26 November 2011

Three-Minute Zeroes


Over at his scratchpad blog, Simon's recently been doing a series about "shite bands that filled up the pages in Melody Maker" back in the late 1980s; MM being a publication Simon was at in his early days, and the late '80s being -- by his and others' reckoning -- "the era of bad (British) music."

All of which prompts me to recall a series I'd sort-of been thinking of doing for a while. A series that'll most likely be infrequent and probably very short-lived. A series that'll constitute me breaking my own format; but as I've already established, seeing how I'm the sole proprietor of this here thing I can do whatever I want. So, here we go. A series that for lack of any proper title is about Absolutely Inessential/Forgettable Artists Who Had Exactly One Perfect Song. And here's our first candidate...




As I recall, it was 1979 when this tune crept up the charts in the U.S.. Which was an interesting time to be listening to the radio. Y'see, it was wake of the Big Disco Crash -- with the hegemonic reign of disco being officially and finally OVER, and a backlash following in its wake. As a result, the pop charts got a bit eclectic for a while as people were definitely hungry to hear something other than disco and radio programmers were scrambling around cluelessly trying to come up with things to fill the void and scratch that itch. That's about the time that when Cheap Trick belatedly scored their first nationwide big radio hit, and that The Knack's "My Sharona" effectively became the certified Fuck-Disco-I-Wanna-Rock backlash anthem. D.C. Go-go had its first (and practically only) early moment in the sun as Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers' "Bustin' Loose" topped the Soul charts at around the same time. And how else to explain M's "Pop Muzik" rapidly becoming a number 1 hit on this side of the pond? An odd assortment of sounds and style floating around in the mainstream for a brief time, without any predicatbilty or apparent logic.

And then there was this song, which did a good job of Passing For Normal. Of course, it sounded like it'd had a lot of help, in terms of studio production -- lots of embellishments that help reassure the listener that everything was okay. There's the feigned muscularity of the electric guitar riffing, which sounded very much like an gratuitous afterthought or late addition. And the warmth of the organ, being played in a way that blandly reeked of West-Coast '70s Sophistication, which when combined with the strumming of the acoustic guitar might've almost made you think you were hearing a new Gerry Rafferty record. There were other added features, as well -- like the punctuating blips between bracketing the verses; as well as those backing vocals, which at times ("What can I dooooooooo?") threatened to go all histrionic on you.

But there was something about the song, it seemed to me then and it strikes me as I revisit the things decades later, that seemed odd. Something about the song that, despite all the aforementioned baubles, struck me as surprisingly bleak. Part of that impression probably stem from the minimalism that makes up the better part of the song -- the steady, stark rhythmic being hammered out by the drums, the organ and the acoustic guitar that are almost motorik in their persistence and monotony. The vaguely raspy grain of the vocals add to the effect. And then there's the lyrics, which might have struck people as being celebratory, but if so they're only beguilingly so. Or self-delusional, more like, because it seems whatever comforts the narrator offers are little more than empty assurances. As a song, it has clammy-handed, foggy-headed cocaine comedown written all over it -- one in which maybe you can't regret what you don't remember, but still you find you have to climb behind the wheel and hit a winding road late at night, perpetually focused on whatever presents itself in the narrow cameo of the headlight, not driving to get anywhere in particular but just to put some physical distance between yourself and all the things you Simply Can't Cope With Anymore. (And whatever you do, avoid getting pulled over by the police, because you know that'll only end badly, making everything worse, given the state you're in.)

Or that's how it sounds to me now, and I recall intuiting that same impression when I first heard it. But I was only about 12 years old at the time, so a lot this -- especially the part about cocaine -- wouldn't have crossed my mind at that age.

At any rate: The outfit, if memory serves, was fronted by an artist -- a photorealist painter whose artworks graced the covers of their albums, albums which almost nobody bought and which had a brisk walk to the cut-out bins, because as it turned out the band was actually quite boring and unremarkable, thus making them definitive One-hit Wonders. And something about that one hit seems to me now like something that would've turned up on a movie soundtrack at some point, since it seems like it'd be perfect for a scene in a certain kind of film. But checking IMDB, it appears that it's so far only been used once in that respect, making a fleeting appearance in Boogie Nights; which, if true, I totally don't remember.

5 comments:

Mr. Kasper said...

I had the soundtrack album to Boogie Nights at one point, and I still don't remember that song. But clammy-handed cokiness was so all over major-label music back then (particularly US stuff), that the 'straights' stood out in the long run.

Greyhoos said...

Right. I seem to recall Nick Kent making a few jokes to that effect in Apathy for the Devil. About it being conventional show-biz wisdom that a surfeit of cocaine always resulting in consistently bad creative decisions, which in turn translates into bland, boring music. And how the American recording industry of the 1970s demonstrated the soundness of that formula like no other era in pop music.

SIMON REYNOLDS said...

love that song

in the UK they seemed to vaguely bracket with Squeeze, sort of

or maybe The Motors

like Old-Wave-skills, repositioned as New Wave, sort of, a bit

re. cocaine... but without the overpriced powder, we'd have no Tusk!

i seem to recall Kent giving Tusk a good review actually so he would know there's exceptions to the rule

Mr. Kasper said...

Rumours, OK. Tusk? I don't get it (and it's a 'TL; DL' album too).

Greyhoos said...

@ Simon: Pre-"Tempted," I dunno how much airplay Squeeze got in the U.S. outside of a few major metro markets. I suspect almost none. But now that you mention it, yeah -- I can imagine the two fitting in very cozily alongside each other.

@ Wayne: As far as Tusk goes, I honestly don't recall ever having heard the whole thing in one sitting. And if I ever did, it was only once and it was three decades ago. But on someone's recommendation, I checked out Camper Van Beethoven's full cover version of the thing. Not bad. (My wife thinks their version's a wonderful salvage job of something she otherwise couldn't care less about.)

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