Monday, May 31, 2010

SONG #117: Girl Gone Bad

Van Halen, 1984, 1984

My buddy Ben was in town last weekend.  If you don't know Ben, he's the Ben who regularly fillets these blog entries like a Fugu chef in the comment sections.  Over the course of our usual banter, the conversation finally took some focus, and we ended up centering around my general mistreatment of, to my surprise, Van Halen.

I don't know about you, but my relationship with Van Halen is similar to the relationship I have with  soft drinks, or sitcoms.  I don't need them all the time, but when I do, I like them ice cold, 23 minutes long, and instantly forgettable.  Happily, the original lineup of Van Halen was happy to oblige.  Their first six albums (Van Halen, Van Halen II, Women And Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down, 1984) all offer basically the same formula in 28 to 34 minute bursts.  While they were ridiculous, they were wonderfully ridiculous.  Never has a band had such a serious pack of followers while being so eminently silly (except, of course, for Phish, but that's another story).  After that initial burst of energy, the band lost David Lee Roth, (their sense of humor) picked up Sammy Hagar (their irony-free belter), decided they had something to say, and became a fairly insufferable arena rock act.  I actually have friends who prefer Van Hagar, but they tend to be in their twenties, Pepsi drinkers, and closet Creed fans.

So-- I like Van Halen, but I do not love Van Halen.  Ben's concern was that I love Van Halen albums in entirely the wrong order; he was particularly cheesed that I had 1984 ranked first among them all.  "That is a TERRIBLE album!  What's even ON that album!  "Jump"?  TERRIBLE song.  TERRIBLE.  The first album is their best.  By FAR.  It sold 10 million copies!  It's their great achievement!!  1984?  How do you live with yourself?!!  Why am I standing on the kitchen table??!!," he said.  Or something like that.

I'll admit.  I was surprised too.  I assumed that Diver Down would be #1, and then Fair Warning.  In fact, those are the Van Halen records I listen to the most.  Neither one breaks the thirty minute mark.  (Van Halen knew how to stretch their material.  Fair Warning is really a 20 minute record padded by a few two minute instrumentals.  That same year, The Clash put out a mini-LP called Black Market Clash that was a 10" record that sold for three bucks.  It was ten minutes longer than Fair Warning.) 

Gotta love Ben, because his defense of the first album helped me crystallize why I've never been able to love it.  I understand why it's fundamentally better than the albums I actually like, but something has always held me back, and writing this blog, I realize that the first album takes itself too seriously-- the only record in the catalog to do that until 5150.  (It's true that Fair Warning is a dark, weird record, but it doesn't have the gravitas, the "we're an important band" of the first one.)  There's none of the humor and tongue-in-cheek quality that makes them forgivable on that first one.  Instead, they're a stoopid hard rock band.  Confession: I find "Eruption" a little silly, not breathtaking.  It's like watching guys spin plates on sticks on the Ed Sullivan show-- I'm impressed that they can do it, but then what do I do with it?

Here's the perfect way to explain the difference I'm talking about.  Listen to the band's cover of "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks on the debut.  (Three minute pause).  Now, listen to their cover of The Kinks' "Where Have All The Good Times Gone?" on Diver Down. (Another three minute pause).  Can you hear the difference?  The shift in tone, attitude and performance from 1978 to 1982 is summed up in those two Kinks covers.  Which one did you like better?  If it's the first one, you and Ben can go get a coffee and the latest copy of Granta.  If it's the second one, you and I can go get a soda and a cheesesteak.

Existential artistes Van Halen, ladies and gentlemen...

Another problem with a record as iconic as 1984 is that you have heard the songs a LOT.  If you were a teenager in the 80s, you heard "Jump" and "Panama" and "Hot For Teacher" at least 100 times each.  As a result, it's hard to hear them as anything other than exercises in nostalgia.  "Jump" in particular is hampered by the 80s synth sound (also-- you HAVE to rewatch the video.  While Eddie's playing the keyboard solo, he has a look on his face that says, "Hey!  Look at me!  I'm playing a keyboard!  Wow!"  It looks like he's surprised every time he looks down at his hands and it's not a guitar.  It makes me laugh every time).  

However, if this 20K songs exercise taught me anything, it's that really listening to the records you've collected over the years can put you back in touch with some amazing stuff, and that's the case here with "Girl Gone Bad," a forgotten track off 1984 that helps to explain why, if you listen to it, 1984 is in fact Van Halen's crowning moment, the synergy of their combination of pop metal, Eddie's virtuoso reinvention of the guitar, brother Alex's super-specific drumming, and Roth's campy vaudeville huckster routine.  And Michael Anthony?  He must have been a really nice fella.  Plus his high harmonies are awesome.

