Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I Have A Hunch: Cilla Black: "Something Tells Me (Something Is Gonna Happen Tonight)"

As an American writing this blog, I hope to highlight the similarities as well as the differences between the US and the UK; and this first song from ’72 shows how, at least for now, the two nations have one thing in common:  a lot of tv variety shows.

I suppose the idea came from vaudeville and then evolved into something that was, by definition, wholesome, all-around entertainment, the sort of thing a family could watch together.  Variety shows existed long before the 70s, of course, but it seemed that (in US terms anyway) practically everyone who was anyone hosted one, if even for a few months.  These shows were part sketch comedy, part stand-up, and part music, and the general feel of the show depended on who hosted it:  I remember watching Carol Burnett and Flip Wilson, for instance, two very funny people, and those shows were mostly comedy; whereas Sonny and Cher of course had music as well as some rather awkward, to say the least, jibing between the two stars*.  US variety show hosts – if only for a few weeks as summer replacement shows – included Ray Stevens, Bobby Goldsboro, Dean Martin, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Julie Andrews, Jim Nabors, Tom Jones and so on.  Some of these, I’m guessing, were on UK screens as well; and the opposite applies to UK shows not seen in the US, including Cilla Black’s show, which ran from 1968 until 1976**. 

This song is the second theme song of that series (the first being “Step Inside Love”) and it has that same sense of optimism and longing, a sort of muted oomph that promises a great deal – it is a warm song, a bright smile that has the TOTP audience clapping along, as if, for a few moments anyway, that sunny 60s cheer has re-appeared, contagious and somehow also meant to be.  Taken as a song apart from a tv show, it’s a song full of anticipation, confidence – but as a tv show theme the main message is indeed that everything, for the next hour or so is indeed “going to be all right.”  That reassurance is what the US variety shows were about as well – things on the outside may be bad, but here, inside this show, things are cheerful and funny and maybe even a bit corny but that isn’t such a bad thing, is it?  Both nations needed a lot of this as the 70s continued, though for very different reasons (which I’ll get to in a future post). 

The anticipation of this song, the sureness and eagerness of it, also mirror the hopes for the new decade – something is indeed about to happen, though just what it is exactly is just starting to be evident in the charts.  The emotional and spiritual wringing-outs of the late 60s have been replaced with something going back to the beginning – indeed, 1972 is all about, in many ways, getting back to what rock ‘n’ roll is about in the first place.  It’s about gut feelings, irrational longings (urge overkills, if you like) and that magical snap in the air that Cilla sings about so winningly here***.  

As for Cilla Black herself, her show’s success led her into doing more television and less music (indeed this is her last top 10 hit, an NME #2) – there seems to be a divide between those who host shows who can sing, and guests who have hits in the world of variety shows (I believe this also applies to one guest on Cilla’s show, who sings with her here – he also had his own show, later in the 70s).  I am not sure when the variety show disappeared from US/UK networks, but I have a feeling that they helped to bridge any generation/taste gaps in their audiences, by reassuring the staid and timorous viewers that this new crowd were not weirdos but just regular folk like themselves, and that in a crisis laughter is almost always the best solution.  Plenty of laughter and good music was needed around now, and the variety shows were more than ready to try to do what they could to provide them.

Next up:  the bubblegum tide slowly ebbs out…

*I was too young at the time to realize that they weren’t play-acting disliking each other; they really didn’t, and Sonny having a trapdoor open under him always seemed a little mean to me, though funny, of course.

**I think; Cilla also did a sketch comedy show in the 70s as well, but I’m pretty sure this is the theme to her variety show.

***One of the reasons she has an audible smile on her face, by the way, is that Dudley Moore is playing piano here, and no doubt kept everyone amused at the session.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Being Bold: T. Rex: "Jeepster"

And now, dear readers, we have reached the end of 1971; some may rue this, but some may not, knowing full well what is to come.  The brown suede maxi-skirtedness of this year, loved by some, is about to be replaced by a new year, and to see us into this different time is…T. Rex.  Yes, they started out ’71 and here they are to finish it, with a boogie so simple and even off-handed that the band didn’t want it put out as a single, didn’t even considerate single material, but the label felt otherwise, mainly because by this time T. Rex were huge.  I cannot even begin to imagine the legions of kids and pre-teens who latched on to T.Rex, real fans, ones who were not about to be conned into thinking anyone else really mattered.  T.Rex inspired them, many of them becoming musicians as a result, all going their very different paths but all starting here. 

