Archive for May, 2008

Singing actors – Vol. 1

May 24th, 2008 6 comments

The release of Scarlett Johannson’s album of Tom Waits covers brings into focus again the question of thespians turning to the microphone, a career divergence usually as ill advised as the reverse direction. Here is the first of two mixes compiling vocal performances by actors, most of them straight efforts at assaulting the hitparades, a selected few performed in character, a couple of them novelty records. Some are pretty good, some so bad that one wonders what these people were thinking. The second part will follow next week.

William Shatner – Common People
Shatner had created a classic in the so-bad-it’s-really-bad-cult genre with his staggering cover of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. One evident admirer of Capt’n Kirk’s stylings was Ben Folds, who in 2004 produced an interesting, in parts quite good album of Shatner’s ramblings. Shatner doesn’t sing, but speak (and so I’m kicking off this compilation with a track which exposes its title as a misnomer). Over a whole album, that method of interpretation slowly loses its appeal; but on a song like this cover of the Pulp hit, it works gloriously (with the help of Joe Jackson coming over all emo). One does not know whether to laugh at this, or acknowledge that it’s all quite great.

Ricky Gervais & Liam Gallagher – Freelove Freeway
In what may well be the best scene in the original The Office, David Brent hijacks a team-building session to perform some of the songs he wrote on his abortive path to superstardom (on which he gave a leg-up to Scottish rockers Texas). Freelove Freeway sums up Brent brilliantly: it’s a cracking tune — Brent does have some talent, but invariably finds ways to undermine it. Here he does so by applying mangled clichés which he clearly didn’t think through (“because none of them was you…”). In the series, Brent eventually leaves Wernham Hogg and tries to follow his musician’s dream. As we learn in the Christmas special, he even releases a single. But even there, he typically misjudges things: the a-side is a really bad cover version of Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes’ If You Don’t Know Me By Now (Brent would probably think he is covering Simply Red), while the potential hit, Freelove Freeway, is stuck on the b-side. Oasis’ Liam Gallagher recorded this song with Gervais (did you know that in Quebec’s version of The Office, Brent’s character is named…Gervais?); we’ll have to live with that.

Jack Palance – The Meanest Guy That Ever Lived
Am I the only person who thought that the man born Volodymyr Palahniuk had died long before his actual death in 2006? This little gem is from his only album, 1969’s country set Palance, recorded in Nashville. The Meanest Guy That Ever Lived was written by Palance. One can almost imagine Johnny Cash singing it. The advantage of that would have resided in Cash’s ability to actually sing, but I doubt that Cash could have project the depth of Palance’s menace.

Marlene Dietrich – Die Antwort weiss ganz allein der Wind
How likely is the notion of proto-diva Marlene Dietrich doing US folk music in German? This is a 1964 cover of Dylan’s Blowing In The Wind. Dietrich sings it straight, and the arrangement is quite unlike the sort of treatment the Vegas-bound entertainers have given it, despite the use of strings (great flute though). Die Antwort… was coupled with a German version of Joan Baez’s Tell Me Where The Flowers Are. Imagine, the great Marlene Dietrich as West Germany’s proto-hippie!

Richard Harris – MacArthur Park
You can’t argue that actors should never sing if you know Harris’ MacArthur Park. Jim Steinman, who produced Meat Loaf in his pomp, made a career from ripping this song off. Written by the great Jimmy Webb, Harris had the first bite off this little masterpiece in 1968. It seems a strange choice, and at times Harris is warbling a bit; but then, towards the end, Dumbledore hits the falsetto, almost falls over and needs help from the backing singers, and the whole recording reveals itself as a piece of pure demented genius.

Brigitte Bardot – Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus
It was a huge hit for Jane Birkin, but Serge Gainsbourg actually wrote it for BB, who was the first to record it with him in 1968. Married at the time to German playboy Günter Sachs, the future cheerleader for animals and racists asked Gainsbourg not to release the song. So this recording remained locked away for nearly two decades. Birkin’s orgasm is better, but BB makes Serge sound like he’s doing it with a woman where on the Birkin version he sounds like a dirty old man.

Eddie Murphy – Boogie in Your Butt
The sequencing is purely accidental. Having decided to include Murphy in this mix, I was faced with the choice of posting a novelty comedy single, or one of Ed’s stabs at soulmandom. Murphy’s attempts at soul were bad, very bad indeed, and they fail to amuse. Perhaps that is so because much of ’80s soul was so banal that Murphy’s effort just don’t seem absurd. (Of course, much of ’80s soul was great, as I plan to show here in the future.) So we’re left with Murphy’s musings on how the butt can serve as a storage utility (while being quick to point out that the title does not refer to what you and I at first suspected). It’s still not very amusing, but it is more entertaining to see a man failing at what he claims to be good at than at things he had no business attempting in first place. Still, if rumours are true, it seems that a Chelsea player who used to play for another London club took the advice of one line in the final verse. Incidentally, I borrowed this MP3 from the wonderful Mine For Life blog.

Billy Bob Thornton – Angelina
Even for a very sporadic consumer of celebrity news such as myself, it is clear who the song is about. Released in 2001, when Pitt and Rachel were still happily married, Thornton proves that he has no talent as an oracle as he triumphantly proclaims: “They all said we”d never make it.” Stupid, silly them. It’s a rather disturbing song in light of the sexual antics Billy Bob and Angelina reportedly engaged in. “You walked into a wall…you were masked in tiny cuts”. I bet Brad is gentler.

Rainbo (Sissy Spacek) – John, You Went Too Far This Time
Before she became famous as an actress, including her singing role as Loretta Lynn, Spacek tried to become a singer, releasing a solitary single before being fired by her label. The John in the title would be Lennon, and his transgression would be letting it all hang out on the cover of Two Virgins. Sissy is spitting blood over this act of public nudity, and aesthetically I’m inclined to concur. John and Yoko were not attractive naked people. But if Lennon went too far on a record sleeve, then Spacek oversteps the boundaries of musical decency with that chorus (which supposedly was meant to evoke the Beatles sound). Breathtakingly bad.

