Friday, January 30, 2009

Time to Play B-Sides

Speaking of cowbell...

Blue Öyster Cult has a lot to answer for (starting with that damn umlaut above the "O" and including enough heavy-metal black-magic imagery to embarrass even Spinal Tap). Still, it's hard to argue with an understated ode to doom and death that's as catchy as "Don't Fear the Reaper." It was impossible to escape this song in the 1970s (when every third FM DJ -- and every single overnight DJ) played it half to death (another 40,000 plays every day). (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

But try to find a radio station that played the B-Side of "Don't Fear the Reaper" -- or a casual fan who even knows it was (for the record, it's "Tattoo Vampire").

Five years after not fearing the reaper for the first time, Blue Öyster Cult was back on the radio with "Burning for You," a song so slick and anonymous that it could have come from anyone. Naturally it was a huge hit and poured forth from every AM radio in America like a Vampire (tattooed or not) in search of a pre-dawn snack.

I didn't like the song much, but I loved exactly one of its lines:
Time to play B-Sides

See, I loved B-Sides. They're the vinyl equivalent of opening bands: You're there for something else (which you know you like), so you have zero expectations and anything good that comes out of it is just a lucky bonus.

Save the B-Side, save the world?

Blotto (aka the 34th Most Important Band in the World) clearly knew this. Their great 1981 single "When the Second Feature Starts" had a flip side called "The B-Side," which laments the lack of respect given to B-Sides:
The A side gets the attention
The B side? Barely a mention...

The A side has the hit
The B side ain't got...anything

My friend Eric and I once stood front and center at a Blotto concert yelling out "B-Side" until they relented and sang it. The look of confused irony on Broadway Blotto's face as he sang the chorus (including the line "And you're probably not even listening to this right now") is etched permanently on my brain.

And, of course, Buck Dharma, who wrote and sang "Don't Fear the Reaper" played the heavy-metal guitar solo on Blotto's anthemic "Metal Head." In a just world, Blotto would have been on the radio as much as Blue Öyster Cult.. and years later it would have been Blotto instead of BOC doing a cameo in the movie The Stoned Age.

Still, sometimes the B-Side was so great that it transcended B-Sidedness, like XTC's "Dear God," which started life as a non-album B-Side (on the single "Grass") until radio stations started playing it and Virgin Records made it a proper A-side (and reissued the album Skylarking, adding the song). This proves a lot of things (including that Virgin couldn't pick XTC singles to save its life), especially that it's worth taking the time to play B-Sides (link for Gmail subscribers):

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

By Order of The TSA

True story.

My wife, Mrs. Clicks and Pops, is in The Bobs, a Grammy-nominated band.

Last month, they were on tour and (like any band on tour), they were lugging around merch (CDs, etc.) to sell at gigs. Towards the end of the tour, they flew halfway across the country and checked the merch bag for the flight.

Now, sometimes the TSA opens checked bags to inspect them... and when that happens, the TSA agent is supposed to leave a card in the bag explaining that the TSA inspected the bag.

When the Bobs opened the merch bag that night, they found the TSA card. Apparently, the TSA agent who opened the bag had a sense of humor: recognizing that the bag was merch for a band, the TSA agent scrawled a two-word note on the card he left in the bag.

It read: More cowbell!

(Link for Gmail subscribers).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bill Gates vs. Music

My Mac-based friends have told me for years that Bill Gates is an evil genius.

Until now, I've never believed them. But how else can you explain Songsmith, a Microsoft software product that fabricates (bad) music when you sing to it.

When I first heard about this product, I was convinced that it had to be a joke. The introductory video (which starts out by declaring it's rated "S" for "Songtastic"!) seems to have come from The Onion, not Microsoft.

But Songsmith is sadly real, an ill-conceived product built to address a market that probably doesn't really exist.

The one hope for Songsmith's success is that it's given birth to a new sub-genre of videos on YouTube: great songs reimagined (i.e., ruined) by Microsoft Songsmith.

