Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Grrl Power: Suzi Quatro: "48 Crash"

It is something of a truism that a lot of the things people talked about in the 60s didn't actually happen - for better or for worse - until the 70s.  In truth though, if the promise of rock 'n' roll - that it is democratic and therefore everyone can, if willing, participate - was delivered in the 60s, then there would have been a lot more Suzi Quatros around at this time.  But there was just the one, due to circumstances it is all too easy, forty years later, to understand.  The general idea then as now was, you girls can be pop singers or folk singer-songwriters or general light entertainment always-available-for-variety show singers, or even country singers, if you like.  But leave rock 'n' roll to the boys.

Suzi looked at this and said, fuck that.

I cannot emphasize how bad things were back in the early 70s, what with Janis Joplin gone and so on, but Suzi Quatro up in Detroit had a band with her sisters and they gigged and recorded singles and were known on the scene; Suzi taught herself bass and was known to not take crap off of anybody, not Alice Cooper, not Iggy Pop*.  Mickie Most was in Detroit, saw her all-sisters band (The Pleasure Seekers) and figured he had a star-in-the-making on his hands, and convinced Suzi to move to London to become famous, just like Hendrix.  And like restless American girls before and after, she moved, got her band together, wrote songs and found herself in the midst of the Glam Slam, and added its influence to her Detroit sound.  She wore a leather suit (her idea, not Most's) for convenience first, and had a low-slung bass as she is tiny and basses are rather heavy, as anyone who's played one knows.  Most got Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman to write songs for her, and this is song is one of them.  That it's about male menopause is something the boys of '73 (and girls, for that matter) may not have understood, but it got to #2 on the Luxembourg chart anyway, and it is inadvertently therefore one of the most feminist songs of this blog so far.  That so many of the Glam Slam affected femininity they could hardly complain when an actual woman - an outsider, to boot! - came along and rocked just as hard as they did.  Suzi has always seen herself as a musician first, an entertainer second, and if she was a sex symbol for the times, well that was nice, but not her first intention.

Nowadays some might think that this thunderous music/high-pitched singing might be a bit dated, and I have noticed that this song doesn't tend to get played on UK radio (hmmm, I wonder why).  But then the music industry, which includes rock radio, has always been a bit ambivalent to that general category of women who play rock 'n' roll; whole books have been written about the subject, and it is still observable (especially in the UK) how rock in general is a male preserve, with an invisible "No Girls Allowed" sign hanging outside the treehouse**.  Suzi Quatro helped to start a wave of young women who also played and sang and sweated in small clubs and were looked down on, in more ways than one, but who succeeded as they believed in themselves and in the music they were making;  and this has continued since, from the Runaways to Deap Valley, with stops everywhere from Girlschool to L7, The Go-Go's to Haim.  Certainly Joan Jett credits Suzi for inspiration, but as the wave has moved forward I wonder if anyone else in the US remembers her at all.  Perhaps the riot grrls did, in the early 90s; but for girls my age, Suzi was Leather Tuscadero in Happy Days and had that "Stumblin' In" hit song and that was about it.  I grew up not knowing about this fierce song of male ascension and swift decline, and so my teenage version of If You Knew Suzi was Jett's Bad Reputation.  I have left one woman out of this as I have written about her already, but suffice it to say when Chrissie Hynde got to London two years after Quatro she had to look to her just as Jett did as an example of what could be done, even if Hynde didn't want to exactly do it the same way***.  Also, I am loathe to call Suzi a pioneer - Wanda Jackson, anyone? - but for the UK scene, she was one.  That she played songs written by others (though she did write songs for albums and b-sides) was perhaps the only hitch in this story; but in this case, with "48 Crash" what Chinn and Chapman wrote would have been silly as sung by Mud or Sweet.  Suzi attacks this song and sings it like...well, like a woman who knows that one day there will be a lot more women on the stage, just like her, and "the Industry" would just have to deal.  On the whole, I think things aren't quite so bad as they can sometimes seem; not when Kate Nash is running bandcamps for teenage girls and Pussy Riot are getting support from all over the world (their version of this song would no doubt be "Putin Crash").  Quatro still performs, and is proud that she was the first, though she knows that it was inevitable.  At some point, a young woman was bound to lead a band, sing and play an instrument.  All she had to do was have the skill, determination and energy to do it, and it was Suzi who happened to be the first.   

Next up:  the endless loop of Baby Boomers, explained.    

