songs are being sung by Bon Jovi. You mean to tell me that Mr. Watered Down Housewife Rock Working Class Malaise can even compete for one second with Ms. Yuppie Superbabe Extraodinaire? Ha! Bon Jovi fans are just jealous. That said, the electronica band Orbital has been known to mash up "Heaven" with "You Give Love a Bad Name" in concert performances of "Halcyon + On + On," which, I have to say, works well enough to hinder my argument. Amusingly, Nowels himself claims he was mainly inspired by Prince (!).

In what may have been a Wikipedia prank, several years ago a sentence on the song's Wikipedia page claimed that the melody was an interpolation of an aria from Bach's Christmas Oratorio, which seemed to explain why the song feels so supernaturally seamless. I knew that wily Rick Nowels couldn't have just pulled a chorus like that out of thin air! And if you're going to rip somebody off, it might as well be Bach, right? (Ask Procol Harum). But alas, I downloaded Bach's Christmas Oratorio, listened to the aria in question, and heard no blatant resemblance to any aspect of "Heaven is a Place on Earth." The sentence is no longer on the Wikipedia article. I think we might have to give this one to ol' Ricky Boy (and Shipley) after all.

Because you want a hook? This song's got a hook.

Some songs take a little time to get going. Other songs just grab you by the balls right from the first note and say "Come here big fella." "Heaven" doesn't "begin" so much as descend from the sky on a magic puffy cloud of '80s production goo. A single solitary pound of the bass drum acts as the clarion call to a new age, as Belinda and her back-up seraphs (including, apparently, Michelle Phillips) enter the arena, smothered with more echo than a Ricola commercial, while Thomas Dolby (!) doubles the melody on some sort of imitation glockenspiel doodad. You thought your '80s hit had an intro? This is an '80s hit with an intro. You're stuck, you're in, you can't turn back. If this intro could talk, it would say, "For the next four minutes, you're mine, baby, all mine." As the chorus enters its third bar at 0:08, I hear a really dated-sounding bass de-tuning, but otherwise the quasi-Gregorian glory of the opening has aged about as poorly as God has.

I've been pondering for years - no exaggeration - what exactly it is about the chorus of "Heaven is a Place on Earth" that makes it so ... "heavenly"? You will say that it's catchy. Yes, it's catchy, but a lot of choruses are catchy. This one is catchy, and also ... more. I think it has something to do with the rhythm of the words, the sustained pauses, not just the notes but the silence between the notes, that give it a kind of ... confidence. The first few words "Ooh, baby do you" all exist on the same repeated note, like an incantation, a mantra. The melody only begins to rise on "know what that's worth." The initial repetition brings a semblance of comfort, as if we're safe in the arms of the world's greatest Belinda Carlisle song, and once we know we're safe, we can now follow her on this journey to another realm.

And ooh, baby, do you know how enigmatic these lyrics are? I love songs that begin with a question. "Blowing in the Wind." "With a Little Help From My Friends." "Layla." "Free Bird." "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." "Bohemian Rhapsody." "Comfortably Numb." It pulls the listener in, adds an air of mystique. "Ooh baby do you know what that's worth?" What is what worth? Who is she talking to? What the hell's going on? It's a mystery. Come to think of it, upon closer inspection, the lyrics of "Heaven" don't actually ... make a lick of sense. "They say in heaven love comes first"? Who says this? Have you ever heard anyone say this? "We'll make heaven a place on earth"? I don't think that sentence is phrased correctly. I think what's intended is something more like "We'll make earth a place that's more like heaven." I mean, you could make heaven a place on earth, but how many square miles would that "place" be? And just where, precisely, would you put it? Everything's already been placed here. You'd have to dislodge something. "And the world's alive/With the sound of kids on the street outside"? Is that supposed to be a welcome sound? I know whenever I hear kids on the street outside, I feel like clenching my fist in the air and telling those kids to take that racket elsewhere, but maybe Rick Nowels thinks it's romantic.

Whatever. Belinda's fiery, magnetic delivery renders the details moot. She lays into this sucker like it's "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" When she throws that little growl into "Baby" at the start of "Baby I was afraid before" ... yowsers! Call the lion tamer! Unfortunately, by the time she gets to "But I'm not afraid anymore," the claws are out and nothing's going to tame this beast. I'm not sure how afraid she was "before," but when she exclaims that her fear has vanished entirely, well I, for one, believe her. It's like she's ripping her shirt open, declaring to anyone within earshot, "Come on, world, gimme your worst!" Maybe someone in the studio realized this song was pop fluff, but apparently nobody told Belinda.

At around 2:22, the backing vocalists fade mystically into the murk while the band vamps on some new chords. At 2:33, 2:41, and 2:48, the dense fog of back-up singers lets out an eerie "Heaaaaa-vuuuuuuhn" that sounds like it flew in from either the coda of Fleetwood Mac's "Sara" or an all-female Def Leppard cover band. After some tinny-sounding cymbal noises (arguably the only wart on this perfect beast), all of the instruments simmer down apart from the bass, while Belinda repeats her entreaties about the miracle of living and not being afraid anymore and such (retaining every ounce of passion from the prior delivery of those lyrics). Well, it's a good thing she's not afraid, because suddenly heaven turns to hell as the apocalypse begins raining down from the sky and instrumental chaos ensues - there's weird buzzing droning thingies and backwards cymbals and all sorts of demonic goings-on. Is Belinda going to be swallowed up and eaten by the hideous '80s Production Beast? No! What's this? She's saved by a lightning-quick drum roll and what may arguably be the finest example of a T.U.K.C. in all of '80s pop. Talk about a deus ex machina swooping down from the heavens at the last minute.

Discussion of the song's heavenly (and/or charmingly ridiculous) video to follow.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

VNV Nation Intros Ranked

Each VNV Nation album opens with an intro track, often instrumental but occasionally spoken word, that establishes the theme and mood for that particular album. Often times these intros transition into the first real song on the album, though not always. In anticipation of VNV Nation's first new album in five years, I thought I'd go through and rank VNV Nation's intro songs. I've taken into consideration how well each track helps establish the theme of the album, how well it builds flow or transitions into the next song, and how good the song is in general. We'll start at the bottom and move up from there. Here we go:

10. "Intro" - Matter + Form (2005)

Coming in last on this list but first on the "most appropriately titled for this list" is Matter + Form's "Intro". Even though I've placed it dead last I do kind of like this track. It feels ominous, the sound of something swirling, preparing to let loose. "Intro" doesn't flow into the lead-off song "Chrome" and feels almost perfunctory, like the band knew they needed an intro track and just slapped this one together in an hour. At least it doesn't outlast its welcome, clocking in at a svelte 1:30.