T. Rex by this time, lest we forget, had already had two number one singles, a number one album with Electric Warrior , and one of those singles was even a hit in the US (I grew up knowing it as “Bang A Gong”); all this with a style that went right back to the essence of what rock ‘n’ roll was about – cars, girls, boogie with an extra added sense that Bolan was not quite like everyone else.  Not superhuman, just different, glamorous – as glamorous as the vampire he is at the end of this song, wanting to “Ssssssss-suck ya!” (apply own metaphor of your choice).
But the beat for me is the primal thing – just off-kilter, not quite the Bo Diddley beat but not that far away from the clave either; a seductive waltz of sorts, a kind of roughness that sounds paradoxically smooth as well, due to the long notes both sung and played in the song*.  The total effect is a knockout:  Bolan could be singing anything here and it would be a smash, but his lyrics are the icing – from the title on down.  The elegance of “I’ll call you jaguar if I may be so bold” – (Bolan considered this song to be “very funky” and a step above general love song lyrics**) must have had some effect as well, if only to show that rock/pop did not have to be predictable, clich├ęd, generic.  The self-consciousness that rock/pop has about itself now – one that will be dramatized in this blog in the coming year – is best dealt with by just making good music, and Bolan was writing songs that he hoped would last.
Number two hits are often in opposition to the number ones, and this one is a fine example, for many reasons.  Benny Hill had the Christmas number one with a song that was silly and full of double meanings (as you’d expect) – strictly for the kids, kids too young to need or understand the grooviness of T.Rex, the importance of Bolan’s hair, the glamor.  Hill went right for the obvious, Bolan took the obvious and made it fresh, made it new. 

Rock ’n’ roll has lasted long enough to be considered its own art form; regular pop, for lack of a better term, continues right alongside the fall-and-rise drama to come, as rock increasingly is albums-only stuff and pop, which, if I can put it this way, is the essence of the whole thing, (the beating heart, as Huey Lewis sort-of sings later) has to figure out what the hell to do with itself.  T.Rex stand as the inspiration to not just another generation but to other musicians and songwriters, who figure this glamor thing doesn’t just belong to elves, but belongs to everyone.  The battle coming up is between those who rue the past and those too busy looking for a new costume to think about anything else; in the meantime, T.Rex remind everyone just what it is they are fighting about, in the first place. 

Next up:  when in doubt, get your own tv show.   

*It is more than possible that he picked up some of this from the Os Mutantes hit “A Minha Menina”; Bolan spent a lot of time and money buying and listening to records, when he wasn’t busy writing and recording his own.

**Bolan goes back to Gene Vincent, as he says, for “The wild winds blow/upon your cheek/the way you flip your hip/always leaves me weak.”

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Tasty Geezer: The Piglets: "Johnny Reggae"

When I was sixteen or so, I read my first Bronte novel; it was, inevitably, Wuthering Heights.  The edition I (and all my fellow students at White Oaks) had wasn’t the Penguin edition but the US one, bought at the start of the year in the office where they sold books in high school.  It looked like this.  The reason I mention it isn’t because I liked the novel (I struggled with Joseph’s dialect and had to work at the novel’s structure, even though a convenient family tree was part of the introduction) but because of what was said about the author.  Especially what her sister, Charlotte, said about her* : “Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”  Well, I thought, that’s an odd thing to say about someone who has written something so complex; but Emily’s general stoical nature (I seem to remember, but can’t find, something about her removing a nail or tooth or some such thing from her skin with utter calm) appealed to me.  And so did the instruction of Patrick Bronte, to Mrs. Gaskell, on her writing about Charlotte – “No quailing, no drawing back!”

