Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ooh My Soul: David Essex: "Rock On"

The drums beat like someone who is announcing their presence by rattling some candy in a box.  The space of the sound is huge; it seems as if the song is intimate and large at the same time, like the song is admitting that there is a lot of space, emptiness.  The bass beckons; it lets you know that something's up, that if you're willing to listen, then here it is...

...and here is David Essex's voice, a knowing call, a stamp of approval; it almost sounds as if he is talking to the past, that near past of rock 'n' roll that by 1973 was being revived everywhere, from King's Road to Hollywood, trying to get back to the primal moment when someone in a pub or bar or basement or living room said, enough, things have got to change*.  And along came rock 'n' roll to save the kids from being younger versions of their parents, of being pod people.  All the signifiers, as the French thinkers would call them, are here - James Dean, blue suede shoes, the girl in blue jeans who is the real queen - but though he is recalling all this, he knows that there is something wrong.  It is as if he is confronting The Fog as it happens, asking "And where do we go from here?  Which is the way that's clear?" Because the simple dream of liberation that rock 'n' roll presented is now muddy, tie-dyed, and way overdue for something, but what?  Essex (who wrote this song, a Luxembourg #2) may not know in the song besides the heroic call to "rock on" but the music tells a different story.  It slinks around, horns and strings appear and disappear, the Real Thing come in to reaffirm that the girl is indeed the prettiest girl, and all at a pace that is entirely more to do with dub or even avant garde music than what bands like Slade or Wizzard were doing at the time.  Producer Jeff Wayne and Essex wanted to make something new here, a song that pauses to ask just what on earth is rock 'n' roll for and what can it do?  And as Essex exhorts us all to rock on, there he is talking to the kid - the one with the radio under the pillow, perhaps - as the song's space increases and echoes, as if to say that there is space here for you, whoever you are.  Essex sounds as though he knows that yeah, being cool is good and everything, but there is something at stake here just besides watching old James Dean movies and looking for the girl.   I see him calling out to the faithful, the ones who still don't fit in, the ones who maybe were too young to know about Beatlemania firsthand, let alone psychedelic freak-outs, and maybe those who love Glam but can sense that spangly stomping isn't going to last.  The punches of quiet rock as hard as any guitar solos ("Jimmy Dean!" he calls out, as if to invoke him, bring him back to life) - is this the beginning of trip-hop?  Of "quiet is the new loud"?  This song takes rock 'n' roll and strips it back, not back to some kind of "authentic realness" but to the sense that it belongs to those who need it, the kids.  If The Carpenters wanted to go back in time, only to find that maybe it wasn't all that great, then Essex is saying that maybe it can be great in the future, sure, but in the meantime there's a lot of work to be done - "Rock on!" being as much a call to action as anything.  Persist and something will happen, spaces will appear, as dark and scary as things are getting (and with this you can hear the dreaded quiet of The Fog approaching, almost as a physical thing). 

The emphasis on rhythm here is important too - the song comes up from the floor, there is no guitar, just a rumble, as if to say, this is the future - bass and drums, the beat, too slow to be a heartbeat but something tangible, sensual even.  (Essex was a pin-up at the time and I can't ignore this, nor that this was included in the That'll Be The Day soundtrack.)  As things get tougher, the essence of rock 'n' roll will remain, will be remade, will once again surprise and delight, nod it's head and say "Rock on" like a morse code, go UP and Down at just the right moments.  It still stands as a call, a prophecy from here; and hip-hop begins, disco begins, the rhythms and beats and breathless pauses are all in here, in a song that can still be scary, a dare, a challenge - "Rock ON!"
Next up:  what happens after you do get satisfaction.

*The recent success Richard & Adam's The Impossible Dream shows that there is still a segment of the music-buying public that maybe thinks that rock 'n' roll is okay but has had its day ("rebel rock has had its has") and now is the time to turn back to what came before.  I am not against this sort of thing if it is done well (pre-rock songs are pretty awesome, for the most part) but if it simply a recital or could be described in any way as "bonny wee" or "aw wee" and there isn't something a about it (i.e. Neil Reid) , then that's not making it new.  That's vintagizing repetition and a living death.  "Rock On" is about keeping a hold on what has been and radically jumping into something new at the same time,

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hold Her Tight: Barry Blue: "Dancin' (On A Saturday Night)"

As this blog meanders into much-dreaded thing known as The Fog, there are some small comforts along the way, and this is one of them.  The mid-70s were not such a terrible time that songs like this couldn't be hits; indeed it was because of their somewhat slapdash naivete that people got through it at all, I sense. 

Not that Barry Blue (nee Green) was naive.  He had been working in the music business for years (much as Suzi Quatro had, and yep, they're born in the same year too) and was already probably figuring out that his real metier was in songwriting and producing; but this is an utterly charming song, unpretentious, with an odd nod to, of all things, Greek music (not since "Bend It" has this blog heard anything so Greek*) and the fact that he can't really dance that well is the clincher here - this is may be pop but it is the people's pop, if I may put it that way.  This is bubblegum in the best sense - fun, innocent, his "bluejean baby" being his center, his joy, the bliss of dancing being the one thing on his Bob Stanley (hello!) noted in his essay about Blue, this wasn't even supposed to be Blue's song - it was written by him and Lynsey De Paul** for the band Mardi Gras, but Blue decided to do it himself, and thus ended up on tv wearing a blue satin jumpsuit and coming across as the nicest Glam star around.  However, as the Glam era ended, he had the good sense to move back into producing and songwriting, and I will be getting to one of his best productions in 1977, which showed that he had an ear for funk as well as bubblegum - Heatwave's immortal "Boogie Nights."