"Girl Gone Bad" is in some ways the template for about 100 pop metal songs to follow in the next ten years.  Because it's a Van Halen song, its lyrics don't exactly flesh out the plot, but how many metal videos in the late 80s were about midwestern girls moving to LA to "make it," only to discover that there was a seedy underbelly to the city of dreams?  We were forced to face the tension and dramatic irony as we watched those deacon's daughters come to grips with that moment when a sleaze with glasses and a desk asked them to sell their soul and bodies for a walk-on part in a "B" movie.

Ah, lazy eyes in the summer heat
Fresh from out of town
Now she's working on the street
Shake them poor boys down

That image of a fresh-faced (though with metal hair) gal getting off the bus and gawking at the sunset strip was in a ton of those videos.  It makes me wonder how many of the pretty boy lead singers of those bands have a similar story to tell.  Did the lead singers of Cinderella and White Lion* have earn their record contracts the hard way also?  Maybe that's why they were so sympathetic to their fellow escapees from Kansas and Oklahoma trying to live their glamour dreams, and why they also imbued those stories with such cynicism.

Having said that, who cares at all what Roth is saying here?  The band sure doesn't.  I'll bet Eddie found out what the songs were about when he played back the record.  "Jump?  That is NOT what I thought we were yelling."  This song is about the interplay between the brothers.  The song starts with Eddie building up to the intro riff with some beautiful arpeggios.  He then teases us with a second intro based around chords.  Alex picks up on it, offering counterpoint on the ride cymbal, and then at 37 seconds, Eddie rips off one of my favorite throwaway solos of all time.  All he's playing there is an Am scale.  But he plays it at lightning speed, and Alex doubles them on the drums.  There's a tiny pause, and we are off to the races.  The groove established 45 seconds in is metal rock 101.  I think it's such an exciting start to the song.  That first minute is as good as anything in their catalog.

Roth then has his moment for the next minute.  Never a great singer, he still has a ton of personality.  In most of the VH hits, he's preening and flirty, but in this song, he's after something a litter more sinister, and it works me.  He sounds like a sneering, judgmental voice here, offering a sour counterpoint to all the super-sweet hits on the record.

At the bridge, Eddie and Alex take over again, and never let up.  Eddie's solo in the middle of the song is one of his most furious.  The band knows this song's not a single, so there's no attempt here at melody or sweetening.  They just put their heads down and play.  Remarkably, they then pull it back again to revisit the beginning of the song, give us that incredible riff again, and close it out with every part of the song at full throttle-- Anthony's high "Girrrrrl!" backgrounds, Alex and Eddie firing away, and Roth trying to keep up.

And the ending?  Hilarious.  After four breakneck minutes, they just stop?  They couldn't have played the ending one more time for the master take?  Boy were these guys in a hurry to be elsewhere.

So there you go-- mid-80s Van Halen that you don't remember.  Didn't that make your Memorial Day a little brighter?

I'm going to try to write ten blogs in the next twenty days to celebrate the end of a looooooong month and the beginning of summer.  If I can pull it off, hope you'll join me.


*  Ben loves White Lion.  I just have to throw that in there.  The same voice ripping me for not being hip enough and not being able to connect with "the kids" and pretending to like the Major Lazer record LOVES White Lion.  White freaking Lion.  Just saying.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

SONGS #104-#116: At Yankee Stadium (Full Album)

NRBQ, 1978, ALBUM #239

Part of the fun of being a music fanatic is trying to find that great, unknown band in the wilderness.  Probably everyone has a story of going to a show to see one band and being knocked out by the other, or going to a bar and seeing someone completely unknown and amazing.  It's what makes the search so rewarding.  We want to believe that all our hard work will pay off, and we'll either help break a great band, or have a secret treasure all to ourselves.

This next paragraph isn't going to be popular, but that idea of the "lost" great band is one of music's greatest myths.  If there's anything I've learned in almost 30 years of music listening, it's that if a band is truly great, and I mean truly worth listening to, and they are willing to put in the work and the effort, you will hear of them.  It might take ten years (that's right-- it might take hundreds of shows and two or three warmup albums) for them to crack their local scene shell, but eventually they do and they will.  They may not ever make the top 10 or headline a tour, but every single great band I've ever heard that hung in there got some kind of a shot: a song on a soundtrack, a record deal, a national tour, fifteen minutes of regional fame.  Something.  It's what keeps me going playing bass for my friends locally.  I know that if they keep pushing at it, they will get heard, because the cream does rise: genuine talent will out.  The are hundreds of perfectly fine bands out there you'll never hear, but brilliant bands don't toil forever in utter obscurity; if there was one, you would tell us, and then... presto!  They're heard.  

