Here’s a rare live Black Uhuru performance. Not dated, but appears to be sometime in the early 80’s, probably near the release of Sinsemilla. That album is one of Black Uhuru’s finest and an absolute must-have for Reggae fans. Or, really, just an across-the-board classic beyond the confines of genre. Reggae often gets shafted as some kind of ‘special interest’ music, either targeted to stoners or lost under the broad ‘world music’ umbrella. I’ve always tried to promote Reggae for its political relevance, rather than its better known fun side, and Black Uhuru has always been my prime example. Their music is undeniably fun, but the social consciousness of their writing is their real strength. What do they want you to push til you push it over? The racist slave-economy capitalist system of oppression, of course, though they wouldn’t phrase it quite that dry.
Prince at the height of his powers in the 80’s was something to behold. He was a major force, and let this be reminder of it. It’s unfortunate that eventually his personal weirdness began to be more interesting than his work. Growing up in the 90’s, my main impression of Prince was as a tabloid figure. He was mocked for changing his name and finding religion, and for fighting bitterly with record labels instead of making music. Although he never sank to the level of Michael Jackson, he was doing himself serious career damage. It was a long time before anyone cared if he made a new record. The good news is that his last few albums have been very good, and people were paying attention for the right reasons again. The bad news, of course, was the Great Rapture of 2016. But there’s nothing like an untimely death to remember what made someone great in the first place, and any embarrassing missteps will fall to the wayside in the public imagination.
His lips are purple because he is dead. It’s a fitting love song coming from Nico, who doesn’t do love songs. Nico was nearing the end of her life, and heavily weathered by hard living. She had renounced all glamour, and her music at this point was coming someplace so deep underground it was truly frightening. Once she had paid reluctant lip service to pop appeal, but towards the end she refused to compromise her dark vision, though she was sometimes bitterly angry that no accolades or money ever came her way. She was probably insane, or at least deeply disturbed. How she succeeded in making any records at all, after she allowed her life to revolve around heroin and music industry forgot her, is remarkable. Nico didn’t exactly flourish as an underground artist, but she scraped together a career and left behind a substantial legacy that remains important, at least to a handful of people with very bleak tastes. And, as the old guard continues to drop like flies, I can’t help but think that an artist such as Nico could never come along today. Today a weirdo with a vision would have the tools to support themselves without traditional stuff like record contracts and press attention. But they would not have the tools to become that weirdo in the first place, because nobody is that isolated anymore. Nobody thinks of singing only to themselves.
I listened to Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat a lot when I was a kid; it was one of my favorite albums and I listened to it with a straight face. That’s because I had never seen a Sparks performance. Until the invention of YouTube, I was not familiar with their live dynamic. Now, of course, there’s not a straight face in the house. Not that I didn’t grasp or appreciate their sense of humor – if you don’t get the jokes, you’re not going to become a Sparks fan. But it took a long time to dawn on me just how much they were really roasting the pop culture around them. If you thought, just by listening to the song, that Russ sounds quite convincingly the sexy New Romantic, wait until you see his interpretation of the popular ‘big suit’ trend. You can’t unsee it, that’s for sure. Also, be sure to stick around for the interview portion of the video, in which the comical dynamic continues, at the expense of Dick Clark. You may be surprised to find that the brothers are American after all. I knew that they were, but when Ronald opened his mouth I still half expected an English accent to come out. Because you don’t really expect an American to be that clever and funny. But there you go – Sparks may be from California, but their humor is English through and through.
Grace Jones’ message has always been empowerment through sheer glamour. It’s an understatement to say she’s intimidating; she promises to demolish anyone who throws her shade, especially if it’s some weak-ass man. But she isn’t above a good dick metaphor, either. You can be queen of the street scene and the runway, but sometimes you still gotta cruise for it, ya know? Even Grace Jones is concerned with finding that perfect long black limousine. I suspect that Jones’ gay followers particularly enjoyed this ode to the cruising life, back when cruising was still a relatively harmless pastime. Jones certainly earned her place as gay icon; her gender-bending, aggressively self-assured take-no-shit persona is emblematic of the free-for-all sexual underground of the 1970’s.
Speaking in Tongues was released 34 years ago as of yesterday. Note how much Talking Heads changed since the last time we visited with Talking Heads. They went from “I hate people when they’re not polite” to “Whatever happens is fine.” It looks like they embraced generosity of spirit along with those African polyrhythms. David Byrne, along with every other long-lasting songwriter worth his salt, grew up and realized that as a topic angst gets boring. In this case, we’re talking about two albums only a few years apart, and it’s been decades since both of them were new. David Byrne is an elderly man now, and he can’t really make being tetchy and maladjusted a part of his persona anymore, except cheekily. The upside of being a fan of artists who are in their twilight years is looking back at the arc of their lives and careers, seeing the changes and the threads of similarity, the favored topics and new inspirations, the waves of growth and withering. You can trace the arc of your won life in the generous discographies of you favorite artists. The downside is that they die.
Can anyone hazard a guess what this one is about? Black Uhuru have lot of songs of great political and social import, but this isn’t one of them. Sometimes you just have to celebrate the basic stuff, I guess, and if there’s one thing everybody likes about Rasta culture, well, you guessed it.