Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Toni Basil- "Mickey"

Toni Basil- “Mickey”

Album Year: 1982
Age: 0
Track Number: 7

And speaking of timelines written out of continuity, we come to Toni Basil, who is still going strong at 68 years young. Toni Basil’s CV is beyond impressive in the number of pivotal moments and members of pop culture history she has been around, but she will likely always be remembered first and foremost for the smash hit “Mickey”.

I first encountered “Mickey” as a meme. Sailing its course through musical history, the song wound up in the mouth of Wayne Campbell as he sings it to his girlfriend Cassandra while cruising around in “the Murph Mobile”. He blurts it out at first as an irritation. Like a recursive loop, it has been stuck in his head all day since it was the last thing he heard before he left the house. The song acts like an itch he can’t scratch. Soon though, Cassandra joins him and the barrier between grading infection and pop bliss is breached. Giving in to the itch, the two are free to delight in the song’s irresistibility. It’s no longer a nuisance. It’s now a shared cause, this insatiable Tourette’s-like need to sing a song.

It’s one of music’s most mystical affects, the way it commands you beyond your desires, beyond the pleasure principle. One admits to defeat, gives in to the power of the song. Often, it’s not even a song you like, a song you may want to quit, but which can’t quit you.

I watched the VHS of “Wayne’s World” over and over until the heads were worn down, so I knew “Mickey” as a symptom before I really knew it as a song. I understood its infectiousness and why, even if I never listened to it again, it wasn’t going anywhere in my mind. I got the handclaps and how they would fit into a ritualized cheerleading routine. The song almost seems to have been arranged and engineered to be a hit, with the meticulousness of a dance routine. “Hey Timmy, You’re so fine. You’re so fine you blow my mind!,” a girl would kindly write to me in a note passed between classes in high school. “Mickey” was so catchy that it was now backdrop, infinitely accessible. It still is. One line and you know exactly the song, if not the sentiment.

Likewise, Toni Basil was a bit of a cipher. It wasn’t until researching this song that I found out that Basil was already 40 years old when her breakthrough single shot up the charts. It’s appropriate that “Mickey” would help kick start MTV since television is where she got her start. As a young woman, one of her earliest gigs was the T.A.M.I. show in 1965, an iconic television event displaying the talents of The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones, not to mention a career-defining performance by James Brown (The Rolling Stones had the bad fortune to go on after Brown, but their career seems to have recovered).

Her work on the T.A.M.I. Show as both a go-go dancer and choreographer secured her a long career working behind the scenes of music. She rounded out the sixties, as she would throughout her career, bridging the gap between the counterculture and the mainstream. She was friends with several Beatles and appeared in a couple films with buddies Jack Nicholson (Five Easy Pieces) and Dennis Hopper (The Last Movie and Easy Rider, where she was one of the prostitutes in the infamous graveyard LSD scene).

Her first film though was also her first music video. It’s unclear if “Breakaway”, Basil’s Tamla Motown-esque first single in 1966 (written by Ed “Tainted Love” Cobb), was supposed to transform her into a star, but if so she chose a strange medium for a crossover vehicle. Directed by found footage artist Bruce Conner (“A Movie”), “Breakaway” features original footage of Basil dancing and stripping in a frenzy of artistic poses rendered in motion blur zoom shost in stark black and white. Far from the piece you’d expect from a soul song of the era, the visuals almost seem a better accompaniment to some dream synthesis of This Mortal Coil and rave music. That is, until halfway through and the entire song plays backwards, far more apropos of the early psychedelia on display here.

Basil would go on herself to direct videos for Talking Heads (“Once In a Lifetime”, “Crosseyed & Painless”), in addition to directing all of her own videos. It was likely Basil then that would connect Conner to David Byrne and Brian Eno, who had Conner direct two videos from My Life in the Bush With Ghosts. Conner was also a mutual connection to Devo (he did their “Mongoloid” video), a group Basil was an early champion of. On a recent Sound Opinions podcast, hosts Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot recalled a story wherein it was Basil’s then boyfriend Dean Stockwell (of all people) who put one of Basil’s tapes of Devo into Neil Young’s hand, forging the friendship that would culminate in their collaboration on Rust Never Sleeps and “Human Highway”.

Basil also knew David Bowie. She had done choreography for his 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, by far the most elaborate Bowie stage show, and even though she didn’t hand Bowie and Iggy Pop the demo tapes that got Devo signed, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to suggest her opinion had some affect. Regardless, her relationship to Devo would tighten and she eventually wound up not only covering 3 Devo songs on her debut, Word of Mouth, but dating Gerry Casale himself.

Between forging artistic connections, Basil did some of her most groundbreaking work as a member of the dance troupe The Lockers. The Lockers were infamous for introducing “street dance” to mainstream audiences with appearances on Saturday Night Live, Soul Train, and The Tonight Show. Though Basil left the group in 1976, The Lockers had already cemented their influence on the burgeoning hip-hop culture by introducing a unique set of dance elements, such as their namesake piece, locking (now known as poplocking or popping and locking).

This was all before “Mickey”, which immediately vanquished all this entire ouevre behind the smokescreen of what might be the ultimate one hit wonder song. An anthemic beckoning for affection in the form of a cheerleading routine, “Mickey” was part of a wave that set out to prove synths were far more effective than traditional instruments in creating bubblegum. Like Devo, Basil was a pioneer of music video. She shot the iconic high velocity, high energy cheerleading video on her own over a year before MTV even existed. When MTV came around, the song went into heavy rotation and knocked Lionel Ritchie out of the number one slot on the pop charts.

Essentially a spot-on cover of “Kitty” by the forgotten powerpop band Racey, “Mickey” was named after Mickey Dolonz of the Monkees (Basil had done choreography for The Monkees’s “Head” film and appears as a backup dancer in the spectacular video for “Davy’s Song”), but appears on the surface to have no original sentiment to it beyond the name change. Yet, if that’s so, then why did Robert Christgau call Basil (quite crudely, mind you) “The only woman ever to offer to take it up the ass on top 40 radio”?

Perhaps it’s because when converting “Kitty” from a woman to a man, Mickey turns out to be quite gay. For the first half of the song, Mickey consistently resists Basil’s charms, so in the latter half Basil’s pleas become more revealing. “Now if you take me by the hooooo, who’s ever gonna know?/ Every time you move, I let a little more show/ There’s something you can use so don’t say no, Mickey/ So come on and give it to me anyway you can/ Anyway you wanna do it, I’ll take it like a man/ Oh, please, baby, please, don’t leave me in the damn, Mickey!”

Basil did a number of other interesting film and musical projects after the “Mickey” craze wore down, but her most interest legacy might be what arose in the song’s wake. “Kings of Rock” Run DMC copped a sample of The Knack’s “My Sharona” for “It’s Tricky”, but the song’s chorus openly riffed on “Mickey”, singing the “It’s tricky to rock a rhyme” line to the tune of “Hey Mickey, you’re so fine”. It’s unclear whether the group was aware of Basil’s roots in hip-hop street dance or whether they were just looking to appeal to the new wave kids alongside the metalheads, but the impact on one of hip hop’s first big singles is not insignificant.

The track also received the very first “Weird Al” Yankovic treatment on his self-titled debut album as “Ricky”, an ode to the I Love Lucy character. Weird Al’s early single “Another One Rides the Bus” had spun in regular rotation on Dr. Demento’s show, but for the bulk of Americans, “Ricky” was the first exposure to the parody musician eccentric who would go on to produce the first record I ever owned (more on that one later).

