Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Helter Skelter" by the Beatles (1968)

Ah, the White Album... that testament to the awe-inspiring power of the human ego. You know, George Martin apparently begged them to make it into a single album. Well, duh... With judicious editing, you can break the White Album into two different albums: one would be perhaps the greatest album they've ever made, and one would be perhaps the single worst slab of vinyl ever.

It'd be an interesting exercise to see how most people would accomplish that feat. While it's certain that everyone would deservedly put "Bungalow Bill" on the garbage disc, and most people of taste would put "Ob-la-di, ob-la-da" there too, I imagine a lot of people would put "Revolution 9" there, which personally I enjoy quite a bit. And most people would give "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" pole position on the good-disc, whereas I can't stand that song's overblown grandiosity.

There's a lot I could have chosen from this album. The atrocious "Birthday" and "Piggies" come to mind. Yet I've included the truly horrendous "Helter Skelter" because while it's every bit as cynical and smug as half the other songs I've mentioned (plus "Honey Pie" and "Savoy Truffle"), it is actually convinced of its own worth, being as pathetic an attempt at 'rocking out' as anything I've heard. Talented musicians pretending they can't play, misquidedly confusing weedy screeching with 'passion', the Betales here don't sound like they're just throwing crap out there to fill up a disc; they sound like people who are trying and just falling spectacularly far from the mark. As ridiculous as this song, with its fake fade-out and "I've got blisters on me fingers" bluster, there apparently exists a 15-minute outtake of it. Can you imagine if this song, interminably long at four minutes, actually did go on that long? Blisters on my ears. And blisters on my respect for the Beatles' craftmanship.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Coconut" by Harry Nilsson (1971)

I had thought of a few things to say about Jimmy Buffet before getting into this song, but it turns out it's not by him at all but by Harry Nilsson instead – which is strange, because it just seems so Jimmy Buffet-esque and not so Harry Nilsson-esque. Well, not that I know much about either performer, except that Nilsson was buddy-buddy with John Lennon. I do know this song, largely due to Quentin Tarantino, who usually has a touch for soundtracking so deft that twenty year old songs instantly and irredeemably 'belong' to the movies he includes them in. “Reservoir Dogs” does this perfectly both with the 'opening song' “Little Green Bag” and with the ear-cutting special “Stuck in the Middle With You” - two songs that, through revisionist history, are now 'from' a movie released decades after the songs themselves were.

And then there's this. Wikipedia reveals that the song was written with only one chord: which makes sense, as everything about is screams monotonous and dull. It is, of course, variations on the sentence 'put the lime in the coconut' plus varying shrieks of 'doctor!' all sung in crap accents and 'voices'. I think it's trying to be clever and 'breezy'. It is, however, at any length, painfully dull garbage that outweighs its welcome before you ever get to the 'now let me get this straight' line.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Illegal Alien" by Genesis (1984)

We’ve got a bit of a double-feature this week, looking at the same artist at his very best and at his very worst.

Phil Collins has nothing to say. I’m sure he’ll tell you that himself. I don’t believe at all that artists must be tortured to make great art, but it’s very difficult to make your art have meaning if you’re a happy-go-lucky guy. Ask Paul McCartney. Or Mike Love. At least they had ‘darker’ partners who could balance their essentially meaningless cheeriness. After Peter Gabriel, who was going to provide that valuable service for Phil? The guy from Mike and the Mechanics?

Phil is not talentless. On this very album, the dark and moody “Mama” is a minor masterpiece of storytelling. The problem is that he gives too little consideration to taste.

Case in point, this: one of the most insulting and offensive songs ever written. Genesis claims that it’s meant to be an ironic parody, but I can’t see that at all.

What I see is a bunch of wealthy white English men taking the real and tragic plight of immigrants and turning it into a clown-show worse than Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales”.

Phil Collins sings the whole song in a stereotypical ‘Mexican’ accent. The lyrics make your toes curl, filled with all nature of innuendo about immigrants in general and Mexicans in particular. The song’s middle-eight suddenly transforms into a mock-‘ethnic’ jangle, like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” only, if this were possible, worse.

The video features Phil and the other two looking as ‘greasy’ as possible engaged in the escapades depicted in the lyrics, a performance that makes Peter Sellers’s Indian characters the very model of respectful depiction.

And, on top of all of this racist, xenophobic garbage, the song itself is crap too: built on a cheesy keyboard riff and with the least natural verse-to-chorus transitions. The chorus reduces a complex international political issue to the sentence “it’s no fun being an illegal alien” chanted over and over again.

“Fun” and “alien” don’t rhyme, you say? Ah, but you miss the power of Phil’s crap Speedy Gonzales accent. The song features a ‘breakdown’ near the end with dozens of people singing and clapping this line while Phil does ridiculous soul-boy-cum-minstrel show ‘vocalisations’. Then that damned synth line comes in. And an entire nation hangs its head in shame.

Not only is it a shame that Genesis saw fit to record this and release it, but their record company even decided to release it as a single. Why? Did they not care who they might be insulted by this? Was their desire to make a racist joke so strong that they felt they needed to do it at all costs?

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

"Dreadlock Holiday" by 10cc (1978)

Just in case you think there's nothing I like out there – I don't dislike 10cc. I don't know much about them, but I can tell you “I'm Not in Love” is one of the most beautiful, most atmospheric songs from the 1970s that I know. It's not that 10cc is crap – just that this, one of their most well-known songs, is.

It appears that this is the tale of an English man on holiday in Jamaica, who is assaulted by some Jamaicans and decides to respond by claiming to love things Jamaicans stereotypically like: namely, in turn, cricket and reggae. In the end, he is seduced by a Jamaican woman, and decides (as far as I can tell – the lyrics are banal beyond belief) that he loves Jamaica (or alternately, loves the seducer but hates Jamaica). Whatever. What is is is embarrassing cod-reggae by people with no specific appreciation for the genre or the culture it's rooted in. It's crass and, what's more, it's annoying. How many times have you been in a mall or an office somewhere and heard “I don't like reggae; I love it” quietly in the background and, like a code word that triggers a trained Doberman, suddenly and inexplicably filled you with rage and an urge to kill? That's what this song (and its horrible accompanying video) can do. This was a number one in England. Shame, England, shame.

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