Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Endless Quest: Charlie Rich: "The Most Beautiful Girl"

This is one of those songs that takes me back to a time – very roughly, when it was a big hit, a time I don’t recall that well, but this song crossed all kinds of boundaries on the radio, so the song’s easy for me to remember – and a more recent time, the 90s, when I was socially active with a bunch of good folks whose interests and obsessions and completist tendencies had almost nothing to do with mine.  I don’t talk about the Serial Diners much in my writing about music as I didn’t have a lot of experience with them that had a musical focus; they were collectively bound by a dining in a different restaurant every Friday night at 6 or so, and beyond that it was up to the group as to what would happen next.  A movie?  A games night?  A night where we’d just wander around, not up to much?  It all depended, but no two people’s musical tastes were really the same, so going to a concert was never on the agenda, not at even a small, affordable club on Queen St. West.  Why pay for fun when we could convene with a tape recorder and microphone and bell and do improv comedy at someone’s house? 

And so, within the group my own musical epiphanies and enthusiasms were mostly bottled up.  I had a Walkman and listened to CFNY by day and the easy-listening classical station at night to help me get to sleep, but found myself really isolated within the group, forever trying and failing to find common ground with anyone besides one person…and there were a lot of people in the Diners back then, men and women, older and younger than me.  I found myself at a loss once in being asked by one main member what made Jimi Hendrix so special; again at a loss when another one (who was courting me at the time, or about to) didn’t know who Al Green was; and long before I pretty much stopped attending the Diners on an even semi-regular basis (c. 1999) I was disheartened by an event that I will write about in the fullness of time*. 
This song I remember mentioning to yet another Diner and she didn’t know it and I attempted to sing it – my voice certainly isn’t like Rich’s – and she still didn’t know it.  I was a little puzzled**, since the song hits the bullseye for American music in so many ways – and it was a #1 hit in the US and Canada, obviously a number two in the UK, too – I remember hearing it on a jazz station at the time.  Rich’s ‘countrypolitan’ music finally saw him succeed in the charts after two decades in the business. . 

Rich was a jazz and r&b guy who wasn’t considered ‘bad’ enough for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, so he worked there as a session musician and songwriter, instead of being one of the Big Five – Elvis, Jerry Lee, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins  and Johnny Cash.  He had the odd hit here and there on one label and another, including at Phillips (“Lonely Weekends”) and at another with “Mohair Sam.”  He considered himself a jazz pianist at heart and wasn’t really getting anywhere*** until producer Billy Sherrill (who helped Rich to write this, along with Rory Michael Bourke and Norris Wilson) turned him into a country crooner, a man with clear experience in his voice, a man who’d been there and back and didn’t need a damn souvenir.  His success came when, as “The Silver Fox” this (and other songs, notably “Behind Closed Doors”) were hits not just in the world of country music but in pop charts, too.

The story is just about the oldest one in pop; he said something he shouldn't have, she leaves, he wakes up in the dawn to the knowledge he's wrong and is looking for her, his "sun" - the one thing he has worth having in the world.  His casualness (starting a song with "Hey") isn't far from The Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her" though you get the idea that Rich isn't about to go asking anyone who hasn't had the same experience themselves.  He's not about to talk to kids in the park about her; this is one guy speaking to another in a bar, a truckstop, the laundromat.  He asks if she's crying (not because she misses him too, but because he caused her such pain - this narrator knows he's in the wrong) - and that if she has been spotted, this intermediary should go and tell her that he needs her.  That's it, but the solemnity and maturity back it up, and I can imagine many a man hearing this song and maybe realizing, before it's too late, just how brutal and cold being alone is, that this song is one long exercise in hopeful hopelessness, that being without her is much, much worse than being with her.

As a girl when I heard this I didn't really understand how someone could be the "most" beautiful; someone either was beautiful or she wasn't.  How could he ever find her if there are so many beautiful women, I thought, this man is on a long, long quest.  And knowing now that beauty is also in the eye of the beholder, his quest seems even more hapless, that short of being like The Bee Gees and having a literal picture of her to show to others, or phoning the cops, he's never going to find her.  But the real story is the terrible gulf between the cold morning of his loss and the warmth she brings, as if there were no spring or fall in his life, just summer or winter.  And for his sins, he'll spend the rest of time asking for her, trying to describe the indescribable...

Next up:  the return of Glam Slam, football and the Fog.  