Though I don’t know of any artist who has cited the song as a direct influence, “Mickey” has to have at least subconsciously brought about the naughts trend of bringing pop onto the football field. Drumline songs by the likes of Gwen Stefani (“Hollaback Girl”, “What You Waitin’ For”) and Beyonce (“Get Me Bodied”, “Girls (Who Run the World)”) may have the opposite poise of Basil’s tongue-in-cheek boy crazy vapid cheerleader, but the song at least serves as a sonic ancestor who mapped the sociological terrain of high school sports first. Closer still in relationship is the call and response rah-rah chants of Avril Lavinge and Dr. Luke’s “Girlfriend”, which, like “Mickey”, is practically a cover of a powerpop song (The Rubinoos’s “I Want to Be Your Boyfriend”). Likewise to its spiritual kin, Lavigne, in twisting the gender of the original, puts forth an oppositional posture to the original (“I want to be your boyfriend” becomes “I don’t like your boyfriend”).

It’s likely Basil will never get the credit she deserves for any of her lasting influence because “Mickey” comes from a place of pure commerciality, the novelty song (making Weird Al’s gesture extra meta- a novelty parody of a novelty song). Yet, she’s already had so much influence and had her hands in so many interesting moments that it almost doesn’t seem worth it to fight for the recognition. Basil seems to do a better job in the background, choreographing music’s foreground as it passes by.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Blood, Sweat, & Tears- “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”

Album Year: 1982
Age: 0
Track Number: 6

Yes, this is the second Blood, Sweat, and Tears song on this mixtape. While the last two entries were presented for cultural ambiance (a means of describing the musical world I was born into), “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” is a song that was actually probably played both around me and for me when I was a baby. As previously mentioned, the self-titled album by Blood, Sweat, and Tears was one that came on quite a bit in my house growing up. As such, the band always signified the generational divide to me while I was growing up. They were my parents’ rock band, not Poison or Nine Inch Nails or whoever I happened to be into at the time. It wasn’t that I found the group to be offensively irksome or maudlin (like I did with The Beach Boys- a band I love now). I just didn’t understand their appeal. Given the existence of other great music in the world, I couldn’t figure out why anyone would settle for BST.

Yet now, though I still don’t particularly care for the group, I find my parents’ embrace of them somewhat endearing. I can get how the group’s complex jazz musicianship and classical theatrics might have at one time sounded drastic and exciting. Their use of polyphonics were surely vibrant and new in a world where records had only recently been rescued from mono. David Clayton-Thomas’s voice could sound both sweet and gruff and it was a great mimesis of all black voices, a simulation that seemed to serve a blow to the argument for “authenticity” as the crucial crux of a good record.

Before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, which it should be noted, only came out a year prior to Blood, Sweat and Tears, audiences mostly looked upon rock as a cheap commodity and if the word “glut” or “bloat” was to be placed next to it, it was only to emphasize the large volume of turnover in the market. By the end of the 1970s, the center had shifted and massive budgets and overproduction were the norm. Lenny Kaye/Lester Bangs types dismissed BST as symptomatic of everything wrong with music, and championed instead dumb, stripped-down, primal, adolescent noisy music (what would eventually become punk), a music that was not only anti-prog and anti-fusion, but its opposite.

In an interview with Rob Sheffield, Fluxblog’s Matthew Perpetua used a term from comic books to refer to musicians who were once big who have been “written out of continuity”. Music history, like any history, is written by the winners. For years I thought Blood, Sweat, and Tears were just some also-rans that my parents happened to like in tandem to big acts like The Beatles. But as it turns out the group was exceptionally popular. “You’ve Made Me So Happy” was the first of three #2 singles from the album, one of several to go multi-platinum. The group were even a headlining act at Woodstock.

Most infamously, the group even swiped a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1970 for Blood, Sweat, and Tears, beating out Abbey Road. To be fair, The Beatles had actually only won one previous album of the year Grammy, for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Album of the Year winners in the ensuing years included the illustrious likes of Toto, Lionel Ritchie, Celine Dion, and Christopher Cross, proving that the bar was not exactly set very high.

Another Album of the Year artist nominee in 1970, Johnny Cash (nominated for At San Quentin), had previously recorded an album called Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Although both essentially covers records, the divide between the two albums couldn’t be greater. Whereas Cash had sung gritty paeans to the working man, BST had an opulent-sounding sheen to their music, complete with gentle flutes, apocalyptic brass, and song suite like structures. It was perhaps this that so frustrated BST’s critics, the fact that they not only got rich, but decidedly sounded rich as well.

“You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” is adapted from a Brenda Holloway song on Motown. Somewhat unusually for Motown, Holloway actually retains a songwriting credit on the track, so she really does own the tune. As such though, it’s one of the more poppy songs from the Blood, Sweat, and Tears album, but that doesn’t mean that the group didn’t do everything in their willpower to add a mosaic of different patterns and shapes into the mix. At times, the group’s virtuosity even appears to drown the passion that the song’s lyrics allude to, or, at worst, divert from it entirely. With that said, it’s not a bad song. It’s just pointlessly tiered. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is through a play-by-play.

The song starts with horns gallantly fluttering as if announcing some kind of regal entrance as the organs sing the chorus in a kind of pageantry that seems destined to secure the track as a wedding anthem hereafter. The organs soon bleed out into harmonic chords juxtaposed against a mobile cool-jazz bassline. As Clayton-Thomas announces “I’ve lost at love before”, it’s clear that the opening was a tease, as the track is now a blues, a sad lament at the singer’s previous romantic missteps.

Then, suddenly, joyful horns burst out in segmented hits to crush this spell of depression. “I chose you for the one”, Clayton-Thomas says, and, contra just a few seconds ago, “Now we’re having so much fun”. The snare and the kick become a four-to-the-floor under these vocals, making the connection of the bridge to the chorus seem almost mechanical. It’s a device which allows the chorus to sound more loose and freeing in comparison, but the chorus almost becomes an afterthought to the high tension of the bridge. To ameliorate this contrast, the chorus itself is split between the tension of the “You’ve made me so/Very Happy/ I’m so glad you/” and the release of “Came into my liiiiiife”. For a moment at this juncture as that line is drawn out, the song almost resembles a mid-tempo rock song, but the affect is only temporary.

A whining trumpet then beckons in, caked in reverberation as if coming from an (tin pan) alley down the block. The band goes through another verse of sad blues, joyful horns on the bridge, and the chorus, but this time the chorus is followed by three secessions of horns echoing the melody of chorus as Clayton-Thomas bellows a guttural “Thank you baby!”.

Then, less than halfway through the songs, the horns and guitar/bass engage in a call & response before a fierce round of shouts (“Thank you baby”) are so intense that the music stops and pauses. This (for some odd goddamned reason) causes the entire group to meltdown into sinister minor chords and staccato organ notes like they’re all the sudden in the middle of a Bach concerto. This is where the song loses me completely. Is this supposed to be the rocky road of a relationship? Or the thought of life without each other? If none of these reaching arguments apply, the entire mid-section where they riff on some dark groove like they’ve been transported to an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer 18 minute opus doesn’t really seem to serve any purpose other than pure, undistilled wankery.

Like it never happened, there’s then an immediate revamp of the chorus, which is back in a major key, though the chorus is now sonically different. The instrumentation has multiplied and the rhythm section is maintaining the intensity of the solo, which makes the final breakdown into sweet piano and organ all the more cathartic. This last part, which is probably the most conservative part of the song, is also probably my favorite part of the song.

