Thursday, March 18, 2010

SONG #96: Radioactive


There are just some songs and albums that you can't shake.  You know empirically that they are not good.  If other people were to recommend them, you would scoff knowingly, confident in your superior taste.  "Are you kidding?!  THAT??"

And here I am, a man who has decided that his taste in music is so developed, inclusive and researched that he should share his wisdom with the world, having to admit that The Firm's "Radioactive" came up on shuffle, and not only did I not react with embarrassment, or hit the skip button, or make a note to remove it; I quietly said "Yes!" to myself and turned it up.

Such is my relationship with this forgettable, mockable album from the mid-80's.  Everything about this project seems like a setup for a series of jokes.  The Firm is the first band Jimmy Page put together after the end of Led Zeppelin.  He spent the first three years of the 80s composing the Death Wish II soundtrack.  I am not making that up.  Seriously.  After leading perhaps the greatest rock band of the 1970s with a meticulous hand, he spent two years in dark rooms trying to communicate with the ghost of Alesteir Crowley and composing... the Death Wish II soundtrack.  It's the "II" that makes it so unreal.  Death Wish... II.  

How on earth did that come about?

"Hey Jimmy.  How are you, baby? It's Bob Schmob from Atlantic Records."

"Ummmmm..... (mumble, blink).  Light and shade... frickin' Plant never calls me...."  (Silence)

"Well, sounds like you're keeping busy!  Listen, you know who Charles Bronson is?"

"Was he in Deep Purple?"

"No.  He's an American film star.  Well, not a star, really. He's an American film presence.  Did you ever see Death Wish?"

"I don't have a death wish.  It's just a natural interest in the macabre and the black arts." (Sound of vomiting).

"Sure, baby, sure.  Anyway, Death Wish is a movie in which a 15 year-old girl gets raped for like half an hour by a bunch of bikers, and then killed.  So Charles Bronson finds out and spends another hour hunting them down and killing them in slow motion.  It doesn't bring the girl back, but it's violent as hell.  Truly despciable stuff.  Really."

"Mmmmmmm..." (Page composes great lost guitar riff, loses consciousness for five minutes.)

"So anway, naturally we're making an unwatchable sequel, and we thought it would be a GREAT chance for you to get back in the game!  What do you say?  Want to announce your re-arrival as the greatest guitarist of your generation by composing incidental music to a glorified snuff film for a second rate film studio?"

"Ummmmm... sure, mate.  MOLOCHSATANLUCIFERRISINGBEELZEBUB!!" (Three teenagers in a high school math class in Illinois draw pentagrams on their Trapper Keepers involuntarily).

After that shockingly failed to kickstart his career (it had the opposite effect for Danny Elfman, who used his work on Death Wish III  to become Hollywood's most in-demand composer**) , Page formed The Firm with Paul Rodgers of Bad Company.  They hired two journeymen British pros for a rhythm section, and released The Firm and toured the world.  It was the first sustained work Page had done in five years.

Everything about The Firm screams "80s RAWK BAND."  How awful is that logo?  It looks like a logo for an auto parts store.  And what about the name?  It begs for jokes about the middle-aged rock stars out front.  "They should have called them The Flab!"  And check out this publicity photo:

How lost does the bassist Franklin look?  He looks like a nephew that is only in the band because the regular bassist has shingles.

While the band played huge, 15,000 seat arenas, they refused to play Zeppelin and Bad Company material.  Naturally, audiences were a little nonplussed at coming to hear these two guys and getting an 80 minute show featuring NOTHING they really wanted to hear.  They actually made a follow-up album, Mean Business (get it?  They "mean" business and their business is mean!  Classic!!) and then disbanded due to the fact that no one knew they were still a band.  Page went on to make an embarrassing solo album, and then an album of songs with David Coverdale called Coverdale/Page that brought his sanity into question (not even Page/Coverdale?  Really?  That's like Paul Simon deciding to replace Garfunkel, and calling the band Oates/Simon).

And here's the hell of it-- I like this album.  Genuinely.  Not just this song-- I like SEVERAL tracks on this album.  I enjoy them over and over and over.  What happened to me?  And where do I get off slagging the Eagles and voluntarily listening to The Firm?  Let me count the ways.