*It wasn’t the night I couldn’t go to the 8th  anniversary of the Diners as the guy who didn’t know about Al Green and I had an arrangement wherein I’d miss the dinner but get to hang out afterwards.  I did show up, feeling…odd, and when I asked the Diners if anyone knew anything about Stereolab, no one did.  It was 1997, and I’d just discovered them via a tv commercial for the new VW Bug, so it wasn’t like I was all that hip.  But it was alienating, nevertheless.  Something  much, much worse, however,  had already happened years before…and I will get to it on Then Play Long

 **There were plenty of times I'm sure she was puzzled by my musical knowledge (or lack of it) too.

***His exhaustion at being an outsider for so long can be heard in the b-side of this single, "I Feel Like Goin' Home"; this is the demo version.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Nothing/Nothing Paradox: The Hollies: "The Air That I Breathe"

It is a delicate thing, what this song talks about; it talks about a certain moment, a moment of fulfillment and privacy; something ordinarily not something to discuss or even sing about, but this did not stop Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood from baring their souls, so to speak.  This song was originally done by Hammond on his album from '72, and then by Phil Everly on his the next year, and since the Hollies were Everly Brothers fans they came across it and decided to record it themselves.  This is as much as I can figure; the Hollies needed a hit, and Allan Clarke was back in the band and able to handle the soaring chorus. 

But as usual, I have to wonder, what is this song about?  I mean, it's obviously about post-coital bliss, but what that is borders on non-existence.  "No light, no sound, nothing to eat, no books to read*" - if he could make a wish, it would to be in this state of non-wanting, to get away from the physical world altogether.  His body is weak; his mind is at rest.  He wants for nothing but to breathe, to be separate but together (he, rather bossily, tells his Other to sleep, but what if she feels the same way - pleasantly weak and wanting nothing more)?

To bring something so common but, well, intimate to a song is tricky, as it requires a noble forthrightness and honesty, which can seem a bit cloying or cheesy, and I can't say that the Hollies avoid that altogether - it has always struck me as ironic that songs that are about being happy and quiet and contented can be so, well, loud - and this does also have the hapless early 70s stigma of the whole Love Is... cartoon thing about it, as well.  Open, honest, sensitive - I can't help but applaud Albert and Mike for this, for mentioning this moment and its glory - a glory that the production makes into a kind of king-for-a-day moment, an escape from the turmoil-of-1974. 

The 70s were a time when people shared thoughts and feelings with each other, maybe overshared - though there is the inverse of the tough man who says nothing but nevertheless has feelings, dammit, and this song speaks to him, there in his privacy, reaffirming that what he feels is worth a song, a one of dips and gliding arches, rising and falling like a bird in flight.  It's not a sexy song, per se, but of peace, of stillness, of a soul at rest.  Which is nice, but...and I know I can't be the only one of my Gen X crowd who felt a little uneasy hearing this as a kid...what is this song really about?  Nothing, in essence - a falling away - a lack of self, which in Boomer logic means it must be given a big production.       

The legacy of this song is a little strange - it's kind of a mall-psychedelic-mellow-out-man song muscially; all about the ultimate moment of forgetfulness and detachment, save from the Other.  And yet there it is, reworked a bit as "Creep" by Radiohead (how many heard this song and were influenced by it?  Come on down, Richard "HEEEEEEyyyyyyyAAAAAAAAHHHHHEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYY" Ashcroft) which is the ultimate song about someone who most certainly isn't at peace, doesn't fit in, has a want and wants to be special, noticed, loved - but nope, no luck, he doesn't belong "here" - where he does belong, he's not sure, but it's not with the Others he encounters, hates and yet longs to be.  (I wonder if these Others are the posh kids going to Oxford, cool scenesters, or what.)  Radiohead were sued and gave credit where it was due for taking this song and making it their own, an angry, implacable jab at a world full of mindless bliss, oblivious to anything and anyone else.  And "Creep" has more resonance now than this song - as everyone wants to feel special, more than they want some near-death lack of want.  Or at least that's how it looks to me, these days. 

Next up:  a man who's lost without his love.

*I can't imagine another song like this that mentions books, if there are any other songs about this specific situation.

Monday, August 4, 2014

I Met A Man Who Wasn't There: Lulu: "The Man Who Sold The World"

Or, the power of Bowie in the age of crisis.  Lulu attended one of Bowie's concerts, he invited her backstage and said he wanted to do a single with her; and so this happened (b-side is "Watch That Man").  Lulu had been through a lot by this time, including her Eurovision hit (a number two, as you'll recall) and an early and rather poignant marriage to Maurice Gibb, which was over by the time this was released.  So she is at something of a loose end - she has by this time also gone and done an album at the new studio Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, New Routes (following dutifully in the footsteps of La Springfield) and another called Melody Fair -  in Europe she was more or less a hit more in Germany than in the UK, where she was the pantomime star in Peter Pan.  Neither of her albums charted, but I can imagine Bowie wishing she would do something a bit more modern, and since at this time Bowie was the thing (Lulu thought he was "ubercool" herself), a cover version was obvious.

