Saturday, October 17, 2009

I Thought I'd Hate it... But I Can't Turn Away!: Songs I Should Hate But Find Secret Guilty Pleasures Instead- Part One

Do you ever hear a song you think is crap, or simply wretched? But you can't stop thinking about it. Then you realize in some perverse, or maybe some honest, way that deep down the song strikes a resonance somehow. I have discovered plenty of what people might call discordant, ugly music. But to me, those cases are different. When I first heard a snarling, punkish but ultimately daring band like the Fall, I wasn't immediately bowled over. But eventually, I realized that in their own tuneless, avant-garde manner, the Fall were just alright. The upbeat stuff usually sank in quicker but even a mid-tempo contemplator could work well, with the right hook or riff ("Wings" is gobbledygook except for a constant guitar riff murmuring somewhere amidst the distanced instrumentation). Hey sure, their upbeat stuff is more entertaining to me, but what I'm getting at is those pop songs. You know, those sickly commercial, goofy or inane ones that settle and seep into your brain fabric. Now, never ever will I buy into 90% of the crap the radio offers us. No dance club can ever make me appreciate the hidden virtues of the Black Eyed Peas, post-Elephunk. But there are these songs I'd normally not like, or that I shouldn't like and yet I do. I suppose one can find the merits of even the most stinking pile o' trash (after all, even a smidgeon of critics say nice stuff about the latest releases by Hilary Duff or the Jonas Bros.). I'll go through a list of five major songs- mere album tracks, B-sides and rarities don't work since if I'm tackling a certain artist, I want to use their best material as part of my logic- that I have a guilty pleasure for.

------In no particular order-----

1. "Fanny (Be Tender with My Love)"- The Bee Gees (1975): Ok there's a lot of "Guilty pleasure" worthy material from these guys and not just in their late 70s polyester panted prime. The Bee Gees were like a fungus that festooned itself upon your ears and either submitted you to their will, made you ill or made you want to hit the clubs and buy all the brothers' records. There are slick, wimpy ballads of theirs I think are fantastic themselves- "How Deep is Your Love?" "Words," "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?"- and other songs of theirs that just blow, like "Too Much Heaven," "Tragedy" or "Holiday." But "Fanny" is their crowning operetta when it comes to their many over-the-top pleas for peace and tolerance in a love affair. Barry Gibb had just discovered his helium high falsetto and the Bee Gees had been revived from a dormant career when Arif Mardin steered them into dance floor R&B not unlike Philly Soul. You can call it pre-disco if you like. This came through on the 1975 LP Main Course, which also included "Jive Talkin'," a real funky, lowdown happening that isn't a guilty pleasure because it's a superb creation in my opinion. "Fanny" isn't quite so hot but worms its way into my body rhythms and the tune gets lodged in my head where it plays incessantly until I find alternate music to shoo it off. "Fanny" is utterly loaded with horns and strings, plus the sort of lush electric pianos that turned the instrument's rep from a primarily jazz swamp box into an easy listening, cuckolded mush during the 70s. Gibb sings in a pillowy falsetto while his brothers sing in their high register underneath him. To ram home the point of their hyperbolic performance, there are two key changes leading to the climax as they plead "Fanny be tender with my love/You know how easy it is to hurt me." It's so operatic that it functions in much the same way as a Roy Orbison classic, only a lot more immersed in adult contemporary grooves. I should really dislike "Fanny," but the sincerity behind the cheese is why I am won over by it. The Bee Gees made a living off of this and often did the highwire act between vapidity and rich, romantic genius and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. I think "Fanny" takes the former route.

2. "Wuthering Heights"- Kate Bush (1978): Kate Bush was slowly brought along to prepare her first album although even by the time it was released she was just 19 and some songs dated back to when she was just 13. Bush was a precocious yet pugnacious writer that wrote from the piano in a way that made previous singer-songwriters look pale and an Elton John or Billy Joel look even meeker and derivative than they already were. Pink Floyd's David Gilmour was first to discover her music back when she was a teenage prodigy. He let some industry friends hear the tapes, leading to talent scouts signing her up to Floyd's home stable, EMI Records. Bush was set to record for one of the world's biggest music companies even before she had graduated high school. But this was 1975 and EMI figured it was better to chalk her up now than to wait and get caught in a bidding war. So Bush was brought along slowly but surely in order to ensure she was ready for the big time and EMI could get value from her. It was much like how a sports team often drafts a player and develops that talent instead of thrusting it into the spotlight too soon. By the time of The Kick Inside in 1978, she was ready for stardom although not the huge kind that grew on her. Bush's elaborate stage presentation reflected her interests in theatre, foreign art and international music sounds and often the music did the same. Many were caught off-guard by this brainy, daring quirk of a lady because her voice was a weapon and instrument as well, cascading into high registers that were reminiscent of Betty Boop, as well as showing off a low range for the standards of a female singer. 

