Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Paul Evans and the Curls' "Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Back Seat"

Automobile safety is one of the most important issues of the automotive age. According to Wikipedia, over 100 Americans own automobiles. And you know what that means. To quote Elvis Costello, "Accidents will happen!" Accidents are totally unnecessary and unwanted. Accidents are real jerks. They can make you late to see the game at Buffalo Wild Wings. They can destroy entire municipalities. Who needs them? But there are ways of preventing them or, at the very least, minimizing their damage. The first approach is to make well-built automobiles. But since that never happens, at least in the United States (ZING!), the other tack is to put out public service announcements, really super duper cute ones that get stuck in your head, that way you will always remember the proper protocol for avoiding accidents. Well, in 1959, the same year Ralph Nader released his first study on automobile safety, another cutting edge artist, Paul Evans, who co-wrote one of the greatest songs ever to appear in the movie GoodFellas, "Roses are Red (My Love)," recorded his masterwork, the top ten hit "Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Back Seat," with his backing group of unknowns, The Curls. (There is literally no information about them anywhere, ever. Though it is rumored that one of them was named Sue.) The song accomplishes two things, a combination of which had never been done before--or since--in the annals of music: 1) tell a cautionary tale about keeping ones "eyes on the road," and; 2) recount the legend of Fred.

The premise of "Seven Little Girls" is one we can all relate to. The narrator of the song, an unnamed teenage male, is driving a car, in the front seat all by himself. Meanwhile, in the backseat, there are seven "little girls ... kissing and a hugging on Fred." Keep in mind that cars were way bigger in the 1950s than they are today. Most cars were the size of a seventh-floor walk-up apartment in lower Manhattan. The driver, feeling left out, asks one of the girls if she would like to join him in the front seat. They all respond, simultaneously, "Keep your mind on your driving. Keep your hands on the wheel. Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead." The girls' advice about proper driving technique are totally accurate and commendable. But the next thing they say must really perturb the driver: "We're having fun sitting in the back seat kissin' and a huggin' with Fred." OUCH! Everybody knows that kind of pain. He later tries to persuade them that they are being chauffeured around in a sweet ride, with a triple carburetor, which I know is supposed to mean something important. But they remain steadfast in their viewpoint that he must obey proper driving etiquette while they engage in an eight-way make-out session with the inexhaustably lusty Fred.

One of the many reasons why this song is so great is that the narrator is faced with moral and ethical dilemmas. He realizes he has a duty to obey the traffic laws of our country (ethics). But he also wants to make out with at least one of the seven girls in the back seat, and possibly Fred as well, even if it is discordant with the good ol' American values his parents endowed him with (morality). The song concludes with the narrator saying he wishes he was Fred.

This is understandable. According to the Made Up Oxford English Dictionary of First Names, "Fred" has Gaelic origins and means something, loosely translated, like, "Fearless, Ripped, Enigmatic Dude." This gives him the power to make out with seven girls while simultaneously getting them to completely ignore their gracious host. Fred has probably convinced them that the driver is a peeper. This is but another part of the legend of Fred. I conclude that, in conclusion, despite the totally sketchy sexual politics of the song, Paul Evans and the Curls' "Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Back Seat" is a Homeric odyssey that weaves, like Penelope, an etiological lesson about car safety with the mythical legend of Fred as a way of reaffirming all within us that is proud, headstrong, charismatic, aroused, prudent, and full of Hater-ade. How many other songs achieve all these things? None, I say. None.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Rupert Holmes' "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)"

Monogamy is a tradition that extends all the way back to 3989 B.C., when the first humans began to begat. The concept of fidelity is codified in Exodus 20:15: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." This concept is elaborated on a few verses later: "thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." As such, coveting ass, from thy neighbor, or from Ashley, has been socially taboo ever since. The "free love" movement of the 1960s attempted to put a few dents in monogamy's armor, but ultimately failed. However, in 1979, a French philosopher from France by the name of Jean-François Lyotard, in a book title La Condition Postmoderne, defined postmodernity as "incredulity towards metanarratives." Oh no he didn't! But, seriously, yes, he did. Deal with it. Not coincidentally, that same year, the brilliant singer-songwriter Rupert Holmes exemplified Lyotard's erudite maxim in glorious yacht rock technicolor when he problematized the entire notion of monogamy--and to a certain extent, the self--in his masterpiece "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)."

