Sunday, November 14, 2010

1/11/11 - Songs of the summer, #52-53: "Baby Got Back" and "That's The Way Love Goes"

Well, that's a long time between entries, and now it's not summer anymore (hello 2011), so this project is now summer songs during the wintertime. But that's what happens when there's a wedding to plan and a honeymoon to go on. Wouldn't trade it for the world.

But now, I am, as Aerosmith would say, back in the saddle again, to finish off the songs of summers past, starting with...

Top Song of 1992: "Baby Got Back" by Sir Mix a Lot.

As long as there are karoake bars, this song will never die. Why? Because it speaks, in witty and catchy fashion, to the timeless appreciation of the female posterior, a topic which has still not been exhausted nearly twenty years later. Sometimes innovation loses pace once the influences have been absorbed (see Presley, Elvis), but sometimes the first one to say something says it best. Not that Sir Mix a Lot expressed big butt appreciation first, per se, but he might have been the first to exhaust the topic in the manner he does here.

The genius of this song, I theorize, is in that opening line: "I like big butts and I cannot lie". It's the cannot lie part. Sir Mix a Lot is no sleazy leering Lothario that the ladies should beware of, no, he's the George Washington of rear lust. Like Washington boldly refusing to lie about the cutting down of the cherry tree, Sir Mix a Lot will not compromise his principles, he will state his preference for big butts no matter what the consequences. The consequences, in this case, being filthy lucre and a huge, huge hit from now until the rest of time. The thing to love about this song is that it is NOT smooth, is is NOT suave, it's almost unhinged. When Sir Mix A Lot says he "don't want none unless you got buns hon", the whole thing hits staccato, hitting street preacher rhythms, as though the Word is possessing him and he just can't help but testify. It's a lot closer to the real male libido than the laconic posturing of the gangsta rappers to come.

Top Song of 1993: "That's The Way Love Goes", by Janet Jackson

It seems like it's damning Janet Jackson with faint praise to say that her most impressive accomplishment is coming out of her family and life halfway sane, but it's astonishing. When you look at the level of adjustment that Janet seems to have compared to big brother Michael's, it can get hard to see past that to the music beyond.

And certainly, Janet's a known hitmaker in her own right. This song isn't my cup of tea for something to crank up and really pay attention to, but it's got a slick, soulful groove and is as solidly constructed as a Midwestern farmhouse. That's about the extent of it, though, and that gets to the tricky thing about Janet, for me. I get that she's an artist in her own right, but the things that probably enable her to have a sane life are some of the same things that prevent her songs from burrowing as deep as her brother's.

Michael Jackson is a man with demons, and men (and women) with demons are often responsible for some of the best pop music, as they wrestle those demons into catchy 1-4-5 bound shapes. The craftsmen, by contrast, are their companions on the charts, but more rarely have their songs adopted as cultural hymns. The thing about Janet, though, is, that critically she seems to get a bit of a pass, merely for not being as queasiness-inducing as her more famous brother. No doubt, her success is earned, and you don't hit #1 after #1 without at least a modicum of talent and determination, but the gap between "Billie Jean" and "That's The Way Love Goes" is the gap between a photograph and a snapshot.

Friday, September 03, 2010

9/2/10 - Songs of the Summer, #50-51 "Step by Step" and "Summertime"

The Master List

Top Song of 1990: "Step by Step" by New Kids On The Block

Boy bands really came a long way from NKOTB, who sound like a rough draft of the finished work to come at the end of the '90s in the form of the two-headed Backstreet Boys/N Sync beast. The beginning of the song is pure pop bliss - the "step by step" refrain getting the angelic harmonic counterpoint of "gonna get to you girl". That descending melody on the second and fourth lines of the chorus are the song's secret weapon. For about ten seconds, I thought that maybe this song was some kind of lost classic.

And then the music kicked in. Sweet Moses, is it terrible. The tinny drum machine, the terrible sounding synth bass; I simply cannot believe how many songs sounded like this in the late '80s and early '90s. The perfectly serviceable pop cotton candy at the heart of this song is trampled beneath the machine-tooled crappiness of its production. There's also the small matter of the fact that the song leans really, really hard on its secret weapon of a hook, to the point that secret weapon may not be a very accurate description of it. Not that I'm crying out for more of the New Kids' philosophy or anything, but would it hurt to have a verse or two?

I do have to say that I really appreciate listening to the inspiration for the genius bridge of "Dick in a Box", though.

Top Song of 1991: "Summertime" by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

I can't really be objective about this song. It's one of my absolute favorite songs ever, and one of the most perfect summer songs that I've ever heard. It's this kind of song that prompted me to start this project; fixing as it does to my memory of one summer in Brooklyn, recently graduated from college and soaking in adult life to an endless loop of that lazy, hazy Kool and the Gang sample, with Will Smith piloting the narration with charm and efficiency. Everything works together in this song - Smith's low-key description of the kind of idle summer bullshit that make the season so wonderful floats around inside the background chatter and those synths in a way that make you feel that the coolest person around is taking you on a leisurely tour of the finest of the four seasons. To me personally, it's the Rosetta Stone of the summer song - a song that stand on its own, sure, but when paired with hot weather, windows rolled down, and the other signifiers of summer takes on a sacramental air.

A lot of times, summer signifies hedonism; what I like about this song so much is that it takes a different tack, highlighting the way that the warm weather brings out a kind of ease in humanity - a widespread bonhomie that spreads like a warm breeze. Even the carnality is easy-going and flirty, with the depiction of the both genders flocking to the basketball courts, ostensibly for the game but really for a different kind of game entirely.

That Kool and the Gang sample that the song is built on, too, is expertly used in the hands of DJ Jazzy Jeff. A lot of hip-hop production circa '91 is so bare-bones as to be fairly monotonous, but the looped and chopped sample creates the kind of hazy good vibes that Dr. Dre would push in a gangsta direction a few years later. For all of Will Smith's frontman charisma, the song wouldn't work without the looped sample and drum track creating a warm bed of sound for Smith to bounce on with his customary ease.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

8/19/10 - Songs of the Summer, #48-49: "Dirty Diana" and "Right Here Waiting"

The Master List

Top Song of 1988: "Dirty Diana" by Michael Jackson

Man, Michael Jackson. When he died, and the world exploded in appreciation for his peerless pop gifts, it was like a flood of pent-up relief that we no longer had to reckon with the complicated horror-show that popular adoration can be for those subjected to it. If you want to chill your blood, read this profile of Justin Bieber in New York: Bieber's plaintive attempts to get some, any downtime, straining gently against bonds that he is only just beginning to perceive, were strikingly uncomfortable for me to read. For all that showbiz success seems to be some sort of glorious golden prize, it can in practice often turn out closer to Tolkien's One Ring to rule them all. Beautiful, compelling, desired by all, and terrifically dangerous and addictive.

You can see the Smeagol-to-Gollum transition just by tracking the evolution of Jackson from his early hitmaking days on through the hits and into the wheel-spinning '90s and '00s. All fresh-faced and innocent to start, Jackson put out a throat-clearing disco innocent collection of songs in Off The Wall before declaring himself a solo artist with authority with "Billie Jean", one of the most paranoid chart-toppers ever recorded. Even in a list of summer songs that includes "Every Breath You Take", that's a feat. "Dirty Diana", coming as it does a scant three years before the grunge explosion of the early '90s that really destroyed Jackson's club pop until the tide receded at the end of the decade, is at the beginning of the end of Jackson's reign of King of Pop. It sounds it, too - the clockwork drum machine, dry guitars, and Jackson in full-paranoia mode - it's a relatively desparate and off-putting song, a kind of quasi-prequel to "Billie Jean".

And, because it's Michael Jackson in the late '80s, it's catchy as hell. The way the guitar rises in the chorus after snaking threateningly through the verse gives the song a queasy anthemic quality; some of that Van Halen rubbing off, maybe? The vocal melody is catchy all the way through, snaking against the guitar in the verse to rise and fall to the incantation of the title as refrain. Success did not come unearned to Jackson, though it ultimately destroyed more of him than is comfortable to contemplate.

