I had a thought, the other day, that all of those “2012! It’s when the world is going to end!” prophecies and panics were right, in a way. Or, at least, that they were as right as they were wrong, and it’s just that everyone was being far too literal in approaching them. I’ve noticed that I am sadly not alone in finding that 2012 so far as been strangely, worryingly overwhelming in terms of life changes and work things and just big stuff – Friends have been having worse times of it than me, and fighting their own battles against all manner of things that I’ve only ever vaguely had to deal with, luckily – and it’s gone from dazed jokes that “This year is trying to kill us” to actually wondering if this year is trying to kill us.
It’s not, of course, but I wonder if 2012 is going to end up being some kind of weird year of change for people, where things happen (Things so important that they require italics, obviously). One of my favorite comments about all the 2012 insanity was someone pointing out that none of the prophecies were actually saying that it was the year where the world ended, but that they were all about massive shifts and dramatic changes (Terrence McKenna’s Timewave Zero, for example, has this year as the equivalent of a massive heart attack for the planet, but not a fatal one, if I remember correctly). I always preferred that idea, that “it’s not death, it’s changing” take on events, but I didn’t really take any of it even vaguely seriously until the other day, thinking that all of this upheaval and drama and quiet sad horror is the start of that change, and that it’s something that we’re all doing without realizing it. It’s the end of the world as we know it, perhaps, but only our own worlds, and only those worlds as we know them.
All of which is a quasi-apology for not writing here lately. I’ve been going through my own internal dramas (Very quietly, very withdrawn, you’ll be happy to know, and none of it serious beyond to my bank balance), and haven’t felt particularly like blogging here. I’m getting over that, though, and will soon be back to trying to catch up to 366 Songs (I am so amazingly behind) and, more importantly, other writing that can fill voids left by gigs that I no longer have or never had in the first place. The name of this site was always meant to push me forward, after all.
I have no history with Cat Stevens; somehow, he’d passed me by entirely in all of my musical journeys with the exception of a cover of his “Father and Son” that managed to upset me enough with one particular lyric (“Find a girl, settle down/Pretty soon now, you’ll be married”) that I stayed away from any temptation that might’ve led me to explore further. And then, years later, I heard this:
In terms of performance, it’s not Elliott Smith’s finest hour in the slightest; he sounds very out of it, all the rumors about his condition prior to his death swirling around in his sullen, slurred vocals. But the melody, the sparseness of it and the darkness of the lyrics, appealed to me enough that I went searching for the original, and… It’s actually right up my alley.
Clearly, I find sadness far too attractive when it comes to these kinds of songs, because this is a dark, defeated song filled with enough inference and vagueness as to allow the listener to define the “trouble” any way they want; one of the problems I have with the Elliott Smith version is, I think, that the way he sounds, his “trouble” overpowers other readings. But the original has a… lightness, perhaps, isn’t the right word, but there’s space to breathe and insert yourself that I find inviting. It’s not misery, but melancholy, and that’s an important difference for me. My sad songs must have a glimpse of hope, or else they’re too claustrophobic and upsetting.
There’s a gentleness and ease to “As We Go Along” that always appeals to me; the opening, mixing acoustic and electric guitars, sounds like a summer morning for reasons that I can’t really explain, and even when Mickey Dolenz’ vocal begins and the bass starts appearing in the bottom, everything remains lovely placid; it’s a song that feels sleepy not in a narcotic hazey kind of way, but a slowly awakening at your own speed way – Even when the song builds with the “Open your eyes/Get up off your chair” lines, it does so slowly and in such a way that you feel pulled along with it, gently and encouragingly (I thank the flute for that). This is a loving song, entirely and completely, a song that wants the best for you in a way that only really makes sense in the era before the mellow singer-songwriter era of the 1970s, before music fragmented to the point where that genre seemed to steal this kind of song away from the pop bands entirely.
Instead of manufactured teen pop feeling, here’s some of the real thing: One of the greatest pop songs ever made, and something that feels so wonderfully pure in its simultaneous evocation and undercutting of the pop song cliche and format. To today’s ears, there’s probably nothing different or overly exciting about “Teenage Kicks,” but I still find the guitar solo after the second go-around thrilling (I also love that the song is actually so short, they do it twice and the whole thing is still under three minutes!), Fergal Sharkey’s weird American accent impressed over his genuine Irish one, or the lyrics that are simultaneously distillations of pop romance (“Another girl in the neighborhood/Wish she was mine, she looks so good”) and weirdly creepy (Is this song about older guys perving on teenage girls? How old were the Undertones when this was recorded, anyway?). There’s almost nothing to dislike about this song, and even if there was, it’s over so quickly that it’d be done by the time you’d realized it, anyway.
