Peter Gabriel (Melt) 1980, Geffen Records. Producer: Steve Lillywhite. In My Collection: Vinyl, 1988.
(Five Minute Read)
IN A NUTSHELL:Peter Gabriel, the 1980 album often called “Melt,” is an artistic statement that owes as much to Hitchcock as Western rock and pop. Its dark stories of assassins, burglars, obsessives, and psychotics are menacing, suspenseful, and great fun. And when he gets serious, as on the epic closer “Biko,” it delivers devastating emotion. The instrumentation and musicians, including Robert Fripp, Dave Gregory and Phil Collins, create unusual sounds that make the album too weird for pop, too smart for rock, but just perfect for me.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20
Peter Gabriel was all over MTV with “Shock the Monkey,” a strange, cold, yet oddly danceable track that sounded cool and looked like a horror movie. He ran through the forest in a suit. He wore weird makeup, played the claves among dancing floor lamps, and then got crushed in a room. Three little people even attacked him! Meanwhile, cute monkeys made frightened, frightening faces. Whether you loved the song or hated it (I loved it), it was unforgettable. But it was shocking, too. It was an old (at least 30!) guy I’d never heard of who seemed to be legitimately creepy, unlike all those acts that had come to seem weird-for-the-sake-of-weirdness.
And the MTV VJs talked about him like we all should know him. It was as if he’d been around for 10 years, another Elton John or David Bowie, yet the name meant nothing to me. Of course, Gabriel was well-known, just not by me. He’d been the leader of Genesis back when they made intricate prog-rock music instead of mainstream pop, dressing as a flower or a fox in a dress or a disturbing bubble-covered “Slipperman” thing. He also made songs I’d heard on rock radio, like “Solsbury Hill,” that I didn’t know were his. His 1986 record So eventually made him one of the biggest stars of the decade. At that point, having been convinced by my friend Josh that I wouldn’t be disappointed, I went out and got some early records, each one, confusingly, titled Peter Gabriel.
His 1980 release, often called “Melt” because of the cover, is one of my favorite records ever. It didn’t make my original list, as I mentioned in my intermission post, because I’d forgotten to listen to it when I put the list together! (I’m not the most organized writer.) But it would have elbowed its way into top 20 territory, I’m sure.
(Melt) opens with the dark, desperate “Intruder.”
It’s like a Hitchcock movie put to song. On top of a sinister drum beat, strange piano and whirring noises, Gabriel takes on the persona of a creeping home invader. That drum sound would become the sound of the ’80s, as it is the first recorded use of drummer Phil Collins’ “gated drum” sound. Together, the instrumentation and unceasing drum beat, the haunting backing whines, and Gabriel’s ability to inhabit the part like a brilliant actor make it one of the creepiest songs around. (Oh, and at 2:20 there’s a scary xylophone solo!)
“No Self Control” continues that xylophone sound, layering it over guitar wizard Robert Fripp’s distorted, mechanical guitar. At 1:30 the song changes, and Collins adds some signature drum fills (1:46, 2:02). Gabriel’s vocals are the star, as he sings about obsession that turns violent. It’s a very cool, very strange song. The instrumental “Start” is basically an introduction to one of (Melt)’s most popular songs, “I Don’t Remember.”
This song demonstrates the mad alchemy of Peter Gabriel and producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham. Its pounding drums, this time from Jerry Marotta, paired with Tony Levin’s Chapman stick, a wonderful bass instrument, give the song the feel of a dance club track. But underneath it, Fripp and XTC man Dave Gregory wage a wicked guitar duel on opposite speakers. Gabriel again takes the persona of a man with severe mental issues, this time under duress and finding pure amnesia. It ends with a full 50 seconds of noise, but remains my second favorite song on the album.
“Family Snapshot” is the most disturbing song on the album, a first-person account by an assassin. Its 80s yacht-rock sax and ballad-y instrumentation don’t make it more listenable, but the song keeps the record interesting. By the way, while listening to (Melt), see if you can hear any cymbals. Hint: you won’t. Gabriel forbid Collins and Marotta from using any cymbals. Just a fun fact!
However, I think I hear some hi-hat from Collins in “And Through the Wire.” The bass from John Giblin is bright, and he and Collins master the tricky time signature in the verses. The guitar here is from The Jam‘s Paul Weller, and it sounds new-wave-cool, as at 3:10. It seems to be a song about long-distance love, and Gabriel sings it with high energy. The song falls apart brilliantly around 4:20. But precision is restored on the next track, the very popular “Games Without Frontiers.”
I knew that Robert Fripp played on (Melt), and for years I thought he played the sinewy guitar line that carves its way through the song. However, that’s David Rhodes doing a great Fripp impression. It’s one of the catchiest songs around, so catchy that even annoying whistling doesn’t damage it. Kate Bush sings the title in French, “Jeux Sans Frontieres,” a title taken from an old European game show, which was called “It’s a Knockout” in the UK. It’s a song about global politics, and Gabriel again demonstrates the versatility of his voice, sneering and chiding.
On “Not One of Us,” Fripp’s strange guitar gets another chance to shine.
The lyrics are about accepting others. “It’s only water/ In a stranger’s tear,” Gabriel sings. Musically, the song is dominated by Giblin’s skronky bass line and Marotta’s drums. The chorus is super catchy, sung in Gabriel’s infectious, electric tone. After 3:22 there’s a cool ending that allows Marotta to shine some more (without cymbals.) “Lead a Normal Life” brings back the xylophone sound, pairs it with suspenseful movie music and a few lines about living in an asylum. I don’t love it.
However, I do love “Biko,” one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard from the past fifty years. It’s amazing.
So many people have written so much about Apartheid and Apartheid-era South Africa, and I can’t add anything, except to say it was horrible. “Biko” is ostensibly about Stephen Biko, an anti-Apartheid activist murdered by police in 1977. But it’s really about strength and fighting against injustice. The song opens with a recording of an anti-Apartheid folk song, “Ngomhla Sibuyayo.” African drums give way to a buzzing guitar and an agonizing scream, and the lyrics begin as a news report of the day. It’s an extremely simple song, with minimal instrumentation, and that gives it great power. Similarly, the lyrics are sparse – relying on the listener’s knowledge of events to fill in the story. But it’s so memorable that if, like me when I first heard it, you had no idea who Biko is, it makes you want to find out what it’s about. “Biko, because.” What does that mean?
Each of the three verses can be neatly summarized as follows: this feels normal; this is actually terrible; we must work together to change it. Synthesized, keening bagpipes add to the feeling, as does Gabriel’s repeated wail, “Yihla moja! The man is dead …” It builds steadily, growing in force, and by the time he sings “Once the flame begins to catch/ The wind will blow it higher,” I always have chills, I usually have a tear. Then voices join in a singalong vocalization. It is wonderful. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs.
And it comes from someone who I thought was the weirdest guy among a collection of weirdos. I’m glad I gave him a chance.
London Calling. The Clash. 1980, Epic Records (U.S.). Producer: Guy Stevens, Mick Jones. Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.
IN A NUTSHELL: London Calling, by The Clash, is, in my estimation, a perfect record. It’s got multiple styles, fun, catchy songs, thoughtful and emotional lyrics, and top-notch performances from the entire band. The songwriting/singing pair of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones is among the best songwriting duos in rock, and bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon are unsung heroes behind it all. It’s earnest but fun, careful but sloppy, and it has 19 songs, so you’re getting a lot. It’s my favorite album ever.