Top Song of 1989: "Right Here Waiting For You" by Richard Marx

Oh, the ridiculous piano balladry with the overemoting singer. I believe it was "Endless Love" that I was struggling with earlier. This song is of a piece with that, or any other piece of Adult Contemporary syrup.

The thing about songs like this is that they seem insincere. Marx's delivery is so over the top, so ridiculously plaintive, and the piano is designed for maximum tear-wringing "melancholy" in its melodic construction, that something seems off about the whole thing. It's an easy type of song to mistrust. It's hard to locate the beating heart at the core of the song. Is it a cynical Hallmark card? Preying on a universal emotion to sell some CDs (or iTunes downloads in the current day)? Or is this really a cry from the soul of Richard Marx? One suspects the former, even if the strings, acoustic guitar solo, and melody try to point at the former.

All it takes is to be in the right frame of mind, and you can be gobsmacked by a song like this; feeling melodramatic, perhaps driving late at night through the rain and turning the radio dial to catch something to ease your boredom, thinking of things that make you sad, and then BAM! That piano has you right where it wants you. Even if, like dirty Diana, its intentions are less than pure.

Monday, August 16, 2010

8/16/10 - Songs of the Summer, #45-46: "Papa Don't Preach" and

The Master List

Top Song of 1986: "Papa Don't Preach" by Madonna

In 2010, the Summer of Gaga, it's worthwhile to go back to the original source, because Gaga seems like the chopped-up remix of the original article; the two share an overwhelming desire for fame and success, a willingness to deploy eroticism in service of same, and a knowledge that all of the identiy exploration/transformation, sexual and otherwise, don't mean a thing without great songs to wrap the whole package in.

"Papa Don't Preach" is Madonna at her best; pouring all of her efforts into turning out a great song, so that it can be a hit, so she can be famous. She would obviously go on to have many more great songs and her plan worked to perfection, but there's something incredible about the kind of high-quality pop music that comes from burning ambition not yet realized. It usually results in songs like this; drum-tight, without a wasted moment.

The song started with strings that nod to disco, before kicking in with a terrible-sounding '80s bass part that is nonetheless a fantastic bass part, before Madonna starts singing the verse. The verse then maneuvers back and forth between major and minor keys, before landing on that staccato chorus. The effect is that of a gently undulating rollercoaster, peaking naturally at the chorus after the melodic hooks intensify throughout the pre-chorus.

This is true '80s club-pop; sonically, I can't stand it, but I can't deny the greatness of the song itself. A theory I've always had is that a great song will sound great played on acoustic guitar along (probably not an original theory), and this song passes that test with flying colors.

Top Song of 1987: "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston

This is perfect example of a song, that, while superficially similar to "Papa Don't Preach", falls short of the former song's greatness due to inferior supplemental construction. By which I mean that both songs have great choruses, but "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" is just marking time until the chorus rolls around.

The song begins with synth bass, as "Papa Don't Preach" does, and then the instruments kick in, but it maintains the same burbly club-pop mix all the way through the entire verse. The verse itself isn't that catchy - Houston can obviously sing, but the way the synthetic vibes skitter around her vocals just detract from the main melody. Even when she hits the pre-chorus, she just continues along a somewhat half-catchy melodic path, as opposed to Madonna's deft shift between minor and major key to capture the shades of grey of the situation depicted in the lyrics.

But, the chorus is pretty awesome. The syncopation between that monster hook and the double-note synth stab is pretty much unstoppable.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

8/12/10 - Songs of the Summer, #43-44: "When Doves Cry" and "Everybody Want To Rule The World" "

The Master List

Top Song of 1984: "When Doves Cry" by Prince

Things end badly for perfectionist pop maestros. Look at Billy Corgan, who wrote some of the most dynamic singles of the grunge era and wound up kicking out every member of his band except for his otherwordly drummer, who then quit because he wasn't satisfied playing music w/Corgan anymore. Look at Rivers Cuomo, who, after serving as the architect of two of the best albums of the '90s, successfully drove Matt Sharp out of his band, turned Weezer into a kitschy pop band with songs as emotionally deep as the average Katy Perry hit. Look at Brian Wilson, who went insane for decades after composing his impossibly gorgeous teenage symphonies. Look at Phil Spector, who brandished a gun at the Ramones and later killed a woman after overseeing the sonic blueprint of an entire pop movement.

Prince has settled into Cuomo territory: he seems happy, he fills stadiums, he makes money hand over fist, and his muse has completely betrayed him. The thing about being an exacting pop genius (I would guess), is that you have to be willing to say "screw you, I'm right", as you pursue the sounds that only you can hear in your head, but that same impulse means that you aren't going to listen to anyone when you start turning out crap. After all, when that muse is on target, you turn out something like "Geek U.S.A.", or "Say It Ain't So", or "Then He Kissed Me", or "When Doves Cry", so why should you listen to anybody tell you anything?

"When Doves Cry" is a great song, first and foremost. Prince is, if anything, underrated as a songwriter (and as a guitarist: listen to that first guitar solo; the man can shred when he wants to, which on record is rarely). The construction of the song is immaculate; it's one of those songs that could easily be played on an acoustic guitar; the melodies are strong enough to support it, twisting against the syncopation in the verses and then opening up for the naggingly insistent chorus. The keyboard riff that comes in after the chorus, too, adds another hook to what is already an immensely catchy section. Lyrically, too, the Freudian depths suggested by the mother/father lines give the song a charged, dark undercurrent. For all his freakery, and probably because of it, Prince has always been interesting. When he paired that with his formerly unerring pop instincts, he was pretty much unstoppable.

Which just makes it even more amazing that he took the bass out of this song, just as he did with "Kiss". For an '80s pop song, that's absurdly ballsy. The bass carries the funk, and for a dance-influenced/oriented tune, bass is by far a more important instrument than guitar (or keyboards). But to Prince, it sounded too conventional, so he took it out. It was his call, after all, since he played every single instrument on the song. This kind of damn-the-torpedoes thinking would later lead him to record a triple album described by a review on as "so full of filler and misguided ideas that it actually makes nowadays bubblegum pop albums look cohesive". So it goes in the life of the pop perfectionist: sublimity leading to putridity.

Top Song if 1985: "Everybody Want to Rule The World" by Tears for Fears.

I hate this song. I like some music from the '80s, but this is a perfect example of the kind of plastic '80s synth-pop that drives me crazy. What do I hate about it? Let me see...

  1. The fake, hollow, fake synth bass. God I hate that synth bass sound. It just screams robotic artificiality. Sucks the feeling right out of any song in which it appears. Music is so often a way to communicate messy feelings, and that boinging synth bass just leeches the feeling right out, underpinning the whole song with the sound of something tinny and false.
  2. The overdramatic vocals slathered in reverb. Again, all technique, no heart.
  3. The drums or drum machine, I can't even tell which. Along with the synth-bass, it adds to the mechanical, bloodless feel of the song.
  4. Overuse of keyboards. It's true that I'm a keyboard skeptic, nonetheless, some of my favorite songs prominently feature keyboards/synthesizers ("Just What I Needed", "Baba O'Reilly", "I Just Threw Out The Love Of My Dreams"), but this is good example of a song that suffers from too much keyboard goop. Just a whole lot of rococo flourishes that clutter things up.
Haterade drank.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

8/10/10 - Songs of the Summer, #42-43: "Eye of the Tiger" and "Every Breath You Take"

The Master List

Top Song of 1981: "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor

"Eye of the Tiger" belongs to a very unique and particular subgenre of songs: those where the intro of the song is way, way better than the song itself. The opening power chords of this song are iconic for a reason: they are fantastic. The way they hammer down onto the muted guitar notes create instant momentum propelling the listener on a rocket ride to...a song that sucks.

