Monday, December 31, 2012

The Slam Beginneth: Slade: "Gudbuy T'Jane"

And now we have reached the very end of 1972; a year in which rock 'n' roll was pronounced dead, and then was found to be more alive than ever, due to a rag-tag combination of groups which didn't have much in common but a determination to show that rock - traditional or new-fangled or some combination of the two - was being introduced to a whole new generation, ones who were mere toddlers, if that, when the Beatles and Rolling Stones were raw acts with their first singles and albums.  I feel it's important to point out that it was pre-teens/early teens who were the cause of this scene, because there is a gap about to appear - not just between what the older siblings are listening to and their younger brothers are buying singles-wise, but also between the UK and US charts.  If someone was, say, 13 at this time and this song was their first single, then they (un)wittingly found themselves part of the Slade Army* and part of something that was about to happen that was uniquely British:  the Glam Slam of 1973.  This simply didn't happen in the US (oh, there were hits here and there; "Get It On" was already a hit, and there were a couple to come, but besides the New York Dolls there wasn't much going on). 

I am going to pause now, before getting back to Slade, to try to figure out why this was the case.  It could be down to the circumstances outside of the music itself.  There were just as many Grade 9 kids bored out of their minds in the US as here, not to mention rock writers who were eager for anything raucous to come along and wake them from their singer/songwriter-prog rock stupor, but it didn't happen.  This is in part due to the almighty forces of HRS**, which raised boogie to a gold standard of achievement and looked askance at anything artificial or too gussied up as disrespecting the music, which was always the main thing.  HRS was huge at this time, and the fact that it was full of good ol' boys who were badasses (particularly from the South) meant that the rebellious side was taken care of, as well.  Grand Funk Railroad and The Edgar Winter Group were going to have #1 singles in '73, and in the wings were everyone from Ted Nugent to Aerosmith, not forgetting Kiss themselves.  For anyone who was ever embarrassed to read Patti Smith' s fannish appreciation for this stuff (going out with one of Blue Oyster Cult, praising Johnny Winter) - well, it was the main thing, the big rock deal, at the time

The opposite side of all this was the soul/r&b resurgence that Greil Marcus describes so well in Mystery Train; music about hope and despair, telling truths and reflecting the increasingly (justifiably) troubled nation's condition after the exhausting end of the 60s, as well as the shady White House and the still-ongoing war in Vietnam.  Part of the music was political, part sensual; Marvin Gaye, Sly & the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, The O'Jays; this was music to help the nation get to grips with itself, with what was happening and give it some sense of perspective.  That a lot of it you could dance to helped, of course; this time is the roots of both disco and hip hop, both styles bringing not just the funk but positive messages of unity and strength at a time when everything looked bleak. 

The UK reaction to bleakness - the economy, the oil crisis, strikes, the IRA - was to dress up and sing songs like this one.  What is it about?  I don't know.  I sometimes think it's just working-class rah-rah about saying bye-bye to a stuck-up girl who looks down on him.  That she is "painted up like a fancy young man" and wears "forties tip boots" means she's a...glam kid herself?  Is she a cross-dresser?  Whoever Jane is, "she's a queen" (hmmm...) and has gone off, a dark horse who he keeps repeating is "so young."  So maybe it's just about a young girl who is full of herself and the song is saying, well, good riddance?  That's about as much as I can figure - that Slade are full of songs about Us vs. Them (in this case, Us vs. Her) and if you're a teenager your whole life is made up of such moments, moments when someone decides (or has already decided) they are too cool for you and are going to leave, get up from that lunch table/study area/wherever and go someplace else.  This is a song of joy and relief from those left behind, the rejected, the working-class who don't need to be spat upon by those who have bespoke suits and think they're so great. 

Slade tried and tried to get somewhere in the US, only to find that...the kids wanted to love them but couldn't understand them.  They didn't dress normally and what was the lead singer saying?  Poor Noddy Holder yelled and hollered from one concert hall to the next and no one could figure him out.  The subtle movements underneath the stomp may have put the kids off as well; this was not the crushing power of Led Zeppelin as much as the fleet-footed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Which is to say that Slade were rock enough for Lester Bangs, but not enough for the kids who wanted guitar solos, drum solos, and head-walloping beats, as well as for the ladies.  Slade didn't really have any of that, and what they did have was too odd; they just right in the UK, where their rebellion and refusal to be anything but themselves was cherished, where the response to so many crises was more screeching, more ridiculous outfits, more misspellings and so on.  But that ladies component should never be ignored; an American girl of 13 is going to respond to Robert Plant or even Elton John in a way she never could to Noddy Holder, and that was that.

And so it was that the Glam Slam of 1973 began, with the US unable to understand what made the UK rock; for the next year or so I will be writing about Glam a lot, and trying to comprehend just why it was so big.  I know in part it's because it's the second part of rock 'n' roll UK style; but the insanity (going since T.Rex got to #1 with Electric Warrior) is peculiarly British, and not many in the US ever really caught the contagion, so to speak.  Maybe they were too busy mellowing out, if they weren't rockin' out, or too busy getting down to care for either of those.  In any case, in the UK things are looking up on the excitement front; suddenly there are singles worth saving up for, worth getting for Christmas, ones that are LOUD and confident and can scare any number of cares away. 

In the fallout from the 60s, people were starting to take sides; the sides would become sharper in '73, as if something had taken over the UK singles-buying populace, like a fever.  For those of you who enjoy hot chart action, I will be introducing yet another prominent chart into this mix, so that I can write about the year in as much detail as possible - the Radio Luxembourg chart #2s will be included from here on, for the next few years.  I am not exactly sure which song comes next, but the Glam Slam will continue soon, and a certain man who will actually be understood by Americans will appear sooner rather than later.          

*I have no idea if there was a Slade Army (I know there was a Kiss Army) but if there was ever a band who could muster one up, it's this one.

**Hard Rockin' Shit, which is what Slade ended up supporting across the US, logically but also kind of unfortunately. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Green Bubblegum: The Osmonds: "Crazy Horses"

As many of you who read me will know, I was far too young to be caught up in the whole fanatical David Cassidy vs. Donny Osmonds/The Osmonds imbroglio, and in coming to think of it I doubt that even if I was the right age, I would have been all that interested; neither are my type.  So I can write here with some objectivity about this rivalry, mainly that it was an ersatz Cowsills vs. the white Jackson 5 and that this is how the 60s were evolving into the 70s.  This is odd in retrospect, and produced some remarkable singles.
One of them was this song – the only hit song in a genre full of car worship to be actively against them.  The environmental movement – pardon me, the ecological movement – was still fresh at this time and it mainly looked at everything and said that it was polluted.  Visual pollution, noise pollution and a host of variants were all in the news, perhaps to distract from something else in American life?  The still-going Vietnam war, perhaps, or…something happening right there in D.C. itself?  The car – in my experience the early 70s car was a huge station wagon or a big hulking thing that used a lot of gas, took up a lot of space (I think of the car Cannon used to drive around) and was a kind of symbol of US dominance.  In our own family we had a French car, a Renault 16, which my father bought as he was tall and needed the legroom, plus it was French and that always counted for something with him.  There were compact VW beetles that were noisy and reliable and got good mileage, not to mention VW vans, but for Americans a car was a second home by now, and the roomier and sleeker, the better. 