Some found this voice extraordinary and fascinating and some found it screechy and overly precious. Well, all that being said, I thought I was going to hate "Wuthering Heights," her lead single and first #1 in the UK in 1978, when right off the bat I heard her schoolgirlish, melodramatic English gal vocals. But it just grows on you, I found. Yeah some might never get used to it and some may never want to give it a second or third chance but Bush's is one of the more original voices in the entire rock era. And now I have a deep respect and liking for Bush's catalogue, though not much of it post-1989- which is, albeit, just two studio albums anyway. And I can stand that voice that most people would call caterwauling. "Wuthering Heights" was where I started because it was her breakthrough smash and a career-defining effort. It's a theatrically majestic, sweeping triumph, based on the Emily Bronte novel of the same name (this becoming of interest to Bush when she found out that Bronte shared the same birthday, July 30). It is produced humbly and modestly, which is good since many a producer could have overblown it with overdubs, echo and presence. Bush has plenty of other songs that can possibly grate on the nerves and her record isn't a clean one in my books, but it's a hell of an output to be responsible for. So I'll give Kate Bush kudos for a record I can call a guilty pleasure, though not quite as guilty as that Bee Gees tune I might add.

3. "Year of the Cat"-Al Stewart (1976): There was a small, but highly noticed trend in the 70s of English singer-songwriters that grew out of the English folk revival of the late 60s. But of course, we're not talking the earthy, spine-tingling Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span here. Hell, not even those forays into the Celtic and English folk world from Led Zeppelin or Rod Stewart pre-"Tonight's the Night." I mean the more commercially acceptable stuff, like Gerry Rafferty, early Chris Rea and Al Stewart, the man behind the subject matter of this #3 entry. Countryside folksters who brought in the saxes, electric guitars and electric pianos to get the top 40 fans in a frenzy. Stewart was another one of those Scotsmen who sounded exactly like Donovan and first hit with the title track from his 1975 LP Time Passages. The formula was repeated for "Year of the Cat" a year later, keyboards, grand acoustic guitars and a schmaltzy sax solo. It really is middle of the road (MOR) radio fare but I still find myself going back to "Year of the Cat." The opening lyrics referencing Peter Lorre alongside Bogart in a movie- likely Al is talking of Casablanca- are ones that the humourous, culturally observant Dylan would have killed for. The chord changes are very jazzy yet the darting strings and sax resonate more like jazz and there's both an electric and acoustic guitar solo. Underneath all the Alan Parsons-engineered festiveness is a story about a tourist who stays the night with a hippie girl he falls for and then as a consequence misses his bus the next morning. "Year of the Cat" topped the British charts but also crossed Stewart over into the US by peaking at #8. The song's main thing I would normally be revolted by and the tactic that would normally make be abscond from the song is that sax solo. Think of all those bad 80s pop hits or those adult contemporary disco ballads that got started in the late 70s. This sax makes the howling heard on Dark Side of the Moon sound like authentic King Curtis. "Year of the Cat" is definitely MOR ear candy but it doesn't sour me on the song, one of my guilty pleasures- an honourable mention for that housewife-adored UK folk-rock of the 70s goes to Chris Rea's "Fool (If You Think it's Over)." In 1978, Dylan cut an album not unlike Al Stewart did with Year of the Cat in fact. Yep, it was called Street Legal and it sucked... But at least the Dutch music press loved it (do some research if that makes you curious).