But this song?  Nothing about it is obvious.  Lulu herself didn't understand it but sang it anyway with a kind of toughness and raw quality that acts as a natural bridge between Bowie's version and the justifiably definitive one by Nirvana.  In this version, she is staring, masculine, unamused; this creep on the stair is making her nervous, sure, but her "gazely stare" is expectant, defiant, even.  The man (and she is dressed as a man) has sold the world, she laughs and shakes his hand, but then roams...someone died, didn't they?  Did millions die?  Death is part of life, and yet here death seems to become this man, somehow.  Or is this a kind of death-in-life?  "We never lost control" the song says, not ever saying who "we" are.  Lulu's controlled voice brings the song to life in a way that makes it sound as if the man really did sell the world, and now she is looking in the mirror somehow and seeing herself in that figure on the stair; as if a hidden part of herself has confronted her, and her assertions of control are all she has against this uncanny double.

 We die, we live, and yet do we know who we are?  Lulu's flat "Who knows?  Not me" are a solid wall here, and Bowie's saxophone lends it a kind of creepiness that makes this slightly reggaefied cover unnerving, which is presumably what Bowie wanted.  The pauses and echoes of the original are gone, all is centered on Lulu's voice - and does it alter the song, hearing a woman sing it?  Is this a woman meeting her male self, her repressed side?  Or is The Man here really The Man, content to let you think he's your friend, even though you've never really met him before?  There are puzzles within puzzles here, but Lulu was smart enough to let the song stand for itself, and it was a #2 hit on the Radio Luxembourg chart, where the loucheness of the song altogether was indeed welcome and modern.

Lulu is still an underrated singer and it would be most welcome if she could record a new album a la Petula Clark's Lost In You*; from what I could tell from the Commonwealth Games, she is still full of the genial toughness and eagerness to break new ground, even if all they wanted was her to sing "Shout" one more time.

Next up:  the (partial) invention of Radiohead. 

*It would be almost asking her too much to do this, wouldn't it?  And yet, I think it could work....

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Big Takeover: Sweet: “Teenage Rampage”

Or, whatever happened to the Glam Slam?  It’s still here (the previous song was from the RAK factory, after all) but it seems to be slowing down somewhat.  This song isn’t so much about Glamour as it is about Politics.  And yet Politics is glamourous for some; almost all politicians, no matter their stripe, have something of a high when they win and take power, much, I suppose, like the honeymoon period of a marriage.  Sweet don’t concern themselves too much with that here – it’s the kids – teenagers! – who are going on a rampage and taking over with their rules, their choices, their own constitution.  (Yes, the kids are going to form committees and hash out their rule -  democratically!)  Say “teenage rampage” now and people think of a melee, a riot, looting, cats and dogs in the street, COMPLETE CHAOS.  And yet that is not really happening here.  The music is by-the-book glam; the delirium documented, however, is real.  The Baby Boom peaked in the late 50s/early 60s, which is in part why so many songs at this time had the word “teenage” in them (“Teenage Dream” by T. Rex and “Teenage Lament ‘74” being the main ones, though as a rule the Glam Slam was all about teenagers, more or less).  Of course there is the fact that this song  (stopped only by the biggest song of the year, Mud’s “Tiger Feet”) appeared just as the effects of the three-day week were really kicking in – more freedom for parents, more freedom for the kids?  Or more chances to seize power, to do whatever they want, to discard the present and think up a future.  Their time is coming, and in looking around who can blame them for wanting to take over? 

Just about everybody who would become major figures in punk and post-punk were teenagers at this time, and I can well imagine some of them are already getting into music that is more adventurous than this; and they were to make music that held to no constitution or united scene whatsoever.  The Sweet had another Chinn-Chapman hit on their hands here, but in the end it sounds more like what would speak to, oh, Tony Blair more than John Lydon (though the Glam Slam got a free pass from the punks – how could something so shiny and unpretentious be bad)?

Next up:  Face to face with…who? 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Beat Goes On: Cozy Powell: "Dance With The Devil"

And so Music Sounds Better With Two returns, to an insistent drumbeat; and with that rocking start the mid-70s begins as well...

Cozy Powell - a drummer from the Midlands who ordinarily played with various groups as a drummer - at this point he'd been with Jeff Beck and his own band Bedlam - was striking out on his own with this tribute (a #2 hit on Radio Luxembourg), on RAK records (meaning - that's probably Suzi Quatro in the back on vocals and bass).  This song is overtly a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, however; and with "Third Stone From The Sun" being the melody to the insistent beat*, the 70s once again remind the listening public of what has been and how the beating of drums can somehow summon them back again, drumming as a medium's way of bringing the dead back to life...