In comparison, the original by Brenda Holloway sounds practically minimalist. Her version is driven by bass, which may be why BST’s Jim Fielder sounds like he’s competing against it (and amazingly enough, seems to win vs. The Funk Brothers). Though Holloway has a fantastic voice, she seems to be layering a too-loose melody on top of a kind of stiff composition, approaching almost Tori Amos levels of melisma and staggered syncopated articulation.

In my opinion, this Little Miss Soul rendition is the better Motown version:

Of course, this was cut in 1970, after the BST version. The success of the Blood, Sweat, and Tears rendition caused this song to have something of a massive shelf life, to the point where it’s practically a standard now. Do a YouTube search and you’ll find the archives flooded with covers, ranging from treacle crap to the sublime. Here’s a few of the good ones.

The bass work of the original may explain why the song seemed a good fit for reggae stars like Alton Ellis and Barrington Levy:

Lou Rawls even named an album after the song. This version (produced by David Axelrod) may be the definitive version of the song. It was also sampled by Kanye West:

I think the energy of the instrumental on this Sammy Davis Jr. version (released on Tamla Motown) matches the energy level BST was looking for in its weird asides, but overall Sammy’s vocal is a bit lacking. You can even here his voice cracking in parts. Wish they’d cut a version without Sammy:

These aren’t really quality versions, but to those who think BST took a black song and made it white, you obviously haven’t heard how white this song could be:

And here’s a French cover, to prove the phenomena was not restricted to our shores:

Amazingly enough, my second favorite may be Cher’s cover, which was an unreleased track left off her self-titled 1969 album.

Then there’s this one, by Chris Clark. For some reason, this song was from the only album (C.C. Rides Again) released on Motown imprint Weed. Their infamous byline was “Your Favorite Artists Are On Weed”. Notable in the below is a musical quote from Nina Rota’s score to Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet.

And it’s the Romeo and Juliet aspect of the song that will make me never able to hate the Blood, Sweat, and Tears version. As a song, it’s kind, polite, and patient, everything people like Bangs despised, but hardly less-than-admirable. It will also always make me think of my parents hearing the song and thinking of one another. Though, I’m not sure Clayton-Thomas was entirely sincere in transforming this song into a hit, I know at least my parents were, as were the myriad people playing it at their weddings, as they sang along to an expression of their mutual admiration. Even if it’s a bit overindulgent, it’s the sweetness of Holloway’s sentiment that shines through in the BST version’s best parts.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Musical Youth- "Pass the Dutchie"

Album Year: 1982
Age: 0
Track Number: 5

In 1981, the subject of “white reggae” was a vibrant topic in music criticism and the
burgeoning field of cultural studies. Jamaican reggae had been imported to American and British shores for at least a few decades already, but the genre was now enjoying a surge in interest thanks to an influx of talent from the post-punk and new wave set looking to realign rock’s increasingly stale riff-centric hegemony. The racial dynamics of white appropriation was still a sore wound though and many saw the reggae-punk dialectic as a carryover of the exploitation that had allowed white musicians to get rich off of blues and black R&B while its innovators struggled to make ends meet. As we saw below with the last entry, whites with blue eyes had already started to colonize soul, once primarily the terrain of blacks, in the 80s*, and now they were coming for reggae like the bloodthirsty vampires looking to inject their pale skin with some life.

Reggae, the next frontier, shared with early blues a nativism and indigenousness. It was also bound by the fiery self-righteous political fury of apocalyptic Christianity. This latter quality made it a perpetual goldmine/landmine of both sonic and cultural credibility throughout the 70s and 80s.

Perhaps the most successful early example of foreigners adopting reggae style was The Beatles’ 1968 song “Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da”, with its ska bounce and its coded references to Desmond Dekker (whose “Israelites” was itself a hit in the UK in 1968). “Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da”, however, did not mark some kind of turning point for The Beatles, trading the maharishi for Jah and hooks for skanks. Appearing on the postmodern pastiche that is The White Album (The Beatles), the song was simply one in a series of wild sonic departures and it was this template of cultural tourism that would come to define the reggae influence throughout the seventies, as sonic motifs like the skank guitar offbeat and stepper riddims incorporated their ways into hits by the likes of Eric Clapton (“I Shot the Sherriff”), Led Zeppelin (“D’yer Maker”), Peter Frampton (“Baby I Love Your Way”), Paul Simon (“Mother and Child Reunion”), and The Eagles (“Hotel California”).

For the most part, rock musicians ignored reggae’s political fury, its sense of social justice and discontent for the status quo, until punk emerged. While much punk itself was fairly conservative in its approach, the punks soaked themselves in rude boy culture. The Clash were the most obvious example of a group enamored of reggae, but reggae and particularly dub were also crucial to the work John Lydon nee Rotten did in Public Image Limited immediately following the dissipation of The Sex Pistols. At The Roxy, ground zero for British punk, Don Letts spun little else but reggae between sets and forged a bond between two disparate cultures, creating legions of new fans in the process. Elsewhere, the 2 Tone movement (The Specials, The Selecter, Madness) was practically a revival in new wave garb and dub production techniques made daring and groundbreaking work by The Slits, The Pop Group, and Martin Hannett’s various projects at Factory Records sound even more vital.

Reggae’s most pervasive and appealing reach in musical culture though stems from its devotional ties to marijuana. This relationship alone has likely secured reggae as an eternal teenage staple, a unifying touchstone whose hymn-like odes to getting high can be applied by secular stoners for whom pot-smoking is like a religious ceremony. To Rastafarians, smoking cannabis actually is a religious sacrament. In the Rastafarian belief system, ganja is said to be a cleansing herb intended to bring oneself closer to Jah. For them, there can be no distinction between their political indignation and the smoking of marijuana since it is the very illegality of the latter (in Jamaica and larger expatriate cultures like the U.S. and the U.K) that proves the illegitimacy of centralized authority, who seeks to shield everyday citizens from God’s truth as communicated through the herb’s higher states of consciousness.

With marijuana so central to reggae’s religious culture, reggae artists were known to record odes to smoking it. One of the aforementioned cannabis anthems was “Pass the Koutchie” by The Mighty Diamonds, which is perhaps best known by its cover version, reimagined as Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie”. For all the bile spewed at Musical Youth for cannabilizing the original, “Pass the Koutchie” is a pretty breezy song, with its narrator telling a tale of waking up on a beautiful day, realizing he had no weed, and finding some nice young dreadlocks who were willing to share some.

Hardly a revolutionary anthem, but the way critics reacted, you’d think Musical Youth were taking a shit on the Jamaican flag by rearranging it. Rolling Stone called “Pass the Dutchie” a slice of “reggae bubblegum” and the LA Times were miffed that “these kids…are now taking the Jamaican pop sound into areas of the U.S. Charts that major figures like Bob Marley and Toots and the Maytals have yet to enter.” Lofty academic articles wagged their fingers at what they saw as a “commercially calculated pseudo-pop-reggae construct rather than a fully self-contained group thoroughly rooted in core reggae aesthetics” (Mike Alleyne, “White Reggae: Cultural Dilution in the Record Industry”, Popular Music and Society 24.1, 2000).

The main gripe with the song seems to be with the fact the Musical Youth dared to change song lyrics in their cover version, but this was not an uncommon practice in soundsystem culture. In fact, “Pass the Koutchie” itself was a bastardization. Utilizing the prevalent practice of duplicating popular instrumental backing tracks (or “riddims”), “Pass the Koutchie” rips the sound of “Full Up” by Sound Dimension for its music. Other reggae songs in this milieu proudly and uncontroversially switched up lyrics, added their own verses, or remixed entire tracks at will. This is par for the course in reggae culture. The problem for critics, of course, was that the record label seemed to be behind the swap, not the artists themselves.

