Elton John makes a keen observation. When all hope is gone, it’s the corny West Side Story choreography that gets you through. Even though 1984 was very much not his year, at least he had one song that’s lasted. It’s schmaltzy, which is always a danger with an emotive performer like Sir Elton, but it holds up. Not least because it is, indeed, a good observation. Indeed, sad songs are there for us to lean on, when everything seems most bleak. It’s just basic emotional medication, the blues as cure for the blues. The emotional connection to a good song is like a neon beacon in an otherwise black and white landscape, or at least that’s the literal-minded illustration offered up in the video. It’s a pretty bad video and frankly it’s distracting. Points for trying, though.
In my formative years I spent more than a few good hours watching The Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour documentary. I watched that VHS tape relentlessly. I loved the album a lot too. What that means, among other damages, is that I really can’t in any way make an objective judgement about that particular set of songs. I’ve been told that Steel Wheels is really just not a very good album, but goddamn it, I think it’s a really fucking great album. It’s definitely one of the best Rolling Stones albums to come out of the 80’s, and you can’t argue with that because the bar was set pretty low in the 80’s. I know that the Stones pump out a lot of songs like that sound just like this one. But I’m still attached to it, the way some people remain attached to their matchbox cars or their high school sports trophies or their tattered dreams.
The Tin Machine revival you’ve been waiting for hasn’t come yet. Maybe it isn’t coming at all. As of this writing Bowieologists still agree that Tin Machine was a lot more fun for David Bowie than it was for his fans, and that in knowing that, he was just basically being a dick. Tin Machine basically functioned as a means to slough off some of the mainstream pop fans who had bought Let’s Dance and wanted more of the same. Which makes Tin Machine more of a narrative device than a group. We should still reexamine the music, though. I’ve always had a soft spot for the second Tin Machine, but found the first one a bit too uninviting. Not being a big fan of garage rock or post-punk or noise or grunge, I never felt that those genres needed a David Bowie-branded contribution. But if you are into those things, here is the David Bowie diffusion-line for you.
I don’t listen much to anything Elton John did in the 80’s and 90’s. He was one of those high-profile stars who high-profile had a hard time staying relevant during those years. He was hardly the only one not keeping up with the times musically, of course. For his part, Elton John was also having a very rough time in his personal life, dealing with substance abuse and the pressure to stay quietly in the closet at the height of the AIDS crisis. Today we all know and love his prissy-gay-uncle persona, but back in the day he somehow convinced the world he was straight, and was actually seen as being pretty wholesome for a guy who wears that much glitter. That combined with a lot of cocaine and booze certainly drained away at the creative energy. It’s hard to keep producing heartfelt, honest work when you’re living a lie and constantly trying to medicate reality into submission. Still, there were some shining moments even in dark times. Elton and Bernie could still put their heads together and produce something of value. Even though the production is maudlin and lazy, the performance is moving and it shows that the artist hasn’t really lost his touch after all.
What Russians and Americans really needed ‘on the edge of 1984’ was for a Scottish guy to weigh in on their political situation. 1984 was more of an idea than a year, and Al Stewart wasn’t the only one with wells of deep thoughts about it. Everyone was a little on edge. If nothing else it was a good year for sweeping statements and ambitious art and a lot of serious-minded talk about who and where we all are as a global society. We really did need more songs about the existential malaise of the Cold War. Al Stewart’s little song doesn’t really say that much about it, though it’s characteristically earnest. The situation may have been too big and volatile for a mild-mannered folk song to do justice to. But lots and lots of little gold stars for trying and caring. Al Stewart cared and thought about things that politicians and economists are generally paid to care and think about, and he always provided a thinking-person’s alternative to the relentless escapism of nearly all pop music. To paraphrase another poet’s words from a few years later: don’t be playing Wham! records while the nuclear reactors are melting.
This will probably win John Cale no new fans. John Cale is probably ok with that. He is not the kind of artist who goes courting for new followers. In fact, this isn’t even his most aggressively unapproachable work. Even for longtime fans, John Cale is difficult. But never not rewarding. If nothing else, he really helps clear out a party. If nothing else, John Cale is such a bad bastard that his fans become bad bastards by association. He could stick to melancholy piano ballads and make a pretty good buck doing so, but that would be beneath him, and us. We really need those last few artists for whom the concept of selling out still has meaning.
Some songs are composed on piano, some on guitar; this one was composed on a secondhand typewriter. That’s because Morrissey is not a musician and doesn’t play any instruments. He could, of course, just go around with a notepad like a normal-person, but in Morrissey’s world, it’s all about the aesthetics. And the image of the poet with his dry toast and his tea and his battered typewriter pretty much defines the aesthetic of The Smiths, and by extension, their fandom. Sad, but proud of it. Devoutly romantic but too socially useless to do anything about it. I too spent my teenage years clicking away on a thrift store typewriter. It’s wildly impractical, but the sound is very satisfying. It’s a great hobby for someone who spends too much time alone and really only sees other people as vague abstractions and doesn’t have any ambitions in life besides appearing poetic. My teenage self was not a Smiths fan. I just lived a Morrissey-approved lifestyle.