Not all songs like this are as bad as "Eye of the Tiger", but there are definitely a fair share of songs that really fall off once the intro is over. So instead of spending more time elucidating the divide in quality between the intro of this song (awesome) and the rest of it (tripe), I will lay out some more examples below. I'd love to hear more examples in the comments.

Europe: "The Final Countdown"
Deep Purple: "Smoke on the Water"
Styx: "Renegades"
Jimi Hendrix: "Foxy Lady"
Led Zeppelin: "Misty Mountain Hop"
Radiohead: "The National Anthem"
New Radicals: "You Only Get What You Give"

(Thanks to Andrew & Mike for the assist on these).

Andrew additionally suggested a complementary category: great songs with bad intros, offering up:

Genesis: "Watcher of the Skies"
Rolling Stones: "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
Tool: "Parabol/Parabola"

I'd love to hear more in the comments.

Top Song of 1982: "Every Breath You Take"

The song so good, it was a summer hit not once but twice: once in this form, and once in 1997 when Puff Daddy/P. Diddy jacked it and renamed it "I'll Be Missing You". It speaks to the elementary power of the riff at the core of the song that it was good enough to sustain a summer hit twice fifteen years apart. It is, in fact, a great riff, and further supports the point that I made about the Replacements in an earlier post: it's a great riff greatly recorded. The spacey, haunting quality of the way the song sounds is what gives it so much of its melancholy power. There's a lot of empty space in the sonic architecture - note the way that the core riff is played pizzicato, with hardly any sustain. The notes cut off almost as soon as they begin, which opens up space for the bass and drums to be heard. The drums, though, are also somewhat muted, and despite Stewart Copeland's technical virtuosity, he plays only a basic backbeat. The space, then is partially filled by Sting's quietly pinging bass, and partially by nothing at all.

The sense of open space is there in the vocals as well; unlike the instrumental, there's a lot of echo and reverb in the way that Sting's vocals are recorded, which gives them a haunting, ghostlike quality. It's as though there's a haunting spirit floating around a empty house, which matches the feeling of the lyrics perfectly, as the narrator haunts his lost love. The irony of Sting's lament "Oh can't you see/you belong to me" when it's clear that the object of his affection couldn't disagree more is carried in the lyrics, but also the sonics of the song itself. Even when Sting amps up the vocal intensity in the chorus, the instruments expand a bit (the guitar takes up more space), but they stay restrained, further emphasizing the disconnect between the narrator and the stalkee. Even if the song weren't recorded in the style that it is, it would be great do to the solid songwriting on display, but the sounds of the song push it up into the stratosphere of greatness.

Monday, August 09, 2010

8/5/10 - Songs of the Summer, #41-42: "Funkytown, Inc." and "Endless Love"

The Master List

Top Song of 1980: "Funkytown" by Lipps, Inc.

The symbiosis between synthesized sounds and dance music is pronounced but also somewhat inexplicable. Before synthesizers and drum machines, music to dance to was all created live, and even listening to "Funkytown" there's really no reason that the song needs the insistent hook to be played on a synthesizer. It would work just as well as a horn line, for example. Then again, would it? After all, Keith Richards famously originally conceived the central guitar line of "Satisfaction" as a horn line, and the version that became a massive chart hit was more than a little dependent on that distorted, dirty quality of the guitar line. Which all got me thinking about the way that a song's sonic texture can be just as important as its architecture.

I was thinking about this already from reading a review of a greatest hits album by the Replacements on Pitchforkmedia. One line especially stood out to me, and I think succinctly captures the real reason that the Replacements never really had a breakout hit: "[They] could never figure out what sort of production worked with [Paul] Westerberg's songs." The early, indie stuff was too thin, the peak Sire records material was too echo-y, and then the later, softer material was laden down by strings and horns and adult contemporary reverb/echo. They just never hit that perfect confluence of song and sound. Most songs that become massive hits have both; think "Smells Like Teen Spirit". No way that becomes a hit if it sounds like it's recorded in a trashcan like the songs on Bleach.

"Funkytown", then, gains somehow from the plastic-y and otherworldly sounds that frame it - the synth bass and main melodic refrain, as well as the near-vocoder sound of the "Gotta move on to a town that's right for me..." intro, leading up to the peak of the chorus, where recognizable guitars and relatively unprocessed vocals provide an anchor point. There's a cyborg quality to the song, where real, breathing instruments like the saxophone and drums share space with the processed vocals and synthesized sounds of the bass and keyboards. It captures the mechanistic, repetitive qualities of the music. It is by turns alienating and seductive, I think, because to be honest it leaves me more than a little cold.

Top song of 1981: "Endless Love" by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie

This is the kind of song I was talking about when I said that piano gets a bad rap as a rock instrument. It is frequently deployed the way it is in the first verse of this song and then throughout; as a pretty-fier - arpeggios undergirding festivals of melodramatic melisma. And then, of course, the strings as the treacly cherry on top. My favorite use of this song is in the original Butabi brothers sketch, when it appears as a brief oasis from the wall-to-wall blasting of "What Is Love?", and Jim Breuer tries to look sincere as a groom and fails.

I am of two minds when it comes to songs like this. I'm an unabashed romantic, so part of me really loves them. I will defend the greatness of, say, "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)", to my dying day. There's something admirable about such openhearted sincerity in song format; it's easy to mock as cheese, but operatic melodramatic emotions are part of the human experience. There's a reason songs like these are hits from time to time - they tap into the part of the human experience when emotion runs roughshod over everything else.

At the same time, they can really leave a bad taste in the mouth, or seem really suspect, because it's impossible to shake the feeling that the emoting of a song like this is all controlled and technically; thus a song that purports to be about absolute passion instead becomes passionless, bloodless. The coldness of a heartstring-pulling song like this exists dialectically with the emotion that they seem to be expressing. The times that I enjoy these songs is when there's some hint of wavering or roughness instrumentally or vocally; thus the Bryan Adams song at least has the illusion produced by his rougher voice that he's broken up by the depth of his love; Ross and Richie are such technically good singers that they build a wall between their singing and the ostensible emotion of the song. It's why Michael Jackson's ballads are so much less convincing than his uptempo songs; effortless execution in an effort to appear vulnerable just comes off as passionless.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

8/4/10 - Songs of the Summer, #39-40: "Shadow Dancing" and "Hot Stuff"

The Master List

Top Song of 1978: "Shadow Dancing" by Andy Gibb

One very interesting aspect of the rock-to-disco transition at the top of the summer pop charts is the increasing fluidity of masculine sexuality from the singers. Elvis was all primal sexuality, his quivering baritone a direct carnal plea. Gradually, different aspects of male sexuality emerged, from Brian Hyland and Mick Jagger's smirky leering to the itchy plea for rapture of Bobby Lewis to the leonine caveman primitivism of the Troggs and the Guess Who.

All of these are clearly and identifiably male; different aspects and expressions of dudes' desires for women. As we move into the disco era, however, a certain gender fluidity begins to creep in. So, in "Shadow Dancing", you hear the first instance on the summer #1s of the kind of androgynous vocal styling that Prince and Michael Jackson would later perfect in the '80s; a kind of polysexual expression of desire that can read as both/either male/female.

Which is all an elaborate way of saying that Andy Gibb and the rest of the Brothers Gibb absolutely destroy on this song. The Bee Gees are fantastic vocal stylists, and their harmonized falsettos are both unmistakable and slightly otherworldly. Based on the evidence of the Beach Boys and the Bee Gees, it can really help to harmonize with siblings; maybe there's something about the simpatico nature of the voices that help them blend even more effectively. But Andy's lead does bear special mention, as he brings a high, breathy delivery to the song that reads as much more female than the singing in any earlier summer #1s (by male singers). Listen to the way he sings the first line, the "You got me looking at that heaven in your eyes/I was chasing your direction/I was telling you no lies". Vocally, it uses an old trope - the male chasing the female, unable to resist his desire for her. But musically, Gibb sounds vulnerable and fluttery, deploying vibrato and singing in the upper part of his range in a way that makes it sound as though he's the object of desire. When his brothers come in with their unmistakable high falsetto backing vocals, the gender dynamics collapse further. Michael Jackson would follow this road down the rabbit hole, but the Bee Gees were there a full decade earlier.