Robert Mitchum – What Is This Generation Coming To
More sentiments of moral outrage are expressed in Mitchum’s generation-gap calypso opus. Though one suspects that Bob is more likely to piss into the cup of indignation as he alligns his chosen genre with the rock ‘n’ roll, both of which the young people of today (that’d be the late ’50s) are shaking their hips to as furiously as their elders are shaking their heads. Mitchum is a fine case for allowing actors to sing — as long as they remember to return to the set.

Peter Sellers & Sophia Loren – Goodness Gracious Me
One for the race relations board as Sellers does that Indian accent his racist pal Milligan possibly taught him, and applies it in a lewd way in conversation with the lovely Sophia Loren, appearing here uncharacteristically as a kitten of sex. Thing is, much as this song is objectionable, it is very catchy.

David Soul – Don’t Give Up On Us
Hutch left Starsky in the Gran Torino as he laid on some loverman action on the hitparades in ’77. David troubled the higher reaches of the charts four times within a year, starting with this song, and later with the fantastic Silver Lady (which I’m holding back for a future occasion). One final hurrah with a UK Top 20 hit in 1978, and our man’s singing career was over. A year later, his hit TV show was also over. Soul entered a decline into obscurity and, sadly, alcoholism, until he moved to England in the ’90s to become a star of the stage in the West End.

Joe Pesci – Take Your Love And Shove It
I am certain that the “Am I funny to you?” line was exhausted before Pesci’s “comedy” album was even completed. In case it wasn’t, the answer is no, Joe, you are not funny at all. You were fucking irritating in the Lethal Weapon movies, fucking annoying in that Cousin Vinny shit, fucking acted under the fucking table by fucking De Niro and fucking Woods and even Rocky’s fat fucking brother-in-law when you fucking had your chance at making a fucking impression in Once Upon A Fuckin’ Time In America, and I cheered like a fucking fuck when they fucking shot you in fucking GoodFellas, hoping they used fucking live ammunition while fucking filming the scene. Unfortunately your Vincent Laguardia Gambini comedy shtick was so fucking unfunny that we’re fucking stuck with you in the fucking movies. Fuck off Joe fucking Pesci.

Leonard Nimoy – Highly Illogical
Serving as a counterpoint to another long-faced Leonard releasing records in 1968, Nimoy recorded an amusing LP titled Two Sides Of Leonard Nimoy. Half was Nimoy singing songs such as Gentle On My Mind and If I Were A Carpenter, the other was in Spock character (following up the previous year’s Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space), as on this partly spoken, partly badly-sung track. The kind of thing the term “novelty record” was invented for.

Phyllis Diller – Satisfaction
This a contender for worst recording of all time. It’s also quite funny, possibly in an unintentional way (the “hey hey hey” had me laughing anyway). What turns out to be not funny is the sudden and brief barrage of punchlines for which Diller presumably fired her writers.

Gwyneth Paltrow & Huey Lewis – Cruisin’
Included to fulfill my contractual obligation to feature thespians who sing. Paltrow can hold a tune and even sounds vaguely pleasant, but she should not give up her day job. Now if only she could persuade her husband to stop singing…

Traci Lords – Fallen Angel
A rock-dance type of track from 1995, featuring Katharine Hepburn in character of her great 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story. On the cover, Ms Hepburn looks well-kept and striking a pose to publicise her new blonde image. Another Traci Lords, you say? I would not possibly know anything about that.

Crispin Hellion Glover – These Boots Are Made For Walking
Whatever happened to Marty McFly’s father? Diller’s Satisfaction may be a contender for worst song ever, but she won’t get past Crispin Glover’s non-comedic and description-defying cover of Nancy Sinatra’s hit. It needs to be heard. Once.

David Hasselhoff – Hooked On A Feeling
The Hoff must be included, of course, and how better to follow Crispin Glover’s artistic innovations with something entirely liberated from talent. The opening chant of “Hooga-shagga-hooga-hooga-hooga-shagga” sets up what might well have been the Hasselhoff’s 17th consecutive number 1 in Germany for the shitfest it turns out to be. Talking of Hasselhoff, why are all sorts of crap people turned into cult figures on strength of being the subject of public ridicule? Chuck fucking Norris has been revived from well-earned obscurity, Hasselhoff has become so much of a cult figure that even I refer to him as The Hoff. Give it time, and the pair of war criminals in the White House will find public acclaim on the back of a YouTube video showing them falling over each other.

Marilyn Monroe – Happy Birthday Mr President
And talking of presidents, MM’s scrotum-tickling tribute to JFK in 1962. Monroe, of course, was a pretty good singer, a talent which, like her acting, was often obscured by that breathy blonde shtick she was condemned to keep up. Listen to Kennedy’s acknowledgment at the end. When he says, “I can now retire from politics having had…”, he pauses for a bit, possibly reminding himself that he cannot exercise bragging rights at that particular moment.

1. William Shatner – Common People
2. Ricky Gervais & Liam Gallagher – Freelove Freeway
3. Jack Palance – The Meanest Guy That Ever Lived
4. Marlene Dietrich – Die Antwort weiss ganz allein der Wind
5. Richard Harris – MacArthur Park
6. Brigitte Bardot – Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus
7. Eddie Murphy – Boogie in Your Butt
8. Billy Bob Thornton – Angelina
9. Rainbo (Sissy Spacek) – John You Went Too Far This Time
10. Robert Mitchum – What Is This Generation Coming To
11. Peter Sellers & Sophia Loren – Goodness Gracious Me
12. David Soul – Don’t Give Up On Us
13. Joe Pesci – Take Your Love And Shove It
14. Leonard Nimoy – Highly Illogical
15. Phyllis Diller – Satisfaction
16. Gwyneth Paltrow & Huey Lewis – Cruisin’
17. Traci Lords – Fallen Angel
18. Crispin Hellion Glover – These Boots Are Made For Walking
19. David Hasselhoff – Hooked On A Feeling
20. Marilyn Monroe – Happy Birthday Mr President (for JFK)


Great Moustaches in Rock: James Brown

May 17th, 2008 No comments

After a post on Barry Manilow, I think we need to get the funk on! So let’s not worry ourselves about the fact that JB went through almost all of his very long career clean-shaven but recall the short period in the mid-70s when he sported a sub-pimp’s moustache (to compensate for his tatooed eyebrows, possibly).

