Thursday, September 17, 2015

A New Hope: Sparks: "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us"

And now we have, for all intents and purposes, the last (and in a way, first) great song of the Glam Slam era; I say last as outside of a couple of hits by Mud and Sweet that era is nearly done at MSBWT, and first as while all of these bands are - or aren't - going to continue, Sparks are just getting started.  To say there's no one really like them is an understatement; only this year has another band (Franz Ferdinand) been able to join them onstage as equals, and indeed record an entire album with them as FFS.

And wouldn't it be a couple of Americans - Ron and Russell Mael - who would be able to storm the charts (and, infamously, Top Of The Pops) and show up the scene as being over?  Not that I think this is a confrontational song in that way.  After all, it starts quietly, with that high nervous tinkle of piano and Russell Mael singing about, of all things, "zoo time" (yes, it's a romantic triangle that starts in a zoo - all those musky smells!) being "she and you time" and the song seems to come into focus as he mentions the "stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers" that then JUMP out into the song and are, as the guitars and drums come in, all but rampaging around, the gunshot like a trigger for their rebellion.  And our narrator is brave enough (though nervous, heartbeat increasing) to stay around....

...but this is no song of macho heroism, as that first nervous tinkle propels the song, pausing for breath at times (this always sounds like a song climbing and climbing, trying to avoid vertigo) and appropriately, the next verse sees our triangle in the air, she a stewardess and he is a bombardier and it's Hiroshima they are nearing - but still, the narrator won't leave.  All this on a domestic flight?  This is romantic anxiety that is blowing everything up, making it bigger than life, but it's not exaggeration if you're experiencing it.  And then it descends to a cafe, where he meets her each day, and the rival sees "twenty cannibals" there eating him - they've got to eat too, after all! - and suddenly the idea of Glam seems to fade, right here in front of us.  This is not good-time music per se, nor is it about romantic languor (HA) or some kind of dystopian world where the kids will be feral but all right (Bowie)*. 

This is sweaty palms, shallow breathing, sure, but also determination.  The narrator won't give in no matter how dangerous things are, and scenario after scenario is conjured up and defied.  The rival takes a shower ("you've got to look your best for her and be clean everywhere" - that's just not Glam lyricism, there) and in the rainy foreign town "the bullets" can't hit him - because he's too clean, too sleek?  And then the last scene, where a census (?!) shows there will be more girls in town, but still not enough - and the derring-do nerves come back once more, leaping up and down - "this town AIN'T big enough not BIG ENOUgh for the Both OF US" - and ends on a high ascending "I ain't gonna LEEAVE" and stops abruptly, so the audience can get used to what they've just heard. 

The narrator has more than made his case, if only in his own mind.  No wild animals, nuclear explosions, gunfights on deserted streets by cafes, no, nothing is going to stop our high-voiced narrator from getting the girl and defeating his rival.  Guitars wail, pianos pound (one Ron Mael stares into the camera and doesn't blink and this just adds to the steely determination of the song) and drums beat time that is Anglophile but somehow not - more fleet of foot, less teathered to "the blues" - Sparks are just different and I've seen them compared to Queen (um, NO) and 10cc (a bit closer, but still, no).  ("Amateur Hour" was their next hit, and is funny and sexy and yes, the girls did scream...) 

This is instinctive music, dramatic, playful - you get the idea that no genre of music is off limits to Sparks, no lyrical idea too weird.  (This song seems to come out of a musical, for instance.)  This song marks the real start, I feel, towards not punk so much as post-punk**; a kind of follow-your-own-path sense that prizes skill, sure, but also awkwardness, singularity, experimental-mindedness.  Compare this to the Glam-by-numbers of "Sugar Baby Love" and you can see how this song's increasing heartbeats are somehow truer to life than the 50s throwback at the top; it's more alive, it's rock music without being beholden to "rock" - it is the leap forward, forward to Glasgow, to London, to Dundee, to anywhere that longs for something new.  Just as The Beatles brought American music back to America, Sparks have brought British music back to the British; a big claim, but a valid one, I feel...

Next up:  There, and yet not.

*In case you were wondering, I was supposed to write about ChangesBowie over at Then Play Long, but the prospect of doing so gave me a literal headache.   