Maybe it's disco Stockholm Syndrome, maybe it's just the fact that both songs on this entry are fantastic songs, but I'm kind of sad that there will only be one more disco entry before the schizo '80s hits arrive. "Hot Stuff" shows another potential branch on disco's evolutionary tree; it amps up the intensity and mechanical aggression that lies beneath the surface of disco's sonic characteristics.

For one thing, it's a pretty fast song, comparatively, giving it a certain breathless quality that dovetails nicely with the raw desire of the lyrics. Second, the guitar/horn/synth power chord "thing" that opens the song before the funk guitar and melodic synth line kick in lays down a wall of sound that makes the song sound large and imposing before it even gets started. Third, the guitar solo halfway through the song also presages '80s pop metal both sonically and melodically, continuing the motif of aggression laid out earlier in the song.

Plus, Donna Summer really sings the hell out of the song. "Hot Stuff", vocally, is like the photo negative of "Shadow Dancing"; lyrically, it's an expression of need, but the way Summer sings it makes it sound like she's out on prowl, actualizing her desire. The fluidity of sexuality is made explicit, also, in the second verse, where she declares that she'll sleep with a woman or white man if that's what it takes.

EDIT: Whoa boy, did I mishear some lyrics. Scratch that. "wild man." Not quite as subversive. (Good looking out, A)

And, as a metaphor, "Hot Stuff" is about as subtle as Warrant's "Cherry Pie".

Monday, August 02, 2010

8/2/10 - Songs of the Summer, #37-38: "Shake Your Booty" and "The Best Of My Love"

The Master List

Top Song of 1976: "Shake Your Booty" by KC and the Sunshine Band

Disco, for all of the perceived faults, hits a particular kind of transcendence when it's done well, best summarized by the Funkadelic slogan/album title/life philosophy of "one nation under a groove."

No one embodies this more than KC and the Sunshine Band, who managed to write songs that will play at roller rinks and bowling alleys and in "wacky" movie previews from now until the end of time. "Shake Your Booty" is like a guided disco missile aimed right at the pleasure center. Each couplet it simple and catchy, and the chorus is both a titanic hook and a directive to do exactly what the music makes the rhythmically inclined listener want to do. The rhythm section is locked in to the point that it almost sounds mechanical. By the end of the song, when KC is intoning "Shake, shake" over the endlessly repeating horn riffs, the song reaches a kind of incantatory power, becoming more of a mantra or chant than a song. It's like dance as transcendence, with KC and the Sunshine Band serving as the guiders of the meditation.

Lyrically, there's not much there to speak of, in fact, the song is saying about as much as "Do The Hustle" with more words. Listening to disco now makes me think of house music, where the song itself matters far less than locking into a particular kind of groove. It may in fact have hurt disco as a musical form to have to shoehorn itself into the pop song format; in three minutes or so, it's hard to reach the state of dancefloor ecstasy that KC and the Sunshine Band are reaching for.

At the same time, the band has to be recognized for putting out three of the most enduring songs of the disco explosion. Between "Get Down Tonight", "Shake Your Booty", and "That's the Way I Like It", you've got a holy trinity of songs that can (and sometimes do) function as shorthand for an entire musical movement. The only other band I can think of that serves as such quick sonic shorthand for a musical era is the Cars, who similarly provide an easy template for new wave rock with "Just What I Needed" and "My Best Friend's Girl". Even those, though, pale in cultural ubiquity next to the disco triforce of KC and the Sunshine Band's nigh-interchangeable massive hits.

Top Song of 1977: "The Best of My Love" by the Emotions

This song, to me, is more interesting musically than "Shake Your Booty", even if "Shake Your Booty" fascinates me more as signifier of a cultural phenomenon. The difference between the two songs is that "The Best Of My Love" fits much better into the framework of the three minute pop single. Unlike "Shake Your Booty", "The Best of My Love" has peaks and valleys, with lead singer Sheila Hutchinson winding her way through the horns and bouncing disco bass on the verses and then rising up into the top of her range as she gets near the chorus, the back-up singers rising to join her.

The backing vocals are reminiscent of doo-wop, as they "doo-doo-doo" their way to the climactic three part wordless peak of the song, where the instruments drop out and the vocals climb and climb to the top. That peak is the key to the song, and what makes it more of a pop song in the classic sense than the KC and the Sunshine band hits. The rest of the song is all building up to that moment, and once it happens the rest of the song is winding down. The song has plenty of funk, without a doubt, but never hits the hypnotic repetitive groove that "Shake Your Booty" does.

Both of these songs bring us back to the realm of the great chorus. After the mostly-instrumental "Do The Hustle" and the wispy Smokey Robinson refrain of "Rock Me Baby", both of these songs have clear, bright choruses that lodge in head and don't leave. If you want #1 in the summertime, it's as close to an ironclad prerequisite as you can get by this point.

Friday, July 30, 2010

7/30/10 - Songs of the Summer, #35-36: "Rock Your Baby" and "The Hustle"

The Master List

Top Song of 1974: "Rock Your Baby" by George McCrae

And disco arrives to the party. Or rather, starts the next phase of the party. The immediate appearance of the four-on-the-floor beat (here carried by the bass, not the drums) signals that rock is on its way out as a summer pop chart topping genre, and that dance music is ascendant. With the odd blip coming in the '80s, that's pretty much how things would continue until hip-hop/R&B took the dance music mantle.

As an example of the type of music that inspired the "Disco Sucks" movement, what's startling about "Rock Your Baby" is how innocuous it is. It's no more vapid than, say, "Purple People Eater." It's a solidly constructed pop song, and McCrae puts some serious falsetto on display. The way that his voice floats over the airy bed of keyboards and short, bright guitar riffs, all floating along on bouncing sea of bass, give the song a feeling of a cruise ship ride in perfect weather - all nonchalant relaxation.

What's different about it is that the grit and sloppiness of rock, evident from "Rock Around the Clock" all the way through "Bad Bad Leroy Brown", is gone. Even tight, safe-sounding pop/rock like "I Feel The Earth Move" has a visceral immediacy to it that "Rock Your Baby" lacks. The edges (the percussive piano chords of "I Feel The Earth Move", the hint of gospel desperation in the backing vocals of "Tossin' and Turnin'", the raw sexual primacy of Elvis's vocal delivery), are all sanded down.

Top Song of 1975: "Do The Hustle" by Van McCoy

And here I claimed that disco was appearing. I stand corrected. This is the first straight-up out-of-central-casting Disco with a capital D song. It's got all the signifiers; the four-on-the-floor drums, the string glissandos, the funk guitars that float in and out, the whispered over-the-top woman whispering "Do It" while the crowd shouts "Do The Hustle!" It's almost time-capsule stereotypical; the seventies answer for "Heartbreak Hotel."

All I can say is, there's a reason that the '70s got a lot of grief for the musical developments. After a frenzied pace of musical innovation that saw rock artists go from three-chord rockabilly songs about drag racing to things like Pet Sounds and The White Album, this song sounds almost painfully simplistic and retrograde. Rock managed to stand on its own, the sound of disco is the sound of music being moved back to the background - necessary for dancing, but no way would you put it on in your headphones and soak it in.

That's my rock and roll bias, though. I can hear the way that this marks a radical shift in its own right - "Do The Hustle" may not point the way forward quite as elegantly as "Rock Your Baby", but it still serves notice that what constituted pop music was taking a sharp turn. The strings point the way towards a re-incorporation of synthesized sounds, and the instantly recognizable disco rhythm announces that henceforth if you want to chart in the summertime, your chances are a lot higher if someone can dance to your music, and not just boogie a little bit to some gospel piano.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

7/29/10 - Songs of the Summer, #33-34: "Lean On Me" and "Bad Bad Leroy Brown"

The Master List

Top Song of 1972: "Lean On Me" by Bill Withers

What makes a standard? What separates the songs that exist in the ephemeral pop present, with its surface pleasures and easy discardibility, from those that find their place in the foundation of a culture? Is it the intent of the writer/performer? That's a cynical interpretation, holding that the hitmaker is somehow more craven and less worthy of respect than the artists out to make a Statement, when in reality the songs that become standards are often just as driven by crass commercialism as the hitmakers. Nobody creates art to stuff it in a drawer - art is, after all, meant for an audience.

