Thursday, December 22, 2011

Boy Toy: The Foundations: "Build Me Up Buttercup"

And so we come to the end of 1968; it may have been a year for worldwide revolution, but for this blog it clearly has been a year of relationships, whether they are viewed nostalgically as with O’Connor or tormentingly, like Ryan. This song sits about halfway between those two extremes, in that the man clearly loves the woman but is disappointed by her actions, or rather inactions. He loves her but those inactions speak volumes about her attitude, which is decidedly blasĂ©. There doesn’t seem to be much reason for him to still be attracted to her, and he himself questions why he needs her; he doesn’t understand himself, nor does he understand her, save that she thinks of him as a "toy." Perhaps it is because he is so desperate that she stands him up, forgets to call, and “mess(es) him around.” His aching “ooo-OOOH”s are as much about his pain as physical longing, and I don’t know if it is perverse of me to guess that maybe he secretly likes being in love with someone so unpredictable; someone who is very much like the butterfly girl in “Jesamine” who irritates and is yet still inherently lovable.

The song is upbeat, led by piano and horns, a radio staple to this day** as it is cheery, even though it depicts a man at the end of his proverbial rope, the singer almost screaming “WHY” at each chorus, maybe to her, maybe rhetorically as he stares at the clock*, runs to the door, looks imploringly at the phone...wondering about his fate and telling her how much he loves her.

He believes one day he will win her over, but I don’t know if this one-sided relationship has much of a chance; no matter how many “hey hey hey”s and no matter how loud he gets, this woman’s inability to commit, even to something as simple as a phone call, must mean there is either something about her he doesn’t know (not that he has any suspicions in the song) or that maybe, as the saying goes, she just isn’t that into him and he, poor sap, is trying to get pears from an oak tree. (I am not ignoring the obvious implications about her building up his expectations either; those yelps of his are from thwarted desire, and in between this and him not even knowing why he’s attracted to her, something awkward and unpleasant might just happen.)

The Foundations’ previous hit points to a sort of theme here of hapless pointless attachment (“Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”) and this need to be with someone – even if it’s not reciprocated – kind of hints at what is to come. If the Summer of Love was all about love as a universal solvent, then in ’68 love came back down to the dogged and irrational personal perspective, wherein men have feelings for women that don’t necessarily make a lot of sense, but they are true and genuine and that – that realness – is what counts. 1969 is going to take that realness all over the place, as the decade ends and everyone has their final say on what counts.

*Sloan do an excellent song on the bonus EP of One Chord To Another called “Stood Up,” all about a guy who is left in a cafĂ©, watching the clock…

**If I sound a little...arms-length about this song, it's because I associate it with a compilation I heard way too much in a situation that I didn't exactly enjoy. As much as I try to be fair to songs, some have been drummed into me in a way that doesn't make me think of them with automatic enthusiasm. I should note that it was written by Mike d'Abo (lead singer with Manfred Mann) and Tony Macaulay, who helped to write "Baby, Now That I've Found You." I should also note that The Foundations were the first multi-racial group to hit it big in the UK, at a time when (inexplicable to me) The Black and White Minstrel Show was still on tv. The struggle was still definitely continuing...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How We Used To Live: Des O'Connor: "One Two Three O'Leary"

And now we return to the NME number twos for a song that was written by Barry Mason and Michael Carr, and performed by all-round entertainer (comedian, singer, tv chat show host) Des O'Connor. That something so utterly and completely sedate could jostle its way to the top amongst The Scaffold, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Love Sculpture just shows how fragmented the pop audience was, and how well a song like this could do.

It is a quiet song, a song about innocence and first love, harpsichord-led and gently going down memory lane, and it has nothing to do with liberation or freedom and everything to do with recalling a different time; a time when they were both young but also when the "wildwood" was theirs and everything seemed magical*.

To some this might seem a bit soppy, and O'Connor himself didn't think much of his singing, but pure, 100% proof nostalgia like this always does well in the holiday season, when thoughts turn to loved ones, and Mary here clearly is loved, even if it is so long ago that the narrator (if pressed - he isn't, here) doesn't know where she is now. Now is just a vantage point to then, and then is what is fixed in the narrator's mind. This song could appeal to anyone, I guess, but it is the generation just before the Housewives of Valium Court that it hits directly - those who remember life before & during WWII, those who suffered through it and take refuge in utterly peaceful and genteel music and find most rock too ugly and loud. (The harpsichord is what makes this a 'modern' sounding song, as baroque meets old guard pop.) As songs about love from this year go, this is thankfully free of death; an oasis of calm, even if it is a cul-de-sac.

