Being a fan of 80’s guitar jangle that I am, it’d come as no real surprise that I’d consider Alex Chilton to be one the forms exemplary talents. Once anyone gets into the litany of bands from that era that regularly spoke of his expansive influence—REM, the Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream, the Posies, Soul Asylum, X, and on and on you could go—you would get to the point that you’d be almost tired of the namecheck and do the homework for yourself. What you’d find, first in the Box Tops records of the mid to late 60s (where his blue eyes soul vocal stylings were second to none) and then specifically the Big Star records of the mid-70s, is some of the most bristling guitar pop of that or any era. Big Star evoked a touching individualistic honesty that immediately marked the songs to his unique perspective (but, lets also not discount Chris Bell’s work with the band too; a fact his genius posthumous I Am the Cosmos LP more than bore), but the three records, as critically heralded as they were, sold poorly and the band remained mere cult darlings. These poor commercial showings strained the bands relationship with the label, and no doubt affected the psyches of Chilton and Bell. Thus, after three records (all of masterpiece quality), the band called it quits. Continue reading
In the fall of 1966, The Miracles, not yet Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (at least on their US singles, as two albums had appeared with this moniker), released ‘(Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need’, a springy piece of guitar driven dance pop. It’s a slight deviation from the normal Smokey track, mainly in that the lyric, though a heartfelt message meant to comfort a girl who may be losing her lover, is boasting and assertive. Robinson was always an assured singer, to me second to none in the form, but his songs are usually forlorn excursions, he the victim of loves often sad outcomes. Since the A-side did appear as such, you’d almost assume that the flip side would tread his usual waters. Little did anyone know that when flipped just how beautiful the B would be, perhaps saying in the plainest language possible that if the A is going to be this strong in confident emotional temperament, the B would have to be at least that lamenting comparatively in reverse. Continue reading
If pressed on what it is about the rock n’ roll/pop boom that makes me so obsessive, it might just be the timeless nature of it all. Consider todays dual track post, two songs separated by almost 50 years, but being perfectly joined in space by song construction, melody, and mood. You could say this is a quaint way of saying one ripped off another, but they also couldn’t be more different from one another. One an exhilarating rush to the head, the other a laconic dream. And if you like both, as I do, you don’t say which is which within these descriptions, because the beauty here is that both are all of these things at once. We needn’t be worried which one came first (and the technology advances in guitar amplification/feedback make it pretty obvious as to which one came later) in questions of thievery, because both these works create echoes to the past and the future*. Continue reading
‘Waterloo’, the singles English version A-side was the track that fully burst ABBA into the mainstream. Based on all the ‘otherness’ of them, most probably believed their career was starting and ending at roughly the same time; their novelty seemed tailored to a specifically one-hit-wonder status. Listening to ABBA these impressions would probably prompt most to think they came and went as some sort of phenomenon unto themselves, as if because they weren’t the typical group, from the typical place pop bands emerge from (i.e. America and Britain), then they must have borrowed the template of so many artists only within a Swedish geographical origin. No doubt the accents and manners of the group attracted fans of the cheap; they saw pretty women and a few catchy, disposable tracks. But when they’re probed a little more, they’re seen more accurately as a highly talented and efficient group with a deep, rich catalog. Their linage isn’t that narrow either, as there was somewhat of a wave of Swedish pop around the time (and really, Eurovision, the song contest that broke ‘Waterloo’ and therefor ABBA, pumped several equally diverse acts into the consciousness), Harpo, for one, was crafting a decent career around this time (his ‘Horoscope’ single is tremendous) as well (plus, when you listen to ‘Waterloo’ and are familiar with the deliriousness that is Wizzard’s ‘See My Baby Jive’ you see where the dots connect). To me, the depth the ABBA is clear straight away, each album an amalgamation of styles and samples that often all come off remarkably well. Just run a quick jaunt through ‘em and you’d be amazed if you have a previous notion of what you’d expect; ‘Tiger’ is a noisy piece of production bombast (Spector meets, I don’t know, CAN?), ‘Ring Ring’ a bit of Beatles-esque pop, ’Sitting in the Palmtree’ has a go at reggae (as does ‘Tropical Loveland’) just as ‘Intermezzo No. 1’ attempts classical stylings. Plus, there is enough variation within pop (in their catalogue take your pick between at least 20 first rate efforts; ’SOS’ is the best, as Pete Townshend later called it the best pop track of the 1970s), folk (‘Hasta Mañana’), disco (‘Lay All Your Love on Me’) and hard rock (‘Hey, Hey Helen’, ‘King Kong Song’, plus a few wonderful others) to easily proclaim them on the shortlist of most well-rounded acts in the history of the pop form.