9. "On-Air" - Automatic (2011)

I came very close to ranking this one at the bottom. "On-Air" consists mainly of static old-timey radio noises, a similarly old-timey set of strings, all of which then transitions into some light piano. It certainly fits the tone of the album Automatic, with its Metropolis-like cover art and it's retro-futurist lyrical concepts, but as a song it's just kind of languid and, well, a little boring. Though it transitions into a lovely piano, it doesn't build or establish much energy. It's a shame too, because the album is otherwise one of the band's best.

8. "Anthem" - Advance and Follow (1995)

Some purists will call this sacrilege: "How could he place the first song off VNV's first album so low?!" Well, "Anthem" is a relic of a very young VNV Nation who emerged from a 90s industrial scene where the use of obscure samples was de rigueur. "Anthem" seems to be composed almost entirely of samples from TV, movies, and radio.  The use of air raid sirens near the end is neat, though they would be put to better use in a later intro (see below). I do like "Anthem", and one time I just happened to be watching a documentary when I heard the Laurence Olivier sample used to close out the track which jolted me awake like you wouldn't believe.

7. "Prologue" - The Solitary EP (1998)

"Prologue" is a bit like "Anthem" if that song was stripped of all of its percussion and samples and was left with nothing but the air raid sirens. That's nearly all it is - just a building series of air raid sirens with some backing strings. It evokes the feeling that the end of all wars has come, like Judgement Day is upon us, or, perhaps more modernly, reminds me of 9/11.

6. "Chosen" - Praise the Fallen (1998)

"Chosen" is the first intro on our list that contains actual words. I say words because this track and the other intro track (see below) are spoken word more than songs containing actual sung lyrics. "Chosen" is also remarkable due to it being the only VNV Nation track that doesn't use words penned by the band.

"Chosen" is basically a condensed rendition of the short story "Boule de Suif" by Guy de Maupassant. The track is from VNV's early days, when war as a metaphor was the primary lyrical driver. "Chosen" starts tense, with an unending, almost menacing minor chord. The story, delivered in near monotone, describes the horrors of war in a beautifully grotesque manner (or is it grotesquely beautiful?). I used to have the entire thing memorized. The menace eventually fades as the intro transitions into some strings, and finally some piano. After this tenseness has finally washed away I love how the next song "Joy" begins right out of the gate with that proud exclamation from Schiller's "Ode to Joy".

5. "Firstlight" - Empires (1999)

Now we're getting somewhere. "Firstlight" is the opener from VNV's most celebrated album, Empires. It starts off slowly, almost minimalist, and builds from there. It establishes well the palette of sounds the album uses. The only reason it doesn't rank higher is because this track is repeated at the end of the album where it transitions into a pulsing meditation featuring some of VNV's best lyrics.

4. "Pro Victoria" - Of Faith, Power and Glory (2009)

The most martial sounding intro of the bunch, "Pro Victoria" sounds like a rhythmically synchronized ancient Roman army preparing themselves for war. It also sounds like it owes an awful lot to Purcell's "Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary" (I swear those are the same horns in both songs). This song works well on multiple fronts - it builds in such a way that by the end it's got this hypnotizing, almost tribal rhythm, and it works thematically with its martial rhythm serving as a taste of an album about conflict.

3. "Generator" - Transnational (2013)

The most recent entry into this list, "Generator" has a fantastic construction. The track sounds just like its name - a generator coming to life. Starting with nothing more than an initial hum, listening to the track is like hearing an entire factory slowly come to life. To top it off it glides effortlessly into the song "Everything".

2. "Foreword" - Futureperfect (2002)

This one wins the award for most inspiring intro. "Foreword" captures the idealism that lies at the heart of the band's oeuvre. With a simple spoken word phrase repeated in multiple languages over Elger's "Nimrod", "Foreword" instantly establishes the tone and ideals of 2002's Futureperfect. Then, just as gently as it came in, the track transitions into a kind of sonar or radio beeping (I think it's meant to evoke an old radio transmission) ending with a series of violent crashes that push it into the next track "Epicentre". It's a solid intro.

1. "Prelude" - Judgement (2007)

We've made it to #1, what I consider the best VNV Nation intro. "Prelude" is the complete package, just a beauty to listen to. In 4 minutes and 10 seconds it tells a whole story, almost like a condensed film. It's got a cinematic quality to it, helped in part by Judgement's album cover. A friend once told me when she first put on the album she thought she had slipped a Tangerine Dream disc in instead. I can imagine so many scenes playing out to this track. The first time I heard this I was driving in the mountains and it was the perfect accompaniment to the quiet, untouched landscape. Just a wonderful piece of music.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Get Into Your What, Billy Ocean?

Here's an exchange that does not sound sketchy in any way whatsoever:
Billy Ocean: Hey (hey), you (you) ... get into my car!
Random Back-up Singer: Who me?
Billy Ocean: Yes you! Get into my car! Ohhhhhhh ... Aah! Hey!
What could possibly go wrong?

And so it is that the Summer of '88 can arguably lay claim to the "rapiest" pop song of all time. To be fair, we never find out just what occurs after Billy makes his questionable proposition. Perhaps the object of his affection climbs into his automobile, perhaps she simply ignores him, perhaps she calls the cops ... who can say? He's simply conjuring a hypothetical scenario here. We never discover if she actually gets into the titular car. Although the details are impressively vague, you have to admit he delivers a pretty tempting sales pitch. He'll be the sun shining on you? I'd take that. He'll be your non-stop lover, get it while you can? You'd have to be a fool to turn that down, an utter fool. He expresses, with confidence, that he is her "man," and having just met her five minutes ago, he certainly would know. Remember my (semi-retired) term Cosby Rock? I think "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" really might be Cosby Rock.

Let's back up a moment. Say you're the super-producer behind AC/DC, Def Leppard, the Cars, and other legendary '80s hard rock titans. What do you do next? Why, team up with Billy Ocean, of course! Yes, "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" was co-written and produced by the one and only Robert John "Mutt" Lange, though I'm guessing that, these days, he leaves this one off his resume. According to Wikipedia, the track was "based on a line in the Sherman Brothers' song (famously covered by Johnny Burnette as well as Ringo Starr) 'You're Sixteen.' " Of course, rockabilly heartthrob Johnny Burnette singing "You're sixteen, you're beautiful, and you're mine" doesn't quite give off the same Humbert Humbert alarm bells as a bearded, 33-year-old Ringo doing the same, but hey, no one tells Ringo Starr what to sing and what not to sing, OK? It seems like one particularly goofy revision of Ringo's served as the direct inspiration for Messrs. Ocean and Lange: Whereas Johnny Burnette crooned "You walked out of my dreams/Into my arms," a presumably inebriated Ringo Starr gave it the nonsensical twist "You walked out of my dreams/And into my car." And they say Ringo's solo career wasn't influential.

