Book Of Love ‎- Boy

Book Of Love ‎- Boy (1985) [HQ]: http://youtu.be/WVBbIxdCNLQ

Nicolas Winding Refn, one of my favorite directors, has stated that this is one of his favorite songs. (He has directed Drive, Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and Only God Forgives amongst others.)  I must admit that this is an excellent piece of pop art.  I am a sucker for synth pop, because of the combined dance rhythms and strength of the melody.  It also has a certain inclusiveness to it.  Boy or girl, gay or straight, of whatever age, all can twitch and shake like 13 year old girls when it is on.

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The Ecstatic Joy of Bizarre Love Triangle

I try to keep this blog balanced, and not in the way that Fox News means. If I post too many music blogs, I try to find something politically to talk about. If my posts seem to be filled with too much despair at the state of things I try to find something fun for a change. I know that in this day and age one is supposed to niche market, but I get bored talking about the same subject over and over. If you are passionate about something and you do it well, have at it. The world does need people that are focused and knowledgeable about certain issues. It doesn’t necessarily need scatterbrained people like myself that dip their toes in a hundred different pools. But I can’t help but feel that this world is endlessly fascinating, even if it is occasionally like George Carlin said, “when you are born in this country you get two tickets to the freak show.” The last two posts were about the Koch brothers and the sad state of music reviews. I was going jet black for a moment and it is time to temporarily take another course.

I tried to think of something that made me happy. I must admit that a song that has always picked my spirits up is New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle. Although the lyrics slightly betray the music, the music and melody sound to me like pure ecstatic joy. I’ve always felt this is one of the great pop songs. Temptation might edge this out as my favorite New Order song, but this is up there.

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Give Him a Great Big Kiss

This is the forever cool Shangri-La’s who influenced many of the punk acts of the 70’s. I have an affinity for girl group music and the Shangri-La’s are one of the absolute best. Their greatest hits is simply fantastic and a must buy if you like this period of music.

The Guitar Playing of Alain Whyte

One of my favorite guitar players is Alain Whyte.  He was Morrissey’s guitar player from Your Arsenal through Ringleader of the Tormentors.  He still wrote songs with Morrissey after leaving the touring band, although I do not know yet if he wrote any songs on the new album.  Morrissey pokes some fun at him in his Autobiography, but with Morrissey it is hard to tell if he there is any real animosity or just a sort of backhanded compliments that are the result of his Northern humor. 

Alain Whyte never got the credit that he deserved, largely for the unpardonable sin of not being Johnny, even though he wrote at least 81 songs with Morrissey and contributed to some of his best works. 

I loved the guitar team of Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte, but I prefer Alain’s melodic expressive playing to Boz’s more rhythmic approach out of the two.  They were perfect foils for each other.  Although the guitar playing of the two was rooted in pop and rock classicism I actually felt that especially during the 90’s they were one of the few two guitar teams that were pushing the instrument in new directions. 

They took glam, rock, pop, and rockabilly riffs, and blended them into a unique recognizable style.  Under Steve Lillywhite the pair created what to me are the two high-water marks of Morrissey’s career when it comes to guitar playing.  The albums Vauxhall and I and Southpaw Grammar both feature exceptional guitar playing though they are both very different.  Vauxhall and I is very beautiful and gentle while Southpaw Grammar explodes with volume and energy. 

One of the things that is interesting about their playing is that even when they were playing loud they were often including beautiful melodies under the noise.  Vice versa, even when they were playing beautiful gentle parts there was an emotional quality that created tension. 

Much how Paul Westerberg often updated the guitar playing of the Rolling Stones by making it more melodic, I feel that Whyte, and Boorer with him took preexisting rock n roll templates and added a new melodicism to them.  They might have only been painting new landscapes in the margins, but they were still creating their own language. 

Now that Whyte is no longer in Morrissey’s band he often co-writes pop songs with American pop stars.  However, if you like his work his work with Morrissey I would recommend checking out the album Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams.  This album features Whyte’s guitar playing, writing, and singing.  Some of the songs you will recognize as songs that became Morrissey songs. 

If you are unfamiliar with his playing I would recommend checking out both of the above mentioned Morrissey records.  Although I think Vauxhall and I is the pinnacle of Morrissey’s solo career, Southpaw Grammar may interest you more if you are buying a record for purely the guitar playing aspect if you happen to be a rock n roll fan. Both records feature glorious guitar playing that in and of itself has unfortunately been overlooked for too long.   

More Thoughts On the Golden Age of Music

I’m always wondering why the 60’s and 70’s were such a golden age of music.  I was born in 1978 so I am not clouded by nostalgic feelings.  I don’t mean that good music stopped being made after the 70’s, only that across the board quality was higher then that it has been since.  Even many banal pop songs of that time feature some great musicianship.

