Month: July 2012

Here Comes the Moon

If you recall, George Harrison also wrote Here Comes the Sun. Then I guess he decided it wasn’t fair to the moon, so he wrote about that too. This is certainly not as classic, but a pretty song nonetheless. In recent times I’ve become more and more attracted to George as my favorite Beatle. Because he strikes a sane balance between Paul McCartney’s saccharinity and John Lennon’s bile. Those two sometimes took their respective personas to cartoonish extremes, whereas George didn’t even have a persona besides steadfastly being himself. Picking a favorite Beatle is a simple and effective personality test, so picking the sane one is itself a sign of sanity. Right?

Here Comes My Baby

Wow, a beardless young Cat Stevens, trying his damnedest to fit into a sugary sixties pop star mold. If you’re only familiar with his soulful classic seventies work, Matthew & Son might come as some surprise. I can’t say it’s all good, but there are some fun moments. It’s peppy sixties pop done well, but not well enough to lift his career off the ground. There were so many artists producing lighthearted Beatlesque pop songs at the time – including no less than the Beatles themselves – that even if you got the formula down right, it was still very hard to distinguish yourself. It would take Stevens a few more years to find an identity that fit, but he wore his flouncy velvet blazers with some panache and he mastered the formula for a three-minute sub-Beatles song rather well too. This is a fine example of a shiny, happy ditty that has rather depressing lyrics underneath all the bounce. Cat Stevens loves to write sad love songs, and he won’t let an upbeat tempo stop him doing just that. The contrast of jolly melody and gloomy content is a well-worn songwriting trick, but it’s an effective one. This is one of the best of early Stevens, and it’s one of the only Cat Stevens songs you might think of dancing to.

Here Come the Warm Jets

Ominous. I never thought of it as a creepy song before, although it’s highly dramatic. But this remix (I couldn’t call it a cover) adds a layer of sound that enhances the drama in a rather dark way. I can’t say it’s an improvement – that’s not possible – but it is an interesting experiment. Brian Eno’s compositions, when they’re not being purposely ambient, are very cinematic. Without words there’s a definite story, arcing to a climax. Eno songs do pop up in movies with some frequency. They’re atmospheric without descending into Philip Glass territory. That is, Eno is never atonal, unpleasant or droning, nor does he strive to be depressing. There’s also a minimalism there that leaves room for tinkerers to add new elements. Whomever pasted the burbles and voice onto this track was no genius, but they’re on the right track. Why there isn’t a stronger flow of Eno remixes I don’t know. Because he’s still very much alive to possibly disapprove? But I don’t think he would. The inventor of the cut and paste remix would probably only applaud others taking bits of his work to refashion something new.

Henry Lee

Omygod another sickeningly intimate lovey-dovey cuddle party by a besotted rock star couple! Eww! Ack! Only this time it’s Nick Cave and PJ Harvey and in between smooches they’re singing about the horrible, horrible consequences of jilting the wrong lover. Hell hath not fury, they say, like a woman scorned. And it’s true. How quickly love and desire curdle into hatred and spite in the face of rejection. It just can’t be forgiven. So much so that sometimes you just have to kill them. That according to Nick and PJ is the height of romance, and I tend to agree. I’d save myself a lot of heartache if I could just murder and dispose of any man who scorns me, but I fear that doing so would be frowned upon by society. It’s a nice fantasy though. I do find it to be a beautiful, lovely song. Very sexy and yes indeed, romantic.

Hely Meli

I’m not sure why pop stars in the Arabic world all look so unsavory, but that seems to be the style. I’m not at all suggesting Middle Eastern men are uniformly unsavory. It’s just the ones who are pop stars, with their eyesex and oily hair, they just look like they should somehow be involved in the production of pornographic movies. Anyway, this here is Libya’s own Hamid El-Shaeri, who looks like he launders money for ViVVidXXX Productions or something, but in fact makes very fun and uptempo dance music. (Although he could well be laundering money on the side, I don’t know these things.) I’ll admit it’s not a world I know very much about, but evidently the more liberated Northern African nations like Egypt and Morocco have a thriving and lively pop culture. And as far as dance music goes, they’re producing some of the best. I love something that’s designed to make me dance, but I also hate that most such product is made by coked-up morons with a laptop and no concept of anything outside the American Top 40. For some dance music with cultural context we have to look to other parts of the world, especially the Middle East, where they like to incorporate traditional instruments with their canned beats.

Helter Skelter

This is one of the great and tragic misunderstandings in all of pop history. Helter Skelter is a song that Paul McCartney wrote because he wanted to one-up Pete Townshend and The Who, and also because:

“Umm, that came about just ’cause I’d read a review of a record which said, ‘and this group really got us wild, there’s echo on everything, they’re screaming their heads off.’ And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, it’d be great to do one. Pity they’ve done it. Must be great — really screaming record.’ And then I heard their record and it was quite straight, and it was very sort of sophisticated. It wasn’t rough and screaming and tape echo at all. So I thought, ‘Oh well, we’ll do one like that, then.’ And I had this song called “Helter Skelter,” which is just a ridiculous song. So we did it like that, ‘cuz I like noise.”

To that end he used the helter skelter – a British term for a playground slide – as a metaphor for the up and down nature of life and the fall of the  Roman Empire. If that doesn’t make much sense, don’t blame McCartney, he was probably very, very high. It was quite typical of The Beatles to grab inspiration from any random place like a playground or a scrap of newspaper and run with it. It’s also characteristic of the friendly rivalry between popular bands all blazing and racing and innovating in a small interwoven community. If The Who put out I Can See For Miles, ‘the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song […] ever recorded’ then The Beatles are almost honor-bound to outdo the effort, even if it’s only in jest. So Helter Skelter is a loud and dirty but essentially silly rock song Paul McCartney dreamed up on a whim, but that’s not what Charlie Manson thought. Manson, as an American of very poor education, was unaware of what a helter skelter actually was. He thought it was a coded incitement to an apocalyptic race war of his own imagining. He thought that the already-violent civil rights movement would escalate into a global war in which all the white people would be massacred, after which the surviving blacks would realize they’d made a huge mistake and beg Charlie to be their ‘massa’. Or something along those lines. Meanwhile, The Beatles were sending out coded messages telling Charlie to get up and stir up that war by killing off a few ‘piggies’. Which is exactly what Charlie went and did. Which you can read all about in the famous book Helter Skelter, or watch the quite accurate movie of the same name. Nobody will ever associate the term helter skelter with an innocent playground slide again.

Helpless

Neil Young really captures agonizing melancholy nostalgia. Young has been kind of hit-or-miss for me over the years, but when he hits he hits it hard. At his best, his songs are touchingly romantic, even profound, and I don’t let too many things push my ‘romance’ buttons. I don’t like to let myself be manipulated like that. But some songs will just get in my blood. Nostalgia is an irresistible emotion. Nostalgia and homesickness. Neil Young is absolutely right – those feelings leave us helpless. I think that being able to tap into those emotions – without resorting to cliche or cheap tricks for manipulation – is a kingly gift. That’s what it means to be a poet. I really haven’t been giving Neil Young enough credit for how much his songs have moved me. So now I have a Neil Young tattoo. Yep.