Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The POLICE: Every Breath You Take: The Singles

(#337:  8 November 1986, 2 weeks)

Track listing:  Roxanne/Can’t Stand Losing You/So Lonely/Message In A Bottle/Walking On The Moon/Don’t Stand So Close To Me '86/De Do Do Do De Da Da Da/Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic/Invisible Sun/Spirits In The Material World/Every Breath You Take/King Of Pain/Wrapped Around Your Finger

"The constant challenge is what next?  In the space of two albums we've sold more records than people do in ten.  In England our album is quadruple platinum, or something.  The constant challenge is to forget that, because it is a distraction, it really is.  You've got to try to come up with music that is valid and relevant, not just feeding the industrial machinery that all of a sudden is all around us."   Sting in 1980 - Ask by Paul Morley.

When I was at Sheridan College, one of the courses I took was about human relations - how to get along with other people, no matter what kind they were.  It was a bit of an odd thing, but as supposed future secretaries we were bound to meet all sorts of psychological types, and this was Sheridan's way of gearing us up, so to speak.  The teacher was someone who (by her own admission) had something of a short temper, but she tried her best to get across to us the importance of understanding others.  The 70s was full of pop psychology, and we got some of it in the form of what I think was called Transactional Analysis (it was actually Psycho-Geometrics, but we got it all, trust me); something to do with squares, triangles and circles and other shapes and how they could all, with some patience, learn to cooperate with each other.
As you can see, the designer of the cover here definitely knew something about this idea, as above each member of The Police is a different-colored shape:  blue square for Sting (I'm sure Sting would think of himself as a star or a hexagon, but no), a yellow circle for Andy Summers and a red triangle for Stewart Copeland.  And these are all fitting symbols, seeing as how The Police pretty much ended due to the perpetual disagreements between the square and triangle, with the circle haplessly looking on.   

The cover emphasizes the fact that here we have three different people with different outlooks on life who have come together to do nothing less than become the (then) biggest band in the world.  That they started as newly bleached-blond for-a-chewing-gum-ad New Wavers born out of necessity seems almost beside the point.  "Roxanne" is a sharp song, the chords rough yet precise, the emotion raw and yet old-fashioned.  It is a last-ditch plea to a woman who "doesn't care if it's wrong or if it's right" and here's Sting to come along and tell her it's bad, that he loves her and doesn't want her to sell herself anymore.  It's something of a fantasy, this song - how many men fall in love with prostitutes and try to save them? - but the increasing tension in the song is damn real, and Sting's yelping (I can't think of another singer for whom that verb is more apt) indicates that he knows just how dangerous it can be for a girl out on her own in the night.  I don't know if the blue square is prone to I-know-better-than-you-doism, but the whole band here is united and the sound is a bit claustrophobic and we even here some sarcastic laughter in the beginning, which I've never been able to understand, unless it's some arrogant pimp joking around.  Who knows?

If "Roxanne" borrows a bit from reggae, then "Can't Stand Losing You" borrows a bit more - choppy chords, door-slamming drums, the singer's mind is made up - no one's trying to talk him out of his decision - and the accumulating details are sad but also adolescent ("my LP records and they're all scratched" would strike terror into a vinyl hipster today).  How reliable is the narrator?  What did he do to this ex-girlfriend that was so terrible?  Instead of some introspection on how maybe there's a reason for her brother's wanting to kill him and her sending his letters back, there's just self-pitying "you'll be sorry when I'm dead" and an inability to take responsibility for his actions, swallow his pride and admit he's wrong.  Again and again he can't stand losing this girl, the whole song pogos to this at the end, over and over.  Even at the time I don't think I was that much impressed with this song, but they do it straight and Sting's self-awareness makes his singing convincing and a little frightening.  

"So Lonely" could be seen as a different way of dealing with being alone - and the relaxed beat here immediately puts the listener at ease.  Summers free ranges over the off-beats, and Sting uses the word "soul" - it's an upbeat song about not having anyone, about having a broken heart and yet bounding along, using sorrow as a springboard to something greater.  "Low low low" chants Sting at one part, or is that "Lone lone lone" - metaphorically here are The Police, all alone, not really punk, not really reggae, not really rock, but something of all three, with some jazz thrown in for good measure.  Their only rivals here were The Clash, but it wasn't in the nature of The Police to do double or triple albums, and having a fairly libertarian red triangle with Copeland meant that a certain impatience was built into the band from the beginning.  

"Message In A Bottle" is just about everything The Police are great at, all at once; our lonely hero is a castaway with nothing but old John Dowland and Bob Marley records on his desert island, and somehow he finds paper, a bottle and something to write with to see if he gets any kind of response back.  It's like a cartoon, this song, but that fusion they wanted to make cooks up here very well, and the suspense of whether there will be a response is met with an avalanche, a rush of energy and for all the girls who loved The Police because of Sting, there were an equal amount of guys who were impressed by the band's ability and skills and general coolness.  And thus, with Reggatta de Blanc they took on the world very easily.

"Walking On The Moon" has to be one of the quietest number one singles in the UK; which is to say, when you listen to it, you have to turn it up and turn everything else off.  The bass and guitar call and respond; the drums drop in and out with ease; something subliminal seems to be happening, dreamlike even.  The choruses have ringing, shining sweetness, as the lyrics about love - that first swooning unreal feeling that doesn't let go - finds its equivalent here in the drumming, sense of weightlessness that spaaaaaans and leaps and floats...up...and up...(and here I think of the instrumental break in "Strawberry Letter 23" by Brothers Johnson, which I also could listen to many times in a row)...and then gently comes back down, to walk in the normal world, or at least a bit closer to it.  "Keep it up" could refer to the band's playing itself, or to the feeling the song's about, or to who knows what.  A song as big as the world.  And how to follow that up?