I think a lot of it has to do with money.  Artists were allowed to indulge then.  Kevin Russell always talks about how the music industry from that time was decadent.  A lot of those artists were allowed to live in a drug fueled world of fantasy and wealth.  I remember reading that Pink Floyd sent a photographer to capture pictures of the great pyramids for Dark Side of the Moon.  Just those pictures cost more than most people spend to make the actual album these days!

I also think that the record business was in the hands of people that knew how to exploit it for money, but not control it.  By that I mean they knew how to use artists and their talents to make money, but now it just seems like they stick a pretty face and digitally do whatever needs to be done to make the music sellable.  Real artists do things like challenge corporations politically on occasion.  You don’t want too many of those kinds of people running around with too much money.

There were also a lot less distractions.  Lord knows how many people are fucking around on the internet when they could be writing a song.  Look at me right now!

Technological limitations of the time also required that people really be able to perform and play in the studio.  When you have some limitations on what you can do, technology wise, you have to be creative.  You have to find some way to make the sounds in your head without just pushing a button.  When they used to create the sound of echo in the studio they actually had a box called an echo chamber that created real echoes!  Digital effects are getting better, but nothing substitutes for a real echo.

Getting back to distraction, there was also some kind of artistic community, especially if you look towards the 60’s.  It seems like so many people are off on their own trip now.

There was also the antiwar movement, civil rights, and so many great political struggles that people that were college age were participating in, which is precisely the age when people begin to really come of age with their personal stamp on art.

I think drugs played a big part too.  It was the kinds of drugs that people are on.  A great deal of psychedelics will inspire some weird shit to be cranked out!  I just read this morning that most of one of Funkadelic’s albums was recorded in one day and they were all tripping!  I’m also reading Neil Young’s autobiography right now.  He basically says he was high from 18 to 65.  That will definitely move the mind in new directions.

This is a topic that I have talked about before.  I am always curious about why certain things in the culture lead to creative high points in some field.  Look at TV right now.  Everyone is calling it the golden age of television.  There are several cultural and economic reasons why this is so.  But that, my friends, is for another day.

Young the Giant and the Importance of Singing in Pop Music

I’m looking forward to hearing the new Young the Giant album Mind Over Matter.  I enjoyed their first album for its California sound and most of all because of their singer Sameer Gadhia.  Even though his singing accent is more modern, there is something about his effortless voice that reminds me of an early 60’s soul singer.  To compare anyone to Sam Cooke is insane, but there is something in Gadhia’s voice that hits a similar pleasure spot in my brain. Listen to the track I Got from their first album to understand what I mean.   I feel as if that song were arranged differently it could have again taken place in that early 1960’s pop music period.  Also, for reasons that I can’t explain their first album just reminds me of Northern California beaches.  I was in Northern Cali on route right before I got their album, but it is more than that.  It has the same sort of beauty and lonesomeness that one feels on those beaches.

Their first album is not incredibly deep in any way.  They are young though and I will give them the benefit of the doubt.  That’s not to say that their lyrics are dumb or embarrassing.  There are definitely moments of intelligence.  It’s just that their lyrics neither add nor detract for the most part in your enjoyment of their music.

The music is also well played indie rock, and the seemingly direct recording of it lets you know that the band can definitely play.  I hear that they have changed production approaches on this second record and I am curious as to how this affects my opinion of the band.

However, what really separates this band to me from countless other indie bands is not the music or the lyrics, but it is again the fact that they have a singer with a unique voice that has an effortless charm.    I read an interview with Gadhia and it seems as if he has been reading a good bit.  I am hoping that this willingness to challange himself will take his lyrics to deeper places in the future.  At some point a band must have something to say, not necessarily that they need to say something meaningful from a sociopolitical standpoint, but they just must have a lyrical identity and point of view for me to become long term invested in them.

But they have the most important part of the pop music equation down.  I can basically listen to any offshoot of pop and rock music as long as the singer of a band has some kind of individual presence in their voice.  Good singers have their own voice.  This is usually derived from them incorporating a lot of singers into their own style, or in being completely unlearned to as where they don’t know any better.  The worst singers are just pale imitations of other singers that have gone before them.  You can see this in many of the bands that came about after the initial grunge movement.  Many people after the wake of that initial movement just sounded like pale imitations of Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder, as if they were the only singers that they had ever heard in their lives.

I am rooting for Young the Giant as they seem one of the only bands that has cracked the pop music world recently.  They also seem intelligent and willing to learn.  They clearly want their music to mean something beyond just serving their own fame and fortune.  I hope their early promise is not the end of their story.

