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.
This will probably win John Cale no new fans. John Cale is probably ok with that. He is not the kind of artist who goes courting for new followers. In fact, this isn’t even his most aggressively unapproachable work. Even for longtime fans, John Cale is difficult. But never not rewarding. If nothing else, he really helps clear out a party. If nothing else, John Cale is such a bad bastard that his fans become bad bastards by association. He could stick to melancholy piano ballads and make a pretty good buck doing so, but that would be beneath him, and us. We really need those last few artists for whom the concept of selling out still has meaning.
I love how this Black Uhuru song throws you for a little bit of a loop. First you’re lulled by the groove, like you can just zone out to it, then at about halfway, the chorus kicks in with a strong reminder of just where reggae culture came from. It’s not just a groove, it’s a raised fist. Which is what reggae music is all about; it’s a Trojan horse that teaches political lessons under the guise of music you can groove to. I’ve always appreciated Black Uhuru for their songwriting, for striking a balance of making strong points but writing them poetically.
This is kind of a grainy and poor sounding video, but it’s rare and interesting because it’s rare and interesting. John Cale at the piano is really one of the great underrated musical pleasures out there. I don’t know how much this performance will sell you on that, but if you do a little digging and listen to a record or two, you’ll know. Piano ballads can be a terrible genre; there’s something about those ivories that make people turn saccharine and maudlin and whiny, and balladeers who lean heavily on the piano tend to be all of those things. It takes a real iconoclast to make stately piano ballads sound punk as fuck, and John Cale is that man.
The popularity of rap music begins with Blondie in much the same way that the fashionable bindi traces its history all the way back to Gwen Stefani. That is, it doesn’t. At all. But, long and complex history of cultural appropriation aside, in 1981 it was a novelty song by a pop group named after the color of its singer’s hair that gave middle American viewers of MTV their first taste of a new and exciting musical style that was fomenting within the coastal, urban black community. “What is this cool new sound that cool people in New York City are listening to?” Bible-belt Americans asked themselves. “I must discover this Fab Five Freddy for myself, posthaste!” they said. While I doubt that hearing Debbie Harry rap about space aliens really did all that much to turn a generation of suburban white kids into Run DMC fans, the adage that it takes a blonde woman to get black culture’s foot in the mainstream door continues to hold true.
His lips are purple because he is dead. It’s a fitting love song coming from Nico, who doesn’t do love songs. Nico was nearing the end of her life, and heavily weathered by hard living. She had renounced all glamour, and her music at this point was coming someplace so deep underground it was truly frightening. Once she had paid reluctant lip service to pop appeal, but towards the end she refused to compromise her dark vision, though she was sometimes bitterly angry that no accolades or money ever came her way. She was probably insane, or at least deeply disturbed. How she succeeded in making any records at all, after she allowed her life to revolve around heroin and music industry forgot her, is remarkable. Nico didn’t exactly flourish as an underground artist, but she scraped together a career and left behind a substantial legacy that remains important, at least to a handful of people with very bleak tastes. And, as the old guard continues to drop like flies, I can’t help but think that an artist such as Nico could never come along today. Today a weirdo with a vision would have the tools to support themselves without traditional stuff like record contracts and press attention. But they would not have the tools to become that weirdo in the first place, because nobody is that isolated anymore. Nobody thinks of singing only to themselves.