Earlier this year, Tom Ewing published what I consider the definitive “So Your Fave Has Been Cancelled” report – vividly describing the way we can rationalize and ignore unacceptable behavior, and finally the idea that a conscientious listener can opt for a song or artist to be “put beyond use.” I’m not so arrogant to think that my personal acceptance or refusal of a “problematic” artist makes much of a difference either way, but pop is more than music – actions and statements can certainly sap an artist’s work of its emotional valence. As a result, for the last several years I’ve found myself uninterested in listening to the music of Morrissey.
Morrissey sucks now, and there’s a convincing argument that he always sucked and some of us (including me, obviously) couldn’t acknowledge what was staring us in the face all along. We (I) had too much invested in what he had given us – a shelter from the storm of adolescence and reassurance that we were special, different, not-like-everyone-else-but-in-a-good-way – and if we admitted to ourselves that he was a racist and always had been, what did that say about us? The Morrissey-emotional complex was too big to fail, and we kept bailing him out.
In retrospect, he was The Snowman of bigotry – he gave us all the clues. The opening lines of “Miserable Lie,” the third song on the Smiths’ self-titled 1984 debut LP are almost laughably direct. “So goodbye/please stay with your own kind/and I’ll stay with mine.” Given the context of the song, it’s unlikely this is intended as a direct reference to racial separation, but it points to a foundational theme of his life and artistic philosophy; a closing-off, a separation that the singer will insist is unchosen, forced upon oneself by the callous indifference of the outside world, but is of course deliberate and necessary.
This outlook is unsurprising and forgivable in a certain teenage mindset, freshly aware and sensitive to the hypocrisies that make the world go round. So many of us found solace in those lyrics and the pose that accompanied them, and even as we outgrew them, gratitude and nostalgia lingered. But Morrissey was already 25 in 1984, and in the ensuing years, he has shown no inclination to broaden his horizons or conceive of a human perspective other than his own. His disastrous 2013 memoir revealed a man consumed by petty grievances nursed over decades. It’s hard to sympathize with someone so unwilling to extend others the same courtesy, but there is a grandiose sadness in someone who has brought so much pleasure to so many, seemingly unable to extract any enjoyment from life.
And it’s a shame, because the song is a banger, partially for reasons unrelated to the singer. The Smiths were a unique variant on the British archetype of the preening vocalist and sulky, taciturn guitarist – they opted to cram both stereotypes into one frontman, leaving Johnny Marr to quietly get on with things. Marr is truly the mirror image of his erstwhile partner; feted at the time but always somewhat in the shadow of the singer, he followed up the Smiths’ 1988 flame-out with a series of support stints in bands ranging from the Pretenders to Talking Heads to The The, seemingly happy just to sit in with artists he admired. When he suddenly joined Modest Mouse in 2006, it was simultaneously surprising and completely in character. He’s aged into a reliable elder statesman. Perhaps the only flaw in his legend is that his own solo LPs never seem to capture the spark of greatness he’s been adjacent to for 40 years.
Marr brings a melancholy chime to the first verse of “Miserable Lie,” then the band’s underrated rhythm section provides a driving lope for the next section. I still remember the first time I heard this song as a teenager, and the singer’s completely unexpected pivot to a strange, bleating falsetto halfway through. This was something different – my heroes of the last several years, Bowie, Lou Reed, et al, would never squeak “I need advice!” over and over again. It was uncomfortable and relatable – I didn’t know anything about Whalley Range, where the singer was apparently exiled to a rented room, but I could imagine and commiserate.
Much of my music listening over the subsequent 20+ years stems from that moment in the car in the mid-90s with a freshly-bought CD, hearing a lonely, confused Mancunian ask for advice. I’m grateful that I found better counsel and superior role models. I don’t know what I owe Morrissey for opening a door that indirectly led me to the Fall, the Stone Roses, New Order and the entire Factory Records universe, but I consider the debt paid. I still need advice, but I’ll get it somewhere else.
The Minutemen’s 1983 LP What Makes a Man Start Fires? begins with a fast, jittery bass riff. At the 7-second mark, the drums and guitar kick in, the latter sounding even more agitated. At 13 seconds, the vocalist begins to declaim, more than sing, the first verse, which is two lines long.
