Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Breakfast in America" by Supertramp (1979)

All these years late, it's nothing more than 'ho-hum' or even 'blah', but at one time Supertramp were kind of a polarising, love-'em-or-hate-'em kind of thing. They were revolutionary, or they were fatuous and overblown, depending on who you ask.

To me, all these years later: they're often twee, frequently disposable but sometimes have a lovely way with a falsetto vocal and a pretty little melody, floating kilometres above the song itself, in an atmospheric but somehow amorphous way. And, oh yeah, they did this.

Breakfast in America, the album, was super-huge in 1979, when prog bands were supposed to be on the run from punk bands but continued, in reality, to fill the stadiums and make the money punks could only dream of. It had four singles, one of which, “The Logical Song”, is frequently derided as terrible, but I happen to like.

It turns out that, according to Wikipedia, tensions between the two main people in the band started to heat up during this album. Rick Davies, it seems, didn't like the title song and didn't want it on the album. Roger Hodgson, his co-writer, seemed to like it enough to keep it on the album and name the album after it.

Yay Rick Davies, boo Roger Hodgson. One of those cases where skilled musicians completely forget about taste in an urge to make something 'whimsical' (hello, Paul McCartney), this song has a rum-pum-pum feel to it like some kind of, I don't know, polka or something. It makes 'ba da da da' into a vocal melody, and it presents us with lyrics about the singer's girlfriend, and about kippers.

If all this gibberish was a 'novelty song', I'd probably have to leave it alone. But the fact is that this lapse in judgement is still quite popular on classic rock stations, which sometimes exhibit a seeming lack of taste that stuns me.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

"How am I Supposed to Live Without You" by Michael Bolton (1989)

The song itself barely matters, really: I'd like to nominate the entire recorded works of Michael Bolton for inclusion here. There's not really much I can say here: it's just an aesthetic I find almost physically repulsive. I have given a few of his songs a listen here on YouTube to make sure that this is the singlularly most offensive one, and I can assure you that choosing the worst Michael Bolton song is largely a futile exercise: you could just pull names from a hat. It's guaranteed to be bad.

One important caveat: for what he did to “(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay” and “When a Man Loves a Woman”, he ought to be imprisoned. However, this blog is dedicated to the worst songs, and those are, of course, wonderful songs, merely decimated by the overblown foghorn that is Michael Bolton's voice.

Michael Bolton, to me, represents the worst of plastic mainstream musical insincerity. He grunts, he groans. He winces and squeezes his hands tight in all of his videos. He sounds like the act of singing is causing him physical pain. And yet the net result is entirely lacking in credibility: he has the emotional commitment of Oscar the Grouch singing, “I Love Trash”, and nmo amount of overblown histrionics can change that. And certainly no amount of overblown histrionics can make music this clinical and artificial even apprach 'soul', no matter how much Bolton would like to think otherwise.

Ultimately, this song Рpresently being foisted upon us in the form of an ad for some prepackaged food Рtakes the cake merely because not only is it a bad performance, but it's also a bad song. One can excuse the horrible electric piano as 'a product of the times' (though nothing excuses that lead guitar towards the end) and concentrate instead on the vocal performance. Listen, and note the following: note that involuntary wince, that edge of panic you feel when the song approaches its chorus. A chorus is usually meant to be the peak of a song's excitement, but here it's where Bolton gets his screamiest. What amazes me is how vocals this unpleasant on top of a song this clich̩ were actually marketed as 'romantic' (to say nothing of 'soulful'). I'm trying to imagine using this screeching as accompaniment to any romantic activity whatsoever, and failing miserably.

Which brings to mind the word 'flaccid' – a perfect word to describe this song, which despite all of its huff-and-puff is as empty as a deflated balloon.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Mrs Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter" by Herman's Hermits (1965)

The record industry was every bit as clueless back then as they are today. When the Beatles broke into the consciousness of America in 1964, the fact of their being English was seen as a big thing. On the one hand, it is true that certain darlings of the British music industry (Robbie Williams, George Michael) sell nil in the States, but on the other hand finding Brits on the Billboard chart is so unexceptional today that a good amount of Americans would probably be quite unable to identify, say, Coldplay or Leona Lewis as in any way 'foreign'. Plus, it's not like the UK is especially exotic. Let's see someone from Burundi or East Timor atop the Billboard charts: that's impressive.

Anyway, back to the 60s. The novelty of the Beatles' success was such that American record companies started scrambling for any Brisith product, and the so-called 'British Invasion' was born. To the extent that this marketing manoeuvre gave us the Rolling Stones, the Who, Dusty Springfield and the Kinks, it was a welcome development. But anyone with a discernably English accent was lumped in as the 'next Beatles' and marketed en masse to the Americans. Which led to stuff like this.

