My Favorite Musicians #8 – Siouxsie & The Banshees

Siouxsie Sioux (not her real name) is the first punk/ goth sex symbol that I can think of.  My brother and many of my friends in high school had, and probably still have, huge crushes on her. I… never really did. Not in the pin-up girl sense, anyway. Obviously I’m a fan.  She’s on this list after all. I love the sound of her voice! It makes me want to curl up next to her and stay there forever.  The way she purrs in ‘Trust In Me’ as she sings, ‘… like a bird, in a tree…’ makes me, I don’t know, forget about everything happening around me and focus all of my attention on whatever she sings next.  I could listen to her all day. I don’t care whether she’s coo-cooing something sweet and sinister into my ear or boldly singing in defiance against the world around her or just shouting at whoever is in the same room as her. Her voice latches on to my consciousness and doesn’t let go.  …where was I?  Right, Siouxsie Sioux, great singer.  & The Banshees were a good band for her, too.

Their song that first grabbed my attention was Peek-A-Boo from their album Peep Show. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before.  I was a junior in high school at the time and was listening to a lot of everything I’ve described before.  So, Dr.Demento plus a lot of rock/ synth type stuff that was played on the top 40’s stations of the time.  I was starting to get involved with my schools theater program and one day after school I walk backstage and there’s this bizarre music playing.  I remember first hearing what sounded like a concertina playing over something recorded backwards.  The vocals were of a woman singing and it wasn’t friendly either.  It sounded more like a warning to me than anything else.  This wasn’t the music I was used to!  This was the kind of music you heard when you were lost and overwhelmed in a circus.  Not one of the classier ones either.  This was music about something dark and sinister that was lurking right behind you.  I loved it.

My friends were happy to drown me in Siouxsie & The Banshees albums once I showed some interest in them.  Turns out she’d been putting out music for a decade by the time I heard of her.  She was a mover and shaker in the early London punk scene and a friend of the Sex Pistols.  The music that she recorded then was not at all like the MTV friendly songs that caught my ear.  The music she put out in the late ’70s was as angry and aggressive as you’d expect for a punk singer.

Okay, so right upfront I’m going to say that a lot of this is going to sound like what I wrote about INXS.  The band as a whole is entirely necessary.  INXS doesn’t make sense if you only focus on Michael Hutchence, and Siouxsie & The Banshees doesn’t make sense if you ignore The Banshees.  And just like my earlier reflections, I do not know enough about music to properly express how important I feel they are. Steven Severin  and Budgie (not their real names either) are the two primary musicians who, along with Ms. Sioux, formed the backbone of Siouxsie & The Banshees.

Steven Severin acted as bassist and composed songs for the band. My understanding is that Steve would write initial versions of songs.  He’d present them to the band and everyone would then develop the songs together. How big of an impact did he have? It’s worth noting that Siouxsie had a side project that she was associated with, The Creatures, that basically consists of her and Budgie. I never lost myself in The Creatures songs the same way I did with Siouxsie & The Banshees. It’s possible that Severin’s composition was as big of a contribution to me as Siouxsie’s singing.

As for Budgie… I don’t know how to say, ‘He was the drummer,’ and not make it sound dismissive. Most drummers that I’ve noticed primarily keep the beat and occasionally make a lot of racket when given the chance. Budgie’s drumming was more… melodic? …descriptive? He set the mood for the song instead of just setting the pace. Referencing The Creatures again, they were mostly Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie, a singer and a drummer. Whatever I may say, plenty of people did like The Creatures.  If your band is just a singer and a drummer then both of those elements had better be top notch.

So we’ve got clever composition, the smoothest and sexiest voice I’d heard at that point in my life, and a clever and creative drummer. What did they do to stick in my head so stubbornly? My description of the first time I heard Peek-A-Boo hints at it – it created a very specific feeling and image in my mind. I find that to be true of most of their songs of that stuck with me. Their version of Trust In Me is as evocative as Disney’s Jungle Book when imagining a sinister predator coaxing in the naive and innocent – only Siouxsie & The Banshees version is a Hell of lot sexier. Love In A Void is yelling and blaring guitars and pounding drums and sounds very much like someone alone and angry at the world which I suppose goes along with the title. And the lyrics? Well apart from the title I can’t recall any of them. I just looked them up on line and they don’t really speak to me – but how they were sung (or shouted) makes all the difference. This is what separates the talented singers from the rest of us. If I sang, ‘Too many bigots for my liking/ Too many critics, too few writing,’ you’d probably ask if I had some sort of point I was getting at. But when Siouxsie sings it I skip right past the lyrical analysis and get behind whatever cause she seems to be screaming against.

I realize that the songs I’ve mentioned so far mostly fall into the threatening and/ or angry category. Please don’t think that those themes completely represented Siouxsie & The Banshees. In addition to what I’ve already described there was also The Last Beat Of My Heart, a wistful love song where the singer professes her desire to be with whoever until the last beat of her heart.  Their greatest U.S. hit was ‘Kiss Them For Me,’ a free flowing and melodic song about the love and costs of glamour.  Wikipedia tells me it’s a song about the life and death of Jayne Mansfield.  Siouxsie & The Banshees also produced ‘Face To Face’ for the Batman Returns soundtrack.  This song was also free flowing and melodic, but the tone is much more suspicious.  It’s a good thematic match for Batman and Catwoman’s love/ hate relationship.  They also perform a great cover of Iggy Pop’s ‘Passenger.’  It’s raucous, energetic, and above all fun.