Unlike some perpetrators of the ‘tache in rock, Brown quickly discovered that the caterpillar-lip looked silly, especially when combined with his middle-aged ladies’ coiffure. Tellingly, facial growth reappeared only in the one famous picture in which JB’s hair does not look like Aunt Agnes’ do:

Brown bore a striking resemblance to my sister-in-law’s ex-mother-in-law, whom we shall refer to as Mrs D. Indeed, when Brown sported his moustache, they looked virtually identical. Even in personality, they sometimes seemed like doppelgängers, for Mr Brown was known for some callous and poor behaviour. Keep those flaws, and subtract any bit of benevolence, charm and generosity in spirit Brown may have exhibited, and you have Mrs D. What James had in abundance, and Mrs D none, was talent.

Brown’s impact on modern music is undeniable. It was JB who introduced the idea of the ostentatious entourage (for best use ever of sidekicks on stage, witness the antics in this fantastic video), thereby paving the way for loads of people in the world of rap to obtain honest employment as paid Official Sycophant. Without JB’s moves, Michael Jackson might have stuck to the Jackson 5 dance routines, and there’d be no moonwalk. And JB’s blistering pre-fight entertainment distracted Appollo Reed so much that he ended up being killed by a Russian boxer, thereby paving the way for Rocky to win the Cold War.

Brown’s music was important, too. I’ve read that “Funky Drummer” is the most sampled track of all time, though to me Maceo Parker’s tenor sax is the star of the song. Brown could be a gospel-tinted shouter (Please, Please, Please), straight soul singer (1963’s Prisoner Of Love, Brown’s first pop hit, a 1930s song on which he sounds like a woman; It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World; the ubiquitous soul-funk of I Got You), and of course the Godfather of Funk (arguably Papa Got A Brandnew Bag in 1965 was the first real crossover funk hit); and helped along rap with spoken tracks such as the utterly stunning King Heroin (1971), which fed into the work of Gil Scott-Heron and the Funky Poets. It is puzzling then that Brown won one of his only two Grammys for a song which he didn’t even write, Dan Hartman’s Living In America.

With that, the part-time Republican Brown acquired a song which serves to symbolise the contradictions in the man’s message: the man who once raised his fist by declaring his blackness loudly and proudly was now singing a funky hymn to Reagan’s America “You might not be looking for the promised land, but you might find it anyway”. Ugh!

All songs deleted after Blogger DMCAed this post. All my posts featuring James Brown songs have been zapped that way. Well, JB has to live somehow…

More great moustaches

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Pissing Off The Taste Police With Barry Manilow

May 15th, 2008 17 comments

The first time I heard it I nearly fainted from the tectonic plate shift in my worldview. A member of the female persuasion confessed…no, it was not a confession. She said, lust blindingly gleaming in her eyes and reflecting off her rosy cheeks, that Barry Manilow is sooooo sexy. And normal, even attractive women — not Hausfrau moms and bicycle-riding spinster aunts — have confirmed the bewildering idea that this marshmallow of manliness is somehow sexually attractive. Yeugh!

I’m a modern man. I will acknowledge with good cheer when another man is sexy without feeling threatened in my heterosexuality. George Clooney? Phwoar! Paul Rudd? Phew! Cristiano Ronaldo? Score! But Barry Manilow is sexless. Moms and spinster aunts may disagree, but they are moms and spinster aunts. Normal woman, however, women we non-marshmallows might fancy, would swoon over Barry Manilow. Oh, but they did, even if they didn’t tell us guys because we’d laugh at them.

And that’s why every men in the world hates Barry Manilow. While we sat on our 1970s couches, we would watch whatever third-rate music programme terrestial TV would throw our way, only to see that gurning concorde-nosed, fake-tanned, blow dried, white jacketed and dickie-bowed fuckface make our Moms moist. OF COURSE WE HATED BARRY BLOODY MANILOW! Because we didn’t understand women. We still don’t.

A couple of years ago I came as close to a fistfight as I’ve ever been since school with a chap, subsequently nicknamed Dick-Dick, over the relative merits of Barry Manilow’s version of “Mandy” (my corner) versus Westlife’s (Dick-Dick’s corner). It was an unequal fight which I couldn’t lose. Bazza’s “Mandy” is great, Westlife’s an insipid affair which cries out for the temporary reintroduction of capital punishment in Ireland. Dick-Dick just hated Barry Manilow. How much do you have to hate a man to stake your entire credibility on fucking Westlife? Dick-Dick could not mount a coherent attack on Manilow’s music. And here’s the key: for all his cheesiness, Manilow is very talented. Girls dig him not because he’s hot, but because he sings the songs that make the young girls cry.

An elegant way of resolving the dilemma of acknowledging Manilow’s talent would be to say: “Well, he is a fine songwriter, it’s just his singing and arrangements that suck.” But that is not true either. In fact, most of Bazza’s biggest hits were not written by him. Mandy, I Write The Songs, Can’t Smile Without You, Looks Like We’ve Made It, Weekend In New England — not written by Manilow. So we’re left with the interpretation and arrangement. And listen to these songs within their context — mainstream pop leaning towards the easy listening side — and listen to them without prejudice: they are quite exquisite, in a Carpenters kind of way. Here’s the proof: Any Minor Dude, a 13-year-old of good taste who knows nothing of Manilow’s low stock among male music lovers, said he really liked “Weekend In New England” when I played for the purpose of this post. If it is good enough for him, it ought to be good enough to make us listen to Manilow’s music again. Just banish Bazza’s stupid grin from your mind.

