Before becoming a fan of independent music, what did you make of the B52s? Depending on when/how you were introduced to the B52s, you may have approached the situation like I did: very confused. In the late-80s, when I first heard “Rock Lobster,” there was no reference point. I was pre-rock music and had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even know they were a pop group and not like a Sharon, Lois and Bram situation.
Little did I also know that they were part of a progressive and avant-garde musical and cultural movement a decade prior. I was introduced to “Rock Lobster” as we were preparing our end-of-summer musical number for the day camp I’d attended the summer leading up to 5th grade. Our camp counselor selected the music and we were all to create sets and costumes of sea creatures, which was an area of focus for this particular day camp. I think I got a hold of a special clear plastic recycling bag (required usage in the early days of residential recycling pickup) and shredded it to be a jellyfish. Other kids cut and painted cardboard boxes into shapes of anemones, sharks, and coral. My mom, who’d attended our evening performance of our song-and-dance number was tickled by the song and seemed to understand what was going on a lot more than I had. Having been born in the late-middle 1940s, she grew up in the era of novelty recordings, so she had a reference point I lacked.
Maybe? I don’t know what the B52s’ motivations were in writing a song about a beach party inspired by something Fred Schneider saw at Atlanta dance club. Actually, now that I type that, I know it’s not that complicated, but I didn’t know it wasn’t that complicated for a long time. I understand that whole scene and what lead up to the B52s’ breakthrough very recently from Audibling Cool Town by Elizabeth Grace Hale, which takes the reader/listener through the history of how a tiny little Georgia college town became a musical and counter-cultural epicenter in the rather conservative late 70s and early 80s. Though seemingly bereft of a political bent as we know it, they were really laying the groundwork for the art of identity expression. I didn’t get it as a kid and a teenager, but the kitsch at the center of the B52s musical and visual brand was in itself a fairly radical statement of feminist and queer liberation.
I next became aware of the B52s and their place in popular culture when MTV started playing the music video for “Love Shack” in a revival context like three years after it was released in 1989. I can’t figure out why this happened, but it enjoyed frequent airplay during my heavy MTV-watching period, c. 1991-1994 and I grew to accept the Bs as a normal part of the pop cultural landscape. It was easier to understand them then, when the kinds of imagery they’d been slinging in mainstream pop culture since 1989 was being normalized through contemporary artists such as Dee Lite and some of the burgeoning alt-rock outfits like Jesus Jones and REM. Then they laid an egg and released “Good Stuff” off the album of the same name without Cindy Wilson and the whole operation went to pieces.
Time marched on. I returned to the B52s in college about the same time I started exploring other punk-adjacent 80s pop outfits, picked up a copy of their self-titled debut (still their best as far as I’m concerned) as well as their greatest hits collection. Those remain the only copies of B52s recordings I have in tangible media, which may make you wonder how “Rock Lobster” ended up so high up on my list.
Fast forward to a scant few years ago on some no-account Friday night, in which Pete and I were watching music videos on YouTube. I wondered whether there was a video for “Rock Lobster” and ran across the version linked here. It’s labeled in the Rhino records’ YouTube channel as the official video for “Rock Lobster,” so you’d think it would be the studio version*, but it is NOT, it is a live performance clocking a staggering 7:06 in length.
*The studio version is 6:49 in length officially, but the single version is 4:56 and there’s an unofficial video floating around the YouTubes that features the single version that looks significantly lower-quality than this one, so it makes sense that this one receives the “official” label. It doesn’t appear that the Bs have their own YouTube channel and their videos seem exclusive to Rhino, which makes absolutely no sense.
This version of and the accompanying video for “Rock Lobster” is my favorite B52s and elevated the Bs from a band I think are cute and funny but of whom I’m not a particular fan, to a significant source of inspiration to me. It’s so gritty, it looks like a 70s movie. Fred Schneider is skinny and serpentine, tireless in his need to move, sporting a mustache very much of its time. Cindy and Kate are wearing wigs that are weird enough to be obviously wigs but not the more flamboyant and colorful beehives they’d be known for later on. Their makeup is outstanding--they would have been right in style in the last five years in an intentionally retro look, but in 1978, it doubtlessly seemed otherworldly (as intended). It also strikes me as amateurish for a stage production, but nobody else was doing this in their time, so they had to figure it out themselves. The same can be said of their almost subtly period attire. They aren’t poufy skirts and don’t sport a loud print or sequins as they would in later incarnations. They look like aliens on the original Star Trek series. Everyone is sweating. The club in which they’re playing is packed and fairly tiny and the crowd is BOUNCING and I can almost feel the floor of the apparent dive bar buckling underneath them. The band and the audience are ONE. Of anything that exists on YouTube from the 70s and early 80s, this is the one where I feel like I’m actually there. These people could be my friends.
The performance itself is stellar and led me, after all these years, to finally understand “Rock Lobster.” And it’s all about Fred’s cowbell. As the song does on studio versions, between verses, it slows down and almost seems to lose enough momentum to fully stop before the signature keyboard riff starts up from the beginning. You’re not sure if you trust this keyboard, but once Fred starts his cowbell again, we’re all on board, having received the signal that WE ARE NOT YET DONE. And then, like a whole other “Rock Lobster” starts up again. Each verse is a different song in and of itself. There’s nothing like it. The best one begins at about 4:29, with Fred, nothing but convincing in its finality starts with the “ROCK LOBSTA! DOWN, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN” and by the time the song grinds to a stop, everyone’s on their knees and you’re sure THIS time, it’s really ending because they’re still winding down at 4:53, when the band snaps to attention and starts again! Then we hit the bridge, delivered with exactly the same amount of energy as they did in verse one. Watching this particular live performance as a performer myself is what finally clicked with me and “Rock Lobster.” It is the most fun you can possibly have as both a performer and an observer.
The lyrics and inspiration for the song are completely irrelevant in the context of this band’s personal approach to a party. Nobody was better. I finally got to see them almost exactly a year ago at the Anthem in DC. We had tickets in the balcony (if you are also 5’2”, you understand why we opted out of the floor) and I was seated next to a self-described DC scene veteran who wouldn’t stop prattling on about everything wrong with each performer’s act (OMD and Berlin opened for the Bs). This almost ruined my night to the point where we actually got up and found somewhere else to stand during the B52s’ set. “They’re just trying to be young again,” said this 60 year-old man who did lights at the 9:30 Club for like 10 minutes in 1984. I checked their ages on Wikipedia after the performance and Kate Pierson is now 72 YEARS OLD, making her a still-impressive 71 years old at the time. At this point in their careers, their costumes and sets probably cost more than my house and during “Rock Lobster,” they had a person wearing a giant lobster costume with them on stage. If I am doing anything 10 percent as cool as that when I’m 71, I would consider it a life well spent.
I wonder what percentage of people my age have as fraught a relationship with Green Day as I do. Most people probably haven’t thought about them in a long time and likely don’t care that they haven’t put out anything good in 15 years. And if they’re even cognizant of this fact, they probably don’t let it eat away at them like I do. I am only being a little dramatic. Green Day’s last SEVERAL albums have been pretty terrible and I take a little personally their (successful to varying degrees) pandering to music fans their kids’ age, which is so dumb but I have been thinking about it and I can say that while not my favorite, Green Day might be the most important band to me personally and they’re certainly top five. This is my very personal Green Day story.
Green Day were a revelation for me. I’ve mentioned before that I weaned myself off of pop music, having caught the tail-end of the period when what was known as “hard rock” defined popular rock and roll. This was at the cusp of the Use Your Illusion Period and was definitely on its way out, quickly becoming something I needed to move on from less than a year after I got interested in it. I tried to become a metal head, but I wanted to like Pantera and Antrhax much more than I was able to. Then came grunge, which felt comfortable but I never felt about it the way some people describe it now. I never idolized Kurt Cobain, nor did I think of him as particularly hot, which I’ll admit here and now was a criteria for REAL band obsession and I think if others are being honest, it was for a lot of us. I liked Pearl Jam but wasn’t moved by Vs. and again if I’m being honest, I think Alice in Chains would have stuck a bit better if they weren’t so damned DARK. I wasn’t a teenage heroin addict. I don’t know why anyone else would want to listen to that.
Dookie was released in early 1994, right before Kurt died. According to Wikipedia, the video for Longview was released simultaneously. I can’t pinpoint it, but I suspect it burned a little slowly and I probably didn’t see it until spring or maaaaaybe even summer? My memory fails. I do recall VERY vividly, Older Cute Boy Kekoa decrying “our” grunge and mainstream alternative-rock sensibilities as the trash of the masses played by sellout millionaires. Green Day, on the other hand, will never appear on MTV because they had too much punk rock integrity. I want to say I saw the video less than a week later, and lol’d at Kekoa’s hilariously ill-timed and factually incorrect sanctimony.
But seriously, THIS was my revelation. Cute and playful boys playing songs about being bored and jerking off. It was just what the doctor ordered. Dookie was also really accessible to a new punk rock fan. Every song is infectious and catchy. I leaned in. I was completely sold on this. <br>
But then came all the rules. See the fundamental problem with Green Day and what was ultimately a mainstream revival of an old genre that had seemed to duck out of sight for fifteen years was that a lot of people researched what came before and learned of the concept of punk rock ethics. Almost immediately, it was not cool to like Green Day anymore, particularly in light of the ridiculous success that came from the second single released off of Dookie, “Basket Case.” ‘Til the day I die, I will not be able to explain why this is the song that caught fire. It’s flanked by “Longview” and “When I Come Around.” The former is what caught my interest enough to dedicate my life to these boys and “When I Come Around” eventually became my favorite Green Day song*, a distinction that stood until the summer of 2001, which I will get into shortly.
*I still love “When I Come Around” so, so much. I think of New Years Eve 1994, when determined to do something party-adjacent (we were only 15), my pal Cybil and I decided we would find something partylike to do for New Years Eve. Having no transportation besides the city bus, which I believe at the time stopped running at 10 PM (even on New Years Eve), we decided to get dressed up in our cutest thrift store finds and just randomly walk around Waikiki at night and got home well before midnight, where I probably watched the ball drop with Mike and Judy as I always did, sober as a judge. One wild and crazy thing we did do was take pay phones off the hook as we passed them, just like Billie Joe does in the video for “When I Come Around.” The song ran through my head all night and that’s really all I remember, but to be completely fair, I remember almost nothing else about any other New Years Eve before 1999.
Anyway, I let go of Green Day in the intervening years. I was not particularly moved by what I heard on Insomniac, released in October 1995 and since they were considered sellout poseurs and no longer punk, I just let it go and kept any enjoyment I experienced while listening mostly to myself. In fact, I recall clearly Green Day coming to Hawaii to play a concert and as I’ve mentioned only the biggest and richest (and those wanting a few days off before starting a Asian tour) bands would come through. It was that infamous 1995 tour with the Riverdales (who dropped off before the Honolulu show actually happened) and chatter leading up to it was that it was OK to want to go to see the Riverdales and if you should happen to see Green Day while you were there, you wouldn’t kill yourself but that’s not why you were going. The same thing happened in 1998 when they came back and local act Grapefruit opened. Like, if you wanted to pay $35 instead of $5 to see Grapefruit play in front of a crowd 50x bigger than usual, that was fine. It was not ok, however if you wanted to see Green Day play.*
*I did go and I did watch Green Day play and I enjoyed it. It was at an outdoor venue and there was a gaggle of girls near us who were screaming for Billie Joe’s attention. They caught it, but the band looked in our direction instead. Without missing a beat, Pete, BFF Alison and I waved in unison and Green Day waved back. I love that story.
The following spring, I found myself exploring this new device called the internet. Like a lot of people one of the first things I did was try to meet people from other places because the simple fact of typing at people in real time across the country and INDEED THE WORLD was very, very novel in March of 1996. I became a regular in what was known as a “chat room” and started to get to know other regulars in said “chat rooms” including a funny punk rocker kid from Cleveland whose handle was Clashboy. In a mid-90s parallel to Godwin’s Law, conversation eventually veered towards Green Day, something that made me extremely nervous, kind of like talking about religion with people you don’t know very well. When this “Clashboy” spoke up, I mentally winced, expecting him to talk about how they were awful sellouts and no real punk rocker would lower themself to listen and to my shock, he came out swinging with a full-throated defense, raising real truths such as their music not changing at all after they signed major and the fact that they actively supported indie groups such as Pansy Division, making good use of their fame. I swooned.
Clashboy revealed in private that his name was Pete Faust, which I thought was so cute and cool. We continued talking and a couple of months later, we were in an exclusive, committed long-distance relationship, despite being literal (in my case) children with no visible means of support and no clear path to being together in person. I swear, Green Day was the catalyst.
As we chatted online and increasingly engaged in daily expensive, several hours’ long phone conversations he started making and mailing mix tapes to me, often with songs that had relatable content, given that we were in a new and exciting relationship. Prior to this, I was aware but not all that familiar with Green Day’s pre-Dookie output but Pete was all about it. On the very first tape he made for me, he included “Dry Ice” off of 1,000 Hours, their Debut EP. The song doesn’t exactly fit because it’s unrequited (“oh I love her, been dreaming of her. But I understand that she wants to be my friend,” the old story), but we were all schmoopy about it anyway.
That first year was hard. While carrying on a long-distance relationship, Pete was going through some pretty serious personal issues and I was doing all the things that come in the last year of high school. We both committed to talking every day, while dealing with our own schedules and the five- or six-hour time difference. Pete would basically turn over his entire Burger King paycheck to his dad to cover the massive phone bills. We saw each other in person three times during that period before Pete put his head down and figured out a way to move to Hawaii to be with me.
As the years went on, I got to know Green Day’s early output as well as I knew Dookie and continued to keep up with their subsequent releases, which remained strong for a long time. In July of 2001, Pete moved back to Cleveland temporarily before he and I would both find somewhere to live in Columbus where I would be attending grad school. I would be following him a month later, but I stayed back to spend some quality time with family and friends before moving to the mainland. Right before Pete moved on July 15, 2001, VH1 aired the Green Day episode of their venerable music documentary series, Behind the Music. Pete taped the episode (on VHS, yes) before moving but didn’t get a chance to watch it until after he settled in with his parents. Over the phone, he told me how it far exceeded his high expectations of it and how he couldn’t wait to show it to me.
Honestly, this was kind of surprising because though Pete never really stopped listening to Green Day, we were interested in other things by this point and I felt a little like watching the Green Day Behind the Music would be doing so primarily out of obligation or for old time’s sake.
I joined him a month later and as I recall, we watched the Green Day Behind the Music the very night I arrived. Initially it seemed like a fun watch but not like anything you MUST show your girlfriend after spending a month apart and then the Billie Joe talking head began telling the story of a basement show Green Day played while on tour in Minnesota where he met and made out with the most incredible girl who he couldn’t stop thinking about even after he resumed tour and went home to California. When they were apart he wrote what would be the first song on their second album, “2000 Lightyears Away” and the girl turned out to be Adrienne Nesser, who he married in 1994 and had two kids with him, etc., etc., and as I heard Billie Joe retell this story, my hair stood on end, my eyes burned with tears and I turned to Pete who said “See? What did I tell ya?”
I don’t think I’d ever heard of the Violent Femmes before I saw them play at a festival. I was there to see Stone Temple Pilots and Tool, but with them, Primus, Fishbone and the Violent Femmes also played. The VFs were the only one of the lot I wasn’t familiar with. Since I, as an about-to-be high school freshman, had not heard of them, I assumed nobody else had and they were just slipped on the bill as filler. When they started playing, the crowd went absolutely nuts, bounced up and down manically, it was amazing. Even given this, I didn’t really want to like them. Because the lead guitar was acoustic, they struck me as bass-heavy, the vocals were weird and seemed almost novelty. Musically they were weird, I legit didn’t know how to categorize them in my mind. They were like nothing I’d ever heard before. It wasn’t particularly pleasant and as much as I assumed it would be off-putting, I didn’t find it that way either.
Then that fall, they released the Add It Up compilation and some of the moldy oldies they’d been playing since 1983 got regular alternative radio airplay and by Christmas, I was fully under their spell. I asked* for Add It Up for Christmas** and used to carry it around with me in my backpack until the jewel case got so cracked, it wouldn’t stay shut. I think I eventually used scotch tape to keep the two pieces of the front case together.
*The arrangements between a teenager and their parents related to how the teenager would go about getting their parents to purchase specific music for them for Christmas I think was different in every household. In mine, I’d put specific albums on my list, limited to five or six and would usually get all of them. A quirk of our arrangement is that my mom, who did all the rest of the Christmas shopping almost exclusively, would farm this task out to my dad. I can’t begin to try and explain why this makes sense in my family’s case, but it for some reason makes perfect sense to me. Now, when I say “usually,” my dad has a nearly unblemished record of being completely cool about content. He didn’t care about parental advisory stickers or weird shit on album covers or anything like that. The *only* time Dad ever failed me is when I asked for White Zombie’s La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume 1. I wrote it down on my list exactly like that, even though I could have just said “La Sexorcisto” and he probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it. I think I was maybe testing him and I lost.
**I wish I could tell you what else I got that Christmas music-wise but all I remember was Bjork’s Debut and I’m quite certain there were two or three others. Possibly including Tool’s Undertow, but I think that one came from my Uncle Dan.
The songs that received the heaviest rotation on the radio were “Blister in the Sun,” “Kiss Off,” “American Music” and “Add It Up.” I never cared much for “Gone Daddy Gone” despite it being quite memorable as the only pop song I can think of off the top of my head that uses a xylophone in place of a guitar. I think I disliked it because of that. My friends and I adopted “Waiting for the Bus” as our personal anthem because we were always missing/waiting for the bus. “Out the Window” was another standout, which is basically “Kiss Off’s” less-catchy spiritual cousin. In short, that collection captured my imagination in so many different ways, I really had to do some serious soul searching to select “Add It Up” as my very favorite. I got a copy of New Times from COLUMBIA HOOOOUUUSE, an economic decision, not because I heard it was good or anything. It didn’t sound like the songs I loved and when it didn’t grab me right away, I thought maybe their albums weren’t so good? Didn’t pursue any further.
I feel like since they did an official and still ongoing reunion (2013 and hence), I’ve learned that a lot of other people have a soft spot for the Violent Femmes and online chatter has prompted me to go out and get a copy of their first album and HOLY MOLY!! They have ten studio albums and that first self-titled one is really hard to beat. I was shocked to see so many near-and-dear tracks listed on the SAME record. It’s wonderful and I’m sad to have wasted so much time not having the Violent Femmes’ first album on repeat. I haven’t prioritized exploring the rest of their catalog, but it’s on my to-do list. My understanding is that their albums don’t sound at all like each other. I am, as I type, listening to the lead single from my old nemesis New Times and lead single “Breakin’ Up” is just not great. Maybe it’s worth trying again, start to finish. The album, I mean. This song isn’t good. It will never be good.
“Add It Up,” is another one of those songs I love very much that has a very weird structure. It starts out with Gordon Gano’s a capella vocals softly singing a lyric/tune combination that doesn’t seem to have any connection to the first 90% of the song and you have to really stay with it to close the loop. There’s a second-long pause, then the acoustic guitar, drums and bass start and I feel like I use this description a lot but I’m at a loss for anything more accurate, so we’ll go with the instrumentation being bouncy and frenetic.
Then the verses start and they’re simple, repetitive and really lack nuance. “Why can’t I get just one screw? Believe me I know what to do but something won’t let me make love to you.” I guess the chorus is the part where he goes “Day after day, I get angry and I will say…” but that only happens once before we get a fourth verse where he’s for some reason addressing his mother before going into chorus 2, which is “don’t shoot shoot shoot that thing at me” because it’s repeated several times. In verse five we get a description of a household scene with a bunch of nonsense lines peppered in like “the city is restless, it’s ready to pounce,” which I am sure means absolutely nothing, but sounds really good. The payoff finally comes at the very end and it starts with what sounds like a threat and ends in a very satisfying payoff, where we finally know where the song’s title comes in:
I've given you a decision to make
Things to lose, things to take.
Just as she's about ready to cut it up:
She says, "Wait a minute, honey, I'm gonna add it up!"
Add it up! Add it up! Add it up!
THEN, we return to the very beginning with an *aggressive* retread of the very first lines of the song and the loop is closed and we can all sleep well tonight. It’s the most satisfying conclusion to a song I can think of off the top of my head.
The Violent Femmes were kind of peerless, weren’t they? They hail from Milwaukee, Wisconsin (hooooooo!) from which we don't see any enduring musical legacy from the postpunk era. Their genre according to the World Wide Web is “folk punk” which while correct, isn’t much of a thing aside from the Femmes. I scrolled through a few years of their first tours and they played with Killing Joke and the Replacements (and W.A.S.P. in Europe, which I’m only including here for your amusement) but other than that nobody notable shared a bill with them throughout the 1980s. Before Corona, they were scheduled to play the Anthem with X on June 7, which seems SUPER random, but no more random than the Violent Femmes and just about anyone besides the Replacements, maybe. At the time the concert was announced, I paused because we were spending a lot of money on concerts (none of which happened) and had previously declared Kraftwerk or something to be the LAST show in 2020 we’d spend a lot of money on but then of course all of this fell through. My current self is FLOORED at my past self for even considering not attending this. It’s still listed as “postponed,” so fingers crossed I’ll be able to finally see them again in 2022. SIGH.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m getting to the point where these are getting tough to do. I mostly blame fatigue and the amount of time invested in each post but I’m also running out of things to say about music. Nonetheless, I carry on.
These write ups are particularly a problem when they appear on an album I’ve already posted about. See, less than a year ago (like in March or something like that?), I posted my top ten albums from my teenage years and while most of them were ha-ha/do-you-remember, Sublime’s-40-Oz-to-Freedom-type selections, but others of them were actual good’uns that I carry along as favorites to this day. One such is the Specials’ self-titled debut album. So I’ve already talked a lot about the Specials and probably even said stuff about “Gangsters” in that post because it is so good. And this is the whole reason I couldn’t write this post yesterday, I just looked at it on the list and sighed.
BE THAT AS IT MAY, I do love “Gangsters” and it belongs right here at #22, no question. Regarding my Green Day post, Pete acknowledged that when I explained it, it made sense that Green Day meant so much to me, but I would never put it on. “Green Day isn’t a mood,” I said. I hear it and I think of the past and it’s nice. When Pete puts it on, I’m not unhappy. While I don’t regularly listen to stuff I listened to in high school, the Specials is a* major exception. It does have a hint of nostalgia, but it makes sense in my present context. Maybe because Two-tone overlaps with Post Punk, stuff I’m presently into? I listen to the Specials’ contemporaries** on a regular basis, I think it would be weirder to exclude them from my regular repertoire.
*Another major exception is Operation Ivy, about whom I also posted twice. I don’t know why that post felt so easy compared with this one, but I suspect because it was a few weeks ago and I was fresher. I’m a different person now and I’m very, very tired.
**Regarding Spotify’s algorithm, what the fuck is up with them and Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life????” It came on “Gangsters” radio while I was listening for inspiration for writing this post. What does Iggy solo and the Specials have to do with each other? Spotify thinks every song recorded before 1990 is similar to “Lust for Life” because it is played on the algorithmically-developed playlists for every song, every album I ever listen to. It has ruined this song for me, which is kind of nice because dead things like radio and MTV used to do this to songs, too. See also “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers.
Quick summary of that post from March or whatever, I mentioned that in high school I was very much into the whole ska thing, to the point where Pete used to call me Skagirl to his friends and well-wishers and eventually wrote a song to immortalize the nickname:
I also mentioned that while many other bands that played ska, particularly in the mid-to-late 90s have earned their spot as music history’s objects-of-ridicule, it’s really a shame that a ton of really great artists get unfairly lumped in with them. I almost got a Two-tone tattoo, ska shows in the late 90s were really fun, my best friend got on stage with California first-wave revival band Hepcat, etc. I also mentioned that you should watch the video for “Gangsters,” which I’ve linked here, so if you haven’t yet, I’ve made it very easy for you.
I don’t understand these bands in their time. I can’t get a handle on exactly how big a lot of these bands were because things were so different before the mid-80s. Pete and I talk about this a lot, where you could be a very popular “cult” act and eek out a decent living without reaching Taylor Swift-levels of super stardom. The best example of this contrast exists within David Bowie’s career, where he was very popular and very successful before he released Let’s Dance and it’s hard to imagine someone selling out the Nassau Coliseum on consecutive performance nights being able to “sell out” but he did. Similarly, it’s hard to picture enough people being interested in the Specials that they’d endure for 40 years in such a niche genre, but here we are.
