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Pissing off the Taste Police with the Bay City Rollers

July 2nd, 2018 15 comments

 

To mark the passing today of Bay City Rollers co-founder Alan Longmuir, I’m recycling this article, originally posted on 28 August 2008. I stand by its content.


It was inevitable that the Bay City Rollers would be regarded as the apogee of uncool, even in their pomp. The screaming, barely pubescent girls at their concert one might have overlooked – after all, the Beatles survived that. Even the outfits – tartan and stupid sock-revealing bell bottoms – might have been forgivable. But the juncture of both was too much to accept for the self-respecting music fan. That, and the name of the bassplayer, Stuart “Woody” Wood. Woody!

My rejection of the Bay City Rollers coincided, quite naturally, with the nascent sprouting of pubic hair. Once I had bravely (or obliviously) paddled against the informed mainstream which held BCR in the sort of contempt which two decades later would later be directed at the hapless Hanson. Where I once regarded BCR’s I Only Wanna Be With You as the definitive version of the song – and, well, the only one I knew – I now wished Leslie, Eric and Derek ill. Not on Woody, though, because I liked Woody. I laughed when their post-Leslie McKeown career, with South African teen idol Duncan Faure at lead vocals, flopped.

Still, BCR were my introduction to pop fandom. I don’t know why I chose them, and not, say, Sweet, who had much better songs and whose Poppa Joe was a favourite when I was six. It can’t have been the outfits. Perhaps I just liked Woody’s feather-mullet. But my pre-pubescent band they were. The girls loved them, which seemed to me a good reason to emulate them. So when I read that the Scottish idols wore no underpants, I was at once appalled and fascinated. Of course I tried going commando. That sartorial imitation did not last long on grounds of the jeans’ zipper and stitching chafing my tender scrotum.

I forgave the Bay City Rollers their lapse in hygiene (should the reader be of the commando persuasion, may I implore him at this point to put on some Y-fronts. You never know when you are going to have an accident. And I don’t necessarily mean vehicular mishaps). I even found it in my heart to overlook the personnel changes which followed the departure of Alan Longmuir. It was an odd thing: Alan, who looked 40 even then, was replaced by Ian Mitchell, who looked 12, who in turn was substituted for Pat McGlynn, who looked nine and three-quarters. Before BCR hit the big time – before Woody and Leslie joined and they had a hit with Keep On Dancing – the original members looked like old dudes, held over from Woodstock. Now the new influx was barely older than I was.

Ian and Pat didn’t last long, and the final album with Leslie McKeown on vocals, It’s A Game, was recorded as a foursome, with many of the songs self-penned, mostly by Eric Faulkner and Woody. There was a slightly incongruous cover of Bowie’s Rebel Rebel. On the back cover, our friends had shed not only their shirts, but their trousers seemed to have fallen off too, revealing the folly of going commando (actually, it probably was a comment on shedding the loony tartan outfits). I can’t say that It’s A Game was a poptastic triumph; my BCR infatuation was already waning on account of pubic growth (and here we enter another good argument against going commando). It did, however, deliver a quite magnificent song, You Made Me Believe In Magic. It is exquisite, perfect pop, crying out to be covered and turned into a massive hit (which it was in Japan, where BCR fever contributed to global warming). The title track was not bad either, at least the chorus.

Indeed, a couple of BCR singles could qualify as perfect pop. Saturday Night, with the stuttering chorus, is a bracing bit of glam pop. Likewise 1976’s prescient Yesterday’s Hero, which borrows the live concert effects from Sweet’s Teenage Rampage. It would be regarded as a classic had it been released in 1973 (which would have been two years before it was originally released by Australians Vanda & Young).

Summerlove Sensation, Bye Bye Baby, Rock And Roll Love Letter (“I’ll keep on rock and rollin’ till my jeans explode”), Money Honey, Give A Little Love, Shang-A-Lang, I Only Wanna Be With you are all fine pop records of their era. I wouldn’t want to listen to those every day, but once in a while, when in a ’70s mood, I do enjoy a bit of Bay City Rollers – even without the nostalgia caveat behind which I sometimes hide.

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Pissing off the Taste Police with Wet Wet Wet

October 7th, 2009 6 comments

wetwetwetThey never really stood much of a chance of being taken seriously. Having chosen a, well, wet name (inspired by a Scritti Politti lyric), they were fronted by a Tom Cruisean grinmeister backed by a trio of sidekicks who looked more like journeymen footballers for Clydebank than the craftsmen of infectious blue eyed soul which they were. The early hype as their debut single hit the charts painted them as the successors to Wham! in the teenybopper hierarchy, at a time when the Taste Police was already rounding up those still in possession of Nik Kershaw albums (with exception of the dedoubtable Giles Smith, who used to be friends with Lil’ Nik).

All this did not prejudice sales. The barely pubescent girls bought Wet Wet Wet’s records, as did the occasional connoisseur of pop whose critical appraisal was not influenced by the demographic the music as marketed at (though that segment may well have been turned off by the Wets’ poor but chart-topping cover of With A Little Help From My Friends). A few years after Wet Wet Wet arrived on the scene, they managed the cross-over, from schoolgirls to the mainstream that bought albums by Céline Dion, Bryan Adams, Whitney Houston and MFB, thanks to their massive hit Love Is All Around, a cover of the Troggs’ song. The progression from one despised market demographic to another was seamless.

I think their version of Love Is All Around is quite lovely, though I know I’ll find myself in a pitiful minority here. I think more people would share my view that it is quite lovely had it not been played to absolute death. Love Is All Around may have financed singer Marti Pellow’s tragic drug addiction, but its overexposure removed whatever shade of musical credibility Wet Wet Wet might have aspired to. And even as I set out to defend the group, I can do so only on basis of their first three albums, being almost entirely ignorant of their subsequent output.