** Siouxie and the Banshees covered this on their Through The Looking Glass album in '87, which is when I first heard the song; Sparks have always been more popular in the UK than in their native land - and while she tries her best, she's too serious. This is a tough song to sing though, and she does get through it very well.                 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dedicated: Wizzard: "Rock 'n' Roll Winter (Looney's Tune)"

If there is one thing that I sometimes think music writers tend to discount a bit, it's sentiment.  Sentiment is all over music; strong feelings can be the cause of music (and its cure - having a passion can be exhausting too) to find out that a song is for a certain person can make the song more poignant, but I do wonder sometimes what the Other in this case feels.  What is it like to have a song about you be a huge hit?  Is it still for you, or it is suddenly for everyone else who needs it as well?  I guess it depends upon the individual and the song, too*.

This song must have sounded like a big hug at the time, a hug given to Roy Wood's girlfriend of the time, the late Lynsey de Paul.  In their dare-I-say-it-legendary performance on TOTP (the only time a vacuum cleaner has been played like a cello), Roy Wood looks utterly calm and also in love; with his mass of multicolored hair and multicolored face, he appears to be trying his best to hide, to put on a mask, but love cannot be hidden.  The song is addressed to De Paul (who is crying), perhaps because she now has the notorious Don Arden as her manager; who knows.  But this song is huge, complex, rock 'n' roll taken up to some new degree - as big as their previous hit

There is something a little intimidating to have all this dedicated to you, I would guess, but the sheer riches on offer (Wood played almost all parts himself) in the wintertime...well it is like Christmas all over again, in part.  The Glam Slam isn't just about flash and trash; it's also about cheer and joy and merriment as well, which in 1974 was otherwise in short supply.  "If your most important things don't go your way" he says to her, then just ignore it, as his "teenage heart" is in love with her, and her music sustains him through the ice and snow; so this song is not just about their relationship but also about the ability of music - their music, all music - to sustain them.  He could dedicate any song to her, he says; though exhausted, too tired to speak, the music does the talking for him.  And so the song gallops through its chorus, then comes up to the end, stopping as a friendly horse would at the door. 

I don't know if de Paul loved this song, or even how long she was with Roy Wood; but I can say that this song (late in being released as, well, Wood wanted it to be just so) could easily be addressed to the general audience as well.  Yes, we know 1974 started badly, even the spring can feel cold, dreadful times are upon us - but the eternal promise of rock 'n' roll is going to keep things afloat.  At this time Wood wasn't really part of ELO anymore**, but Wizzard were still a parallel to them; I would rather listen to this than ELO's concurrent hit "Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle" at any time. 

This song, however, is utterly normal compared to the next one...

Next up:  They came from Los Angeles.   

*It's called "Looney's Tune" as that was de Paul's nickname, given to her by Spike Milligan; it was #2 on the Radio Luxembourg chart.  It was kept off the top by "Waterloo," which is clearly a Wizzard-inspired song. 

**That said I can't help but think he had a hand in Out of the Blue.


Friday, June 26, 2015

It Just Wouldn’t Go Away: Mud: “The Cat Crept In”

It can be a bit disturbing, listening to the BBC sometimes; as the writer of this blog especially I can wonder just what is going on.

By this I mean that while I have written about nothing but popular songs, some have fallen into The Void.  That’s to be expected; some of them are what I can say are “of their time.”  But can a whole genre date? 
The Glam Slam era can seem like a mirage by current radio standards.  Apart from a few “curated”* artists such as Roxy Music, David Bowie and T. Rex, the actual Glam Slam era gets an exceedingly short shrift on the radio.  There are reasons for this, of course.