Souxsie & The Banshees stopped putting out records in 1995.  None of the members ever hurt for work as far as I know.  They seem to have kept themselves busy with other projects.  All that’s left is My Favorite Song Today.  This would be the same song whether I wrote this article at age 17, 24, 38, or 44.  I bought the Peepshow album soon after learning of the existence of Siouxsie & The Banshees and immediately fell in love with ‘Rhapsody.’  The song starts quietly, with some imagery of a barren landscape and desolation.  There’s a mention of a Soviet sun that has never made any sense to me.  The pace, volume, and power build until the end of the song when Siouxsie is belting out, ‘and I… have seen all I waaaant to…’ backed by a symphony.  ‘Operatic,’ is a good descriptor.  It is the most passionate declaration of exhaustion I think I’ve heard.  It’s hard to explain the feelings the song inspires in me except to say, ‘grand.’  I don’t know how much of that makes sense, but if you were paying attention a few paragraphs back you’ll know that I’m much less concerned with the logic of the song then the feeling it inspires.  I’ll leave that as good last words on the subject.

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My Favorite Musicians – #7 INXS

INXS is, to my knowledge, the biggest pop-rock band to come out of Australia in the ’80s. Most of their songs were about fun and girls and wanting to be with girls and why girls should be with them to have fun.  There was the occasional nod at social relevance and introspection, but the previous summary describes a big chunk of their output. Back in the fall of 1987 INXS looked like they were having more fun than anyone else and I listened to their peppy, poppy, party songs for like a month straight… and quite a bit afterwards.  I can’t say they’re a guilty pleasure.  Not so much because I think their music is exceptionally witty or poignant. Mostly, I can’t call them a guilty pleasure because I’m not even slightly repentant. Even if I was, I listened to INXS way too much in high school to try to back off now.  For anyone who doesn’t already know, the band’s name is pronounced IN-EX-ESS. That was just a jumble of consonants to me for a year or so until I was taking notes in high school chemistry. I had to abbreviate ‘in excess’ and came up with inxs and thought ‘So that’s what it means.’ True story.

What drew me in to INXS when ‘Need You Tonight’ and ‘Devil Inside’ were running wild on the pop charts was… ‘desire’ isn’t quite the right word.  I’m going to go with ‘Wanna’ said with a lurid tone.*  Michael Hutchence clearly had access to a passionate, slightly forbidden, FUN world and he sang like he believed he could take you there.  When I heard him sing about these places I thought, “I Wanna go there.”  I’m told that INXS were a sexy band and that the lead singer, Michael Hutchence, dripped charisma and sex appeal everywhere he went.  My response to that?  “If you say so.” I won’t deny that a lot of the appeal was the personality they projected. In fact, that’s what sold me! It’s just that the personality they projected to me was a bunch of goofy guys who were having fun.  The first time INXS really captured my attention was when I watched the video for ‘Need You Tonight/ Mediate.’ The ‘Need You Tonight’ part was a grainy, stylized, mostly black and white video. There was a definite effort to make Michael Hutchence seem cool and disaffected. The rest of the band was either not as good at being cool as Michael, or were deliberately trying to seem goofy. I suspect the second. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean. I think the ‘Mediate’ portion of the video, practically a direct copy of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues,with deliberate errors, reinforces my belief. And why wouldn’t that appeal to me? A bunch of guys who don’t seem to be good at being cool but aren’t insecure about it? Of course that’s going to speak to me.

Having just said that I was more a fan of the musicians than the singer, make no mistake – Michael Hutchence was the anchor for INXS. The music backed him up, but he wrote the lyrics and sold them to whoever was listening. Andrew Farriss wrote the tunes and the rest of the band did a bang up job playing them, but solid music doesn’t send a band rocketing up the pop charts. That is the job of the Front Man.  Or Front Woman.  I don’t want to dismiss the Aretha Franklin’s, Madonna’s or Taylor Swift’s of the world. A front person is more than a singer. They are also a force of personality that compels whoever is listening to come along for whatever ride they’re offering. Every member of INXS was necessary for what the band became, but Michael was necessary for them to be the sensation that they were.

I may have sounded dismissive of INXS’ abilities in my opening paragraph, but I do think they are a solid band. To my ear, the songs are well constructed and enthusiastically executed. Another point in their favor? Musical variety. They had the standard guitar/ drums/ bass with Tim Farriss, Jon Farriss, and Garry Gary Beers. They also had Andrew Farriss on keyboard and Kirk Pengilly on saxophone. I think having four other musicians let INXS take advantage of the versatility of an electric keyboard without getting bogged down in many of the synth-pop cliches of the ’80s (not that they escaped them entirely.)   However, it’s their enthusiasm more than anything else that turned me into the fan I was and still am. When they sing about missing their girl, having fun, or the cold war arms race, I believe them. I get swept up in their excitement or pathos.

Part of the criteria for earning a position on my top 20 musical performers list is longevity. Do I still have attachment to the band? The answer is yes, of course, but not in the same way as the other bands I’ve listed. INXS is the first band I’ve mentioned where my changing tastes are reflected in the songs I listen to. By that I mean I listen to the same Men Without Hats and Hall & Oates songs I listened to way back when. I have always loved almost everything that “Weird” Al and Tom Lehrer have written so I haven’t changed much there.  In comparison, INXS’ albums The Swing and Kick were my favorites when I was in high school. Now, The Swing seems kind of dull and Kick sounds a little insincere.  I’m much more likely to listen to their eponymous first album, Shabooh Shoobah, or Listen Like Thieves. I didn’t have much use for the music they put out in the ’90s at the time but it’s starting to grow on me now. I like to think this speaks to the versatility of the band and an ability to be relevant to many audiences. God, that sounds pretentious, but I’m sticking with it.