From the rock vantage point O'Connor seems out of place; however, I should mention a much more 'hip' song that O'Connor did that he himself could stand: "Dick-A-Dum-Dum" is total London silliness as interpreted by Jim Dale, but shows more signs of life from O'Connor because of its humor. (And yes, whenever I hear 'the Buckingham beat' I think of Fleetwood Mac. I'm predictable that way.)

As '68 closes, we have more girl trouble ahead; beyond that, 1969 looms, the final year, as the 60s turns to look at itself.

*The game played in question is fully described here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Flesh Succeeds: Nina Simone: "Ain't Got No/I Got Life/Do What You Gotta Do"

After great grief, there has to be a stock-taking; a simple assertion of what and who you are. It is a painful thing to realize that you don't have things, that what you once had is gone; you have to rejoice in what you do have and make the most of it, while you can.

Nina Simone's recording of this song* came just a month or so after Dr. King's assassination, a time of anger, a time when a purpose that seemed unstoppable had to be buoyed up and sustained. Simone was no stranger to covering songs from musicals and besides the gospel-style music I am guessing she picked this one (actually a medley of two songs from the first act of HAIR) as it directly addresses the loss everyone was feeling...that they had nothing left - nothing external, not even a name. The eternal value of the person and his/her right - freedom - that was all that was left. It is like hearing a birth in reverse; everything, even the mother, is absent. Life is the main thing; it is the only thing. That no one can take away, though as the story in HAIR runs, even that is a debatable point...

But Simone's voice, astringent and fierce, makes it sound as if life is at the same time a base line from which to start and something that is hers, as if she had in fact created herself. The burden of not having anything becomes a blessing of a clean slate, again rejoicing in the physical body (HAIR is a very physical show, from its title on down) and the life all of these parts lead together to make up a human being (not unlike this song, which is also one of liberation). The body as a weapon; the body as an ultimate assertion of something that cannot be lost, unless there is death...and this is a song, ultimately, of life over death, of life over the "measly little world" (cf. Hendrix) that would tie it down. It is also an angry though - as if all these losses were unnecessary in the first place, robbings that have left the person with nothing more than themselves.

"Do What You Gotta Do" is a Jimmy Webb song, which is to say it's about freedom and love and how they clash. It is another song as well about how she knows she's hard to love and her heart is her own; this is self-possession on another level. If he has to be free, well, that seems inevitable; 'they' are against him and she loves him more than they ever will. Instead of being deadly fierce here Simone trembles and admits vulnerability, not as a virtue in and of itself but as a symbol, paradoxically, of strength; she is strong enough to love and let go and may never get to see him again...because there is something bigger out there that he has to do - follow his "dappled dreams" that she understands, even if no one else does.

In the first song, she asserts her freedom; in the second, she honors the freedom and needs of someone else. As the 60s come to a close, it seems freedom is the ultimate right and the ultimate gift; but there is another side to them, that wants a sense of belonging and attachment, a side that is less HAIRand more Grease. In the swirling and confusing late 60s, some basic truths have to will out first, and the toughness and quiet sorrow and acceptance here are and were the best ways for riding out a difficult period.

Simone strode in, better equipped than most to handle the situation; and Alan "Fluff" Freeman's support of this is how it got, improbably, into the UK chart in the first place**. Next we go back to the old guard, for a song about love and loss...

*The version I've posted isn't the single one that has applause from the April 7th concert mixed in, presumably to make it 'flow' as a total album ('Nuff Said!) I can only wonder if, years later, a certain producer remembered this and did his own live-to-studio tinkering for this classic (for all I know it was influenced by her; Elton certainly respected her, as anyone would).

**I am still puzzled as to how this, also a cover of a song from HAIR, only got to #11; I guess it was just the times. I still find it overwhelmingly moving...more evidence, I'm guessing, of my American childhood.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Kind of Seizure: Barry Ryan: "Eloise"

We have had songs before where, clearly, a line was being drawn between the present and the past; songs which, once they get out into the general world of pop, charts and listeners' ears, prepare them for what is to come, and inspire a few to follow...this is one of those songs; it's a dangerous song, as well.

Songs like this usually come from bands that are already fairly well known (The Beatles did it several times) or from the most unexpected of corners, those who are brand new or are determined, to quote Ezra Pound, to make it new.

Avant-MOR, a term I've used enough, is simply taking regular middle-of-the-road balladry down a strange lane or two, until something like "MacArthur Park" or "Montague Terrace (In Blue)" - songs that take lyrical and emotional flight, whether they are anguished or secure. This takes guts - in a way it is too easy to just sing the same songs, essentially, over and over again - and the skill to pull it off. There is no halfway point here, no way to just say 'let's just be a little avant-garde' - this is unvarnished stuff emotionally despite the high production values.

