Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Build a nest in the sand dunes, lay our eggs and walk away

I kind of short-changed the Human League the first time around, so here's another attempt. In the 69LS interview booklet, after Daniel Handler pointed out the apparent Phil Oakey (Human League front man) influence on "I Can't Touch You Anymore," Merritt stated that "The Human League are second only to Kraftwerk, in my mind." The band started out in the late seventies when Martyn Ware and Ian Craig-Marsh, two computer programmers, invited Oakey to sing for them. Their first single was "Being Boiled," a dark, menacing song with mentions of "slaying," "torture," and yes, being "boiled alive." Synth player Adrian Wright, who ran the slide projector during shows, hooked up with the trio around this time. After two albums, Ware and Marsh departed and formed the group Heaven 17, and Oakey assembled a new lineup to embark on a European tour, for contractual obligations.

The band finally found success under the producer's hand of Martin Rushent (who worked with Buzzcocks, Altered Images, XTC, and many others) with the release of Dare (Dare! for the US release) and the subsequent EP Fascination! For their 1986 album Crash, they took a more Top 40-friendly approach and employed the producer duo of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. That duo (which produced several smash albums for Janet Jackson) even wrote the album's single, "Human" - a number one hit. On the Human League tribute album Reproductions, the 6ths (Merritt with singer Lloyd Cole) covered "Human" in a low-key style, and well-aware of the song's laughable earnestness, Merritt tackles the mid-song spoken word passage with just a hint of a British accent (and his falsetto delivery of "I am just a maaaan" is pure cheese.)

I also short-changed John Foxx, so here we go. Foxx (real name: Dennis Leigh) started out in art school, playing around with synthesizers, and eventually he formed the band Tiger Lily (inspired by the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls) which evolved into Ultravox! (more! exclamation! points!). This outfit made three albums for Island Records, the first of which was co-produced by Brian Eno, and these records would be a big influence on Gary Numan. After Island dropped the band, Foxx left to start his solo career, and his replacement, Midge Ure, helped lead Ultravox (no "!" at this point) to fame and fortune with tracks like "Vienna" and "Reap the Wild Wind."

Foxx wasted no time and released his debut album, Metamatic, in January of 1980, full of icy synth sounds and modern urban imagery. Concerning Metamatic, Foxx commented, "At the time it felt dangerous, as if I'd thrown the baby out with the bathwater. I stripped things down to the point where I might have gone too far. In retrospect I did exactly the right thing." He enjoyed modest success - several of his singles charted, and he even created the score for Michelangelo Antonioni's film Identification of a Woman. However, in 1985, he put his music-making on hold, citing disinterest, and fell back on his art background, working in graphic design and photography. His return to music ten years later came in the form of a collaboration with Louis Gordon, yielding two albums, and the duo toured churches and botanical gardens across Europe. "Underpass" is originally from Metamatic, but here is the single version, available on the excellent career-spanning compilation Modern Art: The Best of John Foxx.

The 1965 entry on the list is "You Don't Know" by Ellie Greenwich, the Brill Building songwriting partner of Jeff Barry. Greenwich helped write some of the greatest pop songs ever, like "River Deep, Mountain High" for Ike and Tina Turner and two featured on Stephinsources, "Then He Kissed Me" (Crystals) and "Be My Baby" (Ronettes). She saved one of her best for herself, though - a soaring, heartbreaking song about the despair of unexpressed love. Her vocals are up for the task, and she just nails the line "I can't let her know" (near the one minute mark).

Growing up in Brooklyn, then Long Island, Greenwich had a mini-revelation when she heard "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" by the Shirelles, because the melody was similar to that of a song she had written. She established herself, along with boyfriend (later husband) Jeff Barry, with the Brill Building songwriting crowd via Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Also, Greenwich and Barry recorded song demos that impressed Leiber, Stoller, and Phil Spector so much that they were turned into an instant band, the Raindrops. I Can Hear Music: The Ellie Greenwich Collection has three charming tracks by the Raindrops (two were hits for other bands), and it includes the stunning "You Don't Know" - but it also includes the album Let It Be Written, Let It Be Sung... from 1973. With soft rock versions of old and new songs, it was intended to be similar in style to Carole King's immensely popular Tapestry, but the arrangements are just dreadful to my ears. A better way to own "You Don't Know" is by getting the unbelievably great One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found boxed set on Rhino, released late last year. Other Merritt favorites are on it, like Dolly Parton, Petula Clark, and Dusty Springfield, and it's totally worth the dough.

I'll end with Merritt's thoughts on race and music, from this interview for Barnes & Noble:

What I'd like to see in the year 2000 is the abandonment of music being categorized by the race of the artist, or the perceived race of the audience. It's disgusting, and I would like to be amazed that it's still happening. [Eliminating] racism and sexism would be major improvements, and it would make an enormous difference in the music industry. It would be really nifty if black people were allowed to make records that didn't have to constantly refer to very recent traditions of black radio. It's absurd, and at this point, it's as though the only thing the American public were allowed to hear were "coon songs" and ragtime. It's worse, I think, than it was in 1899.