It is very awkward to have to report that when The Police got together in '86 to record again, instead of new songs Sting just wanted to cover their old hits.  Yes, believe it or not, the idea was to record all their singles again, but Copeland had an accident and this odd untenable idea was thankfully scrapped.  (Copeland and Sting apparently got into a fight over a drum machine or something, too.)  The original of "Don't Stand So Close To Me" was the band's attempt to do something a bit different - the ominous beginning, the fantasy threatening reality, the resolution, if there can be one, in the typically upbeat chorus- all this is lost in the re-recording of the song, where there's no tension, where it sounds as if the whole thing has indeed happened before, the end credits are running and people and standing and stretching at the end of the movie*.  Lolita is now "that famous book" and the whole thing sounds busy and tired, a waste of time and energy, on the band and producer Laurie Latham's part**.  It's impossible to imagine a song like this making the charts now, but if you just shift it a little, it's the dilemma of a famous pop star/blue square who has hordes of young girls screaming at him every night, who has to deal with that pressure...

And with a sigh, we come to the gentle skank of "De Do Do Do De Da Da Da" which is almost textbook Police, a song about how most rock lyrics are meh and how most communication is meh and jumping around signing nonsense is at least unpretentious and somehow more true to rock than heavy messages.  If only Sting could've kept more to these words...(I may as well add here that it's entirely possible to do a great compilation of The Police from non-singles, and indeed some think their best stuff is their non-singles.  "Voices Inside My Head" from Zenyatta Mondatta would be on mine, for instance.)   

I've written about Ghost In The Machine before so I will politely skip the next few songs, except to say that the mysterious Canadian sound appears in "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" and gives this side a warm start that it desperately needs...

...because I find the songs from Synchronicity to be metronomically precise and a little cold; Sting has been dumped and is paranoid and lonely, a stalker on the prowl; and yet this is interpreted as a love song, the plea of a lonely man for her to come back, and Sting is trying (?) to have it both ways here.  The song is quiet and spacious, like a mansion; empty like one too, circling around and around itself, as Sting sings "you belong to meee" in a way that is again self-pitying and yet hapless.  I am always convinced he feels bad, sure, sure he does, but why the constant watching?  The song wills itself to be calm, stay cool, but it broods and sulks instead.

"King Of Pain" is about more suffering, endless metaphoric suffering, enough to make Phil Collins green with envy.  It's not just that he suffers, but it's his destiny, man; how a little black spot on the sun could be interpreted, either by the narrator (hopefully viewing the sun indirectly) or anyone else as "my soul up there" remains to be seen, but this man is in a groove where all he can see is pain, and he is the rich man on his golden bed, hoping that you - the lost love - will come back and somehow end this whole situation.  The song lumbers along, as one awful image after another is presented, and Summers' solo is dutiful, as is the fade in-fade out around that little black spot on the sun.  This is a world away from the fightback against being "So Lonely" - the clip-clop here is resigned and somehow proud, as if Sting wants to be the King, to be the top at something.   

"Wrapped Around Your Finger" is a nasty song, pure and simple.  Sting uses all his education - hello Mephistopheles, hello Scylla and Charybdis - all to talk meanly about his ex-wife, who has no capacity to answer back.  Sting portrays himself as an apprentice who then becomes a master, who is somehow corrupted and then triumphs over said corruption.  Or something like that.  The whole song makes me itch, the ugliness of the lyrics made worse somehow by the classical references, made worse by the blandness of the song, where Sting is so upfront that the other two are there, sure, but not as felt as before - this is Sting and Co., not The Police, and hearing all these songs together shows just what they were able to do at their prime and how they couldn't perceive - not once but twice - when to call it a day and move on.  

How this fits into 1986?  This seems to be a year where a lot of the old - if I can put it that way - gets to the top, in lieu of the new.  One last lap of honor here for The Police; already by '86 standards they seem like a generation ago, a time when MTV didn't exist (there's an offer in the cassette insert for a video version of this album for £15.99, which was a lot back then), Walkmans were unheard of, Smash Hits was a new phenomenon and so on.  There is a uniqueness to The Police at their best that can be heard in bits and pieces to this day (see Bruno Mars) and it remains fresh; the delicacy and openness and fun in that are hard to pull off, as the musicians have to be tough with each other, demanding, in order to make it work, stubborn in their own shapes.  A better compilation than this one exists, but this is the one that got to the top, which is where The Police made most sense; we will get to the blue square in due course, but for now here is the late 70s/early 80s neatly parcelled out, as if a certain time and feeling are being commemorated, as the black and white cover photos would suggest; something to remember, as a new era dawns...   

*It's a very "for improved sound quality, this track has been re-recorded by one or more of the original musicians" but it's all three of them and it's still awful.

**Sort of the proof that Paul Young's albums were very much his creation, with Latham just making the whole thing sound good.

Monday, 8 September 2014

MADONNA: True Blue

(#333:  12 July 1986, 6 weeks)

Track listing:  Papa Don't Preach/Open Your Heart/White Heat/Live To Tell/Where's The Party/True Blue/La Isla Bonita/Jimmy Jimmy/Love Makes The World Go Round

As you may be expecting, because I was spending so much time listening to The Smiths and R.E.M. in the summer of '86 I didn't take much notice of Madonna's new album; which isn't to say I wasn't aware of it, of course.  It was hard not to know about Madonna, as she was such a big star; and I remember being dubious about her marriage to Sean Penn as it happened (I couldn't really see what they had in common, besides being in showbiz) - me, a modest Intensive Secretarial student at Sheridan College sensed something was wrong, though not entirely sure what it was.

The songs here are all right, for what they are; I wish I could feel more or less something for them, but they emerge and proceed by me as bright, sparkling, entertaining enough - enough that any of the singles (3 #1s and one #2 in the UK) would work on the radio, in the mix.  Perhaps in all my angst Madonna's tireless ambition ("Open Your Heart" may cheer up some but it sounds stalkerish to me - "don't try to run I can keep up with you") exhausted me.

