Everybody knows and loves that one song by UB40 – the one about drinking red wine, which we all relate to a lot – but God forbid you think they’re a one hit band. These guys have 18 albums, they’ll have you know. I can’t say I’ve even heard of all of them, but I am very partial to their early 80’s work. Though they may have that one radio-staple big hit, and a reasonable reputation, I still think of them as very much a cult band. And though you may not think of the 80’s as a great era for reggae music, thanks to groups like UB40 and Black Uhuru, it was. Also, of course, the UK ska thing was still a big deal. So yeah, 80’s reggae is very much a thing. A mini-subgenre, if you will.
Nobody knows a woman’s place in this world better than Yoko Ono. For decades she has occupied the intersection of virulent racism and misogyny that still underpin most of Western popular culture. Everything she has done as artist and in her personal life has been in defiance of where society likes to place its women, and that defiance has fueled her art. Even before she became famous as the world’s most hated homewrecker, the bitch who broke up the sacred union of Lennon and McCartney, she had staked out her position, willing to lose anything and prepared to be looked at with hateful eyes. Before she became famous, she had already burned the bridges of an entire life; her parents disowned her for not following the expectations of a good, privileged Japanese girl; she lost custody of her firstborn child in a bitter divorce. Then she came to the West and found out just how very, very much the world hates women who want to create ambitious art on the same footing as men, who have things to say about the female condition, who don’t let their husbands speak for them, who don’t present themselves as pretty and likable, who expect to be taken seriously, who refuse to disappear from public life even when public life doesn’t want them, and have the sheer nerve of doing all these things while being Asian. The world can barely accept a white woman who does even a few of those things, and world hates women who aren’t white extra, extra hard. What Yoko Ono does isn’t just going against the grain of what’s expected of a woman in the public eye, it’s racially uppity in a way that makes members of the white male cultural establishment go absolutely blind with rage. Yoko Ono is a woman who emigrated from Japan to England (and then to America) where she met and married a white dude with whom she made a bunch of music and art, and that offends people on a deeply primal level, especially white dudes who think that women are only as valuable as their legs are long, that wives are furniture for the decoration of a man’s home, and that Asian women should be silently pouring tea in Geisha-themed brothels. Well, Yoko Ono may be having the last laugh. At the age of 85, she not only outlived most of her haters, she’s come to be recognized as one of the most important conceptual artists of her time, she’s lived to see a massive cultural shift that has us examining the prejudices she used to be a target of, she’s been recognized for her activism and humanitarian work, and guess what else? When you put on those records she made with John Lennon, his songs sound like generic 70’s rock music and hers sound like the cool new record you just heard on indie radio.
The only thing you need to know about Soft Cell’s original, banned Sex Dwarf video is that it featured a little person in bondage gear. It was that literal-minded. Of course, in 1981, it was the boobs and leather straps that fanned controversy. What Soft Cell set out to do, and succeeded in doing, was to paint a thinly-veiled picture of the gay underground, with its sleazy clubs and bars, its dark cruising fields, its fearless sexual exploration, and its hunger for real emotion. All gay life being underground life, the key word was ‘thinly-veiled’. Hence, in the videos, glamorous scantily clad women, prominent and ironic. We can view that period now with nostalgia for a bygone era of real authenticity, as everything special and counter-cultural about it becomes fodder for t-shirts. We can also look at is as kind of corny and very very sad, now that everything that used to be in the closet is proudly on parade.
Do you have some Christmas lights in your house, or maybe a lava lamp? Put those on and go lie down on the floor. You can’t listen to this record with the regular lights on. You can’t listen to it from your regular comfort position. You have to create an environment that opens your mind to different dimensions of understanding. Then maybe, you know, something visionary will trickle in. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is not regular music. Brian Eno, for his part, was very much into the idea of making music for specific places and experiences: music for airports, music for moon landings, music for floating down the Nile, music for opening Windows, etc. Actually, it wasn’t so much about telling you what the music was for, but allowing the music to be unobtrusively part of your life and coloring your perceptions in a subtle way. This is not one of those experiments in ambiance. This is music you have to pay attention to. But it’s certainly good for coloring the perception.
Know what we need more of? Songs about the Kennedy assassination. Just more educational songs about history in general, because it’s a pretty thin list populated mainly by The Decemberists and Al Stewart. There are, however, actually two synthpop songs about the JFK killing: this one and Sleeping In by the Postal Service. The Human League really made their contribution to society. Their 1981 album Dare is, in my objective estimation, one of the best records of the decade, and their sound and look became a blueprint for a bazillion heavily-pomaded synthpop groups who followed. I do, of course, have a particular fondness for the genre, from its avant-garde roots through its 80’s heyday to its current second golden age. I realize that synthpop is frequently very style-over-substance, as if huffing hairspray were somehow detrimental to one’s intellectual development. So I cling to the rare perfect synthpop record that has well-written songs about a diverse range of topics, which you can dance to, and the lead singer’s makeup is flawless the whole time.
Have you ever broken up with someone you didn’t particularly like and then felt marginally bad for not feeling worse about it than you did? Well, Soft Cell has the song for you. Marc Almond cocks a sardonic eyebrow at all the heteronormative images in his own video, and presumably music video cliches in general, and he sounds equally sardonic towards sappy end-of-the-affair ballads in general as well. SPOILER ALERT, his relationship with this girl was wrong from the start because he’s gay, but what’s your excuse? Anyhow, the real source of angst here isn’t that the affair failed, it’s the awkwardness of still being in geographical proximity with embarrassing old flames who want to act like they still know you. You’re a new you with better standards, their lives are a ten car pileup. You can’t help but smirk a little and tell yourself you’ve really dodged a bullet.
Cab Calloway may not be a household name, but you’ve damn sure seen his signature moves or heard one of his songs. Fans have come to Cab Calloway through odd pathways, from the Betty Boop shorts that featured his animated avatar in the 1930’s, to his showstopping cameo in The Blues Brothers in 1980, to covers by unexpected artists like The White Stripes in the aughts. Like a lot of people, I came to this song through Joe Jackson’s cover. In the 80’s Jackson did more than anybody to guide rock fans into the world of swing and jazz music. His jazz covers proved that music that was swingin’ in the 30’s was still swingin’ right in tune with post-punk and new wave. That was a pretty surprising epiphany, given that rock fans tend to view jazz as being as stodgy and musty as their granddad’s old suits. Nobody could ever call Cab Calloway stodgy: he was always in the business of razzle-dazzle and good razzle-dazzle never fades. Calloway has managed to pop up as a cultural reference point in every decade, and being dead hasn’t slowed his roll. He just always comes back around, just as cool as the first day he did the Hi-De-Ho.