Reggae itself was part a grand cultural exchange between the U.S. and Central America, one that had made stars out of American artists like Harry Belafonte and Tito Puente. When the lower class residents of Trenchtown began getting a hold of early U.S. rock and R&B records, they, just as their American predecessors had, began blending American sounds with hallmarks of Jamaican folk music. So, reggae itself can be thought to be part of a more interactive, sampling/sharing culture, rather than one bound by ideas of intellectual property, authenticity, and ownership of artistry like the American and British record industries.

Musical Youth was made up of two sets of brothers from Birmingham, UK, Kelvin and Michael Grant, and Junior and Patrick Waite, and they were indeed a studio concoction, something like a New Edition of reggae, with the group’s youngest member only 11 years old when their first album dropped. In this context, one could be forgiven for thinking that the lyrics of the song were altered only to avoid the shock of having an adolescent pop group singing about the joys of illegal drugs rather than to make foreign songs sound more palatable to white audiences.

Besides, it’s not as if audiences were entirely fooled by the change-up. The “Dutchie” of the title is slang for a kind of cooking pot (like a Dutch oven), but has long since become slang for a blunt whose weed has been wrapped up in a Dutch masters cigar. Beyond the titular adjustment, the only real major change in the song was the switch from the refrain of “How does it feel when you got no herb?” to “How do you feel when you got no food?”, which to my ears almost sounds more subversive given the context of abject poverty and widespread hunger spanning Trenchtown to Birmingham. Rastas out of their stash is a bummer, sure, but it’s not nearly as bad as little kids who don’t have anything to eat.

In a setting where reggae was becoming common consumption though, it’s easy to see why many looked on the song’s existence as a mere trifle. The previous few years had seen minor reggae-tinged hits in Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” (1977), The Police’s “Roxanne” (1978), Blondie’s “The Tide is High” (1980), and The (English) Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom” (1980). Reggae would continue to chart after “Pass the Dutchie” too, though mainly as a novelty and in increasingly watered down form in the years to come (Eddie Grant’s “Electric Avenue” from 1982, UB40’s “Red Red Wine” from 1983, et al.). Its trajectory was sloping downward and “Pass the Dutchie” was released in the middle of this slide.

However, the song was not in and of itself a decline. “Pass The Dutchie” exists somewhere within the liminal space between Regatta De Blanc (as The Police album called it) and “authentic” reggae (the band was schooled by reggae legend Jackie Mittoo, who, as one half of Sound Dimension, wrote the “Full Up” riddim that Mighty Diamonds lifted for their version). There’s an undeniable sheen to the music, a bright and bouncy playfulness that screams pop, but the beat is infectious and the vocals show an incredible depth for a bunch of pre-teens. Just check the flow of “Patch the Dutchie” versus the tween-pop of similar board room confections of the following decade like Kriss Kross, Another Bad Creation, or New Kids on the Block and Musical Youth practically sound like KRS-One in comparison. Better yet, compare “Pass the Dutchie” to Musical Youth’s own enervated version of Desmond Dekker’s “007 (A Shanty Town)” from just a year later:

Or the extra treacly cheap keyboard muzak of their Donna Summer Collaboration:

By this point, their music had been completely drained of reggae’s sonic structures, but on “Pass the Dutchie” they sound alive and free. When Kelvin Grant shouts out “This generation rules the nation!” at the song’s inception, one is almost reminded of the cocky pre-teens at the end of Wild in the Streets, ready to make their twentysomething elders appear as dinosaurs and bomb them into extinction.

It’s little wonder the tune was a smash hit, making it to #1 on the charts in the UK and #10 in the U.S., where it was one of the few music videos pre-Thriller to make it to heavy rotation on MTV with a cast of black faces. The video, depicting the band evading truant officers and winding up facing an uptight court of manners, was directed by Don Letts, the very man who had spawned Britain’s lingering punky reggae party at the Roxy several years earlier.

But a music is often defined best by its uses. Ultrahip 90s icon Beck’s hit song “Where It’s At” made a sly reference to “passing the dutchie from coast to coast” as a form of cultural capital on an album overflowing with such off-the-cuff citations. Public Enemy’s Terminator X noticed the charged potency of Kelvin Grant’s commencement line above and embedded it into the chorus of “Revolutionary Generation” off their Fear of a Black Planet album. The refrain of The Black Eyed Peas’s “Dum Diddly”, on the other hand, jacked the line “you know the music make you jump and prance” (mashed with a “oh-way-oh” response swiped from The Bangles’s “Walk Like an Egyptian”) as a chant to incite dancing.

Here, within one song, was cultural capital for white hipsters, political aggression for black militants, and dumb dance fodder for dispassionate club bangers. Similar to the way “Pass the Dutchie” provided ammunition to critics arguing that the reggae had become commercially diluted and was being savaged by colonialism, “Pass the Dutchie” became a cipher, a cultural riddim, the song as artifact to be molded and reshaped to the delight of the user. It proves that the channels that pop and folk idioms travel through share more in common than many would like to believe. Corporate channels in the early 80s facilitated the creation of new clichés, new archetypes, and new paradigms. In short, postmodern culture was becoming a sampling culture, a reggae culture.

But Musical Youth, 4 poor kids whose careers never recovered from the fallout of their one hit wonder, shouldn’t be blamed for globalization just because they were the temporary benefactor of it. When Patrick Waite (12 years old upon the release of “Pass the Dutchie”) died at 24 of a hereditary heart condition while waiting awaiting trial for drug charges, his life having spiraled sharply downward, it was clear that Musical Youth hadn’t come to replace Bob Marley and Toots Hibbert. They were, in fact, mere pawns in a project of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, the same one that left those blues and early rock icons penniless and destitute. Had Musical Youth not scored a scorching single, they may have disappeared back into the ghettos of Birmingham without a trace, but instead “Pass the Dutchie” carries on. To proclaim that Musical Youth owed something to reggae or to Western music at all is absurd and dances around the fact that it’s culture that owes us, that owes Trenchtown, that owes blacks everywhere for the atrocity of slavery, that owes those jailed and killed in the war on drugs, that owes those who’ve got no food, and that owes those whose ears bleed at the sound of mere entertainment in any age that demands so much more.

*Soul had already troubled by The Beatles’s and Bowie’s Rubber and Plastic Soul varieties respectively, but each of those names since to hint at a kind of ironic acknowledgement of one’s own inauthenticity. The 80s found white singers like Rick Astley praised for the uncanny ability of their voices to sound indistinguishable from the grain of peer black artists, a legacy that continues on through Adele.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hall & Oates- "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)"

Album Year: 1982
Age: 0
Track Number: 4

“I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” is the first song in this series that was recorded in the epoch of the music video. As is true for many other people my age, it’s difficult to overestimate the effect MTV had on me. It’s likewise difficult to overestimate the effect MTV has had on culture in general. The pace of MTV’s editing- that being lightning fast- wrapped a façade of exterior cool onto everything it came in contact with, into every aspect of culture from commercials to film to reality television (which it invented) to broadcast news. The tempo and the rhythm of MTV’s fast editing has had drastic effects on how we as a species process visual information. Before MTV, we were an image-obsessed culture. Now, the visual is so powerful that it blocks out most of our other senses- it is the ultimate measure of reality- to be perceived is to be seen. This effects our entire race’s conception of ontology. So, to say that MTV has had effects on the species is not the least bit hyperbolic (okay, maybe the least bit). For not only did MTV set music to pictures, it made images into music. Reality became a music video, our experiences set to the conventions and restrictions of traditional composition, mappable and navigable.

