Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Behold The Colins: The Faces: "Cindy Incidentally"

Lately I have been pondering the term "bloke":  and while there are many varieties of bloke out there, I tend to think of some of them as Colins.  Colins are traditionalists, no matter what tradition it is they are following, and they tend to look with suspicion at any music that isn't traditional (I think they would use the word "authentic".)  If the Housewives of Valium Court long to be swept away in some sort of masculine cry of emotion, the Colins* regard music as something of a large mirror, reflecting and refracting their lives, lives too big for mere singles.  No, the Colins like albums** - they like the odd single here and there enough, but for their tastes and habits the album is the thing; a collection of songs that let him see himself, that are his soundtrack, the melodies and lyrics to his daily life. 

There is nothing wrong with this, of course; a lot of what makes music enthusiasts makes the Colins what they are, save that the Colins tend to stick to very particular areas, sounds, artists.  And they don't really evolve or change, once they are in their mid-20s.  Not all blokes are Colins, but all Colins are blokes and thus we come, dear readers, to this song

This is an anthem to change, to moving on, to leaving your dull town for somewhere else; and I can imagine it resonating with a lot of people, way beyond the Colins (who would have waited for the album Ooh La La to come out, being album people and whatnot).  It is hard not to hear it now as a song Rod Stewart is singing to himself, that he has to leave The Faces and indeed the UK; and this was to be the last album he did with them; on his own he was a star and the roughness of The Faces was something he wanted to leave behind***.  (Greil Marcus calls Stewart's albums with the band "let's go get drunk" music, and is willing to accept that far more than Stewart at the time did.)  Long before he did his Great American Songbook stuff, Stewart wanted to immerse himself in that smooth American soul sound, to make music in that tradition.  As much as the Colins love The Faces, they respect Stewart's need to do this - to adhere to tradition - and I suppose this makes Stewart a Colin himself. 

This song, where he tells the girl in question to pack up and move out with him, could be heard (I guess) as his wishing he could take The Faces along for the ride.  But what if it's otherwise?  How mean would it be to write a song about how dull your band is, and have them play on it?  As mean as calling the resulting album a "stinking rotten" one, and then saying that it could have been done better.  There is so much goodwill and bonhomie in the early 70s, but by now it is starting to disintegrate; and Stewart, who no doubt regards himself by now as a "professional" is eagerly anticipating the day when he leaves town, leaves his old once-friends behind and starts his life anew.

That life, according to Marcus, is one in which "he exchanged passion for sentiment, the romance of sex for a tease, a reach for mysteries with tawdry posturing" and thus betrays his talent.  Stewart isn't the only rock star who leaves the UK for the US but his decision to do so seems to me to be one he would have made even he actually liked what he and the The Faces were doing; that he didn't think they could do what he wanted them to just made it easier for him.

But what of the non-Colins who bought this?  Were they just as eager to leave their own dingy corners and head off to places elsewhere?  Anyone would have heard this at the time and felt some sympathy with the urge to go somewhere more exciting; a few though, would stay right at home and try to make excitement for themselves.  Rod Stewart is his own weathervane here, and his fans long for that freedom to move, which some may take up, others, not...the Colins will understand, even if their escape is mostly pub talk and their main dream is owning a shed or two.

Next up:  the Glam Slam continueth.           

*Named after one man who was niggling a point on a nationwide radio show, most likely Radio 2, which is in part a Colin-friendly station.

**The recent BBC tv and radio shows heralding the album were either wrong-headed (re-recording Please Please Me) or mind-boggling (one BBC broadcaster said that disco was the anti-r&b).

***It is interesting to note that the whole pub rock movement kind of takes off once Stewart leaves and The Faces break up; and that whole idea of dismissing a band because it can't play will rebound in a few years as well...

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

If You Want To Defeat Your Enemy: The Strawbs: "Part Of The Union"

There are few, if any, entries here that I sense you, dear readers, are more interested in than this one;  though now thoroughly in The Void, it most certainly is remembered and even cherished as a song with extraordinary meaning.

I do remember hearing this, sometime in the fall of '73 perhaps, sitting at my place at the dining table, which meant I was facing the stereo itself.  I imagine the CBC were playing it as part of a news report, maybe something about unions in the UK exercising their right to strike.  Though I was just six-and-a-half years old, I could sense something a bit odd about the song; I didn't like it.

Of course, had I known that the songwriters were Tories then my gut reaction would have been reinforced*.  Until now I had assumed (wrongly) that there were no Tories in the folk movement...but here we are, the once-named Strawberry Hill Boys who had worked with Sandy Denny and Rick Wakeman were by 1972 a harder-edged band once Dave Lambert became their lead singer and guitarist.  He didn't write this song though: Richard Hudson and John Ford did, with the latter doing the lead singing in this case.