Related, I am going to go out on a limb and admit* that I didn’t know this song was mostly a cover until I started reading about it in the last couple of days. It’s a bit of a cheat because it’s a cover of a mostly instrumental, first-wave ska song that the Specials added lyrics to. I’m prompted to wonder again, how aware general American and British audiences were about these great artists coming out of Jamaica in the 1960s. I mean, obviously music nerds who are moved to revive a musical genre from 10-15 years prior and across an ocean would be aware, but the awareness of the general audience is less clear. When researching my post about “Israelites,” I learned that it was a top-ten hit in the United States. This is weird! I don’t think my mom would have heard of it? I hadn’t heard of it until as I mentioned, the commercials for the Pure Reggae compilation hit the airways. ANYWAY, this is actually the second Prince Buster ~cover on my** list, to include Madness’ “One Step Beyond.” I guess I’m a fan.
*Earlier this week, Pete posted about “Don’t Change” by INXS, my household’s Song of the Week, saying he hadn’t heard it until recently and SEVERAL people were like “whuuut, you haven’t heard that song before??” which is in any context kind of a dick move. I like what he said “I try to hear every song ever made but I sometimes drop the ball and will do better from now on,” which is the best response. All I ask is that you not be that guy.
**The original version of Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina” is also Prince Fucking Buster. So it’s just two on my list, but could be as many as like five on someone else’s because Madness went to that well more than once.
The lyrics the Specials added to the Prince Buster instrumental are based on a true story from when the Specials were on tour with the Clash* and the Specials were blamed for some damage to a French hotel room. Stories about the incident are very vague and indicate that the damage was done by “another English band.” Does this imply that the Clash is responsible? It’s concerning. The Specials, who had not released so much as a single at this point (“Gangsters” was their first), were forced to pay for the damage and the police were involved. This is so weird because I never would have gotten any of this from the lyrics. Who are the “gangsters” we are referencing here? Is it the cops or are the cops working on the behest of gangsters? I also have never really heard of a French gangster. That could just be my ignorance. Maybe they were just trying to make the song sound cooler, which: mission accomplished. The interjections (in the spirit of the first wave that inspired “Gangsters”) throughout the song don’t shed any light either. “Bernie Rhodes knows don’t argue” is a reference to their sleazy manager (who I guess was unhelpful during this incident) and “don’t call me scarface”** is from the original.
*What I wouldn’t give to have seen them on THAT tour.
**Pete misheard this lyric as “don’t call me ska face,” which still makes me giggle.
As I mentioned before, the music video is a favorite of mine. It’s just black and white footage of the band performing on a soundstage and they’re looking very serious and very intense and they’re all dressed very well. It seems like the kind of early music video that the band didn’t really want to make and nobody had any ideas for it, so they threw this together. The star of the video is the attempt to spruce things up by employing some of the best camera tricks a low budget, late-70s production had to offer. Which is to say there is ample use of the four-panel split screen, two of which display different angles of Terry Hall, the other two displaying other band members, dancing sort of on beat, the errors I blame not on the band members but on the production team for failing to sync properly. It’s good. The costar is the shiny faces of the band members who’ve clearly been dancing in an unventilated room for several hours by the time they shot without a competent makeup person on set. Regardless, it’s 100% badass and ended up setting 100% the appropriate tone.
I’ve mentioned* here and there that to a certain point, I was a fairly sheltered child. I spent many formative years living in a large condo building near the University of Hawaii (where Mom and Dad worked). I had one friend in the building because our moms were pals, so we never hung out without supervision and it was hard setting up playdates with friends from school, so through age 8, I had three main cultural influences: my parents, peers at school (most of whom I didn’t really get along), and network television.
*My favorite story about my sheltered early childhood was when my mom took me to see Labyrinth in the theater. She mentioned David Bowie was in it. She should have known better and I asked “who’s *that*?” And she paused for long enough that even at 7 years old, I could tell she was searching for an appropriate and adequate answer before responding, “he’s...a rock star.” That’s the punchline, but I will add to this retelling that I was SO TITILLATED by this response, I could hardly wait to feast eyes upon this “rock star.”
In the middle of second grade, we moved to a middle-income condo complex in Hawaii Kai, a very ritzy* suburb. This was a great move for me. We lived right on the water and I learned how to lay out crab traps and pull them right out of the marina. As nice as Kaimuki was, I was happy to be around more nature (even if it was just suburban landscaping). I actually had neighborhood kids to hang out with and among other major revelations such as swearing, my new friends and I watched VH1 together, mostly to catch the Miami Sound Machine, Whitney Houston, Eric Carmen, and my first favorite song ever, “Rock Steady” by the Whispers (it did not make this list because it’s only sort of good to my adult ears).
*I was curious as to how ritzy in 2020 dollars, so I looked on Redfin in that entire zip code for houses and condos under $500k and only one popped up and you had to be eligible under some special affordable-housing program to qualify.
Oft discussed in hushed tones, but rarely pursued was a sexy, dangerous motherfucker who went by the name of George Michael*. Because we were goodie-goodies, we didn’t watch MTV regularly, so at first, he was just kind of this mysterious and taboo figure we gossiped about and maybe heard occasionally on the radio, but I don’t think I saw the “Faith” video until much later. I remember my then best friend April telling me that he actually had a song called “I Want Your Sex,” which was so scandalous to us and I was actually pretty angry. How dare he?! At the same time, part of me was super interested in how you could write a song like that. My artistic instincts thought it was a bit too obtuse a turn of phrase to be used in a song. Looking back, this was a true and pretty impressive evaluation for an eight year old. But I was secretly pretty fascinated. One time me and April went to Castle Park** and were about to get started on the Gravitron. As we were getting strapped in, April nudged me and pointed to the sky, indicating I should listen to the song being played. It was “I Want Your Sex!” I looked at the monitors that were playing music videos along with the songs being played over the loudspeaker and I swear on a stack of bibles that the screen was STATIC! I thought to myself “well, yes, they couldn’t make a video for this song, it would be too lurid.” Of course, he would later release “Father Figure” and “One More Try,” fairly safe ballads and I got into “Faith” accordingly and while I pale at the thought of not having George Michael in my life, the thrill of the scandal kind of wore off at that point too. I don’t think I’ve ever told my George Michael Origin Story to a single other human in as much naked detail as I’ve provided here, so I hope you feel privileged to read it.
*We were too young for Wham! I discovered “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” well after its time and got into it because we had a keyboard at home and the demo was “Wake Me Up.” I can’t figure out why that happened.
**I take a little pride in the fact that Honolulu had a mini version of Class Action Park. Castle Park was a bit of a death trap and reading up on news articles from the late 80s, a ton of kids got hurt there and it eventually became a gang haven. It was kind of inconvenient to get to, so I think I only went a total of two times, so of course in my mind it was the funnest place ever, and this is coming from a kid who regularly visited Disney World.
By 1990, things were as different as they could be three years later. I was older and wiser, I’d moved to a new neighborhood where I’d gathered new pals who were marginally badder girls and in addition to the Disney Afternoon lineup, we’d watch Golden Girls, Empty Nest, GLOW, and MTV during slumber parties, which were a near-weekly occurrence. We were very into money-making schemes, VERY SERIOUS crushes on boys at school, and very glamorous future career plans. Oh--another thing we were very much into was going to the mall, where we really didn’t have any money for very much unless we saved up a few weeks to buy a pair of grown-up heels at Payless. We also discovered this extremely shady jewelry store which was in this weird building across the street from the mall that sold extremely cheap jewelry. You could get a pair of earrings for a dollar. They were probably made out of lead, but we were so thrilled we could *just buy* these tacky, ostentatious 80s (even though it was 1990) earrings without consulting with our parents.
In October of 1990 when “Freedom! ‘90” was released, I was in 6th grade but for some reason, I remember very clearly seeing it more often the following summer, leading up to 7th grade. I spent a lot of time at home that summer and between episodes of USA High and California Dreams, I’d put on MTV to catch pop videos from Boyz II Men, Madonna, Wilson Phillips, Amy Grant, and OF COURSE, George Michael. George Michael had changed a lot in three years, too. I would not have been able to pinpoint the reason for the change, but I now know that he had an existential crisis, parted ways from his record company and decided he was going to be a serious artist. I didn’t think there was anything cheesy about his solo stuff in the 80s, but looking back there’s a stark difference between GM ‘87 and GM ‘90 and I’m struggling for the words to describe it. He was clearly marketed as a teen idol in 1987 and we all know that for the videos he released from Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1 and hence he refused to even appear in many of his music videos. He was still making pop music, though. It was just that it went from extremely competent teen-idol stuff to extremely competent pop legend stuff. It’s like 1990 Mariah Carey vs. 1995 Mariah Carey. Without that turn, he’d be a national treasure. With it, he’s a god.
While I loved “Freedom! ‘90” in its time, it honestly wouldn’t have made my top 100 list if not for the growing appreciation I’ve had for it in the last five-or-so years. I think it’s my mature ears that have more recently raised my assessment of classic R&B and Soul from the ‘60s and ‘70s and “Freedom! ‘90” belongs in that class. It’s fucking incredible. I’m listening to it now and it’s bringing tears to my eyes. The rolling percussion it starts with (a sampled backbeat from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”), the now-classic piano riff. The vocal performances are what make this song a classic though. The backup vocals feature George Michael himself but also like--an entire fucking gospel choir, significant and innovative enough at the time where when identified by genre on the world wide web, I’ve seen it categorized as pop/gospel. Gospel!
Lead vocals during the verses are groovy and soft and you’re with him until the glissando* when he gets louder and choppier and it’s musically almost a break-down. This part climaxes at “I just hope you understand sometimes the clothes do not make the man!” Then we switch into a more gospelly and soaring second lead in to the chorus, “all we have to do now is take these lies and make them true somehow. All we have to see is that I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong to me” AND THEN we get the “freeeeeedoooooom, freeeeedoooooom” and all is well.
*The glissando, also known as the “piano thing” is one of my favorite features in pop music (will appear again in the top 20) but I can never remember what it’s called, so I texted my good friend Emily for a reminder on what the term was and she lauds its use in this particular song as “a falling glissando, very emotional.” Thank you, Emily!
The “freedom” in this case references a relationship. And he addresses the object of the song as “boy,” which must have been a very *freeing* thing for him to do. Part of the existential crisis he had between his 1987 personna and his 1990 one resulted from the stifling experience of being a teen idol of young girls. According to the internet, he was out as bisexual back in his Wham! days, but I feel like among girls my age, we didn’t really know or understand. I watched Full House last night and was reminded how pervasive his teen idolness was in the late 80s. And they made such a thing about his jewelry, I find it really hard to believe that his bisexuality wasn’t mostly a secret. Americans were so conservative about sexuality at the time, the poster of George Michael on (the other) DJ Tanner’s bedroom wall is a stark juxtaposition. There’s also some pretty obvious subtext about his being liberated from the role and as I understand it this had a lot to do with his leaving his record company and taking greater artistic control over his music and general career.
This brings me to the music video, which is famous for featuring a half dozen of the biggest supermodels of their time and NOT featuring the man himself. His ambivalence about his success particularly in the MTV sphere is spelled out pretty clearly in the song:
I was every little hungry schoolgirl's pride and joy
And I guess it was enough for me (said I guess it was enough for me)
To win the race? A prettier face
Brand new clothes and a big fat place
On your rock and roll TV (rock and roll TV)
He hated it! It was so weird! After all that time in Wham!, I feel like this is like one of the top ten most puzzling public artistic crises of our time. The video seemed to be the thing bothering him most, but he was smart enough to know he absolutely had to put one out, so he himself asked models to show up in the videos in his place and they said “ok” and the rest is fucking history. The video was directed by David Fincher. David Fincher! That’s less impressive when you consider that’s basically where he started directing, but jesus fucking christ, how is every aspect of this song a master class in the best things in their place and time falling right into place? Fuck, I love this song. It famously does not include George Michael himself and he apparently wasn’t even there when it was shot. He went with a version of this formula again in an underrated video and song released from his subsequent album. In “Too Funky” he used supermodels again but this time in their natural habitat, with George Michael playing the camera man. I like it, but I acknowledge he was asking lightning to strike twice.
I remember the day George Michael left us. He wasn’t a young man and it wasn’t suicide or anything, so it’s not like a Kurt Cobain thing where we all remember where we were or whatever. But all of us remember hearing about his death because the fucker DIED ON CHRISTMAS. You can’t write this stuff. Because of the enduring Wham! classic “Last Christmas,” I think a lot of us think about George Michael more around Christmas because of the welcome Wham!-related repetitiveness that comes with the season. I happened to be at Pete’s cousin’s house, getting ready for Christmas dinner, saw the news alert on my phone and gave Pete the news. Pete immediately went to his cousin Katie, a few years older than us, was this family’s George Michael obsessive in the 80s. “Katie,” he said. “George Michael has died.” Katie’s eyes got big. She was visibly shaken by this news. She’s not a disingenuous person--this was legitimate. She jokingly said “I think I need to sit down,” but I think she really wanted some time to herself for quiet reflection.
Hey! Top 20! Look at us!
I completely missed Howard Jones in his time. Completely! It doesn’t make any sense. Like, very, very recently--I’m talking within the last seven years or so--Pete started talking about Howard Jones as if I should know who he is and I had no idea. Specifically we’d discussed “No One Is to Blame,” a song Pete thought everyone should/did know and though I’ve heard it hundreds of times since, It washed right over me in the 80s. It’s not as if Howard Jones was the slightest bit too dangerous or cool for my sensibilities. He’s classified as synth pop/new wave most frequently, but he’s at least adult contemporary adjacent. Never mind all that time I spent watching VH1 Nostalgia Programming in the late 90s and early 2000s. You’d think surely I would have stumbled up on him somewhere along the line, but no!
Since this introduction, I somehow and for some reason, I have become a rabid fan of one of his more modest hits, “Everlasting Love,” released a bit past his heyday. It’s going to take me this entire post to explain why I love this song so much. Musically, it’s a little cheesy. On its surface, it is on par with a lot of other pop songs of its day. It has a bit of a reggae-inspired back beat but the melody is very late-80s pop love song. It’s light and sweet, but it does have a couple of weird turns. I’ll repeat again, I’m an amateur admirer of music. Like Brian Eno (lol), I’m not a musician, but Pete did deconstruct this song musically for reasons I can’t disclose and if memory serves, he referred to Howard Jones as a “drooling maniac.” The weirdest turn is the bridge, where there’s this Carribean-inspired breakdown with bongo drums and everything and it’s almost embarrassing. The melody starts back up again and everything is ok, we’re safe.
Lyrically, it’s flatly basic. Almost insulting. Like, you can’t or shouldn’t try to have a real, lasting relationship with someone who thrills you in bed or is super good-looking. What’s wrong with having a cuddle in the back seat AS WELL as an interior smile, really? Regardless, it’s corny and sweet. “I need a friend and a lover divine?” “Wait for it, wait for it, give it some time?” Shit. I guess I’m just a big corn.
It is definitely a top-five music video for me. The motif is ancient Egyptian as it opens with a shot of a sarcophagus. It opens, and for a second you see a shot of a mummy, but then it switches to a shot of Howard Jones walking out of it, so I’m not sure what was intended here, but it’s charmingly clumsy.
Walking towards us, he gestures towards a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. Then, we switch shots to Howard Jones in a white-void room but this time instead of his nondescript shirt and pants, he’s wearing an insanely colorful suit jacket and matching shirt and tie. On goes shots of Howard Jones doing a variety of slightly off-kilter 80s video activities (e.g., standing next to a switched-on TV that has a fez on top?). Finally, at the 1:02 mark, we get going. It begins with a shot of two actors wrapped head-to-toe in gauze walking a dog in a park. They’re holding hands, one is much shorter than the other and you can see the definition of modestly-sized boobs and a slight broadening at the hip on the shorter mummy, which gives you the notion that they’re a man-woman couple. A couple of mummies.
At the risk of going on and on about this precious, precious music video, I’m going to take you through all of the adventures these mummies enjoy, in and around their resident city of London. Next, the mummies are in their kitchen. Lady Mummy is helping Guy Mummy get breakfast and tea in the morning, before they share a kiss good-bye. He takes his hat and umbrella and goes out to catch a car to go to work. Maybe? The next place we see Guy Mummy is in an old-fashioned clothing store where he tries on boxer shorts for some reason, while Lady Mummy browses a fabric shop. They meet up for lunch (and this is so cute), take a walk on one of London’s bridges across the Thames, buy theater tickets, get some flowers, play racquetball, get fucking ice cream for christ’s sake, and walk along the streets of London together in the evening. All the while, Howard Jones is in and out of scenes looking at them like they’re nuts, but the mummies are just going about their business, blissful in their own little world.
IN FACT, Pete and I love this video so much that for the reasons outlined here as well as others, we included a song called "Two Mummies" on Relaunch (released earlier this year in case you missed it) as a tribute to this video. I co-wrote it! Listen here:
I have posted about how I feel a personal connection to the Imperfect Misfits Who Are Perfect For Each Other trope and these mummies fit it in the sweetest way. Howard Jones and his wife Jan have been happily married since 1977 and he’s described in interviews his relationship with his wife only getting better and better with time. I remember I used to hear stuff like this from older couples and would doubt this is possible for all the reasons ageist people in their 20s think that life doesn’t get any better than it is in that moment. And it doesn’t always happen but as we mature, we have the potential to naturally become better partners. If you’re lucky (like I think I am), you get more empathetic and more honest, which from my perspective is the key to a strong relationship. Howard gets it and I get it.
I bet he lives a really nice life. He lives in southwest England in historic Somerset county, known for production of cheddar cheese and apple cider. He lives with his wife of 43 years and is happier than ever. He still tours, still makes music (having released an album in 2019), and is comfortable enough financially to have opened a vegan restaurant in the East Village in New York City (though it burned down [!] after a year). He came through DC in 2016 and played at a weird venue which for the benefit of out-of-towners, I’d like to briefly describe. It’s an Alexander Hamilton-themed restaurant with a moderately sized music venue in the basement. What’s more, he had our pals in Stronger Sex play a 45-minute opening set for him. The only problem is that WE WEREN’T THERE because it coincided with a west coast vacation we took to attend a wedding and see my family. Per Stronger Sex, Howard Jones is as affable and lovely as you’d assume.
Our other opportunity to see Howard Jones that fell through was in New York. I can’t for the life of me nail down this timeline, but the scheme was hatched during one of those alcohol-fueled late-night fantasy schemes where Pete, Josie, and Stephen S____ (KingFuckboi) of all fucking people decided that the following fall we’d get together and attend this insane 80s nostalgia show to take place on Long Island or in the Hamptons or some such insanery. It sounded like an amazing show, but would have been costly both in time and money, so I don’t think we ever brought it up again, but the next day, Josie busted out her Howard Jones shirt and would have sworn she wrote a blog about it. This post from October 2014 and I’m posting it because the HoJo shirt is pictured and the song plays a nice role in her story, but there’s no way this blog and that trip coincided, time-wise, so nvm. Anyway, Howard Jones will always remind me of Josie, and particularly “Things Can Only Get Better,” which is easily my second favorite Howard Jones song. I tried to find the shirt in my size because all of a sudden it is the only thing in the world I want right now and it doesn’t seem to exist anymore, but if you run across it, in an L, please buy it for me and I’ll reimburse you up to $50 for the purchase.
I mentioned back in my post about “Take a Chance on Me” that I have a soft spot for songs I think of crassly as Incel Anthems. These are songs performed by all genders in which a person lists out all the reasons why they’re a better match for the object of their affection than the person with whom said object is associating romantically. “Take a Chance on Me” by ABBA is one example, as is “Alone Again, Or” by Love/the Damned. There are a lot of these and I’ve always liked them. They’re romantic: the idea of someone quietly pining from afar (or a’near, because I think a lot of these are crushes-between-friends kinds of situations). It’s flattering because it’s basically a crush. I think it crosses the line into shitty when hostility and indignation come into the picture. I also think, whether anyone’s going to admit it or not, you’ve felt this way at one time or another, even towards a friend. They’re relatable.
I don’t have a problem with these songs. Other people, I’ve found, feel like these songs haven’t aged well, where Incels and Proud Boys and whomever else have taken the shine off the charm this thematic musical trope once had. I disagree. Descendents’ world wasn’t as connected as ours is. The dangerous and skeevy friend-zoner types probably existed when these songs were written, but how can you hold the writers responsible for knowing the trope back when music was one of a handful of forums in which to voice this kind of frustration? Also, fuck it if I’m willing to give those creeps that much power. Seriously. Fuck it.
All of this is to say that you can’t take “Hope” away from me, you just can’t! I’ve posted before about how Descendents mean a lot to Pete and I as a couple. The very first time we met in person, he gave me a copy of Descendents’ then-up-to-date singles/hits collection, Somery. It’s a very well-put-together collection, now that I think of it. The storied, enduring classics are sprinkled throughout. Clocking in at 53:12, any album or collection of that length is not necessarily going to be listened in its entirety, particularly by a teenager whose primary mode of transportation was the city bus. It took me several listens until I got to track 21, “Hope.”
I’ll never forget the first time I heard “Hope” because my whole perception of reality shifted. I remember I was on the bus and I must have gone somewhere else right after school because I was alone and standing and since I rode that bus route end-to-end, I generally at least got an outer seat. I was listening to this pleasant song I could tell would end up being a Descendents favorite when ¾ of the way through it, straight out of a completely different song I heard the words “you don’t know what you want, it’s gonna take you years to find out.” You may or may not know that turn of phrase also shows up in “Disconnected” by Face to Face*. I think enough of Face to Face to know that this was a tribute and not a ripoff but it was also very cheap. The relative obscurity in which Descendents lived up until 1996 (actually the year in which this story take place) would have had most Face to Face listeners, myself included, unaware that they lifted the HOOK to their biggest hit (released in 1993, but per my research didn’t get much alternative radio play until 1995). I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed. I ran home and immediately called Pete to give him the news, as he was less of a fan of the radio-friendly pop punk of the day than I was. I don’t recall what his reaction was exactly but suspect it involved a snort.
*LOLOLOLOL I also was just reminded by accident that Sublime covered all of “Hope” on 40 Oz to Freedom, which was released in ‘92 and I was listening to it in full by ‘95 and I can’t for the life of me remember why Face to Face’s lil’ tribute stood out to me more on first listen than Sublime’s full cover. Except maybe that 40 Oz is also a very long album and “Hope” is track 20.
I honestly don’t want to pick this song apart the way I sometimes do. There really isn’t any way to describe why it stands out more than any other exceptionally romantic Descendents song that appears on Somery (i.e., “Silly Girl,” “Good Good Things” [a runner-up for the top 100], “Bikeage,” “Cheer,” and “Get the Time”). When I listen to it though? Particularly those first several guitar chords? It’s like going home, slipping into a warm bath, or some other cliche about comforting music. It’s part of my brain, part of who I am (except that one line “so you wait for his cock”--ugh, Descendents did this so much). Net of my Somery fixation (it was the first recording I had by them), “Hope” of course, appeared on Descendents’ best *album* Milo Goes to College, which I can hardly wait to put on when I’m done typing this.
Another notable factoid about “Hope” is that it was written by Milo Aukerman and not Bill Stevenson. I must have known that at some point but guess I forgot until a second ago when I had to cartoonishly rub my eyes to make sure I hadn’t hallucinated the writing credit. It’s not that Milo doesn’t have this kind of sweetness in him--he certainly does--but most of the best Descendents songs, particularly the sweet ones, were written by drummer Bill Stevenson. On the other hand, this also explains “so you wait for his cock.” That’s so painfully Milo.
I can’t recommend enough the 2013 minor motion picture Filmage, the documentary about Descendents. If you haven’t seen it yet and have more than a passing interest in Descendents as a band, I have to insist you watch it. Going in, I didn’t think I could love them any more, but here we are. I love it so much, just bringing it up in this post makes me want to prioritize a rewatch, if only we didn’t have such a stout week of television in front of us. There are a hundred lovely moments in it but two stand out. First of course was the unbelievable story of the removal of Bill Stevenson’s brain tumor by a surgeon who turned out to be a Black Flag (for whom Stevenson briefly drummed) fan. And the origin story of the songs “All” and “No All,” along with the accompanying All-stylized animation. It’s perfect.
I’ve posted recently in the context of listicles regarding the first time I saw Descendents, but not the most recent time I saw them (I think I did write a long post the morning after the show, though). It was in Silver Spring at the Fillmore--not the ideal venue--and was the third time in a handful of years I’d gone. Because I’d seen them twice so recently and the latter time had been a touch disappointing, we almost didn’t go. You know how it was pre-pandemic. Being bored and tired was an easy excuse to not do things you can’t fathom passing up now. With their always kind-spirited enthusiasm, they urged the crowd to maintain *hope* in dark times and most of all, get out and vote. It’s hard for me at this point a year or more later to put into words how good for the soul it was to watch them with hundreds of other people who love Descendents, but it’s also hard for me to imagine passing up a chance to see them again.
