Thursday, October 31, 2013

Root Down: Ike and Tina Turner: "Nutbush City Limits"

If the whole late 60s/early 70s vibe, in albums anyway, was the constant longing for home - to find a home, to go back home, to be confused as to where or what "home" meant anymore - well, for Tina Turner her hometown was Nutbush, Tennessee, and she has her own song here (Ike Turner wrote the music but for whatever reason let Tina have the full credits) to explain just why she isn't there anymore.  Or does she?

It wasn't known to the general public at the time, but is now very well known - that Tina was in an abusive and volatile marriage with Ike*, and during those last years (things were bad at this time, and about to get worse, with Ike's alcoholism and cocaine addiction) I have no doubt this song played a big part of her eventual self-liberation.  Because, famously (and not too long after this clip from the Cher show) she left Ike with almost nothing to her name, nothing but her Buddhist belief and a sense that she had had more than enough.  "Nutbush City Limits" is a song about roots, beginnings, what makes a person a person - in this case, growing up in a small town (it's not actually a city).  You get the idea it was a place where not much happened (it's a "quiet little community") where people went certain places on certain days ("You go to store on Friday/You go to church on Sunday") and yet the song is so funky that you just know the rest of the week is a push-and-pull between self-respecting neatness and propriety ("Twenty-five is the speed limit") and the gin house where, if you are arrested for drunkenness, you don't get bail, just salt pork and molasses.  There are clear lines in Nutbush ("You go to fields on weekdays/And have a  picnic on Labor Day") and if you are young Anna Mae Bullock then you either fit in or you don't; but as someone once said, a beginning is a place to start and how many musicians have come from places like this?  Almost all of them, I imagine (and even if they didn't, they will say they felt as if they did).  Tina sings this with pride - this is her town, her roots, something Ike cannot take away from her - and as narrow and regulated as it sounds, this is where she is from, quite literally - and while there is no way she could go back to it, it's within her.  The most significant line for me is "You have to watch what you're putting down" - i.e., if you don't conform in some way then you just have to leave, though as it happened Tina left due to family turmoil and was brought up in several different towns, Nutbush being one of them.  Maybe Tina wrote this as a reminder that she was, before she'd gotten onstage in St. Louis to sing with Ike, a person of her own, shaped by experiences and places and that that was worth remembering, in and of itself. 

That this song was done by her several times more (and was done as part of Brian Johnson's audition for AC/DC, and was covered by Bob Seger - it brings the rock and the funk**) shows how important it is to her, how maybe writing it was her first step in finding herself (if I can use 70s psychology speech) and liberating herself from Ike.  Is she still there?  I can't help but think it's a fond song, a proud one, a song about overcoming limitations and actually appreciating those limitations as solid, near-tangible things.  It's not nostalgic in any way, but a badge of toughness; if I survived there, I can survive this.  Life outside the sequin/high-heel shimmy does exist; and sure enough, she learns about Buddhist prayer and somehow makes it through.

Next up:  even doing a cover, he's all the rage. 

*Summed up for me and countless others in the movie What's Love Got To Do With It? in the "Eat the cake, bitch" scene. 

**This was a #2 Radio Luxembourg hit, and the last real hit the couple had in the US pop chart - a bigger hit in the UK, despite/because of its subject matter, I think.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Getting To Everyone: Slade: "My Friend Stan"

And now, back to the Glam Slam; and yet, this is where the toll of such a sustained effort begins to show.  They had had a tough summer - Don Powell, their drummer, had been in a very bad car accident and spent most of the summer recuperating; in order to record this song he had to be helped to his drum kit.  This led to (or perhaps encouraged) Slade's next hit to be a piano-based arched eyebrow of a song, as opposed to a roaring stomping recorded-in-an-air-hangar beast that they usually provided the UK public with (the US public, despite Slade's best intentions, never did respond to them in the same loyal way).  It is a sly song, full of innuendo, sung by Noddy Holder with his usual gruff cheer; in trying to figure out who is who here.  Stan's father making him "work all night" means he can't do "it" right (no points for knowing what that means). 