Now fast-forward a bit. You're a big time Hollywood studio executive, you've got a movie in the pipeline starring the two Coreys called License to Drive. You need a song for the soundtrack, but so far, your ideas just aren't cutting it. Suddenly you hear an advanced pressing of Billy Ocean's hot new single. Why, it's a match made in heaven! He's singing "Get into my car." License to drive. BOOM. You can finally afford that condo in Pacific Palisades.

All right, so the lyrics don't quite carry the same tone of playful jouissance these days as they probably did back in 1988, but honestly, has sexual assault ever sounded like such a blast? How about the little breakdown at the three minute mark, where Billy and his fellow band of merry would-be felons engage in a "What'd I Say"-style call and response bit ("I said open the door!" "Get in the back!" "Foot on the floor!" "Get on the track!" "Yeah." "Yeah!" "Yeah." "Yeah!" "Hey." "Hey!" "Hey - Let's go!"), followed by the inevitable sax solo? Or the psychedelic haze of vocal effects at 3:45 that precedes the equally inevitable Totally Unnecessary Key Change (TM)? What are you waiting for baby? Get into the dude's car already!

If anyone out there was doubting Billy Ocean's true PG intentions, one only need watch the video. Billy pulls up to a car wash, but there's just one catch: he's in a convertible! Do you know what happens if you drive a convertible into a car wash? Some crazy shit, that's what happens. True, he pulls the top down, but he appears to leave the windows open for some undisclosed reason. Once in the magical car wash, Billy's white Porsche transforms into several different makes and models of various cars in various colors. Suddenly ... cartoon water rises up over Billy's head! Not just any water, but cartoon water. He holds his nose for about five seconds, but then lets go and starts singing, as if he wasn't really underwater at all. It's like he's driving through an ocean: a Billy Ocean. Once the chorus arrives, he proceeds to serenade an orange fish. Then, at 1:26, the purple duck appears. Yes, Billy's best friend in this video is a purple duck lugging a green ghetto blaster around on his shoulder. You know the type, always causing trouble.

It gets weirder. At 2:31, the three spheres on top of the gas pumps become sentient and join in on backing vocals. Then Billy whisks his girl to the drive-in, where the man up on the screen is ... Billy Ocean? And now he's wearing a giant white shirt that's like a trench coat, except it's not? And the purple duck jams away on the sax. (Side question: they had drive-in movie theaters in England?) Then, during the Totally Unnecessary Key Change, Billy steps out of the screen ... and onto the stage! It's like he's getting out of our dreams, and into our car. Sadly, his purple duck compadre remains trapped inside the screen, but hey, he must have known the deal when he signed up for this gig.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

No Jacket Required, Great Sleeper Cuts Optional AKA Phil's X-Rated Attempt To "Thaw" The Cold War

Like all great '80s pop stars, from Michael Jackson to Madonna, it seems like the more popular Phil Collins got, the ... what's the word? The ... crappier he got. How come this never happened to performers in the '60s? Quick: name the great '60s pop stars who actually got crappier the more popular they became. Neil Diamond? Blood, Sweat & Tears?

No Jacket Required. It's got quite the resume. Sold 12 million copies in the U.S. alone. For perspective, the best-selling Genesis album of all time, Invisible Touch, only sold half that. Won the Album of the Year Grammy. Spawned four Top 10 singles. Hit #1 in countries that didn't even exist yet. Ended the Cold War. Invented the internet. All those achievements, and still ... somehow, I prefer his first two solo albums. There may have been "no jacket required," all right, but apparently tacky '80s production was mandatory.

Songs on No Jacket Required that don't really do much for me: "Only You and I Know," "I Don't Wanna Know," "Who Said I Would," "Doesn't Anybody Stay Together Anymore," "Inside Out" ... and you can probably throw "Sussudio" and "Don't Lose My Number" onto that pile, even though they were hits and they kind of make me chuckle. God, even the titles are bland. "Long Long Way to Go"? More like "Long Long Way to Go Before I Start Paying Attention to This Song." That particular cut contains a bit of the eerie, ambient atmosphere of "In the Air Tonight," except with a questionable trade-off: instead of the world's greatest drum entrance, we get smoky backing vocals from ... Sting? I guess he'd had enough of his harem of Taiwanese concubines that week and decided he'd pop over to Phil's studio for a change. At least "Doesn't Anybody Stay Together Anymore" has a funny story behind it. From a 1986 interview with Phil in Playboy:
You know, I was very happily married to Jill, my present wife, when I wrote it, but I had been divorced, my manager was getting divorced, a couple of good friends were getting divorced, and I thought, What's going on? Doesn't anybody stay together any more? The song came from that.
The answer is no, Phil. No, nobody stays the fuck together anymore, all right? And it's better that way. In the olden days, sure, people used to stay together, but you know what? They would spend every waking hour of their lives loathing each other and finding ways to passively-aggressively destroy each other's, and their children's, lives. For the record, Phil eventually divorced Jill.

Despite sounding like Prince's leftover throat mucus, "Don't Lose My Number" somehow climbed to #4, but maybe it was the tongue-in-cheek video that did it. Per Wikipedia:
Collins did not know what he would use as a video theme for "Don't Lose My Number", so he decided to create a video showing his decision process in selecting a theme for it. In the video, Collins talks to various "directors", who all give him bad ideas for the video. Their suggestions allow Collins to parody several other music videos of the time, including videos by Michael Jackson, "Weird Al" Yankovic, David Lee Roth ("California Girls"), Elton John ("I'm Still Standing"), The Police ("Every Breath You Take"), and The Cars ("You Might Think"), as well as movies such as Mad Max 2 and various samurai movies and Westerns.
Highlights: 1) "Gunfighter" Phil; 2) "Post-Apocalyptic" Phil; 3) Phil's office being taken over by an aerobics class; 4) "Fake blood! Great, isn't it?" "Yeah, but it's not really me though." 5) The catatonic Japanese director couple. Seriously, I know he catches a lot of flak, but ... how can you hate a guy who makes a video like this?

At any rate. I remember listening to No Jacket Required a couple of years ago, getting all the way to Track #10, and thinking, "Man, what a wash." Other than "One More Night" and "Take Me Home," she just wasn't doing it for me. I was expecting at least a few hidden "gems-nesis," you know? If I'd been listening to the LP, I would have been even more disappointed, because the album contains a CD-only bonus track called "We Said Hello Goodbye," and holy shit.