Girls wearing blue jeans, dancing, good times - here it's catchy fun, but with the next song, it sounds as if it's a matter of life and death, no more, no less.    

*Greece had a kind of hypnotic hold on the UK psyche at this time - sure, it was a relatively nice place to go for a vacation, but then so was Spain.  Perhaps Greece was more hip at the time?  Seen as more exotic in some way?  (And now that I think of it, why was the cheese shop in the Monty Python sketch playing bouzouki music in the first place?)

**He and De Paul wrote her hits "Sugar Me" and "Getting A Drag" amongst others; songs that couldn't be further from this one if they tried.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

When I Was Young: The Carpenters: "Yesterday Once More"

It doesn't happen very often, but sometimes it does:  a single edit of a song definitively is the wrong way to hear the song:  "Yesterday Once More" is perfectly okay in its gosh-how-nice-to-hear-the-old-songs-on-the-radio way, but the full effect and meaning of the song come through in the album version, from The Carpenters' Now & Then from 1973.  Sure enough, the Carpenters did this song as they themselves liked hearing old songs, but the oldies medley - "Fun, Fun, Fun," "The End Of The World," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Deadman's Curve," "Johnny Angel," "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes," "Our Day Will Come" and "One Fine Day."  With scarily accurate Tony Peluso-imitates-a-DJ segues, it is more than a little eerie, especially if you grew up in Los Angeles, as Richard and Karen Carpenter did, as I did, on and off.  When Richard writes of their delight in hearing the old songs, I can't help but feel that as Baby Boomers they were part of a massive wave that was able to sit back and look at their youth fondly; but I can't also help but notice that there were plenty of reasons to look back.  The songs here are all from the early 60s, a time of optimism and youth and opportunity - a time before responsibility, before the draft, before the living room war, before anyone was assassinated, and certainly before Nixon and Watergate and this new thing, the oil crisis.  This is music from an idealized/idealizing time (American Graffiti was one of the biggest movies in the US in '73) and that nostalgia was shared in the UK, though for different reasons.  

From what I can tell, the liberation of the 60s didn't hit the UK until the 70s, but then so did the various burdens as well.  A lot of you, dear readers, experienced these things firsthand, and as the UK drifted into The Fog, various forces of that situation have to be picked apart, which is hard - as it is such an ugly time that walking into it is kind of scary, even now.  Now- there's an interesting word - starts to suffer as The Fog approaches, and nostalgia - a preference for the past, takes a certain hold.  This song is about preferring the past to the present ("And the good times that I had/Makes today seem rather sad, so much has changed") and about how the narrator would rather sing along/cry along to old songs, relive them as closely as possible, almost turn the radio into a time machine - than deal with the present.  

Perhaps it's just my own youth, but when I remember listening to the radio - something I did an awful lot of in the late 70s/80s, I cannot say that I want to relive those times, as such.  (A lot of the songs I remember fondly either don't get played, or the full version doesn't get played, or invariably I remember the 12" single that also doesn't get played, etc.)  The idea of being nostalgic for the 70s or 80s is a lamentable one to me, seeing as how miserable most of it was - not for me personally, but on a worldwide-global-nuclear-war-any-day-now way, which filtered down into a lot of anxiety and almost not taking music on too personally.  The songs The Carpenters have are all either good-natured or kind of creepy by turn, inherently early 60s in their sense of public fun and danger, the whole Cold War thing being turned into paranoia of a thousand eyes in the night, the broken heart being the real end of the world.  In a way it suggests that in previous apocalyptic times, the radio was the refuge; the safe place, before everything went wrong - or should I say, got much much worse - sadder, really. 

Here Karen* sings of songs that were hits when she was just eleven or twelve, and her alto voice of longing wishes to bring back those times, as bad as she knows they were, as they were at least preferable to now; and as far as I can tell so did many other Baby Boomers just hitting their 20s, faced with the unpleasant fact that the go-go 60s were definitely over and this new...thing called the 70s was unfortunately here to stay, and seemed to be getting worse every time you looked around.  So why not look back?  It's easy, it's comforting, and - I can't emphasize this enough - an awful lot of other people the same age were doing the exact same thing, making it a kind of rite of passage, if you will.  This song marks that time, a time when nostalgia was not quite yet being commodified (Happy Days was just around the corner though) and the thought of anyone ever being fashionably retro in an early 70s way would have seemed absurd** to say the least.  The Fog that overtakes the UK charts starts to form here, in a time when people spent way too much time looking back - not the Glam kids, no, but those a bit older, who remembered what once was and were feeling sadder, powerless even, the snap and joy of the 60s gone, replaced by a world that seemed colder, meaner, and so on.  Nostalgia always does well in times like those; it is thanks to the squeaky-clean oddness of The Carpenters that they forgive this sentiment and also, with the long medley, show how incrementally strange and gone the past really is, never to return.

Next up:  why look back when you can dance?


*How odd is it to note that Karen Carpenter and Suzi Quatro were about the same age?

**I can appreciate the term "retromania" but that implies a kind of joyous intensity that nostalgia, which verges on a listless, vague moroseness, suits this song much better.