Category Archives: pop rock

An Apologia for One of My Secret Favorite Bowie Performances: “Dancing in the Street”

Tomorrow would have been the 70th birthday of David Bowie, whose passing last year just after turning 69 was among the first of many signs that 2016 would be one long, miserable slog. I knew I wanted to commemorate the occasion in some way, but  I wasn’t sure how. My initial idea was to write a bit about Bowie’s forays into funk- and soul-based music; that felt a bit disingenuous, though, as realistically the majority of the credit for his surprisingly great experiments in “plastic soul” needs to go to esteemed collaborators like Carlos Alomar, Luther Vandross, and Nile Rodgers. It’s also a solid time to look back at Bowie’s (excellent) final album, last year’s Blackstar, but I don’t think I have much to say about the record that either I haven’t already said or Andre didn’t cover in his post from yesterday.

It was while mulling over these options that I remembered a post I wrote soon after Bowie’s death last year, about a performance so infamous and unloved that I felt someone had to speak up on its behalf. I’m talking, of course, about his performance with Mick Jagger in their 1985 cover version of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.”

To be fair, there’s a reason why nobody tends to mourn Bowie with “Dancing in the Street”–that reason being that it’s pretty much universally considered to be the nadir of Bowie’s (and, for that matter, Jagger’s) substantial oeuvre. Bowie scholar of the moment Chris O’Leary describes it as “a rotten record for which everyone involved should be embarrassed” on his blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame. I myself have been unkind to the song and its accompanying video in the past. I’ve frequently called it a waste of a Bowie/Jagger collaboration that, in some superior alternate reality, would have been a jointly-recorded version of 1974’s “Diamond Dogs.” Back in 2006, I described it as “easily a career low point for both artists, complete with campy and ill-choreographed dance routines, an utterly soulless musical arrangement, and a concept (Dave and Mick, you guessed it, ‘dancing in the streets!’) that was about as rock-bottom as the video’s budget.” Last year, I was more concise, and simply dubbed it “execrable.”

And yet. The fact of the matter is that there’s not another Bowie performance in all five-plus decades of his work that has given me as much joy as has “Dancing in the Street.” I mean real, belly-laughing, hysterical joy. Every time I see the video, I have to see it through to the end–often freeze-framing, rewinding, or just pausing to collect myself at my favorite moments.

© EMI, helpfully screencapped by Noisey

And oh, those favorite moments. I don’t even have to watch the video to name them. There’s the bizarre, unidentifiable accent Bowie adopts when he yells “South Americaaaaaaaa!” during the opening roll-call of countries and continents, foreshadowing the voice he would use the following year while singing as a Muppet in Labyrinth’s “Chilly Down.” There’s his actual first appearance in the video: doing some kind of weird back-and-forth skip (see the screenshots above), before leaping from a balcony and silently screaming like a feral, pouncing cat–presumably the same one he skinned for those pajamas he’s wearing under his khaki trenchcoat.

The list of highlights just goes on from there. The way he nonchalantly enters the frame behind Jagger, doing some kind of “walk like an Egyptian” move with his hands. The middle school talent show-grade choreography in which his legs suddenly emerge kicking into the frame from an open door in the foreground, followed by his whole body as he pops in and out to sing his lines. That inexplicable shot (see below) where he appears behind Jagger with his back to the wall, twirling his fingers roughly in time with the music before busting out the jazz hands and spinning around to join in on the chorus.

© EMI

There is also, of course, the “Dancing” video’s rampant homoeroticism–or rather, its absurd grotesque of homeroticism–which might seem like a coy nod to Angie Bowie‘s claim that she had once caught David and Mick “in bed together,” were it not for the fact that that salacious story wouldn’t enter the popular imagination for about five years. The pair mince about like a demented pair of cartoon queens, routinely placing their faces mere inches from one another’s and mugging for the camera; the video ends with a freeze frame of their wiggling butts, for Christ’s sake. As O’Leary points out, it’s a weird tack for Bowie to take after his own, controversial rejection of a carefully-cultivated queer identity in an interview with Rolling Stone just two years earlier. But it’s also in many ways the least remarkable part of the whole thing. After all, anyone even vaguely familiar with Bowie’s 1970s peak has already seen him play gay–and, frankly, do it a lot more convincingly than he does in “Dancing in the Street.”