I’m waitin‘, in third person, I’m collecting Dispersing, information, labeled rations
At 26 seconds, the chorus arrives, which is one line, repeated twice.
Bob! Dylan! Wrote propaganda songs!
The song is over in one minute and 27 seconds, and it is by no means the shortest track on the album, which squeezes 18 songs into 27 minutes.
The Minutemen existed from 1980 to 1985, a platonic love story with a tragic denouement and a long, redemptive coda. They put out their own records and booked their own tours before technology made those activities (relatively) feasible and cost effective. Their music and lifestyle asked questions about what is really valuable, about how to live your ideals and to love and support your community without oppressing yourself or others. Sometimes they were naive, sometimes they were contradictory, but they never stopped playing the music they wanted to play and attempting to make a real connection with the people that might want to hear it. They were, and I do not say this lightly, American heroes.
Mike Watt met D. Boon in San Pedro, California, a working-class Navy town, in the mid-70s. In the Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo, Watt revisits the park where he literally ran into Boon for the first time. “I was quite smitten with him,” Watt says. The story that follows is told so comprehensively in the film, as well as Michael Azerrad’s seminal book Our Band Could Be Your Life, that recounting it here is unnecessary. Suffice to say that, after adding their surfer classmate George Hurley on drums, the Minutemen spent the first half of the ’80s producing a torrent of music. From 1980 to 1985, they released something like 5 full-length records, 6 or 7 EPs and singles, a double-live album, and countless compilation appearances. Then D. Boon died in a car crash, and it was all over.
The Minutemen embodied many of the archetypes of punk rock, one of which was the de-fetishization of commodity in favor of the celebration of community. For as many records as they put out, the physical product was seen as the means, not the ends. Watt famously summarizes the philosophy in Azerrad’s book: “We had divided the world into two categories: there was the flyer, and there was the gig. You’re either doing the gig…or everything else to get people to the gig. Interviews were flyers, videos were flyers, even records were flyers.”
Not only was the record-as-object demystified, but the song itself. Song titles like “Shit From an Old Notebook” and “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” belied their stream-of-consciousness creative method. As a song title and chorus chant, “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs” sounds like a phrase that popped into Watt’s head one day – it’s not clearly explicated by the rest of the song, and I honestly can’t tell if it’s intended as praise or insult. The Minutemen represented an act of constant creative becoming – opinions, influences, styles and more were constantly in flux. Nothing was embarrassing because there was no pose, no hidden agenda. Their songs were short, intense bursts of emotion – sometimes joy, sometimes anger, often both mixed together.
There may be an alternate universe where Watt, crushed by the death of his best friend and bandmate, goes back to Pedro, gets a job in the shipyards, and spends the rest of his life in near-anonymity. Instead, he carried on in music, ascending to a sort of secular sainthood among the tastemakers of Generation X. Within the span of a few years, he was enshrined via answering machine message on the coolest rock album of the 1980s, and the dedicatee of one of the biggest albums of the early 1990s.
Watt emerged from the tragedy of Boon’s death by forming fIREHOSE, another trio with Minutemen drummer Hurley and Ohio transplant Ed Crawford. fiREHOSE scored an unlikely major-label deal in the post-Nirvana gold rush, but had played out the string by 1994. Still signed to Columbia Records, Watt released two extraordinary solo albums in the mid-90s. His debut, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? has a ludicrously stacked lineup of guest musicians including most of Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, as well as Eddie Vedder, Evan Dando, Flea, and a 12-minute version of “Maggot Brain” featuring Bernie Worrell and J Mascis. It’s a celebration of Watt as working-class hero and a victory lap for an entire generation of musicians, one last house party before the post-Cobain chill set in and rock music retreated to the edges of the culture, probably forever.