Billy Idol and Pop Art

Often, out of the blue, I will get interested in a subject and then need to follow it through until I tire of it.  I almost always follow my gut and rarely second guess myself.  I remember sitting in a friend’s back yard and all of a sudden deciding that I needed to learn about Walt Disney.  Later that week I got a copy of and read Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.  It ended up being one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.  It dealt with art, commerce, the rise of the modern corporation, history, and culture.  If you are in a bookstore sometime read Gabler’s introduction.  That alone is fascinating and thought provoking.  Anyway, I would have never read that had I not followed some strange idea that just happened to pop up in my head.  It was almost as if someone was whispering in my ear. (And no I wasn’t on drugs at the time.)

Lately I’ve been driven to read everything I can get my hands on about American Indians.  However, the topics are often not as lofty.  For reasons unknown to myself, I have found myself diving into the world of Billy Idol.  I find him fascinating and I am going to attempt to tell you why.

I think his career mirrors the music industry perfectly.  It represents the highs and lows of record making.  It also follows a perfect myth template.  In his case Icarus.  He had tremendous promise, flew too high, and burned out.

For those of you that don’t know, Billy Idol was once in a really great promising band.  He was in a band called Generation X that was one of the best of the earlier British punk bands.  They lacked the political righteousness of the Clash and the menace of the Sex Pistols.  They were also slightly behind, time wise, both of those bands.  Because of that they often were written off as lightweights.  However, if you don’t know any of punk history, and you just listen to their music, it’s fantastic.  Their guitar player, Derwood Andrews, was simply one of the best of that era.  He could hop from beautifully written hook riffs to squalling noise solos at the drop of a hat.  The bands records are also played with extreme enthusiasm.  You can hear people taking flight together on tape, especially on the first two albums.  Everything seemed to suggest, if drugs and commerce hadn’t gotten in their way, that they could have made some more incredible records together.

If you need further proof at what they could have achieved check out Andrews and Mark Laff’s, Generation X’s drummer, shortly lived band Empire and their album Expensive Sound Vol. 1.  Empire may have lasted a moment, but they went on to influence the D.C. punk and post punk scene and therefore American indie music for years to come.  Bands like Rights of Spring and Fugazi wouldn’t have sounded the same without them.

What you hear on those early Generation X records is the sound of people reacting to each other live on tape.  There might be limitations in the production at times, but there is the alchemy that only other people communicating to each other in the moment can produce.  The lyrics on those albums may be highly limited from a poetic standpoint, but they speak about a love of rock n roll in an enthusiastic and unpretentious way.  They believed in the form and you can hear it in ever note that is played.  There is piss and vinegar, blood and sweat, in those recordings.

Shortly after Generation X folded, Billy Idol went on to make his early solo records, the most well known part of his career.  They are the sound of someone hungry for success, someone that is shameless enough to do whatever it takes to achieve it.  That’s not to say that they are completely without merit.  I’ve never been completely turned off by the sound of 80’s records.  What they lack in authenticity they often make up for in atmosphere.  The reverb drenched records of the 80’s are perfect for drifting off into imaginative worlds, especially on a rain soaked afternoon.  Billy Idol, despite whatever artistic flaws he might have, has and always will have a unique rock voice.  It’s too bad that the words so often put in his mouth are nothing but sexual innuendo and rock n roll cliché.  He at least has a personality.  You would never mistake his singing for someone else.

Despite the fact that I actually tend to like records that were made in the 80’s, his records are a perfect example of the worst of that decade’s impulses.  If there was a cheesy and synthetic keyboard sound that was popular in whatever year one of his records was made, be sure that it is on that record and it is even more reverb drenched, synthetic, and 80’s sounding than it needs to be.  That’s not to say in his career that there aren’t some great pop songs in the lot.  White Wedding and Eyes Without a Face, if you hadn’t been numbed to them by a million radio spins, are really great pieces of pop art.  I can’t help but think of the best of his solo lot as the musical equivalent to a Warhol painting.  They often reflect back the hollowness of the culture, but are also strangely enjoyable and full of trashy beauty in their own way.  They are at a minimum fun, and not just an imitation of fun.  He was clearly enjoying himself on something when they were made.

It is in the splintering of Generation X that you find a really interesting tale about music in Western culture.  You have part of the band going on to form Empire and you have Billy Idol’s solo career.  Empire made a truly unique and artistic record, one that is not without its own pop hooks as well, and although they eventually went on to influence a good deal of musicians, faded largely from the world without a trace as far as the greater culture was concerned.  Meanwhile, Billy Idol followed the trends, made records that were largely of their time, and went on to sell millions of records which to this day have not left our airwaves.

