Thursday 20 October 2016
(#416; 10 November 1990, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Your Song/Rocket Man (I Think It's Going To Be A Long Long Time)/Honky Cat/Crocodile Rock/Daniel/Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting/Candle In The Wind/Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me/Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds/Philadelphia Freedom/Someone Saved My Life Tonight/Pinball Wizard/The Bitch Is Back/Don't Go Breaking My Heart/Bennie And The Jets/Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word/Song For Guy/Part Time Love/Blue Eyes/I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues/I'm Still Standing/Kiss The Bride/Sad Songs (Say So Much)/Passengers/Nikita/I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That/Sacrifice/Easier To Walk Away/You Gotta Love Someone
And so, back to Elton John. During the liminal period there are going to be (and there already has been, thinking of The Carpenters, David Bowie, et al) a lot of pauses to look back and take some stock in the 20th century before it inevitably disappears. Certainly this is the case here; as much as this might look like it's capitalizing on the success of Sleeping With The Past, it is, to quote Elton himself, different. "My old life stops with the release of this history...A new life starts here, thanks to a willingness to change..."
Which is one way of saying, I've had enough of being a pop star now and would like to do other things; this, for better or indeed worse, is what I have done. This is fine, and it is fairly accurate to say that this is indeed what people will remember him for, more or less - being a compilation for the UK, it doesn't have a lot of his US hits - no "Island Girl" (perhaps this is just as well) or "Tiny Dancer," no "Mama Can't Buy You Love" (Thom Bell, sigh) or "Ego" (which only helped to invent the Pet Shop Boys) either. If I was to put together a best of it would be quite different, but this isn't to say this is a bad compilation; it's a fairly standard one though, and so much of it has been written about here on TPL already that I am only able to skim through it and highlight what John and TAUPIN* have accomplished, as best I can.
"Your Song" is already proof that the divide between the two here is going to be a partnership, sure, but also a battle. Ha, says TAUPIN, I am going to write a conversational lyric which breaks the fourth wall and is a song as much about how useless words are as how great they are, a song about honesty and love and you, Elton, are going to have to set it to music and sing it just so." This was the deal, that John had to set TAUPIN's lyrics to music, and it works so well here, you'd want someone to dedicate it to you, even though there are a thousand somebodies to whom it too is their song. I don't think of these two as Friendly Forebears, but every once in a while they most certainly are.
I wrote about "Rocket Man" here and I can only note there's yet another best of by Elton John with that title.
"Honky Cat" is a fun song and since TAUPIN is from Sleaford and grew up in the countryside of Lincolnshire, all I'm-just-a-dumb-hick-me references are sincere. It also has two voices - one of the cat himself, and one of those who are telling him to go back home.
"Crocodile Rock" is pure cheese, all Sha-Na-Na and Pat Boone, and Marcello wrote about it excellently here.
"Daniel" is about Vietnam, but like so many songs about that war, it hides it; or perhaps the condition of the war by now is so pervasive that just about every song of the time can be referred to it. This is Stevie Wonder's favorite Elton John song, btw.
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is one of those defining songs - of its era, and of Elton and TAUPIN's career. Again, the reference to a plough is a genuine one, as if Honky Cat has grown up here a little and can appreciate what the rural life has, instead.
"Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" is the first all-out rock song here, as in "OMG this rocks, must play air guitar NOW" sort of way. It is a shot, a jolt of pure energy, with Elton gleefully WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOing and a lot of references to working class youth, braces and boots (is this about skinheads?) and motorbikes and getting pissed, one way or another. The mellow part of the 70s, officially, is done. Not for Elton is the Glam Slam stomp (though he was friends with Marc Bolan, of course); when Elton rocks, he ROCKS.
"Candle In The Wind" comes next, a bit jarring, and here Elton I sense that this is really TAUPIN speaking through Elton, as was his power to do, at times. I appreciate that he is trying to get across the nobility of Marilyn, who as I remember was the movie star the feminists most wanted to rescue from being merely seen as a sexpot. This song helps that cause; and of course will one day be rewritten to suit another woman who died in the midst of trying to refashion her own life.
"Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" is a BIG ballad, complete with the Beach Boys singing in the back. It's a song of romantic torment, with "I can't find, Oh the right romantic line" and this is again clumsy, but in the talk of blinding lights and ladders, it's a song of hope and dread, of a terrible fear of loss. Elton and TAUPIN were now in the big leagues, no longer just two people brought together in 1967 (when TAUPIN was just 17) to write songs but outdoing just about everyone else in writing huge songs like this.
"Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" is a loving version of the song, able to rest in it longeurs, dip into reggae for the chorus, and it's always the case that in a cover version, the qualities the singer brings to it are ones that were always lurking there, brought into light by Lennon (who does background vocals here). Elton is that sturdy voice, believable, as if there really were newspaper taxis, marshmallow pies and the amazing Lucy herself, floating in the sky. Elton had guested on "Whatever Gets You Through The Night" and this was the sequel in a way. It was the last time Lennon appeared on a US #1 in his lifetime....
Big breath here.
There are certain songs which have a very strong effect on me, and "Philadelphia Freedom" is one of them. It is credited to the Elton John Band, and this is important; it was orchestrated by the same man who worked with Barry White, so you know it's going to be huge and sweeping and bigger than life. It was written deliberately as a single, unlike everything else here (Elton and TAUPIN just wrote songs, man, and the label picked the songs they wanted as singles).
First, the bass; Dee Murray, the late Dee Murray, is AWESOME here, and I am now going to give props to his band, who tend to get overlooked, in general.
TAUPIN was told to write a song about Billie Jean King's tennis team the Philadelphia Freedoms, and then replied that he didn't write songs about tennis. I can see Elton rolling his eyes now, telling TAUPIN to just write something with that name, then.
It's a song about joy, about making decisions, and about what and where home is. Is it in a place, or in an ideal?
I'm crying already.
As you can see, it's ultimately a song about being free, a topic that has a lot of different meaning in the contexts it appeared in - the US Bicentennial (those flutes conjuring up a Bicentennial minute, seen by me on our family trip across the US in the summer of '75) and the US being proud of itself after the nightmares of Vietnam and Watergate. But something else is here too, "the ones left behind" - those who aren't free, but who have the beacon of the US to look to - "won't you shine the light---" and the equal conjuring up of immigrants. Not just of the past, but of the present. Even right now, as you read this. The melody is foursquare and solid, so it can leap up and soar and it works; and TAUPIN didn't mean it to become a patriotic song, but it cannot help but be heard this way if you're an American. This is a distinct case of the music taking the words right over, and Elton sings it as if it's a new anthem. Considering it's about a feminist heroine, about sport, about a woman who eventually comes out (sung by a man who will, one day, do the same) it's about sexual freedom, as well.** He even got to perform it on Soul Train, which adds another dimension altogether.
I really can't say enough about this, in part because I must relate it to my own father (not that he had much to say about popular music) and his own needs to be free and happy, his own push-and-pull relationship to the US. And again there is the city vs. the "good old family home" and the urge, the need to get out and see the world. This is what my father has ultimately given me, I feel....
"Someone Saved My Life Tonight" is also about freedom, and it's a rare case where Elton seems to have told TAUPIN about that time he nearly died, were it not for the intervention of Long John Baldry saving him from death. So Elton speaks with a rare authority here, and thus the song is a hymn. "Thank God my music's still alive." Just how he got into such a terrible way (the lyrics are about his getting out of what sounds like a wedding from hell) I don't know. But death was an option until Baldry talked him out of it. As bitchy as the lyrics are (there are lines about stocks and bonds which may be metaphorical or not, I don't know) the gratitude here is real.
"Pinball Wizard" is from Tommy and it is fairly straightforward, with a bit of "I Can't Expain" thrown in to boot. I have never seen the movie, though of course Elton towers over everyone, only to be outdone either by Ann-Margret or Tina Turner, depending on how you see things. Ah, the 70s.
Speaking of Tina, she used to open her show with "The Bitch Is Back" and while this is about a woman and on paper TAUPIN makes her look mean, Elton takes it as a compliment and rocks out to an extent that even Dave Marsh, from Detroit man, likes it. "It's the way that I move, the things that I do!" growls Elton, as the band explodes.....(and if you listen, you can hear Dusty Springfield in the back there. HAH!)
Thus endeth the first tape....
"Don't Go Breaking My Heart" zips and zooms away with more WHHOO-HOOs and Kiki Dee is there to cheer Elton up. It brings back that hot summer of '76, with the strings as a cool breeze. It's moving to hear Elton have someone with him - bringing her into his Imperial Phase existence, which this certainly is. He is once again unsure, and she is reassuring him that she is loyal; they did this themselves, and "nobody knoww---whhhhhhhoaaas it." Punk may be exploding in the streets, but this song is what I knew of the time - an actual love song, with courage and vulnerability in it. That they dress down for the video is equally fitting.
For me there are two main Elton John songs - one is "Philadelphia Freedom" and the other one is "Bennie and the Jets."
