Song #1004*: “The Tears of a Clown,” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Share

The Tears of a Clown,” from the 1967 Smokey Robinson and The Miracles album Make it Happen. Released as a single in 1970.
Sad lyrics in a happy melody create a perfect pop song.

(4 minute read)

*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.

Clowns got a bum rap in American culture over the past 50 years. When I was a kid, in the 70s, they were happy icons of childhood mirth and wholesome good times. In addition to being the best part of any circus, they sold fast food, breakfast cereal, and household cleaners (!?), and had TV shows. A friendly clown even came to my elementary school to teach us kids about being safe around strangers. He told us if we were ever kidnapped we should make ourselves vomit by sticking a finger1 down our throat so the kidnapper would toss us, barf-covered, out of the car2.

By the early 90s, clowns were viewed in a different light. Maybe it was Stephen King, maybe it was Bob Goldthwait, maybe it was The Simpsons. Maybe ICP? Or maybe it was the fact that folks finally spoke out to say they were pretty creepy all along. Suddenly, clowns were not so cheery. But despite its previous history as an icon of fun, the clown had never been positively portrayed in popular music. In songs, clowns were almost always contemptible or malevolent or pitiable.

The Everly Brothers’ “Kathy’s Clown” was an object of ridicule. Roy Orbison’s candy-colored clown3In Dreams” tricked the lovelorn into believing a lie. The dying performer in The Kinks’ “Death of a Clown” is so pathetic he encourages the audience to drink along with him to his own abject end. It’s pretty brutal stuff. “The Tears of a Clown” actually lands on the uplifting end of the Spectrum of Misery of Musical Clowns.

The song is special because of the sad lyrical content set against the fun, calliope-style music. It’s in a long line of songs about putting on a brave face, including Robinson’s earlier “The Tracks of My Tears,” through Adele’s “Someone Like You.” (And let’s not forget the McCartney-esque directness of McCartney’s “My Brave Face.”)

Motown’s famed “Funk Brothers” played the backing music. They were a rotating cast of musicians who played on thousands of songs, so it’s unclear who played on this one. The upbeat melody starts with flutes and a brilliant counter-melody on bassoon. It gives way to the main bass line in a few seconds. The pumping, uplifting sound, with driving drums, is accompanied by a blurting trombone that keeps it sounding circusy. The music was written by Stevie Wonder and his producer, Hank Crosby. Wonder couldn’t think of lyrics, so he gave the song to Robinson. Smokey had the genius idea to write lyrics that go against the song’s happy sound, but retain a circus theme.

Smokey’s voice is smooth as ever, and The Miracles’ harmonies are brilliant. At 0:37, and throughout the song, when Robinson sings “I’m sad,” and The Miracles repeat it while drum fills ricochet around them, it’s about the best 15 seconds of sound ever put to record. Then a brief rising scale (“there’s some sad things known to man …”) resolves in the title line, which somehow sounds even better! When he softly sings “the tears of a clown/ when there’s no one around,” and that flute/bassoon riff enters, the juxtaposition of words and sounds always gets me right in the feels. I could listen to this song every day.

The lyrics are terrific, and the bridge cleverly refers to the tragic Italian opera Pagliacci (“Clowns”), about a clown who discovers his wife is having an affair4. (“Just like Pagliacci did/ I try to keep my feelings hid.”) I’ve always been impressed that a pop song referenced an opera, or any stage production other than Romeo & Juliet. Then again, the first million-selling recording ever was Enrico Caruso’s 1903 recording of “Vest la Giubba,” from Pagliacci, so Robinson probably heard it a lot growing up.

As a fan of 70s/80s music, I must point out the great cover of the song by The English Beat, who nicely folded the song into their ska-based musical approach. But as good as that version is, nothing comes close to Smokey’s original. It’s got the sound, the lyrics, the style … it’s got everything.

Share

Album #118: Mermaid Avenue, by Billy Bragg and Wilco

Share

Mermaid Avenue
1998, Elektra Records. Producers: Billy Bragg, Grant Showbiz & Wilco.
In My Collection: CD, 1998.

(Five minute read)

IN A NUTSHELL: Mermaid Avenue is a record whose sum may be greater than its parts, which is really saying something considering its parts are Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg and Wilco. Bragg and head Wilco man Jeff Tweedy penned classic Americana tunes for Guthrie’s lost lyrics, and the result is a treasure. From sad, lonesome cowboy songs to kids tunes and silly love songs, the amalgam works on all levels. Bragg and Wilco wisely allow the lyrics to shine through melodies.

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 40.

There are, in the history of the creative arts, some really lousy-on-paper ideas that, in practice, produced excellent works. Recent examples include a hip-hop musical about the life and works of the US’s first Secretary of the Treasury; a cartoon about anthropomorphized animal actors in Hollywood; and the 900th retelling of a classic American novel, this time on the Silver Screen. All of these – Hamilton, BoJack Horseman, and Little Women, respectively – were much, much better than I ever expected. However, the fact remains that most lousy-on-paper ideas turn out lousy.

Valleys of Neptune is one dead-Jimi release that’s actually pretty good.

Nearly guaranteed to be the lousiest of the lousy-on-paper ideas in popular music are those of the “posthumous release” variety. As a huge fan of both Jimi Hendrix (an artist with more than 80 albums released by various ghouls since his death in 1970) and The Beatles (who released this song in 1995), I’m aware of the spotty nature of such endeavors.

The idea of a posthumous release seems even lousier when it’s attenuated to a degree that no longer involves actual recordings, or even complete songs of an artist. To compound the perceived lousiness one could take the fragments from an artist dead thirty years, who wrote songs in a genre that’s waned in popularity in the interim, and give those fragments to other unpopular artists to complete and record.

This is the (admittedly un-generous) story of Mermaid Avenue, a brilliant record of Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music and performed by Billy Bragg and Wilco. Guthrie is a folk icon who penned my choice for US National Anthem, “This Land is Your Land.” Bragg is a UK punk troubadour/ provocateur whose excellent songs were largely overlooked in the US. Wilco is … well, Wilco; basically an alternative country-rock band led by Jeff Tweedy that blurs musical lines and has a (dare I say?) Deadheadish cult following.

It’s a 15-song album, so I’ll quickly dispatch with the particulars. Upon his death in 19675, Guthrie had left behind thousands of lyrics with no music. His daughter, Nora, thought some should be set to updated musical styles so they could be heard by a new generation of music fans, so she contacted Billy Bragg. He got Wilco onboard, and they wrote some music – some songs together, and some separately. Thus Mermaid Avenue, named after a street near Coney Island where Guthrie once lived, was born.

“Walt Whitman’s Niece,” kicks off the record, a bouncy tune from Bragg. It’s perfect for Guthrie’s vaguely naughty, shaggy-dog story about two men following a pair of women up some stairs, and the book of poetry they found. Apparently.

The song sets a simple blueprint for Mermaid Avenue. If you have lyrics from one of America’s best-loved songwriters you’re not going to obscure them with a bunch of complex musical ideas or blazing feats of instrumental virtuosity. Bragg and Tweedy give the lyrics lovely melodies to follow and set them within arresting and emotional musical arrangements. They’re the kind of songs you hear once, then find yourself humming the rest of the day.

For example, “California Stars,” penned by Jeff Tweedy and his late bandmate Jay Bennett.

