George Harrison’s marriage to Pattie Boyd may have ended in a whirl of drama but damn if it didn’t fuel some of his best writing. The Beatles themselves ended in a whirl of drama, an ugly breakup only hinted at in the idyllic video by their conspicuous refusal to be filmed together. That drama in turn fueled Harrison, Lennon and McCartny to leap into their solo careers determined to prove themselves. (Ringo got busy filming cinematic classics like Caveman.) That just proves and underlines the way that harsh experiences tend to become the most intense inspiration. George Harrison knew, of course, that his four-way union with the other Beatles was on its dying legs, and that his relationship with his wife wasn’t going so well either. It’s the knowledge of impending change that imbues the most tender of love songs with its soulfulness.
This should lift your spirits. Donovan hasn’t been on-trend since his heyday, what with gloom and doom being the prevailing mood, but sometimes there’s a need for something cheerful. The optimism and playfulness of 60’s psychedelic folk music hasn’t been recreated. Artists like Donovan, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and early Pink Floyd leaned heavily on folklore, fantasy and children’s literature – things that are just too pure for our cynical world, I guess. It took a truly unique cultural moment to make those things edgy with the in-crowd. No wonder we still gaze back on the 1960’s with awed fascination; every decade since then has just been the same banquet of depravity, sex and anger. Anyway, I hope you’re feeling cheered up.
Elton John has delivered decades’ worth of moving and dramatic performances, but this has to be the most moving. It is also, of course, one of the most personal. It recounts a particularly low point in John’s life, when he contemplated giving up his struggling music career for a sham marriage to a wealthy young lady, and felt so trapped and hopeless in his situation that he attempted suicide. The thwarted suicide may have been more of a cry for attention than a serious attempt to end his life – he turned on the gas oven and opened the kitchen window – but the angst was surely real. It would be many more years before Elton John finally fully freed himself from the half-assed pretense of straightness, but at least he realized that a life of phony bourgeoisie would never be his path. He listened to his friends, did the right thing, ended the engagement, kept on playing music and no doubt felt a lot better about himself. The memories of those low days, however, yielded some of his very best work.
Political commentary was never David Bowie’s wheelhouse, and when he goes there it tends to feel half-baked. Here, he’s into some loose concept of the manifest destiny of charismatic leaders, who are not dissimilar from rock stars in their larger-than-life appearance. It was a theme he was about to get into more deeply, having read a few too many books about the rise of fascism, before realizing that it’s not a fun or a healthy fascination, especially for a mentally unstable person. I’ve always thought that, lyrically at least, this was the weakest track from Young Americans. On the other hand, though, it’s the one that comes closest to capturing some real soul, as opposed to the plastic kind. That’s thanks, of course, to the vocal support of the then-obscure Luther Vandross, who completely oversteps his position as a backup singer to outshine his boss.
You know that something has failed in the world when songs written in 1980 resound exactly the same as they did back then. You’re supposed to look back on pop culture from 39 years ago like transmissions from an alien planet. And, of course, most of the cultural dreck from the 1980’s does look and sound weird and exotic. Except, ironically, the most politically charged material. If you didn’t know that The Clash were a band that flourished between the years of 1976 and 1986, you would think they were a fresh batch of angry kids agitating about the instability of the world. (Complete with a shoutout about the dangers of “Kissing the microchip circuits.”) It appears that the fashion trends of indolent teenagers change a lot more over the course of time than basic institutional problems like violence and inequality.
Brian Eno’s mid-70’s pop albums – before he went off into ambient noodle land – rank high in the roster of records that serve any mood. The atmospheric tone of his song-songs offers of glimpse of the path he would later explore with his non-song compositions. But there’s also a diversity of moods and tempos that keep those records from becoming too snoozy. Of course, Eno became interested in exploring the concept of snooziness itself, which is what led him to compose all those albums for looking up at the moon or floating in a boat or airports or whatever. I like the records with songs and vocals, and I also like it when music enhances the ambiance of my environment (as opposed to overwhelming it.)
To call the Velvet Underground ahead of their time has become one of those phrases that have been repeated into meaninglessness. It’s what lazy writers reflexively say when they think they don’t need to unpack or defend their position. But when I approach with focus and try to find some new angle or insight, I still find myself saying simply that the Velvets were light years ahead of everyone else. They produced records that sounded like they’d been made inside a filthy closet – hence, the heretical “Closet Mix” of their album. Mainly though, it was the door-opening, literate and subversive songwriting. Lou Reed wrote, with unvarnished intimacy, about things that were then considered very much unspeakable. Even though the late 60’s were saturated with triumphalist anthems about love and personal freedom, and quasi-religious talk about pharmaceutical redemption, there wasn’t very much real talk. No one spoke of a love that was cloaked in shame and self-flagellation, or of the intimate connections that occurred in a void between people who couldn’t meet each others’ eyes or know each others’ names, or that those moments could be beautiful and worthy of a love song. Fifty years later, it still sounds unsettling, in the sense that you’ve opened a door onto something secret and private and tantalizing and unheard of. It’s purely poetic justice that my preferred mix is the Closet Mix.