The story of INXS, unfortunately, ends in November of 1997 when Michael Hutchence was found dead in his hotel room. Why didn’t the band carry on without him?  I don’t know.  Possibly for the same reason that Michael Hutchence didn’t have that many outside projects – they needed each other. When Michael went off to make another album during the height of INXS’ fame in the late ’80s, he came out with Max Q.  It’s not a bad album, certainly, but his singing never seemed to be a part of the music as much as it was when he sang with INXS. On the other end, the band did try to replace Michael Hutchence a decade or so later when they appeared on a season of Rockstar, appropriately titled Rockstar INXS.  It was a prolonged game show and the prize for the winner was becoming INXS’ new lead singer. I watched some clips on line. None of the contestants did it for me either. They were trying to replace a Front Man with a singer and the results were lacking. Mike needed the music of the rest of the band, and they needed the lyrics and (more importantly) his delivery.

Now that I (finally!) am ready to finish this essay it’s time to discuss My Favorite Song Today. Most of their hit songs fall into the ‘Girl, I want to be with you,’ category which, I’ll be honest, doesn’t really resonate with me. No, to find the song that really jumps to mind one has to go through their hand-full of songs about something not related to girls.  Maybe this collection of Aussie rockers put together a song that reflects an appreciation of the varied cultures of beliefs of the world while simultaneously expressing an ambivalence of contemporary values?  If you’re looking for a song that fits that description then you, like me, have very specific tastes, and you’re in luck.  INXS’ 1982 album Shabooh Shoobah has a song titled ‘Old World New World.’  The lyric that really does it for me is “Old world, new world/ I know nothing but I keep listening.” Furthermore it concludes with a listing of many different faiths, “Pan/ Shambala/ Judism/ Hindu/…” etc. To me that expresses a feeling that there isn’t necessarily a correct spiritual answer, but there is much to be learned and the singer is eager to do so. Similarly, I haven’t come across any one set of beliefs that will answer all of my questions and seriously doubt that I ever will. However, I believe I can get help to answer at least some of the questions I have if I pay attention to the world around me.  The song reminds me that I’m not alone in my wanderings. It’s something I can identify with, just like the goofy guys that never convinced me they were cool but still looked like someone I wanted to spend time with.

*George Carlin talked about ‘Wanna.’  Part of a sin, according to Catholic dogma when George was growing up, was intent.  It wasn’t enough to just commit the sin.  You had to Wanna commit the sin.  In fact Wanna was a sin in itself.

My Favorite Musicians – #6 The Temptations

If you don’t like The Temptations then you’re just wrong. Anyone who can listen to the blissful harmonies of ‘My Girl’, the sadness of ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, or the psychedelic outrage of ‘Ball Of Confusion’ without getting caught up with the singers feelings must not be paying attention. That’s the only explanation that makes sense to me. Yeah, I’m a fan.

What? That wasn’t an especially helpful introduction? Very well. The Temptations are a band that formed in the ’60s and were very popular in that decade and the one following. They were one of the most prominent bands on the Motown label. More than anyone else, The Temptations epitomized the Motown sound. If that doesn’t make sense to you imagine R&B and soul music with pop aspirations filtered through a gospel sensibility. They certainly nailed the ‘pop’ part with sixteen top 10 songs from 1965 through 1973. The band has rotated through many members. Their typical line up remains the same – five men singing and dancing with a band supporting them.  They’re still touring.  At least they were in 2007 when I ran lights for them at the Lincoln Center.  Well, a form of The Temptations were still touring.  None of the original members were on hand.  It was still a pleasure to have the current incarnation playing in my theater.

I was first introduced to The Temptations… some time after getting into Hall & Oates. See, in 1985 Hall & Oates put out Live At The Apollo, from a performance at the Apollo Theater.  I saw a video for ‘Apollo Medley’ from that album.  It featured some black performers that I didn’t recognize who were singing some songs I’d heard before.  John Oates and Daryl Hall were acting as back up singers dancing behind the main singers.  If you didn’t pick up from my entry on Hall & Oates, those two didn’t have to be back up for anyone they didn’t want to in 1985. For those two to so eagerly give the spotlight to other musicians on their own album said a lot to me. I soon learned that the songs that had sounded familiar to me were all songs from The Temptations and that, indeed, some members of The Temptations were singing that night.

My mother listened to the oldies station.  At the time this meant a lot of stuff from the ’50s and ’60s. I kept an ear out for their songs. Predictably, KXKL (Kool 105) kept to a fairly tight group of their songs – mostly songs about falling in love or broken hearts. Or Papa Was A Rolling Stone.  Nothing wrong with that though. I’ll listen to Get Ready or The Way You Do The Things You Do any time they pop up.

