Friday, January 30, 2009

Joe Jackson -- "Sunday Papers" (1979)

Late 70's England was a hotbed of angry young musical men, from the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten to the bespectacled and obsessed Elvis Costello. Joe Jackson came off this factory line too, but he abhorred the "new wave" tag and was very vocal about not being associated with Costello.

However, they both shared a penchant for biting satire and shifting musical styles like the weather. While Costello was all sexual frustration, voyeurism, and twisted psyche, Jackson had a comical purview of workaday England and going out for a pint.

His breakneck debut, Look Sharp!, fit into that nice neat short New Wave pop song blueprint of the time, and rarely has one just enjoyed the ride from the musical start. His signature hit, "Is She Really Going Out With Him," still resonates today and my young daughter loved it the moment she heard it for the first time.

When I played her the follow-up single, "Sunday Papers," which I've heard many countless times, I suddenly noticed that wonderful aggressive bass playing from Graham Maby. I don't know why I always took it for granted, but his counterpoint to the opening rhythm guitar chords was killer. But it didn't stop there. Maby's all over the place between the verses that it's practically a showcase for him as opposed to any other band member.

Jackson's band exemplified the sorely missed stripped down nature of the New Wave/punk movement, where all you needed were four musicians -- a drummer, two guitarists and a singer -- to get the point across.

I remember a cultural fascination with the tabloids began around this time and through the early 80's'. It was hip to dig them. Once the Talking Heads incorporated their aesthetic on their album and movie True Stories, that cemented it. However, you've got to credit Joe Jackson for taking a brilliantly funny icy look at them.

Mother doesn't go out any more,
Just sits at home and rolls her spastic eyes.
But every weekend through the door,
Come words of wisdom from the world outside.

If you want to know about the bishop and the actress,
If you want to know how to be a star.
If you want to know about the stains on the mattress,
You can read it in the Sunday papers, Sunday papers.

Mother's wheelchair stays out in the hall,
Why should she go out when the TV's on?
Whatever moves beyond these walls,
She'll know the facts when Sunday comes along.

If you want to know about the man gone bonkers,
If you want to know how to play guitar.
If you want to know about the other suckers,
You can read it in the Sunday papers, read it in the Sunday papers.

Sunday papers don't ask no questions.
Sunday papers don't get no lies.
Sunday papers don't raise objection.
Sunday papers don't got no eyes.

Brother's heading that way now I guess,
He just read something made his face turn blue.
Well I got nothing against the press,
They wouldn't print it if it wasn't true.

If you want to know about the gay politician,
If you want to know how to drive your car.
If you want to know about the new sex position,
You can read it in the Sunday papers, read it in the Sunday papers.

Jackson's first two albums were pretty much all of one piece, clever pop songs with his crack band (I saw Maby many, many years later accompanying Marshall Crenshaw at a small club in Piermont, NY). He then chucked that model, saw the reggae light for Beat Crazy and then did another left turn into swing for Jumping Jive, and yet again towards Cole Porter with Night And Day. He had more in common with Costello's stylistic shifts than he thought.

So let's take a look at the young Joe Jackson, smirking, on top of the world, performing "Sunday Papers" on the UK TV program, "Old Grey Whistle Test."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

OMD - "(Forever) Live and Die" (1986)

There were only a few truly impressive synthpop bands who gave us more than one classic single, such as the still-running Depeche Mode, New Wave poster boys Naked Eyes ("Promises, Promises," "Always Something There To Remind Me"), the campy Erasure ("Ship of Fools," "Stop," "Chains of Love") and the hyper-romantic Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark, thankfully shortened eventually to OMD.

That band name had an interesting role in the band's evolution. When they first started out with that long moniker, they were quite artsy and obtuse. They pulled off one hit New Wave single in 1980, "Enola Gay," with its repetitive early drum machine pattern, and everything that followed after that was not very accessible.

It wasn't until a few years later that they probably realized they could either continue toiling as a cult artsy synth band in their native England or remember that they were a synthpop band or go for the big time. They decided on the latter, upgraded their production, sharpened their songwriting, hired synthpop producer wunderkind Stephen Hague and boy, did the tables turn around. It probably helped their image that they became better known as OMD at that time.

While OMD will go down in 80's rock history for their most successful single, "If You Leave" from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, they had other fantastic pop songs that charted such as "Secret" and "So In Love."

"(Forever) Live and Die," their "If You Leave" follow-up single had an unusual loping shuffle beat, which was unheard of for a song in this genre. The leisurely pace brought you along with simple chord arrangements, proving once again that you can write the best pop songs with just a few chords, as long as the melody works.