One thing I’ve come to understand about myself after 52 years as a human is that I’m really not very competitive. Sure, I enjoy playing games, and I played lots of sports when I was younger, and I’ve always tried to do my best to win. And yes, I’ve always rooted for certain sports teams. And while it’s true that winning can bring some joy, particularly when one of my kids is a participant, the reality is that it doesn’t provide me with much long-lasting satisfaction. Winning doesn’t motivate me.
This is true in my personal and professional life, as well. I do try to ensure that my family and I are treated fairly in life, and I try to make sure that my career isn’t stagnating. I suppose these facts mean that I am aware of, and invested in, the sort of Competition of Life that one enters simply by choosing to be part of a society. But I’ve never been much of a scorekeeper, tallying successes and failures, credits and debits, breaks and slights, of myself and the people around me. Scorekeeping doesn’t interest me.
However, where competition intersects with my life, I do expect it to be fair – despite the fact that most of what passes for “fair competition” in American society is not really fair. For all the talk of an “American Dream” and an equal playing-field, and mythology like “self-made” successes, the fact remains that family wealth, not hard work, is still the best predictor of “success” in America.
I’ve written before about getting into The Clash. I worked with a guy who couldn’t believe I was in a band and the only Clash songs I really knew were “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and “Rock the Casbah.” He let me borrow the box set The Clash on Broadway, and they immediately became one of my favorite bands.
I don’t really remember purchasing London Calling. I think it was soon after I returned the box set to my friend, but I’m not really sure. With nearly every other record on this list (perhaps every single record), I can recall how and when I got it. But London Calling just feels like it’s always been with me. I know for sure I had it in the early 90s, when I first got a CD player and upgraded my album and cassette collection to this new format.
London Calling has everything I want from an album. It’s got great guitars and tremendous lyrics, and each song has a power and energy that stick with you long after the music ends. The vocals are cool, whether it’s Joe Strummer’s tune-less snarl or Mick Jones’s reedy tenor, or, best of all, when the pair sing together. Even bassist Paul Simonon gets to sing one, and he makes it sound cool, too. The rhythm section is always correct – sloppy when it needs to be, tight at other times – with drummer Topper Headon showing himself as the band’s unsung hero, keeping everything intact as the album careens through multiple genres and sounds. Listening to it is a moving experience, covering any emotion you can think of. To me, it’s the perfect record.
And it’s long, too – 19 songs – so I’m going to stop blabbing and get to the songs, starting with the title track: “London Calling.”
It opens with a guitar fanfare answered by Paul Simonon’s mighty bass riff, calling listeners to attention. Simonon, famously, had never played a note before joining the band in 1976, but the London Calling album shows he learned a lot in a few short years. Joe Strummer furiously spits out the song’s “it’s-all-going-to-hell” lyrics, while Mick Jones softens the “London Calling” refrain with his melodic backing vocals. Jones is a great guitar player, but instead of a solo the album version of the song has backwards-guitar, creating an eerie sound that heightens the song’s desperation. It’s a standout opening track among rock albums, the type that makes the listener wonder, “How will they top that?”
“Hateful” rides a Bo Diddly beat to its sing-along chorus. It features terrific vocals, and once again stand-out drumming from Headon. Joe Strummer writes all the band’s lyrics (usually), and he’s known for his political messages. However, this song is a personal song about drug addiction and its effects. Next is what may be (I’ll say this about five or six songs, I’m sure) my favorite on the album: “Rudie Can’t Fail.”
There’s flanged guitar all over London Calling, and it appears in the opening of “Rudie Can’t Fail.” I love how Joe encourages, “sing, Michael, sing!” and the terrific horn part in the intro. The rhythm section once again are unsung heroes, keeping afloat a ragtag song about young folks who don’t want to hear the complaints of the adults around them. They’ve got their chicken-skin suits and pork-pie hats, and that’s just fine. It’s a fun, bouncy, reggae-ish song, with chugga-chug guitars that’s fun to sing along. And not only can the band do fun, they can do serious, too – as on the awesome “Spanish Bombs,” another song that is my favorite.
The voices of Jones and Strummer blend so well on this song – one of the few where Strummer carries a tune. There’s a cool acoustic guitar strumming throughout, however I’ve heard that it was actually Jones’s electric guitar strings mic’ed separately from his amplifier, creating an acoustic sound. It’s really cool, as is all of Jones’s subtle guitar work throughout. The lyrics describe the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, and makes connections with the IRA, whose efforts were in full force in the late 70s. The pair sing in pigeon Spanish on the chorus, roughly translated as “I love you forever, I love you oh my heart.” Strummer demonstrates his lyrical range by following this song up with “The Right Profile,” a horn-driven affair with great guitars, about the sad story of former matinee star Montgomery Clift, whose beautiful face was badly scarred in a car accident.
The genres and styles keep piling up on London Calling, as the excellent dance/pop, XTC-esque “Lost in the Supermarket” is up next. The lyrics, about a childhood in the suburbs and the false promise of consumerism, were written by Strummer, but he wrote it from Jones’s perspective, for Mick to sing.
The bass and drums provide a near-disco rhythm that Jones’s riff sits atop. The band has a penchant for opening songs with a chorus or bridge, as opposed to the typical verse, and here the chorus begins things. Mick’s chiming guitar, at 0:39, when the verse starts, sounds great. He plays and sings brilliantly throughout. Topper Headon’s dance beat is insistent, providing the sound of Jones’s “giant hit discotheque album.” It’s sad but upbeat, personal yet universal. And it leads into another song that is my favorite on the album: “Clampdown.”
This is perhaps the ultimate Clash song, the type of song I associate with the band: angry and righteous, yet fun and singalong good. It’s Joe Strummer at his best, from his mumbling opening through the final “I’m givin’ away no secrets!” It’s about the connection between fascism and corporate life – something anyone who’s had a corporate job has felt. I’d love to go line by line through all the lyrics, because they’re brilliant. But in particular, as a guy reflecting on 30 years of personal corporate bullshit, lines like “Let fury have the hour/ Anger can be power,” and “You grow up and you calm down …/ You start wearin’ blue and brown/ And working for the Clampdown” really resonate. The music behind the lyrics is excellent as well. Mick Jones sweetens Strummer’s vocals with his harmonies and backing vocals, and as usual, Topper Headon’s drumming is brilliant. Plus there are plenty of guitar licks that add the perfect touch, such as the call to action at 1:15. (Here’s a clip of them playing it live on the old US TV show Fridays.)
But after those two digressions, they’re back on the punk power bus with the excellent (and once again, my favorite song) “Death or Glory.”
It’s a song about failing to live up to the punk and rock ‘n roll ideals, when “Death or Glory becomes just another story.” It’s a song with an interesting structure, as it begins with the pre-chorus and chorus before starting in on the verses. This song is another Topper Headon tour de force – his fill at 0:20 is brilliant, and the drum break from 1:33 to change style to disco is tremendous. It’s also one of Strummer’s best vocals on the record. He stays close enough to a tune as he ever does, and his emotion can’t be contained.
The next song, “Koka Kola,” is a quick, fun Mick and Joe collaboration with excellent guitar stabs from Mick, a bubbly bass from Simonon, and clever lyrics about cocaine’s unacknowledged place in the corporate world. “Know wut-a-mean?” After that, “The Card Cheat” brings some Wall of Sound production pomp to the record.
