“I wanted to write a song that presented a resigned, even joyful look at doom” – David Byrne
Mission accomplished, Byrne. This is the most triumphalist and cheery song about the futility of life that you could ever hope for. David Byrne really has a knack for sticking great pop melodies on things that ought to be mopey. Lots of songs about alienation and futility that you can dance to. We are, collectively, very much on the road to nowhere, but we might as well party it up while we’re at it. Life is meaningless, life is futile, life is both too short and too long. But as long as you can dance to those sentiments, you can live with them.
This is kind of a grainy and poor sounding video, but it’s rare and interesting because it’s rare and interesting. John Cale at the piano is really one of the great underrated musical pleasures out there. I don’t know how much this performance will sell you on that, but if you do a little digging and listen to a record or two, you’ll know. Piano ballads can be a terrible genre; there’s something about those ivories that make people turn saccharine and maudlin and whiny, and balladeers who lean heavily on the piano tend to be all of those things. It takes a real iconoclast to make stately piano ballads sound punk as fuck, and John Cale is that man.
Watch Bruce Springsteen – 31 years old – spin a near-universal tale of midlife disappointment. Springsteen understood something that fabulously successful rock star type people generally just can’t grasp; that in reality, most people’s lives are not much more than a series of dead ends. Dead-end hometowns, dead-end jobs, dead-end marriages. Even for those who don’t hobble themselves right out of the gate with teenage pregnancies and shotgun weddings, life soon becomes a rut of just getting by and getting through the day with not much to dream about except the past. And for a lot of people, that kind of inertia is just fine. It’s not fine for anyone who ever imagined that their life would be better than their parents’ and their peers’, that there would be passion and excitement, or that change would at least be an option. But changing and getting better is not an option in a lot of people’s lives. There’s no better job to apply for, no better town to move to, no happier relationship to build. They can’t choose to walk through that door because that door simply doesn’t exist. And even if we’re not among the number of folks trapped in dead mining or factory towns with nothing to turn to but opiods, the burden of not being able to do better is still felt, because the expectation of betterment is very rarely met. Because crushing inequality is an inbuilt part of society, and that is more true now than it was in 1980. Which makes Bruce Springsteen, of all people, the most relevant songwriter for our time, something none of us could have foreseen. We used to dismiss Springsteen as a poseur in distressed jeans, pandering to some imaginary Joe-working-class fantasy of American masculinity. But that was in more culturally and economically optimistic times. Now it’s clear that he speaks to all of us, in this very real wintery state of American discontent. It’s not just small town Joe whose life is a dead-end. American life in general is a dead-end. It’s a dead-end for nearly everyone, just an endless cycle of the same vicious, toxic knee-jerk political arguments and economic dysfunction. We’re all living in a Bruce Springsteen song, and it’s not one of the fist-pumpy ones.
Insert ‘mind blown’ reaction gif here. This here, this song right here, is the straw that broke up The Smiths. Apparently – and somehow I did not know it until just now – this is a rewrite of song by The Smiths. Not a proper Morrissey/Marr Smiths song that you would have heard of, but an instrumental B-side that Bryan Ferry handpicked as a potential hit, wrote some lyrics for, and then hired Johnny Marr to play session on. (Marr also played on the tour, and is prominently seen in the video.) Marr’s original composition, Money Changes Everything, does in fact sound exactly like a mid-eighties Bryan Ferry song without the vocal. Ferry has a bit of genius touch with picking unexpected things that suit his style, and Johnny Marr’s playing is perfectly suited for a Bryan Ferry album. Now that I think about it, having Marr on board might be part of why Bete Noire was so damn good. Ferry was right about the hit potential too; this was Bete Noire’s biggest single. Not-in-any-way-coincidentally, this was also right about the time that Marr left his day job for a less-illustrious but also probably way less stressful career as a journeyman session player. Obviously, Morrissey was in paroxysms of jealousy that Bryan Ferry would requisition one of the few Smiths songs that he’d had nothing to do with. He doesn’t directly say as much in his autobiography, but it’s heavily implied; he broke up the band because he felt ‘cheated-on’ by his songwriting partner for appearing in a Bryan Ferry video.
What reggae music really needed in 1982 was more vocoder. So thought the members of Black Uhuru, and it turned out they were right. Black Uhuru really took roots reggae into the 80’s and kept it relevant and stayed abreast of new technology, pretty much singlehandedly. They dabbled with synthesizers and electronic effects and studio trickery, vocoders included – just enough to sound timely, but not so much as to lose their sense of rootedness. It sounds like island music, and it recognizably like 80’s music. That’s a tough balance to strike, but Black Uhuru had an amazing run of classic albums throughout the decade and all the way into the 90’s.
This song could not be more on point. It’s so on point it’s slightly discombobulating to realize that it’s coming at you from 1986. I don’t know what Joe Jackson’s been up to lately or what he thinks about this world of ours right now, but there’s plenty of inspiration if he wants to write a sequel to Big World. In the 80’s Jackson was a premier observational songwriter, the post-punk jazz-nerd who wrote wittily about everything from tabloid newspapers to world cuisine. Most of his observations are still relevant; things change but not that much. In this song, not one word is less true today than it was in 1986. Literally, just one; simply change ‘Commies’ to ‘Russians’ and the sentiment remains the same. Your TV-watching citizenry still doesn’t grasp basic concepts unless they’re spelled out in broad terms that a dull child could understand. Right and wrong? Nobody knows the difference.
Come for Mark Knopfler’s guitarism, stay for the flute solo. An unexpected touch, but it works, and it’s touches like this that make Dire Straits so rewarding to explore. They weren’t a band who leaned on hit singles, although they had a lot of hit singles. They leaned on musicianship and thoughtful writing, which made them outliers among their peers in the 80’s. Though their output as a unit was small – only six studio albums – it was conspicuously solid. Every album was a solid winner, every track worth remembering. These guys did not do filler material, or try to be on-trend, or make unfortunate experiments. Sometimes it’s best to quit when you’re ahead, before the urge to do all of the above overtakes you.