1)  I bought this record on the same day that I bought Tom Petty's Southern Accents.  Deciding what records to buy was a huge deal for me in 1985, because I didn't have a lot of money, so I tried REALLY hard to like every record I bought.  It was clear very quickly that Southern Accents was a LOT better, but it killed me to buy a bad album, so I just stuck with it.  If you listen to an album fifty times, you'll find something to like about it if you try hard enough.

2) My friend Caroline really liked it, and she almost never bought music, and I wanted to be supportive.  It's like when your friend who doesn't pay any attention to music buys a record, and you want to be encouraging, and you find yourself saying "Yeah, that Susan Boyle can certainly sing.  And what a story!"

3)  I like the colossally dated bass sound.  Franklin plays a fretless bass that's chorused and flanged to death.  As a result, the bass on this album sounds so out of place that I think it's great.  Listen to the top of this track and the harmonic bass fill that opens it.  Then listen how much finesse and fretless sliding Franklin brings to this pop/rock song.  It sounds like Jaco Pastorius wandered high into the wrong studio.

4)  I love the "whaaaa???" guitar solos all over this record.  Check out the one we get at the midpoint of this track.  It actually sounds as if Page has started the solo on the wrong fret or set of strings.  It is chromatic and weird and fairly sloppily played, but for me it's the most interesting musical moment.  For some reason, it feels like really honest playing from Page.  By 1979, his solos had become completely bizaare-- check out "In The Evening" sometime.  His playing on that is a glorious train wreck, and there's more of that here.  

5)  Don't you think this song was written in about eight minutes?  After five years of silence, Page returns, and does so with a series of tunes written in the cab on the way to the studio.  The most careful thing about this band is the logo-- it's the only carefully designed aspect of the whole project.  The tracks themselves are barely holding together.

So there you go.  A vote for The Firm.  Hopefully the Pod will give me my street cred back tomorrow.  Knowing my luck, it'll punch up Rupert Holmes.

** No.



  1. This post is gold! I had not remembered at all that Page wandered off into doing the Deathwish II soundtrack. Utterly inexplicable. It actually makes you wonder whether the whole Firm thing was 100% created by Page's management team who were tired of earning 5% of his royalties on Led Zeppelin and wanted 5% of something created in the 80s.

    I too love this song, although I had the good taste not to buy the record. This song always reminds me of Scottso on WNEW in New York in 1985 announcing this song with a trademark growl with a little extra phleghm for effect.

  2. Oh, man. What is on that shirt Paul Rodgers is wearing? Are those tigers? Page looks almost apologetic in that publicity still.

    This song does rawk, though, with that too-cool-for-school, please-don't-bring-up-the-70s, middle-age-rocker-going-back-to-the-well vibe. It's incredibly endearing. I also give it encomiums for the "don't be distractive" lyric, which is GENIUS.

    I remember Lester went to see these guys at the Caps Centre and thought it was the best concert he'd ever attended. These guys could have been the Velvet Revolver of the Reagan years.

  3. So, what you're saying, Jeff, is that the senator's daughter in Silence of the Lambs should've been listening to this song, instead of "American Girl," when she's kidnapped by Jame Gump?

    Paul Rodgers' vocals do have an incredibly menacing and effortless quality, now that you mention it.

    This entire post is brilliant.

    Funny, for all of the indifference that underlies the performances, there is still a workmanlike quality that made (makes!) us like this song. And only part of that is attributable to the "Our generation missed out on Zep but this will have to do" worship that we felt.

    And I suspect that that slinky chromatic solo is not as sloppy as it first appears. After all, doesn't Page play it again, note for note, two more times at the end of the song? He was obviously pretty taken with his own invention. Maybe Lester can tell us if he played this exact solo live.

  4. I actually looked up "distractive" in the dictionary just in case I could make fun of that, too.

  5. page may have drifted way out there by this point, but he still understood that for a band to have any chance it all... it had to have a logo that looked good scratched into a desk or drawn on a three ring binder! and this one sure did

  6. I actually enjoy watching those cheapy Death Wish flicks, especially late at night. When a decent song comes up on the soundtrack it REALLY stands out. Sweet revenge!! And Jeff, great article, as always.

    Ira Craig (not so anonymous)