So it is a surprise to hear these clean-cut Mormons talking about the insanity of cars, their never-ending proliferation and how many there are and how many more there will be.  This was before the oil crisis, before the gas guzzlers were traded in for the smaller cars (the Pinto being one that, um, didn’t last) – so this is actually a prescient call for a more reasonable way of getting around, if not giving up driving a car for good and using some other means of transportation.  The US was about to haplessly go into a period of confusion and recession and general breakdown the likes of which had never been contemplated; faced with such big problems, they started to take little things seriously, perhaps realizing that in fact they weren’t that little to begin with.  In the 70s the personal became the political (and after assassination after assassination and Vietnam dragging on, that attitude is understandable) and everyone can agree on the importance of clean streets*, bald eagles and ‘Turn down that music, if that’s what you call music.’  Indeed in retrospect this aspect of the 70s is the one that has had the biggest effect (outside of various liberation movements) in making the modern world the bicycle-friendly pesticide-free use-your-own bag no artificial anything paradise it is today.  (Cough.)  The horses are still out there (SUVs, for the most part) and they are still crazy, even if going at the 55mph speed limit, which in my experience is about how fast they can go without losing traction.
If anyone is reading this wants to know, I don’t drive, I don’t know how to drive (terribly glamourous I know) mainly because my spatial relations w/r/t a car/van/truck would be useless; I bump into enough pedestrians as it is and would no doubt bump into vehicles too, and seeing how other drivers drive here in London (either in a slackerly way as if it’s a Sunday or in a way that can best be described as ‘opportunistic’) doesn’t make me confident I could learn here either.  (My main spatial skill as such is map-reading; I am a born navigator, as is my mom, who never got her licence, as driving in Silverlake is…scary**.)  But I digress…
Apart from the ecological aspects, this was and is a rockin' song in the best sense; loud, weirdly noisy (that horse's neigh done by Donny Osmond himself and later sampled by Pop Will Eat Itself for their epic "Def Con One" and just plain exciting in a way that a little kid could understand.  This is rock 'n' roll just as much as any of the big Four, and by itself it fully justifies the Osmond mania of the time (complete with the band having to be smuggled in to the Top of the Pops studios to perform it).  I would love to hear Neil Young cover it. 

Next up:  what is he saying?  Steve McQueen? What?

*A lot of environmental songs from this era have other meanings in them, such as the Philadelphia All-Stars’ “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto” which about a lot more than beautifying your block by planting a garden, though it’s about that too.

**Those of you who know how hilly it can get know what I’m talking about.  Imagine being at the very top of Baxter Drive and feeling the ground give way and you can see why my mom said ‘no thank you.’  I was in the backseat at the time, of course (and this was in 1972).     

Thursday, December 20, 2012

How Dare They: 10cc: "Donna"

The whole story of music in the 70s seems - even at this early stage - to be one where people either are working within some kind of framework as to what music could be/has been and those who just blindly do whatever they think is right.  Which is to say, there are art school grads who have ideas, and there are those who know when a song has a hook and a melody and is bound to be a hit.  It is very rare to have both of those represented in one group, but 10cc were that group, and from the start they were going with/against the grain at almost all times. 

10cc were basically Hotlegs - remember them? - with Graham Gouldman, now returned from his foray into American bubblegum and ready to work with his fellow Mancunian friends to subvert what rock 'n' roll was and perhaps make way for The New.  They were named by Jonathan King (he wanted something a bit subtler than Shag, I guess) and encouraged by him to become a group, though that looked to be something the others - Kevin Godley, Lol Creme and Eric Stewart - were going to do anyway.  Hotlegs did have other singles, one of which was heard by one Neil Sedaka, who went all the way to work with them in Strawberry Studios - first on Solitaire and then on The Tra-La Days Are Over, a final album with his co-writer Howard Greenfield; thus the Brill Building came to them, so to speak.  By the time that album was out, 10cc were a going concern. (Thus, 10cc played on the original of "Love Will Keep Us Together" which would eventually be answered by another Mancunian band who also recorded in Strawberry Studios a few years hence.) 

10cc were an unpredictable bunch; not really glam, not proto-punk, certainly not, though they wore enough denim, HRS*; they get compared to Steely Dan these days, but the supercool elegance of that duo was a whole different thing altogether.  10cc were what they were, and got away with things because no one could quite figure them out.  Prog rock is where some slot them, Art rock others, but they weren't like Yes or Roxy Music, both of whom were starting to make waves at this time. I point all this out to show that excessive categorization of bands ultimately leads nowhere, as every band essentially is different, and that near-arthritic care to categorize takes all the fun out of things, after a while.

"Donna" is a song that both celebrates and subverts the old style; you can't do that without loving the old style of pop and being able to do it well - unlike, oh, Frank Zappa (whom 10cc are also compared to) there is no sense of snideness or meanness to the song.  "Donna" is a song which they did in part because they could see the 50s revival all around them and wanted to gently poke fun at it/head it off at the pass, and make it modern.  Thus the frankly ridiculous lyrics:  "You make me stand up/You make me sit down" and the usual angst about the phone.  Lol Creme is utterly straight when he is singing...just is the reply from drummer Kevin Godley, who provides a second perspective on the girl in question:  "Donna waiting by the telephone/Donna waiting for the phone to ring."  Donna waits for that phone to ring (as it does in the song) and the declarations of love are there, complete with the touching "Donna I'd stand on my head for you."

Number two hits can and do stand as correctives to the number one songs; but this song seems to stand for The New as oppposed to being The Old.  Friendly Forebears that they were, the song had to not just be accurate but good, and not just those but also successful; maybe people bought this because they thought it was like "Oh! Darling" by The Beatles (yet another group 10cc get compared to) and indeed some people mistakenly thing of this as a riff on that and nothing else.  But it's not, because this isn't some simple tribute - it's pop being used, in a sense, against itself, the 50s ballad being warped sweetly to show how silly it is, and how complex even a simple phone call can be.  In the nicest way possible, they are basically saying we cannot go back; as much as some might want to, alas.**     

10cc were to go on subverting and inventing song ideas/conventions for some time; using Strawberry Studios as their lab, they would mess around and try things out and push boundaries, both politically and sonically.  Sadly I don't get back to them here, but know that for the next few years they are always there somewhere, an active agent against dullness and mediocrity, against simple nostalgia and 'normal' perspectives.  I hear their legacy in a few bands from Manchester - Everything Everything have their inventiveness, The Smiths their sense of going against the grain.  (Hot Chip owe a lot to them too, especially in their lyrics and genial non-glam looks.)  In their original line-up they only lasted a few years, but they showed what could be done, and how ambition and playfulness can lead to some pretty amazing songs.

Next up:  automobile armageddon! 


*Hard Rockin' Shit, which was more Allman Brothers/Foghat territory.

**I wonder sometimes what the Teddy Boys thought of Glam and of this song too - did they feel as if they were being...mocked?  Or were they too busy hating people for buying a (not very good) song by Chuck Berry? (With the Teds it's actually a question as to whether they ever mentally left the 50s in the first place.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Prophet/Profit: T. Rex: "Children of the Revolution"

Without any doubt, the biggest star of '72 was Marc Bolan of T. Rex; there may be up-and-coming ones, he may have been eclipsed here by Slade, but here he is, caught up in...revolutionary ecstasy?  This is a serious bump-and-grind of a song, with an indefinite 'you' that is contrasted with an equally indefinite subject.  Just who are these children, and what revolution is going on? 

Bolan never intended his songs to just be jolly rave-ups to get pissed to; he wanted to make songs that would last, not necessarily message songs but ones that had some content to them.  Here, with purple glittery eyes, he proudly and even snarlingly states his prophecy; you can twist and shout, you can let it all hang out, but the children - well, they won't be fooled.  He seems absolutely sure of this, as if he has somehow already seen the future and knows what is going to happen.  If he is singing to his generation (the 'you') then they (and his younger fans) were upset and even offended by the line about the Rolls-Royce being good for his voice*.  He said that because he meant it; and if people were turned off by his workshy fop aestheticism, well, too bad.  In truth, it was his one obvious luxury; it wasn't a brand new custom job but one from 1960, but the kids may not have known about that, or cared.  He's showing off in a time when being a rock star meant (especially in the UK, I'd guess) that sure you had money, but you didn't talk openly in a song about your wealth or status.  Whereas in the US, that was more or less acceptable; if you came from nothing - like, oh, Elvis for instance - you had every right to sing about being able to afford nice things, to viva your Las Vegas.  But in the UK in '72, it wasn't exactly okay.  And so I think this song suffered, because T. Rex's audience wanted to be caught up in the revolutionary ecstasy too, only to find themselves tripping over a car, so to speak. 

