Thursday, January 31, 2013

High Expectations: Wings: "Hi Hi Hi/C Moon"

When I think of Paul McCartney, I tend to remember two things first:  both of them immediate and heartfelt reactions.  One was during the Oscars back in '02 when he was performing the title song of Vanilla Sky and a friend yelled at the tv set, in exasperation, "You used to be a BEATLE!"

The other reaction was from my best friend, Gemma, who was taken by her then boyfriend around 1990 to see McCartney in concert.  Her review was mixed, at best; she didn't (and still doesn't) hate the man per se, but the show went on for so very long, and it was fine when he was doing Beatles songs...but his own...

In the 70s people had the right to expect the same levels of genius from the now ex-Beatles as they did when they were still a group; that they all devolved into their constituent parts is one of those letdowns the 70s were so very, very good at.  Lennon cut his losses, as such, by just stopping altogether in 1975; no one expected much from Ringo and thus he didn't make out all that badly; and George kept going, though more and more of his attention was towards making movies, namely in helping to produce them, than trying to have hit singles.

McCartney though, on evidence, really needed to keep himself busy churning out single after single; he was, according to Dellio and Woods, "a Top Forty automaton, a three-minute warlord in an LP combat zone, a human jukebox run amok."  From what I gather in Fab by Howard Sounes, McCartney is the kind of musician who most definitely needs someone who could talk back to him, or else what he would record would be, to put it kindly, not very good.  A George Martin or Lennon to say "No."  McCartney sadly didn't have this in Wings (Denny Laine?  Linda*?  Anyone else?) and thus he would do songs like this one, a song Sounes calls, frankly, "stupid**."  I can only agree, and note that it only did well in the UK as it was banned for clearly being about drugs.  (It is here as it got to #2 on the Radio Luxembourg chart.)  McCartney had recently had a problem with the law about pot plants found on his Scottish farm; and this rockin' tune man is a "So what, I'm still Paul MF McCartney, suck it" sort of reaction that probably sounded like a good idea at the time***, but has no more impact than pushing over an outhouse while someone's in it and running away.  Our Macca, I can hear his fans say, no one tells him what to do!

That it was a hit shows how many adolescents sympathized with him, wanted to own a sh-sh banned single, and maybe how this mild nyah-nyahing was easier to absorb into pop culture than tougher songs which were sold in the wrong shops.  In McCartney's view, it was another hit, proof (sad proof, I'd say) that the public were perfectly happy with the post-Beatle letdown, or that maybe they didn't think they had that right to genius after all.  If "Hi Hi Hi" is bad, then "C Moon" is the kind of genial inanity that he does very well; a kind of reggae-ish love song that lilts and glides along, the sort of thing I imagine McCartney can do in his sleep, practically.  It was played on the BBC instead of the a-side (which was played on Luxembourg); both of these songs have, as far as I can tell, fallen into The Void, which is rare for McCartney but understandable; his big ballad "My Love" came next, followed by the crazed (and Martin-produced) "Live And Let Die."  Those were both songs I'm sure Gemma heard back in the day, and songs he likely still performs; "Hi Hi Hi" is the kind of song that quietly was shelved once the counterculture 70s were gone, and McCartney had grown up.  A little...

I will return to Wings in the fullness of time, with a song that by them that I actually like, believe it or not.   

Next up:  gossip girl.

*Is it just me or was it somehow mean for Paul to make Linda join the band?  Did he really feel so embattled by the end of The Beatles that he needed his wife to be there in the studio with him? 

**Get you ready for my polygon" is enough to make me say "Block that metaphor!"

***I know I don't need to say it, but once you're on drugs so many, many things do seem like good ideas; seem is the key word here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Let Yourself Go: David Bowie: "The Jean Genie"

Suddenly - though he has been making music for years by this point - we have stumbled across a vital figure in music; not that I would have known about him, at the time.  By now I am six years old, in kindergarten, learning the alphabet and colors and numbers, not to mention tetherball* and the restorative powers of a cup of milk, a graham cracker and a nap.  In kindergarten we had to dress up like our ancestors, so I dressed like a little Mennonite girl one day; in sober black and white, no doubt the most sober of any outfits that day.

I don't remember much in the way of music in kindergarten; indeed for this year I have a kind of vacuum where music is concerned - other than Sesame Street songs, I don't recall learning very much, though I did have a toy piano, given to me in the hopes that I would somehow take to it, but it sounded like a toy piano, not a real one, and I was much more interested in actual music, not toy music.  Thus, I am not sure how I would have reacted to hearing David Bowie; I don't remember him from the time itself, obviously, and seeing him on our little black and white tv wouldn't have given me the full spectacle of the man; a sense that the 70s had well and truly begun.

By the time I got back to Los Angeles in '77 (yes, I leave, later in '73 - I'll explain when we get there) and I was in Grade 6, I got to know a tall, dark girl called Joy who said to me that she liked David Bowie; she said this proudly, and as if to mark a difference between her and the girls who all liked Andy Gibb or Shaun Cassidy.  Bowie was for those, I inferred, who liked music first and foremost, those who wanted something of substance.  I was impressed, though at the time I didn't know much beyond his big US #1 singles and if I was told that he and Iggy Pop (who? I would have politely asked) used to hang around L.A. and helped to create, just by their presence, the punk/new wave scene of right that minute, I wouldn't have known what you were talking about.