Barry Manilow – I Write The Songs.mp3
Barry Manilow – Looks Like We Made It.mp3
Barry Manilow – Can’t Smile Without You.mp3
Barry Manilow – Weekend In New England.mp3
Barry Manilow – Mandy.mp3
Barry Manilow – Copacabana.mp3
Barry Manilow – Could It be Magic.mp3

And don’t forget that Barry Manilow arranged Dionne Warwick’s finest post-Bacharach moment, the Isaac Hayed-penned Deja Vu:
Dionne Warwick – Deja Vu.mp3

Previously on Pissing off the Taste Police:
Lionel Richie
The Carpenters
Billy Joel
Neil Diamond

Perfect Pop – Vol. 8

May 9th, 2008 4 comments

Here are a few more perfect pop records which brings the number of featured songs up up to 100 (by my rough count).

Stevie Wonder – You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.mp3
This song has been covered a zillion times and by some of the finest singers ever to commit their voices to record (Sinatra, Fitzgerald). And every one of these covers has failed to translate the sweet vitality of the original. It is a shame that this gem of a song has become a muzak staple; few major songs have been as poorly understood at this one. Written when Stevie was just 20, this mid-tempo samba number seems unassuming, until you listen to Stevie’s vocal inflections and, even more carefully, the deceptively simple arrangement. This song needs no big orchestration to fix its simplicity; indeed, strings or a big band treatment poison its sweet intimacy. And this is the key: it is a loveletter, not an epic declaration. Give it an orchestra, and the sentiment is varnished with cliché. All Stevie needs is keyboard, bass, drums and percussions. And the joyous exuberance of his voice (with the help of Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves, who sing the first verse; listen to it over earphones). Stevie sounds like he is in love, because he is: with Gloria Barley, who sings backing vocals here. And isn’t that lovely?
Best bit: “Mmm-mmm-hmmm-mmm (2:22)

Frankie Valli – Can’t Take My Eyes Of You.mp3
The Four Seasons had a number of great pop songs, but Valli’s finest moment came as a solo performer, albeit with the help of his old pals Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio, who wrote this song. Can’t Take My Eyes Of You begins as a mid-tempo ballad, unremarkable except for Valli’s beautiful phrasing, frequently lagging half a note behind the beat, enunciating some vowels as if to provide an off-beat percussion. Suddenly staccato notes signal a change in tempo; jolly strings (not unlike those used on many disco records a decade later) suggest that Frankie is going to get quite excited now. And then Valli launches into a giddy chorus. He’s in love all right, but our fears that it may not be reciprocal, hinted at in the first verse (“but if you feel like I feel…”, “You’d be like heaven to touch”) are realised as the chorus tails off, and Frankie gently, anxiously asks: “let me love you”. We return to the mid-tempo verse, and are quite aware of Frankie’s doubts and that the giddiness (thanking God he’s alive) may just be the oxytocin talking.
Best bit: The way Frankie chews the final vowel in touch (2:17)

Jens Lekman – Your Are The Light.mp3
Among indie-pop fans, the Swede Jens Lekman is a semi-deity. He writes catchy, quirky tunes. His lyrics are invariably hugely entertaining, sometimes touching, sometimes off-beat. You Are The Light has a great tune, introduced by a Earth, Wind & Fire-ish clarion call and supported by a beat that seems just a little too fast for the song. The chorus is proper singalong stuff. The melody and arrangement, with its occasional blasts of horn now and harmonica there, are hugely attractive. But it is the lyrics that captivate. In the opening verse, he uses his one phone call from jail to dedicate a song to his girl (who landed him in this predicament in first place) on the radio. Later the cops are “sad” because they can’t prove his act of delinquency. This song has much by way of completely likable charm — which sets it apart from much of contemporary pop.
Best bit: The horn intro (0:01)

Matt Monro – We’re Gonna Change The World.mp3
If Barack Obama was into the British crooners of the ’60s and ’70s, he might well have adopted this as his campaign anthem. Monro, whom Sinatra described as the only British singer, might have been an easy listening merchant, but this song has a socially conscious edge which was not usually reflected in the genre, even in the late ’60s (the song itself was released in 1970). The song tells of three women, two of them going on a protest march, presumably for peace, while another sees the demonstration but doesn’t join. In the punchline, the non-joiner is a war widow, crying in her office over her dead husband. Monro’s chorus suggests that her option is the wrong one as he calls, as if from within the throng of marchers: “So, come with us, run with us! We”re gonna change the world. You’ll be amazed, so full of praise, when we’ve rearranged your world. We’re gonna change your world.” And don’t these words sum up the message Obama has been trying to sell? Add to that a wonderfully jaunty tune ““ try not be lifted by it ““ and Monro’s enthusiastic vocals, and you have a perfect campaign pop song.
Best bit: Monro nearly shouts the word “run” in his call to action (2:54)