What to make of this song, which makes fun of the power in a union?  Why did I frown, if only to my girlhood self, when I heard it back then?  The whole 1973-1974 period was one of strike after strike, mining disaster after mining disaster, the effects of the oil crisis, inflation and so on.  I wasn't aware of any of this at the time; I think I just noticed the trace of smugness in the singer's voice, the ugly stompy-stompy nature of the melody, the assumption that the (wo)man with the union card was immune to anything and anyone, superior - almost like Superman! - to the interests of Scotland Yard, contemptuous of the factory bosses and factory laws, loyal only to the union, where s/he was always guaranteed higher pay and if something didn't suit the union, why, they'd strike.  That's what they'd do.  If I could tell this at six-and-a-half, I am pretty sure those old enough to buy this single could tell...that this was a pro-union sounding song that was in fact making fun of them.

Well now.

But a funny thing happened during this time leading up to and including three-day weeks and no tv after 10:30 at night; the unions themselves - the miners I'd guess, but others too - took this song as their own.  The miners worked to rule; an election was called and eventually (after a result leading to a hung parliament) the Tory government was replaced by a Labour one in 1974.  These were, as some of you readers know, a decisive and divisive times, when the nerve of the unions and their leaders was up against the government's brinkmanship; a literally dark time, and in dark times people need songs to give them energy and purpose.  This song - with the bitterest of ironies - became that song for the unions, by which time Hudson and Ford had left the Strawbs to form their own group, Hudson Ford (later they made fun of punks with their band The Monks - enough said).   These two thought they could put down a noble and necessary thing - union power - and get away with it; but they didn't.  Folk music is music that belongs to the people, after all; and here the people sang the song back to the group, effectively reversing its power and meaning.  I wonder if this sort of thing could ever happen again?

Next up: Honey, let's quit this town.    

*I am, as you might expect, a Democrat; my parents were, as were theirs...

Guessing Game: Carly Simon: "You're So Vain"

The Glam Slam is now momentarily interrupted by this mysterious piece of music; mysterious, famously, because Simon has never actually said directly, to the public, who it is about.  Oh, it’s about “men” in general she says at one time; then at another, it’s about one man, or three…but who it’s about doesn’t really concern me.

What interests me more than who it is?  Why was it such an absolute hit in the first place (here because of good old Radio Luxembourg yet again)?  A woman who was born into cultured wealth gets dumped by a man who moves in the same circles is not exactly hit song material, but if that was all the song was really about, then…but of course, it isn’t.  This song is riding the crest of a mighty wave of feminism, particularly of the consciousness-raising variety, the kind that asks participants to speak out – to say what they have never said before, couldn’t even contemplate saying, that they have kept to themselves.  To look at the bigger picture, and the small; the public and private intersecting – how men are, as well as how their relationships with men they know are.

The focus here is on the man and his vanity, as a symbol for men in general; the anger at this solipsism particularly comes in Simon’s growling of “sevv--veral years ago” and “blew your living up to Nova Scotia.”  She was “quite na├»ve”, she was trusting; but now she is out there on the curb with whatever else he feels he doesn’t need anymore, her lovely dreams of his being loyal and their happy future adventures going up, vanishing like steam.  The whole thing is a sham, because he is in love with himself.  Why, even this song is about him, not her; even in her misery, her anger, he can only see himself reflected, and what a flattering reflection it is – to him*.  He knows how to dance a gavotte!  His horse won at Saratoga!  All the girls dream about him, man.  He is the man of mystery, hanging out with spies and friends’ wives.  He is the stuff of gossip columns**, racy romance novels, you name it. 

Simon could have kept this to herself, but something else was happening alongside feminism at this point, and that was the singer-songwriter movement, wherein women (primarily) could have their voices heard and express themselves – make the private public, and the public, private.  Even if a woman didn’t know where the local consciousness-raising group was, if she had the latest albums by Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Laura Nyro, Dory Previn and Carly Simon – then she could hear something of her own life reflected in them.  Ultimately who this song is about isn’t as important as the fact that it came hot on the heels of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” (not a hit at all in the UK, but a US #1) and reflects that time, when women were stepping into rock, so to speak, with their own voices, their own views, their own experiences.  (It didn’t hurt the song to have Mick Jagger appear on it either, and goodness knows it’s a better than anything on Goats Head Soup.) 

This is a song for all women, and for that matter anyone who has been dumped (men like this song too, after all); there are few songs as righteously angry as this one, which has been covered and discussed and which still retains that mystery, which at its heart isn’t such a mystery, after all.

Next up:  till the day you die?  Really?             

*Warren Beatty actually phoned Carly Simon to thank her for writing this song about him.  I think this is, in its own way, proof that the song is indeed about him, whether it actually is or not.  If he has realized the stupidity of this call yet, we may never know.
**Though not directly related to this song, I have to say that while gossip columns existed before the 70s, the 70s saw the rise of People magazine and celebrity-obsessed journalism, and this song reminds me of that Rona Barrett-dominated time, when the comings and goings of the famous became standard news, more or less.