Saturday, October 3, 2015

Donna Summer "I Feel Love"

Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder, one of the great singer/producer teams of all time

I still remember hearing "I Feel Love" for the first time and thinking "what is THIS?"  It happened in the late 90s, when I was beginning to develop of love of disco and to drop my former elevated disdain of pop music.  I knew in my mind that this song was from the late 70s, but it sounded like it came from the future.  It announces itself with a flourish of synthesizer that fades in like a UFO dropping below the clouds, then the endless wave of percussive synthesizer notes carries the song along at a rapid pace.  The strings, horns, piano, and other lavish disco disco trappings are completely absent here, and all that is left is a disarming, spare, crystalline beauty.  This song does not conjure up leisure suits or line dances.  No, it makes me think of a rocket ship hurtling through space.

The revolutionary backing tracks are the work of Giorgio Moroder, but they would not have worked without the voice of Donna Summer.  She sang sensually and openly desirous of sex in ways that other women with her level of popularity never did before.  "Love To Love You Baby" put her on the map with its lascivious moaning, and her biggest album was called Bad Girls. Disco was music for the pleasure centers and the soundtrack to nights of wild 70s excess, and Summer channeled that spirit as a disco singer better than anyone else.  Pairing dance music with a boundary-breaking diva has now become formulaic, and Madonna, Britney Spears, and Katy Perry all owe Donna Summer big time.

One thing I truly love about this song is how it is the beginning of the electronic dance music genre, but manages to sound more futuristic than a lot of EDM that's produced nowadays.  Sequencers can make music sound rigid, robotic, and when ill-used, plain boring.  The early, antiquated technology used by Moroder have a trace of organic feeling to them, making the song seem so much more alive.  Synthesizers can sound like musical wallpaper much of the time these days, but the glorious Moog of the 70s is capable of making some truly unique sounds.  It is a device that rewards dial-twisting and experimentation, and in it you hear not just the machine, but the spark of human inspiration.

This all comes together in my favorite moment of the song.  After the musical intro and some low-key cooing by Summer she increases the volume of her voice and sings out "I feel love!" just as the Moog hits a higher, sweeter note like a sunrise breaking over the mountains.  It is glorious, almost holy, and one of my favorite musical moments.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Low-Rent Glory That Was USA Up All Night

This week I got quite a surprise while checking in on Twitter.  It seems that Rhonda Shear is now following me, which was quite a thrill considering that I used to watch her and Gilbert Gottfried practically every week on USA Up All Night.  I hope it's not some computer glitch or something because this is one of the most flattering "follows" I've had.

For those who don't know, Up All Night ran on the USA network back in the late 80s and early 90s in a legendary era when cable was not a fountainhead of daring, original programming.  Characters were not yet welcome, nor was there anything you could call "very funny."  Nope, it was a low-rent district filled with reruns and old movies, and I loved it.

Up All Night was great because it took some of the lowliest garbage and showed it to the viewer in a knowing fashion, with a wink in the case of Rhonda and a derisive laugh in the case of Gilbert Gottfried.  The network was basically admitting "hey, we've got to fill time here and we've got a lot of crap to do it with."  The films were often cheap horror, exploitation flicks, or second tier boob comedies with all the boobs edited out (although I do remember at least one case where the editor didn't quite catch everything), taking away their main redeeming feature, from my point of view.  It was via Up All Night that I learned methods to enjoy trashy entertainment and B-movies, a skill further strengthened when I starting picking up on Mystery Science Theater in my late teens.

I watched Up All Night a LOT because it came on every Friday and Saturday, when I was allowed to stay up late, and because I was not the most socially adept young man.  If I wasn't hanging out in the basement by myself, I would maybe be at a friend's house hanging out in their basement.  Either way, Rhonda and Gilbert were on.  Gilbert tended to be more straight-ahead, mocking the film in his abrasive way, whereas Rhonda played more of a deep game.  I was rewatching some of her promos and host segments, and was struck by how atractive she was, which I am willing to bet was a big reason a lot of viewers tuned in.  I was struck I think because even though I was a hormone addled teenager, I was actually watching her for her humor rather than her looks. (Yes I know this sounds like someone saying "I subscribe to Playboy for the articles," but I'm not fooling.)

