Thursday, April 28, 2011

SONG #148: How Deep Is Your Love?

Bee Gees, Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack, 1977

Got back to basic blog format for this one.  Turned on the iPod, hit shuffle, and just committed.  And what a tune!

I am a little too young to have emulated Saturday Night Fever, but I'm just old enough to have been influenced by it.  I was eight when it came out, and there was NO way I was seeing that film with my parents' consent.  They actually went to see it (got a babysitter and everything) and Dad came home completely traumatized.  I still remember vividly his movie "review" the next morning at breakfast:

Dad:  It was HORRIBLE.  Nothing happened.  At all!  It was a movie about a bunch of vulgar idiots.  

Me:  Like what?

Dad:  Here's the whole movie in thirty seconds:  "Hey, jerk!  Eat your f'n breakfast!"  "F you!" "F yourself!" "Waaaaaaahhhhhhh!"  The end. (It's important to note here that I'm not censoring.  Dad said "F."  He curses like a woodland creature.)

Mom:  Craig!  (For Mom, "F" was some seriously strong language.)

Dad: Well, that's what happened!

Mom:  But the main person, what's his name... the dancing one...

Dad / Me (simultaneously):  John Travolta.

Mom:  Yes.  WOW, can he dance!  Goodness!

Dad:  Yeah, but who cares?  It was awful, son.  You're not missing ANYTHING.  Awful.

When I finally saw the movie years later and got to the breakfast scene ("Ma-- he hit my hair!") I died laughing at my Dad's hilarious synopsis.

There's all this feelgood nostalgia about Saturday Night Fever, but have you seen it lately?  It is some dark, miserable business.  Classic late 70s.  The characters do some heinous things to one another, and the ending is hardly happily ever after.  It's more "What are you gonna do?"  It's hard to believe that it blew up the way it did.  It was the Forrest Gump of 1977 (huge film, huge soundtrack) without any of the uplift.  SNF shares more in common with A Clockwork Orange.  If Forrest Gump had assaulted Jenny "Of Mice and Men" style and ended the film in an adult home for the handicapped playing ping pong against himself, Forrest Gump would be similar to Saturday Night Fever.

One of these things is not like the other...

No wonder all the teenagers in my neighborhood who were obsessed with the movie seemed so sad.  THAT was their role model?  Hardly a "you can accomplish anything" message.  It was more "If you can coat yourself in an impervious, narcissistic shell and overcome your empathy for others, and you can dance, there's a good chance that you can take advantage of weaker prey."

Contrasting all that darkness and oil crisis and recession and hostages and Battle of the Network Stars malaise was, of course, the music from the film, which was EVERYWHERE for two years.  From my young perspective, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was the soundtrack of planet Earth.  You went nowhere without hearing it.  Everyone knew it.  So, like a good American, I received for Christmas the Saturday Night Fever 8-track tape.  I am not making that up.  The ULTIMATE 70s time capsule relic.

For my younger readers-- the 8-track was easily the worst way to listen to music.  Wikipedia can explain better than I can.  The rest of us will wait for you:

I gravitated to the fast numbers (especially The Trammps' Disco Inferno-- to this day, I can't sit still to Disco Inferno), but I will always, always have a soft spot for this simpering, cloying love ballad, based on two really vivid moments of hearing it.

The first moment came in the car.  We were driving home from somewhere, and it was bitter cold outside, and the Volkswagen Bug didn't exactly have a killer heating system, so I was shivering on the vinyl seat in the back looking out the window when the moon came out and illuminated everything so perfectly: all of the scraggly  bare winter trees, the few clumps of unmelted snow, the water of the Severn river as we went over the bridge.  At that moment. "How Deep Is Your Love" came on the radio, and that image of winter moonlight and this song are indelibly linked for me.