I’m not a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, but in his autobiography he mentioned his admiration for Joe Strummer and The Clash, and this song – with its opening piano, horns and 60s-girl-group drums – sounds like the band is paying homage to The Boss. Each instrument was recorded twice so that the sound would be as huge as possible. Mick Jones carries the lead vocals and does a wonderful job on a consideration of what really matters in life. It’s a powerful song that I grow fonder of as I age.
While I have plenty of songs on the album that I think of as my favorite song, I only have a couple that are my least favorite, and the band kindly put them next to each other on the record! They’re not awful, but “Lover’s Rock,” a cheeky celebration of the birth control pill with a disco breakdown, and “Four Horsemen,” a straight ahead rocker about making the most of your life, are just okay, in my opinion. Certainly not skippable – but just a bit less than the others.
“I’m Not Down,” on the other hand, displays everything I love about London Calling – except for not much Strummer.
Mick Jones carries the vocals and plays great guitar throughout. Simonon and Headon are at their best, for example at about 0:55, when the song suddenly develops a calypso beat, or 1:31, when it takes on a Motown-style breakdown. And check out Headon’s fill at about 1:41! Jones wrote the song about persevering in the face of depression and hardship, lyrics that reference real events in his life, such as being beaten up by a gang of rockers in 1978.
It’s another song written by Mick Jones, and it famously was nearly left off the album because it was recorded so late in the sessions. (Original pressings didn’t list the song’s title.) It’s a fun, catchy number, with a great Simonon bass. But what I particularly love (it’s also my favorite song on the album!) are the honest, heart-achey lyrics. The following lines have always stuck with me as very good: “Now I’ve got a job/ But it don’t pay/ I need new clothes/ I need somewhere to stay/ But without all of these things I can do/ But without your love/ I won’t make it through.” It’s a soulful number, which is really evident in Annie Lennox’s great cover version. It’s a perfect closing track to what – to me – is about as close to a perfect album as any non-Beatles band ever made.
So there it is, folks. 100 Favorite Albums. It’s been so much fun writing these the past five or six years! I plan to keep doing some other music writing, but I’m not sure what. Whatever it is, it will appear here at 100favealbums.net. I really appreciate you reading, and I invite you to reach out and say hello.
And if you want to hear more from my list: here’s a Spotify playlist with a few songs from each album.
TRACK LISTING: “London Calling” “Brand New Cadillac” “Jimmy Jazz” “Hateful” “Rudie Can’t Fail” “Spanish Bombs” “The Right Profile” “Lost in the Supermarket” “Clampdown” “The Guns of Brixton” “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” “Death or Glory” “Koka Kola” “The Card Cheat” “Lover’s Rock” “Four Horsemen” “I’m Not Down” “Revolution Rock” “Train in Vain”
Get Happy!! Elvis Costello and The Attractions.
1980, Columbia Records. Producer: Nick Lowe.
Purchased, 1998. (Rykodisc Reissue.)
IN A NUTSHELL: Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions, is jam-packed with 20 songs that sound like 60s Motown and Stax records filtered through white British punks. The band is superheated, its muscular rhythms pumping behind Costello’s deft wordplay. Bassist Bruce Thomas is a standout, but everyone contributes to the party vibe. And even when the lyrics get downhearted, you’ll still Get Happy!!
My dad died earlier this month. He was 78. He hadn’t been well for several years, and his last few years he spent trapped: confined, physically, to a wheelchair; and wandering, mentally, through the labyrinthine horrors of dementia. His death was seen by all of my family members as a blessing, as something that I thought should have rightfully taken place years earlier, something he should have been able to choose for himself at the onset of his afflictions. However, this was not to be the case.
He was a man from a bygone era. He was a child of the 40s, even though he came of age in the American Rock ‘n Roll 50s. He would have been a contemporary of Richie and Fonzie and the rest of the gang down at Arnold’s Drive-In, but he was not a Rock ‘n Roll guy. Sure, he loved fixing up old cars, the classic American 50s teen boy pastime, but his music was the swingin’ Big Band sounds of his youth: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey. (Similarly, I clung to the 70s Classic Rock sounds when I was a teen, ignoring the new stuff around me.) Even in his formative years, he didn’t necessarily go along with the crowd.
But despite the advancements of the day, my dad wasn’t terribly concerned with keeping up with the latest trends. He didn’t need the best Hi-Fi technology, or the latest in automotive trends to be satisfied with his life. He had a self-directed outlook, a type of self-possession that allowed him to make decisions with few external influences. Of course, this led to some wrong decisions, and it didn’t diminish the anxiety and guilt he felt over his decisions after the fact (he was the king of the land of “I Should’ve”). But there was something to be said for a man who recognized the inherent bullshit of the marketer’s “New and Improved!” sloganeering, and recognized, too, that so many people around him easily allowed that messaging to permeate all aspects of their lives. He was a skeptic of “New and Improved,” whether it was technological, cultural, societal or commercial.
Sure, he may have griped in the 70s and 80s about the pointlessness of these new computers and computerized machines, but as a tool and die maker, when he got to use his first computer-aided machine (the one with the instruction course in Chicago, for which he had to take his first airplane ride ever, as a 37 year old) he recognized its value and acknowledged its advantages over the old machines. And even though he’d expressed the typical late-20th-century, straight, middle-American homophobia into his adulthood, when he saw his own loved ones fall in love he warmly welcomed their sweethearts into his home and life regardless of their gender and orientation. He was more comfortable opening his heart by reassessing his beliefs than using them to build a fortress around it.
Over the years I heard him reassess his thinking on little things, like Thai food, and big things, like race and gender. But at no time was I more aware of his ability to re-examine his beliefs and consider a different perspective than when my wife was expecting our first child, my dad’s first grandchild. I lived far away from my parents at the time, but when I’d call and tell him about all the late-90s preparations we were making – attending birth classes, hiring a doula, getting a gliding rocking chair with a gliding footrest – he seemed interested in all of it; this despite the fact that he’d matured in the Mad Men era of American men, when there were many, many issues about which a man was not expected to care, one of those being childbirth.
My dad got phone calls at work to let him know his kids had been delivered, just as he might have been notified that a new bathtub and sink had arrived at home. The difference would be that he’d be expected to work hard to remodel the bathroom when he got home, whereas the kids were to be almost entirely his wife’s concern, at least until they went to school. But when I discussed my own activities around the upcoming birth, he never mocked me, never said I was foolish, and never expressed a wish for a bygone era of indifference and inaction to return. When I told him about the experience of watching my child being born, he did say he was glad he didn’t see his own kids’ births, but also questioned why he didn’t choose to be at the hospital.
After my baby’s arrival, when my parents took a cross-country flight to visit their new grandson – something I was a little surprised they’d done – and he saw me changing diapers, giving bottles, and fussing over the baby’s cries and temperature and diet and routine, and when he heard and saw me exchanging smiles and baby talk and laughter with my infant, he said “Boy, things sure are different for dads nowadays.”
Happy Grandpa, happy grandson, 1999.
I said, “I’ll bet you’re glad you didn’t have to do all this stuff with your kids.”
To which he replied, with a bit of a sad smile, “It would have been okay. I’d have done it.”
He didn’t have to say more – we both knew what he meant. It was classic dad. If he saw the “new ways” were valuable and useful, he’d admit it – in very few words.
I’m thinking of my dad these days because his body recently left us. And during my experience as a new dad, from preparing for my first child through childbirth and into my new kid’s first year of life, the soundtrack to it all was Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions. I’m sure my dad heard it when he came to visit. I’ve written before, a time or two, about my love of Elvis Costello. I spent the 90s diving into his entire catalogue, and by 1998 Get Happy!! was cued up.