Of course another place where Bolan's line would make sense is in hip hop; particularly the kind of self-knowing hip hop where material excess and aestheticism do battle, where achieving something good materially can indeed be good for you, but then how much bling is really needed to fill up that hole of need?  I don't sense Bolan knew that hip hop was about to start in NYC in '73; but his prophecy about the children of the revolution isn't just about the kids who all found themselves being described by Mott the Hoople in "All The Young Dudes" (particularly in Ian Hunter's totally endearing ad-lib lyrics at the end - how many kids took hope in "You in the glasses - I want you - I want you in the front**" - a lot, I'd bet). 

The children are, well, us - those kids who discovered hip-hop; the ones who didn't know a firsthand thing about the 60s, the younger and wiser ones, the ones who at the time were playing with a Spirograph and learning to tie our shoes; ones who, if their parents had participated in the revolutionary 60s, had nothing but artifacts and stories to absorb as the slogans and messages and lessons learnt were passed on.  We can't twist and shout; that time is gone, and anyone trying to bring back that time (as it will eerily be happening in the 70s) will get some attention from us, but in a different way - different because it is the hazardous and somehow incomplete 70s now, when anything of lasting value will be ignored or derided.  I know I'm making some big statements here, but at this juncture the world of MSBWT is moments away from the funhouse ride/haunted house that is 1973, and this strutting song of revolutionary fervor would give hope to us and to Bolan's loyal fans who were impatient to have a revolution of their own. 

Not that revolution is always going to happen; think of Elton John and Pete Doherty doing this at Live8 and wonder just who is actually more revolutionary, and how in order to give confidence and strength to others, you first have to have it for yourself.  That is what Bolan is doing; as much as Gen X is going to be that tough generation he's talking about, the real answer is that the children are everywhere, as long as they are genuine and willing to take up the fight. 

Next up:  It's not art rock, it's not prog rock, it's four guys from Manchester.         

*Bolan couldn't drive, so for him the car was an art object as much as anything else; I have no idea if, had he bothered to learn to drive, he would have avoided his accident just five years later.

**Not to mention the "I've wanted to do this for years" line.  I have no idea what he's talking about, but it's heartening all the same.

The Sincerest Form: Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs: "Seaside Shuffle"

The world of music is dominated by spirals; which is to say that nature's greatest design (in graphics terms, in my opinion anyway) is musical, or vice versa.  The Spiral Jetty notwithstanding, music is the art that gets the spiral motion, right down to the movement of 78s, vinyl albums/singles, cassettes, etc. 

In that same way, a song can beget other songs and so forth until the velocity of the thing has run its course...and here we have a song from the rather wet summer of '72 that is about the simple joys of heading down to the why does it sound so familiar? 

Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs was a made up name (by UK Records' Imp of the Perverse, Jonathan King) to bring a little bubblegum magic to a no-nonsense rockin' blues band called, in real life, Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts.  They had been the house band at the Studio 51 Club in London for some time, and had this song in their repertoire; on a few occasions a band called Mungo Jerry had supported them, and had no doubt heard the song.  The Thunderbolts released it as a single but it got nowhere, and what do you know, a few months later (I may be exaggerating, but these things never take that long) Mungo Jerry had a huge hit with their own shuffle, "In The Summertime."  Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts were chagrined, of course, but what could they do?  They kept playing their rockin' blues and righteously waited, getting a bit miffed again at the success of "The Pushbike Song" which was now twice removed from their own song.  And so in the summer of '72 they re-released this Jona Lewie-written song and finally had a hit, the spiral properly leading towards them for once, towards the interior where it all began.  They had another single, "On A Saturday Night" but this was their one and only real hit; one that begat others. 

In writing about this song, I've realized that Mungo Jerry's success has pushed this song into The Void; I've never heard it on the radio.  Jona Lewie has a right to be upset about that, but on the other hand, he did write "Stop The Cavalry" which is sure to be heard many times this Christmas as it was when it came out in 1980; I heard it yesterday doing the grocery shopping.  At bottom that song too is an easy shuffle with a point, this time political, but between all the "dum-a-dum-a-dum-dum"s and brassy good cheer, it can be easy to miss.  (I wonder now if people even know it's an anti-nuclear song tucked inside a Christmas song.)  Between that and his other, moodier song about being stuck in kitchens at parties (where perhaps he met Paul Young making some toast) Jona Lewie has all the time in the world to compose and record when he wants; the chagrin of 1970 has long worn off.

Next up:  how did we get to hip hop so soon?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Number Two Thing

An alert reader has let me know that BBC's Radio 2 has a poll running for the nation's favorite #2 hits (though you don't have to live in the UK to vote).  The 'panel of experts' chose over 100 #2s from the Official Charts (no NME chart #2s post-'60 alas).  Now in theory I should be happy about this, but as usual there is something to bother me, not least of which is the...ordinariness of the songs.  I know it's Radio 2 and all, but someone seems to have thought that all Britpop songs had to be there, not to mention all Elvis Presley songs, including one that actually was never a #2 to begin with*...and then there's the matter of songs like, oh, "Last Christmas" which is rather sour grapes to complain about not getting to #1, seeing as how it's like the biggest-selling #2 of all time, behind this bothersome trifle called "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

And to top it all off, someone from the Official Charts is going to come in and give the winner of this poll 'an honorary number one.'  This totally misunderstands the nature of music and the nature of charts; a nature I hope I have been able to trace so far in this blog.  Songs get to #2 in many ways; in the old days, it was a simple case of being popular but not that popular; latterly it is songs that debut at #2 and then slowly fall in the chart, or perhaps they rise and fall, becoming much bigger songs in the public's psyche than the #1s that come and go.  The number two is a natural opposition placement; the official opposition, if you like, to the top spot.  Giving a song an 'honorary' status makes a mess of that, and not a good and fruitful one, either.  It is also a poll that seems to sneer at the fact that these songs were stopped by uniformly awful #1s, which isn't the case; but it also manages to ignore that these songs have fended very well for themselves, and that in the end the public has awarded them with classic status, where chart placements and such don't mean very much. 

And no, they didn't include me in their panel of experts.  If they had, you would see these nominees at least - "O Superman" - "I.O.U." - "Lovefool" - "One More Time" - "Antmusic" - "Funkytown" - "Magic Fly" - "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" and "Excerpt From 'A Teenage Opera'" - all of which are at least good, and sometimes great, if not amazing songs.  Alas, there is no write-in vote...     

Still, I feel compelled to vote, and wish they had asked me for advice at least; but for which song, dear readers?

*"Don't Be Cruel"; it ought to be "Don't" of course.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hang Up Heartbreak: Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show: "Sylvia's Mother"

This is a song of desperation; a song of communication that has broken down so much that the narrator, desperate as he is, really has no idea if anything he is trying to get across is getting through. 