Twins Paul and Barry Ryan were popstar pin-up types in the mid-60s; Paul suffered too much stress performing live, though, so the two decided that Paul would write the songs and Barry would sing them; in this way there is already a doubling effect, as if two men had one voice. Paul had heard and absorbed "MacArthur Park" and wanted to do something like it; not a neat song that would be something a mailman would hum, but a proper EPIC song that would unashamedly give voice to something far bigger and uncontrollable, that would gallop along, at first dramatically, then pause as if to recall reality, if only for a second or two, and then speed into a maelstrom that makes much of UK music in '68 sound as if it is asleep.

Which is to say, this is not baroque at all but romantic, the kind of romanticism where emotions are high-pitched to the point of hysteria; wild, as if she has loved him and spurned him but he will not give up, he cannot give up as he has no other point in living.

This is a dangerous song. I'll explain what I mean: we've had Cupid before, and The Casuals had that experience too, if a bit stronger, but I must go back to Joseph Campbell to explain the difference between those and "Eloise":

“The troubadours were the nobility of Provence and then later other parts of France and Europe. In Germany they’re known as the Minnesingers, the singers of love. Minne is the medieval German word for love. The period for the troubadours is the 12th century. The troubadours were very much interested in the psychology of love. And they’re the first ones in the West who really thought of love the way we do now — as a person-to-person relationship.

Before that, love was simply Eros, the god who excites you to sexual desire. This is not the experience of falling in love the way the troubadours understood it. Eros is much more impersonal than falling in love. You see, people didn’t know about Amor. Amor is something personal that the troubadours recognized.

The troubadours recognized Amor as the highest spiritual experience. With Amor we have a purely personal ideal. The kind of seizure that comes from the meeting of the eyes, as they say in the troubadour tradition, is a person-to-person experience. That’s completely contrary to everything the Church stood for (in medieval Europe).

You know, the usual marriage in traditional cultures was arranged for by the families. It wasn’t a person-to-person decision at all. In the Middle Ages, that was the kind of (impersonal) marriage that was sanctified by the Church. And so the troubadour idea of real person-to-person Amor was very dangerous.”

Or, as Bill Moyers summed it up: "The point of all these pioneers in love is that they decided to be the author and means of their own self-fulfillment, that the realization of love is to be nature’s noblest work, and that they were going to take their wisdom from their own experience and not from dogma, politics, or any current concepts of social good.”

Even if Barry Ryan didn't know it, Paul had written a troubadour's song for him, a song of obsession, which didn't care for taste, politeness or anything modest. People think of courtly love as being stuffy and formal, but once the true origins of it are recalled and understood, the whole notion of The Summer of Love as revolutionary begins to make sense. Love goes against everything here, including common sense and even sanity (at the end when he sings about not being "there" I am not sure if he means not with her or not in her heart). Ryan sings like there's pretty much no tomorrow, attacking the song and freaking out at the end, passionate and fierce, the go-faster guitars and AAAAHHHHs of the backing singers forever egging him on.

Because it was now nearly 1969 and with that finality ahead, there was nothing to lose. Revolution wasn't just in the air, it was the air; the cute, the maudlin, the merely okay were not enough now. Not when songs like this and this* were in the top ten at the same time; not when Hendrix was singing about a coming apocalypse.

"Eloise" was a huge hit not just in the UK but all across Europe, in part because it was so unhinged ("Kitsch" was a later hit for Ryan, it being "a beautiful word"), and its follow-up, "Love Is Love" goes beyond even this lyrically to sum up love so totally that it's almost embarrassing. But that was the point; to go beyond what had come before, and belatedly to inspire those to come. Years later a certain band, wanting to do something big and memorable themselves, would be inspired by "Eloise" to write their own EPIC tune that would not just stomp all over their rivals but become one of the best-loved UK songs of all time; which is how Queen got to "Bohemian Rhapsody," itself a song that drew a line neatly between old and new rock, not to mention deliberate kitsch. The only way in which it differs is that the narrator there claims that nothing really "matters" to him, whereas the narrator in "Eloise" is so utterly focused that nothing besides her matters to him.

The drama of this song cannot be ignored; the sense that something out of the ordinary is happening, the sense that in hearing it you are participating, sharing his desperate need. Certainly a couple of boys in Dundee heard and absorbed it, coming up with their own 'popera' years later, with songs such as this. Here, as with "Eloise" I can only feel awe: this is what music is, what it is capable of, something beautiful and fearless and intense. Music that comes from somewhere else.

In a way there is nothing after this, though as '68 comes to a close there are a few more songs, pointers this way and that. But with this the Ryans abruptly took UK pop into a different world, a world that others would and did find inspiring, and I thank them for that.

*The Motown resurgence was due to Tony Blackburn on Radio 1 and the saintly Dave Godin, who were determined to get as much Motown in the charts as possible.

