Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The tyranny of oldies

After several months free of the oldies format, Chicago again has access to Frankie Valli, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," and the other 298 songs that a generation of radio programmers have turned into sonic pablum. The other day this blog sampled a half-hour of the new station in the interests of research. That the research was meant to be two hours perhaps reveals how the experiment went. Our scientific conclusion: it is indisputable that oldies radio was invented for the sole purpose of keeping the Guess Who in the (rapidly atrophying) public consciousness.

(Not that this blog is entirely innocent of the same charge. Ahem.)

At present the entire station is operating on a canned syndicated format out of New York. I mention it for information purposes only; there's little hope that the station will expand its playlist into the Land of Interesting once the locals take over. By the time the last oldies station underwent its mercy killing, it had stirred from years of being frozen, Captain America-like, in the ice. But adding a second Carly Simon song to go with "You're So Vain" was a case of too little, too late. Why the new station wishes to repeat the old one's mistakes remains unclear. But nostalgia conservatizes everything it touches—only a mugging or a tax bill are surer things on that score.

The most promising aspect of the change is that the station has landed on the 94.7 frequency, where formats of every hue have gone to die for the last twenty years. The race, then, is on. Will the station play an interesting song before it switches to heavy metal? Or all love songs? Or flamengo? Watch this space for the answer.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Blowin'

It's the small pleasures I'm enjoying in PBS's viewer-friendly Dylan bio. For instance, the fact that Dylan can, when he wishes, speak in clear English; the footage of the less-remembered folk gods of the time; and director Martin Scorsese's continuing fascination with getting Robbie Robertson screen time, a habit he developed thirty years ago while filming The Last Waltz. Particularly amusing was the juxtaposition between Dylan's unique vocal stylings and the super-smooth Columbia Records "vocalists" of the time--your man Johnny Mathis, for instance, or the well-tuxed Tony Bennett.

Toward the end, the doc focused a moment on "Blowin' in the Wind," in particular the way it immediately found its way onto the albums of every other artist. Usual suspects like Peter, Paul, and Mary, sure, but also The Jerry Lewis Singers and the classic "Yesterday" and Other Folk Rock Hits. A nice touch by the editors to include this for a millisecond. After all, discussions of Dylan and the mid-Sixties tend to get and stay pretty serious.

You wonder who conceived such an album, indeed who conceived The Jerry Lewis Singers in the first place. I think it's safe to say Jerry's fan base of adolescent boys and mental patients wondered over the three Dylan songs ("Mr. Tambourine Man" and "It Ain't Me, Babe" also made the cut) plus Jerry's cover of "If I Had a Hammer." (How many times did Jerry smash his finger during that one?) Here's hoping glimpses of Sebastian Cabot and William Shatner make tonight's conclusion. Sure both are obvious jokes, but we're all going to need a laugh after looking at David Crosby a dozen times.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

45s: Appalling Eighties Super-Hits

Or, songs worthy of mockery, but not of a 700-word essay.

"When the Rain Begins to Fall," by Pia Zadora and Jermaine Jackson
Not just an incomprehensible pairing, but proof of the Newtonian law that celebrity always duets at its own level. The theme song of Pia's vanity film Voyage of the Rock Aliens, "When the Rain Beings to Fall" bobbed perilously close to the Top Forty in 1985—three years before the film's release. At the risk of complimenting Pia for the first time in her life, her voice wasn't any worse than a decent Cher impersonator. That's not bad for the trophy wife of a zillionaire Svengali-mate.

As for Jermaine, to make fun of his participation is to forget that it's plausible his father forced Number Two Son into the studio to repay a Corleonesque debt. The song's undoubted status as a bizarre found object gives it greater virtue than Jermaine's string of forgettable R&B solo hits, to say nothing of the Victory album, better known as Michael's gift of an early retirement to his male siblings. Still, we salute Jermaine's professionalism. Having performed since your third trimester for an abusive father comes in handy when you're asked to harmonize with Pia Zadora.

"Lady," by Kenny Rogers
Kenny Rogers paired with songwriter Lionel Ritchie is like a cultural Nazi-Soviet Pact. As someone alive at the time of the song's zenith—and don't think I didn't wish otherwise in those days—I am prejudiced because the radio industry carpet-bombed America with "Lady" for weeks. Yet I feel my hatred is justified on its own merits. Already a god among the lumpen, Rogers here abandoned the merest hint of the country trappings he'd heretofore used with such cynical genius. Result? Untold millions and a full assault by Ritchie (the black Kenny Rogers) on our pop culture.