You don't have to be Marshall McLuhan to figure out how frustrating this is, and the narrator is practically driven to a nervous breakdown in just trying to say something to one Sylvia Avery, a woman he has loved and lost, presumably to the man who "lives down Galveston way."  There is no deeper indication in Shel Silverstein's lyrics as to why Sylvia is leaving so quickly, only that she is - packing up, getting her umbrella, off in time to catch the train, all while the hapless narrator is singing.  The operator (who is yet another stumbling block in the narrator's way) keeps demanding money, which means he's in a phone booth somewhere, feeding yet more dimes as he tries to at least say goodbye.  But he doesn't get to do that; Sylvia's mom doesn't let him talk to Sylvia as she might start crying and thinking she should stay, and there's simply no time for that.  I can see Sylvia's mom - perhaps a little old lady type, very nice but distracted; but overall protective of her daughter's happiness. That Sylvia is happy is the first stab in the narrator's heart; perhaps he knows she is with someone else, is engaged, or maybe has found out that she is leaving home and wants to say goodbye, and then the learns the news - he's history.  There can be no rekindling here, no second chance.  He asks and asks to have Sylvia hear his goodbye, to no avail - she's too busy.  And so he gets her mom; a nice lady, nice enough - and this is the last straw I feel, for the narrator - to tell him that he can phone again when he likes, though it is highly unlikely he ever will.  His whole purpose in life is this girl, this Sylvia, and she is disappearing from it, at great haste. 

Anyone who has ever dumped someone will know how Sylvia feels.  She is happy, and that happiness is so big that talking to her ex is literally too small a thing for her to do; she is washed clean of him and does not need his goodbye.  Indeed even if it was the other way around, her new happiness eclipses any sorrow she may have felt, and his wanting to start anything up again would be met by a pity, a pity that only now, when he is losing her, is he trying to get her back.  In any case she is eager to get to her new life and love as soon as she can, and has no time to be persuaded, to maybe feel different.  There was a time for that, but it has passed; and so the hapless narrator (who has run out of change, or so I always think, by the end of the song) is left to cry and hang up the phone, walking out into that same rain, not even knowing if Sylvia herself knows or cares that he called.  That he can't go see her in person - or didn't - is maybe an indication that seeing her again would be too much; the breakup wound is still too raw for him to handle.  And now this.  It is hard not to feel for him, and anyone who has called to get someone's mom or dad explaining that their son or daughter is with someone else will know the emptiness and scant consolation in that conversation.  The narrator is desperate for one last word, but he gets the wrong female of the house; and so his hopes are dashed. 

I will return to Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show in a few years - sadly with a song unlike this, but I will discuss that one when it comes.  I should say that the songs I know by them best are the ones I heard growing up listening to Dr. Demento - "Freakin' at the Freakers Ball" and "The Cover of the Rolling Stone" - also songs by Silverstein and much more indicative of the band's genial strangeness and good humor, to be a kind of post-hippie band for the generation of those who were to grow up to be not yuppies but those determined to keep something of the 60s alive, however they could.  That they would have their greatest successes once they lost their wackiness shows that the post-hippie generation somehow either mellowed out or began to focus on something else, something or someone more meaningful.  (Even though Dr. Hook & The Medicine show were based in New Jersey, I think of that post-hippie crowd and Chez Panisse and Alice Waters come immediately to mind.)  But for now, with Silverstein's songs, they are one facet of the early 70s, one that doesn't take itself too seriously, though with this song, they show they have heart; generations may come and go, but the pain of being too late to even say goodbye is a constant agony.           

Next up:  we like to be beside the seaside.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Bull In The Maze: Gary Glitter: "Rock 'n' Roll Pt. 2" to "Oh Yes! You're Beautiful"

And now we arrive, dear readers, at a point where things start to get more than a little complicated.  Appearing, as if out of nowhere comes a figure; he zooms nearly immediately to the near-top and becomes, at least for a time (a time spanning the songs I am going to attempt to describe here) very, very popular. 

There is a good reason that people, once the 70s were over, were quick to deride them, to put them down, to shake them off like so much dust and move on.  In fact, now that I consider it, those actions began even before the decade ended; I remember how eager I was for the 80s to finally begin, because there was something indelibly wrong about the 70s.

The 70s were, goodness knows, an open and earnest time, as we have already seen.  It was also a time of glamour and all the reasons for that rush to glamour;  the same glamour, though, could soon turn into a kind of decadence, where having a good time is the only reason to do anything, and things get ugly pretty quickly. 

Being a young girl in Los Angeles at the time I had no idea about Gary Glitter; I didn’t see him or hear him or grow up watching the procession of his performances on Top of the Pops, hosted by this-or-that DJ (all of them having faces for radio, so to speak); but I am pretty sure what I would have made of him, had I seen him.  I lived in a world of Sesame Street and other children’s shows, including Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangaroo, full of reassuring messages about how life might be a bit of a downer now and then, but if everyone behaved themselves, then all would be rewarded.  But it was also a time of consciousness-raising, of being aware of things.  We little kids were judged by our elders as mature enough to handle things that were maybe just too much for the previous generation.  They figured that if you weren’t part of the solution you were part of the problem, and the kids were going to have to be part of the solution, or the manifest ills of the time would never get straightened out.

Thus, even though I never saw Gary Glitter or knew about him as a kid, I think my reaction to him would have been puzzlement and a certain reluctance to be drawn in, a reaction not so much from the head but from the guts, and also the heart.  None of the music I was attracted to so far (that I remember, anyway) was quite so thud-thud heavy, so percussive, or so monosyllabic.  I grew up from the womb hearing jazz and pop, classical and rock, all in a mix from The Doors to Ravel to Donovan to The Modern Jazz Quartet, so I am pretty sure the nigh-primitive grunting and hollering wouldn’t have done much for me.  I liked pop art (my parents took me to museums and shows of all sorts when they could, again before I remember going) and understood intuitively what glories there were in the trash aesthetic, but in music I expected a bit more.  Mere ‘fun’ was not enough.  And even though I wouldn’t have known the word ‘crude’ that is what I would have called him; I think I might have even been offended in some way that there were no words.  No words!  The idea that somehow words were unnecessary would have made me suspicious.  I was just learning the alphabet, learning how to say the numbers and so forth, and here was a song that just said, the hell with all that.  And, I can’t stress this enough, there is/was nothing particularly cute about Gary Glitter; cuteness may be an American concept hard to translate into UK judgement, but it’s a quality that would have come high on my list:  not as in desirability but in sheer looks*.  Why is he wearing that clothing, I would have wondered, and why is his hair like that?  Not cute, no….

So as I am pretty sure this would have been my reaction, I can only say that it is a cultural shock for me (out of many, believe me) to see how Gary Glitter was embraced here, not as a one-hit wonder (as he was in the US) but as a star. 

My puzzlement now leads me back to a moment back in Los Angeles.  It was in someone’s backyard, probably a mom who also had a kid at the same nursery school as me.  It was a co-operative nursery school, meaning all the moms were from the same neighbourhood, had each other’s addresses and phone numbers and all got to know each other as we played.  As moms became friends, we kids would hang out at other kids’ houses now and then, and I think at some time there was a consciousness-raising group that came by to enlighten any of the moms who weren’t already enlightened.  I was there to hear them, though I don’t remember any of it; but I do recall this

…in the backyard, a fervent mom (or was she one of the consciousness-raising group?  She seemed a little young for me to think of her as a mom) showed a few of us girls copies of Playboy – opened to the centrefolds – and told us about pornography.  How it demeans women, and basically was wrong, and this it is, here it is.  This was not done in a schoolmarmish way, but in that casual/concerned way that the 70s had, where us kids (how old was I?  Five or six at the most) were judged to be ready for this; that we had to be forewarned, in some way.  My reaction to what I saw was again puzzlement and a certain reluctance. 

All of which is to say that I find Gary Glitter to be kind of the same way – blank, wordless, and when there are words, they are as flat and brutal as those images.

In his time he was regarded – I think – as a novelty artist, but if so, it was as a consciously-worked-out novelty, not just something thrown together over a month or two.  I think if I had gone on to see his other songs (which I will get into detail about later) – “I Didn’t Know I Loved You (Till I Saw You Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me? (Oh Yeah!),”  “Hello! Hello! I’m Back Again,” “Remember Me This Way” and “Oh Yes! You’re Beautiful” at the time my idea of him would have remained the same, or even worsened, if possible. 