And his work with his most famous backing band, The Attractions, is some of my favorite recorded music. Each of The Attractions brings a style and vigor to the songs that suit Costello’s twitchy melodies and head-cold singing style perfectly. By the late 90s I was devouring Elvis, and while my wife was pregnant the songs on this record resonated with me. First of all, the album title provided a good reminder to me whenever the situation felt overwhelming or worrisome or scary that the biggest feeling I held was one of happiness. Secondly, the songs themselves are almost entirely upbeat, danceable, energetic songs that are hard to hear without smiling. Thirdly, the lyrical content often connected with me, even when the songs clearly were not meant to be about new families and future dads.
For example, “Opportunity” is clearly not about the opportunity inherent in starting a family, but the first word is “born,” and the first verse does speak of family …
As with many EC lyrics, I don’t know exactly what they mean, but they stick with me nonetheless. His clever wordplay and economy of words (“The chairman of the boredom is a compliment collector/I’d like to be his funeral director”) are striking, even when they’re obtuse. Musically, the song encapsulates what Get Happy!! is all about: organ and bass and drums. Keyboardist Steve Nieve boops and beeps while bassist Bruce Thomas plays a clean, bouncing line throughout. Along with drummer Pete Thomas, The Attractions really carry the load on this record, with Costello’s guitar only making cameo appearances – some nice strumming in the choruses, a little twist during the fade out.
I love “Opportunity” for its melody, its sound, Costello’s voice – and also my reminiscences of impending fatherhood. But it’s one of the more mellow tracks on this album of 20 tracks, (which Elvis promoted in America with a pretty funny TV commercial.) The record in full is an upbeat salute to 60s Motown and Stax records, with the band speeding ahead, full-tilt on catchy, danceable numbers like the opening track, “Love For Tender.”
Bruce Thomas is a phenomenal bassist, and as a bass-playing hack myself, I find him astonishing. He pumps these songs full of life, like at 0:40, his fast walking bass line in the pre-chorus. This song uses Costello’s considerable metaphorical skills to position himself as the banker of love to someone who won’t make a withdraw. I love the backing vocals, which Elvis provides himself, behind the chorus, and I love the energy of the entire song, up through the four-note finale. It’s clearly an homage to 60s soul, and songs like “5ive Gears in Reverse,” and “I Stand Accused” also carry the Stax/Motown torch. (The latter is actually a 60s British Invasion song that the band perks up, with Elvis coolly spelling out the title at the very end.)
Another soul-sounding treat is the wonderful “Temptation,” whirling organ and all.
Elvis and the band do slow things down now and then, and my favorite of these mellower pieces is the atmospheric one-man-band piece “New Amsterdam.”
Elvis plays all the instruments on this fine waltz, keenly strumming his acoustic guitar and adding some sturdy bass lines, and displays some clever wordplay as well. It’s another song about his difficult love life, in which he wonders if he can “step on the brakes to get out of her clutches.” His inventive wordsmithing is also on display in the ballad “Motel Matches,” in which Elvis’s lady friend’s duplicity, and presumably, affections are given away “like motel matches.” “Secondary Modern” has perhaps Elvis’s strongest vocal performance. And in the album closer “Riot Act,” Elvis defends himself against an unwarranted onslaught from what he claims was a slip of the tongue.
These slow songs are all terrific, but it’s the energetic, upbeat ones I’m drawn to, particularly those featuring Bruce Thomas’s bass, such as “B Movie.”
But it’s the upbeat, 60s stuff I really, really love – even when I don’t know what they mean. For example, “King Horse.”
It opens with a regal piano riff, then features Elvis singing along to Bruce’s bass. There are terrific harmony vocals, provided by Elvis himself, throughout. The tension builds through each verse, then is released with each chorus by Pete’s introductory snare roll. The lyrics are a pastiche of phrases around relationships that, to be honest, sound great but make no sense to me. But he clearly knows we’re all King Horse. At least the lyrics to “Clowntime Is Over” make sense, even if the tempo change throughout the song doesn’t.
It opens with a great piano, and Bruce’s bass again keeps the song pumping along. The songs on this album just make me want to dance and sing along. I often listen to the SiriusXM 60s soul station, listening for great numbers that I’ve never heard before. That’s what this album is like: it’s one catchy, bouncing, soulful song after the next.
Elvis’s voice is scratchy and torn, sounding like the end of a long night spent on stage, howling out hit after hit. The chorus has great harmony vocals, the lyrics
Me and my dad. September 2018.
are again about a woman who done him wrong; he’s wondering if her new lover expects High Fidelity, as he once did. It’s fun and catchy and epitomizes everything I love about the record.
Get Happy!! is an album in which Elvis Costello and The Attractions tried something new, moved away from the new wave, post-punk sound and embraced a different way of making songs. It worked perfectly. Humans are at their best when they learn to reconsider their beliefs and actions, to peek into what else is out there and incorporate it. This is what my dad did, and it’s one of the things I’ll miss about him. But Get Happy!! will always remind me of him.
“Love for Tender”
“Men Called Uncle”
“Clowntime Is Over”
“I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”
“Black & White World”
“5ive Gears in Reverse”
“Beaten to the Punch”
“I Stand Accused”
Making Movies. Dire Straits.
1980, Warner Brothers. Producer: Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Iovine.
Bootleg Cassette, 1985; Purchased, 2002.
IN A NUTSHELL: Nobody plays the guitar like Mark Knopfler – perhaps the most distinctive guitarist in the rock era. He writes grand, moving epics – six-minute movies in song. And though he’s not exactly a singer, he knows how to use his voice to imbue the songs with emotion. The band, particularly drummer Pick Withers, is excellent, and Bruce Springsteen’s keyboardist, Roy Bittan, helps to give the songs a certain majesty.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
I like guitar players. I like baseball players. Is there a relationship between the two? Well, first a little background.
Since 1957, sociologists have modeled the way in which new technologies are adopted by the general public. The first model, upon which all others have been based, is the Technology Adoption Life Cycle. It was established by researchers Beal and Bohlen and was developed by observing how farmers integrated new ideas and products into their farming operations.
The model was of little general interest outside a few economists and researchers until the computer boom of the 80s brought increasingly technologically sophisticated products to all types of marketplaces. Marketing folks scoured and devoured the research, finding applications for it among consumer products from Teddy Ruxpin and home computers to hospital infusion pumps. Geoffery A. Moore’s 1991 book Crossing the Chasm became the bible for how to reach members of a population with differing orientations toward new ideas. And today, with major advancements in computerized technology seemingly creating obsolescence in mere weeks, most Americans have become familiar with some of the terms created by those obscure 1950s researchers: “Early Adopters” and “Laggards.”
I have never been an early adopter. Around 1981 my high school purchased a few computers, and kids like me in the “honors” program were given first crack at taking the school’s inaugural Computer Class. I was one of the very few to decline. Since then, I have been a Laggard in nearly all cultural and technological developments, catching onto the tail ends of everything from VCRs to DVD Players to Blu-Ray Players to streaming media. I don’t have anything against technology, it’s just that I don’t really pay attention to developments until my VCR or DVD Player breaks down and I need a new one.
This Laggard-ness should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog about rock music albums. That’s right, I maintain a dead website type (the blog) about a dead music genre (rock) as heard on a dead medium (the album). I’m three for three.
Oh, and I typically start my blog with a personal essay, which has also been declared dead.