...and what a life!  Trying to even sum up Jimi Hendrix's importance to those who don't know him (astonishingly I tried to do this once and was frustrated even then with how indescribable his music is, how dangerous and ecstatic and in-your-face it is all at the same time - frustrated with myself, I should hasten, not Jimi).  The Olympian heights he reached inspired so many people, some of whom were copyists, others more their own innovators in their own areas (Freddie Mercury's vocals were deeply influenced by Hendrix's bravado guitar solos).  I am not, as a rule, one to sit around going "whoa dude" at guitarists in general, being more into the groove and feel of things, but Hendrix is someone I have a lot of time for; listening to a certain BBC station in the morning and hearing yet more news about Led Zeppelin is enough to make me shake my head at the bagel I am slicing, but somehow anything Hendrix grabs my attention.  He is still ahead, still the way forward, still actual news.  And it is no good wondering where the next Hendrix is (as Chrissie Hynde did back in the 90s, esp. wondering where the female Hendrix was) as one was quite enough and is still very much here, with no need for a "next."

As for Powell, he continued to work at RAK for a while as well as forming his own band, and then joined Rainbow in 1975; he continued to drum in various bands until his death in 1998.  He took his nickname (his actual name was Colin Flooks; you'd change it too) from the US jazz drummer Cozy Cole, who'd had huge hits with "Topsy" and "Topsy Part 2" - both songs that were mainly drum solos, a rare thing at any time.  And so jazz makes a sideways wink into this song as well, as if to say - to Hendrix and to Powell - that it is the umbrella underneath which all other musics stand.  Let the music play, and we can all beat the devil.      

Next up:  The kids, the kids, and possibly some more roots of punk?

*The beat on the original was far more laid back, as befits 1967, man.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Onwards, Through The Fog

I thought I should pause for a moment to reflect on what has been happening recently with regards to the intersection of music, power and abuse of power. 

It has become increasingly difficult for me to write wholeheartedly about music in general because of Operation Yewtree – which, if you don’t know about it, is looking at the extensive abuses of the late DJ Jimmy Savile; the revelations of these abuses have caused others to come forward and for other prominent musicians/broadcasters to be called in for questioning.  It is a terrible thing to think of the ugliness and sleaze of the music industry extending to the BBC, but it has.  Paul Gambaccini*, for instance, has been off the air since October, awaiting legal proceedings; retired DJ Dave Lee Travis has been under a cloud of allegations.  Sports broadcaster Stuart Hall has been convicted and put in jail and will likely be there for life.  Musicians are part of this as well:   Rolf Harris has been brought in for questioning; Roy Harper has been too.   Ian Watkins of Lostprophets has pleaded guilty to things more hideous than what most of these men have been alleged to have done, but at the very, very least he has admitted guilt and is now in jail.  The Fog that I have been writing about has its heart here; and that is why writing has now become difficult.  I wish I could just write about the music, but in understanding the charts I have to understand the BBC.  I have reached the point where Gambaccini is working at the BBC, Travis & Savile are fixtures there and only his co-workers really know what Stuart Hall is up to, there in his room…

And it is really like a David Peace novel, save I am not a crime reporter but a mere music blogger, taking my magnifying glass to songs and sensing something toxic about them.  I think of how while it may be noble to write about these times, I am reopening things that should stay shut, not just for the good of you readers but for my own good.   When I think of the mid-70s I remember abuse, plainly, and when I look at the corresponding #2 song I wince – if I have the year right, and the time, and I think I do.  For me there is no going back to accuse my abuser or even naming him – I don’t remember his face, or much of his voice.  Just the notion that I was a thing to be “educated” and the non-cheering thought that if another girl had been outside that cloudy summer afternoon it would have been her, not me.  And as you’d expect, the gulf of experience between now and then means I only am in “now” or “then.”  As the 70s pull ever-closer into focus for me the further many of the #2s of the mid-70s become distant objects, ultimately irrelevant to my experiences as they were lived.  The mere action of looking back at this time does not do what it once did; far more vivid things come to the fore, demanding attention, and crucially almost none of this is helping me adjust to life in the UK.  