For example, here's Songsmith butchering the Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" (link for Gmail subscribers):

And Billy Idol's "White Wedding" (link for Gmail subscribers):

And "Hotel California" by the Eagles (link for Gmail subscribers):

Now tell me: Have we underestimated Bill Gates all these years? Has he really been hiding his true identity as a James Bond villain amassing billions as part of a long-fomenting evil plan to destroy rock 'n' roll once and for all?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Excavating Below Layers of '80s Cheese

Long before becoming a reality show on VH-1, the '80s were a decade.

Today (January 25, 2009), MTV's schedule is literally 24 hours of reality shows. But in the '80s, the "M" meant something; it was a decade filled with great (and not-so-great) music, beamed nonstop into American households over MTV.

Back in 1985, a friend of mine working at a radio station played me the song "Take on Me" by Norwegian band a-Ha. It bored me right away and seemed hopelessly mired in '80s cheese: blippy keyboard bleats, bouncy synth drums, vaguely nonsensical lyrics, absurdly high vocals that tried to reach escape velocity and go up into space. I thought it was instantly forgettable and told him so. No, my friend said, you don't understand; you need to see the video.

He was right: an attractive girl (with bad '80s hair) hangs out in a restaurant that advertises "cold milk" in the window until she's literally pulled into a magical wonderland where cute animated (actually pencil-rotoscoped) rock stars are chased by bad guys with wrenches (driving motorcycles with sidecars). And then the cute lead singer guy bangs on the walls of the cartoon until his love for the girl transcends space and time and he's transported from cartoon-world to the real world. I guess.

It doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's cool -- cool enough be nominated for 8 video music awards and win 6. Cool enough that it's impossible to hear the song now and not think about the video. And cool enough to be parodied years later on Family Guy (link for Gmail subscribers):

But if you take out all the electronics? What's the real essence of this song when you strip out the video?What would an archeological team find if they could excavate deep down past all the '80s cheese? It turns out you need Runar Eff, a musician from Iceland (who spent 10 years playing hockey on Iceland's national team) to answer those questions. No "cold milk" sign, no bad '80s hair, and no animated alternate reality -- just a surprisingly emotional song (link for Gmail subscribers):

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ron Nasty's Hard Day's Rut

Is it wrong to love a fictional band?

If the band is the Archies or Milli Vanilli, it's very wrong. But if the band is the Rutles, it couldn't be more right.

In 1975, Monty Python's Eric Idle was doing a BBC sketch comedy show called Rutland Weekend Television and wrote a sketch about a Beatlesesque band called the Rutles. Idle hauled in Neil Innes (the former Bonzo Dog Band member who wrote and performed most of the songs for Monty Python) to write and sing a song parodying the Beatles' style (circa 1964). A year later, Idle played those BBC Rutles clips when he hosted Saturday Night Live.

SNL producer Lorne Michaels was already a huge Beatles fan; in April 1976 he offered the Beatles $3000 to reunite and perform on SNL (an offer raised to $3,200 -- an extra 50 bucks each! -- a few weeks later). (Ironically, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were watching that episode of SNL together in the Dakota and discussed getting a cab and going down to Rockefeller Center to collect the check. They ultimately decided against it.)

Idle then talked Michaels into producing All You Need is Cash, a full-length mock rocumentary on the Rutles, written by Idle and directed by Gary Weis (who made a series of short comedy films in the early years of SNL). Idle again turned to Neil Innes, who wrote 20 songs (parodying various musical styles associated with the Beatles) for the project.

All You Need is Cash is arguably the best rock 'n' roll comedy in history (its only serious rival is This is Spinal Tap). The movie, a history of the rise and fall of the Rutles that lovingly mocks the Beatles through different eras and moods, features Innes (as John Lennon-ish Rutle Ron Nasty), two Pythons (Idle and Michael Palin, both in multiple roles), two Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger and Ron Wood), one actual Beatle (George Harrison), as well as Paul Simon, David Frost, and six SNL'ers (John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Lorne Michaels and new Minnesota Senator Al Franken). (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

If you've never seen it (or you haven't seen it lately), buy or rent it immediately. (I'll wait.)

