Tag Archives: New Wave

25th Favorite: The Fine Art of Surfacing, by The Boomtown Rats

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The Fine Art of Surfacing. The Boomtown Rats.
1979, Columbia. Producer: “Mutt” Lang and Phil Wainman.
Cassette, 1984.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Fine Art of Surfacing, the third album by Ireland’s The Boomtown Rats, is at times cool, skinny-tie new wave and at times theatrical, Broadway bombast. It’s all tied together by terrific guitar and organ work. Bob Geldolf’s warbling voice on clever, insightful lyrics is the constant throughout all the songs. He pulls no punches, whether his topic is violence, suicide or humans’ indifference to suffering, but it never feels heavy, and it always makes you want to dance.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I’ve enthused and reminisced and admitted embarrassing facts about the early days of MTV several times in this little project of mine. I try not to overdo it, but the channel had an impact on me. The launch of MTV in late summer, 1981, coincided with my first semester of high school, and due to the combination of my love of music, my age and the marketing geniuses at the channel, it left a mark on me. I think music fans of all ages have a time in their life when they first realized the importance of music in their lives, and the events and experiences of that realization remain a part of them as a music fan, and as a person, for the rest of their lives.

My friend’s dad was a young man in New York City in the 1950s, and he went to all the little jazz joints and saw all the big jazz names – Miles, Bird, Monk, ‘Trane – in tiny clubs with a handful of other folks. He speaks of those days – of seeing Monk drive off to get ice cream with friends just before a brilliant set at The Five Spot – with intensity and reverence, in details as if they happened a few days ago. One can tell that all other musical experiences in his life are measured against those days. He may have heard things he’s liked better, maybe he hasn’t pulled out a jazz record in several years, but those days and nights in Manhattan jazz clubs set the bar.

I worked with a guy who saw The Beatles live in San Francisco twice and had an 8mm home movie of his family black-and-white TV showing their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. I know folks who got into The Grateful Dead in the early 70s, have seen dozens of their concerts and traveled along with them. I know a guy who was bored by rock music until he heard The Ramones in ’76; I know people from New York City who experienced the Hip Hop and Rap revolution in the early 80s right in their own neighborhoods. Music fans often have a time in their life, be it one night or an era, that sets the stage for everything else. For me, it was MTV in the early 80s.

Before MTV, my knowledge of music was directly related to whatever came out of my radio, and whatever my two sisters played. My eldest sister had some classic rock albums. My other sister was a huge Top 40 fan, bought a lot of cassettes, and was the No. 1 Fan of Central PA’s nearly-went-bigtime 80s band The Sharks. I listened to all of it with them, but I didn’t really have my own music.

Before MTV, music was really a mostly-aural experience. You figured there were humans behind those sounds you heard, and you guessed they were playing instruments and singing, but as for what they looked like, well, if you didn’t get music magazines (and nobody in our house did, really) all you had to go by were album covers. If you wanted to see them perform (and you didn’t have a concert venue close by), you had to wait for them to appear on TV, on a talk-show or variety show, or music shows like American Bandstand or Solid Gold.

MTV changed that, by letting you see the bands behind the music. For many folks, this was when music all went south, when “image” – which had always been a considerable component of the pop music biz – became, to many, more important than the songs. But as a 14 year old kid, I wasn’t so impressed by the image of the acts; I noticed them, and I’m sure image helped suck me in. But the coolest part of MTV (for me) was all the music by artists that I’d never heard of before, particularly UK artists.

MTV was the entry point into the US for many UK and Irish bands, sparking what became known as “The Second British Invasion,” the first having been during the early/mid-60s, when The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and a million lesser acts crossed the Atlantic to give the kids here a thrill. There were plenty of great US bands back around 1981, but the British bands were on the music video bandwagon early, and when a channel came on that needed 24 hours of programming per day, well, those UK videos were ready for the taking. By July 16, 1983, 20 of the top 40 singles in the U.S., including 7 of the top 10 singles, were by UK artists.

And it’s true, the acts did usually have an image. But I was already a fan of image, even before MTV. I loved Cheap Trick, and their zany guitarist Rick Neilsen. I was already a fan of the weird and catchy American band Devo. The Brits just seemed to have thousands more artists in that vein: bands who had a look that they incorporated into the music. Devo was nerdy, jittery, and futuristic in both style and sound. A Flock of Seagulls changed “nerdy” to “peculiar” but did the same thing. Adam and The Ants were pirates with a tribal beat. Madness were retro ragamuffins playing catchy ska songs with horns. JoBoxers and Dexy’s Midnight Runners did something similar without the horns and ska.

But I didn’t like the music because of the image, I liked it because the songs were catchy and fun. If it was all about image, I’d have never liked all the androgynous and cross-dressing British bands. After all, I was a 14 year old, rural 80s boy, unprepared for that level of tolerance and acceptance. But still I liked songs by The Human League and Eurythmics and even Culture Club, although I didn’t admit it to many. Other acts with an image I didn’t care for included Duran Duran, The Cure, Billy Idol … but still I liked some of their songs.

If so many of those acts seemed to be purely successful marketing achievements, well there were also plenty of British and Irish acts on MTV that were serious musicians, whose image just seemed to be about making music. XTC, U2, Peter Gabriel, Squeeze, The Fixx and The Jam. There were one-hit wonders, no-hit wonders, ska bands, more ska bands, and even a few acts I’d heard before MTV who were also part of this whole revolution.