4. "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"-The Beatles (1969): The Beatles, for all their brilliance, weren't machines. Lennon-McCartney can perhaps be faulted for being a two-headed roadblock for George Harrison's increasingly improving writing work (Lennon later admitted he and Paul had unfairly held George back and ignored his songs even when some of their own weren't too special). But the astonishing amount of quality work they did under the hectic paced, pressure-packed schedule of a 1960s pop giant doesn't mean some of their released output wasn't crap or at the very least cheesy. Such is this entry, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." Why this one and not other potential candidates you were perhaps scanning over in your head (all you Beatle geniuses)? Well, "When I'm Sixty-Four" doesn't actually suck, "Honey Pie" truly does suck as does most of the soundtrack to Yellow Submarine ("Hey Bulldog" being the only thing decent), "Bungalow Bill" is admirably goofy, "Good Night" is saccharine trash and "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)" is a pretty catchy comedy number so lay off it. Meanwhile, the Spectorized "Long and Winding Road" is a weak reminder of the then-extremely huge Carpenters and "The Inner Light" is boring Indian wanking around. Then why do I like "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," with its inane Tin Pan Alley melody, goofy Moog synth and sound effects? Well, it's actually rather funny in its perversely happy nature in which we hear the sadistic tale of a young serial killer who did his evil with a shiny silver hammer. It's all Paul's baby of course, but give him credit for not getting too caught up in his affinity for chutzpah and music hall cornball. It's catchy enough and might not be very rock & roll but it's a precursor to the sort of theatre that glam rock brought or the operatic overtones of Queen. 

A real operatic effect, not unlike the theatre's way with gallow's humour and the mob mentality, comes with John and George's backing vocals re in the falsetto doo-wop mould but often play a sort of on-stage role (chiming in as the girls in the courtroom demanding "Maxwell must be freed!"). The Beatles are having a larf and even if you find the whole kiddy singalong style of the song to be like the poor brother to "Yellow Submarine," you've got to admit it's a pretty hilarious concept to have Maxwell constantly ridding the world of his enemies with his big silver hammer. Could make for a good black comedy film! (ok but seriously, don't give anyone any ideas since anything Beatle-related has been exploited for financial gain by just about every corporate hand imaginable, all with the okaying of Olivia Arias, Ringo, Paul and Yoko Ono. This can result in good things but also fluff like that awful Across the Universe film). I find myself enjoying this track after all these years even though I concede that it's one of the slight tracks from the otherwise grand, bountiful Abbey Road, the Beatles swan song. But to make that album all blown up and up its own ass, the Beatles would've foregone their trademark sense of humour and "Maxwell's" would have been scrapped as would have "Mustard King" and "Polythene Pam." Yeah there's only a handful of Beatles tracks that most would consider mediocre, but for me only a few of them are not worth listening to more than once (From their 13 studio albums, EPs and singles, my list of, excuse the pun, "Not a Second Time" tracks being "Hold Me Tight," "Mr. Moonlight," "It's All Too Much," "Honey Pie,"  and "Good Night"). "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" ranks at the top of my guilty pleasures when it comes to the Fab Four because hey, when you release somewhere in the range of 200 songs in just 7 years, there's bound to be some junk and some filler that masquerades as comedy.

5. "Everybody Dance"-Chic (1979): The Bee Gees dabbled in disco and came to be defined by it, but hardly anyone excelled at making disco sound unlike what it mainly was- that is to say making it fresh, exciting and funky. Chic did all that. Now, they just have a few overplayed hits in our current society- you've all heard commercials where "Le Freak," "Good Times" and "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah Yowsah)"- but I find a lot of their stuff to be, well, gay. Meaning its music only gay cult music fans could really grow to love and cherish like it was Stravinsky or Mozart. But that doesn't mean others can't enjoy it at the very least. And while there are a ton of cheesy Chic songs, earlier ones moreso than later, there is one I can't help but revisiting. That would be the relentless "Everybody Dance." Chic was formed by bassist and dance visionary Bernard Edwards and alongside guitarist Nile Rodgers, he melded funk, Philly soul and neo doo-wop into a disco style distinct in itself. Tony Thompson was the influential original drummer in the group. With female singers Norma Jean Wright (who left after their second album but wound up in the Edwards/Rodgers produced offshoot, Sister Sledge) and Luci Martin providing the sexy silk in order to tempt the Studio 54 crowd into going for broke and boogieing, Chic was certainly not rock & roll and ruffled the feathers even of the R&B establishment, which was seeing the old values of soul rapidly eroded away by glittering disco balls, drum machines, synthesizers and endless 12 inch singles. "Everybody Dance" was a top 20 US single and cracked the UK top 10, so it wasn't quite the monster hit "Dance, Dance, Dance" was from the same self-titled Chic album. But I like it better anyway. I shouldn't find it a good tune, what with its generic lyrics about "clap your hands" and so forth but it's too funky to ignore. Chic were the good side of disco, in my eyes. Now, A Taste of Honey? Sylvester? Cerrone? All the one hit wonders involved? Got no time for that.

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