Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Certain Songs Part II: That’s Entertainment

At some point, it would be interesting to track the titles on this list by decade, and I suspect the majority of them would be from the 1980s. Of course, there would be nothing surprising about this; I came to musical consciousness (generally) in the 1980s, graduating high school in 1985 and college in 1989—the prime music-listening period of one’s life. So most of the albums on this list would be those that came out contemporaneously, right? Right!?
I was not into all the 80s albums on this list. True, I did pick up the latter two in today’s trilogy of tonality the year they were released, but I came to the first a couple of years after the fact. Let’s venture in, shall we? Shall we!?
The Jam
Sound Affects

The choice of Sound Affects here could stand in for most of The Jam’s discography, as they were predominantly a singles band, and All Mod Cons could just as easily have fit here, with great songs like “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” etc. Sound Affects found Paul Weller backing off the Ray Davies-esque narratives in favor of more abstract songs, although “Pretty Green” is pretty overt meaningwise. These are just great pop songs—“Monday” (unlike The Mamas and the Papas, Weller is “dreaming of Monday”), “Boy About Town,” “Start!” (and if you’re gonna nick a riff, why not nick from the best, “Taxman”), and, my favorite Jam song, “That’s Entertainment,” which was the song that reminded me most of living in New York—and why I had to stop living in New York:
A police car and a screaming siren
A pneumatic drill and ripped-up concrete
A baby wailing and a stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and a lamp light blinking
That’s entertainment
Weller also has little patience for the politics of hate—“Set the House Ablaze” and “Scrape Away” take National Front-ish characters to task, pointing out that “Hatred has never won for long” and “Your twisted cynicism makes me feel sick.” I’ve never been as big a Jam fan as some folks I knew back in the day, but every once in a while I give them a spin. On my first trip to London, I was walking around Soho and came across Wardour Street. There was not an “A” bomb in it, I’m happy to say. Actually, my favorite Jam song was a B side called “The Butterfly Collector” that only surfaced on the vinyl version of the Snap! compilation and later on the Extras rarities collection.

Pete Townshend
White City—A Novel

Context is everything when it comes to many of the titles on this list. In the case of White City, the year was 1985, and I had just gone off to college so the album brings back memories of my freshman year—I still remember listening to it on my Walkman (ha! remember those?) walking from class to class in the cold Syracuse winter of 1985–1986. I still think it’s the best of his solo records, although Empty Glass is close. It helped that Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour played guitar on a few tracks—even getting co-writing credit on “White City Fighting,” a rarity on a Townshend album (Townshend had written lyrics for two tracks on Gilmour’s About Face a year earlier—see later in this list). His backup band also included members of Big Country.

“Give Blood” is a phenomenal album opener, leading into the poppy “Brilliant Blues,” where Townshend mistakes “clique” with “cliche,” which confused me for years. In the NFL postseason in January 1986, the Patriots played the Dolphins and someone in the Boston area had done a parody of “Face the Face” called “Squish the Fish.” OK, dolphins are not fish, but it was still amusing...maybe “Mush the Mammals” would not have been as catchy. “Crashing By Design” is my favorite track.

There is apparently some kind of concept behind the album but I have no idea what it is. More than 20 years later, in the London Underground, I saw on the Tube map a stop called White City, although I have no idea if it's “a black violent place.” Townshend only recorded two more solo studio records since then—neither of them anywhere as good as White City.

In 1993, Colleen Q., Jon M., and I saw Townshend in New York on his Psychoderelict tour. The only thing I recall from the show was that at the beginning there was a commercial for tour sponsor Tommy Hillfiger that used bits of “Tommy Can You Hear Me”—and the audience booed. Townshend can sell out as much as he wants, but we don’t have to like it!

The Church

It’s always the way. Well, sometimes. You buy an album because you really like a song that gets played on the radio (in this case, “Under the Milky Way”) and then it turns out that the “hit” is actually the “least good” song on the record. Such was the case of Starfish by Australia’s The Church. It was the first I had heard of them, even though this was their sixth album. (Their previous record Heyday was their masterpiece.) Starfish saw them signed to a major US label (Arista) and working with LA producers (Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel) which made the band sound a bit slicker (the band reportedly hated LA—I can sympathize—and the sessions were fraught), but still kept their basic raison d’etre of mixing chiming guitars and a psychedelic atmosphere, with Steve Kilbey’s often surreal, occasionally amusing lyrics.

The Church have great album openers, and “Destination” does not disappoint (“In the space between our bodies, the air has grown small fingers”). It’s one of those songs that always gives me chills. Kilbey loves wordplay; the album Remote Luxury had the track “Constant In Opal” and here we have “Hotel Womb” (and “I’m priceless, you’re worthless, that’s not a bad match” in “Blood Money”). The other alternative radio track was “Reptile,” which was far superior to “Under the Milky Way,” with one of the greatest guitar themes ever. Guitarist Marty Willson-Piper gets a track (“Spark”) as does second guitarist Peter Koppes (“A New Season”), their usual album allotment. And damn if I didn’t always sing the chorus to “Lost” whenever I watched the show Lost. This would be the last full album by the classic lineup of The Church (to the extent there can be a “classic lineup”); drummer Richard Ploog would be forced out during the making of the next album, Gold Afternoon Fix, and the band would dwindle to a duo by the mid-90s before resurfacing by the end of the decade. They’re still around, although I confess I lost track of them circa 2002. Still, they’re the closest I have ever come to a church in decades.

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