Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #30

Donna Summer – Dim All the Lights

I will never not be annoyed by people who make mistakes when writing about Disco Demolition Night. It happened again recently in a most unexpected place: an article about 1970s hockey superstar Guy Lafleur (who, I shit you not, put out a disco record in 1979).

To recap: in 1979, either Steve Dahl, a dumbass disc jockey from Chicago, or his handlers convinced Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who never missed out on a chance at pulling off an oddball promotional stunt (see Gaedel, Eddie if you doubt me), to let him blow up a bunch of disco records between games of a baseball double header at Comiskey Park on July 12. The results were predictable to anyone with the first clue about explosions and human behaviour: the field was left a mess and the fans ran wild, leading to the second game being cancelled and Veeck’s White Sox having to forfeit.

What always annoys me is the idea that this event arose out of some sort of populist revolt against disco for taking over our radio airwaves. There is no doubt disco was running out of steam, as all massively popular cultural movements inevitably do, usually from a mix of consumer fatigue and the appeal of the new. But it was still immensely popular in 1979. Other than two ballads and the soft rock of the Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes”, every Billboard number one song so far that year had been a disco or disco-adjacent tune. At the very moment fans were streaming into Comiskey, Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” was atop the charts. It would be followed by a five-week run from Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” before The Knack took control of the charts, and soon faced their own backlash. Clearly, disco wasn’t the problem – idiots were.

And those idiots? A lot of racists, most likely. Fans showed up at the game with records by such artists as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. Definitely not disco. But Black, which a lot of White folks either seemed to think made them disco, or they just didn’t care about the reason for the protest, just its target. (Homophobia likely played a part as well.)

But let’s talk about Donna Summer. I owned a few disco albums (and a lot of singles), but Summer’s “Bad Girls” is the only album that I played repeatedly when it came out and still enjoy listening to today. It’s unfair to call a lot of this disco: there’s soul and pop and rock and something called hi-NRG and a bunch of other stuff, and all of it is lethal. I particularly love the banner along the bottom of the front jacket cover: “Over 70 minutes of music”. The volume isn’t that big of a deal in the oversized streaming age: it’s that every one of those 71 (to be exact) minutes earns its place, unlike the often unlistenable bloat of something like Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy”.

Though not the biggest hit, “Dim All the Lights” was, even then, my favourite of the album’s singles. It doesn’t turn up much on playlists, which is too bad, because it is still great. It’s a song about sex, of course (“You can use me all up / Take me bottom to top” and “Turn my brown body white” – how did that line get onto 1979 radio?), but there are also old-fashioned notions of love and commitment, with the reference to a Victrola a lovely signalling device. It starts out sultry and languid, a slow jam before such things had a name, but with a buzzing energy underneath and a vocal from Donna that lets you know this won’t be a ballad. She draws you in, then, as the disco beat kicks up, holds a note for an impossibly long time. After that, it’s just breathless, the beat never letting up, with even the changes hanging onto the thumping backdrop. It’s a song built for extended forays to the dance floor, and there has got to be a great 12-minute remix out there somewhere. (There is an official seven-minute version that, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to understand what makes the song great.) I particularly love the little bits that sound like a worn-out steel drum during the instrumental break from 2:49 to 3:21. And after the processed vocals that follow that break, it’s chilling when Donna’s pure voice kicks in again at 3:54, and takes you home (blending into “Journey to the Centre of Your Heart” on the album).

So, yes, I love this song, and the whole album. It was Summer’s peak, commercially and artistically, and although she didn’t have a pop hit after 1989, she continued to top the dance charts regularly almost up to her passing in 2012. Even now, this music seems fresh and timeless, and I am happy to get into the trenches with anyone dumb enough to try and argue that all disco was intended to be disposable. Although it was much maligned in its time, there were genuine artists working in the genre, with all-time great albums from the likes of Chic, and even better singles, like Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. Of course, there were hacks just churning out records to fit demand, but every genre has its version of Stock, Aitken & Waterman. I was too young to participate in the disco era, but I’m pretty sure I can conjure what it must have felt like to be a young urban adult in 1977 by cranking up “I Feel Love” and letting the beat take over. That’s art, my friends.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #29

New Order – “True Faith”

In the mid 1980s, the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night in St. Catharines, Ontario (should fate have marooned you there) was Club Henley. It was a dark cavernous space completely without any artistically meritorious design elements, but it was easily accessible, could hold a lot of people, and never, to my knowledge, turned anyone away at the door for lack of space.

It was also where I found myself in March 1985 at the end of a labour dispute that had stopped beer distribution in Ontario. Club Henley’s owners had crossed the U.S.-Canada border and stocked up on Genesee, which was pretty awful but (marginally) better than nothing at all. Late in the evening, word came that the strike was at an end, and good ol’ Canadian beer would be flowing again in a few days. Knowing they would never be able to sell the Genesee once a better option was available, the bar announced at around 11:00 p.m. that it was now going for half price, and then, at last call at 12:45 a.m., took the bold step of violating a few laws by telling us that “no one goes home until the Genny is gone!” The roar of approval was overstated, since it only took another hour to finish off what was left, but it was still a pretty awesome night.