Her character in the promos was a kind of a big-haired, big boobed Hollywood bimbo, but it was obvious that Rhonda was having fun and in on the joke.  She taunted men and let the viewer know with a sly smile that she was really much too smart to be taking any of this seriously.  Her famous catchphrase "UP all night" with the first word spoken in a high octave exemplified her campy persona, someone who was playing with the expectations that hetero men had of a woman who looked and talked like her.

Sure it's cool that there are all kinds of networks producing original, high quality television, but in my cultural world I don't just want filet mignon and cabernet, I also need Funyons and Miller High Life sometimes, too.  Today that televisual junk food is mostly reality shows, but give me godawful movies interspersed with funny host bits any day of the week instead.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Nod Is As Good As A Wink...To A Blind Horse

[Editor's Note: I submitted a proposal to write a book for the 33 1/3 series.  I found out today that it didn't get short-listed, which only 15% of the submissions did.  In lieu of ever seeing it in print, here's the introductory chapter.]

Introduction: Every Picture Tells a Story

When picking up any album, especially one from the LP era when each record came with its own cardboard canvas, the cover is key to its contents, no more so than with the Faces’ A Nod Is As Good As A Wink…To A Blind Horse.

There’s a photo on the cover set in a brown border of a peculiar shade not seen much after the mid-1970s.  A band on stage stands in the middle distance, their backs to the camera, the red velvet-suited, rooster-haired lead singer leans in to share the mic, but from this angle it looks like he is trying to hear something that the bassist is whispering in his ear.  In front of them a sea of shaggy 70s rock fans, bathed in a kind of orange light.  We are the midst of the rock show in 1971, at perhaps its cultural apex as the music moved from theaters to arenas where bands increasingly resembled the corporations that sponsored their tours.  We also appear to be in a strange caught moment in that experience, with the photograph making the rock stars on stage look pretty small in front of the massive, crowded audience, not posed toweringly like modern gods.

It’s perhaps the perfect picture for the Faces, a band know by most mainstream rock fans (if at all) as “that group Rod Stewart was in.”  This was a group whose music was suited for a big party.  This was not music to drop Quaaludes to while laying on a 70s shag carpet.  This was not sensitive songwriter music a la James Taylor to emote to.  This was not a rock show where you were going to hear a twenty minute drum solo or see someone apply a violin bow to a guitar.  This music was not going to throw in multiple time signature changes or involve lyrics about hobbits, flying saucers, or add up to anything like a concept album.  There is not going to be any glitter or grand theatricality. And this music was sure as shit not going to get played on AM radio next to Bread and the Carpenters.  No, ladies and gentlemen, this was rock and roll in its feral state.  Music to shake your ass to. Music for making bad decisions for the hell of it.  Music for the good times.

Every picture tells a story, indeed.  Every Picture Tells A Story also happens to be the name of Rod Stewart’s 1971 solo album, the one that put him on the road to international stardom and released a few months before this one.  The tension between Rod the singer for the Faces, and Rod the megastar would lead to the destruction of the band.  A big time star can’t stay just one of the guys on the stage, his face not even visible on his band’s album cover.  This album, the Faces’ best, was fated from birth to be a sideshow.  What a shame, and how typical for the Faces.

Now if you’re reading this, I can pretty safely assume you have more than a passing interest in a long gone rock band.  You are likely one of the initiates, someone who understands the power of the Faces.  We are a small fraternity, since they are one of those groups, like the Yardbirds, who have become more famous for what their members did outside of it.  Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan, and Kenny Jones all had prior success in the Small Faces, one of those bands that was huge in Britain and relatively unknown in the United States.  McLagen would go on to play keyboards with the Rolling Stones on tour and in the studio and Jones would later join The Who as Keith Moon’s replacement.  Ron Wood and Rod Stewart were both in The Jeff Beck Group first, and Wood would go on to a forty year and counting tenure in the Rolling Stones, while Stewart would get so big that they’d make one of those wretched jukebox musicals out of his solo hits in the early 21st century.