But the best part of the Rutles is the music. Innes channels Beatles songs, then twists them through an alternate-universe prism that warps them into off-kilter creations that are simultaneously familiar and completely new and unique.

Ironically, the Beatles themselves loved the Rutles music, but their publishing company sued Innes, so he never made any money off the first Rutles album. In addition, Idle reportedly demanded payment for having "created" the idea (and name) of the Rutles. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

I bought the vinyl soundtrack (which had 14 songs). I bought the soundtrack again when it came out on CD (I needed the 6 songs from the movie that were left off of the original vinyl). A few years ago, I saw Neil Innes perform at McCabe's. The packed house loved his Python songs, but there was something magical about 250 people singing along to all the Rutles songs (and even knowing all the backing vocal parts to "I Must Be in Love"). After the show, I got him to sign my vinyl copy of The Rutles (which was great) and got to thank him for all the amazing music he's made in his love (which was even better).

Bonus Trivia: Both Neil Innes and Ron Nasty are credited on the Aimee Mann album I'm With Stupid.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Audacity of Vote

Back to music tomorrow.

When I voted two years ago, the poll workers were maddeningly inefficient, uninformed, and nasty. It was a horrible experience that made me never want to vote again. Instead, I signed up to be a poll worker for last November's election.

I spent 16 hours on Election Day at the polling place, determined to give others a better voting experience than I had had. (After all, in a Democracy, voting should be easy instead of torturous.) The day was long and amazing, sometimes wonderful, and sometimes annoying. And did I mention long?

My favorite thing that happened was when a middle-aged woman who spoke with a heavy accent came in to vote. She took a long time and was clearly carefully considering each and every race and item on the ballot. When she turned in her ballot, she made a point of shaking hands with each and every poll worker. I was the last one before she shook hands with and she asked me if she had to tell me who she voted for. I told her she didn't have to tell anyone who she voted for. Ever. At that, she smiled and she said to me "I was sworn in as a citizen in March, but today, right now, I feel like I'm really an American."

Link for Gmail subscribers.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Listening to the Jam on the Freeway

Misheard lyrics are the best kind.

I remember that it was pouring. It had been raining for days and would rain for many more days. 17 straight days of rain. I was driving somewhere with my friend Steve (who was a complete pothead, but for some reason hated "drug music"). Steve's musical taste tended more towards southern Hard Rock and boogie music (he loved groups like Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd and thought that self-indulgent solos that stretched songs to 9 or 10 minutes were the purest expression of God's grace on earth). Steve had a confederate flag decal on his school notebook and would refuse to listen to anyone who argued that New England was not part of the South.

Steve and I always argued about what radio station to listen to, but since it was his car, he got to pick that day. He took mercy on me and didn't pick the station that boasted it was "ultra, mega kick-ass rock" and instead settled for the "Rockin' You Hard All Day All Night" station. And that afternoon the DJ played this song, sandwiched between "Highway to Hell" and "Crazy on You" (link for Gmail subscribers):

I instantly loved the opening count-off (which sounds like it comes from another dimension), slightly robotic new wave beat, harmonies, and how the vocals simultaneously sound removed, disaffected, and completely insistent. The mood of the song perfectly captured how I felt looking out the window at a New England town I felt part of and simultaneously completely separate from. And, since another friend had recently introduced me to the Jam, I loved the line in the song "listening to the Jam on the freeway." To me, that pun perfectly combined the desire to escape with the deadening grounding of daily life (and seasoned it with a shout-out to an incredibly cool but then-obscure British band).

And, despite the casually pro-drug lyrics, even Steve seemed to like the song. He was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel (although that might have been an advanced driving technique to keep his Mom's Volare wagon from fishtailing).