Popped_In_Souled_OutThe debut, Popped In, Souled Out (1987), however is a pop gem (groanworthy punnery in the title notwithstanding). Pellow, let there be no doubt, was a very good singer, even if he was given to overemoting at times. The musical and vocal highlight of the LP is Temptation, in which Pellow pleads gently, then angrily, then with the desperation of an Al Green seeking a repair kit for his broken heart. On the LP version, he even swears as he exclaims “don’t waste my fucking’ spirit”. The lyric on the gatefold cover excises the expletive. On the best-of compilation Part One (1994), the word “fucking” has been overdubbed with what sounds like “angry”. Unaccountably, it then fades out before the climactic “peace, love and understanding” bridge and Pellow’s ad libbed “mwah!”

For all its merits, Popped In‘s sleek production was not a reflection of the way the band saw itself. The foursome considered themselves serious soul aficionados, influenced by the ’60s and ’70s sounds of Stax, Hi and Vee Jay, Atlantic and Chess, of Memphis, Philly and Motown. The real sound of Wet Wet Wet, unfettered by the dictate of A&R people, was captured on The Memphis Sessions, recorded before Popped In but released only in 1988.

Wet Wet Wet Memphis SessionsThe eight-song set was produced by the legendary Willie Mitchell, who at Hi Records produced Al Green in his pomp. The group had the self-confidence to cover Mitchell’s song This Time — it does take courage to record a song by one’s hero as he sits in the studio — and did so beautifully. The difference in sound is most obvious when the Memphis version of Sweet Little Mystery is played against the poppy hit version. The Memphis Sessions is not a soul classic — they just hadn’t earned their stripes yet — but the album presents Wet Wet Wet as a group of serious, talented musicians who understood and respected the genre for which they had such an affection.

The follow-up, 1989’s Holding Back The River, sought to incorporate that soul sensibility into the pop sound. It worked only incompletely. The title track tries to combine soul, blues and gospel, coming across entirely self-conscious in the process. The album’s best songs are the mid-tempo pop songs, Sweet Surrender and Broke Away.

One day in early 1990, a dance remix of Sweet Surrender was playing in a Cape Town disco I regularly frequented when the DJ interrupted the song to announce that the following day, Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. Whatever demerit one might want to attach to the song, to me it will always be beautiful as a symbol of the sound of the final nail being banged into apartheid’s coffin.

Wet Wet Wet – Temptation (LP version).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Temptation (Memphis Sessions).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Little Mystery (Memphis Sessions).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Little Mystery (Single version).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – This Time
(Memphis Sessions).mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Broke Away.mp3
Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Surrender (remix).mp3

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Pissing off the Taste Police with Rod Stewart

September 25th, 2008 13 comments
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Rock legend Rod Stewart is going to play concerts in South Africa, the morning radio DJ announced breathlessly. In our celebrity-starved land, that is big news. Amplifying the public joy is the certain knowledge that it will be the real Rod coming to our shores, not a tribute act pretending to be the real article, as happened when “Earth, Wind & Fire” toured the country. Our boy Rod is a real superstar. At least in South Africa. He always was. That’s why he could draw an audience to Sun City, the cheeky little cultural boycott breaker.

He is also entirely irrelevant these days. Today, Stewart’s output – mostly karaoke performances of the standards – is squarely aimed at the audience that has followed him faithfully ever since Sailing. The really obsessive reader of this little seed in the blogospheric silo may recall that I have great memories of Sailing – it was the soundtrack to my first (and last) slow dance with the first love of my life, the lovely Antje. So I ought to find it in my heart to forgive everybody’s favourite faux-Caledonian a lot of things. Like skin-tight leopard-print trousers and women’s legs growing out of his body. But it’s not as uncomplicated as that. You see, Rod Stewart made a meaningful contribution not only to my romantic vocation, but also was a protagonist in my socio-musical development.

Let me explain by backtracking to the 1977/78 season. That’s when the man who’d become my stepfather appeared on the scene. I was 11 going on 12, and he was very old indeed. I was still finding my way musically. I’d cheerfully listen to Showaddywaddy, Neil Diamond, Sham 69, Hot Chocolate and Jethro Tull, not yet realising that as an aspiring teenager it was my obligation to choose sides as a vehicle for the expression of my individualism. When stepfather began insinuating himself with us, it emerged that he really liked Rod Stewart. I was thrilled: so did I. And if an old man of 33 years liked what I liked, then I must have been achieving musical maturity. I was like a grown-up, at least musically. So out with the Bay City Rollers and Harpo records, let’s dig Rod together. But then came the awareness that if a really old dude of 33 liked Rod Stewart, then Rod Stewart had to be past it, uncool. Stepfather, who at his advanced age must have been past it too, certainly did not appreciate the cool music produced by the Stranglers (who included that fresh-faced stripling Jet Black). The peroxided hair and Da Ya Think I’m Sexy were the last straw. Rod was out of my good books, and would not return into them until I approached the geriatric age of 33.

Stewart’s romantic life did little to attract atonement for his descent into musical cliché. His cortege of blond partners seemed like evictees from the Playboy Mansion. I found few of them attractive – least of all Britt Ekland, who looked like a curious amalgam of porn star, soap actress and desperate housewife. Had Rod Stewart been born 25 years later, his affairs doubtless would have been the subject of reality TV shows on the E! Channel. Starring Jessica Simpson (and what exactly do people see in that preened-up boil?). I cannot deny my superficiality in dumping favourite singers once they become household names not for their music but for their notoriety. Rod Stewart, I decided, would have struggled to pull a toothless hooker in a crackhouse had he not stumbled upon success by singing other people’s songs badly and his own even worse. And, alas, Rod Stewart rarely gave me much reason to believe that I was wrong. Oh, I could have liked Young Turks or Baby Jane in 1983, but on principle I didn’t. Dad Pop, I’d scoff. And look at his fucking housewives’ hair!