Nor does it help that the BBC’s most popular station, Radio 2, is meanly fixated (in part) on this very time.  I have difficulty listening to it now as what I want to hear – the new – is all but drowned out by the old, the creepy and outright awful.  This is, as far as I can tell, is to provide some odd layer of comfort to the listeners, a kind of cozy nostalgia.  Certainly none of it is played in an ironic or facetious manner.  It is – this terrible music – played straight, accepted straight, with no comment or fuss.   I sometimes think I am the only one who notices this, just as I notice that so many of the “love songs” played on R2 aren’t, in fact, love songs at all. 
Now, I could (and have) changed the station, but how absolutely wonderful would it be to actually change the station.  But I know that this would be difficult, as the ratings for these shows are so high, proving that the public is willing to listen to crap music and why would the embattled BBC want to lose even one listener?  I think (as Marcello so often says) they are actually terrified of that, but then what to make of the listeners themselves, the UK public at large?  Is this a station that actually exists (a leap here, but not a huge one I don’t think) for the broadcasters rather than the music?  Is what gets played ultimately meaningless?  And are the charts (therefore) also meaningless? In a place as small and dense as the UK, what a DJ plays matters, the charts matter, but what if those associated with charts and shows are…suspect?**
As you can see, dear reader, the whole music system closes in on itself here, the actual fans of music themselves – the girls – unable to see what is happening, due to fandom and naivete, until for far too many it was too late.  They may find some therapeutic purpose in writing about the mid-70s; for me it is a step into the past that makes things more complicated than even I had expected.  I like to think as a trained journalist that I can use some of my own personal experience to illuminate the wider scene, but the scene here is ugly, relentless, smug, self-denying…and that scene seeps into the charts, until they become one.  Any steely determination I might have is nearly crushed by that accumulative repulsion.  The rebroadcasting of TOTP on BBC4 shows just how elemental the BBC were to keeping fun and joy off the charts as best they could, the shows being labelled with the tags  “#nostalgiafail” and “#wrongness overload” and variants on twitter for two years now. Even the punk scene ends up as just part of the general scheme of things, alas; the BBC did not alter itself but stays staunchly middle-of-the-road, right in the thick of things where the status quo (no pun intended) remains what I would call “passive aggressive/neutral” – which is also where most abusers would classify themselves, I think.      

So how can I continue to write here?  The only way I can get through The Fog safely is to avoid writing about large chunks of it.  Not all of these songs are here because of The Fog – some I or Marcello have written about already – but I think by listing the ’74 ones you can see where I’m coming from.

“Angel Face” The Glitter Band (I have never heard this on UK radio, and while they are innocent it’s a case of guilt by association, alas.)

“Remember You’re A Womble” The Wombles (I had Woodsy The Owl and I don’t pollute – did The Wombles have the same effect at the time? Again, a question better answered by someone else.)

“Homely Girl” The Chi-Lites (Ugh, and this got in while Curtis Mayfield was sold in the wrong shops.)

“Don’t Stay Away Too Long” – Peters & Lee (who have been pretty much already written about on Then Play Long)

“Shang-a-lang” – Bay City Rollers (I strongly recommend Bye Bye Baby by Caroline Sullivan in all matters to do with the band and their Tartan Army; I was far too young to be part of it.)

“Hey Rock ‘n’ Roll” Showaddywaddy (I will be avoiding this band altogether.)

“Kissin’ In The Back Row Of The Movies” – The Drifters (Perhaps the center of The Fog musically at least, and I must emphasize how their 70s hits weren’t hits in the US.)

“Band On The Run” – Wings (already discussed on Then Play Long)

“Born With A Smile On My Face” – Stephanie De Sykes (I don’t think writing about this or any other soap-based hit will help me understand the UK any better.)

“Far Far Away” – Slade (They remain more than a little alien to me for some reason, so, no.)

“All Of Me Loves All Of You” – Bay City Rollers (see above)

“Killer Queen” – Queen (already discussed on Then Play Long)

“Wombling Merry Christmas” – The Wombles (Isn’t it odd how the ’73 Christmas hits have become standards while the ’74 ones have no lasting impact whatsoever; or maybe not.)

Take away those songs and there are still a few to write about from ’74, ones I can write about with enthusiasm and a strong belief that despite everything, good music does will (like truth) out.  The Fog is something to contend with, but in the next few years I will try to find all the signs of life and light. 

*I cannot comment on Gambaccini's situation directly as it has yet to be resolved one way or another; for someone who was such a fixture at the BBC (R2 had a whole week dedicated to his 40 years there) it may be that no matter what happens he may choose not to return to the station.

**Top of the Pops reruns now have to skip all episodes hosted by Savile and Travis; a whole tranche of shared culture has been denied the UK public, all because the BBC will not just edit their links out – a case of the BBC going too far to correct themselves when in the past they should have done so, but didn’t.