Throughout that string of rainy days, I hunted for 20/20's album, finally finding it misfiled under "Various Artists" at a local used record store. I plunked down my 3 bucks and walked out with it. Unlike some albums you buy for a single song, listen to once, then only listen to that single song in the future, the first 20/20 album is filled with great and amazing tracks you want to hear over and over. And, the day after I found the record, the sun finally came out.

When the second 20/20 album came out, I was again driving with Steve in the rain and the song "Nuclear Boy" came on the radio. He got as far as the line "If I take enough pills, I'll be tough as the world today," before changing the channel to a station playing some endless song from a live-in-concert Outlaws album. I got the second 20/20 album around that time and it was just as good as the first, filled with driving power-pop anthems and lots of great hooks (link for Gmail subscribers).

The first two 20/20 albums failed to sell and their record company dropped them. The band broke up shortly thereafter. But their music won over a fervent cult of fans and their song "Yellow Pills" inspired a power-pop magazine of the same name (and a series of compilation albums in the 1990s), which eventually led to a band reunion in the mid-1990s.

As for my friend Steve -- he eventually wrecked the Volare coming home drunk from a party; he was relatively hurt but scared enough to stop drinking and taking drugs. He also stopped listening to hard rock and accumulated a huge collection of classic jazz records. He doesn't remember 20/20 at all and insists he was visiting a friend in North Carolina the time we got the 17 straight days of rain.

Maybe he's right -- memory's a funny thing. The lyric that won me over to 20/20, that I've heard every time I've played the record, that great shout-out ("listening to the Jam on the freeway")... it isn't in the song at all. The real lyrics are "But they're stuck in a jam on the freeway," which is just not as cool.

And maybe it didn't rain for 17 straight days and wasn't even raining when I got the 20/20 records. But it's raining in my mind every time I hear a 20/20 song... and maybe that's what really matters.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

My Cat Holds No Grudges Against Neko Case

My cat has nearly 1,500 friends on MySpace.

I can't explain how this happened, but my cat Sitka P. Coldfoot has more friends on MySpace than I've had in my life. Among Sitka's MySpace friends are nearly 500 bands (including 82 from Iceland). I mean, he's definitely a cute kitty (and everyone who meets him loves him), but he's an indoor cat and I wonder sometimes how he made so many internet friends since his primary activity on the computer is walking across my laptop keyboard.

One of the things Sitka does love is listening to music on MySpace and he's discovered many great musicians there, including Neko Case. Sitka loves her country-flavored solo albums and her more pop-oriented work with the New Pornographers and converted me through repeated listening (Link for Gmail subscribers):

Well, Sitka is beside himself because he learned this week that Neko Case is releasing a new album on March 3rd called Middle Cyclone. Her record company Anti is making the first single "People Got a Lot of Nerve" available as a free download. What's more, between now and February 3rd, for every blog that posts "People Got a Lot of Nerve," Anti will donate 5 bucks to Best Friends Animal Society, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of unwanted pets to zero.

Obviously, this is a great cause. And for Sitka, a former shelter kitty, it's an issue near and dear to his heart. (And presumably, it's a cause Neko Case cares about.)

But there's just one thing -- when Sitka first joined MySpace, he sent a friend request to Neko Case. She turned him down. He sent another request with a note about how much he enjoyed her music; she turned him down again.

When I saw this offer, I was torn. On the one hand, Neko Case is great and groups like Best Friends Animal Society deserve whatever monetary support they can get. On the other hand, I don't understand why Neko Case would spurn the friendship of my cat. Maybe she doesn't deserve our support after all.

I couldn't decide, so I asked Sitka. He told me to go ahead and post her song; Sitka P. Coldfoot holds no grudges. Not even against Neko Case.

Download: People Got a Lot of Nerve by Neko Case.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Record Store that Can See, Hear, Smell, Touch, Taste

The really good stuff is downstairs.

Northampton, Mass. is more than just the home of Rachel Maddow.