"And from the way you blacked my eye/I know that you're the reason why" is the constant phrase (used after the next verses, wherein his friend Pete is weak and his friend Jack's got an ache in his back) - but who is being addressed?  If it's a girl then why is she hitting the narrator?  And why is she fixing everyone's ties (whatever that means) and otherwise "gettin' to him"?  I know I am asking a lot from what is essentially a novelty song about sex, but the song - I can't help but feel this - also has a subtext of The Man vs. the ordinary guy, who is being worked hard, is being exhausted, even becomes sick due to what The Man demands; and hence it is a political song, or at least whenever I hear it, it becomes one.  Slade stand squarely in favor of the working class; and here Slade, I feel, are talking straight to them, signifying if you will, about what is happening and how The Man is "gettin'" to everybody, fixing them up but good...screwing them over?

Again, I don't want to make too much hay of this song - but at this point in '73 I sense a rebelliousness underneath a lot of UK life, a willingness to try something new, along with resignation and The Fog.  Slade were to bounce back from this (a #2 hit for them was a miss, at this point) with a huge hit, their last one - and while the Glam Slam era continues here, it is ever-so-slowly be replaced by something that is, at this point, yet to exist.  Stan, Jack and Pete are all linked by someone, sure, but is it a woman, or is it something more...sinister?

Next up:  them's the limits.   

The Dancing Dead: Bobby "Boris" Pickett & The Crypt Kickers: "Monster Mash"

As anyone who knows me well knows, I am not the biggest fan of anything scary or suspenseful; and I have a tough time watching horror movies, as I can suspend my disbelief only too quickly and have no real defense against anything that might occur on the screen.  I don't think I'm alone in that, but for me it's such an acute state that I can't (unless someone is with me to coach me on when I can look - and even then, it's a rare event) watch them at all.  I know for some people it's a catharsis, literally a cleansing thing, to watch these movies; but I just get itchy and jumpy and completely uncomfortable.*

Perhaps if I'd been shown old-school horror movies as a kid I would have grown up to be more comfortable with the genre; as a child Bobby Pickett got to see a lot of them for free as his dad ran a movie theater, and he was known for his spot-on imitations of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi from an early age.  This song was the ultimate fruit of his experience, and in 1962 it got to #1 in the US just as the Cuban Missile Crisis was making it feel as if there really were monsters in the world, and that the world itself was about to end at any moment.  Turning the horror into a new dance craze was the pop genius of this song; and since then it's always been around, a little bit dated but still witty, a girl group accompanies "Boris" as he tells his tale in a doleful, slightly sinister way.  (It wouldn't work if it wasn't scary in some sense - I still get a little frightened when he says "Tell them Boris sent you.")  It also works of course as no one expects figures of horror to be dancing and having a good time; if this time of year is when the dead and the living have the closest chance of contact (and it doesn't have to be frightening - Dias de los Muertos is about family togetherness, more than anything) then why not have a party in the graveyard?

That this wasn't a hit in the UK until '73 is something I'm not sure I can explain, but as I understand it, Noel Edmonds pushed it on his show and thus it became a hit (an NME #2). That the UK was suffering at this point, gearing down because of government policies and the oil crisis, is well known; for all I know this was a hit not just due to radio airplay but a sense of doom in the air, what with the IRA having now moved their bombing to London and Manchester, the three-day-week and gas rationing clearly ahead, and a strong sense that things were going to be worse in '74, not better...

...and while I can't remember when I first heard this song, it must have been on Dr. Demento's show in 1978 maybe; his show is a distillation of every strange, offensive, funny and just plain weird song that he can find, from pop hits like this one to more "outsider" type stuff like the Legendary Stardust Cowboy's "Paralyzed"** to Wild Man Fischer's "My Name Is Larry."  Anything that was too much for ordinary radio would be fine for Dr. Demento, and I got a dose of this every Sunday evening, which no doubt helped to form my musical taste.  With the belated success of "Monster Mash" the UK may have picked up - or at least some of the UK - that being odd or different or...genre-mashing was one way to get through this time, that the normalcy and optimism of even two years before was gone, and that now was the time for subversion, for arch imitations, for fun. Not fun in the Glam Slam sense but fun that could lead to something, a way out of The Fog, even.   But that's for the future; for now Halloween approacheth, the ghouls and goblins dance, the souls of the departed touch down briefly to remind the living that they too once had fun and got through hard times.  Time to rattle some chains and rebel...          