If you ask your average Rock Snob (i.e. the target audience of the book) who the three best bands in the early 1970s were, chances are they’d tell you Big Star, Badfinger, and the Faces.  Such fans are well aware of the fact that these bands did not reach mega levels of success, unlike their peers, who still get their songs played wall to wall on classic rock radio to this day.  All three were bands out of time, making them difficult to gain popularity in their day, but easy to love years later when the music can be appreciated on its own terms.  Both Badfinger and Big Star made gorgeous pop-inflected rock songs with bite to them well before the power pop movement emerged from New Wave, and in the midst of the early 70s obsession with loud blues-oriented boogie rock.  Sounding like the Beatles in that time was actually detrimental.

The Faces, on the other hand, stood out of time in a different way.  Like the great number of British Invasion bands that sprouted along the banks of the Mersey, the Thames and the Tyne, their music had a strong R&B component to it, as opposed to Chicago blues.  Of course, Ronnie Wood’s slide guitar still carried in it the spirit of Elmore James, but Ronnie Lane and Kenny Jones had a funky, rhythmic feel that was much more Muscle Shoals and much less Ten Years After.  By the early 70s those R&B influences had been pulled out of rock music root and branch, and those British bands not playing the stomping, obvious glitter rock beats had gravitated to blues boogie.  Rock and roll had started as dance music, but who in the world could dance to Deep Purple?

In this sense it is useful to compare the Faces to Humble Pie, the band founded by former Small Faces front man and lead guitar player Steve Marriott.  Although they did not sell records like Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie established a huge live following playing very straight-ahead, heavy riffing boogie rock.  The rhythm was more for head banging than dancing, and the whole approach was ruthlessly riff-oriented, bass guitar and drums simultaneously bashing out an electrified Morse code.  Their breakthrough record was that now clichéd staple of 70s hard rock: the double live album (Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore.)  Marriott had struck on a formula for success in the new decade, one later perfected and mellowed on a different double live album by former Humble Pie guitarist Peter Frampton.

When the remaining Small Faces brought in Rod Stewart and Ron Wood and became Faces, they opted for a much less straight-ahead and much more shambolic approach evident on their first two records.  Their debut, 1970’s First Step, even got their name wrong on the cover stateside, which shows the band members sitting down beneath the words “Small Faces.”  The album title implied amateurism, of not yet being ready to actually be a band.  It’s a good record, but rough and ragged from its misnomered cover to the appropriately titled “Three Button Hand Me Down” that closes things out.  There’s a riff here, but it’s a bouncy shuffle anchored by some funky bass with some organ flourishes thrown over it.  The song practically rattles like an old car with broken struts on a gravel road, but it’s a damn fun run ride, like the rest of the record.

The ragged fun just got more joyous and sloppier on 1971’s Long Player, which is either a brilliant or phenomenally lazy title, depending on your perspective.  It kicks off with the most Faces title for a song ever, “Bad ‘N’ Ruin,” which wanders around like a farm boy lost in the big city.  It segues unexpectedly into a live cover of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” that’s absolutely gorgeous.  This was a band that seemed willing to try just about anything.  This even meant failing pretty obviously from time to time, such as on the live rambling wreck version of “I Feel So Good.”  Even in this rough state you can’t not shake your butt and dance a little to the music.

The Faces’ live show also betrayed their willingness to stand out and away from many of the mainstream trends of the time.  In an era where rock was taking over arenas and stadiums, with massive spectacles of pyrotechnics and lights, their innovation was to put a bar on the stage.  Members could order drinks while they played, as if they were doing a two set a night gig in some dingy barroom.  When they played the Top of the Pops in 1973, they played soccer –the working man’s game- on stage.  Larger than life rock stardom and counter-cultural affectation this was not.

One can only keep swimming against the tides for so long before going under, for the Faces and everyone else who strains hard to fight the currents of the cultural mainstream.  When A Nod Is As Good As a Wink…To A Blind Horse came out, “Maggie May” had already hit the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, essentially sealing the fate of the Faces right before they managed to put out their best album, one where their ragged sloppiness would be reigned in but still come out in endearing ways.  They would even get their one hit single, “Stay With Me,” out of it, but it was too little, too late.  Over forty years later I am grateful we can still drop the needle on that relic of a doomed band, and hear some of the most joyously raucous music put to wax, along with some stunning ballads that might just sneak up on you. 