It’s a beautiful, country-western ode to both love and home. Tweedy’s voice isn’t strong or perfect, but it’s certainly full of feeling and charm. In fact, one thing that makes the record so good is that neither Tweedy nor Bragg have a particularly exceptional vocal instrument. But they imbue the lyrics with warmth and character that resonates. In “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” Bragg exemplifies this notion, singing “ain’t nobody that can sing like me” in a voice that isn’t great, but carries great weight.

Natalie Merchant, of 10,000 Maniacs, sings harmony on that song, and takes lead on “Birds and Ships,” a song about longing that I’m not wild about. (I’m not too keen on her voice.) But “Hoodoo Voodoo” is a fun one! It’s a nonsense kids’ song, but Tweedy and Wilco give it their all, with clanks and boings and an energy that conjures images of my kids dancing around the room when they were little. Bragg and Wilco collaborated on that one, and also on “She Came Along to Me.”

It’s another jaunty number, sung by Bragg, with a nice slide guitar solo and some cool-sounding harmonica throughout. It’s one of my favorite songs on Mermaid Avenue due to Guthrie’s brilliant lyrics. It starts off as a tribute to his woman, to all women, and to the differences that make couples work. Then it takes that thought to the logical conclusion of a blending of humanity that makes physical differences disappear. Then it offers hope that “maybe we’ll have all the fascists out of the way by then.” It’s a clever, yet powerful, song, especially given the recent years in America. I’m sure we’re farther away than he thought we’d be by 2020, but then again ten thousand years is a long, long time.

At My Window Sad and Lonely” is the type of sad, country song, with organ, dulcimer and acoustic guitar, that Wilco does brilliantly. “Ingrid Bergman” is a cute solo Bragg number about the movie star, reminiscent of his own works – just guitar and voice. “Christ for President” has good lyrics, but it really gets pretty repetitive.

“I Guess I Planted” breaks things up with a jazzy, bouncy beat and a dynamic melody. It’s practically a show tune.

As with “She Came Along to Me,” the lyrics start in one place and take you somewhere else. This time it’s about how a song starts as a seed of an idea, then becomes stronger when it’s put together with other songs. This leads into a terrific sing-along chorus about the Labor Movement, and what it’s done for everyone. There’s cool organ and a bit of lead guitar riffing throughout from Tweedy. It’s a great song, probably my favorite on the record.

Another beautiful sad number from Tweedy and Wilco, “One by One” flows like a wistful river, recounting a lost love. It’s the type of song never to listen to when you’re heartbroken. Or maybe it’s the best type. “Eisler on the Go” is a protest song from Bragg about HUAC victim Hahns Eisler, but I find it a bit too sleepy to connect with it.

Guthrie’s cute, mid-20th century takes on love and courtship are quite charming, and “Hesitating Beauty” falls into this genre. Tweedy wrote the classic, twanging music, and it’s fun one. The brief, yet deep, “Another Man’s Done Gone,” was written by Bragg, but its sorrowful content shines in Tweedy’s soulful croon.

The album closer “The Unwelcome Guest” is an instant classic.

It’s a first-person account of a mid-century American Robin Hood, a cowboy with a trusty horse, Black Bess. It may be the perfect blending of Guthrie, Bragg and Tweedy. The lyrics are deceptively simple. They have a moral center of The Common Good, but the narrator is doubtful of his actions. Yet he’s also sure they’ll continue after he’s gone – which is both hopeful (“My guns and my saddle/ Will always be filled/ By unwelcome travelers/ And other brave men/ And they’ll take the money/ And spread it out equal/ Just like the Bible/ And the prophets suggest”) and depressing (“But the men that go riding/ To help these poor workers/ The rich will cut down/ Like an unwelcome guest.”) Bragg’s unadorned voice is perfect for the character, and Tweedy’s thin harmony vocals provide a beautiful, mournful counterpoint.

Mermaid Avenue was a terrific idea, well-executed. Afterwards came Mermaid Avenue Vol. II and a box set with outtakes, Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions. Doubters, like me, were wrong. So go out and try to make your crazy creative ideas work. They might turn out better than you’d think!

TRACK LISTING:
Walt Whitman’s Niece
California Stars
Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key
Birds and Ships
Hoodoo Voodoo
She Came Along to Me
At My Window Sad and Lonely
Ingrid Bergman
Christ for President
I Guess I Planted
One by One
Eisler on the Go
Hesitating Beauty
Another Man’s Done Gone
The Unwelcome Guest

Share

Song #1003*: “Possum Kingdom,” by Toadies

Share

Possum Kingdom,” from the 1994 Toadies album Rubberneck.
Crunching, powerful weirdness on one-hit-wonder track.

(4 minute read)

*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.

In April of 1993, I attended Nirvana’s benefit Concert for Bosnian Rape Victims at the San Francisco Cow Palace. It was a tremendous, 4-hour show featuring L7, The Breeders, and the show-stealing Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Nirvana closed things with a full set, then about 10 minutes of feedback and horseplay. Immediately afterwards the stage went dark, and to clearly signal “No Encore” the house lights came on and a familiar song played over the speakers.

The song was “Sunshine Day,” by The Brady Bunch kids. All of us Gen-X fans in the crowd went nuts and sang along. We’d grown up with the early 70s TV show, and we recognized that a) it was campy bullshit; but b) it was also a really great song! The track in that post-mayhem context tickled our strong love of Letterman-esque irony. But it also catered to our real fondness for cheesy, 70s AM radio pop. That feeling of “the-70s-were-so-bad-but-I-love-them!,” is one I’ve maintained. I love the “Have a Nice Day!” bubblegum pop from my 70s youth, and the one-hit-wonders of the era particularly stand out.

Looking Glass, King Harvest, Paper Lace, Starbuck, Hues Corporation, Pilot, Blue Swede … These acts are far from household names, but their songs – “Brandy,” “Dancing in the Moonlight,” “The Night Chicago Died,” “Moonlight Feels Right,” “Rock the Boat,” “Magic,” and “Hooked on a Feeling,” respectively – live on. There were dozens of others. It seemed like anybody in the 70s with a sleepy electric piano, or sheepdog hair, or a hippy-chick voice, or a catchy hook was guaranteed a week or two in the Top 20. One-hit-wonders have existed as long as the pop charts, but 70s AM radio hits resonate with me.

Just like that Nirvana concert demonstrated, early 90s music fans loved the 70s! And I think early 90s alt-rock coincidentally reflected the 70s in the proliferation of one-hit wonders. Between 1993 and 1998, I had a 40-minute commute to work in the Bay Area. On the alt-rock radio station6 Live 105, a single song7 from each of the following acts got significant airplay:

Sponge, Filter, eels, Fastball, Veruca Salt, Harvey Danger, Del Amitri, Luscious Jackson, Marcy Playground, Eve 6, Seven Mary Three, Sister Hazel, Letters to Cleo, Better Than Ezra, Elastica, Republica, Dishwalla, Candlebox, Cornershop, Semisonic, Spacehog, Jamiroquai, Natalie Imbruglia, Tracy Bonham, Meredith Brooks, Abra Moore, Edwyn Collins, Eagle-Eye Cherry, Blind Melon, Primitive Radio Gods, Collective Soul, Soul Coughing, New Radicals, Deep Blue Something, White Town, Silverchair, The Cardigans, The Rentals, The Verve, The Verve Pipe, OMC, Local H, Chumbawumba, Nada Surf, Dog’s Eye View, Imperial Teen, Jars of Clay, and Sneaker Pimps. Other established acts, like The Butthole Surfers and The Meat Puppets, finally got one song on the radio. The brief, weird fascination with swing dancing, new ska and old-timey music meant one song each for bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Reel Big Fish and Squirrel Nut Zippers.