Next up:  it's a political song, because I say so.

*This said, I did manage to watch all of an early 90s Japanese anime movie once (Urotsukidoji) that was a total psycho-sexual freakout of epic proportions and got all the way through it, knowing what the basis of it was.  (It's completely unsuitable for children, and most adults for that matter.) (I should also note that Don't Look Now came out around this time, and I did manage to get through that, thanks to seeing it on commercial tv.  The Wicker Man also came out and even though I know how it ends, I can't watch it - the songs creep me out, quite frankly.)

**As featured on the closest thing to Dr. Demento in the UK, Kenny Everett's World's Worst Record Show compilation, alongside the immortal The Trashmen and many others. (This is completely unsuitable to anyone who doesn't understand the glory of music.)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

No There There: The Sweet: "The Ballroom Blitz"

There is a point to all the recent questions of direction and what on earth is going on that have appeared here; amid all the impending eerie conditions, all hell is breaking loose and yes, even - especially even - in Glam can this be felt.  It's not quite what the song does (it rocks, obviously, with one of the best introductions ever, the beat solid and danceable, Brian Connolly asking everyone if they are ready - of course they are) as how it does it that makes this a Friendly Forebear of a single, a song that is about a Sweet gig which turned chaotic (in Kilmarnock, where they were bottled off the stage), what with deadly winking girls, men with red eyes (so much of this song is about seeing and looking) - the whole thing is a passionate hoedown of a song, pausing and jumping and swinging... 

That it has two sides isn't something I realized until now; the loud, camp "OOHHH YEAAAHHH" exclamations and "she thinks SHE's the passionate one" side, and the quieter one.  The loud side is the addictive one, the vamping up of basic rock 'n' roll, but the quiet side has been hard for me to hear - or I should say, understand, until now*.  This is a rave up, sure, but what to make of lines like "It's been getting so hard living with the things you do to me" or "Reaching out for something - touching nothing's all I ever do"?  Or the last Connolly near-mumbled line, "I softly call you over - when you appear there's nothing left of you." With these lyrics The Sweet (or rather Chinn/Chapman) are jumping right into the nothingness, only to find that there's no safety net and that something - more scarily, someone - is disappearing.  The Sweet know darn well The Fog is coming, they've reached out to find...nothing and something is breaking down, beyond just a bad show in Scotland.  There is no gloom or terror in this song; just an acknowledgement that things are getting bad - you have to listen close to hear how bad, though.   The Glam Slam era isn't quite over yet, but there is a sense here that while The Sweet are trying their best to make the best of a bad situation, that bad situation is going to remain and stagnate, the whoo-hoo good times becoming harder to find. 

And how important is this, that it is about the audience?  The relationship of those onstage and those in the audience is always a fraught one, at the best of times - and in the combative 70s the audience, I sense, wants a different relationship to those onstage.  The gig this song talks about sounds like a punk one, where there is little sense of division between the band and the audience - only this isn't the punk era, and that ethos of doing something just to break the tedium/cause a scene is not that common.  (Or was it?  I have no idea if this kind of thing was regular back then, to be distilled into the punk attitude, which was yet to happen.)  The Sweet get the last word here, which makes up for their misery, but in the future one of the key songs out of punk will be about being in an audience and not really knowing why you are there, and sensing that in the greater scheme of things, there's no "roots rock rebellion" happening anywhere - that The Clash are reaching for that rebellion and also grasping nothing shows that The Sweet, though not as political, obviously, are describing something that is happening and will continue throughout The Fog - a strong sense that what is really important isn't heard or seen, that entertainment in and of itself is going to have to change.  And it's not going to happen in the wink of an eye....

Next up: Trick or Treat?

*The mumbling coming from Elvis, as Connolly sings these lines in a kind of half-suggestive way, though once you find out what he's saying, you've got to wonder about what he's suggesting.