Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Then and Now: Middle of the Road: "Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum"

And now, dear readers, I have the pleasure of presenting to you one of the oddest of all songs to appear so far in this blog; strange as (to me, at least) it takes an event from history and places it, wittingly or unwittingly, right there in front of everyone.  It – the Glencoe massacre – wasn’t a pleasant event, to say the least; and yet here it is, centuries later, appearing in a pop song.

This has caused me to reflect on various things, including collective memory and what can be done with it.  People can decide to remember and mourn; people can hold a grudge, telling and retelling a story, exaggerating here or there, to keep the grudge fresh, as watering one does a houseplant.  Eventually enough space and distance from the original event makes even the most devoted militant give in, unless…

…something new happens.  Glencoe was about Protestants vs. Catholics; it was also about something even more primal than that – the betrayal of hospitality, an offence the ancient Greeks and Romans would have found hideous and just about the worst thing possible. 

So for Middle of the Road to take this – and knowingly make it into a hit record when the Troubles are sadly well underway – is one of two things.  It’s either them trying to take this event and somehow neutralize it (the way little kids who sing “Ring Around A Rosie” or “London Bridge” have no clue as to what they are singing about; it just sounds good) or they are perhaps – since it was a Scottish event and they’re a Scottish band – trying to gaily point out that going around killing someone else because their faith is different* was and is something that didn’t really work then and sure isn’t working now. 

Unlike the Schoolhouse Rock series of pop songs**  (albeit cheery ones like “No More Kings” or “The Shot Heard ‘Round The World”) where history is celebrated and passed on to the next generation in a fun and educational way, this song isn’t supposed to be anything but a fun pop song.  Whether little kids picked up anything here I don’t know, and that is the litmus test I suppose – do the kids know?  Should they?  Do lyrics matter that much, at any age, 7 to 70? Are there two audiences – ones that just want a tune to hum and like and those who like to delve further and get to the bottom of a song, memorize the lyrics and try to figure them out?

To be blunt, yes.  There will always be those happy enough to dogpaddle along in a song’s waters, and those who are going to get their snorkelling gear to see what’s really going on (if anything).  Middle of the Road are sneaky here, getting this song for kids heard by adults – or so they think.  But what if the adults don’t have much more of a clue than the kids?  Then the satisfaction is the group’s (for getting one over) and a different satisfaction is the public’s (for simply enjoying the song enough to buy it). 

Of course, there’s a reason the song is called what it is called.  Both Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are, well, dumbasses, plain and simple.  Their fighting is stupid and yet they cannot stop fighting, mainly because they are almost – but not quite – the same.  (That ol’ narcissism again.)  Middle of the Road are saying what The Cranberries – two decades later, in a far more stentorian way – will simply say:  these guys are idiots.  They were dumb in the 17th century and dumb in the 20th and we are going to reduce them to Carroll’s sniping duo as in the end they are about as interesting and effective as them.  (In my mind these two figures merge with a 70s toy called the Weeble, which famously wobbled but never fell down; seemingly charming figures but actually kind of scary, not unlike the larger figures like them – were they clowns? – I came across elsewhere that could be pushed around but never fell over.)

Middle of the Road assume that we know the story, know that the tartans and claymores and piping and plots are all grand history, but – again – does this story have any meaning beyond some kind of anti-IRA slant***?  (Note the camouflage chic in the band’s clothing – I guess this means they are serious about all of this, right?) 

This may seem to be a lot of important questions asked of a song that wasn’t even written by those performing it; it can’t hold that much weight.  To serious folk musicians or progressive rock types the idea that this is as serious a “statement” as anything they are doing would seem laughable.  But in the 70s the growing issue was one of the audience’s reactions to songs, on whether the public in general “got” what was being said.  And that issue, I feel, starts right here, with an ugly historical event being used to make a point about current events.  How much can be said?  How much will the audience understand?  Does anyone really care what time it is (as Chicago immortally asked)?  Slowly but surely we will find out.

Next up:  the season of the witch begins.

*And, considering they’re both Christian faiths, not all that different (Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” applies here).

