Monday, December 31, 2012

The Slam Beginneth: Slade: "Gudbuy T'Jane"

And now we have reached the very end of 1972; a year in which rock 'n' roll was pronounced dead, and then was found to be more alive than ever, due to a rag-tag combination of groups which didn't have much in common but a determination to show that rock - traditional or new-fangled or some combination of the two - was being introduced to a whole new generation, ones who were mere toddlers, if that, when the Beatles and Rolling Stones were raw acts with their first singles and albums.  I feel it's important to point out that it was pre-teens/early teens who were the cause of this scene, because there is a gap about to appear - not just between what the older siblings are listening to and their younger brothers are buying singles-wise, but also between the UK and US charts.  If someone was, say, 13 at this time and this song was their first single, then they (un)wittingly found themselves part of the Slade Army* and part of something that was about to happen that was uniquely British:  the Glam Slam of 1973.  This simply didn't happen in the US (oh, there were hits here and there; "Get It On" was already a hit, and there were a couple to come, but besides the New York Dolls there wasn't much going on). 

I am going to pause now, before getting back to Slade, to try to figure out why this was the case.  It could be down to the circumstances outside of the music itself.  There were just as many Grade 9 kids bored out of their minds in the US as here, not to mention rock writers who were eager for anything raucous to come along and wake them from their singer/songwriter-prog rock stupor, but it didn't happen.  This is in part due to the almighty forces of HRS**, which raised boogie to a gold standard of achievement and looked askance at anything artificial or too gussied up as disrespecting the music, which was always the main thing.  HRS was huge at this time, and the fact that it was full of good ol' boys who were badasses (particularly from the South) meant that the rebellious side was taken care of, as well.  Grand Funk Railroad and The Edgar Winter Group were going to have #1 singles in '73, and in the wings were everyone from Ted Nugent to Aerosmith, not forgetting Kiss themselves.  For anyone who was ever embarrassed to read Patti Smith' s fannish appreciation for this stuff (going out with one of Blue Oyster Cult, praising Johnny Winter) - well, it was the main thing, the big rock deal, at the time

The opposite side of all this was the soul/r&b resurgence that Greil Marcus describes so well in Mystery Train; music about hope and despair, telling truths and reflecting the increasingly (justifiably) troubled nation's condition after the exhausting end of the 60s, as well as the shady White House and the still-ongoing war in Vietnam.  Part of the music was political, part sensual; Marvin Gaye, Sly & the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, The O'Jays; this was music to help the nation get to grips with itself, with what was happening and give it some sense of perspective.  That a lot of it you could dance to helped, of course; this time is the roots of both disco and hip hop, both styles bringing not just the funk but positive messages of unity and strength at a time when everything looked bleak. 

The UK reaction to bleakness - the economy, the oil crisis, strikes, the IRA - was to dress up and sing songs like this one.  What is it about?  I don't know.  I sometimes think it's just working-class rah-rah about saying bye-bye to a stuck-up girl who looks down on him.  That she is "painted up like a fancy young man" and wears "forties tip boots" means she's a...glam kid herself?  Is she a cross-dresser?  Whoever Jane is, "she's a queen" (hmmm...) and has gone off, a dark horse who he keeps repeating is "so young."  So maybe it's just about a young girl who is full of herself and the song is saying, well, good riddance?  That's about as much as I can figure - that Slade are full of songs about Us vs. Them (in this case, Us vs. Her) and if you're a teenager your whole life is made up of such moments, moments when someone decides (or has already decided) they are too cool for you and are going to leave, get up from that lunch table/study area/wherever and go someplace else.  This is a song of joy and relief from those left behind, the rejected, the working-class who don't need to be spat upon by those who have bespoke suits and think they're so great. 

