Wednesday, December 14, 2011

45s: We are all peppers now

“Makin’ It,” by David Naughton (1979)
Written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris

One of the beautiful things about pop music is that anyone can do it. Looking back over Top Forty history, you see all kinds o’ strange heads popping up. There are singing nuns and chipmunks, cartoon characters and Japanese mumblers, classical guitarists and popcorn machines, even the odd marketing guru with a CB radio.

One of the secret ingredients behind American Idol—though, granted, less necessary than its recognition of (1) human narcissism and (2) the very American desire to succeed in music without having to play before hostile audiences in honky-tonks, strip clubs, bar mitzvahs, middle school assemblies, county fairs, and/or the Apollo Theater—is the time-proven fact that any person with a reasonably competent voice and good dental work can have a hit.

I’m sorry, especially for all the genuinely talented people who will never have one, but it’s true. It’s just not that hard to cover up vocal sins. All you have to do is layer a voice in strings, multi-tracked vocals, echo, and whatever other fantastic technology studio engineers developed for Ringo Starr.

Still, it’s hardly news that talent means less than that holy moment known as The Big Break.

That brings us to David Naughton. Naughton was one of those pop culture figures to get his break via commercials, an odd but hardly unheard-of route to fame. Having invited the world to “be a Pepper" for the physician soda of the same name, Naughton moved on to more respectable (?) television, starrin’ in the sitcom Makin’ It as the disco king of Passaic, New Jersey. No, seriously.

The show lasted about as long as a coffee ad, but the theme song? Top Five, a very bad pop-dance tune sung across limited range but with great energy. Naughton's production team, perhaps hoping to not tax his talents, asked for a flip side of "Still Makin' It." Yet if "Makin' It" fails as art, it succeeds as a TV theme song, if for no other reason than Naughton tried hard.

The chorus works in that got-a-song-stuck-in-my-head kind of way. That and the aforementioned disco beat--in this case one that sounded like a nuclear-powered popcorn popper--were all Top 40 radio demanded in those days. If sung by a good looking guy in a satin jacket on Bandstand and Solid Gold, all the better.

Having hit a homer with his first song, Naughton wisely retired from music and moved on to full-time acting. He most famously battled lycanthropy in An American Werewolf in London, giving him a second pop culture distinction: he starred in the one John Landis movie that people consider good. Nowadays he's one of those familiar-faced troupers you see covering up crimes on the Law & Order franchises. It's easy to think of Naughton as a pop culture footnote. But let's see him instead as evidence anyone can come out of nowhere, or even Passaic, and have a hit. Because that's as American as it gets.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Selected statements made by James Brown in the long version of "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing," presented out of order

Shape up your bag, don't worry about mine

It's neither white or black, it's a fact!

Get yourself a gig and get off of that thing

I got to, I want to, I musta

If you're gonna get down and be a man and help the people--then we're together

You can't tell me how to keep my business sound

Good God!

If you don't mean it don't be in it

Bobby, the groove is so great here, I want the engineer to keep the tape runnin'

If it's black or white, it's right

Don't tell me how to do my thing, when you can't-can't-can't do your own

Good luck to you, Mister Loud and Wrong

Shape, shape, sh--hard for me to say sometimes ... Shhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaape

We gonna do somethin' funny right here

Show everybody you're trying to be right on

You can't tell me [James Brown scream] how to use my mess [uhn!]

Is he marching? Is he marching?

He jivin' ... he oughta get himself a gig

Don't tell me how to do my thing and you ain't doin' nothin'

We gonna stop real quick and rap a little [minor uhn]

You just can't use me, like a woman throw away her dress

Talkin' black and livin' all the Negro he can

I'll do my own thing, I don't need your help, brother

Sunday, December 11, 2011

45s: "Dreamin'," by Cliff Richard

A couple of weeks ago I heard Cliff Richard's "Dreamin'," on the overhead music at ... well, I don't recall, I was so blown away that I had completely forgotten the song. Even as I ... well, shopped or waited for the state to judge my emissions or whatever I was doing, I thought, how can I sing the chorus to a song that has not crossed my mind in over 30 years? It's a rhetorical question, natch. We can all do it. As expressed elsewhere on this blog, pop songs are really just thyroidal advertising jingles. It's their job to burrow into your skull and burst forth after years, like those desert mosquitoes that only hatch after a once-in-a-decade rainstorm.

Back in the '80s, any American publication that mentioned Cliff Richard inevitably added something about how Richard's UK superstardom had never translated across the Atlantic. Richard, a hit-maker since Elvis's Army days, had begun his career as a genuine rocker, one of the few Brits in the pre-Beatles era to make that work. By the late 1970s, though, he had become a venerable symbol of lumpen mediocrity, and unwritten in the music writers' musing was the imponderable mystery of why American consumers--a rabid market for lumpen mediocrity--would lock him out.

Not surprisingly, those music writers mostly had it wrong. True, Richard had only scraped the lower areas of the U.S. charts in the Sixties. He then entered a Christian period--death for good pop music--and demolished any chance in the cred-obsessed U.S. market by touring with preacher to the presidents Billy Graham and singing in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Still, Richard eventually scored a short string of American hits. His modest success began with 1976's "Devil Woman," a solid enough guitar rocker that's not to be confused with ELO's "Evil Woman." Richard really never topped that song in terms of chart position or (God knows) quality. But he did follow it up. The Xanadu soundtrack paired him with Newton-John for "Suddenly," as bad a ballad as any inflicted upon us in that blighted decade. He also hit with "We Don't Talk," a toppermost of the poppermost that's the aural equivalent of a bag of Peeps: chewy, lacking in substance, and utterly synthetic. Of course, it sold by the metric ton and, also of course, a copy resides in my iTunes file.

Less remembered, but along the same lines: "Dreamin'," not to be confused with Blondie's "Dreamin'." It's an entry in the stalker pop genre, with the narrator singing to a woman who doesn't know he's alive. Lyrically it's trite, a guy walks in the middle of the night, he's dreaming, etc. But lyrics are besides the point with this kind of product. What you want is that ad jingle refrain. Duct tape the song together with a riff of some kind, put a big name on it, and hope it's just novel enough to get attention. Richard does his part on that last score by crying out "Woman!" at numerous junctures, a creative choice that's meant to express bluesy passion but instead comes across as Eric Cartman ordering his wife to get in the kitchen and make him pie. At least he didn't say "Mama."

Cliff Richard doesn't need a blog to mock him, though. U.K. residents start clubs to do that. Not that it affects his epic success. Richard is something like a British Cher--unchanging and perennial, and without a hint of shame. Except much bigger. Like Cher he conquered TV in the Seventies. Though his film career is not as distinguished as Cher's, unlike her he conquered the stage by opening Time, a show that went on (without him) to become one of those West End musical extravaganzas that never closes. He's got the knighthood, the Christmas singles, the soul duets album, the Wembley triumphs, the 8-CD boxed set, and all the other totems possessed only by those at the very highest level of celebrity. Not to be confused with art.