**It is interesting that there is no real UK equivalent to these songs, unless the basics of grammar, math, government and energy (not forgetting environmentalism and new math – this is the 70s, after all) were covered already in shows for 7-12 year-olds elsewhere. 

***In truth it’s more of an anti-war song, but I’m guessing the UK public’s sympathies were more with their troops than the IRA.  I could be wrong here, though.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Time and Again: Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood: "Did You Ever"

And now, with a knowing glance or two, we are back in the world of grown-up love; the kind that is casual, deliberately so, where the fresh-faced adoration of The New Seekers has become something else - an acceptance of love lost and yet still remaining.  This is love, or a kind of love, the easygoing kind that has behind it a kind of regret or nostalgia that things cannot be as they once were; neither Nancy nor Lee is giving much away here plotwise, other than that she is with someone now, not that her father (always a loaded term here; it's Frank, after all) knows...yet. This song is full of warmth and humor and tenderness, all undercut by Nancy's audibly raised eyebrow and Lee's drawl, suggesting he is content with just seeing her again and getting the lowdown on what is really going on in her lovelife.  How has she been?  The "8 or 9" shows that he is well aware that she's been up to something, is playing the field - was he the first?  The third?  It doesn't matter, but now she has met the one, perhaps, younger and handsomer than him, "in his prime."  (This is something she may or may not be proud to relate; it also makes me wonder just how far back these two go.)  There is a wryness here, along with the warmth; they both know nothing is going to happen, but "it" - and besides the obvious, who knows what that "it" really is.  They do it "all the time" - especially him - but maybe they are content to think about it more than actually do anything; this is probably tougher on him than on her (from the sounds of it, he's stopped by her place en route to somewhere else, unless the bus at the end is an excuse). 

The joy of the song is that they are both happy - I think - with their situations as they are; nothing else needs to happen in order for us to know anything - there is no "next" here, just the contentment of hearing two people with a past, who maybe were a couple for a while, until she moved on...and they are just catching up now, missing each other but without that strong magnetic pull they once had, orbiting each other and parting, lazily flirty and perhaps saying things with their eyes that we, the listeners, can only imagine.  That she's found someone new but is still interested in him - genuinely interested (this would be a very mean song if she didn't care for him anymore) maybe shows that they have a future; there he is in his jeans and checked shirt, there she is wearing a halter top and maxiskirt, and they are still half in love, the longing still there, the fondness still evident. 

Maybe this song isn't just about a couple but about the complex relationship the public at large has to the 60s; still attached but obviously separated, never able to go back and have things the way they once were.  Too much has happened.  Do folks think about the 60s and what was possible then - and might still be possible now - all the time?  Remember how many were still attached, who were still idealistic and optimistic and also a little lost, as if the neat paths had just disappeared and they found themselves in wilderness, literally or figuratively.  "Back to the garden" Joni sang, and so folks tried to get back, only to find there was no there there, so to speak.  Nancy and Lee know this already, but also know that there is satisfaction in just thinking and longing, remembering what was and - who knows? - what may or may not happen again.  He can live on that hope, and she may just have found her man...or not.  The choices are still open, their love is still free, the complex and gorgeous world has so much to offer. 

Next up:  a history lesson for the kids. 

Love, Persistent Love: The New Seekers: "Never Ending Song of Love"

Well now, isn't it about time for a happy love song?  The sometimes-grim realism of early 70s music on either side of the Atlantic was buoyed up by some of the more clappy/acoustic/granola folk-rock imaginable, this being a prime example.  In this summer of '71 (was it a hot one? I don't quite remember) the public wanted something that was clearly upbeat, joyous, celebratory - as if to push away any looming darkness, or to just forget about it in the summer sun. 

This song was written by one Delaney Bramlett, a singer-songwriter who, along with his wife Bonnie and their Friends, had the original hit with this in the US; if this song has a countryish tinge, that's because Bramlett was from Mississippi and hung out with Mac Davis, Leon Russell and J.J. Cale, amongst others, as he worked as a session musician/songwriter in the mid-60s, and in the late 60s Eric Clapton joined his group and learned a lot from him*; Clapton's first solo album from 1970 is the fruit of that time, before he went off to hang out with some other musicians from the South.  I used to own that album and it has a slyness - imagine The New Seekers doing "After Midnight" and you'll see what I mean - that would be, well, wrong here.  The New Seekers were just a slightly more rock version of The Seekers, after all, and meant to be wholesome family entertainment; more rousing sing-a-longs and fewer laments, but still no room for the down-home blues Clapton wanted and perhaps needed to dive into at this time.  This shows, rather neatly, the division between the sunshine/smiley-faced pop - all sweetness and light - and the various shadows and glories of rock, which was, as previously mentioned, going through its Classic phase about now, all serious and grown up and just verging on decadence.