This is the last of the songs that got shoved in after the list was finalized. I don’t remember which song was removed, but I do remember quite well why I suddenly remembered “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.” I was looking for something else and came across a list of the top ten Clash songs. I was reading them aloud to Pete and when #2 was “London Calling” (a song I personally think is great but isn’t their best so is technically overrated, though it pains me to have typed that), I could feel the adrenaline rush with the mystery of what could possibly #1 when the perennial #1 Clash song wasn’t “London Calling.” What could it be?! It was “WMIHP”* and Pete, who has always sort of favored** “White Riot” agreed with me immediately that “WMIHP” is a fair and just and perhaps even correct. This was after I’d finalized my list and had to do some shuffling.
*I don’t like abbreviating song titles and prefer to just shorten them by using the first one or two words in quotes. You know, enough to safely identify them? Like in the case of “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” I can shorten it to “I Believe” in the text of the post because you probably know what I mean. In this case though, “(White Man)” is so laughably awkward, I cannot do that, so I will abbreviate.
**He favored it initially, and I think refuses to take sides in this battle of the ages now. He’s also gone from being a S/T man to a Sandinista! man, so who really knows where his head’s at now? I’d like to think it will end up being “The Sound of Sinners” because it is a great song, he’s mentioned it’s “one of [his] favorites,” and that’s nobody’s answer.
This is also the third and final Clash song on the list (“Safe European Home” came in at #88 and “The Card Cheat” at #46). The Clash did quite well for themselves. Only one other artist has three songs on the list. Several have two. I’m excited to share statistics about this list nobody else will care about but me when all is said and done. This doesn’t really mean that the Clash is my second-favorite musical artist, but they’re close. After numbers 1 and 2, it gets muddy and the order shifts significantly.
How does one even evaluate the Clash? Their relevance is beyond their music but there’s also their music. They have three perfect albums, one profoundly compelling if flawed, one pretty-good, and a final album we must not speak of barely considered a Clash album. They are classified as punk but upon first listen, the majority of their catalog is shockingly un-punk. They blazed the trail for that conscious cross-genre trend I came of age with, so pervasive in the 90s, OF COURSE. But they were also not afraid of being mellow, poppy and even orchestral during an era when their young primary genre was still defining itself. Their best-known song “Rock the Casbah” sounded like straight-up 80s pop to me the first time I heard it. It almost sounded cheesy to me. I was shocked, as a listener in the mid-90s when there were so many goddamned rules in punk rock, that a band that defined the launch of the genre got out of their lane so often. And I hadn’t gotten anywhere NEAR Sandinista! yet.
Their staying power is very likely because of the aggressive experimentation with which they succeeded most of the time. Where the Sex Pistols kind of quickly became a joke the Clash is still widely if not universally treated with the reverence they earned by being amazing. I think a debt is also owed to their just being really good guys. I’ve posted before about how Joe Strummer, even posthumously, is a huge source of comfort for me. His Mescaleros albums in particular, but the Clash is good medicine when you’re feeling vulnerable, too. I’ve already mentioned “The Sound of Sinners.” One of the reasons Pete and I like this fairly obscure track so much is because of the humility. For someone who seemed to have it all figured out, the fact that Joe Strummer was still bothered by the mere existence of Christianity, feeling that he didn’t live up to its standards despite walking away from it is just, well, nice. In my post about “Safe European Home,” I raised this concept as well, where during their first trip to Jamaica they were frankly terrified by local aggression towards foreign tourists. They were consistently cool with admitting they couldn’t hang on opposite ends of the spectrum.
“(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” is thematically--not like the others mentioned, but I find it musically very comforting. It was probably one of the first Clash songs I ever heard. I’ve mentioned my history with reggae/ska, and to please me, Pete would favor the reggae/ska-influenced tracks by the Clash on the early mixtapes he made for me. This one is the first track on the second disc on the collection The Story of the Clash,* which included the first recordings I had from them. I was immediately taken by it. Musically, it’s both sad and angry, but at the same time it’s bouncy and catchy, thanks to that ska-inspired backbeat. The backing vocals are pretty much only Mick Jones’ oooh oooh oooh-ing and ahhh-ing during key sections of the verses. I’ve always really loved Mick’s voice and these harmonies are quite honestly--beautiful.
*The Story of the Clash, unlike Descendents’ Somery is not a good collection. It’s in a weird order and some of the song choices are questionable. It was--back when CDs were a thing--a two-CD set and my copy was one of those connected, double-wide cases. I hate those cases. Luckily for history since, there are a ton of other collections to choose from that present the Clash’s works in a logical order and come in reasonable packaging, if any packaging at all.
Pete and I were talking recently about how the Clash were excellent lyricists. I think the true art of writing lyrics involves having an accessible manifest theme, but including complex, anecdotal, or even personal subtext to make the song itself more meaningful to the artist. The latter also provides the listener a prize if they’re able to untangle this more subtle meaning to the music. “The Card Cheat” is both about the human habit of repeating the same mistakes AND about the immorality of British-empire colonialism. I have been grooving to “WMIHP” for 25 years and always read it as a cool-guy’s lament. A put-down to poseurs trying to cop on Joe’s juice as a punk rock pioneer (he did this again later* in “All the Young Punks [New Boots and Contracts]”).
*I’m not sure it was later. “WMIHP” has a complicated release history I’ll get into shortly.
While preparing for this post, I read the verse-by-verse breakdown on what inspired all this bellyaching. In the first couple of verses, Joe describes an all-night live-music reggae party he attended with artists performing in London “for the first time from Jamaica.” Excited to hear what they had to say to stir up the almost-all-Black audience: “If they have anything to say, many Black ears’r here to listen.” But then, he describes the style-over-substance performance they gave, identifying the oppressive context of the time/place, with the British army on hand for crowd control and, seemingly out of nowhere, the need for greater wealth distribution. THEN, he picks on the Jam* for again favoring style over substance, perhaps even holding newer, punk-influenced British groups for rubbing off on the Jamaican reggae artists, or perhaps even identifying it as an easy trap for fundamentally rebellious musical artists to fall into? Finally, almost at the very end, he gives us the ultimate verse, everyone on earth’s favorite:
All over people changing their votes
Along with their overcoats
If Adolf Hitler flew in today
They'd send a limousine anyway
IS THERE ANY MORE DEPRESSINGLY EVERGREEN VERSE THAN THIS?! You’d think that if you’d go back and tell Joe Strummer that in the US in 2020 we’d be far more likely to send a limousine to get Adolf Hitler than we were in 1978, it probably would have killed him. Ugh, we’ve failed Joe Strummer and I feel so bad about that. Joe concludes by declaring himself the white man in the Palais, as he was one of a tiny handful of non-Black audience members for that reggae show, saying he’s “only looking for fun,” bitingly sarcastic and fucking depressing as hell.
*The Jam, whose “Going Underground” was supposed to appear fairly high on this list but the day it popped up, I really didn’t feel like writing about politics, so I swapped it out.
This track initially appeared on the US delayed-release version of the self-titled, first album, but was recorded during the Give Em Enough Rope sessions, which makes total sense. The first album is super strong, but they hadn’t gotten stylistically experimental to that point. It also makes sense that my favorite Clash song was recorded along with my favorite Clash album.
This song is so good. I listened to it while writing this up and got really distracted because I wanted to stop writing and focus on it. As I mentioned, I’ve loved this song for a really long time and its shine does not wear off. Re-reviewing the top 17 songs, I fell in love with many of them in college and shortly thereafter, but this is the song I have loved the hardest for longest, and it’s making me rethink the order (AGAIN), and that this should have been placed higher, but the Clash have so much real estate on this list, I will live with “WMIHP” at #18.
*cracks knuckles* *leg lunge to the right* *leg lunge to the left* *cracks neck* <br>
Well, kids, we made it. The first David Bowie entry on this list. It’s one I’ve been waiting for pretty much since I started this list. I don’t want to oversell this. I can’t lay it all out here because while this is David’s first appearance on the list, it’s not his last.
It is here where I’ll admit that I got into Bowie when I was in college, which I’ll remind you was in the late 90s and early 2000s, when I was really broke and before internet music was *really* a thing. And that phase was limited to consumption of the Basic Bowie Starter Kit: Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and at the time, the Best of Bowie, but you can swap that imperfect collection out for any number of them that have been released since. Then I kind of let it simmer for a while. Years later, like, sort of all at once Pete and I set aside some time to Get Into Bowie. We bought all of the essential albums and binged accordingly. Ever since, we’ve been obsessives. And I think like a lot of people, his death had us consuming every Bowie Thing out there. We saw all the films, read all the books, took in all there was.
Among the albums we used to Get Into Bowie was of course Station to Station, released right in the meaty part of his creative peak, in 1976. Rob Sheffield, with whom I have this one-sided relationship as a kindred Bowie spirit called “Station to Station” his best album. I think any time anyone declares any Bowie album his Best, it’s automatically a bold statement because most people will disagree with you (that’s just math). I don’t think I disagree with him but I also don’t agree with him. I don’t have a favorite Bowie album, I have three of them. Hunky Dory is a sentimental favorite, Lodger is the ultimate comfort food for me, and Station to Station I think of as his technical best.
This is 100% ironic because it is His Cocaine Album. Most of the albums he released between 1971 and 1976 were cocaine albums, so it really says something that one of them is more cocaine than the others and Station to Station really is it. To the extent where famously, Bowie himself could not quite remember writing and recording it. “I quite liked it,” he’s said. Not only was he high on cocaine the entire time, but he refused to eat anything besides milk and red bell peppers, got heavy into Aleister Crowley, lost all his friends/business associates because they were exploiting him financially, all the while his marriage was unraveling. He also blamed living in Los Angeles for his being so unhappy, which is mean but makes me giggle a little. I don't know where Station to Station’s magic came from but it barely came from Bowie himself, which makes it all the more magical.
The 2013 made-for-BBC documentary Five Years is one of mine and Pete’s favorite movies. Like, favorite overall. Not favorite music documentary, favorite movie. In discussing the trajectory of Bowie’s albums, Music Critic Charles Scharr Murray described the rollercoaster ride that was the three-album span of Diamond Dogs-Young Americans-Station to Station. Fairly crazy, Diamond Dogs was initially supposed to be a soundtrack to a planned roller skate musical version of George Orwell’s 1984*. He came and visited us back on earth by releasing a fairly straight album in the style of east coast United States soul music in Young Americans, which was quite successful lead by the title track single and groovy smash hit “Fame.” In Station to Station, we are back to not knowing what he’s talking about, but like, more so. Diamond Dogs has a plot. Station to Station is just fucking bananas.
*At the On Bowie exhibit we got to see with Josie at the Brooklyn Museum when it came through, I got to see some of David’s storyboards for this musical, the idea for which was ultimately abandoned. It is an incredibly stupid idea and despite having all the confidence in the world in Bowie’s creative abilities at this time, I am quite glad it never came to fruition because I can’t picture it going well under any circumstances.
Station to Station clocks in at 37:57, despite having only six tracks. The length of the title track, which I will get into shortly, brings the average way up, but that doesn’t mean that the other songs aren’t also very long, grand and mighty. Each of them. Six long songs, one LP. “Golden Years” is the lead single off the album that I think most non-Station to Stationheads are most likely to know this one well*. If you have not seen his “performance” of “Golden Years” on Soul Train, it is really something:
“TVC15” is an easy second-favorite on this album and is amazingly about Iggy Pop’s thinking then-girlfriend had been swallowed up by the TV during a coke mayhem party. You’d never guess the dark themes that inspired this song because it’s bouncy, frenetic, and almost cheerful.
*Pete and I semi-recently rewatched Dead Man on Campus, the shockingly not-terrible, MTV produced 1998 major motion picture starring a dark-haired Mark-Paul Gosselaar in his first major post-Saved by the Bell role. We weren’t even aware such a thing existed and were adequately taken aback to hear Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Golden Years” over the opening credits. It’s as bad as I would have imagined even without the context of MM’s very publicly trying to convince America he was this generation’s Bowie, a concept so disgusting to my sensibilities, I want to walk a way for a minute to gather myself.
As fabulous as the album is as a whole, the rest of it honestly pales in comparison to the epic, 10-plus-minute title track. There is a class of song into which “Station to Station” fits*. Usually five minutes or longer, that sounds like it’s several different songs that are cut up and sewn back together in a way that is cohesive and intense and makes perfect sense, even though there are segments brought together from clearly different songs. There are twists, turns, shit comes from out of nowhere and you can’t predict what happens next. They usually tell a convoluted and complicated story and a lot of times the lyrics trip over themselves as if there’s actually more to say despite the length of the song. Precious real estate is taken up by several different bridges and breaks but THOSE are necessary too and the writer did all they did to fit it all in given time allotted. There was just a shit load to say. I love these songs. I’m a sucker for them.
*I think this is an understatement. “Station to Station” *defines* the modern pop epic. Other examples include “Young Americans,” also by Bowie, “American Pie” by Don McLean, and “Cancelled” by the Electric Grandmother.
“Station to Station” starts with an imitation of an actual train. I’m fairly certain it’s generated by instruments, but it sounds very much like a train leaving a station. That fades and a guitar begins wailing and you get two notes on a piano back and forth which sounds more musical and less literally like a train but still like a train. Then the bass and drums start and again the train resonance continues but it’s even further deconstructed. This goes on, repetitively until--I swear to you--the 3:19 mark, when Bowie’s vocals start with “the return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.” The haunting vocals continue and it sounds very grim and dark but it’s nonsense. He’s not even telling you the story of a man who’s returning to Europe (who you never knew left or why his return to Europe was significant). It’s a lot of mystical gobbledygook. But the song’s progression is what is so interesting about it. Because that pace of the three-minute introduction continues for several more minutes and then, again like a train, it speeds up when he begins with “once there were mountains on mountains and once there were sunbirds to soar with and once I could never be down” and he’s not just talking about the scenery on the train but I think he’s also talking about the scenery on the train. I picture him clearing a tunnel to reveal mountains in Switzerland or Germany at this point. Then it speeds up again, with everyone’s favorite line “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love.” This part of the song is quite jaunty. I would almost describe it as boogie-woogie. Really. Also in “Station to Station” are several mid-song instances of the glissando, which as I mentioned in my post about “Freedom! 90” is one of my very favorite things on earth. By the time we finish, it’s repetitive and fast and there are so many people playing so many instruments so well and it’s machine-like and I love it.
Nobody knows exactly what this song is trying to say, including Bowie himself. We’re aware of *themes*, particularly the mysticism stuff that I don’t understand. He at one point says “I’m thinking that it must be love” and then later “Should I believe that I've been stricken? Does my face show some kind of glow?” which gives the impression that he might be talking about romantic love but he’s not. This part is either about religion or cocaine or he’s making a connection between religion and cocaine but none of us can ever know for sure and it’s so sexy and mysterious. One somewhat troubling feature of this song is that it is the introduction to this Thin White Duke personna. The Thin White Duke who is a fascist European aristocrat. When the cocaine cloud lifted slightly, Bowie disavowed any interest in or endorsement in fascism and even made reference in later songs like “It’s No Game” on Scary Monsters where he said “to be insulted by these fascists, it’s so degrading.” Cocaine is a hell of a drug.
Remember the 2016 Republican National Convention? I do. It felt a very dark time, despite the fact that it only seemed to be a harbinger of something scary if really unlikely to unfold. And then the thing unfolded and it was really scary, making the summer of 2016 look a little quaint by comparison. If you think about it, it really ended up being a microcosm of what eventually became the Trump administration. They couldn’t get any mainstream republicans to speak or even really show up (how times have changed). Obviously any notable celebrities wouldn’t show up, but they found some people and it ended up being a veritable freakshow of hate. It’s like--nobody knew what they were doing or how to give a stirring speech, which didn’t bode well for their ability to govern a country or bring people together--but they were given the keys to the kingdom anyway. Limped along without anything blowing up, but it didn’t go remotely well either and if given more time, something would certainly blow up. It was set in Cleveland, a city in which many of my friends live and everyone was on edge that something horrible and violent would happen. God, I remember it like it was yesterday.
In the initial hours, a lot of us were watching it closely to see what would happen. I think the doors technically opened shortly after noon on a weekday and I was still at work and unable to watch any live feeds, but thanks to the miracle of social media, I was able to keep one eye on the goings-on. A friend identified “a Bowie song” something the house musicians were playing, one of whom was perennial RNC journeyman feature GE Smith*, formerly of Saturday Night Live and Bowie’s backing band in the early 80s. Appalled, I asked which song and it was indeed “Station to Station,” about which my friend and I shared a laugh and I believe his words were “someone should tell GE that Bowie’s interest in fascism was due to the cocaine psychosis.” It’s also a very odd choice because the song itself is so dark and ominous I don’t understand why you would want to strike that mood at a political convention unless you’re a crazy self-aware version of today’s Republican party.
*Everybody hates GE Smith for this. If it makes a difference to you, he claims he is not a Republican. I think he just likes money.
That night, I listened to that album on the way home, the title track multiple times in a row. I watched the first night of the RNC and it was worse than I even imagined. Pete had a nightmare that someone was beating him with golf clubs. As the ill-fated 2016 election continued and got worse and darker, I had Station to Station on heavy rotation. It indulged my dark and apocalyptic feelings, particularly while drunk. I would watch the AMAZING live performance from Nassau in the year it was released and marvel at the stark and sterile beauty of the Thin White Duke looking near death and impossibly beautiful and powerful at the same time. Then, Trump won and it got worse and my Station to Station obsession just intensified. That December, I had a two-week business trip in Los Angeles which a lot of people know very well how miserable those trips made me and I would listen to “Station to Station” every night before bed and every morning before leaving the hotel room to deal with people and be exhausted and stressed and eat terrible food.
Even though this song and the album in general just exudes misery, it does not make me miserable to listen to or remind me of bad times. I kind of love the feeling at this point because it feels like misery-play instead of misery-misery? Given that “Station to Station” is literally about a fascist and even though this was all conceived in the fog of the aforementioned cocaine psychosis, it was still technically play-acting. It’s so glam, so indulgent, so power-drunk, it helps me cope with real troubling tendencies among people in power, some 45 years (!!) after the song was released. “Drink to the men who protect you and I,” indeed. Just so long as they’re made up men.
It has been almost a week since my last post. When I put the first two Bowie songs back-to-back, I was making a big deal how important his music is to me and how long I waited to write these works and then the President came down with Covid-19 and then I went in for a minor medical procedure and because I’m dramatic the prep for it felt like the worst thing I’ve ever had to do. Then I was knocked out for a couple of days and work was super busy and whoops, six days goes by without a post. Kind of takes the air out of the drama. But I carry on.
After writing the #17 post about Bowie’s “Station to Station” I questioned whether I had the two songs switched*. I think of “Young Americans” being “Station to Station’s” spiritual cousin. They’re both title tracks on back-to-back albums in that category of songs I described in the “Station to Station” post as a modern pop epic in that they are long, grand, and surprisingly efficient for their length. Unlike “Station to Station,” “Young Americans” was a single and the album with which it shares a name was an intentionally accessible album in the style he described as “plastic soul.” It was a lean-in on his fascination with American Soul music. Being full aware of the potential for this to be a classic exemplar of cultural appropriation before any of us had that in our vocabulary, he self-deprecatingly threw that “plastic” qualifier on and it seems to have worked.
*When I posted about “Station to Station,” my friend Kelly said that she’d quietly speculated that the Bowie selections would all end up being in the top ten and she was right to think this. I had to put my thumb on the scale for some others to keep the top ten interesting. So, 16, 17 as well as “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” at 18 are all a bit deflated in their ranking.
Anyway, after giving a first listen in preparing for this post, I do think I made the right decision. I don’t know when I first heard this song. I mentioned I cut my teeth on Bowie with the basic starter pack: Hunky Dory, the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust…, and the Changesbowie collection*. I’m quite certain the first time I heard “Young Americans” was on Changesbowie and I was fairly immediately taken with it but didn’t know where to go from there. This is the distilled version of why it’s so easy to fall into the Hunky Dory/Ziggy Stardust-only trap. I liked “Space Oddity” so I got the Space Oddity album. Rookie mistake. I very much enjoyed Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World,” so I listened to the album of the same name. NOPE! I think I made the same mistake with “Young Americans” in which I listened to the album because I knew the title track and “Fame” and was underwhelmed by the rest of it, despite its being intentionally accessible.** Point being--I’ve been listening to and loving “Young Americans” for a long-ass time, possibly even longer than I can measure.
*Another bad collection, here. It was released in 1990 with a remix of “Fame” as “Fame ‘90” and “John, I’m Only Dancing” which was not originally released with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… but did appear on reissues starting in 1990. There are so may fucking versions of Changesbowie and I’m very angry about this because both “Starman” and “Life on Mars?” would have slapped me in the face much faster than they did, given that I had this collection before getting the albums. Anyway, another bad thing about it is that on most versions, the only song from the Berlin Trilogy is “Heroes,” though “Sound and Vision” shows up on special versions that I didn’t have access to.
**If you’re interested, I think the best album to try after Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… is Scary Monsters. It’s welcoming.
In 1973, David Bowie famously fired his band on stage, effectively dumping the team that made him a cult sensation. This is widely seen as a ballsy move on his part but it’s also plainly a dick move on his part. He did it as a means of self-preservation, thinking that he needed to start fresh in order to stay relevant and it was in no uncertain times the right career move. And I would be really sad if we didn’t have any Bowie other than the through-Aladdin Sane Bowie. Diamond Dogs was released next, which was kind of a one-off in that he didn’t replace Mick Ronson and just didn’t have a lead guitarist* for that album. But on Young Americans, the world was presented with the unholy union of Bowie with Carlos Alomar.
*Evidently Bowie tried to get Alomar for Diamond Dogs but “negotiations” evidently didn’t work out like some kind of NBA trade deadline situation.
Carlos Alomar is one of those with whom people I would really love to have dinner and a bottle of wine or three. He is a delightful human being and he was a major collaborator and contributor to Bowie’s output through the early 2000s. One of my very favorite stories about anyone is Carlos’s story about the first time he met David Bowie ahead of the Young Americans sessions. He described him as being the whitest man he’s ever seen and he had this orange hair, “I'm not talking about your momma's orange hair,” Carlos has said. Carlos was also struck by how thin Bowie was at the time (recall the red bell pepper and milk diet). “You gotta come to *my* house,” he’s said. Alomar cowrote “Fame,” “Golden Years,” and “Stay” among a ton of others. What I wouldn’t give to pick his brain?
The impressive roster of players on Young Americans isn’t limited to Bowie and Alomar. Famously, Luther Vandross contributed as a backup singer, one of a ton of early backup jobs he worked before breaking through as a solo artist. Young Americans was also Ava Cherry’s first appearance on a Bowie recording. She was another recurring character on Bowie albums and they’re both very lucky to have dated each other, comprising one of history’s top ten best-looking couples (along with David and Iman).
One of the things I love best about Ava Cherry, Carlos Alomar and other notable character drummer Dennis Davis in talking about working with Bowie is how obnoxious it was recording Young Americans. The result is basically a monument to anal retentiveness in an eight-song LP. In the BBC documentary Five Years, we’re treated to footage from some of the recording sessions. In them we see how Bowie furiously micromanaged even the backing vocal arrangement and performance. The singers would come out with something that sounds great and he’ll stop them and demonstrate how they should be performing and it sounds exactly like what they just did. Then the backing vocalists would try it out and it all seemed like such a nightmare. I’m not a patient person. I would think working on this album would be my ironic hell, having someone like David Bowie putting me through the wringer like this. One thing I can’t explain given this information, on “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” I swear to god there’s a mistake where David comes in early, with an “eff.”. It happens at 0:42, one measure before the first verse really starts with “everybody.” Pete surmises that he did come in early but liked how it sounded, so kept it. I find this hard to believe because it doesn’t sound particularly good or fitting.
One thing I do unexpectedly like about the Young Americans album is his cover of “Across the Universe.” I am not a Beatles fan (but I’m also not not-a-Beatles fan, I just don’t care that much) and Beatles fans disagree with me. What I like about it is the Bowiesque apocalyptic sensibility he brings to the song. I have no idea what John Lennon’s original intention for it was, but in Bowie’s version, I hear a man bemoaning his country’s place in history and his complicity as a Briton. As with a lot of Bowie and glam rock in general, I hear those coming of age in a crumbling empire throwing up their hands for lack of anything else to do, well aware of the shit that’s in the process of hitting the fan domestically and the mostly historical but ongoing sins of colonialism. More on this in a later post. I hear this entirely in his performance. Early in his career, Bowie was self-conscious about his singing voice for reasons I can’t fathom and I like to believe that this contributed heavily to his theatrical delivery, which is a top-five thing I love about him (though I don’t love this in all vocalists--I think Bowie was just exceptionally good at it). Anyway, I may be reading too much into Bowie’s version of “Across.” He was hanging out with John Lennon (who sort of co-wrote “Fame”) a lot at the time and on a whim was probably just like “hey John, would you mind?”