It is a vamp of a song, weirdly reminiscent of "Station To Station" by Bowie; and it is a riposte to Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. This may have been meant by TAUPIN as a satire on the megaglitz of 70s rock, but Elton turns it into a jazz song, and there's clapping from the Hendrix Isle of Wight concert thrown in by Gus Dudgeon and then Elton goes into the voices of the teenagers who read it in a MAGAAAAAAAAAAAAAZZZZIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNNEEEEEE OH HO and the splendour of the music takes right over from any satire whatsoever. And the fourth wall gets knocked down again.
This wasn't meant to be a single, by the way, but a station in Windsor, Ontario decided to treat it like one, and then Detroit, just across the river, picked it up, and then it crossed over to the black radio stations and eventually got to #1 in the US. It's weird and wonderful and is so part of US popular culture now that this may be his best known song there, and both Mary J. Blige and Frank Ocean have sampled from it. And yes, it's a jazz song, going right back to the roots of where a teenage Elton started, before he knew TAUPIN. You're soaking in it! The reason it's here in the chronology was (inexplicably) it wasn't released as a single until October of '76, two and a half years after it was a hit in the US. It's not like any other single, and I'm glad it's here. It is perfect.
"Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" I associate with a totally hapless Elton appearing on the legendarily batshit Christmas '76 episode of Morecambe and Wise. If you haven't seen it, it involves prophecies of some one coming and going, Subbuteo legs, dancing turning into boxing, John Thaw and Dennis Waterman up the creek without a paddle and an ending that simply could never happen now.*** At one point Elton says "Can we say funky?" and you just know the Imperial Phase is over. The ridiculous costumes and whizz-bang days are gone. TAUPIN gives him nothing but breakup lyrics to compose songs to, and this is one of them. It has a French feel to it (the accordion helps) which reminds me that TAUPIN is the son of two French immigrants. Yeah you folks, half of the UK's most successful writing duo involving the postal service is secretly French.
Elton does moping music really well though, and everybody who has been dumped can relate to it.
At this point Elton and TAUPIN take their own break from each other, and while they do "Ego" together, Elton gets to work with various people including Thom Bell. I'm not sure what else happens, but he gets to do a few more good songs...
"Song For Guy" is an instrumental that ambles along to a cha-cha beat straight from that button on the organ there; Guy being a motorbike courier for Rocket Records, the label Elton set up for himself once he finally escaped his draconian two-albums-per-year old contract. Guy died in a traffic accident, and this is Elton's tribute to the teenager. It is wordless, save for the words "life isn't everything." It is sad, but not mournful - it has that absent quality that sounds as if there is indeed something missing...
After this, it is all very hit and miss. "Part Time Love" is Gary Osborne's lyrics of everyone cheating on everyone else, as if the 70s culminates in nothing but a lot of wacky bed-hopping. Already the music sounds like it's from a musical, with a chorus line in the back singing along. It's just embarrassing.
"Blue Eyes" is something else though; suddenly it's 1982 and Elton is taking his time, going into his lowest register, pausing and confusing those who forgot he could still do this and pull it off. It is not soppy or dull, which unfortunately a lot of the rest of the songs here are. They are the equivalent to the Stylistics after Thom Bell left them to Hugo & Luigi.
"I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" sees him back with TAUPIN, who encourages people to feel bad, if only so they can then feel better. It's a "I miss you too honey" of a song, with overproduction from Chris Thomas, a bunch of backing singers who aren't as intrusive as David Bowie's but are somehow just as annoying. "Wait on me girl." Elton sings it as if it's just another song, really - it's as if his real enthusiasm is elsewhere, not here. Even the near-obligatory Stevie Wonder harmonica solo can't help it.
"I'm Still Standing" is sonically one big nyah-nyah and is just as headache-inducing for me as "Modern Love." This is Elton in his ha-ha-I'm-okay-look-I'm-marrying-a-woman-and-everything-HAHA period, and it's not pretty. It's not even listenable.
Speaking of denial, "Kiss The Bride" is either TAUPIN pulling a very mean prank on Elton, o r else it's actually what Elton felt. There are plenty of songs about this whole theme of wanting to attend a wedding and cause a fuss, but "It Should Have Been Me" (preferably sung by Adeva) is so much better than this, it's not even funny. Or if you want rock, "I Knew The Bride" by Dave Edmunds. No Elton, you don't want to kiss her, come on.
"Sad Songs (Say So Much)" sounds like a commercial, complete with needless over-explaining, an annoying chorus of backing singers, simple music and the irony that it's a cheery song about listening to the blues. Or Joy Division, I can't tell. "They reach into your room" is a creepy way to sing about music, as if music can actually walk in and touch you, like a ghost. When all hope is gone you don't listen to the blues, you dork. You listen to music that can give you hope, energy, LIFE. Rich people luxuriating in the blues is one of the most irritating things in rock, and this is a big slice of it.
