Friday, August 31, 2012

The B-52's -- "Dance This Mess Around" (1979)

Do the coo-ca-choo
Do the Aqua Velva
Do the dirty dog
Do the escalator 

There were a lot of records about fad dances released in the early sixties -- Chubby Checker's "The Twist," Dee Dee Sharp's "Mashed Potato Time," Freddie and the Dreamers' "Do the Freddie," the Orlons' "The Wah-Watusi," Little Eva's "The Loco-Motion," and many, many others. 

"Dance This Mess Around" is more reminiscent of a number of later singles that referred to several different dances, not just one.  For example, there was Chris Kenner's "Land of a Thousand Dances" (later covered by Cannibal & the Headhunters and Wilson Pickett):

You gotta know how to pony like Bony Maronie
Mashed potato, do the alligator
Put your hands on your hips, let your backbone slip
Do the Watusi, like my little Lucy 

Kenner's version of the song mentioned a total of sixteen dances: the pony, the mashed potato, the alligator, the Watusi, the chicken, the twist, the fly, the jerk, the tango, the yo-yo, the sweet pea, the hand jive, the slop, the bop, the fish, and the Popeye.

Here's Jenner's original 1962 single.  Note that his version does not include the "na na na na na" section, which was improvised by Frankie "Cannibal" Garcia of Cannibal & the Headhunters when he forgot the lyrics.

"California Sun" by the Rivieras (which was covered by the Ramones and the Dictators, among others) is another example of this genre:

Where they walk, and I'll walk
They twist, and I'll twist
They shimmy, and I'll shimmy
They fly, and I'll fly

Finally, there's "Nobody But Me" by the Human Beinz:

Nobody can do the shing-a-ling like I do
Nobody can do the skate like I do
Nobody can do the boogaloo like I do
Nobody can do the Philly like I do

"Dance This Mess Around" is different from the earlier songs in one important way -- the dances it lists are not real dances, but made-up ones.  

Here's another verse from "Dance This Mess Around":

They do the shu-ga-loo
Do the shy tuna
Do the camel walk
Do the hip-o-crit 

[Editor's note:  The lyrics to "Dance This Mess Around" are printed on the record sleeve of The B-52's album.  The B-52's capitalized the names of their fictional dances as if they were all proper nouns, but I decided not to do that.   Because waltz, tango, fox trot, and other older dances generally aren't capitalized, I decided not to capitalize the names of these dances -- except when the name was itself a proper noun, like "Watusi" or "Aqua Velva."  (I bet you didn't know that Aqua Velva was originally a mouthwash.)]

The B-52’s (who dropped the apostrophe in 2008) were almost as odd a band as Devo was.  (Not quite – I don’t think any band was an odd as Devo was.)

The B-52’s formed in 1976 after its founding members had shared a communal “Flaming Volcano” drink at a Chinese restaurant in Athens, Georgia.  (Three of the band’s members – siblings Cindy and Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland – were born in Athens, home of the University of Georgia.  I’m not sure how New Jersey natives Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson ended up there.)  The band’s first public appearance was at a friend’s 1977 Valentine’s Day party. 

The group released their first single, “Rock Lobster,” in 1978, and the success of that record resulted in gigs at two legendary punk/new wave clubs in New York City (CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City).  Their eponymous debut album was released in 1979, and it was a big favorite of mine and my good friend (and Federal Trade Commission officemate) Scott. 

Scott and I were just two of the twenty or so brand-new attorneys who started working at the Federal Trade Commission on September 21, 1977 – almost four months after we graduated from law school, and two months after the bar exam.  Why did the agency wait so long to put us to work?

If you had ever worked for the federal government, you’d know all about fiscal years.  For the feds, the year begins on October 1 – that’s the day when your new appropriation kicks in.  Any agency funds that aren’t spent by September 30 are lost forever, so there is often a mini-orgy of spending in September each year.  (Heaven help the agency that doesn’t spend all of its appropriated funds for salaries, travel, office furniture, or whatever by the end of the fiscal year – Congress might get the idea that the agency doesn’t need so much money and cut back on the next year’s appropriation.)

The other side of the coin is that if an agency is spending too much money, it has to tighten its belt and defer expenditures until the next fiscal year.  That’s why all the new hires at the FTC came on board on September 21.

The FTC's headquarters building
“Wait a minute,” you say.  “September 21 is in the old fiscal year.  Why didn’t they start you on October 1?” 

The FTC paid its employees every two weeks.  You got a check at the end of the pay period.  So if you started on Monday, September 21, you didn’t get paid until Friday, October 2 -- which fell in the subsequent fiscal year.  We could go to work in the old fiscal year, but our salaries didn’t count against the FY (fiscal year) 1977 budget because we didn’t get our checks until after FY 1978 had begun.  Comprenez-vous?

I was fortunate to be assigned to share an office with Scott.  He had been in my law school class, but we hadn’t known each other.  And while we didn’t have a lot in common on the surface -- I had grown up in Missouri and gone to college in Texas, while Scott was from Long Island and had gone to Princeton -- we were both huge Yankees fans and had similar tastes in music.  So we got along just fine.

We were fond of the old Georgetown University station, WGTB, and used to have its very outré music playing in our office eight hours a day.  The very left-wing students who had run the station in the sixties clashed regularly with the Jesuit administrators of the university.  By the time Scott and I came to the FTC, the university had managed to wrest control of the station back from the radicals.  They were still playing music that no commercial station in Washington would touch, but the politically extreme programming and public-service announcements for NORML and a local abortion clinic were gone.