Learning about their other music was more convoluted. In the waning months of 1988 I was getting a ride home after a theater party from my friend, Justin. A song started playing. It had a good beat and a rhythm I could get into.  The singing began and apropos of nothing in the conversation Justin yells out (along with the music) “Vote for me and I’ll set you free!” I asked who performed the song and what it was. He said, “It’s ‘Ball Of Confusion’ by Love & Rockets.” I loved that song, but when I had a chance to listen to the lyrics they seemed out of place. “People moving out. People moving in./  Why? Because of the color of their skin.”  “Well, the only person talking about love today is the preacher.”  “Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration,…” These didn’t sound like the sort of things that a bunch of white, English guys would write.  Several years later I learned that they didn’t.  As it turns out ‘Ball Of Confusion’ was a hit for The Temptations back in 1970 (hitting #3 on the Billboard charts.) The song suddenly made a lot more sense. This led me to some of the their later, more mature songs like Cloud 9, Psychedelic Shack, and a revisiting of Papa Was A Rolling Stone (I hadn’t realized how completely depressing it was when I heard it as a kid.)

If I had to put The Temptations appeal to me in words, and I suppose that’s the whole point of me writing this, I would say that the songs go together very well.  A better writer might have phrased it as a matter of composition.  I wouldn’t know where to go from there.  Instead, I’ll say that each song has a theme be it love, longing, desperation, etc.  Every element of the song – the music, the singing, the writing – all reinforce that theme.  Furthermore, each of those elements are excellent.  I could see a capella versions of their songs just as easily as I could see instrumental versions.  Every element stands on it’s own.  Consider “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.”  It starts with a bass strumming out a slow and broody beat.  Drifting strings and a horn solo join in.  The horn solo isn’t morose, but it isn’t upbeat, either.  A drum beat adds some rhythm to the mix.  Again, not despondent.  The beat gives a sense of purpose – something’s happening, but nothing joyous.  The lyrics begin and set the mood with “It was the third of September/ The day I’ll always remember (Yes I will)/ ‘Cause that was the day that my daddy died,”  His voice is curious, a little cautious, and also sad.  The singer goes on to ask his mother about his father that he didn’t know and had only heard bad things about.  In answer, we get, “Mama just hung her head and said, ‘son… Papa was a rolling stone/ Where ever he lay his hat was his home/ and when he died all he left me was alone.”  Most of the song is the singer asking about horrible things he’d heard about his father and then returning to the chorus – that being the only answer he gets from his mother.  The active but moody music and the inquisitive but slightly desperate tone of the singer combine well with the lyrics to create a moving narrative about a man who wants to find out where he came from but is afraid to find out that a big part of where he came from isn’t that nice.  While all this is going on, there’s still compelling music and a great groove to sweep you up in the mood even if you aren’t listening to the lyrics.  It’s nothing that makes you want to get up and dance, but it does pull you in and will make you want to tap your toes at the very least.

Have I made a good case for The Temptations?  I hope so.  Then again, if you disagree with the first sentence of this essay then I probably am not going to convince you of the error of your ways.  Having said that, it’s time to move on to My Favorite Song Today.  The award goes to ‘Ball Of Confusion.’  I suspect that part of the reason I regard the song so highly is that I loved the song when I heard Love And Rockets version.  The psychedelic rock sound was new to me when I first heard this.  It latched on to my consciousness and never let go.  When I found out the The Temptations were the original performers it took a song I already loved and gave it new significance to me.  As I said earlier, this is also the song that prompted me to look beyond their love songs and to the thoughtful and reflective songs and gave me a more complete picture of their hopes, fears, and passions.

My Favorite Musicians – #5 Peter Gabriel

“You must have been a font of sunshine and cheer when you were a kid,” I hear you say, “So much laughter with Weird Al and Tom Lehrer, the upbeat rhythms of Men Without Hats, and the feel-good groove of Hall & Oates.”  Well… not really. I had a sense of humor before Weird Al, Tom Lehrer, and Monty Python really gave it focus. Similarly, I was cynical long before I came across the musician that would give it voice.

Peter Gabriel took hold of me for the same reason that Dr. Demento did.  Both of them introduced me to a world of music expression that I hadn’t fully considered before. Dr. Demento’s music showed me (among other things) the beauty and proper use of absurdity in humor. Peter Gabriel showed me music about strong but not dramatic emotions. His songs had a persistent theme of loneliness and sadness. These aren’t subjects people suddenly wake up and write a powerful song about. These are feelings that creep in and stay but are no less influential than any feelings of love or revenge that operas will sing about.

When I was a freshman in high school I heard “Sledge Hammer” and ran out to get Peter Gabriel’s So album and listened to it constantly. Admittedly, “Sledge Hammer” isn’t that cynical or broody of a song. Well, maybe it’s cynical.  I never bothered to find out what it was about. His next big single from that album, “Big Time,” wasn’t broody, either. It was kind of cynical, though. Listening to the album introduced me to less well known songs like “Don’t Give Up,” “Red Rain,” and “Mercy Street.” These weren’t happy, get up and dance anthems. They were slower, more reflective songs; something that my adolescent mind hadn’t fully considered before. The album fascinated and intrigued me.  I had to learn more! In short order I acquired the Peter Gabriel albums Security, Peter Gabriel Plays Live, and 1980. So many great songs… Solsbury Hill, Games Without Frontiers, The Family Snapshot, Shock The Monkey, The Rhythm Of The Heat… so deep, so thoughtful, sooooo moody.  I was fifteen at the time.  You picked up on that, right?

A quick note on the album I called 1980 – Peter Gabriel released three albums all unhelpfully titled Peter Gabriel. Some people refer to them by their album art and call them Car, Scratch, and Melt.  Others, including me, refer to them by the year they were released and thus we have 1977, 1978, and 1980. Of further tangential interest is Peter Gabriel’s appreciation for the German language. Specifically, he has released German language versions of his 1980 and Security albums. They’re fantastic… if you’re into that sort of thing… which I am.