Some might think this is because I was in Southern California/Canada at the given times, and that I am missing out on some cultural difference, one that made a figure like Glitter popular, immediately understood within the general world of British entertainment.  Or maybe I was just too sophisticated as a little kid, or too much of a girl, in some way.  It wasn’t little girls at first that made “Rock ‘n’ Roll Pt. 2” a hit, after all; it was guys.  It’s obvious hoo-haa rah-rah usage in sports arenas is no coincidence; this is an aggressive Tarzanish call, not so much a mating call as one of dumb pride and whoo-hoo hey here we are, let’s go.  It’s the natural response to “American Pie” – the big joke that is rock ‘n’ roll is unkillable, too stoopid to be done in by a mere plane crash, at any time.  It may be anguishing to point out now, but this song basically marks the next wave of rock (glam) and gives it back to the kids; kids too young to know about The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, ones who had those bands handed down to them, kids who need their own rock ‘n’ roll.  If I know I wouldn’t have liked this, well, a lot of kids older than me did, on both sides of the Atlantic.

And so rock ‘n’ roll was saved, more or less; but by a figure who was supposedly a fantasy character, not real.  He would fit into the world of bubblegum easily enough, alongside all the other non-real figures of the time, but if you saw him performing at the time** you would have seen someone who was unashamedly physical.  There is no fourth wall when I watch Gary Glitter’s performances; I want to tell myself, oh, he’s doing that bump or that thing with his tongue because it’s an act, but I strongly sense in watching him that it wasn’t an act at all.  I am also pretty sure that once he got onstage, he knew he had an act to do – but that maybe his actual act, as such, was there was none.  Hair, makeup, costume – but beyond that...what I sense is a man who wants to be idolized (a quote from Paul Morley’s Ask:  The Chatter of Pop:  “Yeah, I enjoyed it.  It was lovely.  It was exactly what I wanted…It was what I wanted probably when I was 16 or 17.” Or:  “What I enjoyed…was the adoration of a lot of people, a lot of women.  I really did.  The only problem was I didn’t get a chance to enjoy it, if you know what I mean”) and he intended to get that adoration – first from the guys, then the girls (Morley again:  “The strange part of it was they all became terribly young, 13, 14, 15”) and take advantage of that situation, a situation many rock stars have taken advantage of; the sudden currency of money, fame, and all those young girls…na├»ve girls, who maybe didn’t get that he wasn’t really kidding when, in a number one hit, he was the man who put “the bang in gang.”

Which is to say, I don’t really think there is a persona here; there is Gary Glitter, period.  Perhaps this is because I can’t really separate who he is with what his music presents and says; it could be the case that the one follows the other as a matter of course, that what you see is very much what you get, and if you were a guy you got to be in Gary’s gang and if you were a girl…then you had better watch yourself. 

I am not about to get into any details about times when I was sexually harassed as a girl, except to say that I wasn’t in any real danger, and that my quick wit kept me out of it.  I wasn’t sassy – I could tell that just would have made things worse – but I wasn’t passive either, blaming myself for the situation which clearly wasn’t of my construction.  My consciousness was raised, after all; the Equal Rights Amendment was for sure going to be passed.  “I Am Woman” was a number one hit that resonated and Billie Jean King had beaten male chauvinist Bobby Riggs soundly.  Things were far from perfect, but things were changing, and there were symbols of this, successes, wherever a young girl like me looked, from the proliferation of TV shows based on women (The Mary Tyler Moore Show to The Bionic Woman, Alice to Maude) to Nadia Comanici’s perfect score at the Montreal Olympics.  To be a girl in North America in the 70s was to aspire, to be inspired, and young jerks and dirty old men were brushed off by me – perhaps I was nervous, being only 9 or 10.  But I won, in that nothing terrible happened.  What did happen, of course, was like a day at Disneyland compared to what other girls went through…

…including British ones.  I cannot stress how much feminism didn’t exist in 70s in the UK, and in some cases I feel still doesn’t really exist.  Girls are there, to be used and abused; in the end, they don’t count.  There was no equivalent preponderance of TV shows based around women, trying to show the lives of actual women, as there was in the US.  Women (still, I have to say, infuriatingly, referred to by callers to not just on LBC or Radio 2 but purportedly hipper 6 Music as “the wife” or “the missus***”) are still seen as girls (how many times I have cringed when Boots commercials use “Girls” by Sugababes for their ads clearly showing grown-up women, not girls).  I feel I am right in guessing that there were no consciousness-raising groups addressing actual little girls in the UK in 1972; and that if you were a teenager who just wanted to meet Gary Glitter – that’s all – you might have found yourself unable to comprehend the power dynamics of the situation, because a girl can forget she’s a girl sometimes, in her fandom.

The rock ‘n’ roll adoration that Glitter wanted he got; and yet this was not enough.  That he got caught and charged on possession of child porn in the UK, and later again on having underage sex abroad, isn’t proof that what he did back in ’72-’74 was bad music, but it cannot help but taint those songs, and the performances show all the signs of someone who…well, I’ll quote him again:  “When you’re young all you want to do is play music and get your leg over.  It’s the bit in between that’s the complication.”  (This interview was conducted in early 1981, when Glitter was 37 and still considered himself young:  “Of course I am.  I don’t want to hear the words middle-aged or old.  I’ve never bothered about age, thank God.  It doesn’t enter my vocabulary.  I thrive on youth, youth ideas, on changes…****”)

There is something all a bit mythic about this, a bit eerie.  I think of the Minotaur that compels youth sacrifice, sacrifice that is all the worse because the girls – groupies – are thinking they have made it by being with a star, instead of looking inwards and finding some self-worth there. I think of the girls who didn’t want to do something but were forced, coerced, into doing it.  All this to feed an ego, a desire that is creepily palpable in his performances of these songs.  If the Glam period of rock (which I will get to in this blog, song by song as they come) has suffered as a whole, it is because it was and is so closely associated with Glitter, and now that his music cannot be played or his name said, the other Glam bands don’t get much airplay either, save for Christmas.  In Morley’s time he was beginning to be hip again, no longer a novelty; he says that he is “funnier” in 1981 as he’s older, but that implies that he was supposed to be funny to begin with, which I don’t understand.  Does he mean he’s a parody?  Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t take well to that (think The Barron Knights) and never will, for the most part.  When “Rock ‘n’ Roll Pt. 2” became a hit, the kazoo-compressed guitar and eerie yells were a warning that rock wasn’t dead and was just as dirty and grunty and lowdown as ever promised, and that Glitter wore clothes too tight, too sequined and too skimpy was further proof.

So then, the songs, I can hear you say.  Well, here they are, as such; I will try to be as fair to them as possible, under the circumstances. 

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Pts. 1 & 2” (July ’72):  Paul Oldfield in Monitor (Issue 4, October 1985) says of this:  “Glitter imagines an unyielding, uninflected, un-soul, MASCULINE performance, without ambiguity….all attack and no decay, all hard edges…”  It may well be the most male song ever recorded, so male it is ridiculous and was used by The Timelords for “Doctorin’ The Tardis” as a kind of stompy way of football chanting the Daleks into submission.  Need I point out again how male and TEENAGE this all is?  Sure, The Human League did this back in the day, as if to say, minimalism didn’t come from nowhere.  It’s lovable in its stupidity, but only in North America does it still get any attention, in sports arenas exclusively. 