In an essay written shortly after the death of Michael Jackson, I commented that Michael Jackson’s rise corresponded with the start of my memory development, thus I never knew a world without Jackson. The same can be said about MTV. MTV turns 30 this year and so do I. My world and the MTV world, the neoliberal world, the Michael Jackson world, have always been the same one.

“I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” is a perfect sample of an MTV era song. It’s a tune that can be defined as much by its “look” as its “feel”. By “look”, I don’t meant the actual music video or the way Daryl Hall and John Oates actually look, but the way the music purports to be seen, as well as the way the music looks upon the world. The music on “I Can’t Go For That” appears smooth, ironed-out, and healthy. Its hair is combed and not wily, its clothes stylish and sporty rather than ragged and labored. Daryl Hall’s voice sounds clean and that rare sheen of twinkling synth sound seems to reflect the glint in Hall’s pearly white teeth and baby blue eyes. You can smell the cologne. If Three Dog Night were as “slick as Wesson Oil”, Hall & Oates were as smooth as astroglide, an erotic wish-fulfillment fantasy (and the 80s sure were full of those) of cleanliness next to godliness, sexual desire as the manifestation of purity and good health.

Rock n’ roll’s primality and grit, its blood, sweat, and tears if you will, were frequently its greatest selling points. Daryl Hall’s crystal clear, immaculately produced voice was absent what some critics have dubbed the “grain” of the black voice, evident in oldie R&B stars like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson. Hall & Oates and their peers were dubbed blue-eyed soul by their detractors, a name signifying not only whiteness, but an ethnic cleansing of blackness, which at the time (and still to a certain segment of the population) was the sole barometer of a music’s authenticity and worth.

Rock’s grit was a distinguishment of the genre as the music of the unwashed masses, a permanent underclass. However, rock n’ roll had won the culture wars. It conquered the world. The proliferation of the upwardly mobile yuppie class signified that social hierarchies and the rock n’ roll impulse were not mutually exclusive. The New Pop of the new leisure class just repositioned Bacchanalian hedonic drive as consumer-driven desire, a paragon of purity as naturally motivated as the libidinal reflex of a gyrating Jagger or Elvis. The sonic timbres of the music, guided by the hand of machines (synthesizers and particularly digital emulators), took a turn towards the luxuriant, the stylish, the elegant, and the hygienic.

The Hall & Oates look was perhaps perfected in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, a slick crime drama often referred to as an MTV cop show, one where the fuzz stroll around in extravagant convertibles in flamboyant designer outfits. Miami Vice too was a show that in retroactivity is perceived as being an overtly “white” syndrome of the era, but actually had a fairly integrated cast of blacks and Latinos. The soundtrack to the show was partially scored by former Mahavishnu Orchestra member turned synthaesthete Jan Hammer, but it’s rotational series of pop hits mostly felt like variations on the “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” template of suave and professional sophisti-pop nourished by warm synth pads.

Despite the accusations of bleaching soul out of all its vitality (which many of their peers could be rightly accused of), Hall & Oates were quite popular at the time amongst blacks and whites. “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” topped both the pop and R&B charts, which had never been done before. It fit the format for urban radio, contemporary pop radio, and new wave radio. The song even scored Single of the Week by rock tastemaker magazine NME, which at this time was still primarily championing bold and adventurous new sounds from both the post-punk underground and the emerging synth-ruled mainstream.

By the time Daryl Hall and John Oates had met at Temple University, both of them were already playing on soul records being put out on Kenny Gamble’s arsenal of labels. Daryl Hall had even written songs for Chubby Checker. The sound of the records Hall and Oates recorded was the formation of what Gamble and his partner Leon Huff would mold into Philly Soul. When they began to put out their own records, their sound diverged from the Philly Soul aesthetic, incorporating rock, folk, and even prog elements into their soul. Their 1973 concept album (!) War Babies even used Todd Rundgren’s prog-rock outfit Utopia, featuring on such tunes as “I’m Watching You (A Mutant Romance)” and “Johnny Gore and the ‘C’ Eaters” (I swear this a real Hall & Oates album), as their back-up band.

Hall & Oates had a spotty career until its meteoric rise in the 1980s. Long, unsuccessful periods were punctuated by astronomical hits like “She’s Gone”, “Sara Smile”, and “Rich Girl”. Their albums would wildly stray between genres for the first decade of their tenure. In 1977, Hall even wrote an experimental solo album called Sacred Songs, which was produced by Robert Fripp. Featuring the first recorded appearance of Frippertronics, the art prog music (check the red hot proto-punk intensity of “NYCNY”) was meant to be part of a trilogy along with Peter Gabriel’s second self-titled album and Fripp’s own Exposure. Hall’s managers, seeing this as career suicide, did everything in their power to stop it, which they successfully did.

Hall & Oates seemingly responded by incorporating the pop avant-garde sounds of synthpop into their R&B (Ian Penman allegedly stated that “I Can’t Go For That” was something like “avant-MOR”). By 1982, synthpop had arrived in form, producing mega-stars like The Human League, A Flock of Seagulls, and Dépêche Mode. Synthpop itself was a very image-conscious sound. Based partially in Bowie and Ferry, synthpop produced a tech’ed out glam for the 1980s in crisp and clear tones, which were at times overshadowed by a barrage of make-up and evocative imagery plucked from surrealism and sci-fi. “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” belongs as much in the bucket of synthpop as R&B. It was high society as glam alienation.

Though it is rarely remembered amongst this canon, the song has remained a classic amongst the hip hop community (who, it should also be noted, dig Hall’s art-rock peer Phil Collins). The appeal amongst the predominantly black artists who have relentlessly sampled the track has baffled outsiders for years, many of whom have considered hip-hop heads to be the ultimate curators of cool and Hall & Oates to be the harbingers of death to rock, pop, and even synthpop.

Perhaps the most popular sample of “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” is the one in De La Soul’s “Say No Go” from their seminal acclaimed Three Feet High and Rising album, which takes its title from a line in the song (It’s also a syntax-skewed piss-take on Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign). However, there are two songs both called “I Can’t Go For That”, by Priority One and 2 Live Crew respectively, that appeared a year prior to De La Soul’s 1989 album (The 2 Live Crew song uses the song’s chorus to reject women who want to get into their wallets. Despite some bland literalism and the prerequisite misogyny, the song features some decent scratching).

However, it was De La Soul’s “Say No Go” that underwent some critical scrutiny. Writer Elizabeth Wheeler claimed that De La Soul’s use of the song was “ironic” since it took “an insipid love story” and relocated it “in the ghetto where babies addicted to crack cocaine are born every day”. This was conveniently a victory for postmodernism, a neutral pastiche re-invigorated with political potential by an underclass moment of detournment.
However, this couldn’t have been further from the case. Prince Paul, producer of “Say No Go”, confirmed to interviewers that he was actually a big fan of “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” and this was the sole reason for the lift (from Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop by Joseph Glenn Schloss).

Though the aforementioned songs sampled bits of the chorus and verses, the introduction to “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” offers several entry points. The oft-borrowed break that leads the song off was actually made on a drum machine, a CompuRhythm box preset. Nevertheless, despite its mechanicalism, the beat has been used via sampling in at least a couple dozen hip-hops songs, and probably elsewhere in breakbeat-oriented electronic music as well. The opening bassline has also been replicated innumerable times, the most prominent example being Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. MTV God Jackson admitted to Hall during the “We are the World” sessions (more on that one later) that he had filched his infamous lick in "Billie Jean" from “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”, which Hall was apparently flattered by.