For more than 100 years, it was the home of McCallum's Department store, an upscale multi-level building with gorgeous wood, a huge central staircase, stained glass windows, and a community theater space on the third floor. The McCallums were a local family whose store survived the Great Depression but closed their doors for good in 1973 (oddly enough, the year Rachel Maddow was born). The building was sold, refurbished, and re-opened as "Thorne's Marketplace," a hippy-dippy mall filled with galleries, performance art spaces, and stores that sold incense, unicorn stickers, hand-crafted soaps, and funky clothing.

And then, in late 1977, a small record store took over a space on the second floor. Since Thorne's was on Main Street, it seemed a no-brainer to call the store Main Street Records. They carried the great music you thought only you knew about, the records you'd play over and over again for all your friends. The staff would talk to you about great British bands (to win you over to great music, not to make you feel small for what you didn't know) and make recommendations that were almost always spot-on. (They were even nice to my Mom when she went searching for a Christmas present for me.) Within months, Main Street Records became known as the place to go for punk and new wave records (as well as anything obscure and English). Before too long, they outgrew their space at Thorne's and moved across Main Street (and 100 yards up the block) to a storefront next to a vegan restaurant where you bussed your own tables.

The new location of Main Street Records had a small upstairs area (for new records) and a basement mecca of used albums and import 45s. A sign above the stairs promised that the really good stuff was downstairs (and the sign was almost always right). I easily spent hundreds of hours in that store, rifling through bins, juggling my desires against my budget. Every one of my purchases had a story -- different moods, sounds, tones, sleet, rain, and sun mixed together and wrapped up in the records. Best of all, the owners liked Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, but they loved XTC and always featured their music prominently (edging aside bands that were much more popular). (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

For three or four years in the early 1980s, XTC was easily the best band in the world, turning out a series of classic albums, brilliant singles, and bizarrely compelling B-sides spanning a broad range of styles. But XTC was always feuding with their record company (Virgin) and they bounced between a series of labels in the U.S. When the band released English Settlement in early 1982, Virgin proudly put out the 15-song album as a two-record set, but Epic (then the band's U.S. label) decided to eliminate 5 songs as a cost-cutting measure so they could release the album as a single record.

This led to a crisis at Main Street Records. A clerk explained to me at the time that they held a staff meeting to decide what to do. Some felt it was morally wrong to even stock an incomplete album that bastardized the band's vision. Others pointed out that cash-strapped customers might prefer the American version to a more expensive double-record import, which would reward Epic's "reprehensible behavior." After a long (almost rabbinical) debate, they reached a Solomonic decision.

The store would stock both versions of the record, but do everything they could to encourage customers to buy the imported English version. To help customers get the hint, they displayed both versions of the album in the front with a sign saying the American version had eliminated 5 of the songs.

And they jacked up the price for the American version by 2 or 3 bucks and took a small loss on the English version... so (as it said on the big chalk board near the entrance), for an additional 19 cents, you got the album the band wanted you to hear.

This was why I loved Main Street Records. And I wasn't the only one -- the June 1985 issue of Spin called Main Street Records the best record store in all New England. It never occurred to me that it wouldn't last. But all of a sudden, it was too late. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

In March, 1982, Andy Partridge from XTC collapsed on stage and suffered from such debillatating stage fright that the band never toured again (and never quite became the superstars they seemed destined to be). Musical tastes changed and Main Street Records closed its doors in the recession of the early 90s (although they contributed picture sleeves and musical knick-knacks to Rhino Records' great DIY compilations).

After a few years on the west coast, I came back East, went to Northampton, and found Main Street Records gone. A huge part of my past had been ripped out (and replaced with a Benetton). I went home, took out my copy of English Settlement (ensconced in a plastic sleeve with a Main Street Records price tag on the corner) and listened to all four sides, thinking about my favorite record store in the world.

But nothing really dies in the Internet age... and a zombified version of Main Street Records still haunts the web, feeding on the Bad Brains and selling more than 60 items by XTC, but not the import double-album vinyl version of English Settlement -- maybe they got tired of taking the loss.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hugging Hello Saferide

Someone needs to give Annika Norlin a hug.