“I Didn’t Know I Love You (Till I Saw You Rock ‘n’ Roll) (#2 NME December ’72): The harshness of this sound – mechanical and cold – makes any emotions Glitter has seem mechanical as well.  The minimalism takes away romance; this is just as MASCULINE as the previous song, making me think that Glitter is mysteriously trying too hard to prove he’s a man…and that there’s an awful lot of insecurity here. 
“Do You Wanna Touch Me? (Oh Yeah!)”(February ’73):  I first knew this song as done by Joan Jett on her still underrated pre-Blackhearts solo album from 1980, Bad Reputation.  Joan still does this in concert and can arguably say the song is hers, not Glitter’s, as she’s been out there doing it since she went solo after The Runaways broke up.  Oldfield again:  “In (this song) there is no intention to suggest, instead there is a specific need, “touch me…THERE THERE THERE THERE.”  How anyone could call a song this and be interpreted as not being suggestive is beyond me.  The song is a long drone, with the lyrics practically begging her to do something, anything*****.  The whole song is one brutal come-on, and Jett doesn’t mess around with it; hers was the second time I heard a woman yell “Fuck!” in a song, as she makes it even plainer and more American, somehow.  In the song he chides her for being shy and doing nothing beyond staring at him; maybe she’s got the right attitude about you, buddy.  Is this the biggest hit that could be construed as sexual harassment?
That this was also used in an episode of Glee, sung by Gwyneth Paltrow, of all people – shows that folks in the US don’t really care so much about Glitter’s personal life, and for all I know they think of this more as a Joan Jett song.  Songs can mutate over the years like that, and this song turns from harassment (as sung by a man) to liberation (as sung by a woman).  She’s confident and strong in her sexuality, and wants the guy to know she’s into him.  He just wants to get the girl drunk and berates her for being someone who wants to talk.  Hmmm….
“Hello! Hello! I’m Back Again” (April ’73):  And here is the clapping, the faster speed of glam; no grunting here as Glitter clearly sings to his fans, the girls who idolize him and the whole song is one huge call for that idolization:  the “naughty boy” rival of his is his only real worry, as she (i.e. the fans) are expected to kiss his poster and also hug and kiss their pillows at night, even though she couldn’t see him or kiss him for real, day and night.   If someone is this anxious – and the music is an unrelenting stomp that could flatten anyone’s actual feelings – wanting to know “Did you miss me?” so soon after their latest hit, then you can tell the pitch of hysteria has reached its peak here.  For someone so interested in non-communication or grunting, he sure is worried here.  But the main thing is that concern of his, that he is still going to be idolized.  In the previous song, he makes demands that are sexual; here he tries to come off as cuddly, but instead he’s just showing how desperate he is, which is never cool.  Idols (Idles?) aren’t supposed to interrogate their subjects like this.     
“Remember Me This Way” (#2 NME  April ’74):   I literally could not make it through a performance of this on YouTube; there is no bluster here, just puppy-dog balladry on the surface and a rather dull vocal, with Glitter’s sincerity colliding head-on with his lasciviousness.  It’s not pretty. Again, there is no fourth wall here, and it’s miles from any kind of hey-hey-hey masculinity.  It’s creepy, especially if you start wondering what “this way” actually stands for.
“Oh Yes! You’re Beautiful” (#2 December ’74):  The last hit here to concern us, and it has a slow sleaze to it that makes any sincerity on the part of Glitter seem, well, something of a front; if we take all these songs as a story of sorts, here he is afterwards, or perhaps still beforehand, reassuring the girl in question and trying to placate her, in a way.  The vowels are as stretched as the girl’s credulity; in the performance I watched, girls were holding scarves aloft, stretched out, back and forth to the song.  The Glam period hasn’t ended quite yet, but the rah-rah aspect remains, slowed down to a crawl here.
I have been wondering lately whether Glam has anything camp about it.  Certainly it tried to distract an increasingly nervous and edgy nation that fun, cheap and flashy and silly, still existed; that rock wasn’t dead, and in fact the actual renaissance of rock ‘n’ roll was to come.  But there is no feeling now, I’m guessing, of sentiment towards Glam or the period, precisely because they were so intertwined; when you hear Ed “Stewpot” Stewart ask a bunch of kids if any of them are Gary Glitter fans (on Stewpot’s Pop Party album) it is not a quaint reminder of times gone by but a quiver of the curtain before it opens to a whole world of dubious behaviour on the part of ‘light’ entertainment figures – DJs, TV presenters, actors, musicians, and so on.  (As this essay points out clearly, the culture of abuse started long before the 70s; and Top of the Pops was in part a way to literally get the kids in the building [shades of the Minotaur again].)  The wrongness of this part of the 70s is ugly; the complacency so many have talked about in relation to it comes from the general shrug ‘n’ accept qualities of the British people themselves, I’m afraid.  That comes from so many different quarters that it would take a whole other essay to get a handle on them; Glitter’s songs make up only one part of the whole scene, the whole story.   
I write all this in the context, of course, of now; a now where Glitter was just released on bail, and one in which, for all I know, he may be tried and found guilty again.  The UK, though it may not know it, has reached an important time; a time when it might want to really sit back and examine its relationship to so-called ‘light’ entertainment, to the whole world of showbiz, and how it stems from something much deeper in society, a whole system that ends up with figures like Glitter who are seemingly unable to confront themselves, just as a fish doesn’t know it’s in water.  Can a man who once said of his performances:  “I can’t detach myself for long enough to fathom out what I’m all about” and “I’m so close to it myself that I could never see (its appeal) unless there was someone…to tell me” ever be trusted?  Especially someone who also said his music is “purely physical.  It’s vulgar. It’s crude. It’s raw”? How could something so simple be so difficult to understand, especially to its co-writer and performer?      
As best I can tell, it is indeed difficult; but that difficulty is no excuse.  Figures like Glitter are at the extreme end of what happened all the time in rock 'n' roll; so extreme that I had to write this essay instead of just write up the various songs as they happened to appear alongside the perfectly honest shlubs and geniuses that in part made/make the 70s a bearable time to write about.  It has not been easy for me to contemplate and then write any of this, and I think the British public have the same reaction as I do to him and his music, mixed with the denial/mortification that they ever liked him in the first place.  It is too easy to just say "It was the 70s" or claim that he is an exception to the rule; that so many couldn't perceive what was right in front of them - that there could be no interpretation, that this was what it was (which goes right back to Glitter's comparing "Rock 'n' Roll Pt. 2" to Last Tango In Paris)...well, I look forward to seeing what changes, if any, the British are willing to make in order to see that the past, which is so dearly beloved here, belongs in the past.  That rock 'n' roll deserves better than this.
*The “Aw Wee Choirboy” cuteness is the closest I can think of; the American version in the 70s took in everyone from Peter Frampton to John Travolta to even Jimmy Carter, for a time; cuteness has something to do with good looks and a kind of metaphysical rightness.
**For reasons that will become understandable, I am not going to link to any of them; the songs are all there on YouTube.
***As if they were possessions, like “the house” or “the car.”  I have never heard anyone call any male caller out on this usage, supposedly because it’s accepted slang or understood to be part of male British culture or something.  Imagine if a woman said “the husband” or “the Mister” and you can really feel the condescension I feel every time I hear it. 
****The first time I encountered Gary Glitter was in an ad for a British railway I saw in a magazine or music weekly; there he was, made-up, quifftastic, holding out his hand, in which was some kind of supposed wrinkle-remover.  The ad was for student train tickets, and Gary was being gently let down by the ad copy, explaining that no, even if he used the pink blob of stuff to look younger, he still wouldn’t qualify for a ticket.  I found this a little odd at the time – why would Glitter want to travel with the students?  Now it’s just awkward, and the railway probably regrets ever running it.  But this was in the 80s, what could they know?  (Or rather, what did they know but ignore at the time?)
***** The most specific he actually gets is “run your fingers through my hair,” though why anyone would actually want to do this remains a mystery.  Hell, if it was even possible for such a thing to happen remains a mystery.  Again, Joan wins here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Grounding Emotion: Elton John: "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going To Be A Long, Long Time)"

If nature abhors a void, then I wonder what nature made of the departure of the Beatles in 1970; there had to be someone as versatile and transatlantically famous as them, as willing to sing ballads as rock out, willing to be over-the-top odd and yet for all that, perfectly normal.  Just as it's hard to think of the 60s without the Beatles, it's hard to think of the 70s without Elton John.  And he, rather quietly at first, but determinedly, became famous first in the US in 1970, just a man and a piano playing ballads, songs which were maybe love songs ("Your Song" is a song about finding the words to say something as much as the saying it) and maybe weren't (I have yet to figure out what "Levon" is actually about, but Elton sings it with so much passion, it doesn't matter). 