Thinking about Shampoo brings to mind Daphne and Celeste, a truly strange band that might best be described as an attempt to do a Monkees for the Shampoo dynamic; a completely manufactured bubblegum pop act centered around two “uncontrollable” teen girls whose entire schtick was that they were rude in their songs. Seriously; “Ooh Stick You” and “UGLY,” their two biggest (only?) hits were pretty much just a litany of insults turned into something that mixed rap, chants and singalong choruses into something that felt like weapons-grade earworm.
“UGLY” is probably the worst offender; I found out many years later – this song came out in 1999 – that the chorus actually comes from some cheerleader chant (This is likely where the idea for the video comes from), and the non-chorus lyrics are literally just insult after insult, about the subject of the song being hairy, fat and looking like a pig. Unsurprisingly, the song was accused of promoting bullying when it was released in the UK, an accusation that was met with the spectacular defense of it actually being about inner ugliness. Inner ugliness that was hairy, fat and looked like a pig, of course.
But Daphne and Celeste had a longer career than Shampoo; three hit singles (the third was a cover of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”) to Shampoo’s one, a sign, possibly, that even by 1999, good PR and heavy radioplay could keep a band alive far past their natural lifespan.
I remember, when “Trouble” was first released in 1994, that Shampoo was a band that was supposed to be taken seriously, and treated as an authentic example of youth culture or some such, because the two members had previously put out a Manic Street Preachers fanzine; this, somehow, conferred some legitimacy to their brand of clunky pop. Looking back, almost two decades later, that seems ridiculous, especially when you listen to the song again and it sounds terrible – vocals that alternate between bored and whining, tinny and cheap production and lyrics that singularly fail to convince on any level. They were, of course, a novelty act set to appeal to proto-hipster adults and kids that should’ve known better, but didn’t. It worked, of course; “Trouble” was massive, getting to #11 in the charts during the height of Britpop and ending up, hilariously, in the soundtrack of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie as well as countless TV shows that wanted shorthand to denote that – uh oh – their characters were in trouble.
If there’s a saving grace to this song, it might be that it’s so brazen in its own disinterest in itself, a false aloofness that made both the song and the band seem far more interesting than either one actually was.
I’ve always wondered just how much of “Melanie Davis” comes from the cynical consensus that Britpop was all a bunch of Beatles retread and little else, considering the obvious shout-out to “With A Little Help From My Friends” in the chorus. I like the lift, I have to agree, especially because of the change in attitude it seems to signify between the two ages; when asked “Do you need anybody?” Ringo replies that he needs somebody to love, but Gaz is asked “Do you need someone?” and whines/sneers “I need anyone/I need everyone,” which feels more… I don’t know, needy? Desperate? Honest? At least one of the three, and that’s something that’s always appealed.
(Add that in with the organ, the harmonies and the “Ahh-ahh-ahhh” backing vocals, and this song is pretty much a winner for me as soon as we hit the chorus for the first time.)
So, I’m sick – Well, getting better now, but the weekend (and especially Sunday) was lost to me essentially feeling sorry for myself and coughing miserably and more than a little pathetically. What was particularly weird, though, was that Saturday into Sunday, I couldn’t sleep because I felt so lousy, but I also couldn’t stop myself getting entirely lost in nostalgia for the entire night, remembering people and places that I hadn’t thought about in years, if not decades; people I’d known in high school, stores that I used to go to in Glasgow and Aberdeen, ex-girlfriends and college friends and everything like that. It was one of those times where you’re not asleep, but you’re also not awake enough to be in full control of where your brain takes you, so you end up a passenger in your own thoughts. It was oddly pleasant, to be honest; none of the memories were especially bad, but neither were they of the “I was so young and alive and had so much hair back then…!” variety, so it was just this nice trip down memory lane, really. If only all insomniac nights were like that.
I love the sleepy, narcotic haze of “Sweet Song,” one of those things that seems to suggest that the older Damon Albarn gets, the better he gets at creating a particularly beautiful kind of melancholy in his music, filled with vague and wonderfully human lyrics (Like “To Binge,” I guess, there’s a strange power in such a broad statement as “I never meant to hurt you/No no no/It takes time to see what you’ve done” that is, I suspect, as much about what the listener brings to the lyrics as what they actually say; pop songs as rorschach test!). The musical accompaniment, whether it’s the click track, the false start of the piano leading into the gentle riff that floats through the song, or the way the song seems to evaporate at the end, feels just right, as well; there’s something temporary and weightless about the sound of this song, like a memory or dream. Like I said, it’s a sleepy song. There’s something really appealing to me about that.