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Perfect Pop – Vol. 5

April 23rd, 2008 7 comments

Thank you for all the comments. I really, really appreciate them. It’s great just to hear somebody say that they are happy to have found a long-forgotten song or discovered a favourite new artist through this blog. The many kind words and encouragement are a most welcome bonus.

It’s also great to see people still getting to read older posts. One comment came in yesterday responding to a Carpenters post I wrote in September, arguing that, contrary to my contention, the Carpenters are great to shag to. I’m afraid my libido would sink lower than Dick Cheney’s reputation among all sane people if in mid-shag the children’s choir of “Sing” came on. Or “Jambalaya”! My correspondent was quite right in pointing out though that Steely Dan is not particularly suitable for erotic exploits either (the Dan are named, after all, after a dildo). So my question today is — oh, you know what’s coming already, don’t you? — what songs make for perfect background music to sex. It’s only fair that I should reveal my current favourite in that department, and in the process spoiling it for everybody by creating a disturbing connotation: Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky album (it sounds like I’m bragging by nominating a whole album and not just a song, don’t I?).

While we ponder perfect sex music, here’s some more perfect pop, with a couple of highly subjective choices.

Love Unlimited – Under The Influence Of Love.mp3
Hmmmm, a contender for the great sex songs category. Barry White had a knack of turning on the laydees as the walrus of luuurve (a talent which spawned such jealousy that at some point it mystifyingly became uncool to like Bazza, and then ironic). With Love Unlimited he found a way for men to discover the sexiness in his music without posing any threat to their heterosexuality. Under The Influence hits every spot, from the glorious vocals to the lush arrangement. You can dance to it, and you can smooch to it. How perfect is that? Genius.
Best bit: “So many guys have tried…” (3:32)

Box Tops – The Letter.mp3
I don’t know if all that is attributed to Lester Bangs in the wonderful Almost Famous is authentic, but this quote makes the point for the Box Tops’ pop perfection: “Did you know that The Letter by the Box Tops is a minute and 58 seconds long? It means nothing. But it takes them less than two minutes to accomplish what it takes Jethro Tull hours to not accomplish!” It’s difficult to believe that singer Alex Chilton was only 17 when the Box Tops’ recorded The Letter. Chilton went on to front Big Star, whose Ballad Of El Goodo is one of my all-time favourite songs.
Best bit: The jet noise (1:32)

Natalie Imbruglia – Torn.mp3
Ednaswap – Torn.mp3
I expect this choice to be controversial (so somebody alert CNN, quick). But the idea of Natalie Imbruglia lying naked on the…er, I think Imbruglia’s vocals, the rich production, and the melody are impeccable. Before Imbruglia scored big with this internationally in 1998, the song had been a hit for one Lis Sørensen in Denmark in 1994, and for Trine Rein in Norway in 1996. For this reason it is generally thought that Torn was a Norwegian effort. It was, in fact, written by members of the LA grunge outfit Ednaswap, whose crap name presumably precluded superstardom. I rather like their acoustic version of Torn, too, as it goes (and I’ll post it here, while I’m at it).
Best bit: The guitar solo (3:28)

T. Rex – Children Of The Revolution.mp3
I’ve said it before: glam rock had a high quotient of pop perfection because it really is amplified bubblegum pop – and bubblegum pop had all the ingredients for great pop singles. Marc Bolan and chums created several contenders for this series. Some may say that Get It On might have been the better representative, or perhaps Hot Love, or 20th Century Boy. My favourite T. Rex song is Jeepster. All valid choices. But Children Of The Revolution is the one T. Rex song I can’t imagine any reasonable pop fan not loving. It’s the complete package: the gut-punching intro, Bolan’s voice as sexy as it ever was, it wastes no time getting from intro and verse to the chorus. In fact, the chorus tends to kick in and out very suddenly, which might be due to poor editing. Whether by accident or intent, the effect keeps the listeners on their toes. And isn’t perfect pop also about holding the listener’s attention? And how exactly did driving a Rolls Royce help Bolan’s voice (though it migh haver helped him had he driven in one on September 16, 1977).
Best bit: Drums and Bolan shouts: “Yea-errrh” (1:11)