But my favorite one-hit wonder from the era8 is “Possum Kingdom,” from Toadies. The Texas band named the song after a lake and recreation area near their home, and they crafted a story about a vampire stalking its shores and boathouses. The first time I heard the song, I joined in the middle, and heard singer Vaden Todd Lewis asking, over and over, “Do you wanna die?” I thought, “This song sucks.” But after hearing it again, I realized it was just a horror story. The narrator is a vampire, not a proponent of suicide. I put aside my derision and just enjoyed the music.

Because the music fucking rocks. First of all, the opening riff establishes at once that the song is in an alternating 7/8 & 8/8 meter! As a fan of Rush and Yes and prog-rock, to hear a punkish band go full-on 15/8 (if you will) gets me excited9. The intro vocals include spooky delay and reverb, and it’s hard to tell where things are going. Until 0:25, when Lisa Umbarger’s bass enters, and Darrell Herbert’s lead guitar begins its curling, feedback-driven assault.

“Possum Kingdom” is great because of how it consistently builds and releases. In the second verse there’s a sort of plodding feel that quickly turns foreboding as Lewis sings “I’ll show you my dark secret,” and Herbert’s guitar re-enters. At 1:11, Lewis jumps an octave, and the energy is kicked up further, with drummer Mark Reznicek leading the charge. The chorus (1:27) has a clever, satisfying chord progression that resolves on Lewis’s “so help me Jesus.”

The power of changing dynamics (the “quiet, loud, quiet”) was a key feature of alt-rock and grunge. It was popularized by Nirvana, who admitted to swiping it from Pixies. Toadies use it to perfection on “Possum Kingdom.” Maybe it’s the continued, hiccuping 15/8 beat, or the creepy lyrics, or the simple, Jaws-music bass, but there’s a paranoia to the quiet verses that makes the loud choruses, when they arrive, feel like both danger and relief.

At about 2:30, the bridge (“give it up to me”) begins, which is either in 20/8, or a combination of 6/8s and 4/4. I don’t know enough music theory to tell. But I do know it adds to the ominous feeling of the song. At 3:16 there’s feedback and the band begins the long climb – you can almost feel the mosh pit preparing to explode – to the song’s final, uber-satisfying release at 4:23.

“Possum Kingdom” winds down, ending with a sort of sigh from the guitar. I always feel like I’ve been through an ordeal at the end. I myself don’t like to work out, but maybe this is the feeling exercisers enjoy afterwards? Toadies may have only ever had one hit, but of all the songs from those artists listed above, it’s my favorite.

Share

Album #117: Maggot Brain, by Funkadelic

Share

Maggot Brain
1971, Westbound Records. Producer: George Clinton.
In My Collection: Spotify, 2015.

IN A NUTSHELL: Maggot Brain is a 70s hard rock jam fest, and it’s got all the stuff I love from a rock band from that era: big drums, strong grooves, and searing guitar solos. With just enough funk to keep my butt shaking, it’s the love child of Black Sabbath and Stevie Wonder. Eddie Hazel’s guitar is the hero of the day, and Tiki Fulwood’s drumming is astounding. Its quick seven songs really pack a wallop.

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 60.

Way, way back, 100 years ago, in 2017, when I wrote about my 37th Favorite Album, The Who’s Who’s Next, I noted that rock fans of the 70s and 80s (like me) often harbored animosity against other forms of music. Bigotry was a large component of that animosity. Growing up in a narrow-minded place and time, I was subtly taught by otherwise good people around me to disdain non-whites. I learned to camouflage it with performative tolerance, but I vigilantly maintained an identity for the white people around me. Among some of these white music fans, listening to the wrong style of music could dent my rock bona fides.

I heard many of them use an ugly term for some off-limits music, and even though I never used the phrase, I knew it meant anything by a Black artist who wasn’t Jimi Hendrix. So I missed out on some awesome music, probably the least important consequence of that cultural education. I don’t necessarily mean pop and R&B – styles that, whatever the artist’s ethnicity, didn’t connect with me. But a lot of music that I might have really loved eluded me, and Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain is a case-in-point. As a teen-ager who loved music with a screaming guitar and a great big beat, and who didn’t give a shit about lyrics, I would have found a lot to love on it!

George Clinton, the leader of Funkadelic, is the kind of flamboyant musician I might have loved, too. He’s better known as the leader of Parliament-Funkadelic, or P-Funk, and it took years for me to figure out that it’s two different bands: Parliament and Funkadelic. (They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 as “Parliament-Funkadelic.”) In the early 90s I picked up the Greatest Hits record “Uncut Funk,” seemingly attributed to P-Funk, and loved it. It turns out it’s actually Parliament’s Greatest Hits, and has no music from Funkadelic. (As an aside, the Parliament song “Flashlight” is the song my wife and I consider to be “our song.”)

Parliament was R&B-oriented, whereas Funkadelic was psychedelic rock. And as a testament to Funkadelic’s modus operandi, they intentionally cut the album Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow to see what happened when everyone involved in its creation was tripping on LSD during the process. Other albums included The Electric Spanking of War Babies, America Eats Its Young, Cosmic Slop, and Hardcore Jollies. (Click that link and listen to “Hardcore Jollies” – it’s like Grand Funk Railroad, if they actually played funk.)

Everything about the band’s albums screams “whacked out on mind-altering drugs:” the artwork, the titles, the production. When I first encountered the Maggot Brain album cover (which, yes, appears to be a screaming woman’s head emerging from a pile of maggot-infested dirt) in my friend’s collection, I asked what it sounded like. “A bunch of Black funk-rockers on acid,” he replied. I can’t say he wasn’t accurate.

The title track is a virtuoso guitar solo by Eddie Hazel, and it’s an epic sonic journey, the type of track that rarely opens a record. But Funkadelic does things their own way, so why not? (In case you’re wondering whether psychedelics were ingested during the recording of this album, the answer is “yes.” The proof is in the opening spoken word section …)

This song shows up on all kinds of best-guitar-solos-ever lists. Hazel’s guitar has an amazing tone, and it’s placed at the forefront of the mix. Other instruments reverberate in the background, as Hazel channels Hendrix and anticipates Eddie Van Halen. The solo bounces between speakers, delayed and distorted, and the experience of listening, particularly on headphones, is pleasantly disorienting. If you hang on, it’ll take you places.

There’s nothing at all “funky” about the song “Maggot Brain.” The funk remains muted on the next track, “Can You Get to That,” a slow groove that sounds a bit like something from The Band, even down to the shambling, homespun lyrics.

George Clinton started his career as a doo-wop artist, and the vocal arrangement here definitely harkens back to it. His original doo-wop buddy, bass “Sting Ray” Davis, sings a sticky “I wanna know,” while backing vocalists Patsy Lewis, Diane Lewis and Rose Williams share lead vocal duties (kind of). The next number, “Hit It and Quit It,” sounds like it could almost be a Lynyrd Skynyrd demo. It’s built on a Hazel riff and calliope-esque organ from Bernie Worell, and at 2:50 has a soaring guitar solo. The lyrics express a desire for some mama to undertake the effort to “hit it” and then, in direct fashion, “quit it.” They also allow for said mama to “shake it” in a bidirectional fashion, perhaps even for dinner, and then to spread it all around. That’s about the extent of it.