"Passengers" is apparently about South Africa and apartheid and the condition of miners, but it is so repetitive and allusive and so forth that I am not really sure that comes across. This wasn't even a single in the US, and the US loves Elton John. It's no "Biko" or "Free Nelson Mandela" for sure.
"Nikita" is a song from the Cold War, part one (are we in part two yet? I can't tell). Remember in La Femme Nikita how she's supposed to be deaf to any mayhem because she's listening to this song? How could that be, unless she's got it up to maximum volume? Nikita is a Russian woman who has eyes that are like "ice on fire" and she is pitied because she doesn't know the joys of life in the West. At bottom this seems to be some kind of odd pen-pal relationship, with the woman being all Eastern Bloc enigmatic and himself wondering why she hasn't leapt to be by his side. SIGH. Yes, that is George Michael in the background, and Nik Kershaw on guitar.
"I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That" takes us to 1988 (I remember it from my trip to the UK; this and "A Word In Spanish"). Here he contradicts his free-loving self in "Part Time Love" and rebukes an Other who wants lots of lovers. It's got a good beat and you can dance to it, and Elton sounds actually pissed off, for once. But again, for a better song, see the Pet Shop Boys' "Domino Dancing."
Which brings us to "Sacrifice" - one of the coldest breakup songs of all time (yep, TAUPIN is breaking up with someone again). "Mutual misunderstanding" is the theme here, but it sounds to me as if no sweat is broken here, no feelings hurt - the song is memorable, sure, but if there is no sacrifice here, was there something really there to begin with? It all feels so insubstantial. So many of Elton's songs from the 70s were as solid as buildings, as natural as a tree you could lean against; this E-Z Rock ballad swirls around jealousy and temptation but the song waves these human emotions and feelings off, and Elton is singing is fine...maybe this is about his own divorce? About something bigger?
The last two songs are the obligatory "new songs you've never heard before" ones and they are so dull as to constitute a crime. "Easier To Walk Away" attempts a kind of New Jack Swing beat, and is all about love mysteriously "holding you up for ransom." No, I don't know either. What the heck was TAUPIN thinking here? "Oh-ho-hooo, love, it's so oppressive, you can never trust the other, oh poetry I shall die." Since when did he turn into Morrissey?
"You Gotta Love Someone" is about the importance of loving someone before you go do something crazy. Like "stop the world and steal the face from the moon." This is getting to "Instinction" levels of WTF-ness here. "You need two hearts on one side." Well, thank you, TAUPIN. Next time I feel like getting a "slice of the sun" I will remember that I am happily attached to someone. Musically this is a genteel tune that sounds like someone doing an Elton John song. It's bossy and even Don Was' production cannot save it.
What to make of all this? Would it have been better for Elton to have just stopped making music after a while? I doubt that would have happened, but like Bowie I think his heart was elsewhere in the 80s, as it is now; the omission of "That's What Friends Are For" here kind of points to where his interests and energies are - namely in LGBT rights, worldwide, as well as raising funds to help those with AIDS. If your heart is elsewhere and you made your mark musically by the time you turned 30, you just keep going and touring and eventually pause here to mark the end of that life, and a new one of love, both personal and brotherly. You can still dress up and make a spectacle of yourself, of course.
We don't return to Elton John for some time here on TPL. His '90s will be one of heartbreak, triumph and the biggest UK single of all time; his good works will get him knighted in 1998, and even now he is so big and well known, for his WHOO-HOOOs as well as his sensitive ballads, that he can get Putin on the line to talk about what matters - equality, pure and simple. Oh, and freedom, which in his best song is given (by TAUPIN) is given so many dimensions, so many facets, as to be as close to my heart as some woman my own age in Russia, or anywhere else.
Next up: the harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all.
*In the sleeve notes to Sleeping With The Past there's a Herb Ritts picture of Elton John with his lyricist and he's just called TAUPIN as if he was a brand or a corporation or something. This picture is also used for this compilation, and he looks quite smug, is wearing leather jeans and looks more like Steven Seagal than anyone besides Seagal should. Hence, I will refer to him in all-caps.
**It's even about the right to have a pop single be five minutes long. DJs in the US carped about Elton's songs being too long, so Elton gave them this, a home run of a song, and of course it went to #1. It got to #12 in the UK as he didn't want to have the stunning strings butchered by the Top Of The Pops orchestra.
***Imagine a UK showbiz figure of your choice (my choices here are Will Young or maybe Idris Elba), a machine gun, and Ant and Dec. You're welcome.