In fact, unlike other stuffy artists at the time who regarded hip-hop’s pilfering enterprise as an affront to rock’s worksmanship (The Turtles had sued De La Soul over another sample from Three Feet High and Rising), Hall & Oates loved the attention they got in the hip-hop community, which they saw as something of a new vanguard, even going so far as to regularly champion “Say No Go” in interviews and play it before their concerts. It’s unclear what they might think of the way they’ve curried favor in the chillwave/hypnagogic pop community, but it’s worth noting that these are two cutting edge communities which have cited Hall & Oates as a precedent.

“I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” is an odd song, one that endures despite its time-specific limitations. Most notable amongst these are the ripping sax solos, which have become something of a calling card of ironic referential/deferential pop (see Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)”). Sax had been present at rock’s inception. It suffocated at the hands of schmaltzy records by Chicago, but was reborn in the 1980s as New Pop's take on soul dabbled in what was soon to be called "Smooth Jazz". What became known as “Smooth Jazz” though was actually quite a new invention (it had roots in the muzaky leanings of fusion artists like The Weather Report), albeit an innovation that irked and provoked more than it inspired. Still, two years time from the release of "I Can't Go For That", smash hits like Wham’s “Careless Whisper” would flood the charts with alternating synth n’ sax and blue-eyed soul’s keyboard patches would find a legacy from Level 42 on down to Rick Astley, for better or worse.

Where “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” splits from these admittedly non-noncommercial pariahs is in its intentionally cold demeanor. The bridge is its most euphoric part, but its uplift of “I’d do almost anything thing/That you want me to” is quickly crushed by the bitter deterministic realism of Hall’s admission of “But I can’t go for that…no can do”, sung in an equally distant, detached manner. Here is a disquiet at odds with the comfort food of Yacht rock. Lyrically, the ambivalence of the pronouns ("That", "You") could afford any substitute. Plenty have offered their suggestions. Pop music has a long history of hiding desire behind the pronouns “you” or “it”, but here the “that” does not really seem to signify anything specific. The verses offer little beyond circumstantial, and inadmissible, clues.

The most tempting interpretation of “that” is “love”, which would make Hall seem little more than an icy, proudly self-absorbed dick. It seems like Hall wants girls to exploit his fame for sex, but has no interest in getting involved, which is at least more sincere than the bulk of love songs on the radio. In this “anti-love” scenario, Hall proposes that his paramours “Use the body, now you want my soul”, later daftly admitting that “I can’t go for being twice as nice/I can’t go for just repeating the same old lines”. He doesn’t have time for romance. He just wants a quickie. Or conversely, he thinks romance is dated and too cliched to be meaningful ("same old lines").

However, this is just one possible analysis. It’s one that fits cozily as a buffer to the greed decade and the rise of the Patrick Bateman types as soundtracked by what has historically been counted as Hall & Oates’s legacy (Huey Lewis, UB40, George Michael, etc.). However, the amount of subcultural capital the group have accumulated suggests that the band have contributed more to music that just pride, vanity, and a world mediated by imagery. The song may not have meant much to me (other than me thinking, like Prince Paul, that it was a cool tune), but the song’s impact on MTV, on Michael Jackson, on blue-eyed soul, on hip-hop, on Junior Boys, on Ben Gibbard, and on chillwave form a vast network of sonic ramifications that make its allure undeniable. Like its subject matter, the song’s place as either nemesis or benefactor of pop music remains an enigma.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Three Dog Night- Joy to the World

Album Year: 1982
Age: 0
Track Number: 3

Like Blood, Sweat & Tears, Three Dog Night are not a band who survived the turmoil of history well. Like BS&T, they too had a miraculous streak. The band had 21 top 20 hits, 18 of which were consecutive singles from the group. With a string of gold records under their belt, the band was nothing short of a hit factory, and it was easy to see them as exactly that, churning out records for the charts at the dreck-end of the 1970s.

The pop charts of the early 1970s are commonly seen as the detritus of the 1960s, a deadening hangover in the wake of a surge of quality of the preceding decade. After the dissolution of The Beatles (and their “return to roots” finale act), innovation in pop was sidelined, mostly to genres generally thought to be more puerile and soul-less in nature (heavy metal, glam, funk, disco). Critics loathed Three Dog Night, considering them to be symptomatic of the nascent decade’s rate of decline, but then again there was just a lot of hate by grumpy music critics of the 1970s, who alternately hated Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis’s fusion albums, and Electric Light Orchestra’s post-Beatles prog pop in equal measure. In fact, the perception of the 1970s has been so fundamentally altered over the past 30 to 40 years that it’s hard to fathom that the decade was ever viewed as a kind of dead zone of musical history. Still, while many genres and artists received ample reconsideration in the decades that followed, Three Dog Night remain a bit untouchable as an artifact, linger as a pockmark in critical consciousness, proof of what Jerry Casale would soon after dub the “devolution” of cultural standards.

It was the “hit factory” side of the group that irked many critics. Robert Christgau, in a mostly positive review, called them “slick as Wesson Oil” and assumedly just as manufactured. Even well into the 1970s, it was not rare for a band to pack their album with covers (1973’s These Foolish Things by Bryan Ferry even used the concept of a covers album to postmodern ends, reducing “serious” rock to cabaret and dignifying bubblegum pop with all-too-earnest interpretations). However, Three Dog Night didn’t even really have songs of their own to write off. Their albums largely consisted of a strategic selection of un-originals shopped around from the local record store. In a spirit that would prefigure the ‘naughts by three decades, Three Dog Night was a curatorial band, a playlist band, one who condensed libraries into pub rock renditions of their top selections.

Unlike a curatorial band like, say, Sonic Youth, for whom taste is king, Three Dog Night flirted in high, low, and middlebrow, from poetry on through bluster. They gave equal footing to revered singer-songwriter types like Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson as they did to showbiz folk like Elton John and Paul Williams. This probably provided the band with a broader appeal to listeners like my parents, who were immune to music’s internal dialectics. Though my parents were very much a product of the 1960s, I never got the impression that they felt music and art were crucial to the social transformations of the age, at least not to the extent of other college-aged kids their age who would rush home with albums, read the lyrics obsessively, get stoned or trip out to unlock the mysteries of the fetishized commodities, and run off to the concerts to get closer to the experience. Music for them was a social experience (which is more than you can say of today's earbud-trapped listeners), but the ties that bonded the personal the political ended for them at the body (skin color, X chromosomes, the corpses of friends in Indochina).

People like to forget that the radical voices at the forefront of the 1960s were just the center stage, supported by myriad faceless voices in the audience who were alternately just there for the party, eager to be in on the craze, or anxious to be on the right side of history. For all those who believed in revolution, there were dozens more who believed only in a partial revolution, a 45 degree revolution (which was not captured in 45 RPM). Folks like my parents didn’t want to levitate the Pentagon or militarize the ghettos, they wanted to end the Vietnam War, stop the oppression of blacks and women, and get nice jobs to support their well-structured nuclear families. They went to a few protests, but ultimately did not renege on the American dream, of which I’m a successful byproduct. For this crowd, there was Sha Na Na, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Three Dog Night in the aftermath of Nixon. As their politics mellowed in self-sustaining detachment from Kent State and the Weather Underground, former hippies turned to James Taylor, Carole King, and Don McLean to ease the transition back to the status quo.