*Some guy in the audience stuck his tongue out in a rude way to her and she promptly took her bass and hit him on the head with it.  That's just how things were in Detroit.  
** I am trying and failing to remember if a female musician has made any recent covers of Q, Uncut or Mojo

***Hynde interviewed Quatro for the NME and was generally impressed by her, on and offstage. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Think About It, Then Forget It: Mungo Jerry: "Alright, Alright, Alright"

Since it's summer, I'm going to be brief - this Mungo Jerry song was lifted/inspired by a song by Jacques Dutronc from '66 called "Et moi, et moi, et moi."  Each reflects their own decade and country pretty accurately, but is it just me that thinks Dutronc has the edge here?  That instead of generalities that sound good but are kind of nothing but shoulder-shrugging platitudes ("some say no and some say yes" not forgetting "too many heads and too many minds").  But with Dutronc, his lyrics juxtapose his own bourgeois life and the lives of millions of others, pointedly singing:  "Cinquante millions de vietnamiens/Et moi, et moi, et moi/Le dimanche à la chasse au lapin/Avec mon fusil, je suis le roi/J´y pense et puis j´oublie/C´est la vie, c´est la vie."  Whereas Mungo Jerry is singing a song about general wrongs and rights, here Dutronc is thinking about them and forgetting, going about his life, mostly oblivious to the world, even the Martians who may well exist, but as long as he gets his cheque at the end of the month, he's fine with them.  It is a satire on indifference, on knowing and actually not really caring all that much; he thinks and forgets about everyone, including his fellow French, who he calls "gens imparfaits."

I have no way of knowing if, during the popular boom of French music in the mid-60s, if "Et moi, et moi, et moi" was at all heard on the radio in the UK; Ray Dorset of Mungo Jerry got to hear it though, and hence did his own version that got to #2 hit on the NME chart.  My own knowledge of French pop is fervent but rather slapdash; I didn't really know about Dutronc until now, even though he's mentioned by Cornershop on their classic "Brimful of Asha."

It is abstractly interesting to have French pop turned into UK pop; it's not so great when it gets drained of the humour and modesty and just becomes something to nod along with on a hot day.  Something gets lost in the translation, and as admirable as it might be, I am glad that no one has, say, tried to do an English version of Autour de Lucie's "Chanson sans issue."  The melody and voice are like one raised eyebrow, and it all works together in such stunning unity that I'm not sure anyone could pull it off in English.*  I could scratch my head as to how such an utterly catchy song got approximately nowhere in the UK charts, but then remember how Arnaud Fleurent-Didier made no impact here in 2010 with his tremendous album La Reproduction.  I am not sure why these things happen, or rather don't happen, but France remains a place, as far as I can tell, that gets airplay and attention for its dance music, as opposed to anything else; I will be discussing the greatness of that specific music in the future, but sadly the world of French pop is one I won't get to talk about that much...c'est dommage.

Next up:  A true rock 'n' roller, and a still-taboo subject.

*If you like this song then you will like the album it comes from, Immobile.  

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Bridging The Gap: David Bowie: "Life On Mars?"

And we have now come, dear readers, to a song that is predictive of many things; and even then, not so much predictive as descriptive. 
I do wonder, sometimes, if people who love music, love it enough to understand it well enough when they are, say, 22, can somehow hold on to that understanding as they age.  Not just hold on to their original understanding, though, but grow wise with age and know that if they remain loyal to music itself, music will always offer them something new; but if they cut themselves off from music, then it will all just seem like so much noise, in whatever format it appears in.
I am moved to think about this by this song, a song that was written compulsively in one day, the writer so moved that he got off the bus and walked back home to do so.  And that is because he is mentioned in two different pieces of writing by the same person…

“So long as rock ‘n’ roll carries its own caste system, so long as there is an ‘intelligence’ structure, so long as there is snobbery insisting that whatever David Bowie does is automatically more valid than the tomfoolery of Earth, Wind and Fire, then I shall feel irritated enough to bore you by holding up the value of rock’s less pretentious, less concerned, ‘poor’ relations.” – Danny Baker, NME, 1979
“No wonder we make so much fuss about Bowie’s TOTP in 72 if this is today’s sensation.”
“I am guessing that 98% of this “amazing” Glastonbury will be digitally filed away and not seen as culturally valuable as 70s Bowie.” –Danny Baker on Twitter, June 29, 2013