Love's In Control: The Casuals: "Jesamine"

As common as they seem now, musicians have been going on tv to compete against each other for promising stardom and riches for some time; The Casuals won Opportunity Knocks three times in 1965 and got a recording contract, but the public enthusiasm for them, as it does for so many in these situations, did not translate into an instant hit for their first single. Sure, people liked them, but not the song. And so they moved to Italy and had a career there doing Italian covers of English-language hits (they did The Bee Gees' "Massachusetts" for example). Then they changed their label from Fontana to Decca and got this hit, a cover of a song by The Bystanders written by Friendly Forbear* Marty Wilde and Ronnie Scott, the Bystanders' manager.

It sounds as if it was written and performed almost anonymously; there were no stars in this hard-working band, and it sounds very much as if the old-fashioned beat of the 50s is combined with the "butterfly child" 60s vibe of a man in love with a girl who is life and death to him, who "makes his life a dream" but doesn't seem to know what effect she has on him. It is a wistful song with a sense that beauty like this is ephemeral and a hesitancy to do anything lest she fly away, forever. The music circles around this dilemma elegantly, the music itself slowly settling and then soaring, aching to break free but not really able to; not yet, anyway. The awfulness of how he is "not really living" without her is balanced by his adoration of her, her opening his eyes being her real gift, again one she may not know she is giving.

If the previous song had the feeling of "Gee, this what falling in love is like - gosh, I'd better get used to it" then this is much closer to the near narcotic state it can have, wiping the mind clean of anything but the Other, making the rest of the world seem irrelevant and the lover can find nothing and be nothing without the beloved. Again, this might seem extreme, but the songwriters - even if published this under psedonyms - are right to emphasize the Romantic here, which The Summer of Love tried to make universal. This presents a truer sense of what nobility and vulnerability there is in love (especially, as here, one-sided & maybe even unrequited love); the next song will go far beyond this, and far beyond anything I've written about so far in terms of love's intensity and all the desperation those arrows can cause.

This song, by the way, like Leapy Lee's was The Casuals' only real hit; not to get too meta here, but it is as if Love itself was propelling these artists into the charts, to right a certain wrong. With this next song, it certainly sounds as if Love has got the reins.

*The name I use to describe anyone who has anything to do with New Pop before it actually starts; in this case, Wilde is Kim Wilde's father, so he is a literal forbear!

This Won't Hurt A Bit: Leapy Lee: "Little Arrows"

The experience of falling in love is, to say the least, an interesting one. It is swoony, it is perpetual, it puzzlingly either seems to grow over months or happens seemingly within seconds (or even weirder, both of these occur). To those of you who have yet to fall in love, all I can say is you certainly will know when it happens - it is an overwhelming experience and an understandably confusing one, because the world is being newly refreshed all around you, and this renewal is constant and suddenly the Other is magically everywhere.

After so many songs of death, sacrifice and sorrow this song is a very welcome reminder that, even in the chaos of '68, Cupid is still hard at work, his arrows scattering everywhere. Here these arrows are as common as the twirling maple seeds in Toronto, getting into hair and clothes; not even armour can stop them, so powerful are they.

While Leapy Lee is not exactly the first name you think of when the word "punctum" comes to mind, the piercing quality of those arrows cannot be denied. Falling in love makes you wake up; it makes you vulnerable; and to a certain extent, you have to be ready for love in order to fall into it*. Those arrows may be little but their accumulative power is awesome, and Leapy Lee (dressed much like Cat Stevens was) makes it sound like fun, kind of like winning the lottery. I can only attribute this to the songwriters, Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood, who were country/pop writers and not opera composers after all - the lightheartedness here is a joy, a little inane to those who always take love Very Seriously, but a joy nonetheless. Because of its mythological basis this isn't bubblegum (bubblegum never presumes you know anything, or that you're over ten) but a kind of giddy, winking (though not knowing) embrace of Cupid, whose own character was naturally mischievous.

In a way this song is only for those who haven't fallen in love yet; it is fair warning for what is to come, though kind of a camouflage as well for what really happens, which feels less like being covered in arrows and more like a drug-like experience that doesn't let up...

Next up: more romance, courtesy of a Friendly Forbear.

*Erich Fromm says you have to know and respect yourself before you can love anyone else; not terribly romantic, but absolutely true.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Family First and Last: O.C. Smith: "Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp"

In music, as in life, there is no greater figure of importance than the mother; and especially in music from the South, whether it be folk, country or soul. This is not apologetic or high falutin music; it says what it says as if to say that this is reality, as opposed to the often idealistic/nihilistic edges of rock. Mother is the bedrock of everything; there can be no criticism, because criticizing her is tantamount to criticizing everything else that surrounds you, and ultimately, yourself.