Anyway, “Young Americans.” Rob Sheffield, if you’ll remember, brazenly declared Station to Station Bowie’s best album and similarly named “Young Americans” Bowie’s best song, which is even brazener a declaration. I will not do all of us the disservice of trying to summarize his description of “Young Americans” because it is best read as a primary source but I’m going to go ahead and recommend that each and every one of you pick up a copy of On Bowie written by Sheffield because it is a quick read and excellent for the soul. One of my other favorite music writers Simon Reynolds described this song’s themes in detail. To Reynolds, in “Young Americans,” he hears a 27 year-old Bowie feeling very old for his age, envying those just beginning to plot their lives. Though not old, Bowie by that time had already had an incredibly full life and--it could be argued--was not quite as much in control of his life as the newlyweds and the slinky vagabond he sings about, despite all of his advantages. He makes a parallel observation about his nationality vs Americans’. Not only are the Americans he admires younger than he feels, they’re part of an enviably younger culture. Weirdly, I think of this song as being a negative-image of “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd a song I don’t hate performed by hateful people. Both are a strikingly non-objective account of American culture in the 1970s, a time and place dismissively thought of as a bit of a culture nadir (incorrect). Also both songs mention Richard Nixon for seemingly equal and opposite reasons. I love it.
However, what I love best about this song is the insane structure. Years and years ago, I dared to attempt “Young Americans” at karaoke and despite thinking I know this song like the back of my hand, it was a complete disaster. It was then that I realized that you cannot know “Young Americans,” not *really*. Only Bowie can fully know it. Then, in 2017 we saw Gene Ween doing Billy Joel, a weird and fun thing he does between Ween stints. Opening for him was the fruits of another Gene Ween hobby, his School-of-Rock-style summer camp. At the end of the program, these kids went with him on his Billy Joel tour and performed covers of classic songs, taking turns on vocals and different instruments. When I heard the opening drums and glissando (it’s back again), my heart sunk. As this gangly red-headed boy took the microphone, I cringed hard, knowing it too would be a disaster and it was. They fucked up so much and I wanted to die for them.
Less than a year later, we went to see Bowie collaborator and pianist Mike Garson do a Bowie tribute with a full band, including Sting’s son and Corey Glover from Living Colour. Glover was by far the biggest name in this band but was oddly absent from the first half of the performance. The band made some nervous jokes about him taking a nap until they seemed to get to a point in the set when they couldn’t really go on without him and pulled him on stage. He was clearly pretty hammered, so of course the first thing they did was jump right into “Young Americans.” I leaned over to Pete and said “watch. This is going to be the absolute worst” and it certainly was. Some guys 10 or so years our senior were like “who the fuck is this guy?” He was reading off of an iPad, could barely stand and could NOT follow the song structure. He couldn’t follow because the song is magic and belongs to one man. Also, he was drunk.
“Young Americans” is a classic Bowie musical mystery in that the verses have a tune and a beat and it goes with the fairly conventional chorus. However, the verses are a long-form rant and are so hard to replicate which is why karaoke is so impossible and poor, hammered Corey Glover struggled so badly. There are too many words! The cadence is completely unpredictable and he slips into that chorus totally without notice. The “fairly conventional” chorus is only conventional by comparison and in a structural sense but the tune is fucking crazy. I think it’s because the backing vocals are so obtuse that the lead vocals make no sense without them. Then we get a couple of tangents: “do you remember your president Nixon?”; “Well, well, well, would you carry a razor? In case, just in case of depression?” He brags about his Soul Train appearance and then the Beatles stop in to say hi. It’s bat-shit crazy and I dig it so hard.
A totally botched edited version of this song appears on the Legacy collection in which they cut that beautiful bridge out, but do it so clumsily, Pete has described as sounding like the edit was made on his old four-track. Despite this and a couple of other remastering errors, I do like the Legacy collection and it’s the most convenient place to listen to both “Space Oddity” and “The Man Who Sold the World” since I wouldn’t otherwise put on either of the albums on which those songs appear. It’s good dinner-making music.
Before the album was released and the world became somewhat acquainted with this enigma, he performed it on the Dick Cavett show, which is the precise interaction of mid-70s hot and sexy from my end, given my hard crush on mid-70s Dick Cavett and my general Bowie obsession. This is despite Bowie basically looking like a re-animated skeleton in a brown zoot suit. You get to see the entire gang in all of their glory in front of one of those black foil curtains and it is absolutely one of my favorite YouTube videos ever. See it for yourself:
These are getting ridiculous. This one took me a week to write. It’s not even that long. But I did have a good time writing it and realized I’m borderline in love with Dave Vanian.
Despite the length of time it took to write, it is timely: a post about horror punk band in mid-October. I’ve always had a soft spot for horror punk which is weird because I usually like there to be some kind of emotional oomph behind a song for me to care very much about it. What is likeable about bands like the Misfits and the Cramps is their artiness, but that’s really the best they can do for me. Be arty, and I guess “rock” or whatever. And in general they do that really well!
I don’t actually know whether it’s fair to categorize the Damned as horror punk* without a major caveat. The second half of their pre-reunions output has little to do with the first, horror-punk half. After three albums, they did the impossible, saw the writing on the wall, and switched gears, staying underground and relevant through much of the 1980s during a time when punk rock was eschewed as kinda passe. This transition was handled poorly by great bands like X and TSOL who prove that it isn’t easy or automatic. The Damned were leaning in the more gothy, post-punk direction with that third album, so it makes sense that they’d more gracefully bend into something more fashionable.
*For being such a memorable part of early punk, there aren’t a lot of bands that fall into the horror punk category cleanly. Not many would argue about the Damned, the Cramps, and of course the Misfits. Wikipedia identifies a few others, among them TSOL, which I wouldn’t have put into this category in a million years? Not mentioned in said Wikipedia article on horror punk is also the Ramones, who I would give an honorary mention here because of some of the literal horror punk songs like “Pet Semetary” and borderline ones like “Teenage Lobotomy” and “Cretin Hop,” and there’s the freak show imagery and horror comic art they weaved in throughout the years. A hot take of absolutely no consequence there for ya.
The Damned are in the pantheon of bands I got into in college, which I think like a lot of people is where I had fully formed tastes and stand by pretty much everything I was listening to at the time*. They immediately stood out to me among horror punk bands because they transcended being arty and cool by being arty and cool AND making me feel things, even though I was heavy into the Cramps and the Misfits at the time as well. I think this is because Dave Vanian really thinks he’s a ghoul or whatever. This is just my gut,** but evidence here and there points to this and I want to believe. Example: he was once employed as a gravedigger before the Damned. See? He thinks he’s a ghoul.
*In fact, four songs of the top ten on this list are by bands I got into when I was in college.
**I know very little about him and only found out just now that there’s a little-read and wildly out of print official biography of the Damned, going for over $500 used on Amazon, which as far as I can tell is the only solid source. I guess I won’t be picking it up for the season.
Let’s talk about Machine Gun Etiquette. That is a very special album. There is not a wasted second on that album. I even love the “Looking at You” cover despite borderline hating the MC5. If memory serves, before I fell hard for “Plan 9 Channel 7,” I felt very strongly about “Melody Lee,” which strikes you as a semi-romantic and sympathetic ode to the title character whose life and mind are evidently falling apart, but guess what? The lyrics are taken directly from a british comic character of the same name. Again, it’s all in Dave Vanian’s wholly convincing vocal performance. I love “Anti-Pope,” the funnest anti-religion song I’ve ever heard. I mean:
It's gonna be fun tonight
Spreading news around the town
That the vicars are transvestites
With a fetish for robes and gowns
It sounds like a fucking party, I love it so much. Before I get to the red meat here, I really need to talk briefly about “These Hands,” the best fucky clown song I’ve ever heard. I’m not into the fucky clown meme particularly. It’s a little tired. I don’t think people are really that scared of clowns, aside from actual homicidal clowns, which is really very rare when you think about it. They just kind of suck. In the song, however, I do love the intrusion of the circus-inspired music to talk about the demented circus clown and the batshit insane “hahaha hahaha hahaha ha hohohoho!” that runs the clock out at the end, followed by a snappy “STOP LAUGHING!” followed by a very effective sound effect of footsteps on gravel. Spooky.
That sound effect goes right into the introduction to the Damned’s greatest song, “Plan 9 Channel 7,” whose greatness is buttressed significantly by that rich, creamery intro. That guitar. Why is it so heavy? It is the perfect lead-in to the song because there’s such gravity to it. It’s so serious. And of course Vanian’s vocal performance makes the song as impressive as it is. It’s emotive as hell and considering the theme, which I will get into shortly, you really have to wonder where it’s coming from. He thinks he’s a ghoul. The backing vocals are also pretty key here and if my ears don’t deceive me, Vanian’s backing himself up. The very best of the vocal performance comes during the outro with an almost self-parodyingly dramatic falsetto OOOOOH-OOOOOH-OOOOH, which again I believe is Vanian himself, but can't say for sure despite watching the unofficial official video (linked below) and a handful of recent live performances. I guess they don’t do the OOOHs live (anymore?), which is really too bad but understandable. Dave, who has not settled in with age, god bless this ghoul:
So what’s this bad boy about? I assumed all this time that it was some typical long form horror punk B-movie reference but it’s far more complicated than that and I LOVE IT. The “Plan 9” piece of the title obviously points to Plan 9 from Outer Space, the B-moviest B-movie that ever B-movied. Starring in Plan 9 the film is Vampira, with whom Vanian is famously completely obsessed. But it’s not *just* about Vampira. Evidently she had a brief affair with James fucking *DEAN*, and this song is about their ill-fated affair. What the fuck? Pete and I recently discovered this grainy video that was clearly once official but is now pixelated and belongs to not one but all of us and you can really see the division between the guy probably saved the band from themselves by leaning into his ghoulish delusions and everyone else, who seem to be acting like fairly typical british punk rockers, obtusely not caring about shooting a video. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it’s a remarkable historical document.
We saw them live at the Black Cat in 2014, which looking back is fairly frustrating. It was during the week, late in October and I remember leading up, I was so excited, but I think when the time came, I was tired and we were busy and I think I had to go straight from work. They played “Plan 9 Channel 7” second and the set list was over all amazing and now that I’m profoundly NOT over going out to see live music, I’m very sad that the whole thing went by in kind of a blur. I hope they swing back by in 2023 or whatever the estimate is for things to be normal again.
I would like to make a quick mention again that I wanted to honor “Alone Again Or,” the Damned’s cover of the Love song, which was on my original draft of this list but I switched it out at the last minute because I didn’t feel much like talking about it. I recently gave Love a chance and they aren’t good, so even though the Damned’s cover doesn’t deviate a whole lot from the original, it’s a whole thousand times better and one specific piece of it that elevates it is of course the simple-but-amazing music video, here:
Now, part of the reason I love it is obvious: the spaghetti western imagery is cool, particularly juxtaposed with the 18-wheeler in that it’s an awfully expensive set piece that just seemed plopped in there*. I like it also because the video reminds me of one of my favorite Weird Paul songs, “Pot of Macaroni.” In hearing this tune, I have always imagined a beautiful woman wearing a fancy, ornately decorated dress, doing some Mediterranean-inspired dance to it. Listen to it here:
The whole combination makes me very happy.
*Though if I know Dave Vanian like I think I do, this was very intentional and has some bizarre and belabored meaning I will find out in several years and I will laugh out loud. He really does think he’s a ghoul.
This is admittedly an embarrassing pick. It’s a pick someone who doesn’t know the Velvet Underground would make to get credibility for appreciating the Velvet Underground. It’s a song that you’d know even if you know nothing else about underground and underground-adjacent culture. It’s a basic pick. It’s a boring pick. It’s way less interesting than “Heroin,” which showed up months ago on this list at #85. It’s so close in this way to “American Pie” by Don McLean. The two songs couldn’t have less to actually do with each other except that they’re both really basic songs within their respective genres. They’re embarrassing.
So like, I’m well aware that this is an uninspired pick, but I can’t help it. I love this song. I love it. This might be the consummate Mary Alice pick. It’s a banger for the ages, by far the best-known song by them. My pride is no match for the power of “Sweet Jane.” But I’m not alone. According to Second-Hand-Songs-dot-com, there are 43 cover versions. This is not very many. The same website cites 903 covers of “Yesterday” by the Beatles. BUT! There are more NOTABLE* covers of “Sweet Jane.”
*Included in the NOTABLE category, but unfavored by me is Mott the Hoople’s, which is by any measure boring and unnecessary. Also released like two years after the Velvets’? I don’t understand this. I blame David Bowie because he’s good at everything except selecting songs to cover (he struck gold with “Across the Universe,” the exception, not the rule). Here, see for yourself:
I think like a lot of people of my generation, the first version I’d heard of “Sweet Jane” was the Cowboy Junkies’, which appeared on the soundtrack to the 1994 major motion picture Natural Born Killers. The soundtrack appealed to the youth of 1994 because of the presence of L7 and Nine Inch Nails, but in whole it constituted a heady mix of then-current dark rock and hipster joints of the past, with the Cowboy Junkies’ cover of the hippest hipsters of the late 1960s, the Velvet Underground. And it won over us 90s teens, even though a lot of us were unaware of the original.* I just listened to it for the first time in 20-odd years and I can confirm it is a brilliant reinterpretation. I love it. I’m going to listen to it again. I’ve heard that it was Lou Reed’s favorite cover of “Sweet Jane” so I must be right. In another turn of timely luck, I stumbled upon this Miley Cyrus performance:
It was released just days ago as part of MTV Unplugged’s Backyard Sessions series, a thing I only knew existed two days ago when a friend posted Miley’s rendition of “Sweet Jane.” It is GOOD, it really is! What’s weird about it is that it seems to be a cover of the Cowboy Junkies’ rendition but then she added a whole bunch of bluesy show-offy stuff in the middle and towards the end. It is, without a doubt, a stunning display of talent. Both in terms of vocal range and her ability to sound like a 60 year old former heroin addict who has *really seen some shit* and it’s impressive, but is a bit antithetical to the spirit of the original, which is stripped down and amateurish. Part of its charm.
*Quick additional anecdote re: the Cowboy Junkies’ version. I recall my pal Cybil recounting a scene she observed of her high school crush standing on one of the senior benches, recreating this scene in Natural Born Killers during which “Sweet Jane” played. I think he was telling someone else about it, not just doing the dance for his own amusement. It can be seen at the beginning of this clip:
Basically, you have the Juliette Lewis character standing on the hood of a car, doing that sexygirl thing where you sway your hips with your arms raised to make your torso look longer and your stomach more perfect. I guess Cybil’s crush was talking about how hot Juliette Lewis was while doing this and in turn, Cybil thought *he* was extremely hot. Quelle 90s.
I also mentioned in my post about “Heroin” how much I love the Velvets’ album on which “Sweet Jane” appears, Loaded. I’ve read conflicting viewpoints on whether it’s acceptable to love Loaded or not. I’ve seen it referred to as their attempt at pop, an intentional sell-out move. Pitchfork calls it a “perfect rock album,” if not a perfect Velvet Underground album, which makes sense to me, but I don’t think I agree. It’s kind of all over the place, isn’t it? That’s not anything that would irreparably harm my ability to enjoy it, but even a “perfect rock album” is a bit of a stretch. “Who Loves the Sun” is catchy and part of me still thinks they intended to write a song mocking hippies but in the style of a hippie song, which would be genius but borderline novelty. The other explanation is that this is where they were attempting to appeal to a broader audience. I don’t know, what do you think of that? “Sweet Jane” is of course a classic for the ages. “Rock and Roll” is the runner-up for best song and “Cool It Down” is the perfect sleazy anthem for the Velvets’ place and time. The cracks begin to show with “New Age,”* which I think is a fine song until the part where they put a bow on the whole song with the other hippie-evocative refrain “IT’S THE BEGINNING OF A NEW AGE” which maybe leads me to believe that they were leaning in a little. Lou Reed sounds like he’s taking a shit in “Hold Your Head Up High” and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” hits one of those pop music motifs on My List where he name drops a character** none of us should have ever heard of. In “I Found a Reason,” a rhythm and blues-influenced rock ballad that has one of those “talking parts” that appear in R&B songs ⅔ of the way through the song (e.g., “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men, that piece that includes “All those times at night when you just hurt me and just ran out with that other fella? Baby I knew about it, I just didn't care.” At best it’s stylistic and awkward, at worst it’s clumsy and awkward). In “I Found a Reason,” it starts out with Lou Reed addressing the object of the song as “Honey,” which is not a term Lou Reed sounds at all comfortable using. He sounds so weird and whenever we’re listening I’ll always mockingly repeat “hawney?” I could go on. These are flaws, not things that make me dislike the album. My point is that it is imperfect.
*The unnamed “fat blonde actress” in this song is either Sally Struthers, Kim Novak, or actually nobody, according to the internet.
**One of the things I love about Pete is that he said what we were all thinking and complained about how Who Framed Roger Rabbit was built on the premise that we all knew who Roger Rabbit was before the film and we did not. As a society.
The most notable thing about “Sweet Jane” is the guitar riff. It is classic and endures in every cover version ever produced. At the risk of being dramatic, it’s the kind of thing you have a hard time imagining it ever not existing because it’s so right. Like the first time I remember hearing “Sweet Jane” (Cowboy Junkies version), I would have sworn I’d heard it before even though I hadn’t. There are other songs like this, but “Sweet Jane” is the most intense example. I also need to mention Lou Reed’s vocal performance here. Lou isn’t known for his vocal abilities and in fact I’ve heard a lot of non-Velvet Underground fans who say that they like everything about the Velvets but Lou Reed’s voice. I’m not big on “talent” in this area? Like, I admire it, but I don’t think it’s necessary to have a decent range or even decent tone to be a great vocalist.* One thing that makes “Sweet Jane” tough to sing is its low register, and I again give Miley Cyrus all the credit in the world for her accomplishment in this area. But the thing that bowls *me* over about Lou’s delivery is the cadence, which is impossible to replicate.** I have seen the verses in “Sweet Jane” described as “conversational” or more poetry than song lyrics. I would say that the delivery seems stream-of-consciousness, almost like he’s making the lyrics up as he goes along, is not 100% sure about what the band is going to do, but is skilled at making himself look like he does know what the band is going to do. It’s odd, uncomfortable and brilliant.
*Most people would probably point to Bob Dylan as the exemplar of a non-traditional style that works really well in its time and context, but I wouldn’t.
**This is a similar-but-different effect I discussed in my post about “Young Americans.”
There are also several seemingly extemporaneous noises that punctuate lines in the verses. I stumbled across an entire treatise on the importance of the “ha” that follows “and me I’m in a rock n’ roll band” in the first verse. According to this Salon article, the “ha” is what launched both punk and glam and revolutionized youth culture. It reeks of bullshit to me and I know what the writer is getting at but it makes me mad anyway. Maybe even more so *because* I know what the writer is getting at. Next, we have “watch me now,” which follows “and other people they have to work.” I posted about Lou Reed’s pronunciation of the word “work” on Facebook before, which sounds like “wourk” and I love it. A friend commented that Lou’s never had to work a day in his life and he’s right. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t know how to say the word. I also wonder if that’s the source of the “watch me now” that follows. It’s the equivalent of pulling his collar. That isn’t true, it’s his way of saying he’s “like” the working man, which is untrue. There are other assorted “woos” and “whoas” and half the time he sounds like he’s on the verge of cracking up. I hate to call it “authentic” because I feel it’s a trap into throwing out a cliche but here we are.
But my very favorite part of this song starts about halfway through. The lead-in is also precious and I kind of love it because it’s the only thing I’d describe as “poetic” and also “my favorite”:
And the women never really faint,
And the villains always blink their eyes.
And the children are the only ones who blush.
'Cause life is just to die.
Yeah! I’ll admit I don’t 100% know what this song is trying to tell us. I suspect that’s because it’s just a general “life, huh?” ramble, but yeah! It’s so unlike most Velvet lyrics in that it’s both practical and optimistic. It speaks to me. But then my very, very favorite part follows. It’s the first time the backup vocals kick in outside of the chorus and it is just so, so right:
But, anyone who has a heart
Wouldn't want to turn around and break it
And anyone who ever played the part
He wouldn't want to turn around and fake it
Although the themes are kind of mysterious, I’ve felt for a long time that “Sweet Jane” has Lou reflecting on his separation from non-entertainers? You know, regular people? People who have to work? What I think he’s describing here is the natural inclination for regular people to live cautiously. It’s not him, but he observes it and he understands it. By the same token, artists are fundamentally more authentic because they’ve been phony by necessity. This part is shout-sang and it sounds a little like a bunch of people were told how and what to sing, but they all sound a little lost* and it’s appropriately lovely and chaotic. It’s “Sweet Jane.”
*See also “Police Department Theme Song” by the Electric Grandmother. We used the same technique.
One of the things I have really enjoyed about writing these posts about my favorite songs is the discussions the post sparks among a startlingly loyal subset of my friends who I guess have a similar tendency towards long-form musings on (mostly) classic tunes. One of the regular fixtures is good old pal Dorian Ham, a very special person who I have known for almost 20 (!) years. Even though Dorian likes way too many things and he and I disagree on a lot, we have a similar zest for such discussions and I find myself looking forward to his sharing his perspectives on my song posts, even if he’s here to pick apart my genre designation or song choice by a particular artist. You know, I’m here for it.
I met Dorian through Josie, very shortly after we moved to Columbus. He was working near campus and Pete and I would often run into him and have 5-10 minute Dorian Conversations, which usually consist of his talking and me laughing. As we do, I got to know him over the years at mixed social gatherings. One of the reasons I like Dorian so much is that he and I have compatible habits at mixed social gatherings, in that we like to huddle in the corner to talk about TV instead of mingling. We have kept in touch since moving and we’ve managed to see each other about once a year. One of the more memorable of our annual meet-ups was last year in New York at Josie’s living wake at which he gave the very BEST speech, which made everyone in attendance laugh out loud through tears. That’s his role. Bring the room up.
The second-most memorable interaction I had with Dorian occurred at a no-account Sunday night at Andyman’s Treehouse, a time and place at which Dorian had a semi-regular residency as a DJ. I actually hate going out on Sundays, so I didn’t get to see him spin very often, but on this particular night, I was very glad I did. Over idle conversation with my table-mates I heard a very familiar tune, but it was like one of those songs where you only know the non-lyrical hook* and even in Internet Times, it’s impossible to uncover unless you hear it in the same place at the same time with a friend who knows what song it is. In this case, as it turned out, it was the “dun-duh, dun-dun-dun-duh, dun-duh-duh-duh” in “Steppin’ Out.” Without excusing myself, I jumped out of my seat and ran up to the DJ booth and demanded Dorian let me into this club. He held up the sleeve and there it was “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson. He couldn’t hear me so I clasped my hands together and mouthed “thank you” and my life was just that much closer to complete.
*I had this same issue** for a long time with “Walk of Life” by Dire Straits before my pal Natalie hooked me up when we heard it in a restaurant over brunch. It was one of those times where we were in mid-conversation and my eyes glassed over and I was like “SHUT UP. WHAT SONG IS THIS.” And she knew immediately. And now that song is in a commercial, a placement I don’t actually hate because that non-lyrical hook is just so lovely. Comforting. Even for dad-rock.
**My friend Ian identified "Tears of a Clown" as another space-ambient song with a non-lyrical hook, which reminded me that the Electric Grandmother's "Brandon Vs. Columbia House" also falls into this category.
I don’t remember the following things about “Steppin’ Out”: When I first heard it, when I first heard anything by Joe Jackson, when I first saw the video, what I did to improve my situation after Dorian revealed the secret to happiness. I don’t know, I don’t have any of this information. I think sadly, Joe Jackson tips the high-quality scales of CVS Bangers (and in fact “Steppin’ Out” is on the definitive playlist, available here). This is to say that these songs are always kind of “there,” finding sinister nonspecific pathways into your consciousness, often in an ambient context in public places (such as a CVS, but also in min-malls as my friend Matt favors and grocery stores). The other unifying factor of this class of song is that it was released either in the 70s or 80s and is generally considered cheesy or at least cheese-adjacent by anyone born in 1975 or later* and that’s really unfair to Joe Jackson.
*To those born in 1974 and prior until about 1960, they are considered the pinnacle of culture. Look at any YouTube video of a song not widely appreciated among the younger generations released in the 70s or 80s and I can guarantee you it would either be “who is listening in 2020?” or “this is back when music was real and things were objectively better.” This is a recurring joke between Pete and I.
In his time, Joe Jackson was more associated with the likes of Elvis Costello than Foreigner and I giggle with delight when thinking back to the first time I heard his niche genre referred to as “piano punk.” As a matter of fact, Joe Jackson is so authentic, he’s actually a jazz man. His first mainstream hit of course was “Is She Really Going Out with Him,” released in 1979 but in 1980, he broke up his band, moved to New York and started playing jazz in small clubs because that’s what he was feeling. And evidently it was this time and place that inspired him to move back to pop and write “Steppin’ Out.” More on this can be found in this inexplicably misplaced Wall Street Journal article from 2018, a deep dive on “Steppin’ Out.”