The second was listening to my clock radio late at night in the summer of 1978.  After I was sent to bed, I could never fall asleep right away as a kid, and that summer I figured out that if I tunred on my clock radio at the lowest setting and lay down on the speaker itself, I could hear the radio without my parents hearing it.  So I fell asleep about thirty nights in a row to Q107 (the only station I could get).  In 1978, Q107 played the same 25 songs over and over all day and night, so there were many nights when my last conscious memory was the intro to "How Deep Is Your Love."  I would wake up around 4 am with grill marks on my face from the plastic pattern of the clock radio, and an urge to wear polyester.

As for the song itself, it's actually nice to hear the boys sing in a normal register instead of the chipmunky one that made them famous.  It also is one of the most floaty tracks ever recorded-- it goes by so quickly and effortlessly that it's easy to forget that you just heard it.  It has all of the 70s tonal giveaways-- Fender Rhodes piano, strings, jazzy passing chords-- but it feels a little more timeless than other music from the period.  The lyrics are just what you'd expect (I especially cringe at "You come to me on a summer breeze") but they're also innocuous enough to be forgotten for the most part.  Finally, the song has just enough of Tony's aggressive character ("It's ME you need to show how deep is your love") to be accurate while injecting some much-needed softness into the film.  People hear this song and think they remember something touching about the film's "love" stories.  They're wrong, but that's the power of the Bee Gees-- they make us think we miss a time we don't by hearing music we think we like but don't.  That is a pretty neat trick.  Hopefully Donald Trump is not taking notes.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SONGS #143-147: Side One of 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1

Midnight Oil, 1982

Hi again.  Where have I been?  What happened?  Let's just think of it as a creative hiatus and leave it at that.  After half a year off, absolutely out of nowhere, the iPod got my fingers moving again.  It's good to be back.  The album that did it was one I first heard in 1984, and which has stayed one of my 50 favorites for 27 years.  

You have probably heard of Midnight Oil, and you probably only remember this:

That's 6'5" Peter Garret, lead vocalist, Australian activist and politician, and big weird bald dude.  The band was all over MTV for two years at the end of the 80s, and seemed to be poised to join U2 as the great arena rock activist bands.  They then abruptly ran out of gas and disappeared.  You probably remember those hit singles with the same nostalgia as Dee-Lite's "Groove Is In The Heart."  Good songs, but no need ever to hear them again.

I need you to keep an open mind-- before Midnight Oil went global, they were the most interesting Australian rock band from 1978-1985.  They were AC/DC's angry, punkish, intellectual cousin.  Unlike the polished efforts that made them famous, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 is a weird, wonderful record.  And I never would have heard if it hadn't been for the incompetent folks at the Columbia Record and Tape Club.

I've talked about these clubs before; back in the day, the record clubs were a great way to get a huge infusion of music at once.  The deal was that you would receive between 8-12 records for a penny, and then have to buy 7-10 more at "regular club prices,"  which were a huge rooking.  In the end, though, you ended up with about 20 albums for the price of 10.  

Dick Clark explains it well for you right here:

I was a member a lot of times-- maybe ten? (It was always advantageous to quit as soon as you could and rejoin.  Staying in the club after fulfilling the agreement was economic suicide.)  I knew people who used fake names and never fulfilled the agreement, but I was way too chicken to try that.  When I moved into a group house in college, we got mail from the company for about ten fake people (John Cocktoasten* being my favorite), including some threatening collection agency letters.  "Mr. I.P. Freely, you owe the Columbia Record and Tape Club $27.74. We have passed this matter on to Cheech and Bruiser, and they are coming to break your thumbs.")

In 1984, I read an article about Midnight Oil and what a wild, rocking live show they purportedly had.  I couldn't find any of their records in my local music stores (almost impossible to imagine now) so I ordered their most recent record, Red Sails In The Sunset, from the record club.  It came (it always took forever-- about a month-- also almost impossible to imagine now) and when it did, it was the wrong Midnight Oil album.  They had sent me their first American album: this one.  (At the time, I didn't know they had already released three Aussie-only albums.  All three of those records are great as well, but not in the same class as this one.)

