Thursday, June 28, 2012

Where The Wild Things Are: Hurricane Smith: "Don't Let It Die"

There were many movements that started in the 60s that gained ground in the 70s, as more and more people realized that it was personal action – not just voting or going to demonstrations but actually committing to something in their own day-to-day lives – that would actually be meaningful.  This ‘the personal is political’ attitude could lend itself to narcissism, true, as folks turned away from mass movements to something smaller that they could participate in themselves, in private – but then I think most 70s revolutions were private ones, not public ones. 

Of course, there’s being involved and being involved.  “Don’t Let It Die” was a charity single for the World Wildlife Fund (celebrating its tenth anniversary in ’71) and the scope of its work – protecting endangered species, fighting pollution, etc. – was beyond anyone’s simple ability for the most part*.  Helping pandas and bald eagles was as easy as buying a single; perhaps some were moved to join the WWF, but I am guessing the single did well as it was a way to help easily (through consumer culture as opposed to reading-The Silent Spring-culture) and it helped that it was a good song; so many charity songs aren’t (the last good one I heard was the US single for Haiti) and as such they tend to go straight into The Void, having accomplished whatever their purpose was, raising money for their cause, and making their various points. 

Charity singles usually err deeply on the side of sentimentality – after all, they are supposed to pull heartstrings – but Smith’s voice here is elegantly plaintive, sketching out the song (which he intended to give to John Lennon**; so if it sounds like something he could have sung, that’s why) as clearly as he can, but almost shyly as well.  Thus the bold lyrics, simple enough for everyone to understand, are slightly blurred, and the whole thing sounds as if it was recorded quickly, most likely at Abbey Road (where Smith had worked so closely with The Beatles and guided Pink Floyd from the start).  But it’s a muffled sound, as if the studio was down a well, or perhaps the mikes were next door; this is no “War” militantly proclaiming itself, but something nearly oblique.  Smith played his demo to Mickie Most, who said it was good enough to release as a single; and the roughness of the demo works with the lions and kangaroos and beauty of nature itself. 

This is a man in his late 40s, a man who’d served in WWII in the RAF, a man who knew about death, singing about the ecological necessity of keeping things alive; appealing to one and all to do their bit – not in a patriotic way, but as a way to show that you, the individual, who actually knows and cares about tigers and elephants, and think of them as a gift to the world, are willing to stand up and at least buy this single.  That death is a possibility haunts this song, a very grown-up one, very British as opposed to the more sentimental US version of the ecological movement, which could be just as “lite” and dippy as you could imagine***. 

The listener has the power to keep all of nature going; it is a stewardship that goes back to the Bible, back to Adam naming all the creatures.  They are yours; you should look after them.  Creatures that are wild and endangered have to be looked after; they are beautiful and rare, and can startle you when you least expect it.  Whether they are in the wild or in Chelsea Cloisters, down the street or in a nearly inaccessible place, those creatures deserve respect and protection, encouragement and yes, love.  This song is like a muffled echo from the studios and halls of Abbey Road, a rough and hopeful voice that speaks up for itself, modestly, in favor of those who can’t speak at all.

Next up:  well, everyone’s got to start somewhere.

*In the early 70s in Los Angeles, our kindergarten class went to another school to learn about the importance of keeping the Earth tidy from Woodsy  Owl:  Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” was the catchphrase, and this particular Woodsy was so big and serious that it was a genuinely frightening experience. I thought something terrible would happen to me if I littered, and I haven’t since.

**”Across The Universe” by The Beatles, a John Lennon song, was donated to the World Wildlife Fund charity album (No One’s Gonna Change Our World, 1969, organized by Spike Milligan) as the group didn’t really know what to do with it.  On that album it was sped up a little and bird noises were put on the track, which may not make a lot of sense but that’s the ecological movement for you. 

***As Pagan Kennedy says in her great book about the 70s, Platforms:  Ecology connotes the connection among living organisms – cute organisms like baby seals with tears dripping from their big black eyes.  Seventies ecology was about saving endangered species and local beauty spots, picking up litter and cleaning the air; if you were sensitive, it was about feeling kind of weepy when you thought about the plight of the earth…the word environmentalism, on the other hand, is not cute.”  She says the ecological movement did have some benefits – the founding of the EPA and passing of the Endangered Species Act among them – but that this phase passed and became a fashion movement instead, and that the ecological movement’s coverage by the press was the ‘safe’ option as the Vietnam War continued on and people grew tired of it and yearned for, well, cuteness instead.)         

I may as well add here that the whole idea of nature’s usual state being ‘in balance’ (y’know, the whole circle of life business) was also part of the 60s-early 70s ecological movement, a movement that influenced everything from cybernetics to those communes where people tried to mimic this so-called balance inside geodesic domes.  That this was all something of a sham was revealed eventually, but Adam Curtis’ series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace ( esp. “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”) shows how messed up a lot of things got, including the whole Population Boom idea, which meant I didn’t get to have a brother or sister.  Thanks a lot, guys. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Marching Into History: Blue Mink: "The Banner Man"

The main purpose – or at least one of the main purposes – of this blog is an educational one.  There are vast areas of UK culture that I don’t know or understand, and by writing about the number two singles I am at least patiently chipping away at my ignorance about popular music.  I have lived here long enough to notice, however, that this isn’t just a condition of outsiders like me, but natives as well. 