So given my laggardness and my interest in things that everyone else has already apparently forgotten about, it should also be no surprise that I’ve decided to compare famous guitar players to famous baseball players: the best in the world at a dying instrument as compared to the best in the world at a dying game. Perhaps, as the march of progress continues to quicken its pace, and the interval required for nostalgia to suffuse into popular culture narrows from 20-plus years to 10, and 5, and etc., I’ll be lucky enough to catch the second wave of interest in baseball and electric guitar – ironic though it may be – like a Victorian gentleman awakening in the midst of a Brooklyn Steampunk festival. (Shit. I just realized that the game Guitar Hero debuted nearly 15 years ago. I already missed the second wave!! Maybe it’s time for me to go buy a Wii and get started playing.)
Besides sharing their apparent anachronistic nature in today’s society, guitar- and baseball players share other qualities that make them ripe for comparison. For one, both pursuits are singular actions: guitar playing and batting a ball And in both actions, there can be a wide difference between how you are taught to do it as a beginner and how you end up doing it as a professional. Plus, each individual has a unique style, such that fans can sometimes tell a guitar player from simply hearing a note or two just as they can identify a baseball batter just by seeing some guy impersonate the way he swings the bat. Beyond that, as the careers of guitarists and athletes progress, fans form ideas and opinions about them that become as much a part of their mystique as their actual performance on the stage or ball field.
So here’s what I’ll do: I will pick a famous guitar player and explain why, in my opinion, he is the equivalent of a famous baseball player. In my comparison, I’m only going to use baseball batters. I’ve ruled out pitchers, except in one necessary case, just to make the comparisons more uniform. One more thing: I have at times had readers from outside the United States, and even though the web has shrunk our world immensely, I doubt if these readers will know most, or any, of the names and attributes of American baseball players. So, I’ve asked my friend Mark B., originally from Costa Rica, and a big fan of both baseball and soccer, to identify soccer players who match the attributes I’ve ascribed to my baseball players.
Jimi Hendrix = Babe Ruth (Pelé): The best ever. Sure, sure, in an artistic arena the use of a superlative is quite subjective. And even in a sport with statistics out the hoo-ha, there can be some debate about calling a player “the best.” But in terms of recognition, iconography, history … there can be no one else to pair with Jimi; and no one else to pair with Babe. And my personal reason why Ruth is the undisputed best: he wasn’t only among the greatest hitters of his generation, he was also among the greatest pitchers!!
Eddie Van Halen = Willie Mays (Cristiano Ronaldo): Both of these players performed with a flair that was unseen before they hit the big time. And in both cases, this “flair” often overshadowed how great they really were. In some cases misguided folks have claimed that both were little more than that flair. This argument is laughable. Mays’s stats and Van Halen’s playing demonstrate brilliance born from years of hard work. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t have fun and be awesome at the same time!
Keith Richards = Mickey Mantle (Georgie Best): Two people who lived their lives in such a way that nobody expected them to live past 40 years old. Alcohol & drugs & amazing feats with a guitar and a bat. Both are widely acknowledged all-time greats; both are widely acknowledged high-functioning addicts. Given the money and free time afforded both ballplayers and rock stars, I’m sure some others could have been on this list instead – but these are the two greatest.
Eric Clapton = Stan Musial (Lionel Messi): Two guys who led their all-time-great careers and lives in a very understated, workmanlike manner. Sure, Clapton had the drugs and alcohol battles, but despite that, he always seemed like a decent guy who just happened to have developed an extraordinary ability – just like Stan the Man! Both of these guys were young phenoms who ended up being the sort of person who’d live on your street, and somebody’d have to tell you, “Hey, did you know old man Musial/Clapton used to be a ballplayer/guitarist?” They always let their ability speak for itself.
Steve Howe = Hank Aaron (Eusebio): Both of these guys are two of the best ever, with multi-faceted abilities, and yet they both seem to be overlooked when speaking about the best ever. Maybe it’s because they both played for rather unpopular bands/teams: Yes and the 50s-70s Braves. But when either is mentioned among rock guitar/baseball fans, everyone acknowledges their greatness.
The Edge = Barry Bonds (Diego Maradona): Two guys who get a lot of grief because of performance enhancers – chemicals, in Bonds’s case, and pedals/effects/sounds in Edge’s case. But the thing is, in the era they both played in, this was how it was done. Most everyone else was doing the same thing, and they didn’t reach Edge/Bonds levels. You may personally downgrade either one, but both will have a huge legacy despite their accoutrements.
George Harrison = Yogi Berra (Rivelino): These two can sometimes be overshadowed by the incredible teammates they had in their career: Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Paul McCartney, John Lennon … But both are recognized greats in their own right, and would have been a success wherever, and with whomever, they played.
John Squire = Nomar Garciaparra (Marco Van Basten): “Who?” you may ask. And that’s the point. These two started their careers on an incredible trajectory, displaying once-in-a-generation talent, plus a special something that made them seem destined for greatness. However, drugs/injuries, etc, derailed their careers. But you can’t take away those first 6 or 7 years they had – they stack up against anybody’s.
Prince = Rickey Henderson (Ronaldinho): Both of these guys were such characters, almost caricatures of themselves – with Prince becoming an unpronounceable symbol, and Rickey always calling Rickey “Rickey” – that you could sometimes forget how awesome they really were. Both could do it all. Prince was more than a falsetto voice, Rickey was more than a bunch of steals.
Mike Campbell = Joe Morgan (Arjen Robben): These two are perhaps forgotten among guitar greats and baseball Hall of Famers, but they are instantly recognizable to any fan. Morgan’s arm-flap batting stance and hustle around the basepaths, Campbell’s spare, haunting creativity. Their teams/groups wouldn’t have been the same without them, as any fan knows.
Mark Knopfler = Robin Yount (Zinedine Zidane): Guys who did things their own way, who toiled in relative obscurity for for Dire Straits/Milwaukee Brewers until they had massive success (Brothers in Arms/1982 World Series) and won a bit of fame. Knopfler plays jazz and rock without a pick, Yount won MVPs as shortstop and centerfielder, without an endorsement deal. They went about their business being incredible until everyone else finally realized it.
I was aware of Knopfler’s band, Dire Straits, from their very beginning, as their debut hit single “Sultans of Swing” was part of my 6th grade soundtrack, along with “Heart of Glass” and “Livin’ It Up (Friday Night).” I thought the song was okay, although I often got it confused with the song “Driver’s Seat,” by one-hit-wonder Sniff ‘n The Tears, for some reason. Then MTV came along a couple years later, and it seemed like the band’s “Skateaway” was played every hour, almost as often as “Jessie’s Girl.” I found that song too mellow and grew to hate it. I preferred the energetic early-MTV fare, like The Producers and Saga.
As has happened so often in the music-appreciation realm of my life, I met Dr. Dave at college, and my opinions started to change. We both played on the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science baseball team, for a ridiculous coach that held practices early mornings in the gym. It was, February, 1987, and the previous evening the Grammy Awards were broadcast. As we ran our 5:30 am laps, I mentioned to Dave that Paul Simon’s Graceland had won Album of the Year. I remember Dave saying, in his distinctly Dave way, “Fuck the Grammys! Dire Straits lost to fucking Phil Collins last year. That award means shit!” He was speaking of the band’s smash 1985 album, Brothers In Arms. Thus began my formal introduction to the band. I eventually bought several of the band’s cassettes, but Making Movies is the one that’s always stood out the most to me.