And so it is with this blog – some might want me to draw back from writing about certain people, certain songs, and while a few – a very few – I am avoiding for my own sanity, the rest I can and will write about.  Indeed, I would be cheating myself if I skipped anything, especially since the very things that some might object to I didn’t hear in the US; and they are part of UK pop culture, whether UK pop culture is willing to admit this, or not.  Some might object to my writing about Jonathan King – in this case, about his smash hit “Johnny Reggae” (an NME #2) – and some others just might feel a little…uneasy.  All things considered, I can understand that; to this day, I have noticed, for instance, that chart shows (radio shows that go through charts of the past – Pick of the Pops, Double Top Twenty, etc.) always conveniently swerve around or contrive to avoid King’s works; I am not sure if this is a legal matter, a matter of taste, or something of the two combined.  As a man with a criminal past – of a sexual nature – I am not sure if the radio silence is some odd kind of shunning, a continuing punishment. 

We are in the depths of something here, dear readers, that goes beyond the Void and into some kind of re-writing of history, as if songs like “Johnny Reggae” never happened in the first place, where the industry that King thrived in for a long time suddenly turned on him, in a way that looks a bit scapegoatish to me.  That he did time for terrible things is well-known; but then Phil Spector and Joe Meek’s productions still get played, and they both murdered someone, something far worse than what King did.  To an outsider like me, this is unfair; something like an aesthetic as well as a legal judgement has been wrought. 

This UK quailing and drawing back from what actually happened, what lots of people actually bought and danced to – because hey, I’m sure this was played at a lot of parties at the time – is a shame; this is a fine song, King’s foray into reggae, with one girl telling another about her fine fine boy, and how she’s so into him, and vice versa.  It’s just suggestive enough to be real, detailed enough so that you too can imagine how handsome and cool the guy is.  Not for one minute is it trying to be real reggae (the girls have Cockney accents) and if it was deemed a novelty at the time, well, it was a popular one, one written and produced by King, who had already had hit (“Everyone’s Gone To The Moon” from ‘65), named the band Genesis and helped them with their first album, and otherwise was one of the stars of King’s College in Cambridge in the mid-60s (along with fellow students at the time Nick Drake and Ian MacDonald; I’m not sure if they knew each other though)**.  King thus covers a lot of ground here, from prog rock to bubblegum, a man who could sense a trend or geist and get a hit – such as this one – with a kind of irreverence balanced with an actual understanding and love for pop. 
But the UK media has swept all this away under its figurative carpet; and so in the mosaic that is 70s pop, there are bits and pieces missing, because it cannot, for whatever reason, separate the person from their works, observe Larkin’s Law, and understand its past.  That sweeping has removed this song from pop currency, for all intents and purposes; and as a lot of you well know, this is not the first time I will have to deal with music that is unplayed, unknown by anyone under 40 or so, in this blog.  As uneasy as I know it will be for some, I will be trying to understand the 70s and how they were, and in this case how the UK deals, or doesn't, with those who have done their time and are all but outcasts, who were famous in the 70s and beyond and how they are seen (or rather not seen, not to mention not heard) now. 

Next up:  and so the legacy begins.  

*I realize that what Charlotte wrote might be an exaggerated or romanticized view of Emily’s character, but at sixteen I had no idea about this.
*This recent interview with King provides a lot of information on his conviction, the murkiness of the law, and how he sees himself - as a man who did bad things, but not nearly as much as what he has been accused to doing. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Big Talk: Tom Jones: "Till"

And now we turn from the effective end of the 60s to the more timeless world of the Housewives of Valium Court.  They are still there - a little older, a little wiser, maybe making some progress, maybe just treading water. I like to think that they are at least safe and secure, though the waves of marriage are about to get a bit choppier in the 70s.  Some will survive that figurative storm, mainly because they keep their emotional feet on the ground, so to speak. 