Soviet-style sculpture outside FTC HQ
How were we able to work with Fugazi and the Cramps and Husker Dü and the B-52s blasting away in our office?  To be perfectly frank, we didn’t really do that much work our first couple of years at the FTC.  (I’d say the problem was 50% youthful high spirits, 50% lack of supervision.) 

WGTB wasn’t our only distraction.  Another young attorney we became friendly with used to bring around a photocopy of the New York Times crossword puzzle every day.  That puzzle was a bitch, boys and girls – it required a lot of time.  (Your tax dollars at work!)

But that time wasn't entirely wasted.  I still remember learning that there were certain words you saw often in the Times crossword, but nowhere else – “orts,” for example.  ("Orts" refers to the scraps of food left behind after you've finished a meal.  I've seen the words several times in crossword puzzles, but never anywhere else.  I guess it could come in handy in Scrabble as well.)

Here's "Dance This Mess Around":

The B-52's performed "Dance This Mess Around" live on Saturday Night Live on January 26, 1980.  (The host that night was Teri Garr, one of my all-time favorites.)  Click here to view that performance.

Use this link to buy the song from Amazon:

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Led Zeppelin -- "When the Levee Breaks" (1971)

Cryin' won't help you
Prayin' won't do you no good 
When the levee breaks
Mama, you got to move

Seven years ago today, the storm surge caused by Hurricane Katrina resulted in more than 50 breaches of the drainage and navigational canal levees in the New Orleans area.  About 80% of the city was flooded, with some areas under as much as 15 feet of water.  

The American Society of Civil Engineers refers to the flooding of New Orleans as the worst engineering disaster in American history.  The official death toll was 1464 people.  The city lost 29% of its population between 2000 and 2010; most of that loss was due to the flooding and its aftereffects.

New Orleans, 2005
"When the Levee Breaks," a classic 12-bar blues, was written and recorded by husband-and-wife blues singers Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929.  The inspiration for the song was the "Great Mississippi Flood of 1927," which was the most destructive river flood in American history.

The 1927 flood had its genesis in the heavy rains that fell in the central Mississippi basin in the summer of 1926.  The river eventually broke out of its levee system in 145 different places, flooding 27,000 square miles.  Arkansas was the state that was hardest hit by the flood, with about 14% of its total square area covered by the floodwaters.

Sledge, Mississippi in 1927
On April 15, 1927, 15 inches of rain fell on New Orleans in 18 hours.  In an attempt to minimize damage to the city, a levee located southeast of city was dynamited, which caused much of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes to be flooded.  As things turned out, several major levee breaks upriver from New Orleans drained so much water from the Mississippi that the dynamiting was unnecessary.  (Sorry about that, St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes!)

The 1927 flood had far-reaching sociological, political, and cultural effects.  Thousands of displaced African-Americans moved from devastated rural areas in the Mississippi River valley to the big cities up north (especially Chicago).  The flood set the stage for the election of Herbert Hoover to the Presidency in 1928.  (Hoover had headed up relief efforts in his role as Secretary of Commerce.)  William Faulkner wrote a short story ("Old Man") about a prison break that took place during the flood.  And, of course, we have "When the Levee Breaks." 

Led Zeppelin recorded its version of the song in 1970 in a three-story stone residence -- which was originally built in 1795 as a poorhouse -- called Headley Grange.  

Headley Grange
The band wrote and recorded a number of songs at Headley Grange.  "Black Dog" (it and "When the Levee Breaks" are both on Led Zeppelin IV) was named after a black Labrador retriever that hung around Headley Grange while Led Zeppelin was in residence there.  Robert Plant wrote most of the lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven" at Headley Grange in a single day, but Plant is much more to blame for that than the building is.

"When the Levee Breaks" was heavily processed during the recording and mixing process.  For example, the song was recorded at a faster tempo, but then slowed down.  The group rarely performed the song live -- it was too hard to recreate the sound of the recording.

Led Zeppelin IV cover
Led Zeppelin is notorious for allegedly plagiarizing the music of other recording artists.  (Your G.D. right I said "allegedly" -- the last thing I need at this point in my life is a defamation suit.  To paraphrase Jay-Z, "I got 99 problems, but a defamation suit filed on behalf of Led Zeppelin ain't one.")  

The group modified the original Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie lyrics, but stuck close enough to those lyrics that they felt compelled to credit the two old blues musicians as co-writers on their record.  The lines quoted above appear in both versions.

Here's a cover version by Zepparella, an all-female Led Zeppelin tribute band.  These women are very competent musicians.  Thieir version is a fairly literal translation of the original -- nothing really new -- but there's no need to gild the lily here.  And the point of a tribute band is to sound like the band to which they are paying tribute, right?

I'm not sure why the Zepparella video was shot so you never see the drummer's face.  Here's a picture of the drummer, Clementine.  (Clementine also plays in an all-female AC/DC tribute band called "AC/DShe.")

Zepparella's drummer, Clementine
Here's Alison Krauss's version of the song.  It's radically different and is very interesting, but it doesn't really work for me:

Here's the Led Zeppelin version.  Led Zeppelin is really good, boys and girls.  I liked them a lot back in the seventies, but I have an even higher opinion of them now.  (Their first album is arguably the best rock album of all time.)