Andy McCluskey's vocals float all over the place, with layers and layers of harmonies over that chorus. They say pop music is all about repetition, and this was synthpop repetition at its most mesmerizing, so you could not get it out of your head.

People like
I never know, I never know, I never know why-y-y.
You make me wanna cry.
I never know, I never know, I never know why-y-y.
Forever live and die.

Watching the video reminds me of all the 80's English bands fronted by two guys, like Tears for Fears, Go West, and Naked Eyes.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Steppenwolf -- "Sookie, Sookie" (1968)

Steppenwolf is the most criminally overlooked hard rock band of the 60's. Or should I say, "heavy metal," since I do believe they were the first band to not only use it in a song ("Born To Be Wild"), but they embodied the term first.

Astonishingly, they are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and this has got to change.

This was not a cult band, but one that had huge hits and a couple of well-stocked greatest hits compilations. Yet, the closest Steppenwolf has ever been given a tribute was Blue Oyster Cult's animated covers that they performed in concert and on their 1975 live album On Your Feet Or On Your Knees. This connection is no coincidence, as BOC clearly was directly musically connected to the primal roar of Steppenwolf.

Fronted by the always-in-shades John Kay (born in Germany with the much more complicated name of Joachim Krauledat), Steppenwolf was a blues-based hard rock band that had a lot of soul, a characteristic that was way ahead of its time. They sometimes could actually bring on the R&B in their tidal wave of Marshall amplification and Goldy McJohn's glorious organ, and there was no better example than the first song from their debut album, "Sookie, Sookie."

Co-written by longtime soul songwriter Don Covay ("Chain of Fools"), "Sookie, Sookie" was all shuffle rhythm made for the 60's dance floor, much like the popular fad dances like The Watusi and The Swim. Steppenwolf just lays three heavy opening chords (for no apparent reason), and segues into pure heavy metal party funkiness, hitting that major 7th chord nearly the entire song long, and going up a key at the end.

Combining hard rock and funk were almost unheard of at that time. This was almost as monumental as Run DMC rapping their way into heavy metal with Aerosmith in "Walk This Way" in 1986. Yet, Steppenwolf didn't give up its rock cred at all when they released "Sookie, Sookie" as a single right after the iconic "Born To Be Wild."

The hip hop/rap connection to Steppenwolf stretched on years later, as "Magic Carpet Ride" was sampled and covered by Grandmaster Flash ("The Message") in 1987.

Here are two videos from 1968, and of course what caught my attention are those Rickenbackers on rhythm and bass! Who said Ricks had to be just the jangly Byrds tone? The color one features lots of groovy threads but the big question is whose party has Steppenwolf as the house band? Lucky them. Then there's a splendid black and white appearance on the British TV show "Beat Club."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Vapors -- "Turning Japanese" (1980)

The absolute ultimate skinny tie New Wave one hit wonder band (and song) has to be this one by The Vapors, who came and went with this enduring power pop classic.

Leaving no Asian cliche unturned, this ultra-catchy guitar pop tune actually has lyrics worth analyzing because they are just freaky, bizarre and pretty funny. Let's just start right there:

I've got your picture of me and you,
You wrote I love you I love you too.
I sit there staring and there's nothing else to do.
Oh it's in color, your hair is brown,
Your eyes are hazel and soft as clouds.

I often kiss you when there's no one else around

I've got your picture, I've got your picture,

I'd like a million of them all round my cell.
I asked the doctor to take your picture
So I can look at you from inside as well.

You've got me turning up and turning down,
And turning in and turning round.

I'm turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese I really think so.
Turning Japanese I think I'm turning Japanese I really think so.
I'm turning Japanese I think I'm turning Japanese I really think so.
Turning Japanese I think I'm turning Japanese I really think so.

No sex, no drugs, no wine, no women,
No fun, no sin, no you, no wonder it's dark.

Everyone around me is a total stranger,
Everyone avoids me like a cyclone ranger, everyone.

The guy is clearly in an asylum, locked away and going nuts without his girlfriend (if she's even real), and now he's "turning Japanese?" With the whole Oriental octave guitar riffs to add to the whole cliche?

The killer line is "I asked your doctor to take your picture/So I can look at you from inside as well." Hmm, now just what does that imply?

Because of the tongue-in-cheek nature of "Turning Japanese," I don't think it cause much of a racial stir back then. But I wonder if the song was released now, or even covered by another band, would the political correctness police come storming down on it?

I mentioned the song to my Japanese physical therapist, and not only had he not heard of the song, he was kind of amused somebody wrote a song with that title. I don't know how he'd feel if he heard the lyrics and watched the video, but I am going to find a way.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tears For Fears -- "Sowing The Seeds of Love" (1989)

What if you had a worldwide smash album and your record company basically handed you a blank check for the follow-up?