You won't find a Roland TR-808, LinnDrum, or Oberheim DMX in these waters. There's nary a trace of MiniMoog bass to be heard. Instead, an elegant grand piano gives way to pastoral strings. During the chorus, Phil finds himself smothered in a swirling haze of neo-psychedelic guitar that suddenly evaporates, only to leave behind a pinging, heavily treated piano straight out of Pink Floyd's Meddle. But here's the biggest shock of all: When the drums come in about halfway through, they're completely free of gate, or fence, or hedge, or chicken wire: they actually sound like ... how can I put this? Drums!

Perhaps the title is a bit of a giveaway, but "We Said Hello Goodbye" is supremely Beatle-esque, or perhaps more accurately, Lennon-esque. Let's call it the best song Julian Lennon never wrote. It reminds me of something from a mid-'90s Elton John album, perhaps Made In England or The Big Picture - which is a compliment, I think? Hell, even Phil's arch-nemesis Noel Gallagher would've killed to have come up with a tune this haunting as an Oasis B-side. The song makes me feel like it's about 9:30pm and I'm sitting in the living room of my beautiful house in Marin, surrounded by trees and my white upper middle-class opulence. Now here's some Divorce Rock I can get behind. I find it perversely hilarious that Collins added this keeper to the CD as a "bonus" track. Phil, you're a maniac, really you are.

Finally: what's the deal with the outerwear-clarifying album title? From Wikipedia:
The album is named after an incident at The Pump Room restaurant in Chicago, Illinois. Collins, entering the restaurant with former Led Zeppelin lead vocalist Robert Plant was denied admittance because he did not meet the restaurant's dress code of "jacket required" for dinner while Plant was allowed in. Collins was wearing a jacket and argued about it. The maitre d'hotel argued that the jacket was not "proper". Collins said in an interview with Playboy that he was, at that point, never so mad in his life. After the incident, the singer often appeared on shows such as Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, denouncing the restaurant and telling his story. The management of the restaurant later sent him a complimentary sport coat and an apology letter, stating that he could come to the restaurant wearing whatever he wanted.

"I thought of different things to do. Like maybe going down there wearing the right kind of jacket and ordering a drink and just pouring it onto the floor and saying, 'Well, I've got a jacket on! You can't do anything to me.' Maybe I should smash a few photographs on the wall, a bit of the Robert Plant attitude. But I did nothing, of course. I just moaned about it."
Yes, of course Phil. You did nothing. You simply let them step on you, like you were an insignificant little gnat who crawled out of the three-year-old cream cheese, just as you've let people step on you your whole entire life. When will you finally stand up for yourself?

Of course, loyal readers know that Phil's whole "Sweater Vest Pushover" image is just a ruse, a ploy, to cover up his many, many misdeeds, and that the actual Phil Collins is one seedy hombre. Here's the real story behind the album's title:
I was relaxing in my favorite porn theater, The Mauve Glove, in Boulder, Colorado, watching Six Fists for Sister Sara, taking a break from another grueling tour schedule. After the lights went up, I wandered around back and chatted with the owner, my good friend Alexei Tsorotov, who I always called Billy (a nickname I gave him after a drunken incident in Fort Collins involving a pistol shootout and a transgender bull - can't go into it right now). Alexei mixed up a special concoction of Russian vodka and horse tranquilizer just for me (the man knew how I rolled). I'm telling you, nothing beats a shot of Tsorotov's vodka with crushed ice. Mmmm!

"Phil! You touring Soviet Union someday?"

"You never know, Billy. Why do you care? You live in the States."

"Ahh, but if you ever tour Leningrad, you must stay with my cousin Tatiana. She is very ..." He held up his hands to his chest and made two giant circles with his fingers.

"I'll bet she is. You know me and Russian women. Hey, why don't you invite your cousin to Boulder? We can make a porn together."

"Phil, you know how tricky it is with the embassy and such -"

"Nonsense! I've got connections at the embassy like you wouldn't believe. I'll handle the whole thing. Just get Tatiana over here, and maybe a couple of her friends, you know, if they're up for a little 'adventure'."

"I can get a crew together in two weeks."

"Is Fyodor available? If we can get Fyodor to direct, I think we'd be all set."

"I call Fyodor. He has tight schedule, but maybe he can do it."

"We'll do one of those ski resort pictures, you know, where it's 20 degrees outside but their nipples get all erect." I gazed off toward the Rocky Mountains and lost myself in thought. "You know how they call this the 'Cold War'? How about a 'Cold Porn'?" I leaned toward Alexei with a grin on my face.

"Phil, you are always funny with the jokes. I make some calls tomorrow."

"I've got to skip town, you know, the next show, but tell me know it goes." I grabbed a pen and paper. "Billy, don't you lose my number."

So after the show in Salt Lake City, I got a call from Alexei. "Phil, I communicate with my cousin, and her friends Olga and Katarina, they all excited to come to Boulder for the film."

"Nice work! So what's the plan now?"

"You see, they not have much money, they are asking me what to bring, and it is a long, long way to go. They are confused. I am telling them it is a porno, and yet I am telling them it will be cold."

"So where's the confusion?"

"They want to know if they need to bring a jacket. In Soviet Union it is the law to wear jacket."

I thought for a moment. "Well, if they feel like bringing one, they can bring one, but if they don't, it's OK."


"This is America, all right? Just tell 'em: 'no jacket required'!"

"Yes, Phil. That's good."

"What about Fyodor?"

"I think he can do it."

"What about his DP? What's that guy's name? Michael or something?"


"Yeah, that's it. Can he do the film?"

"Ahh. He and Fyodor had falling out. They not working as team like before."

"Man." I let out a sigh. "Doesn't anybody stay together anymore?"

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Never Gonna Hear "Never Gonna Give You Up" The Same Way Again AKA I'll Have What That Bartender's Having

There once was a song. Those who heard this song were hard-pressed to name any aspect of the song that was remarkable in any way whatsoever: not the melody, not the lyrics, not the production. It was the most generic pop song in the history of popular songs. Naturally, given the tastes of the 1987/1988 record-buying public, this impressively generic song became a #1 hit in virtually every country in the Western world.

Sometimes, late at night, alone in the dark, I ask myself why. Why "Never Gonna Give You Up"? Why Rick Astley? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do fools fall in love? Why do hot dogs come in packages of ten, but hot dog buns come in packages of eight? Some possible answers:
  1. An invisible race of aliens secretly invaded planet Earth in 1987 and implanted "Never Gonna Give You Up" receptor chips into our feeble humanoid brains. Thus, when the song hit the airwaves, we were instinctively inclined to enjoy it, without fully being able to articulate why. 
  2. Stock Aitken Waterman deliberately gave the rhythm track the same number of beats per minute as the human heart. Listening to "Never Gonna Give You Up" is like ... listening to life itself. 
  3. Homo sapiens are nothing but a bunch of masochistic, self-loathing nihilists, and in late 1987/early 1988, we eagerly relished the opportunity to achieve this ultimate act of self-hatred. 
Valiant attempts, but still somehow unsatisfactory. Occasionally, a phenomenon comes along that simply cannot be explained, like the unicycle, or Pauly Shore. I'm afraid the initial popularity of "Never Gonna Give You Up" will remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of our age.