But the lyrics on Maggot Brain can be meaningful, as on the social commentary number “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks.” It’s about two people from different backgrounds falling in love. The sound reverberates strangely, but it’s an infectious groove driven by Worrell’s piano. The chorus melody is really catchy, which is always a plus for me, and it may be my favorite on the record.

Then again, there’s a lot to be said for “Super Stupid.”.

The intro solo from Hazel is very much in an Eddie Van Halen vein, and in fact the entire song could be a DLR-era Van Halen number. The brief lyrics, about the foolishness of street drugs (believe it or not), have the thrown-together feel of that band. Hazel is also the vocalist10, and his bark-don’t-sing approach is very much in the David Lee Roth style. Tiki Fulwood’s drums, particularly the syncopated bass drum, sound like they come directly from Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. But the hero here is Hazel, who plays unbelievable solos at 1:35, and again at 2:42. It’s actually one long solo that ends the song with crafty pyrotechnics.

After that sonic wonder, the simplicity of “Back In Our Minds” is like a mid-meal sorbet. It’s another loose, Band-ish jam with boings and jaw harp, and its lyrics seem to advocate NOT using drugs. As a former trombonist in my high school marching band, I must point out the excellent trombone solo by McKinley Jackson that ends the number.

The closing number of the short masterpiece that is Maggot Brain is “Wars of Armageddon,” a psychedelic freak-out that – to be honest – probably would’ve scared the teenaged me, regardless of the band’s racial makeup. It’s a straight-up riff-based jam, with guitar and organ solos, and more incredible drums from Fulwood. There are strange noises – babies, cuckoo clocks, TV shows, flatulence – and they could’ve been pulled from a Pink Floyd song (except for the farts.) It sort of has lyrics, but they’re really just more snippets of noise. But I’ll tell you what: if this is what the Wars of Armageddon will sound like, I’m showing up to listen.

Maggot Brain is excellent. There’s so much going on in those seven songs that it requires multiple listenings. It’s a record that will please any guitar rock fan, regardless of where or when or how they grew up.

TRACK LISTING:
Maggot Brain
Can You Get to That
Hit It and Quit It
You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks
Super Stupid
Back In Our Minds
Wars of Armageddon

Share

Song #1002*: “No Second Thoughts,” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

Share

No Second Thoughts,” from the 1978 Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album You’re Gonna Get It!
Subtlety and sadness, and a different sound from Tom.

*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.

Number 11 on my 100 Favorite Albums List is Damn the Torpedoes, by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. When I wrote about that album, I realized that I probably should’ve had more than one Tom Petty album on my list. He’s an artist that put out so much good music over such a long period of time that I tended to forget about how much I really like his songs.

But it’s not just the songs. I also like the sound. When I think of Petty, I think of Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell, and his uniquely creative guitar playing. You hear it on upbeat rockers, like “American Girl,” and “Refugee,” and “Change of Heart.” Or his perfect phrasing in slower numbers like “You Got Lucky” or “A Woman in Love,” or “Breakdown.” Then there’s the subtle organ of Benmont Tench. It’s on songs like “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Letting You Go.” And how about original drummer/ backing vocalist Stan Lynch? Just check out “Shadow of a Doubt!”

Also, there are the lyrics. Petty is a great lyricist. He’s one of those “turn-of-a-phrase” guys, like Elvis Costello, but not so flashy. He can put together a line or two that will break your heart, or make it soar. “… I showed you stars you never could see,” from “Even the Losers.” “… I can tell the whole wide world to shove it!” from “Here Comes My Girl.” (However, I am still a bit salty that he ripped off The Replacements‘ Paul Westerberg’s “Rebel Without a Clue” line, from “I’ll Be You.”) He’s also adept at story songs, with a knack for letting the listener fill in the details.

So, take all those great sounds and put them together with Petty lyrics delivered in that distinctive voice, and you’ve got yourself a thrilling, boisterous, helluva good time. But what if you strip away all those sounds? What if it’s only some acoustic guitar and Tom’s voice on cleverly sparse lyrics? Throw in some bongoes and weird bass guitar sounds and you’ll have “No Second Thoughts.” I think it’s as good as anything the band’s ever done.

It starts with the tape machine turning on, giving the song the feeling of an afterthought, as if the recording engineer decided to capture an off-the-cuff performance. The arrangement is sparse, with Petty and Campbell strumming acoustic guitars, Lynch banging on bongoes, and bassist Ron Blair playing an odd, but really cool, bass line that sometimes sounds like two instruments. (I think he may be finger-picking, and allowing low notes to ring while he plucks higher strings?) Not much else happens musically. Around 1:27 Campbell plays some extra acoustic lines, and organist Tench plays a final chord, but otherwise it’s just vocals.

The lyrics describe a woman on a beach leaving her husband to run off with another man. Her “silent partner” is presumably the narrator of the song. In the second verse, she seems to be getting cold feet, asking him to help “cast this evil down.” In the chorus, the narrator explains they’re almost free, and should arrive with no second thoughts. In the last verse, she says it sure seems like they’ve driven really far…

It doesn’t sound like much of a story, but Petty’s voice conveys a sadness that carries the song’s weight. And the harmony vocals on “ooh yeah,” and on the final verse (I’m guessing sung by Lynch?), add depth to the feeling. Petty makes clear that both people in the song are actually having serious second thoughts. The lyrics read as if the narrator is affirming and supporting his partner, inspiring her to cast away her apprehension. But the song in total doesn’t sound like that. To me, the song is really about the futility of promising to have “no second thoughts.” Second thoughts abound in this song, in both characters. The woman immediately feels like they’re doing evil and then admits they’ve gone too far. The man never really sells the idea that everything will be fine.

“No Second Thoughts” is a short song full of subtle emotion, backed by cool sounds. It’s not the type of track that reaches out and grabs you. It’s more the type that quietly burrows deep inside you.

The song wasn’t a single, but was the B-side to “I Need to Know.” I first heard it when I bought You’re Gonna Get It! 10 or 15 years ago. It’s been a favorite of mine ever since. It’s different from a lot of other Tom Petty songs, but it captures something about him that made him special.

Share

Album #116: It’s a Shame About Ray, by The Lemonheads

Share

It’s a Shame About Ray
1992, Atlantic. Producer: The Robb Brothers.
In My Collection: CD, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: It’s a Shame About Ray is a Generation-X jangle-fest. Great melodies, cool lyrics, and even some lead guitar now and then. There’s much to love here, even though it clocks in at under 30 minutes. It’s certainly a showcase for Evan Dando’s easy facility with melodies and hooks. The songs are super short, but they’re so packed with hooks that if they were longer they’d verge on cloying. As a Gen-Xer myself, I’m proud to have Dando and The Lemonheads on our team!

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 50.

A year ago or so, the whole “OK, Boomer,” thing went wild around the internets. Teens and young adults mocked the outdated, bigoted ideas of many from the Baby Boomer generation by dismissing them with these clever two words. It’s a modern-day “Don’t trust anyone over 30” which, deliciously, targeted the originators of that 60s slogan, and I loved it. Except when my teenaged daughter would say it to me!