Nonetheless, sometimes you get songs like "the Macarena", or "Red Rubber Ball", which disappear as soon as they hit their expiration date, and sometimes you get songs like "Lean On Me", which get called up to the majors and gets added to the cultural songbook, subject to endless revisions, recollections, and re-interpretations:

Part of it, surely, is the universality of the sentiment. The altruistic message of "Lean on me" is just on the right side of preachy, and captures, along with the gospel trappings, the aching feeling of wanting to help someone that might not be inclined to accept it. It's a touching acknowledgment of the kind of basic human vulnerability that usually finds its expression in weepy singer-songwriter ballads, not warm, funky, inviting songs like this one.

Bill Withers has a great voice for the song, too - this is a song that can easily get oversung, and frequently does; perversely, that has the effect of making the sentiment at the heart of the song seem false, more Hallmark greeting card then an impulse toward tender human connection. Withers sings it clear and without histrionics, getting right to the heart of the song's message and inviting listeners in. It's the difference between a neon sign on a flashy bar at night and a friendly neighbor on the front porch serving lemonade in the summertime.

Top Song of 1973: "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce

First of all, watch that clip, even if just for a second. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a mustache of the highest order. I've got a pro-Croce bias, due to my parents listening to him a whole lot around the house while I was growing up. So "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" is one of the backing tracks of my childhood, which means I'm already predisposed to by nostalgia at the very least to like it.

What stands out, listening to it in retrospect, is how the whole song is entirely dependent on the songwriting. Although this is a live version, it's true for the recorded version as well. Croce's voice is pleasant enough, but not distinctive. His backing band does an adequate job fleshing out the song, with the basic catchy piano riff anchoring the whole thing, and the women echoing the "Bad!" "Bad!" lines during the chorus, which is really where the song sticks in the brain, but overall this is very, very basic pop-rock.

This isn't a knock: it points to the power that good songwriting can have in the pop-rock idiom. The song is flawlessly constructed: the chorus is the catchiest part, and fun to sing along with. The verses tell a clear, coherent story, creating a vivid character, and delivering him to his fate with a refreshing moral clarity. The barroom piano gives it energy, the acoustic guitar fleshes out the sonic palette, and the whole song hangs together with exemplary economy. It's harder than it looks to write a song like this, but when someone does they usually have a hit on their hands, as Croce did.

(Plus, the mustache can't hurt).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

7/27/10 - Songs of the Summer, #31-32: "American Woman" and "I Feel The Earth Move"

The Master List

Top Song of 1970: "American Woman" by the Guess Who

Here, in "American Woman", comes the first echo of "Wild Thing", and the last summer #1 from the hard rock branch of the rock and roll tree. Here, too, marks the end of a certain furious pace of innovation in rock 'n' roll, because there's much less innovation/evolution from "Wild Thing" to "American Woman" than there is from say, "Heartbreak Hotel" to "I Get Around".

"American Woman" also illuminates one of the issues that I have with classic rock radio. A few entries ago, I wrote about songs that have been played on the radio since they first became hits; most of the time, these are straight up classics, but every so often you get a song like "American Woman" that seems to get continual airplay through simple inertia. It was a hit, it sounds like rock and roll, so slot it in between "Pinball Wizard" and "Hotel California". Classic rock then just becomes an overtly narrow band band of culture, not any sort of sonic organizing principle. So it ossifies into oldies radio, just of different vintage. The opportunity is there to bring in similar sounds, but really it's just the same handful of songs over and over, which do those songs no favors as they quickly become tiresomely overexposed.

But I think I'm out of step when it comes to this song, because Lenny Kravitz recorded a cover of it that was also a gigantic hit, so it has to be the song itself. My sense is that it's the guitar riff syncopated against the "American woman" vocal phrase, which has the same kind of primal thump that "Wild Thing" utilizes so well. Sometimes all you really need is a great, simple guitar riff - "American Woman" has got that. It's just that so little of the song other than that riff stands out in any way.

Top Song of 1971: "I Feel The Earth Move" by Carole King

Speaking of American women, here comes one of the periodic female cameos on this list, Carole King. There's no getting around it; men have a stranglehold on the summer hits list, especially once the rock 'n' roll era comes around. So it's a bit of a breath of fresh air to find such a frank statement of female desire, with the pounding keys underpinning the bluesy chorus emphasizing King's carnality and the lyrics, all apocalyptic imagery of a world coming apart due to the narrator's fierce desire.

The refrain that opens the song is so good, in fact, that to my ear it almost overshadows the weaker "ooh baby" section, where King switches back to a gentler major key and backs off of the aggression. I get the tension between the two parts, and that it makes the refrain hit even harder when she brings it back, but it almost seems like it belongs in a different song. Unlike "American Woman", there's more here going on than just one good riff - the melody is catchy, the lyrics vividly capture a certain kind of volcanic desire, and there's a push-pull between the two sections of the song that keep the tension balanced, even if I'm not sold on the execution of the bridge.

King's percussive piano playing on this song is a style that, in my opinion, isn't used enough in rock music. The appearance of a piano in a rock song usually signals that it's either a sappy ballad or a "rollicking" country-ish song, but the piano is actually a percussion instrument, the closest in feel to the drums of any other standard rock 'n' roll instrument. When Ben Folds Five has their brief window of success in the '90s, it always felt unfair to me that their hit was a ballad, when more than any other artist since early Elton John Folds really explored the piano as a percussive rock instrument. And speaking of Sir Elton, he also briefly dabbled with the style that King plays in here - his 11-17-70 live album is a revelation. Plus, Little Richard and all. I get that it's hard to tour with a grand piano, but hey, I'm a selfish listener. I'd like some more pounding piano, please.

Friday, July 23, 2010

7/23/10 - Songs of the Summer, #29-30: "Mrs. Robinson" and "Get Back"

The Master List

Top Song of 1968: "Mrs. Robinson" by Simon and Garfunkel

How you feel about Art Garfunkel potentially goes a long way toward determining your status as an optimist or a pessimist. Really, it's the same issue presented by the case of Ringo Starr; how, as a person striving for success in a day and age where massive fame and money signifies both (whether rightly or wrongly), do you view someone that hit a cosmic jackpot out of proportion to his talents?

Because, talent-wise, there's no doubt that Art Garfunkel is a very good singer, but he's not bringing as much to the table as Paul Simon, not by a long shot. A good vocalist in his own right, Paul Simon is a fantastically talented songwriter, and Art Garfunkel is not. Which is fine. Talent is not distributed fairly in the world; a truth that most people come to grips with at some point in their lives. But how cruel for Art Garfunkel, who had to come to grips somehow with the fact that his childhood friend and longtime musical partner was just flat-out more talented than he was? And that despite being billed as Simon & Garfunkel, Art was in no way Simon's equal. A crucial ingredient to the folk-rock sound, and surely a strong voice in their collaborative partnership, but hardly a McCartney to Simon's Lennon (or vice versa).

So, what to make of Art Garfunkel, who has a phenomenally successful recording career mostly by dint of being friends with Paul Simon? Lucky break, karmic dues, or yet another sign of the universe's injustice? Ringo Starr was hardly the best drummer to come out of England in the '60s, but he fit the sound better than Pete Best, so he gets to be an icon. Such is the power of a well-written song, which can propel those attached to it like passengers of a rocket.

Mrs. Robinson is a lot funkier than it gets credit for, and I'm waiting for a rapper to snag the percussive opening acoustic passage along with the "doo doo doos". It's also got a pile driver of a chorus, and hits that peculiar Paul Simon sweet spot of being relatively inscrutable but seeming like it makes sense.