Question: Are there any actual instruments being played on this song? It's like scrolling through a news website and realizing that none of the actual stories on that site were even written by that site. I feel like I hear a string section, but is that really a string section? I feel like I hear horns, but are they really horns? Is this song just one giant illusion? Indeed, "Never Gonna Give You Up" could be considered Stock Aitken Waterman's most notorious display of studio magic - or should I say black studio magic? Best/worst production choices:
  • The faint echo of Rick Astley's voice that can be heard over the instrumental intro at 0:08 and 0:16 - it's like a foreshadowing of the horror to come 
  • The significantly heavier echo applied to the end of the second line of each verse ("So! do I-do-I-do-I," "Too shy, to say-it-say-it-say-it"). Please, somebody, help, let me out of here!-here-here-here... 
  • The silky bridge, with its choir of female sirens cooing "Ooh ... give-you-up," punctuated by Rick's gruff, spasmodic "Nevah-gonna-give! Nevah-gonna-give!", followed by a repeat of the second verse with all the "instruments" stripped away, leaving only Rick and whatever the hell that thing is that's making all those throbbing noises 
"Never Gonna Give You Up" was one of those songs I used to hear on the radio all the time and I never once gave it a moment's thought. I don't believe I particularly cared for it much. I used to get it mixed up with Rick Astley's other big hit, "Together Forever," and I also used to get Rick Astley mixed up a little bit with Michael McDonald, if you can imagine that. They both sound more black than they really are. That said, at least Michael McDonald sort of looks the way he sounds; Rick Astley looks like he'd sound like, I dunno, Morrissey? The point is, soft rock stations couldn't get their fill of "Never Gonna Give You Up." They wanted to have Rick Astley's baby. Then one day, I forgot about the song, and I didn't really miss it.

Fast-forward to 2008. A friend suddenly tells me about this new internet meme revolving around some cheesy song from the '80s. He tells me he's not familiar with the song. He sends me a link to the video. I instantly chuckle, and boast my extreme familiarity with the piece. Hey, I was grooving to "Never Gonna Give You Up" before the internet even existed, you damn kids! Actually, I hated the song back in the day, but I'll take my pop music street cred wherever I can find it.

The moment I heard about Rickrolling, I understood exactly why it was humorous. "Never Gonna Give You Up" was the epitome of inane, flavorless late '80s pop. There was absolutely nothing interesting about it. Suddenly, the song's utter lack of artistic value was what made its employment as a running gag so surreal and, dare I say, appropriate. The song was stupid. The meme was stupid. Somehow, like the invisible finger that forms above your nose when you place your two index fingers together and let your eyes lose focus, two stupid ideas met in a new, hidden dimension, and formed a brilliant idea.

Here's the strangest part of all: since Rickrolling became a thing, I actually like the song now. Perhaps this is what Karl Marx meant by his remark about history repeating itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Of course, as any true Rickrolling aficionado will tell you, half of the appeal of the meme is in the laughably dated, relentlessly clean-cut video, which, until 2008, I had never seen. Allow me, if I may, to perform a shot-by-shot analysis of the first 18 seconds of this music video:
  1. Close-up of Astley's ginger-coated skull bobbing up and down behind the tip of a microphone and in front of what appears to be a massive stained glass window with an oddly pinkish tint to it, although the movement of Astley's head against the background seems to suggest low-budget usage of a green screen. 
  2. Medium shot of Astley bobbing in the same manner as in Shot #1, again standing behind a (now more visible) microphone, and again in front of this supposed stained glass window, the medium shot revealing his outfit, which consists of a grey sport coat, a striped polo shirt, black belt, and khaki slacks. The shirt is tucked into his slacks, which seem to be pulled up unnervingly high - even for 1987. 
  3. Unexpected close-up of Astley's nondescript shoe. 
  4. Slightly more interesting close-up of Astley's hand. 
  5. Return to the medium shot, featuring Astley bending his elbows and wiggling his arms, but not, apparently, in time with the music. 
  6. Return to the close-up, mercifully sparing us his ill-advised elbow movements. 
  7. We're back to the elbow-jutting in another medium shot. I spoke too soon. 
  8. Close-up of Astley, now in an entirely new setting: it appears to be an ancient stone building with Renaissance-style arches. He's also wearing an entirely new wardrobe, consisting of a tan trench coat and a black turtleneck sweater. The enthusiasm of his smile is somewhat unsettling. One can also detect an occasional flash of light in the background. Is there ... a fireplace somewhere off camera? Did they film this in a lightning storm? During an air raid? What's going on back there? 
  9. Wide shot of Astley in front of the same brick building, featuring the same eerie flashes of light, but, as with Shot #8, revealing no explanation of the source. 
  10. Medium shot of Astley in front of the brick building that's almost as bland as he is. (Is the flickering light supposed to be from ... the reflection of water? Is he standing by a canal??) 
  11. A medium shot of a blonde-haired woman with a yellow ribbon in her hair, wearing a sleeveless black top, dancing in front of the "stained glass window" seen earlier. Initially her back is to the camera, and then, without warning, she spins around and reveals her wholesome, chipper face to the world. 
  12. Slightly wider shot of what appears to be a different blonde-haired woman with a yellow ribbon in her hair, as her black garment clearly has sleeves on it, while the other woman's does not. She performs some type of retro disco move with her left arm while dancing in front of the same pink-tinted "window" image. 
  13. Now we come to a third setting, this time in broad daylight. Rick is wearing sunglasses and a long-sleeve button up light blue shirt, possibly tucked in to an appallingly high-waisted pair of slacks, possibly not, leaning against a fence. This must be "Outdoorsman Rick." 
  14. Slightly wider shot of Outdoorsman Rick, the camera panning around his body as he shuffles his legs, claps, and punches an imaginary foe, again not in any apparent rhythm. And yes, the waist on his slacks is just as frighteningly high as it was on his first pair of slacks. 
  15. Close-up of another blonde woman, standing outdoors and wearing sunglasses like Rick, but also wearing some sort of lightly tie-dyed sleeveless summer dress, twirling gaily in front of a building with white bricks. The camera gradually zooms out as she twirls. 
  16. Close-up of the same woman twirling, although perhaps not capturing the same exact twirl as before. 
I ask you: has any video, within its first 18 seconds, ever crafted a mood quite as powerful? True, the piece arguably never surpasses the aesthetic precision of its majestic opening, but then again, how many videos ever could? Indeed, the next thirty seconds or so merely recycle bits of the already-revealed imagery (Stone Building Rick, Outdoorsman Rick), aside from a cryptic shot of a gyrating shadow (possibly Rick's?) at 0:30. Nothing new truly enters the picture until the 0:51 mark, where we are suddenly presented with a black bartender in a white shirt and red suspenders who pauses from wiping the counter to promptly turn his head and glare off towards the back of the room with an expression that seems to say, "Whoa man, what the hell's going on back there? Looks like they're having a good time." Sure enough, after a quick cut to another shot of Rick and the Dancing Blondes, the camera cuts back to our suspendered mixologist, who is now flipping a glass and bobbing his head in what I might describe as an "All right, I can get into this!" gesture. Ladies and gentlemen, that's not the only thing he's about to flip. This dude's just getting started.