And so we come to this song, which Bowie wrote while hanging out with Cyrinda Foxe, one of the Warhol set, and what seems so complex in reality is so simple; he wrote it to impress her.  The subject is your average American guy, inspired by his friend Iggy Pop, though not directly about him.  It is a straight-up blues rock, a la The Yardbirds, but if you'd just heard it and not seen him perform it with his band, you'd miss how Bowie was taking the ordinary and the extraordinary and mixing them up to create a new thing - a song that was rock, inspired by another rock musician, that was cool and warm and distanced and intimate somehow all at the same time.  This is the solid gold easy action that Bolan was looking for.  The man - Jean Genie (a pun on Jean Genet, not a great one but I'm sure that the kids who got the pun would have enjoyed it) is one who screams and bawls, who is simple-minded (hence, Simple Minds got their name from this song), who sounds almost more like some kind of wild animal than a person; but it was that kind of wildness that must have attracted Bowie to the US in the first place - the kind of place that could produce an Iggy Pop or Lou Reed was something to be admired, and it doesn't surprise me that Bowie has lived in the US for some time now, the energy and possibilities of New York City and thus all of the country being an inspiration for him.

This song comes from Aladdin Sane, which Bowie describes as "Ziggy goes to America"; it is hard to know how much of David Bowie's life at this time was given to being Ziggy Stardust, but no one had ever created a persona in rock and had it more or less take over his life in such a way that he had to just stop - as he did six months after now - and finish being Ziggy.  We will back get to him before this happens, but it's important to note again how with this persona Bowie somehow inspires and liberates so many kids, in the UK and the US as well, to become musicians, and his affection for Jean Genie and even pity for him - he is so powerful and yet so powerless at the same time - makes this bluesy stomp quite different from HRS or Bolan; sure if you're a kid you can pretend you're Bowie or guitar foil/mate Mick Ronson, his yang to Bowie's yin, but somehow something big has happened; I'll get to what that might be soon, with another song from Aladdin Sane.    


*From what I can tell tetherball doesn't exist in the UK, which is too bad as it is excellent for hand-eye coordination, the fun of hitting things, and it rewards those who are good at jumping/who are tall anyway.  Play it badly and you get hit in the head, so you learn to wise up pretty quickly.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Thoughts Of A King: T. Rex: "Solid Gold Easy Action"

With this, Marc Bolan enters his kingly phase; there is no other way of putting it.  I can see him on his throne, clapping and stomping and demanding that something that is "solid gold"; a demand that comes from him just not being satisfied with what else is going on. 

Now, when I say kingly I don't so much mean noble but the notion of being on top; and that is where T. Rex are at this point - top of the Glam Slam heap, all shiny silver and feather boas and glittery makeup.  By this time Born To Boogie was in the film theatres and "TRextacy" was afflicting hundreds of thousands of people, but with this frenetic stop-start song there is the plea from the new king that even this isn't enough; he isn't happy to share his "wondrous walk and my telephone dialing" with anyone, not even the "woman from the east" who "eased my pain."  He wants "easy action" (whatever that means) and he wants it now; the song is basically a kind of strolling tantrum, a refusal of what is available, of the people who are around him.  "I know you're shrewd and she's a dude" Bolan sings, but that isn't what he wants. (I'm not sure if this woman dressed like a dude is the Jane Slade were singing about, or what.  Did women think of themselves as dudes back then?)

If rock 'n' roll is about dissatisfaction, about demanding more - even if that more isn't (especially if it isn't) explainable or reachable or even possible, then this is right up there with the great two-minute anthems of wanting, yearning, protesting for more; but how odd to have Bolan sing this now, as opposed to when he started.  And in speeding his boogie up, he sounds both desperate and proto-punk; as if he knows what goes up must come down ("Life is the same and it always will be" is how the song starts, and he must know he is at his peak now*).  But rock 'n' roll is about more than being perpetually dissatisfied; it is about democracy at its heart, about how anyone can get onstage and do it, and that goes against any idea of any band or musician being kingly at all.  Thus there's no reason (in that sense) to hear this as anything other than Bolan being a whiny royal, again clapping his hands and demanding to be entertained, with wild cats on golden leashes or apes or peacocks or whatever pleasures take his fancy.  For those who identify with such a haute mien, well, this is their song.  To the stomping hordes who find their pleasures more easily - in the pub, the football grounds, or elsewhere - this is another T.Rex song that means about as much to them as Prince Charles' next polo match.  In this year of complexities and difficulties, the public starts to slowly grow disinterested in T.Rex (this is the last #2 on the 'official' chart they have) just as others who are goofier or cheerier - less demanding - come along to take their place.  1973 is a whirlwind year, a year when just stomping, wearing boas and singing about how unsatisfied you are is not going to last.  Glam is rock 'n' roll in a British sense; Bolan brought that aristocratic edge to it, but there is more to the UK than aristocracy, as we shall see. 

Next up:  he may look like that but really, he's a Mod.            

*He also mentions "picking foxes from a tree" which may be Bolan slang for something (or nothing) but in my brief experiences with foxes I have yet to see them in any trees whatsoever.  If folks were turning against T.Rex, or tiring of them, it was due to lines like this one.