Holmes, who cut his teeth writing the only Billboard Top 20 Hit about cannibalism some ten years earlier, had touched on some of life's meatier topics in the intervening decade, such as drinking, rum, getting lunch, and the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Therefore, it was not surprising when he cut a single that addressed three issues with heavy moral and metaphysical implications: 1) that promiscuity, if properly executed, can be a whizz-bang idea; 2) that contrary to earlier scientific discoveries, one can cheat on their significant other WITH their significant other; and, 3) that piña coladas and champagne are a perfectly reasonable means for getting adult humans tore up.

The narrator is a man who is bored with his "lady." He decides to emotionally stray from her by examining the personal ads. He finds one that tickles his fancy, and by fancy, I mean the cockles of his heart, which, for the record, are now warmed. She happens to be looking for a man who likes "piña coladas," "getting caught in the rain," and "making love at midnight," while at the same time being not particularly fond of "yoga." The narrator sees himself in this description and writes back the following poem:

Yes, I like Pina Coladas,
and getting caught in the rain.
I'm not much into health food,
I am into champagne.
I've got to meet you by tomorrow noon,
and cut through all this red tape.
At a bar called O'Malley's,
where we'll plan our escape.

Exquisite! This poem makes William Shakespeare's sonnets seem like a fishy flu fart in comparison. I mean, come on: GAME OVER. Rupert Holmes' real coup though is the song's twist, which reportedly inspired the ending to every single M. Night Shyamalan film. When the narrator goes to meet up with this date, it turns out to be, GET THIS, his current girlfriend. What?! At this point, the foundation of Enlightenment culture begins to erode. Can somebody cheat on their girlfriend with their own girlfriend? Is it even cheating? Is this just a strange Ouroboros loop? Is it possible that bears can read minds? Rupert Holmes incredulity toward the metanarrative of monogamy--as well as faithfulness, "the keys to a successful relationship," and girly drinks--in "Escape" is without question the single act of artistic expression that ushers in the postmodern age.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Late to the Party--Ozzie, "The Parabolic Years: 1975-1982" (2010)

It is easy to see why the Sacramento rock band Ozzie got lost in the shuffle in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were from Sacramento, California, which is not typically recognized as one of the hotbeds of subversive rock music. Their moniker, Ozzie, might have been confused with that other famous OZZY, the one that was, at the time, Black Sabbath's lead singer. It is also hard to define them musically. I have a feeling that if they were from England, they would have been dubbed a "pub rock" band because of their versatility and their unwillingness to adhere to just one brand of rock music. Also, their quirky sense of humor rarely misfires, but it hardly ever lands either.

If one were to only hear "Android Love," the A-side to their one single (backed by mostly instrumental "Organic Gardening"), released in 1977, they would be unsure why critical or commercial success eluded them. The driving track is relentlessly catchy and possesses a provocative lyric--especially for 1977--about love between man and machine. In an alternate world, this song be talked about with the same reverence held for contemporary numbers like the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K.," the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop," X-Ray Spex' "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" or Richard Hell and the Voidoids' "Blank Generation." With only one other EP credited to the band during their tenure, the bulk of the posthumous collection The Parabolic Rock: 1975-1982 consists of unreleased studio takes and demos.

The band is technically proficient, which allows them to flirt with a variety of styles. Tracks like "Android Love" and the bizarre "Child of the Reich" are glam-inspired numbers comparable to pre-Manifesto Roxy Music. There are prog-rock tendencies on display as well, especially on the aforementioned "Child of the Reich" and the overly long epic "The Ballad of Jack Ruby." Tracks like "Wall," "Faunamania," and "I Love a Tank" are firm new wave numbers. Rockers like "Cookies Rundgren," "Kung Fu Karate Man," and "Terror in the Streets" (which has a riff that Poison sounds like it must have nicked when they wrote "Talk Dirty to Me") obviously show the strong influence of Todd Rundgren. Because they never really settle into one sound, they can come across as dilettantes. The fact that they opened for bands like the Talking Heads and The Nerves makes sense. But it is also easy to understand why they only opened, and never headlined these gigs.

Still, S-S Records has done a great job with this two-record set. Though clearly drawing off less-than-pristine tapes (and a direct vinyl transfer in the case of the "Android Love" single), the records still manage to sound great. The liner notes provide an extensive history of the group and do an excellent job of shaping the context for how Ozzie arrived at their sound. Because of the somewhat steep price tag for this set (around $20-25), I would recommend it to fans of obscure 70s rock, proto-punk, and proto-new wave. While an uneven collection, it is always fun, and the band is tight. The Parabolic Years does make a mildly convincing what if? argument about their place in rock history.

