Nothing inspires the worst kind of schmaltz like the subject of love. Schmaltzy love songs that are the musical equivalent of a Hummel figurine or a Margaret Keane painting, syrupy drivel that makes you want to put your genitals and your heart in a bank vault and go live in a cave somewhere. And you would think that an elderly Frenchman in a bad suit singing in front of a plastic Christmas trees would be precisely that kind of smarmy. Especially in 1974, when French guys in suits were very much le contraire de la mode. But Charles Aznavour didn’t enjoy well over 70 years of popularity for being a sentimental hack (and he’ll have you know that he is Armenian.) Sometimes under the trappings of schmaltz lies something beautiful and it takes a masterful performer to extract it. It may look like music for housewives who missed the sexual revolution boat, but when that man starts to sing all the trappings fall away and you can forget all of your cynical thoughts and bad jokes at the expense of people less hip than yourself. It’s a good love song that does what good love songs do: touch the the tender part of the heart that hasn’t yet sunk into ironic indifference. When you love someone and they’re your world, you can talk about them in blown-out corny language and act like every cliche of a love-sick fool and no one can sink your sincerity, and it’s that precise feeling that is so very, very hard to capture in song without sounding like a driveling moron. You have to believe it to deliver it. Just embrace that schmaltz and those old lovers’ cliches and deliver them like they’re written in your soul. That’s what crooners of Aznavour’s generation made an art of, and it’s become a lost art, since the advent of rock’n’roll with its undisguised libido and emotional juvenility.
“You got rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown…”
New York City in the 70’s was a dirthole riddled with filth and crime, making it the perfect place to be strung out and at loose ends. It may have been a miserable place to live, but the people who lived there – and the ones who just visited – were busy mythologizing it as a smoggy Babylon of self-expression and debauchery. So of course, The Rolling Stones, connoisseurs of sewer-rat glamour, gravitated there. Mick Jagger happily hit the cocaine circuit of Studio 54 in the company of celebs like Andy Warhol and David Bowie, while Keith Richards relished the city’s turn-a-blind-eye anonymity as he fought his heroin addiction and the unraveling of his family. The Stones create their own Babylon wherever they go, it’s what they do, but they sucked up the highly specific place energy of 70’s New York and added to the canon of quintessential New York albums.
Usually, you could count on David Bowie for being a thoughtful and nuanced interpreter of other people’s material. (And, you know, his own too.) He chose interesting songs and covered them in interesting styles. But sometimes nuance and thought went out the window in favor of sheer mega-watt campiness. On the Pin Ups album Bowie chose a motley selection of obscure 60’s classics and attacked them in full Ziggy Stardust mode. And Ziggy always was one for maximum drama. To be fair, in this case, the Yardbirds’ original was already very dramatic. It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to top Keith Relf’s delivery, but David Bowie heard it and thought, “Challenge accepted.” This is probably his most bizarre vocal performance; he belts it out like a drag diva delivering a death scene. It’s just unparalleled. Enjoy.
Bryan Ferry does interesting things with cover tunes. It’s kind of one of his main things. Take something completely unexpected and obscure and make it over in campy lounge lizard drag. I don’t think anybody has made unusual covers such a strong career sideline. Who else would take a Jimmy Reed song and turn it into high glam? It takes away everything from the blues that makes it the blues and comes up with… a Bryan Ferry song. And it works, like glitter magic.
See, what’d I tell you? Blues isn’t blues unless it sounds like garbage. The Rolling Stones knew this, better than most any other English blues band. Resources are no substitute for soul, and if you don’t have a colorful life to draw on, you’d better create one. Maybe that’s why they were so hellbent on turning themselves into human wreckage. They may not have come from very bluesy backgrounds, but they could reinvent themselves as people with something to sing the blues about. Drugs, debauchery and existential dread, as it turned out, make for great blues.
In 1978 Dire Straits were already embattled keeping blues rock alive. Popular music was becoming more and more fractured, and in many cases moving away from the basics. There were fewer and fewer bands who wanted to master good old fashioned unpretentious blues rock, and this was before everybody started wearing Miami Vice suits. Dire Straits went against the grain with their combination of great musicianship and thoughtful lyrics. They didn’t have a gimmick! They just played really well, and people bought it. And all of their records are still great, because they’re trend-proof and timeless. There’s something to be said for not trying to reinvent the wheel.
Even after a lifetime of listening to Roxy Music, I still haven’t caught all of Bryan Ferry’s wordplay. I just had to look up what clair de lune was. It’s French for moonlight. Somehow I always just accepted that there would be random French phrases in these songs and I would never know what they meant. Well, now we have Google Translate, sapping the mystery and romance out of life. It’ll take you more than a translating dictionary bot to wring some sense out of these lyrics, though. It’s about love and uncertainty and gazing wistfully up at your loved one’s gently glowing windows (which is nowadays called ‘stalking’.)