Friday, April 30, 2010

45s: Down, down

“Leader of the Pack,” by the Shangri-La's (1964)
Written by George “Shadow” Morton, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich


An absolutely insane song, three minutes of garment-rending with motorcycle noises thrown in, all carried on Mary Weiss’s grief-soaked voice, “Leader of the Pack” is the greatest song in the dead teenager genre, worthy of its referencing by the likes of the New York Dolls and the Damned, and something you should download right now. You get the picture? (Yes, we see.)

From the moment Weiss wails, 'I met him at the candy store,' the song takes off into a level of bathos usually reserved for those under observation. There's love. There’s a disapproving dad. There’s a chillingly sincere “Look out look out look out look out!” right before the sound of a crashing bike and shattered glass. And don't get me started on those background vocals.

Yes, the revving motorcycle engine is hysterical in a different way. But any of vices are offset by the utter lack of saccharine. Virtually all dead teen songs are horrid with sentimentality and string-laden grief. The Shangri-La's, though, man, they told it like it was, they shed tears (Weiss supposedly cried while recording it), and then they were gone gone gone gone gone amidst thundering instrumentation and shattered dreams.

Bonus trivia: there are unconfirmed reports that Billy Joel, then doing session work, played on the song, though the principles deny this is true. The universe will just not let Billy Joel be cool.

† Like the dead teen classic "Tell Laura I Love Her," this song is connected to ├╝ber-popster Jeff Barry. He's another of those figures with footprints through pop history: one of the songwriting masterminds behind the girl groups, an early producer for Neil Diamond and the Monkees, co-writer of “Sugar Sugar,” in all a writer or co-writer on dozens, if not a couple of hundred, hit songs.

Friday, April 23, 2010

45s: It's never winter

"December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)," by The Four Seasons (1976)
Written by Bob Gaudio and Judy Parker

Sometimes you can't predict which song will have a thirty-five-year shelf life.

Propelled by a disco beat, some funk-as-funk-is-understood-by-white-people guitar work, and a polished pro performance, "December 1963" told the tale of a boy with a high tenor losing his virginity. Unlike many of the Four Seasons' early-Sixties hits, "December 1963" had a vocals from the drummer and bassist, with usual front-man Frankie Valli saving his immense range for the refrain.

"December 1963" is more than another oldie. It still gets airplay on good time music stations beyond the oldies format, at suburban summer fun-fests, at weddings and corporate events. In other words, it's kind of a super-oldie that, in transcending the memories of its original audience, has become an ongoing part of pop culture rather than a mere relic.

One can reasonably ask, "Why 'December 1963' and not 'In the Year 2525?'"

I would argue its resurgent popularity had its roots in the 1991 release of the "Grease Megamix." By imposing an overpowering dance beat on faux-greaser music, the Megamix prepared the public to accept similar treatment of the Made in Jersey real thing. Three years later, "December 1963" hit again in a dance mix version that powered the step-aerobics classes of millions of young women.

It's hard to imagine Jersey Boys exists without the group's unusual 1990s comeback. Not to say the group had failed to show staying power in the past.

In the months following December 1963, a lot of American groups became so much wreckage smouldering inside the blast radius left by the British Invasion. But the Four Seasons continued to have hits despite being chained to a record company driven to the brink of bankruptcy because Introducing... The Beatles had dropped into its lap and it didn't have the money to print enough albums to meet demand. (One way or another, the Fab Four destroyed all comers.)

Valli added some ostensibly solo hits that basically used the Four Seasons mafia. But by the late part of the decade an even greater shift in musical tastes—toward serious themes and groovy musicianship—had made the Seasons as out-of-date as pompadours. A star-crossed alliance with Motown led nowhere but Valli, still assisted by the FS crew, began scoring hits on his own as the American record-buying public abandoned seriousness and desperately grasped at the twin messiahs of nostalgia and uncomplicated pop.

Valli's "My Eyes Adored You"—a ballad rescued from the Motown dead end—put him back in the public eye about the time an advertised-on-TV greatest hits collection reminded people the Four Seasons had existed. (The Beach Boys and Connie Francis, among others, benefited from the same kind of product.) Disco, the great resurrector, then gave the Seasons and the world "Who Loves You," a crib of a Telly Savalas catch phrase and a very jive product indeed.