Four years ago, Annika Norlin was a journalist in Sweden. Her father won a guitar in an auction (for almost no money) and gave it to her. Norlin started to play, wrote a few songs, recorded some, and posted a cheery ode to high-tech Peeping Toms called "High School Stalker" on the internet. When she had to choose a band name, Norlin picked Hello Saferide, which (depending on what version of the story she's telling) comes either from a Swedish service providing drunks with rides home on holidays or from the cheery greeting of a bus driver in suburban Connecticut.

Her smart lyrics, simple music, and naive, fragile, girlish vocals (which seem more plaintive because she clearly is not a native speaker of English) won her lots of fans on the Internet and then a manager and a Japanese record deal. In the last four years, she's toured the world, released two full-length albums and a bunch of singles and EPs. She's also made a series of stark, visually arresting videos (many of which mix unusual animation with live action).

Through Hello Saferide, Norlin seems bound and determined to bring heartbreakingly sad laments back to pop music. (Just look at some of her song titles: "Loneliness is Better When You're Not Alone," "Long Lost Penpal," "The Last Bitter Song," "I Thought You Said Summer Is Going to Take the Pain Away," etc.) Most of her songs plumb the endless depths of loneliness, despair, and love gone wrong (or just not gone at all). And when she's not writing about loss, she's writing off-kilter and darkly comic pop songs about OCD ("If I Don't Write This Song Someone I Love Will Die"), wanting your crush to be ill so you can take care of him ("Get Sick Soon"), or wishing she could give up men and fall for her best (female) friend (link for Gmail subscribers):

Hello Saferide has a new album called More Modern Short Stories from Hello Saferide. The sound is fuller (Norlin's embraced more of an indie rock sound and most of the songs feature electric guitars instead of the cheap auction acoustic). But the album has more than its share of laments, most spectacularly "Anna," which speculates on the amazing life a daughter she never had might have led (link for Gmail subscribers):

Annika Norlin has claimed in the press that her songs are just made-up stories sung over simple chords. Maybe in real life, she really is unbelievably happy, cheerful, and completely content. But, just in case, would someone in Stockholm please give her a hug?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I Fought the Law and the Clash Won

My friend Julie loved the Clash.

When Joe Strummer was buried, his friends put two bumper stickers on his coffin. One said "Vinyl Rules" and the other said "Question Authority."

Julie was cool. She had the first Clash album (the UK import, not the American version, which she said was inferior, thus winning instant punk cred with everyone she knew). She bought London Calling on the day it was released and is one of the only people I've ever known who owned Sandinista on vinyl (and regularly listened to all six sides). She saw the Clash live once and proudly argued with anyone who'd listen that they really were "the only band that matters." The politics went right over her head, but she tapped directly into the passion that exploded out of her speakers when she played their records and that was really all that mattered. (And she was so committed that you could overlook the absurdity of a suburban American blonde girl singing along to quintessentially English punk songs.)

Every March, Julie would celebrate the release of the Clash's first single ("White Riot") by skipping school (or later calling in sick to work) and watching her old VHS tape of the movie Rude Boy and listening to her old records (vinyl only, no CDs) for hours. That's what she did in March 1987, on the tenth anniversary of the Clash's first record being released. Then she went out driving in her beat-up (but still gorgeous) white convertible, top down despite the winter weather, her long hair buffeted by a cold wind, listening to this song, written and first recorded by Sonny Curtis -- now better known for writing "Love is All Around," the theme song for the Mary Tyler Moore Show (link for Gmail subscribers):

Now I'm not a physicist, but I'm pretty sure Sir Isaac Newton said something about how impossible it is to drive slowly when you hear songs like this. And Julie was flying. A State Trooper pulled her over and said he'd clocked her going 86 in a 60 zone. He asked why she was speeding. She's pretty enough to have gotten out of the ticket by flirting, but instead she explained she'd been listening to the Clash because it was the tenth anniversary of their first record coming out. The Trooper then told her about how he had discovered the Clash and how he'd seen them exactly once. As it turned out, they went to the same show. So he let her off with a warning.