In love, it is easy to say and do big things; it is harder to keep that feeling going once the honeymoon has become a memory, when big things come by not on a lover's whim but on a partner's obligation.  In love one has to give of one's self, one's whole self, daily (I have just read a book [Blood, Bones and Butter] where a couple court and then marry and the two seemingly never get to know one another, they have children and eventually get divorced; the whole thing is based on a bad combination of necessity and fantasy) or else no real foundation can ever be built.

Meanwhile, it's not 1968 anymore, and Jones' positively stentorian promises and vows of loyalty and eternal love are touching, but there is something a bit clammy-hand-inducing about them as well.  Jones is always either on the run, about to be executed or desperate to come back home - and here he is, presumably back home and promising he will be good, an uneasy flashback to the florid and hyperdramatic late 60s.  I get this odd feeling that he is singing to no one; he is ready to commit, but there is no one left to commit to, as she has given up, is tired of the drama, the opera. 

No, this is a song meant for a man to buy as a single and give to his girlfriend/wife, perhaps even one of our Housewives, and if she is in accord with him, it will work.  It is a very public declaration, and Jones sounds as if he and the whole band are on a rooftop, playing it to the world.

Jones himself might have done this song as he figured it could be a hit, and lucky for him it was; but I cannot help but notice that what he really wanted to do - soul music, not operatic arias like this one - was starting to change, to become less a joyous shout and more quiet, intimate (how much would he have liked to have sung Al Green's current hit of the time, "Tired Of Being Alone") or more urgent and badass (Isaac Hayes' "Theme from 'Shaft'" will appear soon) or just plain realer (the profoundly moving "Family Affair" by Sly and the Family Stone, from their beyond-important album, There's A Riot Goin' On).  I can imagine Jones hearing all those records and digging them and feeling that there's only so many songs he can do, so many pink-shirt-and-ties he can wear, before he becomes a walking anachronism of  "the mid-to-late 60s" in the flesh.  It's the 70s now, things are indeed changing rapidly, though for now he is still content to be the Housewives' favorite, that cannot last.  Jones sings of what is real, but that soaring voice and those metaphors can only go on for so long; something more substantial and close has to come in to bolster them up. 

And so it is with the 70s; the promises of the 60s echo and haunt, either as memories or as some workable form of progress. 

Next up:  mentioning the unmentionable, part one.                  

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Promise: Springwater: "I Will Return"

It happens every so often; now that we are in The Void it happens with alarming frequency. I don’t know this song; in fact only in doing this blog have I been exposed to this song at all, which really must mean it has been forgotten by almost everyone, even radio programmers.  A #2 NME hit, an instrumental, a marker – once – of some kind of emotional barometer. It is lovely, plaintive, sorrowful, but with that title, something of a promise as well. 
“I Will Return” could be applied to so many things at this time, including the dying dream of the 60s.  That is how I hear this – as a farewell and a guarantee that what once was will come back, evolved and perhaps even mutated somewhat, but it will indeed return.  Of course it can work on the level of young people leaving home for the first time; of lovers who are parted, for whatever reason; even as a song of grief over the death of someone, and the griever’s longing for some proof their loved one is still alive in some way.  In order for something new to happen separation of all kinds is necessary; the 70s can’t really start until the 60s are mourned properly, and that mourning will take some time.  This song is just a tiny part of that general feeling of loss, and hope for renewal and rebirth, and signs of that rebirth are all over the chart at this time, from Slade to John Kongos – something slightly scary (not forgetting Redbone here) is coming to take its place, something big and insouciant and loud…something that has its roots in the 60s, but stomps into the 70s with no time to look back, as its momentum is too strong. 
Yet for now, this plays as the leaves fall; as the first wave of baby boomers have already left university and have headed out into the world, expectant and hopeful, knowing that in order for something to start, something else has to end.  The promise of return here is a harbinger of sorts, though at this point, one of the harbingers is on the King’s Road, fixed on the past rather than the future, which is still a puzzle, not yet a way out; another has just released an album called Hunky Dory, which won’t catch on for another two years.  “I Will Return” has been forgotten as indeed something did indeed return; and so it enters the Void like an invitation to a going-away party or a box of old money that is no longer in use.  Phil Cordell (aka Springwater) may have only had one UK hit (his main successes through the years came from abroad*), but it came at just the right time, between the dying of one decade and the beginning of another.
Next up:  whatever happened to the Housewives of Valium Court?