Valli went on to contribute the title song of the Grease soundtrack, and he and Travolta were the only well-cast performers in that entire project. Fifteen years later, the dance mix. A generation (or two) later, Broadway glory.

No doubt the Four Seasons will fade once more. But given the success of Jersey Boys, and the fact people keep holding corporate events that promise dancing, repeated revivals are inevitable.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

45s: Sonny Limbo? Really?

“Key Largo,” by Bertie Higgins (1982)
Written by Bertie Higgins and Sonny Limbo


If this was adult contemporary, why did anyone grow up?

Whereas other balladeers of the time looked like your music teacher, Higgins just sounded like him—his look was all sensitive bearded love man, and naturally he posed for his album cover shirtless. It’s hard to award any song worst-of-its-decade honors when anti-talents like Matthew Wilder and Richard Marx tormented Top 40 listeners, but this three-minute definition of insipid makes Higgins a real contender. Not content to reference one aged Bogart film, Higgins also threw a song called “Casablanca” onto the same album. The public fortunately quit buying by the time he reached his planned eight-minute song cycle built around “The African Queen.”

Video, video: The tropical wind is blowing. The beard is perfectly groomed. Bertie is driving a speedboat.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

45s: Mama Pia!

“When the Rain Begins to Fall,” by Pia Zadora and Jermaine Jackson (1984)
Written by Peggy March, Michael Bradley, and Steve Wittmack


Not just an incomprehensible pairing, but proof of the universal 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, making her about average relative to what has found its way onto the pop charts since 1955. And 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 to do the song in order to repay a Corleonesque debt. The recording's status as a bizarre found object gives it greater virtue than Jermaine’s string of forgettable R&B solo hits or the Victory album, the latter best 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 no doubt helps you dig deep when you’re asked to harmonize with Pia Zadora.

† It topped charts across Europe, however. Not as bad as Japan, but…

Addendum: One can ask what possessed the writer of this blog post to buy the forty-five of "When the Rain Begins to Fall" sight unseen (and song unheard) back in 1984. It had nothing to do with Zadora's alleged status as a B-grade sex symbol. I can say with all honesty her look--let's call it bubble-bodied-hobbit--did little for me. If you think that shows taste, let me mention that the statement comes from someone who at the time considered Nancy McKeon a primo celebrity crush.

Not Nancy McKeon

As a budding 45ologist, however, I sensed the sheer epic fuck-upedness of a Zadora-Jackson duet. It got worse, by the way. "Rain" was accompanied by an overdone seven minute mini-movie music video that featured a hilarious dance-fight between Jermaine and a post-apocalyptic gang leader who looked like he'd dropped out of a cologne ad. And let us reiterate the entire project had its origin in a film called Voyage of the fucking Rock Aliens.

Of course, Zadora knew from bad cinema. She famously made her film debut in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, always considered among the worst movies of all time; and in yet another strange pop culture confluence, the film came out the same year Pia bowed as one of Tevye's daughters in the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. Perhaps she learned poor (over)acting from Zero Mostel?

In short, there is no way "When the Rain Begins to Fall" should be anything but the worst record ever stamped onto vinyl. Yet it is on the frontier of listenable, assuming you have any patience for mid-Eighties techno dance music. Not quite there. Let's not go too far. But Jackson is a pro and Zadora gives it her all. If that confirms she lacks the least self-awareness, she at least deserves credit for trying.

I will now take credit for giving Pia Zadora her first compliment.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Earthquake in Yushu

It is an odd feeling to wake up at 5:30 a.m. and find out that the tragedy in the news that morning affects one personally.

While sleepwalking through my Carnation Instant Breakfast, I saw on TV that an earthquake had struck Tibet. Online I was thunderstruck to see the area affected was Yushu. That may be the only city in western China I know anything about. For the past two years, I've sat on the board of an organization that oversees a girls school in Yushu. The young women come from the countryside, specifically, from the Tibetan herding peoples of the region, and the school is dedicated to giving them an education that includes job and language skills, and information on family planning and basic health.

The goal, to put it in Americanized terms: empowerment through education.

The school was masterminded by a Tibetan named Asang (he goes by one name). These days Asang lives in Evanston, Illinois. Some years ago, after his sister died in childbirth, Asang essentially walked out of Tibet. After an arduous and lengthy journey, he made his way to India, got an education, and met an American woman in the area to study. They married, he moved to the U.S., and in part to honor his sister's memory Asang organized the Yushu school.

