Tuesday, June 27, 2006

45s: Snowbirds are white

"You Won't See Me," by Anne Murray
Written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

In it's natural form I think it's one of the great overlooked Beatles songs. You have a spirited Paul vocal. Then there's "...the line's engaged." Finally, and best of all, note the use of both of the band's nuclear options: the harmonies and a Lennon climbing counterpoint vocal, not as good as the same on "Getting Better," yet right there with the second and third chorus of "Hello, Goodbye."

Square songbirds of the early 1970s, for all their faults, knew to steal from the best. (Or their managers did.) Karen and Richard Carpenter not only covered "Ticket to Ride" in maudlin fashion, they covered the Beatles cover of "Please, Mr. Postman." Ronstadt used the songbooks of Neil Young, Roy Orbison, Warren Zevon, hell, everyone, and even stuck around long enough to cover Elvis Costello.

Anne Murray, oddly or impishly, went with, well, the Monkees and Loggins & Messina.

I am not an
Anne Murray fan, by any means, but I find certain things about her charming. Like the fact she sold millions of records in a visual culture despite resembling a very nice schoolteacher.* Like being the only pop star on record (as it were) from Nova Scotia. Like having a voice about as clear as you can get this side of John Denver. Jerry Seinfeld opened for her in his early days. That's fairly cool, to the extent cool can apply to Anne Murray, though, really, a duet album with Glen Campbell when he was cool isn't cool enough?

Enough subtle tying of a Canadian to low temperatures.

Tonight I heard her "You Won't See Me" at the grocery store. I can't expect the Beatles version in such a setting, so I shamelessly sung along, only pausing to let those slick choruses richochet over the foreign food aisles and back into the Rita Coolidge songs that spawned them.

It's all very bland and overproduced. Murray effortlessly puts her powerful voice to work, doesn't go for a big note on the fade, really never changes out of that gear we all recognize as "seasoned pro."

To be honest, what we have here is, for her fans anyway, good-time music. (There's another Glen Campbell ref, for the four of you who want one.) But I reckon it superior to those super-sweetened ballads. I mean, she clearly connected to "Danny's Song," and it might have benefitted radio listeners had she let in that kind of emotion more often. Then again, John Denver always did that, and talk about being careful what you ask for.


* She did actually teach PE for a year.

Monday, June 19, 2006

45s: Jaded glory

Stay around long enough in the rock game and it happens. That advice to write what you know becomes a crutch to save you from the fact that you said everything you had to say on the first two albums. Certainly your real life offers little fodder. A boatload of platinum discs hang on the paneled walls of a "music room" the size of Equatorial Guinea. You have had your one night Grammy Awards gang-bang and found out those seven little statues not only fail to fill the chasm in your sold-out soul, but cannot be melted down for gold, and damn that Carlos Santana for telling you otherwise. Look across the bed and you see the actress or supermodel you married—a living, breathing, bulimic mockery of all the hours spent trying to convince interviewers you’re a regular guy.

In other words, it really is your beautiful house. It really is your beautiful wife. My God, what have you done?

As no one can relate to an introspective examination of such a life, and as you have mined your teen yearnings and ex-girlfriends already, little is left. Except what put you on top of the world and Christie Brinkley. Rock and roll. Glorious, generous rock and roll.

When you sing a song about the Glory of Rock and Roll, it is time to admit Your Career Is Over.™

Way back when, releasing a song on the Glory of Rock was a genuine act of rebellion. When Chuck Berry threw down, "Hail, hail, rock ‘n roll," he was saying he stood with an attitude and an outlook that a majority of Americans despised. Parents feared it as a force that weakened wills and dampened panties. Clergy thundered against it as a menace equal to that of fluoridated water and the Devil’s Weed the reefer. Disapproving white people dismissed it as "jungle music;" disapproving black people watched as the money they deserved went to appalling neuters like Pat Boone. The old generation of musicians denounced it as stupid and bestial—Steve Allen, one of our least humorous comedians, proved it when he read aloud Beatles lyrics on TV talk shows. Even the industry preferred so-called vocalists, preferably familiar ones, or newcomers aping the familiar ones.

As late as the 1962 or so a lot of folks thought it possible to eradicate rock and roll from the face of the earth. It couldn’t be more persistent than polio, right?

It ceased to become an overt act of rebellion soon after, as rock became the new synthesis. After all, there was not much of a need for the rock antithesis to waste time on the Top 40 thesis—consisting as it too often did of "Red Rubber Ball" and songs from Camelot.

But it was not yet a symbol of artistic bankruptcy. Led Zeppelin, for example, managed a lot of good noise after "Rock and Roll." For a brief time nostalgia rock, a related genre, proved a seller—"Crocodile Rock" being one aggravating example.