Life is short and often painful.  Most of us harbor big dreams that never really amount to much, and we get so stuck in the gears and levers of just getting by that we stop remembering that we even ever had a dream in the first place.  Oftentimes we don’t pursue that dream because the specter of failure haunts our minds, or we know deep down that we are flawed and doubt we’ll ever being able to pursue it.  For those of us who have dreamed hard but seen that dream crumble or falter in the pursuit of it, the Faces are our patron saints.  They didn’t quite make it to the top, but they had a helluva good time trying to climb up there.  They might have dropped some notes or blown some leads, but their listeners were having too much fun to notice.  Music can be so many things, but sometimes it’s just the medicine we need to get by.  The Faces may not have reached superstardom, but they knew music’s healing power, and that’s what really matters.  A Nod Is As Good As A Wink…To A Blind Horse is no one’s idea of perfection and musical virtuosity, but it is definitely my idea of joy.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Classic Albums: Wire, Pink Flag

[Editor's Note: time revive an old series that's been dormant too long]

Every now and again I hear something that sounds like nothing I've ever heard before, but it entrances me before I even have a chance to feel the surprise.  No band ever did this to me like Wire, which I got interested in through my teenage obsession with 70s punk rock.  In those pre-Internet days, I didn't hear their music until I picked up the album, apart from one song, "12XU," which was on one of those glorious early-90s Rhino punk compilations.  Little did I know that "12XU" was by far the most conventional song on the album, by punk rock standards.  It's very ahead of its time, with the loud-quiet-loud structure imitated by the grunge bands I also liked at the time.

On their first album, Wire relegates that song to last on an album of 21 songs, most of them well under two minutes long.  It seemed as if they put their one potential hit at the end as an afterthought, which is a punk move if there ever was one.  The record begins on a very different note, with the slower paced "Reuters."  The title refers to the wire news service, and the lyrics are like a report from a war zone, the music building behind, getting progressively more dissonant until chaos ensues as the dogs of war have been let loose.  This is less punk than art rock with a punk sensibility.  It's loud, simple, and raw, unlike say Yes or Genesis, but it plays around and subverts the rock form, making the songs into cubist paintings for your ears.

Case in point is the next song, "Field Day For The Sundays," which is rousing and catchy and only lasts 28 seconds.  It then goes into the longer and slower "Three Girl Rhumba," a song lifted by the band Elastica in the mid-90s.  Wire give the listener whiplash by alternating between fast songs stuck in overdrive like "Ex Lion Tamer" and merciless grinders like "Lowdown."  That sense of disorientation extends to the lyrics, which are often obscure and wry.  The whole experience is a kind of immersive foray into the quotidian confusion of modern life with a postmodern viewpoint.  Just as the 70s were the germination point for philosophical postmodernism, Wire and the best of English punk were musical postmodernists, defying the rules of rock and the expectations of the audience.  Wire went one step beyond, and defied the expectations of the punk audience itself by refusing to be obviously topical in its lyrics or "rebellious" in he usual gob-spitting fashion.  That's probably one of the big reasons why they're still around today.

One thing I love about Pink Flag is that just when you think you've got a handle on the world Wire is building, they throw you a curve.  The title song closing out the front side is so vicious that it makes "Reuters" sound like the Carpenters.  "Surgeon's Girl" is accelerated to the point of being non-sensical.  By contrast "Fragile" almost sounds mellow, at least in Wire's musical universe.  Colin Greenwood even gives it some vocal flourishes.  Punk's biggest demerit is its strict formula, but Wire never let themselves be straight-jacketed by it.  By the time you finish the record with the aforementioned "12XU" it's almost as if Wire are saying "yeah, we can do that hard riffing, cymbal crashing thing to perfection if we want to, but we'd rather do other stuff."