NRBQ is a classic example of what I'm talking about, both as a treasure handed off fan-to-fan, and as a band that eventually had their moment, albeit a quiet one.  NRBQ, which has existed since 1968 and from 1972 to 1992 featured the classic lineup of huge and terrific lead guitarist Al Anderson, zany, entertaining but prickly-as-hell keyboardist Terry Adams, super-musical Joey Spampinato (Paul McCartney crossed with the bronx-- the Stones asked him to replace Bill Wyman in '89 before "settling" for Daryl Jones) and drummer Tom Ardolino (whose first ever job was... being the drummer in NRBQ-- he hopped up for an encore one night when he was 19 and never left), is frequently cited as one of those bands that never made it.  Instead, they are one of the great cult bands of the last thirty years, playing hundreds of shows a year primarily up and down the New England coast and working from a setlist rumored to be 500 songs deep.*  They never had a hit single, and if one of their albums charted, it was for a hot minute at the bottom of the top 200.  Most people have not heard of them.  (Readers of this blog just said, "Really?  NRBQ?" to themselves, but trust me-- you're a pretty rarified audience.  I have friends who are big music fans who have NO idea this band exists.)  

And it's a shame, because they were great.  (NRBQ still exists and tours, but without Anderson, who retired from the road, they're just not the same thing.)  If you're looking for a place to start, I would suggest right here, on their greatest record.  It's a great example of everything surrounding the band.  First, there's the ironic, "Wouldn't it be great if we were a big band?" cover art and title.  The band is sitting in four seats along first base.  More importantly, there's one great song after another.  In fact, At Yankee Stadium is like a classic live set from the band.  There are the energetic original rockers ("Green Light," "Ridin' In My Car," "I Want You Bad") which celebrate childlike, innocent pleasures (driving a nice car, being with a pretty girl), the romantic ballads ("I Love Her, She Loves Me," "Yes Yes Yes") that border on being cloyingly sweet (NRBQ are the masters of the "first dance" wedding love song), the great rockabilly covers ("Get Rhythm," "Shake Rattle And Roll") which the band plays with complete mastery and authority of the genre.  

What holds all these tunes together?  That NRBQ beat: as great as Anderson is as a player, as interesting and attention-grabbing as Adams is as a player, and as melodic and effortlessly musical as Spampinato can be, drummer Ardolino is without question the band's secret weapon. 

By the fourth track, I'll bet you'll be hard-pressed to think of a more subtle, swinging drummer.  Ardolino's pocket (the space between the kick drum and the snare) is HUGE, like a bathtub.  It's irresistible.  Listen to the swing he gives "Just Ain't Fair" or the drive he creates in "Get Rhythm" without doing anything!  I can't think of another drummer who does so much with so little except for Al Jackson, Jr. from the MGs.  The link below is for "Ridin' In My Car;" sadly, it's a slight remix that adds shotgun reverb to Ardolino's snare drum.  I prefer the dry version, in which you can hear how much sound he wills out of his kit with such simple playing.  

Trying to learn how to play?  Want to give your kid a drumming idol that he can actually emulate instead of Bonham?  Not sure what to do with your curly hair?  Look no further. 

The band made At Yankee Stadium in 1978 at the height of disco and the new wave / punk revolution.  That tells you something right there-- the band was wildly out of step with the times.  They would fit in right now with the Wilcos and Okkervil Rivers of the world, but it's impossible to think of these songs sitting comfortably on the radio with much else going on in 1978.  That's part of its appeal, of course-- this is a band for people who love timeless great songs and musicianship, not flash.  Al Anderson is an astonishing guitar player, and live, he will melt your face (and also potentially try to eat it-- his nickname is "300 lbs. of heavenly joy" for a reason).  On record, though, Al served the song, and so his solos reveal terrific dexterity and skill, but not a "whoooooooooooo!" moment.  No one was going to mistake Anderson for Ted Nugent, though I think they each killed and ate equal amounts of venison (OK-- that's enough weight jokes about pool Al.  Glass houses...)

And before you argue that being on little indie labels and playing 200 nights a year to 200 people at a time is not the big time or "making it" and that my whole thesis for this entry is flawed, remember this; in 1989, NRBQ made a major label album for Virgin, was featured in Rolling Stone, Musician and Spin magazines, did a full world tour, co-headlined 5,000-10,000 seaters with Marshall Crenshaw, and placed several songs into soundtracks.  That kind of press certainly cost their label millions.  In the years before that, they had been on four other labels, three of which had gone out of business, and all but two of their previous albums were out of print.  They hung in there, and they got their shot-- they just didn't have a hit.  

So you can argue that NRBQ never made it because most people haven't heard of them, but they made 20 albums with other people's money, played thousands of shows, inspired hundreds of thousands of words of praise, and have been full-time professional musicians for 32 years and counting.  In my book, that's hardly garageland.  So you unknowns out there-- if you're good and you keep working, we'll hear you.  Believe me, we're in continual search for you.

LINK: (Ridin' In My Car) 

* That said, I saw the 'Q at least six times, from a ski lodge to Wolf Trap pavilion and all kinds of places in between, and I heard a LOT of the same 25 songs every time.  They had wildly eclectic nights, but they also had "let's do the ones they know" nights.