"Papa Don't Preach" was, I guess, supposed to show that Madonna was a married woman and as such needed to show she had depth, meaning, wasn't just a girl who liked to go out dancing and flirting anymore. Oh the drama - the word "baby" is used here in three ways - being a girl, the baby inside her growing, and her man, her "baby."  What confuses me is, if she's made up her mind and tells her father not to preach, what's the poor schlub to do?  What kind of advice is he supposed to give?  She's going to keep her baby, not give in to her friends (already you can see the drawbridge anti-friend gears in motion) who want her to "give it up" - that's a dubious line, and it fudges the issue.  Give it up?  Give it away?  Get rid of it?  The narrator here wants a little family, is an unwed mother and, uh, what is the problem here?  Wouldn't her father want her to marry the guy who got her pregnant?  Unless he's a bad egg, this is a song that claims to stand up to authority but really barely does.   Is this the music marriage creates?

"Open Your Heart" is about determination and drive and "one is such a lonely number" - oh, save this guy from being a singleton!  A guy who, gasp, isn't paying attention to you.  The ultimate crime! "I'll make you love me" is only something someone truly desperate could feel, let alone say, and there's Madonna saying it to this guy, who is so going to be won over.  Well, maybe some guys are like that?  (I have seen some call this song "inexhaustible" and so on, but why is he sad and "wrapped up in himself"?  And does it matter that this song was written originally about a woman, not a man?)      

Now that she's married to tough guy Sean Penn, along comes James Cagney in White Heat to portray real toughness and badassery.  In this song Madonna actually does come across as a woman who wants to be an equal, refusing to be someone else's fantasy, no one can just take her love without a fight, and so on.  It's a nice metaphor, I guess, but why so much aggression around love?  And what does "the rhythm of my mind" mean, anyway?

"Live To Tell" is one of Madonna's best songs, and is the best song on the album; it makes her slow down, examine herself, admit frailty, fear even.  It pauses and waits; it breathes instead of mechanically pushing and pulling.  It is a hint that there's something else going on within Madonna that isn't going to surface that often - that the woman on the cover, poised and not looking at us, not looking at anything, isn't a brand or a statue or a work of art - she's a person, just like anyone else.  It is a song inspired by her parents; the fact that the secret she has stays a secret gives the song its power, makes it universal.  Madonna as a girl, growing up to be a woman; confessional but not confessing...

"Where's The Party?" is a perfectly nice song, but besides her admitting "I'm living in chaos" I am not sure that Madonna ever really needs the party - and doesn't being married mean you get to stop needing parties so much?  Not that wives should be at home all the time, but still.  She doesn't "want to grow up too fast" - well, who does?  Being grown-up is not a lot of fun sometimes, but isn't being married part of being a grown-up?  This is a newlywed's album, alright, with a lot of the adjusting happening (or maybe not happening) right here in front of the audience.

Case in point:  "True Blue."  Oh she loves him so much, he's her best friend!  The pre-Beatles world of girl groups is back, all eager and awkward ("your heart fits me like a glove") and yet too pat, two-dimensional, somehow not believable.  I realize that this whole album was recorded in a whoosh of wedded bliss, a kind of tranquilizer that makes things that are just...nice...acceptable, but the overall effect here is of something lost or missing or even repressed.

"La Isla Bonita" is supposed to be some nod to Latin America by Madonna, but I keep hearing "Last night I dreamt of Zumpano" and the whole thing smacks of a Disneyland ride, with colorful natives and wildlife and Madonna in the front with a microphone telling us how magnificent it all is, after having gathered everyone's tickets for the ride.  It's no "Echo Beach" gone tropical, that's for sure.

Which leaves us with "Jimmy Jimmy" about James Dean (not inspired by The Undertones) - how much was he a bad boy, like her Sean?  How much did she fantasize about him, and well, look what's happened now!  Oh she couldn't love him, he couldn't fit in, and and...need I point out that Dean died before Madonna was born?  I guess that shows what a star he was, that she could fantasize about him as a girl, and maybe set up the chain of events that would indeed lead her to her husband.  I have no idea, but that's how it seems to me...it's not an awful song, for all that, but how even this falls flat, I don't know.

"Love Makes The World Go Round" was first performed at Live Aid and comes across here as please, Madonna Don't Preach.  "Make love not war we say/It's easy to recite/But it don't mean a damn/Unless we're gonna fight" the song starts, and makes the points you'd expect it to - including Madonna insisting she's right and you know it - as it skips and the music sounds as if Phil Collins is going to join in any minute now.  The music sounds cheap - "Poundland synthesisers" as Marcello put it - and made me think back on how thin it all sounds, how Madonna's no longer the Like A Virgin-era Minnie Mouse but hasn't really dug in to herself beyond "Live To Tell" - there's not much there there*, not much of a sense that she is doing anything but proving herself to be Madonna part two, the grown-up married Madonna, here to show she can mean something to fellow grown-ups and somehow be better for it. 

I'm not sure she is; marriage has changed her, as it does everyone, but the chilly cover matches the chilly, distant music, a facsimile of pop music that is fine for what it is, but shuts its eyes to a lot of things.  Madonna has turned into what Helen Fielding calls a Smug Married, but how long will it be before she stops being smug and starts to be...herself?  Already making herself to be a static figure, a Warhol image, is like a self-paralysis - a real person is underneath the image, and by the time we get back to her, it will have, after some time, emerged.  The two-dimensional proper figure so hemmed in here, so apparently free, will be gone.  As will, sadly, alas, her marriage...

*Whereas Control by Janet Jackson is all about the there, and about being a grown-up. (Control will be discussed soon enough.) 

Sunday, 7 September 2014

GENESIS: Invisible Touch

(#332: 21 June 1986, 3 weeks)

Track listing:  Invisible Touch/Tonight, Tonight, Tonight/Land Of Confusion/In Too Deep/Anything She Does/Domino (Part One – In The Glow Of The Night) (Part Two – The Last Domino)/Throwing It All Away/The Brazilian

It is tempting, even easy, to set various things against each other, to see music as some sort of on-going battle between one thing and another; rock ‘n’ roll was specifically thought of in this way to begin with, as music that parents wouldn’t approve of, would not like or even understand.  Once rock ‘n’ roll became the norm, it started to expand in many ways, and grew wary of The Man, and part of this wariness was the sense that - once again – The Man would not like/understand the music, so it would have to be produced and distributed outside of his general circle of influence.  The importance of all this is the subject of this essay...