Only later, in my 30s, did I revisit the music of Rod Stewart (who by then was through plundering the catalogue of Tom Waits). I had deprived myself. It should really be an article of musical faith that “Early Rod” was magnificent. Maggie May, You Wear It Well, Handbags And Gladrags, Angel or Reason To Believe are all wonderful songs performed superbly, though not necessarily invariably superior to alternative versions. But when exactly does the early period end? Some might say in 1975 with Sailing, which was followed by his disposable version of This Old Heart Of Mine. But that can’t be right: a year after Sailing, Stewart released The Killing Of Georgie, one of the earliest chart hits explicitly about homophobic violence (Rod the Mod merits our appreciation for his courage to sing about homosexuality). In 1977, he had hits with fine cover versions of I Don’t Want To Talk About It and The First Cut Is The Deepest, followed by the perfectly amicable sing-along number You’re In My Heart (which rocks for comparing his lady love to Celtic and [Manchester] United). Now that I am over 33, I’m down with Step-dad Rock.

So the cut-off to cool Rod must be 1978. The dreadful Hot Legs (a hit in ’78, though an album track from 1977) and that World Cup song for Scotland’s ill-fated Argentine adventure presaged the departure from sanity that was the grammatically criminal Da Ya Think I’m Sexy, a vaguely prurient discofied jingle aimed at people over 30 desperate to retain their youth by swinging their arthritic hips and waving their flabby arms to the unfunky beats of self-parody. Or so my analysis went for nearly 30 years. It is not a great song by any means, but it does not merit the detraction so cordially solicited by the sleeve on which Rod covers his companion’s eyes, thereby precluding the statement of her candid and informed opinion in response to his question, practically coercing an affirmation. The song, it must be said, is quite catchy in the way songs that are great to sing in the shower usually are. If ever I need to own up to having a “guilty pleasure” – I feel no guilt over musical pleasure – this song might be it.

Stewart had his last stab at pop relevance with his two 1983 hits, and then settled into the comfort zone of singing bland and pointless songs for housewives and chartered accountants who conspired to make his impertinent cover of Tom Waits’ Downtown Train a UK Top 10 hit. More recently, Rod enjoyed a revival with his American Songbook series, the first of which, beautifully arranged, was actually pretty good (not that anybody needs Rod Stewart’s interpretations when we can listen to the originals by Robbie Williams), before our boy reverted to flogging that particular equine cadaver to the point of decadent extremes.

When the b

ell tolls for Rod Stewart, as it does for every man, our obituaries will probably deviate wildly. There will be those of us who liked the Mod, those of us whose barely pubescent testicles stirred to the strains of Sailing, those of us who got the disco fever from Rod, those of us who thought he was the heir to Waits or Sinatra, and indeed those of us who despised the old fraud… What we all should agree upon, however, is the timeless charm and warmth of Rod Stewart’s music before he hit 33, as these eight songs show.

Rod Stewart – The Killing Of Georgie (Parts I & II) (1976).mp3
Rod Stewart – You Wear It Well (1972).mp3
Rod Stewart – Tonight’s The Night (1976).mp3
Rod Stewart – I Don’t Want To Talk About It (1977).mp3
Rod Stewart – Gasoline Alley (1970).mp3
Rod Stewart – Every Picture Tells A Story (1971).mp3
Rod Stewart – Maggie Mae (1971).mp3
Rod Stewart – You’re In My Heart (1977).mp3

Previously on Pissing off the Taste Police:
Bay City Rollers
Counting Crows
Simply Red
John Denver
Barry Manilow
Lionel Richie
The Carpenters
Billy Joel
Neil Diamond
America

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Pissing off the Taste Police with Counting Crows

August 8th, 2008 9 comments

The Taste Police does not seem to have a cohesive position on Counting Crows (the lack of a “the” in their name is an irritant). But the groundswell seems to suggest that “loathsome” is an adjective which would accurately capture the mood in some platoons.

The notion of Counting Crows being the subject with which I aim to piss off the Taste Police will have tipped off the attentive reader that I do not share that sentiment. In fact, I am very sorry that I missed their concert in my hometown a couple of months ago, and I am very jealous of my Kevin Pietersen-fancying friend in London, who will see her favourite band and the deifiable Ben Folds on one bill in December (at this point, you may construct your own gag involving the timing of the gig and the word “long”).

Nevertheless, I can understand why some people might not like Counting Crows. Singer Adam Duritz – the only Counting Crow who actually has a name – looks, well, not well. My desire to see Counting Crows live is diminished by the notion of actually exposing my eyes to the sight of Sideshow Bob (I do respect the arithmetical blackbirds for depriving us of their likeness on successive album covers). Aggravating matters is the knowledge of Sideshow Bob allegedly having slept with three quarters of the leading cast of Friends. I like Friends. I do not like the idea of these nice people bumpin’ ‘n grindin’ with Mr Robert Underdunk Terwilliger. Eugh, I believe, is the contemporary technical term to express one’s nausea at such a disgusting image. Especially if one were to imagine Duritz at the point of climax doing that horrible “yeeeeah!” from the end of the otherwise great Rain King (the regular reader will know that I limit my celebrity sex fantasies to scenes involving Rutting Mick Hucknall). And then there was the ill-advised cover of Joni Mitchell’s Yellow Big Taxi, which seems to be something of an Exhibit A in the case against Counting Crows.

But if that is Exhibit A, then the case for the prosecution seems shaky at best. So we’d have Duritz’s displeasing physiognomy and coiffure, a shoddy cover, and an unmerited association with outfits like the deplorably bland Dave Matthews Band and Hootie & the fucking Blowfish (one thing Counting Crows certainly are not is bland; though, alas, they have performed with the ghastly DMB). And Duritz banging Courtney Cox, of course. Not enough, I submit, for a conviction in the court of pop opinion.

Dislike their music, if you like, even be indifferent to it. You dig or you don’t. But one cannot, ahem, discount the band entirely (and, I know, crow about it). Here’s what I like about Counting Crows: the lyrics are very good much of the time (at least when you can decode them); the melodies are usually pleasing; the nameless Crows are making good on their god-given musical talent by creating engaging arrangements; and Duritz can interpret a song lyric (and then some). It helps their cause, in my book, that the group is heavily influenced by The Band and Van Morrison (whose bad habits, like repeating a line over and over in a nauseating manner, Duritz has picked up; cf. The “How Do You Do”s in the mediocre Ghost Train).