The follow-up, 1997’s Contemplating the Engine Room, is one of the true lost classics of the ’90s, a three-hander featuring Watt, drummer Stephen Hodges, and the great guitarist Nels Cline (later of Wilco, among much else). A loose double concept album, it creatively occupies two of Watt’s personal timelines at once: his father’s tour in the Navy, and his own time in the Minutemen. Surprising parallels abound: the close quarters of a Navy boat recall the Econoline van the band packed themselves into for endless tours. Perhaps most poignantly, Watt lost both role models too soon. His father died of cancer at age 51, possibly as a result of the nuclear vessels on which he served, and of course Boon died all too young, when that same Econoline van crashed.
I was fortunate enough to see Watt play Contemplating the Engine Room when he was still touring the album in the Fall of 1998. With Cline and drummer Bob Lee in the band, it was one of those shows I’m still grateful for the opportunity to have attended more than twenty years later, not least for having heard Cline solo on Television’s Little Johnny Jewel for the encore. (The video above is from the very next night, in Detroit.)
In true econo fashion, Watt had no merch table – instead, he sold t-shirts from a garbage bag at the front of the stage after the show. The shirts were $10, an incredible bargain for tour merch even then, and after I bought one he shook my hand. The shirt lasted for a very long time.
Perkus Tooth dealt in occult knowledge, and measured with secret calipers Jonathan Lethem’s 2009 novel Chronic City concerns the friendship between Chase Insteadman, a former child actor turned idle New York celebrity, and Perkus Tooth, a writer and critic who spends most of his time in his walkup apartment, surrounded by the cultural ephemera he has used to construct a universe. Perkus’ pantheon is that of many socially maladjusted aesthetes – Cassavetes, Chet Baker, Norman Mailer. He prefers the samizdat to the official – bootleg CDs, movies taped off TV onto hand-lettered VHS.
Perkus is a clear and acknowledged stand-in for Paul Nelson, the writer and critic who taught Bob Dylan about folk music when they both still lived in Minnesota, signed the New York Dolls to Mercury Records, and maintained an uneasy friendship with Clint Eastwood over many years and interviews. Lethem was friends with Nelson and uses the Perkus character as both homage and refraction into the book’s weird alternate universe of Pynchonian character names and seemingly endless virtuality. (The fact that it was published shortly before smartphones and social media ate the universe give it a prophetic heft upon rereading.)
Chase is the narrator but Perkus is the focus. He is simultaneously an object of pity and a guru. His diet consists of hamburgers, coffee and marijuana, his health and hygiene are barely maintained, but for Chase he seems to promise access to a world more real than the one the former actor can lay claim to. “The horizon of everyday life was a mass daydream – below it lay everything that mattered,” Chase decides after a day spent with Perkus.
Throughout the book, Perkus acts on the assumption that if you give the right cultural artifact the appropriate amount of attention, if you draw the right connections between the right artists and their works, something will be revealed, something maybe even the original creators neither intended or understood. This will all pay off eventually, he believes. I am sympathetic to his interpretive fugues, having spent enough of my life sifting my own chosen artifacts for my own arcane revelations. Frequently that consideration has rested on the music of Pere Ubu.
We only pretend to live on something as orderly as a grid Pere Ubu are from Cleveland. This statement is salient on two levels: as an objective geographical fact, and as an ongoing, deliberate mode of being, a crucial point of differentiation from the idea of being from New York, or Los Angeles, or London. The actual membership of the band may have resided nowhere near Cleveland for decades. But Pere Ubu are from Cleveland.
Cleveland in the mid-1970s was home to a thriving underground rock scene, almost completely unknown to the rest of the world at the time. Bands like the Electric Eels and Rocket for the Tombs, which became Pere Ubu, mutated the apocalyptic groove of the Stooges – as if the Michigan band’s DNA had oozed east, from Ann Arbor to Detroit, around Lake Erie to Cleveland. It wasn’t so much as if these bands had nothing to lose – they had nothing to gain. No one was paying attention. It seemed that no one got into, or out of, Cleveland until Rocket from the Tombs split into two units. The Dead Boys took the RFTT showstopper “Sonic Reducer” and a more accessible (relatively speaking) approach to New York’s punk scene, where they quickly scored a deal with Sire Records, of Ramones and Talking Heads fame. The other half formed Pere Ubu, stayed in Cleveland, and put out their own records.