It is that passion I'd like to focus on; the earnestness in David Cassidy's songs is magnified here, because Elton has a better voice and in his songwriting parter Bernie Taupin he has someone who is trying to express the inexpressible, which maybe works sometimes, and maybe doesn't.  "Rocket Man" is one such song, one of their best, mainly because it presents itself so much as one man's thoughts as he is alone in space, thinking of that morning's events.  Some might compare it to "Space Oddity" but here the secret subject/inspiration isn't Syd Barrett; the passion Taupin and Elton have is poured forth to...the Every(wo)man who is doing something extraordinary but somehow is also being taken for granted.  The narrator of the song knows he's special, but what he is doing also cruelly separates him from his family, and the acres of space between how he sees himself and what he does.  Sure he's an astronaut; it's "just his job five days a week"; but he's also "not the man they think I am at home" and maybe it's in space where he feels he can best be himself; where the mundane world literally falls away and he floats, unencumbered, for a "long long time."  That others don't understand him, that he himself doesn't understand the science around him - there is a very recognizable ordinariness to his life - he doesn't regard himself as a hero, neither do others.  If the 70s were in some way a comedown from the heights of the 60s, this song describes how split the decade was; split between that 60s specialness and uniqueness and a kind of routine drabness that tends to grow around that specialness once the wonder and spectacle have worn off. 

The songwriting partnership of Elton and Taupin is interesting, if only because the lyrics come first here, as always; because they were written first, and Elton then had to pick out a melody and tempo and chords and bring the lyrics to life.  That he could find hooks as well goes without saying; their songwriting rests on both of them - Taupin to express something, something inspiring enough for Elton to go to the piano and figure out what it's going to sound like.  Here the music is serious, soaring into nothingness at the chorus and then arching back down again, much like the astronaut will eventually come back down to Earth; the heavenly and mundane in a cycle.  This isn't a song about Major Tom, hopelessly cut off and floating around; this is a man who misses his kids (that he feels he has to note that there's no one on Mars to raise his kids just shows how grounded he is, in a way) and can only take solace in the fact he's doing something most other people will never get to do. 

It is not a long stretch to take this song and use it to reflect on Elton and Taupin themselves; Elton as the Rocket Man (there's even a best of by him with that title) and Taupin as the normal guy who helps him as he gets ready to go, writing the lyrics so that the music has a basis from which to soar*.  In the 70s Elton John was simply the biggest star there was, especially in the US - but it is important to remember he didn't do it by himself, that each ballad or rocker or funky groove was inspired by lyrics, lyrics provided by someone who wasn't there in the room with him (they didn't work in the Brill Building fashion, to say the least), someone who knew Elton's capabilities as a composer and pretty much pushed them to the limit.  Elton then took those lyrics and formed a song around them, stretching words or cushioning them or scrunching them to suit his needs (his late stretching of "man" emphasizing the regular-guy aspect of the song, as well as how elevated, literally, the narrator is).  So all of Elton's songs are attempts to make the lyrics sing, and it is noticeable how the better the lyrics are, the more inspired Elton's melodies will be.  (The middle part of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is meh because of this, just as the end and beginning are great.)

That Elton John took over the 70s - well, by 1972 he was well on his way to getting popular everywhere, including his native UK - is undisputed; but at this time he was still the relatively modest figure who was friends with David Bowie and Marc Bolan, who sang plaintive songs and had to (with Taupin's inspiration of course) produce two albums a year, and who maybe wasn't quite ready to be as famous as he was; but he of course took the fame ball and ran with it, making the word superstar come to life.  That he earned and kept so much public goodwill is remarkable, and it was mainly because he was always true to himself, and truly loves music in a way few famous musicians do.  That dedication and heart was always evident; a willingness to take emotion and put it to music.  (I always think of Elton as a pianist first, btw, and singer second.) 

This blog will return to Elton in time; but next...well, there's only one time I'm going to do this, and thus I will be writing about all of one man's eligible songs here, instead of spreading them out - why will become obvious.  It's going to be a long essay, and may take a little while to write; bear with me.    

*I know I'm making Taupin sound like the wife here, but I also think there's a yin/yang balance here, and that in order for this songwriting relationship to work so well the two had to fundamentally like and understand each other, and there is an openness and sympathy evident in their work that makes the more personal songs very touching; that girls loved Elton straight off was due to that emotional openness in his songs. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest: David Cassidy: "Could It Be Forever/Cherish"

We are now in the very flush of spring; in this year of promise and brightness, or this season, anyway, a young man is about to step outside of his figurative nest and become a global superstar; a teen idol.  It’s not what he wants, but it’s what he is, and thousands upon thousands of girls bought “Could It Be Forever” because he is capturing (via songwriter-producer Wes Farrell and fellow-bubblegum songwriter Danny Janssen) that moment of maybe-crazy optimism after a good first date:  maybe this one is it, is going to be my Other.  If in “I Think I Love You” he is afraid of his actual feelings, of taking the plunge and saying it and risking everything – here he is pondering the leap from a moment’s tenderness to something which by definition has no limit.  He sounds remarkably like Cliff Richard here, wondering if that certain tangible kiss is going to be his last, or be the first of many – and the prospect of the future is really what concerns him, almost as if he isn’t really ready for anything so permanent.  But Cassidy’s voice – a perfectly fine one, though he doesn’t have a great range – sings the song, if you know what I mean; I do not get any real feeling from it beyond his general unease (she likes him, and yet is he just wasting his time?), though I am sure that if I was an impressionable 12-year-old girl then, I would have felt quite differently about him and this song.  I can’t ignore the Partridge Family element to this, that he was on tv and girls crushed on him as a singer and an actor*; a double-whammy that even Marc Bolan wouldn’t be able to equal. 

