Saturday, January 23, 2010

"Squeeze Box" by the Who (1975)

Of those 1960s 'greats' who Baby Boomers just won't let you stop hearing, the Who are, to me, the most mystifying – with the most threadbare of a back catalogue, decent mid-sixties R&B too quickly mutating into 'rock operas' and all kinds of other humourless stuff. That's not to say there's anything (necessarily) wrong with rock operas and their ilk, but in the particular case of the Who, they just do nothing for me. The bigger their egos got, the worse the music. Maybe that's unfair – with a few exceptions, the Who's music is never bad; it's just not good either. It's merely there, like that uncle who you feel compelled to invite to all the family get togethers even though you never have anything to say to him and he mostly sits in the corner in awkward silence... at least they've given the CSI franchise enough fist-in-the-air theme songs to fill a station's syndicated daytime programming schedule.

The only thing worse, it turns out, than the Who in their humourless quasi-'majesty' is the Who trying to be funny – or worse, charming. Songwriter Pete Townshend himself says he doesn't really know why his band performed this knock-off song of his, but as for the compostion, I just imagine he was tired of all the sophomoric jokes being written by bassist John Entwistle. So here he pulls out the accordion, goes all oompah-oompah, and writes a song about his parents having sex. Or rather, his father playing with his mother's breasts. For the secret, you see, of Townshend's clever-clever lyrics are that he's not really talking about an accordion... I'm sorry if I've spoilt the innocence of any six-year-olds out there, but it's by about age seven that a child would get this song and find its humour guffaw-worthy.

It comes down again to the careful art of the novelty song. Comedy has a place in music, but it has to be carefully done in order not to become annoying after the first listen. Given that 'classic rock' stations, who regularly demonstrate a complete lack of understanding as to what makes a song 'classic', play this song with such a regularity, it had better be carefully done. Alas, it is clearly a knocked off little knees-up ditty, a follow-up to Chuck Berry's “My Ding-a-Ling”. And just as annoying.

Roger Daltrey, of course, shreiks his way through it the very same way he shreiks through ever Who song, regardless of content, meaning or form. Oh well. Shreiking is good for the soul – I know this, because listening to this song makes me want to do that very thing.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Mercedes Benz" by Janis Joplin (1971)

I have to admit it: I just don't get Janis Joplin. I mean I don't see what the big deal is. I know she died at 27, and there's a great mythologising to those who died young, but 'an early death' doesn't show up in the recorded output of any of those musicians, so what you're left with is the recorded output made during their lifetime (excepting 2Pac, of course, who has been much more prolific in death than he ever was in life). In many cases, this is pretty scant.

Here's where I'll go with Janis Joplin: she does a good job on Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee". What do I like about it? Well, for starters, it's understated. Which Janis Joplin otherwise never is. Most of her most 'classic' perfomances strike me as oversinging of the highest order, a person mistaking screeching for soul.

And then there's this: in a sense Pearl is Janis Joplin's only really realised album, since her discography is otherwise two albums with Big Brother and the Holding Company and her generally ignored solo début. Even at that, though, Pearl is famously not fully realised, because she died before she could finish it. The present track, for instance, was recorded only three days before her death. Spooky, I guess, if you go for that sort of thing, but perhaps if she'd survived, she'd have pointed out that this a capella nightmare is little more than a silly joke sung in an annoying voice.

Perhaps not - I don't know. The mythology that surrounds Janis Joplin, that tends to glorify every grunt that came from her mouth, would have you believe that this song was intended as a satire on commercialism, and thus a 'major statement' - worthy of placement immediately after "Me and Bobby McGee". But the fact that she died three days after recording it and never had a chance to decide what her album should look like means that ultimately it was record producers who decided to put it on the album. Since they didn't have enough material to make a proper album... a knock-off, years before CD rereleases made such album-filling knock-offs the norm. One of her greatest hits? Well, that'd be an embarrassment if it were any other recording career. In the present case..., I guess it is one of her greatest hits.

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen (1984)

At the time of its release, a lot of discussion regarding this song focused on its lyrics. More to the point, discussion focused on the nature of the politics of the lyrics and, by extension, Springsteen’s own personal politics. It was the ugly eighties, the peak of the Reagan era – in fact, it was an election year, an election that Reagan would win with a huge landslide.

“Ah, the song just sounds like empty jingoism,” claimed the lefties. “Actually it’s a cleverly disguised criticism of American foreign policy, i.e. the Vietnam War. Why, it’s practically a modern-day ‘This Land is Your Land’.”

Perhaps. But a few points: 1. “This Land is Your Land” also sucks. 2. Cleverly disguising your sedition doesn’t mean much if you’ve disguised it to the point that 80% of your listening audience misinterpret it. 3. The song may not actually be empty jingoism, but those booming drums and those throaty vocals evoke empty jingoism pretty darn successfully.

