I barely recognized this as David Bowie the first time I put on this record. It’s not very often that David Bowie sounds so…unhinged. Well, Pin Ups is a covers record, and he made a point of picking weird and unexpected songs. This one is from The Pretty Things, one of the first garage rock bands, and the original sounds like it was recorded inside of a large dumpster. Which is the opposite of the usual Bowie approach, and which is what makes for a weird selection. It is, of course, trailblazing, because hardly anybody was doing cover records in 1973. It almost feels like a novelty record, because it’s very very campy, almost too silly. But fun.
Okay, here’s one you probably all know. It’s one of Bob Marley’s most popular songs. I’d say that for many of us, it’s been part of the wallpaper of our lives since childhood. It’s just one of those songs that’s about as universal as a composition can be. It’s nice to see a little video and get a sense of who made the music. Funny how Bob Marley and the Wailers were rarely asked to appear on Top of the Pops-type television shows. It’s probably because they didn’t look much like most of the artists who appeared on those shows. Ahem. Well, they probably didn’t love miming in front of a blank studio screen either.
I love pulling out the most obscure songs from albums I haven’t listened to in a long time, which you’ve probably listened to never. It’s like opening up a box in the attic. It’s memories and it’s feelings I don’t remember. I also really love it when the artist pulls out their most obscure songs. That’s like them giving us a gift box, from their own attic. I’m almost certain that Suzanne Vega never played this song after releasing it in 1990, until pulling it out for this show in 2000. If you’re familiar with Days of Open Hand, you won’t recognize the arrangement. You’ll notice she’s ditched the prominent woodwinds that made the original so mournful and made the handclaps snappier. Arrangements aren’t something I nerd out on, not being a musician myself, but what interests me is the value artists find in their own work. Certainly, they value the work that makes them the most money, but what about the things that don’t make money and just exist for the memories? Suzanne Vega, for one, has been very interested in reevaluating her own back catalog. She’s rerecorded a series of her old songs, releasing compilations that take songs from different albums and mix them together by theme. This repackaging might seem redundant, since the new recordings don’t sound radically different from the old ones, but it’s about changing the context of the songs to make them play in a different light. I can see how that can be an immensely fun project for the singer, and it’s really aimed at the fans who are deeply invested in the material. I admire that.
If there’s one literary allusion that people never seem to get tired of, it’s Shakespeare’s play about the two kids who fell in love and killed themselves. It’s become a collective byword for romance, even though, as a love story, it’s not very encouraging. Well, I’ve never understood it, but I don’t have much use for either romantic cliche or Elizabethan dialogue. Thankfully, in this case, the allusion doesn’t grate on me. I love Dire Straits, and smart writing is one of the things I love them for. It would take an idiot to think that Romeo and Juliet represent happy romance, and Mark Knopfler is not an idiot, and he uses the allusion to signal romantic failure. That’s not exactly accurate, either, since the titular characters didn’t fail at romance in the traditional sense, but it works. The romance crashed and burned, maybe not on the level of suicide and murder, but enough to look like a tragedy to the writer at least. That I can relate to a little.
Marc Bolan never did write a book about the adventures of Kingsley Mole and Lionel Lark. He became a famous rock star and lost interest in fairy tales and whimsical creatures. Or rather, fairy tales and whimsical creatures went out of fashion along with peace, love and idealism at the end of the 1960’s and Bolan was at the cutting edge of fashion. He was. This doesn’t sound like the composition of a man who was at the cutting edge of anything, but let me assure you that in 1969 all of the coolest people were reading The Wind in the Willows and trying to incorporate its rustic charms into their own writings. It wasn’t a more innocent time by any means, but there was a belief that the world could become more pure and loving, somehow, and reverting to childlike whimsy was part of that mindset. Then, of course, everyone gave up on that pipe-dream and starting doing a lot of cocaine and heroin instead. But it was a wonderful, charmed time while it lasted.
Chuck Berry, besides all of his other notable achievements, wrote the unifying mission statement of rock’n’roll. Or as close to one as anyone’s ever gotten. He announced the arrival of a new culture, a new generational movement. I hate it when writers resort to those awful words, but, really, he “Changed The World Forever.” (Duh-duh-duh-DUHM!) Popular music and culture have mutated into unrecognizable shapes since Chuck Berry’s day, but the purpose of youth culture is still to shake off the old status quo. The spirit of making the old guard roll over in their graves doesn’t change with the generations. Chuck Berry himself is in his grave now, and he may well be tossing and turning over what the A$AP crew’s up to. But I’d like to think he’s at least getting a little chuckle, looking back at his legacy and the culture he helped create.
Don’t forget Mott the Hoople. It may be impossible to write about them without bringing up the glitter rock tide they became famous on. When your biggest hit was written for you by David Bowie, that’s almost as much of a curse as a blessing. Glitter rock wasn’t really a genre as such anyway, more of a state of mind, but Mott the Hoople actually made some of the most recognizably glam-sounding singles. They really need to get played more, because they embody archness and eccentricity. And, obviously, they’re really fucking fun.