This blog is entering what I can only think of as The Void, a weird area that sees most chart hits being hits at the time but being more or less forgotten ever since, only played on the radio during chart countdown shows.  I suppose some of these songs also fit in the dreaded ‘guilty pleasures’ category, but only some.  Most songs in The Void are left to those who heard them in the first place, and are all but unknown to anyone now, for all sorts of reasons. 

“The Banner Man” is one such song.  Blue Mink were a group of studio musicians (co-writer Roger Cook and Madeline Bell among them; they also sing here, I believe) who figured they were good enough to become an actual band; and so in the late 60s they formed, having a hit with “Melting Pot” and then a second hit with “Good Morning Freedom.”  Those titles reflect a certain early 70s optimism, that special kind of righteousness that launched the 70s, a feeling – noted more ironically with The Rolling Stones – that anything can happen, and that this is a good thing, more or less…

But now here we are, in late June of 1971, and already the decade is in a lull; something clearly is going to happen, but no one quite knows what this is yet.  Times like this call for leaders, or at least someone charismatic; someone who can seem “ten feet tall” and inspire others, convert them if you will, to a cause.  If the previous songs were about general chaos, revenge and certain death, this song is about a joyous, loud parade up a hill, led by the banner man himself, who then saves a few souls and then goes back down the hill again, coronets and drums playing once again as he proudly marches on, the children (this song is written from a child’s perspective) watching in awe and joy.

If this song belongs to The Void it is due to its overwhelmingly quaint nature.  I am not sure just what the banner reads here, nor what is being preached, but would anyone hearing this song now under a certain age have any idea what it was about?  I do not know if the songwriters (Cook, Roger Greenaway and Herbie Flowers) saw the Salvation Army bands marching and preaching; the closest I’ve come to any Salvation Army sounds is the large hand bell rung at Christmastime by a member raising money for their cause.  This is what it is about, I suppose, but there’s another march that I have seen – a relatively small one, all things considered – that comes to mind. 

It was a rather hot and humid day in July, ’90 or ’91 perhaps, and I was walking through Queen’s Park in Toronto, en route to where I forget; I heard it before I saw it, the green lush trees obscuring my sight at first.  It was a marching band, a smallish one, all older men mostly.  I looked at the calendar once I got home and figured out it was the Old Order Orange march; Orangemen helped to found Toronto and there were still lodges here and there across the city, though their power and influence had waned in the last 60 years or so.  I don’t recall any spectators, besides me; they seemed to be marching as it was the done thing, and it was a reminder of times past.  And yes, there was someone holding a banner, perhaps even two people. 

I cannot ignore the fact that this was a hit (an NME #2) during marching season; that is one factor in its success, its celebration of the “glory, glory, glory” of the band and the message it brings.  That it is a simple, upbeat song sung from a child’s point of view also means kids bought it, too (just as kids would have bought “The Pushbike Song” for instance)*.  That this is a song that saves the world is just the sort of savior-is-here message needed at a time like this; the trouble (Troubles?) with saviors, however, is that they cannot do what they do alone.  For every person that might be convertible, there are those who are, for whatever reason, against conversion**. 

That this sounds like a product of a studio and not a live band doesn’t matter so much at this time (one when the song, not the singer(s), is the important thing) but the subject matter does.  The very things that made it successful then mark it for The Void now, including its religious element, its child’s angle, and its in-build old-fashioned four-square aura of a time that in ’71 – never mind now – would conjure up the Troubles and marching seasons that always cause trouble as opposed to a jolly little march to save souls in a town.  It is an innocent oompah-oompah of a song, done as professionally as you’d expect, but somehow it’s hard to hear it that way now, and may have even struck some as unpleasant then.  And so it has more or less disappeared…

Next up:  where the wild things (still) are.

*At this time the singles charts were dominated by songs either bought by kids or those definitely into adulthood, grandparents included; anyone who considered themselves at all "cool" were buying albums, not singles.       

**An Australian born around this time, now currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, could say a lot about this.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Popcorn Double Feature: R. Dean Taylor: “Indiana Wants Me”/Tony Christie: “I Did What I Did For Maria”

I’m not sure what was in the air to create this situation, but as you dear reader, can see, there’s not one but two men facing their ends here; men who took the law into their own hands, because of something that happened to their wives.  Vigilante chic certainly was part of this (particularly in the US); after the summer of love comes the fall of ass-kicking, or in these cases, death-dealing.  The morbidity rate is high here, with three dead people at the end, maybe four if the Indiana State police happen to consider their fugitive armed and dangerous. 

Of course these songs succeeded because these stories are practically the oldest ones around.  Honor, betrayal, slander, revenge:  Christie invokes the Bible, Taylor simply says that the man he killed (deliberately, I’ve decided, not accidentally or as a crime of passion) said something to his wife he really, really shouldn’t have said.  This moment might well distract the listener from the sirens at the start and finish, not to mention the unprecedented gunfire at the end – what on earth did the (now) dead man say? 
This is the black hole of the song, and the rest of the lyrics just end up getting sucked through it.  He’s sorry – terribly sorry – that she’s had so much shame to deal with, and he’s sorry to see the man he’s become.  Well, isn’t that nice. The fact that he’s a father as well is something that, um, maybe he should have thought about before killing the other guy?  What could he have possibly said to her that would justify murder?  Something about her, her family, her reputation, what?  I don’t want to get too obsessed with this, but unless this woman has led a rather sheltered life, she has probably dealt with enough insults and catcalls to deal, however she sees fit, with this one.  No, I suspect that the man was the real target here, not his wife; that the slur was somehow really aimed at him, but said to her. 