Now, I should give some background as to where I am in the summer of ’86; in my room, sweating.  I have graduated from Sheridan College and have already applied to go to the School of Journalism at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.  I’ve read an awful lot lately about the elite, the Establishment (who are The Man, kind of – I often think the Establishment doesn’t really care about music, unless it’s for propaganda purposes) and so on.  Getting into Ryerson meant first going for a writing test (you are given facts and told to make them into a coherent story) and then an interview.  Other things may have happened, but if so I don’t recall them.  And that was that.  The rest was waiting for acceptance or rejection, and thus the summer of ’86 for me was one of wary optimism.  I knew that Ryerson was tough to get into, there were lots of people trying to get in and the old cramped building (which no longer exists) emphasized this.  The post-secondary system had it that you could apply to various places and see if you could be accepted; this is what most graduates did, but I was either na├»ve or determined (or both) and had no idea about anyplace else besides Ryerson.  There was nowhere else for me, period.

Now, I am never absolutely sure about this, but in 1986 terms of the elite, Ryerson wasn’t really up there.  No; the elite went to a university – University of Toronto, or maybe one in Montreal or elsewhere.   Ryerson’s nickname at the time was “Rye High” and it had almost no residences on campus; it was a place where trades were taught, such as Early Childhood Education, Engineering, Catering…you get the picture.  It didn’t have an illustrious history, as far as I could tell; it wasn’t very artsy, either, outside of the Film and Photography building.  Walking down Gould Street I didn’t feel as if I was anywhere all that special or celebrated; it didn’t strike me as elite or as part of the Establishment.  Maybe it was for that reason that I felt reasonably optimistic that I would be accepted, save for that “almost impossible to get in” part, which I tried to ignore. 

But I can well imagine those freshmen of ’86 who did apply and did get accepted to U of T or McGill or even elsewhere – Harvard?  Oxford? – in their tasteful preppy clothes, the sort who liked music to be a bit cheery and poppy – nothing too deep and meaningful, please – as listening to Invisible Touch a lot in the summer, preferring it to #330, though they appreciated “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” as personal sex and ambition anthems, respectively.  These people – the overwhelming majority of them men – would go on to join the Establishment, were probably already part of it, in one way or another.  Invisible Touch topped the chart here and stayed on it for a mind-boggling 96 weeks; that’s an awful lot of hegemonic power, as some might say. 
There are few albums more hegemonic than Invisible Touch; to think about it for me is to be transported to a place that is bright, shiny, self-regarding, and male.  It cannot conceive of anything beyond itself.  It is an infinite loop, of sorts.  It pretends to be open and sensitive and caring, really caring, but ends up as something else….

The album begins with a song about – well, here’s Phil Collins singing about a woman he’s falling for, even though she has “a built-in ability” (hmm, must be a robot, then) to “take” things, including his heart.  (Instant flashback to the game of Operation, for those who know it.)   This song has all the forgiving quality of an alarm clock Sousa march, all brisk and upbeat despite the subject being a woman who is capable of slowly tearing the narrator apart.  (Until now I thought Collins was singing “yes” in the chorus, and thus the song reminded me [and Marcello] of Gordon Ramsay, as in “fucking lemon zest, yes” – did Gordon Ramsay buy this album? – in truth he’s singing “yeah” but it will always be “yes” for us.)  The music here hints at no conflicts or hidden urges or angst, as if this woman’s bitchtastic nature is just one of those things our hapless narrator has to deal with in his busy, yuppie day.  This ain’t The Cult's “Love Removal Machine” – to name one northern band around at this time…

“Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” is all meaningless repetition, the kind of that wants to put you into a kind of paranoid hypnosis, if such a thing is possible, but fails. A monkey is mentioned, but this isn’t “Shock The Monkey” – it plods and tries to build up tension, and is apparently about drugs but as it’s Collins singing I always assume, unless proven otherwise, that he’s singing about his ex-wife.  It is actually about drugs, but goes on for so long and with such little vulnerability – Collins’ voice yelps and yells and it sounds more as if he’s got his leg caught in something than he’s an addict who wants to quit.  “Please get me out of here!” he yells, and I can only concur.

“Land Of Confusion” is…well, hello Mr. Patrick Bateman:  “funkier and blacker” than anything done by anybody, apparently. What’s that Mr. Bateman?  “Than Prince or Michael Jackson.”  Well, cough, thank you for your insight. What can I add? It thumps and wah-wahs and chest-beats about the world being a place worth living in, as if there’s any alternative.  Oh what to do?  “My generation will put it right!” yells Collins, after informing the populace that he won’t be coming home tonight.  (“Because I haven’t got one” I hear a voice croon on the wind.)   Too many men causing too many problems?  Call Genesis!  They’ll fix it right away, using their magical Concorde-riding abilities. This is post-Live Aid nonsense, all goodwill and pounding of pint glasses on pub tables late at night, WAH-HEY chap and so on.  Wow, the world sure is a messed up place, let’s go out and drink and maybe, hm, actually do something tomorrow…oh, and the aforementioned “Big Time” is actually funkier, Mr. Bateman.

“In Too Deep” – no, not a cover of the Dead or Alive song, alas – was written for the movie Mona Lisa.  Now, as you know I hardly saw any movies in the 80s, including that one, so I can’t vouch for how it well it works in the movie itself.  To me it’s just more of Collins moaning about his lost love, admitting in one moment of clarity that he “may be at fault” but then complaining about why does he have to be the one who is always trying to sort things out.  He can’t stay with her he says at the beginning, but he wants her to stay?  How messed up is this relationship, anyhow?  That Patrick Bateman considers this to be a great song, one of the best ever, should say enough.  