The caste system, by the looks of these contrasting pieces, remains doggedly the same.  Bowie is still held up as the peak of what is “culturally valuable” and the new thing, which in this case is Example, is indeed seen as a ‘poor’ relation, so much “tomfoolery” that Bowie cannot help but be seen as “automatically more valid.”  The author clearly considers himself (and is considered by many, many others) to be part of the ‘intelligence’ that deems itself more than capable of deciding who belongs where in the caste system; there are many others out there, as everyone knows.  A kind of received wisdom percolates throughout music media, a stubborn set of opinions that, as shown here, will be scoffed at but then eventually obeyed, as if it was itself the law.  What happened 40+ years ago is far more valuable than anything happening now; my youth, in essence, trumps your youth every single time.
I wish I could look at all this and simply see it as grumpiness, but I can’t – it’s too consistent, too persistent.*  This binary way of hearing music goes against music itself I feel, and leads to ugliness.  I don’t know what to do about it, save to note that I try to hear the best of everything in my own modest way – the ocean of sound (as David Toop puts it) or planet of sound (as The Pixies put it) is far greater than can almost be comprehended, but as long as you keep swimming or walking or moving somehow, not just staying in your area but venturing out once in a while to others (different eras, styles, methods, languages) then you can have a much healthier and – dare I say it? – much more intense relationship with music itself. (Indeed, this is what I am hoping this blog is doing, amongst many other things.) 
I am reminded of all these things as this song by David Bowie is a dramatic, swooping song about culture itself, and what happens in the gulf between the performer and audience.  The girl is having a “godawful small affair” – the smallness is presented quietly, and (in the first echo) she leaves home, at least for now, yelled at by her parents.  That she has “mousy hair” and doesn’t even have a good boy/friend with her in her hour of need makes her vulnerable; so she goes to the movie by herself.  Here she looks for escape (“hooked” to the silver screen, as if it was a drug to take her out of her own “sunken dream” of a life), but finds just the same old thing – and she doesn’t like it, but stays anyhow…long enough to see the sailors, the lawman “beating up the wrong guy” – and the music comes to life with the movie, soaring to wonder if anyone on screen knows they are in the “best selling show” – if the figures on the screen have any real consciousness, or if they are just abstracts, literal projections of want and desire and nothing else.  And then the octave leap up to “Is there life on Mars?” as if this planet is too much, and another planet is necessary for true escape…
…and then the calm news, as the music peaks and then comes back down…”Amerika’s” Mickey Mouse is in trouble, turned into a cow; there are other “mice” in their “million hordes”  who gather on vacation in Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads - meanwhile “the workers have struck for fame” because “Lennon’s on sale again.”  Suddenly we are away from the solitary girl and the bigger picture has appeared, surreal to some in its hugeness – and from this perspective it seems as if Bowie is predicting his and Lennon’s “Fame” a few years hence, though unthinkable to the Bowie of ’71.  (This song, I should note, is here as it is a Luxembourg #2 and was re-released to capitalize on his Ziggy-era stardom, a persona he ended around the time this was a hit.)  The orchestral swoops are done by Mick Ronson (who also plays guitar) and the piano is Rick Wakeman, who made his part more classical, thus making this song a bridge between the old and the new; Bowie himself intended it as a tribute to Frank Sinatra, though what Frank would have sounded like singing “To my mother, my dog and clowns” I’m not sure.
And then Bowie the Friendly Forebear appears, stepping on to the stage after the movie is over, admitting that he is the one who has written this “saddening bore” of a story, and “it’s about to be writ again” as he asks you – you, not the girl – to witness the sailors, the lawmen, the “freakiest show” – “look at those cavemen go” – as real life steps in as the main attraction.  The dream is over, the day in the life is here, the wrong men are being beaten up, the lawman’s crooked, and is there life on Mars?  It is Bowie asking you the listener to understand what spectacle is, and crucially, not to divide yourself from the girl who is disdainful but nevertheless hooked to images, ones that help her escape her distressed life.  In effect the song puts you into her place, even if you thought you were above her or separate from her in some way; and it also neatly says that what is escape for some is simply life for others, and that no one, not even you the listener, are able to escape that, even on Mars. 
This could be a downbeat song, but the music is breathtakingly emotional and dramatic, building and moving in ways that seem encouraging, warm, empathetic. Even the end, where the main theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey is quoted, is a nod to the cinema, and the piano comes back quietly, ending just as a phone rings, the two moments balancing each other very nicely. The video is a simple one, with Bowie in a powder blue suit, Ziggy hair and dark blue eyeshadow against a white background singing the song as if he would on a tv show – simply, minimally – and cuts once in while to the teenage girls at his show, ones who have arms outstretched, who are crying, who are clearly trying themselves to escape their own “small” lives and are intensely in need – almost ghostly figures in the dark of the audience. And there is Bowie, separate, away from them…distant and not responding to this audience in anyway, just another figure on a screen to ponder and be “hooked” on, but never know. It is as if he is acknowledging that he has screaming, pleading fans but doesn’t want to have anything to do with them, save to note that they do exist…just as he talks about the mousy-haired girl in the first place, and maybe somewhere admits that he is completely self-aware that he is “the freakiest show” and he doesn’t have to “wonder if he’ll ever know.”
In short, this song is one of Bowie’s best (to some I know it is his best) as it looks at the whole gulf between what is wanted and what happens; and then Bowie himself comes in, and the song is no  longer a simple story of escape but one of politics, the once and future Beatles, the act of creation vs. the actual simple act of paying attention.  Its empathy is what strikes me the most – I don’t sense he looks down on the girl, on the hordes.  If he is drawing up a caste system it’s not one based on age or number, “tomfoolery” or what is “culturally valuable.”  That lawman beating up the wrong guy on the screen merely reflects real injustices; art reflects life, and the artist may know s/he is repeating life again and again, but that is the function of art, to give back to life something – like this song. 
I have saved one last thing here – that may be a key to this whole thing.  The original quote is from a review Baker wrote about Chic’s Risque; and the tweets are about Example.  Now, both the Chic Organization and (of course) Example played at Glastonbury, and they each represent dance music in their own way; and in his original piece Baker calls dance music (disco, what have you) “less pretentious, less concerned”…less concerned about what, though?  It is as if he is saying that those who make dance music are less concerned with…artistic statements?  Political commentary?  Clever wordplay?  Being well-regarded by their peers and fans?  Bernard Edwards wept.  Is this not what Chic were doing, even at the time of Baker’s review?  Even here I can sense that he feels as if dance music is just about kids buying singles they heard in the club and that the songs themselves are merely for dancing, that songs such as “Everybody Dance” or “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” or “Good Times” are not “concerned” about anything other than getting their listeners on the dance floor.  That lyrics and musical quotes aren’t meaningful; or rather they are, but only in the cases of Bowie, Ian Dury, Roxy Music, etc. (to name other artists who he feels are part of that caste, so to speak).  And with Example (who I will take here as but part of the huge UK dance scene in general) there is certainly concern, not just with having fun but also with commentary.  How many listened to the chart of August 27 2011 to hear “Heaven” by Emeli Sande  and “Don’t Go” by Wretch 32 and Josh Kumra and felt as if these songs were active responses to the riots – many, I’d suggest.**
Musicians are musicians, and maybe some are less concerned than others, but to me musicians across all time are trying to express something – even if it is oblique or self-referential, quoting other songs or styles, each song is indelibly woven into another, joined as invisibly and mysteriously as the world is itself.  It is all valuable.
*Baker also wrote this:  “Jagger will be 70 in a few weeks.  Incredible.  In generations to come they will have to recreate this.  We are seeing him now. #Mozart”  Really?  Have to? 
**How well I remember Baker, a few days after the riots ended, looking at the current #1 (“Swagger Jagger” by Cher Lloyd) and considering it part of the whole malaise of the time – a symptom, if you will, of the whole situation.  I don’t recall him saying much about “Heaven” or “Don’t Go” however.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Underdog: The Hotshots: "Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron"