I like the Counting Crows (yeah, grammar eventually has to crush their pretensions). I don’t like the idea of listening to a whole album, except, perhaps the New Amsterdam live set which was released in 2006, because I find Duritz’s anxious emoting overbearing after a while. Give us a joke, Adam, as you did on the debut with the song about your penis; if Mr Jones actually was about that. Come to think of it (and isn’t that clause a sure sign that the writer has abandoned all pretense of actually revising and editing his text), the debut album, August And Everything After, is quite extraordinary, Ghost Train apart. It is a concept album charting the cycle of love: wanting love, falling in love, pursuing love, being in love, hanging on to love, dying love, and the regret of a fucked-over heart. A simple concept which was superbly executed. I do think that Exhibit A for the defence trumps Big Yellow Taxi as sung by Sideshow Bob.

A couple of words about the songs posted below: the first two are from the excellent New Amsterdam live album (Holiday In Spain especially is quite brilliant); the gorgeously pained Goodnight Elisabeth from 1996’s Recovering The Satellites; Perfect Blue Buildings from 1993’s August And Everything After; When I Dream Of Michelangelo from the mostly disappointing new album, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings; and the version of A Long December is a high-quality bootleg recording featuring Ben Folds (who was namechecked in their song Monkey from Recovering The Satellite).

Counting Crows – Holiday In Spain (live).mp3
Counting Crows – Richard Manuel Is Dead (If I Could Give All My Love) (live).mp3
Counting Crows – Goodnight Elisabeth.mp3
Counting Crows – When I Dream Of Michelangelo.mp3
Counting Crows – Perfect Blue Buildings.mp3
Counting Crows & Ben Folds – A Long December (live).mp3

Previously on Pissing off the Taste Police:
Simply Red
John Denver
Barry Manilow
Lionel Richie
The Carpenters
Billy Joel
Neil Diamond
America
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Pissing off the Taste Police with Simply Red

July 25th, 2008 5 comments

Here’s a cred rehab I never thought I’d perpetrate, yet here I am, giving qualified props to Mick Hucknall, the much reviled MOR-soul merchant of supermarket and megastore premier shelf space, whose CDs in many households reside alongside those of Céline Dion, Kenny G and Michael Fucking Bolton (as his mother calls him).

Even before he hit the big time in 1985, he was called “the most reviled man Manchester”. Not by New Order, but by the lovely folks of Swing Out Sister. Before the decade was over, he was widely acknowledged “the most reviled man in pop”. I know too little about Hucknall to curse his character. I take the world’s word for it that it is blemished, but suspect that he has many redeeming features.

My abiding dislike of Hucknall is rather more prurient, harking back to the days when he was having a relationship of alleged sexual nature with the lovely Steffi Graf, owner of the greatest legs in sports. I don’t usually picture the copulation of famous people (much less non-famous folks), but upon learning of this revolting mismatch, my mind involuntarily conjured the image of Hucknall on top of the lovely Steffi Graf, his transluscent sweaty arse, polka-dotted with freckles and postules, heaving and thrusting, thrusting and heaving, before delivering his ace (note the entirely unexpected and not at all lazy tennis pun here. But be thankful I did not stoop to the level of opening up the red box, as Hucknall has in song). If I was a sex therapist, this would be the image I’d recommend to young men as a mental remedy to the affliction of premature ejaculation, perhaps photoshopped to replace the lovely Steffi Graf with Margaret Thatcher.

The image of Rutting Mick has done little to enhance the appeal of his music. His version of If You Don’t Know Me By Now didn’t help either. Where Teddy pleaded and soared, Hucknall sucks the life out of the song and vacuum-packs its emaciated carcass. No surprise that he resides next to soul-killing Michael Fucking Bolton on CD racks in middle-class households everywhere. When David Brent in the Christmas special of The Office releases the song as a single, he covers not the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes original, but Simply Red’s version; a deliciously damning indictment of Hucknall’s interpretation.

And yet, Hucknall can belt out a great cover. On Simply Red’s unimpeachable debut, Picture Box, Hucknall delivered an excellent soul version of Talking Head’s Heaven. Hucknall can also write a great tune. Holding Back The Years is so fine a song, it is often assumed that it had to be a cover of some lost soul classic. That song is also proof, if any was needed, that Hucknall is an excellent vocalist, when he can be bothered. No doubt, Hucknall understands soul. All the more a pity that he has sacrificed these intrinsic soul sensibilities so as not to alarm Sharon and Tracey and the rest of his suburban housewive audience.

Picture Book is a consistently outstanding album. After that, there was little by way of consistency. The next two albums can be described most charitably as patchy. I do like 1991’s Stars, even though it is obviously aimed at Sharon and her boyfriend Gary. When it came out, I was in brief danger of becoming a Gary. Nonetheless, on Stars, Hucknall does the sterilised soul-lite thing he does better than at any other time. At least as far as I can tell, for by the time 1995’s Time arrived I had come to resent the indistinguishable sound of Hucknall’s depthless music (and that fucking tooth). All I have heard of Simply Red since has been over the airwaves, the showcase for an artist’s supposedly best work. I remember nothing of it.

Simply Red – Come To My Aid (1985).mp3
Simply Red – You’ve Got It (1989).mp3
Simply Red – Holding Back The Years (1985).mp3
Simply Red – For Your Babies (1991).mp3
Simply Red – Something Got Me Started (1991).mp3
Simply Red – Stars (1991).mp3
Simply Red – Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye (1987).mp3
Simply Red – Fairground (1995).mp3

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Pissing off the Taste Police with John Denver

July 14th, 2008 12 comments

The cover of his first Greatest Hits album tells you everything you already think you know about John Denver. Looking like a feckless country boy (a status he thanked God for in song) dressed up like a scarecrow, wig and all, he does that boyish, goofy laugh which your granny found so reassuring. All that’s missing is the piece of straw clenched between his hick teeth. Released in 1973, the album cover communicates that this singer is so nice, he lacks the edge of the Carpenters and the raw sexuality of Donny Osmond. Who said we, the cool people, want our entertainers to be fucking nice?