“Listen!” I’d say, “I don’t mind that you’re dismissing my opinion, but DON’T CALL ME A BOOMER! I was born in ’67 – I’m a Gen-X-er! I’ve been hating Boomers since at least 1989!” (Not all Boomers! Shout-out to Sandy, one of my most steadfast and engaged readers, who even helped me with my novel! She’s a great person with a terrific husband, Joe!) Collectively, the Boomers did some good things, but mostly they selfishly ravaged the planet while Kumbaya-ing all over themselves to cover up their smug, bullshit back-patting. As a true Gen-X-er, it makes me so angry that I shake my head and say, “Whatever.”

And while I agree that they listened to the greatest band ever11, the often-espoused idea that good rock and pop began and ended with the Boomers is just one more example of why I think they’re generally a bunch of whiny frauds. Every generation makes great music, and one of the touchstones for Generation X music is The Lemonheads’ 1992 release It’s a Shame About Ray.

The Lemonheads, a Boston band, are essentially Evan Dando, plus a rotating cast of supporting musicians. Dando was kind of the grunge-ish, Gen-X version of a teen idol. Instead of the pre-fab, sparkling, unthreatening, beautiful teen-agers that generations past, and future, would foist upon the world, our team said, “here’s a shaggy, creative, beautiful young man, instead. Oh, and he’s a drug addict. Whatever.” But regardless of anything else he was (watch Dando charm David Letterman and his audience in 1992 – he really seemed to have the whole package…) Evan Dando wrote excellent songs!

The first song I remember hearing from It’s a Shame About Ray was the lead track, “Rockin’ Stroll,” a song about a baby in a stroller with a video about a baby in a stroller. It’s a minute-forty-five of total kick-ass.

The tumbling guitar riff is tight, and lyrics about a baby seemed so cool in 1992! The hookiness of the song can’t be denied, and it’s a characteristic of the entire album. These songs get stuck in your head, even if they can be difficult to sing along to. For a long time I sang the next song, “Confetti,” as “Hey, kindly share a soda with a lover or a cola.” My sister pointed out that the actual words, about unrequited love, were much better than that. David Ryan’s drums in the song are great, as is Dando’s guitar solo (1:45), a rarity for early-90s rock.

The songs on the album are short, all under 3:00, but they’re all such concentrated nuggets of pop charm that if they were any longer they’d overwhelm. The title track, with a video featuring another Gen-X heartthrob, fits a cool guitar riff, a great chord progression, and a note that sounds like it’s held for 12 bars (“Raa-aaa-aayy”) into a pleasing little gem. 100FaveAlbum member Juliana Hatfield plays bass on the album and sings backing vocals, as well. “Rudderless” has another great chord progression (two, actually), and more Hatfield backing vocals. Lyrically, it expresses experiencing life in a druggie malaise (“Hope in my past …”)

If folks were ever shocked about the fact that Dando became so hooked on drugs12, they weren’t listening closely to his song’s lyrics.

“My Drug Buddy,” again with Hatfield, is a flat-out celebration of the camaraderie of drug use. Its organ riff is lovely, and the singalong melody is terrific. But as “The Turnpike Down” demonstrates, melody was never a problem for The Lemonheads. I don’t know what the lyrics are about, but it’s fun to sing “Butterscotch street lamps/ Mark my path!” “Bit Part” is lyrically far more direct, as the clamorous spoken-word opening makes clear. It’s a short song asking for a role in someone’s life.

It’s not just melody that makes Dando more than a pretty face. As “Alison’s Starting to Happen” demonstrates, he can also write some great lyrics.

Couplets like “I never looked at her this way before/ Now she’s all I see,” and, one of the best lines ever, “She’s the puzzle piece behind the couch/ that makes the sky complete,” are nearly XTC-level cleverness. The drums are great throughout, and I love the clanking bottles and cans in the wordless bridge. “Hannah & Gabi,” a Country tune with unspecific lyrics13, has a really nice acoustic guitar intro from Dando and slide guitar from Steely Dan and Doobie Bros. veteran Jeff “the Skunk” Baxter. It’s a great song that breaks up the sound.

Then it’s back to the peppy jangle with “Kitchen.”

Great bass from Hatfield, fun hand-claps, and, at 1:18, some groovy ooo-bop-bops. It’s a rom-com song, reminiscing about the meet-cute in the kitchen. “Ceiling Fan in my Spoon” is a quick, thumping rocker, and about as close to the band’s punk roots as they would get by 1992. There are once again “bop-bops” in a chorus that’s catchy as hell. (No idea what it’s about, though.)

And I guess, despite my anti-Boomerism, I have to give it to them for the musical Hair14, which gave us “Frank Mills,” the last song on the record. It’s a cute acoustic version. Covering childhood memories is very Gen-X. Which is probably why Dando covered “Mrs. Robinson,” even though he hates the song and Paul Simon15.

The song was recorded to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Graduate, but wasn’t on It’s a Shame About Ray. Dando didn’t want it on the album. But, once it became a hit, the Boomers in charge of Atlantic Records tacked the song onto the end of the record anyway. The creeps. I have an early edition of the CD, WITHOUT the song, and I’m proud of that. Which is a weird thing to be proud of. But whatever.

TRACK LISTING:
Rockin’ Stroll
Confetti
It’s a Shame About Ray
Rudderless
My Drug Buddy
The Turnpike Down
Bit Part
Alison’s Starting to Happen
Hannah & Gabi
Kitchen
Ceiling Fan in My Spoon
Frank Mills
BONUS TRACK (not on my CD):
Mrs. Robinson

Share

Song #1001*: “Not Too Soon,” by Throwing Muses

Share

Not Too Soon,” from the 1991 Throwing Muses album The Real Ramona.
Guitars, growls, and girl-group gusto!

*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.

In 2018, I wrote a super-long, quite in-depth, shoulda-maybe-had-an-editor-but-I-do-this-for-free-so-bite-me piece about my obsession with certain songs. That post is about my 100 Fave Album Star, by Belly. (Go check it out! I’ll wait.) Song obsession is a jumping off point for that album because I’ve probably been obsessed with Throwing Muses’ “Not Too Soon” longer than any other song16. The song introduced me to Belly, as Belly leader Tanya Donelly wrote and sang it for Throwing Muses, her other band, the one with with her step-sister Kristin Hersh.

From the opening, furiously strummed, fuzzy electric chords, and Donelly’s committed opening word, “She …” the song has a certain distorted, singular sound that I love. It’s not just those chunky guitars and soft-but-hard voice. It’s also the drum beat, by drummer Dave Narcizo, a wizard who rarely uses cymbals. (Take a look at the video – his kit only has one cymbal, a high-hat. Or does that count as two?) It’s a modern (for 1991) take on the classic “Girl Group” sound of the 60s, in which bands with names like The Ronnettes, The Shirelles, The Shangri-las, and, of course, The Supremes would harmonize about their men over a thump like a Roman warship time-keeper.

“Not Too Soon” has multiple overdubbed guitars played by Donelly and main Muse, Hersh. They bow out during the chorus, allowing that girl-group thump (and a few haunting wails) to support the antagonist/boy in the song’s lyrics. “It’s not too soon, he said/ it’s not too soon at all/ You might as well be dead, he said/ If you’re afraid to fall.”

Then comes the killer hook: five words, stretched over four bars (“I said, ‘I know her'”) then four bars of Tanya’s growling, purring vocal riff. It’s catchy as hell, and as the songs move along, the guitar will frequently repeat that riff. In the second verse a few more guitars are added, and we hear the girl’s perspective, clearly baffled by the boy’s interest. “Why do you stare so hard/ Wrapped up like a doll in bad dreams and broken arms?”