As much as I loved many of these artists’ songs, I never really considered getting albums by them. I was buying albums by AC/DC and Rush and Yes. To me, as catchy and fun as the British Invasion songs could be, the bands didn’t seem foundationally sound enough to support an entire album’s worth of music. My sister, Liz, however, did have some cassettes by some of these bands. One of her best friends, a cool, funny girl named Leeanne, worked the best of all possible early-80s teen dream jobs: clerk at the Mall record store. She seemed to know everything about music, and if I saw her working at the mall I’d try to ask her about what was good. She seemed to know about bands before they even hit MTV.

I knew The Boomtown Rats, an established Irish band that, to me, seemed to be part of the Second British Invasion, solely from one song that played on MTV, and sometimes on AOR radio. That song, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” the lead single from The Fine Art of Surfacing, was a piano song, with an orchestral arrangement. It seemed cute at first, with its Garfield-esque sentiments. Actually, the song’s lyrics are about one of the first of, sadly, many gun massacres at schools in The United States, the only country where, apparently coincidentally (?) random public shooting massacres are routine and civilians can own battlefield weapons. It’s a terrific song, with great vocals and harmonies, and a showcase for the band’s keyboardist, Johnnie Fingers. But with its epic, earnest arrangement, it’s not something I’d want an album’s worth of. As much as I liked the song on MTV, I never thought about buying The Fine Art of Surfacing. But Leeanne told me the band was good, and then I saw the cassette in my sister’s collection. I listened to her copy a lot, then finally bought my own. The energetic songs and interesting arrangements had me hooked. The band seemed to be more than a marketing exercise, and there was more to The Fine Art of Surfacing than a sad, epic piano song.

The album’s first track, “Someone’s Looking At You,” had me hooked right away.

I like the simple acoustic guitar that opens the song and sets the stage, and the way this introduction builds through the addition of voices, organ, drums, until it kicks in at 0:30 with electric guitar and singer Bob Geldof’s warbling voice stating “On a night like this/ I deserve to get kissed/ at least once or twice.” There’s cool electric guitar cutting through the verses, and a desperation to the group vocals beginning at 1:15. The vocals’ urgency increases through the second verse, on lyrics about paranoia and anxiety, until the chorus bursts at 2:08, with a bouncing bass from Pete Briquette behind it. Bob Geldolf’s voice is unusual and shaky; during the breakdown at 3:00 he sounds almost like a cartoon character. But his voice delivers emotion and connects those emotions to the lyrics.

An example is the song “Sleep (Fingers’ Lullaby),” written by keyboardist Johnnie Fingers, who wore pajamas onstage, and so perhaps was inclined to write a song titled “Sleep.”

Geldolf’s voice sounds perfectly exhausted and distraught on lyrics about insomnia. The band was fond of including sounds and noises in the background of their songs, and “Sleep” features this, with moaning groans at 1:00 behind “sick and tired” lyrics, and a rhythmic “shushing” in the background at 1:20 while Geldolf’s voice spirals into dejection. It’s a very theatrical song that keeps enough of a foot in the rock door to keep me satisfied.

The song “Having My Picture Taken” includes sound effects and a photographer’s voice. Simon Crow’s drums propel a vaguely caribbean beat, and a rockabilly-ish guitar strums along. The chorus is sing-along great, and there’s a nifty guitar solo about 1:55. It’s a cool song about taking pictures with a sound that’s hard to define.

There’s much theatricality in the Boomtown Rats and Bob Geldolf. Geldolf did some acting, famously playing the lead character “Pink” in Alan Parker’s film adaptation Pink Floyd – The Wall. And his efforts mounting Live Aid certainly demonstrate a willingness to think on a grand scale. This theatricality is present on “Nothing Happened Today.”

With it’s workday whistle and call-and-response vocals, it sounds like it could be part of a Broadway show. As the title suggests, the song’s about nothing happening, apart from Harry Hooper buying a toupee. The song has some cool timbale drums and some (frankly, dated sounding) hooting synth sounds. But there’s nifty guitar guitar riffs in the background. It’s a short, peppy song – which is another type of song the band favors. “Nice N Neat” is three minutes of energy, guitar, drums and questioning religion. “Wind Chill Factor (Minus Zero)” is a bit longer, but retains the new wave keyboard sound.

My favorite of the New Wave, skinny-tie, keyboard songs is the frantic “Keep It Up.”

I think it’s about sex? “Snap me in your breach/ I wanna be your bullet.” Could be. It reminds me of an Elvis Costello & The Attractions composition, with words spit out fast, a whirly organ, and drums & bass propelling it all forward, forward. The backing harmonies are cool, and the chorus (0:47) is catchy as hell. Plus, it has a false ending (not shown on the video) which I almost always love.

The Fine Art of Surfacing is a great album, with great tracks, but my two favorites combine the new-wave energy with Big-Arena-Rock theatricality, and blend them with Bob Geldolf’s fine storyteller lyrics. I haven’t talked much about his lyrics, but he can turn a phrase and conjure an image with the best.

“Diamond Smiles” tells the story of a beautiful socialite’s suicide at a glamorous party, an act remembered by the society crowd as having been done with “grace and style.”