"Pilot of the Airwaves," by Charlie Dore
Back in the early Eighties, human beings occasionally had a say in radio playlists. As those human beings worked in radio, they loved songs about... radio. From Rush's "Spirit of Radio" to Reunion's "Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)," or maybe it's vice-versa, execs and DJs alike repaid pro-industry pandering with airplay. Dore's hit about a lonely listener in the nighttime hours proves that, when it comes to being blown, quality isn't a real issue.

"Back in the High Life," by Steve Winwood
It's time to admit this Boomer icon was unlistenable in the Eighties. I frankly find him unlistenable in the two decades prior, as well, but this song, centerpiece of the yuppie concept album of the same name, represents a nadir among nadirs. A voice even thinner and less interesting than Clapton's—boy, Blind Faith must've been a good time.

"Baby I Love Your Way/Freebird Medley," by Will To Power
Surely payola vaulted this song to prominence. I say that not because it's bad, but because no human being would go to the expense of recording, pressing, and distributing a song so terrible, so resembling sonic sarin gas, without first guaranteeing massive airplay. What depraved line of thought conceived this pairing in the first place? Of course I am referring to Skynyrd and Nietzsche.

"You Put the 'X' in Sex," by KISS
This blog loves KISS—as music, as business model, as a fascinating tale of the indomitable power of ambition without apologies. We all know the Knights in Satan's Service made a fair chunk of their fortune with fantastic dumbassery for the thirteen year-old in all of us. And it rocked!

But this.... "You Put the 'X' in Sex" is so embarrassing it's beneath KISS. Ponder what depths that suggests. The Tonga Trench of shame! Not convinced? Try this: in a contest for Most Appalling Piece of Dumbass Top 40 Metal-Pop, "'X'" vanquishes not just Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher," not just Motley Crue's entire career, but KISS's own "Lick It Up" a piece of product so calculatedly juvenile one can only laugh at the Simmons-Stanley gall and thank Satan they had enough self-control to not release the only single that could be more regressed: a cover of "Cat Scratch Fever" sung as a duet between a naked Penthouse model and a melodically farting German Shepherd.

Friday, September 16, 2005

45s: Eleven thoughts about Meat Loaf

"Paradise by the Dashboard Light," by Meat Loaf
Written by Jim Steinman

"Two Out of Three Ain't Bad," by Meat Loaf
Written by Jim Steinman

1. Do you remember the mini-concert movies built around the hits on Bat Out Of Hell? What the fuck is going on here? Long-haired man mountain sweats buckets in duet with a frizzy-haired ball-bustress who looks like one of the girl-gang chicks in The Warriors. The production values: appalling. The energy: undeniable. The value as a spectacle never before seen on TV screens: somewhere between Steve Austin wrestling Bigfoot and Evel Knievel jumping the Snake River.

2. When it comes to the success of "Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad," major credit must go to Meat Loaf’s emotional delivery. I say histrionics, you say hysterics, and we’re both right. For comparison I offer the song’s doppelganger, "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Without Meat Loaf out front the composition is revealed to be a piece of music of unsurpassed dumbassedness. Say what you will, but Meat could sell.

3. Every generation has a songwriter like Jim Steinman. In fact, his own generation had one: Bernie Taupin. Though less self-consciously Wagnerian, Taupin too went in for big choruses and lyrics that darted from effective to garishly arty to nonsensical—in the same song. In its basics "Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad" would not be out of place on an Elton John album circa 1973. Granted, Taupin wouldn’t be caught dead with a chorus like this:

I want you
I need you
But there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you
Now don’t be sad
‘Cause two out of three ain’t bad
Not faux-arty enough. And such improper English! But in a moment of excess this sort of thing could’ve popped out of his head:

You'll never find your gold on a sandy beach
You'll never drill for oil on a city street
You’re looking for a ruby in a mountain of rocks
But there ain’t no Coupe de Ville
Hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box

To be honest, this is such a weird mishmash I want to like it. It doesn’t cancel out "I’m crying icicles instead of tears," but I can assign the lines above a certain skewed virtue. Ah, fuck, I like the song. Let’s move on before I offer even more embarrassing reasons why.

4. Memories of Meat: in the early 1990s a friend and I visited a music store. We had heard rumors of a Bat Out of Hell sequel—we nicknamed it Bat Out of Carolina—and while we shopped the overhead speakers rewarded us with "I Would Do Anything For Love." The lyrics were such a dead-on parody of a Meat Loaf song, and the alcohol in our bloodstream so abundant, that we collapsed on the floor laughing. I had never wept in a music store before.