The cover anticipates Denver’s kinship with the Muppets. He looks like one here, and a few years later he joined them. Where other musicians appeared on The Muppet Show giving it a knowing smile and a wink, Denver’s involvement was devoid of irony altogether. He was one of them. He exuded utter sincerity even when conversing with a toy frog. And the critics had always hated him for being so sincere anyway.

The country boy muppet was my formative image of John Denver. For decades, I loathed the man and his work without knowing either. I was just going with the flow. OK, so I liked Annie’s Song. If forced to account for my supposed lapse to the Taste Police, I’d apologise, explaining that it is a sweet song, even though John Denver – yeurgh – sang it. But a sweet song it is. If I was called Annie, I’d get wet hearing it.

I had no idea about John Denver. I consciously avoided exposure to his music, as if it might contaminate me. I mistakenly thought his original Take Me Home Country Road had the yokel C&W arrangement of yee-hah cliché. I thought Leaving On A Jet Plane was an excess in simplicity. I had heard Rocky Mountain High, but never listened to it. I didn’t even know the sublime Sunshine On My Shoulders (which became a US hit in 1974, three years after it was first released)! Until last year, when one of the bloggers I really respect, Whiteray from Echoes In The Wind, uploaded Denver’s Whose Garden Was This album from 1970. I downloaded it. I listened to it. I liked it. Notwithstanding Whiteray’s warning that Sunshine On My Shoulder is insipid (oh, he’s very wrong on that one), I became intrigued by the singer. I read up on Denver, learning that Whose Garden is not considered one of his best album. So there had to be better albums? I stocked up on John Denver’s earlier albums and found that my prejudice had been entirely foolish.

The truth is that John Denver, for all his guileless sincerity, knew how to write a good song and how to interpret those composed by others. Like most Beatles fans, I am wary of other people singing their songs. I can think of only a handful of covers which eclipse the originals (Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends, Stevie Wonder’s We Can Work It Out, Earth Wind & Fire’s Got To Get You Into My Life, perhaps Ray Charles’ Eleanor Rigby). On Rocky Mountain High, Denver eclipses a Beatles original with his very lovely take on McCartney’s Mother Nature’s Son from the White Album (it had to be a McCartney song. Tough I can conceive of Denver singing Lennon’s Working Class Hero. Not that it would necessarily be any better than the turgid original).

Because of Denver’s conservative granny-friendly image – the Richard Clayderman of country – I had presumed he was a Republican (just like granny-unfriendly Neil Young in the ’80s). Again, wrong. He was a vocal critic of Nixon and Reagan. Denver campaigned for Jimmy Carter in 1976, took up social issues such as HIV/Aids when it was not yet fashionable to do so, set up foundations for sustainable living, the environment, the poor. He possibly pissed off portions of his country constituency by denouncing the National Rifle Association. And in 1987, he played a benefit concert at Chernobyl. I’ve mentioned previously the pointed judgment by the British music writer John Doran: people who like his politics won’t like his music; people who like his music won’t like his politics (which means that I might be an anomaly). But doesn’t that make John Denver a subject worth further study?

Denver reportedly sent hand-written letters to fans, which I think is very cool indeed. But it’s not Rock ’n Roll. You don’t get Keef or Prince write you personal notes. Real music fans are like women who like bad guys: we don’t tend to go for the nice guys.

John Denver obviously lacked edge; even in his artistic prime, the early ’70s, he produced some awfully saccharine garbage (For Baby with that kids’ chorus, or fucking Jingle Bells). But at his best, John Denver was an extraordinary musician. His music is much more complex than it is being given credit for (witness the chord changes on Jet Plane, the song on which he, ahem, “predicted his death”), and the man had a fine way of phasing his lyrics (again, lisdten to Sunshine On My Shoulders). Denver’s songs have immense warmth as he reflects wistfully on geography, meterology and, of course, love. They have an ageless immediacy. I’m sorry for having misjudged John Denver for so long. If only he had looked a bit more cool, a bit more like John Prine…

John Denver – Poems, Prayers And Promises.mp3
John Denver – Darcy Farrow.mp3
John Denver – Mother Nature’s Son.mp3
John Denver – Annie’s Song.mp3
John Denver – Leaving On A Jet Plane.mp3
John Denver – Sunshine On My Shoulder.mp3
John Denver – Rocky Mountain High.mp3

Previously on Pissing off the Taste Police:
Barry Manilow
Lionel Richie
The Carpenters
Billy Joel
Neil Diamond
America

Pissing Off The Taste Police With Barry Manilow

May 15th, 2008 17 comments

The first time I heard it I nearly fainted from the tectonic plate shift in my worldview. A member of the female persuasion confessed…no, it was not a confession. She said, lust blindingly gleaming in her eyes and reflecting off her rosy cheeks, that Barry Manilow is sooooo sexy. And normal, even attractive women — not Hausfrau moms and bicycle-riding spinster aunts — have confirmed the bewildering idea that this marshmallow of manliness is somehow sexually attractive. Yeugh!

I’m a modern man. I will acknowledge with good cheer when another man is sexy without feeling threatened in my heterosexuality. George Clooney? Phwoar! Paul Rudd? Phew! Cristiano Ronaldo? Score! But Barry Manilow is sexless. Moms and spinster aunts may disagree, but they are moms and spinster aunts. Normal woman, however, women we non-marshmallows might fancy, would swoon over Barry Manilow. Oh, but they did, even if they didn’t tell us guys because we’d laugh at them.