It starts with a subtle electric guitar and Geldolf’s pinched voice. The song has those Phil Spector-Girl Group drums that I love, which helps the build up of the song. Nice harmony vocals are added the second time through the verse, then the energy backs off for another round of verses. This builds to the chorus: “They said she did it with grace/They said she did it with style,” and Diamond eventually goes out “kicking at the perfumed air.” The lyrics say so much about a type of person, a type of social stratum, in such a clever, acerbic way. The song next goes into a long “la la” fade out. The song is singalong catchy and fun, yet dark and pointed.

Another song that comments on society, this time the office-job stiffs trying to stay sane until the end of the day, is the wonderful album-closer “When the Night Comes.”

This is one of my favorite songs of all time. I love the instrumentation, the acoustic guitar mixed with electric, even the swooping organ, and I love the spirit of the song, and Geldolf’s vocal performance. It’s bouncy, fun to sing, and I could listen to it every day. There’s an acoustic guitar solo at about 0:17 that sets the stage, then the bass takes over to support Geldolf’s barrage of words. They’re all about the drudgery of the working life, and the freedom most everyone is striving for. Meanwhile there are terrific oohs and ahhs, harmonies, whirling organ, piano … it’s a celebration in song! At 2:31, when Frankie decides to call the woman from work, there’s an ascending stop/start section that builds to a dual electric/acoustic guitar solo at 3:00, which slows at 3:28, then builds again, and it all just sounds like the ecstatic feelings you get when the one you asked on a date says yes! Of course, they wouldn’t be Geldolf lyrics if he didn’t remind you at the end of the song that you’re still chained to your desk …

I Want My MTV!” they said, and I understood. It was new and exciting, just like the best parts of being a teenager. And like being a teen, some of it was bullshit, some of it was uncomfortable, and some of it leaves you thinking nowadays, “what were we thinking?” But it left an impact on me, and without it I might not have discovered some favorite records – like The Fine Art of Surfacing.

Track Listing:
“Someone’s Looking At You”
“Diamond Smiles”
“Wind Chill Factor (Minus Zero)”
“Having My Picture Taken”
“Sleep (Fingers’ Lullaby)”
“I Don’t Like Monday”
“Nothing Happened Today”
“Keep It Up”
“Nice N Neat”
“When the Night Comes”

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34th Favorite: The Cars, by The Cars

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The Cars. The Cars.
1978, Elektra Records. Producer: Roy Thomas Baker.
Cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Cars’ debut record has a sound all its own, yet compatible with everything. They’ve got straight-ahead pop, guitar rock and weird/eclectic covered, and it all sounds great. Guitarist Elliot Easton particularly shines with subtle riffs and awesome solos that are never flashy, but are memorable nonetheless. Ben Orr and Ric Ocasek share lead vocal duties, and both use their distinctive voices to great effect.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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“She likes you; but she doesn’t like-you-like-you.”

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out the first time I heard this response from any friend of any cute girl whose feelings for me I’d inquired about as a youth, but the overwhelming number of times I’ve heard it makes identifying the very first time akin to identifying the very first drop of saltwater in a wave that blindsided me and sent me tumbling through the surf.

When I say “youth,” I’m really talking about the Middle School Years – grades 6 through 8, ages 11 through 13. Before sixth grade, I assumed girls were either a) gross; or b) mightily impressed by me, so trying to find out their feelings about me served no purpose. By ninth grade, I’d gained enough insight into girls, high school social norms, other kids’ perception of me, and the variable nature of teenage feelings that I knew better than to ask the question. But during middle school, the question was always, “Does <girl’s name> like me?”

Middle School is a maelstrom of hormones, cliques, discomfort and vague desire through which only a fool (or a genetic freak with early-onset beauty) would attempt to steer the Good Ship Romance. But despite these circumstances, most of us find ourselves as pre-teens stowing the mizzenmasts and battening down the hatches of our hearts, and setting a course for certain doom anyway.

The best protection against that doom is to do some initial legwork to understand the lay of the land. It seems odd as adults to ask the friend of <girl’s name> to ask <girl’s name> if she likes you, and then to have the friend relay the answer back to you. But in Middle School, where feelings are in constant flux, the tactic serves multiple purposes.

The first, and most obvious, is that it’s protection for the inquirer against being humiliated face-to-face. Secondarily, there’s this: it provides protection for the object of the question, too. Most 12 year olds are uncomfortable offering a “yes!” to such a question asked directly by the inquirer, and so may say “no” just because it’s easier. The friend approach helps prevent false answers.

A final benefit to asking ahead is this: such are the vagaries of the pre-teen heart that simply receiving the second-hand information that <boy’s name> likes you could be enough to spur reciprocal feelings in <girl’s name>. It’s nice to be liked. At the very least, such second-hand questioning will cause <girl’s name> to contemplate the prospect of <boy’s name>, vis-a-vis cafeteria seating, bus-riding, popularity bell curve, cuteness, niceness, grossness, and all other Middle School considerations. So even if your efforts are all for naught, just knowing you’re in the other person’s thoughts for a little while can make the inquirer feel good.

Throughout Middle School, my main <girl’s name> was H. Sure, there were some other <girls’ names> who I inquired about, but most often it was H. I was like Kevin, from the TV show The Wonder Years, in his single-minded pursuit of Winnie Cooper. H. was more popular and more attractive than me, so to improve my chances I did what I could from 6th to 8th grade to try to move along to the leading edge of the Middle School Popularity Bell Curve. Given my financial and physical limitations, this effort mainly involved being extra nice and really funny. And it sort of worked!