Slade tried and tried to get somewhere in the US, only to find that...the kids wanted to love them but couldn't understand them.  They didn't dress normally and what was the lead singer saying?  Poor Noddy Holder yelled and hollered from one concert hall to the next and no one could figure him out.  The subtle movements underneath the stomp may have put the kids off as well; this was not the crushing power of Led Zeppelin as much as the fleet-footed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Which is to say that Slade were rock enough for Lester Bangs, but not enough for the kids who wanted guitar solos, drum solos, and head-walloping beats, as well as for the ladies.  Slade didn't really have any of that, and what they did have was too odd; they just right in the UK, where their rebellion and refusal to be anything but themselves was cherished, where the response to so many crises was more screeching, more ridiculous outfits, more misspellings and so on.  But that ladies component should never be ignored; an American girl of 13 is going to respond to Robert Plant or even Elton John in a way she never could to Noddy Holder, and that was that.

And so it was that the Glam Slam of 1973 began, with the US unable to understand what made the UK rock; for the next year or so I will be writing about Glam a lot, and trying to comprehend just why it was so big.  I know in part it's because it's the second part of rock 'n' roll UK style; but the insanity (going since T.Rex got to #1 with Electric Warrior) is peculiarly British, and not many in the US ever really caught the contagion, so to speak.  Maybe they were too busy mellowing out, if they weren't rockin' out, or too busy getting down to care for either of those.  In any case, in the UK things are looking up on the excitement front; suddenly there are singles worth saving up for, worth getting for Christmas, ones that are LOUD and confident and can scare any number of cares away. 

In the fallout from the 60s, people were starting to take sides; the sides would become sharper in '73, as if something had taken over the UK singles-buying populace, like a fever.  For those of you who enjoy hot chart action, I will be introducing yet another prominent chart into this mix, so that I can write about the year in as much detail as possible - the Radio Luxembourg chart #2s will be included from here on, for the next few years.  I am not exactly sure which song comes next, but the Glam Slam will continue soon, and a certain man who will actually be understood by Americans will appear sooner rather than later.          

*I have no idea if there was a Slade Army (I know there was a Kiss Army) but if there was ever a band who could muster one up, it's this one.

**Hard Rockin' Shit, which is what Slade ended up supporting across the US, logically but also kind of unfortunately. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Green Bubblegum: The Osmonds: "Crazy Horses"

As many of you who read me will know, I was far too young to be caught up in the whole fanatical David Cassidy vs. Donny Osmonds/The Osmonds imbroglio, and in coming to think of it I doubt that even if I was the right age, I would have been all that interested; neither are my type.  So I can write here with some objectivity about this rivalry, mainly that it was an ersatz Cowsills vs. the white Jackson 5 and that this is how the 60s were evolving into the 70s.  This is odd in retrospect, and produced some remarkable singles.
One of them was this song – the only hit song in a genre full of car worship to be actively against them.  The environmental movement – pardon me, the ecological movement – was still fresh at this time and it mainly looked at everything and said that it was polluted.  Visual pollution, noise pollution and a host of variants were all in the news, perhaps to distract from something else in American life?  The still-going Vietnam war, perhaps, or…something happening right there in D.C. itself?  The car – in my experience the early 70s car was a huge station wagon or a big hulking thing that used a lot of gas, took up a lot of space (I think of the car Cannon used to drive around) and was a kind of symbol of US dominance.  In our own family we had a French car, a Renault 16, which my father bought as he was tall and needed the legroom, plus it was French and that always counted for something with him.  There were compact VW beetles that were noisy and reliable and got good mileage, not to mention VW vans, but for Americans a car was a second home by now, and the roomier and sleeker, the better. 

