Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Marshall Crenshaw: On a Forgotten Legend

First Published in PressPlus1 Online Magazine:

Wrong place, wrong time: This popular phrase is often used but hardly anywhere in our contemporary music world, at least post-disco, can this homily be used on anyone more fitting than Marshall Crenshaw. Now, Rock and Roll has been through so many permutations, subgenres, trends and phases that it's almost exhausted itself out of relevance. But as of 2010, it still beats at the heart of much great music being made. It's endlessly adaptable, especially when crossed with the other musical strains of the world's history. But more than ever, it seems absent on the charts unless in the form of something hideously generic and formulaic. This is nothing new but the way media has rapidly changed in the past decade and a half- touched off by the internet's ascent- has toppled the old methods so much so that even music videos have become secondary. Good ride while it lasted, MTV, but I suppose you guys got the picture by switching to an all-reality tv programming mandate.

As for rock and roll, in the English-speaking world it still has relevance in the UK but certainly in Australia, which embraced the garage rock explosion of 10 years ago and still generally favours rock over mainstream club and hip-hop music which seems to dominate our airwaves in North America. But once upon a time (the 1960's) one could be experimental, groundbreaking and still find the chart's top 10. It wasn't this way ever again, even for most punk and new wave 10 years later. In the early 80s, Warner Bros.Records tried to jump on the new wave train, and the slightly hot neo-rockabilly wave that had grown out of the UK's pub rock scene and flowered in reaction to the increasingly glittery and fashion-conscious world of pop. They did this mainly when they signed up Marshall Crenshaw, who only enjoyed association with the new wave because of his bare bones, clean guitar-driven sound. In reality, he was a traditionalist who echoed the halcyon days of British Invasion pop and the influences of that style, luminaries such as Buddy Holly, the Everly Bros. and Chuck Berry or, in general, soul, doo-wop and Motown, which would be perfectly explainable for Crenshaw because he was born and raised in Detroit.

Crenshaw's first album was about as innocent and pure as pop music gets in 1982, evoking the AM radio oldies that have survived on the crest of nostalgia for several decades now. Only, this music was done with an updated production style. That debut, Marshall Crenshaw, was a critical home run that gained a modicum of interest thanks to a minor hit cover of his "Someday, Someway" by rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon. Crenshaw's own version of "Someday, Someway" became his one and only top 40 single. His early work is primarily about seeking innocent young love, such as on his debut LP's "Girls..." "Brand New Lover," "Rockin' Around in the NYC," "I'll Do Anything," and a cover of Arthur Alexander's "Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)." But even through his fixation on the whirlwind experiences of young love, Crenshaw touched on tinges of the bittersweet side, through "There She Goes Again," a shimmering pop tale about seeing an ex-lover walking down the street with her new guy- oh the favourite rock scene of post-breakup heartache.

There's also the earnest, pining "Mary Anne," and the aformentioned "Someday, Someway" which brings up the quarreling and misunderstandings that some relationships produce. But this was not dark territory at all and Crenshaw has never wavered on a relatively bright outlook through song in his career. He's never been one to wallow in misery, an actual rarity among most great writers we've seen. That's not to say he's never had his share of hangups, but Crenshaw had never been one to dwell in depression musically. Don't be fooled by the titles on his debut, as sometimes a track like "Cynical Girl" actually turns out to be a positive portrayal of love, as Crenshaw claims that if he can find that certain someone who fits the bill, he'll be "Lost in love/And havin' fun with my cynical girl/We'll have no use for the real world." This ability to go against expectation was a further attribute to a tremendous singer-songwriter with almost no pretensions to speak of.