When I wrote about the Belly album Star, I mentioned my love of Donelly’s lyrics. They’re very Steely Dan-ish, impressionist verbal paintings that give you just enough detail so your brain can fill in the rest of the story. In the case of “Not Too Soon,” it sounds as if Donelly, the narrator, is observing an interaction between a boy and a girl. And she’s clearly been in the girl’s situation before (“I know her…”) It may even be a story about herself. It’s enough to “Make these old bones shiver …”

The boy’s pressuring the girl (For sex? Commitment? As a former boy, I’d guess sex.) The girl, inexperienced (“colorblind”) yet intrigued (“her hallway aching”), is clearly not interested (“she’ll never move him – likes it that way”). The boy appears to “fall apart” in the spoken bridge. This is when the guitar really runs through that catchy-as-hell riff, sounding watery and distant and super cool. Donelly was the band’s usual lead guitarist, but a live video shows Hersh playing the riff, so I don’t know who plays it on the song. The boy offers one more plea – restating that “it’s not too soon,” and “you might as well be dead … instead of afraid to ‘fall17.'”

And then Donelly finally, in a gush of words, lets him have it: “Done your time, been in your place/ I couldn’t look you in the face/ And tell you that it turns me on/ It makes my stomach turn!/ I know her!” Look dude! I’ve been there! I know her! She’s saying “No!” It repulses her!

OR??!! Did the girl fall apart in the bridge? It’s not clear. Did the girl, against her better judgment, give in to the boy? Is Donelly’s stomach turning because she’s been there and remembers the pain of caving in? Is she saying, “Look, upon reflection, I cannot honestly say I really liked that experience!”

I don’t know, but the song kicks ass, regardless. It conjures memories of my old band playing at The Melody Bar, in New Brunswick, NJ, and chatting with Matt Pinfield as he spun cool songs like this one. “Not Too Soon” is a sound and a feeling and I’m still obsessed with it.

Share

Album #115: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, by David Bowie

Share

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
1972, Epic. Producers: Ken Scott and David Bowie.
In My Collection: CD, 2015.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a glam-rock, guitar-feast masterpiece. The songs range from ballads and cabaret to screaming rock ‘n rollers. Always melodic, David Bowie’s remarkable voice carries the album. He sells every ounce of every song about Ziggy, the space alien, bisexual, rock-star savior who put together a band to save Earth. It’s not exactly Puccini, but I saw La Boheme at The Met, and that story didn’t make much sense either.

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 30.

Here’s a big shout-out to Sully, a co-worker at a biofuels lab ten years ago who told me I’d really like Ziggy Stardust. Sully is almost exactly my age, and had an eerily similar upbringing to mine. This, apparently, aligned our musical tastes as well. He was one of the first people with whom I’d shared an early version of my 100 Favorite Albums list. At that point it was a bulleted email of otherwise perfect albums ruined by one bad song18. I also emailed him a list of Unexpectedly Great Albums, including titles such as Billy Squier’s Don’t Say No and Buckcherry’s Time Bomb.

A person whose co-worker shares weird lists of albums with them and DOESN’T immediately run away or call HR is clearly a very decent human being. One who actually engages in the lists is a kindred spirit. And in recommending Ziggy Stardust to me, Sully clearly understood what I’d like in a record. It’s terrific.

As an AOR music fan in the 70s and 80s, I thought of David Bowie as the weird uncle of Classic Rock. The adults felt compelled to invite him to Christmas parties, and everyone chatted with him and smiled, but you could tell he made them all uncomfortable. He’d laugh and make jokes you didn’t understand, and ask you to come close so he could see how big you’d grown. You’d grin warily and softly answer “Fine,” when he asked you how school was going. Then he’d leave early, and everyone enthusiastically shouted “‘bye!” and breathed a sigh of relief. He was part of the family, but only sort of.

As an adult you finally realize that the uncle had switched faiths, or gone to college, or was gay, or a union leader, or didn’t go hunting, or in any case had done something that set him apart from everyone else. And whatever that something was, you also realize that the rest of your family were just as weird, or weirder than, him. You’d also want to learn more about him.

Such is David Bowie. He was definitely invited to the party that Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kansas and Led Zeppelin and Van Halen were having on 70s FM rock radio, but he sure made them uncomfortable. He was in the family because some of his songs had fuzzy, squawking guitars or really cool lead guitar. But then some were sort of synthesizer-y or R&B or disco or just weird. And some were, like, a combination of all that. Then there was the whole “Is he gay?” thing, which in that era surely turned off some folks. In those less-enlightened days, rock fans pretty much assumed Freddie Mercury was gay, and just ignored it. But with Bowie, there was a feeling that he could be gay, straight, or some other orientation that had yet to be considered19, which seemed much scarier. But still, he was at the party.

Given his weird-uncle status, I never really connected with him as a young rock fan. I enjoyed some of his songs on the radio, and I loved his Queen duet, “Under Pressure.” When he repackaged himself for MTV with 1983’s Let’s Dance album, I thought “Modern Love” was great, but I mostly liked that he hired Stevie Ray Vaughan to play guitar for him. I had a couple of his Greatest Hits cassettes, but I didn’t buy an album until Sully pointed the way.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a concept album, a sort of rock opera. I like many such projects (The Wall, American Idiot) and have even created them from albums that weren’t intended to be (Give the People What They Want). But I never get too caught up in the stories, as their narratives can often be described as disjointed, at best. In this case, Ziggy Stardust is an alien sent to Earth to save it from an apocalypse that’s described in the lyrics of the opener, “Five Years.”

Five years remain for life on Earth. No reason is given, but it’s a sufficiently sad song for such a topic. It starts and ends with a ticking-clock drumbeat, a nice touch. There’s plenty of orchestra to underpin the emotion, but it doesn’t go overboard, and Bowie uses his best “Heroes-y,” heartache-y voice. It’s a great opener.

Soul Love” has a flamenco/tango feel, with an off-kilter time signature that keeps the song gently hiccuping along. The lyrics describe the different forms love takes, and it’s not clear, exactly, how this fits into the greater narrative (Is Ziggy singing it? Are the nearly-annihilated Earthlings?) but that’s to be expected in these rock operas. The song does set the stage for “Moonage Daydream,” the introduction of that “alligator, mama-papa, space invader, rock ‘n roll bitch,” Ziggy Stardust, who somehow will save Earth with his freak-outs. And Earth is pretty psyched, too, as “Starman” indicates. It’s a strumming folk tune, almost, with a nice, simple bass. The lyrics are short on specifics, but this savior’s plan does include letting all the children boogie. (Hey, look, when you have five years left, you’ll try anything, I guess.)

I’ve thrown a lot of snarky comments in here about the story, but let me say this: story-schmory. The songs on the album are awesome. Mick Ronson’s guitar sound is cool throughout, the songs are catchy and really well-produced. And Bowie can sell any lyric, even those extolling the Hoochie-Koochie woman who helps Ziggy get to Earth. I think that’s what “It Ain’t Easy” is about? Anyway, it has cool slide guitar that I really like. “Lady Stardust” sounds like an Elton John number, with Mick Ronson playing piano. Bowie sings about a drag queen, presumably Ziggy, who blows the audience away with her performance. I really like the sing-along “all right.”