Ohhhhhhh I do love that his move to New York inspired this song. I’ve mentioned that I am a sucker for songs about places and I like places very much. And cities, especially. Thematically, this tune highlights the glamour and decadence of 80s New York yuppie culture. As I mentioned in my post about “See No Evil” by Television, it’s fun to fantasize about the NYC of the past, even if they probably wouldn’t let me into the kind of club abstractly featured in “Steppin’ Out.” Despite going toe-to-toe with anyone in the glamor category, I don’t think I’m thin or rich enough to pull off being a New-York 80s yuppie, which makes me mad from an conceptual art perspective, but self-satisfied from an actual perspective.
Musically, this song is difficult to beat. Stripping away all accessories to pop song evaluation such as personal taste and emotional attachment, it’s one of the best-written songs of all time. I’ve already mentioned the hook, which truly captures the 80s yuppie glamor and wealthy freedom about which the song was conceived. It’s refined and infectious at the same time. It’s like a really attractive straight line, the substantially less-gritty equivalent of the guitar riff from “Sweet Jane:” so right. A glass of sparkling white wine placed upon a black lacquer grand piano lid. Somewhat overshadowed but just as important is the crazy, driving bassline, the perfect partner for that keyboard hook. It is driving and bouncy at the same time and is the exact sound that comes out of an 80s aerobic routine*. I can’t get that imagery out of my head.
*Complete with the pastel pink braided terry cloth headband and purple and turquoise leotard.
The vocal performance is understated but I think that’s appropriate. It’s gentle and takes a back seat to the piano hook and that amazing bassline. It goes well with the lyrics, which, as revealed by that WSJ article tells the tale of a bickering couple, who decide to end the fight so that they can go out and enjoy themselves and their city. I love that it’s so specific and this has sparked a number of online arguments about this theme, which I get. I think back c. 2014 on our wedding anniversary, Pete and I were late getting out of our place to get dinner, so we had to take a cab, which we didn’t want to do, but it fit our mood well, in spite of not bickering ahead of time. We were listening to “Steppin’ Out” a lot and it was a good stretch for us. We were getting our shit together. Independently, we both assigned this song to that dinner out. “You can dress in pink and blue just like a child. And in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile, we’ll be there in just a while.” The imagery of anticipating a nice night out is so strong, people want to assign it to their own experience of having a nice night out together. That’s--kind of quaint, isn’t it?
I was all excited to boldly declare that this song is the highest-ranked song from the 1990s on my list, but that isn’t true, there are more of them. But I would argue that this is the highest-ranked *90s song* on the list in that it’s really very 90s, but that’s more conceptual than quantitative and therefore subject to argument. So that didn’t work out. I was also thinking that Radiohead might be the second-most influential band from my lifetime and I’d boldly state that but then I remembered that the Ramones also existed in my lifetime, so it’s at best the third-most influential (behind the Ramones and Nirvana). Now I feel all this unforced pressure to come up with something bold to say about “Let Down,” OK Computer and/or Radiohead to make my #12 pick interesting and the best I can do is this: OK Computer is the best album of the 90s. I guess that’s a little bold.
OK Computer was also a watershed for the band itself. I was introduced to Radiohead like a lot of people by their 1992/1993 single, “Creep,” which I learned today was initially released in 1992 and I guess it didn’t take as well as They expected, so They rereleased it?! And it did do better? I don’t understand this at all, but it’s what the internet tells me. “Creep” appears on Radiohead’s album Pablo Honey which is nobody’s favorite album* and no other singles made much of a splash from it. This seems like the ideal formula for a one-hit wonder, but instead Radiohead went on to be one of earth’s biggest and most respected rock n’ roll outfits. I love talking about this because it’s so weird!
*Actually this is a total lie because it still is or was for a long time Pete’s favorite album for some crazy reason.
Then, in 1995, they released The Bends, which includes a handful of less impressive singles and “Fake Plastic Trees,” a near miss of my top-100. On another day it probably would have made it. Oh doctor, do I love “Fake Plastic Trees.” I share “Fake Plastic Trees”* with BFF/high school bestie and all around top-three best people in the world, Alison Kam. I love this because it’s one of those things where as a child-free adult, I secure my immortality through creative output and influence on others. One day, I sat Alison down and explained to her exactly why “Fake Plastic Trees” was so important and why she should pay attention and I could see in her eyes the moment it clicked and the world fell into place for her. And then I floated out her bedroom window because we were witches and my work was done. Years later, I completed the same procedures with Pete, using all the same charts and graphs, pulling out all the same lyrics and I saw his eyes change in the same way, he murmured “oh good lord” and once again, I floated out the window. This was in fact, my measure of a Good Person in my later teens. I tried to explain the goodness of this song to a person I was sort-of-but-not-really romantically involved with and he did not get it. That discussion kind of ended something that never really happened--if you’re a late teen and you can’t understand why “Fake Plastic Trees” shook me to my core, you’re not worth my time. I mentioned in my post about “Idioteque” that the better version of “Fake Plastic Trees” is the acoustic version that appears on the original soundtrack album for the 1995 major motion picture Clueless, but both are very good.
*We also share Paul Rudd.
Then came OK Computer, just two years after the Bends, but seems far more contemporary than the first two. This is in part because of personal life course events. I graduated high school that June and Pete moved to town, I got a new car, was gearing up to enter college. Pete immortalized this delineation. He used to peel that CD spine label off all CDs he bought while out with me in my car and stick it to his side of the dashboard, all in a neat row before time took its toll and they started peeling away. OK Computer* was one of the iconic labels that stuck there until I got rid of the car senior year. It’s burned on my memory.
*I can’t begin to imagine how this started, but we had an in-joke where we’d be in the car and Pete would press the stickers he put on the dashboard and read what they say in a low, gravelly voice and I would laugh. This happened so frequently, it’s hard for me to even think the words “OK Computer” without hearing Pete using that voice in my head.
Anyway, OK Computer’s lead single was allegedly “Paranoid Android,” the release of which I have ZERO memory. I’m plenty familiar with it from the album but cannot recall it being played on the radio. I’m not doubting this, because as I indicated, I was pretty busy in May of 1997, so what I recall as being my OK Computer introduction is “Karma Police,” which was released in August when things settled down for me. “Paranoid Android,” however, is a very ballsy choice for lead single and right on message for OK Computer. It’s a six-and-a-half minute epic, which is SO long for the middle/late 1990s, at which time we were coming off of alternative radio play dominated by grunge and to a lesser extent pop-punk hits that were more often just 2-3 minutes long. “Karma Police,” though more emblematic of the album’s impact in my mind, I think is just kind of average for this album despite the outstanding vocal performance. It pales in comparison to “No Surprises,” released the following January and is really and truly the consensus prized pig from OK Computer. Rightfully so, it’s a close second-favorite of mine on the album. Impossibly sad and sweet, it’s both melodramatic and relatable. It’s a lullaby about suicide. It’s just beautiful. There’s a live performance of it released shortly after the single’s release in which I swear you can see tears on guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s face as he’s singing backups towards the end. I’m not sure it isn’t sweat, but my heart tells me it isn’t.
I admit “Let Down” is a dark horse, a song on a classic album not a lot of people see as a stand out. I remember when this song struck me. It was YEARS and years after its release. I was visiting my aunt in the mid-2000s and had severe insomnia. To combat this, or for lack of anything else to do alone in a dark guest room without a TV (laptop or internet-capable phone to keep me company), I was listening to a lot of OK Computer on my iPod. For some reason, “Let Down” made perfect sense in the context of the confluence of these factors. It’s got a lullaby aesthetic to it coming from the gentle lead guitar work, which it shares with “No Surprises,” but has a higher tempo and *almost* swings. Just a little. Which makes perfect sense because disappointment is a slightly more upbeat topic than suicide. The appeal of the vocal performance is really hard for me to describe. In the verses, it's like Yorke is trying to convince you of something. It’s got a persuasive tone to it. The chorus sounds a bit like a traditional folk song, as if it’s inviting you to sing along to. I want to compare it to “This Land Is Your Land” but I have no idea why. Also, apropos of nothing, here’s a cover of “Let Down” by Toots and the Maytals from the 2006 reggae themed OK Computer tribute album:
I’ve read a few pieces on the intended meaning of this song, but all of it makes me want to put Thom Yorke on a timeout until he can talk like an adult and not a disaffected teenager. The song is sourced from a specific, weird, drunken thought Thom Yorke had, but I’ve always read it as a song about disappointment (not that it takes a genius--it’s right in the title), which to me is a very weird source of inspiration for a pop song. Disappointment is a very quietly toxic and universal part of the human experience. It’s almost like a meta-emotion because it contains hope, sadness, possibly anger, and betrayal. It’s also an avoidable consequence because if you never have faith in anything, you’ll never be disappointed. That unique feature of disappointment is so widely recognized, it’s a cliche, as is the wisdom that it’s worth risking disappointment because hope feels so good and yet it’s still worthy of discussion because it's so true. A little pearl of wisdom from me to you, two days before Election Day 2020.
Now I feel like I need to make a bold statement about songs that appear in the top twelve. This is the oldest song on the top 100 and only one of three songs released in the 1960s in my top 50 (along with “Sweet Jane” and “Israelites”). It is one of two songs by a band mentioned on Full House (along with R.E.M.) and the only song by a band who appeared on Full House (“April Girls” by Barry and the Rippers was a near miss).
When I was a kid, I thought the Beach Boys were stupid. Every single song from them sounded to me like a novelty, which is not unreasonable when you consider “California Girls.” Like a lot of young children of the early 90s, my brother had one of those tape recorder/players made to entertain kids and we used to find cheap and kid-friendly tapes to gift him to play on his little player. One of them was a compilation of surf songs that an aunt or someone probably found for $2 in the discount bin and it included “Surfin’ Safari,” which I thought and still sort of think is the stupidest song ever recorded. I’m again impressed with my ability as a child to sniff bullshit out in metaphors and themes. How is surfing at all like a safari? They just invented the concept because it sounded good. It was also on one of my brother’s tapes, possibly the same one, where I heard a song by the Beach Boys called “Surfin’” which--really cutting all frills on that one, are we Boys? I guess it was their first single and prominently features a Mike Love nod to Jan and Dean doing that surf-style scatting, which I couldn’t stand as a kid. It felt so geeky to me, just listening made me uncomfortable. I guess I understand it better now but still hate it because it sounds downright unpleasant. It’s been called the single that launched their career. *Launched their career?!* Really, America? You dug this?
Then, of course, came “Kokomo,” featured on the soundtrack album for the 1987 major motion picture COCKTAIL, which as I think I mentioned before was timed perfectly with the sexual awakening of my demographic, coinciding with Tom Cruise at his pre-Scientology peak. Suddenly the Beach Boys were relevant* and released another song that sounded dangerously like a novelty (in which the chorus just has them naming islands in the Caribbean). I didn’t immediately change my incredulity at old Beach Boys’ popularity given how stupid most of their songs were to me, but I surely softened. And did love “Kokomo.”
*The relevance of the Beach Boys in the late 1980s was immortalized in the “Beach Boy Bingo” episode of the second season of Full House, in which DJ is flummoxed to be excited to attend a concert the elder generation would also like to attend.
This tenderizing led the way to near-acceptance in my early 20s, only really due to their really strong influence on pop punk, which at the time was my bread and butter. Notable covers of Beach Boys songs by pop and pop-adjacent punk rock bands include “Wendy” by Descendents, “Don’t Back Down” and a ton of others by the Queers, as well as others by bands I’ve less been into but are still relevant to this discussion as Pennywise and Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies. There was of course the obvious influence on one of my very favorites of all time, the Ramones. I think a fair argument could be made that the Ramones was the next logical step from the Beach Boys in ways I’ll get into later. So like, if the Beach Boys are so influential to actually-good bands, there had to be more to them than surfy-surfy-beach-beach even if I couldn't see it.
Then came the release of Smile and the mid-2000s Pet Sounds renaissance. At last I finally had to ask what all the fuss was about, given that there was now officially hipster credibility attached with Pet Sounds/Brian Wilson songwriting enjoyment. I’d known “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” just from like, being alive. I also had some knowledge of “God Only Knows” but given my anti-Beach Boys prejudice, I mostly dismissed them as just being regular pop songs until I sat down and really gave Pet Sounds a chance. And whoa! I was incredibly and fairly quickly a Pet Sounds convert--it’s now probably a top-20 album for me.
I think what clicked is the recognition that there is a delicate art to writing a great pop song. In short: just because it’s catchy and pleasant and about something nice, doesn’t automatically make it less valuable than something that displays more salt-of-the-earth musical qualities like angst, an edge, and virtuosity (or I guess anti-virtuosity by the same token). I was musing yesterday about how as someone who was a tiny child in the 1980s and came of age in the 1990s, my musical tastes gelled during a time when pop music was kind of in a nadir. The R&B/hip-hop-influenced pop music of the 90s was great, but qualitatively different from your average post-punk-influenced (“new wave”) and lacked the shine and optimism that 80s pop seemed to have in common with 60s pop. That had me grow up with a native bias against pop which fed into my distaste for the Beach Boys compared to say the Beatles, whom I favored in high school. It would have blown my little mind to know that as an adult, I’d actually prefer the mostly bereft-of-complaints Pet Sounds to anything by the Beatles.
Pet Sounds is just packed with these expert-level pop masterpieces. “God Only Knows” is an easy other-standout song behind “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” A sweet and gentle love song adequately describing a love-of-a-lifetime, where it’s impossible to imagine a context without the other person. Related, peep this steaming pile of trash put together by some good and well-intentioned people:
Oh, how I hate it! A cover of a traditional Carribean folk song, the Beach Boys’ interpretation of “Sloop John B” is a close second-favorite on this album for me and a perennial karaoke standard, though I’m not sure how well I perform it. I am absolutely in love with this exceptionally charming promo video for it, which precisely captures the self-aware 1960s white California-boy context they dropped it in:
“I Know There’s an Answer” was one I never really thought about a whole lot until local pals Catscan! started including a their rendition in live sets and I was like “you know what? Yeah!”
Suffice to say, Pet Sounds is an incredible album. As someone who generally turns her nose up at music released before 1970 (I also don’t sit around reading Shakespeare), it’s right at home in my regular rotation along with the Bowie, Ramones, Talking Heads, etc. But far exceeding my love for Pet Sounds is how much I absolutely adore “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” It’s another song that kind of got lost in the shuffle for most of my life because it was always kind of there, a song you would occasionally hear out in public or on your parents’ radio or what have you. Like, when you grow up with them in the background you sort of have to work to distinguish it from “Good Vibrations” and “Surfer Girl” and other pleasantly sugary pop offerings.
I can’t honestly point to this moment as the turning point but it certainly helped. Sometime in the wild and wonderful mid-2000s, I was up late with friends drinking and talking about stuff as we did when for some reason the subject of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” came up. My good pal Derek piped up and referenced a past relationship in which “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was *their song* and I was like “holy shit, that’s genius,” having never really settled on an *our song* with the love of my life. I acknowledged that I was a total sucker for it and another friend said it made sense I’d love “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” because, he reasoned, I’m a “love dork.”
Well, shit. I guess I am. Gonna be 100% honest and admit that back when Pete and I were teenagers and it was infeasible for us to spend the night together due to distance, then living arrangements and parental brow-knitting, the simple joy of sleeping in the same bed with someone you loved was actually aspirational. I would usually spend afternoons and evenings with Pete when I was in college, but with rare exceptions, I slept at home in my parents’ house. It’s silly and almost embarrassing to admit but we would spend like 20 minutes saying good-bye at night, every night. It was a lot of expended energy, going home at night. The romantic notion of saying “good night” and staying together still makes me a little emotional, thinking about those two kids, dutifully parting ways at 3:00 AM on a Sunday morning after watching Saved by the Bell on TBS (which would have aired before work/school for you in the Eastern time zone).
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is the very intentionally-placed first song on Pet Sounds. It’s not just the best song on the album, but it’s the Pet-Soundsiest song, which makes it an ideal first track*. Being a classic pop radio standard, it took a serious listen in my mid-20s to really notice the crazy musicianship and the fucking *effort* put into this one little bubblegummy track. It’s kind of funny that even in the height of his whacked-out experimental songwriting, he couldn’t help but write cutesy love songs. I did enjoy the Brian Wilson musical biopic** Love & Mercy and the extent to which his obsessive and anal retentive approach to managing an entire orchestra is painfully on display. I believe it. But the grandiosity manages to be subtle at the same time, apart from the tympani. Tympani can’t do subtle. In any case, the effect is a creamy and absolutely correct accompaniment to the Boys’ signature four-part harmonies. Oh, it’s pure magic. It’s perfect.
*Had a recent late night conversation about what the best first-track on any album as being the best solid representation of what the artist was trying to do at the time. I said “Safe European Home” by the Clash off of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, but now I wonder if it’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
**Musical biopics are a guilty pleasure of mine. They’ve had a really rough run recently, culminating in the sure-fire colossal embarrassment Starman, whose fucking PAINful trailer recently dropped and oh ma it’s worse than you could imagine. However for my money, The Beach Boys: An American Family is a very fun and low-concept alternative to Love & Mercy if you’re looking for a straightforward narrative and not a work of cinematic art.
Pete and I saw Brian Wilson (finally) on his REAL last tour, marking the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds (actually taking place 51 years after its release because the tour dragged out). He and his band played the album from start to finish plus a shit ton of Beach Boys standards. I had more fun than Pete did. Pete who thought that Brian Wilson seemed to be propped up behind the piano, but I’d definitely say he was more with us than poor Daniel Johnston the last time we saw him (or maybe any time we saw him). I do remember enjoying the Pet Sounds part of the performance but to be honest I think my favorite part was when they launched into “Good Vibrations” in the encore because it seemed like the most Beach Boysey thing I could imagine. And the drummer was wearing a leather jacket to make us think it was Stamos, which was a nice treat for me.
One more bow on the Beach Boys’ evolution in my estimation--in 2013 I had to go to California on a business trip and circumstances allowed Pete to join me. It was a weird one that required me to travel throughout the state by car from Riverside, through Santa Ana, up to Santa Maria and ending up in San Francisco. This took place over the course of a week and we were able to enjoy a weekend in Santa Barbara for our troubles, all on the company’s dime. The ride from Santa Ana to Santa Barbara fell on a Saturday and we strategically took the long way, up along the Pacific Coast Highway. Keeping in mind that I grew up in Hawaii, have spent a lot of time in California over the years--I shouldn’t have been so taken with that drive, but goddammit if I wasn’t blown away by the iconic and beautiful land- and seascapes. We listened to a Beach Boys greatest hits collection on repeat after we hit the coast north of Los Angeles and I have to be honest--it was perfect. It was an obvious but a completely ideal soundtrack to that extraordinary drive. The Beach Boys finally made 100% sense to me.
WE HAVE ENTERED THE TOP TEN! I can’t believe I’ve made it this far. When I got to the top twenty, these write-ups suddenly got incredibly hard. In a lot of cases, the top 20 has included songs by bands I’ve already posted about, so I can’t exactly go on and on about the band because I’ve already done that. I’m also running out of things to say about music in general. I’ve made 90 posts in which I’ve described what I like about certain rock songs and find myself using the words “driving” and “it swings” over and over again and it’s getting very boring. Another thing I found particularly hard about numbers 15-11 is that I felt the need to spend a lot of time considering and care writing about them because they’re such special songs. Like, I can’t just throw something together about “Sweet Jane.” The song’s too important.
To the matter at hand, the New York Dolls’ contribution to the trajectory of popular culture is difficult to describe without coming off as hyperbolic, but what the hell: the Dolls’ revolution was one where they made American rock music not suck* anymore. They set a standard for energy, style, sass and excitement and America was ready for it. Every band that came up in that transformative, hyper-inventive CBGBs era 4ish years after the Dolls draws a direct line of influence from the New York Dolls. Outside of the local influence, they’re also responsible for an enormous impact on British punk and movements further afield that *only* have the New York Dolls in common like post-punk and glam metal. They were it. They are in my estimation, the single band most directly responsible for the evolution of great music, rivaled only by the Velvet Underground.
*Legit: apart from the Beach Boys and the Velvet Underground, I’ve got little use for it.
Yet history kind of sees them as in a class by themselves. In Simon Reynolds’ *fucking amazing* and gloriously long book/diatribe on glam rock, he speculates on why the New York Dolls failed to spark a movement. This is again in sharp contrast to the subsequent generation which launched American punk and certainly predated British punk. Glam was largely a British movement, but of the big* three American glam outfits: the Dolls, Alice Cooper, and KISS, the Dolls were the only** ones in my mind who didn’t warp into something completely terrible after the fact. Each were kind of disparate and doing their own things. And this as well as why there was no lasting NY glam scene may be thanks in large part to their lightning-in-a-bottle existence, though Reynolds thinks that American glam didn’t take from the Dolls’ very notable presence is because their recorded albums failed to capture the magic of the Dolls’ live show, which. I don’t agree, but I’ll get into that later.
*I know, there were other American glam acts, but the only one I think is at all worth mentioning is Sparks but I don’t have an opinion other than that they’re great in small doses.
**I don’t think any KISS is worth listening and the little early Alice Cooper I’ve heard is interesting, but not interesting enough to pursue much further.
Of all New York Dolls-related mysteries, the biggest one for me is where they got their template. Really! The MC5 and the Stooges are credited as being punk inventors, but arguably the leap from what came before them is broader in the case of the Dolls. As *rockin’* and “outrageous” as the Stooges and to a lesser extent the MC5 were, they didn’t approach the visual over-the-topness nor the sheer snot that radiated whenever the Dolls so much as got out of bed. The intangibles of punk are not more on-display with any other proto-punk band. Then, consider that after the Dolls’ peak, it took FOUR YEARS for the Ramones to release their debut album. It took that long for the local musicians to regroup and know where to go next.
“Personality Crisis” is the first track on the Dolls’ first, self-titled studio album, released in 1973 and as much as I love it, I don’t love their follow up Too Much Too Soon, released the following year. I often think of the self-titled as their only album. The Dolls were evidently less happy with it than I am I guess in part because they had Todd Rundgren as the producer for some reason. As I understand it, the Dolls were critical darlings but terrified record companies, so Rundgren was brought in to ameliorate the mayhem. I guess Todd overcorrected and the resulting album was staid and poppy. The Dolls and their fans at the time were probably expecting that the energy of their live performances would translate to a record AND, it was natural to try and compare the two, as the aforementioned perspective from Simon Reynolds had. History, though, I think smiles as I do upon this first record, particularly for those of us who weren’t around* for the New York Dolls’ live performances.
*Though I will say that I’m endlessly grateful for YouTube once again. In this case for bringing us this incredible 1973 performance of “Personality Crisis” from Musikladen, a West German music television show.
Like all performances by great musicians of the 70s and 80s, you can’t expect the televised version to even approximate how they’d come across in a scuzzy little club, but based on this, I can only imagine. There’s a lot to love here, the most obvious of which is David Johansen’s outfit and accompanying mugging, but I’d also like to call your attention to Johnny Thunders’ habit of periodically snapping his head back as if he’s receiving mild, intervaled electrical shocks. I find it pretty hot and while I’m on the subject, I’d also like to treat you to this picture of Johnny Thunders which I first spotted on the wall at Mantioba’s (RIP) and never really got over it.
“Personality Crisis,” as I mentioned, is the first track on this album and come to think of it, this is another* contender for best first track in terms of a powerful exemplar of what the artist is trying to do on an album. The Dolls have said that when recording their self-titled debut, they didn’t have a concept or specific direction in mind and the result was a snapshot-in-time, which I get. Except! The Dolls themselves were kind of a concept, no? Given that their music, posture, and style were all so revolutionary? Considering this, I may really appreciate the concept of a self-titled album for the first time ever. <br> *I raised the concept of a best-first-track in my “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” write-up, which was #11, but seems like I wrote it 100 years ago. I mentioned that my perennial answer to the question of what is the best first-track and it’s usually “Safe European Home” but “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” seems like another very fair answer, but I’d be remiss not to include “Personality Crisis” as well. It really is a tough question.
I can’t overstate how much I love “Personality Crisis.” From that opening guitar riff and glissando* and David Johansen’s just slightly atonal screaming introduction, I’m hooked. It’s so *confident*. I’m not a songwriter, but I crave that level of confidence so much, I wish I wrote it. The blues influence** is really strong and with the piano work, I’m tempted to call it “honky tonk” as I did with certain sections of “Station to Station,” a comparison that kind of startles me but I’m also into it. As it progresses, the music can only be described as infectious chaos and it’s kind of everything I’ve ever wanted in a song.
**An easy comparison here is to call the New York Dolls the Glitter Rolling Stones, but I hate that comparison. Not just because it’s easy, but because it has anything to do with the Rolling Stones.
I throw around the words “that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me” a lot, but certainly a top-five moment for me occurred before I’d said a single word about how I love “Personality Crisis” and how I want it so badly to be a personal anthem. Pete, completely out of nowhere informed me that “Personality Crisis” is my song and that he thinks of me every time he hears it. Particularly the lines “and you’re a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon” and “Personality! Wonderin' how celebrities ever met--look and find out on television.” Right? I have the best husband.