So when O.C. Smith tells the story of how his mother got to be a woman of the night, however exaggerated the tale (how could there be fourteen children who didn't understand adults' gossip?), it is at heart more a song about the pride of the family - the mother and the children - than any factual details. It's a pride that is defiant; the father is feckless, a drunk, who leaves them nothing (and unlike a future song, the children here don't ask about him) and having so many children to look after, she hangs up her "scarlet lamp" and brings them all up, on "chicken dumplings" and "goodnight kisses." Trying to figure out the logistics of how all this works is not the point; the mother loves her children and vice versa, and she dies (no indication how or why; since there's none I'm guessing old age/illness) and is remembered fondly by all of them. (Since they have a farm I guess some of the kids farm, but again that's not mentioned.) The song is about a boy who grows up and returns to his childhood home, defiant in his own way, but not looking to provoke a fight. He is proud - no one helped the family when he was growing up, and so I imagine it became like a military unit, self-sufficient and wary of outsiders. But again, there is no fuss; justified self-satisfaction is due, just as the roses on the mother's grave are due.

That this song was written by Dallas Frazier (who also wrote "Alley-Oop" and "Elvira"), a country songwriter, and done in a soul style seals the link between the two musics - blurs them really, as this song was also a hit for Kenny Rogers. There is, unlike "Honey," no pathos here, no clammy uneasiness; there is some grief that what happened had to happen, but it is not dwelled upon. That this song is at rock bottom about doing what you have to do in order to survive, a mother's sacrifice - well, no one is unfamiliar with that, no matter where you live, in the country or the city.

This song was a hit during a time when the charts could - and did - have just about anything and everything in them, from avant-MOR to easy listening to soul to rock to bubblegum; 1968 in singles was a swirling and sometimes (as we've seen) morbid look at life, life often seen in extremes, as if regular life was somehow not big enough to contain the feelings and tendencies of the time. Apart from all the strangeness, a song like this is like walking barefoot on grass; a reaffirmation of the fundamentals of life, even if that life is lived as the narrator's mother had to live hers. It also feeds into the 'back to basics' movement that had its rock counterpart in The Band, whose first album* caused a whole wave of prominent musicians to take a step back from psychedelic heaviness and get into something more subtle, acoustic and, well, soulful**.

Next up: a song about Cupid, because there have always been songs about him, thank goodness.

*The Band had no doubt played in many of the places O.C. Smith had played and knew both country and r&b intimately.

**There is a whole other wave of musicians in the UK who are coming up via the blues, but I will get to them in time.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Laugh Until You Cry: Bobby Goldsboro: "Honey"

There are certain songs that are disliked and then there are songs that are hated. Of the many songs I get to write about in this blog, this is one of the most hated, to the point where it is some people's least favorite song of all time, which is saying something.

That the song is hated so much at least shows that it touches something primal, and in this case that primal feeling is a surprising one: dignity. This song, which tries so hard to be heart-tugging and tear-wringing, gives us a "kinda dumb and kinda smart" figure whose death, just from that description (and the lament at the beginning, not to mention the funeral home 'your call is important to us' music) is beyond foretold: it's mandatory. Once again we are at home, seemingly outside, with a man who is telling his sorry tale to a 'friend' (presumably the audience, as this man doesn't have friends - I'll get to that in a second) who is given a description of a woman so utterly depressed and lonely, that tears may indeed be shed, though another emotion might come to the fore afterwards...

It is hard to kick, if only metaphorically, a man when he's down; the narrator here is sorry and trying to be "good" and misses Honey, but it is he who is himself the cause of his own misery. He laughs at her when she plants a tree; he, even though he's her husband, never seems to question why she might be crying, or even why she would wreck the car. She is, to him, "young at heart" and perhaps messed up in ways he can't understand, but his lack of curiosity or empathy are his undoing. Is her crying "needlessly" due to his lack of sensitivity, care? There is a coldness at the heart of this song that gives me the chills; placidly Goldsboro tells the pathetic tale of a woman who would literally rather die than live with a man who cannot give her the dignity of being a real, living person whose life is worth taking seriously. That he keeps saying he misses her and would be with her "if he could" doesn't help matters any; sure his life is an "empty stage," but by the end of the song he surely deserves his fate, and indeed is doomed to repeat his story again and again, about the "kinda dumb" girl he mocked and condescended to while she was alive, and now pathetically mourns*.

That this song was such a hit shows a few things: there's no accounting for taste, some people don't listen to lyrics, and that if they do the wash of sentiment can outweigh anything else. The dignity of the listener is ultimately what is offended here, as the audience is called upon to be sympathetic with a narrator who is lamenting a death that did not need to happen, one which he no doubt contributed to; marriage is unity, but there was no unity in this one and I can't help but feel that I am listening to a story narrated by a man who is more than "kinda dumb" myself.