Beyond that I can’t really speculate, as the song focuses more on how the narrator is sorry, and how they have found him out at last (who knows how long he’s been hiding out – I always see him in a shack or old farm building in Kentucky somewhere).  The gunfire suggests that he’s dead, or that he soon will be; if this song could be compared to an aria from an opera, which I think it can, then it’s almost inevitable that he will die, whether being killed or killing himself (which would only add to his wife’s shame, but is sadly a strong possibility).  The strings saw away (this song is like the ugly flipside of Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy”) and the band marches along, clearly on his side.  He wishes he could talk to her; but what on earth would he say?  Why has he been running away instead of just calling the cops and turning himself in*?  Hmm, maybe this death wasn’t as premeditated as I first supposed it to be.  And yet words were said; maybe there was a fight, and some blunt instrument was handy – a kitchen knife, perhaps?  And in his own shame and defiance, he ran away, leaving his wife (whose shame in all this is perhaps presumed, but whose life is most certainly at this point miserable) to tidy up, as it were. 

The scenarios are endless, and the husband’s remorse is touching, but he meant to do it.  That he ran away makes him look, I’m afraid, like a coward; the music is desperately heroic, dramatic, and in some way is coming after him as surely as the state police are.  He can’t go back to Indiana so Indiana is conveniently going after him; he must figure a lonely death in another state beats a trial and the death penalty there.  He tries to appeal to us through his remorse, but that black hole makes it all but impossible to really figure out how justified his actions are.  At bottom, though, they’re repulsive – if the guy he killed was really so awful, why does he talk so little about him?  Was this a last-straw situation, had he been saying things and spreading rumors for months?  Or is the narrator of this song someone who is a bit too easily offended himself?  I can’t feel sorry for him – for his family, sure, but not him.  His last letter says too much and yet too little; he has taken matters into his own hands and isn’t happy with the result.  The story is old, but somehow the song asks us to sympathize with the narrator, and I can’t; he seems to be justifying what he did after the fact, almost as if he had a beef with this other guy for another reason entirely (perhaps) and this insult to his wife was his “reason” to go after him.  I cannot help but remain suspicious here, which suits the early 70s just fine (thus it was a hit) – because after the 60s’ betrayals and fallouts, who could be trusted?  And so, vigilantes sprouted up in music and movies, some proud and brave, and others unable to do anything but run**.
The world of Tony Christie is a much more bearable one, though just as deadly, because the man is avenging a death; his wife wasn’t just insulted but (it’s insinuated) tortured and perhaps even worse; and so the scales tip this way and that, and the whole thing has the ease of a mathematical equation:  3-1-1-1=0.  First the wife dies, then the murderer, and now, the widow, in what sounds like the Old West (the heroic horns here could be from the 50s, as could the song) prepares to die.  The narrator walks into town, to the designated street, and everyone hides, as he coolly and calmly waits for his foe.  It is all very theatrical; the ease of the song tells us there was no contest, the death was quick and neat, and the song is one heard en route to the gallows; Maria’s death has been avenged, his own death is one he is not afraid of (the Lord is invoked in both these songs, in the first it’s to help him escape, the second when he is happy to join Him). 

Christie sings it with his usual gusto, and his whole demeanor is not one of struggle but ease, as if this whole thing isn’t real but some sort of folk tale, where the narrator and Maria are reunited and the bad guy has no one but himself to blame for what happened.  There’s no anguish in the narrator’s story, it is as if he has realized that this is his destiny, and he is just doing what he has to do.  He doesn’t think; he acts.  The whole story could take place, from start to finish, over two or three days; the narrator doesn’t sound like the brooding type, and you kind of wonder where the police are in this town to arrest and then hang the culprit himself.  The police, who are so feared and dreaded in the first song, simply don’t exist in this town, it seems; and so the narrator has to do the dirty work himself. 

He doesn’t seem to mind; as he walks to his death he has no one to talk to (unlike the narrator in “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You”) – the slate is clean, his conscience is clear, there’s nothing more to be done than finish the equation.  He doesn’t imagine anyone mourning him, missing him, even noticing his actions.  He simply says he did what he did for Maria, which is noble on one hand and sad on the other.  Is there no one else in his life who cares about him?  Was there no one else in town, even?  This whole song has the weird effect of an episode of The Prisoner, the one set in a western town where nothing is as real as it seems***.  It is hard to believe the simplicity and flat quality of the song, especially since Maria herself is not described in the least, beyond her name.  Vengeance is the thing, the only thing, and again I have to wonder at why this is all taking place, and just who the murderer is; but everything is boiled down to the basics here, so simple as to dampen and dull any real interest.

Next up:   no deaths, mercifully, but what on earth is going on?        

*The narrator of “Delilah” doesn’t run away, he’s too upset and maybe crazy to do so.
**Taylor was inspired to write this after seeing Bonnie & Clyde; perhaps the fact that he’s on the run from The Man is the most important thing here.  Taylor is Canadian, which adds a thin layer here of sheer survivalism, as if he's been a Worried Man for some time now (pace Greil Marcus on The Band).        