At 1:18 he truly begins to break out of his shell as he spins and spins with more vigor than the Tazmanian Devil, then leaps into the air and ... does a jumping jack! Who knew Carl Lewis was in the "Never Gonna Give You Up" video? At 1:34 he starts to jog on an (I presume?) invisible treadmill, and then at 1:42, WHOA, look out, he does a backflip over the entire freaking bar! All I can say is, whatever they're paying this bartender, it's clearly not enough. When he pops up again at 2:07, he's changed out of his suffocating bartender wardrobe and is now sporting the athletic gear he clearly feels liberated in, as he bounces buoyantly against a chain-link fence. Then at 2:25, he does a full somersault under the Renaissance arches, pausing robotically upon completion, as if he were dancing to Herbie Hancock's "Rockit." But wait, he's still got one more moment of glory in him: at 2:46, he runs up the brick wall, tumbles backwards, and lands on his feet with a thousand-watt grin. All well and good, but what I'm wondering is: while he's busy prancing around and flying through the air and having a grand old time ... who the hell's manning the bar?

Sunday, January 21, 2018

"I Want Your Sex," But Who Wants A Good Chuckle?

If, after the dissolution of Wham!, George Michael had intended the record-buying public to begin taking his music more seriously, I'm not sure "I Want Your Sex" was exactly the way to go.

I like "I Want Your Sex," but not because I think it's a particularly good song. I like it because ... well, because it is hilarious.

First of all, the title is hilarious. No one says, "I want your sex." Seriously, who says that? One might say, "I want sex," or "I want your body," but no one would say "I want your sex." I don't know if it's incorrect English, but I do know that it's something no one says. It would be like saying, "I want your aerobics," or "I want your finance." "Sex" is not a thing that belongs to a person. One does not "possess" sex.

Or perhaps what we have here ... is George Michael ... completely redefining ... what sex is.

Most people know "I Want Your Sex" from its inclusion on Faith, but the song actually made its first appearance on the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop II, which my family purchased in the summer of 1987, and which is how I initially became, well, "exposed" to the song's many charms. To be fair, I haven't revisited the soundtrack album since then, but from what I recall, the quality of the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack bore about the same relationship to the original Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack as the quality of the actual Beverly Hills Cop II movie did to its predecessor. Who can forget James Ingram's "Better Way," Corey Hart's "Hold On," or The Jets' "Cross My Broken Heart"? The Pointer Sisters were the only act to return for a second tour of duty, this time contributing "Be There," which probably wasn't as "there" as "Neutron Dance" was. I remember being extremely enamored with Bob Seger's "Shakedown," which became the #1 hit that probably even Bob Seger doesn't remember having, but I heard it again a few years ago and I can't say I entirely agree with the assessment of my seven-year-old self. I remember my brother and I deciding to perform "dance routines" to each song on the album in our tiny living room. Somehow or other, I got the short end of the stick and had to come up with a routine for "I Want Your Sex." Our father rolled his eyes as he viewed it and said, "I don't know if this is such a great idea." I managed to half-heartedly trudge my way through all four minutes and forty seconds of squeakiness.

I assume the sound at the start of the song is a synthesizer, and not, as I'm tempted to believe, two banana slugs copulating, but I could be mistaken. The squeaking noises continue throughout the piece, as if someone was standing in the corner continually squeezing mud between his hands, and recording it. The verse flirts with a decent melody, but I feel like that sense of musical decency goes out the window once the chorus shows up. The bridge is actually somewhat promising, and suggests that a very exciting, passionate, anthemic chorus is on the way:
I swear I won't tease you, won't tell you no lies
I don't need no bible, just look in my eyes
I've waiting so long, baby, now that we're friends
A man's got his patience, and here's where mine ends
And then suddenly, we hear a very bored, dispassionate George Michael, in a supremely unexciting lower register, speak-singing the words "I want your sex," followed by, I believe, a long string of farting noises. This is where his patience ends? You'd think he could have waited for something a little better, you know? To me, this song is about as sexy as a night out at Hooter's, but hey, maybe it works for you.

Right around the end of the second chorus, things truly start to get weird. Follow along with me if you can:
  • 2:23: Just business as usual, until George pauses after "I want your," only to unleash an emphatic "sex ... sex! Ow!"
  • 2:28: The squeak returns with a vengeance, and we're treated to a solo by what sounds like an ... "imitation Asian gong" synth setting?
  • 2:49: A cluster of sped-up Georges attempt to sell the listener on the myriad benefits of sex, helpfully explaining that "it's natural" and "it's chemical," when suddenly they are interrupted by another, regular-speed George who apparently is finding the sped-up mini-Georges' approach much too subtle and simply grunts "Let's do it!"
  • 2:54: The pitch-altered Georges continue, as if we weren't already convinced, adding "it's logical" and "habitual," and once again unaltered George chimes in with an impatient "Can we do it-uh?"
  • 2:59: The chorus of Georges is clearly running out of selling points, pointing out that "it's sexual" (I think we knew this already), but then pivoting into a different pattern with "but most of all, sex is something that we should do," which is followed by an unexpectedly deep-voiced man who I assume just crawled up from the basement of whatever S&M castle we've somehow found ourselves trapped in, adding "Sex is something for me and you." Who would have thought!
  • 3:07: Now we arrive at what might arguably be the "climax" of the interlude. The gathering of Georges, by this time appearing at a mixture of pitches, surmises that "Sex is natural, sex is good/Not everybody does it, but everybody should/Sex is natural, sex is fun," then a lone George pokes his head in to point out that "Sex is best when it's" ... and finally deep-voiced George finishes the thought with an emotionless "one-on-one." "I see," said the blind man.
  • 3:47: The comparatively tranquil bongo jam that follows is broken up by, if I'm not mistaken, George dry heaving repeatedly in the left channel ("hu-ah!"), which is invariably followed by another George in the center channel chanting "sex," and all the while, lead vocalist George explains to the object of his affection that "I'm not your father/I'm not your brother/talk to your sister" and then he really kicks it into Whitney Houston territory with " I am a luv-ahh-ahh! Whoooo-hooo-hooo-euh!" which he finally punctuates with a James Brown-ish "Ow!" and the immortal "C-C-C-C-C-C-Come own-ah!"
  • 4:23: After a little rap (a genre to which George was no stranger, of course), he really lays it all out with "Don't you think it's time you had sex! With! Meee-ayyy-uh!"
  • 4:38: Finally, the piece comes to a fitting conclusion with a last "Mmmm have sex! With! Meee-ayyy-uh!" as the man praying to the porcelain goddess reappears to add another (completely necessary) "hu-ah!" while George ties a nice little ribbon around the whole enchilada with one more "C-C-C-C-C-C-Come own-ah!"
Naturally, George sat in the studio, listened to the playback, and concluded, "You know what? I think the world needs two more versions of this." "Rhythm Two: Brass In Love" manages to be more tasteful and yet, in my opinion, more boring. It's sort of what I imagine would've happened if George had asked Phil Collins to do a remix version. The addition of horns feels gimmicky. I mean, if he wanted to bring a Stax/R&B feel to the piece, he shouldn't have kept using the same crappy drum machine from "Part 1." "Rhythm Three: A Last Request" might actually be, from a purely musical standpoint, the most palatable version, with some decent keyboard work, some noirish trumpet, and the drum machine setting from Gregory Abbott's "Shake You Down," but again, I feel it lacks the comedic edge of "Part 1."