Club Henley had a large dance floor, which was its biggest selling point for me and my friends, and they played a pretty decent mix of indie and alternative music that was mostly familiar from CFNY in Toronto, with bands like The Cure, Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys, plus pop hits like Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)”. I remember in particular Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” and Ministry’s “(Every Day Is) Halloween” getting lots of play, and the bar was still popular when Paul Lekakis’ “Boom Boom (Let’s Go Back to My Room)” (what was with all the brackets?) got to number 4 in Canada in June 1987. And, of course, they played a lot of New Order.

Most people weren’t taking New Order too seriously at that time: a guitar rock-loving friend renamed their 1987 double album “Substance” (which I owned on vinyl) by sticking “Lack of” at the beginning. They were a dance band, and generally seen as the lame descendant of the great Joy Division. It wasn’t the fault of New Order’s founding members that Ian Curtis had killed himself, and you certainly couldn’t blame them for pursuing a far less gloomy sound that would distinguish their new band from their old one. But dance music has always been treated as a lesser art by “serious” musicians, which is idiotic, because pretty much everyone loves to dance and helping people do that – while perhaps not as difficult to achieve as moving them to tears – is damned important, and brings a lot of joy into the world. And New Order were masters of that art.

Club Henley, over the 1984 to 1987 period when I was going there, had many New Order songs on its playlist: “Everything’s Gone Green”, “Temptation”, “Blue Monday” (easily the most acclaimed of their tunes), “ The Perfect Kiss”, “Shellshock”, “Bizarre Love Triangle”. I could be wrong about a few of these, but if Club Henley wasn’t playing them, they were definitely turning up at other bars I frequented in my early 20s. The band was at the top of a particular style of music aimed at a particular demographic at a particular moment in history, which I think is pretty impressive.

But none of those songs were my favourite. My top pick was “True Faith”, and it’s this New Order tune that is on my favourite songs of all-time playlist. Why is that? Well, it makes me want to dance, but then so do the other songs listed above. But, unlike those other songs, the lyrics grabbed hold of me and expressed something I was struggling to make sense of in my own life. I was trying to live in two worlds at the time. On one side were my friends and the life we had, going to bars and generally being fun-seeking young adults. On the other was a spiritual need that was being satisfied in a rather extreme way and in which I was beginning to question the choices I had made that got me there. The title alone made me feel subversive when I played it, given my tenuous footing in a religion that liked to believe it alone possessed the Truth about God and all things faith-related. There’s a pull between a sort of despair in the verses (“Now I fear you’ve left me standing / In a world that’s so demanding”) and a slightly hopeful turn in the chorus (“My morning sun is the drug that brings me near / To the childhood I lost, replaced by fear”). I think the title settles the argument: the narrator is choosing to believe, choosing a hopeful path. I was less confident about my path, and by the time I walked away from the religion, most of my Club Henley era friends had already moved on, tired of waiting for me to decide who I was. I didn’t blame them: I was self aware enough to know I was not always an easy person to be around back then.

So the song is both a declaration of my liberation from (self-imposed) religious tyranny, but also a reminder of what I lost. That I almost always forget the sad part and just start bouncing around is a measure of its power. All music can take us back through time, and as I write this, the sad part is what I’m feeling, but I’m remembering the happy part, too, the part where I’m sweaty and singing along at the top of my lungs and carrying way too much alcohol in my veins and just being 21 or 22 and feeling like the night is never going to end and that the friends who I love (and, of course, never said that to) are the best friends anyone could ever have. And I was right. And so were you at your own Club Henley dancing to your own version of “True Faith”. I hope you managed it better than I did.

Favourite “New” Music – December 2022

So, in the great tradition of starting a new year by looking back at the one just ended, I can say that 2022 sort of blew. This isn’t hindsight: I was very aware of its high degree of suckage while I was in the middle of it. It began with my wife and I both having COVID (mild and unenduring cases, thankfully, but even the weaker forms of this malevolent virus can kick your ass hard), and went down from there. We dealt with other medical challenges over the year, both personally and in others who we love, and those, at least in my own case, gave my mental health a ginormous pantsing. My work performance was well below what I expect from myself, I took suboptimal care of the aspects of my health over which I had some control, and I generally was largely unmotivated for big chunks of the calendar.

The good news is that, my health now restored, I am feeling pretty good about 2023. Yes, the world is still a cesspool and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. But you can often (not always – all piles of shit are not equal) choose to only go in up to your knees instead of to your neck. And you can choose to focus on the things that matter to you – the people you love, the relationships that sustain you, the pursuits that give you joy – instead of those that don’t. Trying to do just that is my sole resolution for the year ahead.