Those early records, a clutch of singles and a searing 1977 debut album, are where many people get on and off the bus. At that point, the band still bore the imprint of Peter Laughner, an early member who left before the first album was recorded and died at age 24, leaving behind only oft-bootlegged (and recently compiled) home recordings and live tapes for devotees to scrye and treasure. Laughner is not referenced in Chronic City, but is the kind of gnomic hipster Perkus would obsess over.
Starting with 1978’s Dub Housing, singer David Thomas became the band’s organizing conceptual force. The outsider narratives of the early songs were replaced by fragmented lyrics that reflect a sort of bewilderment at the contingent wonder of the modern world, like a rust belt David Byrne. On 1979’s New Picnic Time he kicks things off by yelping “It’s me again!” as if he was surprised but delighted to find himself on your turntable. Thomas can be an imposing presence in interviews, but on record his off-kilter sprechstimme is strangely charming, once you acquire the taste.
Thomas’ cryptic lyrics, coupled with the sheer breadth of his body of work – I count 17 Pere Ubu albums, 11 solo, and a basket of collaborations, live releases and other miscellanea, inevitably create a giant puzzle for those willing to take a step back and try to apprehend the whole. Recurring themes, lyrical motifs and obsessions (film noir, Brian Wilson, the golden age of American highway travel) create the impression that the entire thing will cohere into some kind of answer if you just listen the right way, at the right time, in the right order.
The chaldron testified to zones, realms, elsewheres In the second act of Chronic City, Perkus, Chase and their confederate Richard Abneg, a renters’ activist turned mayoral fixer, become briefly but intensely obsessed with chaldrons, a form of austere ceramic vase that provokes an almost hypnotic ecstasy in the three (to be fair, they’re stoned on high grade weed in Perkus’ apartment most of the time – the book’s title holds multiple meanings). The chaldron temporarily becomes a receptacle that can hold all of Perkus’ obsessions, streamlining his usual manic intellectual zigzagging. The joke, and the warning sign, is that none of them actually encounter a chaldron In Real Life – they commune with JPGs on eBay auctions they repeatedly fail to win, as the prices are repeatedly driven into five figures by mysterious bidders. It’s only when Perkus wanders off at a holiday party at the home of New York’s Mayor Arnheim, the book’s Bloomberg stand-in, that he learns the truth about the chaldrons, which precipitates a personal crisis and the book’s third act.
A secret masterpiece is always best. It changes the world slightly By 1982, Pere Ubu had lost its original guitarist, Tom Herman, and drummer, Scott Krauss. They were replaced, somewhat improbably, by the avant-garde journeymen Mayo Thompson and Anton Fier.
Thompson had formed The Red Krayola in Houston in 1966, a band so out there that the hoary cliche “ahead of their time” must be pressed into service. Thompson went to England in the ’70s, finding common cause with the avant-garde collective Art & Language. Many interesting figures passed through the Red Krayola/Art & Language cross-pollination, including Pere Ubu sound wizard Allen Ravenstine, post-punk saxophone colossus Lora Logic, and even filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow (a constellation point that would have delighted Perkus).
Anton Fier, whose Ubu cred must have derived in part from being a native Clevelander, has served time in the Feelies, the Lounge Lizards, the Voidoids, collaborated with Bill Laswell and Bob Mould, and founded the Golden Palominos. One can only hope his memoirs are in the offing.
You don’t add such distinctive players and not change the DNA of your band fundamentally. As such, The Song of the Bailing Man is an album short on tunes and punk aggression but packed with distinctive moments, like watching strange birds flit by while you travel through a foreign country. “On the long walk home/thoughts stride long and crankily,” Thomas drawls on the album’s opening song, and the rest of the record could be the sights seen on that long walk. Petrified dinosaur bones, a thunderstorm, boats crossing Lake Erie. And on “Horns are a Dilemma,” the final song, the punchline is that home is nowhere to be found. “As we roll out to sea/we’ll need to rely on ingenuity,” Thomas muses, maybe hoping you forgot what he said about getting home. Geography is a crucial element in Thomas’ songwriting; his characters need to know where they are, precisely situated even in an imaginary landscape. By the same token, their recordings tend to be extremely spatial; each element of the music is distinct on the soundstage. On “Horns,” we can hear voice, drums, bass, guitar, electronic squiggles, and trumpet arranged almost in a straight line, with Tony Maimone’s bass closest to the listener and both Thomas’ vocals Eddie Thornton’s trumpet furthest away. Maybe they left without you.