One of the first songs I remember Dave playing me has become one of my favorite songs from Making Movies, “Romeo and Juliet.”
It’s a simple-sounding song that opens with Knopfler’s characteristic finger-picking on an old-timey resonator guitar. One of the key features of Knopfler’s guitar style is that he exclusively plays using his fingers on his strumming hand instead of a pick. Not only is this song’s introduction finger-picked, but he uses fingers on everything else, as well. Knopfler’s voice doesn’t nearly match the giftedness of his guitar playing but it’s certainly distinctive, and his stylized singing conveys great emotion. In this case it’s the pain and anger (and even unfounded hopefulness) of heartbreak, telling a story of lost love based on his real-life relationship with American singer Holly Vincent. It’s a rare Dire Straits song in that the guitar (though obviously excellent) takes a backseat to the vocals. The song effectively uses dynamics: quiet, matter-of-fact verses and emotional bursts in the chorus, with each chorus building in intensity. The drumming, by Pick Withers, is excellent, using rolls and accents in the choruses (i.e. 2:25 – 2:45) that make the song more than just a simple rock lament. It’s a beautiful song, and Knopfler’s mournful guitar does come to the forefront in the subtle guitar outro, beginning at 4:50. (By the way, listen for the little finger snaps from Knopfler, after the lyrics “hey, la, my boyfriend’s back” (0:57) and “band accompanies me” (3:31). I love little things like that.)
If you listen to this album and think, “Hey, it sort of sounds like a Bruce Springsteen album,” it may be because producer Jimmy Iovine had been an engineer on several Springsteen albums, and also because Iovine brought along E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan. Together they helped add a sweeping, majestic sound to the record, evident on the lead track “Tunnel of Love.”
Opening with a snippet of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel Waltz,” from the musical Carousel, Bittan’s piano enters with a fanfare to herald the epic song that follows. It’s about the intense feelings of young love set at an amusement park – in this case Spanish City, a seaside park from Knopfler’s youth – and the pull of memory as one ages. Once again Knopfler’s limited vocal abilities are put to fine use, imbuing the piece with emotion. But his guitar is the star of this song. He riffs and solos beautifully behind the lyrics throughout the song. The song pulls way back at about 5:00, filled with tasty guitar figures, setting the listener up for the ferocious solo to come, beginning about 5:55. This is a Robin-Yount-Hall-of-Fame caliber solo to end the piece, building from quiet spaciousness to furiously fast finger picking, and throughout reflecting the wistfulness of the lyrics. It’s a tremendous song.
As is another long one, a song I’d originally disliked though came to appreciate and love, the aforementioned MTV favorite “Skateaway.”
Pick Withers’s kick drum opens the piece and the song does one of those cool things where the drum beat sounds like the “1” is on a certain beat, but then when the organ enters you find the “1” is somewhere else. I love that. Knopfler’s squawky guitar enters, setting a mysterious mood, which is probably correct for me because 35 years on and I still don’t know what the lyrics mean – unless it is what it is: just a story about a young woman rollerskating. (Okay, I just read a theory that sounds accurate – that the song is about the movies we make in our heads to accompany the songs we hear. That sounds right!) Knopfler’s guitar fills take center stage once again behind his vocals, throwing in things like the run from 2:33 to 2:44 which is super cool. And by the way – he plays all those fills while singing when he plays live, which is rather astounding. It’s a mellow song that kicks into a slightly higher gear when the chorus comes around. Bittan’s organ fills out the song nicely, and bassist John Illsley does some really cool stuff during Knopfler’s outro solo, after 5:00.
Making Movies is not very long – only 7 songs. Of course, “Tunnel of Love” and “Skateaway” are both 6-plus minutes. But it’s an economical package, with most all of the fat stripped away. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity of sound on the record, but that’s not a knock: it is a concentrated dose of Knopfler guitar, unusual vocals and lyrical stories. “Expresso Love” follows the blueprint to a tee.
I prefer the solid rock sound of “Solid Rock,” Dire Straits’s version of hard rock.
This is the Dire Straits’ version of hard rock, with a driving pulse and Knopfler nearly shouting his lyrics. (He never really sings). It’s all chugging piano and guitars, and he throws in cool little guitar stuff – like the first time he sings “Long will live/Solid Rock” in each chorus, he does a little “blip” sound (first heard about 0:43), which I just love. Although its shouted title sounds like a fist-pumping salute to the longevity of rock and roll, the Solid Rock in this song is actual rock: sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic, albeit used as a metaphor for human relationships. Knopfler plays a deftly intricate solo, as usual, and the song seems to end too soon.
I love Mark Knopfler’s distinctive guitar playing. When I’m thinking about guitar players I love, his name doesn’t immediately pop into my head, but when I listen to Making Movies, I remember just how much I love his style. (And when I think about him doing it all without using a pick, I’m astonished!) It’s the same way with baseball Hall of Famer Robin Yount – except for the part about using a pick. I love that different people can be so good at doing the the same thing, yet do that thing in a style they share with no one else. It speaks to both the individual and the communal nature of human beings. And it brings lots of joy to fans like me.
“Tunnel of Love”
“Romeo and Juliet”
“Hand In Hand”
Zenyatta Mondatta. The Police.
1980, A&M. Producer: The Police and Nigel Gray
Purchased: circa 1981.
IN A NUTSHELL – Ska/Reggae/Punk rock played by guys who really know how to play! Catchy melodies and bouncy rhythms are laid on top of performances that get more impressive the more you listen.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – The songs were more diverse. I like that “Police Sound,” but it can get repetitive.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ In 1974 the TV program Happy Days hit the American airwaves. Happy Days was a situation comedy set in 1950s, dawn of rock n’ roll Milwaukee, about a teenager, Richie Cunningham, and his family and friends. It was a typical sit-com of the day, featuring gentle humor and everyday story lines that made it popular with both kids and adults. It rarely, if ever, pushed boundaries or courted controversy, and until it “jumped the shark,” in an episode that spawned the phrase “jumping the shark,” it was a funny family TV program of the type rarely seen these days on network TV.
According to wikipedia, the program began as a mid-season replacement show. I was in first grade, and I don’t remember watching it then. But by 4th grade it was my favorite show. My favorite character was the cool tough guy, Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, aka “The Fonz.” On my bedroom wall I had a Fonzie poster that I selected as a prize for selling boxes of PTA fundraiser candy. My favorite t-shirt stated “I’m the Fonz.”
I begged for a Happy Days lunch box, prominently featuring The Fonz, but I already had a “Yankee Doodles” lunchbox that celebrated the Bicentennial with clever cartoons, so I couldn’t get one. Like most of America at the time, I was battling a huge case of Fonzie Fever. How bad were the national symptoms of this malady? Consider that in the 1976 US Presidential race, incumbent Gerald Ford’s campaign included a picture of an uncomfortable-because-my-undershirt-is-showing Ford dressed as a leather-jacketed “Fordzie” character. (Try to imagine the 2012 Obama campaign doing something similar. “Barack-y Stinson,” from How I Met Your Mother? Eew.)
The Fonz introduced to me, and to most Americans, a concrete version of the concept of “Cool.” The Fonz proclaimed himself cool, and he did “cool” things – like choose to not comb his hair because he was already perfect, or start broken juke boxes with a simple punch (or a snap of the fingers, when necessary), or show up to parties with a bevy of women with a group name (e.g. The Aloha Pussycats, The Hooper Triplets.)