My first thought was to return the album and wait another month for the replacement, but I was 14, and it was a brand new album, right there, in my hands, and the turntable was feet away.  I didn't stand a chance.  I did a quick justification in my head of why I should keep it (it's always good to hear a band's first album, maybe it's a sign, etc etc) and threw on side one and settled down to try to do homework.

I was not met with the wild, ragged rock n roll I had been led to expect.  Instead, a synthesizer pulsed quarter notes while another synthesizer played kabuki-sounding notes over the top.  I waited for the band to kick in, but instead, one of the strangest voices in rock music started singing over the stop of this skeletal keyboard bed:

"There's a wind on the eastern side
Ghost gums dance in the moonlight night
Mopoke mourns the racketeers"

What? the? hell?  Did he actually just say "Mopoke?"  What's a Mopoke?  Where are the damn guitars?  Where's the out of control rock music?  I kept waiting for the buildup, and the track almost got going at three minutes, but then it went back to the moody synthesizers.  I was thoroughly disappointed, but I had to admit-- it was atmospheric, and I had never heard a first track like this one.  It took guts to open a record with four minutes of impenetrable art-pop.  That doesn't mean I liked it, and I seemed in danger of actually getting homework done.

The track faded into some feedback and guitar noodling, and then... BOOM.

"When I'm locked in my room
I just wanna scream
And I know what they mean
 One more day of eating and sleeping..."

It was like having someone reach out of the speakers and slap me in the face.  There was the band as advertised.  The drums sounded like anvils (and not Metallica St. Anger anvils, but good ones) and the guitars were squealing and all over the place.  This album was one of the first rock albums I heard that used guitar effects not to soften the guitars, but make them more angular and driving.  To this day, I think it's one of the most sonically interesting guitar albums I've ever heard.  They never sound the same from track to track, even within the same song.

And that voice and lyric-- everyone has moments when a song communicates his inner thoughts.  (For example, Rebecca Black's "Friday."  Just this morning I had to choose whether to kick it in the front seat or the back seat.)  Here was one of those moments for me.  I was in my room.  I was doing homework I didn't want to do.  I was generally angry, confused and oppositional, and felt like each day was another drag into the inevitable of birth, school, work, death.  I was locked in my room, wanted to scream, with one more day of eating and sleeping.  It took about 20 seconds for homework to be forgotten.  I was transfixed for the rest of side one.

Side one (or tracks 1-5 now, I guess) rewards the careful listener with unique, crafted and expertly played songs.  "Only The Strong," with three distinct sections in a four minute song, gives way to a brooding pulsing number "Short Memory" about politics with spectacular guitar and piano work and lyrics that are far more interesting than "It belongs to them-- let's give it back."  The next track, "Read About It," is the great lost anthem of the 80s.  It has one of the all-time killer guitar riffs and a fabulous key change at the end.  Also, check out the bass playing on the outro-- so good.  That bleeds into the almost-seven minute "Scream In Blue" that starts with three minutes of furious band instrumental and falls into a plaintive piano ballad.  It all works so well together even though it's eclectic and adventurous and in no way made for radio consumption.

Seriously?  It's one of the best Side Ones in rock music.  And one of the least well-known.  Do yourself a favor and check it out.  To me, side one is basically one unified song-- I never hear any piece of one of these songs without stopping, going back to "Outside World," and playing the whole thing through.  And Side Two is no slouch-- it has "US Forces" and "The Power And The Passion," among other great tracks.

Midnight Oil went on to disappoint me.  As much as I love the band's first five albums,  I'm actually not a big fan of the hit records-- "Beds Are Burning" and "The Dead Heart" were too slick and obvious for me really to love.  And it's not that I need to like the unknown stuff and reject the popular material-- they just came off as sloganeering blowhards rather than artists when they made the jump to stardom.  I missed the complex band they had been before everyone was listening.  

So enjoy, and good to see you again.


Only The Strong (Live 1982):

*Fletch, for those of you playing at home.