My concerted effort to be nice and funny worked to move me up in the Middle School social hierarchy. However, 'Nice' and 'Funny' weren't the the romantic levers I'd hoped they'd be.

By the end of 8th grade I was less likely to be picked on by cooler kids, but I was no closer to winning H.’s heart. The word I began to receive now, and the rep that would follow me for so long that it actually became a positive characteristic in my life, was that I was “really nice.” This meant girls like H. “wanted to be friends.” They liked me, but none of them liked-me-liked-me.

Oh, by the way: eventually, in 10th grade, after 5 long years of effort, H. did show a few weeks of interest in me. It ended suddenly when, at the high school after returning late at night on the buses from an out-of-town marching band event, H. asked me if I wanted to “take a walk around the lockers” with her. It was late at night, we were alone in a dimly-lit, secluded area of the school, and she asked me to “take a walk” with her. So I walked with her. That’s it. I didn’t try to kiss her, I didn’t hold her hand, I didn’t even walk extra-close to her. I just walked next to her and cracked jokes. And that was the last of the interest she showed in me. Clearly, many of my romantic wounds were entirely self-inflicted.

The curse of being “liked” but not “liked-liked” reminds me of the band The Cars because they seem to be a band that everyone thinks is great, but few really love. Of course, there are die-hard fans, but while I know people who are enthusiastic, in-your-face proponents of artists from The Beatles to Stevie Wonder to Sleater-Kinney, I haven’t met many Cars Super Fans. The Cars tend to be a band that comes up late in a conversation about rock bands, that everyone agrees is terrific, that everyone likes just fine, but that doesn’t spring to the forefront when naming Greatest Rock Artists. In fact, they were just named to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after 15 years of eligibility – which is a long time to wait, even if it is a mostly bullshit honor. They’re the pudgy 13 year old of rock bands, the one who’s really nice and makes everyone laugh. They go for walks with pretty girls who ask them to go for walks.

Part of the reason they’re overlooked, I think, is that they have a sound that is contradictory – distinct enough to be readily identifiable, but universal enough to be overlooked. Just like I tried to be nice to everyone in Middle School – from the jocks and cheerleaders to the brains to the weird kids – The Cars sound nice with any number of genres. Could you play The Cars next to The Beatles and The Stones? Sure! That’s Classic Rock! How about The Cars with REO Speedwagon? A.O.R., baby. The Cars right after R.E.M.? Why, that’s 80s College Rock – and you could play Depeche Mode next, as The Cars’ keyboard sounds will link them nicely.

The Cars don’t really sound like Soul or R&B. But you know what? Play them after Donna Summer, and you’ve got a 70s station. Play them after Michael Jackson and you’ve got an 80s station. And they’re just edgy enough that you could play them with early punk, like The Clash, and modern enough that you could play them with ’00 rock acts like The Killers and The Strokes.

The Cars are nice to everyone, and so the pretty Middle School girl of music fandom is always going to like them, but never going to like-them-like-them. By the end of their career, they started to do different things to be more popular – more computer sounds, fewer guitar solos; the musical equivalent of the high school freshman drinking-and-puking and buying-designer-jeans. And sure, it made them a little more popular, but just like barfing and tight jeans, they might regret those choices now. The early records are when they really shined.

The Cars is one of the rare records that I don’t remember buying. It seems like it’s always been with me. I thought it was part of my sister’s milk-crate-of-70s-rock, but I checked with her and she never owned it. I know I was a fan of some of the non-radio songs in early high school, and I know I owned the cassette, so I’m going to make an educated guess and say I bought it from Columbia House during my 1982 freshman-year initiation into their record club.

Considering the comparison I made to the nice-boy-who-doesn’t-get-the-girl, it’s interesting that one of the album’s biggest songs is “My Best Friend’s Girl.”

True, as sung by the distinct, warbly voice of Ric Ocasek, the lyrics state “she used to be mine,” and lovable losers never even had the girl to begin with. But I know whenever H. had a boyfriend I felt like “she used to be mine,” despite the actual facts. The song demonstrates classic Cars song structure right off the top with a musical introduction. The band likes to start each song with something interesting that ties into the main song, but that’s also distinct on its own. In this case, it’s Elliot Easton’s strumming. Keep listening to Easton, because at 0:35, when “Here she comes again” is sung, he shows off another cool Cars song feature – the guitar line that you don’t notice at first because the song is so catchy, but when you listen again you realize is really pretty awesome. Easton is one of the most underrated guitarists in rock, and in addition to his nifty, bluegrass-ish mini-solo around 1:00 (which he also plays under the chorus), he plays a great solo at 2:00.

The song shows off all the best of The Cars, featuring terrific harmony vocals, musical drumming by drummer David Robinson, restrained keyboards from Greg Hawkes, and Ben Orr’s subtly rolling bass line. Orr also sang lead on many songs, which answered a question I had about the band for many years: how come sometimes the vocals are oddly robotic and sometimes they aren’t? Ocasek and Orr have very similar voices, but when Orr sings lead – as on “Just What I Needed,” – the singing is a bit better.