Bobby Russell was responsible for writing this, though, and not Goldsboro (who, to his eternal credit, didn't think much of the song and had to, according to Randy Bachman, keep doing takes as he kept laughing during the recording - right at the end you can sort of hear a suppressed smile). Russell also wrote the only slightly less unbearable "The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia"; Goldsboro went on to host his own tv show and have other, less maudlin, hits. Just why he recorded this I don't know; perhaps he was needled into it, and perhaps it was simply that he needed a hit...

That this was such a success (it got to #2 again in the UK in '75; I'm just posting about it the once) could only be explained by a nationwide sulky/self-pitying mood that this song plays into like a home run with men on all bases**; but even here not once does the narrator look at himself and try to figure out what went wrong, and my only (thankfully unnecessary) fear is that he will fall in love with another woman who is "young at heart" and he will be just as callous to her and the whole thing will happen all over again.

I wonder if any of the Housewives of Valium Court had their consciousness raised by this song; in the shared miseries of '68 something is stirring, even as the songs of women's deaths and woes continue to pile up.

Next up: A woman's gotta do what she's gotta do. I guess...

*This song reminds me, of all things, of the sadness that Thomas Carlyle had after his wife Jane's death; not that she killed herself, but that she had a miserable life with him (he read her journals after her death) and he never really appreciated the continual sadness and anger that she felt.

*This song was #1 in the US in the weeks after Dr. King's assassination; having this reach the top was just more misery than was needed.

Sophisticated Misery: Englebert Humperdinck: "A Man Without Love"

It is easy to see that on the same block as Marriott and his bothersome neighbors, the Housewives of Valium Court have their own method of escape; not just through doctor-approved medication but through daydreams. There he is, unable to leave the house as he is crying (and real men don't cry in public) over his lost love. It was, perhaps, a Mediterranean romance - Spain, Italy, somewhere where (the Housewives think) Romance is constantly in the air and a broken heart is seen not as a mere scratch or bruise but as a near-fatal condition that must be treated with respect.

Crying is a funny thing in songs; it's an easy enough thing to sing about, but if you have the wrong voice for it, it renders the emotional outpouring as something more or less as emotionally involving as trimming the hedge or kneading dough*. It requires a big voice to handle those big emotions, and if Englebert here sounds less than believable (compared to say, Roy Orbison) he at least has the appropriate voice for the song and its Italian origins. (The song was originally written by Roberto Livraghi, Daniele Pace & Mario Panzeri as "Quando M'innamoro" for the Sanremo Festival, an Italian song competition that was the inspiration for Eurovision; Barry Mason wrote English lyrics.) Part of the reason this works is simply that so many I'm-going-to-stay-right-here-and-mope songs** were Englebert's territory already, but there is a languorous smoothness here as well, and the Housewives could easily imagine him wearing his silk dressing gown and eating his eggs Benedict and being as elegant as hell, and still suffering.

Loneliness is indeed a cloak he wears, as a more avant-MOR balladeer would sing, and if he can't go outside he is in a way just as imprisoned as his intended audience; what may look like more fromage to some was more than likely reality for many. That it has a slightly too-sweet aura about it - like a kind of glaze - adds to the sealed-for-your-protection feeling of immobility he's felt since she went away, after that Mediterranean romance.

Still, this immobility is cozy in way - there is a reassuring gentleness and suaveness in the music that guarantees that once the narrator (who recognizes himself as one of many lonely men, a member of a tribe if you will) gets over his loss and goes outside, he is bound to meet another woman and Romance will bloom again. For now he cries and can't go outside, though, and while that seems harsh at least his suffering isn't as acute as the one in this song, a song that brings romantic agony's endless and near-morbid condition only too close to home***. (That it didn't get into the Top 40 in the UK could in part be because of its intensity; it could also be because Motown music wasn't as of yet being pushed that much by certain DJs and music folk.) The Housewives of Valium Court are comforted in their way by this shared misery, thinking and feeling the common "He's too beautiful to suffer!" as they pause after housework or during the baby's nap; that maybe in a few years they might think that way about themselves is possible, but at this point marginal. For now they sit and imagine the Mediterranean breezes, exotic romance, meeting a lovelorn man while strolling by the sea...

Next up: a song that lives, like other things, in infamy.

*Witness the completely emotionally non-involving Jason Derulo single "Fight For You" where when he sings about crying he sounds like a robot. The overuse of Toto's "Africa" doesn't help much either.

**As opposed to Tom Jones, who is forever trying to get home and never really managing it.

***Roger Penzabene, the lyricist, wrote the song about his marital troubles; he killed himself on New Year's Eve, 1967. The Summer of Love had many victims, and the heaviness of '67 was beginning to crush many in '68.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Caught Between Two Worlds: The Small Faces: "Lazy Sunday"

There is a type of guy that the UK specializes in: the bloke. A bloke is not quite a dude (US) or a hoser (Canada) but is something like both in that he is a guy that is a guy; in the UK I take it that the word 'bloke' means someone who is sociable enough, enjoys manly things or has a manly taste in things, and doesn't care for airs or fancies, most of the time. A great deal of music writing in the UK, from what I can tell, is aimed directly at these men, men who have an opinion as to what is and isn't music as strong as those gatekeepers of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in the US.