You can use this link to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Ludacris -- "What's Your Fantasy?" (2000)

In the sun or up in the shade
On the top of my Escalade
Maybe your girl and my friend can trade

Nearly all of the rappers we've discussed in previous "Hip Hop 101" lectures have hailed from either New York City or Los Angeles.  (Detroit's Eminem is a significant exception to that rule.) 

But in the late 1980s, rappers from the American South began to challenge the domination of East Coast and West Coast artists.  Houston, Miami, New Orleans, and especially Atlanta have produced some great hip-hop music -- in fact, the New York Times proclaimed Atlanta to be "hip-hop's center of gravity" in 2009.

Ludacris (who was born Christopher Brian Bridges) wasn't the first great Atlanta rapper, but he is one of the most distinctive and successful "Dirty South" rappers.  Ludacris can carry the ball as a lead artist, and is probably second only to Nicki Minaj in his ability to absolutely steal a single when he is a featured singer on a track where another performer takes the lead.

Here's a good example.  Enrique Iglesias does a very good job as the lead artist on "Tonight (I'm Lovin' You)," which was a top-five hit in 2010.  But listen at 2:30 when Ludacris jumps in for his verse -- he grabs the song in a chokehold:

Ludacris's first studio album -- Back for the First Time -- was released in 2000, when Ludacris was 22.  "What's Your Fantasy" was the first single released from that album.

The song is essentially a laundry list of sexual fantasy scenarios.  Ludacris suggests doing it on the 50-yard-line of the Georgia Dome, in the DJ's booth at a club, on a black-sand beach, in a public restroom, in a public library ("But you can't be too loud!"), in the back row at the movie, in the White House, on top of his Escalade, or -- he likes this one the best, I think -- on stage at the Ludacris concert.

I dare you to try to sing along with the chorus.  Ludacris puts the pedal to the metal in terms of tempo, and repeats certain words and syllables in a stuttery rhythm that is absolutely unpredictable and almost inimitable.  Even with the help of printed lyrics, it's tough to duplicate his astonishing vocal agility:

I wanna li-li-li-lick you 
From your head to your toes
And I wanna move from the bed 
Down to the, down to the, to the floor
Then I wanna (ahh! ahh!) 
You make it so good I don't wanna leave
But I gotta kn-kn-kn-know, 
What-what's your fan-ta-ta-sy?

As usual, Ludacris sounds like he is having the time of his life on this track.  The guy clearly loves his work, and his enjoyment is infectious.  His lyrics are as dirty as anyone's, but he never sounds creepy or threatening.

Here's "What's Your Fantasy":

Here's a remix of the song featuring three female rappers -- Trina, Shawnna, and Foxy Brown -- on the verses in place of Ludacris.  The lyrics of the remix are much dirtier than the lyrics of the original version, and the fact that the performers are women makes the lyrics seem even filthier.  (Watch out for the last verse in particular -- Foxy Brown needs her mouth washed out with soap!)

Click here to buy "What's Your Fantasy" from Amazon:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Devo -- "Come Back Jonee" (1978)

Jonee went to the pawnshop
Bought himself a guitar
Now he's gonna go far

A couple of weeks ago, 2 or 3 lines featured Devo's "Gut Feeling/(Slap Your Mammy)."

I had a hard time choosing between that song and "Come Back Jonee," the track that follows it on Devo's debut album, Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!, but I eventually chose "Gut Feeling."

Then it hit me: I'm in charge here . . . I can feature both songs if I want to!  (If you don't like it, go find a different wildly popular blog to read.)

"Come Back Jonee" (pronounced "Johnny") was clearly inspired by Chuck Berry's classic 1958 hit, "Johnny B. Goode."  (Just listen to the very Berry-esque lead guitar licks.)

With the possible exception of a few Elvis Presley songs, is there a more iconic fifties rock 'n' roll song than "Johnny B. Goode"?

Berry's hit is perhaps the most covered song in pop music history.  (Wikipedia lists almost a hundred artists who covered it, including the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Elvis, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Prince, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Marty McFly and the Starlighters -- that's the band that played at the high school dance in Back to the Future.)

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly
The line about "a country boy named Johnny B. Goode" was originally written as "a colored boy named Johnny B. Goode," but Berry changed the lyric to increase his chances of getting on the radio.  

The Devo song begins with a nod to Berry's hit:

Come back Jonee
Jonee be good
Treat her like you should

While Johnny B. Goode lived in a log cabin in the Louisiana backwoods, Devo's Jonee seems to have been a city boy -- after all, he bought his guitar in a pawnshop and drove his Datsun on an expressway.

Like many guitar heroes, Jonee wasn't very nice to his girl:

You gotta love 'em and leave 'em
Sometimes you deceive 'em
You made her cry
Jonee, you're bad

But karma's a bitch, and Jonee eventually paid the price for making his girl sad:

Jonee jumped in his Datsun
Drove out on the expressway
Went head-on into a semi
His guitar is all that's left now

If you're too young to know what a Datsun is, let me explain.  Datsun was a brand name used by an old Japanese automobile company, DAT Motorcars, which was taken over by Nissan Motor Co. in 1933.

Datsun B210 (circa 1975)
When Nissan entered the American market in 1958, they called their cars Datsuns.  But the company decided to phase out the Datsun brand and replace it with the Nissan name.