The video was rather "controversial" in its day but, watching it now, I kind of have to wonder, "For what?" Too much stubble? Naked feet being doused with water? Excessive use of red blindfold? This thing is 50 Shades of Tame. From Wikipedia: "The music video, directed by Andy Morahan, featured Michael's then-girlfriend Kathy Jeung to emphasize that he was in a monogamous relationship; at one point, he is shown using lipstick to write the words 'explore' and 'monogamy' on her back." Two questions: 1) His ... girlfriend? Just how serious were they? I mean, if he's not that interested in her, maybe we can trade? 2) "Monogamy"? I'll tell you the first thing that pops into my head when I hear this song: monogamy! It's so obvious! How could anyone miss it? Final thought: what do you think he did with that red lipstick once the cameras stopped rolling? Professor Higglediggle's take:
With his contribution to a reductive, Dionysian symbol of post-blockbuster disjunction (Beverly Hills Cop II), Michael sought to subvert the symbolic capital of monogamy through the interpretive framework of libidinal electro-funk. His declaration "I don't need no bible" serves to sever the act of lovemaking from its codified familial purpose, while his question "What do you consider pornography?" forces the listener to situate her/his (re)conception of the procreational drive in stark opposition to Puritan mythos. Michael's experimental usage of lipstick does much to undercut his circuitous effort to establish a sexualized element of play, however, subtly reinforcing the codified status of female marginalization at the hands of the cosmetics industry and highlighting his partner's lack of sexual agency.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Because "(I Just) Blew My Load In Your Arms Tonight" Didn't Have The Same Ring To It

The opening of this song sounds like somebody singing "Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha" really rapidly and quietly. I know it's just a synthesizer. But wouldn't it have been cool if it had actually been some square-jawed stud in Calvin Klein underwear sitting in the studio breathing "Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha" into a microphone? That's my dream; don't take it away from me. I must confess that I have, with my own voice, recreated the opening hook of "(I Just) Died In Your Arms" at various parties and social gatherings. It's a hit every time.

Anyway, you think your crew is bad? How about a crew that cuts? Now that's a pretty bad crew. Pointing out that "(I Just) Died In Your Arms" wasn't Cutting Crew's only Top 40 hit is sort of like pointing out that Don Quixote wasn't Cervantes's only novel, but, to be fair to the band, I might as well do it. Of course, no one types "I've Been In Love Before" or "One For The Mockingbird" into the YouTube search feature when they're in the mood for a quick blast of '80s nostalgia. It's OK guys. Your one magnificent contribution to retro '80s playlists, like Don Quixote to Spanish literature, is an artistic legacy to be proud of.

For years I assumed the "death" mentioned in the title alluded to some sort of "emotional" death, given that the singer seemed to be expressing remorse over an affair ("I should have walked away," "I know I was wrong"). Turns out there are many different kinds of deaths, including those that bring forth life. From Wikipedia: "The actual words 'I just died in your arms tonight' originally came to Van Eede while he was having sex with his girlfriend, the French phrase la petite mort, or 'the little death', being a metaphor for orgasm." Deep, dude, really deep. Even if that was how he came up with the lyric, was it really that wise to admit it? Couldn't he have claimed he'd been reading Camus or something? This might explain other lines such as "It was a long, hot night/She made it easy, she made it feel right." I'll bet she did. Here are some alternate titles that probably would have hindered the single's climb to #1:
  • "I Just Splooged In Your Arms Tonight"
  • "I Just Busted A Nut In Your Arms Tonight"
  • "I Just Jizzed In Your Arms Tonight"
  • "I Just Shot My Wad In Your Arms Tonight"
Nope, the title they went with was definitely the best one. I have to say, this is one conflicted '80s hit. It's got that potent mixture of sex and death that all great rock music thrives on. I think that, had he lived, this might be what Jim Morrison's inevitable '80s comeback smash would have sounded like. Highlights:
  • 0:07: The entrance of a stately cello, lending an air of elegance to the sleaze
  • 0:15: A cymbal crash, slowly fading upwards just as Nick Van Eede makes his dramatic entrance
  • 1:40: Little guitar bridge between the second chorus and the second verse that sounds like it was lifted from After the Fire's "Der Kommissar"
  • 3:22: After a guitar solo that sounds like your neighbor's step-mom trying to play hair metal, there's a violent, brutal drum fill, followed by a swell of voices, which leads into ...
  • 3:24: All the instrumentation vanishing swiftly into the background, allowing for the solitary re-emergence of the "Ha Ha Ha Ha" synth, because we totally needed to hear that again
  • 3:55: Van Eede finally fades into the night, leaving the guitars to harmonize and groan in the kind of sonic agony that would have made Joe Walsh and Don Felder weep.