Elvis Presley – Hound Dog.mp3
Big Mama Thornton – Hound Dog.mp3
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote Hound Dog as teenagers for Big Mama Thornton, apparently in ten minutes. Meditate on that for a minute. A couple of teenagers write what will become a timeless classic for an intimidating blues singer, and do the job in ten minutes. The way Thornton sings it is the way the composers conceived it. Hound Dog became a local hit, and inspired a plagiarised response song, which turned out to be the first ever record released by Sun Records, Sam Phillips’ label which would go on to produce Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and, of course, Elvis Presley. It took Elvis a few years to get around to Hound Dog, which had been brutalised in a series of covers which dismantled the original lyrics and added doggerel to it (such as the rabbit line) to become the nonsense we know today. In the 31rd take we know today, Elvis made no attempt to sing the lyrics, symbolised by the way he chews up the pronunciation of the title. He shouts and sneers through the song with his band rocking to the beat of the handclaps, while the Jordannaires gamely try to instill some civility over the raucous guitar solo. Guitarist Scotty Moore’s final chords are a breath of post-orgasmic release. It seems clear while Hound Dog threatened the USA’s repressed sexual morality: Elvis is fingering America’s daughters right there.
Best bit: Drum roll, Elvis groans something, and a guitar chord closes the song (2:09)

Sex Pistols – Pretty Vacant.mp3
The Sex Pistols were the poster boys for the British punk revolution; more than their music, it was their exploits and, more to the point, their image that made Middle England nervous. They swore on TV; they insulted Her Majesty with a song that was banned from radio and yet reached #2 on the UK charts (some have smelled a conspiracy to keep the Pistols off #1, to the benefit of Rod Stewart’s I Don’t Want To Talk About It); they used a naughty word in their album title (it was later established in court that “bollocks” is a non-vulgar Olde English word) . And now hear how Johnny Rotten supposedly pronounces the second syllable of the title’s second word. Ooooh, the threat. Ooooh, the publicity! The Sex Pistols invented punk as much as Elvis invented rock & roll. In many ways, they were the Spice Girls of their day: a phenomenon managed by a clever svengali, whose music was secondary to the image. That’s why Glenn Matlock, the really talented one, could be replaced by a disorientated thug who’d become the most pathetic junkie in rock history. It was all about presentation. But that also glosses over the music. While the primary sales pitch was the image, the product ““ the music ““ was very good too. For all the punk posturing, the Sex Pistols had some fine pop tunes. Other than John Lydon’s hysterically sneering delivery and the nature of the lyrics he sneered, there was little revolutionary about the Pisxtols’ music. Never Mind The Bollocks, a very well produced LP, was a harder-edged, faster version of glam rock, with an additional debt to the likes of the Kinks. Of the handful of hits, Pretty Vacant has was the best pop song. Shook your head at the glam reference? Matlock said the riff was based on Abba’s S.O.S.
Best bit: “And we don’t caaaaaaaahre” (1:44)

Human League – (Keep Feeling) Fascination.mp3
The Human League’s Dare probably was the most perfect pop album of its era. But when I pondered which Human League song to feature, I kept coming back to Fascination, which was a single release only. An EP featuring to mixes of Fascination came out later (it also included the excellent preceding single, Mirror Man). Fascination kicks off proper with the swirling, horn-like synth hook which runs through the song and, in the intro, instructs the listeners to get on their feet and dance. The band members take turns singing lines, including even guitarist/keyoardist Jo Callis.
Best bit: “…and so the conversation turned, until the sun went down” (1:00)

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit.mp3
Paul Anka – Smells Like Teen Spirit.mp3*
Cobain’s Pixies moment (he admitted consciously copying them) sounds as much as the uncles of grunge as it sounds like an angry glam rock song. Cobain tried to write a pop song, and succeeded. Tori Amos might have fucked it up, but when Paul Anka covered it as a big band swing number in 2005, the pop sensibilities of Teen Spirit revealed themselves from beneath the grime of discontent. The anthem of non-conformity had, by dint of its over-exposure on MTV and radio, acquired the status of conformity; much of what came after ““ all the “feel my pain” emo gubbins ““ was no more non-conformist than the industry and its hit machines Teen Spirit was railing against. Anka stripped the song of its suburban rebellion sheen, turned it into a swing song, and perpetrated an act of subversion one hopes Cobain would have approved of: turning on its head the conformity of Nirvana’s own followers. It may not be the best Nirvana song, but it certainly is their best pop song.
Best bit: Apologies for being boring, but it’s the “yay” bits (1:31)

More Perfect Pop

Great Moustaches in Rock: Village People

May 5th, 2008 2 comments

Apparently half, or at least two, of the Village People weren’t gay. One has to admire the putative heteros (with one exception) for not feeling threatened by a whole world thinking that they were homosexual at a time when same-sex orientations were obscured even by some of the most flamboyant exponents of camp, by force of rampant homophobia. In the late ’70s, Elton John would say he was bisexual, a position he has, I think, since departed from but which was nonetheless brave at the time. Freddie Mercury let his band’s name and, later, his moustache do the outing, but was careful to give his homophobic fans enough to defend their hero’s “honour” (everybody will have encountered Queen devotees primed to challenge you to an old-fashioned duel should you have dared as much as to hint at Mr Bulsara’s homosexuality. Some of them are still in denial).

The Village People sported a whole catalogue of facial horticulture, to the point of cliché, in a bid to assert their collective homosexuality. Take Leatherman’s droop-growth, carefully styled to assessorise his leather chaps and caps to evoke the stereotype of a San Francisco clone (you don’t hear the word clone anymore. Send in the clones!). His luxurious shrub is supposed to communicate that he’ll like a bit of rough in the hole (the club’s hole; your filthy mind!).

Cowboy’s ‘tache was less scary but still exquisitely gay. In the picture here, Randy Jones looks angry (to the apparent astonishment of Leatherman), but usually he wore a smile so open and engaging that quite conceivably he’d have stood with Gary Cooper in facing down the bad guys in High Noon (that would be Gary Cooper the dead actor, not Gary Cooper the “ex-gay” fellow who founded a Christian ministry to cure homosexuals from their “affliction”).

By comparison, Construction Worker’s moustache is rather unremarkable. To compensate for his mediocre snotabsorber, he camped it up even more furiously than the other villagers. Watch him: he prances this way, he strikes a macho-gay pose that way, he gurns in a show of rampant homosexuality. Construction guy David Hodo has not disclosed his sexual orientation, as is his right, but my guess is that he’s straight. As was, you guessed it, Leatherman (who died in 2002).