As always, while travelling the 365 days of the metaphysical Sodom and Gomorrah just ended, there was music. I offer below a list of new songs that sustained me with repeated plays over 2022. If any of them were hits, that will be news to me: they (mostly) came to my attention as album tracks that stood out from their neighbours. What they have in common is that they triggered a response: to dance, to smile, to grimly contemplate the contours of my existence. But, mostly, hearing them just made me happy, in that inexplicable way that our favourite art does, and that’s more than enough.

  • Arcade Fire – Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole) (The Art vs the Artist debate comes up here, of course. But Win Butler isn’t the only member of Arcade Fire, and I loved this hypnotic record.)
  • Caracara – Ohio (My favourite lyric of the year – “I remember playing your favourite song / hoping you’d hum along” – has that air of love mixed with despair that guts me every time.)
  • Charlotte Adigery & Bolis Pupul – Ceci n’est pas un cliché
  • Flo Milli featuring Rico Nasty – Payday (I don’t know if they are objectively “better” at rapping, but females are almost always a lot more fun to listen to than males.)
  • Mallrat – Teeth
  • midwxst – riddle
  • MØ – New Moon
  • Mura Masa with Leilah – prada (i like it) (Probably my favourite song of the year.)
  • My Idea – Popstar
  • Nilufer Yanya – stabilise
  • Omar Apollo – Talk 
  • Santigold – Fall First
  • Say Sue Me – Around You
  • Sobs – Burn Book
  • Spoon – Wild 
  • The Juliana Theory – Less Talk
  • The Linda Lindas – Oh!
  • The Wombats – Everything I Love is Going to Die
  • Years & Years – Starstruck
  • Young Guv – Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried

And, of course, here’s the usual roundup of my favourite albums of the past month.

  • The Cure – Seventeen Seconds (1980)
  • Lester Young – In Washington, D.C. 1956, Volume One (1980) (I still know next to nothing about jazz, but when a song like “D.B. Blues” gets you strutting around your kitchen at 6:00 a.m. like you’re Mack the Knife, you know you’ve stumbled onto something magical even if you don’t really understand it.)
  • The Jam – The Gift (1982)
  • Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque (1991)
  • Yellowcard – Ocean Avenue (2003) (The title track is an all-time favourite, so the failure to play the whole album before now is inexcusable.)
  • The Cribs – The Cribs (2004)
  • Ben Kweller – Ben Kweller (2006)
  • Remington Super 60 – Go System Go (2006) 
  • Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts (2018) (Kanye is always brilliant, even on throwaway side projects, but it is really hard to play his stuff these days and not feel queasy.)
  • 100 gecs – 1000 gecs (2019) (So, so weird.)
  • Chinese Kitty – Kitty Bandz (2019) (See the comment on Flo Milli above.)
  • Wild Honey – Ruinas Futuras (2021) 
  • Sobs – Air Guitar (2022) (My new favourite band, this album just guarantees me 32 minutes of happiness.)
  • Disq – Desperately Imagining Someplace Quiet (2022)
  • Cola – Deep in View (2022)
  • Billy Woods – Aethiopes (2022)
  • Alex G – God Save the Animals (2022)
  • Asake – Mr. Money with the Vibe (2022)
  • Rich Aucoin – Synthetic: Season One (2022) (Maritimers: I hope you are supporting this guy. I hadn’t heard anything from him since 2011’s “We’re All Dying to Live” (the video for “It” is a delight), but he was just off making deliciously odd records like this one.)
  • Ari Lennox – age/sex/location (2022)

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #28

John Lennon – “(Just Like) Starting Over”

From December 5 to 7, 1980, I had what was to that point probably the best weekend of my young life. The following day, December 8, John Lennon was murdered. The two events, of course, had nothing to do with each other (as far as I know, anyway), but their temporal relationship has always meant that I don’t think of one without the other.

Let’s start with Lennon. The Beatles were my first band, so I naturally loved John. But he was barely on my listening radar in the late 1970s while Paul McCartney still churned out hit after hit, so I by default fell on the Paul side of that particular dispute. John hadn’t had a hit single in over half a decade when “(Just Like) Starting Over” was released in late October 1980, and while it was doing well in the United States, it seemed like his recent fallow stretch was going to continue north of the 49th parallel: the song wasn’t even on RPM’s national chart when it came out on December 6. That quickly changed: it debuted at number 28 a week later, then hit number 1 on December 20. That momentum continued into the new year, and it ended up as the biggest song in Canada for 1981.

So, what was I up to that was so great that first weekend of December?

A regular part of my childhood Saturday evenings was watching “Reach for the Top”, a national quiz show that matched teams of four high schoolers in a battle to prove who knew the most stuff. I had always loved trivia – I was an incessant dabbler in “The World Almanac” with its lists of highest mountains and Olympic gold medalists, and by 1980 owned the first two editions of both “The Book of Lists” and the endlessly fascinating “The People’s Almanac” (which I still have, their condition evidence of heavy use) – so getting onto my high school’s “Reach” team was a life goal. Schools in Nova Scotia only competed every second year, so my Grade 11 year of 1980-81 was my one shot, and I made it. We had a magnificent and balanced team, with Sandy Nicholson, Nelson Rice and Doug Campbell joining me, and it could be intimidating to be around such smart people. I was beginning to understand that maybe this was my tribe.