And that’s why every men in the world hates Barry Manilow. While we sat on our 1970s couches, we would watch whatever third-rate music programme terrestial TV would throw our way, only to see that gurning concorde-nosed, fake-tanned, blow dried, white jacketed and dickie-bowed fuckface make our Moms moist. OF COURSE WE HATED BARRY BLOODY MANILOW! Because we didn’t understand women. We still don’t.

A couple of years ago I came as close to a fistfight as I’ve ever been since school with a chap, subsequently nicknamed Dick-Dick, over the relative merits of Barry Manilow’s version of “Mandy” (my corner) versus Westlife’s (Dick-Dick’s corner). It was an unequal fight which I couldn’t lose. Bazza’s “Mandy” is great, Westlife’s an insipid affair which cries out for the temporary reintroduction of capital punishment in Ireland. Dick-Dick just hated Barry Manilow. How much do you have to hate a man to stake your entire credibility on fucking Westlife? Dick-Dick could not mount a coherent attack on Manilow’s music. And here’s the key: for all his cheesiness, Manilow is very talented. Girls dig him not because he’s hot, but because he sings the songs that make the young girls cry.

An elegant way of resolving the dilemma of acknowledging Manilow’s talent would be to say: “Well, he is a fine songwriter, it’s just his singing and arrangements that suck.” But that is not true either. In fact, most of Bazza’s biggest hits were not written by him. Mandy, I Write The Songs, Can’t Smile Without You, Looks Like We’ve Made It, Weekend In New England — not written by Manilow. So we’re left with the interpretation and arrangement. And listen to these songs within their context — mainstream pop leaning towards the easy listening side — and listen to them without prejudice: they are quite exquisite, in a Carpenters kind of way. Here’s the proof: Any Minor Dude, a 13-year-old of good taste who knows nothing of Manilow’s low stock among male music lovers, said he really liked “Weekend In New England” when I played for the purpose of this post. If it is good enough for him, it ought to be good enough to make us listen to Manilow’s music again. Just banish Bazza’s stupid grin from your mind.

Barry Manilow – I Write The Songs.mp3
Barry Manilow – Looks Like We Made It.mp3
Barry Manilow – Can’t Smile Without You.mp3
Barry Manilow – Weekend In New England.mp3
Barry Manilow – Mandy.mp3
Barry Manilow – Copacabana.mp3
Barry Manilow – Could It be Magic.mp3

And don’t forget that Barry Manilow arranged Dionne Warwick’s finest post-Bacharach moment, the Isaac Hayed-penned Deja Vu:
Dionne Warwick – Deja Vu.mp3

Previously on Pissing off the Taste Police:
Lionel Richie
The Carpenters
Billy Joel
Neil Diamond
America


Pissing off the Taste Police with Lionel Richie

January 14th, 2008 17 comments

Before anyone presumes to judge me on basis of this thread, I ought to point out that most times, I’d gladly don a long leather coat and join the Taste Police in seeking to neutralise the influence of Lionel Richie. It is unfortunate that the man is still recording music. He was a scandal when every professional football player would list him, along with Phil Collins (an singer who will never feature in this series), as their favoured artist to bleat forth from their Fords XR6.

Much, then, as I would like to join the critical consensus on Lionel’s legacy, I feel I can do so only by stating a few caveats through the medium of Pissing Off The Taste Police. You see, Lionel was a funky cat back in the day. As a Commodore, he dressed brighter than many a member of Earth, Wind & Fire and was party to some songs that were almost good enough to compete with EW&F. Check out the disco-funk of the fantastic “Machine Gun”, a huge Motown hit.

Then it happened that the Commodores, who used to rule the joint with too hot ta trot badass funk, scored their biggest hits with Lionel in ballad mode. Don’t be fooled by a notion that these ballads were bad, though. They were damn good. Yes, even “Three Times A Lady”. It might have sounded terrible to people who thought, or wished, punk had won. But it is a fine song. It is nothing on the brilliant “Easy”, with its fuzz guitar solo and Richie’s excellent vocals though. “Still” is utterly lovely. Try to time the spoken “still” after that long pause after the line “I do love you…”. “Sail On” is a great slice of country, till the climax kicks in with Philly-type strings and horns, and a funky fade-out. Likewise, the gorgeous “Lucy”, from the final Commodores LP with Richie, builds up slowly to reach a dramatic conclusion.

Trouble is, with the ballads scoring big, Lionel decided he was not really a funkmeister but a black Barry Manilow. So he went solo, and released an album that didn’t so much scream as assault you with the message: “I ain’t got no funk no more.” And that was just the cover, on which our man looked like a new member of Sesame Street’s monster gang. Or like the accountant brother-in-law your once wild sister married for stability.

The fuzzy and green accountant came up with a few tracks that were better than the monster slices of cheese such as “Truly”. “You Are” is a glorious slice of pop-soul, and “Wandering Stranger” continues Lionel’s country ballad trajectory kickstarted by “Sail On” (and continued by his writing the hit “Lady” for Kenny Rogers).

The debut solo album was just the set-up for the biggie: Can’t Slow Down. On the cover, your brother-in-law shows that he now is a chartered accountant, and his vocational accomplishments have bought him an air of cool. See, he owns a chair now. And look at the back cover: no socks. Like Don Johnson. And a pastel jacket. Daddy Cool! The hair and ‘tache were stupid, even by the standards of the horrible ’80s.

I’d love to say that Can’t Slow Down merits our bile. “Hello” is a revolting song. “Penny Lover” (WTF is a “penny lover” anyway?) is cliché. But the mega-hit “All Night Long”…well, it’s fantastic. Hey jambo jambo, the tune rocks. Obviously. Better still is “Love Will Find A Way”. I cannot speak for people who don’t agree with me that Boz Scaggs is a bit of a genius, and if the esteemed reader found nothing in The Middle Of The Road, then I cannot promise they’ll like this song. But if one has regard for Boz and likes ’70s AOR, then one will concur with me that “Love Will Find A Way” is a glorious song. “Running With The Night” is, by the same token, pretty good.