That right there is pretty much the reason that Wire is remembered, while the much more stereotypically "punk" acts like Generation X and Sham 69 are footnotes to musical history.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Happy Mondays "Step On"

Last night as I was having a little Old Crow and reading some brain candy (a book about the mafia's involvement in Cuba), which is about as wild as my Saturday nights get these days, and decided to put together an impromptu playlist of "Madchester" songs from the late 80s-early 90s.  I forgot just how much this stuff had grabbed me when I first heard it at a time when Nirvana was still on Sub-Pop records and REM was pretty much the only band from the American underground to get their songs played on the radio.  Back then, when I thought of "alternative" music, I thought of either Madchester or shoegaze bands from across the pond.

Of course, in England the rock mixed with dance sound of Manchester was not something confined to college radio or late night MTV, it was in the mainstream and massively popular.  Listening to a song like "Step On" by the Happy Mondays, the emblematic Madchester band, it's easy to hear why.  Rock had begun as dance music, but had lost its funk, then defined itself against disco.  Disco was the musical antecedent of house and electronic dance music, which bands like the Mondays gladly welded to the rock band format.  "Step On" is not a truly great song, mostly because Shaun Ryder's lyrics are typically non-sensical and tossed off.  But it's got the two elements that worked best with the style: a great loping dance groove and psychedelic guitar.

In my mind I often wonder what the 90s in American rock music would've been like had the Mondays and Stone Roses been a second British Invasion breaking a new version of music born in America (as house was), then spawning a raft of imitators stateside a year before the release of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."  I don't know if the music would have been better (I still love Nirvana) but it would've been a lot more fun to dance to.

Friday, September 25, 2015


After a rough patch, it looks like the New York Mets will soon be clinching their division, perhaps this weekend.  My Mets fandom is new, but it is intense.  I could not count the number of games I have at least partially watched or listened to on the radio this year, but the end appears to be in sight.  This is reminding me of one unique thing about about baseball that I love, the clinching moment.  With 162 games, the baseball season is twice as long as that of the NBA and NHL, and has ten times more games as the NFL.  It stretches from when the frost is first thawing to when the leaves fall, with games almost every day.  And unlike in those sports, truly making the playoffs requires winning one's division.  The wild card teams have to survive a play-in game.

While some franchises can expect to win their divisions, for others clinching is a truly special moment.  For instance, the Kansas City Royals clinched their division yesterday for the first time in thirty years.  When the Mets clinch it will be their first division title since 2006, and only their fifth in franchise history.  The release after such a grueling slog to greatness is always fun to watch as players douse each other in champagne and beer.  After months of soreness, fatigue, and sleeping in hotel rooms, a wild party is more than warranted after the cherished prize is won.

As I look back on my life from middle age I can see some clinching moments, which also come about as often as Mets division titles.   Leaving home for college, getting my PhD, getting married, and the birth of my children were all euphoric, clinching moments.  When the Mets clinch I want to see it happen live, because the clinching moments are few and far between, for both the Mets and for me.  In baseball as in life, as a wise man once said, even the losers get lucky sometimes.  It's always heartening to be reminded of that.

Great Moments in Clinching

1989: "Cubs Win The Division!"

I was never an actual Cubs fan, but because I could see all their games on WGN growing up, I became a Cubs sympathizer.  I did and still do fervently hope that they can finally break their streak of bad luck.  In any case, I remember watching their clinching game against Montreal in 1989, putting the Cubs in the postseason for only the second time since 1945.  The great Harry Caray seemed to channel the fervent, delirious hopes of Cubs fandom with his almost hysterical, repeated bellowing of "Cubs win the division!"

1973: You Gotta Believe!

The 1973 Mets have got to be one of the more improbable World Series teams of all time. They were spurred forward by the slogan of oddball reliever Tug McGraw: "you gotta believe!"  One of my favorite baseball photos of all time is an older than dirt Willie Mays getting joyously doused with champagne.

1987: Will Clark Acting Nuts

For some reason I always liked Will the Thrill as a kid, and for some reason I can still remember him acting completely off his nut when the Giants won the division in 1987.

1959: The Air Raid Sirens Blow in Chicago

After forty years in the wilderness after the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal, the White Sox finally won the American League again. Chicago mayor Richard J Daley was so elated that he ordered the air raid sirens to be blown when the team clinched, which caused quite a lot of confusion in that Cold War environment.