As a continuation of British music-hall and skiffle trends, Herman's Hermits might not have been that bad. It's perhaps not their fault that they were promoted to the rock market. But agony strikes listeners of oldies stations across the globe today when stuff like this is stuck in with the greats of the mid-sixties.

I mean, just listen to it. It's got a bleeding ukelele, for God's sake. Okay, Wikipedia tells me it's a muted guitar, and that's what the guy in this mimed YouTube clip seems to be doing. But it sounds like a ukelele, and behind those intolerably flat and affected vocals, it might as well be a four-year-old with elastic bands stretched over a tissue box.

Herman's Hermits, who made a few non-excruciating songs, recorded two affronts to public decency: this, and “I'm Henry VIII, I am”. The latter is a much stupider song than this one, but it's knowlingly stupid, a clever-clever pastiche that fits comfortably into the 'novelty' category. This ridiculous piece of nonsense ultimately got the nod for inclusion here because it takes itself seriously: it's a 'sad' song about a girl who has fallen out of love with the protagonist, who like a mealworm writhes up to her mother to complain about it. This video performance shows just how unmusical and lifeless Peter Noone truly was: a man with no evident musical talent who lucked aboard the Beatles' ship and rode it for a few years.

Of course, fate being what it is, “Henry VIII” and “Mrs. Brown” were both Billboard number-ones on the USA. This particular fiasco spent three weeks at the peak before being surpassed by the Beatles' magnificent, forward-looking “Ticket to Ride”. A changing of the guard if ever one existed.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

"Petunia the Gardener's Daughter" by Elvis Presley (1966)

It's in the history books now: there were two Elvis Presleys: the sexy young revolutionary in black leather, and the washed-up overweight hack in white jumpsuits. The stamps tell the whole story, right? What else is there to add?

Except that I disagree with this assessment entirely. On the one hand, I think Elvis was brilliant in the seventies. In an entirely unironic way, I love the huge emotion-filled music he pumped out in Vegas: blues in emotion if not in musical content, belted out with edges roughened from years of experience. And on the other hand, a lot of that pre-army stuff that's so uncritically adored these days... well, perhaps familiarity breeds content, but a lot of it does nothing for me. "Hound Dog"? Come on, really - 'you ain't never caught a rabbit...'? Hysterical nonsense, really. And to my ears, that song's a-side "Don't be Cruel" (the double-hit single was Billboard's highest-charting song for decades, until Whitney Houston) seems to my ears to be exactly the kind of insincere bop-bop-shoo-bop that 'revolutions' are meant to do away with.

And of course, as the keen observer will note, between the 50s and the 70s, there was an entire decade. The very decade that the public record (written by people who were young in the sixties) tells us was the most important in American youth culture in history. The decade of the Beatles. Of the Rolling Stones. Of Bob Dylan. The decade when Elvis pumped out some twenty-odd flimsy musical comedy films, with poor acting and interchangeable songs.

Elvis's movie years bring out nothing but anger in many people, and for good reason: to think that while the music he loved and by some definitions 'created' was undergoing such radical transformations, his management kept him entirely removed from youth culture and anything approaching passion or art, preferring instead to let him rot in the Hollywood star system, making movies that everyone involved knew were garbage. Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, has been rightfully excoriated for his many bad management decisions during Elvis's life, of which this one is arguably the worst (barring sending him on a concert tour in the final months of his life when he was clearly ill and in need of rest and medical attention).

However... you could make the point that only in retrospect can we see what a poor choice this was. You could argue that there was no handbook on how to let rock 'n' roll stars age gracefully, that going into movies was the tried-and-true step forward for teen idols from Bing Crosby on. You could certainly point out that, while Elvis might have been stuck in a treadmill lacking in artistic reward, at least he still had a career in the 1960s, something almost none of his 50s rock 'n' roll colleagues could say. Crap movie soundtracks sold by the shedload; studio albums faltered on the charts. How could 'the Colonel' have been expected to behave differently?

But the mere fact is that Elvis was a singer, not an actor. Music was the only real thing he cared about, and the only real thing he was good at. As we saw in the 1970s, Elvis had an almost peerless ability to wring out whatever emotion could be found in even the most hackneyed of lyrics, if his heart was in it. He was no songwriter, but as an interpreter, he was second to none. Elvis may not really be the 'king' of anything. He may be suspect in the story of music and race relations. He may not truly be the revolutionary Sony BMG would so dearly love you to believe. But he was great. When they let him be.