Tears for Fears had this opportunity after Songs From The Big Chair, and they spent it, all right. This multi-million bomb of an album that took four years to make was an overindulgent frozen rock that perhaps signaled an end to kitchen-sink productions like The Seeds of Love.

I was hanging out with the guys who worked at Sam Ash on Queens Boulevard when somebody said to check out the new Tears For Fears song. People accuse Oasis of lifting from the Beatles, but Tears for Fears crammed just about every psychedelic Beatles production trick in the book in this one 6 and a half minute song: flanged drums, megaphone vocals, backwards reverb, woodwind section, solo trumpet right out of "Penny Lane," the verses were close cousins to "I Am The Walrus," and screeching strings from that very same song.

Musical history is littered with rip-offs, and I actually like this song, despite the Fab Four lifts. It's still catchy and fun, but it goes on for far too long. It runs out of gas around the time the big organ chords come in at the 3:30 mark. If Tears for Fears lobbed about a minute to 90 seconds off "Sowing The Seeds of Love," they could have made their point and saved themselves thousands of dollars in production.

Somehow you feel that a ridiculous amount of music was left on the cutting room floor for "Sowing The Seeds of Love," but somehow through the magic of editing, they put it altogether for this epic mess. No surprise that the next record was a greatest hits compilation and the band's two members split apart, with Roland Orzabel continuing under the TFF name.

I liked Tears for Fears much better when they were suicidal and depressed on their first two albums. Some bands are meant to be that way.

The video for "Sowing The Seeds of Love" seems like a no-expense-spare effort as well. Once you get past Roland Orzabel's teeth for the first 45 seconds or so, it takes off into a dream-like New Age spaced out reverie that looks like Jim Morrison's peyote trips from Oliver Stone's film "The Doors."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Graham Coxon - "Spectacular" and "Freakin' Out" (2005)

Recently, I had the pleasure of reacquainting myself with Graham Coxon's album by throwing it into my car's CD player and blasting it away.

Then by sheer coincidence, I was reading an interview with British guitar band producer Stephen Street (The Smiths, Blur, Kaiser Chiefs, The Cranberries) in Tape Op magazine this week and he spoke at length about producing Coxon, adding he thought Coxon was the best guitarist he'd ever worked with, even Johnny Marr.

Coxon is probably the most unassuming guitar god out there because he doesn't fit the mold. No long waving hair, extended solos, covers of Guitar World, and posters hung up in boys' bedrooms. He just plays like a monster and listening to Happiness in Magazines is definitive proof.

Coxon was famous Britpop band Blur's longtime guitarist until he split during the band's 2003 recording of Think Tank. He looks like a huskier version of Elvis Costello, hornshell glasses and all, wearing a stylish tie and jacket. His early solo albums passed under the radar, but producer Street changed that all dramatically when they collaborated on the terrific Happiness In Magazines.

Not to be confused with Britpop except in its melodic catchiness, the album was an assortment of mid-tempo English bloke tales of dating, working and being forced to grow up. Coxon was clearly more driven by the Kinks, pop and punk, with a little sci-fi corn thrown in, none of it Blur connected.

Sharpening his songwriting and clearly working on his quite English vocals, Coxon came flying out of the box with "Spectacular," an under-three-minute charging ode to falling in love with a girl on the Internet, perhaps on a porn site? Riffs are pouring down everywhere, tom toms pounding the verses, and Coxon bursting into short wild solos after each insane chorus.

Saw you in my computer,
Never seen no one cuter,
Posing with a shooter,
You got me in a stupor.

You... are... something quite spec-tac-u-lar!

A mere five songs later, out he emerges again blasting with "Freakin' Out," moving so fast that you can feel the chaos of his life spinning out of control, tongue planted in cheek. Coxon goes even more nuts on this one, the delays on his vocals just adding to the effect. He knows how to make a good "pushing the car past the speed limit" song, and just rolls those raw riffs and solos off like a madman.

Filling the space between my ears,
Why don't you all just disappear.
With all your friends just way too dear.
You are foaming at the mouth,
You are mad without a doubt,
Cos I'm really freakin' out!

And I'm going out of my mind,
TV got me going blind,
And I'm really freakin' out!

These two songs seemed like cool musical bookmarks, so I'm featuring them both. First, here's the "Spectacular" video, with Coxon on what looks like a Rickenbacker 360, much like the one I own. "Freakin' Out" is all classic Gibson SG's, the famed "horn" shaped guitar, shooting from the gate like the frantic opening of The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder -- "Together in Electric Dreams" (1984)

Here's a one-off collaboration that thankfully actually led to a full album afterwards and it was quite ideal. Moroder did a spectacular job producing Blondie's "Call Me" for the American Gigolo soundtrack, and then went off to join David Bowie for the aforementioned theme from Cat People.