“Anything She Does” is a song about pornography.  It could look at how wrong this is, how the objectification of women is just plain bad, but the narrator instead considers his mortality vs. the immortality of the photograph, and how he aches for her and is that love?  This is like a ride into the male psyche that is so unselfconscious as to be almost pitiful.  It’s no “Centerfold” nor is it “The Model” – and musically it’s a retread of “Invisible Touch” (they may have thought they were being clever there, but remember how migraine-inducing* that song is…hmm, yeah maybe not so clever, then).  It’s all I can do not to tag this with “everydaysexism” and move on, but the lyrics are clearly trying to reach something that is just beyond its grasp.  

“Domino” is supposed to be the great “let’s give the old ‘heads’ some prog rock” song, only it’s not very prog at all and as you might expect, it’s more of Collins going on about “I reach across to touch her/But I know that she’s not there” which somehow balloons into the uber-Collins lines “Can’t you see what you are doing to me?/Can’t you see what you have done?”  Loneliness is the problem here, clearly, and while “sheets of double glazing help to keep outside the night"** the main thought is “Could it be that we shall be together again?”  Thus ends part one, with part two building up noise and a little drama, with unfortunate echoes of…yep, “Red Rain.” (“I fight to rise from this river of hell.” – thank you, Ted Hughes.)   Only here Collins is angry, angry at the whole world instead of this one woman, who maybe won’t be coming back anytime soon.  “Now you never did see such a terrible thing/As was seen last night on T.V./Maybe if we’re lucky they will show it again/Such a terrible thing to see.”  If that’s the level of discourse in the household, I cannot imagine she’s going return at all.  It’s all about the domino theory, apparently, but the song comes off as if this one personal rift is actually responsible for all the misery of the world.  And it’s all her fault.  

Oh God I hate this album.

And just in case Collins hasn't made his point about that woman and how sorry she should be for deciding to leave him, there's "Throwing It All Away" which ensures that the divorced-man-in-wine-bar will have something to solidly grasp on to once he's driven everyone else away with his mopey, self-centered and ungenerous nature.  "Late at night when you call my name/The only sound you'll hear/Is the sound of your voice calling/Calling after me."  What if the fire alarm's going, you moron? Also, what's with the bad West Indian accent, Collins?

Luckily, the last song is an instrumental, one that is meant to be heard behind other, more exciting things happening in the foreground, like settling the bar bill or getting into a fight with the bloke next to you who spilled your pint.  It's like they want to be Simple Minds c. 1981, or OMD, or Japan, or...but of course have to make it tidier, Hugh Padgham wouldn't produce anything too weird, you know? He's so reliable that way! 

Yes, this is worse than the previous album on TPL, which at least has one song that makes you stop and think.  This is just one icky sexist dodgeball of an album, and it depresses me still that so many people bought it on both sides of the Atlantic.

Well, if this is the hegemonic, what is the alternative?  Is there an alternative?


As I sat and waited to hear back from Ryerson, I had an album to listen to; it wasn't exactly very comforting, but in a world of Top Gun and hair metal and so on, it could not help to stand out.  By this time I listened to CFNY exclusively and if the BBC didn't play The Smiths in the daytime, well, CFNY did.  I have talked about the importance of this station before, I know, and it will loom ever larger - but for now I listen to a show called Live From London to hear the latest news every Wednesday night and wonder idly about this place called the UK that can produce groups like The Smiths....

...The Smiths, as it turns out, are from Manchester - a city I know very little of, at this point - and are, even I can see, Anglo-Irish; a fact that I think gets forgotten in figuring out just why they were who they were.  Outsiders, yes, but also Other, experiencing Northern life but with a perspective different from, say, The Fall (who I discovered in 1986 with Bend Sinister).

But, to the album...

The WWI-era "Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty" song is quoted and it fades into a mean martial beat, a wah-wah of distant menace, a drone like a high whine; and in dives Morrissey, Irish tenor handsome and withering, conjuring up a queen that is dead, as the symbol of a country that is all but dead but doesn't know it yet. The bass pumps away as if James Jamerson had possession of Andy Rourke, and suddenly we are in a different place from Genesis, though this song is about loneliness amongst many other things...but to merely call this song "irreverent" (and the whole album, for that matter, as the NME summed it up in 2013) is kind of missing the point.  Morrissey meets the queen, the queen's not impressed by him, but to his own shame he is also, crucially, part of the problem - "the eighteenth pale descendant of some old queen or other."  Well, what to do in such a static situation?  The precious things he wants to talk about are things no one else wants to talk about, has he changed or has the world changed? Was there once a world where love, law and poverty could be talked about? (Of course "The Queen" he mentions could be the empire, but I somehow think it's more complicated than that.)  Marr's guitar grows angrier (before he's been as cool as Nile Rodgers), as if he knows he's got it, is on it, and the music is all that anyone, band included, has got.  Hold on to this, the music says, hang on to it, as best you can - and it swings out at the end, to the next song...

"Frankly Mr. Shankly" (I didn't know the resonance of this name at the time) is charming, Dylanesque (don't know if Morrissey'd agree with that) and shows up the man in question to be obtuse, uncomprehending and worst of all, a bad poet.  And yet he has the power, not the narrator, and it's the same as hearing broadcasters misuse and abuse language, get facts wrong; no wonder the narrator wants fame despite its drawbacks - fame is the only way he can be as powerful, if not more powerful, than Mr. Shankly.  (Again, the Irish triad - "It is death to mock a poet/It is death to love a poet/It is death to be a poet" comes to mind as a way to understand The Smiths in general.)  "You will not miss me" he sings, know full well he will be missed, and he must move quickly; he's a sickening wreck and only has so much energy, and "wants to catch something I might be ashamed of." (In the context of 1986, I found this to be more than a little alarming.)  Poor Mr. Shankly just doesn't know what to make of the narrator, which is much like how Geoff Travis, head of Rough Trade, The Smiths' label, dealt with Morrissey - from what I can tell, without much actual sympathy.***