I can enjoy, for different reasons, both kinds of music. I like art and I like spectacle.  Sometimes I enjoy a nice escapist movie, why should music be any different?  However, why does the general public favor one form?  Why do the money interests line up behind one form?  Is it the fact that people are only exposed to one thing?  Is something easier to sell to people because it is simpler to sell something that has fewer layers that need explained?  Even if people were given equal exposure to different kinds of music would they always choose the broader less artistic choice?

Blockbuster movies make more sense.  A 200 million dollar spectacle requires less out of the viewer than a slow paced interpretive indie film.  But often pop music is weirder than one thinks upon closer inspection.  Michael Jackson was a strange fellow by anyone’s measurements, but he managed to sell millions of records and connect with millions of people.

More involved movies, much like reading, require you to learn a language, the language of the cinema.  However, music, unless we are talking about music that is primarily based around literate lyrics, is a more emotional form.  That is not to say that learning more about music can’t open you up to new forms and bring added interest to things that already appeal to you.  Sometimes people like certain things because they throw out certain cultural touchstones.  A lot of the horrible pop country that is out there is probably successful because it is selling a lifestyle and conforming to an identity.  I can’t help but think that what succeeds in music is what gets money invested in it and what gets exposure, at least up to a point.

Let’s go back to Billy Idol.  Did he have a large amount of hits simply because he sold a lifestyle?  Although you could argue that his image was largely based around a cartoon image of what a rock star should be, it’s hard to say that his success was based on some kind of identification with his personal life or lyrics.  He really did do a mountain of cocaine and sleep with a thousand women.  The average person might occasionally dream of such a life, but they can hardly identify with it.

I think his extreme popularity was partially due to circumstances surrounding his unique moment in time.  He looked great on MTV, which was new at the time.  He had an image that was unique to him and this made his music easy to visually translate.  There is always luck in any success story.  He was at the right place and right time and met the right people.  However, I’m not denying that he does have certain talents.  He could write pop hooks and sing with a unique voice.  His music also always had a certain rock n roll enthusiasm about it, even when it was covering the fact that behind his voice was often slick candy gloss pop music.

As sort of a postscript I should also mention that he put out an album in 2005 called The Devil’s Playground.  Much like his 80’s music, it displayed the worst sonic production values of our time.  Often records that are made now seek to emulate earlier periods, but are often too slick, too compressed, and too cold sounding to mimic the passion of an earlier era.  Listen to Steve Stevens’s guitar on this record.  He often plays like a punk rock guitar player on this record,  but with the edges sanded off.  No kid picking up a guitar to fight the world would ever have such an expensive and polished sound.  As is often the case in this day and age, we are often in danger of letting technology overwhelm us.  That is not to say the record is without its merits.  Billy Idol can still sing and there are a couple of pop songs that are trashy and fun enough to overcome the lyrical and musical clichés inherent in them.  There are probably four or five songs on the record that I really enjoy listening for no other reason than they click that certain pleasure switch in the brain.  Everyone needs cheap thrills sometimes.

Anyway, it is easy to laugh at me for spending a great amount of time thinking about such things.  But I believe most things in life are interesting if viewed from a certain vantage point.  Even seemingly dead end alleyways of thought can occasionally lead to strange new worlds.  If not for Billy Idol’s solo career, I would never have discovered Generation X or Empire and for that I am thankful.  Even cartoons need artists to draw them.

We Will Always Have Music

I mentioned in a previous post how George Armstrong Custer would travel with a brass band that would strike up a tune as he went into battle.  I also read, although I can’t remember the exact passage, that when we were building one of our early western forts during the time of Indian Wars, that one of the first things we did was send along enough instruments for a 25 piece band.  Stories like that highlight to me the importance of music, even if the world appears to value it less and less these days.

Even if in some long distant future the system crashes and the electric grid goes down, we will find some way to structure sound.  Pop music and the current music industry may someday be lost to the ages, but mankind will always beat on things, blow into things, and strum things to make music.  It is part of what makes us human.

Angelic Upstarts

My latest musical obsession is the British group the Angelic Upstarts.  They are another band I have discovered through being a Morrissey fan, in this case through rereading Simon Goddard’s extensive encyclopedia Mozepedia.  If you are a Morrissey or Smiths fan at all, even slightly, this book not only sheds light onto his career, but opens new worlds in art in general as it touches upon almost every band, book, or film that Morrissey has ever mentioned.  Even if you dislike the man it would be hard to argue that he has impeccable taste.  Oscar Wilde, Graham Green’s Brighton Rock, Damien Dempsey, Sparks, the poet A.E. Housman, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the writer Shelagh Delaney are just a few of the many things in which I might not have become invested in if not for him.

