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.
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.