The New Seekers never wanted or needed that; here they strum and call out like rebel nuns and (seeing as how this was #2 for over a month) made an awful lot of people quite happy.  (I can imagine this being an earworm, for sure.)  These guys weren't interested in drugs, they just wanted to teach the world to sing, perhaps a bit ambitiously, "in perfect harmony."  (I suppose drugs became popular once people realized such harmony was harder to achieve than expected.)  This kind of pop - almost unimaginable now and most certainly in The Void, stamped "cheery folk rock, Australian division" is a sign of lost innocence; the more anxious songs from this year still get some attention, but this pledge of fidelity and love is lost, a kind of relic from a time when utopian ideas and groups of men and women would sing together unironically and affectionately.  (That ABBA are essentially doing the same kind of thing in Sweden at this time should be noted; they will eventually take this kind of thing to places The New Seekers probably wouldn't go - but I am getting ahead of myself.) 

The worlds of rock and pop are indeed spinning off in different directions, or (confusingly, I know) gradually coming together, unified by artists like Bramlett who could do any kind of song needed for any artist, folk to pop to rock; The New Seekers are Clapton's Australians cousins in this case, though the next time we get to them, dear readers, they'll be doing something definitely pop and Clapton will be more than knee-deep in the blues. 

Next up:  one more for the truckers...  


*He gave Clapton the confidence to really sing (he was still a bit nervous about it, I guess).  He also taught George Harrison how to play slide guitar, hence "My Sweet Lord" sounds like a country song gone to India via "He's So Fine." 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sugar Rush: The Sweet: “Co-Co”

“Little kids like great hooks, interesting vocal styles, seamless arrangements.   They like to dance.  Nothing pretentious or self-important will do when the audience has a two-minute attention span and miniscule discretionary income.  And so the bubblegum hits still sound great today, where much that was critically acclaimed in the same period lacks any distinction.”

Kim Cooper & David Smay, Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth

It has come to my attention that in certain quarters in the UK (and elsewhere, I might add) the year 1971 has something of a canonical, near mythical status.  It is the cornerstone in the great Classic Rock era, to be sure, and for some it is the best year for music, ever. This is a judgement based on the albums of the time, for the most part, with a few acceptable singles mentioned as icing on the cake*.  I could be generous and say this is a generational thing, but as someone born in 1967 (and quite happy to rep for that year in any context) it strikes me as being anti-now, and also rather pretentious.  To those who enjoy today’s music perfectly well it says “you don’t know anything about music, really, do you?” and it reaffirms the notions or ideas – however hazy – that things were better “back then” and encourages more repackaging of albums, more box sets, more rarity-hoarding and nostalgia.  That these attitudes are held by and large by men and that all these products and thought pieces and so on are bought and held on to – more than a little defensively I think – by men just shows how the music industry latches on to people during adolescence and vice versa, and that relationship continues until that adolescent need ends, perhaps in middle age, perhaps only really in old age. 

The appreciation of the past, an honourable thing in and of itself (as this here blog attests, or so I hope) gets mixed up with people effectively ring-fencing musical tastes and prejudices until all they end up buying are reissues and perhaps even music before their own era**, anything but music of the present, which is confusing, noisy, repetitive and soulless***. 

