All posts by Stephen Macaulay

Is It Me, For A Moment?

In a recent issue of AutoWeek (11/19/01), GloNo‘s own sab created a brilliant piece of writing, essaying the Vespa ET4 scooter, which begins, “For all of you Ace Faces who don’t fancy grubbing up your trousers tinkering with a fiddly and ancient Italian scooter, your day has arrived.”

While it might strike some people as log-rolling to give props to one of our own on this site, I should note that (1) I have personally caused sab undoubtedly the most grief vis-à-vis his prose renderings and have no intention of stopping and (2) it seems to me that a “brilliant piece of writing” is something that causes you to be sufficiently gobsmacked so that you are forced—yes forced—to take action as a result of your reading.

And in the case of the Vespa piece, it drove me to pull out Quadrophenia.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the reference (or as sab describes them in the Vespa piece, “Above Average Joe/Jennifer Jobsworth, you who might think Quadrophenia is something you take Zoloft for”), it is the quintessential Who recording. Whereas Tommy has unquestionably greater visibility and acknowledgement (disc, film, and even Broadway stage spectacular), and while it has been uniformly lauded for being the first “rock opera,” Quadrophenia is beyond comparison. (Which could bring us back to the argument about whether a group’s most popular recording is its best, but I won’t trod down that path for now.) Superficially, Quadrophenia is about the Mods, the likes of whom ride scooters (“I ride my GS scooter with my hair cut neat”) , and the Rockers. Townshend identified with the Mods, who tricked out their scooters in a manner analogous to the way that Civics are being tuned in SoCal today.

While listening, again—and again—to Quadrophenia, I began to think about what makes it such a phenomenal piece of work. It has little to do, I think, with the form, with the fact that whereas most groups circa 1973 were turning out recordings that were discrete bits under four minutes and The Who was out there with something that arrived on two black discs that has a story arc. Rather, I think that what Townshend had exactly put his finger on is something that is rarely captured in music, at least semi-popular music: the feeling that many young men (yes, I realize that this is a sexist approach, but I know no women who are as taken with Quadrophenia, so I can only posit this from my point of view) painfully experience, regardless of time and place.

Consider: Pop music about Women + Men + Love tends to equal something wherein (a) everything is wonderful, (b) one of the parties misses the other who may have fallen out of Love with the other, or (c) well, there doesn’t seem to be a (c). In this formula, the parties are equal. But in Quadrophenia, Jimmy realizes that he’s not equal, that there is a longing for a girl:

The girl I love
Is a perfect dresser,
Wears every fashion
Gets it to the tee.
Heavens above,
I got to match her
She knows just how
She wants her man to be
Leave it to me. (“Sea and Sand”)

“She knows just how she wants her man to be,” but it becomes clear that despite his best efforts—

My jacket’s gonna be cut and slim and checked,
Maybe a touch of seersucker, with an open neck.
I ride a G.S. scooter with my hair cut neat,
Wear my wartime coat in the wind and sleet. (“I’ve Had Enough”)

—he isn’t going to achieve what he’s looking for. There is always something that isn’t quite right in his attempts, he’s always frustrated. He asks himself,

Why do I have to move with a crowd
Of kids that hardly notice I’m around,
I have to work myself to death just to fit in. (“Cut My Hair”)

Yet note that he is working to fit in. What else can he do? The girl he loves clearly moves in a crowd that he’s not a part of, a crowd where the people are somehow different. He asks,

Where do you get
Those blue blue jeans?
They hold secrets so tight.
Where do you get
That warcoat so neat?
Your shoes and your shirts
All just right. (“I’m One”)

Even though he has his own wartime coat, one that he was undoubtedly proud of when he got it, he recognizes that it somehow doesn’t measure up. He knows that his jeans aren’t quite what they should be, especially as the girl he loves “Is a perfect dresser.” And who among us hasn’t had this experience, this personal questioning, at a dance when we were in our teens:

So how come the other tickets look much better?
Without a penny to spend they dress to the letter.
How come the girls come on oh so cool
Yet when you meet ’em, every one’s a fool? (“Sea and Sand”)

Somehow it is the other guys who have been able to pull it off. Somehow the other girls—well, given their rejection, we can only be dismissive of them in order to hold onto a shred of our own ego. “They are stupid, not worth it,” we tell ourselves. Otherwise, we have doubts. . .