He changed how we talked, as well. Fonzie established the term “cool” in its current usage. Before The Fonz, there were “Cool Cats” playing jazz, or tightrope walkers who were “Cool as a Cucumber.” But after The Fonz appeared, your new jeans could be “cool,” your plans to go to the mall could be “cool,” you kid’s art project could be “cool.” Fonzie made “Cool” so very cool.
Of course, Happy Days and The Fonz didn’t invent the concept of “Cool.” According to the interwebs, “cool” originated in the 1930s with jazz musicians, and was popularized in the 40s and 50s. The excellent Miles Davis albumBirth of the Cool featured recordings of the Miles Davis Nonet from 1949 and 1950. The title refers to “Cool Jazz,” a style of music that sounded relaxed and in control, as opposed to the furious pace and excess displayed in Bebop. In 60s sit-coms, “cool” was usually among the terms used in dialogue to quickly identify characters as beatniks or jazz enthusiasts.
In popular culture, the term gradually moved away from shorthand for jazz into a concept that non-beatniks could embody, as well. The Peanuts comic strip introduced Snoopy as the character “Joe Cool” in the early 70s. But there remained a negative association to the term, a sense that anyone who was “cool” was arrogant or a fool. The humor of Snoopy’s Joe Cool character comes from the fact that he’s unaware of how wrong-headed his “cool” choices are. (Asked by Linus how his chemistry test went, Snoopy replies “Joe Cool can’t worry about chemistry when he’s busy hanging around the student union.”)
But Fonzie was the first pop culture figure to present “Cool” as a positive characteristic, as something to aspire to. Sure, he was a goofy caricature – with his thumbs-up salute, his “Aaayyy” and his “Whoa,” his leather jacket and superhuman abilities. But there was something about being Fonzie that connected with people. He revealed an underlying desire among people to be “The Man,” or “The Woman.” To be – in a word – cool.
But being “Cool” is very hard to accomplish in real life. The words “Cool” and “Fool” share 75% of their letters, but there is certainly a better than 95% chance that any individual trying to be “Cool” will instead look like a Fool. And this is why the concept of “Cool” – as embodied by The Fonz – is so elusive. What feels “Cool” to you, on the inside, while you’re “in the moment,” can easily appear silly (or worse) to those around you; and so you make sure you’re not discovered trying to be cool. This self-censoring creates a cool-restrictive feedback loop. You spend time monitoring yourself, and how you’ll look, and now you’ve ensured you’ll never be cool. No one so self-conscious ever can be. The fictional world of Happy Days solved this problem by telling you Fonzie was cool, and having the characters all go along with it, finding his silly phrases and hair and superheroic thumb cool, too. We were allowed to watch a cool guy be cool – with no one giggling behind his back – and we loved it. Milwaukee loved it so much, they erected a statue of The Fonz.
Personally, I believe we should stop monitoring ourselves and gauging our cool against potential goofiness. It feels good to feel cool, despite what others think. Here are a few instances in my life where I felt cool – even when those around me disagreed.
The time in first grade when I folded a paper airplane and tossed it repeatedly into the air, coolly reflecting on how I’d finally made it out of the kindergarten wing, and was now in all-day school and riding the bus both ways with kids as old as ten and eleven. (Mrs. Hower did not seem to care about my inner reflections, and yelled and made me stand up and throw away my airplane, and my tearful walk to and from the wastebasket did not feel cool.)
The time in 8th grade when I got the part in the school play I wanted, a sidekick character who got a lot of laughs. I felt so cool to be recognized for my Bill Murray-esque talent. (Even though my friend, C., pointed out before the first show that the casting notes at the beginning of the script called for the role’s ideal actor to be “overweight and loud.”)
The time the coach of my son’s 7th grade basketball team asked me if I wanted to help coach the team – a role I’d served in for some of his other teams. However, this team was a “select” team, so I felt very cool to be asked to help in a way that would mean more than babysitting and yelling at kids to stop playing on the pile of mats. (An invitation my son insisted I turn down, lest he have to deal, once again, with the sight of me wearing “those BLUE SWEATPANTS!!”)
The time in 11th grade when I got a knockoff version of a SONY walkman and I blasted my eardrums with Zenyatta Mondatta in the backseat of the car while my parents got lost in Philadelphia driving to visit a prospective college. (Causing my dad to eventually scream, “Take those stupid things off your head!!!”)
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + There is something about The Police that I have always found extremely cool. It probably sounds ludicrous today to think of The Police as “Cool,” (as this Onion.com spoof points out) but in my world they still are. Maybe it’s because of my age when they emerged on the scene (about 12 years old). I was aware enough of the world in 1979 to know what “punk rock” was. Punk was supposed to be the new, cool music. However depictions of the genre – such as the MAD Magazinesend up of punk rock, or news pieces about crazy punk rock teen-agers which were frequently on TV – frightened me, and kept me from buying albums I saw by bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash and The Ramones. However, The Police – who were often lumped in with the punks – were different. They seemed safer, somehow. They were odd and British and snotty enough to mildly annoy and worry my parents, but they weren’t going to start a war in my household.
When their first US single “Roxanne” hit the airwaves in 1979, it sounded like nothing else I’d ever heard. Sting’s voice was whiny and high pitched, and the way he sang the word “Roxanne” didn’t really sound like singing at all. It was a repetitive song, but super catchy. I liked it because I thought it sounded cool. And I thought I was really cool for liking it. Of course, when I told the coolest kid in our neighborhood, Dominic, how cool I thought the song was, he mocked me for days.
But I remained a secret fan. And when I was finally able to convince my mom, during my freshman year of high school, to let me join the Columbia House Record Club (a pretty cool club for music loving teens in the 70s and 80s that didn’t rip me off because I ALWAYS sent back my monthly selection on time!) one of the first 12 cassettes I ordered for a penny was Zenyatta Mondatta.
The Police Sound is a sound of contradictions – perhaps borne of the band’s notorious intraband discord. It sounds punk-y and basic at first, but closer listening reveals it’s full of excellent musicianship. It sounds spare and open, but those spaces are filled with complex playing. It sounds bouncy and fun, but the lyrics can be very serious. Zenyatta Mondatta is the band’s third album, and it follows the template of the first two, Outlandos d’Amour and Regatta de Blanc, with reggae-influenced, driving rock songs featuring Sting’s multi-tracked vocals and close harmonies, and the jazzy guitar and intricate drumming of Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, respectively.
The album opens with one of the most famous rock tracks of all time, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”
It may be hard to believe now, but when this song came out I had no idea it was about a teacher and a student having a … thing. I was thirteen, not really aware of song lyrics other than the chorus, and not really paying attention to what the words were saying. I was on a baseball team with some older kids – 14 and 15 year olds – and at practice, during a discussion of contemporary music (at which time the song “Funky Town” was officially declared excellent) some 15 year old (Joey Smetana? Mark Allwein?) mentioned, casually (as 15 year olds will) “‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ is about some teacher fucking his student.” I felt a little queasy hearing this, but also happy to be part of the club who knew this (apparently) hidden detail. The song also enhanced my knowledge of literature, as I eventually read “that book by Nabokov.”