***If you haven't seen "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling", it works perfectly well by itself; though seen in context it's even better.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Songs of the South: The Rolling Stones: "Brown Sugar/Bitch/Let It Rock"

And now, some of you might be thinking, we get back to the real thing; the real and sometimes awkward thing known as rock ‘n’ roll.  Certainly The Rolling Stones have discovered, since last I wrote about them, that the 60s are definitively over (the death of Brian Jones in July ’69 was their own sad part in that scene) and the early 70s are busy wiping out whatever else was left.  This was a group at its peak; this was also a group so notorious that they weren’t allowed to record in any Los Angeles studios, a bunch of young men who simply ran with bohemianism after their first manager had hyped them as bad boys.  Sex, dope, freedom; well, probably yes to the first two, but absolute freedom, no.  Sure, they got their own mobile studio so they didn’t have to worry about unions or organizations, but the success of Sticky Fingers (where the first two songs here begin each side, respectively) meant exile, estrangement and exhaustion.  Sometimes being modest, keeping things small and hidden, is the best strategy; live a bourgeois life and then make shocking music, to paraphrase Flaubert.  But, due to circumstances and personality, that wasn’t an option.  If you’re going to be the baddest bunch of badasses around, to really be bohemian artists, movement and some measure of desperation are crucial. 
Time is also of the essence; “Brown Sugar” was recorded very quickly at Muscle Shoals, in Alabama, where almost no one knew who they were.  It’s Jagger’s song, lyrics and music (Richards cleaned up the music a little, he says) and while Marsha Hunt says it’s in part about her, it is a straight-out-of-the-unconscious song about the roots of rock, about young girls and house boys, about slavery and money, about Africa and America.  Jagger is still (at this stage!) saying “I’m no school boy but I know what I like” (hmm) as if he really needs to tell us he’s down for whatever; the sugar may be a girl, a drug, music, or the whole thing altogether.  His question is rhetorical; or is it?  Certainly the music is a rave-up, the guitar and horns and Jagger’s “whoo”s making it sound like some kind of houseparty, and everyone in the song seems to be having fun, save for the poor women being whipped at the beginning (and in the murk of this song, you can only imagine what the hell’s happening afterward, or how much fun the man in question is having at any given time).  It’s always the midnight hour in this song, the culmination one day and start of the next; a time when anything is possible.  So much of this noisy song points towards sounds that aren’t there – the whipcracks, the grunts and groans, the chains, the oohs and aahs, wading into that deep water where rock and roll isn’t just a metaphor anymore, but real.  Jagger is audibly strutting here and the band is eagerly jumping in, licking and savouring the whole thing with relish, as if to say, well, yeah, the roots of rock ‘n’ roll are kinda umm, unpleasant, but hey, look what we got now! We’re in Alabama, dammit, right down here in a damn shack across the street from (somehow appropriately) a cemetery.  Ghosts abound, unnerving ones, and this is one big whistle to say, we aren’t afraid, we can look at pain and degradation and find sex and exultation even in that. 
Is this an ugly song, at its heart?  Is Jagger’s wondering just where all this pleasure is coming from kind of obvious?  Or is there something just so raw here that even he can only really allude to it? The oomph of the song sweeps a lot of these questions away, and certainly most who bought it in the US and UK wouldn’t care too much about them.  It rocks, it’s the Stones, it sounds rough and sexy, and so of course it’s a hit.  The group isn’t so much testing its audience here as more or less slapping them in the face, the violence of the song somehow seeping out to an audience willing to share it.  That they played this song for the first time at Altamont is eerie, to say the least.
Bitch” is a simpler affair; love is blue, as Paul Mariat has it, but for Jagger and Richards it’s just a bitch, making you weak, insatiable, sloppy, destroying any and all willpower.  I can’t say I remember these songs when they came out (I was only four at the time) but I remember hearing this only too well in a used bookstore in Washington D.C. in the hot summer of ’99.  I had gone down there to stay with my godmother while I was visiting/hanging out with a guy I’d gotten to know very well indeed  online (emails every day, that sort of thing); he had dumped me asap (the day after I’d arrived) and in hearing this I could certainly sympathize with Jagger’s complaints.  I couldn’t sleep or think straight on the way down, I felt possessed; even after the dumping, there was only one thing on my mind, besides the incredible heat and humidity, and that was the possibility of hearing from him in some way.  I had gone into the thing wholeheartedly and had to reach out to anything and anyone who could help me through my empty days.  Even though he’s in a relationship, it’s a drain; the “yeah yeah yeah”s here are affirmations, high-fives from him to me, that excitement is confounding and frustrating, that even if the relationship is good, it still can have you at its mercy, that love is unapologetic and nothing can replace it – everything else, sleep, food, everything else is secondary. The horns stab at him like prongs here, the guitar winks, the whole song is a huge agitation, swishing this way and that, relentless, just as love is.  The big bass drum pounds along with his heart, and I remember getting some solace from this, that love possesses and takes over, and the poor physical body just has to put up with it, in the hopes that something more peaceful might develop out of it all.  Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.
And now, finally, welcome everyone, to the man who started it all.  The only rock ‘n’ roller my father could abide; the one who will likely outlive all others, God willing.  Chuck Berry.  Rock ‘n’ roll is his thing and everyone else is more or less just winging it from there.  To say the Stones owe a lot to him is a massive understatement; even after having a rough time of it playing with him, Richards had to forgive Berry, because he is the fount of all of this, this mixture of country and r&b, sounding so natural at this time but so radical in the 50s.  Berry's Let It Rock*” (the title’s never mentioned in the song) is about railroad workers in Alabama finishing up building some track, waiting to be paid for the week, resting, playing games or just hanging out, when the foreman rushes to them, nearly breathless, telling them there’s an unscheduled train coming this way, so clear out, get off the tracks.  They do, moving bodies and teepees and equipment, the song ending with them safe and a train about to appear; whether it stops in time (after all, there’s no more track for it) is hard to say, but the propulsive rhythm suggests that the train can’t stop now, it’s too late, and whatever happens next is anyone’s guess.  The Stones play it faithfully enough, and again metaphors abound; the South and the heat; the unstoppable thing that is rock; the longing for freedom from strife and search for pleasure; the sudden chaos and unpredictability of life itself.  One minute you’re throwing dice and the next you’re running around like crazy, trying to avoid injury or even death.  Like so many Berry songs it says so much while being so simple, so elemental, both musically and lyrically.  The future is here, the train is coming; the men who are helping it to happen live in danger, but pioneers always do. 
The Stones were familiar with hairy situations, but like these workers they too would have to scatter fast, be resourceful and somehow still retain those bohemian roots, as well.  (“Bitch” was recorded in London, “Let It Rock” live in Leeds; is this the only triple-a-side where recorded in three different places?  I think so.)  All this running around takes its toll, as they would find out; the complaints of “Bitch” could just as equally apply to a love affair or with (to a certain extent) the love of music itself, a love that equally cannot be faked. 
The roughness and honesty of these songs – the fountains and the source, if you like – are admirable, disturbing, itchy.  The rave-up is about sex and slavery; the rocker is about the pains, not pleasures, of love; but here at the end is a wake-up call to live, to prize life above everything else, to lose your blues in brand new shoes.  The Stones tried to do this, but after a while they settled for the bourgeois life without that much rawness seeping out; there are only so many ways to be bad, genuinely bad, before it begins to pall.  (The always elegant and ever-slightly-sarcastic drumming of Charlie Watts is like a constant rejoinder here that rock ‘n’ roll may be all well and good, but jazz came before it and hovers above it like an open umbrella.)  Chuck Berry is the winner here, if there’s to be a contest, and really, there is no contest; it’s his world and the Stones roll around in it, now and then reflecting on where it all started, on where rock ‘n’ roll got its name in the first place.  Rock is coming of age**, just teetering on being respectable, whether it wants to be or not.  That this was stopped from going to #1 by a song that is genuinely more creepy (“Knock Three Times”) shows that pop is somehow always able to smuggle the most dreadful things and have no one notice, whereas rock has to try harder and harder to do what it once did:  shock. 
Next up:  what if freedom is sacrificed for something greater?      
*In a few months a fashion boutique/hangout in Chelsea’s World’s End area will also be named Let It Rock; it will reach back to the 50s at first, but then will turn into a place where the future will be shaped.  Its proprietors:  Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.
**If it started in ’55, it’s now in its own “sweet sixteen” phase.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Genuine Imitation: Waldo de los Rios: "Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor"