I think there is a nostalgia problem; maybe that’s the wrong word.  “False memory syndrome” seems more apt.  A certain version of the70s is being pushed on these stations (I mean 6 Music and Radio 2 in particular) – a version that comforts and flatters.  It is not fully reflective of the decade – anything that is deemed too much in one way or another has been edited out.  It ends up being a lot like the older (and presumably) cooler older brother/sister throwing out all the singles and albums that made the 70s fun and grimly insisting that unless you listen to Philadelphia International and The Eagles/ABBA/Blondie (R2 version) or Kraftwerk/The Clash/Led Zeppelin (6 Music) you are hopelessly naff and probably suspect, in some way.  Radio 2 in particular will seemingly play any old song, however awful (“Howzat” by Sherbet and “Little Does She Know” by the Kursaal Flyers stand out here) rather than play anything by Wizzard, Suzi Quatro, Slade, Sweet, the hapless Glitter Band or Mud. **

Now, before I get to this hit I have to mention – as I am pretty sure I have before – that there are two kinds of nostalgia.  One is personal and specific and can be hard to translate into words at times, relying as it does on touch, smell, sight and taste; that one moment where I was so bowled over by a painting that I actually got a stomach ache and had to lie down, for instance.  (This was just a modest version of something that would happen to me two decades later.)  I can show you the painting, I can tell you about the expensive fruit salad my father reluctantly ordered for me later, but my intense reaction is my own.  (If you live in Cleveland, it was at your art museum; I don’t know if there’s a huge Monet still hanging there – a water lilies one I think –  but look at it, lie down, and then go have some fruit salad.  You are entitled to swear.  I hadn’t learned how to swear yet at the time.)  

The other is a generalized nostalgia which Douglas Coupland calls “legislated” and it can be unnerving to witness.  You are asked to remember things you don’t recall, celebrate things that don’t belong to you, to join in at all times with what the mass is supposed to feel, supposed to think, and if you don’t then you are odd, different, not one of “us.”  This stretches (in the UK) from the perpetual  remembrances of WWII***  (as I write a Glenn Miller compilation is in the Top 40 album chart and when was the last time he was so popular? – oh yes, 1976) to the aforementioned edit of the 70s on the radio to any time you see a “we” or “us” in a headline or in the speech of someone who isn’t an editor or the Queen.   The BBC in short is eager to get its listeners to become a hivemind (Glastonbury!  John Peel worship!  Vinyl vinyl vinyl!) and the existence of this and other blogs where music is looked at with care and consideration is seen as being funny or weird.  They jar against the received wisdom that only one version – theirs – of the past really exists.    

But to the song!****  This is old school rock 'n' roll - all about a bad girl, don't you know -"She ain't superstitious but she's hanging on to life number nine/Well, you may not show it but she hides in the light/And she may not show it but this cat can bite" - yes, another sexy dame mapped out by Chinn and Chapman, and who doesn't like a little played-behind-my-head guitar?  Mud did so well because they were fun, energetic, didn't take themselves too seriously - all the things that now mean that the radio barely play them - or any of the Glam Slam folks - unless it's Christmas (itself the most Glam of holidays).  Certainly this is an oppositional number two behind "Seasons In The Sun" and a lot cheerier, to say the least, than another song in the Top Ten at the time - the near embodiment of The Fog, Hot Chocolate's "Emma."

As shunned as Mud are these days, the vibe of the song wasn't lost completely - the seeds of a future, ground-breaking MSBWT song are here - Adam And The Ants' "Antmusic."  And once that song's life on the radio was more or less over, along came Rob Davis of Mud to write and play on Rachel Stevens' hit "I Said Never Again" - there are references to this hit and "Antmusic" in there, and just like the Glam Slam folks, does La Stevens (or Spice Girls, Sugababes, Girls Aloud, All Saints) get much airplay these days?  It is as if there is an embargo on all this fun and girly music (dare I say also working class music as well).  Hmm.  The cat keeps coming back, no matter what The Man tries to do.

Next up:  the Glam Slam continues!    

* I have to roll my eyes when I hear this; as someone who grew up being led around by my parents in any number of galleries, museums, etc. I have known what “to curate” means for a long time.  And it has nothing to do with music.  I roll my eyes a lot these days.  

**The Bay City Rollers are also a victim here – they weren’t part of the Glam Slam itself but became popular at the same time, and their Tartan Edinburgh sweetness was their big plus and minus.  They aren’t played on these stations and one broadcaster I can think of in particular, who only plays 70s music, refuses to play them.  He’d rather play The Sex Pistols, who were only based in part on The Rollers.  Rockism, in other words, lives.

***The never-ending reruns of Dad’s Army on television and radio point to something very disturbing in the British psyche.

****Not to be confused with the classic NFB animated short "The Cat Came Back."