So it is a surprise to hear these clean-cut Mormons talking about the insanity of cars, their never-ending proliferation and how many there are and how many more there will be.  This was before the oil crisis, before the gas guzzlers were traded in for the smaller cars (the Pinto being one that, um, didn’t last) – so this is actually a prescient call for a more reasonable way of getting around, if not giving up driving a car for good and using some other means of transportation.  The US was about to haplessly go into a period of confusion and recession and general breakdown the likes of which had never been contemplated; faced with such big problems, they started to take little things seriously, perhaps realizing that in fact they weren’t that little to begin with.  In the 70s the personal became the political (and after assassination after assassination and Vietnam dragging on, that attitude is understandable) and everyone can agree on the importance of clean streets*, bald eagles and ‘Turn down that music, if that’s what you call music.’  Indeed in retrospect this aspect of the 70s is the one that has had the biggest effect (outside of various liberation movements) in making the modern world the bicycle-friendly pesticide-free use-your-own bag no artificial anything paradise it is today.  (Cough.)  The horses are still out there (SUVs, for the most part) and they are still crazy, even if going at the 55mph speed limit, which in my experience is about how fast they can go without losing traction.
If anyone is reading this wants to know, I don’t drive, I don’t know how to drive (terribly glamourous I know) mainly because my spatial relations w/r/t a car/van/truck would be useless; I bump into enough pedestrians as it is and would no doubt bump into vehicles too, and seeing how other drivers drive here in London (either in a slackerly way as if it’s a Sunday or in a way that can best be described as ‘opportunistic’) doesn’t make me confident I could learn here either.  (My main spatial skill as such is map-reading; I am a born navigator, as is my mom, who never got her licence, as driving in Silverlake is…scary**.)  But I digress…
Apart from the ecological aspects, this was and is a rockin' song in the best sense; loud, weirdly noisy (that horse's neigh done by Donny Osmond himself and later sampled by Pop Will Eat Itself for their epic "Def Con One" and just plain exciting in a way that a little kid could understand.  This is rock 'n' roll just as much as any of the big Four, and by itself it fully justifies the Osmond mania of the time (complete with the band having to be smuggled in to the Top of the Pops studios to perform it).  I would love to hear Neil Young cover it. 

Next up:  what is he saying?  Steve McQueen? What?

*A lot of environmental songs from this era have other meanings in them, such as the Philadelphia All-Stars’ “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto” which about a lot more than beautifying your block by planting a garden, though it’s about that too.

**Those of you who know how hilly it can get know what I’m talking about.  Imagine being at the very top of Baxter Drive and feeling the ground give way and you can see why my mom said ‘no thank you.’  I was in the backseat at the time, of course (and this was in 1972).     

Thursday, December 20, 2012

How Dare They: 10cc: "Donna"

The whole story of music in the 70s seems - even at this early stage - to be one where people either are working within some kind of framework as to what music could be/has been and those who just blindly do whatever they think is right.  Which is to say, there are art school grads who have ideas, and there are those who know when a song has a hook and a melody and is bound to be a hit.  It is very rare to have both of those represented in one group, but 10cc were that group, and from the start they were going with/against the grain at almost all times. 

10cc were basically Hotlegs - remember them? - with Graham Gouldman, now returned from his foray into American bubblegum and ready to work with his fellow Mancunian friends to subvert what rock 'n' roll was and perhaps make way for The New.  They were named by Jonathan King (he wanted something a bit subtler than Shag, I guess) and encouraged by him to become a group, though that looked to be something the others - Kevin Godley, Lol Creme and Eric Stewart - were going to do anyway.  Hotlegs did have other singles, one of which was heard by one Neil Sedaka, who went all the way to work with them in Strawberry Studios - first on Solitaire and then on The Tra-La Days Are Over, a final album with his co-writer Howard Greenfield; thus the Brill Building came to them, so to speak.  By the time that album was out, 10cc were a going concern. (Thus, 10cc played on the original of "Love Will Keep Us Together" which would eventually be answered by another Mancunian band who also recorded in Strawberry Studios a few years hence.) 

10cc were an unpredictable bunch; not really glam, not proto-punk, certainly not, though they wore enough denim, HRS*; they get compared to Steely Dan these days, but the supercool elegance of that duo was a whole different thing altogether.  10cc were what they were, and got away with things because no one could quite figure them out.  Prog rock is where some slot them, Art rock others, but they weren't like Yes or Roxy Music, both of whom were starting to make waves at this time. I point all this out to show that excessive categorization of bands ultimately leads nowhere, as every band essentially is different, and that near-arthritic care to categorize takes all the fun out of things, after a while.

"Donna" is a song that both celebrates and subverts the old style; you can't do that without loving the old style of pop and being able to do it well - unlike, oh, Frank Zappa (whom 10cc are also compared to) there is no sense of snideness or meanness to the song.  "Donna" is a song which they did in part because they could see the 50s revival all around them and wanted to gently poke fun at it/head it off at the pass, and make it modern.  Thus the frankly ridiculous lyrics:  "You make me stand up/You make me sit down" and the usual angst about the phone.  Lol Creme is utterly straight when he is singing...just is the reply from drummer Kevin Godley, who provides a second perspective on the girl in question:  "Donna waiting by the telephone/Donna waiting for the phone to ring."  Donna waits for that phone to ring (as it does in the song) and the declarations of love are there, complete with the touching "Donna I'd stand on my head for you."