My family learned to hate Peter Gabriel. I listened to him mostly non-stop throughout 1987.  No regrets on my part. My brother can still pick out a Peter Gabriel song by the involuntary cringe he immediately experiences.  Screw him. While I was forcing Peter Gabriel on him he was listening to Bon Jovi at every opportunity. I’m prepared to call that a wash.

For anyone that’s wondering, Peter Gabriel first gained fame as the singer of the prog-rock band, Genesis.  Anyone who remembers Genesis as a bland pop band from the ’80s and ’90s is only getting half the picture. In the early ’70s Genesis was all about experimental music, story telling, pyrotechnics, and theatrical elements such as specialized staging and elaborate costumes for Peter Gabriel. He loved the theatrical elements of the show and pushed for more. The rest of the band thought it was getting in the way of the music. I’m sure there were other contributing factors, but this is the main point of friction brought up in interviews. Spoiler warning: both sides did just fine after Peter Gabriel left the band in 1975. Everyone who’s been paying attention this far knows that he had a record out two years later. I’ve never been to one of his concerts, but I’m told that he’s still pushing the spectacle in his live performances. I haven’t heard any complaints, either.

I wish I had a better vocabulary to discuss his music! His music is at least as important to his work as his lyrics. To say that he matches the mood of the lyrics to the tone of the music in creative and interesting ways is a necessary but not sufficient statement. There is also variety, and a depth to his music… a complexity? Whatever it is, his music can grab and hold my attention like none other.  That’s probably why I’m still listening to him even though he’s only put out two (worthwhile) studio albums since I started listening to him in 1987. His mastery of mood with music can be seen in the soundtracks he recorded for movies. I think Passion, the soundtrack for the movie The Last Temptation Of Christ, is a particularly fine album.

So there you have it.  Peter Gabriel is a musician who’s lyrics and compositions lend themselves to introspection and reflection – something I was prone to when I was fifteen and still am today. His themes of loneliness and mental uncertainty haven’t lost any of their relevance to me over the years. His music is complex, varied, and complements the themes of his lyrics.  So now I move to My Favorite Song Today. Once again, this was not an easy decision to make.  Runners up include, ‘Solsbury Hill’ (1977 – Car), ‘The Family Snapshot’, ‘Biko’ (1980 – Melt), or ‘The Rhythm Of The Heat.’ (Security)  I settled on a comparatively recent song, ‘Growing Up.’ (Up)  As I read it, it’s a song where the narrator is trying to find his place in the world which is a lot of what defines the struggle of growing up. That theme is reinforced when the chorus repeats, “Growing up, growing up/ Looking for a place to live.” The music depends heavily on a stringed instrument in the verses (probably a violin) which provides a sense of unease throughout. The rhythm of the chorus replaces the unease with a sense of movement and trying to gain stable footing*. Uncertainty of where to be and flailing about trying to find a safe place? I’m still trying to find answers to those. I don’t know how many people ever do.

*Yeah, it reads like tripe. That’s all I’ve got.

My Favorite Musicians – #4 Hall and Oates

If I have a guilty pleasure on this list it’s Hall & Oates.  It’s not that I’m afraid that admitting to listening to them will make me uncool.  That ship has already sailed.  No, they’re a guilty pleasure in the same way that Bond movies are to me as well.  In the case of Bond movies we have Agent 007 who goes through ridiculous, contrived, and misogynist adventures where the universe bends over backwards to accommodate him all repeating a framework that was set in stone before I was born.  That said, they’re exciting and whoever is playing James Bond looks just so damn smooth and good doing that Bond thing.  As for Hall & Oates, the songs I remember from them are either love songs like “Out Of Touch” and “One On One”, woman as predator as in “Maneater” or “Family Man”, or condescending advice to a woman as in “Rich Girl” or “Private Eyes.”  The first has never been a type of song I sought out.  As for the other two, even when I was fourteen and bothered to listen to the lyrics I found the themes distasteful.

I wish ‘white boy blues’ wasn’t such a serviceable blurb to describe them.  I feel they showed more skill, respect, and dedication to the music that inspired them than your Vanilla Ices and Pat Boones.  Daryl Hall and John Oates met in Philadelphia in the late ’60s and got signed as Hall & Oates not too long after that.  They worked throughout the ’70s releasing albums, developing a voice, and establishing themselves as Rhythm and Blues musicians.  The ’70s was a great time for R & B and it clearly had its effect on the two of them.  They released Voices in 1980, the first album they produced themselves, and the rest of the country took note.  Voices gave them four hits including a number one hit with, ‘Kiss On My List.’  Their next three albums would have at least two top 10 singles and at least one #1 hit.

Everybody knows that at any given moment ‘everyone’ is nostalgic for the music from twenty years earlier.  The ’50s were big in the ’70s, the ’60s were big in the ’80s, and the music of the ’70s was big in the ’90s (despite my best efforts.)  Accordingly, the ’00s saw a revival of ’80s music and Hall & Oates were not invited to that party at all.  As far as I could tell, the ’80s nostalgia of the time didn’t focus on the soul inspired songs of Hall & Oates. I’ve always felt that they were unfairly overlooked. Maybe no one wanted to admit it a few years ago, but back in the ’80s Hall & Oates were big names. They sold millions of records. Their songs were unavoidable. Trying to sweep them under the rug because they didn’t fit into new wave/ hair metal/ pop star categories that people wanted to remember was unfair.