The rebranding strategy was announced in the U.S. in 1981, and the company took several years to fully implement the name change (at a cost of about $500 million).  By 1986, the transition was complete.

At the time, I remember a lot of business experts saying Nissan was crazy to abandon the well-known Datsun brand name in favor of Nissan.  I guess it worked out OK in the long run, but I remember that I was not entirely accustomed to the new name in 1990, when I bought a black Nissan Maxima.  (Best car I ever owned, with the possible exception of my first one -- a 1970 Olds Cutlass two-door with the 350 V8.)

1990 Nissan Maxima (not mine)
By the way, Nissan just announced that it is going to revive the Datsun name for the inexpensive models it sells in India, Indonesia, and Russia.

Here's the truly demented music video for "Come Back Jonee."  (Note the one-octave synthesizer Mark Mothersbaugh plays.)

Click here to buy this song from Amazon:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Beatles -- "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" (1969)

I want you
I want you so bad
It's driving me mad
It's driving me mad

Like Devo's "Gut Feeling/(Slap Your Mammy)," this song is really two conjoined songs -- as its title indicates.

The first half of the Devo and the second half of this song are both constructed with unusual five-bar musical phrases, although they differ when it comes to time signatures -- 4/4 for Devo, 6/8 here.

Given the many similarities between the two songs, you're probably wondering why this post didn't immediately follow the Devo one.  That would have been the best thing to do pedagogically, but that's not the way a wildly popular blog like 2 or 3 lines works -- our lead times are long and getting longer.  (I'm already working on the lineup of featured songs for February 2013.)  

My iPod served up "She's So Heavy" a couple of days after we slotted in the Devo post, and I immediately noticed the five-measure phrase the Beatles used.  But trying to shoehorn this post into the blog at the last minute would have been like trying to parallel park one of those gynormous Royal Caribbean cruise ships -- not worth the effort that would have been required.

Big-ass cruise ship
(You ladies out there might better appreciate the situation if you think about fashion shows.  The shows for spring/summer 2013 fashions will be held in September and October of this year.  What would happen if it was January and Alexander McQueen or Dolce & Gabbana had a brainstorm for a dreamy new summer frock while walking the dog and listening to their iPod?  They wouldn't bump something else from their spring/summer line to make room for the new design -- they'd just hold it over until 2014.)

Five is a very unstable number in musical rhythm.  A five-beat measure sounds like it has one beat too many, or one too few.  Just try to dance to 5/4 music.

The dominant numbers when it comes to rhythm are two, three, and four (which breaks down into two twos, of course).  Time signatures based on three -- 3/4 and 6/8, for example -- are common, but three-beat rhythmic units are usually combined in groups of four or eight or some other even number.  It's unnatural to have a musical phrase that doesn't have an even number of measures, and that number will almost always simplify to two or three.

A five-unit musical structure usually breaks down to a two plus a three, and the break between the two and the three is usually somewhat abrupt.  Listen to the famous Dave Brubeck jazz standard, "Take Five."  It has a 5/4 time signature, but each measure breaks down into a three followed by a two -- 1-2-3-4-5.

I'm a big fan of Abbey Road, which was the last album the Beatles recorded before going their separate ways, although not the last album they released.  But it's a very uneven piece of work.  That's not surprising given the dysfunctionality of the Beatles' relationships with one another at that time, not to mention the quantity of drugs they had consumed.

Most of side two of the album is taken up with a brilliant medley of eight distinct songs.  Paul McCartney was primarily responsible for five of the eight, and those five (especially "You Never Give Me Your Money," "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," and "Golden Slumbers") are greatly superior to John Lennon's three -- especially the gibberish that is "Sun King."

By contrast, side one is a mess.  "Come Together" is not very interesting musically -- it's just too repetitive.  "Something" is awful.  "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is awfuler -- an example of McCartney at his worst.  (The other Beatles hated it.  Lennon refused to play on the track, calling it "more of Paul's granny music.")  "Oh! Darling" is a waste of time.  "Octopus's Garden" is an embarrassment.

The Beatles prepare to shoot
the Abbey Road album cover
That leaves "I Want You (She's So Heavy"), which is a Lennon love song written about Yoko Ono -- but let's not hold that against it.

Lennon later explained the lyrics to Rolling Stone magazine: "When you're drowning, you don't say, 'I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come help me.'  You just scream."  Of course, most people would scream even more loudly if Yoko was the person who responded to the cry for help.

This song is very long (almost 8 minutes long -- the only longer Beatles' track was "Revolution 9," which is mostly just noise) but has extraordinarily simple lyrics.  Only 14 different words were used, and one of them ("babe") doesn't really count.

I just realized that it's possible to turn this song into a haiku.  (I left out "babe," but I used every other word in the song.)

She is so heavy
You know I want you so bad
It's driving me mad

"I Want You (She's So Heavy)" opens with a five-bar introduction -- the chords for the five measures (played not as chords but as arpeggios) are D minor, D minor, E7, Bb7, and A+5 (i.e., A with an augmented fifth).  The last three minutes or so of the song essentially repeat that same five-chord progression over and over.

The song ends abruptly, as if someone in the studio tripped on an electrical cord and jerked the plug out of the wall outlet.  But the cold ending was no accident -- the track went on for another 20 seconds or so, but Lennon told the engineer to end it here.