A fabulous trio was all Crenshaw needed in the studio, laying down all the guitar parts while his brother Robert played drums and bass was handled by Christ Donato. Marshall's mastery of the Beatles early day breadth is evident by the rockabilly overtones of "The Usual Thing," a superb ringer for the Fabs digging into Carl Perkins, while "She Can't Dance" also echoes 50s "At the Hop" sort of rock. For those who heard a lot of Beatle memories in his material, it certainly came as no shock to learn that he had been in an Off-Broadway company production of Beatlemania, playing John Lennon, whose likeness he somewhat bore in real life by wearing granny glasses at times. Based on appearances, he could've been another nerd trying his hand at rock but he was a lot less nerdy than other bespectacled heroes like Holly, Hank Marvin and Elvis Costello. By the time he finally had his first LP out, Marshall was a grizzled- by rock standards- 28 years of age- but with a plenty more experiences to get across than some 21 year old who could never fully grasp what adulthood really encompassed. This rock he was astutely in touch with was as inoffensive as it gets in the 1980s but not even close to the point of being sickly sweet or maudlin.

Why should such friendly fare be ignored then? Well, kids of the 80s weren't as geared on reviving the music of their parents generation and it was simply a matter of Crenshaw's work being too rooted in the past or slightly passe despite its strong production and readymade-for-radio hooks. Warner Bros. did not do that much to promote the album with the radio people, instead relying on pushing the gem they'd signed up on rock critics and journalists alike. As a result, the first album barely dented the top 50 despite staying on the charts for six months, building up an impressive critical acumen and to date never going out of print. Some critics were annoyed at the hype given to Crenshaw though and when his followup arrived, there were sticklers to conventional production that jumped on the changes to his sound ushered in by Steve Lillywhite, an in-demand British producer who had made his bread working with Peter Gabriel, U2 and others by this point and has gone on to forge a wonderful career in the studio ever since.

Now, it wasn't as if Lillywhite added a ton more instrumentation to the fold, as 1983's Field Day adhered to the same trio setup of Crenshaw's rookie effort, augmented by the occasional percussion or keyboard but heavier on backing vocal overdubs no doubt, all sounding as if recorded through a jet turbine too. Lillywhite added more 80s production tricks such as reverb, echo and a noticeably increased thump to the drum sound that was the main grumbling point for some. In that era of gated and/or electronic drums, some allergic to new production trends were bothered by the thwack of a snare being so prominent. This record, as a result, was seen in most circles as less of an achievement but eventually reviewers came to realize it was quite possibly the superior effort. In the opinion of yours truly, Field Day should be considered a pure pop masterpiece on the level of A Hard Day's Night or Tapestry, just not with the same gaudy sales to boast of.

Field Day doesn't strive for the sunny catchiness of Marshall Crenshaw as much, but arguably achieves a higher plain of craftsmanship. There's maturity to the love songs and the a transition to singing more ballad material. This new focus on softer textures comes off perfectly on breathtaking, guitar-layered pop such as "Try," "All I Know Right Now," "One More Reason" and 'One Day Without You." But the uptempo material has a Phil Spector-ish touch, such as on "Our Town" and "For Her Love," the LPs two greatest products and definitely prime "mini-operas for the little kids," as Spector would say. Of course, the subject matter is not as teen-oriented as Spector was or as much as on Marshall's rookie effort. The songs show a more mature, less impulsive outlook indeed. Bringing these songs to a strongly vivid status should grant Lillywhite more credit than he tends to get- which is practically none anyway as most put the blame on him for perceived problems with the record. But it's especially these two great tracks that radiate in what sounds like an 80's Wall of Sound so while the production has dated somewhat, in my mind it can't hamper what are timeless rock/pop trinkets.

It's a shame no top 40 stations gave a chance to Field Day's leadoff number, "Whenever You're On My Mind," which seems tailor made for pop radio even by 1983's standards, but became just another in a long line of classics that never broke through to the public at large. Its power pop sparkle would have had it running into the top 10 back in 1972 but times had changed indeed. Melody didn't equal money anymore in the midst of fashion-conscious MTV elevating entertainers like Duran Duran and Wham! to megastardom when they might have been much shorter-lived sensations or one-hit wonders years earlier. Even the edgier stuff on Field Day finds Crenshaw blistering with a bit more swagger, if you can call it that, than on his debut. Take "Monday Morning Rock" or "Hold it" for example. And on top of that, there's a superb cover of the old doo-wop classic "What Time is it?" by the Jive Five. But alas, Field Day dropped like a lead balloon and once again, talent and promise didn't equal popularity in the fickle contemporary music scene.