The astute reader will recognize that I’m only citing songs from a narrow part of Hall & Oates career.  This is largely because my first and main exposure to them was in the early ’80s when I saw their videos on MTV.  Some of the younger members of my audience will say that only bad music videos came from the ’80s – not true!  Two kinds of music videos came from that era – the bad and the Gloriously Bad.  Hall & Oates videos were in the latter category.  What separated the bad from the gloriously bad was the energy of the song and the video directors enthusiasm and desire to be taken seriously.  Hall & Oates were never hurting for energy – not for their singles, anyway.  As for the directors of their videos, they tended to have plenty of enthusiasm and weren’t hung up on subtlety or restraint. I recommend ‘Family Man’, ‘Private Eyes’, or ‘Out Of Touch’ for good examples of the gloriously bad.

Speaking of ‘Out Of Touch’, that song gets a nod as a runner up for My Favorite Song Today. The lyric “Broken ice still melts in the sun,” has always appealed to me. I never bothered to find out how that line tied into the rest of the song but the imagery always appealed to me. It’s stuck with me for close to thirty years so it deserves a mention. However, the winner is ‘You Make My Dreams’ from their 1980 album, Voices. It’s energetic, cheerful, and has lots of ‘ooo-ooo, ooo, ooo.’ Yeah, I don’t have a lot to say about the song besides, ‘it’s fun and I like it.’ Then again, I don’t have much more than that to say about Hall & Oates, either. It reminds me of when I was talking to a saxophone player with the Count Basie orchestra. After a performance I mentioned that I enjoyed the show but felt embarrassed that I hardly knew anything about Count Basie (except for an appearance on Blazing Saddles, I didn’t mention that.) He asked, “So you liked our music?” I said yes. “It felt good when you listened to it?” I said, “I hadn’t thought about it like that, but yes.” He followed up with, “Then what else do you need to know?” All I know about Hall & Oates is that I like their songs and it feels good when I listen to them and that’s good enough for me.

 

My Favorite Musicians – #3 Tom Lehrer

James Brown is the godfather of soul. Ozzy Osbourne can call himself the godfather of heavy metal. As far as I’m concerned Tom Lehrer is the godfather of satire and where would I be without him and the satirical rogues he’s inspired? I don’t expect the statement to hold much water, of course.  Satire is not an invention of the 20th century and many respected people like Jonathon Swift and Mark Twain had already put it to good use. He didn’t invent his lyrical style, either.  He was heavily influenced by Danny Kaye.  Watch the movie The Court Jester to see what I mean. When a friend showed me The Court Jester I said, “He sounds like Tom Lehrer,” and was promptly (and rightly) swatted and informed that Tom Lehrer sounds like Danny Kaye.  At any rate, I can’t shake the feeling that much of the satirical landscape that was my backdrop growing up was greatly influenced by Tom Lehrer.  For instance, “Weird” Al cites Tom Lehrer as a direct influence and no one will ever convince me that Jello Biafra never listened to him.  In a similar vein, The Beatles didn’t invent rock and roll, but how different would rock and pop music be today without them?

For the most part, Tom Lehrer’s musical career began and ended before I was born.  I could give you two cd’s that have 99% of the music he wrote including what he did for the educational tv show, The Electric Company and a later song called, “That’s Mathematics.” While he was a student at Harvard he wrote and performed songs for fun and a bit of pocket money.  He recorded an album to have on hand to sell to the audience and his popularity grew from there.  The writing and performance of music occupies a very small part of his life, but what little he contributed has had great and lasting effect, much like Evariste Galois without the stupid and tragic ending (look it up!)

Tom’s music doesn’t leave much for me to discuss. You’d have to talk to someone more knowledge-able on the subject to learn anything useful. For the most part he accompanied himself on piano. He played and sang well enough.

Where Tom made his mark in comedic history is in with his lyrics. Apart from Danny Kaye, Tom Lehrer was also influenced by the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. He has quoted a guideline that they used that he seems to have adopted.  The first is that the story (or in Tom’s case, the point of a song) should be coherent and readily apparent.  The next is that the subject matter should be presentable to a lady. That’s a dated outlook, mind (late 19th centurey/ early 20th century). The current phrasing would be ‘acceptable for children.’ I think this outlook, however adapted, served Tom Lehrer well. He was more of a rebel and iconoclast than any hardcore punk, metal head, or gangsta rapper you care to name.  Yet his music could be played, unedited, on any radio station at any time. Shouting obscenities was easy and of no interest to him. Well crafted songs were challenging to put together and that’s what grabbed and kept his attention.

Let’s discuss those songs, shall we? First we have songs written to be shocking. Usually these songs follow a specific theme with the tune and the opening lyric only to be completely undermined by the subsequent lyrics.  ‘Poisoning Pigeons In The Park’ begins with a flowery, bright, tune and the lyrics, “Spring is here! Spring is here!/ Life is skittles and life is beer/ I think the loveliest time of the year is the spring/ I do. Don’t you? ‘Course you do.”  Not too long after establishing a bright and cheery mood he launches into the equally bright and cheery chorus that begins, “All the world seems in tune/ on a spring afternoon/ as we Poison the Pigeons in the Park…”  By the end of the song the lyrics have moved to “We’ll murder them all amidst laughter and merriment/ except for the few we take home to experiment,” again, all sang with as cheery of a voice you could hope for. Another good example is “I Hold Your Hand In Mine.” The song begins with a feeling of affection and longing and the lyric begins with the title of the song, “I hold your hand in mine, dear/ I raise it to my lips…” (aaaaaah.) From there the song steadily becomes more gruesome.  He takes a bite from the hand, the hand is not attached to the body, he cut it off from (presumably) her body, and she (?) was dead at the time, and he killed the original owner of the hand.  The tone of romantic longing never leaves the song, of course. I don’t know if I learned to love songs where the tone doesn’t match the lyrics listening to Tom Lehrer or if it was something I liked that he clearly did better than anyone else.