Props to Paul McCartney for a very interesting bass line.  And Billy Preston does a nice job (as usual) on the Hammond B3.

The final overdubbing session for this song took place on August 11, 1969.  That was the last time all four Beatles were in a recording studio together.

Abbey Road was released in the United States on October 1 of that year.  I made a cassette tape of it and took it on a trip to the University of Missouri on November 7.  (I was a high-school senior at the time.)  I was originally planning to tell you about that trip in this post, but I think I'll save that story for later.  (I am such a little tease!)

Here's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)":

Click here if you'd like to buy Abbey Road from Amazon:

Sunday, August 19, 2012

M.O.P. -- "Ante Up" (2000)

Ante up! Yap that fool!
Ante up!  Kidnap that fool!

The world of M.O.P. (Mash Out Posse) as portrayed in "Ante Up" is a very scary place -- a dystopia, if you will.  

If you are crazy enough to venture into their 'hood wearing or driving anything flashy -- rings, bracelets, watches, minks, or a BMW 740i -- you best prepare to be yapped (i.e., robbed).  So prepare to ante up, fool.  It's "your life or your jewels," and you best believe they ain't lyin'.

When my daughters played basketball at the Academy of the Holy Cross about ten years ago, pre-game warmups were accompanied by rap music -- including this song.  (Were the sisters who ran the Academy deaf?  Or were they just not listening?)

One of the hip-hop tracks that was regularly played while the AHC Tartans prepared to take on the Our Lady of Good Counsel Falcons, or the Paul VI Panthers, or the Bishop McNamara Mustangs, or whomever their opponents were that evening -- OutKast's "The Whole World" -- will be featured in an upcoming 2 or 3 lines.  

I remembered that they also used to play a completely over-the-top song about robbing people during warmups, and I wanted to write about this song as well.  But I had no idea what its title was, or who performed it.   

To quote every twenty-something waiter or waitress who has served me in a restaurant in the last five years, "Not a problem!"  I just did Google searches for "top rap songs 2001" and "top rap songs 2000" and so on.  Sure enough, "Ante Up" popped up almost immediately -- eureka!

Billy Danze and Lil' Fame of M.O.P.
M.O.P. (which consists of veteran Brooklyn MCs Lil' Fame and Billy Danze) has released nine albums since 1994.  They've always had a loyal fan base, but "Ante Up" -- which is on their fourth album, Warriorz --  is the only one of their songs that made a real impression nationally (and internationally). calls Warriorz "a Molotov cocktail of an album" marked by M.O.P.'s unique brand of "harmonium high-energy thuggery."  (I'd call it a "stick of dynamite" rather than a Molotov cocktail, but you get the picture.)

Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," said that Warriorz was "a rap record to terrify your ass."  He then talked about how he couldn't help but enjoy the album despite the fact that he totally disapproved of it.

As is no secret, I hate gangsta rap -- its smugness, its brutality, its cool, its lies, its contempt for the ordinary, its failure to provide role models for young African-American men.  But this specimen convinces me that, sometimes, thugs have more fun. . . . I scoff at "guilty pleasures," too.  Pleasure is nothing to feel guilty about.  This may be.

I second that emotion.  You can't explain why you start whooping and hollering and trying to act like a 21-year-old rapper from Brownsville when "Ante Up" is playing any more than you can explain the appeal of watching porn.  It's pure atavism -- you can't defend it intellectually any more than you can deny its visceral appeal.

Here's "Ante Up":

Click here to buy "Ante Up" from Amazon:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Candy Strypers -- "Dance On" (2010)

Here it comes, a surprise
For to light up their eyes
They're on fire

This is the third in a series of 2 or 3 lines posts that features songs by the Candy Strypers, a pop group from Manchester, England.

The Candy Strypers consist of Paul Hughes on lead and backing vocals, Paul Hughes on guitar, Paul Hughes on keyboards, and Paul Hughes on drums.  (The producer of the Candy Strypers' recordings is Paul Hughes, by the way, and Paul Hughes writes the music and lyrics for their songs.)

In his one and only live appearance to date, Paul performed "Hymn the Girl" solo.  With only his acoustic guitar and his own voice, Paul did a nice job with that song.

I don't think Paul could do "Dance On" justice if he performed it solo with just an acoustic guitar.  Maybe it's not entirely necessary to have a horn section introduce the song, but it's a very nice touch.  (OK, it's a faux horn section -- remember, Paul does everything by himself, and the horns at the beginning of "Dance On" are generated with a synthesizer.)  And the multilayered vocal harmonies in the chorus of "Dance On" couldn't be replicated on a stage unless Paul brought a few of his mates in to sing backup.

Before we discuss "Dance On," let's learn a little more about Paul -- including that one live appearance, which took place at a famous pop music shrine.

2 or 3 lines:  Paul, you sent me a Youtube video of yourself performing "Hymn the Girl" live.  Do you appear live regularly?

Paul Hughes:  I played my first and only gig -- just me and an acoustic guitar -- at the Cavern Club in Liverpool as part of the International Pop Overthrow Festival in May of this year.  My wife accompanied me on the day she was due to give birth to our first child.  Luckily he stayed put until a couple of days afterwards!