"I Know It's Over" starts as it finishes, with the living death of the UK now shrunk to the living death of being alone, praised and admired but still...alone.  Listening to this used to scare me, as if Morrissey really was in his grave, crying out in agony as clods and pebbles hit his head; it is a beautiful song with something radical in the center - "it takes strength to be gentle and kind."  I had never thought of this, that it was heroic to be kind - brave even!  "It takes guts" he says when he comes to it again, whereas it is easy - it takes no thought or courage - to laugh and hate, to push yourself away from the object of misery.  To walk by the man and not acknowledge him or listen or respond.  Morrissey wants others to be kind to each other; he wants his love life to blossom in the same way, but it's just not happening.  (For the record I don't really care about his love life, as such, I didn't in '86 and I still don't now.)  And his voice cries up to heaven as his Otherness marks him out as just as much dead as alive, a nonentity, fully capable of love but having no one to give it to...from political/cultural fury to satire to romantic agony; this album doesn't let up, and each song is a fully-formed thing, "Frankly Mr. Shankly" is guarded and vaguely jaunty, "I Know It's Over" heats up to sear, Rourke's bass as counterpoint to Morrissey, underlining his words.

"Never Had No One Ever" is once again about the pain of being only half-alive, caught up in a nightmare of a waking life - "the streets where you were raised" are a bad dream, a mark of emptiness, but what happens now?  "I'm outside your house" croons Morrissey, as if this is the first house he's seen with light in the window, ever.  He sounds exhausted, calling out his loneliness like a 50s crooner (so much of the The Smiths' aesthetic comes from the pre-Beatles era) - the song shuffles and lopes along, as Morrissey's voice circles and echoes and breathes heavily, as if the "20 years, 7 months and 27 days****" has been a marathon he's run, and only now can he catch his breath.

I wasn't a big poetry fan in my teens - so "Cemetry Gates" never hit me as hard as I'm sure it did other literary listeners; I knew the authors mentioned, sure, but I didn't take much of a stance between Keats, Yeats or Wilde.  (I was perfectly happy to let the narrator claim he won because Wilde is on his side, but I'd like to point out, as if I'd need to, that Wilde doesn't know him.)  The song is really about language and how it can be quoted, misquoted, spelt wrong (like the song's title), and how hard it is to say anything new, when so many great writers have come before.  "A dreaded sunny day" is also not really my shared opinion, nor am I particularly fond of visiting the dead; but it gives what might seem like a perpetually self-centered album some needed perspective - others were born, lived, died, shared passions and loves like the narrator...and the world of the past opens up as an escape, the world of language is a refuge from the present.  The song is lovely, beautiful, a bit sad, folky and sounding as if The Sundays are playing, as much as The Smiths.

The big single comes next - sounding again folky and mean, as Morrissey takes on his own bigmouthedness, his own vulnerability and the fierceness of his opinions - how much can I trust him?  How could he say those things and then say he was joking?  I didn't know anything about the UK dailies and how they claimed Morrissey said this or that, with no substantiation whatsoever - Morrissey being someone who, from what I can tell, they hated and wanted to and did attack whenever they felt like it.  As his agony increases, Walkman melting, Marr's guitar sounds like a weapon, the ferocity of which rises up and takes what might seem like some as a minor complaint and makes it the actual nightmare of Morrissey's life translated into noise.  To truly feel as if there's no place for you anywhere, just because you want to speak your mind and think differently is not the mark of a democracy, parliamentary or otherwise.  I cannot tell if the tabloid press of the 80s was worse then, but imagine their response to the very idea of an album called The Queen Is Dead and you can imagine the outrage even from here.  If this album is held so highly by so many (including myself) it's because The Smiths went there, said things that were in a way more extreme than The Sex Pistols because they didn't just hit and run with one album.  (The Smiths are, in ways I can't really explain, more feminine than the Pistols, and thus more against the grain of UK culture's Establishment, which is most definitely, as we've seen, straight and male.) 

And hence the lilting and pretty-enough-for-mainstream-radio "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side" - Smiths lite, if you will, but the sting is still there, the stone in the shoe, and yet how, well, charming this song is - all the sighs, all the endless questions, an aria of longing and hoping and wishing.  And yes, there it is, the yarragh, different from Bono but there, yelping and calling with the gentle waves of the song, a song that dips up and down like a boat hopeful of reaching some port.  Morrissey's wordlessness says just as much as his lyrics, arching and perching and diving and skimming along to Marr's guitar.  The boy may ache and want to kill, but his passion isn't for death but life.

"Vicar In A Tutu" is a country song about a guy who just "wants to live his life this way" - the church may just want your money (the ever-present Rose counts the money in the cannister) but the vicar is again a sign of life, difference, a willingness to just be yourself and not care about what the Establishment - in this case the church - might think of you.  "Freedom and Ease" are the two goals, the ways OUT, they are what the vicar has, clearly, and the fact that he's like this all the time shows he's accepted, he (oh, the teenage ideal) fits in.  As natural as life itself, literally on the inside, he acts as a sign to the narrator (a thief, stealing lead from the church's roof) that there is no need to conceal yourself, to fake, as long as you are genuine about what you are doing.

It's hard not to think of this - because I heard it in very late adolescence - as an adolescent album; especially with "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out."  I was never so down as a teenager that I could imagine dying in someone else's car a delightful thing; I was always too literal-minded for such a sentiment.  (When your first remembered experience is a powerful earthquake, you tend to yearn for peace and quiet, not romantic death and destruction.)  The song is abrupt, somewhat ironical (the way he sings "the pleasure, the privilege is mine"), starry-eyed, and yep, melodramatic.  It only works as it's Manchester bubblegum anomie, hooky and strange, compelling and morbid and again, just out there, in a way I don't think has happened since 10cc.  The narrator doesn't want to go home, doesn't seem to want to find a new one, just wants to be out at night downtown, and oh there's the underpass (Cue John Foxx yelling "Underpass!") and the hinge of the dilemma, "a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn't ask."  Ask what?  The whole song circles and flies from this, and what it is he wants to ask for - a new home?  A kiss?  If the driver can be more than his friend?  Who knows?  That what isn't said holds the song in place and makes me feel sorry for the narrator, as he doesn't have the courage, would rather die, than be forward.  (How significant is it that "Ask" comes out later in '86?)