The fun started on the night of December 5 when, after getting set up in our hotel following a long drive to Halifax, my uncle picked me up and brought me back to his apartment, where I ate pizza, played with his infant daughter, watched American sitcoms on channels I didn’t have access to at home and, yeah, after his wife arrived and said child was put to bed, smoked black hash out of a bong he made using a toilet paper core and some tinfoil. Good times.

Anyway, even with my less than stellar contribution, on December 6 we won our first two games (including a particularly satisfying defeat of a private school in their matching outfits whose number included a boy who less than two years later was in a New Jersey jail for his role in the murder of a classmate’s parents), and our teacher chaperones, two lovely women named Pat, got permission from our principal to take us out for a fancy celebratory dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Zapata’s. I doubt said permission included alcohol, but a pitcher of sangria was ordered, and, in a misjudgment that could have had disastrous consequences with a less law-abiding group of boys, we cajoled them into ordering a second. Left to our own devices the rest of the evening, we retired to the poolroom, where we would alternate between heating up in the sauna then racing to dive into the pool before our body temperatures dropped. Another school who had lost earlier that day were in the same hotel, and we hung out with them a bit, failing to make any headway with two pretty girls that were in their number. After the pool closed, we watched “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in one of our rooms, then crashed, getting up the next morning to take care of business and earn our spot in the final round. Somewhere along the way, I bought Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano”. A magnificent weekend.

Two days later, I was among the tens of millions watching tribute after tribute to Lennon on television, where it seemed to own every channel the night of December 9. And “(Just Like) Starting Over”, a song that I already liked but hadn’t given a heck of a lot of thought to, was soon everywhere, the tragedy a grimly ironic thumb in the eye to Lennon’s positivity about new beginnings.

It is a song out of time, more at home in the 1950s than 1980, which may explain the rather muted response initially: post-punk and post-disco, music was trying to look ahead to the next big thing, and not to a relic from the 1960s drawing inspiration from a decade before that. Light taps on a triangle, gently strummed guitar, then a heavenly chorus of “ooooo” and “aaaah”, followed by a vocal that I’ve always thought of as John’s attempt to resurrect Elvis Presley, as, again, a 1950s piano bangs away while a stubbornly subtle bass line rolls along underneath, with drums that sound at times like handclaps. The lyrics are a mature declaration of love to a partner who has been with him through much, and the hope of more to come. It’s far more honest and romantic than the more traditional dreck of “Woman” that followed later on the same album, and whatever you think of Yoko Ono (as time passes, I am more and more impressed by her), you can’t deny John’s love for her. The song is blissfully sunny without being Pollyannaish, and not many of those can get you on the dance floor, too. Pretty damned impressive.

Our return trip to Halifax for the final round a few months later was far less fun – the Pats had learned better. And, as it turned out, having four really smart guys was not enough against the buzzsaw that was Hans Budgey, who ran the table in the rapid-fire last two minutes of the title game to turn a close match into a blowout. Hans and company went on to win the national championship, and no one will ever convince me (and I defy them to try) that we weren’t the true national runners up. I still love trivia (yes, I did try to get on “Jeopardy”, which is a good way to learn that maybe you don’t know nearly as much as you think you do), and, over the last year or so, I’ve listened to a lot more of John Lennon’s music. Two days ago, I heard “(Just Like) Starting Over” in a grocery store, and for all the nostalgia in its sound, it remains a fresh and invigorating piece of pop music. I still think Paul won the 1970s, but John was definitely gearing up to take a run at him in the 1980s, which leaves us with one of the great “what if”s of pop music.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #8

Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky

I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around the love that critics once had for Jackson Browne, and listening to “Late for the Sky” three times hasn’t gotten me to the point where I’ve solved this particular puzzle. Like most early 1970s soft rock, it makes for a great accompaniment to those mundane tasks of daily living, like laundry or emptying the dishwasher. It rarely challenges you, rarely forces you to listen carefully. It’s background music, and dear lord we certainly need that: the world is just a better place to be in when it has a soundtrack. But other (mostly) White guy bands like Chicago and the Doobie Brothers were also doing a damned fine job of that, and critics weren’t building temples to them. So, why the love for Mr. Browne?

I sometimes like to think of Browne as Eagles-lite, with both frolicking in that same soft rock playpen, and you would think critics, who often seem to be in the business of jerking off their musician friends, would have been all over that band, yet you would be wrong. “Hotel California”, the 118th ranked album of all time in the last Rolling Stone poll and #108 at Acclaimed Music, could not crack the Top 30 of the Pazz and Jop in either 1976, when it was released, or 1977, when it had dominion over our airwaves. I am no fan of the Eagles, but that is just whack. What the fuck were they listening to? A lot of Graham Parker, for one thing and, in 1977, more Jackson Browne.