(The Cavern Club in Liverpool -- which was located in a cellar space that had been used as an air-raid shelter during World War II -- opened in 1957.  The Beatles performed there a total of 292 times between February 1961 and August 1963, and the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Kinks, Who, Queen, and Elton John also performed there.  The old club shut down in 1973 as the result of subway construction, but was rebuilt in 1984, and is a popular live-music venue and tourist attraction today.)

The Beatles (before Ringo) at the Cavern Club
2 or 3 lines:  I would think that a lot of your songs would be very difficult to recreate live with just your voice and an acoustic guitar.  Is that why it took you so long to do a live appearance?

Paul:  I've never felt the desire to play live -- partly because of nerves, partly because I'm a control freak over constructing the songs in the first place, and partly because I've never had a band to do them justice.

2 or 3 lines:  I can't think of a more fitting spot for a Beatles fan like yourself to make your debut than the Cavern Club.  And I think you did a very nice job with "Hymn the Girl" -- it's well-suited to a very simple arrangement. 

Paul:  I wouldn't say I'm desperate to do it again in the near future, but I did manage to enjoy playing at the Cavern.

2 or 3 lines:  I'm sure you were happy that your wife was able to attend the gig, but it must have been a little disconcerting to know that she might go into labor right in the middle of one of your songs.  Tell us a little about your family.

Paul:  Cassandra and I are two years married.  Evan, who's close to three months old, is our first child.

Paul Hughes with his son Evan
2 or 3 lines:  Is Cassandra a musician?  

Paul:  She's a big music fan, but she doesn't play.

2 or 3 lines:  Did you ever use music to woo her?  Maybe write a song about her?

Paul:  Mix CDs were proffered during courtship.

(Isn't that a marvelous line?  I smile every time I read it.)

2 or 3 lines:  What does Cassandra think about your music?  Hopefully she doesn't complain that you devote too much time to writing and recording your songs, and not enough time to doing chores -- like  changing Evan's diapers.

Paul:  I think she likes my songs.  I occasionally find her absent-mindedly humming one of my tunes.  And she's pretty supportive -- if anything she thinks I don't spend enough time on my music.

Cassandra and Paul in New York City
2 or 3 lines:  Paul, do you see the glass as half empty or half full when it comes to your music?  On the one hand, you're not making money with your music.  On the other hand, you have created a very credible body of work out of nothing more than your own skill and creativity, and you have a number of fans and admirers -- that must be very satisfying to you.  Do you view yourself as successful?

Paul:  Success for me is people taking the time to download the songs -- that someone would like them enough to do that kind of blows my mind!  Obviously I like my songs, but I guess I never took for granted that other people would.  Anything else, including getting paid would be a bonus.  

2 or 3 lines:  Would that be the ultimate dream-come-true situation for you?  To be able to give up your job with the National Health Service and make a living with your music?  

Paul:  Obviously I would be a very happy man if I could wake up every day and have music be my career, but the world is so saturated with others making music.  And with the old major-label record industry model going the way of the dinosaurs, it's pretty unlikely that I can make a good living doing this.  Anyway, I do it for the love of it.  I feel compelled to do it.
"Dance On" -- one of Paul's best and most fully-realized songs -- is based on a true story.

Between September 1940 and May 1941, the German Luftwaffe attacked London 71 times.  More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged in "The Blitz."  About 30,000 Londoners died, and 50,000 more were injured in the bombing raids.

A strict blackout was imposed, and the majority of the population had no interest in moving around  after dark.  But many of the beautiful people of London took Ecclesiastes 8:15 to heart: "Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and be merry."

The Café de Paris in London
One of the places they ate, drank, and were very merry indeed was the Café de Paris, a sumptuous Soho nightspot where "the men all seemed extraordinarily handsome and the young women so very beautiful" (according to one regular).

The Café de Paris was 20 feet below street level, but that didn't protect its patrons on the night of March 8, 1941.  Two German bombs found their way down a ventilation shaft and exploded right in front of the club's bandstand.

Ken "Snakehips" Johnson
The bandleader that night was Ken Johnson -- a West Indian native whose suave dance moves had earned him the nickname "Snakehips."  The blast separated Johnson's head from his body, and many others suffered equally gruesome injuries.  At least 34 guests, band members, and club employees were killed.

Some of the survivors refused to let the bombing spoil their evening, limping off to other clubs and cabarets.  You can view those people as being narcissists who were completely devoid of empathy, or you can admire them for refusing to buckle under to Hitler's campaign of terror.  (Stiff upper lip, and all that.)

After the bombs hit
Click here to read the newspaper account of the Café de Paris bombing that inspired Paul Hughes to write "Dance On."  

"Dance On" is perhaps the most impressive example of Paul's considerable songwriting talent, and it's a very skillfully executed recording as well -- particularly when you remember that Paul not only plays all the instruments and sings all the vocal parts, but records, edits, and mixes everything on his home computer.

As noted above, "Dance On" begins with what appears to be an introduction by a horn section -- which is actually Paul on a synthesizer.  It's rather somber, in contrast to the music that accompanies the verses and choruses.  

In the first verse of "Dance On," the beautiful young people of London are depicted in the bars and cafes of London's stylish West End, where the dance music drowns out the warning sirens and exploding bombs. 
Run through the dark streets they're lethal to roam
Far from their parents all sheltered at home
As the explosions flare, o'er Leicester Square
Fear from the skies as the warning it blares
Down in the cafe forgetting their cares
The verses of "Dance On" have an unusual five-line structure.  Most pop songs will have verses with four lines.  Notice also the interesting rhyme scheme of those five lines: AABBB.  (The third line has an internal rhyme as well.)  