5. How did they get Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto on "Paradise By the Dashboard Light?" Did producer Todd Rundgren cleverly splice snippets of Scooter’s legendary broadcasting into the song’s famous heavy petting play-by-play? Or did Rizzuto actually step into a studio and record it off a lyric sheet? If the latter, what false pretenses were at work? Did Rundgren tell the Hall of Famer he was recording the world’s first eight-minute Yoo-Hoo commercial?

6. According to some sources, Meat Loaf is a year younger than my dad.

7. What we’re dealing with here is basically Broadway pop in the post-Andrew Lloyd Webber era. The miracle of "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" is that eight-minute suites from stage shows rarely make the pop charts. Not surprisingly, Meat Loaf emerged from the Hair-Godspell-Jesus Christ Superstar nexus, with the added cache (or condemnation) that goes with association with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Alas, the unlucky Meat appeared long after the movie jumps the shark—a moment that comes either after the final note of "Sweet Transvestite," or when some clown-faced asshole shoots you in the face with a squirt gun.

8. Some of the songs on Bat I came from Steinman’s Peter Pan-themed stage show. I’m not sure if "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" is part of that, but if so, it’s an overdue reinterpretation of the Peter-Wendy relationship.

9. While Ellen Foley sang on Bat Out of Hell, Karla DeVito (I believe, I’m not sure) served as Meat's foil in the videos. Later remembered as teen idol Robbie Benson’s wife, DeVito was so much more. One could not fail to see in her the appeal of the stereotrypical tough New York chick, that femme fatale smelling of weed and motor oil, hybrid of Anais Nin and a Sweathog, both lust object and a woman seemingly foredoomed to one day be shot by Charles Bronson. Having projected such thoughts on her grainy image since grade school, I am disappointed to find out she is just another theatrical type from Chicagoland. Extra fact: DeVito had a minor hit covering the Grass Roots’ hit "Midnight Confessions." The pre-adolescent straight male in me says you owe it to yourself to watch the video if it lands on VH1 Classic.

10. With Meat Loaf’s eclipse, the era of the obese pop star seemed at an end. By the late 1980s, pretty boy Brits and hairsprayed L.A. heroin addicts dominated the landscape. Meat Loaf’s triumphant and 401k-reinforcing comeback provided encouragement for the Big and Tall genre, to be sure, but fortunately rap and emerging hip-hop had already filled the breach with the likes of ugly scandal-brokers 2 Live Crew and the on-the-rise Notorious B.I.G. Even the members of Blues Traveler broke through the cholesterol ceiling. Meat looks like George Clooney compared to those guys.

11. Memories of Meat II: in his heyday Meat often showed off his athletic prowess in celebrity tennis tournaments, usually in the company of guitar-playing singles star Vitas Gerulaitis. As can be imagined, Meat’s dervish energy and Jovian dimensions made him a formidable opponent at the net.

Friday, September 09, 2005

As the Crow flies

First, let's agree that tonight's Katrina telethon is for a good cause. Over the last week most non-conservatives watching the disaster coverage have probably thought to themselves, "I have to do something." One of the innumerable great things about being a celebrity is that you get to fulfill that urge. If you're Sean Penn, for instance, you call up a highly respected historian and New Orleans native, get your hands on a boat, and jump right in, having developed a resistance to waterborne diseases and toxic goo on your trips to Iraq and Iran. If you're highly respected historian Douglas Brinkley, you thank God you ignored that phone message from Harry Connick, Jr.—I mean, which of them would you prefer as a companion in lawless, watery anarchy?

If you're a singer, you perform on a telethon. That Bono and U2 are involved makes it clear those comparisons to the Third World are not exaggerated. And will Neil Young bring out the pipe organ again, as he did for the candlelit 9/11 tribute?