“Joy To The World”, from Three Dog Night’s fifth album Naturally, went to number 1 for six weeks, going on to become Billboard’s number one song of 1971. Written by country/folk singer of little note Hoyt Axton (his mother Mae wrote “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis) for a 90 minute children’s show called The Happy Song (which never aired), “Joy to the World” was a song nobody expected to be a hit. Perhaps it was that 1960s hangover that called out for a celebratory anthem to lift the country out of the Nixon years. Maybe the record’s family-friendly content allowed the group to appeal to a broader core. As a boy, I certainly remember Jeremiah the bullfrog with as much fondness as Bob the Giraffe, Eddie the Elephant, or other characters my father would invent for storytelling purposes. “Joy to the World” was a joy to sing along to, a tune that could easily pass into the folk lexicon alongside “Old MacDonald” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.

The drunkard amphibian of “Joy to the World” seems to be just as impulsive a construct as some of my dad’s improv subjects. Axton’s original lyrics was “Jeremiah was a prophet”, but apparently “No one liked that”. The original lines give a little bit of a blasphemous tinge to the opening verse though, where the singer appears to be indulging in religious ritual just for no other purpose than getting shitfaced off the holy wine. Interestingly enough, the singer’s perspective on drink alters in the second verse where he promises to “throw away the cars and the bars and the war” if he were “king of the world” (after having already declared his love of wine). Perhaps, bars were too provincial, too insular, and segregated, whereas the drinks of concerts and churches were communal and open. But the jibberish of the third verse, where the narrator boasts of being a “high life flier”, a “rainbow rider”, and a “straight shootin’ son of a gun”, shows that the lyrics suffer from an overall lack of coherence and foresight, making them little more than silly nursery rhymes.

Still, musically, it’s a pretty fun song. The gritty distorted organs that kick off the song alternate in the verses with acapella shoutouts. Those opening riffs are probably more influential than they're given credit for. I can hear echoes in rave-era tunes like Pizzaman's "Happiness", for example. Later on in the track, there’s some raucous drum breaks which could have reached “Amen Brother” levels of ubiquity were they not bonded to the vocals. Those vocals themselves, in all their gruff machismo, were sung by Chuck Negron, one of the three (!) vocalists in Three Dog Night. Despite the numerical significance of this triad, the band name has nothing to do with the three top dogs on vocal duties, but was apparently named after a magazine article about native Australians sleeping amongst dingoes to avoid freezing temperatures, making the group even more postmodern in that this is evocative and yet seems to have no real resonance on the group's music.

"Joy to the World" exalts to a singalong by the tune’s end, further cementing its place in the annals of children’s song. And truly, the chorus is the thing- a more sincere, perhaps even less humble version of Ray Stevens’s “Everything is Beautiful” that includes all the fishes in the deep blue sea in its blessings (amidst all the boys and girls, you and me, and the world) and evokes a Christmas carol in attempt to spread the joy of the season all year round. It’s utterly shameless, but it’s also harmless, undeniably chaste merriment. It seems that Three Dog Night’s biggest crime was arriving at a moment that was culturally inappropriate and financially advantageous. I’m pretty sure they didn’t lose much sleep over what the critics said.

Years after the song’s release, “Joy to the World” would be featured in The Big Chill a film about former hippies reuniting to reflect on the loss of their idealism. The opening scene (see clip below before it gets taken down) involves one of the 60s radicals' kids singing the song in the bathtub as his wife comes in to announce that his friend (who represents the bygone 1960s) has died. I guess nothing sums it up better than that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Blood, Sweat & Tears- Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie (1st and Second Movements)

Album Year: 1982
Age: 0
Track Number: 2

Note: The above contains the first two movements, as well as "Smiling Phases", which I did not include on the mixtape. However, I could not find any other version on Youtube with just the two movements.

It’s possibly apocryphal, but allegedly Brian Eno’s Discreet Music was used in hospitals as a maternity tool, a sort of Lamaze-lite exercise in controlling one's breathing and body via a very conditionally regimented environment. The first album of Eno’s ambient period, Discreet Music was primarily influenced by Erik Satie’s “furniture music” pieces, the most famous of which being “Gymnopédies”, the basis for this second track on my zero year documentary mixtape.

The three movements of “Gymnopédies” are each variations on a single theme, one that nearly any one could recognize, and they too lend themselves neatly to the labor of delivery. Preceding electronic music, “Gymnopédies” works on a series of looped rhythms, with a kind of respiratory alternation between two chords while simple gradations in melody occur throughout the piece. It’s not beyond reason to think that mothers looking to cool out under the stress of childbirth were administered Satie as a kind of non-narcotic anti-anxiety medication in the early 1980s when I was born.

I can’t say I know for a fact that this was the case with my mother, but she did have the second eponymous album by Blood, Sweat & Tears. It’s one of the few albums I remember seeing in their house when I was young. At this point, my parents had switched from vinyl records to cassettes (with a few 8 tracks left in their collection). Though cassettes first become massively popular in the 1980s with the rise of the portable walkman, my folks were actually ahead of the game in terms of tapes. When I began to transfer their music from tape to CD-R in the early 2000s, some of their cassettes, which preceded my lifeline, were warbled and unspoolable, the effects of age having taken their toll.

Released in 1969, one year before Eno’s band Roxy Music formed, the music of Blood, Sweat & Tears couldn’t be further from any of Eno’s output. Whereas Roxy Music and Eno’s solo work only now sounds as if the future has just now caught up with it, Blood, Sweat & Tears are a relic. What was once an adventurous fusion of jazz, classical, R&B/soul, big band, and rock now bears the bloated weight of the prog inclinations that historically followed. All of this makes a take on Satie a curious choice to bookend their aforementioned self-titled album. A garage band may want to cover Satie simply because of its simplicity and someone like Eno may admire the song for its functional elegance, but Blood, Sweat & Tears were an implicitly tight outfit, comprised mostly of a series of session musicians who mastered jazz and rock simultaneously, and often spontaneously. The band was formed by Al Kooper and Steve Katz, both formerly of the improvisational act The Blues Project, a band whose jams were the envy of The Grateful Dead and whose style was eventually appropriately classified as some of the first strains of blues-based psychedelic rock.

Written in ¾ as if part of some Benzedrine-fueled waltz, Satie’s ”Gymnopédies” has a pretty revolutionary approach to structure, one that essentially radicalized John Cage when he first became familiar with the composer’s work. Satie was largely unsuccessful in his lifetime, only gaining eventual acclaim after being championed by his friend and follower Claude Debussy. Blood, Sweat & Tears, on the other hand were somewhat defiant of traditional rock structure, avoiding conventional time signatures and harmonic infrastructures for the interpretive coordinates of jazz. On an album packed with covers- Laura Nyro, Brenda Holloway, Cream, Billie Holiday, Traffic-the choice of Satie may be the band’s most adventurous.

Played on strummed guitars and flute with twinkling chimes in the backdrop, the take on the first movement is a bit too new age and fairydust for its own good. The shiny brass at the end, with its cartoon Mephistopheles apocalyptic gesturing, is not only horribly dated and overwrought, it also completely realigns the song. One year post Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, everybody was trying their hand at the concept album and Blood, Sweat & Tears here seemed to be turning to classical theater for its instructions here, using Satie as a motif without any causal logic. Nevertheless, the album sold ridiculously well, and even beat out The Beatles at the Grammys (more on that in a future entry).