The word "dancing" is repeated several times in the chorus, and the swirly, overlapping vocal parts of the chorus create the feel of a couple dancing.  Paul Hughes is a Beach Boys fan, and the chorus has a very Beach Boys-esque sound -- which is somewhat incongruous, since the words are about stylish young Londoners during World War II, not the surfers or hot rodders or California girls who are featured in most Beach Boys songs.
And they're dancing, 
There's a hundred people dancing,
While the city burns they're dancing,
There's a hundred people dancing
The second verse alludes to King George VI, the British monarch during World War II, who stubbornly remained in London during the Blitz.  The King and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, narrowly avoided serious injury or death when bombs exploded in a courtyard at Buckingham Palace on September 13, 1940.

Churchill and the King and Queen at
bomb-damaged Buckingham Palace
The third line -- the one with the internal rhyme -- takes a quick peek into the future, noting that the children of those young Londoners who survived the Blitz will come of age during the "swinging London" of the sixties. 
Meanwhile the King won't be moved from his throne, 
Stands with his people their bravery well known
Oh their children will sing, London will swing
Back in that basement they'd lose all their airs
Down in the cafe the Kingdom is theirs
The dramatic high point of the song takes place at the end of the bridge.  The beautiful people have become accustomed to long, boring days and "nights all aglow" not only with the bright lights of the clubs, but also with the widespread fires caused by the German bombing.  Suddenly, there's a shocking surprise in the form of the bombs that somehow made their way down into the subterranean Café de Paris.  The bombs explode and "light up their eyes" -- and they are quite literally "on fire."
And it's hard for to see where tomorrow they'll be
With the days, oh so slow, and the nights all aglow
And it's hard for to see where tomorrow they'll be
Here it comes, a surprise, for to light up their eyes
They're on fire

The bridge appears to replicate the five-line structure of the verses, but the last line is cut in half.  Immediately following that truncated line is an electric guitar solo, which is of a very different character than the music that preceded it -- it's distorted and edgy, signaling quite clearly that something has changed radically.  And it's a very impressive solo, by the way -- well-conceived and expertly performed, but not showy for the sake of being showy.

After that guitar, there's a return to the more innocent musical style of the rest of the song.  A brief transitional passage that features a high trumpet figure reminiscent of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour-era music bridges the gap between the guitar solo and the final chorus.

"Dance On" packs a lot into 3:38.  It's an impressive work, and really deserves to be the subject of a music video that tells this story visually as well as lyrically. 

Many of the songs that Paul Hughes has written are charming and enjoyable -- "sunny power pop from a rainy city," as Paul describes them.  But some of those songs are like a gourmet dish full of delicious and intriguing ingredients, but whose flavors haven't completely melded.  There's much to like about those songs, but the whole is not quite as great as the sum of the parts.  You can't help but think that Paul could make them even better with a little more time and effort.

By contrast, "Dance On" is a truly finished product.  Paul fully understands what makes classic pop music so appealing, and he has borrowed liberally from the masters of that art form (as did Lennon and McCartney and Brian Wilson and all the masters of it who preceded him).  But it also has plenty of original touches and is beautifully nuanced.  

I look forward to seeing where Paul Hughes goes musically over the next few years.  "Dance On" and his other songs provide clear proof that he has considerable talent, but I have a feeling that we've only seen the tip of the iceberg.  

I'd love to see what Paul could do if he had all the resources that pop superstars have -- genius producers, first-rate studio musicians and back-up singers, and all the benefits of a professional recording studio.  Paul doesn't need any of those things to make wonderful recordings.  But I think he deserves the opportunity to collaborate with other talented people who can help him reach his full potential.

I hope that the three posts I've written about the Candy Strypers make it clear how much I admire Paul and the music he has created.  If my efforts result in even a few people becoming fans of Paul Hughes, I would be very pleased.  I know I'm tossing a rather small rock into a very large ocean when I write about a musician like Paul, and I don't expect the ripples that I create to travel very far.  But every little bit helps.

At long last, here's "Dance On."  Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Candy Strypers -- "Callin' Sarah" (2010)

You know I'll never be caught
I'm far too clever
You ought to know that by now

In the last 2 or 3 lines, Paul Hughes of the Candy Strypers -- who describes himself as a "bedroom musician" -- pulled back the curtain and revealed how he single-handedly creates and records music like his neo-sixties pop song, "Hymn the Girl."  If you missed that post, click here and get caught up before you read what comes next.

Paul Hughes
In this post -- the second of three that focus on the Candy Strypers -- we'll learn how Paul Hughes writes the lyrics to songs like "Callin' Sarah," which has a very different feel than "Hymn the Girl" did. 

Imagine a spectrum with instrumental music (pure music) at one end and poetry (pure words) at the other end.

The songs that are featured on 2 or 3 lines fall somewhere between the two extremes of that spectrum.  Bob Dylan and most rappers tilt toward the words end of the spectrum -- the music is usually secondary to the lyrics in their songs.  

By contrast, a lot of pop songs have very rudimentary lyrics.  The lyrics of Bubble Puppy's psychedelic hit, "Hot Smoke and Sassafras," consist of 12 short lines totaling only 80 words.  