Anyway, what the left and the right can both agree on, I think, is that “Born in the U.S.A.” is a six-note fanfare repeated over and over and over and over, intro and verse and chorus all alike, over and over and over over those booming drums. A chorus that consists of the title shouted over that damn six-note melody over and over again. It’s not a song; it’s a marching tune. The best performance if it ever, in my opinion, is in the movie "Canadian Bacon", where John Candy and his American compatriots attempt to drum up a feeling of national spirit by singing the song, until it breaks down due to its incredibly repetitive inanity.

Good politics on a bad song does not lead to good music. Bruce Springsteen is capable of greatness. Often, even. But not here. So of course it’s his best-known song. Sigh.

Rolling Stone magazine calls it the 275th 'greatest song of all time'. The RIAA call it the 59th 'song of the century' (referring, naturally, to last century). This song very definitely has critical acclaim. I just couldn't, for the life of me, understand why.

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

"What's Your Name?" by Depeche Mode (1981)

Ah, Depeche Mode... perpetually soundtracking teenagers' mood swings into melancholy down the years. I shouldn't knock that, actually: it's a very valuable public service, one that Robert Smith of the Cure could be helping them at if he weren't prone to releasing 'pop' singles every now and then.

It's very easy to make fun of Depeche Mode - and probably very reasonable to do so as well. There's much to laugh at, from Martin Gore's arrested-development angst to Dave Gahan's nuance-free bellow of a voice. Yet they have, perhaps against their will, come up with a decent handful of greatness. In fact, the trilogy of albums Black Celebration, Music for the Masses and Violator (which so happen to coincide with my personal melancholic teenage years) are impressive enough to actually make a case for Depeche Mode as - gasp - one of the greats.

Well, in a manner of speaking. Depeche Mode is currently songwriter, singer and accountant. There used to be a fourth, Alan Wilder, who joined the band late and left it early, quite unsung and best known now for the part of his website where he talks about his days in Depeche Mode. But if you ever wonder who made those three albums so great, look no further than the song "Never Let Me Down Again". On paper, it's terrible: completely melody-free, Gore leaves Gahan to bleat the barrel-of-cliché lyrics as a mere tick-tock between two notes. Gahan decides to compensate by oversinging, even by his standards, and bellows the whole thing out in a thick baritone that would make Jim Morrison blush. And yet... the song is wonderful. Wait, no: the song is bollocks. The recording is wonderful: widescreen, lush, with sounds coming in all over the spectrum. That's what Alan Wilder did in Depeche Mode, and why their glory years are so limited.

Mind you, Alan Wilder also co-wrote "Work Hard", which vied with the current song for 'worst Depeche Mode song' in my book. If you've never heard it... well, don't. Depeche Mode went through a phase of fetishising manual labour and capitalism, and threw in kilograms of cheese. Avoid.

No, I tip my hat to Messrs. Gore and Fletcher, who nominated "What's Your Name?" as 'worst Depeche Mode song ever'. In deference to them, I agree.

What is this fresh hell? Well, Depeche Mode was originally a very, very different band. Their first album, Speak and Spell, is coloured by two things: one is the songwriting of Vince Clarke, who dominated the first album and then left the group before they recorded their second. The other is a kind of glorification of rinky-dink keyboards. Depeche Mode have, of course, always been a keyboard band, but there's a Kraftwerkesque 'go machines go!' theme to the first album that occasionally succeeds (especially in moodier mid-tempo tracks) and occasionally falls spectacularly flat, especially all these years later, when the whole album sounds like a Nokia ringtone.

Vince Clarke has written some amazing songs. In fact, I've heard tell that one of the reasons he left Depeche Mode was because of disagreement over his song "Only You". It seems the others in the band didn't want to record it. if this is so, we can, as Depeche Mode would later say, 'thank the Lord for small mercies', since it breaks my heart to imagine what Dave Gahan's walrus of a voice would have done with that beautiful song that Alison Moyet gets so spectacularly right. The début album is not that bad, except for the two 'boy' songs. Oddly enough, nobody in Depeche Mode is gay, not even songwriter Vince Clarke (I just checked online), so these lyrics make even less sense. The problem with the lyrics is not their kinda-gayness, which is entirely whatever. The problem is just how ridiculous this song and "Boys Say Go!" are. This song is entirely built around the line "hey, you're such a pretty boy", and it's happy-go-lucky to the point that it's quite nauseating (the background singers chime in, "P-R-E-double-T-Y"). For a band whose subsequent career was built around moodiness, it's shocking to hear how happy-go-lucky, naïve and tacky they were when they started out.

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