Top Song of 1969: "Get Back" by the Beatles

Speaking of Ringo's the Beatles's only summertime #1, from the last days before they deconstructed the Voltron of rock and roll to transform back into four British individuals charting their own course in a popular culture that they themselves transformed.

The Beatles are very difficult to write about. As a rock and roll fan who came of musical listening age in the '80s/'90s, I was already subject to a thousand different variations and responses to the Beatles's core blueprint. Trying to get a bead on them is like being on the 50th floor of a skyscraper and getting a glimpse of the foundation.

Maybe my favorite recent piece on the Beatles is Chuck Klosterman's review of their re-released work; he takes the conceit of treating the Beatles as a "1960s band so obscure that their music is not even available on iTunes", and proceeds to review their collected works as though he'd never heard of them before.

Particularly apropos:

"It is not easy to categorize the Beatles’ music; more than any other group, their sound can be described as “Beatlesque.” It’s akin to a combination of Badfinger, Oasis, Corner Shop, and everyother rock band that’s ever existed. The clandestine power derived from the autonomy of the group’s composition—each Beatle has his own distinct persona, even though their given names are almost impossible to remember. There was John Lennon (the mean one), Paul McCartney (the hummus eater), George Harrison (the best dancer), and drummer Ringo Starr (The Cat). "

For another in-depth look at the Beatles free from the encrusted myths around the band, George Starostin, a linguistics graduate student with a side passion for '60s/'70s rock has an excellent write-up here. Fair warning: the page color will give you a headache, but the writing is sharp and insightful.

Most other writing about the Beatles holds them up as paragons of '60s youth culture, the apex of everything rock and roll, etc. Or else takes the tired contratian POV that the Beatles weren't that great. Which they were. They were that fucking great.

"Get Back" is extraordinarily catchy. The guitar hits at the end of each verse line and in the middle of the chorus perfectly end the melodic phrases of each. The refrain is simple but richly allusive ("Get back to where you once belonged" could be about the characters in the song, about the Beatles themselves, about '60s youth culture, or some combination of the three). Paul McCartney is a great singer. The rockabilly licks from George are perfectly complementary to the feel of the song. Ringo holds it down with his shuffle on the drums. It's the Beatles. They knew what they were doing at this point.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

7/22/10 - Songs of the Summer, #27-28: "Wild Thing" and "Respect"

Top Song of 1966: "Wild Thing" by the Troggs and "Respect" by Aretha Franklin

"Wild Thing" is another stone-cold classic, and marks the first appearance of what would later become hard rock. The Troggs are no Led Zeppelin, but "Wild Thing" has some of the qualities that would later lead down the pathway to Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and on into Van Halen/GNR, etc.

First, the primitive sound, which is created by all the space between the guitars, bass, and drums. Listen to this contrasted with "Satisfaction", which has a fluid syncopation between the lead guitar (filling the space between each vocal line with a short melodic lead), the drums (which dance in and out of the mix around the bass, taking only a brief solo spot near the end of the chorus. Sonically, the song is relatively dense - there's only a few parts where everything drops out just for Jagger to sing over the drums.

"Wild Thing" is all pounding quarter notes during the verses, power chords underpinning the sneering lead vocal. And then the point counterpoint of a simple two chord call and response where everything drops out for the vocals. It's like "Satisfaction" with another layer or two stripped out. Richards said that he envisioned the main riff for "Satisfaction" being played on horns; it's impossible to imagine anything in "Wild Thing" being replaced by a horn section.

The primitive simplicity would be sped up by the Ramones and others and turned into punk, but the stop-start dynamics and blues pounding would lead down to songs like "Smoke On The Water", et all. AC/DC is the ethos of "Wild Thing" perfected - in '66, the Troggs were like the first shot across the bow fired by the S.S. Caveman Rock and Roll.

Top Song of 1967: "Respect" by Aretha Franklin

Another classic. It's easy to see how this turned into an unofficial feminist anthem. Compared to the most recent two female-sung songs on the summer charts in previous years ("It's My Party" and "The Locomotion"), this is take-no-quarter firebreather of a gospel raveup. Prime Aretha is less a singer than a force of nature; the power of her vocals belies the whole "just a little bit" lyric: she may say she's only asking for a little respect, but the way she comes at this song it sounds like an ironclad demand for a whole lot of it. It was Aretha's idea to cover the song, and her idea to add all the "Sock it to me"s, and in general she pretty much owns the song.

But a word about the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The Drive-by Truckers sang about the duality of "The Southern Thing" so memorably on their landmark album Southern Rock Opera, and this song is a good example of it. Only three years earlier the famous Birmingham church burning that killed four young girls rocked Alabama and the nation; even now, as Patterson Hood observes, Alabama carries the cultural imagery of Bull Conner and George Wallace. Less is made of the fact that Alabama musicians put down everything but the piano on "Respect", as well as many other songs recorded by black artists of the period. Even I make references to Alabama as the Deep South with a knowing smirk, though I've never been there, and I hardly have the right. There in the texture of "Respect" is the history coalition that America has always wrestled with, and its presence on oldies radio and at wedding dances show either progress, or blindness, or the inevitable mix of both.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

7/15/10 - Songs of the Summer, #25-26: "I Get Around" and "{I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"

Top Song of 1964: "I Get Around" by The Beach Boys

I remain convinced that the Beach Boys are severely underrated. Critical opinion on them has swung back in their favor, and certainly the Elephant 6 collective did a lot to give them some retroactive cred, and Brian Wilson is always referred to as a genius, but somehow the Beach Boys' place in the '60s rock canon has always felt a little tenuous, more subject to the changing cultural winds and less a sturdy pillar of a musical movement like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. My guess is that the factors explaining this are fourfold:

1. They're not the Beatles. No one is, but trying to match and top the Beatles served as Brian's creative challenge through the mid-'60s. He might have done it, but he was hampered by the fact that he was outnumbered two to one (it's astonishing that the Beatles had the songwriting talents of Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison at their disposal. Imagine if the Who had another songwriter on Townshend's level).

2. Their name is juvenile and misleading. It made a lot of sense when they were being marketed as adolescent music to surf and drive around to (or the evocation of that mood, anyway), but connotatively speaking, it boxes them into a certain phase of life that they moved beyond halfway through their career.

3. Their lyrics are mostly terrible. Look, rock music isn't poetry. But lyrically, almost all Beach Boys songs are pretty trite and insipid. The genius is all in the melodies, arrangements, and harmonies. This woudn't be so bad; no one accused Chuck Berry of being some profound deep thinker lyricist, but the Beach Boys songs with really good, resonant lyrics are few and far between (off the top of my head, I'd say "In My Room", "Wouldn't It Be Nice", and "Help Me Rhonda").

Once you account for those three strikes, though, it's easy to see why the Beach Boys deserve a place in the '60s rock canon. Vocally, and arrangements-wise, they were operating at a level that few bands have ever touched. A song like "I Get Around", although the subject matter is banal and the lyrics are paint-by-numbers, is absolutely packed with harmonies; three parters, four parters, multiple melodic lines stacking up on top of each other, each one carrying a different hook and a memorable harmony separate from the main vocal, which is insanely catchy in its own right. And each individual voice is distinctive and tonally pleasing. It's like "Sh-boom", but supercharged to a level of exponential complexity. And all of this complexity is hidden beneath the surface of a seemingly simplistic pop/rock song. It's an amazing trick - the song gets more complicated the deeper you listen to it. The Beach Boys are summer music through and through, and "I Get Around" is a high-water mark.