I was far too young to watch the show at the time – I was at nursery school and watched Sesame Street and the odd episode of Julia Child or The Galloping Gourmet back then – so I had to catch up later on in the 70s, when it was in reruns and the show just struck me as …odd.  To quote Dellio & Woods, Cassidy and Shirley Jones were “a real-life stepson/mother combination that added a tense Freudian background” to the show, which I didn’t understand as a kid, let alone their manager, played by Dave Madden, the immortal Ruben Kinkaid, “who mugged and whined and sweated with frightening intensity.” I remember an entire show about the ecology, particularly whales; I remember another where Laurie (Susan Dey, “who was beautiful and wispy and fake-played the organ with reckless abandon”) had new braces that somehow picked up radio waves, messing up her playing and thus causing havoc in the always-on-edge band, whose bus had “Caution:  Nervous Mother Driving” on it, just in case you were wondering if it was the early 70s or not.  By the late 70s the show looked hopelessly quaint, in other words, and I had no idea it was based on an actual family band (The Cowsills).  Which is to say the anxiety in “Could It Be Forever” fit in perfectly with the show even if it was just David going solo and proving he was all grown up now, and was David, not Keith Partridge.
“Could It Be Forever” wasn’t such a big hit in the US, but “Cherish” was; and this is where things start to show their cracks.  “Cherish” was of course The Association’s first big hit, and let me just pause to say I don’t think The Association get nearly as much respect or attention as they deserve; no one ever namechecks them or says they were just as important as anyone else from L.A. at the time, and their influence is more difficult to trace because…well, just listen to the original of “Cherish” and you’ll see what I mean. Written by band member Terry Kirkman, it’s a complex song both melodically and lyrically; it is a mediation on language, on the language of love in particular, and how language is hopeless at finding “the right amount of letters, just the right sound” that will somehow convey this man’s emotional intensity, which has been growing steadily and isn’t just like the love offered by “a thousand other guys.”  He wants his feelings to be reciprocated too, and with all the complex six-voice harmonies and chord changes, The Association made something delicate and tough, and incredibly hard to copy**.  Wes Farrell chose it for Cassidy as no cover version had been done yet, and you’d think that would have been something of a hint; but they did it anyway, with more of that same super-sincere gusto that served Cassidy so well; but the subtleties of the song are lost, he can’t reach those aching high notes that the song needs.  It becomes a regular love song, the chorus being yelled out again and again as if the Other is somewhat deaf and can’t quite believe what she is hearing.  “Cherish” is about description, about attempted description of a feeling anyway, and ends hushed, as if the word itself is at least compensation for the experience.  But Cassidy just lays down his love like a bricklayer making a wall, and that is that.  He cherishes her; the voices in the background – the same ones you’d hear on a Partridge Family record – make it a family sing-a-long, theatrical, instead of the ocean of sound The Association build up, one that even Madonna had to nod to in her song of the same name. 
Since The Association were too busy touring and recording in the US at the time “Cherish” was never a hit in the UK; so Cassidy was able to avoid any of these problems with this song, as his fans were too young to know it in the first place.  A change of generation has happened with fans, after all; the girls who were part of Beatlemania or who screamed for the Stones were all grown up now, and the new generation of girls were now coming, and they had to have their long-haired boys to idolize, too; Cassidy was a favourite, I’m guessing, as he was undoubtedly a Nice Guy and a Sensitive Guy as well; and as mentioned elsewhere, he grew up a showbiz kid who tried as best he could to hang on to who he was in the maelstrom of pop stardom, wherein he caused riots, had to be smuggled in to Top of the Pops, and had to come to terms with being a teen idol, when he really wanted to be a rock star.  That he more often dramatized his songs as opposed to singing them was only to be expected of him; that so many girls have fond memories of him now shows that he was one of the better ones in the whole teen idol mix.  There is no side to him; there are no itchy feelings of unease attached to him, unless he felt them about himself.  So even though the whole pop star/actor thing was beyond me at the time, and kind of puzzling when I got to it, now I can see that Cassidy was doing the best he could, and maybe “Cherish” shouldn’t have been chosen for him, but he was only 21; he didn’t have enough experience to dig down to the roots of the song, and his audience most likely wouldn’t care anyway. 
The “frightening intensity” that did make many itch will be arriving very soon; but first we will be soaring into space with another utterly direct and sincere man.
*I am sure there were a number of boys who crushed on him too; he was chosen to play Keith because of his androgynous looks, after all.    
**This is probably why they don't get name-dropped that much; six-part harmony groups are harder to form than your average duo/trio/quartets, after all.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

No Agony Please, We're British: Vicky Leandros: "Come What May (Apres Toi)"

And now to the winner of 1972's Eurovision, to a song that was sung originally in French as "Avec Toi" but was translated into English as "Come What May."  Leandros was born in Greece but was asked by Luxemburg to represent them at Eurovision in '68 (I have no idea how that would happen, by the way - perhaps it's because she was brought up in Germany?) where she placed a more than respectable fourth place; and so she returns again, with an anthem of love - all the typical tropes are here ("my life changed completely the moment I met you" and "yesterday is very far away" are the main messages of the song, beyond her loyalty and love for her Other).  Yes, this is an unabashed love song, of the kind that automatically gets versions sung in various languages, yet is immediately understandable even if you don't comprehend what she is singing.  The feeling of relief and triumph are here, a kind of stark testifying that might grip the hearts of the Housewives of Valium Court and remind them of their own decisions of the past, ones made with equal conviction and heroic quality.  The French lyrics, however, take the song to a more intimate corner, where she is comparing how she feels when she is with the Other and when she is not; she is singing to let her Other know that she has "les main vides, le coeur sans joie" and the song ends with the ambiguous but hopeful "je pourrai peut-etre/donner de ma tendresse/mais plus rien de mon amour."

All of which is to say that in English this is an utterly straightforward song, clear as can be; but in French (which was the basis of the other versions, I presume) it is more a song of experience and love that is typically Gallic in its sophistication, more heart-grabbing, more the kind of thing that properly translated could be sung by Scott Walker.  I feel as if the English-speaking audience is being cheated here, that a song that is about the many facets of love and loss is being ironed out into a rah-rah blunt statement of near-slavish devotion that is just plain embarrassing once the original lyrics are understood.  I am not sure who re-wrote the song, but s/he did the original version (co-written by Leandros' father, Leo) an injustice.  In French, she sings about living after him as the shadow of her Other's shadow; in English, she seems to give up everything for this man, not once telling him how things will be for her if he leaves her; and so a fine Eurovision winner is more than just lost in translation; it is simplified for an audience that is presumed to be too...something....for such a song to work.  What that something is, is in part what I am working towards here; the answer is not going to be pretty, I'm afraid.

Next up:  back to the 60s via a 70s pin-up. 

Boogie Transfer: Ringo Starr: "Back Off Boogaloo"

It happened one night:  Ringo Starr had Marc Bolan over for dinner - by this time they were friends (who knows when they had met, but Starr like all the ex-Beatles loved T. Rex's music).  Starr was inspired by Bolan's own burbling language at the table - including the word 'boogaloo' - and while about to go to sleep this song came to him.  He managed to record it on tape and then recorded it with George Harrison both producing and playing lead guitar.  Such an event was rare in Starr's life - he isn't a very prolific songwriter - but Bolan's energy and prescence were enough to get Starr to write a song all by himself, one that is a rough shambling boogie, a kind of proclamation. 

Unlike Lennon or McCartney it's hard to figure out what 'message' might be here - besides a general wake-up call to this mysterious figure who has "wallpaper shoes" and who has been pretending to be dead.  Was it a song aimed at McCartney?  The subconscious sometimes says things that can be interpreted any which way, and McCartney may be the target, but it's far more Bolan-influenced than anything else, and a general call to all musicians to get their act together, and realize something new is happening.   

Indeed at this time T.Rex were the biggest band in the UK and by far the most inspiring; David Bowie and Elton John, also friends of his, were to write songs about him as well (Bowie's was "The Prettiest Star" from Aladdin Sane and Elton's was "I'm Gonna Be A Teenage Idol" from Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player both from 1973).  Who knows how many future musicians would see T. Rex in person or on Top of the Pops and instantly want to get onstage with a guitar to do some boogalooing of their own?  This song is just part of the "TRextasy" that existed at this time*.  The boys and the girls were united here as they were divided elsewhere; T.Rex's success would help others to get to glam stardom as well, but none of the groups or individuals who came after were quite like T.Rex.  Those who saw him sensed that this was an apotheosis of rock, this is what it must have been like in the 50s to hear something on the radio and know it was yours, it was new, and that it was righteous.  T.Rex somehow had that elegance and balance down, a sexuality that was both airy and groovy at the same time.  Bolan could give Starr the confidence to write a song, and while Bowie and Elton were already fully-formed personalities of their own, I like to think that they also picked up something from him, as well.  This gift was instantaneous; a fresh breeze blowing all the old 60s dust away.  What would happen next in this raw and charged atmosphere?  Suddenly,it seemed anything could happen, and T.Rex and Marc Bolan in particular are the main reason for that. 

Next up:  Greece is the word.     

*Born To Boogie is a movie by Ringo Starr about T.Rex and features them in concert at Wembley, marking the peak of T.Rex's fame.  Elton John also appears in it, and don't worry dear readers, we will be getting to him soon.