Below is a clip for their Bizarro World classic "Android Love":

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: The Floaters' "Float On"


When the members of Modest Mouse were still in short pants, the Detroit-based soul group The Floaters released a song for the ages called "Float On" in 1977. This thoroughly visionary track foresees the 21st Century's renewed enthusiasm for the accurate predictive process of Astrology, online dating, and an anonymous woman finding out how sweet it was to share her love with Larry.

After doing extensive research on astrology, I was shocked to discover that it was not--in fact--invented by Miss Cleo in the 1990s. Who knew?! It turns out that Astrology dates all the way back to the 1960s. A formerly agnostic astronomer by the name of Dr. Lowell Astor was employed at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. The observatory is known for having some huge ass telescopes. He noticed that Mars, the Red Planet, temporarily entered the constellation Sagittarius. About two weeks later, a bit of good luck came his way. From this humble moment, the astrological arts arose, and became a phenomenon during the 1960s and 1970s. It's popularity started to wane during the presidency of Gerald Ford, for obvious reasons: he was a Leo. But thanks to the sexy powers of The Floaters (who were, collectively, "Aquarius, Libra, Leo, [and] Cancer" and "Ralph, Charles, Paul, [and] Larry," respectively), astrology came back into full force.

In the song, each member of the group reveals: 1) their astrological sign; 2) their first name; and, 3) what kind of woman they are looking for. By doing this, they set up the entire paradigm of online dating. More on this later. They continue their quest for the woman of their desires by "taking" their hand and inviting them to a place called "Love Land," which is presumably somewhere in the greater metropolitan area of Detroit, Michigan. Finally, each member promises to show the lady how sweet it will be if she shares "her love" with him. The combined effect of this amorous barrage is that one will "float, FLOAT, float on." The light doo-wop singing of The Floaters, combined with the smooth funk of their backing band, amounts to a dulcet online dating profile.

Now, at the time this song was rising up the charts, the phrase "online dating" meant about as much as "snarg friltawog tigghol" did. Sure, matchmaking services existed. One such system is documented in the classic Bernard Malamud short story "The Magic Barrel" (1958). Some even utilized phones, newspapers, and computers. But by launching a full multimedia campaign, including TV appearances and live shows, The Floaters were promoting themselves across purposes: first, as great soul singers, and, most importantly, as all around good dudes who want to meet some compatible nice ladies for possible connubial relations and even a potential relationship. "Float On" served as their irresistible profile. Its continued play on the radio served as the contemporary online dating equivalent of men constantly bombarding women's inboxes with pervy notes. (Forgive the poor phrasing of the conclusion of that last sentence.) According to my in-the-know imaginary friend, Dr. Fred "Forklift" Quarg, the prototype for's first profile page was based on this song. For instance, under the prompt, "Come with me baby to _______," you would enter the name of the place you would like to seduce your prospective date. Apparently, the standards and practices team at the aforementioned dating site thought that was pretty creepy.

Thanks to "Float On," astrology became a healing power of love, subverting the then-popular claim, made so eloquently by the female news broadcaster in the film Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), that it was meant "merely to support people who [could not] take responsibility for their own lives." Similarly, by providing a general outline for what online dating should look like, it subsequently replaced beer as the way most awkward people hook up. It never really helped Larry, though. All he needed was the glorious majesty of sweet sweet song.

*-For the purposes of full disclosure, I candidly admit that the name of the group discussed (The Floaters) and the name of the song discussed ("Float On") played no part in my selection for its entry in this series of song profiles, even if it very closely resembles my last name.

Here's a sexy clip of the song:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #63 XO

One of my pet peeves in the 33 1/3 series of books is when author's writing with interesting angles suddenly break off their discussions to offer a linear song-by-song explication of the album. Typically, these song-by-song sections are boring and uninspired. They convey information that isn't particularly new, or interesting, or even necessary (which we see when the song-by-song sections devolve, bafflingly, into awkward, clunky descriptions of how songs sound--the music book equivalent of stopping to write a forty page summary of a novel for a piece of literary criticism). But just because these song-by-song sections are usually lazy and unnecessary, that doesn't mean they can't have any place in a work of music criticism. Enter Matthew LeMay's mostly interesting and well-written counter-analysis of Elliott Smith's XO. LeMay starts his book with a fairly straight-forward and inspired mission--to re-examine Smith's work outside of the cultural fetishes of mental illness, drug abuse, and suicide. LeMay argues that Smith has been taken too literally, and his work done a disservice by critics and fans who elevate the "singer-songwriter's" work because of the narratives surrounding him, not because of the exceptional quality of that work. In order to achieve this, LeMay approaches Smith's work on the level of craft--by providing both literary readings of the song's lyrics, and illustrating how Smith's songs evolved over time, it becomes clear that much of what fans believe to be autobiographical is not, and those songs about a tortured soul always on the verge of suicide maybe shouldn't be read quite so literally.