Joe Strummer died before the Clash were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. Later that year, there was a Clash tribute at the Grammy awards. It took Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, Steve Van Zandt, and Elvis Costello to take Joe Strummer's place (link for Gmail subscribers):

Julie reminded me recently that, when Joe Strummer died (a few days before Christmas in 2002), she went driving again. Different car, this one not a convertible, her hair a little shorter and the heater blasting. Also blasting was "London Calling." Again, impossible to drive slowly with a song like that. So Julie was pulled over; this time clocked at 70 in a 55. When the cop asked why she was speeding, Julie explained that Joe Strummer of the Clash had died. She talked about the band, she talked about the show she'd seen, and she even mentioned that she had just listened to Sandinista on vinyl. All six sides. The cop patiently listened to Julie's story, eyes hidden behind mirror sunglasses, face stripped of emotion. Finally Julie asked him what type of music he liked. The cop thought for a minute, then said "Britney Spears." And wrote her a ticket for $78.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Stop-Action Pizza

Stop-Action Pizza

I came too late to the Hellacopters party (they recently broke up after a series of farewell shows in their native Sweden), but what's not to like about a band that called their debut album Supershitty to the Max?

Most Hellacopters songs are too metal for me, but I have a soft spot in my heart for "I’m in the Band" (which I promise will be a hit in 1972 for the Faces -- just as soon as I work the kinks out of my time machine). When it comes to Claymation videos where music is played by and for pizza toppings, you can't beat this ditty from the Hellacopters' 2005 Rock ‘n’ Roll is Dead album). (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Perfect Bonus

Lou Reed was always destined to be Lou Reed. He didn't really have a choice. But John Cale… he could've been anything. A serious composer. Or a classical musician. Or the best producer in rock 'n' roll. Or the original punk. (And arguably, he was all those things at some point in the past 40 years.)

Which makes it hard to remember that John Cale also occasionally writes a perfect pop song, like this one from 2005's Black Acetate (again with 2005!), which is... um... Perfect. Sure, he's older, and yeah, the center cannot hold, but who cares if everything decays when you've got a perfect pop song? (Link for Gmail subscribers)

Extra (Perfect) Bonus: Will Rigby of the dBs writing about John Cale.

Monday, January 5, 2009

No Static at All?

From the start, the contest was fixed.

My friend Mark recently told me that Elvis Costello's Saturday Night Live performance from 1977 was online. The one that got him banned from the show for more than a decade (Costello, not my friend Mark).

In the Fall of 1977, SNL (then starting its third season) had become a phenomenon. Some considered it the comedic equivalent of punk rock -- a show for the young and hip that gave the finger to bloated mainstream television (and was years away from becoming bloated mainstream television itself).

For the third season, the producers announced an "Anyone Can Host" contest, with the winner hosting the last show before Christmas.

From the start, the entire contest was a sham. John Belushi had the idea of bringing the Sex Pistols to American TV and loved the idea of a little old lady introducing them. And while more than 100,000 people entered the contest, the only serious contenders were kindly grandmother types -- the older the better.

It's no surprise then that the winner was an 80-year old grandmother. Miskel Spillman lived in New Orleans and was more than willing to make fun of herself for being old. The stage was set for a little old lady to sic the Sex Pistols, widely considered the most dangerous punk rockers on the planet, on America.

Except the Sex Pistols were stuck in Toronto. The U.S. government refused to grant them visas or allow them into the country. So Elvis Costello was recruited as a last-minute replacement. Maybe not as good as the Sex Pistols, but hey, punk was punk.

The show opened with John Belushi sharing a joint with Miskel Spillman, who then acted stoned during her monologue (which included running jokes about how she had the munchies and craved fruit -- perhaps because older people aren't cool enough to want brownies or junk food). And just before midnight, the little old dutifully introduced Elvis Costello to America (and he sang "Watching the Detectives").

