Friday, May 25, 2018

Just Another Day in Music History


51 years ago tomorrow, things changed in music.

Like, for forever. For good. For very very VERY good.

Happy Anniversary, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And I'll bet you didn't think I'd remember!

And that this masterpiece of an album isn't even the best record The Beatles ever did, well, that's pretty jarring, innit?

I for one love the outtakes from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Maybe because I've gotten so used to the pristine studio production from an album that basically helped invent pristine studio production, it's kinda weird and kind wonderful to hear the Fabs muddling though some of the tracks while they rehearse.

Like here. With "Getting Better."

And yet.  Even here in raw and unready fashion, when the music really kicks in around the :15 mark, you really can feel magic starting to happen.

Happy 51st, Good Sergeant.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Sun City

So it's been 33 years or so since the last (and without a question the best) of the Holy Trio of Mid-80s Superstar-Packed Issue Awareness Songs was written and recorded.

"Sun City." By Artists United Against Apartheid.

Thirty-three years.

Feel old, Scott?

(Scott: Bows head and weeps.)


First came "Do They Know It's Christmas" from some of our top British musicians of the time at the end of 1984, by a Rockestra-like outfit calling itself Band Aid and recorded to raise money for relief efforts for war and famine-torn Ethiopia. It was star-studded and catchy as hell, had multiple interior arrangements and actually was not at all a bad tune. Despite some lyrics that made you cringe. ("And there won't snow in Africa this Christmas.") Ugh.

Then three months came the maybe the biggest song of the 1980s and very possibly the most 80s song of the 1980s, "We Are the World." Done for the same very righteous and critical cause and recorded by a very very large group calling themselves USA For Africa. Three things were made crystal clear.

1) This without a doubt the greatest assemblage of musical talent in one room in the 20th century. I mean GEEZ. Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen??? And we haven't mentioned Willie Nelson or Paul Simon or Lionel Richie or Billy Joel or Diana Ross??? Not to mention vocal titans like Cyndi Lauper and Darryl Hall and Steve Perry and James Ingram? Wow. And wow.

2) The song was unspeakably, unavoidably and almost malignantly catchy, not to mention as ubiquitous as any song of that decade.

3) The lyrics were as, well, shallow and acrid as any written in that era. ("You know love is all we need." "Send 'em your heart, so they know that someone cares.") Yikes.

The good news, of course, is both songs generated a ton of public awareness and money, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian relief and making way for that summer's monumental, bi-Atlantic concert spectacular, Live Aid. It worked. It didn't solve the problem, of course, but only a true cynic can naysay the effort or results.

Then came the third installment seven months later. This one had a totally different focus; same continent, different region and different cause. "Sun City" was the brainchild of then-former E Street Bandmate and then-current Disciple of Soul Little Steven Van Zandt, and it was a searing, seething indictment of South Africa's government-sponsored system of institutionalized racism, apartheid.

Hard to think about now, but in 1985 it really seemed that South Africa really was going to have carte blanche forever to enslave, repress and brutalize its 3/4 black population. Any efforts to raise awareness of the subhuman nature of apartheid was blunted, at least in part, by the refusal of the U.S. and Great Britain to push for any kind of action against South Africa, despite United Nations sanctions against the country. The U.S. official policy was coined "Constructive Engagement" by President Reagan's people, which in effect meant that if we kept treating them with generosity and aid they'd be inspired to change their ways.


So anyway. Little Steven traveled to South Africa to learn more and be shown the true and hideous underside of the apartheid government. Working with a TV journalist he became inspired to write the song to scream against the fact that numerous international musical acts were (very very wrongly) playing the signature South African resort venue of Sun City (located in the black township of Bophuthatswana and off-limits to black citizens) in direct defiance of the (very very correct) UN sanctions. Steven decided to write a song in protest of both apartheid and the idea of darkening Sun City's racist doorstep, and created one of the finest multi-racial and musically diverse collections of talent in music history.

"Sun City" didn't tug at the heartstrings; it sought to tear them out. The song was fast and angry as hell. And unlike the first two, it gave centerstage to the (at the time) burgeoning art forms of rap and hip-hop, which lent the song even more urgency and defiant underpinnings. So not only did we get supercool icons like Springsteen, Dylan, Lou Reed, Eddie Kendrick and David Ruffin, Bono, George Clinton, Joey Ramone and Bonnie Raitt, but we also got rising stars Run-DMC, Afrika Bambaataa and Kurtis Blow alongside genuine rap pioneers Kool DJ Herc and Grandmaster Melle Mel. Oh, and we also got Miles Davis. And Darlene Love. And Ruben Blades. And Jackson Browne. And Pat Benatar. And Bobby Womack. And Jimmy Cliff. And others. Holy moly what a collection!

So this unprecedented pairing of black and white musical stylistic royalty (which I believe even preceded the epochal Run DMC/Aerosmith "Walk This Way" pairing) resulted in a sprawling, nearly seven-minute indictment of one of the earth's most despicable countries and practices. And it wasn't a plea for understand or money. Nope. It was way more visceral and way more simple.

Got to say I, I, I
ain't gonna play Sun City!
Everybody say I, I, I,
ain't gonna play Sun City!

And as you see above, it had a video that accompanied it that, damn, remains one of my favorite videos of all time. It's a frenetic, multi-dimensional splatter painting that evokes the same rage, outrage and bitterness that the song does. Everyone is in top form vocally and musically, and everyone is in top form as a dominating visual presence. Check out Bonnie Raitt's strut. Check out Run-DMC's glorious intro. Check out Bob Dylan's detached cool. Check out Darlene Love's...command of the camera. And those aren't even my favorites.