Number two hits can and do stand as correctives to the number one songs; but this song seems to stand for The New as oppposed to being The Old.  Friendly Forebears that they were, the song had to not just be accurate but good, and not just those but also successful; maybe people bought this because they thought it was like "Oh! Darling" by The Beatles (yet another group 10cc get compared to) and indeed some people mistakenly thing of this as a riff on that and nothing else.  But it's not, because this isn't some simple tribute - it's pop being used, in a sense, against itself, the 50s ballad being warped sweetly to show how silly it is, and how complex even a simple phone call can be.  In the nicest way possible, they are basically saying we cannot go back; as much as some might want to, alas.**     

10cc were to go on subverting and inventing song ideas/conventions for some time; using Strawberry Studios as their lab, they would mess around and try things out and push boundaries, both politically and sonically.  Sadly I don't get back to them here, but know that for the next few years they are always there somewhere, an active agent against dullness and mediocrity, against simple nostalgia and 'normal' perspectives.  I hear their legacy in a few bands from Manchester - Everything Everything have their inventiveness, The Smiths their sense of going against the grain.  (Hot Chip owe a lot to them too, especially in their lyrics and genial non-glam looks.)  In their original line-up they only lasted a few years, but they showed what could be done, and how ambition and playfulness can lead to some pretty amazing songs.

Next up:  automobile armageddon! 


*Hard Rockin' Shit, which was more Allman Brothers/Foghat territory.

**I wonder sometimes what the Teddy Boys thought of Glam and of this song too - did they feel as if they were being...mocked?  Or were they too busy hating people for buying a (not very good) song by Chuck Berry? (With the Teds it's actually a question as to whether they ever mentally left the 50s in the first place.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Prophet/Profit: T. Rex: "Children of the Revolution"

Without any doubt, the biggest star of '72 was Marc Bolan of T. Rex; there may be up-and-coming ones, he may have been eclipsed here by Slade, but here he is, caught up in...revolutionary ecstasy?  This is a serious bump-and-grind of a song, with an indefinite 'you' that is contrasted with an equally indefinite subject.  Just who are these children, and what revolution is going on? 

Bolan never intended his songs to just be jolly rave-ups to get pissed to; he wanted to make songs that would last, not necessarily message songs but ones that had some content to them.  Here, with purple glittery eyes, he proudly and even snarlingly states his prophecy; you can twist and shout, you can let it all hang out, but the children - well, they won't be fooled.  He seems absolutely sure of this, as if he has somehow already seen the future and knows what is going to happen.  If he is singing to his generation (the 'you') then they (and his younger fans) were upset and even offended by the line about the Rolls-Royce being good for his voice*.  He said that because he meant it; and if people were turned off by his workshy fop aestheticism, well, too bad.  In truth, it was his one obvious luxury; it wasn't a brand new custom job but one from 1960, but the kids may not have known about that, or cared.  He's showing off in a time when being a rock star meant (especially in the UK, I'd guess) that sure you had money, but you didn't talk openly in a song about your wealth or status.  Whereas in the US, that was more or less acceptable; if you came from nothing - like, oh, Elvis for instance - you had every right to sing about being able to afford nice things, to viva your Las Vegas.  But in the UK in '72, it wasn't exactly okay.  And so I think this song suffered, because T. Rex's audience wanted to be caught up in the revolutionary ecstasy too, only to find themselves tripping over a car, so to speak. 

Of course another place where Bolan's line would make sense is in hip hop; particularly the kind of self-knowing hip hop where material excess and aestheticism do battle, where achieving something good materially can indeed be good for you, but then how much bling is really needed to fill up that hole of need?  I don't sense Bolan knew that hip hop was about to start in NYC in '73; but his prophecy about the children of the revolution isn't just about the kids who all found themselves being described by Mott the Hoople in "All The Young Dudes" (particularly in Ian Hunter's totally endearing ad-lib lyrics at the end - how many kids took hope in "You in the glasses - I want you - I want you in the front**" - a lot, I'd bet). 