Top song of 1965: "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones

"Satisfaction" is a difficult song to write about. Like the Elvis songs, its impact is blunted by the way that it's become part of the cultural fabric. What was once the sound of danger and threatening sexuality is now the sounds of suburban lawn mowing and ponderous "This was the '60s" voiceovers in dull documentaries. It's hard to believe that the song couldn't be played on British radio because of the whole "can't get no girl reaction" line, what with the fact that "Baby Got Back" and "Hot in Herre" are coming down the pike. The most trenchant analysis comes from the two that wrote it:

So, it's the song that truly made the Rolling Stones, and it is the ur-Rolling Stones song. The Jagger quote above shows a sophistication of his understanding of how to make it in rock and roll, and points to some of the reasons the Stones have managed to endure as long as they have. Catchy title + catchy guitar riff + great guitar sound + catching the zeitgeist? That's a formula for success to this day. Although the guitar riff might need to be a synthesizer. It's this core understanding of their own strengths that have enabled the Stones to outlast all of their '60s peers. The Beatles, Beach Boys, and the Who all evolved musically at a pace that hastened their own destruction, while the Stones always kept sight of what lay at their core: a three note riff, distortion, a catchy title: it's only rock and roll but they like it.

Listen to the way that Jagger sneers out the first line - it, along with Richards's riff, is the key to the song. Rock in the '60s staged a hostile takeover of the pop charts because all of a sudden the veneer of professionalism was stripped away - no longer anonymous songwriters providing material to practiced chanteuses, or smooth-voiced crooners, but young, bored, and frustrated young men with raised sneers and a rejection of everything that didn't please them. Everyone, everyone can relate to Jagger's opening line, and, more importantly, the way he sings it, and more importantly than that, the way the itchy, nagging guitar underscores the sentiment in dirty red ink.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

7/13/10 - Songs of the Summer, #23-24: "The Locomotion" and "It's My Party"

The Master List

Top Song of 1962: "The Locomotion" by Little Eva

Into the heart of oldies radio, we are. I'm fascinated by songs, like this one, that seem like they have been and always will be played on mainstream FM radio. Some hit songs are huge, and then disappear without a trace. My nemesis from the last entry, "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini", for example, seems to have little cultural cachet except as a bit of '60s cultural debris. "The Locomotion" is probably being played on the radio this very moment, and probably playing over the PA system at a roller rink, etc.

I first noticed this with "Under the Bridge", the Red Hot Chili Peppers song from 1991. As soon as the song achieve smash hit status, it basically never stopped being played on the radio. Unlike other hits from the era, which I noticed started to disappear after a period of peak saturation, "Under the Bridge" seemed like it had hit some other plane of hit; the kind that never really fades from view. These become part of the overall cultural fabric, destined to be repeated until they're so much aural wallpaper. Usually these songs are great songs, because otherwise they don't have endurance, but even a great song can lose some of its power when it becomes part of the cultural background, instead of standing out in the foreground.

Such is the status of "The Locomotion", a song I knew entirely without ever voluntarily listening to it. Sonically it's got a lot of the Phil Spector wall-of-sound elements - horns all squashed together, dense, thick drum sound, a cascading chorus of backing vocals, and a woman's voice sitting on top of it all, sounding somehow far off in some echoey sonic chamber, vying with the piano for space in the mix.

Melodically, the hook is in the backing vocals (the "come on baby do the locomotion" refrain) that come sweeping in once the chorus hits. It's a pretty undeniable song, so much so that I'm already tired of it without ever choosing to listen to of my own volition.

Top Song of 1963: "It's My Party" by Lesley Gore

The early '60s then, marks two girl-group sounding songs as the back-to-back summer hits. This is another song that shows up a lot on oldies radio, and it's not hard to see why - the "it's my party and I'll cry if I want to" line, repeated with descending harmonies, is another "Purple People Eater" sized mind-devouring hook.

I remember my awareness of Lesley Gore coming through They Might Be Giants, who often cover the sublime "Maybe I Know" live. I remember being struck by the raw melancholy of "Maybe I Know"; the way that it stripped bare the kind of despairing emotions that TMBG songs occasionally trafficked in - it fits their sound better than I expected, because of the way that the it resonates with the absurd melancholy of some of TMBG's more overlooked material. And melodically, it's ridiculously catchy, such that the listener is caught in the melodic undertow - you're singing along with it before you even realize that it's all about being left alone and heartbroken.

"It's My Party" pulls a similar trick - the title refrain is both a kiss-off and a statement of grand self-pity; a complicated set of true emotional responses to the by-the-numbers betrayal of the verses that elevate the song to something more than just another girl-group lament of lost love. It's not a straight-up declaration of power, because the tears are those of the narrator's unmooring, but there's something affirming about bursting out in tears at a celebration; the emotion at the center of so many girl-group anthems spilling out and causing a ruckus.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

7/8/10 - Songs of the Summer, #21-22: "Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" and "Tossin' and Turnin'"

The Master List

Top Song of 1960: "Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini"

This is the first song of all of the ones I've written about that I truly dislike. There have been some songs that haven't really been my jam, there have been some that had parts I liked and parts I didn't, but this song irritates me in a way that's new to the songs on the list. Even moreso than "Purple People Eater", this song is clearly written as a novelty, and the rib-nudging "One, two, three, four..." sections are too cutesy by half. The delivery of the vocals also seem to carry a kind of smirking tone, and the song in general feels like the guest at a party that thinks he or she is the most charming individual around, but has no idea that what he thinks is charm comes across as overbearing.

The central hook is designed to be just as insinuating of Purple People Eater, but I actually find that the song tends to evaporate from my brain seconds after listening to it. Its attempts at playfulness come off as leaden, which may be due to the fact that lyrically it's really about shame and embarrassment, which kind of gets in the way of the chirping beach vibe that it seems to be sonically going for.

Instrumentally, too, the song seems hacky. The steel drum feel is all a little too reminiscent of Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band. It's the first instance where the sounds of slick professionalism start to detract from the music on the summer songs I've written about so far.

Top Song of 1961: "Tossin' and Turnin'" by Bobby Lewis

The sounds of faith restored. After listening to "Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" multiple times in a row, putting on "Tossin' and Turnin'" felt like taking a cool drink of water on a hot day. The sound explodes out of the speakers; it's a glorious mess of gospel, blues, and another raw blast of early rock and roll.

The a capella entry "I couldn't sleep at all last night" jumps out just ahead of the instruments, and then it all comes crashing in: the gospel-inflected backup singers, the primitive banging of the drums, and the snaking bassline compose most of the sonic landscape that isn't Bobby Lewis urgent, pleading lead vocal. The sound is vital and immediate, and you can already start to hear how rock music benefits from an overload of the sonics - the sound feels like its stretching against the boundaries of the speakers, and the song is better for it.

"Tossin' and Turnin'" also marks the first summer song appearance of the gospel backing vocals undergirding (or soaring above) the chorus, which is one of my absolute favorite rock tropes. When used poorly, it can be bombastic, but when used well, as it is here, it can inject a song with the rapture of religious ecstasy. When that song is all about carnal desire and frustration, the blend of profane and sacred, sexual and transcendental joy become a potent cocktail indeed.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

7/7/10 - Songs of the Summer, #19-20 - "Purple People Eater" and "The Battle of New Orleans"

The Master List:

Top Song of 1958: "Purple People Eater" by Sheb Wooley

A scant two or three years after rock'n'roll appears on the summer charts, novelty rock makes its first appearance with Sheb Wooley's "Purple People Eater", about an alien from outer space who dreams of being a rock star. Didn't take long before everyone wanted to be Elvis, even fictional interstellar space creatures.

To its credit, "Purple People Eater" boasts an absolutely inescapable earworm of a hook - in terms of the songs on the summer list, the only hook that got as stubbornly stuck in my head was the opening line of "Sentimental Journey", and even that's a distant second to the way that the "one-eyed one-horned flyin' purple people eater" refrain burrows into the brain. It's also a triumph of absurdity - Wooley wrote in an hour, and it has the tossed-off absurdity of a five-year old describing a month-long trip.

Hilariously enough, the Time magazine article describing the genesis of the song is partially a screed against the then-fashionable production trick of speeding up vocals to create hooks in hit songs, something that Kanye West would adopt as a calling card before stepping out in front of the mic. Swap in auto-tune, or drum machines, or any other prone to evaporate sonic fad, and, well, the more things change...

