Thursday, July 9, 2009

God's Late-70s Attempt to Save Rock and Roll

God sent Ellen Foley to save rock and roll, but the Devil sent the Clash to stop her.

My friend Gina was a rocker chick. And also a Bible-thumper. She didn't think the two were at odds and fervently believed God loved catchy hit singles, preferably with swooping sax solos, rhythmic keyboards, angelic harmonies, and blistering guitars. Given the right singer and the right guitar, she'd say, you can practically touch heaven (or at least get an idea of what it sounds like).

To hear Gina describe it, God got cranky in the mid-1970s. Rock was in bad shape and the radio was dominated by Disco, self-indulgent singer-songwriters repackaging an angst they lost four Jaguars ago, and songs by coked-up bands still coasting on a reputation they'd earned more than a decade earlier. Punk fluttered up, but acted more like a time-release drug (one that would take 15 years to fully activate).

So God sent down something bombastic and wondrous in the form of Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley, the only chick singer who could match him note for note. When Bat Out of Hell sold a bazillion copies, Epic signed Ellen Foley to her own record deal (and, as Gina told me, God was very pleased).

Ellen Foley's first album Night Out -- produced by Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson -- was a revelation. The songs swoop and jump and Ronson's guitars take you from the seventh circle of hell all the way up to heaven and back in under 4 minutes. Foley's vocals were passionate and rough (but polished up with harmonies from Rory Dodd, who also sang on Bat Out of Hell).

And God was very pleased. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

More than that, Foley was cool as only rocker chicks can be cool. She covered the Rolling Stones at their bitchiest on "Stupid Girl" (and was tough enough that she didn't have to change the gender and water down the song).

Then (since rock and roll had not yet been sufficiently saved), Foley spread God's word, singing on an Iron City Houserockers album (produced by Ronson, Hunter, and Steve Van Zandt from Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band), and doing a duet with Hunter (as seen... um... here). For the first time since Saturday Night Fever, music seemed to be getting back on track.

But, said Gina, the Devil had other plans for Foley.

She started dating Mick Jones from the Clash, sang on their Sandinista album, and decided that her second solo album (The Spirit of Saint Louis) would basically be a Clash album (with production by Jones, credited on the sleeve only as "my boyfriend" and songs co-written by Jones and Joe Strummer). Songs like "The Death of the Psychoanalyst of Salvador Dali" left most fans scratching their heads and few wanted to hear Clash songs (which weren't quite good enough for Clash records) sung by Ellen Foley. The album never caught on and was in cutout bins within months.

And, Gina explained, because the Devil can multitask, the Clash soon started to fall apart (although Jones would channel his troubled relationship with Foley into the song "Should I Stay or Should I Go").

Foley's third solo album Another Breath tried to recapture the sound of her first album, but slick producer Vini Poncia was no Ian Hunter (and certainly no Mick Ronson) and the record -- despite featuring songs by Ellie Greenwich and Desmond Child -- never quite worked.

So Foley retired from rock and roll to raise kids (and take the occasional acting gig)... emerging last year with a new, bluesier band called Ellen Foley and the Dirty Old Men.

And that, Gina explained to me, is why God had no choice but to turn to Bruce Springsteen to save rock and roll.


Anonymous said...

Now if only she'd jello-wrestle Markie Post... I'd pay good money to see that!

Alex said...

Get John Larroquette to ref and I think you'd have yourself a good pay-per-view event.