I see Sheryl Crow is also on the roster. Let's be honest about her career. No one but no one has ridden a knack for writing jingles masquerading as pop songs as far as Crow, at least not since Barry Manilow's heyday. For this she rates an invite to every moment of major American catharsis? This isn't to question her heart or intentions. Of these I know nothing. But hasn't she really crossed over to pure celebrity at this point? Infrequent albums, not much buzz, the famous boyfriend. All that's left for her is recording a song with a fire-theme. Becoming a professional celebrity isn't necessarily a bar to performing at all-star fundraisers. But please, let's give a head's up to The Man that maybe she needs to be moved back in the Roledex—not as far as the Black Crowes, but definitely near Counting Crows.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Ronstadt and O'Reilly, together again

Because of the summer hiatus, we missed the one-year anniversary of the pop culture contretemps pitting Bill O’Reilly, he of the constipated soul, versus Linda Ronstadt, she of the persistent career. To recap: while performing at the Aladdin Hotel & Casino in Vegas, Ronstadt prefaced her performance of "Desperado" with praise for Michael Moore. Certain elements in the crowd booed, a riot broke out, and the Aladdin’s angry president tossed Ronstadt off the premises. O’Reilly lent his hearty bravo to these actions.

A couple of thoughts occurred after hearing the story:
* Linda Ronstadt still performs?
* Hey, didn’t she once date George Lucas?

I've often wondered if these events did not arise out of a miscommunication. For instance, did anyone ask if the crowd was booing the Don Henley song? Because we as a people need to do this more, though we should reserve the rioting for when Henley himself performs.

Another question: what are right-wingers doing at a Linda Ronstadt show in Vegas? Admittedly, if you go to Vegas determined to see a show, you take what’s playing—it’s like being in prison, though Vegas is rarely like San Quentin, where you’d get to see Johnny Cash, but instead closer to Huey Long Correctional, where you must settle for Ray Stevens.

As Ronstadt was performing a fair amount of her Nelson Riddle material (alas, no "Theme from Batman"), it stands to reason the audience expected a safely white bread evening supplemented by a ballad or two from her greatest hits. Still, the average ticket buyer should not be surprised by an outbreak of liberalism from a woman who dated Jerry Brown. All things considered, it’s fortunate the mayhem stopped at a mere riot. Think what might’ve happened had the crowd found out Ronstadt is a never-married single mother AND half-Mexican! The only surprise is that O’Reilly failed to call for her deportation.

Then again, Bill may’ve had his mind elsewhere. His Ronstadt smackdown took place about the time that, according to court documents, he (allegedly) began to lay his Caribbean shower fantasies and phone sex habit on a Fox News producer. When you’re obsessing on a co-worker’s "spectacular boobs" and "the falafel thing," it can be difficult to focus.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

After the fire

"It tastes like ... burning." —Ralph Wiggum

If you listen to certain religious figures, or just to crazy people preaching on television, the world will end in fire. How appropriate, then, that so many music careers do so, too. It should be said up front that recording a fire-themed hit is not a guarantee your next stop is an oldies tour of bowling alleys and Japan. Springsteen's "Fire" didn't derail him or the Pointer Sisters. "Light My Fire" sure did the Doors some good, though their malignant effect on our civilization is something else again. And while another song called "Fire" did consign the Crazy World of Arthur Brown to one-hit wonderdom, Brown merely applied salve to his oft-burned scalp and launched himself into a new situation with baffling prog-rock faves Kingdom Come.

Yet those are the exceptions. Songs about this most painful of the four elements rank with the use of a children's choir as a sign of artistic desperation. Exhibit A: Cheap Trick. Years after their early Eighties zenith, the Pride of Rockford, Illinois resurrected itself briefly with the power ballad "The Flame." Yet they and the song soon vanished with the kind of completeness Stalin reserved for Trotsky. Not only did the band never return to the radio, no oldies station plays "The Flame" despite the fact it was a Number One hit, and despite the fact it piggybacked on "Eternal Flame," the song that ended the Bangles career.

Whereas Cheap Trick was a freakish comeback by a classic rock dinosaur, the Bangles had surfed the 1980s on a run of hits. What happened to them? "Eternal Flame," that's what, or if you prefer you can blame artistic exhaustion, something we should've seen coming when they covered Simon and Garfunkel.

As the Cheap Trick example shows, classic rockers are especially vulnerable. "Fire Lake" wasn't Bob Seger's last hit, but it was close—a couple of minor hits and 12,000 Chevy commercials were all he had left. "Hang Fire" closed the book on the Stones as even vaguely interesting singles artists. Springsteen's last radio hit may be "The Rising," a song about a big burning building. Let us not speak of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire," a last gasp at both relevance and sales, though noteworthy for being the only pop song to reference the Suez Crisis.

The lesson is clear: bands who play with fire get their fingers burned.

This story is the first entry in our new series Helpful Signs Your Career Is Over. Welcome.