Don't get me wrong -- it's a great song, and it doesn't need any more words.  My point is simply that a great song can be memorable due to its lyrics, or due to its music, or due to the combination of both.  It's all good, my brothers!

There's one other point I want to make.  Song lyrics can work well and make perfect sense in the context of a song, but make no sense at all when you read them on the printed page.

Brian Eno
When I asked Paul Hughes about the lyrics to "Callin' Sarah," he sent me a very interesting Brian Eno quote:

I don't have the lyrics printed on the sleeve.  As far as I'm concerned my lyrics don't exist as some kind of poetry in their own right, but as part of the music.  So it's no more relevant to print the lyrics than it is to score the top line that the guitar is playing. 

I think Eno is right.  (The same is true of plays and movies.  You can read the script if you wish, but doing that doesn't compare to going to the theater or watching a movie.)  I always loved it when the lyrics to an album's songs were printed on the back cover or the inner sleeve.  But I didn't want the lyrics so I could read them as poems.  I wanted them because I often have a problem deciphering lyrics when I listen to a record, and I needed to be able to see the lyrics so I could sing along -- which I dearly love to do, often to the dismay of my children.

(Which reminds me the time my father sudden turned off the car radio as I was singing along to some sixties song from the backseat when I was about 12 years old.  When I protested, this was his answer: "We can either listen to the radio or we can listen to you.")

Paul enjoys composing music much more than writing lyrics.

Paul's alma mater, Durham University
Paul Hughes:  Lyrics are the hardest part of songwriting for me, not because I don't enjoy the play of language (my university degree is actually in English Literature), but for some reason I just don't have the patience to labour over them.

2 or 3 lines:  So tell me about the process you go through to write a new song.
Paul Hughes:  I'll always start with a melody that I can't get out of my head, always, as that's what draws me to any kind of music, classical or pop. Lyrics are an afterthought, and I'll start with nonsensical humming and the odd word which scans with the melody will pop in at various points, and from then on it's something of a jigsaw puzzle, and perhaps a story will emerge, perhaps it won't.  I'm always so impatient to hear what the finished article will sound like sonically that it feels like the lyric writing is something of a hindrance.  
2 or 3 lines:  As a fellow English major, I have to ask you if you read a lot -- and, if so, what kind of books you read?

Paul:  I'm a big fan of Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger, and I read world history and writing about advaita vedanta -- a wide range of stuff really. 
[Note: Advaita vedanta is a school of Hindu philosophy.]

2 or 3 lines:  We might as well cover your favorite movies and TV shows while we're at it.
Paul:  I'm a child of the eighties so I loved Back to the Future and The Karate Kid.  But I think The Graduate is my favorite movie.  I also watch quality TV like The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, and Doctor Who.
2 or 3 lines:  Getting back to our featured song, "Callin' Sarah" tells a story.  Is it a true story?

Paul:  Thankfully not a true story!

2 or 3 lines:  The song seems to involve a guy who is obsessed with a girl named Sarah, and who calls her from a pay phone in order to keep his identity a secret.

Paul:  Yes, it's very much about a secret obsession type of affair with the anonymous caller getting off on Sarah's lack of interest in him.

"Callin' Sarah" is one of my favorite Candy Strypers songs -- and not only because I have a daughter named Sarah.  Unlike many of the songs that Paul Hughes has recorded, it doesn't really sound like a sixties song -- I would say it has more in common with music from the seventies or early eighties.  

It's not only the musical style that makes me say that, but also the song's attitude.  "Callin' Sarah" isn't as innocent and starry-eyed as most of Paul's compositions.  The singer is a bit naughty, and the song definitely has an edge to it -- it reminds me a little of Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe.

Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe
Despite Paul's claim that he doesn't have the patience to labor over his lyrics, the lyrics to this song are quite clever and polished.

The verses have an interesting internal rhyme scheme.  Here are the first four lines of the second verse of "Callin' Sarah":

Her number ends in a six
I've got a library of tricks at my disposal
Don't you see there's a fix?
'Cause through the mortar and bricks there runs a cable

The odd-numbered lines essentially have four beats of music and words, followed by four beats of just music.  The even-numbered lines fill all eight beats with words.  The rhyming words are in the same place rhythmically in each line -- between the second and third beats of each eight-beat phrase -- but in the second and fourth lines, there are more words to come after the rhyming word (unlike the first and third lines, which end with the rhyming word).

The effect is to make the rhymes much less heavy-handed than they would have been if each line had been the same length and ended in a word that rhymed.

The chorus seems extremely simple:

Callin' Sarah
Callin' Sarah
Callin' Sarah
I don't want you
Callin' Sarah

At first, the caller is presumably saying "Callin' Sarah" -- in other words, announcing that he is calling to speak to Sarah.  But the last lines seem to be coming from the person who answers the phone (possibly a parent or roommate -- or perhaps even a husband) is responding that "I don't want you callin' Sarah."

As the lines quoted at the top of this post indicate, the singer of this song is pretty confident that Sarah won't be able to figure out who he is because he's "too clever" to be caught.  Paul Hughes is a pretty clever fellow himself when it comes to the lyrics for this song.  Maybe he picked something up after all in all those university English lit classes he took.

In the next 2 or 3 lines, we'll talk about a Candy Strypers song that may be is Paul's most complex and ambitious effort yet.  And we'll find out what his wife thinks about his music.

Here's "Callin' Sarah" -- feel free to download (it's free):