The children are, well, us - those kids who discovered hip-hop; the ones who didn't know a firsthand thing about the 60s, the younger and wiser ones, the ones who at the time were playing with a Spirograph and learning to tie our shoes; ones who, if their parents had participated in the revolutionary 60s, had nothing but artifacts and stories to absorb as the slogans and messages and lessons learnt were passed on.  We can't twist and shout; that time is gone, and anyone trying to bring back that time (as it will eerily be happening in the 70s) will get some attention from us, but in a different way - different because it is the hazardous and somehow incomplete 70s now, when anything of lasting value will be ignored or derided.  I know I'm making some big statements here, but at this juncture the world of MSBWT is moments away from the funhouse ride/haunted house that is 1973, and this strutting song of revolutionary fervor would give hope to us and to Bolan's loyal fans who were impatient to have a revolution of their own. 

Not that revolution is always going to happen; think of Elton John and Pete Doherty doing this at Live8 and wonder just who is actually more revolutionary, and how in order to give confidence and strength to others, you first have to have it for yourself.  That is what Bolan is doing; as much as Gen X is going to be that tough generation he's talking about, the real answer is that the children are everywhere, as long as they are genuine and willing to take up the fight. 

Next up:  It's not art rock, it's not prog rock, it's four guys from Manchester.         

*Bolan couldn't drive, so for him the car was an art object as much as anything else; I have no idea if, had he bothered to learn to drive, he would have avoided his accident just five years later.

**Not to mention the "I've wanted to do this for years" line.  I have no idea what he's talking about, but it's heartening all the same.

The Sincerest Form: Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs: "Seaside Shuffle"

The world of music is dominated by spirals; which is to say that nature's greatest design (in graphics terms, in my opinion anyway) is musical, or vice versa.  The Spiral Jetty notwithstanding, music is the art that gets the spiral motion, right down to the movement of 78s, vinyl albums/singles, cassettes, etc. 

In that same way, a song can beget other songs and so forth until the velocity of the thing has run its course...and here we have a song from the rather wet summer of '72 that is about the simple joys of heading down to the why does it sound so familiar? 

Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs was a made up name (by UK Records' Imp of the Perverse, Jonathan King) to bring a little bubblegum magic to a no-nonsense rockin' blues band called, in real life, Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts.  They had been the house band at the Studio 51 Club in London for some time, and had this song in their repertoire; on a few occasions a band called Mungo Jerry had supported them, and had no doubt heard the song.  The Thunderbolts released it as a single but it got nowhere, and what do you know, a few months later (I may be exaggerating, but these things never take that long) Mungo Jerry had a huge hit with their own shuffle, "In The Summertime."  Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts were chagrined, of course, but what could they do?  They kept playing their rockin' blues and righteously waited, getting a bit miffed again at the success of "The Pushbike Song" which was now twice removed from their own song.  And so in the summer of '72 they re-released this Jona Lewie-written song and finally had a hit, the spiral properly leading towards them for once, towards the interior where it all began.  They had another single, "On A Saturday Night" but this was their one and only real hit; one that begat others. 

In writing about this song, I've realized that Mungo Jerry's success has pushed this song into The Void; I've never heard it on the radio.  Jona Lewie has a right to be upset about that, but on the other hand, he did write "Stop The Cavalry" which is sure to be heard many times this Christmas as it was when it came out in 1980; I heard it yesterday doing the grocery shopping.  At bottom that song too is an easy shuffle with a point, this time political, but between all the "dum-a-dum-a-dum-dum"s and brassy good cheer, it can be easy to miss.  (I wonder now if people even know it's an anti-nuclear song tucked inside a Christmas song.)  Between that and his other, moodier song about being stuck in kitchens at parties (where perhaps he met Paul Young making some toast) Jona Lewie has all the time in the world to compose and record when he wants; the chagrin of 1970 has long worn off.

Next up:  how did we get to hip hop so soon?