When I was growing up, still a little girl in Los Angeles, there were three kinds of music I’d hear on a regular basis.  One was rock; one was jazz; and one was classical.  I would say that of all three classical has the deepest influence on what I hear and how I hear it; and the composers I heard formed my idea of what music should be like.  They weren’t the big names like Bach, Beethoven and Brahms; they were Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Mussorgsky for the Russian side (big music, fearless and emotional) and Satie, Saint-Saens, Debussy and especially Ravel on the French one (more delicate, playful, elegant and yet also emotional).  Add Aaron Copland and Iannis Xenakis to all that and it's what I grew up on; fairly mainstream stuff, but overwhelmingly Romantic/Modern (as opposed to the really old school composers whose work is more genuinely 'classical' as such).  I did not hear opera as my parents just didn’t care for it; only in the 90s did I really become aware of any other classical composers, past or present*. This music went to places the other two kinds of music couldn’t quite reach, sublime places where out and out awe was the only response, beauty and life were celebrated in stirring ways.  Classical music has gotten me through more than one terrible time, in part because of its power and in part because I associate this large swathe of it with my parents; I respond to these composers as I would to early sights and smells, with instant familiarity.
And so I come to Waldo de los Rios’ “Mozart 40” with some ambivalence.  I have no deep attachments to Mozart, as such; but I imagine that he means as much as Satie or Mussorgsky do to me, and I can only wonder what those people would make of this.  A symphony reduced to a nice melody in a light pop format?  This must smack them as a kind of Muzakization of Mozart, a simplified version for those who like him well enough but don’t have the time to actually listen to the real thing.  Well, I can hear them say, maybe this might lead them to the real thing, or maybe it will just become background music on sports shows on tv.  The patisserie delicateness of the melody – it floats like a feather in the breeze – gets an acoustic guitar and drums added on, just to make foot tapping easier, I suppose. 
De los Rios wanted to bring this (perceived) old music up to date, which I guess is admirable enough, but something about it makes me uneasy.  Something as inherently pleasant and undemanding as the Mozart’s 40 lends itself to pop treatment, but apart from hapless visions of canapĂ© hell at dinner parties where de los Rios’ album Symphonies for the 70s was most surely played, I don’t really know anyone who would actually want to hear this on anything like a daily basis.  Mozart doesn’t really need to be updated; the surge of popularity he got with Amadeus (an admirable movie, if not really that accurate) didn’t suddenly see people running off to buy this; they wanted the real thing, because they had an emotional attachment to it – understood what Mozart’s life was like – and responded.  Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” (1976) was also a one-off hit, a novelty, the sort of thing that was done because it could be done, as much as anything else; and I’m afraid that is where “Mozart 40” also belongs.  It’s modern, it’s ingenious, it brings Mozart into the same chart as (amongst others) Frank Sinatra, the Delfonics, Deep Purple and T.Rex; what he would have made of this I will leave to your imagination. 
For a moment in the spring of ’71 a song based on a symphony made it to #2 in the NME; de los Rios gained fame outside of his native Argentina**, and continued on for a few more years before succumbing to depression in ’77.  He was a composer of original works as well, it should be noted; but this was his biggest hit.  Like so many things in the 70s, it’s an update that must have sounded hip at the time, but the novelty and hipness wore off as the decades have progressed.  Like the previous song it was far more successful in the UK than in the US, which points to something – I’m not sure what- in the differences between the two nations***.  In the US I imagine folks would have prided themselves on liking the original version, thank you very much; in the UK it was a pleasant change, a nice arrangement to listen to while driving or cooking, adding a touch of class to the proceedings. 
As an American I have to side with the former opinion – yes it is earnest and “classicist” but as nice and at-the-time cool as this is, I can’t like it as much as I like the original, and if de los Rios ever did anything based on works I know and love well, I don’t want to hear them.  This may sound harsh, but when Rush Limbaugh is the only one to champion your work in the US (he featured this on his show in 2010 and it had a brief surge in popularity) it makes me wonder if this version – or any of his other works -  was ever necessary at all.  A cover of a previous hit song is one thing, but trying to update something that doesn’t need to be updated is bound to be a folly; pleasant enough to some, but not to others.
Next up:  the roots of rock, explained.      
*Mainly due to the excellent movie Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, and its equally great soundtrack, which I would heartily encourage you to listen to if you haven’t already.  As for early 70s composers, this is when Steve Reich and Philip Glass begin to get some attention.
**I should add that fellow Argentinian Gato Barbieri was finishing up his contribution to Escalator Over The Hill at this time and was about to start composing the music to Last Tango In Paris.  De los Rios also did scores for movies, but mostly did this neo-classical work.
***The two singles charts are growing further and further apart; by the time glam truly hits it big, they will have almost nothing in common at all.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I Spit On Your Grave And Stick Out My Tongue In The Process: Ray Stevens: “Bridget The Midget (The Queen Of The Blues)”