Thursday 6 October 2016
(#416: 27 October 1990, 2 weeks)
Track listing: The Obvious Child/Can't Run But/The Coast/Proof/Further To Fly/She Moves On/Born At The Right Time/The Cool, Cool River/Spirit Voices/The Rhythm Of The Saints
On Then Play Long we have already had explorations of what is to come in 1991, as during this liminal period it draws everything else to it like a magnet; but for now - and the next couple of posts to come - there is a sense of things winding down, as well as a sense that the next thing, the new thing, is not far off.
Paul Simon could, by 1990, be said to be hip again - the huge success of Graceland (an album that still pops up now and again in the UK album chart) led to a best of compilation and lots of anticipation as to what he would do next.
Simon looks warily at the camera in the booklet, as if to say he has done all he wants to do now, and would like some privacy, please. Those expecting (including his record company) another huge album were perhaps taken aback, as he went to Brazil to record and write, and hence the big drums, the beauty and sadness. The record company rejected his running order and put "The Obvious Child" first as they wanted something upbeat for a single, though there is toughness to it, a kind of middle-aged knowledge that isn't conducive to wacky videos. "The cross is in the ballpark" sticks out here, in the story of Sonny aging and looking back - who is the "obvious" child? What does this mean? The massed drumming is sharp and clacks along like a train, the song grows quiet and then jumps up once more, the parade of Sonny passing him by.
"Can't Run But" is like mercury in your fingers, or the Chernobyl dust blowing across the world. The natural world can't be escaped, just as feeling squeezed, destroyed by love (this is the core of the album) cannot be escaped. The grief, anger and exhaustion of being rejected, divorced, is here. So, oddly, in this nervous song, is the music industry. "The music business thrives" even as the singer suffers; Simon, from all evidence here, was divorced from his wife Carrie Fisher, and his misery at this is something he has to work with, cannot avoid.
"The Coast" is more upbeat, dedicated to, in part, Derek Walcott*. It is about a family of musicians who shelter from the rain in, where else, the church of St. Cecilia (yes, her again.) The musicians may as well be Simon himself, who talks here about loneliness and then proclaims that sorrow is "worth something" not just as an experience but as an actual negotiable thing for musicians. "That's worth some money" he repeats, as the neat music burbles along and the sun rises, the stars fall, the world shines; and misery is turning to music, which then becomes money. The coast here is "injured" as Simon must have felt himself; but that optimism about his new love (he met Edie Brickell in the fall of '88) comes through here too, in a song that is amiable enough but that is also frank about what this album is, in part...
"Proof" is jaunty enough to be on Graceland; it slides and skitters and yet has a toughness that is about the actuality of things, the proof of things, not faith ("an island in the setting sun") - it's the true bottom line, and you get the idea that some of his idealism is lost, and the physical world is the only thing that can be trusted.
"Further To Fly" is a record of his sadness, the love ebbing away, "the open palm of desire" is insatiable, and she is elusive, pushing off like a season goes, disappears, and leaves the lover bereft. This is the guts of the album, quietly knocking around, steadily circling and flying away, just as she leaves, and things are left broken, his whole life like "a conversation in a crowded room going nowhere." This is not the luxuriant Nowhere of Ride, big as the world, but being left behind at a party, being left behind in your own house. So much for the cinematographer's party from Graceland (where he met Fisher perhaps?) Now he walks the street and wonders if he's crazy. Welcome to the liminal period, Paul.
The drums insist, pick up, carry him on. "She Moves On" is about watching her leave on the plane, back to Los Angeles, back home. He still loves her, but she "cannot stop" and speaks through the backing singers, saying that he has underestimated her power. Simon is as lost as Bryan Ferry was, "abandoned, forsaken" and yet this is sorrow, shock recalled in tranquillity - that it is over, that the break is definitive, as the plane escapes through the clouds and again the physical world is altered; she is gone. I first heard this album as background music in a restaurant, and it is always thrumming with life, but not enough to be truly distracting.
"Born At The Right Time" is a song that made me feel a bit uneasy, to say the least. Us twenty-somethings (that term, you know the one, didn't exist just yet) were beginning to understand that we were all pretty much born at the wrong time, altogether. When Simon complains "the planet groans when it registers another birth" I can't help but here that line from "I'm Stone In Love With You" about "the population boom." (As you'll recall, he is the first man on the moon.) The song praises these babies born who will never suffer, never struggle, who will "never be lonely" and "never be lied to" and I am wondering just what Simon is on, here. Everyone suffers, you know? But the somehow smug music (I don't know how it is, it just sort of shuffles along to its first class seat) makes it sound as if us hapless young listeners have lost again, that it's the children who matter, not us. Why deny the obvious children? (And are children coming up again here as symbols of innocence, or again something more physical?)