Pere Ubu would go silent for 5 years, then reconstitute more or less permanently in the late 80s for an unlikely run at the college rock charts. They released a new album this year titled The Long Goodbye, named for the Raymond Chandler novel, a favorite of Perkus Tooth. As John Peel said of the Fall, they’re always different, always the same. They’re like a cup.
Look at me, I’m in tatters Perkus begins the final section of Chronic City squatting in an apartment building for dogs, divested of his possessions but for a record player and a copy of the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls. Disabused of the notion of the chaldrons’ significance, he plays and replays the album’s last song, “Shattered,” trying to extract latent significance from Mick’s punk-disco ramble, a song whose most prominent lyric is “Sha-doobie.” (Lethem refers to “the corroded jape” of Keith Richards’ guitar, a turn of phrase too poetic for the narrator, but too good to pass up for the novelist.) A giant tiger roams the streets of Manhattan. Chase’s fiancee, an astronaut trapped in orbit, writes letters to which he can’t reply. What does it all mean?
The world inside the world Six months ago, as I was being wheeled into an operating room to have my gall bladder removed, I heard Mick Jagger singing “Beast of Burden” over the OR speakers. What a good omen, I thought in my drugged stupor, the surgeon clearly loves the Rolling Stones, and is playing Some Girls while she preps. As the song faded, I expected to hear “Shattered,” the next song on the album. I thought of Perkus Tooth, as I always do when I’m about to hear that song. Instead, a Journey song started playing, and even in my haze I realized with disappointment they were just listening to a classic rock station on the radio. Then I was unconscious.
It’s my contention, for the purposes of this essay, that all artistically successful groups have a project. To pick a few at random: the Ramones’ project was to sandblast 20 years of barnacles off the hull of rock and roll. Pavement’s project was to map the disconnect between education and vocation in the post-Reagan era. In 1981, the Human League’s project was to sell out, and they did it with gusto.
It wasn’t always thus. Early on, they were saddled with the “band of the future” tag that rarely does a young group any favors. (They may have invited it by originally calling themselves…”The Future.”) Their first two albums are sparse, chilly synthpop with one-word titles that critics loved and not many people bought. (An unlikely cover of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” on Reproduction is an early highlight.) Their third album is sparse, chilly synthpop with a one-word title that went multi-platinum and had 4 hit singles. What changed?
Phil Oakey had been invited to join the fledgling Human League as a singer by Martyn Ware & Ian Craig Marsh, two electronics boffins who knew they needed someone with charisma to front the group. Oakey had never sung in public but he looked the part. After their first two albums, the band was treading water commercially, and Oakey was ready to cash in. A power struggle ensued that resulted in Ware & Marsh walking away from the band and forming Heaven 17, inviting Glenn Gregory to be the singer in a hilariously petty move (Gregory was supposedly their original pick for the Human League as well).
Faced with a legal responsibility to mount a Human League tour and fulfill the group’s recording contract, Oakey brought in some studio ringers and two teenage scenesters he’d come across in a club, Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall. Martin Rushent, an engineer and producer who’d made a name for himself working with pop-leaning punk acts like Buzzcocks and The Stranglers, whipped the thrown-together new lineup’s material into shape, and the result was Dare.
The always-vicious UK music press expected the new-look Human League to fail spectacularly – it was widely agreed that Ware & Marsh were the talented members of the group, and adding two young female singers was seen as an act of desperation. Instead, the first three singles peaked at #12, 3, and 6, respectively. When Virgin decided to squeeze one more single out at the end of November 1981, Oakey resisted, not liking the song choice or the timing. He lost the battle, and “Don’t You Want Me” was that year’s Christmas #1. It remains their signature song to this day. Oakey had wrested control of a band he had not founded, pointed it squarely at the charts, and he succeeded beyond all expectations.