1985's Downtown couldn't hit the same lofty heights as the debut and sophomore releases but managed to be a splendid album in its own right, highlighted by rockabilly exuberance like "Right Now" and the infectious, hook-laden "Blues is King," another work that showed how deceptively cunning and smart a guitar player Crenshaw is, layering chiming acoustic and electric riffs, chords and arpeggios in as if he were a jazz whiz. Crenshaw has even mentioned in interviews that he has a particular fondness for 60s and early 70s R&B chord progressions as well as the Beatles' ability to sneak various diminished, minor, 9th, 11th and 13th chords rarely heard in rock into their songs. And one can hear it plainly, as the simple chord sequences of Marshall's songs were often undercut by these chords. They definitely add some effective variance to the mix. Since jetting off from Warner Bros. at the close of the 80s, Marshall has ridden the carousel a little, landing on Paradox/MCA, then Tie & Razor and now 429. Through it all, he has been one of those songwriters prolific and good enough to contribute to other artists albums in addition to soundtracks and TV shows while maintaining a healthy and interesting recording output on his own.

Crenshaw has had precious few duds in his 30-year recording career and even latter day efforts can knock one's socks off, even if the first two albums of his were the barometer he will always be measured by. He has explored the field of 60s and 70s pop without becoming a total sap, a la his predecessor Paul McCartney, and not disappointed his loyal, adoring fanbase much. And truly, his first two discs are the barometer by which every post-Big Star power popper should be measured by- so we're talking figures like the Apples in Stereo, Fountains of Wayne and Sloan. All walk in Crenshaw's footsteps whether they know it or not. Luckily, Crenshaw never blew his knack for writing the tremendous hook and melody. In the bigger picture, one could call him the American Midwest's answer to McCartney, only less raised on vaudeville pop and show tunes and without the penchant for horribly saccharine love songs.

Marshall is one of the few who in another time hypothetically would have deserved to be the ying to Lennon's yang in the Beatles and considering how that partnership pushed McCartney to brilliance, I'm sure Crenshaw could've held his own. Well, I suppose I've made a hearty endorsement of Crenshaw to be seen as a pop legend and I'm at the very least recommending him to anyone with an ear for catchy power-pop and classic songwriting of the pre-psychedelic days in rock & roll's history. Yes, this is similar to my raves about another 80s icon, Paul Westerberg. However, I suppose Marshall Crenshaw's similar, if not slightly inferior, level of fame is how he likes it. Both artists are low-key without being completely out of the spotlight, though Crenshaw has one foot outside the lightbulb's radius even compared to Westerberg who at least had the immortal Replacements to be remembered best for.

If Crenshaw wanted to be a household name, he'd have done more to combat obscurity and have hired an entertainment agent to get his record label into marketing him while sweetening up his sound with drum machines and cliche power chords. Sometimes by fluke or luck this widespread musical fame can come to a long suffering artists, but often it eludes even the best of them. And if you don't see them reaching for a higher level, it's simply for lack of being willing to go to every end to find that fame. What do I mean by that? Well in my view, anyone can hit the big time if they desperately want fame and fortune badly enough, but can't initially find it with their music from the outset. KISS donned makeup, used pyrotechnics and special effects for instance. Lady Gaga began dressing up in outlandish costumes. It all worked for them and could work for you too!, an advertisement could declare.

So it's too bad Marshall Crenshaw never embraced disco, soppy ballads and lavish music videos.... No forget that, good thing he didn't. Makes for a much better remembered and cherished artist 20-30 years down the road. But fame is a declining commodity, no longer just pre-destined for the greats, often being handed around like it was a badge of honour and record companies looking at the bottom line will no doubt cut corners to get their mission accomplished. That means on your radios and TVs, a genuinely skilled pro like a Marshall Crenshaw will elude you while rammed down your throats will be a new signing who makes an impact by winning a talent competition on TV. Isn't that the way we think you need to "earn it" nowadays? Sadly, the media tells us yes. More Marshall Crenshaws would be a welcome thing to help block out the white noise of it all.

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