Nevertheless, even if the version of the song that gave me comfort in the womb and in the ensuing years is a bit inapproachable now, something about the tune itself stuck with me, as “Gymnopédies” easily remains one of the most sublime pieces of music amongst the hundreds of thousands I’ve ever heard. Its lack of flux makes it seem as though every time you put it on is a continuation of the last time you heard it, forever looping in ebb and flow, which must be an existential comfort when you bring something into the world that you know will one day die.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bing Crosby- Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That's An Irish Lullaby)

Album Year: 1982
Age: 0
Track Number: 1

“Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby)” is an obvious first selection for a mixtape revolving around my first year of life as it’s probably the first song I ever remembered. As a series of melodic ascents and descents, the song properly fits the qualifications for a lullaby. It’s simple, easy to remember, and easy to sing along to.

“Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” is a tune that, like the song itself says, my mother used to sing to me many years ago in a voice so sweet and low. Since she was still singing this to me by the time I could remember her doing it, my educated guess is that she was singing it to me when I was even younger, even at zero years old. In turn, I have sang the song to my daughter to get her to sleep and hope to continue this tradition in our household until she can remember music too.

Bing Crosby though belongs more to my grandparent’s generation than my parents. By the time my parents had their music (60s and early 70s rock n’ roll), Crosby was a fogie, an establishment figure. Yet, a cassette of a Christmas album with a bunch of crooners, as well as some Crosby songs still linger in my parent’s personal music collection. Still, I associate Crosby more with my maternal grandparents’ music collection, whose tastes (Crosby, Andy Williams, Pat Boone) were distinct from my paternal grandfather’s (Nat King Cole, Al Martino), which bore the imprint of jazz, even if it was safe, somewhat wholesome jazz.*

This is perhaps because Crosby was not only a national treasure in his heyday, but something of an Irish folk icon for his popularization of traditional and modern Irish music. My family’s not quite as Irish as my grandmother and mother always made us out to be, but there dwelled within the Irish part of my family0 an old country pride, the kind specifically evoked in “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” (more on that in a minute). I never got a chance to ask, but I’m guessing this sentiment was instilled so deeply within my grandmother (a second generation American) because her generation was not far off from the anti-immigrant/anti-Irish/anti-Catholic antagonism that was prevalent around the turn of the century.

“Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” has roots around this era. It was written in 1914 by James Royce Shannon, a songwriter and actor who, like my grandmother, was likely more English than Irish. Shannon was born James Royce and adopted the last name “Shannon” after moving to New York, possibly to sound more Irish. The song played a minor role in an even more minor Broadway play called Shameen Dhu, a product of the final in a series of collaborations between the prolific stage writer Rida Johnson Young and composer Chauncey Olcott (with additional music by Ernest R. Ball and Shannon). A love story set in the 18th century amidst the backdrop of Irish-British struggle, the play ran for 3 weeks and was never performed again. Though Olcott received the main credit for the play’s music and sang the song in the cast as lead mean Dare O’Donnell, “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” is solely attributed to Shannon. According to the comprehensive Broadway International Database, Shameen Dhu was the only Broadway play Shannon would ever compose for.

The song was used as a theatrical cue to rouse the spirits of the expatriate Irish audience using the nostalgia of a homeland in Killarney, a place associated with a mother’s warmth, as its ammunition. Whether the mother of the song is now departed or simply miles away (and the song doesn’t reveal this), the song, an Irish lullaby, bridges the distance.

Somehow the song survived as a parlor tune, leading to the myth that it actually was a traditional Irish ditty. After some 30 years out of the public, “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” eventually made its way to Hollywood and into the hands of Bing Crosby under the musical direction of former Broadway director Robert Emmett Dolan. Though Crosby was already a super-duper star of radio, film, and popular song at the time, the film Going My Way, the film which spawned the return of “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral”, catapulted what was already a practically unstoppable rise, one which culminated with the 1954 film White Christmas, whose title track is the best selling single of all time.

The story of two rival priests and their differing approaches towards troubled youth, Going My Way was a commercial and critical blockbuster, earning seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor for Bing Crosby. It was the highest grossing film of 1944. It’s hard to understand the film’s appeal nowadays, even if it was packed with a number of memorable songs. Going My Way was released during the last years of WWII in the throes of a period of extreme censorship under the Hays Code. Perhaps it’s this that made folks move in droves to a film about a crisis of archaic clergy practice. The film’s trailer proclaims that it is “For a world that needs the lift of its wonderful story, which I buy, given the nature of the atrocities going on at the time. Yet, the film is rarely recognized as a classic and seems a bit dry by today’s critical standards. Likewise, the titles in Crosby’s filmography give little indication to younger film buffs that he was actually one of the top grossing actors of all time.

Crosby’s music survives better, but only slightly. His fanbase is slowly dying off and becoming the stuff of records by The Caretaker (more on him late in the mixtape series). Yet, in nursing homes and veterans hospitals across America, Bing Crosby is being pumped through the air like Oxygen in Vegas, keeping elderly folks alive several years longer thanks to the help of an old undead friend. The Going My Way Soundtrack was issued by Decca nearly a year after its release because Paramount had re-released the film to theaters with enormous success. The soundtrack was a Billboard number one hit for six weeks, but it has never been reissued to cassette or CD.

In a scene from Going My Way where the older, stricter priest played by Barry Fitzgerald lays down to sleep, Fitzgerald mawkishly asks Crosby “Do you know ‘Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo’?” (further suggestion that the song ran deep throughout Irish tradition), to which Crosby proceeds to sing and mostly hum to the elderly priest. As the verses do not feature in this scene, they were likely popularized from the ensuing soundtrack LP (which also features the first version of “Swinging on a Star”, now largely known as a children’s song), as well as Crosby’s ensuing albums and greatest hits collections.
The Crosby recording chosen here is drippy with sentimental gloop strings, twinkling crescendos, and fluttering woodwinds, as close to a Disney Orchestra as Crosby could muster. The lightness of the arrangements, they way they seem to sometimes defy gravity in cute, playful ways emphasizes the utopian nature of the longing, while the final refrain of the chorus is far more sturdy, almost signaling a return to reality from the Oedipal fantasy. This simple tonal emotional tear-jerk appears so often in Disney films (and far too many Hays Code era musicals) because it offers a psychic environment which is uncluttered and uncomplicated. Children need this kind of narrative for psychological development. Their thinking is not abstract enough to grasp the tenuous nature of emotion as it actually exists, so music in children’s films can provide an elementary guide to the “rules” of human cognition (which leaves a wide open space for ideology). This arrangement of “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” chooses the form of the lullaby to provide the listener with their most safe and most vulnerable position, cradled next to his or her mother (Ireland) where he or she is safest from the poisons and pitfalls that surround him or her.

One day, “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” will be too hard to listen to, because it will never cease to be a substitute for my mother. The song has become the very fantasy it evokes. The mother of my “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” is not my real mother as she is, but the religious figure the song exalts her to be. Such is the power of music as an energy. “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” is a permanent establishment in my mind, an institution of fantasy and memory, itself a safe place, a Killarney. I can go there at will, lull myself into dream by simply listening to the song. It will never prevent the decay of mortal flesh or protect me in the ways that my mother could when she sang it to me, but “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” is far more affixed to me than any organ in my body. It is part of my genetic code. It is written into me.

*Crosby got his start in jazz too, fronting The Rhythm Boys at the behest of Paul Whiteman, whose unfortunate name proves an apt indicator to what type of jazz he was involved in. During the Harlem Renaissance, a period characterized by a kind Jazz continuum of Dixieland, Ragtime, Swing, and Big Band, Paul Whiteman was making these musicks safe for White America and being dubbed “The King of Jazz” for it. Crosby came out of this school.