There’s something endlessly replayable about good synth-pop – the clear tones and bright melodies never seem to tire the ear. Unlike some of his contemporaries in the genre, Oakey is not a particularly expressive or accomplished singer, but his voice has an interesting grain that plays well against the synthesizers. (According to Rushent, the vocal for this track and some others on Dare was recorded in the studio bathroom.) The addition of Sulley on the answer verse helps break up the monotony of his limited range, although it has to be said she’s no virtuoso either. The lyric’s Pygmalion overtones may have seemed like a meta-commentary on the new lineup’s formation, with the two new female singers seemingly plucked from obscurity, but was pure fiction. (Actually, the reference to the male and female singer’s five-year relationship reads a little creepy, since Sulley was only 18 at the time.)
Ultimately, “Don’t You Want Me” plays like the logical endpoint of the original Human League project – the infiltration of post-punk’s moodiness and blank affect into the pop mainstream. (This approach would be taken to the logical extreme a few years later with the “New Pop” of ZTT Records.) Oakey’s original demo sounds like early Cabaret Voltaire without the menace, all synth squiggles and no chorus. He supposedly thought the final version, completed by Rushent and Jo Callis, was a disaster, and tried to bury it at the end of the 2nd side of Dare. But by both accident and design, it was the production that made it a classic. Rushent says a computer glitch set one of the synth lines a half-beat back, giving the song its unusual driving rhythm, and the melodic flip of the original pre-chorus, which originally descended on the words “both be sorry,” lets the song rise to its cathartic chorus, destined to be shouted over jukeboxes and karaoke singers until the end of time.
The Human League never matched the success of Dare, though they’ve managed a consistent career, still tour, and have never officially gone on hiatus. Oakey’s erstwhile bandmates in Heaven 17 had their own big synth-pop hit less than 2 years later with “Temptation,” which never really crossed over in the US but went to #2 in the UK. Both groups tread the same nostalgia circuit to this day.
I know most of what I know about The Human League from reading “Rip it Up and Start Again,” Simon Reynolds’ excellent survey of post-punk. (The rest came from this great interview with Rushent.) I devoured the book shortly after its US publication in 2006, and was particularly taken by the chapter about the Human League schism, of which I was previously unaware. One day not long after, I was walking around at work absently humming “Don’t You Want Me,” when a co-worker commented on my song selection. I proceeded to enthusiastically recount the history of the band, doing that aggravating thing men sometimes do when they’re in possession of new information and feel the need to regurgitate it to the first person who shows the tiniest bit of interest. I cringe now to think what I must have sounded like, but it can’t have been too bad – that conversation led to others with the same co-worker, and we’re celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary next year. Music can be a strange and powerful connector; that much is true.
There’s such a deep well of British pop eccentrics that you could field a team of just Kevins – the lineage runs from Ayers to Coyne to Shields. Even Swell Maps’ late Epic Soundtracks was born a Kevin. But there is no greater (or more eccentric) Kevin than the once, future and forever frontman of Dexys Midnight Runners, Kevin Rowland.
As the singer in the Killjoys, Rowland was a bona fide member of the class of ’77, and though his punk dabblings were an inevitable product of age and temperament, he clearly needed a different form to contain his outpourings of raw emotion. Rowland’s cup constantly runneth over, and the result is some of the most affecting pop music of the early 80s.
“Tell Me When My Light Turns Green” is the second song on the band’s first album, “Searching For The Young Soul Rebels.” I could have picked any song from the group’s first two, completely flawless albums – their third, 1986’s “Don’t Stand Me Down” is also great but completely sui generis and deserves its own 33 1/3 or other longform explication – but what put this one over the top for me is its preposterous, perfect opening lyric. “Seen quite a bit in my twenty-three years, / I’ve been manic depressive and I’ve shed a few tears“ he sings in a voice that even Johnny Ray might have found a bit overcooked. (Rowland’s debt to Ray was sanctified in another perfect opening couplet, from the world-conquering “Come on Eileen.”) A world-weary 23-year-old is a ridiculous thing, and yet: he sings with such conviction, he legitimizes the claim in the act of singing it. The lyric made flesh.