Anyway, the Angelic Upstarts are a second generation English punk band.  They came right after the Sex Pistols and The Clash.  Although their early music is undeniably punk, they quickly branched out to more traditional rock, ska, new wave, and acoustic ballads.  Although they are often lumped into the Oi punk bands, many of whom had right wing ties, they are politically at the other end of the spectrum.  Many of their songs sing about left wing political ideas.  They are pro-socialism.  Most importantly they are working class through and through.  One song they could be singing a left wing anthem and the next they could be singing about fighting with the police.  These are the things in which pop music should be made of!  Pop music at its best, even when you might not agree with it, should be based on strong positions.  That doesn’t mean it has to be political, but it should always have an outlook.  It should have a point of view.

However, a strong outlook alone doesn’t make a great band.  They have a musicality that few punk bands possessed.  They write catchy choruses with ease.  The guitar hooks come fast and furious.  Though their singer sounds authentically tough, this often disguises the fact that many of their melodies are incredible.

I’m in L-O-V-E love with the Angelic Upstarts.  It is so rare as you grow older to find exciting bands that have an extensive back catalogue that you can dive into.  This year I’ve been lucky enough to find two.  Those would be the Angelic Upstarts and Buffy Sainte-Marie.  Both have been discovered thanks to Morrissey.  I’m older now and a clever swine, but I won’t forget the songs that made me smile and cry…

Looking Like a Fool in a Revolution

My brother just introduced me to Roger Daltrey’s After the Fire video.  It is one half ridiculous and one half absolutely amazing.  Rock stars from England, especially those from older generations, were never afraid to go for the big emotion even if they risked looking silly.  Out of nowhere Daltrey pulls out a match and lights it, he is seen singing in the middle of a fire, there are extreme close ups of his face where you can’t tell if he is crying or sweating, but by Jesus he is beautiful.  Near the very end of the video he is holding up a child. 

I remember watching a Who documentary one time where Daltrey talked in glowing memory of the Who’s Monterey Pop festival gig. During the interview they cut to Daltrey spinning in a circle at the performance and wearing a cape.  He is clearly hopped up on something.  It warms my heart to think that one of a grown man’s favorite memories is a moment such as this. 

By now you might think I’m making fun of Daltrey.  I am not, not even in the slightest.  Although I completely understand that such moments are ridiculous and absurd, I also think of them as great. 

I’ve talked about this in the past, but ever since those VH1 shows where a group of low grade celebrities and half baked comedians, often one in the same, make fun of everything, it seems like there is a little less ridiculous beauty in the world.  It seems like now we have our ridiculous pop stars and our super serious indie rockers, and very rarely do the two ever meet. 

Music up through the 80’s was often based on big ideas and pop spectacles.  Some would say that punk started to take the wind out of the big rock star’s sails, but look at the Sex Pistols and the Ramones.  In just those two bands alone you had people named Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, and a whole group that took the same last name and dressed as a comic book street gang.  The Ramones were super orchestrated in their appearance and stage persona.  Johnny Ramone even made sure that they walked out on stage in a certain way. 

Lately I feel as if we’ve been taught that we can’t think and have fun at the same time.  It’s too easy to belittle something.  I feel like this has stunted our emotions and our intellect.  The 60’s were a failure in a lot of ways, but some in our parent’s generation at least gave overturning the social order of the day a shot.  They also had fun while doing so.  The struggle and fight for social revolution should be fun.  It sure beats sitting around on the couch watching Dancing with the Whores. 

That’s not to say that social protests should be all fun and games.  Too often I see protestors on TV in silly outfits and I don’t even know what they are standing for or against.  There can and should be a balance. 

I am reading a book of Monty Python interviews and Eric Idle, paraphrasing here, talks about how good the system is at swallowing things that challenge it and bringing them safely inside it so that they are no longer a threat.  One can notice this in songs of revolution that are now backing car commercials.  One would not be surprised these days to hear an antiwar song from the 60’s in a mall while they are shopping.  There is no easy solution to this problem. 

However, we should look to the past as we look to the future.  In order to get people motivated to take on unfavorable causes, one must first speak to their emotions and their imagination.  The intellect comes second.  It seems like too often now we have pop music that signifies nothing and indie music that is too self serious to inspire much of anything.  Sure it sounds interesting, but that is not going to get anyone off of the couch and out into the street.  If one has any chance, even a small one, of changing things for the better through music, one can not be afraid to make a fool of oneself.