I’m dressed right for a beach fight,
But I just can’t explain
Why that uncertain feeling is still
Here in my brain. (“Cut My Hair”)

…we have that “uncertain feeling.” He asks, “Why should I care, why should I care?” and he knows, as we all did, that it goes back to the unrequited love. We dress up. We act the part. We drive the scooter. We act tough. We do what we think will make the different. Yet often,

Here by the sea and sand
Nothing ever goes as planned (“Sea and Sand”)

I can remember clearly when Quadrophenia first came out. I was in my first year of college. And I think my behavior, actions, attitudes were not far away from these. I still see Her every now and then. None of it worked. And I am better for that.

How can rock and roll change your life? I don’t exactly know, but I do know that as I listen to Quadrophenia, sometimes a knowing chill runs down my spine.

Thanks for making me listen again, sab.

This, Bud, Is For You

One of the issues regarding music is the degree to which it is calculated. Calculated in dollars and… more dollars. Let’s not be naïve. The music industry is an industry like any other. It is about selling goods and services with the purpose of making money. At the expense of all else.

Generally, we probably suspect that it’s the recording company executives and promoters who are the most bottom-line oriented, that they are the ones who hire the marketing people—the pollsters, analysts and publicists—and others who make up what has been aptly described at the “star-making machinery.” These are the ones who orchestrate everything, from the signage in record stores to the made-for-TV extravaganzas. They pick the “hits.” They orchestrate the appearances on whatever—from “Regis and Kelly” to “TRL” and everything at either extreme.

What we probably don’t do is perceive the musicians as being incredibly mercenary. Sure, we all know about the Brill Building and the hit-making methodology: Turn the crank and get a pop hit. We all know that musicians have car payments and utility bills. And we’re all aware of the ironic honesty of the Mother’s of Invention’s album title “We’re Only In It For the Money.”

Still, I’m sure that with exceptions—e.g., the evidently manufactured models whose musical talents make the late Milli Vanilli look like the Beatles—we figure that there is a degree of actual belief in artistry of what they are doing that bands have.

A clear differentiator is the music that is written for release as musical products in and of themselves and music that is written for commercials. The latter is often described with the diminutive “jingles,” as though we don’t want to accord them the full status of musical compositions. The commercial music is meant to sell another product; the released recording is fundamentally meant to sell itself. We assume that the motive of the commercial jingle composer to be thoroughly commercial. We give the released musical work our willing suspension of disbelief; we try to avoid thinking about the commercial motive, even as we pull out our wallets to hear the performers, physically or digitally.

And so listen to this from an interview in The New York Times Magazine (12/2/01, free registration required), conducted by John Glassie, with Gene Simmons, co-founder, with Paul Stanley, of Kiss:

“Music was never the point. I believe that music and inspiration and creativity are all way overvalued. Everybody who is in the arts likes to emphasize the romantic because it makes good copy. Well, I have a little bit of advice for all the new rock stars: if you’re queasy about all the money you’ve’ made, sit down and write a check to Gene Simmons for your entire net worth.”

Is that what it is all about? Does knowing that the music of Kiss was as calculated as a McDonald’s commercial make it something less? Are those people who may feel “queasy” knowing that the Kiss anthems that they once rocked to are nothing more than advertisements for selling more and more copies of themselves merely babes in the woods who deserve to be taken?

Simmons goes on to note:

“We have 2,500 licenses—everything from the Kiss coffin, which doubles as a Kiss cooler, to Kiss condoms. I’m starting some stuff outside of Kiss, too. There’s going to be Gene Simmons Tongue magazine. We’ve already got a preorder of a million without a single word written or photo taken.”

There has been some concern among the GloNo team members with regard to the limited reach that this site has vis-à-vis the world at large. Perhaps the real issue is that we’re insufficiently whorish. Henceforth, I think I’ll be looking for a sponsor for my items. I’ll take cash, checks, or money orders. No stamps, please.

Adieu

So now another is gone. George Harrison, the “Quiet Beatle.” Cancer. Horrible.