And if one has to choose only one of Lionel’s post-Commodores ballads, surely it would have to be “The Only One”. And whisper it softly, the soft-country tones of “Stuck On You” don’t offend me at all. So, five good songs, a weak one, a revolting one, and one I can’t remember (the title track). That’s a pretty good strike rate.

The follow-up, however, was awful. I might give some kind of sympathy vote for “Dancing On The Ceiling” (if only for the video, which was said to be revolutionary — even if Fred Astaire did the same thing three decades earlier), and “Deep River Woman”, with the country band Alabama, was quite good. But whatever goodwill there might have remained for Lionel was nuked by “Ballerina Girl”, a self-conscious attempt to out-Hello “Hello”. Despicable. And then there was ”Say You, Say Me”, which had a slow part that was rubbish, and a fast part that wasn’t awful. Nothing there that I wish to inflict upon you.

After that, Lionel took off a decade before making a comeback. It was all rather poor stuff. You have to give credit to our man for his great Ice Cube impersonation on the cover of 2002’s Encore.

And so, to piss off the Taste Police, here’s Lionel Richie redeeming himself:

Commodores – Machine Gun (1975).mp3
Commodores – Easy (1977).mp3
Commodores – Sail On (1979).mp3

Commodores – Lucy (1981)
.mp3
Lionel Richie – You Are (1982).mp3

Lionel Richie – Love Will Find A Way (1983).mp3

Lionel Richie – All Night Long (All Night) (1983).mp3

Fiesta forever, muthafuckah!

Previously on Pissing off the Taste Police:

The Carpenters
Billy Joel
Neil Diamond
America


Pissing off the Taste Police with Carpenters

October 6th, 2007 5 comments

OK, I’m cheating a bit. There are factions of the Taste Police who adore Karen & Richard’s music. Read this post as pissing off those branches of the Taste Police who would prosecute their Carpenters-loving colleagues.

It is a little odd that the same members of the Taste Police who will defend the Carpenters are quite prepared to heap scorn on far edgier acts — for lacking edge. Let’s face it, you can’t really screw to the Carpenters (“Song For You” and “This Masquerade” being exceptions), they were mostly a cover act, and fans of the Carpenters are likely to like James Blunt as well. And many Carpenters song were utter crap. But when the Carpenters were great, they were indeed great. Richard’s arrangements could be exquisite. Perhaps the Taste Police forgives that. But Richard Carpenter, surely, is the least rock ‘n roll man ever to have worn the pop mantle. All I’m left with is Karen Carpenter: one of the finest vocalists in pop ever, blessed with an astonishingly beautiful and versatile voice.

Carpenters – (They Long To Be) Close To You.mp3
This Bacharach-David composition was the Carpenters break-through hit, and the best-known version of the song, which has been recorded by artists as diverse as Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes (whose symphonic version is incredible), the Cranberries and the Barenaked Ladies (the late Gwen Guthrie recorded a lovely upbeat version of it in 1986). The Carpenters were discovered by Herb Alpert and signed to his A&M label; it was Alpert who suggested they record “Close To You”, and it sounds like he is playing on it too.
Gwen Guthrie – (They Long To Be) Close To You.mp3

Carpenters – Superstar.mp3
Oh, Karen’s plaintive, yearning voice on this can move you to tears. Another Taste Police target, Luther Vandross later took this song, stirred in some Stevie Wonder, and created a 9-minute epic which should be regarded as one of the great cover versions of any song. I’m not quite sure how a song written from the perspective of a groupie (begging the question of why it wasn’t used in Almost Famous) came to become a big hit for the wholesome Carpenters. No doubt, they knew what the song was about; they even toned down the lyrics in one instance. A host of other artists recorded “Superstar” in the two years between its composition and the Carpenters’ hit version, including Rita Coolidge and Bette Middler, whose TV performance of the song alerted Richard to it.
Luther Vandross – Superstar/Until You Come Back To Me.mp3

Carpenters – Rainy Days And Mondays.mp3
This might be my favourite Carpenters song. Its undramatically but touchingly describes the condition of depression, with the promise of finding refuge and comfort from melancholy from “the one who loves me”. Karen invests much emotion into her delivery; presumably this was a song she could identify with more than the one written from a groupie’s perspective. I’m with Karen on Mondays being a bit of a downer, but rainy days cheer me up. As does this sad but hopeful song.

Carpenters – Goodbye To Love.mp3
This song breaks my heart. What fatalistic lyrics (” And all I know of love is how to live without it”) delivered with such a range of emotion. But it’s not the sad lyrics and Karen’s vocals that get me as much as that fuzzy guitar solo which captures the entire sentiment of the song. It’s a guitar solo that reaches inside me and wrenches my guts. Never mind “Rainy Days”, I think this is my favourite Carpenters song.

Carpenters – Hurting Each Other.mp3
A cover of a fairly obscure ’60s track. As this song begins, Karen sounds bit like Dusty Springfield. At 0:38, the chorus kicks in and it’s pure Carpenters. Richard’s arrangement is wonderful, making it sound like a Bacharach song. The climax at 2:13 is possibly the finest Carpenters moment: Karen’s phrasing of the lines, ” Making each other cry, breaking each other’s heart, tearing each other apart”, with her emphasis on the words “each other” as the strings go all soul on us…phew!