And he goes into it more in this Flagpole interview:

Merritt: I think music is one of the most segregated industries in the U.S. I gather it's different in Britain.
Flagpole: It's kind of across the board in the entertainment business, though, not just in music.
Merritt: Well, if you go see an action movie, it's most likely going to have one black male star and one white male star and kind of randomly assigned races for the female romantic leads. Often you'll have multi-racial couples. That vanishes when you move to comedies, and it's incredibly rare when you move over into music.

Flagpole: Do you think your music serves in any way to rectify the situation?
Merritt: Only in as much as I don't make those distinctions. Smashing genre is a lot of what I'm about.

On that note, I leave you with a track by Public Enemy, a group that has more than a few things to say about race issues. With members Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, and Terminator X, the pioneering hip-hop group made a huge impact in the late 80s with its political and socially-relevant (and sometimes controversial) lyrics and adept turntable scratching. From Fear of a Black Planet (selected for preservation in the Library of Congress in 2005), here's "911 Is a Joke," which is Merritt's selection on the list for 1990.

Human League - "The Sound of the Crowd"
Human League - "Human"
John Foxx - "Underpass"
Ellie Greenwich - "You Don't Know"
Public Enemy - "911 Is a Joke"

There was a request for the Alvin Lucier tracks. Ubu, which had been out of commission for a while, is now back up and running, and you can get the 15 minute version of "I am sitting in a room" on that site, here. Here's the 1980 version excerpt I had previously posted:

Alvin Lucier - "I am sitting in a room" (fragment, 1980)

Well, folks, that's the last post. Many thanks to Chris Heschong, Robey Pointer, and Britton Ware for helping me obtain certain tracks, and special thanks to Chris for the bandwidth and server space. Thanks for reading, and if you have requests for re-posts, I can probably work something out - just email me. See you on Stephinsongs (and if you're not on Stephinsongs, join today!)

Monday, February 06, 2006

There are no more lovers left alive; no one has survived

First earning mainstream success in the mid-to-late '80s, Pet Shop Boys are giants in the electro-pop world, and after 20+ years, they're still feeding devoted fans and dance aficionados their combination of carefully crafted synthpop and smart lyrics. The duo of Neil Tennant (vocalist, lyricist, and keyboard player) and Chris Lowe (keyboards) hit number one around the world with the sophisticated half spoken/half sung "West End Girls," and other hits followed like "Opportunities" and "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" which featured guest vocals from Dusty Springfield. The aloof, slightly nasal vocals from Tennant and the cheerfully artificial synth arrangements mark the Pet Shop Boys' catalog, and they've been able to shift and adapt enough to endure in the capricious realm of dance music. In 2001, Pet Shop Boys had ambitious plans for a festival tour, called Wotapalava, that would feature gay musicians including the Magnetic Fields, but the plans were scrapped after headliner Sinead O'Connor backed out. The band created a score (released last year) for the 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin, a film school necessity, and they performed it at a live screening in Trafalgar Square in September of 2004. This spring, they plan on releasing a new album, entitled Fundamental.

After the release of Very in 1993, Tennant came out, and not surprisingly, the band is popular among the gay community. However, like Merritt, Tennant often writes lyrics that are intended to be of an ambiguous sexuality, though some have particular resonance with gay listeners. One such song is "Being Boring," which Tennant has stated was written about a friend who was dying of AIDS. In it, he reflects on earlier times when he'd "bolted through a closing door" before singing "...all the people I was kissing, some are here and some are missing." The song's title comes from an essay written by Zelda Fitzgerald called "Eulogy on the Flapper," in which Fitzgerald wrote on the titular figure: "...she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn't boring."

In Chickfactor #11, Merritt named Tennant as being "the best lyricist in an electropop group," along with himself and Gary Numan, and he and Claudia Gonson have repeatedly asked him to be a singer for the 6ths (to no avail, so far). As Gonson explains, Pet Shop Boys were highly influential for Future Bible Heroes, and she speaks specifically about Memories of Love in Chickfactor #10:

"I think it's largely influenced by the Pet Shop Boys - it's kind of a Pet Shop Boys meets Martin Denny kind of thing. I give it the Bananarama treatment, and Stephin gives it the vernacular Neil Tennant treatment."

"Dreaming of the Queen," which was Merritt's pick for 1993, comes from the album Very, and it's about a peculiar dream involving having tea with Lady Di and the Queen, contemplating "why love had died." Also included this week is the forementioned "Being Boring" in its single form, taken from the compilation Discography.

Pet Shop Boys - "Dreaming of the Queen"
Pet Shop Boys - "Being Boring"

Shifting gears a bit...
Magnetic Fields vocalist ld beghtol will be writing a book about 69 Love Songs, and he is making an open request for "anecdotes, images, and other stuff related to the record, its songs and how it's affected people's lives/art/etc." - this also goes for live performances of 69LS. If you'd like to contribute something, contact him at this address: tmf69lovesongs at aol dawt cawm