In some regards, Harrison was the Rodney Dangerfield of the group. Sure, Ringo seemed to be the one who could get little, if any respect. But the difference is that Harrison actually earned it. While I have previously argued that the Beatles are the premier example of a group that is better than the sum of its parts, that group without Harrison would have been a far paltrier outfit.

Rock and roll was once figured to be about youth and vitality. It was something with chronological limits: “I hope I die before I get old.”

Perhaps this is an argument based on my own increasing chronology, but I’d like to suggest that rock and roll is now about relevance. Otherwise we wouldn’t be so concerned about the failure of Jagger, the fatuousness of Sting, and pomposity of Aerosmith.

And we wouldn’t take a moment to reflect on the passing of a signal musician in the genre’s history.

Annoyance Alert

I’ve just witnessed an ad on ABC for a show that will be on at 10 pm Eastern Thanksgiving night: “Being Mick.”

Yep, him.

(See him mugging in the studio; see him in exotic places; see him with a toddler; see him just like a regular person who happens to be incredibly rich and consequently unlike any regular people that any of us know.)

Let’s see… Britney, JLo, Garth Brooks, and now Mick all in a matter of a few days on the tube, all around the “sweeps” that drive up costs that advertisers pay for commercial time—and drive up the costs that we all pay for products to accommodate that charge.

How can purveyors of rock and roll change your life? Well, one way is by lightening your wallet.

Calculated Oops

Britney Spears Live from Las VegasOn the day following the Britney Spears HBO bump-and-grind performance from Las Vegas, I noted that on sports talk radio there were discussions about the appropriateness of men above, say, age 25 finding 19-year-old Spears sexually appealing. While not promoting a Don Henley defense here, the whole thing strikes me as rather absurd. Too many of these people were trying to come off as though they are in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. “Can you say ‘bullshit,’ neighbor?”

To use the time-honored sports-talk metaphor, let’s break things down…

* Title IX notwithstanding, sports is a testosterone-driven arena. If there is any question about that, then ask yourself this: Why do ads for strip clubs in Windsor appear in the sports section of the Detroit Free Press and not the entertainment section? Sports is nothing else than the Entertainment Business writ large. Just like music. In fact, when you consider the ties between the two, things become rather inextricable.

* How many “sports fans” are “fans” of Anna Kournikova? How many “sports fans” have you ever heard holding the view that “She’s too young to ogle”? I’ve heard approximately none. How many “sports fans” managed to have their Internet-based fantasy sports team playing interrupted by opening an attachment to an email that was a virus disguised as pix of Anna? Let’s see: Spears, 12/02/81; Kournikova, 6/07/81. Yep, a vast difference.

* Spears appeared on HBO. Not broadcast. Not basic cable. Gee, do you think that the venue might have had a little something to do with her ability to strut her stuff in a way that would otherwise be considered verboten? (Although with last week’s “Victoria’s Secret Underwear Extravaganza on the Network Owned By Disney, Which We Thought Was Always About Less Obvious Sexuality” may have changed things somewhat in this regard.) And what about the fact that she was on 9 pm—isn’t that post-family hour?

* Spears appeared in Las Vegas, at the MGM Grand. The tribute to Dorothy in that hotel notwithstanding, the first thing that anyone arriving in Vegas knows is they aren’t in Kansas anymore. Despite the Las Vegas Tourist Board’s attempts to make people think that Vegas is “family friendly,” the only families that it is friendly to are those that own the casinos. As for the other “families,”: “Gee, Mom, will you let Sally and me out of the closet so that we can watch the pirate ships blown each other up? Mom? MOM? Damn. She must be back at the video poker again… Gimme the beef jerky.” Make no mistake that Vegas is still about silicone and slots, about the Big Win. Which Spears and her handlers hope to realize (the Big Win, that is; the other two are already accommodated).

The whole thing is pathetic. And moreover, it is simply characteristic of what is happening to popular music. While pop music has always been a function of someone figuring that they could make a fast buck by promoting the sound of the moment, there is a vast difference in degree today than there has ever been. The Selling of Stars At Any Cost has become the order of the day among massive conglomerates. It is all about maximizing investment at the cost of taste. At the cost of talent. It is about moving Product. And these products have an increasingly short sell-by date. Most of these people who are plastered on the cover of Teen People (hmm… AOL TimeWarner, which owns HBO, owns that, too…) have careers with all of the substance of cotton candy. Chances are, 20 years from now Eddie Money is more likely to still be performing with Ringo’s All-Starr Band at outdoor concert venues while most of the people of Spears’ ilk will be performing at some sort of dinner theatre. (While some may claim that she’s the next Madonna, I’d argue that there already is—or has been—a Madonna, and so that position has already been filled: There are no second acts.)