Shock is not the same as satire and I called Tom Lehrer the godfather of satire. ‘So where’s the satire?’ I hear you say, hypothetical reader. Satire was with him throughout his career, but I feel the best examples that would resonate with audiences today came from his album That Was The Year That Was. The two examples I’ll cite right now are ‘Folk Song Army’ and ‘Who’s Next.’ The first is a folk song (sorry Tom, but it’s true) about the singer being a member of the Folk Song Army. It begins, “We are the Folk Song Army/ Everyone of us… cares./ We all hate poverty war and injustice/ unlike the rest of you squares.”  Ultimately the song paints folk singers singing for peace, fairness, etc. as ineffectual, deluded, twerps whose songs weren’t necessarily written that well. I’ll let the reader speculate on which offense Tom Lehrer considered to be the greatest. “Who’s Next” is a song about nuclear proliferation. It begins, “First we got the bomb and that was good/ ‘Cause we love peace and brotherhood./ Than Russia got the bomb but that’s okay/ The balance of power’s maintained that way/ Who’s Next?” It’s a bouncy, happy song about how more and more countries are seeking nuclear armaments and why that’s a good idea… at least to each country in question. The song wraps up with, “We’ll try to stay serene and calm/ when Alabama gets the bomb.” This to me is what removes any doubt that this is not an endorsement of nuclear proliferation. This is the song of someone watching in horror as the world stocks up to kill itself.

More than being shocking or subversive, though, Tom Lehrer was clever. I don’t know if he wanted to prove to the world that there was no one more clever than him or if he just got bored and tried ambitious projects. Like rhyming the periodic table of elements to the tune of ‘Modern Major General,’ better known as ‘The Elements Song.’ That’s right, he lists the periodic table elements in a song and it has the same flow and rhyme scheme of the aforementioned Gilbert & Sullivan song. In ‘New Math’ he sings his way through a subtraction problem. Twice. Once ‘normally’ and once in base 8. Go ahead and try to make that sound interesting in  a song! Let’s not forget the rhymes, either. Do ‘cyanide’ or ‘strychnine’ sound like easy words to rhyme? Consider the lines from ‘Poisoning Pigeons In The Park.’  “When they see us coming the birdies all try’n hide/ but they still go for peanuts… when coated with cyanide” or “My pulse will be quickenin’/ with each drop of strychnine/ we feed to a pigeon./ It just takes a smidgen…” Glorious, unexpected, and above all, clever.

I should point out that Tom Lehrer is a folk musician of a sort.  It takes very little musical skill to sing his songs with much of the feeling of the original. I can sing the Oedipus Rex song at the drop of a hat. My singing is not spectacular. I don’t have musical accompaniment.  However, the gist of the song and the core of what makes the song fun is still readily apparent because the songs lyrics are just that good. In comparison, if I tried to do the same thing with another of my favorite songs, “Burning Inside” by Ministry, my intended audience would most likely just tell me to stop screaming at them. I can’t reproduce the tension or excitement of the music or even the qualities of the vocals and without those the lyrics are kind of useless.

This article has taken a long time to write and My Favorite Song Today has changed many times over the weeks. Today, however, the coveted award goes to ‘Smut,’ from That Was The Year That Was. It begins with a monologue where Tom Lehrer says, “I do have a cause, though.  It is obscenity. I’m for it.”  A little after that he launches into a cheery, up beat song, almost a march, detailing his love of smutty material including ‘obscene movies, murals, postcards, neckties, samplers, stained windows, tatoos, anything!’ and how much the singer revels in all of its puerile thrills. It’s a song that isn’t so much shocking as it is shameless in its enjoyment. The line in the song that pushed it over for me today is ‘When correctly viewed/ Everything is lewd.’ That’s a line that stuck with me when I was nineteen and has never been far from my thoughts since. What it means to me is that any work in any medium, be it songs, novels, paintings, movies, video games, etc., can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. If I work hard enough I can find or contrive an interpretation to suit my world view but that doesn’t meant it’s represents the author’s intentions in any way.

My Favorite Musicians – #2 Men Without Hats

Is there anyone here who hasn’t heard the song, ‘The Safety Dance?’  Hm.  I don’t see any hands.  Is there anyone here who hasn’t heard, ‘Pop Goes The Worl’ – whoa!  Now I see everybody’s hands!  Chances are if you’re over thirty you’ve heard it, you just don’t remember it.  I even saw it being used in a commercial to sell laundry detergent not to long ago.  Is there anyone out there who has heard anything by Men Without Hats that wasn’t Safety Dance or Pop Goes The World?  Oh, hey Matt.  I didn’t see you there.  We listened to those albums all the time back when we were living in the dorms, didn’t we? So, yeah.  Men Without Hats.  They’re a Canadian band that got hit with the one-hit-wonder label in the early ’80s when they had a huge hit with the Safety Dance.  I think that label’s a little unfair since Pop Goes The World was a top 20 song in the US back in 1987 (It peaked at #20. Still counts!)