So, what of this album? There’s a real lethargy to a lot of it, a laid back California cool that lacks the dirty passion of truly great rock. No one here seems to be breaking a sweat: it sounds pristine, the musicianship is sharp and precise, and with every perfectly bland note you can sense the early punks gritting their teeth.

There are two exceptions. “The Road and the Sky” is a honky tonk rocker, and you can almost hear his band saying, “Hell, yes”, as they dive in, with great piano and some slick shredding. But Browne’s heart isn’t really in it: he seems uncomfortable with the pace, his vocal showing no more fire than when he’s singing about another beautiful sunset. He gives the band 3:07 to have some fun, then it’s back to our regular programming. He feels more committed on “Walking Slow”, an almost danceable tune with some funky bass notes, a nice guitar solo and joyful handclaps.

A few of the slower tunes stand out, at least in some of their elements. The title track is lovely, a meditation of sorts with a real sense of loss and wonder, and a tune out of a contemporary western. There is lots of pleasing piano on “The Late Show”, and a melancholy beauty to what I think is fiddle on “For A Dancer” and “Before the Deluge”.

Maybe the fourth listen, or the fifth, will be the one when the light turns on. I’ll be spreading peanut butter on a piece of toast, the sliced up banana and Nutella off to the side, when Browne will sing “When the light that’s lost within us reaches the sky” (a lovely line, to be sure), that beautiful fiddle will play us out, and I will stand at the kitchen counter, stunned, while the toast turns cold and dry and the banana ages out of my eating range. I felt that just a tiny bit right now, so I know it can happen. I’m rooting for you to get me there, Jackson.

Cover Version Showdown #4

Elvis Costello, “Watching the Detectives” – Duran Duran v The Henry Girls

It’s kind of amazing to me that I’ve made it this far without writing about Elvis Costello, who, more recent disappointments aside, is my all-time favourite musical artist. He came along too late for Pazz and Jop (that’s going to change big time once we reach 1977), and none of his individual tunes fits with Classics Revisited. I didn’t think there were enough noteworthy cover versions out there – my apologies to Linda Ronstadt – for this space. And then I heard The Henry Girls sing “Watching the Detectives”.

But first, let’s go back to the original. It wasn’t a hit in North America – it fell outside the Billboard Top 100 at 108, and peaked at 60 in Canada – but it was certainly one of the songs that EC was known for in his late ‘70s heyday, when his albums were selling over a million copies each and everyone kept waiting for that hit single that would put him on the same level as contemporaries like Joe Jackson. That hit never came, but he made great album topped by (maybe) greater album year after year, and that has pretty much sustained him through 40 years of musical adventurism. Every record is a surprise – I’m a big fan of “Painted from Memory”, his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, and there is a crazily diverse palate of albums with The Brodsky Quartet, Anne Sofie Von Otter, Allen Toussaint (I own all of these) and, as the proof of my theory that a great musician can work in any genre (see Hartman, Dan), Wendy James. I finally checked the latter record out recently, and it might be the most fun I’ve had listening to an album he was involved in. I hope he enjoyed writing it.

Elvis’ original is a menacing little thing, with booming drums and throbbing bass with a staccato reggae-lite beat. The entire thing is sung with a sneer and a rising sense of danger, the score to a film noir that ends with the protagonist wondering how the fuck did he get so turned inside out. Written in a fever after a night spent slowly falling in love with The Clash, it is certainly among the punkier of his recordings, in attitude at least.

Our first competitor is Duran Duran, and I am very surprised to be writing about them again. They were a band I paid as little attention to as possible, which was pretty darned challenging from 1982 to 1988. Lots of hits, very few of them memorable, yet so tinged with nostalgic value that they now give me great pleasure to revisit. They tackled “Watching the Detectives” on an album of cover versions released in 1995. There are versions of songs from Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Sly and the Family Stone, Public Enemy, and, holy shit, how can I be sitting here writing when that record exists in the world and I still haven’t listened to it 27 years later. It’s lush and jittery, a haunted doomscape out of Godard’s “Alphaville” nightmares. It practically vibrates, Simon Le Bon’s breathy vocal laced with faux sexiness, the messy backing tracks digging under your skin in about a dozen different ways.

And then we come to The Henry Girls. If, like me until recently, you’ve never heard of them before, then you’re in for a treat. Three sisters from Ireland, their music has been described as a blend of Irish roots music and Americana. Their melodies are a thing of genius. This is the record that would’ve been created if the “Rum and Coca Cola” version of The Andrews Sisters had met 1977 Nick Lowe (Elvis’ producer) on 1967 Carnaby Street right after Nick had completed a fellowship with Phil Spector and then rejected everything Phil taught him except for the stuff about harmony, and if you understand that I loved writing that sentence, then you get me, and I thank you. It’s sort of goofy and so personal and unique, and highlights Elvis’ intricate wordplay in a way his own singing never does. 

The Winner: Duran Duran

I had this locked and loaded for The Henry Girls from the first listen, but then a weird thing happened. With each play, Duran Duran’s version revealed new layers, while The Henry Girls remained the same piece of wonder it was from the beginning. And that gives the Brits the edge over the Irish right now. This could easily switch in another day or two, and then back, which is sort of fantastic. Each artist put their personal mark on the song, and I love both, and how they respect Elvis and sort of piss in his eye at the same time. I’m pretty sure he’d be good with that, and so am I.