If you have concentrated, you will recall that I qualified my applause for straight Village People doing gay with a caveat. Leadsinger Victor Willis, the Cop (who, in a bitter twist of irony, has since had serious trouble with the law), left the group when he worked out that he was fronting a novelty gay act, with his objection centering on the latter attribute. None of the hits, he claimed, had a gay subtext. And with song titles such as Hot Cop, Macho Man, Action Man, Fireman, Milkshake and, for crying out loud, I’m A Cruiser, who could ever have thought so?

Of course, when Y.M.C.A. and In The Navy were hits, the gay subtext did sail straight over many people’s heads, such were the naive times. And that was the subversive beauty of the Village People. When the US Navy sought to use In The Navvy as a recruitment anthem, they really must have thought that the Village People were totally ungay, not a clue to be had. Willis — who was later married to the Crosby Show‘s Mrs Huxtable, incidentally — cannot have any such excuse as it was him who camped it up big time in the camp shanty with that line of being afraid of the water, and the nudge-nudge-wink-winking question: “Oh my goodness. What am I gonna do in a submarine?”

I presume the Young Men’s Christian Association was grateful for the publicity on the back of the Village People’s biggest hit. Oh yes, “you can hang out with all the boys” and “do whatever you feel” surely was a reference to good old-fashioned male camaraderie. I bet you won’t have Gary Cooper the “Ex-Gay” putting those lines on his pamphlets.

In presentation, the Village People were a manufactured novelty act, much like contemporaries Boney M, and their music was treated accordingly. As anybody who has ever listened to a whole Village People album will agree, much of the music was mediocre. But the good stuff has acquired a bad reputation it does not merit. At parties, people will invariably laugh when Y.M.C.A. plays, smear on the irony thickly as they perform the letters routine (as demonstrated here by the blasphemous troupe), and assure each other that this song is so stupid. It isn’t stupid at all; it’s a good pop song compromised only by overexposure.

Follow-up In The Navy is almost as catchy, and has a great line in wicked humour (the submarine gag never fails to make me laugh). Go West was good enough for the Pet Shop Boys to cover it without resort to “irony”. Can’t Stop The Music is often described as a so-bad-it’s-good job, which is simply untrue; it may be the group’s second-best song, after Go West. Even some non-hits rocked, such as the pre-HiNRG disco track Ready For the 80’s (greengrocer’s apostrophe notwithstanding).

The Village People had some extravagant moustaches and a handful of really great tunes. We forgive Bob Dylan a terrible line in ‘taches and a lot of disposable dirges. That is a good enough reason to stop doing the letters dance to Y.M.C.A., take Can’t Stop The Music seriously as great pop, and celebrate the Village People for enriching us by bringing homosexuality (real or feigned) into the cultural mainstream.

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Intros Quiz – 1983 edition

May 4th, 2008 2 comments

Continuing our anniversary theme, we travel back 25 years (oh my! It feels like the day before yesterday). As usual, 20 five-second intros to well-known hits, this time all from 1983. All were hits either in the US or UK. The regular reader will guess correctly that next month, we’ll visit 1988.

I will post the answers in the comments section on Thursday. If you really need to know the answer to that pesky number number 11, feel free to e-mail me at the address in the sidebar. Or feel free to e-mail me anyway; it is always nice to meet people who read this blog.

Graphic borrowed from

Intros Quiz – 1983 edition.mp3

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Great Moustaches in Rock: David Crosby

May 2nd, 2008 6 comments

A site of Panini football stickers has highlighted some miscalculated experiments in hairgrowth among British football players in the mid-’80s. Check out drawn-on-with-cokey-tache boy Paul, Pablo Escobar, New Romantic Hitler, Old Surfer Hitler and REO Speedwagon Hitler.

These lads might have exhibited regrettable lines in moustaches, but they have also inspired a new series on this blog on the Great Moustaches in Rock. A series on the famous, iconic, noteworthy, amusing and weird moustaches in rock ought to kick off with David Crosby. Actually, it should start with Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer; the Spinal Tap bassist who gives a voice to — hi-diddly-ho — Ned Flanders, Mr Burns, Smithers, Principal Skinner and more). But I have no Spinal Tap music with which to demonstrate the special sound effects created by the rustlings of a rock ‘n’ roll snotstopper. But, hey, a pic will do:

Easy girls, easy! Please do wait for the main event: Mr David Crosby, whose follicular upper lip adventure has yet to end, possibly because all the drugs killed off that part of the brain responsible for good grooming judgment.

Not only that, but Crosby’s comedy ‘tache antics have finally got the better of his erstwhile sidekicks, who once exercised such admirable restraint in the facial growth department. Even Stephen Stills, once follicularly unadventurous and rocking the best sideburns in folk-rock (much better than Neil Young’s whiney-voiced, future Republican-voting matted bush of earhair) is pissing about with a supposedly age-defying grunge beard, while Graham Nash once whispy caterpillar growth has turned into a colonial Tory asshole centipede.

We may stare in contemplative wonderment at Crosby’s magnificent ‘tache, and perhaps derive amusement from imagining how David’s facial tanline would look if he were to shave it off. But let’s give our man credit for being party to some great music. He was a member of the Byrds, CS&N/CSN&Y, and released a solo album self-deprecatingly titled If I Could Only Remember My Name (it’s Von Cortland, buddy).

It is actually mean to poke fun at Crosby’s history of drug abuse: if we need an inspiring story of somebody who has climbed out of a big hole, David’s is not a terrible place to start. And you have to dig a dude who whacks off into a cup to make it possible that his lesbian friends can become parents.

But back to the music. In Crosby, Stills & Nash, David’s portfolio was the hippie stuff (Stills was the minister of love songs, Nash took care of the silly stuff, Young did the whiney stuff), such as Long Time Gone, Almost Cut My Hair (imagine Hendrix doing that song!), Deja Vu, and Guinevere.