Big Sound Authority – This House (Is Where Our Love Stands).mp3*
The Songs That People Sing blog recently featured a post with video clips from Big Sound Authority’s gig at Camden Town, London, in early 1985 (go here; don’t forget to right-click and open in a new tab or window). I was at that concert, and BSA were magnificent. It is an injustice that they did not become bigger — as I said the first time I posted this, “it’s almost perverse”. It isn’t easy to pull off constant changes in tempo throughout a song while retaining a cohesion and, in this case, a rich energy which virtually embraces the listener. This song succeeds in doing so. Playing it to identify a best bit, I noted down five separate moments: another indicator of quality.
Best bit: All instruments stop to let Julie Hadwen roar in the final chorus (3:08)

Elvis Presley – Suspicious Minds.mp3
Fine Young Cannibals – Suspicious Minds.mp3
The British music writer Paul Morley posited that a pop song can be thought of as great only if you can imagine Elvis singing it. Well, I think an Elvis song can be thought of as great only if you can imagine Roland Gift of the Fine Young Cannibals singing it, without messing it up. Gift managed just that with Suspicious Minds. Elvis’ version has great drums, which seemed to energise the big guy in his live performances. I don’t really need to justify the inclusion of Suspicious Minds in the perfect pop category. The question is whether other Elvis songs are more perfect. I plan to use only one song per artist, but for Elvis there will have to be two. A pre-GI Elvis number will follow in the next installment.
Best bit: Elvis gets urgent: “Don’t you know-ah…” (2:46)

Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes – I’ve Had The Time Of My Life.mp3*
I’ll repeat what I wrote about this song last July: You can dance to it (dirty or otherwise), you can sing along to it very loudly, it has lots of great little moments, like that bang as the saxophone solo begins (3:27), and the dramatically cascading notes which build up to a crescendo before Medley summarises softly just how good a time he has had, leading to the celebratory climax. The song structure in fact captures the rhythm of sexual intercourse, with the subtle changes of pace and two separate orgasms. Now put Baby in the corner.
Best bit: The celebratory climax kicks in (4:03)

Thin Lizzy – The Boys Are Back In Town.mp3*
To me, Phil Lynott epitomised cool. Until he became a junkie, which isn’t at all cool. And rarely was Lynott cooler than on The Boys Are Back In Town. And those duelling guitars are cool as fuck. According to the sleeve notes, the song was written about a Manchester street gang. It is the delinquent’s version of Billy Joel’s “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”, with somebody being updated on all the news after a long separation from the gang. What would be today’s equivalent of that? A message on Facebook saying: “Gld ur bak frm jayl LOL Mwah xx oh yr frend ded, soz”?
Best bit: Lynott whispers: “The boys are back, the boys are back” (3:19)

Spider Murphy Gang – Skandal im Sperrbezirk.mp3
In the early ’80s, German pop experienced a revolution akin to the effect of punk on British music a couple of years earlier. But where punk was essentially a rejuvenating movement, the Neue Deutsche Welle (German New Wave) introduced a whole new sound to a musical scene which had been dominated by impeccably-behaved Schlager singers, socially conscious Liedermacher (songwriters) and the occasional iconoclastic rocker, such as Udo Lindenberg. NDW acts sang about subject matter which was rarely heard in German on radio, producing sounds like nothing the fatherland had heard accompanying the mother tongue — and scored big hits. Some NDW exponents were dance orientated, some drew from English New Wave and NYC punk, and many produced hyper pop. The Spider Murphy Gang fell within the latter camp. Skandal im Sperrbezirk — a song about a prostitute whose classified ads are so successful as to leave her competitors on the streets and in the Hotel l’Amour underemployed — was their big hit in early 1982.
Best bit: The “police siren” (2:17)