1976: Chris Chambliss' Homer

This is cheating because it clinched the ALCS rather than the division, but the moment's too good.  Chris Chambliss' homer against the Royals sent the Yankees to the World Series for the first time in a dozen years, and was accompanied by the kind of massive invasion of the field that you just don't see anymore.  It was emblematic of New York in the 70s, a roiling, lawless place.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Twilight of the Governors

It's been interesting to see Perry and Walker be the first GOP candidates to bite the dust, months and months before the first actual primary.  Arguably, their bona fides trump those of all of their opponents (pun intended.)  Walker has won election three times in a state that has voted twice for Barack Obama, and survived a recall drive in the bargain.  He broke the public unions in Wisconsin and in the process emboldened other governors to do the same in other states.  Perry was the longest serving governor in the history of Texas, currently the second most populous state in the nation.  He claimed to have effected a "Texas miracle" whereby that state's economy grew in the face of strong national headwinds.  Perry swaggered as he went to other states to poach their jobs.

Now both are effectively on the ash heap of history.  Of course, Perry's fate was sealed four years ago with his infamous "oops" comment.  Walker is out for similar reasons, namely that he is a friggin' idiot.  His inability to answer basic policy questions was pretty embarrassing, and during the last debate he was sweating like Gil from the Simpsons.  This has been a vindication for people who have lived in those states who have tried to warn others that their governors are, indeed, goddamned morons.  (My time in Texas made that apparent to me pretty fast.)

This has got me thinking, and I see what looks to be a larger trend when in comes to governors running for president.  Time was when conventional wisdom held that governors made strong candidates.  They were de facto Washington "outsiders" and had executive experience.  This was only reinforced by the electoral success of Reagan, Clinton, and Dubya, the only presidential candidates to get elected twice between Eisenhower and Obama.  In this election, however, the governors are doing poorly, with perhaps the exception of Jeb(!).  Walker and Perry are out, Huckabee is a fringe candidate, Jindal is in asterisk territory and Christie will likely join him there.  Jeb! is the only relevant governor in the race, and he is in fourth place in the newest CNN poll.

How to explain this?  I think a lot it has to do with the changing nature of state-level politics in this country.  The massive wave of money has had a bigger effect there, where it can buy a lot more.  The Kochs buoyed Walker in Wisconsin, for instance.  With groups like ALEC set up, the right wing moneymen can put out the money to get a patsy in office and have an organization there to write up all the legislation for them.  On top of that, local newspapers and tv stations have been cutting back on reporting staff, meaning that the new wave of governors is getting a lot less scrutiny and are less practiced in dealing with a hostile press.  The Republicans have been pleased with taking over statehouses and governors mansions in places like New Jersey, Michigan, and Wisconsin, but it's really all about the structure and not about the people in it, in most places.  That structure is set up to get a particular ideological agenda advanced, no matter who holds the position.  It should hardly surprise us that the talking heads assigned by their financiers as their political functionaries wilt before the bright national spotlight.

This is at least the case for me as far as Perry, Jindal, and Walker are concerned.  Christie is a little different, in that he seems like a more forceful, independent personality.  However, he presents another problem for governors wanting to be the presidential nominee of the Republican party: the need to compromise.  When Sandy wrecked New Jersey, it would have been too craven for even Chris Christie to attack the president rather than embrace him in order to get national Republican support at the expense of his constituents.  Those Republicans in Congress have had it easy on this score.  They just sit back and oppose each and every thing that Barack Obama does, never having to sully their ideological purity.  While this behavior is horrible for the nation, it is great for maintaining the good graces of hardcore conservatives.

Jeb! was governor at a different time, so this stuff does not quite apply to him.  But based on what I'm seeing, at this point I would be willing to be that Rubio is more likely to be the nominee than him.  What all of this shows us, yet again, is that the Republican Party has long ceased to be a broad-based center-right party, but is now merely the vehicle for an extreme right wing ideology.  It does not care about governing or putting people forward who can govern, but only about advancing its agenda, whatever the cost.  A lot of regular people's frustration with the failures and gridlock in our system boils down to this basic fact, one you'll never hear mainstream news organizations name.