Before that, David Crosby co-wrote the Byrd’s 1966 classic Eight Mile High (which gets a name check in American Pie), but fell out with his bandmates within a couple of years while recording The Notorious Byrd Brothers. His song Triad (about a love triangle, with the optimistic proposal of a threesome arrangement) was rejected for inclusion by the other Byrds, signalling Crosby’s departure. Triad appeared on a couple of live albums, and then, in its original form, as a bonus track on the remastered version of the Notorious Byrd Brothers album released a few years ago.

The Byrds – Eight Miles High.mp3
The Byrds – Triad.mp3
Crosby, Stills & Nash – Long Time Gone.mp3
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Almost Cut My Hair.mp3

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Perfect Pop – Vol. 7 (more '60s)

May 1st, 2008 5 comments

Here is the second part of the Perfect Pop ’60s Special. I think there are still enough songs for two or three more instalments in this series, with the ’70s now having run a backlog.

Lovin’ Spoonful – Summer In The City.mp3
This may be the quintessental summer song, at least as far as inner city life is concerned. It captures the claustrophic energy of a baking city; the song harries you, disorientates you. You feel the city dust in your nose, the steam rising from asphalt. Nobody is chilling on the beach or over a barbecue, because regardless of the heat, life goes on: cars are hooting, construction workers are pressure drilling (you can hear both in the song). There is something ominous yet utterly attractive in the air, creating a delicious tension as the stress of surviving the oppressive urban heat gives way to the warm nights when girls are lightly dressed and guys go on the prowl for summer sex.
Best bit: Possibly the first use of a pneumatic drill in pop (1:16)

The 5th Dimension – Up-Up And Away.mp3
I first became aware of this Jimmy Webb-penned song through Sesame Street in the early ’70s, and loved its mellow, almost comforting melody. It is a lot like a Bacharach songs, in structure and arrangement. It also sounds a bit like the advertising jingle it subsequently became; but if all commercial jingles would be as lovely as this, maybe ad breaks would not be such an imposition (to wit, I really like the Jeep ad with the Stephen Poltz song, You Remind Me). The 5th Dimension were a bit of a hippie outfit, so when this track was released in 1967 I imagine that a lot of people interpreted it as an invitation to get high. In fact, I like to imagine that it was a drug song, only for it to be played on Sesame Street and to flog airline tickets. The boring truth seems to be that the song was just about balloon travel. The familiar story that it was written to celebrate the wedding of band members Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davies Jr in a hot air balloon is rubbish: the song came out in 1967; McCoo and Davies were married in 1969. But either they or fellow member Florence LaRue did marry in a balloon as a tribute to their first big hit.
Best bit: A flute in the background! (1:43)

The Hollies – Carrie Anne.mp3
From grey and rainy Manchester, the Hollies produced a song that is as California sunshiney as anything the Beach Boys ever delivered. The Everley Brothers influence is most evident in this1967 song, on which Stephen Nash (who later hooked up with Crosby and Stills) at the end harmonises with himself. There has been much speculation about who the eponymous girl was. Carrie Fisher has claimed its about her (just as I claim that Steely Dan wrote their song about this blog), some say that it was about Marianne Faithfull or Jagger’s future sister-in-law Karri-Ann Moller. I think it might be about my pal’s Kevin’s daughter, even though she was not yet born. The most likely explanation is this: the song’s working title was “Hey Mr Man”, and Carrie-Anne rhymes with that.
Best bit: The steel drums (1:37)

B.J. Thomas – Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.mp3
I cannot imagine what exactly a Bacharach pop song was doing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but I never did “get” that movie. The scene it scored — Paul Newman monkeying around on one of those newfangled “bicycles” — was memorable, though. Thanks to Raindrops… The lyrics don’t make sense either. On the one hand, B.J. (did he ever get teased for that?) says that the rain doesn’t bother him; on the other he has a supervisory word with the sun which doesn’t get things done properly. Which suggests that the lyricist Hal David flunked science in school, because it is in the sun’s job description to facilitate evaporation which will lead to rain. So it bloody well did its job. (Of course, I flunked science too, so what do I know?). Ray Stevens was initially tapped to sing the song, but he turned it down; a real Decca moment for a singer I cannot immediately associate any song with. I don’t think it is necessary to discuss at length why Raindrops is a perfect pop song. It most self-evidently is.
Best bit: The half-minute trumpet coda (2:26)

Dion – Runaround Sue.mp3
Runaround Sue seems a bit like the early ’60s equivalent of losers posting nude pictures of their ex-girlfiends on the Internet for revenge. Dion, who was brought up a good Catholic boy, clearly is pissed that Sue has not been exclusive, alleging that she has been sleeping with all the boys in town. If she was such a nympho, then Dion must have had massive blinkers on; if she really shagged all the boys in town, at least after boy-in-town number 17 reports of Sue’s conduct should have come to Dion’s attention before she could notch up the rest of the local boys. And how many girls-in-town did you shag, DeMucci? The real background story to “Sue” is rather less dramatic, by Dion’s own account: “It was about, you know, some girl who loved to be worshipped, but as soon as you want a commitment and express your love for her, she’s gone. So the song was a reaction to that kind of woman.” And where is the rich legacy in pop music exercising its critical muscle in relation to vain, commitment-shy men? Whatever the ethical merits of Dion’s character assassination, the song is great, even if it rips off Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzales. A cracking melody, totally assured vocals, superb handclaps, and tremendous doo wop backing. Wonderful.
Best bit: “Aaaaaaaaaaarh” (0:45)