It starts with another musical intro, this time pulling a trompe l’ oreille (“Fool the ear.” I don’t know if that’s a thing, but I know there is a common art term called “trompe l’oeil,” or “fool the eye,” so I thought I’d look fancy and use it here.) causing the listener to expect the song to start on a certain beat, but have it start on a different one. Easton’s guitar throughout is once again masterful, and even though Hawkes’s swooping synthesizer (0:47) dominates the song, the guitar is worth listening for throughout. Robinson’s drumming is great, particularly the rolls before the chorus (0:45) and his trick beginning at 2:05, where he begins on a typical rock beat, hitting the snare on the ‘2’ and the ‘4’ for four measures then switching to the Native American-sounding beat of the snare on the ‘1’ and the ‘3’ for the next four. I love little things like that! Easton’s solo, at 1:48, is brilliant and concise. His playing throughout the record is a big reason the album is so high on my list.

Ocasek’s voice does provide a certain intangible quality to some of the songs, for example the driving new wave sound of “Don’t Cha Stop.” Luckily, his style obscures the lyrics some – which are a little too direct for my taste. Anytime the words “wet” and “mouth” are used together in a song, I get a little skeeved out.

But anyway, another cool intro, another cool guitar riff. This time there’s a nice keyboard riff by Hawkes, behind the chorus. But as always, it’s Easton’s guitar, once again, that thrills me. What can I say? The solo at 1:22 is a little song all by itself, and his riff behind the vocals around 1:55 sounds great. Like everything on the record, there’s so much going on in each little 3 minute pop song that repeated listens are gratifying.

And the band plays unusual pop songs, too. For example, the slow and weird “I’m In Touch With Your World.” It’s got all kinds of sounds (which the band recreated pretty well live) and lyrics that rhyme “psilocybin pony” with “flick fandango phony.” Ocasek’s voice is required for lines like that. It also adds something to what is one of the mellowest songs ever about having a good time, “Good Times Roll.” It has a cool, buzzing guitar sound, and the playing and harmony-singing is great all around. It’s catchy and fun, but by 3 minutes, with the repetitive lyrics and mid-tempo beat, it starts to sound like a sad guy in his lonely apartment talking to himself while drinking NyQuil for kicks.

The second half of the record (what we used to call, back in the olden days, “Side 2“) is when the band really starts to shine. The songs are placed close together, almost like Side 2 of Abbey Road. And it starts with another introductory musical phrase in “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.”

Flanging drums and guitars open it up, and then Ocasek whines (in a good way) leading up to another Easton guitar part I love that often goes unnoticed: the subtle riff beginning at 0:28, behind the “You can knock me …” lyrics. The harmony “aaahhhs” (0:38) really help build up the tension for the satisfying release of the “You’re all I’ve got tonight” chorus. Hawkes’ synthesizers dominate, but once again, I find the song to be an Elliot Easton showcase. Throughout the song he fills the background with squiggles and lines that make it sound cool, particularly beginning in the second verse to the end. He’s got a great solo at 1:55 and then, beginning at 2:55, he rips off a minute-long solo that’s spectacular. I love his guitar! Lyrically, the song is sort of a nod to the “Love-the-one-you’re-with” philosophy, I suppose, although here it sounds a bit more selfish than Stephen Stills’ 70s number made it out to be.

It ends abruptly and rolls right into my favorite song on the record, “Bye Bye Love,” which has a great little Ben Orr base line in the intro, at about 0:10.

I like how Orr sings the song, and the “Always with some other guy” line fits in well with the theme of lovable loser. (Although, given Orr’s looks, I get the feeling he didn’t have much difficulty attracting pretty girls.) The drum fills in the chorus are really great, and while the keyboards take a bigger role here than in some songs – for example, answering the vocals during the second verse, and the video-game solo at 2:11 – Easton does get to pull off a terrific solo at 3:24. The song also has one of the coolest endings in rock.

And that ending includes the beginning of the next song, “Moving In Stereo,” a looping, whirring synth sound that drops into a simple guitar pattern. Orr’s voice uses an eerie effect, and swings back and forth from speaker to speaker as he sings about how easy it is to “fool with the sound.”

The bass swoops in repeatedly, making the most of its single note. This is a song that, for heterosexual men of a certain age, regardless of one’s standing on any type of curve, cannot be heard without a flashback to teenage interest in actress Phoebe Cates as seen in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s another one of The Cars’ weird-sounding songs, spare in instrumentation, mostly synth and open spaces and Orr’s distorted voice, then a repetitive buildup to about 3:56, when bass and guitar play a cool figure. Orr sings one more verse, getting increasingly spacey, until …

“All Mixed Up” begins. It’s got another tricky introduction, with Robinson’s cymbals appearing on the “wrong” beat. Easton’s guitar enters (about 5:11) and plays a subtly tremendous descending run. It’s a very sad-sounding song to me, and about 5:55 it becomes almost orchestral. Robinson’s girl-group, Phil Spector drums at the end of the chorus add some pageantry to lyrics that resonated with a lonely boy who wanted to believe that everything would be alright. I like the background vocals on chorus, and multi-instrumentalist Greg Hawkes’ saxophone solo to end the song is quite fitting.

Luke Skywalker. Rick, from Casablanca. Ducky, from Pretty In Pink. Why, even Brad Hamilton, from Fast Times. Many guys didn’t get the girl. But it didn’t mean we weren’t awesome in our own right, with facets waiting to be discovered by just the right person. It’s easy to overlook some people, and some bands. Maybe The Cars don’t immediately spring to mind when you’re naming great bands, maybe they’re in that second or third wave. Maybe they seem weird or uncool at first. But there’s no doubt they’re one of the best, and The Cars is an album you’ll like-like, if you just give it a little chance.