It’s this last category—blistering hard rock—that would probably be the most surprising vein of ABBA’s aesthetic to the casual observer. It’s not often highlighted in their work, a shame really, as my personal favorite ABBA number, 1974’s ‘Watch Out’, fits squarely in this category. Continue reading
‘Life on Mars’, David Bowie’s 1971 Honky Dory track and single is, on face value, a whimsical piece of futuristic baroque pop not alike several other works of his from this era. But, probing deeper one finds a treasure chest of hidden meanings, references and inferences. To me it’s a wonderful entry point to him as an artist for these very facts; here he’s both highly accessible in a hummable Pop way, while also proving himself to be a totally unique musician, stretching the boundaries of his form. Continue reading
Malcolm McLaren has always been seen as something of either an impresario with a delicate sense of the pulse of youth culture or a shameless huckster willing to hitch himself to the ride of (m)any highly instinctive and talented performers. He’d been the latter when he aligned with the New York Dolls just as their short fuse was about to fully combust, just as he was perfectly exhibiting the former as a fashion designer within his Chelsea boutique called SEX sometime in the mid- 1970s. As manager/organizer of the Sex Pistols, McLaren was always spoken of by John Lydon in the harshest of tones, as if McLaren was little more than snake oil salesman meets two-bit crook. He might have been right, but perhaps the argument was always in the semantics of it; for the Sex Pistols were Lydon’s life, to which he saw an old friend used up and dead (Sid Vicious) by the end, while McLaren always saw the medium as a swindle, a glorious one to be sure, one that can change the world forever, but still a lark. I’d argue it’s from each of their different perspectives: McLaren, I think, eventually came to Lydon’s side of the argument when he realized that sitting atop it all as organizer is a bit of a cheat. How can anyone in the fray argue anything when they’ve placed nothing on the table, nothing of themselves on the line?
Malcolm McLaren eventually got around (not after he tried creating another Sex Pistols in the form of Bow Wow Wow) to entering the fray, when he recorded Duck Rock in 1983. Full of cutting edge music of the time (as McLaren saw it), Duck Rock is a smorgasbord of the then burgeoning hip-hop, world music, and dance movements. One track in particular, ‘Double Dutch’, McLaren seemed to be in roundabout discussion with himself about his past and what he perceived as his future place in the discussion. Continue reading
The idea of the novelty song is one from the earliest days of Pop’s birth. As soon as the form was birthed, perhaps because a good many thought it a quickly passing fad, artists (and really in this sub-genre it’s often more apt to describe them as ‘entertainers’ more than artists) sought to make cheeky party numbers about contemporary minutia or characters, often the stranger the better. Catching the immediate zeitgeist and quickly catching in was the name of the game in the genre, with the songs often reaping the profits on flimsy production costs. Nervous Norvus, the performing name of Jimmy Drake is, to me, the template for this aesthetic, his songs often little more than home produced demos, done by the dozens, exhibiting remarkable bang for the buck. He was over 40 when he struck gold with two hit singles in 1956, the most famous of which is ‘Transfusion’, a track about the pitfalls of a teenager Rock n’ Rollers fixation with burgeoning hot rod cultures night drag racing. The song, though full of whimsical, sardonic humor is also a cutting edge collage of sounds and other bric-a-brac; surgery jargon delivered alongside in the hippest jive slang of the day. The car crashes are heard (from a royalty free sound effect collection), as is Nervous Norvus’ unabashed eccentric yelps. It’s arty enough to warrant him mention in any discussion on the topic, but later in the year his ‘Ape Call’ broke even more ground. It cuts more to Pop’s tender heart, and, for my ears still sounds highly melodic and fresh (that he was over 40 when he wrote such whimsy makes me think he was something of a proto-Jonathan Richman). It’s a sweet hymn to the primitive call of love, complete with plenty of Norvus’ unique phrasings and stylized production.
But it was perhaps the Coasters who took the idea of the novelty track to an altogether different plane; yes ‘Yakety Yak’ (#1, 1958) and ‘Charlie Brown’ (#2, 1959) are the most well known, but ‘Along Came Jones’ (#9, 1959) and specifically ’Riot in Cell Block #9’ (when the band went under the the Robins moniker) the band showed the universal nature of an otherwise quick, cheap rush. All these tracks remain timeless and fun, whereas a novelty track like Brian Hyland’s ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini’ does not, and something a lot like the Coasters sound (Jimmy Soul’s remarkable ‘If You Wanna Be Happy’) remains so as well*. Somewhere it’s about the art of it, the joyous exuberance amidst something close to irreverence. It’s then all the more telling that another human trait—menace—trades ‘exuberance’ for the main thrust of perhaps my favorite novelty song, Rolf Harris’ 1965 ‘War Canoe’. Continue reading