"The Cool, Cool River" is a lot better, a song of optimism, but one of anger - it pauses, meanders like the river, then sets off briskly again. The river of prayer is what Simon has to ride on, to get away from the anger which cannot be healed. When heaven is mentioned, the horns come in forcefully, as Simon testifies to his ultimate insignificance and he can only say "sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears." The natural world shifts and changes, "battered dreams" are still there to be dreamt, the future is still there for those with the strength to get through hard times. Clearly the trip to Brazil was one of hope as much as anything else, a change which helps him - that he gets to work with so many fine musicians is a bonus, of course, but this is a sombre album....
"Spirit Voices" is a song he wrote, with Portuguese lyrics by Milton Nascimento; it is the story of his time in Brazil, where he goes to the forest to have some "herbal brew" (ayahuasca) which is hallucinogenic, and he hears the trees sing - this is where Nascimento's voice come in, soft and sweet as the music. "Do your best, heart, and have trust" is the ultimate message of the trees, and it is an earthquake (real? unreal?) for him, to have his experience there in a place of healing, the drink one of "holy water."
The album ends with the title song, one where Simon goes straight into prayer - asking once again that he not be blinded by his weaknesses, that he will soon be "crawling out from under the heel of love." The prayer is to overcome the enemy, "to dominate the impossible in your life" but he still sounds as if he is down, not triumphant; on his way, and nowhere near getting to where he wants to be. The music is quietly optimistic, modest, and one line sticks out for me: "Always a stranger when strange isn't fashionable."
So the quiet samba takes Paul Simon away from TPL; he will not be returning for some time, during which the Russian Futurists will do a fine song named after him; he will release a few albums and age reasonably gracefully, but things like Surprise (produced by Brian Eno) is the closest he gets to TPL in the noughties, only really returning this year with Stranger To Stranger.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Germany, two Englishmen make an album with Harold Faltermeyer.
If the world is changing, then you have to change with it, as Paul Simon learns; some people disappear on you and that is that.
But of course, there is romance, and there is now something else: illness.
The two have been likened to each other, but now that metaphor is becoming, for many people, real. The loss in "Being Boring" is built into the elegant languor of the song itself - now, at a time of crisis, on a swirl of harps, comes Neil and Chris to give us all roses, to - how gauche to say it plain - stand up for love.
It starts with Zelda, who was never bored, and comes to Neil getting on the train to London, exploring the city, relying on friends....the 90s arrive and "all the people I was kissing, some are here and some are missing...."
This is one of the songs of the 90s; do not hold back, do not worry, and take what time you have and use it well.
If this album sounds tougher than Introspective, then that is because they heard Violator by Depeche Mode and looked at each other and said OMFG we have to do better than that. In so many words.
"This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave" practically describes itself, hammering away at the insanity and uncomfortable paranoia which seeps in, the bowing and scraping, the "hopelessness" that haunts the narrator, even in his sleep. "When we fall in love there's confusion." To be a stranger in your own land....
"To Face The Truth" is about a break up, or about one that is not going to happen as the narrator - a woman, insist the Pet Shop Boys - is unable to be logical, rational, as she is so in love, and unlike Simon does not want proof of her man's infidelity. The music glides along, a semaphore for panic beeps alongside the long slow lines. She gets no answer when she asks, and so will not go further; a static situation...
"How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously" is about Bros. There, I've said it. Yes, I know they had the same manager, but, by extension it's about pop stars talking up the rainforest and the ozone layer and not really getting into the guts of the thing, just riding these crises like skateboards into the papers. Yes, it's mean, but it's also accurate...(with a lovely New Jack swing, as well)....
"Only The Wind" is a song of storm and calm; of drama and denial. A man, a woman, the aftermath of domestic abuse; the man narrates, blaming the hurricane on the weather, and not himself. It's a song that sounds like a weather report at first, but the piano line is beautiful, the lie of "everything's okay." "My hands are not shaking...." The couple are cursed; she is invisible, but should leave. This is how you sing about an issue, kids. Subtle, but straightforward.
"My October Symphony" is about Russia, about music, about how to make a revolution into a revelation, bring Motown and Moscow together. The start is from Shostakovich's Second Symphony and it's "October!" in Russian. Change is in the air, but what is going to happen? At this point in 1990, no one quite knew, and the air was full of uncertainty. The music hems and haws, ooohs and aaahs, as one revolution is remembered in the midst of another....