Track Listing
“Good Times Roll”
“My Best Friend’s Girl”
“Just What I Needed”
“I’m In Touch With Your World”
“Don’t Cha Stop”
“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”
“Bye Bye Love”
“Moving In Stereo”
“All Mixed Up”

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46th Favorite: This Year’s Model, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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This Year’s Model. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1978, Radar Records. Producer: Nick Lowe.
Purchased, ca. 1997. (Rykodisk)

IN A NUTSHELL: A record all the critics love – but don’t let that stop you from listening! It’s the first appearance by The Attractions, a wonderfully talented rhythm section, and they do not disappoint. Elvis spits out his cleverly crafted lyrics (mainly about his troubles of the heart) with disdain – and a bit of self-conscious humor – and never stops the party. I won’t tell you it’s awesome – I’m no authority, after all – I’ll just tell you I love it!
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In 1974 I was in second grade and my teacher was Mrs. Miller. She was approaching retirement when I had her, which means she had been teaching second graders since before World War II. She was chubby and severe-looking, with gray hair pulled into a bun and little granny glasses perched on her nose, looking not unlike Calvin’s nemesis, Miss Wormwood, from Calvin & Hobbes. Sometime early in the school year she made a statement to the class that I knew to be incorrect. I don’t remember what it was, but I do know that I raised my hand and pointed out her error. She replied, “Do not correct me. I am the teacher, and the teacher is never wrong.” My little seven year old self fumed and thought: “Bullshit!”

For a long time I’ve had a bit of a problem with Authority Figures. It’s nothing that’s very radical. I’m not an Anarchist, I don’t have a manifesto. I’ve never been fired or reprimanded at a job because I couldn’t get along with my boss. I’ve never been thrown out of a sporting event for yelling at referees. I never got detention in school or arrested for mouthing off to a cop. I’m aware of how society works, faults and all, and I’m fortunate to be a member of a group for whom it is easiest to remain polite and smiling while I feign deference.

But I still don’t buy into all that “Authority” bullshit.

My questions regarding authority always boil down to these: “Who gave you Authority?” and “What is supposed to be encompassed within that Authority?” Assholes who abuse their authority generally don’t understand the correct answer to one of those two questions.

Let’s take the second question first: “What is supposed to be encompassed within that authority?” People who believe their authority allows them to act like a dick are some of my least favorite people. In 2001, I went to the Brookline, MA, building permit department to ask a question about renovating my garage. I waited twenty minutes to finally get to the front of the line. Then, the short, chubby building-permit guy, who wore a gaudy pinky ring and a hairdo from 1975, halted my question after 3 seconds by turning his back on me to turn to his secretary and ask, “Did I tell you I found another dead squirrel in my pool this morning?” He then began a five-minute conversation with her about wildlife and aquatics, while I waited patiently – sure that if I interrupted, he’d answer my question in the way that most negatively impacted me. It was a completely asshole move, and if I remembered that dick’s name I’d tell you right now. He knew he had some “authority,” and felt it allowed him to be a lousy human being to others. (And not to sound too superior, but the dude was a building-permit guy in a small town. It’s not like he was saving lives or acting heroically. The dick.) But his authority really wasn’t supposed to encompass assholishness.

The question of “Who gave you Authority?” is trickier. It may imply that as long as I get an answer that is accurate (i.e. “There’s a law in our town about building permits and how they’re attained;” “I was hired by the principal to be your second-grade teacher.”) I’ll be satisfied and accept the person’s role. However, there have been times I’ve had issues with those who’ve been given legitimate authority. For example, I was summoned for jury duty in San Francisco many years ago, and during the process of jury selection a question that was asked of every candidate was this: “Is there any reason you’d be unable to follow the judge’s instructions?” The jury was selected before I was ever questioned, so I never got a chance to answer: “If the judge instructs me to do something I think is inappropriate or incorrect, I won’t follow the instructions.” (Is that Contempt of Court? I probably have a lot of contempt for many U.S. courts – even the highest.)

That being said, in most cases I’ll initially extend extra benefit of the doubt to someone who’s been duly granted authority in some official way. However, I tend not to extend it to those who have “authority” for no other reason than they clicked on an Indeed.com link. For example, Music Critics.

According to my deep, deep research, including watching historical documentaries, arts criticism has been around since the time of Aristotle, Plato and ancient India – proving that humans have always gotten off on talking shit about each other. In its most serious and legitimate form, arts criticism can be an academic pursuit undertaken by curious researchers seeking answers to larger questions; or an intellectual pursuit by writers seeking to investigate and understand the arts and artists. I have no problem with these functions, as I’m probably not sophisticated or patient enough to unravel most of these writings, and I’m way past being interested in pretending to be interested.

AN ASIDE: I will, however, sometimes read the art reviews by the celebrated New Yorker writer Peter Scheldahl just so I can meditate over poetic prose that is, to me, as inscrutable as a foreign menu. For example, a review of a recent retrospective at The Guggenheim of the abstract artist Agnes Martin states: “The cumulative effect is that of intellectual and emotional repletion, concerning a woman who synthesized the essences of two world-changing movements—Abstract Expressionism and minimalism—and who, from a tortured life, beset by schizophrenia, managed to derive a philosophy, amounting almost to a gospel, of happiness.” To me, that’s a lot of blabberty-flabber-jabber to describe a blue square full of little black squares, but it sure sounds good. And I certainly don’t know enough to challenge his assertions.