This is why LeMay's use of the song-by-song analysis is so effective. It isn't filler or fluff--the song-by-song is the book. LeMay treats his analyses as archaeological, in a way. We see how, as lyrics change and bend, their meanings and narratives changing with them, in effect exonerating Smith's music from being sentenced to the songwriter's past. While LeMay is in this analytical mode, his reading of XO is phenomenal.

Where LeMay begins to falter, if only a little, is when he begins dealing more explicitly with other writers' treatments of Smith. In a way, LeMay takes these bits too personally, and fails to recognize the broader context of the most-main-of-mainstream popular culture from which many of these critics were writing. LeMay takes issue with USA Today and Yahoo! Launch articles that describe Smith's sudden rise from "obscurity" to performing at the Oscars. I understand why this seems troubling to LeMay. We've all felt this way, when a buddy says "Hey, I just got this album called Good News For People Who Love Bad News by this new band called Modest Mouse." Just because a band or artist is "new" to the listener/writer/reporter doesn't mean it's new to everyone. But LeMay seems to expect that the primary audiences of USA Today and Yahoo! Launch--the people for whom their writers are writing--would be at all interested in Elliott Smith's past. In a way, LeMay's one failure with this book is his inability to separate the mainstream press from indie culture, and taking that mainstream press to task for trying to present an artist who defied narrativization to a fickle, and largely uninterested mainstream audience. At one point, LeMay is critical of a critic for referring to a particular club in L.A. as small when, in fact, it's a nice-sized club for nice-sized touring acts. Here's the problem--the majority of the audience for which the initial article was written would probably list their most recent concert experience as U2 or Celine Dion or Garth Brooks at Big-Ass-Fucking-Arena-United in 1996.

To this end, some of LeMay's argument feels a bit disingenuous because he doesn't account for the the real mainstream popular culture in the late nineties and early aughts when Smith was getting press. This does not, however, take anything away from LeMay's exceptional work tracing the evolution of Smith's songs, and the argument that he makes in separating Smith's music from the tragic narrative of the artist, himself.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #70 Facing Future

I felt odd reading a book about an album I'd never really listened to. I checked out some of the songs through the magic of downloads and YouTube, but for the most part, I came to Dan Kois' volume on Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'Ole's Facing Future as an outsider. This is doubly fitting as, throughout my reading of Kois' volume, I felt like a cultural outsider--but in a good way. And that's what makes Kois' volume on Facing Future such a compelling read--the book is as much about Hawaii's culture, music industry, and values as it is about Iz's album. Truth be told, as a straight forward "album book," Facing Future is a bit pedestrian--Kois traces the history of the performer and the songs well enough, but where the book finds its stride is in its dealings with the specifics of Hawaiian popular culture. That is to say, before reading Kois' book, I never would have guessed or suspected how much of a local music industry Hawaii has, nor would I have supposed that this industry would mirror the mainstream (or mainland) record business, only in miniature. And I definitely wouldn't have dreamed of the existence of Jawaiian music (thank god). While this resulted in a bit of me "othering" a different culture as I read, that was through no fault of the author. In fact, every step of the way, Kois is sensitive to and respectful of the Hawaiian culture he is exploring.

In all honesty, Kois' empathy is the key to this volume. From the opening pages in which he tells the tale of Iz recording the famous "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" medley in the middle of the night after a night of drinking and possibly drugging, to the treatment of Iz's desire for his family to be taken care of after his inevitable early death, Kois' prose is rich with a sincere pathos that brings Iz and the people surrounding him to life in ways rare for "album books." One of Kois' other strengths is his sincere even-handedness in dealing with local label "politics." For instance, Kois is willing to present Jon de Mello as both a hero in Iz's story, and a villain (or at least an unsavory opportunist) depending on who is talking. That Kois never really comes down on either side of the issue but merely presents the various attitudes toward de Mello is a nice change of pace from other rock books that are quick to label key players as heroes or villains and focus on those roles through the entirety of their involvement in the project.