There is no question that Spears is now meant to appeal more to the people who are claiming that it is “wrong” than she is to the mobs of teens who attend her shows. Who has a greater degree of disposable income? And who can spell “hypocritical”?

Maximum Cool? or Walt Disney’s Noggin Is Floating in a Vat of Liquid Nitrogen; When Will Mick’s Shriveled Testicles?

On November 20, Mick Jagger’s solo “Goddess in the Doorway” is scheduled to hit the racks. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (the Rolling Stone for the financial set) by Anna Wilde Mathews, “Virgin [Records] is counting on the Web to help Jagger reach out to a new generation of fans in Gen Y, a marketing-savvy and Internet-focused group responsible for fueling the success of acts like Britney Spears and ‘N Sync.”

This isn’t about pointing fingers, but. . .

“Goddess” is the fourth solo album from the grandfather of rock and roll, a man who can comparatively still remember the folks who used to reside on Mount Olympus. The 58-year-old has accumulated other relics (Townshend) and near-relics (Bono; Joe Perry) to accompany him on this outing. Interestingly enough, Rolling Stone magazine’s founder, editor and publisher Jann Wenner, has written a glowing review of Mick’s album, something that I suspect that Wenner doesn’t do too often (write reviews, that is; “glowing reviews” and that publication are achieving a certain synonymous sound). According to Wenner’s biography on the R.S. website, “Wenner himself conducted many of the magazine’s major interviews in its early years, including lengthy session with Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan and Phil Spector.” Any names sound familiar?

Meanwhile, it seems that the Stones (as in the band) are in negotiations about the possibility of going out next year on their 40th Anniversary tour. (What do you get someone for their 40th? Geritol?)

All of this brings to mind a phrase from Samuel Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” I’m surprised that Jagger hasn’t discovered that the time for him to make recordings for the kids is long past.

The Art of Writing

A question of the relative (de)merits of so-called “art rock” was raised earlier on this site. The comments excoriating the genre were posted with the degree of fervor that had been anticipated. One observation can be made from the posting is that it seems there is a good percentage of the current listening public for whom the term “art rock” is basically a cipher. While hoary characters like Aerosmith and the Who still resonate, art rock musicians have slipped silently (albeit stylishly) below the surface (“Emerson, Lake and Palmer—what’s that, a law firm?”).

One of the best movies made about music appeared in 1991. It is Alan Parker’s The Commitments, based on Roddy Doyle’s novel of the same name. Read the book. See the movie. (I note the film first simply because I suspect that more people will go to the video rental place than will go to the bookstore or library.) The Commitments limns the development of an Irish band that is created to play soul music. James Brown. Motown. As one of the characters in the novel, Jimmy Rabbitte, says to two of the musicians who will be part of the band:

—Where are yis from? (He answered the question himself.) —Dublin. (He asked another one.) —Wha’ part o’ Dublin? Barrytown. Wha’ class are yis? Workin’ class. Are yis proud of it? Yeah, yis are. (Then a practical question.) —Who buys the most records? The workin’ class. Are yis with me? (Not really.) —Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from.

A Brand New Culture War That Takes Till It Hurts

Some of you may note that the headline above combines the two headlines directly below this with—what else—but a reference to none other than Sting. As I’ve previously mentioned, I happen to use MSN for Internet access, and when I logged on this afternoon I not only discovered a brand new interface for the site, but right there on top, a photo of the musician in question, who was hired by Microsoft (and for some reason, Intel Pentium 4 has something to do with it: perhaps the performance will be done while the band wears bunny suits) to help promote XP. (At least the folks from Redmond didn’t try to roll out the Stones again a la Win ’95.)

So let’s see. . .We have sab’s “Big Business” slathering Sting across the ‘Net (the concert, physically happening in NYC, is, of course, being webcast); this, unlike what Phil wrote about, is clearly about commercialism, pure and simple.