However, from these high-minded pursuits by hyper-focused and, perhaps, hyper-intelligent minds it is a short and slippery slope to writing about arts in a manner that is pedantic, condescending and self-important. Or put more plainly – these critics can easily come off as assholes. They can be not unlike those hipster bullies I met 25 years ago in San Francisco, timid individuals shat upon throughout life who banded together to shit upon others over their culturo-artistic ideas. They can be like the record store gang in the film High Fidelity, extolling arts and artists from a position on high to other people, many of whom are eager to reflect some of that superiority onto friends and acquaintances. This desire to be an expert leads folks to, for example, assume that a record that is unlistenable must have been, based on a few words by some “authority,” misapprehended by themselves and the public at large, and so must, despite what their ears tell them, be, in fact, a work of genius. Some folks even think rock critics of the past leveraged this blind obedience by some to perpetrate ingenious hoaxes.

Sometimes, as I’ve written before, the cause of the assholery is pure, unmitigated jealousy toward someone artistically more successful than the critic. Sometimes it may just be hidden biases, such as the critic Byron Coley, who states in the really cool, funny film Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, that the (largely unknown) band Half Japanese were better than The Beatles. I’m aware of my pro-Beatle bias, but I don’t know that Coley – who stated in an interview that he never liked The Beatles because girls liked them – is aware of his own biases. And while I have no problem with the artistic pursuits of a band like Half Japanese, I can’t really take Coley seriously when he states that the first time he heard HJ he recognized a “burst of genius unrivaled … since Coltrane …” Listen to that genius right here.

My issue with the statement “better than The Beatles” isn’t that Coley believes it. After all, the reason there’s all kinds of music is because there’s all kinds of taste. My issue is that he didn’t state “I think” before the words. Instead, he stated it as if it’s a fact, as if liking The Beatles more than Half Japanese would be akin to believing that the Earth is flat. In reality, Half Japanese isn’t better than The Beatles, and The Beatles are not better than Half Japanese. The truth is some folks like one band better, a few billion more like the other band better. That’s it.

Critics are just people, after all, and will admit they get it wrong sometimes. And as people, they may simply have different tastes than me (and some other critics.) And I don’t deny there is a place for criticism, even in the modern world of free samples everywhere. But still, I tend to not trust music critics – even (especially?) the most-respected ones. I rarely know why they’re considered authorities; and wherever that authority comes from, I don’t believe it entitles anyone to say anything more than “This is what I think is good/bad …”

What do I do, then, when I find I really like a really highly critically acclaimed record?!

This isn’t the first critically-acclaimed record on my list. But Elvis Costello is definitely one of those artists who was a critical darling before he was a big star (at least in America), causing David Lee Roth, of Van Halen, to famously quip: “Of course the rock critics all love Elvis Costello. They all look like him!!” And this record, This Year’s Model, was particularly well-received, with practically every single music magazine of the day effusively gushing over it. So I have to be careful: am I just buying into the critical hype of an artist? Has my judgement been clouded by my own desire to appear sophisticated to friends and family?

I’ve written before about my introduction to Elvis Costello. And the fact is that I’ve always liked him. He was a big part of early MTV, which I watched as close to round-the-clock as school/activities allowed. Songs like “Oliver’s Army,” “Every Day I Write the Book,” and “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding” were regularly shown, and I liked them all. At this time, in the early 80s, I was also a big fan of AOR radio, and Elvis songs were played there, as well. “Alison,” “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,” “Watching the Detectives.” I liked all the songs I heard – yet I didn’t start diving into his albums until the late 90s.

This Year’s Model is Costello’s second album, but the first with The Attractions backing him. And in my opinion, Elvis always sounds best when he’s backed by The Attractions: Pete Thomas on drums, Bruce Thomas (no relation) on bass, and Steve Nieve on keyboards. They play with a great energy, and they’re also technically really good. Right off the bat on this album, drummer Pete Thomas gets to shine on the opener “No Action.”

It starts with a vocals-only opening, a technique Elvis used frequently, then the band bursts in in a clamor. Actually, everyone is playing simple chords and notes, except drummer Thomas, who is flailing away, giving the song great urgency. Costello writes catchy melodies, which is undoubtedly a big reason why I – who grew up on 70s AM radio pop – like his songs so much. The chorus features nice harmony vocals, and after 2 quick minutes, in which Elvis claims not to miss his ex, yet sounds unconvincing, the whole thing ends. It’s very compact, and features the clever wordplay for which Costello became famous: “Everytime I phone you/I just wanna put you down.” It’s a bracing opener, which serves to heighten the poppy bounce of the next song, “This Year’s Girl.”

This song is bassist Bruce Thomas’s chance to shine. He’s one of my favorite rock bassists for his inventive lines and his use of the entire neck. After a few measures of drums and guitar, at about 22 seconds, bassist Thomas ventures way up the neck – signaling how he’ll travel throughout the song. His bouncing bass line really carries the song. This song also has another catchy melody, and keyboardist Nieve fills in some cool sounds in the background, like at around 1:20. In the chorus there are nice harmony vocals, that Elvis supplies himself via double-tracking. (No one but EC is credited with vocals on the record.) The lyrics describe the fantasy created by pin-ups, the disconnect between the reality and the effect of them. At 3 minutes, bassist Thomas gets to play a little lead bass on the fadeout.