It’s never clear how or why, but Ziggy has to form a band to save Earth. “Star,” a rocking number, perhaps my favorite on the record, describes the process. Bowie’s voice presages the new-wave stylings of Gary Numan and Devo, and there’s a cool bridge. The backing vocals are great, and drummer Mick Woodmansey really shows his skills! If “Star” isn’t my favorite song, then it’s probably “Hang Onto Yourself,” a Ramones-ish, glam-rock workout.

The bass from Trevor Bolder is high and tight, hurtling the song forward. The song could fit perfectly on a New York Dolls album. The lyrics, again, don’t exactly, continue the story. Ziggy is having a great time in the band and enjoying the groupies, including a funky thigh collector with whom he moves like tigers on vaseline. No specifics are provided on how such high jinks are helping, or hurting, his whole Earth-saving mission.

One has to suspect Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls based his look, in part, on Trevor Bolder (l).

However, “Ziggy Stardust” pretty clearly explains that the experience is getting out of hand. Although the song is about a space alien drag queen rocker, it could probably describe any of a number of debauched, strung-out 70s rocker. It’s one of Bowie’s best-known, and coolest, songs. Mick Ronson’s guitar tone and riff are perfect, and Bolder’s ranging bass supports it brilliantly. Woodmansey’s drums sound really cool, too. And it flows perfectly into “Suffragette City,” another of Bowie’s most celebrated numbers. The story seems to have completely broken down at this point. I don’t know what a Suffragette City is20, or how it relates to Ziggy saving the world. But it’s a cool song, for sure, with nice horns and piano.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” is, musically, a perfect album closer. It’s sort of a show tune, a jazzy cabaret-style number driven by Bowie’s sparkling voice. There’s a nice 50s-style, watery guitar in the background, as the song builds to Ziggy shouting “you’re not alone!” at 2:15. It’s great, but lyrically it doesn’t really wrap up the story. It seems Ziggy is dying? But all he’s really done for Earthlings is tell them they’re not alone? (Story aside, I’m sure the lyrics have been helpful to depressive Bowie fans for the past 48 years, which is a positive thing!)

But regardless of the story, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a brilliant album. It covers a lot of territory, musically, and the sound and performances are killer. I’d like to publicly thank Sully for encouraging me to pick it up! He’s a great guy, and he still reads this blog (I think). You’ll sometime see his comments after posts!

TRACK LISTING:
Five Years
Soul Love
Moonage Daydream
Starman
It Ain’t Easy
Lady Stardust
Star
Hang Onto Yourself
Ziggy Stardust
Suffragette City
Rock ‘n Roll Suicide

Share

Song #1000*: “Freedom! ’90” by George Michael

Share

Freedom! ’90”, from the 1990 George Michael album Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1.
It’s amazing how direct George Michael was in these lyrics.

*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.

Back in 1990, if you’d time-traveled from today to tell me about it, I’d say, “You’re lying. You’re telling me 2020 America has a rotten, infantile grifter in charge, and, having botched its response to a pandemic, is now stripped of all its global prestige, influence and esteem, and on the precipice of a fraudulent fascist takeover by a tiny minority of white people who just 5 years ago thought tyranny was a national exercise program for kids21?” But even more unbelievable to the 1990, 23-year-old me would be the fact that George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” is now a favorite ‘oldie’ of mine.

By October, 1990, George Michael was truly a pop music titan. His 5-year run on the pop charts had already produced nine American Number 1 Hits and fourteen total Top Ten Hits with both the UK act Wham!22 and as a solo artist23. All but one of those songs were written and produced by him, an impressive feat by any measure.

And despite all of his success, I could not express to you the magnitude of the fuck I did not give. (That’s a line from the amazing comedian DJ Hazard.) I was not interested in Top 40 music. I was in many ways at war with it, and I actively, aggressively, disliked any non-guitar, non-rockin’ music24.

As for Michael, I knew he was super-successful, but I hadn’t been paying attention. What I gleaned about this next smash record, “Freedom! ’90,” from watching MTV (and just being part of the US culture) was that this song was a kind of rebuke. It was supposed to express his weariness with a wretched music industry and the demands of worldwide fame. The video famously featured his iconic Faith-era accoutrements – leather jacket, Gretsch guitar, and fancy jukebox – being lit on fire and blown to bits. He, apparently, was shockingly biting the hand that had fed him, gnawing it off, even, and had no fucks left to give.

“Oh, puh-leeze,” I thought. “Waa-waa-waa.” Perhaps because of my lower-middle-class upbringing, I’m skeptical of any such complaints from wealthy folks. Upon hearing the song and watching the video in 1990, I thought, “Nobody is this upset about success. This song is bullshit.” Totally catchy, sure, and a non-guitar song that I sort of liked, but bullshit. I knew all artists grow, and change, and sure, even The Beatles came to find their early mop-top years rather embarrassing. But they weren’t setting their collarless suits ablaze25.

Still, I’ve always found the song catchy. About 15 years ago I heard it in the car and paid attention to the words, and I realized I was right all those years ago. To my ears, the song isn’t really a condemnation of showbiz hollowness and selling out. It’s partly about that, but given George Michael’s life story I think “Freedom! ’90” is a coming-out anthem from a closeted gay man.

Musically, it’s a funky groove that lifts the oft-sampledFunky Drummer” drums from James Brown and puts them beneath a syncopated piano reminiscent of 60s Motown. Michael’s voice enters softly on a slice of the chorus, and he immediately tries to set both the listener (“I won’t let you down …”) and himself (“Gotta have some faith in the sound”) at ease. He reveals the despair that living a phony persona has brought him: he now thinks the sound is “the one good thing that I got.” He begs the listener not to abandon him: “Please don’t give me up/ … I would really love to stick around.”

If you’ve come out, or maybe especially if you’re closeted, I imagine the fear presented in this opening is familiar. “What will all the folks I’ve known think of me when they know?” If you’ve had friends or loved-ones come out, you probably recognize it, too. And if, like me, your own homophobia was thawed and evaporated by the experience, you may remember feeling a bit confused, even ashamed, as you realize this new fact has absolutely no bearing on your relationship with the other person. Throughout the song, this idea that nothing’s changed – despite everything changing – is drilled home.

As the song builds, those opening words are developed and become the refrain. Look, listener, he’s not who you think he is, okay? But he won’t let you down! Trust his sound – it worked on those 14 Top Ten hits the past 5 years, right? He doesn’t belong to you, and you don’t belong to him. He only wants the freedom (Freedom! Freedom!) to be himself, so why should that change your love for his music? The bridge (at 4:30; “Well it looks like the road to heaven …”) sums things up beautifully. It ends with a powerful “Sometimes the clothes DO NOT make the man!” and the lyrics that started as a bashful suggestion become a forceful insistence. He’s no longer asking your permission with those words, he’s telling you it’s how it’s going to be. It’s a pretty stunning feat, lyrically and musically. As the song fades he announces, “May not be what you want from me/ Just the way it’s got to be.”

The verses are great, too, a typical story of chasing a dream and making compromises along the way. He gives a nice shout-out to luckiest-man-alive-candidate Andrew Ridgeley (“what a kick, just my buddy and me”), his childhood friend and Wham! bandmate who smiled charmingly and wore cool clothes and wisely sat back and let his talented mate take over26. (Too bad John Fogerty’s bandmates in Creedence Clearwater Revival didn’t have his example back in the 70s.) Plus Michael acknowledges that it was all a lot of fun! He was living the dream and loving it (“we were living in a fantasy/ we won the race, got out of the place”). But over time it got old, and now he realizes what he really wants is happiness. He doesn’t want to pretend to be someone he’s not, and that doesn’t seem like an audacious request.