Spandau Ballet – Gold.mp3
There may be many good reason to hate Spandau Ballet. The name. The jackets. Steve Norman’s mullet. Tory Hadley. Through The Barricades. But, by jove, didn’t they produce some fantastic pop! Hadley had a great voice and knew how to use it (in contrast to his contemporary on ’80s teenage walls, Simon le Bon); Steve ‘Plonker’ Norman played a mean saxophone and percussions (the latter are particularly good on Gold); and Gary Kemp, the weedier of the two brothers, knew how to write a catchy tune. There were other Spandau Ballet contenders for this series: True, Only When You Leave, To Cut A Long Story Short, Round And Round, Lifeline… but none quite approach the drama of Gold.
Best bit: Tony Hadley’s little pause before singing “GOLD” (3:09)

Cece Peniston – Finally.mp3
This 1991 dance track is now most commonly associated with the film Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, which produced an excellent soundtrack. I associate it with a meeting in December 1991 during which I was stabbed in the back by erstwhile friends. After the meeting, Finally played at a party, and it lifted my spirits entirely. Peniston’s chart career was not prolific, and “Keep On Walking” was perhaps the better of her hits. But perfect pop is not necessarily about the “better” song. In few dance tracks of the ’90s did things come together so perfectly while retaining a pop sensibility as it did on Finally, from the House piano hook to Peniston’s vocals which alternately narrate and roar, and to the killer chorus.
Best bit: The gibberish ad libbing which caused the drag queens in Priscilla to do that thing with their tongues (2:52)

Andy Gibb – I Just Wanna Be Your Everything.mp3
Somewhere in this series, a Barry Gibb-penned song had to feature. I was thinking of Guilty, his duet with Barbra Streisand, and naturally several Bee Gees songs. But surely this swinging, sweet and yet dramatic track, which Barry wrote with his little brother (though Andy isn’t credited), represents the pinnacle of his post-’60s songwriting. The cute lyrics, in which Andy pledges everlasting love to his bride, are emphasised by a gentle disco arrangement. The Gibb family falsetto is in evidence, but it isn’t as ridiculously pitched as Barry’s. In fact, even though this song is recognisably a Barry Gibb composition, it doesn’t sound much like a Bee Gees song. This was the first of a hat-trick of US #1s for Andy Gibb (Love Is Thicker Than Water and the very Bee Gees-ish Shadow Dancing followed), the first time a male solo artist accomplished that feat.
Best bit: “To be your eeeev’rythiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing” (2:48)

Four Tops – Reach Out I’ll Be There.mp3
One cannot pick a best Levi Stubbs moment. The singer had so many moments of genius (that cry for Bernadette in the song of that name!), but I’d say that on Reach Out I’ll Be There Stubbs delivers his best sustained performance, practically barking the words, out of breath from being chased by the relentless drums. The urgency of this song is exhilarating and exhausting. As so often, nobody involved in the production thought of the song as a hit; in the event, Motown boss Berry Gordy quietly put it out as a single. Cue a US and UK #1. Diana Ross’ rather different version is worth hearing. And then that horrid rapist of fine soul music, Michael Bolton, covered the song, investing it with as much pus a he could summon from his landlord Beelzebub.
Best bit: No contest, it’s the supercharged intro (0:01)

Dave Clark Five – Glad All Over.mp3
This could be a Beatles song. But consider that this was a hit in 1963: Dave Clark and his four subordinates and the Fab Four shared the influences (listen to the backing vocals in particular). So it’s great fun that when English football club Crystal Palace reached the 1990 FA Cup final (which they went on to lose to Manchester United in a replay), they recorded Glad All Over with a group called…the Fab Four. Many people mistakenly think that the fantastic vocals, which exude so much energy by way of complementing the thumping sound, were performed by the man after whom the band was named. Clark was in fact the drummer (echoes of Conan O’Brien’s houseband here); the singer was Mike Smith who sadly died of pneumonia earlier this year, at the age of 64.
Best bit: “Aw-aw-aw stay” (1:10)

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