Which leads squarely to this song by The Small Faces, who are almost the uber bloke group*; from East London ('real' London as any bloke sees it), tussled and then broke free from dominating manager Don Arden, were drug-taking psychedelic mods who sang about getting high and got away with it. That they broke up (in part because they found themselves unable to do any songs from their hit album Ogden's Nut Gone Flake live, including this song) and reconfigured with Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart to become The Faces is yet another confirming fact for any bloke that this was their band, fun-loving, unpretentious and devoted to R&B and a good time.

This song, however, follows a growing trend in this blog of singers who have to be coerced into singing songs and bands having songs released against their wishes; "Lazy Sunday" was recorded as a joke, never intended to be a single (it was, as you can tell, Steve Marriott complaining about his neighbors) and was resolutely pop when Marriott wanted the band to be more serious. The "tweedle dee bite"s and exaggerated accent (done because the Hollies taunted him about his not singing with much of a Cockney twang) are pure music hall near-farce, the neighbors complain about his loud ways while he just wants to space out and "drift away". The tug-of-war between the two worlds - the complaining outside world and the peaceful inner one - resolves with the rush of surf, bells, birds; either this is the world he wants to escape to, or he has given up on staying home (so much for laziness!) and gone to the seaside himself.

In this, Marriott is not just a guy in a band who likes to escape but an Everyman, and an Everylondoner at that. London is a big place and a crowded one; the jostle and crowding might be fine for some, but for others just one day where they can be themselves and not have any hassles is desperately needed. But there is no escaping from others, some complaining, some inquisitive, all interrupting the need to just veg out and do nothing. There's a smile on Marriott's face - you can just see it - in the song, and even if I don't understand all the lyrics ("To sing in the khazi while you suss out the moon" is a bit more intelligible to me than Spandau Ballet's "Stealing cake to eat the moon") but I can certainly understand his joy in "sitting in a rainbow" and feeling at one with the world, only to have that broken by someone banging on his door, stopping his groovin' and making his life miserable.

That the group then made an album they couldn't reproduce live shows the difficulties bands had in (on the one hand) wanting to make progressive, psychedelic, modern music and (on the other) being able to make any headway with a public that would just as soon have them do songs like this (and "Itchycoo Park") than anything more complex. The Beatles could do it simply because they had stopped touring, thus freeing them from having to really please any crowds anymore; but they and only they had that luxury - everyone else had to play live. (Marriott left the band as he felt they couldn't top Ogden; in the free-floating crap game that was UK rock, there were always a few other musicians to form a band with, and Marriott got together with Peter Frampton** to form Humble Pie, yet another de facto bloke group.)

If other people are a bother in this song, then its most famous offspring is a celebration of the many people who make up London, all going about their own business with one of them giving a running commentary (saying everything but "Gor blimey Mrs. Jones/How's old Bert's lumbago?" as Marriott asks here) on what he sees and what he does. Here instead of irritated next-door-neighbors there's a stronger sense of unity - everyone hand-in-hand - though the jostle and crowding are nearly palpable, so is the joy in feeling a part of something larger. But in '68 the joy is in escape, in separating one's self from others, especially if those others are not like you - the song is a joke but the generation gap here isn't, and even in relatively placid London there is a tension between the public and private, not to mention tensions within bands as to whether to stay pop or go rock. You cannot please everyone, the late 60s seems to be saying, and so escape to somewhere else more congenial is one solution. Not everyone can fit in...not even blokes, who tend to think they are normal. But at this time there's normal and normal...

Next up: another song about someone who wants to leave the house, but can't. Has The Summer of Love turned into the Spring of Agoraphobia?

*The ultimate uber bloke group is up for debate, but I'm guessing it's either The Who or The Rolling Stones. There are blokes who hate The Beatles, I have learned (I've learned many things since moving to the UK) so I can't include them.

**Frampton was in his own strange pop band at the time called The Herd; if you like the idea of mythological 60s pop, they are for you.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Child Shall Lead Them: 1910 Fruitgum Company: "Simon Says"

And now we come - all of a sudden, like a sugar rush - to the wonderful world of bubblegum music, which was a haven for garage bands who liked to make music for drunk girls to dance to (to borrow from Franz Ferdinand) as opposed to far-out psychedelic blues jams for those who wanted to get high. One of the great joys of pop is the complete inanity of it, that it does not and really should not be taken so seriously; and as you can see there was a lack of cheery, perky songs around at this time.