Elvis Costello and The Attractions are a high-energy band, and they keep This Year’s Model cranking along with the next song, a 60s-inspired, organ-driven “The Beat.” The melody isn’t as strong as some of the other Costello songs, and the lyrics are typical Elvis-freaked-out-by-women (which he tends to deliver with a tinge of self-conscious humor), but the performance of the rhythm section is nonpareil, especially Bruce Thomas’s bass in the slow section, after 2:10. He really gets to shine on the next cut, too, a track that’s become a favorite “Jock Jam,” featured at US sporting events to get the crowds, well, pumped up: “Pump It Up.”

The video captures perfectly the odd, twitchy persona that Elvis and his band brought to MTV fans of the early 80s. Ill-fitting suits, crooked teeth, herky-jerky movements … they didn’t look, or sound, like Triumph or .38 Special, or other AOR bands of the day. But “Pump It Up” is irresistible, with – once again – Bruce Thomas’s bass carrying the load. Elvis has a few nifty bent chords in the beginning, and then on top of the ping-pong bass and Pete Thomas’s ahead-of-the-beat drums he spits out lyrics that I once read were about masturbation, but that seem to me more of Elvis’s standard “what’s the deal with me and the ladies?” frustration. Keyboardist Nieve (who never played in a rock band, and didn’t listen to rock music, until he joined The Attractions at age 19) is the master of the little background fills that help drive a song. I like how the last verse modulates up a step, and “Jock Jam”-y as it may be, I still find it satisfying the way the song builds, then hangs on a note, before the tension is released with Costello’s shouted “Hey!”

Those may be (without giving it much extra thought) my four favorite songs to kick off an album. (Then again, considering this is only #46, that’s probably not true. But I do love them!) But the band settles things down with the next song, the New Wave country of “Little Triggers,” featuring some of Costello’s best wordplay about another woman who done him wrong.

I typically find Elvis’s slower songs less interesting than his upbeat ones, but this song – with the rhythm section’s disdain for typical country swing, Nieve’s piano fills and Elvis’s expressive voice – is one that I enjoy. He also slows things down later on with “Night Rally,” a type of march about (I think) the unrecognized influence of pop culture. Costello has a number of different styles on the record, but they all have that New Wave influence. “Living In Paradise” is almost a calypso song, with more outstanding B. Thomas work. “You Belong to Me” sounds almost like a 60s Motown record, with a nifty guitar riff and ringing organ. “Hand In Hand” opens strangely, and features Elvis’s tremolo guitar and Nieve’s cool doodles, then turns into a 60s girl-group style pop song.

Another favorite of mine on the album is the driving word barrage and rhythmic gem “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.”

It opens with a drum fill that Pete Thomas admits he lifted from Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell’s performance on “Fire.” This song really drives home the fact that The Attractions are simply a rhythm section: drums, bass, keys. Costello also plays mainly rhythm guitar, although in “Chelsea” he throws in a cool riff, but the band is basically Elvis singing to a rhythm section. Again, B. and P. shine (Bruce’s slide at the beginning of each chorus a particular favorite of mine!), but Elvis’s mush-mouthed, frantic delivery is what steals the show. The song’s about his disdain for London’s high-end fashion scene, in the Chelsea district, but includes a double meaning (as many of his lyrics do), as England also has the famous Chelsea Asylum.

The Attractions make every song energetic, whether it’s the frantic, borderline falling-apart “Lipstick Vogue” (including more clever lyrics about a woman who done him wrong) or the 60s-inspired pop masterpiece, “Lip Service.”

I like the structure of this song, the chord change in the pre-chorus (“Everybody is going through the motions”) and the riff the bass and guitar play in the chorus. Once again, Elvis is lamenting his love life. It’s a cool-sounding, sing-along song.

Every now and then I have to admit that someone in authority is correct. My mom was right: I should’ve worn a hat. That professor was right: I should’ve gone to the recitation. And while I still question the “authority” of music critics, I also have to agree that This Year’s Model is an incredible work. It’s The Attractions’ first and they play like they really want to keep the job. It’s Elvis at his fiery best. It’s a lot of what I look for in a record, even if I might not admit it to you if you’re a music critic!

Track Listing
“No Action”
“This Year’s Girl”
“The Beat”
“Pump It Up”
“Little Triggers”
“You Belong To Me”
“Hand In Hand”
“(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”
“Lip Service”
“Living In Paradise”
“Lipstick Vogue”
“Night Rally”

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79th Favorite: Zenyatta Mondatta, by The Police

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Zenyatta Mondatta. The Police.
1980, A&M. Producer: The Police and Nigel Gray
Purchased: circa 1981.

album cover

nutshellIN 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.
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happy daysIn 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 fonz posteras 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.”

fonz t-shirt

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. lunch oneLike 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.)

fordzie

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.)

beatnikHe 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 cool Birth 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.eddie

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. joe coolBut 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 caricaturefonie – 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. not coolThis 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.
fonz gang

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.

paper airplaneThe 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.)

dramaThe 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.”)

naismithThe 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!!”)

walkmanThe 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!!!”)
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goofy policeThere 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 Magazine send 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 turdThe 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,roxanne 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 columbia housemy 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.

band 2

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. police friendsThe 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.

sting beat 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, stewartwhich 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.

band facesSting 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. police singingThe 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 summers 1 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 sting fretless 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 summers guitar 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.”
band 1
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.

fonz final thumb

TRACK LISTING
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
Bombs Away
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
Behind My Camel
Man in a Suitcase
Shadows in the Rain
The Other Way of Stopping

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