Things get worse for our hero. “Spat on and shat on, would you please tell me when my light turns green?” he pleads as the peppy horn section blithely plays on. Rowland has always been the face and the one constant of the band’s frequently rotating membership, but he picks his players like a casting director, never skimping on chops, aesthetic or attitude. It’s the combination of his sheer force of personality with the pleasure of hearing the band play that helps put the lyrics across.
Rowland is also a master of sequencing and pacing, and the song’s placement on the second track of side 1 is like a quick right jab after the left hook of the album opener, “Burn It Down.” The album itself, “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” comes across as a complete aesthetic package – the cover image anticipates the kitchen sink anti-glamor of the Smiths by several years. On “Burn it Down,” Rowland asserts he “never heard about/won’t think about” a laundry list of Irish literary touchstones from Wilde to Beckett to Eugene O’Neill. Naming and dismissing your national heroes in the first 5 minutes of your debut album: you can take the singer out of punk, but you can’t take the punk out of the singer.
The song keeps evolving. On the “Too-Rye-Ay” tour, he altered the arrangement to suit the new fiddle-heavy “Celtic Soul” lineup. The sometimes statelier pace loses some of the attack of the original, and Rowland’s vocal mannerisms are occasionally indecipherable. A reunited band, the name shortened to Dexys, performed it in the 2014 concert film “Nowhere is Home.” Rowland, spry and wiry but looking his age, nods his head appreciatively to the opening horn riff, then sings an inevitably altered opening line – “Seen quite a bit in all of these years.” It’s been 34 years since the original. The song runs to twice the length of the studio track, including an improbable trombone-fiddle face-off. Rowland, whose stage presence early on could resemble a man prepared to fight his way out of a hostile theater, looks relaxed and happy.
I can only think of one other song that specifically mentions being 23 years old. That would be “La Cherite” by The Soft Boys, from their one-off reunion album Nextdoorland, released in 2002 and criminally out of print. The singer and lyricist is Robyn Hitchcock, yet another storied British eccentric with a long and meandering solo career. Hitchcock is Rowland’s opposite in temperament, floating through the firmament and turning up in the strangest places, often describing what he sees in bemusedly psychedelic lyrics. His two greatest influences are probably Syd Barrett & Bob Dylan, and as that implies, it’s rare for him to pen a completely straightforward lyric.
That’s why the stanza that begins midway through the song is such a surprise. It starts in typically oblique fashion. “Standing naked by the portal / With the orange moon ahead / Moon’s forever, we are mortal” So far, so Hitchcock. Then, like that orange moon breaking through the clouds: “I wish I could be 23/I could waste time.” He repeats the second line one more time, wistfully (although to be fair, Hitchcock always sounds wistful): “I could waste time.”
I turned 23 three months after Nextdoorland was released, and listened to it a lot that year. That line always stopped me short, not just for the eerie coincidence, but because that year all I was doing was wasting time, and I hated it. Stuck between college and grad school with no money, no prospects and no plan, there was nothing alluring about wasting time, but seemingly no alternative. Hitchcock was 50 that year and knew more about life’s strange, elastic flow than I was able to hear. I felt more spat on and shat on at the time, but of course it turned out I had more time to waste than I thought, and my light finally turned green a year later.
For Rowland, the intervening years included a seemingly inevitable solo career that never achieved liftoff, and was finally smothered by a bloodthirsty British music press following a 1999 covers album and festival performances in full drag, which prompted ridicule unthinkable today. In 2016, he released another covers album, this time under the Dexys name, that was suffused with a warm retrospection, breathing new life into chestnuts like “To Love Somebody” and “You Wear It Well.”
It also includes the song I may have listened to more than any other this decade, a recording of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” that shows just how sturdy and wise that song really is. Probably written when Mitchell was 23 (there’s that age again), Rowland uses it as an opportunity to look back at triumphs and mistakes with a wry but affectionate gaze. The payoff comes in the third verse, when he sings the lines “Now old friends are acting strange / they shake their heads and say I’ve changed / Well, something’s lost but something’s gained / in living every day.” He puts all 63 years of living just into that “well,” and it floors me every time. In one syllable, you can hear him total up the balance sheet. Watch the band take the stage like it’s a bank heist in 1980 to see what was lost. Look at Rowland’s satisfied smile in 2016 to see what’s been gained.