The benefit concert in NYC, regardless of how good it was or wasn’t, still reminds us of what the best in music is all about, which is a generosity of spirit, if not always one of fact.

Seems to me that these corporate gigs show that “The Man” hasn’t sold us out, but that the people who we may have once thought were on “our” side are really most interested in their own self-interest.

“We won’t get fooled again”? I doubt it.

The Ear of the Beholder

For reasons too tedious to contemplate and therefore innumerate, I use MSN to connect to the Internet. As a result, when I long in I get to a horribly inane interface and the MSN homepage. Or maybe it is a “portal.” There is a multitude of clickable items and images, from news to weather to fashion to entertainment to. . . .

Today I happened to spot a line: “Ugliest Bands of All Time.” Which, I admit, is intriguing due to the oddity (but nowadays who can tell: who’d ever even been thinking about anthrax outside of a few metalheads or fans of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” before now?). So I clicked through and found the following list with no explanation:

· “We’re Not Going to Take It”—Twisted Sister

· “Run-Around”—Blues Traveler

· “Pet Sematary”—The Ramones

· “American Girl”—Tom Petty

· “Heaven Can Wait”—Iron Maiden

· “Search and Destroy”—The Stooges

· “No One Likes You”—Scorpions

· “My Best Friend’s Girl”—The Cars

· “Free Bird”—Lynyrd Skynyrd

· “Tearin’ Up My Heart”—’N Sync

What the hell is this all about? Is Tom Petty thought to be uglier when he sings that song? Is Iggy more attractive-post Stooges? Does the list maker have something against Germans? And why isn’t there a picture of Dee Snider’s mug if the whole thing is about profound unattractiveness?

One thing of note is that the list consists wholly of men. Which is not sexist in the way that you might think. I’d argue that with few exceptions, ugly women just don’t make it big in show biz. From Britney to Shania, from Madonna to Jessica, it is all about looks first and pipes second. Which is often audibly unfortunate and visually appropriate. Ugly men abound, which makes me think that there isn’t, perhaps, a whole lot of distance between TV newscasts and the music industry (e.g., can you image a female version of Willard Scott talking about the weather?).

The David Caruso Factor

The Beatles are a sterling example of the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

It came as something of a surprise to me—a pleasant surprise, I must say—that there was no blow-by-blow breakdown of the “tribute” to John Lennon that appeared on cable earlier this week. Although I still remember where I was when I heard that Lennon had been shot (for some reason, remembrances of such things are supposed to signify an import beyond the norm, which I’m not so sure about, as it could simply be a function of difference, not significance), it has always seemed to me that his post-Beatles career with such things as “Instant Karma,” wasn’t much more than a variant of a Ray Stevens novelty act.

The whole veneration of Lennon goes back to something that happened during my generation, when The Beatles were new and we were children. Everyone had their “favorite” Beatle. Although they were considered as individuals (e.g., “Paul is the cute one”; “George is the shy one”), the band members were inextricably tied to the band as a whole; there was no notion that there could be solos. Of course, the main dichotomy was between John and Paul for the simple reason that they were the two up front: No one—at least no one at age 10—was pouring over the small type on the label on the vinyl to see who was responsible for what. Even on the Saturday morning cartoon of the band there were obvious differences between the two. John was the guy who made the most cracks while Paul evinced a certain niceness. And so it has remained ever since.

But let’s face it: for every “Mind Games” or “Maybe I’m Amazed,” there has been a whole lot of post-Beatles dreck. Not that I think that those guys should have stopped working after the band broke up, but it does seem to me that there should have been a bit of critical distance applied to their subsequent music. Less fawning. More listening.

For some reason, musicians who have gained success, recognition and popularity through their membership in a band almost never (I really can’t think of a good counter example, but I’m keeping my options open) do as well solo. Think, for example, of all of the albums released by Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Pete Townshend and on and on and on. How many of these are better than the Stones, Zeppelin, Who, or Whomever?

Note how the Patron Musician of this site, Neil Young, has been a part of many bands but has always been apart from them. In my argument, Buffalo Springfield been successful, we would probably not be giving Neil quite as many props today—if any at all.