Favourite “New” Music – November 2022

Well, it’s December, and that means Christmas music everywhere you turn: on your television, in the shops you attend, at your doctor’s office, on your cab driver’s Sirius XM device. Even in this age of being able to have almost complete control over programming your listening life, it’s entirely unavoidable, which is unfortunate if, like me, you don’t much care for the stuff.

Let’s be honest, okay? A lot of the holiday’s music sucks. It’s saccharine and simplistic and preachy and waaaay too Christian. Yes, I know whose theoretical birth we are meant to be celebrating, but I’ve read a good chunk of the New Testament, and most people calling themselves Christian don’t seem to do a very good job of emulating the big kahuna. For the rest of us, the season is really just an excuse to overeat/drink, sleep in a few times, and have people buy us stuff, which is pretty awesome, but hardly worthy of a whole musical cottage industry.

And everyone sings the same damned songs over and over and over again. You could get from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve just listening to “Silent Night! Holy Night!” (What’s with the exclamation marks?) or variants thereof. That isn’t hyperbole: Second Hand Songs lists 3880 versions (and that’s probably gone up between writing this sentence and posting it), including from such luminaries as Chet Atkins, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Nana Mouskouri, Can, David Hasselhoff (in German, of course) and the Queen of Christmas herself, Mariah Carey. Another Mariah cover, “O Holy Night”, has 2037 versions, including efforts from Petula Clark, Joan Baez, Andrea Bocelli and Skydiggers. I could go on and on – just like Christmas music does.

My wife, though she may protest a bit as to what degree, loves Christmas music. She isn’t a zealot or without discernment: she knows shit when she hears it. But she could not imagine going through the holiday season not listening to it, while I will likely start Christmas morning this year listening to something like Nirvana or the Sex Pistols.

We needed a compromise playlist, and to that end I offer my year-ending gift to those who are closer to my end of the Christmas music enjoyment level spectrum. Christmas Songs That Don’t Suck is (at this moment) roughly 7 hours of tolerable and sometimes even enjoyable holiday-themed songs. (My definition of a Christmas song may not always match yours.) It’s length varies from season to season, as I get sick of songs or find new ones that I like (I recently added 8 tracks from the Guardians of the Galaxy Christmas special – and, yes, that’s a real thing), and while it is a Mariah-free zone, it includes songs from Boyz II Men, Queen, Tom Petty, Dolly Parton, Fountains of Wayne, Carrie Underwood and – shiver – the Biebs, plus lots more. It isn’t all G-rated – you may choose to usher the kids out of the room when “Homo Christmas” starts up – but it’s a more diverse celebration of the season than what you can find on your usual radio station or Spotify playlist.

My 5 favourite songs on there, in no particular order, are probably:

  • Bare Naked Ladies – Elf’s Lament
  • The Pogues – Fairytale of New York
  • The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping
  • Run-DMC – Christmas in Hollis (To paraphrase Argyle, this IS a Christmas song and “Die Hard” IS a Christmas movie.)
  • Lydia Liza & Josiah Lemanski – Baby, It’s Cold Outside (#MeToo)

Merry Christmas!

Now, on to my favourite listens of the month just passed.

  • The Moody Blues – Days of Future Passed (1967)
  • Sly and the Family Stone – A Whole New Thing (1967)
  • Omega – 10000 lépés (1969) (The most successful Hungarian rock band ever. How could I not check them out?)
  • Curtis Mayfield – Curtis (1970)
  • Jimmy Cliff – The Harder They Come (1972) (My continuing search to discover reggae that I enjoy finally struck oil.)
  • John Lennon – Walls and Bridges (1974)
  • Journey – Journey (1975) (Never much of a fan during their chart-topping heyday, this rookie outing was a very different-sounding band.)
  • The Kings – The Kings Are Here (1980) (Good old Canadian new wavey rock.)
  • Was (Not Was) – Born to Laugh at Tornadoes (1983) (Yet another record that I owned, never played straight through, and now celebrate.)
  • Los Lobos – How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984) (On which I discovered that Mexican polka is a thing, and a pretty amazing thing at that.)
  • Cameo – Word Up! (1986)
  • Front 242 – Front by Front (1988)
  • Wendy James – Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears (1993)
  • Guster – Ganging Up on the Sun (2006) (I loved the two albums before this one, but for some reason stopped paying attention to the band, which was clearly a mistake.)
  • Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf (2015)
  • The Ballroom Thieves – Unlovely (2020)
  • JOSEPH – The Trio Sessions: Vol. 2 (2021)
  • Pool Kids – Pool Kids (2022)
  • Armani Caesar – The Liz 2 (2022)
  • Fousheé – SoftCORE (2022) (A delight from start to finish. Already a Grammy nominee as a songwriter, if she doesn’t become a major star, it won’t be for lack of talent.)