There is an odd sense of deja vu here; this was a hit (in its original version) when I was born - and now, here it is again, in ska-style.  It's not that different from before - the tempo is slowed down a bit (making the Red Baron's actual name easier to hear) and there's a horn section dutifully puffing along.  I can't claim to know much about this single other than it's definitely by a UK band, and was a #2 hit on the Luxembourg chart. 

What I do know was that for sure the comic strip Peanuts was my favorite growing up - as soon as I found out there was such a thing as a used book store, I would go in and get old paperbacks from the 60s and at some point I also collected the much bigger anthologies - haphazardly coloring them in, getting to know the history of the strip (which had been going well over a decade by the time I was born).  I grew up with Peanuts as a constant marker of time (A Charlie Brown Christmas winter,  It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown* [which has Schroder playing WWI songs "It's A Long Way to Tipperary" and "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag" and has Snoopy fighting the Red Baron] for fall).  I am not sure if this latter show was ever broadcast on UK television, but I do know that Peanuts was gaining popularity around this time; and the wildly imaginative Snoopy has more than something to do with that.  Anyone can relate to him and his big heart and innate sense of what is right and wrong.  (I saw Snoopy, Come Home when it came out in 1972 and was traumatized - there are a lot of signifiers in the movie, if you know how to watch it.  Interestingly, it was a failure at the box office - ultimately too emotionally charged for kids like me, who didn't like to see Snoopy suffer so much.) 