I often wonder if all humanity wants is funny noises. Or noises which think they’re funny. Like a cat spellbound for hours by a stray thread on a carpet, I suspect we still have very simple tastes and are easily pleased; although few records strive as hard to please me and fail as spectacularly as “Bridget The Midget”; so perturbed was Lena at the thought of having to write about it that she passed the assignment on to me.

That is perhaps not an entirely fair condemnation. I thought the record was hilarious when it was in the charts and I was seven; with the possible exception of Simon Cowell, I am hard pressed to think of any adult who would find it funny. And yet that was the record’s core audience in 1971; it was a much requested item on the BBC radio show Junior Choice, whose immense popularity at the time accounts for several otherwise inexplicable major hits of the period. So pervasive was the affection for it that the title became a nickname for the headmistress in Grange Hill at the opposite end of the decade.

That was the story in Britain, at any rate; in the States, the record peaked at #50 in charts where, for a contemporaneous while, the late Janis Joplin achieved the posthumous double; number one album (Pearl) and number one single (“Me And Bobby McGee”). The latter did not even make the UK Top 50, in common with “What’s Going On?,” “Clean Up Woman” and “Mr Big Stuff”; but only the redoubtable Marc Bolan, with “Hot Love,” stopped “Bridget” from going all the way here.

Stevens, from Clarkdale, Georgia, is one of the least palatable figures in the last half-century of pop; close examination of his initial run of US hits reveals a similar infantile fascination with capital F “Funny” (“Ahab The Arab,” “Gitarzan,” “Jeremiah Peabody’s Unending Novelty Song Title”) and, from 1968, the inevitable, earnest craving to be simultaneously taken seriously; hence sententious pieces of social non-comment like “Mr Businessman” or gloopy God-bothering singalongs like “Everything Is Beautiful” (a number one in a 1970 America in need of reassurance) or “Turn Your Radio On.” Against that, it must be noted that he made the first recording of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and, in his alternate role as producer, writer and arranger at Monument Records throughout the sixties, helped and encouraged many important names, including Brook Benton, Dusty Springfield and Dolly Parton.

The latter is particularly relevant since the speeded-up “Bridget” sounds remarkably like Dolly, and that perhaps is the only interesting thing about the record. It does cause a feeling in the neighbourhood of sorrow that a record which clearly involved a lot of complex work and application (singing “Bridget”’s lines at drawn-out half-speed to make them sound normal when speeded up, multiple overdubbing, etc.) has so little of merit about it. She is two feet tall, tap dances on the side and has a backing group called “Strawberry And The Shortcakes,” while Stevens does some unconvincing white soul hollering and slows his voice down to 16 rpm to play the would-be lecherous stage invader.