After this melodrama comes "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" - a song that again looks longways at history, from the "ice-age to the dole-age" and concludes that there's, well, some girls who are bigger, some mothers who are bigger; this song baffled me at the time as I didn't get the Carry On reference about Antony and Cleopatra; nor did I get the "Send me your pillow...the one that you dream on" reference.  It is an utterly confident offhanded way to end an album, as if to say well, that's been the album, here's something a little odd and ambivalent and yes, romantic at the end.  The whole album looks at things both directly and askance, but never with a cold eye.  The melodrama is held at bay by the music, the music supports the humor and anger, and there is no self-pity, only an anxiety (the album is a combination of confidence and anxiety) that something must change on the personal front, as large-scale change seems unimaginable.  The Queen Is Dead?  The queen already seems to be dead, the world of true nobility gone, save for personal nobility, which has nothing to do with the Establishment.  Or does it?  That is the problem here, maybe an unsolvable one, but at least The Smiths, like the Irish-American Number 6, realize they are in a world where they can't fit in, and are doing their best to improve it, if not end it, forever.

A month passes...

A new album appears, and I buy it on tape.    



I feel compelled to write about this album in the context of the above two as for me, it was a way out.  I was willing to share The Smiths' ire and compassion, but in a hot summer of sweaty anticipation, I needed something to buoy me up.  The Smiths left me feeling, as they did, lonely on a limb; as much as I loved that sense of shared intensity, the world had to be more than just being in Oakville, looking out the window and walking around the same streets and mall all the time.

Enter R.E.M.

Well now.

When I say that 1986 was the year that saved music, this is what I'm talking about.  That it pretty much gave me something solid - something I could truly lean on in those weeks - really can't be overstated.  I cannot overemphasize how attached I am to this album, and writing now I can sense how many others must have leaned on it in their own way.  It is an answer record to The Queen Is Dead in a way, though that was of course not the cause for it.  (I have to note that the misery of the UK - bad weather, cold - seeped into Fables Of The Reconstruction, as it was recorded in the winter of  '85 in London, whereas Lifes Rich Pageant was recorded in Indiana in the spring of '86.  The warmth makes it through to the music.)

The idea of newness, of grasping something, of having some kind of power, if only the power to sense change - all this is missing in The Smiths and abundant in R.E.M.   Which isn't to say that the world is a great place - if anything, because R.E.M. are more objective, they are better able to see that being part of a nation - a descendant - isn't a cause for shock or shame.  It is a unifying thing.  "This land is the land of ours" is a key line, even if it's charged with pathos; "ours" could mean "us" or "them" but the song collapses such notions into a huge "OURS."  The dreadful alienation of The Queen Is Dead is answered with a notion that death is not the end...

"Begin The Begin" starts as something big lurches into view, as new blood comes to revive a body.  "I looked for it and I found it...congratulate me" sings Stipe, as if the insurgency was only the start, and there's just so much else to do, so many things to do..."let's begin again" he sings, the music wiping and wiping the slate clean over and over, with derring-do and four-square determination.  The music breaks and rises, a new horizon is there, surrounding you, and there's a heroic whooping LEAP into the future, however much trouble it's going to be, it's worth it.

And the ambition!  "I will rearrange your scales if I can, AND I CAN!" Stipe proclaims in "These Days" - a quick boost to flagging troops.  "We have many things in common, name three" "Three! Three! Three!" - note the sense that it doesn't take much to unite people, just saying the number makes a kind of magic.  "Take this joy with you wherever you go!" is the message, that if he can, you can too - a contagion worth catching here, and one not to be ashamed of.  "Fly to carry each his burden" he sings, after losing his hat in the water and slapping it back on his head; it's not soil on his head, but a wet hat.  This is communion with nature in an unselfconscious way, a way that implies he is no better than anyone; anyone is no better than him.  "We have hope despite the times" - the terror of the times there in his saying it, as if the times themselves were something he could grasp like his hat.  There they are, wet but ready.  (R.E.M. didn't make this album in a vacuum, The Smiths didn't either, but somehow R.E.M. seem more ready to take things on, less resigned.)
"Fall On Me" and "Cuyahoga" are two songs that I feel are their best - the first has some of the best singing (that interplay between Stipe and Mike Mills in the the second verse is astonishing) and the second the best lyrics - "this is where we walked" becoming "this is where they walked" - the land being, as I said, OURS, something not owned and fenced off but shared, from one century and to another and to now and and the future.  Time collapses here, the river always there and sometimes ignored and sometimes not, worth more than a "souvenir" -  the river standing for the whole country, wasted and in need of care, not neglect.  (That elongated "behind you" with Mills' bass is Smithsesque.)  "Fall On Me" is about oppression, the sky itself not safe from capitalism, lack of foresight, and folly and vanity.  Ambition without end, the sky's the limit, or maybe not...so no wonder Stipe wants to "start a new country up" after seeing the mendacity of the old one; but be careful not to just do a new version of the old...

"Hyena" - a song about aggression, paranoia and fear/fearlessness, sounds to me like an early coming of Vampire Weekend; sure, it might be about the mutually assured destruction hanging over the world, nuclear illogic, but it's not a down song; the hyena is a menace, the town's not safe with it around - this is a kind of update on "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." 

Just as The Queen Is Dead has its odd humor, so do R.E.M.; "Underneath The Bunker" reminds me of odd 60s black humor, of the time my parents and I had to stay in a bunker-ish motel in upstate New York, with a bit of spring fever on the side.  It's just what is needed.