I’m not sure how well it aged because I saw it years and years ago, but really loved the 2005 minor motion picture New York Doll. It’s not exactly a documentary about the band, but about one of the previously least remarkable members, Arthur Kane, whose life mid-last-decade was as different as can be from the New York Dolls’ in their heyday. It was sad (but sweet and powerful too) at the time and I can only imagine it’s become downright tragic since his passing. I see that Martin Scorsese thinks he’s going to direct the definitive David Johansen documentary, so I guess I’ll cautiously look forward to that. I think one of the first things I ever knew about the New York Dolls is that their apocalyptic glam-icon lead singer went on to become Buster Poindexter, who I’ve always thought of as a joke of an 80s one-hit-wonder. But like, the best/worst exemplar. “Hot Hot Hot” isn’t even good and the whole thing provides an accurate-if-depressing analogy of life in America, whereby in a troupe of inventive artists, one loses himself in alcoholism and eventually mormonism; another dies filthy, penniless and alone of a heroin overdose; and another is set for life not because of his best work, but because of gimmicky crap he put together at the exact time and place during which gimmicky crap sold well. Although I’d certainly be remiss not to heap praise on his performance in the 1988 major motion picture Scrooged, which was objectively perfect.
It’s actually becoming pretty hard to enjoy certain music because of the unlikely series of events that have unfolded in the last year. We made our last trip to New York before the pandemic almost exactly a year ago. Less than a month after that trip, Josie passed. We haven’t been back since. We had plans to go in mid-April and obviously that fell through. Everyone has a story as to why the inability to travel during the pandemic has hit them hard personally. Ours is that we were not able to go back to the city since Josie died, which has given us this very unsettling lack of closure. We haven’t seen any of our New York friends and none of our favorite NYC haunts in an entire year which has been really hard since we were visiting like five times a year before all this shit happened. Legitimately, of all New York music, the Dolls’ association is the strongest. I mean, it’s right in the band’s name. Beyond that, really and truly, it’s New York’s music--gritty as it is glamorous. They also sing *about* New York. “Subway Train,” “Jet Boy,” and “Frankenstein” are impossible to disassociate with our favorite city away from home. “Personality Crisis,” certainly, in part because of a missed opportunity to perform it at punk rock karaoke during one memorable trip for Pete’s birthday. It’s now on my Things to Do After All of This Is Over list.
I’m not a fan of poetry. I think it’s one of the most awkward forms of expression and takes so much goddamned work to appreciate. Enjoying music can be kind of passive and the production is collaborative such that there are several elements that go into a good song. If the lyrics aren’t particularly good, there’s a beat and melody and the quality of performances to make up for it. Prose kind of just is what it is, an honest and straightforward presentation of ideas. Poetry is this unfortunate midpoint that needs to be both lyrical and idea-driven with absolutely nowhere to hide pretension or awkwardness or stupidity.
My prejudice against poetry extends to songwriting with poem-inspired lyrics, even though my point above about there being nowhere to hide doesn’t stand. Also, the extent to which I’m tolerant of lyrical poetry varies based on whether I actually kind of hate the artist. To wit: I think Lou Reed is a genius but the very thought of Patti Smith’s Horses record sends me into a rage, the difference being that Lou’s vagaries make me rub my chin and say “hmmm” whereas Patti’s make me roll my eyes and quietly declare her the absolute worst*. This prejudice against lyrical poetry or poetic lyrics obviously doesn’t extend to X, which is maybe my third favorite band in the world. I was about to declare X the quintessential punk-poets and I think that’s arguably true, but in checking my facts via Google, I remembered that Richard Hell is a thing, so I’ll leave that point as arguable and resist boldly declaring.
*I’ve felt this way for a long time and kept it quiet because I don’t want to shit on anyone’s interests but MAN do I think her music sucks. I also hate that she’s the poster child for punk legitimacy. A person of my father’s generation, in avoiding remarking on any specific aspect of punk he respected while still trying to relate to Pete and I in conversation said something to the effect of “punk is--punk is great. Yeah, there’s...well, there’s Patti Smith! She’s a *poet*” and when those last words came out of his mouth, I really wanted to leave the room because it sounded like such a desperate, generic compliment I’m sure I’ve heard a million times before with that exact same inflection. I might have even actually left the room, but I think we were in a moving car at the time. I want to say that even Tipper fucking Gore made the exact same pro-Patti argument while disparaging the Dead Kennedys as if to say “see? I’m not so square!”
“White Girl” by X is on this list at #60*. I just went back and reread the post and I go on and on about “White Girl’s” fairly straightforward lyrics, which now strikes me funny since I decided to open this post about “The World’s a Mess,” the lyrics of which are complete gobbledygook. See:
Some facts here
Which refuse to escape
I could say it stronger
But it's too much trouble
I was wandering down at the bricks
Hectic, isn't it?
Down we go, cradle and all
The what? This is just the most inscrutable of a pile of nonsense; the whole song’s like this. But it manages to work really fucking well. I’m fairly certain, aided by the selected words in the song title and the chorus, that it amounts to an outpouring of general apocalyptic hopelessness, a theme that I truly believe lends itself to particularly eloquent gibberish.
*I almost forgot to mention that I’m fairly certain Pete and I share our top two X songs, which has never happened in the history of life. And we’ve never talked about why, for as many of these types of discussions as we have. And I think we love “White Girl” and “The World’s a Mess” for the same reasons.
Idle optimism expressed online in late 2016 would suggest that a lot of us thought that the Trump era would feel a bit like the Reagan era and would result in some really great political music and I don’t think it did that exactly*. Reagan and pals were less crazy than Trump but America was also way more sold on Reagan than Trump. So while in the year of our lord 2020, we all have firsthand experience with the shock at the degree of stupid our leaders demonstrate and the ease with which they waltzed into power, in Reagan’s time, it was more the feeling of drowning in stupid. It must have seemed like everyone in the world was down. Add to the anxiety the real and plausible fear of nuclear annihilation that we were largely unbothered by in Trump’s time, “No one is united, and all things are untied. Perhaps we're boiling over inside!” is very relatable.
*Film however, took leaps and bounds during this time.
All of this says nothing about “The World’s a Mess” musically. It starts with Billy Zoom’s guitar, sounding an awful lot like the good* kind of rockabilly. Exene’s vocals come in fairly immediately and sound particularly** moany. She sings a clear lead in this one, which is kind of unusual for X, which is why I assume she was the songwriting lead as well. It’s quite the feature. In addition to it being my favorite X song, I think it’s considered in some ways to be the definitive X song. At some point--I think initially during the first chorus, though it sticks around for most of the rest of the song after that--the musical unsung hero of this song, the keyboard. I think you could argue that it elevates the song from really very good to a love fuck of an innovative musical revolution. I hate the Doors. But it’s very Doorsy in the only tolerable way. In the bridge and outro, the keyboard really shines and goes a little off the rails, but in a song about how the world is ending because people are nuts, it’s absolute perfection.
*The 1950s kind, not the nostalgic White Privilege Cosplay kind of the last couple of decades.
**She’s always a little moany and I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s perfect for X and most perfect in “The World’s a Mess.”
“The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss” is the last song on X’s debut album, Los Angeles, which is hilarious because I really thought it was on Wild Gift. See, after Pete and I fell in love with X after watching the 1981 minor motion picture The Decline of Western Civilization, he went out and purchased the CD version of their first two albums on one disc. Ever since, I’ve always thought that the correct way to listen to X is by listening to each of the two in succession and without interruption. In the digital music era, I find it too much of an imposition to play one and then the other, so I created a Spotify playlist that will do this for me. After years of discomfort, I have arrived at home again.
In any case, though “The World’s a Mess” is my favorite X song, I think Wild Gift is a slightly better record because it presents more X songs than X SONGS, which is to say, it doesn’t sound as much like they’re trying to cultivate an image. They’re all great songs, but I have trouble grooving naturally to “Sex and Dying in High Society,” “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline,” as well as the title track because they sound too much like “we’re here, we’re X, get used to it!” Wild Gift generally sounds like a more confident band who knows the world knows exactly who they are. That’s why “The World’s a Mess” feels like a Wild Gift song. It seems to have more in common with the sexy and mysterious Wild Gift tracks like “Some Other Time,” “Year 1,” and “Beyond and Back” than the aforementioned standout tracks on Los Angeles. I’m really splitting hairs, here. They’re both stellar albums.
As I think I heavily suggested if not outright implied in my previous post, I’ve always wanted to be X. They’re just the coolest. They make marriage seem scandalous and sexy, the influence of which may have lead Pete and I to see being married punk rockers as an imperative, which partly explains why we got married so young. They’re crazy good-looking. John Doe is like, normal-guy handsome, which makes his transition to acting* make a lot of sense. Exene** of course is cute as a button, a compact, punk rock Stevie Nicks totally out of her mind and her chemistry with John is electric. They also both sing incredibly well. I’ll admit that during the pandemic, I’ve been working hard at self-improvement and practicing singing more is one strategy to that end. The goal is to approach singing as well as Exene can, sounding more like her. With a rich, confident authority. That’s the dream. And their playing! The music itself doesn’t strike as simplified or dumbed down in any way, not always a bad thing, but in comparison to their time/place peers, their commitment to virtuosity makes the stand out. And in fact, if they were as well-known as Patti Smith, I think they’d be far better exemplars of punk legitimacy thereisaidit.
*His filmography is impressively long, including a one-off appearance on Party of Five in 1997.
**I didn’t know where else to put this, nor do I have any idea how I avoided stumbling upon this information for so long, but Exene was married to Viggo Mortensen from 1986 - 1997.
Never did my desire to be X come into focus more than when we finally* watched the 1986 minor motion picture, the Unheard Music. I’d recommend watching it as their definitive music doc if you haven’t yet. I personally found it really inspiring, like, all the way around. They have an unmatched style and philosophy as a band, which kind of brings me back to the poetry piece. They insisted on being artsy and projecting an intentional, consistent aesthetic, well in advance of the internet and “aesthetic” being a word to throw around in casual conversation**. Anyway, in one memorable sequence, John Doe recounts the band’s appropriation of the letter X from the X-Lax building in Brooklyn. I was like “holy shitballs, that’s outstanding,” picked up my phone, did some scavenging of my own and purchased a light-up E and a G from Amazon, which have been featured prominently on the stage with us during live shows ever since, which you can see here, in this pic of us in a City Paper article from 2017. Yeah, we stole that idea from X. People have asked us whether we stole them off of a marquee, so. Mission accomplished.
*This was as recently as like 2017. I have no idea what took us so long.
**I think in the early 80s, the corresponding term was “vibe.”
I feel like I have mentioned this before but can’t trace it, so at the risk of repeating myself, I’ll tell this story (maybe)* again. We saw X play with Blondie at the 9:30 Club in September 2013. Excited as I was to see both bands, maybe even equally, X really stole the show for me. It wasn’t even Blondie’s fault (more on this later), but I enjoyed X’s set so much more. When I finally see bands I’ve been listening to and loving for a really long time, I get this tear reflex. Like, I get a lump in my throat and my eyes briefly fill up. That definitely happened with X, they just looked so much like themselves. They looked like younger actors with makeup and gray streaks added to intentionally age them, intoning the passage of time. And were so on point! As energetic as ever. I loved it, and would very much love to see them again, were that only possible. After This Is All Over!!
*OK, no, I’m pretty sure I talked about how I want to cry when I see bands live for the first time in my post about Descendents.
Every punk or punk-adjacent American woman born between 1975 and 1985 has a relationship with Bikini Kill; it is a requirement. There comes a point in every girl’s/femme’s* life where they need to decide whether they’re going to shit or get off the pot. I was a late-bloomer. I remember hearing of them when I was in early high school. I had a concept as to what they were all about and in that spirit thought their name was clever and their album title Pussywhipped was even clever-er, but given how they were generally thematically and musically radio-unfriendly, they were fairly inaccessible for a cash-strapped teenager.
*Other genders can play, too, it’s just hard to imagine being a teenage boy and feeling like they have to make a decision regarding Bikini Kill.
Before ever really hearing their music but understanding the general plot, I very much wanted to like Bikini Kill, but I don’t feel like they made it super easy. Some of the more accessible Riot Grrrl/Riot Grrrl-Adjacent acts like the Lunachicks, Babes in Toyland and to a lesser extent Hole appealed but I craved the authenticity and radicalism I sensed from Bikini Kill. When I had my opportunity to actually hear them, I was looking for catchy tunes with inspiring lyrics about sticking it to the man. What I got was bass-heavy low-fi sludgey punk with barely audible moan-screams. It was both unappealing and intimidating. With limited resources to embark on a Getting Into Bikini Kill project, I guess I kind of gave up.
When Pete and I first started talking in the spring of 1996, I mentioned along the way that in addition to enjoying punk rock music, I identified as a feminist* and, all about it, he started pushing Riot Grrrl on me**, even though by that time Riot Grrrl was a little passe. I remember a a zine-friend who wrote a rant about not being taken seriously as a woman musician and using the words “ugh, I sound like a Riot Grrrl,” which lead me to impatiently tsk and wonder why the hell we were promoting the concept of being a social change agent as geeky somehow. The late 90s and early 2000s were the absolute worst.
*As much as identifying as feminist is a basic measure of human decency today, I will be dead in a cold cold grave before I forget long stretches in my teens and 20s when many of my peers refused to. They’d go into this “of course I believe in equal rights but,” which: there’s no acceptable way to complete that sentence.
**I told you I have the best husband.
Well prior to any of this, Pete had purchased the 1991 Kill Rock Stars compilation album because Nirvana was on it and there was a stretch before I knew him during which he automatically purchased everything with Nirvana. The comp also included “Girl Germs” by Bratmobile* and “Feels Blind” by Bikini Kill. As part of his efforts to get me interested in the genre, he included “Feels Blind” on the compilation tapes he used to make me and almost instantly, I understood Bikini Kill.
*I think I made an error on my post about Bratmobile’s “Shut Your Face” at #47 on this list. I mentioned that “Girl Germs” was on The Real Janelle, and it isn’t, it’s on the KRS comp. This was my introduction to Bratmobile, a great one.
This is probably a terrible, terrible admission for Bikini Kill originalists, but my favorite by them is the Singles collection, released in 1998, a year after the band broke up. The production is like night and day and basically delivered exactly what I was looking for in Bikini Kill when I found them to be sludgy and screamy. It wasn’t the songwriting, it was that they hadn’t yet had Joan Jett as a producer. This collection doesn’t include “Feels Blind,” but does include “Demirep,” a very close second favorite song by them for me. The whole thing is fucking spectacular and it, along with Kathleen Hanna’s then-current project Le Tigre, which was naturally much more my speed, turned me into a lifelong Bikini Kill fan. I’m pleased to report that even Pitchfork agrees with me on this, naming it the year’s best reissue and heaping huge praise on the bright production value.
I bring this up because the version of "Feels Blind" that appears on the Kill Rock Stars compilation, released a year before it appeared on the self-titled EP in 1992 is mixed SO WELL compared to the later version, which is maybe slightly crisper. In the KRS comp version, the vocal performance is featured, which I think is how it should be because it is to my ear one of Kathleen Hanna’s highest degree-of-difficulty accomplishments. In the EP version, the guitar is so fucking loud, it’s like an assault. Listen to them back to back and the difference is palpable, which I think further proves my point about the production quality having this ridiculous impact on one’s ability to enjoy recorded Bikini Kill songs. ANYWAY, as I’ve intoned, the best part of “Feels Blind” is the vocal performance. The power, range, and force of Kathleen Hanna’s voice is to me what elevates Bikini Kill from just-another-riot-grrrl-band to their rightful status as rock n’ roll legends. It’s insane. I don’t know where it comes from, she’s like fucking Aretha Franklin. I don’t get it.
I mentioned earlier that what I wanted out of Bikini Kill was something to get my fist pumping in the spirit of sticking it to the man. I was a very early feminist and have to credit my mom for instilling a native sense of gender equality. My well-meaning aunt bought me a copy of the now very dated late-70s feminist book for kids, Girls Can Be Anything by Norma Fucking Klein.* My mom proudly told me that she never gave it to me, which kind of pissed me off. My mom, one step ahead, said that she didn’t want to suggest to me that girls *couldn’t* be anything before the world actually did, which I completely loved. In “Feels Blind” I got the least-specific empowerment message Bikini Kill ever put out. There’s stuff about sexuality, violence, body image, issues with food, exhibitionism, it’s like a sampler pack. I ate it up, still get goosebumps, still pump that fist.
*Norma Klein, you guys! She wrote very scandalous and sexy young adult novels which I ate up in junior high school
They played Honolulu in 1994 and 1996. I went neither time because as mentioned, I didn’t really get hooked until ‘98-’99. This isn’t something I specifically regretted for a long time, but for years I did yearn for a reunion and last summer, I got my wish. Pete and I planned the trip around the Bikini Kill show before even finding out that L7 was playing a smaller venue the night before. I just--I have no idea why--but for some reason, we booked bus tickets that would get us into Manhattan in juuuust enough time to grab a Lyft into Brooklyn, drop our overnight bags at Josie’s and grab another Lyft to the show in Bushwick. Of course, our bus was delayed like two hours and we missed L7 completely. We did get to see the members of L7 the next day at a signing and there’s a very cute story about how Pete and our friend Kevin introduced themselves as having met them 25 years prior which I will share on request. Later that day, we saw Bikini Kill play in front of 3,000 people and they were *so happy* to be there. It was really pure because every person in that theater knew they’d earned it. Legends dragged out from the basement.
When I write these, I usually do a rough outline of what I want to say and the placeholder I left three days ago for the final paragraph of this post is “Being mad at Kathleen Hanna,” which makes me laugh today. Once you get into Bikini Kill’s music, it’s really difficult to not see Kathleen Hanna as a role model. Beautiful, flawed Kathleen Hanna. With that territory comes the reflex to expect her conduct throughout her 30+ year career to be perfect. She’s a victim of that pesky feature of western culture, drawing from the bible: “to whom much is given, much will be required?” I’m very guilty of this, finding myself alternatingly unsympathetic and impatient with her excuses for having done X or Y to piss off her fans. The best example is what she said about having married a Beastie Boy whose most sexists songs from their early days are actually pretty fucking sexist. But before they’d even gotten together they’d all done quite a bit to atone for that and most of all, it’s kind of a personal thing, right? Falling in love? I’d seen her quoted as saying essentially: yeah I’m sickened by his past conduct but “you can’t legislate who you fall in love with.” Honey, no. How about “he did shitty things before, but I didn’t know him them and that’s not the man I fell in love with. Look at all the ways in which he and his bandmates have gone out of their way to be inclusive and great men in the meantime?” The Punk Singer documentary left a bad taste in my mouth and I don’t even remember why. I’ve also seen some criticisms for her not having apologized hard enough for playing a festival associated put on by TERFy feminist groups*. I decided to cut her a break shortly after Le Tigre put out that awkward and PAINFULLY bad video for “I’m with Her” shortly before the 2016 election**. A friend in a political group put it nicely in response to my asking god and the universe what the fuck was wrong with her once and for all. She suggested I cut Kathleen Hanna a break--she’d become very famous and the voice of a non-hierarchical and evolving movement at a very young age. She should be allowed to make mistakes and occasionally crack under the pressure. Ultimately I’m rooting for her to keep it together but I think either way history will forgive her errors and she’ll be remembered as the feminist icon she deserves to be.
*She did not know of this dimension to the group’s politics when she played it, which I think is a legitimate explanation. Besides, even looking at that with the most cynical possible lens, do you really think Kathleen Hanna is interested in being pigeonholed as a 3rd-wave dinosaur? Come on, she wants nothing more than to remain relevant. She’s tweeted multiple times in support of trans rights and causes. I think this is ok.
**Watch it here if you like pain
Kelly! We did it! You thought that there wasn’t any more room for repeats on our lists but look what I did! I ranked a common track higher than you did! I love this because it’s the solid intersection of Kelly Stitzel and Donna Jo Tanner music. I owe you a high-ten for this.
I have mentioned a few times how as a teenager, I had a hard time with the whole “punk” thing. In the 90s--at least in many localities*--if you were going to call yourself punk, there was this complex criteria you needed to live up to in order to defend the assertion. At the risk of repeating myself, because I’m pretty sure I’ve already told this story, I recall specifically hearing a member of Scene Leadership proclaim that you could come to shows and be a casual follower but couldn’t really call yourself a punk unless you were straight edge, vegan (probably), and only bought music on vinyl or cassette**. This shit was EXHAUSTING and despite the powerful draw that was uptempo, fuck-you music, I kind of wanted no part of it.
*This was in Hawaii, which had a nice little punk scene. Mainlanders at the time assumed that it was all bubblegummy surfy stuff, but it was pretty diverse and there was a very devoted hardcore sub-sect which was probably responsible for all of the strict guidelines. There was also an attitude which I want to say in retrospect was reflective of Southern California punk culture, where everyone had to out-punk everyone else and all this resulted in a very unhappy bunch of people. That’s what it was like. You wonder why you even bothered.
**Getting my revenge still by only releasing Electric Grandmother music on compact disc.
In college I started getting into older stuff, put out before I was born, and was surprised and delighted to find out that Blondie--that borderline cheesy 70s/80s pop outfit--were actually punk pioneers. I’d no idea where the connection would be, but decided then and there to start liking Blondie. I mainly knew them for “The Tide Is High” from, well, *life* and “Call Me,” the theme from the 1980 major motion picture American Gigolo* starring Sir Richard Gere. In my efforts to Get Into Blondie after learning of their legitimacy, I picked up a copy of The Best of Blondie which is an A+, very solid compilation.
*I think long before I decided I loved Blondie, I sat down one Saturday afternoon and watched all of this cinematic triumph on basic cable and recommend it to everyone. Every living human.
Their pedigree gave me permission to love them. Blondie appealed for all the opposite reasons why I found punk rock exhausting. It was amazing to me that something so likeable and beautiful was on the safe list. In an era when Green Day was excommunicated for not shying away from success, it seemed hard to believe that a band like Blondie, fronted by an unabashedly sexy and adorable woman sporting a messy, flirty platinum blonde bob would be among the founding parents of a genre that seemed defined by austere authenticity.* Blondie was defined by an intentionally performative pop lean-in.
*Again, this was in an era when Fugazi basically defined the below-the-surface punk rock mentality. Fugazi is great of course but trying to live up to even a sketchy version of that standard is a big bummer.
Because my initial impression of Blondie was formed on sight and and the sound of their most overplayed singles a decade or more before they were released, you can hardly blame me for assuming that Blondie wasn’t much more than a silly pop band. You could also hardly blame me for presuming that Debbie Harry was the pixiesque princess she sounds like and appears to be. Her voice sounds like a fairy’s, she’s flashy and fashionable as hell, so tiny and delicate-looking, I assumed even after knowing about the band’s history that Debbie Harry kind of found herself in the CBGBs scene, defying the stereotypes of that time and place, but that’s absolutely wrong*. I recently Audible’d Face It, Debbie’s memoir read, by the woman herself. She is absolutely a bad bitch. Her stories are about as crazy and mortifying as you can imagine. Also, though I realize she’s like 80 years old now, but her speaking voice was much lower than I expected and her heavy New York/New Jersey accent was so heavy, it was almost akin to hearing Lunch Lady Doris read about life on the Lower East Side in the 1970s.
*This would be fine either way. I think the stereotypes of the CBGBs scene especially in the very beginning reflect the Ramones and little else, considering that the big four bands from that era could really not be more distinct from each other.
It was literally decades before I landed on “Dreaming” as my favorite. It really is the perfect Blondie song. I have read that the band expected it to be a big hit when they released it as the lead single on Eat to the Beat and it underperformed. I think its disappointing chart performance in its time probably resulted in its extreme likability 40 years later. The better-known songs that define Blondie’s catalog are barely songs anymore because they’re so overplayed. They’re wallpaper. There’s currently a commercial that features a chopped up version of “Heart of Glass,” once my favorite Blondie track, and I barely noticed it. It coincidentally played while I sat here typing this. I’m not being grumpy, at a certain point, I can’t help but no longer think of certain songs as actual songs. For whatever cosmic reason, “Dreaming” was spared this treatment and still belongs to us and not the general atmosphere.
And really I’m so grateful because it’s a beautiful song. It begins drums-only like a clean, gentle explosion. Then the guitar takes us straight to the melody in the chorus before Debbie’s vocals come in on the verses. The tone struck is perfect for her. She’s tough, world-weary, but hopeful. Dreaming. The chorus has three words: Dreaming is free. The melody sounds exactly like a gentle breeze. It’s simple, pretty, poppy. It’s perfect.