Let’s honor the year of my birth with a song about what happens when you die. A disco song, no less. Sparks are a group that some are fated to love, the band you might graduate to from They Might Be Giants. Both consist of two American nerds who coat a protective veneer of humor over fundamentally serious subjects. Both have flirted with commercial success, but essentially remained cult artists. Both have long, winding discographies with plenty of high (and low) points. Sparks have managed to maintain more hipster cachet, possibly due to their relative inaccessibility – anyone who likes TMBG has seen them 3 or 4 times without really trying. There’s a wall around Sparks, an aura of mystery that remains largely unpenetrated almost 50 years on.
If you’re not attuned to Sparks’ particular wavelength, their arch style and mannered presentation most likely grate like any other goofball novelty act. But if you can dial in, their hidden sincerity and commitment to catharsis-by-hook becomes almost unbearably touching. Even the persistent smirk of Ron Mael seems to hide a knowing melancholy, a silent counterpart to brother Russell’s exuberant gyration.
The song, from the album of the same name, came at the close of the band’s first decade, during which they’d seen their first flush of success (largely in England) already fade. “No. 1 Song” would be the first of many quasi-comebacks over the years – for some reason, except for the die hard fans for which they are a light that never goes out, people need to be periodically reminded that they like Sparks.
It’s divided into two parts – the single edit (used in the video) excises the first, slower half, which cuts things down to a manageable sub-4 minutes, but loses much of the drama of the buildup. “This is the Number One song in Heaven. Why are you hearing it now, you ask?” croons Russell Mael disingenuously in the first verse. Like most wiseacres, Sparks joke about the things that matter the most to them, and death and mortality are never far from their mind. One of their best-known songs, “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” contemplates the inherent danger in nature. “Bon Voyage,” the closing song from their 1974 LP Propaganda, is sung from the perspective of those left behind as Noah’s Ark embarks on its voyage. The narrator laments the randomness of how the passengers were selected. “All governed by the rules of chance/they’re about to leave and we will stay.” Later, he offers resigned well-wishes. “Bon voyage / peace be with all of you / I wish that I were one of you.”
What set “Number One Song” (the song and the album) apart from everything from the band’s earlier catalog is the relentless disco production by Giorgio Moroder. It’s hard to quibble with the idea that one would hear a record produced by Moroder upon entering eternal paradise. He was on an eclectic tear in the late ’70s, riding a hot hand and producing the single “Life in Tokyo” for the moody UK art boys Japan, and Donna Summer’s mighty double LP “Bad Girls.” (This coming two years after they collaborated on the epochal “I Feel Love.”)
It’s easy enough to verify the unique mojo Moroder brought to the collaboration, since Sparks re-recorded the song in 1997 for their cheeky self-covers album “Plagiarism.” That recording uses an off-the-rack disco beat (programming is credited to the Maels), instead placing the emphasis on Russell’s still-impressive falsetto and Tony Visconti’s swooping orchestrations. An interesting and not ineffective reworking, yet one can’t help but miss Moroder’s trademark throb, like a phantom limb.
There’s another pop duo that can, in the right light, call to mind the Mael Brothers. A few years after “Number One Song in Heaven,” Pet Shop Boys made their almost instantaneous mark on pop music, and their extrovert singer/introvert keyboardist tandem act certainly bring Sparks to mind (even if Neil Tennant’s theatrics rarely extend past an arched eyebrow or an elaborate costume). PSB’s commercial run was far more sustained (their imperial period was so emblematic of the concept, they, well, literally coined the phrase “imperial period.”) But what Tennant and Lowe share with Ron and Russell are the belief of all pop conceptualizers – that a great song can temporarily free you from your brain, your life or any other temporal circumstances that are holding you down. We’re done with Sparks for now, but we’ll hear from Pet Shop Boys again.