But there is no payoff, no provoking point of actual laughter – despite “Bridget”’s strange periodic giggles all the way through the record - and therefore no purpose, other than (like the David Seville/Chipmunks hits) to please those who imagine that voices speeded up are in themselves funny. From this distance, it looks like a tongue stuck out at Joplin’s memory, and at soul music in general – the record this actually recalls most strongly is Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips Part 2,” a genuinely revolutionary (and genuinely funny – “What key? What key?”) record which, unsurprisingly, did nothing in 1963 Britain. You might argue that things like Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go” and There’s A Riot Goin’ On represent the kind of reaction this record deserves.

However, Stevens proceeded to more hits of both stripes, peaking with 1974’s abysmal “The Streak,” before eventually succumbing to telemarketing in the nineties and regrettable, if not surprising, far-right drum-banging from the late noughties onward. The problem is that something like “We The People” is as expertly put together and choreographed as “Bridget” – and there is the ultimate danger in believing too fervently in funny voices.

Next: a club classic from Argentina.

Monday, June 11, 2012

As Good As It Gets: Lynn Anderson: "(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden"

"I believe that 'Rose Garden' was released at just the right time. People were trying to recover from the Vietnam years. The message in the song — that if you just take hold of life and go ahead, you can make something out of nothing — people just took to that."  - Lynn Anderson

The early 70s was a time, amongst many things, of people who were either pulling back the reins from 60s excesses or people who were sufficiently mellowed out by them to continue being casual and laid back right through the 70s.  Opposites attract, and that seems to be where this song (an NME #2) steps in.  The woman is a (cold) realist, a Ms. Light-at-the-break-of-Dawn type who seems to be upbraiding her more good-timey Other here for some untold reason.  “There’s going to be some rain” she says, as if the “melancholy” other didn’t already know about rain; and she compares happiness to a rose garden, when anyone who’s had to deal with roses knows darn well that where there’s roses, there’s thorns*.  I begin to wonder exactly what on earth is going on in this song – why is he sulking and pouting (presumably)?

Why does she say “Come along and share the good times while we can”?  Somewhere in the background here there’s a clock ticking, ticking, and for all I know it’s a biological clock.  Is there a baby on the way?  Has he been drafted? The song was written by Joe South, and thus there any number of odd undercurrents going on here.  There is clearly a problem between the narrator and the Other, but what it is – besides general dissatisfaction – isn’t at all clear.  The line “so smile for a while and let’s be jolly” is perhaps the least happy version of happiness this blog has yet encountered; and Lynn Anderson’s rather acidic voice makes this more than clear; the clock is running, for certain, on a relationship where one person has hopes and dreams and the other is unable, it seems, to even sympathize with their longings. 
Indeed, the narrator seems to equate such dreams as “big diamond rings” and promising the moon, very traditional romantic tropes that are more or less getting the Lysol treatment here, sprayed and wiped away like so many germs on a kitchen counter**.  I know that country music prides itself on down-home realism, but this is a bit too stern-rolling-pin-and-apron even for me, and I’m related directly to people who can more than identify with this song.  At the end I can only wonder why these two are still together – and that “while we can” hangs over this song and dominates it much more than any promises of real, lasting love (again, represented by the whole “still waters run deep” trope, which South turns into a potential drowning hazard).  “I beg your pardon***” the song says, and then goes on to trample all over any ideas of mercy or pardoning whatsoever.

The rather cold tone of this song was used perfectly in 1988 by Canada’s own Kon Kan in their hit “I Beg Your Pardon”; a KLF's Manual-inspired worldwide hit that mixed this song up with a good imitation of New Order, disco samples and modern technology to depict a relationship that is on its way out, because of the other’s inability to commit; Anderson’s despairing voice makes a lot more sense here, somehow.  Perhaps some songs are better sampled than in the original? Taking hold of life may make sense to some, but here it’s a rather sorry consolation; are the dreams and hopes of the 60s so trampled that settling for a little happiness sounds like a victory?

Up next:  some songs are beyond me.      

*As Poison kindly reminds us in a decade and a half’s time.

**In a kitchen that perhaps has a harvest gold, burnt orange or avocado theme.    

***I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is also the title of a semi-autobiographical book about a young woman’s struggles with deep depression; it came out in 1964 and plotwise has nothing to do with this song, though in true 70s tradition it was made into a movie in 1977, as part of the 70s strand of young-women-struggling-with-society-by-going-nuts movies, including a really bad version of Plath’s The Bell Jar and Sybil.  The 70s was obsessed by “issues” and “movements” and being frank and open, which is why so many remember the decade with a little embarrassment, even in the U.S. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

I Am Woman: Paul McCartney: "Another Day"

Now we turn from the eternal to the quotidian; as the 60s comedown continues, the idea of doing small, ordinary songs – songs that hail not revolution but regular life – start to crop up.  It’s only natural that this should happen, as a reaction to the Big Statements of the 60s, to want to scale down a little, to perhaps even admit that despite all the ideals heralded then, life continues on, doggedly, the joys few and far between.  The grimness of the 70s is imminent.