Costello's record company insisted that his second song would be "Less Than Zero" (which came from the album he was trying to promote, although the lyrics about unrepentant British fascist Oswald Mosley would make little sense to American audiences). Costello had performed the song in dress rehearsal and camera blocking was set up and finalized. But during the live show, Costello had a change of heart. After a few seconds of "Less Than Zero," he waved off the band and said "I'm sorry ladies and gentlemen, but there's no reason to sing this song here." He then launched into a blistering rendition of a new (and not yet released) song called "Radio Radio," a scathing indictment of the vapidity of radio programmers. (Link for email subscribers.)

Lorne Michaels went ballistic, screaming and vowing never to let Costello on SNL again. But SNL wanted a punk rocker (and punk is punk, right?), so maybe it shouldn't have been a complete surprise that Costello would do something punk.

But you live long enough, what was once considered dangerous becomes fodder for cocktail-party conversations. Elvis Costello mellowed, made up with Lorne Michaels, and was eventually invited back on SNL. He even made fun of his earlier appearance, interrupting a song by the Beastie Boys and then performing "Radio Radio" with them. It wasn't punk, it was slick, rehearsed, and self-congratulatory. (Youtube link for email subscribers)

(In a further nod to pop culture eating its own tail, Weird Al Yankovik has been known to sing "Radio Radio" at his concerts when technical problems arise.)

And now, more than 30 years later, radio is infinitely worse than it was in 1977. Elvis Costello's sincere, frantic, desparate warning that radio had fallen into the hands of "such a lot of fools trying to anesthetize the way that you feel" has become a punchline. But all you have to do is turn on your radio to realize the joke's really on us.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Getting Mugged at the End of Lonely Street

John Cale knows the power of a good dirge.

Cover songs are tricky. A good song (or even a bad, but well-known song) embeds itself deep into your memory. You may not remember all the words, you might not be able to sing it or know how it starts, but your memories kick in whenever the song is played. Neurologists will tell you that memories of music are different from other memories -- each time we hear a song we know (especially one we know well), our brains activate the memory of how the song sounded before. And our experience hearing each time we hear the song is colored by how what we're hearing in the present compares to our memories.

Musicians know this instinctively. And they know there's no real point in doing a cover that sounds like the original with a different singer. Successful covers almost always rearrange the song (which then creates an interesting experience for listeners whose memory of the original colors how they hear the cover).

Take "Heartbreak Hotel." The original version was a joyful rockabilly song, with Elvis Presley's mumbled singing more of an inviting come-on than an expression of sorrow. Despite the lyrics, it's clear this was a song from someone looking for a new love (and anxious to find it -- the song's over in 2 minutes and 16 seconds). (Youtube link for email subscribers.)

Give that song to John Cale (legendary singer, songwriter, producer, and former member of the Velvet Underground) and it turns into something completely different. Elvis's Heartbreak Hotel seemed like a fun place to visit, a waystation you pass through before you find true love (or at least great sex). But John Cale's Heartbreak Hotel is slower and more threatening -- a dark night of the soul from which you might never escape with your sanity intact. Head down to the end of Cale's Lonely Street and you're liable to get mugged, beaten, and left for dead. It's scary, middle-of-the-night stuff that creates an entirely different mood (and one that is a much better match for the lyrics).

But what makes Cale's version more effective is our memories of the Elvis Presley version. If Elvis never existed, Cale's "Heartbreak Hotel" would still be moody and memorable. But when John Cale sings and our brains activate the memory of Elvis Presley's version, the difference amplifies the desperation, changing the song and turning it into something new and wondrous. (Youtube link for email subscribers.)
(And yes, that is Andy Summers from the Police on guitar -- and if anyone knows how the hell that happened, I'd love to hear about it.)

Update: Apparently, this version of "Heartbreak Hotel" is powerful enough to be fatal to chickens. Details from the Fragments of a Cale Season blog.