Carpenters – A Song For You.mp3
“A Song For You” was the title track for their best album by far, released in 1972 (it also featured the previous two songs). Karen’s vocals are incredibly intricate and emotionally beautifully judged, a real masterclass of singing (which Christina Aguilera might have taken note of on her attempt of a cover). I love the way Karen sings the word “better”. It seems difficult to top this version, but Donny Hathaway’s version, recorded a year earlier, is even better. Imagine Donny and Karen had lived to record it as a duet (hmmmm, Karen, dead; Gwen, dead; Luther, dead; Donny, dead…)!
Donny Hathaway – A Song For You.mp3

Carpenters – This Masquerade.mp3
If a song has a flute in it, I’m almost certain to love it. And “This Masquerade” has some of the best flute in pop. Like “A Song For You”, it was written by Leon Russell. George Benson’s version, from Breezin, is better known. Good as it is, the Carpenters’ take pisses all over it. Another intricate vocal performance, a wonderful jazzy arrangement — and Richard rocks a lovely piano solo, just before the first flute solo. Amazingly, this was only the b-side to the appalling cover of the Marvelettes‘ “Please Mr Postman” (the one with the Disneyland promo). And here’s a key as to why some members of the Taste Police still disregard the Carpenters’ genius: many of the great moments are obscured by the rubbish that was released to score hits.

The Carpenters – There’s A Kind Of Hush.mp3
And this is the sort of song I blame for that. The arrangement is cheesy and shoddy, the melody is pretty but lacking in substance, and the lyrics are so generic as to give Karen nothing to do with them. Of all the rubbish Carpenters songs, it’s not even remotely the worst. To his credit, Richard is unhappy with his reworking of the Herman’s Hermits hit, especially the use of the synth. (Previously uploaded on the Time Travel: 1976 post)

Pissing off the Taste Police with Billy Joel

September 2nd, 2007 10 comments

Billy Joel is the big kahuna in the Pissing off the Taste Police stakes. I’ve copped hideous abuse for confessing my love for some of the music of Billy Joel, without embarrassment (because apologising for enjoying certain music is for losers). Oh, I can see why people might hate Billy Joel’s music, or even the man. “River Of Dreams” and “We Didn’t Start The Fire” are appalling and should never be heard again. When I say I like Billy Joel, I’m talking about his golden years, stretching from Turnstiles (1976) to Songs In The Attic (1981), with the patchy Piano Man (1973) and 1982’s The Nylon Curtain (and perhaps some of An Innocent Man from 1983) bookending that phase (and ignoring 1974’s Streetlife Serenade, except for its fine title track). And even then, there are some tracks that leave our man open to abuse: the overplayed “Just The Way You Are”, for example, or almost all of 1980’s rubbish Glass Houses. And yet, there is so much that Joel’s haters tend to overlook, even those who might grudgingly allow that “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” is not a bad song.

Billy Joel – She’s Always A Woman.mp3
On Side 2 of The Stranger, the tender melody belies the bitter hurt this manipulative, indecisive bitch has caused poor, needy Billy. “And she’ll promise you more than the Garden of Eden, and then she carelessly cuts you and laughs while you’re bleeding. But she’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be. Blame it all on yourself, ‘cause she’s always a woman to me”. This is a love song with a sharp edge, quite unlike the cheesily romantic sentiments of karaoke favourite “Just The Way You Are”.

Billy Joel – Summer, Highland Falls.mp3
Easily Billy Joel’s finest three minutes. From the lovely piano intro and the powerful yet subtle drumming to the poetically resigned lyrics that hint at bipolarism (“it’s either sadness or euphoria”), this deceptively simple song has a depth that is often overlooked. Listen to it closely, this is the best thing Billy Joel has ever done. This is the live version from the magnificent Songs In The Attic album; a set of lesser-known Joel songs re-recorded live because our man wasn’t happy with the original productions. The original appears on Turnstiles.

Billy Joel – New York State Of Mind.mp3
From Turnstiles, this is Billy Joel’s stab at creating an American standard. And he succeeds admirably. Had it be written by Hoagy Carmichael, it would rightly be placed alongside the great American standards. The fact that it has not attained such a reputation can be attributed to the low level of critical esteem Billy Joel enjoys. But what a mighty song it is, complemented by a restrained arrangement and a terrific vocal performance. I like to hear this song being performed Tom Waits, slowed down a bit with a lounge arrangement. That would be stupendous.

Billy Joel – Captain Jack.mp3
The original on Piano Man was musically quite unremarkable. Given the big rock treatment on Songs In The Attic, this is a powerful song. Another track about alienation, this one about “you”, a bored waster from a wealthy family looking forward to a fix of heroin, to emotionally wrecked to give much of a fuck about the death of his father. As Joel addresses “you”, we get to know the character, and fully agree with Joel’s vicious delivery and wish drummer Liberty DeVitto’s brutality would be directed not at the inanimate drumkit, but at “you”. Sample lyric: “And if you can’t understand why your world is so dead, why you’ve got to keep in style and feed your head; well you’re 21 and still your mother makes your bed. And that’s too long” (and at this point DeVitto goes really medieval on the drumkits’ ass). How sweet that in 1980 concert crowds would still cheer for the use of the word “masturbate”.

Billy Joel – Rosalinda’s Eyes.mp3
Forget the Latin stereotypes of the lyrics, and listen to the melody, held together by the jazzy, rhythmic acoustic guitar. The flute interlude is quite enchanting. And hear the line “Oh Havana, I’ve been searching for you everywhere”: Billy Joel knew how to phrase a line. From 52nd Street, this song apparently references his mother, Rosalind, through the eyes of his father (or something).

Billy Joel – Allentown.mp3
Billy Joel getting as close to fellow New Jersey preacher Bruce Springsteen as he ever did, if not musically then lyrically. “Allentown”is a scathing lament about the disillusionment of the American Dream in the industrial age, the broken promises to Everyman: “Well we’re waiting here in Allentown, for the Pennsylvania we never found, for the promises our teachers gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved. So the graduations hang on the wall, but they never really helped us at all…” The lyrics are as incisive as Joel ever got, and the melody is a pretty good, too. Imagine “Allentown” slowed down and played acoustically, it could be a Woody Guthrie song. The rest of The Nylon Curtain (1982) was rather a hit-and-miss affair.

Thanks to Anonymous’ comment, I’ve become aware of the connection between the family of Billy Joel and that of retail giants Neckermann, whose grandfather basically stole the business from Joel’s grandfather. Story here.

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