But I do have favorites. Here's a list.

The Top 10 Coolest Thing About the "Sun City" Video, In Order of Coolness, From Awesomely Cool to the Coolest Thing Imaginable

1. (:29) Miles' haunting image to accompany his haunting horn at the outset.
2. (2:15) George Clinton's incredulous and petulant wide-eyed look that accompanies the incredulous and petulant words he sings.
3. (3:09) John Oates and Ruben Blades sharing a perfect harmony with a mesmerizing camera gaze.
4. (2:14) Bruce, Eddie and David slapping fives at the end of their verse.
5. (2:18) Joey Ramone seemingly popping into the set unannounced to spit some venom at the then-U.S. President.
6a. (4:38) Nona Hendryx just bringing the damn attitude with her "don't fuck with me" stare.
6b. (5:09) Ringo Starr and son playing drums together.
7. (:58 and 4:06) Grandmaster Melle Mel and Duke Bootie just holding court every second they're onscreen, including Duke brazenly flipping up his shades not once but TWICE!!!
8.(4:40)  Bono's coiled snake presence, which event outshone his mullet.
9. (first around 4:15 and then really around 6:15) Those unspeakably joyous crowdshots around Little Steven.
10.(3:12)  Lou Reed. Every single thing about him.

The Uncoolest Moments of the "Sun City" Video

1. (5:37) Peter Wolf's dancing.
2. There are no other uncool moments in the "Sun City" video.

What a moment in time. A truly great musical experience that crossed so damn many lines.

As the man sang, "Look around the world, baby. It cannot be denied."

Friday, May 18, 2018

Favorite Song Friday: Into Your Arms

I confess, the Lemonheads never really did it for me.

Even at the height of the alt-rock explosion in the early 1990s, which was right at the time they entered the mainstream with so many others, I just didn't feel that connection with them. I liked a few of their songs, sure (as may be obvious right now, given the title of this post), but the connection I felt to Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Sonic Youth? Nope, just wasn't there.

Hell, I felt more attached to the Gin Blossoms and Jayhawks and Smashing Pumpkins than I did to this Boston-based trio. Not to mention some other bands I truly dug (and still do) like Toad the Wet Sprocket and Counting Crows. The Lemonheads just didn't ring my bell the way others did.

It may have been the fact that Head Lemonhead (LemonHead?) Evan Dando annoyed the hell out of me. Much the way that Chris Martin's antics have always gotten in the way of Coldplay's music for me, Dando's slacker cum pretty boy poseur lean (fair or unfair) just made me say, "Yeah. No. Not for me." Despite the fact that he sang well and created some damn melodic music.

But his look seemed more like that, a look. Nowhere near as honest as the hard, tortured realism of Kurt Cobain or the detached introspection of Chris Cornell or the guarded, seething rage of Eddie Vedder (although granted, Eddie's act grew tired within a few years, though fortunately he changed his tune and today seems to personify veteran rock-n-roll cool). Dando's pose struck me as unearned; again, right or wrong. And it turned me off.

I've softened since. I'm older! And I've come to really appreciate the loose, dreamy breeze of a lot of what the Lemonheads did. And never moreso than today's entry for Favorite Song Friday.

Favorite Song Friday - The Lemonheads - Into Your Arms

I've said it before about other songs and I'll say it again. This is perfect pop. Period.

From the opening rake of that simple D/D major chord bounce, "Into Your Arms" is so damn listenable it almost seems to have been manufactured in a lab. It's pretty much I-IV-V all the way from there, save for the stopover at E minor which lends a nice little gentle edge to it. But everything works without tricks and, surprisingly, without pretensions or any overplay. It's just a plaintive, simple love song played out over plaintive, simple chords.

I know a place where I can go
And be alone
Into your arms, into your arms I can go

I know a place that's safe and warm
From the crowd
Into your arms, into your arms I can go

And if I should fall
I know that I won't be alone anymore

Dassit, baby. Two verses repeated twice each. One bridge repeated twice, Maybe 25 words total in the whole song? You don't need to rewrite Beethoven's 9th to produce essential and lovely pop rock. Hell, you don't even have to rewrite "Hey Jude." If you're gonna go simple, you stay simple. That's "Into Your Arms."

Dando's voice is a perfect instrument to meet this song's lonely and heart-on-sleeve plea. He sounds like he's leaning over his last drink at the bar, telling the girl next to him that he doesn't want much, only to be able to feel safe with her. His voice is weary and tested, but it jumps to profoundly powerful when he hits the end of the bridge ("...won't alone anyMORE.") He takes his time to get his thoughts out and when he does, he doesn't say much. But just like the unbending, jangly chord pattern, it's all he needs. His agency is earned in this song by never veering from the path.

And when it's done, it's done. The song almost sounds like a windup toy running down at the end as it just slowly, faithfully grinds into silence.

I don't love the Lemonheads, probably never will. But I love this song. Because the band knew all along what it was and what it wasn't. And let it exist as the sweet slice of poppy goodness it was meant to be.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Miss You

Now this is how you cover a song. It's (almost) instantly recognizable and yet with only relatively minor modifications completely transmogrified through force of will and strength of personality. The irony of another artist taking a song by perhaps the most famous white blues band exploring disco and bringing their disco hit back into the blues is delightful. Admittedly, it's not quite as surprising, given that it's the undeniable Etta James but still. One has to assume the Rolling Stones were more than a little pleased, if possibly also a little abashed.