The song opens with a low, held bass note and some distant, simple guitar notes. Then that bass note just hangs there for several seconds – it’s a very compelling, spooky opening – until it modulates, and the cymbals and kick drum begin. When the lyrics begin, it’s hard to believe I hadn’t noticed the story being told, but let’s just say I wasn’t the most “with it” thirteen year old. The song displays all the standard Police bits that define their unique style, particularly in the chorus (first at ~0:57). Stewart Copeland’s syncopated drumming (check out what the cymbal is doing) and Andy Summers’s sparse, moody guitar behind Sting’s high pitched shout. One of the things I like most about the song is the countermelody that the bass plays during the “Don’t stand so, Don’t stand so …” It’s a bouncing line that goes up in pitch when the vocal pitch drops – the type of little choice that makes songs interesting. After the first chorus (about 1:13), Sting’s bass line and Copeland’s drums become frantically syncopated and it’s really Summers’s guitar that holds the song together rhythmically through the verse.
It’s a really great song that has been played so much over the years, it’s easy to forget how great it is. It’s famous for having been illegally used in a UK deodorant commercial and for a video featuring the beautiful young men of the band jumping around in a school.
That video also got me, and many American youths, interested in the British band The Beat (known as “The English Beat” in the US).
What “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” demonstrates in The Police sound is that there is always a lot more happening in their songs than what you hear the first time through. Sting writes such catchy melodies, and the band’s arrangements sound so good, that the details are often lost on first listen.
An excellent example is the second song on the album, and my favorite, “Driven to Tears.”
The song opens with a snare drum, which is perfect for this song because the drumming on it is amazing. Stewart Copeland is widely recognized as one of the top drummers in the rock era and his work on “Driven to Tears” exemplifies why. Pay attention to the drums, and imagine your own hands trying to hit all those drums and (especially) cymbals with sticks the same way. Sting’s bass line is simple and – once again – bouncy, and Summers is as ethereal as ever in the spaces. The lyrics consider the responsibilities of Western, wealthy people towards Earth’s less-fortunate people, and is one of Sting’s first directly socially conscious songs, presaging his later extensive work with social action charities. Andy Summers also plays one of the weirdest guitar solos in pop music on this song, as well. It starts behind the vocals, at around 1:35, and only takes another 15 – 18 seconds, but it’s as memorable a 15 second guitar solo as I’ve heard. “Driven to Tears” is repetitive, which is usually a characteristic that causes me to skip a song, but The Police do so much within the repetitive framework they build that I never get tired of the song. Here’s them playing it live, back in the day.
The Police are clearly influenced by reggae, which can be a somewhat repetitive, meditative musical style. The song “When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” is one of the more repetitive songs you’ll hear on my list of 100 favorite albums, but it just sounds so cool to me!
I often complain to my teenage son that much of the hip-hop music he likes sounds too repetitive to me. He tells me my music is the same way. Maybe he’s right. In this song, Sting’s melody saves the day. It makes the chorus a sing-along favorite. The lyrics explain to a sweetheart (or friend) how they brighten an otherwise tiresome, worn-out world. The verses cram lots of words into a little bit of space, which is another facet of the typical Police sound.
This wordiness is also on display in “Canary In a Coalmine”
It’s another short, punchy song about a person extremely faint of heart. The rhymes are funny, and Summers plays a nice lead guitar line throughout the song. I think of this song and “When the World is Running Down …” as two halves of the same song, maybe because they are next to each other on the record.
Sting has been pilloried in the press over the years for his lyrics. And certainly publishing them in a collection called Lyrics by Sting might not have been a good way to tamp down this derision. Further, it couldn’t have helped his case to include statements like the following in the book’s foreword:
“Publishing my lyrics separately from their musical accompaniment is something that I’ve studiously avoided until now. The two, lyrics and music, have always been mutually dependent, in much the same way as a mannequin and a set of clothes are dependent on each other; separate them, and what remains is a naked dummy and a pile of cloth.”
Or even worse, this:
“My wares have neither been sorted nor dressed in clothes that do not belong to them; indeed, they have been shorn of the very garments that gave them their shape in the first place. No doubt some of them will perish in the cold cruelty of this new environment, and yet others may prove more resilient and become perhaps more beautiful in their naked state.”
(Wait … doesn’t the mannequin give shape to the clothes, not vice versa? Oh well.) And it probably doesn’t help my case for being considered “cool” to acknowledge that I’ve always sort of liked many of Sting’s lyrics. For example, I thought mentioning Nabokov in a pop song was kind of cool. And as someone who often finds himself tongue-tied in conversation, with thoughts in my head finding no clear path to my voice box and mouth, a song of Sting’s that has long been a favorite is “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.”
It’s all about how hard it is to find the right words. The bass, guitar and drums are all sounding good in this one, and the soft, gauzy verse coupled with the percussive chorus fit together nicely. The band’s two-note “Ba-Ba” before the (vocal) “De do do do …” are an example of how a tiny bit of music can become a signature of a song. I recall my sister, Liz, and I banging our heads to these two notes – just to gently antagonize my mom, who by 1980 was finding popular music far, far too crazy to even comment on any more. The song was also ripped off in a commercial for a classic turn-of-the-decade Designer Jeans brand, Baronelli.
But if you aren’t a fan of Sting’s lyrics, the band includes some other songs for you to appreciate. There’s Andy Summers’s grammy award-winning instrumental “Behind My Camel.” According to Summers’s excellent autobiography, One Train Later, Sting hated this song and refused to play on it, and went so far as to bury the recording in the garden outside the studio in hopes of keeping it off the album. (Sting has confirmed the story.) It’s a vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding guitar solo that I like well enough, but that to my ears doesn’t really show off the best of Summers’s technique. There’s another instrumental, this one drummer Copeland’s composition, “The Other Way of Stopping.” Another near-instrumental is “Voices Inside My Head,” which features words written by Sting, but only 10 of them, so probably not enough to be hated. I actually like Summers’s guitar on this song more than on “Behind My Camel.”
If you want a non-instrumental, non-Sting-lyrics song, Zenyatta Mondatta has one of those, too, in the excellent Copeland piece “Bombs Away.”
This song has everything great about the band, and album, in one song. Sting’s bass line is funky, tricky and propels the song forward, as usual. He typically plays a fretless bass, which as an amateur electric bass player myself, I find pretty incredible. Copeland’s drumming, from his kick drum to his cymbals, is excellent and as melodic as a few drums can be. Summers again shows off his subtle genius by nicely doubling the chorus melody, and in his deft background picking, and in another weird, Middle Eastern solo (~1:34), this one stretching out for more than 15 seconds. He also stretches further on the outro solo, starting about 2:17. The Police weren’t a typical “guitar hero band,” like Van Halen or Queen or AC/DC, but Summers states his case here, playing this last solo like he’s finally been allowed off the leash.
The remaining two songs are “Man in a Suitcase,” another frantic, sing-along ska song featuring cool double tracked harmony vocals by Sting, and more tight, intricate drumming. And “Shadows in the Rain,” a slow groove of a Police song. This one is very meditative and sparse.
The album doesn’t have a lot of diversity of sound – something that I typically look for in my favorite albums. But it does have a sound of its own … a cool sound. A sound that takes me back, makes me feel good, and makes me happy. For me, it’s a celebration of feeling “cool.”
And we SHOULD celebrate feeling cool! It’s a great feeling! Go ahead and toss a paper airplane, or act in a play. Go wear your blue sweatpants. Or listen to Zenyatta Mondatta. Who cares if you look like a doofus to others. You’re allowed to be Fonzie in your world. You must cherish your own version of a supernatural thumb.
Don’t Stand So Close To Me
Driven to Tears
When the World Is Running Down You Make the Best of What’s Still Around
Canary in a Coalmine
Voices Inside My Head
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
Behind My Camel
Man in a Suitcase
Shadows in the Rain
The Other Way of Stopping