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #27

John Parr – St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)

I think that the artists and entertainers that we form an attachment to at a critical stage in our lives never stop being important to us. That has to be the case, because it’s the only way I can find to explain my lifelong interest in the career of Andrew McCarthy.

In the 1980s, I saw, relative to the total count of movies I attended and the small tally of those he appeared in, a disproportionate number of films starring McCarthy. “Class”, “Heaven Help Us”, “St. Elmo’s Fire”, “Pretty in Pink”, “Mannequin”, “Weekend at Bernie’s”: for all but the first of these, I laid down a part of my limited cash in exchange for the privilege of watching McCarthy act – sometimes poorly (sorry, Andrew!) – in some often fairly awful but always entertaining films. Why? Because something about McCarthy – or at least the characters he played – appealed to me. He seemed like an outsider to the Brat Pack (confirmed in his recent memoir about that era), and therefore more relatable. Who else was a young wanna be novelist going to identify with but the fairly normal looking actor playing a young wanna be novelist saying overwrought things about art and life in a film about trying to get your shit together after university? The rest of the male “St. Elmo’s Fire” cast couldn’t fit that part: Emilio Estevez was too much a try-hard, Judd Nelson was either intimidating (“The Breakfast Club”) or a dick (“St. Elmo’s Fire”), and Rob Lowe was (is!) too painfully beautiful for mere mortals such as I to look to as a model for living. Which left McCarthy.

If you’ve forgotten the film, then you are blessed. My friends and I made fun of it even when we were watching it pretty much every week on First Choice. Since it isn’t on any of the 38 streaming services that I pay for and I didn’t feel like laying out another $4.99 to torture myself, I checked out some of the available clips on YouTube, and it was every bit the overwritten and overacted horror show that I remembered. It’s like Strindberg or Ibsen as interpreted by 12-year-olds, all drama without depth of feeling. There is casual racism (the single minority character of note is a stereotyped Black streetwalker) and a disdainful mockery of outsiders. Maybe accurate for the world of baby yuppies that it purports to show, but hardly a fun day at the movies.

And yet, at 21, I loved it even while knowing what bullshit it was. McCarthy’s Kevin was who I wanted to be. I wanted to be that clever, that attractive (a reachable goal, I thought, before “Pretty in Pink” turned him, ever so briefly, into a heartthrob), and, as he is by the end of the film, a published writer. Plus, I would get to sleep with Ally Sheedy in her super-cute phase. Not a shabby life, really.

I don’t recall where in the film the song shows up, but its synthy pop-rock sound and extremely generic lyrical content don’t match the movie’s vibe at all. That isn’t John Parr’s fault: he hadn’t seen the movie, so co-writer David Foster showed him some video of CanCon superstar Rick Hansen’s world tour via wheelchair for inspiration. The ridiculous music video showing Parr interacting with the actors in character at the burned-out bar that serves as their hangout in the film (their decision to stop going there at the movie’s end is supposed to signal to the viewer that they are now adults) has nothing to do with the film’s narrative. It sounds like a bunch of other songs that were popular in the first half of the 1980s, and somehow – likely thanks to the boost from the movie – jumped past those songs to reach #1. I owned the 45 and played it frequently, finding the overall positivity of the song to be aspirational and inspirational. But before now, I can’t remember the last time I played it with intent. After a few plays, each of which left me with that old pumped-up feeling, I still can’t see it breaking into my nostalgia rotation.

Anyway, despite wanting to model myself on McCarthy’s character, that wasn’t who I was, and Kevin’s future wasn’t my future, or McCarthy’s. And as I have travelled through life, I have periodically checked in to see what McCarthy was up to. His acting career seemed like a wasteland for a long time, but I knew he ended up as a successful television director. His memoir filled in the gaps, including overcoming alcohol addiction and building a second career as a travel writer. He sounds fulfilled, and as surprised as anyone might be about where he ended up. I get that. I learned long ago that writing The Great Canadian Novel was beyond me, but I know, too, that I wouldn’t want that at the price of what I have. You may not get the life you want, but, if you’re lucky, you get the life you need.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #7

Roxy Music – Stranded

Every time I listen to early Roxy Music, all I hear is a band that’s trying too hard to – well, what they want to accomplish is the mystery, but it definitely isn’t about entertaining the listener. Yet again, they seem to be trying to straddle a non-existent line between art band and pop band, never realising that the latter is worthy of being art on its own terms. What they end up with manages to accomplish, well, not much worth listening to, for my money.

Oh, it isn’t horrible: they are talented musicians and songwriters, and that has value, but somehow it all just feels horribly flat when the whole package comes together in the grooves. When I look at the track listing, not a single title comes back to me in my imagination. I make notes (because I’m a non-professional, damnit), and from those I can tell you what stood out. But even if my future non-professional music writer status was on the line (it could happen), identifying without prompts what I liked about this album would tax me beyond recovery.