It’s almost painfully romantic. Evidently the inspiration for the song came from Chris Stein’s inventing that chorus, “dreaming is free,” and Debbie wrote the rest of it around that concept. It’s very gritty-couple cool. There’s scenes of coffee shops and subways and film and fantasy. A couple of lyrical highlights: “people stop and stare at me. We just walk on by, we just keep on dreaming.” I’ve always, always loved this idea, of being so involved with another person that the rest of the world is just noise. The best is the entire last verse, starting with:
I sit by and watch the river flow
I sit by and watch the traffic go
So New York, so romantic. Again, the world is just carrying on, but I only care about our little world.
Imagine something of your very own, something you can have and hold
I'd build a road in gold just to have some dreamin'
I actually get emotional when she draws out “imaaaaaaagine something of your very own.” Ugh, I keep describing this song as “pretty,” but it really, really is. So pretty.
At just about the right time for me, Blondie had a very serious comeback and released No Exit in 1999 and an impressively well-performing single, “Maria,” a song I still like a lot. No Exit was their first studio album since they released the Hunter* 1982. Since then, they haven’t really stopped putting out albums, most recently in 2017. I don’t really have the energy to keep up with their recent releases, but I’m glad it keeps them touring. I finally got to see them at the 9:30 Club in 2013, an experience for which I’d really like a mulligan. It was AMATEUR HOUR such that every breathing human within five feet of us were the most irritating human with whom I’d ever had the displeasure of sharing space. If I were less tired and cranky, they may have not gotten on my nerves quite so much. There was the woman standing next to Pete who didn’t want to be touched in a standing-room-only, jam-packed concert hall. The kid at his first concert who clearly wanted to *be* Debbie Harry, doing all the hand motions and facial affectations from the music videos (picture “raaaaaaptuuuuure”). There was the trashy motorcycle couple in front of us. It was just a bad experience. Blondie was great. They played like a band that had been playing together on and off for 40 years. I’m eager for another chance.
*I’ve never heard The Hunter, but do clearly recall seeing it in a record store and laughing out loud at the record cover and the fact that it was actually called The Hunter. 1982 was a different time.
I’m listening to Mariah Carey read her memoir on Audible right now. I timed it so that I was listening in December because she’s basically the Christmas spirit in a big, sparkly human package. I was right, it’s definitely a mood. In discussing her early musical influences, she draws a line in the sand between Stevie Wonder and everyone else. I think I mentioned this in my post about “Sir Duke,” #58 on this list, that I can’t immediately think of any musician for whom I hold more reverence and have more respect. But it occurred to me that it’s probably not a hot take. I mean, obviously he’s much beloved, but this prompted me to consider whether he even has a peer. Generally lacking imagination, I went to the internet to find comparable artists in similar genres, who raised the concept of Marvin Gaye and Prince*. Marvin Gaye whose career was cut somewhat short by an untimely death never really became Pop Emeritus having died at age 45. Prince also died fairly young, but was more hampered by carrying around this edge to him that I think would prevent him from being The Best across generations and is more exclusive property of Generation X.
*I was prompted to wonder where Michael Jackson would have fit if not for his being a bona fide sexual predator. I suspect he’d be kind of impossible to place.
Though Stevie’s heyday was undeniably the 1970s, I managed to grow up knowing Stevie as a fully accessible--borderline basic--pop star. In the 80s, everyone in the world knew “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (not JUST from the Cosby Show, but that helped) and of course “Part-Time Lover,”* a song so 80s, I can barely talk about it. I grew up, in other words, with the understanding that Stevie Wonder was basically another version of Lionel Richie, which is so, so not accurate. Stevie gets shit on for his 80s output but he put out several genuinely high-quality songs in the 80s. I actually like “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” I’m not impervious to sap, it’s a very sweet song. “Overjoyed,” released in 1986, would probably make an appearance in my top 200 songs. It’s fucking beautiful. “Lately” might be an honorary 70s song, but is a genuine 80s song, released in 1981, and is also quite beautiful.
*”Part-Time Lover,” a song that my friend and grad-school contemporary Jason featured in his Sociology 101 course to illustrate a point related to infidelity, the specifics of which I can’t recall. I remember this fondly though, because it never occurred to me that a “part-time lover” was obviously a person having an affair. Clever. “Part-Time Lover,” come to think of it, also a song that Mariah Carey refers to not by name when she talks in her memoir about how fun it is to scat along with jazz musicians, saying that Stevie Wonder is the best pop-scatter there is. I never really thought about that as scatting but I guess it totally is.
But also! The man’s output in the 1960s is also crazy good. As with many Motown classics, these are songs that perpetually existed in the background of life, songs for which I was never specifically prompted to consider the general quality. Once I did; shit. The 1970s was his Album Decade, but “Uptight,” “For Once in My Life,” “My Cherie Amour?” Groovy as hell. His Christmas songs are standards. “Someday at Christmas” in particular, but “What Christmas Means to Me” need to be in the conversation when discussing best pop Christmas songs of all time.
He is a hard-core artistic machine and he managed to stay at the top of his game for three decades without being a dick about it. Nobody has anything bad to say about him. There’s no arguing that David Bowie is my favorite artist and that’s just a matter of taste. Bowie is held up as someone who endured for a long time by reinventing himself over a 12ish year period, making almost* no creative errors. Stevie Wonder, to his credit, was at the top of his game for twice that long and did it without resorting to cocaine-fueled borderline-nazi-sympathizing or like, merely rubbing anyone the wrong way. His drug freak out album had him talking to plants, not locking himself in his home and going all-in on Aleister Crowley.
*Added this qualifier in because I don’t feel like arguing about it, but I don’t think there was a creative error. Maaaaaybe Pinups. *Maybe* the title track to Aladdin Sane. But I barely consider those errors.
I became acquainted with 1970s Stevie in my 20s when Pete picked up a copy of Talking Book, which includes “Superstition,” widely considered Stevie’s best song. Songs in the Key of Life is technically my favorite and I’m not even sure whether I’d put Talking Book ahead of Innervisions in second place, but Talking Book will always hold a soft spot in my heart as the album that got me interested in Soul music. It’s a very pure album. The cover features Stevie wearing a velvet (!) robe. He’s sitting, head canted away from the camera. He doesn’t wear his signature sunglasses and his hand gently rests on the rocky ground beneath him. It’s a beautiful shot, capturing the mood of the album perfectly.
In addition to “You and I” and “Superstition,” Talking Book also includes “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” a tune mellow enough that I recall it from adult contemporary radio my parents listened to when I was a kid. Despite that association, I can appreciate it for the pop-standard drink of water it is. “Tuesday Heartbreak” and “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” are “Superstition’s” funk-lite little brothers and I love them both. “I Believe” is a song I still associate with the end of the 2000 major motion picture High Fidelity, which is fine, but it’s also a legitimately beautiful love song.
However, there is no more beautiful love song than “You and I.” Musically, it’s understated. Piano and light synthesizers come together in an almost shockingly simple melody. The feature is definitely Stevie’s vocal performance, which begins like the music quiet and understated. I’m not sure how they achieved the effect, but there’s a slightly hollow sound to it, like he’s singing in an empty room. The volume and intensity picks up at about the 3:40 mark, where he simply repeats the “you and I” refrain, giving us further “in my mind you and I can conquer the world in love” with so much soul and so much conviction, it’s difficult to imagine not getting goosebumps as he really lets it rip at the final “you and IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII--you and I!!!!!!!!!!!” He’s so vulnerable, so earnest, so (again) *pure,* it is simply *true.* This is it. This is as good as a love song gets.
And get this: “You and I” was the Obamas’ wedding song because OF COURSE IT WAS. Further, Barack has said that he and Michelle wouldn’t have ever gotten together if he didn’t love Stevie Wonder. That is very on-brand for such a charmingly loveable couple of personalities, isn’t it? Jesus fucking Christ.
While I don’t remember the first time I ever heard Sleater-Kinney, I definitely remember the general circumstances. I was definitely in grad school, it was definitely the year of our lord 2002, and was definitely at the hands of my good friend Jeff Jarosch*. This was during their early critical-darling peak and I recall having a discussion with another friend (who I won’t name), who said he wasn’t all that interested *because* they were critical darlings. This was frustrating for me because I’m almost never a bandwagon-jumper. But I definitely got on the SK bandwagon because they deserved it.
*Jeff is one of those friends with whom I lost touch because he’s moved around a little, is not into social media and very busy being a lawyer and a father of three. Not because we lost interest in each other or because we had a falling out or whatever. I miss him a lot even though all that separates us is laziness and a sharp divergence in lifestyle.
Immediately, I found Sleater-Kinney hard to peg. Coming off the 90s, when if you were in a band without men and had a bit of a punk edge, you were categorized as Riot Grrrl, which for better or worse is a label that comes with a lot of baggage. And their origins would put them squarely in that category, but Sleater-Kinney came at the tail end of the movement, which set them apart. They sounded fundamentally different. Their aesthetic wasn’t particularly low-fi and despite being a three-piece their sound is rich, musically. Of course to me, their signature is their diminutive front-woman’s gigantic voice. Unlike other women vocalists whom I admire, I don’t wish I could sing like Corin Tucker. I think this is because nobody sings like Corin Tucker, her voice is almost absurd, it’s so big. I love it, though. The only comparable standout voice in rock music I can immediately think of is Glenn Danzig, which is hideously insulting to Corin Tucker, but all I mean is that it’s not mistaken for anyone else’s*.
*Unless, in the case of Danzig, it’s an impression.
Jeff urged me to check out Dig Me Out first and it was indeed a good initial foray. I still love that album. That same year, they released One Beat, which is their 9/11 album. It’s excellent, but I think suffers from having been too topical*. Despite this obvious shortcoming, One Beat is still one of my favorites to put on and reminds me so much of That Time. Just thinking about it makes me think of driving on High Street south of campus towards downtown. Over the years, I collected the remainder of their back catalog and gradually, I came around to Call the Doctor, by far and away, Sleater-Kinney’s biggest triumph.
*It was too topical in its time and it certainly seems a bit dated now. It’s like they didn’t wait long enough and were still too upset about 9/11 when they wrote it. This is a great lesson for all creatives. It’s really, really hard to write about contemporary events without suffering for it. I know this--I do--but I still sometimes try to convince Pete to write more obtusely about Trump or staying inside for a year and to his credit, he resists every time. Regardless, Cancelled and Relaunch really are our Trump albums, even if his name is never mentioned.
Call the Doctor was Sleater-Kinney’s second studio album, released in 1996 and holy moly is it a great one. Notably, it includes not only “Good Things,” but also close runners-up for my favorite SK song. “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” might be their best-known track from their early albums and it might even be my favorite but I guess I didn’t want to say it was. As the title implies, it’s a teen punk-rocker’s homage to her heroes. Corin Tucker belts out the song title in the first and third chorus, changing it up in the second to “I wanna be your Thurston Moore.” Oh, I love it, it’s so forthright in its geekiness. The title track is what I assumed up until a few minutes ago a song about abortion. The lines “your life is good for one thing, you're messing with what's sacred. They want to simplify your needs and likes to sterilize you” is what sent me in that direction, but in reading others’ thoughts on the matter, I think it’s generally about dealing with established medical norms by a medical establishment that’s fundamentally sexist, homophobic, and ableist. It’s personal, specific, and pissy and I love it very much.
“Good Things” is probably a weird pick, not likely anyone else’s favorite Sleater-Kinney song. It’s weird for me, too. When I talk about my favorite songs, I usually mention lyrics, themes, and vocal performance, but “Good Things” is exceptional in that I just really love the melody and song structure. It’s a breakup song in kind of the same spirit as “Again” by Janet Jackson, #31 on this list, where it’s from the perspective of someone looking back on a past relationship, which is whatever. It’s a fine theme, but not one that’s super personal to me. The musicianship is pretty classic SK, mid-tempo with fairly complex rhythm guitar work, particularly for a punk song. But the melody: it’s one of those that sounds so natively song-like. Do you even know what I mean? The kind of song that’s so well-written, you feel like you’ve heard it before? “Good Things” is like that. I also love the bridge, which wraps the whole beautiful thing up with “this time it will be alright, this time it will be ok,” but you can kind of tell it won’t be. It’s emo, sad-sacky, and I love it.
I’ve seen Sleater-Kinney live twice. Once in February of 2003 at Little Brother’s (RIP) in Columbus. The Black Keys opened, which I mention not because I like the Black Keys at all, but because Sleater-Kinney is uniquely talented at selecting opening acts. Anyway, that show was one of the best ones I’ve ever seen. They were on the top of their goddamned game. They were energetic, tight as hell, and suuuuuper sexy. Then--coming off a lengthy hiatus--I had the opportunity in 2015 at the 9:30 Club and I was really disappointed. Lizzo opened this one and definitely stole the show. You could probably fit eight Little Brotherses inside the 9:30 Club and the lack of intimacy really hurt the show. I also am not sure Corin Tucker’s voice has all the oomph it used to, which is totally understandable but when the oomph is the actual thing, that’s a problem. As I was grumpily watching a show in front of a crowd 10 times the size of one of the best live sets I’d ever seen, I looked around me and saw all these young women and femmes flipping out at finally getting to see Sleater-Kinney and realized I was being old and grumpy. I’m glad they hold the same power for kids as they have for me.
Sleater-Kinney is still technically together but I feel like they permanently broke up a long time ago. During their aforementioned hiatus, Carrie Brownstein became almost legit-famous, starring in an actual TV show, of which I am not a fan. Because of the popularity of said TV show, she ended up in an American Express commercial, which--I’m not usually like this--but come on. A credit card commercial? Jesus. I also didn’t care for her memoir. She was forthright and detailed and it’s not like there wasn’t a reason she shared the story, but she ended it by describing coming home to a pet cat that was killed by her pet dog. Fucking nightmare fuel. It’s pretty unfair of me to feel soured on the band because of this, but I can’t help it. That’s how brutal the story was. There was no warning. I’m also a bit upset with them for continuing on after drummer Janet Weiss left the group last year. She was as much part of Sleater Kinney as any of them and it just seems in bad taste. I legitimately haven’t liked an album they’ve put out since One Beat. I hated the Woods, released in 2005, their Iraq War album. I guess being too topical is an issue for them. It was also a departure for them stylistically, and not in a way that appealed to me. It seemed almost--proggy? No Cities to Love (2015) was better, but still underwhelming. I never picked up their 2019 release, produced by St. Vincent, which just seemed so left-field, I think of it as Nu Sleater-Kinney and resoundingly rejected it when it came out, never having given it a chance. Then, just a couple of weeks ago, I happened to hear a Nu Sleater-Kinney song on Spotify and it sounded pretty good for all the opposite reasons I was underwhelmed by No Cities to Love. Like a departure, but a welcome one so that it doesn’t just sound like a weak version of Dig Me Out. So idk feel free to @ me about that and tell me I’m just being grumpy. I may just give them another chance.
It takes a personality like mine to cackle wildly at finding a loophole in the rules I made up to govern a list I mostly made to entertain myself* during the pandemic**. The rule of course is that I cap the number of songs by one artist at three. Part of me wishes that I would have capped it at one for (a) consistency with Kelly Stitzel’s rules, though we did not discuss these in advance and (b) so that I could have an opportunity to talk about near misses the one-an-artist rule would have made space for such as “Daniel” by Elton John and “Possum Kingdom” by the Toadies. I’ll go into this a little more later. But the cap of one would have prevented me from piling on about the elite group of multiple artists on this list, which is one of my favorite things to do, particularly in the case of David Bowie.
*Read: throw myself into and obsess over.
**As though I really needed one more thing to throw myself into and obsess over.
This particular loophole of course enabled me to squeeze one more Bowie song into the mix. I feel like this is only technically a cheat, since a studio* version of “All the Young Dudes” performed by Bowie himself is readily available on multiple collections and has been since 1995. I’ve acknowledged previously that the first and maybe still definitive posthumous best-of release, Legacy, is fairly listenable almost all the way through. The version of “All the Young Dudes” performed by its author is strikingly *inferior* to that which was performed by his glam-era contemporaries and otherwise so-so** and fairly straight rock n’ roll outfit, Mott the Hoople. I can’t explain this (but I will try). It’s kind of a miracle. They were just the dead-correct band to perform this--what I believe to be--perfect song.
*Bowie performed “All the Young Dudes” live a zillion times, including his last performance with the Spiders from Mars for Ziggy Stardust the Motion Picture, which has its own soundtrack. My point is, it’s a lost treasure or anything.
**This isn’t a true opinion, it’s my opinion, so please don’t think I’m shitting on them. They’re not terrible and I find them fundamentally better than some of the less uninteresting British glam acts like Slade, but they really had lightning in a bottle with their performance of “All the Young Dudes.”
Bowie wrote “All the Young Dudes” in the squishy between-times bisecting the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane releases, basically, just as he was solidifying his role as rock n’ roll’s biggest cult figure. One thing I admire about him is how unafraid he was to lavish praise on his contemporaries. He was *so* confident, he didn’t need to also establish rivalries* or like even not go out of his way to help musicians of whom he was a fan. And he was a fan of a lot of his contemporaries. This of course included Mott the Hoople (for whatever reason) and he gave them “All the Young Dudes” because they were frustrated by poor sales and were on the verge of breaking up. He had also offered “Suffragette City,” possibly my second or third favorite tune on The Rise and Fall and “Drive-In Saturday,” my favorite song on Aladdin Sane. I just--why were they so lucky?? I guess it probably goes without saying that things managed to shake out exactly as the universe intended.
*To my knowledge, the only rivalries he initiated were a one-sided one with Elton John because he (I think rightly) saw “Rocketman” as a cheap “Space Oddity” ripoff and with Gary Numan for being generally unpleasant.
I can’t tell you the first time I heard “All the Young Dudes,” but I can trace two pivotal instances. The first was in the 1995 major motion picture Clueless, a cover by World Party, presented in a bit of a throw-away context, where Cher bemoans the lack of effort boys of her generation put into their general appearance. It made more of an impact on the soundtrack, which I owned and enjoyed. It’s a fairly straight cover, but definitely lacks the force of the Mott the Hoople version. Then, some ten-plus years later when at ComFest, Columbus’s annual and aptly named community festival, a band that I am 99% sure was Two Cow Garage* brought down the goddamned house with a shock-and-awe cover that in spite of myself, gave me goosebumps on top of my goosebumps.
*Pete will correct me if I’m wrong.
Fast forward another ten-plus-years to the months following David Bowie’s death in January, 2016. I think I’ve mentioned in multiple posts about the half-dozen Glam rock songs that appear on this list that I cultivated my taste for the genre after Bowie died and certainly I spent some time exploring Mott the Hoople’s catalog apart from “All the Young Dudes,” picking up the album of the same title. I’ll go into this more later, but like a lot of us, I took David Bowie’s death really hard, such that it was one of those pivotal life moments that make you really consider your own mortality. For me, David Bowie’s death affected me in this way more than any other besides the death of my own mother (!).
I don’t know why this happened, except to point out in addition to having admired the man for hears, his death coincided with my 38th birthday* and the launch of the 2016 republican presidential primaries, the result of which of course ended up with Donald Trump ultimately winning the nomination and the presidency. Is there a recipe more apt to trigger a midlife crisis than turning 40 and feeling for the first time in your life that western civilization was really actually on the verge of collapse? I was starting to feel *old* for the first time, so along with other ridiculous things, I dove head-long into full Glam rock immersion, idealizing that period of youthy creative abandon, half-wishing I was shaking my fist at Nixon instead of Trump.
*David Bowie died on January 10, but we found out the morning of the 11th and my birthday is the 12th, so not exactly but pretty damned close. This affected how I celebrate my birthday ever since.
“All the Young Dudes” was written during a time when Glam rock was a proper scene and a budding youth movement*, again, immediately following the Ziggy Stardust explosion. Bowie wrote it as an ode to the young men and boys who’d found an identity as sparkly, gender-bending** revolutionaries. “Rebel Rebel” is the companion piece, written for the young women and girls who found a home Being Outrageous in the early 70s. These kids were sticking it to the man by embracing their freakiest impulses relative to their environment and it felt right at home in 2016-17. Their energy gave me life almost 50 years later.
*It’s interesting because I usually think that the relative radicalism of youth/music/pop culture movements has an ebb and flow, or at least it has in my lifetime. I definitely see Glam as a stylistic response to earnest, unfashionable folk music, but supposedly both coincided with sexual liberation. There was no conservative response to the breaching of sexual mores, the conservative response was to call folk and to some degree the accessibility of it bullshit.
**In the parlance of their times.
The musicianship is great, but at this point in the countdown I’m not going to pretend that I care quite as much about the masterful guitar work--which it is--but that would also suggest that I have more than a passing interest in masterful guitar work. I was about to say that the magic of “All the Young Dudes” lies in the chorus, the “all the young dudes, carry the news, boogaloo dudes, carry the news” and it is. The chorus-proper is sung by backup singers, who include both David Bowie and Mick Ronson and features semi-random heckling by Mott lead vocalist Ian Hunter, who interjects such nonsense as “hey! Dudes!” and “where are ya?” and “stand up!” It’s very much in the style of Lou Reed’s interruptions in “Sweet Jane” and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bowie ripped this off* because that’s what he did.
*I say this with the utmost respect and reverence.
I do love the vocal performance in the chorus but I decided now that I need to put it on paper that the verses are really where it’s at. The melody and the performance alike are at once vulnerable, aggressive, and comforting. Bowie wrote the song inspired by Mott the Hoople’s relatively masculine bravado, which I guess he found kind of refreshing for their time. The concept is basically that Mott is a street gang in the style of A Clockwork Orange and this is their theme song. Here’s where I’m going to pinpoint why the Mott version is superior to the Bowie version: Ian Hunter’s voice is far less polished than Bowie’s which is rich and polished. Hunter’s is--forgive this adjective, it’s the only one I can think to fit--creamy. It just fits like a glove. My second and third shreds of evidence are the final several lines of the two lengthy verses “the television man says we’re crazy, saying we’re juvenile delinquent wrecks. Oh man I need a TV when I got T Reeeeeeeeeeeex.” That sustained note on “Reeeeeeeeeex?” I love it. It is the most pleasant sound in the history of rock music. It’s perfect. In Bowie’s version, it’s too ironic. It’s cheeky and that’s so inappropriate for this song. The corresponding lines concluding the second verse gives me that beautiful, perfect tone one more time “Now I've drunk a lot of wine and I'm feeling fine, got to race some cat to bed. Oh, is that concrete all around or is it in my heeeeeeeeeaaaaaad?” I can hear it as I type it. It is part of my soul.
I adore the music video for “All the Young Dudes” which you can watch here:
Earlier in this post, I described them as kind of normal guys who were adopted by a Glam rock angel and made famous but in the video, they actually look pretty cool, with Ian Hunter in his aviator sunglasses and Mick Ronson towering over literally everyone in the world. But my favorite thing about the music video is the actual shots of real Glam kids in 1970s London* and you can tell that they’re legit because they’re all dressed way to drab and frumpy to be putting on airs. These were those kids who inspired me so. I love them.
*Idk, just a guess and I don’t see any specific landmarks to confirm this or otherwise. There’s not a lot of information out there on this video.
I feel like I’ve done this elsewhere on my top 100, featured a song by a band I don’t particularly like, but I’m taken aback a bit at my placement of such a song in the #4 spot. I stand by the choice, though. It’s a testament to how absolutely genius it is both in composition and performance. I need to state again because it’s plainly true: “All the Young Dudes” is a perfect song.
In May 2021, husband Pete and I will have been together for 25 years. Twenty-five! That’s a very long time. During such a long relationship, you expect things to evolve and change and to be 100% honest, the last 5 or so years have been our best ever. Though we’ve always been best friends, through adversity, we have grown an intense emotional appreciation of each other that we never really had before. It’s wonderful and I’m grateful every day for him and the fact that we stumbled upon each other in a prehistoric chatroom way back in 1996.
All that said, a feature of the evolution of our relationship I never expected to draw us as close as it did was the process of buying our first home together in the summer of 2019. On the scale of first-time homebuyers, we were on the older end of the spectrum. We’d been putting it off for YEARS. A combination of factors, including not wanting to commit to property ownership in Columbus, the challenge of the DC real estate market, our inability to save a decent amount of money, the housing market crash of 2007, and our general fear that something catastrophic would happen as soon as we bought made this step a very low priority. I kind of felt that the *dream of owning one’s own home* was for capitalist saps and it probably wasn’t for us.
Then, Halloween Jack came into our lives. He had a well-documented fraught relationship with poor little Betty and made our one-bedroom apartment just shy of 800 square feet seem way too small for us from my perspective. Pete had been craving more space for years, ideally a work room of his own. Then my dear grandmother passed and left us enough money to think that the whole enterprise was possible. We connected with a friend’s realtor who was willing to hold our hands and stroke our heads throughout the whole process and we were on our way.
Throughout our relationship, Pete has generally let me make most of the lifestyle decisions for us. I have often begged him for more input but honestly, he’s never wanted to put the energy towards it. Which is kind of convenient because if one of us literally has no opinion, there are no arguments. The process of looking for a home, however, was one in which he took an active part. It was really romantic. We’d go into each place, full of hopes and possibilities, discuss what we saw that day in bed before falling asleep. Talked about sweet simple stuff like furniture and where we’d put things. When both of us landed on the 3rd floor corner unit of that funny little building on Lamont Street in Parkview, we figured it must be the place.