The first class had ten young women. I've seen and interacted with some of them via Skype. Now I've learned, via Asang, that not all of them survived the quake. And I find this ... incomprehensible.

Heartbreaking, too, 0f course. But since I learned of the disaster at 5:30 this morning I have returned over and over again to how it at once seems so big I cannot get my mind around it, so unreal, and yet on an emotional level nothing but real. Every time my thoughts turned to the school today I ended up staring into space, overwhelmed here by feeling, there by a hunger to understand. Always I remembered seeing the young women and their teachers bunched around the camera.



I have no idea if those I saw on the computer screen--or in the very recent picture above--are among the dead. In fact, at this moment I have no idea how many of the students died or were injured. I only know that the school is destroyed, that some of the girls at least are missing, that two children Asang and his wife Nancy hoped to bring to the U.S. are no more.

Donations to Asang's meditation center.

Monday, April 12, 2010

45s: You missed a spot

“Rub It In,” by Billy “Crash” Craddock (1976)
Written by Layng Martine, Jr.


A one-joke novelty song from a countrified Neil Diamond, “Rub It In” provided radio listeners a few minutes of harmless innuendo when they weren’t celebrating the nation’s bicentennial. About half the country-pop songs of the period sounded something like “Rub It In,” so when pondering why Crash broke from the (six-) pack, you have to give credit to the good-natured sleaze, that being the only kind legal in the state of Tennessee.

How dumb is “Rub It In?” Dumb enough that Ray Stevens produced Layng Martine’s original. But it’s entertaining on its own level and, thankfully, Craddock is in on the joke.

Like a lot of ‘70s country stars, Crash actually began in pop music. After a period as Australia’s top teen idol—Craddock is from North Carolina, by the way—he fell on hard times. He regrouped, however, and following in the footsteps of Jerry Lee Lewis and Dickie Lee and many others not named Lee, he tried out the pasture on the country-and-western side of the music industry. A cover of “Knock Three Times” revived his career right on schedule and he spent the Seventies as a bona fide country sex symbol. He’s still around today and very, very tan.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

45s: Tupulo solid gold

“Honey,” by Bobby Goldsboro (1968)
Written by Bobby Russell


Astonishment number one: this song knocked “Dock of the Bay” out of the top spot on the pop charts.

Astonishment number two: it appeared on Goldsboro’s tenth album. He recorded ten albums—and no doubt this massive world-wide hit greased the skids for a bunch more. The Beatles barely managed ten albums!

“Honey” frequently appears near or at the top of all the Worst Song Ever lists. That Lawrence Welk and Jim Nabors covered it attests to the song’s awfulness. But why is “Honey” so historically bad? Goldsboro’s syrupy delivery and the soaring faux-angelic choruses are indeed grotesque, but that could be said of hundreds of songs (many of them big hits).

Is it because he looked like a cross between Bilbo Baggins and the kid in Almost Famous? No. Is it because he refers to his true love as “…kind of dumb and kind of smart?” No, believe it or not. It’s the lyrics. Any sample must be held to four lines, in the interest of public safety:

I came home unexpectedly
and found her crying needlessly
in the middle of the day.
And it was in the early spring
when flowers bloom and robins sing,
she went away.

It gets worse. Angels descend to get Honey. Tears from clouds rain down on a flower bed that she loved. And so on. Even in a culture that bought “You Light Up My Life” by the million and handed Whitney Houston a fortune to squander on drugs, “Honey” achieves an extraordinary level of bathos. Of course, it continues to bring joy—or something—to millions.

Addendum: In 2010, Goldsboro reached another life pinnacle by appearing as one of the Time-Life Infomercial Stars. His assignment: pop hits of the Sixties. Those wondering whatever happened to Goldsboro might be surprised to see he’s undergone a total physical transformation into a non-hobbit grown man and youthful-looking sixtysomething.

When it comes to moving the Time-Life product, Goldsboro brings the same confidence and energy that more thoroughly anonymous figures provide on DVDs about buying a time-share. It’s transparently insincere, mind you. Unlike, say, Barry Williams, he’s not just happy to have a camera on him. But Goldsboro’s inoffensively friendly in a third-rate megachurch minister sort of way and if you do get sucked in, you’re only out $149 in four easy payments. Try to find a time-share in Aruba at those prices.