So in come the bubblegum army to give the increasingly heavy late 60s a big lift. The biggest source of bubblegum was one Buddah Records, run by Neil Bogart (he who later gave the world KISS and The Village People) - he saw the success of the Monkees and wanted in on the action - luckily he met the producing powerhouse duo of Jerry Kasenetz and Steve Katz, who proceeded to work with the 1910 Fruitgum Company (an actual band from New Jersey, btw, and not just a pseudonym for themselves) to do this song. I cannot say much about it except that the various looks on the faces here show that while this may not be what the group first got together to do (the b-side is called, after all, "Reflections From the Looking Glass") but it was what the kids wanted and it was dumb fun and what is wrong with that? (This is yet perhaps another variation of the childlike qualities of psychedelia, with this game* winning out as little kids were simply too young for anything else.)

What was one way out of the 60s? Bubblegum was maybe not what the serious types would have thought up, but it persisted in the US and in the UK, feeding into and energizing other music to make this old thing called rock 'n' roll new again (bubblegum + rock = glam). As absolutely non-threatening as this song is, it helped to refocus some on what mattered - sweetness, youth and a lightness of touch that during this time in particular were sorely needed. It reassured people - even those who hated playing this game - that there was still a place for simplicity in music, if not out-and-out nonsense. This is playground stuff, but it's the roots for a lot of what is to come; in a way bubblegum is the roots of a lot of good things about the 70s, if by good you also mean silly, addictive, sweet and ridiculous. That's fine; in fact bubblegum may have even pushed the whole 'back to basics' '68 movement along in its own way, just as much as The Band. Who knows? Anything can happen when travelling back to square one.

*Whenever I had to play this game I did well until it got too fast and I invariably messed up; but this song never does speed up or play tricks. Bubblegum's too good-hearted for that.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Death Becomes Him: Tom Jones: "Delilah"

There are many benefits of being a singer/songwriter, and one of them is that you don't look at the lyrics someone has given you and think to yourself, this is a joke, right?

But Les Reed and Barry Mason weren't kidding, so Jones dutifully sang it, and the public loved it and still do (particularly the Welsh Rugby Union and Stoke City fans). I am not sure if anyone concerned knew the word "camp" (as it had been recently specifically defined by Susan Sontag) but even your average mailman could sense in the oom-pah-pah rhythm and male-hysterical lyrics ("I was lost like a slave that no man could free") that this was, even for Jones, not a normal song. It is almost a Punch-and-Judy show-level song about insane jealousy, and the narrator's murderousness is caused by her "laughing" (I will leave it up to you to figure out why she is laughing). And so he stands at the end, the other man having of course already left, singing to her corpse, rehearsing his story for the police and thence the judge*...

That some members of the jury might be women is conveniently overlooked here, but not by this man, who knows full well what the song is about. It's about a man who is obsessed, a stalker; a man who considers the woman to be his even though she is no good for him (and he knows it). Alex Harvey digs into what Jones couldn't at the time - the unnerving self-justifications that make his begging for forgiveness hollow, the horror behind the drama, the flat face of a man who is not temporarily nuts but is deliberate, who would have killed her even if she hadn't been laughing.

But this is how things were in 1968 - an at heart grisly tale is done as a sing-a-long, grotesque and dramatic as a soap opera, while real deranged killers (Dr. King was assassinated while this was #2) were on the loose. Perhaps this song was one of the truer fruits of the Summer of Love, but I tend to think it is one that has gone sour, a twisted pleading yelp. As a song it is cheesy and I'm sure that Reed & Mason wrote it knowing the public would respond to its outrageous pantomime heart. (It also has, in the band and chorus, all of what would soon become Led Zeppelin, not to mention one Reg Dwight, aka Elton John, on piano.) In a way it is an oppositional #2 as well, sitting just under "Lady Madonna," a song where the only anger evident is in the sax solo, a precursor to another song I'll get to by McCartney about an ordinary woman's travails. But all is Drama with Jones as ever, and by now this is what his audience expects from him.

1968 was a year of violence, and in some way this song reflects that; it has lasted because it is easy for the terraces to sing on one part, and on another Jones himself does it in a jokey way now, as if to say, that era is gone. That may be true, but then it was another piece of the lurid and irrational end of the 60s, as idealism was giving way to despair and the decade was already being disowned by some as not being all it was cracked up to be (certainly the hippie scene of California was getting ugly). This song waltzes and and trots by it all, as if to say, in part, what do you expect? (The musical Cabaret had just started in London a month before; the uneasiness of that show reminds me of this song.)

Next up: the counterpart to all this madness, available at your local corner store.

*Jones was in prison waiting to be executed in a previous song, and here he is again, about to go through the whole rigmarole again. I can only assume a young Nick Cave was absorbing the sort-of song cycle at the time...