Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ancient Music


I was so delirious and sick recently that I swear I was in a high mountain market surrounded by volcanoes shopping for limes to cure my ills, while the entire town stopped and watched me walk around, gawking openly at my hair and blank expression, and this song came over a nearby radio right after a tune by The Outfield. The Eighties Gone to Seed. I thought I was hallucinating. I was wearing a bright white Ecuadorian peasant shirt, sweating poison into my dirty boxer shorts, heaving, tired of the lies and self deceit, twisted together in a ribbon I tie around my ego like a present for my Id. But the song stuck with me and I suspected it was Roxette so I had to listen to all songs by Roxette or Taylor Dayne or Kim Wilde.

It's technically from the '90s but anyone who grew up in the '80s will hear the influence of Pat Benetar, Bonnie Tyler, and Belinda Carlisle. It's actually a generic ballad with a substandard verse, but with an anthemic chorus like this and a gorgeous vocalist you can leave the verse alone. This has elements of Cher too, Wilson Phillips, Peter Cetera, Nelson, Heart: all the big heavily produced rock hits of that time, but the problem is that in 1991, the pretty pop bubble had burst and the next generation had started to eat up a less polished/produced type of music coming from the North West Coast. Belinda Carlisle survived the decade transition with some dignity as did The Rolling Stones and REM and Whitney Houston and Dire Straits, but there was a four year period, 1989-1992 when the most over produced power ballads were being thrown on the radio. It was like an Arms Race between international music studios each trying to produce the most epic song and it destroyed all hope for realistic bands like Culture Club and REO Speedwagon, and The Cars, whose singles suddenly sounded dated. It was like a new Berlin Wall of music had been constructed and all low budget acts such as Tracy Chapman and Cyndi Lauper would not be allowed to cross, but this wall only lasted long enough to cull some of the fading acts like Def Leppard and flavor of the months like Debbie Gibson. 

The epic song has a few characteristics but the one I want to point out is the key change at the last chorus, sometimes called a "truck driver key change" because it musically evokes the action when a big stunt truck is going up a steep hill in order to plunge off a cliff dramatically and is losing speed and the driver must downshift or stall. See? Songs are meant to end with the listener flying off a cliff, not simply limping up to the edge and tumbling down the jagged side to the next song and this modulation gives them the extra RPMs to get you airborne. In Roxette's case the verse is in D minor. The chorus is in the relative Major F. It's a modulation, no doubt, but the notes don't change, just the tonic focus. That's why it sounds epic...sad to triumphant...minor to major with the same key signature. But the really epic key change is when there is a "pianissimo" chorus in F at 2:30 followed by several choruses when the key changes from F up a whole step to G at 2:43. This is what producers do when they frivolously want to change a song length from 3:00 to 4:00 and also to get the listener off. And it works... for a while.

It was the last gasp of the '80s between the fading of Milli Vanilli and the rise of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, this strange mini-era of huge ballads that only Jim Steinman had ever attempted before. Now lesser writers were trying their hand and basically creating skin deep anthems that would have no lasting appeal or any kind of art to the language. Very 10th grade lyrics. When you listen to them you think, "Hey, good song." Well, the second time you listen to it you don't hear anything new. The third time you listen to it you skip to the next song about half way through. That's the difference. Bat Out of Hell has songs that are not skin deep. Steinman and Meatloaf sort of approached it like the genre itself was skin deep, but they we're going to be ridiculously emotional and serious about it. Nelson approached it with a casual brilliance esthetic, but the big difference is creativity. Mr. Big had one of the greatest guitar players of all time with Paul Gilbert, strong voices, pretty chins, nice hair, and they managed to compose a single rock anthem that is super catchy, but is forever trapped in 1991. Bat Out of Hell is pretty much timeless because the creativity was very high and the authenticity was also very high. The songs aren't quite as "catchy" but that's the sacrifice of the Steinman anthem. It's also why a singer like Otis Redding can not be eclipsed by a Michael Buble singing Otis Redding songs; the authenticity for Buble is derivative even though his talent is approximately equivalent. I mean, if something like sex appeal or charisma could be taught then wouldn't Marylin Monroe and Vivien Leigh be long forgotten? I think the elite cultural icons started out with supernatural gifts that they developed until they personify Soul or Sex for the rest of us mortals.

This is all to prime myself to write my epic review of 1985 music as I survived long enough to write a 30 year anniversary music essay. That means listening to Shout by Tears for Fears today is like listening to The Ballad of Davy Crockett back in 1985. Or how about this....just think about this...if they remake the movie Back to the Future I, then Marty will be sent 30 years back in time to the long ago year of 1985. Just imagine how out of touch a teenager today would be if he were sent back to the time you were a teenager...and how amazed you were when you watched Marty walk around that clock tower plaza for the first time. Teenagers today must perceive Ronald Reagan as a confirmed lunatic, a prop parody of the political insanity they inherited, Sarah Palin's senile bastard step-father. "How did our parents elect and reelect a goofy actor who could not remember if he authorized the sale of Colombian cocaine in Los Angeles to fund a genocidal military rebellion in Nicaragua? How did the same delusional ex-actor directly and openly fund and applaud a Guatemalan military genocide of poor corn farmers? It would be like us electing Adam Sandler as President and having him declare covert war on Venezuela's homeless population using money generated from blow jobs by Brazilian hookers given to CIA Secret Service men...and then forgetting he did it."

Note: Roxette is not from Berlin, Germany and is not related to the band Berlin, which is from Los Angeles, U.S.A. No, Roxette is a Swedish band and this video is filmed on location in Stockholm. Milli Vanilli, however, was from West Germany.
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.