Pros

• Looks way, way better than he did in the 1960s
• References Glen Campbell’s old TV variety show
• Shows no ill effects of being on a flight hijacked to Cuba in 1971

Cons

• Having recorded “Honey” and lived forty more years confirms there is no God
• Loses sales focus by pimping a “Stars of Yesterday” cruise at the end of the infomercial
• Damages youthful mien with either a helmet-hair perm or a hairpiece imitating same

Friday, April 09, 2010

Behind the music

In the wake of Malcolm McLaren's demise, let us ponder a list of the most influential non-musicians in rock history. With your permission, allow me to exclude two classes of people: attention-grabbing star-fuckers (William Burroughs, Salman Rushdie); and producers who themselves were working artists, ala George Martin or Steve Albini, or ace songwriters, ala Mike Chapman or Barry Gordy.

A working list is below, with contributions from Reader Mark. It is an ongoing project, so if tempted to send insults, send suggestions instead. For now we'll list nominees at Z-A.

Jerry Wexler
Jann Wenner
Andy Warhol
Gladys Presley
Bruce Pavitt
Colonel Tom Parker
Malcolm McLaren
Greil Marcus
Annie Leibovitz
Buddy Holly's pilot*
David Geffen
Ahmet Ertegun
Brian Epstein

* Perhaps the first member of a sub-category that includes pilots for Otis Redding and Stevie Ray Vaughn, Marvin Gaye's dad, a long list of drug dealers, and Sonny Bono's skiing instructor.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Watch the stars come out and throw up

A friend emailed me a YouTube clip from the ancient clash of gods that was Battle of the Network Stars. Not Gabe Kaplan leading a relay team, but an obstacle course race between Kristy McNichol and poor, gangly Melissa Gilbert. In case you're wondering, McNichol channeled her tomboyish vibe into athletic glory and sent the Little House crashing onto Gilbert as if Half-Pint was the Wicked Witch of the Prairie.

ABC's secret weapon

Though helpless with laughter, I summoned the strength to click on a related video from the same episode: an obstacle course death match between Michelle Phillips and Adrienne Barbeau, with Phillips victorious despite injuring her ankle on the wall climb and despite Barbeau's clear advantage in getting one's bust across the finish line.

The clip contained so many levels of awesomeness I can barely stand it. As it is the 1970s Telly Savalas, of course, makes a cameo, having risen from team captain in the early contests to Howard Cosell's co-host here. But there's more genius, much more.

The fact Barbeau cheats at the start.

The closeup of Phillips' injury "treatment" and Cosell treating the event so somberly you'd think Secretariat needed humane destruction.

All of us agreeing as a nation that Michelle Phillips was on a network show that didn't really exist just so she could provide BOTNS with more over-the-top sex appeal.*

And then, as I was on the verge of wetting myself from mirth, I ventured into the YouTube comments. Someone noted that Philllips later stormed back to beat McNichol on the O-course! Someone else replied, "She beat Kristy McNichol? Wow." As if Kristy McNichol was the Michael Jordan of the Network Stars!

* Perfect casting, by the way. The blond dreamsicle versus the boldly ethnic ballbuster. All they needed was a fresh-faced Midwesterner--North Dakotan Cheryl Ladd, say--and Cosell's heart would've exploded.

Addendum: ABC definitely qualifies as the 1991 Philadelphia 76ers of the BOTNS franchise, for this was one fucked-up roster.

Ubiquitous team captain Gabe Kaplan went to war with the cripplingly-jiggly Suzanne Somers, dubious specimen Penny Marshall, Ladd, and an unpromising male line-up of the callow (Parker Stevenson), the Jewish (Billy Crystal), and the mountainous (Victor French), plus no-doubt tug-of-war anchor Fred "Rerun" Barry, whose dance performances make me believe he could outrun any these people.


Still, unless Barry's other nickname is "Jim Thorpe," I just don't see that group matching up with CBS's macho front line of Kevin Dobson, James MacArthur, and Lyle Waggoner; or an NBC wrecking crew that included Robert Conrad, Patrick "Man from Atlantis" Duffy (presumably the swimming winner), Larry Wilcox, and comedic lummox Peter Isacksen. I mean, Lance Kerwin is the only weak link, and you figure Conrad made him water boy after the first practice.