The music remains funky throughout, and Michael himself plays that bouncing bass line. During the bridge there’s a nifty wah-wah guitar from ace session man Phil Palmer. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a second to mention the video. As a heterosexual young man in 1990, it’s the reason I listened to the song so often even though I wasn’t a big fan. Seeing supermodels Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Cristy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Tatjana Patitz poutily lip-synch the song was not unenjoyable.

But you know, maybe I’m wrong about all this. Maybe the song really is as it was originally described. The early ’90s were an era when people were more skittish about sexuality. Maybe “Freedom! ’90” is simply about Michael dealing with fame and the music industry. Maybe he wasn’t coming out. After all, he didn’t come out publicly until 8 years later, when an arrest for a lewd act in Beverly Hills sort of forced him.

But to me it all adds up and makes sense. I’m a 53 year old man that never had to worry about coming out, but I still can relate to the idea of staying true to myself. “Freedom! ’90,” and the meaning I see in it, really resonates with me. It’s a song that caused my entire estimation of George Michael to rise. I still strongly prefer guitar rock to dance pop, but the song is a favorite of mine. Sadly, George Michael died in 2016 from an enlarged heart and fatty liver after years of struggling with addiction. He was 53 years old.

Share

Album #114: Fetch the Bolt Cutters, by Fiona Apple

Share

Fetch the Bolt Cutters
2020, Epic. Producers: Fiona Apple, Aimee Aileen Wood, Sebastian Steinberg & David Garza.
In My Collection: Spotify, 2020.

IN A NUTSHELL: Fetch the Bolt Cutters has a unique style of music – rhythms and melodies that sound almost made up on-the-spot, produced by instruments that aren’t usually considered instruments. (Instrumentation credited on the record includes, among others, “metal butterfly,” “harp thing,” “water tower,” and “breathing.”) The lyrics are wise and kick-ass and funny, and the whole thing is just really fun to listen to!

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 10.

There was a time I would’ve hated a record like this. I mean, just look at my 100 Favorite Albums. It’s mostly filled with dudes with guitars playing loud, melodic rock. That description (basically) works pretty well for my Top 13 Beatles albums, as well. Regarding lyrics, while it’s true that The Clash, who sit at #1, were brilliant lyricists chronicling profound cultural and socio-political issues of the day, artists such as R.E.M. and Steely Dan and Stone Roses are better known for their cool-sounding inscrutable words than for heavyweight philosophizing. Even tremendous lyricists like XTC, The Replacements and Tom Petty, generally sing about personal relationships, not the larger world.

So, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in producing this website it’s that my favorite music tends toward a definite “type.” That type is NOT a woman singing strange, percussive songs that comment brilliantly on both her personal life and the society around her, accompanied only by piano, bass, drums, weird noises and barking dogs. And that’s why this is the first record I picked after all those other ones. I like to know I can still expand my horizons even as a 53 year old man.

To be fair, Fiona Apple is certainly not an unknown quantity to me. Her 2005 album Extraordinary Machine is #73 on my Top 100. Both her 1999 album, When the Pawn …27, and her 2012 album, The Idler Wheel …28, were not far outside my Top 100 when I made the list in 2014. So when I heard she had a new record this spring, I was very interested. Apple’s always had a great sense of melody, and she mixes up styles on her albums. If there’s a second thing I’ve learned producing this website, it’s that I love melodies and variety. (That pretty well describes London Calling.)

Fetch the Bold Cutters opens with the lovely “I Want You to Love Me,” which builds on Apple’s simple, evocative piano riff. Her voice is incredible – rough and tough yet sensitive, reminiscent of Michael Stipe’s. The lyrics very much straightforwardly describe the title. On the bridge she uses the Bob Dylan/hip-hop move of heavy internal rhymes that deliver a satisfying sense of surprise to the listener. Apple puts this tactic to great effect throughout the album. The song ends with Apple’s kooky dolphin sounds, which, well, look, I guess artists just have to go for it sometimes, so good for her.

Shameika” is the song for anybody who was a nerd and teased or bullied by the popular kids. Once again the piano underpins the song, this time a percussive riff accentuated by a brushed drum kit. The found sounds throughout the album are cool, but the star is Fiona’s incredible voice. Speaking of found sounds, they really come to the forefront on the title track. On this one, she uses the internal rhyming in a near-rap, and the lyrics do the work. They’re a reflection on her life, and where it’s led her, and her desire to move on despite it all. “Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long,” she sings in a lilting, catchy melody. (Apple’s dogs, Mercy, Maddie, Leo, Alfie and Little, all credited on the album, make their first appearance on this one, but as with all backing vocalists since the dawn of recorded music, it’s really tough to distinguish who’s who).

I love “Under the Table” because it’s sung by someone who I wish I was, able to speak my mind in all situations. Her voice is amazing, and it builds in power and energy. (“I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me.” Nice!) “Relay” is sort of a summer camp chant interrupted by jazzy vocals and bass29. It expresses both an anger at the douchebags who hurt us, but also a desire to not give in to the temptation to pass that anger onto others. “Heavy Balloon” is one of my favorites, a song with a sort of jungle beat and cool harmonies. Apple’s voice hits a variety of tones, both musically and emotionally. Like “Under the Table” and “Relay,” its lyrics are all about personal strength.

But the album’s lyrics are at their best when they’re dealing with the uncomfortable, challenging issues of personal relationships. “Rack of His,” is a reference to all the guitars an ex had, guitars he treated better than her. It’s a jaunty number where Apple shows off the jazzy side of her voice. I love “Drumset,” another swirling harmony vocal workout, with lyrics that say maybe she should stop dating musicians. “Cosmonauts,” has a spare, slow groove that builds to a raucous finish. It suggests that maybe there is a hope for couples willing to accept the heaviness of commitment.

I love the set of songs that address the topic of how heterosexual women interact with one another in relationship to the men in their lives. “Newspaper” is a great song, dark, creeping and intense, with multiple voices and sounds building on each other. It’s sung from the perspective of an ex-girlfriend to the new girlfriend, saying, essentially, we should be friends – we have so much in common! (Obviously there’s more to it than that.) “Ladies” is another slow, jazzy number. (I’d love to hear her sing some standards!) It calls for unity among women, with the excellent lines to the new woman in his life: “And oh yes/ There’s a dress in the closet/ Don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it/ I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine/ It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine/ She left it behind with a note, one line, it said/ ‘I don’t know if I’m coming across, but I’m really trying’/ She was very kind”

The song “For Her” opens with an Andrews Sisters-style harmony, and it’s sung beautifully. Accompanied throughout by only drums, the voices swirl and build to an angelic closing. It’s about sexual assault, but calling it a ‘Me Too’ song really denigrates the power and the meaning of the song. Fetch the Bolt Cutters closes with “On I Go.” Similar to “Relay,” it’s a sort of meditation on strength and persistence. There is a vocal screw-up about 1:50 that was left in the mix. That goof adds to the song. It demonstrates that we can persevere through the bullshit that might otherwise slow us down. In fact, I think if I were to sum up the album in one word, I think it would be: Perseverance.

TRACK LISTING:
I Want You to Love Me
Shameika
Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Under the Table
Relay
Rack of His
Newspaper
Ladies
Heavy Balloon
Cosmonauts
For Her
Drumset
On I Go

Share