I don’t know exactly when the song about the Glory of Rock became a cry for help. The Who’s "Long Live Rock" tempts me, despite being in on the joke. Decline set in, sure, but Who By Numbers showed too much ambition to damn them as trendsetters in this particular genre. I know, I know, but if Who Are You gave us "Sister Disco," it also had a title track that rocked the monkey’s shit the first million times I heard it.

So I’m going to say j’accuse to the Rolling Stones. Mind you, "It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)" is good rocking fun. Humorous, even. As with the Who, the nominee in question did not mean the end of the band’s interesting output—after all, Some Girls awaited. But clearly ennui had set in.

Others, however, have somewhat less of a resume, and therefore less of an excuse.

"Rock and Roll Fantasy," by Bad Company
Pound for pound, band for band, few have generated more bad rock that Paul Rodgers. In this late Seventies hit, the storied supergroup of second-raters throws together nonsense lyrics, gratuitous licks, and Rodgers' usual spirited (and nothing else) vocal to conjure forth an all-too-real aural nightmare. Dimbulb cock rock that even Foreigner would've rejected (well, until about 1981).

"Rock On," by David Essex
Did you know that Essex was Che in the original cast of Evita? Me, neither. Alas, age and airplay have been about as kind to "Rock On" as to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Though clearly the song did not end Essex’s career—he did a number of stage spectaculars in the 1980s—it did short-circuit the chance for a greatest hits album here in the U.S. Like most songs that charted in 1974, "Rock On" flirts with novelty, and not in a good way. Cribbing from the track list of the American Grafitti soundtrack, Essex references "Shout!," "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Summertime Blues"—all in the same sentence. The semi-weird strings deserve a small compliment.

"Rock and Roll Part I," by Gary Glitter
In a sign of improving civilization, this song’s too-lengthy tenure as a sports arena anthem recently ended. Unfortunately, it took a double-conviction on child molestation charges in Vietnam to do it.

"It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me," by Billy Joel
By 1980, Joel had followed a familiar arc. He started out, with limited success, crossing singer-songwriter with a sensibility drawing more from Tin Pan Alley than Dylan. After the fluke hit "Piano Man" and the necessary retrenching period, Joel penned a few self-conscious epics—"Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" being especially beloved. I still can’t figure out if he wanted to be Springsteen or the late Sixties Paul Simon. Then the Grammy Coronation. Punchy rock-pop followed, much of it on a concept album, 52nd Street, that no one recognized as such.

To the extent Joel had interesting ideas—and personally I don’t think they were nearly as interesting as his success suggests—the era ended around "Just the Way You Are," a legit attempt to write a standard. Some believers claim that the Glass Houses singles showed artistic calisthenics. Why becoming a simulacrum of Wings represents this, I have no idea. Certainly "It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me" bridges Joel’s artistic pretensions with his phase as a purely craft-oriented hitmaker. All that followed was derivative, the doo-wop tributes and the Springsteenian "Allentown." In fact, he had already ripped off an E Street Band sax solo for "It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me." I guess I figured out the answer to my question.

"Old Time Rock and Roll," by Bob Seger
As with the Joel song, this came at the peak of the artist’s career. You know what they say. Nowhere to go but down. I don’t hate Seger, though as a Midwesterner you have to make fun of him if you have any illusions of cred. But I despise this song. In fact, I despise it as much as any rock song ever recorded. If I ever have to be placed in a body cast (God forbid), I would insist the physician plaster an automatic pistol into my hand so that if this song came on I could go Elvis on the radio. "Old Time Rock and Roll" appeared on Stranger in Town, the follow-up to Seger’s big breakthrough Night Moves. After that came Against the Wind and the title song suggests just how tired Bob was feeling. Increasingly minor hits lay ahead, as well as the ongoing theme of a series of truck commercials that, pray God, will die soon, lest I have to quit watching football.

"Jukebox Hero," by Foreigner
A weird band, Foreigner. Poll rock fans over thirty-five about their Top Ten bands ever and less than 1% of respondents would mention Foreigner. Yet the band charted many hits and a related poll would undoubtedly find that virtually everyone had owned a Foreigner album at one time or another.

When one studies Foreigner’s hits—not that I have (cough, cough)—it’s hard to spot a song that is noticeably worse or better than the others. They all hovered at a certain level devoid of originality and lacking a single musician good enough to inspire a cult. Would you call that mediocrity? Hell, I guess it might be the definition of mediocrity. "Jukebox Hero" rates this list not only as a tribute to the Glory of Rock but to the Glory of Being A Rock Star, a separate and even more obnoxious genre. Commercially, Foreigner hit its peak here, largely thanks to "Waiting For a Girl Like You," at the time the song that spent the most weeks at Number Two on the Billboard charts.

But these troupers weren't finished delving into cliché. Having embraced such a sure sign of decline as the Glory of Rock, the band took it one step further on the next album with the aural equivalent of a white flag: recording with an African-American choir for no particular reason.