From those notes, I can tell you that Bryan Ferry’s odd vocal style sounds at times like an alien trying in vain to master the local tongue. That the songs are mostly too busy, with jarring tempo shifts and a wilful opposition to allowing anything that pleases the ear to continue unassailed. That a lot of this feels like progressive rock without the label.

As for the individual songs, I like the warped funk opening of “Amazona”, the interplay of drums and piano on “Just Like You”, the piano opening on “Sunset”. Besides these snippets, the powerful “A Song for Europe”, with its “Berlin”-era Lou Reed vibe, beautiful tinkling piano and tempo shifts that are not merely ornamental but increase the song’s drama, is the one track that feels like it finds a balance between whatever artistic statement the band is trying to make and actually giving pleasure to the listener.

I won’t escape Roxy Music anytime soon – two of their albums made the top 20 of the Pazz and Jop in 1975 (a year full of pairs). My hope is that even the embryo of the band that made “Avalon” had shown up by then. Otherwise, I may just recycle this post and change the names where appropriate.

SoundTracking #1

“Bond . . . James Bond”

I love James Bond movies, and there is nothing quite like a classic Bond theme song. The best of them tie the familiar John Berry motifs from the score to a pop sensibility that sounds fresh while holding lingering echoes of another era. They feel both of the ‘60s when Bond first stepped onto our screens, but also very much of the moment when a given film was released. 

There really isn’t any sort of consensus about the “best” Bond song, though there are certain tunes that are consistently high on individual lists. This is my personal top 5 – and, no, it does not include Adele.

No. 5 – Carly Simon, “The Spy Who Loved Me

The first Bond song that I knew of in real time, I finally saw the movie about a year ago and was floored by what an epic cheese fest it is. The song matches it, step by step, Gruyère by Parmesan. From swelling strings, heavily-banged-on piano keys and that guitar sound that was endemic to ‘70s AOR tracks, you could easily dismiss this as pop pap. Yet, what saves it, what elevates it to art, is Carly’s measured vocal, the straightforwardness of her declaration about the man the singer loves but really doesn’t trust (he is not just a spy after all, but THE spy). The song as written isn’t worthy of her, but she redeems it anyway.

No. 4 – Duran Duran, “A View to a Kill

The Roger Moore Bond flicks were often barely watchable within a year or two after their release (see above re “The Spy Who Loved Me”), and this was easily the worst of the lot. Other than Grace Jones being in it and this song, I remember zilch about “A View to a Kill”, the motion picture. And when it came out in 1985, I was to that point generally unimpressed with Duran Duran’s contributions to the music world. (That’s evolved over time – “All She Wants Is” is an all-time favourite tune, and those old singles always give me a jolt of nostalgic pleasure.) But this song grabbed me right away – I bought the 45 – with its mix of second British Invasion new wave pop and retrograde funk. The lyrics are completely nonsensical, which adds to the fun.

No. 3 – Sam Smith, “Writing’s on the Wall” (from “Spectre”)

Have you ever hated a song at first, then slowly grown to love it, and maybe love it more for the journey? That’s this song. And the journey is even more noteworthy for the song having been chosen over a hauntingly beautiful and sort of terrifying Radiohead tune. Somehow, this song sums up everything a Bond ballad should be – sensual, epic, vivid and, yes, a bit over-the-top. If you don’t get chills when this plays, you need to see a neurologist, because something in your nervous system isn’t working properly.

No. 2 – Paul McCartney, “Live and Let Die

So, here we are: the alpha and omega of Bond theme songs, it falls to no. 2 only for the more contemporaneous nature of my experience with the song listed below. Obviously, McCartney knows how to write a great pop song, and this doesn’t let you down. (I was going to make a rude comment about it losing the Oscar in 1973, but having just listened to “The Way We Were” for the first time in about 500 years, I have to admit it’s a pretty potent record, even though the only part of it worth saving for posterity is Barbra’s vocal – the rest gives 1970s cheese a bad name. Hmm, I guess I have made a rude comment.) He changes tempo about 86 times, and, like a great Bond movie, it’s a thrill just to try and keep up. Killer Guns N’ Roses cover, too.

No. 1 – Chris Cornell, “You Know My Name” (from “Casino Royale”)

It’s hard to top McCartney, but Cornell does it for me. Daniel Craig is my utopian ideal of what Bond should be – pity the poor bastard who is going to replace him sometime soon – and I have loved the movies (yes, even “Quantum of Solace”). After a cold open that establishes how Bond earned his 00 status, we are thrown into the title sequence. Cornell truly had one of modern rock’s great voices, and him showing up here tells the viewer, if the black-and-white opening didn’t make that clear, that this is not your dad or older brother’s Bond. It’s gritty, and loud, but that voice, that magnificent howl, reveals the grace and poetry that will also follow. The lyrics, too, are ruthless, a window into the soul of a (possibly) irredeemable killer. Now, after five films, with Bond having (spoiler alert) made the ultimate sacrifice, the song feels even more potent for showing the “blunt instrument” (Judi Dench rules) who grew into the man who saved the world and, finally, himself.