Music writers find it easy to break down music into so many building blocks and categories, and some of those are given high honors – say, the albums of ’71 – while others are denigrated and hated.  If we go back to that time – hey, we’re here already! – we can see that while it’s the older brothers and sisters who are buying the albums, it’s the kids who are buying the singles, and that older sibling disdain for kid stuff is by now so hard-wired into music that the arbiters of what is “good” if not “the best” would look at this band and this single and throw it unhesitatingly in the trash. 
Which would be a big mistake, and is the 1971 brigade’s problem, not the kids’.
The profoundization of music that has happened in the mid-to-late 60s has made for a lot of beautiful music, sure, but what 7-year-old has any use for something that drags interminably on, has no real beat, has (ugh) solos and sounds vaguely unhappy?  None, that’s who, and as the albums world grew ever more serious and strange, the world of singles – bubblegum singles – grew as well.  And one of the main offshoots of bubblegum?  That’s right, glam.
With this single we now well and truly enter the Void, a place that is not at all dark or lonely but shiny-shiny stompy-stompy and multi-colored as a candy store.  Only an industry so taken with taking itself so seriously could churn this stuff out on the one hand and then uniformly dump it into the Void on the other, as if it was all some terrible mistake, and that all those album-oriented acts were making better music the whole while, more important music, more influential music…but for now there’s little kids to be exploited (more on that theme later, obvs.) via dolls, actual bubblegum, cereal boxes, lunchboxes, posters/t-shirts/decals – all of which they will later outgrow and reject for more “serious” music when they grow up.  It is that music that they get attached to late that will be what the industry will then exploit again, but with the added vehemence of adolescence, which as we know can be felt at 100 paces and practically glows in the dark.

It can be hard, in the midst of all this, just to appreciate the darn music and enjoy it for what it is.  Bubblegum is great stuff and even the lesser songs have a charm and unpretentiousness to them that is hard to resist.  The Sweet (formerly Sweetshop) were a band in need of a song; they went to fledgling songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman**** and asked for one, and here it is; produced by Phil Wainman, it is perhaps not what the band would have liked (their b-sides, self-written, were more rock, less bubblegum; they played them live and avoided their hits as best they could) but a #2 hit is nothing to sneer at; it got the band noticed as the first glam band besides T. Rex to have a huge hit, and this perhaps was enough.  (Slade’s first hit single around this time did fine, but they were still to crack the Top 10.)
The whole bubblegum/glam dynamic of hopped-up kids screaming and singing along and jumping up and down on their beds to their favourite song doesn’t really sit well in the considered views of those who prefer their music to be, well, grown-up; the very idea of presenting a year like a canon to be studied in college, as opposed to enjoyed outright as pure pleasure is a dead end for music itself.

I know the crossed-arms-tilted-head sceptics have drawn lines, but the magic – yes – of music is that it obliterates all lines, or rather has so many lines within it that it merely laughs at those who have cornered themselves, smug in their self-assuring circles that they have reached the peak, and all they see around them are valleys.  Ultimately I think this isn’t refinement but repression; repression dressed up and decorated with words like ‘heritage’ or ‘vintage’ or ‘for the more discerning listener.’

From my perspective, all this is trying to chain music when all it wants is to be free; Sweet fans have reasons to be grateful that their band and this song haven’t been captured and frozen in ‘the canon’ for perpetuity.  Glam is just warming up now, about to comfort and electrify in turn a nation that needs cheering up; a nation that was happily buying, on a regular basis, quickly made cover albums of recent hits, a kind of sub-bubblegum (“Co-Co” is featured on this album) that calls into question whether the “outpouring of creativity” of singer-songwriters and bands was all that valued in the first place.  Songs like this one are what the 1971 brigade are running away from, when there is nothing scary here, just an "inoffensive, jaunty hit" that kids of all ages can enjoy.  To be against that is to pretty much be against music itself.
Next up:  because sing-a-longs are what summer's about. 
*Strangely enough, three of the singles mentioned in The Word editorial were never UK hits - "Mr. Big Stuff" by Jean Knight didn't chart, "Ain't No Sunshine" was a hit for Michael Jackson, not Bill Withers, in '72 and the only "Black Magic Woman" ever in the UK charts was the Fleetwood Mac original from '68. 
**Well, who was buying all those Vera Lynn albums back in 2009?  
***This is known casually as the ‘Ian MacDonald syndrome’.   

**** Who also wrote “Tom Tom Turnaround” for New World and “Chop Chop” for Tony Blackburn, not to mention other early Sweet hits “Little Willy” and “Wig Wam Bam.”