Because of all these reasons - and no others, save to have a hit - The Hotshots recorded this and it was a summertime smash, the kind of song kids buy (as they did the original) and might remember, even though I've never heard it on UK radio.  Peanuts and Charles Schulz have passed into history as (I believe) both commercial success and highbrow art immortality**.  That is very hard to do, but Schulz did it; whether he ever heard this, I don't know, but I imagine he would have liked it if he did.  Thanks, old pal.

Next up:  pass the popcorn.  

*Kid Koala immortalized Charlie Brown's misery in this special in "Tricks 'n' Treats" on his Scratchcratchratchatch mixtape.

**Snoopy as the WWI pilot is such a famous image that it's on the cover of one of the lovely Peanuts complete works.

Interlude #1: Fleetwood Mac: "Albatross"

While this blog is ostensibly about #2 songs in the UK chart (and the NME, and the Luxembourg...I am using them all to get a greater focus on what was happening and also to point out that a chart is a construct, just like time itself) I will occasionally be taking a little rest stop - as we did in the summer of '73 itself, to have grape juice and bologna sandwiches - and look at what is to come.

Now, this song was a #1 hit in 1969 and by all rights I shouldn't be talking about it here; but look, here it is again at #2, a woozy swoon of a song, part straight-up blues, part Shadows ease and gentleness.  And that's fine, I don't really have much else to say about it, save for the fact that Fleetwood Mac - not in this exact configuration - are on their way to becoming, I would argue, the defining band of the 70s.  Yes, I know that is a huge proclamation, but I feel it's true.  Other bands or musicians may also qualify here (I have written about one of them over at Then Play Long recently) but none has the punctum - for me, anyway - of Fleetwood Mac.  Perhaps that is because I am from California, and that just as I was leaving, they were arriving...

...or I should say, on their way to arriving.  If the 70s can be described as a period of comedown, struggle and then renewal and success, then Fleetwood Mac are indeed the defining band of the time.  In the summer of '73, when this was at #2 and people wondered if the band even existed any longer on TOTP, they might have been surprised (or...not) to hear that not one but two guitarists had left the group*, that a wayward American called Bob Welch had heard they needed help, and showed up, giving them direction and (un)wittingly predicting their future:  California.  Welch was from Los Angeles and sensed that Fleetwood Mac would do better there than in blokey-bluesy-UK, where the band could stretch out and perhaps find its feet.  This was for the future; right now Fleetwood Mac were still in the UK, though they were gaining popularity in the US and with Welch's influence were starting to sound more American as well.  About this time they were recording Mystery To Me (one of many, many albums of the 70s to have an awful cover**) which includes "Hypnotized" - a song Welch wrote that that got a lot of airplay without actually becoming a hit.  It shares a certain laid-back charm with "Albatross" but is far more jazzy than Shadowy; it paves the way for "Dreams" a few years later, and the general eerieness that hangs over the band in general.  It is also understated; the general received opinion of the L.A. band Haim is that they sound like Fleetwood Mac, but nobody ever seems to mention which one; let me be the first one (if I am the first one) to say they they remind me of the Bob Welch-era Mac, and it is a shame that Welch never got to hear them, as I think he would have liked them.  It is also a shame, depending on how much stock you put in it, that while Fleetwood Mac are in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, Welch's heroic carrying of the band somehow didn't count - he's not included in the long list of band members.  He belongs with them all, and it is sad to see he's not there. 

In any case, like Fleetwood Mac my family were in transition; moving from Los Angeles to Canada, Oakville specifically.  It was a hot summer; the summer of Watergate hearings, of ex-Beatles at #1 in the US.  A time when a lot of people could sense that something had happened somewhere that was wrong, but couldn't do very much about it.  "Will It Go Round In Circles" sang Billy Preston, while Dr. John lamented that he was in the right place, but at the wrong time.  The Fog was dealt with in different ways in the US & the UK; the US tried to stick a happy face on it, or at least get it out, confessionally, into the open.  The UK put its faith in the Glam Slam, in the eternal party that is rock 'n' roll itself.  That will continue shortly, but next:  what?  A dog can't fly a plane!    


*Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer had both left by now, Peter Green had already left before them.

**Truly, the music had to do the selling with this one.  A beast eating a birthday cake?  Huh?