It was truly inspirational that the lead singer of the Human League, Philip Oakey, hook up with Moroder to create one of the great synth pop singles of the early 80's for an entirely forgettable movie. At the time, a comedy about a love triangle between a boy, a girl and a personal PC probably seemed very "cutting edge," and you could stuff it with all kinds of hot New Wave acts on the soundtrack, but the only thing worth remembering is the sort-of title song.

Oakey had one of the unmistable voices of the new wave era, if you think back on all the Human League hits. Really a blueprint for what characterized many lead vocalists those days -- disaffected, not a hell of a lot of range, yet able to carry a memorable tune. The Human League was all about mopey pop tunes covered in synths, so it was a true stroke of genius to pair him with the man who basically turned synthesizers and drum machines into disco classics.

As noted with my Bowie entry, Moroder's songwriting style was always very simple, truly in the Europop tradition that gave us groups like ABBA. No fancy chords or tricks. It was all about the irresistable froth melody. So imagine that Oakey voice from "Don't You Want Me" surrounded on beds of analog and digital synthesizers, pushed by a fast galloping drum machine, singing as sugary a dance confection as "Together In Electric Dreams." In a nod to the two female members of Human League, Moroder even soundalike women singers echoing the end phrases of each verse.

Moroder always liked a rock guitar cutting through the keyboards (remember Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's turn on Donna Summers' "Hot Stuff?"), so they come piercing through here with the melody over the intro and then really phased out and distorted during the break.

I only knew you for a while
I never saw your smile
'Til it was time to go
Time to go away (time to go away).
Sometimes it's hard to recognise
Love comes as a surprise
And it's too late
It's just too late to stay
Too late to stay.

We`ll always be together
However far it seems.
(Love never ends)
We`ll always be together
Together in Electric Dreams.

Because the friendship that you gave
Has taught me to be brave
No matter where I go I`ll never find a better prize
(Find a better prize).
Though you're miles and miles away
I see you every day I don't have to try
I just close my eyes, I close my eyes.

We'll always be together
However far it seems.
(Love never ends)
We'll always be together
Together in Electric Dreams.

When "Together In Electric Dreams" became a smash, it was a no-brainer to do an entire album together, and apparently, the duo completed it in fairly quick time. The first side of the record was all segued together, creating 15 minutes of non-stop danceable synth pop. I remember that a couple of the tunes were single-ready and ripe for 12" remixes, like "Electric Dreams."

The album eventually came out on CD, but is long out of print. However, if there's anything you should look to download is the "Together In Electric Dreams," which still is unforgettable to this day. Here's the official video, with scenes from the movie, and obviously shot around San Francisco.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

David Bowie -- "Cat People (Putting Out Fire With Gasoline") (1982)

David Bowie, like Elvis Costello, has a long career of "hit and run" collaborations with other talented artists. He dueted with Mick Jagger on the overblown cover of "Dancing In The Street," dropped into Queen's "Under Pressure," let Chic co-founder Nile Rodgers produce him on Let's Dance, and did a memorable turn with jazz guitarist Pat Matheny on "This Is Not America" from the soundtrack of The Falcon and The Snowman.

However, if there was one joint venture that I wish had extended to a full album was this one with pioneering disco synth producer/songwriter Giorgio Moroder, who is best known for his work with Donna Summer.

The theme song from director Paul Schrader's weird, kinky thriller, Cat People, blended the off-kilter lyrical and vocal touches of Bowie with the simple chords and pumping synths of Moroder, packaged in an arrangement straight out of the latter's playbook: start nice and slow (remember Summers' "Last Dance?"), and then kick it in full speed, layers of keyboards pouring down, female background vocalists tearing it up at the end.

Bowie always had a knack for turning a phrase, and he packs two: "You wouldn't believe what I've been through!" and "it's been so long!"

Schrader's movie was a modern update of Val Lewton's 1942 horror film, except he kicked up the sex and the violence. Schrader introduced the world to Natassja Kinski, as a peculiarly hot chick who may, just may, turn into panther after she has sex, and have an incestuous relationship with her brother, played by Malcolm McDowell.

So if you're going to have something as twisted as this, Bowie would have to be your man. The video clip below pretty much explains why Bowie, this song and the film were perfect: it's the opening of the film where you are introduced to this race of people who are somehow related to felines in a sexual way... lots of mist... a female led to a mystical sacrificial tree... and Bowie's croon, set to a tribal beat before jumping into the second faster part of the song.