"So Hard" jumps and beats along, funny but serious, ridiculous but real. A deliberately old school kind of song, but the kernel of the thing is affairs, double crosses, broken hearts. Why can't things be easy? Do people love to hurt others because it is easier than actually being loyal? A cousin to "Domino Dancing" in a way, only this the narrator is also in on the act, not the one who is being betrayed. Love is the thing that counts, not affairs....
"Nervously" is about two boys too nervous and shy to get together; it builds up, romantically, awkwardly, with the charming line "right from the start, I approved of you." The song opens and opens up, gathers courage, and by the time the drums come in you know they are a real, genuine couple, the happiest one here.
"The End Of The World" pitches us once again into drama, housey pianos, and girls and boys who are or aren't phoning each other, slamming doors and causing scenes - ones that are easy enough to make fun of, really. Destruction? Need some sympathy instead says Neil, the real end of the world is perhaps upon us but in the meantime, have some feeling for your fellow humans who are suffering. Even if it looks melodramatic, to them, it's real....
...and now the end....
....The quite roar, the "endless thoughts and questions" of the tormented, the jealousy of the Other blinding the narrator to what is actually there. Slow, ponderous, sad; the intensity of the feeling throbs and ebbs, the drums thump and the orchestra (a real one) takes over, and the ambiguity of the line at the end means that maybe the narrator is also jealous....possibly?....
So much excellence here, with Behaviour, and it's hard to see how their imperial phase was over, but it was; an unhappy album for the most part, but one alive to the present and its problems and joys. A revolution is here, and the Pet Shop Boys are here to remember, to remind us what the end of the world is more likely to be. Not something a prophet said, but a phone ringing, or not.
Or it could be something else, of course.
The very fact that there were AIDS charities and people willing to step up and record for this album was cool, as it was something unthinkable even a few years before, when AIDS as a cause of death was hushed up, and when "That's What Friends Are For" was released the air slowly seeped back into the room. By late 1990 the world was ready, only too ready to buy this, as at the time there was a race to find some medicine to make the virus slow down, or be blunted in a way.
Hence, Red Hot + Blue.
The delights of the album are many I will try to point out a few. .I am also writing about this as of course it feeds back into "Being Boring" but is a way of saying goodbye to some artists who have already appeared on TPL, and hello to some who sadly never had number one albums.
"I've Got You Under My Skin" is Neneh Cherry talking straight about ostracization, the shunning that made Diana such a revolutionary figure. Neneh talks of a girl who injected, shot up, and got infected that way. She is as sharp as possible here, in a way that Cole Porter would have understood. (For the record, I think Cole Porter is great, and like the PSBs is pretty much faultless lyrically. I will quote bits that I really love.) "Share your love, don't share the needle."
Oh hello Neville Brothers! Hello New Orleans! "In The Still Of The Night" is a lovely song of longing, as so many of these songs are, and Aaron Neville's voice is just as trembly and tender as ever here, climbing the stairway of Porter's melody elegantly. "Growing dim on the rim of the hill."
Sinead is back!! "You Do Something To Me" is almost a dress rehearsal for her tortuous (her anguish is palpable) Am I Not Your Girl? album of 1992. She goes from a whisper to a yelp, a traditional orchestra behind her, just as it would have been in 1929, when it was written.
Salif Keita!! Welcome to TPL! "Begin The Beguine" is sung by him in Yoruba, and the song is translated by him as well; it about a song that is remembered with great joy, then sorrow, and then longed for in joy again. Make them play!
Oh hi there Fine Young Cannibals! Acoustic FYC for that matter, doing "Love For Sale" in a way that reminds me that young men and young women saw Roland Gift as a sex symbol at the time. I can fully imagine the BBC banning this at the time, just as they banned so many songs. Of course it's sexy, it's even got girls in the background getting all...interested. We won't encounter FYC again here, so it's nice to hear them once again....
"Well, Did You Evah?" is a song from High Society, and I love this version by Debbie Harry
and Iggy Pop just as much, if not more than the original. The bit where Iggy talks about Los Angeles in the middle is endlessly funny. "I hear they dismantled Pickfair...it wasn't elegant enough." I expect Cole Porter would have loved this. Iggy is a true Michigan hick, which really works here - it's swellegant!
"Miss Otis Regrets/It Was Just One Of Those Things" is by Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues, and it's slow at first and then the merry fizzy hop later, and you can imagine Miss Otis' anger easily enough, with Shane as the blithe man who could never murder anyone over love, as he never takes it that seriously. Everyone still misses Kirsty, I think. Too bad Shane doesn't do the prologue to the song, where Juliet and Eloise are mentioned....very nice to have these folks all here at TPL, I feel....