The very first thing I selected for our new home was a welcome mat. I don’t know why I had this compulsion, but for whatever reason I thought it was really important that we had a welcome mat as soon as we closed. I’d been interested in getting one that looked like a cassette tape that had a personalized handwritten label but “The Electric Grandmother” exceeded the character limit, so I passed on that and kept looking. I stumbled upon what eventually became our doormat which bears the words “THIS MUST BE THE PLACE” on Etsy and the song became the theme to our new home.
The thing about “This Must Be the Place” is that it’s one of a handful of songs that actually reflects David Byrne’s personal experience. It’s not the detached, third-person, socially-critical work he usually comes up with (which is also great), but it’s the rare, deeply personal Talking Heads song. The person who inspired this love song for the ages is none other than actress, artist, and costume designer, Adelle Lutz. If you’re like me and are extremely pop cultured, but not quite as sophisticated in knowledge of higher art, you probably know her best as Beryl, one of Delia’s artsy friends in the 1988 major motion picture, Beetlejuice. I was hoping she was also responsible for costume design for Beetlejuice so that I could give her credit for Catherine O’Hara’s glove-hat, but I cannot.
Lutz and Byrne were together from 1982 until 2004 and knowing almost nothing about her, I can only assume that she deserves an award for bravery and endurance for sticking it out that long. I cannot imagine the CHORE it must be to be married to David Byrne. That aside, I love that he managed to keep that relationship together for so long because “This Must Be the Place” is an iconic testament to life-long love.
It appears on the Heads’ 1983 album Speaking in Tongues, which is my favorite Talking Heads album. Talking Heads’ other appearance on this list, “Girlfriend is Better” at #49, is also on Speaking in Tongues. I think there’s a small but devoted cult of us who prefer it to their two most lauded albums, Remain in Light and Fear of Music. Funny because Tongues was their first album released after they gave very-involved producer Brian Eno the old heave-ho for being too volatile a collaborator with Byrne. I love Brian Eno. His solo work is amazing and his production work with David Bowie is some of Bowie’s best work. The result of his and Talking Heads’ parting of ways however, to my ear, is a lighter, groovier, more fun version of the band and I’m very much here for it.
But “This Must Be the Place” endures as a perennial favorite of theirs. Nobody doesn’t like this song. Musically, it’s so gentle and sweet, it almost begs for you to miss it, but you can’t. I think my favorite part may even be the lengthy intro, which coming in at almost a minute, is most indicative of the unassuming quality of this beautiful little song. The synth work throughout I think contributes most to the light and sweet sensibility; it almost reminds you of a pan flute. As mentioned in my post about “Girlfriend Is Better,” more than about any other band, I make a point to notice Tina Weymouth’s bass lines because they’re so good and create such an important rice pilaf to the guitar and vocals they’re laid on. “This Must Be the Place” is no exception. It’s as always groovy and drives the song despite its very gentle overall approach.
Lyrically? I can’t. I just can’t. Knowing what we know about David Byrne, his hedging: “I feel numb, born with a weak heart; I guess I must be having fun” and “Home is where I want to be; But I guess I'm already there” make total sense in the context of a gushy love song from him. I’ve always hated the term “settling down,” but that’s what this song is. Finding another person you love so much who loves you equally, the thought of not seeing them everyday is painful. The concept of “home” in this sense is twofold--you live with your chosen partner because you want to be with them as much as possible and being with them is where you’re meant to be. It’s home to be with this other person.
I’ve mentioned before that I struggle with an anxiety disorder and in the last year or so, it has gotten worse. As with a lot of mental health challenges, it’s complicated but really comes down to a crippling fear of death. It gets so bad that sometimes I get passing thoughts about getting rid of all of my stuff so that if I die suddenly, Pete won’t have to go through them and the pain of having to manage it. Or like, if he does something nice for me, I’ll not be able to enjoy it completely because it’s tinged with the sadness that in all likelihood, one of us will have to live without the other for a time. This all sounds absolutely nuts and it’s all trauma speaking, but the struggle, as they say is real. As a result, the lines from “This Must Be the Place” that I feel at my core are:
I'm just an animal looking for a home and
Share the same space for a minute or two
And you love me 'til my heart stops
Love me 'til I'm dead
I can barely sing along with that part without breaking down. It’s so perfect and so personal. Kills me: a perfect love song.
The best art is one where the artist has a clear concept of what they’re trying to say, but is executed in a vague enough manner that people can attach their own meaning to it. This allows the beholder to personalize and attach personal, emotional meaning connected to people or situations that mean a lot to the individual. This is fundamentally what art *is.* This has never been more true than with my all-time second favorite song, which is actually about smoking weed. I’m getting ahead of myself.
When people think of the Ramones, they generally know the template set by the first four albums, the “I Wanna Be Sedateds,” the “Pinheads” and the like. These songs are great and they fit a very specific formula. They’re what the Ramones are known for and they launched millions of pop punk outfits into existence. They’re what make the Ramones the most influential band of my lifetime and there is no question that version of the Ramones is great.
HOWEVER, I submit that the best version of the Ramones is far and away the Ramones of the early 1980s.* The pivot occurred after of a disastrous sell-out attempt in which they brought Phil Spector on as a producer which as I understand it, ended up with the worst possible result from every angle aside, in my opinion, from the album itself. I love End of the Century, but it’s sort of in a category all its own. It’s--weird. It sounds labored. Listen to the version of “Rock n’ Roll High School” and compare it to other versions. It sounds exhausted. If Johnny Ramone’s account of how that went down is to be believed, Spector made him play the guitar part for 8 hours straight. Spector also felt that Joey was the star of the band and the rest of them were just filler (incorrect of course, and this is coming from a Joey girl), which caused a lot of division within the band. Their uncharacteristic, orchestral cover of “Baby I Love You” doesn’t even involve any of the non-Joey members. Then there was all of the psychotic Phil Spector stuff that involved actual firearms.
*”Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” #63 on this list is from the album Animal Boy, released in 1986. Honorable mention song “Pet Semetary” appears on Brain Drain, which was released in 1989. It’s an honorable mention because I forgot about it, quite honestly. I think it actually deserves a spot on the top 100. Bottom line: 80s Ramones.
After the album failed to break them out of cult-status, they kind of gave up on the concept of being a successful mainstream band and decided to focus on maintaining for the pleasure of their current fans. This is what they said, but I don’t understand it since what rose from the ashes of End of the Century sounds like a third band but the subsequent three albums, Pleasant Dreams, Subterranean Jungle, and Too Tough to Die are my three favorites, with Too Tough being by far and away my favorite. And the stretch of songs on Too Tough beginning with “Chasing the Night,” “Howling at the Moon” and “Daytime Dilemma” is to me, the strongest string of three songs on any punk album, ever, with the creamy middle being the highlight.
It is SO hard to explain why “Howling” is so special. Musically, it’s one of those *perfect pop songs*, a description I’ve invoked several times on this list and I’m sitting here listening to it, hard, in order to come up with an explanation and I can’t. Elements just come together perfectly. I want to lay it in the laps of Dee Dee as a songwriter (certainly) but also Joey’s vocal performance. It’s a bit old-fashioned, with a simple structure and a non-lexical chorus are (like “Who Put the Bomp” and “Wooly Bully,” in this case “sha-la-la,” as suggested in the title) and this is right in Joey’s wheelhouse. He’s so comfortable with the transition from verse to chorus, with the “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” leading into the “sha-la-la-la,” it’s like he was born to sing this song.
But it’s not just the musically breezy nature of this song I adore so much, as you might expect, the lyrics and mood of “Howling” are so satisfying to me, just hearing the twinkly synth sound in the introduction is like a shot of adrenaline. Which brings me to why a song about smoking weed is my all-time second favorite.
I’m a somewhat tightly-wound person. I definitely crave rules, routine and structure. I share a lot of characteristics with your typical perfectionist. I’m a planner. This extends to planning leisure time as well. I am getting better about this, but for a long time I had vacation activities and meals planned down to the minute. I have an excellent memory (for everything but names). This all backfires on me in myriad ways. I have trouble letting go of things when they don’t turn out the way I want them to. I have a tendency to get so tense and so stressed, I give myself back and shoulder pain from being all tensed up. Sometimes when I’m watching TV, I need to ask myself whether I’m actually comfortable and then walk myself through why I’m not. Neck hurts? It’s because you’re tense. Arm throbbing? Tension.* I also don’t always like myself when I’m plotting everything out. There are a ton of things I feel like would be more enjoyable if I’d allow myself to be spontaneous, but it’s so hard. It's a weird hang-up for someone with artsy tendencies and maybe even a little embarrassing. I also blame this side of my personality for my inability to enjoy pot at all. I get tense and paranoid and anxiety shoots up. It’s bad. These are all things I recognize and am working on easing up.
*I’m very lucky to have genetically low blood pressure. It balances out to low-normal range. <br>
So while I’m comfortable in an environment with structure and limitations, I also resent it. All of this may explain why I instead like to drink alcohol so much--perhaps to a fault. It’s never gotten out of control, where anytime north of my 20s I felt it negatively interfered with my life, but it’s admittedly unhealthy and has become a low-priority for self-improvement. There is substance abuse in my family history. I’m not completely unsure it didn’t contribute to my mom’s passing away at a fairly young 58. It’s just--a bad thing to overdo.
This is not such an issue that I don’t still fondly look forward to nights on the town* with friends and that’s exactly what “Howling at the Moon”** feels like to me. I never looked into what this song actually meant before sitting down to write this because it so clearly held the meaning I assigned to it: the liberation of stepping out of your comfort zone, being free, untethered by plans or convention. In short, howling at the moon.
*Not to mention chill, beverage’d nights at home watching Full House or classic cinema.
**Another song that evokes this same feeling is “Off the Wall” by Michael Jackson, another song that would have made this list if Michael Jackson wasn’t a documented, dangerous sexual predator.
Knowing what I know now, the weed tie-in is fairly obvious. “Ships are docking, planes are landing, a never ending supply?” I thought it was a metaphor. “Keep it glowing, glowing, glowing; I'm not hurting anyone.” Glowing? The energy of a night out, of course. And the bridge:
Winter turns to summer
Sadness turns to fun
Keep the faith, baby
You broke the rules and won
But like, my meaning is not entirely implausible either. This song was written LONG before the Internet was there for us to satisfy such curiosities, which I guess is a double-edged sword. True, I have all information I could ever want at arm’s reach at all times, but there is so much TALKING and so little inference. It takes self-control to resist shattering your own perception of meaning with art that means a lot to you, but some things are so powerful, even finding out the fairly banal *intention* behind it can’t spoil it for you. So true with “Howling at the Moon.”
My partner in the top 100 is my friend Kelly, who started her list several weeks after I started mine and still managed to beat me to the #1 post by a couple of weeks. Upon posting her favorite David Bowie song, she declared “Panic in Detroit” off of Aladdin Sane” a very basic choice. I starkly fail to see this as a basic favorite Bowie song nor album and in fact it struck me as fairly esoteric and on-brand for her. In fact, I found Aladdin Sane really difficult to like at first and “Panic in Detroit” seemed a rather arbitrary choice to me, even for that album (“Time” and “Drive-In Saturday” are my favorites and to my ear, the obvious choices). Kelly concluded that one’s favorite Bowie song/album is a very personal calculation and that there’s no basic answer.
Perhaps. I think there are some very, very obvious choices for favorite Bowie tunes. “Heroes” is probably king. “Young Americans” and “Modern Love,” along with “Changes” seem to fall into a similar category of well-known and exceptionally likeable tunes right below “Heroes” and I’d put these in the pantheon of favorite Bowie tunes among non-Bowie fans. Then there are perennial favorites among Bowie fans, which I would guess would include “Ashes to Ashes,” “Starman” and my personal favorite “Life on Mars?”
I *love* this song. I have loved it for a very long time. It isn’t a complicated love. I love everything about it. I have no reservations, my love is unequivocal. There’s no fraught relationship, it is just quite simply the best song I have ever heard. It has everything I need in music. It was written and lovingly performed for more than 40 years by the artist who has inspired me most. There was never any doubt in my mind that this masterful work of musical art would land solidly in the #1 spot on this list I’ve lovingly cultivated since posting #100, “Tennessee” by Arrested Development on July 8, 2020. I take enormous pleasure in concluding this journey here, with “Life on Mars?”
My Bowie Origin Story* begins in the year of our lord 1986, when at seven years old, I rode the city bus with my mom, en route to a movie theater. My mom did not take me to the movies often and it was 1986, the year that brought us the original My Little Pony and Care Bears II: A New Generation (?). In other words, it was during an era in which they did not make kids’ movies to entertain adults. So going to the movies was a rare treat and I loved movies so much, it almost didn’t matter what we were going to see. It stands to reason that I didn’t even get around to asking until we were already on our way. She informed me we were on our way to see Labyrinth, which did mildly disappoint because I’d never heard of it. I asked her what it was and she may have even name-dropped Jim Henson, basically informing that it was a puppet movie, which was plenty of information to satisfy me. Then, for whatever reason she added, “David Bowie is in it.” I’d maybe even heard that name before, but she had to know full well it meant nothing to me. I asked the obvious question, “Who is David Bowie?” and her response, following a noticeable pause was “He’s a rock star.” You could almost hear the opening chords to “Rebel Rebel” swell as the camera pulled back from my desperately curious seven-year-old face.
*This is at least the third time I’ve posted about this, most notably the day after he died, but it makes me happy and is wholly relevant to the larger story of this song, so I’m going to post about it again.
I loved Labyrinth, eventually came to own a copy on VHS (which took more than its fair share of wear throughout the years), but didn’t get around to investigating David Bowie’s pop output until high school. I bought a copy of ChangesBowie--honestly--because I thought it sounded like a cool thing to do. Nobody that I knew was really listening to Bowie in the 90s, he struck me as acceptable from a credibility standpoint despite I guess technically being considered Classic Rock. I enjoyed the collection, particularly “Suffragette City” and “Fame,” but failed to really catch fire, with so many songs jumbled together out of context. I understand that now--the albums really provide needed context to even the best-known singles.
Then in college, Pete and I hosted a weekly college radio show and like most deejays, used mostly music from our own collection. Because KTUH’s primary format was jazz (the majority of the daytime slots were jazz shows, but our slot was a “rock” format), they didn’t have a solid selection of any non-jazz artists, but did have a funny array of stuff that interested us and we would often borrow* discs we weren’t sure we wanted to purchase right away. One night, we stumbled upon Hunky Dory by David Bowie, the title of which did not ring a bell, but I think we were both entranced by the cover art, featuring a long-haired David, head tilted to the sky, looking somehow stripped down but glam as ever. The effect was enhanced by Rykodisc’s signature green-tinted jewel cases they’d use for reissues**. Upon reviewing the track listing, we assumed it might be a compilation because it was so packed with recognizable titles.
*The collection of hardcopy CDs and LPs was so vast and so disorganized, you could easily take stuff home for a week or two and literally nobody would notice. It was a great system. We could audition albums to consider for our permanent collection such as Relationship of Command by At the Drive-In or just to jack certain songs from compilations such as the one that included “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand.
**Rykodisc started using these jewel cases in 1988 but stopped at some point before becoming part of Warner Music in 2006. Prior to this, you were able to buy replacement green jewel cases for $9/dozen. I was able to find an old Ebay listing from October. Price was 2 for $22. There is a copy of Rykodisc’s 1990 Hunky Dory reissue on Ebay for $17.99, but it doesn’t specify whether it comes in the green jewel case, which may have prompted me to consider thinking about ordering it.
Hunky Dory caught our imaginations and the following Christmas, Pete gifted me a copy which I listened to frequently, with specific interest in “Changes,” “Oh You Pretty Things,” “Andy Warhol” and “Quicksand.” The latter of which we were somewhat familiar with. Dinosaur Jr performs a rough cover of “Quicksand” with significant lyrical adjustments on the Whatever’s Cool with Me EP, which believe it or not, was mine and Pete’s first* song, as he happened to be listening to it when we admitted we were crushing on each other long-distance. The J Mascis lyrics are particularly ill-fitting for a song to represent a healthy relationship and possibly even more ill-fitting as a senior quote for a fairly well-adjusted high school student like myself, but here we are. I attributed the lyrics to Dinosaur Jr which was technically true, but I’m mad that I missed the opportunity to fulfill my cool-kid destiny by quoting David Bowie in my 1997 catholic school yearbook.
*Because it’s so inappropriate, it’s hard to call it Our Song, but we do listen to it and dance together every May 17 to observe the occasion.
Pete had been independently listening to Hunky Dory as well and was actually the first one who identified “Life on Mars?” as a standout. I don’t honestly know how I missed it initially, except to say that Pete has an A&R man’s ear and is much better at picking out a notable song in a crowd than I am. I gave it another listen and was immediately smitten. As I type this, I just went through this quick thought train in which I was going to say that it’s all you would ever want in a David Bowie song (true), mentally corrected myself that it’s everything you’d ever want in a glam-rock anthem (truer), and corrected myself to The Truth, which is that “Life on Mars?” is everything you’d want in music itself: the aggressively unique arrangement, brilliant and bizarre songwriting and structure, expert musicianship, virtuoso performance, and at once ambiguous but instinctively relatable lyrics.
In the 2013 BBC documentary Five Years*, Rick Wakeman of Yes (also the pianist on “Life on Mars?”) gives us the musical-theoretical explanation of why “Life of Mars?” is so compelling and it’s as close to an objective scientific explanation of why art is good I have ever heard. You can get a taste here, recorded shortly after David passed, in which Wakeman recalls retiring to a pub after the session and telling friends he’d just finished work on the best song he ever had the privilege of playing on. He’s less eloquent here, but mentions the right-turns David wrote into the melodies and structures. Much pop music is good because it’s intuitive. It sounds like you’ve heard it before. David does this often but particularly well in “Life on Mars?” in which he writes a conventional melody, but adds a twist, where he will move into an unexpected but still wholly *correct* and harmonious note. It does something to your brain akin to swooning. In “Life on Mars?” this occurs most notably just as the transition to the chorus starts, in which in the first verse lyrically we hear “but the film is a frightening bore.” The combination of the unexpected turn and the lyrical turn (precise use of the word “but”--oh, it’s magical!) is an artfully subtle but unmissable cue to the listener to understand that what’s about to happen is _fucking important_.
*I’ve mentioned this documentary before and am not shy about saying it is one of my favorite movies of all time. I watch it at least once a year and I don’t get tired of Camille Paglia calling David Bowie’s self-disemboweling mime work “hilarious” (it is not) nor Tony Visconti’s recount of suggesting Bowie and Eno try the Eventide Harmonizer because “it fucks with the fabric of time.” Most of all, I do not get tired of journalist Charles Shaar Murray reading aloud from his own critical review of Low in which speaks directly to David, declaring provocatively “David you’re a wonderful person, but you’ve got problems.” The way Murray closes the yellowed pages of the vintage newspaper, looks directly into the camera and says “yes, I wrote that” is a top-ten televised moment for me.
“Life on Mars” was one of the last songs recorded during the Hunky Dory sessions and was arranged by Bowie’s longtime guitarist and collaborator Mick Ronson. Mick Ronson I guess was rightfully pretty nervous working with BBC session orchestral musicians, who were known to have sticks up their arses with regard to rock n’ roll. As yet another tribute to the power of this song, the session players were actually a joy to work with because they were so into the song itself. “Life on Mars?” also taught me to appreciate such subtle contributions to song recording as arrangement--really well done, Mick. The version of “Life on Mars?” that appears on Legacy, the compilation released shortly after David’s death is nothing less than an abomination. If you must, listen to it here, if only to demonstrate how well-arranged the original was. As far as I can tell, the lovely lower-end is de-emphasized, which minimizes the lovely bass tones and makes the whole thing more instrumenty and less of a *whole*. I actually just noticed that--holy shit--David’s voice breaks at 1:20. You can’t hear it on the original arrangement but in the Legacy version it’s quite audible. My world has shifted.
I need a minute to recover and maybe a shot of whiskey.
There are a lot of theories about what this song is about. I’ll first cover the popular but incorrect theory that comes from people far too fixated on the “girl with the mousy hair” identified in the first verse. I am fairly certain the identity of this person isn’t at all important, but it’s been said over and over again that the identity of this person is David’s first great love, Hermione Farthingale, a fashionable REDHEAD and glamor girl who comes off mildly offended in interviews when she pooh-poohs the connection between she and the anonymous woman identified in the first verse of “Life on Mars?” The song is supposedly about their breakup but makes no sense at all, so let’s not spend any more time on that.
Theory Two: It’s a suburban lament, as told from a soul yearning for something beyond what’s available in a fairly small world. This one is more plausible and I think definitely fits when you consider the title and look at the lyrical content of the first verse. The theory falls apart in the second half of the song, which I’ll get into in a minute. I don’t particularly favor this explanation either because it seems a little too *small* for this song. I’m not just saying that because it’s my favorite. I get the impression that David Bowie basically emptied the contents of his brain into this song as if to say “this things I believe.” It’s global. He’s speaking for himself but he’s also speaking for his movement. More on this in Theory Four.
I’ve discussed Theory Three, which as far as I know I invented, with my good friend Emily McGlynn, who I’ve mentioned several times in these posts and she’s totally on board. I’ve since left the ship. The whole thing, per Theory Three, is a critique of capitalism. To wit:
It's on America's tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
'Cause Lenin's on sale again
The cow, which Mickey Mouse has grown up is a cash cow, where entertainment is monetized since America basically cornered the market. And in this environment, demonstrative action is entertainment, and therefore monetized, including the labor movement to its own detriment. Where this theory fails to hold water is that at this point in history, Bowie didn’t give two shits about the labor movement. The whole idea behind glam rock is essentially inventing drama where it didn’t exist, so I think if anything, this verse is a critique of both contemporary entertainment and features of civilization that should have a higher spiritual purpose such as economic equality. It’s all so boring, David thought.
Theory Four is much more complex, again mine, and the dead-correct one. It takes themes from Theories Two and Three with the additional subtext pointing to the crumbling British empire, which is really a mistake to ignore, following up on Lenin’s being on sale:
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
So to summarize, the girl with the mousy hair is bored with everything, including the mass-produced fantasy presented in film, her family and her prospects. Anything with greater humanistic value, such as labor movement activity is just posing. His current place in history as a Briton is even a fading mirage of legitimacy. Nothing on earth is real or important, interesting or inspirational, so what’s left? Maybe Mars? This is the essence of Glam Rock itself. Everything real is boring, so let’s make up something more interesting.
In my post about “Young Americans,” I mentioned briefly that I was very affected by David Bowie’s death. I know a lot of us were and I’m hard pressed to compare it to the death of any other notable public figure. Though not particularly young, he died of an illness which he kept secret, so it was a sad and dull shock instead of a maddening injustice if he’d been assassinated or had committed suicide for an unchecked mental health issue for which he could have gotten help. I’m not usually affected by celebrity deaths, but this one had an import to me that is difficult to describe. It felt like if David could die, any of us could--an obvious concept--but one that’s very difficult to truly grasp. I have also mentioned that we all found out about it on the day before my birthday, which was crazy coincidentally, a birthday for which Pete had already gotten me a ton of David-related stuff, including the Labyrinth blu-ray*, which he gave to me early, the day he died to make me feel feel better. Labyrinth remains the movie that I watch when something terrible happens because it brings me that ease and comfort everyone loses as they leave childhood.
*This replaced my Labyrinth DVD, which replaced my copy on VHS. Labyrinth and Clue remain the only movies I’ve had on all three formats common in my lifetime and I still have all three copies of each.
David’s presence in Labyrinth is also a source of comfort, as is David Bowie himself in any context. I’ve been known to listen to Hunky Dory on repeat if I’m having a particularly upsetting day. We’ve postered our walls with David Bowie’s face in the hallway leading from the dining room to the bedrooms and I never get tired of looking at him. He’s not just a comfort, but also an inspiration. I love reading about him. I love reading other obsessives’ takes on his career, especially Rob Sheffield’s emotionally raw On Bowie, which he spat out in a matter of months after David’s passing. I also enjoy more academic takes on his work, particularly Nicholas Pegg’s voluminous The Complete David Bowie which picks apart every song he ever recorded, every album and collection ever released, every tour, film--you name it. And though not specifically about Bowie, I *loved* Simon Reynolds’ very complete Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century and gave me a lot of inspiration for the artistic direction of Cancelled, the Electric Grandmother’s 2017 album, from which we borrowed a ton of ideas from Bowie on production value, costuming, mixing mediums as part of an album launch, and million other intangible inspirations I can’t hope to explain here.
He *is* postmodern art. He left an indelible mark on popular culture we can’t possibly quantify. He shifted it to a better place and we are all in debt for this. He is the consummate original and the greatest artist of all time.