This was kind of a hit single for Al Stewart, and there isn’t a single literary reference or historical allusion in it. It’s almost a little disappointing – it’s such a nice tune and there’s a sweet saxophone solo, but it’s just not educational at all. I like Al Stewart when he’s singing about famous Nazis or the Cold War or Kurt Vonnegut. Without that unapologetic intellectualism, he’s just another Adult Contemporary soft rocker. (How I hate those terms!) Honestly, even if Stewart were content to produce soft rock ballads with no substance, he’d still be one of the best. His nerdiness sets him apart, of course, but his tunes are clearly outstanding, even if, for example, you don’t speak English. This is very of its time, though, very late seventies soft rock. The video throws it into sharp focus. Look the hairs!!! People who liked this probably also liked Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac. Which is fine; I like all of those things. Not everything has to have edge or be a danger to society. There is plenty of music designed to appeal to the part of me that gets wrecked and fucks shit up; Al Stewart appeals to the part of me that wants to learn more about the history of the Third Reich.
Fun fact: Middle of the Road was an early 70’s pop group whose biggest hit was called Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep. It was, as you might imagine, terrible. This post is not about them, but it is one of those random things the dedicated researcher stumbles upon from time to time, much to their own regret. With that as an aside, we’re here to talk about the middle of the road as a conception of popular music and the subjectivity of perceived musical quality dependent upon contextual understanding. Or, in layman’s English, the phenomenon of not appreciating how good something is based on how much we’ve been exposed to it. In this case, The Pretenders have an awful lot of hit songs on the oldies radio circuit, songs you hear in grocery stores, songs that have become part of our collective aural wallpaper. That kind of ubiquity is the highest form of success, at least in terms of the artist getting a steady paycheck for the rest of all eternity. But I don’t think Chrissie Hynde set out to compose ambient music when she first picked up a guitar, and I think maybe she resents hearing herself in elevators. It makes people forget just how bona fide Hynde’s punk rock credentials are. There’s nothing more punk than marrying Sid Vicious for immigration purposes (she didn’t actually do that, but she tried.) Point is, The Pretenders were a badass rock band, and their having ended up on MOR radio is an unhappy irony. Of course, it’s a different time now, and the concept of certain music being MOR or ‘Adult Contemporary’ or otherwise somehow lacking credibility held a lot more water in the 80’s, before ‘credibility’ itself ceased to exist and irony became its own reward. So, like, idk, whatevs…
This is a bit sad-making. Not least because Ofra Haza is no longer with us, of course, but mostly because not much has changed since she first sang so upliftingly about bringing unity to the Middle East. The Israeli-born singer used her music to represent her own background and Middle Eastern traditions across the cultural divide. She worked hard to be a cultural ambassador for the region, and musically at least, she was able to bring Hebrew, Muslim and Christian together. She certainly succeeded in bringing Middle Eastern music to the West. She was one of the first non-Western performers to achieve truly global popularity. Bringing diversity to pop music is a great achievement, and raising consciousness about political issues can be a big part of a popular star’s impact. But even the most inspiring songs fall short of the kind of power needed to make real political change. Ofra Haza was hoping for healing and unity, and did her best to promote those things, but it wasn’t enough, and today we still take it for granted that the Middle East is ten different kinds of screwed up, and go about our way. Ofra Haza wondered what to do about terrorism in 1989. If she were here today, she would be disappointed to still be wondering the same thing.
No playlist is complete without some novelty 80’s music. And if it’s ever so slightly racist, it’ll only enhance that tingly feeling of embarrassment mixed with nostalgia. Racism in pop songs is a pretty subjective topic, given that Brown Sugar is still all over the radio with every throbbing inch of its credibility intact, so whether or not you want to feel squeamish about a low budget music video that portrays Mexican culture as consisting of bullfights, street markets and enormous mustaches is up to you and your personal inner Offense-O-Meter. It’s not even a bad song, either, next to some of the inexplicable horrors in the category of 80’s One Hit Wonders. Of course, that’s a broad category, which includes truly deserving groups who just got screwed by luck (Timbuk 3) alongside the villain responsible for She Blinded Me With Science (Thomas Dolby). Wall of Voodoo falls somewhere in between; not one of those bands who seemed to strive to be as terrible as they could just for the sake of it, but not really deserving of a renaissance either.
Not Al Stewart’s usual historical time frame, no references to famous Nazis. You would almost imagine Al had gone New Age. Al is too highbrow an intellect to ever go full New Age, although the backing chorus does lean towards corny. In 1980 he was beginning to drift towards AOR/MOR territory, but this still has the refinement of his classic work. While 24 Carrots may have had a few too many synthesizer credits to its credit, the harp and mandocello were also making themselves felt. As always, Al Stewart, though armed with potentially million selling melodies, saves himself from the realm Phil Collins by being the most erudite history nerd to have ever made records.
I guess you can view Nick Cave in one of two ways; as a high god of heroin cool, as I do; or, you could see the morbid posturing as a bit absurd. It takes supernatural levels of sangfroid to pull off writing songs about going to the executioner without looking like a parody of a strip mall goth. Unlike a lot of strip mall goths **cough cough Robert Smith cough** Nick Cave does not move much merchandise at Hot Topic. Because the genuinely dangerous and subversive are hard to market to the white picket fence demographic. Which all points back to my original point; Nick Cave is some sort of high god of cool, although probably an ill-advised cultural obsession for the young and impressionable. I spend a year or two watching this particular video way too many more times than was healthy, and yes, in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have. And being less of an impressionable young thing, I can see that it’s borderline absurd and ought not be taken seriously. And yet, goddamn it, glamour. Nick Cave is glamorous as fuck, with his murder ballads and his blood play and his hungry mongrel physique. Would you want to cross paths with him in the alleyway behind a cheap motel? No, you might die.
If Morrissey’s animal rights activism has sometimes seemed histrionic – walking away from high-profile big paycheck gigs because the venues insisted on serving meat, etc – it has also been effective. He began his activism in the early 80’s, years before the idea of the conscientious consumer became mainstream. For many people, it was Morrissey who introduced the idea that their diet might have ethical repercussions. Moz has not been an ideal activist; he’s said a lot of misguided things, and myopically continues to support PETA, a deeply problematic organization, to say the least. He’s pissed a lot of people off, both within and outside of the animal rights community. However, he has to be admired for his sheer dedication. The real miracle is that he’s only written one didactic dirge about it. He really said everything he had to say with this song; you can’t top this polemic, and he’s been smart enough not to try. He still performs it regularly, and since the low-tech Smiths days, he’s taken to projecting gruesome slaughterhouse videos to really hammer the point home. Although I suspect he’s probably just preaching to the choir at this point, it’s bound to be have a doubly powerful impact on anyone in the audience who remains unconverted. It’s also a very remarkable thing to witness, the power of a performer who would grind his show to a halt while a packed audience watches horrific death footage in utter silence. There really is nothing that compares to Morrissey’s intense rapport with his flock; when he brings everyone to a standstill with his dead piglet videos, it feels like a moment of religious communion. Especially given that Moz is the only act I know whose audience routinely includes entire families from grandparents to small children, all decked out in Oscar Wilde T-shirts. (He’s also the only elderly white guy with an audience that isn’t 90% white.) Many others with a similar ability to enthrall have used their charisma to acquire political might and go about eliminating everyone they don’t approve of; Morrissey just wants you to lay off the chicken nuggets. Is that so bad?