So what is this garbage? What's so damning about the musicals, what's so depressing about the way Elvis was forced to piss away the years that could have been his artistic triumph, is how bad the songs are. Elvis could still latch onto a good song and make it into a great one, given the opportunity: "Can't Help Falling in Love" and "Return to Sender" were both film songs, for example. But the Colonel had no musical taste or shame whatsoever, and the songs presented for these movies were churned out by hack writers signed to Elvis's own publishing houses, working on the cheap at breakneck pace. They couldn't really be anything but hackwork, and when forced to accommodate the needs of some asinine plot, became as hateful as the present song, which Elvis apparently got so angry recording that he stormed out of the recording studio.

Though many musical teams worked for Elvis's publishers, and while the trio of Giant / Baum / Kaye tend to be the most readily condemned, it seems to me that by far the worst offenders were Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennett, who in addition to the present hateful piece of garbage provided Elvis with song titles of which the following are a mere selection: "Song of the Shrimp", "The Bullfighter was a Lady", "Wheels on my Heels", "Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce", and "Five Sleepy Heads". To present someone as great and talented as Elvis with nonsense like that is to perpetrate an insult the likes of which few have attempted.

I said that the Colonel couldn't have known... of course, I'm merely playing the devil's advocate. Anyone with a modicum of musical knowledge could have, should have, seen that garbage such as this was antithetical to everything Elvis was, or at least could have been. To misunderstand your client's talent so spectacularly takes a tin ear and thick head of colossal size.

But don't take it from me. This crap came out on the Frankie and Johnny soundtrack in 1966, the year of Revolver and of Blonde on Blonde. On the topic of Bob Dylan... two months after the release of this album, Elvis was in the studio cutting a cover of a Bob Dylan song, as a mere 'bonus track' for a soundtrack album for some other revolting flick that featured too few movie songs to stand on its own. It was 'Tomorrow is a Long Time', and I provide a YouTube link to it here. I defy you to listen to the stately, mature beauty of this rendering and not fume in anger at the stolen legacy that the years 1963 - 1968 could have been, had they been filled with songs like that instead of songs like this.

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

"American Life" by Madonna (2003)

While Madonna's musical instincts are, by and large, unimpeachable, and while it would be silly to pretend she has not made a real, tangible contribution to popular music, great in her own way, this song is widely reviled, and for good reason too. Madonna's reinvention at the turn of the century was inspiring. The electronic textures of the Ray of Light album were uplifting and rave-inspired, the more radical cut-ups of Music just as challenging and commercially successful. It was perhaps getting too old when she followed up that album with "Die Another Day", an ultimately empty Bond theme and tired variation of the Music sonic template.

But then there was this... when it came out, it was shrouded in nonsense about the war theme of the video, and whether or not it was a political statement about Bush, about Iraq, about militarism, etc. But this hides the fact that the song itself is not about Iraq at all. It's merely the navel-gazing of a celebrity who appears to have problems being satisfied despite all of her material wealth. I wonder if she was surprised that the hoi polloi was unable to related to her pain.

Perhaps she was, and decided to inflict some pain on her audience herself, by... gulp... rapping. Well, if that's what you want to call it. I think Rodney Dangerfield did a more respectable and authentic take on rap, but then again, that was novelty music, and this? Well, I think we can learn all we need to know about Madonna the rapper, or rather the composer of rap lyrics, by scanning the rhyme scheme: latte, shotty (?), body, Cooper, super-duper, trooper, Pilates, hotties, bodies, isotopes, dope, hope. I kid you not. If that's not bad enough, check out the next couplet, which I'm compelled to include in full:
I got a lawyer and a manager, an agent and a chef
Three nannies, an assistant and a driver and a jet
A trainer and a butler and a bodyguard or five
A gardener and a stylist, do you think I'm satisfied?

While Madonna happened to be going through a Monk-who-Sold-his-Ferrari phase of spiritual compensation for the emptiness of material goods, and while the Buddha himself found enlightenment only after years in the lap of luxury, I find it tough not to react to those lines with disgust. Disgust at Madonna's contempt for those less privileged than her.

Musically, it's a rather annoying mix of sqeaky synths and acoustic guitars, produced once again by Mirwais with diminishing returns. It's not overly funky or danceable, even though it was a #1 on the dance charts (it was much more of a bomb on the main pop charts, though). And Madonna herself clearly knew how much she'd overshot her target, too, as she gave the American Life album modest promotion before disappearing, and regrouping with the rather wonderful ABBA-sampling "Hung Up". Mirwais was nowhere to be seen. And neither was Madonna the rapper.

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