Hmm, now doesn't this sound familiar? Paul Simon? No, it's David Byrne!! He too has the Brazilian musician, but the joy of this is so unlike the injured Simon. "Don't Fence Me In" is perfect, on his "cayuse" he travels the world, and while it's not a love song here (though most are) there is a love of the world in it that is just as strong.
"It's All Right With Me" by Tom Waits is just as weird and crouched over and growly and New Orleans as it should be, and it's even a beautiful melody when he sings it. As he does, in his own way. "It's the wrong song in the wrong style." TPL will get, in its way, back to old Tom soon enough, dear readers.
Annie Lennox's version of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" is probably more in keeping with what you would expect of this album, but it is a sad song that is only too appropriate here, and she has the right voice for it. "How strange the change from major to minor" must be a direct influence on "the minor fall, the major lift."
U2 are back to normal, thank GOD.
"Night And Day" sees the Brian Eno influence back, and literally not a minute too soon. It's an obsessive song, but since when did Bono sound anything but possessed, really. Electronic, dark, romantic and swoony. The return of U2 was the big story at the time, as I recall; a lot of girls listened to this a lot, I bet.
Les Negresses Vertes' take on "I Love Paris" is particularly great as it is sung in French and English, and you know they know about Paris and how it drizzles and sizzles (not enough usage of those words in songs) and they sound as if they could be on the street doing this, as well as a club. (And I love London, for the same reasons.) More French music to come in the fullness of time here on TPL of course....
And now, from Canada, k.d. lang! Welcome aboard! "So In Love" is the song that got the airplay in Canada of course, with much made of the video, as well. k.d. may have been a country star at the time, but her love of the American songbook is evident here, and eventually she will make a whole album of duets with Tony Bennett. The song is lovely but the punctum here is strong too, all things considered.
"Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" is again from High Society and The Thompson Twins say farewell to TPL in the best way possible, with probably their best recording, ever. Also a snub to the 1%, while we're at it. Tom and esp. Alannah's sneering is brilliant. "And I don't cause all I want is you!" "And sleep through Wagner at the Met?" Did someone say...hip hop?
And hello Erasure, TPL will be getting back to you soon, of course. "It's Too Darn Hot" is sensual, hot (well, of course) and I love the phrase "pitch the woo" but I fear it's out of fashion, now. At first Andy sings in his low register, but gets back to normal towards the end; it's done in go-go style. (Almost none of the songs are done exactly as they were written, but then part of the joy is hearing these songs as new songs, more or less - certainly it introduced me to Cole Porter, at the time.)
The Jungle Brothers!! Hello!! "I Get A Kick Out Of You" is something they make their own, and here is the only mention of safe sex, and oh yes I am sure the original was banned over here, if it was even a single. See also "Ain't That A Kick To The Head?" by Dean Martin.
And now, Lisa Stansfield - HI! - she sings this as if it was written for her, and the line "even the janitor's wife has a perfectly good love life" is A++ Friendly Forebear from Cole Porter. I think she does her own jazz albums later on, which I should investigate. "What's the use of swank and cash in the bank galore?" is still a good question.
Jimmy Somerville is here, as you again would expect, with a song of tough optimism. "From This Moment On" is a love song of not just adoration but eternal love, and yes there's a huge nod to Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" here, too. Not sung by Jimmy but in the original lyrics: "The future looks so gay." Indeed it does.
And now two songs, one from an American woman - "After You, Who?" by Jody Watley. One of those songs that is so brilliant it's intimidating, but the warmth of Jody's voice makes it a real thing, somehow....and one from a Scottish man, Aztec Camera. "Do I Love You?" is a brilliant ending, Roddy Frame's voice cracked and East Kilbride rough, but passionate and an answer, of sorts, to the previous song. Quiet, and another avowal of eternal love, beautiful, tinkling like stars, love that can and will endure everything.
What to make of all this? That love is difficult, can leave you bruised, that compassion and sympathy for others is vital, and that love can get you through what seems like the end of the world. Paul Simon finds solace in nature and his own stubborn will and optimism. The real storms of life can be treated with empathy, the real things that matter are what count, say the Pet Shop Boys. And a multitude of voices sing about valuing love over everything on behalf of those who need as much care and friendly actions and words as possible. These are eternal verities, but at the beginning of the 90s it was essential they be restated, and I cannot overstate how important they are now.
Next up: a boy from Pinner and TAUPIN.
*As I was getting heavily into poetry at this time, this rubbed off on my mom, who read and loved Derek Walcott. We went to Harbourfront to see him read and she waited patiently to get him to sign her book, not where writers usually sign books but on a page where her favorite poem was, instead. He was grumpy about it, but did it, anyway.