I learned about Men Without Hats at the same time that 99% of everybody did back in 1983 – when The Safety Dance was @$#%ing everywhere. I got the album, Rhythm Of Youth and listened to it a couple of times then lost interest. A year later when I was in seventh grade, for no reason I can explain, I started listening to it again. I think the peppy tunes with the alternately bizarre and cynical lyrics appealed to the cynic I was becoming.

The cheerful tone, more than anything else, drew my eye… ear… caught my attention. Men Without Hats was a synthy new wave band, something that was not in short supply in the early ’80s. What was harder to find were synthy bands that didn’t take themselves too seriously. Mostly there was other worldly, high-concept weirdness like Peter Schilling and A Flock Of Seagulls or sex, sex, party, party songs like what Duran Duran or Dead Or Alive made. Nothing wrong with that, mind. I liked all of these bands, but they didn’t draw me in the same way.  What Men Without Hats offered was fun cynicism. Consider the aforementioned Pop Goes The World. This was released in the mid ’80s while most people considered the Soviet Union to be a real threat if not the Evil Empire. Pop Goes The World was a phrase with very specific connotations. For those of you who are too young to remember the ’80s, read the comic, Watchmen. When I read those comics in high school the background of nuclear paranoia surrounding the Soviet Union didn’t seem strange to me at all. I was living it. The tune used for this song about the inevitable destruction of everything was an upbeat, cheerful, and very poppy tune sung with a smile. The juxtaposition of morbid subject matter with a happy tune has always appealed to me. See also Weird Al’s ‘Christmas At Ground Zero’ and a good portion of anything Oingo Boingo put out.

Subject matter aside, I’ve always enjoyed Men Without Hat’s music.  I’ve already described them as ‘synthy’ and ‘fun.’  Their music is also very energetic.  As an example, consider their signature tune, “The Safety Dance.”  It’s a song about pogo-ing (sp?), jumping up and down and against people in the audience – a fore runner to moshing. My understanding is that the phenomenon started in the UK’s punk scene and migrated to the U.S. and Canada from there.  I’ve never thought of Men Without Hats as punk rock but they had people in the audience of their shows doing the same thing that others did at punk shows. That’s at least indicative of the energy of the music and the audience.  “Ideas For Walls” from Rhythm Of Youth is probably the best example of the sort of music that could get an audience jumping around.

I was the biggest Men Without Hats fan from junior high through my first few years of college. I kept stumbling across new (or new to me) albums that kept them fresh in my mind. I’ve already mentioned Rhythm Of Youth which I got in 1983. 1987 brought me Pop Goes The World. In 1990 I found their second album, Folk Of The ’80’s (part III) for a dollar in a music store that was trying to dump their vinyl inventory. That album was released in 1985 but didn’t make much of a splash in the United States. Again, good synthy fun with many tracks to recommend it. The same year I also picked up The Adventures Of Men And Women Without Hate In The 21st Century which was released in 1989. In contrast, this album was a hippy, dippy, acoustic snooze fest. I can’t say much more than that as I honestly haven’t listened to it since 1990. Maybe 1991. I haven’t paid too much attention to what Men Without Hats have done in the meantime – not that there’s much to keep track of. I think there was one album that came out in in 1992 that I missed because it wasn’t released State side.

So how does a band that hasn’t given me anything new in more than twenty years get on my favorite bands list?  I suppose part of it is that they always had the same appeal to me as they did when I first started paying real attention to their album (and not just “The Safety Dance”) back in 1985.  At worst, I’ve found myself listening to them and thinking, “This is some seriously ridiculous tripe.” Many of the lyrics that I found to be deep or thought provoking when I was fifteen sounded shallow and preachy when I was thirty. Still, listening to Men Without Hats was never not fun for me. “I Like” and “Lose My Way” may not have stood the test of time for me lyrically but I still enjoy listening to and singing along with those songs.  Then again, even when I was in high schools “Messiahs Die Young” and “Walk On Water” made me roll my eyes. The meat of those songs is that the singer doesn’t want to take on the role of a messiah type figure.  My question then and now was, “So who’s asking you to?” Maybe there’s some satire I’m missing. Again, still fun songs.

Determining My Favorite Men Without Hats Song Today has proven more difficult than I expected it to be. All I could say for sure right off the bat is that it sure as Hell wasn’t ‘The Safety Dance.’  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a perfectly fine, catchy pop song and what brought Men Without Hats to my attention in the first place.  Still, I got tired of the song in a hurry.  The lyrics aren’t very interesting.  There’s one sentiment (we can dance if we want to) presented again and again with slight variation. Picking a favorite tune doesn’t really narrow anything down. Focusing on lyrics that kept my attention leads me to, ‘O Solo Mio’ from Pop Goes The World. I think the song is about a person who becomes famous and initially loves the attention but later finds himself isolated and alone by what earlier made him so happy.  It is not lyrically complex by any means, but there is an arc. The lyric that has always stuck with me is, ‘Mother, mother can’t you see/ something’s wrong inside of me/ Everytime I try to say the words they don’t come out right.’ From my teens on I identified with the lyric of someone who is alone, needs help, and knows it but doesn’t know where to go or even what to ask for.

Wait, what? Loneliness and frustration?  Dammit, that’s what I did last week!  I worry about the impression about my life that I’m giving.  Sure I’ve sulked and moped through a lot of my life but I did other things, too.  Next week, My Favorite Song Today will not be about self pity!