Top Song of 1959: The Battle For New Orleans by Johnny Horton

The Wikipedia entry on this song is nearly too amazing to be true: the song was written by a school principal in Arkansas who set the events of the pivotal battle of the War of 1912 to music to get his students more interesting in learning history. Then Johnny Horton recorded a version with fewer expletives and historical references and enjoyed the hit of summer 1959, and the top country song of the first 50 years of the billboard charts.

What stands out about that is the way that even up until the end of the 50s, the world of pop music was still a bit of a Wild Wild West. Sure, you had professionals like Lieber and Stoller supplying Elvis with material, but you could also record a song written by a principal set to an old folk melody with a martial drumbeat and have the song of the summer. Following up, of course, a song written by a 37-year old actor based on a joke told by a friend of his kid. Fast forward Jimmie Driftwood and Sheb Wooley to 2010, and they'd be churning out quirky YouTube videos. They'd be OK Go at best, not Rihanna.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

6/30/10 - Songs of the Summer, #17-18, "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Teddy Bear"

Top Song of 1956: "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley

Oh, Elvis.

My dad used to work with a guy who was famous for his "Graceland story", which I had the pleasure of hearing while on a work retreat in which a bunch of lawyers hiked up to the top of Mt. Laconte in western NC and stayed a night at the lodge; one of my first experiences with real hiking.

In any case, the Graceland story was an elaborate account of visiting Graceland on an air-conditioned tour bus, taking in the general ridiculousness of the place and the people who worship at the throne of the King of Rock 'n' Roll, and it memorably climaxed with a woman throwing herself on the ground in the Meditation Gardens where Presley is buried and letting out a primitive howl of "Ohhhhhhhhhhhh Elvis!" This was delivered in what can only be termed Charming Southern Lawyer accent, and it killed.

I understand a little more now some of what must have driven that kind of reaction.

If "Rock Around The Clock" is a radical change of sound on the summer charts, "Heartbreak Hotel" marks a transformational stylistic shift, embodied by Elvis Presley, who, when you strip away all of the craziness of the man's life and death, is a phenomenally talented vocalist (Obligatory note that Chuck Berry and Little Richard really should get more of the Founding Father treatment, but they weren't the lightning rods that Elvis became - not his fault, you can't control sometimes who the culture's going to suck up into its tornado). Bill Haley's playing rock music, but he still comes off as the MC facilitating a good time at the party. Elvis brings a shuddering depth of feeling to "Heartbreak Hotel", laying bare a whole suggestive world of sex, betrayal, and anguish. Match that up with the blues thump, and you can glimpse the kind of seismic shift that his emergence marked in pop music.

Elvis's intonations have been imitated so often that the real thing can't help but feel a little affected, but it's worth noting that his mumbled "so lonely baby"'s and buttery quaver sound organic and natural at this point in his career at least. It's really a powerful performance, to say nothing of the visuals of Elvis melting the audience into quivering pools in that YouTube clip above. The man brought it, you can certainly say that.

Top Song of 1957: "Teddy Bear" by Elvis Presley

"Teddy Bear" is the more playful Elvis. Less raw than "Heartbreak Hotel", "Teddy Bear" features a liberal dose of doo-wop influenced backing vocals, a barroom piano that gives the whole song a jaunty, carefree, air, and a cutesy central metaphoric conceit that plays nicely off of the volcanic virility of peak-era Elvis - despite being a figure of hip-shaking youth corruption, he doesn't want to be your tiger: they play too rough. There's a playfulness to Elvis's vocals, and the lyrics, that nicely undercut the swagger endemic to the sound of his voice.

What's interesting is that Elvis fits the template of "pop star" much more closely than the current conception of "rock star". Primarily a vocalist, he didn't write his own songs. He was billed as the artist, not his band. And sexual friction was his implied stock in trade. And, furthermore, the visual element of his performance was not to be underestimated, underlined by the famous dictum to not film him below the waist. Theses characteristics are more similar to modern pop artists like Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, etc. than they are to the traits that would come to be associated with "rock" stars, where the templates were the Beatles (for the fresh-scrubbed turned experimental direction), or the Rolling Stones (for the bad boys out to seduce your sons and daughters). I would hypothesize that it's a reason that Elvis is subject to a lot of both a) parody and b) misunderstanding, where bands like the Beatles and Stones aren't. In a lot of ways, he was a groundbreaking figure for rock-and-roll, but existed more comfortably in the pop idiom from a cultural perspective.

Monday, June 28, 2010

6/28/10 - Songs of the Summer: #15-16 - "Sh-Boom" and "Rock Around The Clock"

Top Song of 1954 - "Sh-boom", by the Crew Cuts:

Sh-boom, sh-boom, we've got doo wop coming up on the horizon. And, although there are still some instrumental big band horn fills coloring in the margins of this song, they sound much more out of place than they do in the late '40s/early '50s summer hits. The harmony vocals are front and center here - instead of the single powerhouse vocalist a la Vaughn Monroe or Vera Lynn the emphasis is much more on the blend of voices. Cuz, duh, it's doo wop. But even this sounds like a quantum leap forward in terms of musical styles from the croony croony goodness found on the summer #1s up to this point.

The bass has more of the standard pop progression, as well, moving in cheery major key bounces underneath the barbershop quartet harmonies above. This is also the first appearance of the nonsequitur rock lyric on the summer charts, something that I had always associated with '50s/60s rock and roll - think "Tutti Fruitti", "Who Put the Bomp", etc. "Sh-Boom" is a meaningless phrase in this context, denoting the nonsensical hook of the song, rather than anything to do with the content of the lyrics.

"Sh-Boom" also marks the first time that the lyrical subject matter becomes expressly adolescent. Unrequited love has been present in earlier songs, but it was more a matter of adult romanticism - "Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart" and "I'll Never Smile Again" are both dramatic songs, but their casting of heartbreak is explicity adult - "Sh-Boom" marks the first song with the world-is-ending emotionalism of teenage romanticism: "Life would be a dream...if you would tell me I'm the only one that you love". Variations on that theme have sustained the pop charts ever since.

Top Song of 1956: "Rock Around The Clock" by Bill Haley

Well, that was quick. I thought doo-wop would last a little longer before rock and roll came knocking, but here's "Rock Around The Clock", the first song in this list that I had heard before I started this project. It's always hard to listen to the sounds of the revolution after the government's in place and see what all the fuss was about, but listening to this song after a steady diet of pre-rock music gives me a greater appreciation for how alien and terrifying the devil's music seemed at the time. Here's a quick run-down of what immediately jumps out about the first rock song to grace the top charts in summertime:

1. Drums. This song has drums. The earlier songs on this list, for the most part, don't. Drums mean rhythm, and thus begins the drive toward rhythmic focus on the pop charts over the last half-century, until by the 2000s you've got Gwen Stefani topping the charts by singing cheers over martial foot-stomps. The song announces them with authority, with a drum roll right into the signature "1-2-3-4 o'clock rock" opening line over a pause, after which the drums crash back in for another pause, receding like the tide, and then coming back in to anchor the verses. The difference it makes to have a rhythm section, and not just a bass anchoring the song, account for why it suddenly got easier to dance to. You wouldn't dream of shaking your groove thang to a Tool song, but here at the foundations of rock and roll the drums are built for dancin'.

2. Chaos. The instrumental breakdown in this song sounds like Captain Beefheart atonal jazz freakout compared to the polished instrumental breakdowns in the earlier songs. There's much more of an emphasis on noise and feel, and less on melody.

3. Country + Blues. That's it. That's the formula, and you can really hear it in the early stages. the bassline could have been airlifted right out of "Smoke Smoke Smoke (That Cigarette)", but that repeated phrases, dramatic-tension producing pauses, and rudimentary melodies are all blues. Before the skyscraper's complete, it's a whole lot easier to see the foundation.