The video features what Wikipedia calls "artistic fragmented shots." Is that what those are? I feel like I'm watching the "preview" of another channel in the corner of my screen while the main channel is still on. Initially, when I searched for the video on YouTube and saw that thumbnail, I assumed it might have been one of those clips where the uploader had fiddled with the aspect ratio in order to avoid copyright infringement issues, but nope. Everything sort of looks like a bad Depeche Mode album cover. I can't tell if the model is really good-looking, or if the camera is just really out of focus, but she lounges around in her posh European apartment in a bra and silk sheets, wearing a month's worth of eyeliner, while the camera cuts away to equally sexy shots of of pears, roses, vases, ashtrays, and tomatoes. Various images initially appear in the top left pane, and then, a split second later, appear in the large background pane! But all, like, zoomed in and stuff! I can't get a handle on it, man.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of 2017

Another year has come and gone - a fairly uneventful one at that. No real major controversies, no major existential crises as a nation comes to grips with its tarnished reputation, no disturbing resurgence of neo-Nazism, nothing really.

But guess what did happen? I actually listened to some music this year... some NEW music. Whereas last year I had essentially given up on modern music, I made a (somewhat) concerted effort this year. And it sorta paid off. Let's get to to it!

Most Disappointing Album:

Taylor Swift - Reputation

If you recall, I had to surrender my goth cred license when I called Taylor Swift's 1989 "a great pop album". Well, give me that license back because I listened to Reputation and I basically just hated it. Gone are the swirling 80s inspired synths and the hummable melodies, instead replaced with... generic club music. No really, I think Taylor's been hanging out with too many DJs in too many velvet rope lined night clubs. This album just sounds like it's designed for those LA/NYC night clubs filled with obnoxiously douchey guys trying to pick up on girls wearing too much makeup and skirts too short, with overpriced bottle service, and $11 Bud Lights (don't forget to tip that weird guy in the bathroom who... hands you a paper towel to dry your hands). I gave it one full listen and never went back. Bring back those synth filled melodies Taylor!

Most Improved Album:

Chrvches - Every Eye Open

Back in 2013 I named Chvrches "Gun" as my favorite song of the year. Then their follow up album Every Eye Open came out in 2015 and while I found it alright, it didn't draw me in as much as I hoped it would. Well color me wrong, I gave the album another listen this year and found that, no, I really do like this album. In fact, going against critical consensus, I actually think I like Every Eye Open just a tad better than their debut album The Bones of What You Believe. Yes, the singles off that debut were stronger, but as a whole I just really dig Every Eye Open. It's got a good flow and I like the male vocalist led track "High Enough to Carry You Over" better than TBOWYB's "You Caught the Light". Not only that, but when I purchased EEO I got the special edition with a few additional tracks. What I love about these tracks are that they continue with the flow of the basic album and they're quite good, with the final song "Bow Down" being one of my favorites off the entire thing.

#5 - Solar Fake - "All the Things You Say"

This song was recommended to me by an algorithm and it looks like the algorithm knows my tastes. Ok, it's really just a club friendly goth song with a hint of euro-dance sprinkled in. The oddly named Solar Fake hail from Germany and as far as I can tell it's just one guy (who also has a VNV Nation cover floating around, too bad it's one of my least favorite VNV songs). "All the Things You Say" isn't that remarkable and I don't really expect anyone else to enjoy it, but it sits comfortably in that dancey EBM space that I love so much.

#4 - Moana Soundtrack - "I Am Moana (Song of the Ancients)"

I have a toddler daughter who's favorite movie is currently Disney's Moana, which means that at the Zrbo household the soundtrack gets played constantly (at least three times a day). Maybe it's just Stockholm Syndrome, but after about a thousand listenings I've grown fond of the soundtrack. While "How Far I'll Go" is the big number, I prefer "I Am Moana". It's not only the big final number, but I like how it serves as a reprise of "How Far I'll Go". Yes, it's got the big loud cathartic ending where the music swells and our hero Moana finds her determination to overcome the challenges against her, but it also has a nicely subdued beginning as we hear Moana's grandma encourage her not to give up. In fact, the part with Moana's grandma might just be my favorite part. It's a good movie and has a soundtrack full of good songs. Oh and it beats that other Disney movie with those two nordic princesses by a mile (a fathom perhaps?).

#3 - When in Rome - "The Promise"

My retro pick of the year, this is one of those songs I've known for awhle but somehow it got lodged deep in my brain this year. It's really just a catchy British new wave single, but once that drum machine kicks in after the initial piano I'm hooked.

Now that being said, you may be curious why you've never heard another song by When in Rome. Well my friend, I recommend reading the AMG Guide review of this album, it's quite the fun read. Some highlights are "a dud of an album", "embarassingly weak", and "the rest of the album is utterly forgettable". Ouch!

I also want to address the video because, well, it's not at all what I expected. Queuing it up I assumed I would see some wimpy looking British guys with big hair in outrageously dated 80s attire, like what you might find in the video for Real Life's "Send Me an Angel" or A Flock of Seagull's "I Ran". Instead there's a beefy looking almost 90s looking Eddie Vedder type and some other guy in a baseball cap who might be described as a "lad" (there's also a third guy but he barely features). And then the video itself is surprisingly cinematic. It looks like it might be from one of those 80s soundtrack videos where it cuts between the performer and the movie (think "St. Elmo's Fire"). But no, it's just this strangely cinematic video that cuts between the bandmates composing the song and a sophisticated looking woman who they're writing their promise to (Perhaps this is a Cyrano de Bergerac situation and the other two guys are composing the song for the Eddie Vedder type?) For a song from 1988 it looks like a video from 1995. It's just... strange.

#2 - Bruno Mars - "24k Magic"

Look, something that was actually popular in the year two thousand seventeen! I'm not really a Bruno Mars guy, but in what can only be the highest accolade that Mr. Mars would want to hear, the first time I heard this song on the radio I thought it was some long lost Michael Jackson track. "Maybe this was off of one of his later albums, like Blood on the Dancefloor?", I thought. Of course, once I heard some lyric about "hashtag" I knew I was wrong, but this is precisely the kind of song I could imagine the late Michael doing if he were still around as a sort of comeback song where he lends his vocals to a younger, more popular act. This song just has this fun build and release where it seems to draw inspiration from a variety of acts. The falsetto is straight from the aformentioned Jackson, parts sound similar to Grandmaster Flash's "The Message", and the build up right before the chorus reminds me of a song I can't quite put my finger on. Anyways, I like it.

#1 - Adele - "Fastlove"

What a complete reinvention of a song. I've always enjoyed George Michael's "Fastlove" but in an easy-listening throwaway-pop kind of way. Yeah yeah George, you're a lothario out on the prowl to find women to have sex with in the back of your BMW, I get it. But it's all kind of breezy and fun, right? Well, let Adele show you how it's done. She transforms the song so completely that it practically becomes a funeral dirge. Especially when she gets to that final verse ("In the absence of security...") it nearly becomes suicide inducing. I've listened to the original a hundred times, but she draws out this pathos that was always hiding just beneath the surface that I had never noticed before. Also, props to whoever put together that backing video behind her, because it just lines up perfectly (skip to 1:50 to see the performance).