So there it is--I don't have much to say about this book because I've never been terribly invested in Iz's music. That being said, Kois' volume was interesting thanks in large part to his ability to write well and bring Iz and the people around him to life while also painting a vivid picture of Hawaii and its culture. Sure, the book gets a bit tedious for a spell when Kois lapses into that oh-so-tired trope of the "song by song" analysis (stop it 33 1/3 writers, it's boring and lazy), but all in all, Dan Kois' exploration of Iz's Facing Future and Hawaii is well worth the read, whether your sick to death of "Over the Rainbow" or not.

Next up, the volume on XO, in which I admit to liking the song-by-song structure for once.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Late to the Party--15-60-75: The Numbers Band's "Jimmy Bell's Still in Town" (1976)

While the music scenes based around Los Angeles and New York City get most of the press, Northern Ohio produced a healthy number substantial musical acts in the 1970s. Devo, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Pere Ubu, and The Dead Boys all originated there, and so did lesser-known but no less brilliant groups like Rocket from the Tombs, The Electric Eels, Ex-Blank-Ex, Tin Huey, and The Waitresses. One of the hidden gems of the Kent, Ohio scene has remained 15-60-75, also known more simply as The Numbers Band. They formed in 1970 and are still active to this very day, primarily playing in small clubs in Ohio. The band has counted among its alumni Gerald Casale (later a founding member of Devo), David Robinson (who drummed in the original line-up of The Modern Lovers and in The Cars), Terry Hynde (Chrissie Hynde's brother), and Chris Butler (the leader of Tin Huey and the primary songwriter of The Waitresses, who had a MTV hit in the early 1980s with "I Know What Boys Like"). To most experts, their crowning achievement is their 1976 live album Jimmy Bell's Still in Town. It was recorded June 16th, 1975 at the Agora in Cleveland. Reportedly, The Numbers Band was the opening act for Bob Marley and the Wailers. When it was released in album form a year later, it appeared on their Water Records label, getting little distribution, and quickly falling into obscurity. Long since championed by David Thomas of Pere Ubu (who currently releases the album on his Hearpan Records label), it has maintained a small but loyal group of listeners.

Jimmy Bell's Still in Town is a remarkably tight set, and each of its five tracks flow smoothly into each other, as if there are no breaks between the songs. It is also rather difficult to categorize. Ostensibly, The Numbers Band are a roadhouse blues rock band. The title of the album even refers to an obscure blues 1958 song by Cat Iron called "Jimmy Bell." Their ten minute cover of the song, on Side Two, is without question the centerpiece of the album. While the stamp of the blues is all over this record, it is a remarkably off-kilter variation on the form. It hints at Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's 1968 Mirror Man sessions, but is far more cohesive. Similarly, the lineup and musical arrangement of The Numbers Band is highly unusual by blues band standards. They have two guitarists (frontman Robert Kidney and Michael Stacy), a bassist (Drake Gleason), and a drummer (the aforementioned David Robinson), which is not all that aberrant. However, their sound is augmented by three saxophonists (Robert Kidney's brother Jack, Terry Hynde, and Tim Maglione). Their ensemble playing is disquieting and discordant, their horns often slipping slightly out of pitch. When they solo, they owe more to Ohio native Albert Ayler than to, say, Jr. Walker or King Curtis. The guitar solos vary range traditional blues workouts to oblique motifs that foreshadow the playing of Tom Verlaine or a more restrained Robert Quine. As a result, Jimmy Bell's Still in Town is an album in which comparisons to the first two Bruce Springsteen LPs and later recordings such as Pere Ubu's The Modern Dance, Television's The Blow-Up, and Morphine's Cure for Pain are all appropriate. It is not an album that necessarily resonates on first spin, though. This is because the material is so uniformly constructed and tightly delivered that it's often difficult to distinguish when they are improvising or deviating from the structure of the tunes. Vocalist Robert Kidney's vocals are largely free from emotion or theatricality, which can give off the initial impression that he is not all that enthusiastic about the material. But once you recognize the powerful and unusual grooves they are able to develop and pursue, it becomes a thoroughly rewarding experience.

Jimmy Bell's Still in Town is available from Hearpan Records' website.

Below is an audio clip of "Jimmy Bell."