McCartney wrote this song while he was still in The Beatles, one of many that he kept for himself (including “Maybe I’m Amazed”) – and now, a little less than a year after they broke up, Harrison’s had a number one and McCartney nearly gets one, with a song that is about, primarily, sadness.  The narrator looks on with sympathy as she goes to work, drinking coffee to stay alive, her whole life centering around her man, who spends only the night with her; no reason is given, it’s just the way things are.  She cries with loneliness; she wonders why she is alive.  Despite his “dee do do do do dos” and the oddly Latin feel to the song (as if, somehow, “every day” was a bull she has to face in the ring), this is not a happy tune.  It is the midway point between “Lady Madonna” and “Eleanor Rigby” with the added bonus of Linda, his wife, helping out with the song.  How much she contributed I don’t know, but the realism of the song is utterly female – the wet towel, the raincoat, that extra cup of coffee, the existential despair.  Still, the woman of the song lives to face yet another day, overcoming her sadness in one way or another, and it is this day-to-day life that McCartney wants to describe and honor. 

That John Lennon mentioned it specifically in his song “How Do You Sleep?” shows how little Lennon really understood what McCartney was trying to do; the big-eyed visionary with slogans isn’t necessarily going to get a song about Everywoman’s heartaches and regular routines.  Maybe Lennon wanted him to write something more political, more of a protest; but in just showing what a single woman’s life is like, giving her her due, McCartney is being far more subversive than Lennon, his empathy with her crying and angst somehow more touching than any slogans he could have come up with.  McCartney is trying, in his own way, to raise consciousness; to show that there are those out there who may be superficially coping but are alone, going from habit to routine almost as a way of staving off misery itself.  That she keeps going somehow is a victory, a victory many women who hear this song understand intimately. 

Next up:  yet another female take on regular life. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Oceanic: Perry Como: "It's Impossible"

I sometimes think the major differences in music are not between genres or styles or methods but in depth and feeling; and by that I don’t mean ‘soul’ as such.  Once you are married you realize there are simply two different kinds of music – or rather, that there is music that those who are married can listen to and comprehend in a different way than those who have never been married can.  This is not a superior position, believe me; if anything, it’s a humbling one.

To be married is simply to want, need and love another – one particular other – forever.  It is the permanence of it that scares many, the commitment – just to that one other person.  No matter how much wealth or fame or glamour or power a person might have, that commitment to another has to be first.  There are many who make rock/pop music that have tried and faltered at marriage, as it requires something quite different from what goes hand-in-hand with so much pop; searching, losing, courting, breaking up, agonizing over the Other or being happy finally finding the Other.  Marriage – the wedding – is the goal here, the line beyond pop usually, exhausted from all this happiness and heartache, stops.  Getting married is the ultimate in girl group music, beyond which nothing pretty much exists besides wedded bliss.

I can just see Perry Como shaking his head.

The thing about this commitment – one that the single folks might dimly realize, at times – is that it’s for life.  It stretches out into the infinite, into the unthinkable.  Como stands right at that edge, amongst the sun and the stars, an astronaut of the heart.  He explains how much his love means to him and how endless and profound it is, to the point – and I think you can hear it in his voice, bolstered by the arrangement – where he realizes how small he is himself in relation to love, artful, unconditional love*.  Asking him not to love his Other is impossible, just as so many other natural things simply are, no questions asked.  Behind his are some pretty intense and unnerving feelings and ideas, the main one being that being married – and this is a marriage song – is a big task, a lifelong one, and one that cannot be ended.  Divorce – the concept is alien, pointless.  Even death is not the end, as you are always linked to your Other in one way or another, he or she is always there. 

I’m not sure if those who are still worrying about how they will share space in the bathroom or who takes the garbage out – those who are uneasy about the physical aspect of living with someone else – will react to such a metaphysical song.  It may well sound irrelevant to them, or intimidating, or more than a little soppy.  Or hard to imagine – just how can one person be so utterly committed to another?  Others might think it a great romantic ballad, that kind which sounds lovely and says all the right things, without really getting the implications behind what Como is saying.  But here he is, right at the foundation of things, seemingly at the root of existence itself, helpless at the fact that love is so much bigger than himself, that it is (as I take it) something that was created a long, long time ago, and will exist for the rest of not just his life but life itself.  (That it is a song, a bolero, from Mexico, just emphasizes all this for me, in some deep-rooted way**.)

That this decade is known for its spike in divorce rates is well known; the 70s was a tough time for many married folks, I’d imagine, as the ideas about what married life was all about were changing, but Como is here to remind us that it’s a profound experience that is lovely and comforting and for life.  There’s a whole new generation who are getting married and settling down around now, for whom this is their song; the 70s exist, in a way, to see if they truly understand the intensity and immense experience marriage is, beyond any pieces of paper or jewellery.  This was the single my late father-in-law bought for his wife (now my mother-in-law) for Valentine’s Day; a time when people celebrate that twang! of the arrow, that change which starts as a warmth in the heart and then spreads out to the rest of the universe.  The two become one; and that one unites with something a whole lot bigger than itself. 

Next up:  back to the world of the single girl. 

*The tinkling piano aping the ocean’s waves crashing on the shore is, admittedly, rather cute, which is to say it’s sweet and all, but audibly not enough to really get across the feeling here.  But then, what is?  The pathos of this song is that there isn’t really any way to get across musically what is being sung, music itself has to take a backseat here, just as the singer does.

**That this was another NME #2 behind "My Sweet Lord" has its own ironies, of course.