"The Flowers of Guatemala" starts the second side with something very gentle and tender, not fierce, and to those who don't like that about R.E.M. tend to think this is where the album starts to go wrong.  But you can't just have roughness and passion without something quieter lurking behind it - it would be two-dimensional, I feel, much like Genesis only have the two gears, and that's it.  And this song is deliberately genteel to talk about, well, death; the flowers are captured in a photo, "Amanita" by name.  They cover everything, the people are dead and the mushrooms grow at night; amanita is the genus of many mushrooms, including deadly ones.  Again the mushroom cloud of nuclear death; the defenseless people; and of course the Reagan actions in Central America are all here, into a pastoral beauty of a song that's about anything but.  R.E.M. may not be New Pop, but it's the most genteel song about death we've had for some time...

"I Believe" is a counter to this, to the awful death that placidly seems to cover everything, as far as the eye can see; Stipe is boosted by the the energy of the song - a natural energy, as this album is about nature, the environment (the outliers ahead of the curve).  The earnestness of Stipe's belief is undercut by his noting that his "shirt is wearing thin" and "my humor is wearing thin" - but despite all this, he thinks, he knows, that "golden words make practice, practice makes perfect/Perfect is a fault, and fault lines change" - that change being drawn out as the inevitability and the goal, a goal that may still be fuzzy but is felt, there. "The poles are shifting" he sings, and you can feel them shifting in the song.  "I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract" is like Whitman, gathering and giving up all of human experience as his, as part of his life and yours - and that bigness is here, you are welcome, come on in....

"What If We Give It Away?" might upset some again as it doesn't seem to point to the thing being given, but it's more about what if things aren't so guarded, so paranoid, so held back?   A year has come and gone, nothing has changed, there's no one there to stop you, so why hold on to anything?  All that money can't buy - adventure, intrigue, joy, nature - is out there, and there's no point in standing still (to use a previous R.E.M. title) and just stitching things on your tie and fitting in to a world that doesn't care if you're there or not.

"Just A Touch" is a demented song, a last howl, a kind of feverish mess that I couldn't understand at first and even now, I'm not sure I need to know all the lyrics - it's the grain of Stipe's voice, the banging piano and organ, the sheer noise of the thing that counts.  "How long can this last?" is the main question, as if there's a clock ticking somewhere and the song has to end before a bomb explodes.  In one relatively quiet moment Stipe sings "You set the pace of what was to come/I have to carry on now that you're gone" - that "gooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnNNNNNEE" stretched out as if the person who is being mentioned is rocketing through the air, has disappeared.  It's a lament and a challenge, and the punk ferocity here shows how difficult that loss is.  But they have to keep going, no matter what.  "I can't see where to worship Popeye, love Al Green/I can't see, I'm so young, I'm so goddamn young" - is this song about finding out about Lennon's death?  ("A Day In The Life" is mentioned, and there's "Kevin heard it on the radio...") I don't know, but it's pointing to Patti Smith at the end, the youth of the band ("we are young despite our years" from "These Days") and how someone's got to keep going, dammit.

"Swan Swan H" is a song that I've always taken to be about age, about how old America is, how the South has to confront its past and realize that maybe heroes were needed  - "Johnny Reb, what's the price of heroes?" - but all that is gone now, down to "bonechains and toothpicks."  The South is still there as a subject for R.E.M., beautiful and old and neglected ("long long time ago, people talked to me").  It's a nice link from Fables Of The Reconstruction, and shows that while the USA isn't as old as the UK, it too has history, a history that is vivid and that some of the past isn't somehow the past, but part of the present, again a felt, present thing.

As an end, like with The Queen Is Dead, there is oddness again - R.E.M.'s "Superman" (a cover, of course) is a big dumb-smart 60s song that stops and starts and brags and is just the thing to round up an album that, while it deals with death and change, is far more confident and energetic - not as resigned - as The Smiths.  Though I love other albums by R.E.M. just as much, Lifes Rich Pageant is like getting that sign from somewhere - in this case Athens, Georgia, not a place I've ever been - that things, though tough, were going to be okay.  And they were...

It took me through August, through to that day when I received the letter saying that I had been accepted to Ryerson.  I had been on the waiting list, unknowingly, and 11 people had to choose to go elsewhere for me to get in.  They did, and I spent the next few weeks getting ready and not really knowing what I was getting into, only that for whatever reason, they trusted I'd be able to handle Ryerson.  That I could handle the Genesis fans, those who thought I was weird because I listened to The Fall on my Walkman, and so on.  The future wasn't quite so uncertain; someone decided I could, just, write.

Next up:  What does marriage do to creativity? 

*Also migraine-inducing:  the album cover and lyric sheet itself, with more of those circles in green and dark blue that make reading the lyrics even more difficult than necessary.

**Clearly some of the men who bought this were double glazing salesmen; yuppies can’t keep an album on the charts for nearly two years all by themselves.
***"Panic" has yet to happen, but when Morrissey wonders why it didn't get to #1, Travis tells him because it's not good enough. It got stuck at #11, and here's the top ten which I guess Travis felt were more, uh, better: The Lady In Red (Chris De Burgh)/So Macho/Cruising - Sinitta/ Papa Don't Preach - Madonna/Camouflage - Stan Ridgway/I Wanna Wake Up With You - Boris Gardner/Let's Go All The Way - Sly Fox/Find The Time - Five Star/What's The Colour Of Money? - Hollywood Beyond/Every Beat Of My Heart - Rod Stewart/I Didn't Mean To Turn You On - Robert Palmer.  Chernobyl's ominousness - yet another sign of things going wrong in '86 - and the inability of music to respond to it, the inability of  daytime BBC deejays to respond adequately to it, shows the gulf between what The Man - clearly in evidence in the top ten here - and what the people think music should be about.  But this is in August, when The Smiths have had enough of Rough Trade, in part because The Queen Is Dead only reaches #2.

****At this point I'm not even that old yet, which is why I felt a bit, "um, thanks" about this song when I first heard it; I certainly didn't sit down and calculate how old I'd be when this age would happen.  As things turned out, it was the beginning of a very dark period for me.