Gary Puckett & The Union Gap – Young Girl.mp3
Fuck it, Mr Puckett, but you’re right: a statutory rape charge is too high a price to pay for the consummation of love, no matter how hot the hottie, and the law would not accept ignorance of her age as a defence, no matter how mature she seemed. We don’t know how old Gazza is in the song, nor how old this “baby in disguise” is. Puckett in an interview once suggested that the ages of the protagonists were 20 and 14. In four years time, that age difference would be quite acceptable, so we’re not having a dirty old man scenario here, thank goodness. Having said that, if it’s a Californication type of deal, the storyline where Duchnovy’s Hank is getting banged (in more ways than one) by the 16-year-old girl, then maybe it doesn’t seem quite so sick.
Best bit: “Get out of here…” (2:18)

Udo Jürgens – Es wird Nacht, Señorita.mp3*
Udo Jürgens is in many ways the Frank Sinatra of the German Schlager, with the added dimension of also being a talented songwriter. In the early ’60s he wrote big hits for Shirley Bassey and Matt Monro, and he even wrote a song for Sinatra (If I Never Sing Another Song, subsequently a signature song for Sammy Davis Jr). An institution in Germany, the now 73-year-old Austrian-born singer has been around for decades, producing music that at times was excellent (within the confines of Schlager), often pushing the boundaries. He was among the first Schlager singers to address the taboo subject of divorce, and even addressed German xenophobia in his 1975 hit Griechischer Wein, which was at once daring and patronisingly hackneyed. At the same time, he was responsible for some abominations against music (German readers of my generation will rightly recoil at the thought of Aber bitte mit Sahne). Es Wird Nacht, Señorita, from 1968, is hackneyed in as far as it creates the whole faux-Spanish vibe, and yet it is an absolute corker of a song. The lyrics are pretty explicit for its time and place within a very conservative genre. In the song, Udo seduces a “Señorita” — whom I like to picture as looking like Whistler’s girlfriend in the third season of Prison Break — by asking for accommodation, seeing as he’s apparently itinerant (“I’m tired from hiking”). “I want nothing from you”, he assures her. Except “perhaps a little love”. Ultimately the tired hiker asks Señorita to take him to bed, because there he is “not as bad as the others”. When the song ends with Udo triumphantly shouting “Olé”, you know he has scored.
Best bit: Udo has scored (2:10)

The Rolling Stones – 19th Nervous Breakdown.mp3
The Stones are another act with a wide treasury of perfect pop songs. Satisfaction might have been the obvious choice; Let’s Spend The Night Together or Get Off My Cloud would have been excellent choices as well (though my favourite Stones song, She’s A Rainbow, probably not). So it became a contest between one of the greatest riffs in pop music, a great use of the word “Ba-ba-ba-ba-bababababa”, a fantastic shouted chorus, and a track on which everything comes together. Listen to Watt’s drumming (those cymbals!) and Wyman’s bass complementing Keef’s guitar line, the insistent rhythm guitar, and Jagger’s vocals which are still relatively free of some of the affectations they would assume later.
Best bit: Wyman’s shuddering bass (3:31)

The Supremes – You Keep Me Hangin’ On.mp3
Early in this series I featured the Temptations’ My Girl as a proxy for all the perfect pop manufactured on the conveyor belt of hits at Tamla-Motown. I have since toyed with the idea of doing a Perfect Pop Motown special. That idea will need to wait until I have exhausted my shortlists of remaining perfect pop songs (which, rather annoyingly, keeps growing). In the interim, having a male Motown group as a proxy cannot suffice. The Supremes may not have performed on the most perfect Perfect Pop single by women on Motown (that would be Martha & the Vandellas), but their body of work represents the greatest number of perfect pop records by females on Motown, hence their proxy status. And among so many great songs (Baby Love; Stop In The Name Of Love; The Happening; You Can’t Hurry Love; Where Did Our Love Go; Reflections etc), You Keep Me Hangin’ On stands out. Diana Ross and Florence Ballard (who was so royally and tragically stitched up by the Motown machinery) are almost breathless as they demand a resolution to what clearly is not a happy relationship, and the arrangement, especially the rock guitar, add to the urgency.
Best bit: “And there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it” (1:30)

The Beatles – I Feel Fine.mp3
Tracking back a little, the reader may recall that the Perfect Pop series was inspired by a comment in an article by Jim Irvin in The Word. Irvin identified three songs as examples of perfect pop: Take That’s Back For Good, Britney Spears’ Toxic, and the Beatles’ I Feel Fine. I have featured the Take That and Britney songs, so it is only right to include his third pick as well. And from the Beatles’ incredible repertoire of perfect pop, I Feel Fine may indeed the most perfect, exuding an overdose of joyfulness. It was issued as a single only before the release of Help, which I regard as possibly the best pop album of all time, but strangely seems more accomplished and mature than anything on Help, with the possible exceptions of the album’s title track and You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away. I Feel Fine also signalled the beginning of the Beatles’ experimental phase, with the inclusion of an accidentally discovered sound, the feedback that starts the song. It may be unnecessary to mention that this came about when John Lennon parked his still switched on electric guitar against an amp et cetera.
Best bit: The feedback intro, of course (0:01)

The Chiffons – He’s So Fine.mp3
The song George Harrison never heard before writing My Sweet Lord. In this series, the Chiffons represent all those great girl-bands from the early ’60s. He’s So Fine may not be the best of the lot (I like the Ronettes’ Be My Baby, for example, or even the Chiffons’ One Fine Day better), but I think it has all the ingredients which made girl-band pop so perfect. The wonderful backing harmonies which are almost bell-like, the always slightly sad undercurrent in the melody and vocals even when the song is about happiness, the dense production (often by Phil Spector, though not here), and the killer chorus — which, in this case, must have wormed itself so deeply into Harrison’s subconscience that he took plagiaristic ownership of the melody. After losing his 1976 plagiarism case, Harrison bought the rights to He’s So Fine so he would not be sued again.
Best bit: “Doo-lang-doo-lang-doo-lang” (0:01)

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