Do you want to watch an ambitious satire of the way we live now, circa 1973? Well, don’t watch O Lucky Man! It’s a terrible movie. But it does have an outstanding soundtrack by Alan Price, and I’d say that the songs pretty much make all of the points the movie wanted to make, but it doesn’t take three hours to make them. Capitalist society is a target, because or course it is. The funny thing being that in hindsight capitalism was just getting warmed up and looking back at a satirized 1973 it just looks as quaint as all get-out. But yeah, modern life is dehumanizing and every human emotion can be monetized and the military is evil and big corporations want to turn you into a human guinea pig – literally!
Well, Saturday night still hasn’t come yet, but the days of the week mean nothing to me, so I recommend getting out and doing what Elton John recommends; get a belly full of beer and go get oiled down at the pub. It’s hard to imagine Elton John living the life of a tough lad as he describes, but I guess it wasn’t always cocaine and tiaras. Young Reginald Dwight started his professional music career as a pub pianist at the age of 15, and most likely saw a fair share of switchblades and fisticuffs while he was at it. Maybe participated in a fight or two himself, who knows. And we all know that Elton John knows how to party. (Observe his nose-wiping tic in the Wembley performance.)
For the full context of sadness, you need to sit down and listen to Lou Reed’s Berlin. It may leave you feeling suicidal, but in an awestruck way. It will have the impact of getting lost in, and thoroughly wrung out by, a good narrative. It’s almost like a full novel fragmented and compacted into just under an hour of music. It’ll make you grateful to be living a dull-person life, not convulsed by misery and violence, not enslaved by drug abuse, not intruded upon by so-called social services, not constrained by a broken political machine in a broken city. And if those things do constitute your life, or have done in the past, you may recognize and reevaluate yourself. You may feel triggered and have to turn the damn thing off, especially at the part when the children cry. You may even feel inspired and long to step up your own game and reach for something more impactful in whatever your own outlet is.
“The carpet’s all paid for, God bless the TV”
Elton John wouldn’t know what it feels like to be resigned to a tiny, meaningless life confined by carpet and television. He had a bigger destiny. But if he hadn’t made it as a rock star, he would well have been facing a miserable lifetime of conformity and complacency. Alcoholism, depression, divorce, alimony payments, poverty, all of the fun stuff. If he’s any sort of a reasonable thinking person at all – and I’m certain that he is! – he’s thanking the skies above that he had the talent and the drive and the luck not to end up a sad lonely little man with nothing to lean on in life but the westerns on TV. But he has a ton of empathy for those people who did end up like that. And he’s saying that there ain’t nothing wrong with it. It’s a sign of Elton John’s empathy as a performer and Bernie Taupin’s empathy as a writer that they don’t use the small person’s small life as a metaphor for some grander point about the general meaninglessness and unfairness and grinding ennui of a society that dehumanizes and isolates even as it comforts and tranquilizes etc. etc. Lots of people’s lives revolve around small comforts and familiarity and dumb entertainment and they’re not really aching for anything more. They just want to settle down and watch Roy Rogers reruns in peace, and that doesn’t make them bad people and it’s not an indictment on all of society.
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.
Nothing warms my cold Russian heart like the thought of the German infantry freezing to death on the steppes of the Motherland. So this deeply researched and historically accurate narrative ballad by Al Stewart hits me close to home in a way that pretty much nothing else does. Western European pop culture has rarely taken any notice of the Eastern bloc, making it a very one-sided love affair for music lovers living on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. So thanks not only for the shout-out, Al Stewart, but also for the vivid and accurate depiction of the war years. Like everyone, I grew up viewing the Russian resistance of the Nazi invasion and subsequent victory as the height of national heroism, and a point of pride in a history in which points of pride are notably few and far between. Of course, even a casual bit of research shows that the great victory was mostly the result of bad weather and a massive disregard for human life, rather than military competence or firepower. We’re really really proud that millions of our own people also froze – or starved – to death in the same war, but bravely! (We’re also inordinately proud of that time we burned down our own capital.) And, as mentioned in the final lines of the song, most of the soldiers who managed to survive the frontlines were killed or imprisoned on return. Because their first-hand testimony might have contradicted the heroic official narrative, which would have been a real downer for the people, so yeah, those guys had to go die in a gulag. When you say it like that, it makes sense why nobody wants to learn about Russian history and culture; it’s a stinking centuries-old mass grave with a pretty red flag on top.
Any excuse to listen to a lot of T. Rex. I’ll be over here doing that. I’m aware that I’m most likely the only one who cares about the minute gradiations of the T. Rex sound over time, or the steps Marc Bolan took that were ahead of his time. Bolan’s problem was that he was ahead of the times but not far enough ahead to get all the credit for it before others caught up and popularized his ideas into the stratosphere. Still, the T. Rex sound is instantly recognizable, and nobody else ever sounded quite like that.