*Cordell was a multi-instrumentalist who had been in a band called The Prophets and they recorded a few sides with Joe Meek; "I Will Return" is in some ways as emblematic an instrumental of its time as "Telstar" was, though less well remembered. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Marie's The Name: Redbone: "The Witch Queen of New Orleans"

Although they have been around for centuries, one way or another, we have now reached the decade where witches (or women who dabble with the supernatural in general) are sung about more than any other.  I’m not sure why the 70s was such fertile witch-song territory, but so it was; and these are scary witches for the most part, far away from Samantha on Bewitched.  Without knowing it, here it is, late October, a time of lengthening shadows and chilly mornings, rustlings of leaves and eerie quiet.  The charms of early fall are gone; the dread winter approaches...so it’s an appropriate time for the witching season to begin, but I have to ask once more – why now? 

Some might say it’s some kind of reaction to feminism; witches are powerful figures, independent, mysterious…and feminism may have prodded the psyches of some to remember them, as actual flesh-and-blood women gained more and more of their own independence.  Others might say that the late 60s opened up a veritable box of occult and esoteric information – made things like the Tarot and astrology and so on more hip.  The witch arts of casting spells and brewing up potions fits in very well with this, though I can’t say I’m personally very familiar with these activities.  (The I Ching is more my thing, overall.)  This song is about not just a witch but a witch queen; a super-powerful figure, and since she’s in New Orleans, voodoo (again not something I know much about, besides the dolls) is in her repertoire, as well.

But what men fear about witches is their beauty and sexual power; that it is tapping into Mother Nature itself, and cannot be overcome.  Some songs may dread this power, others may celebrate it; Redbone’s funkiness suggests that they’re down with this witch – better to be for her than against her – but still you’ve got to watch out for her, as she glamorously goes about her business.  (For reasons too complex to explain here, the 70s were glamorous times, or at least times when glamor was pursued, and sometimes achieved; as a reaction to the power-cut squalor that persisted through most of the decade.)  I can’t say this is a feminist song, pro- or anti-; but the muddy funk here sounds as if it’s a lot older than rock ‘n’ roll in a way – Redbone are a Native American group, and this adds to the sense of another time, another place, a wisdom that extends centuries back, on the part of the group as well as their subject.  “Black Magic Woman” (as done originally by Fleetwood Mac and covered very successfully by Santana) is about a woman who belongs to a man, but this woman belongs to no one; she is free.  But how free is any witch, really?  This one, plainly hip-deep in voodoo and able to help anyone for a "dime or a nickel" is possessed alright - by devils themselves.  She is evil, therefore, and even when she's gone, she's not dead; just departed.  With "hate in her eyes" she goes, like one of the Furies, grumbling and reluctant...practising her crafts elsewhere, maybe somewhere else in the swamp, where all is muddy, humid and pungent...

Redbone wrote this song, which was a bigger hit in the UK than in the US; I'm not sure if they wrote this out of some personal experience or because songs about witches in general were in vogue*.  But it does strike me as a song that reaches back in time to tell a story, and it's a true one, about this woman, Marie Laveau; the fact that she lived to be 98 and that very little can be proven doesn't stand in the way of legend, not to mention its younger relatives, rumor and hearsay.  This song is typical in making witches seem much, much worse than they really are, and maybe (just maybe) reflecting something of those primal fears that in reality are more nightmares than actual fears.   The songs about witches will continue, though, from Cher's future hit "Dark Lady" to Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon."  There is always one corner of the 70s where there's a powerful woman of the night, a strange woman who is more allied with - and tied to - Mother Nature than others feel is right.  Whether this is due to feminism, a general public awareness of the occult or what, it's a theme that marks the decade, as surely as the more cold and rational aspects elsewhere. 

*Maybe they were hip to Dr. John, whose Gris-Gris album came out in '68; funk of all sorts was getting into the charts and gaining popularity about now...