Instead, what comes as a shock, and what I think explains the video’s unremittingly dire reputation, is how goofy he comes across. After all, the one link between the manifold Bowie moments being shared across social media in the wake of his death was that all of them were, in a word, cool: be he Ziggy or the Thin White Duke or even Jareth the Goblin King, we like our Bowie aloof, poised, and impeccable, hovering seemingly far above us mere mortals in the splendor of his otherworldly stylishness. In “Dancing in the Street,” however, Bowie is the opposite of cool; he’s the distant, middle-aged relative on the dance floor at your friend’s wedding reception. And, for me at least, that makes the video both endearing and weirdly affirming. It’s a disarmingly human moment, from a man who spent his best-remembered years trying doggedly to convince the world that he was something other than human; it’s the kind of thing that should never be allowed to happen, but did, and is thus precious and rare.

© EMI

So please, if you’re mourning David Bowie on the anniversary of his passing, I humbly request that you not forget this strange and wonderful footnote to his musical history. It’s only natural that when confronted by something like “Dancing in the Street,” one’s first reaction is to ask how and why it exists. But especially now, as we strive to make sense of a world without Bowie, perhaps the more poignant reaction is to reflect on how lucky we are to have lived in a time when two aging rock stars could unleash their poorly-made lip-syncing video on an unsuspecting fanbase, spawning 30+ years of unabated hilarity in the process.

This post was originally published on Dystopian Dance Party.

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Filed under 1985, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, pop rock, soul pop

Revolver At 50: A Musical Revolution Enters Middle Age

revolver

Writing about The Beatles for me (especially on a blog that isn’t essentially rock focused) proved to be grounds for a lot of reflection. Also,how much more writing and analysis can really be done about the Fab Four by anyone? In the end,The Beatles remain a band who always seem to engender new impressions of them. Only half of the band that defined a generation are alive today-namely Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Yet no matter what the two of them are doing today,whether doing albums of standards or performing in Maine with Todd Rundgren,its The Beatles that tend to always define them.

There’s one Beatle album I tend to view more as their definitive statement. And its not Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band-now itself an adjective describing any artist/band’s album masterpiece. The album I’m talking about is Revolver. It came out on August 5th,1966 in the UK. It represented for the Beatles a change in their performance ethic. The band members wished to concentrate more on their musicality as opposed to simply rocking hard for a sea of screaming fans in Beatlemania. So they stopped touring after this album. Which dovetails into the major revolution this Beatle album brought about.

Over the years,many rock musicians have tended to view their art in a rather more conservative way. Namely the idea of “rock is being able to pick up a guitar in a garage and just play 3 chords”. Rock ‘n roll is basically a very simplified variation of the 12 bar blues anyway. From the get go,The Beatles always had other things in mind. Songs such as “And I Love Her”,”If I Fell” and “In My Life” showcased the Lennon/McCartney talent for modulation-featuring unexpected chord progressions that were often very jazz and Brazilian in nature. Revolver took all of this to the next level.

McCartney for his part used his fascination with musique concrete by integrating backwards tape loops into many of the songs on this album-which came into play on Lennon’s Tibetan based psychedelic blowout album closer of “Tomorrow Never Knows”. These were fashioned in very melodic ways,not for showiness. Songs such as “Elenore Rigby” showcased producer George Martin’s symphonic strings as opposed to the Beatles rhythm section. John Lennon’s usually simple,almost punk style attitude about music began to change on the jazzy chord progressions of “I’m Only Sleeping”.

George Harrison even incorporated his newfound love of East Indian classical music into the song “Love You Too”. He combines Tabla drums and sitar with a melody that showcases that he is not writing a three chord pop song with Indian instruments. That he has come to understand the basics of the Indian classical forms fairly well. McCartney really shines strong on this album overall. One of my favorites is his melding of English marching band horns with a contemporary American soul shuffle in “Got To Get You Into My Life”,which inspired a hit cover version by Earth Wind & Fire twelve years later.

There’s little denying that all 14 songs on this album are amazing. But the ones I discussed merely reflect the level on which the Beatles were innovating rock. And at a time when the genre was entering its preteen years. This album contains a series of catchy pop songs,yet ones with unexpected chord changes. It also contains melodically strong music based in non Western forms such as Indian and middle eastern modalities. Above all,it does so with the keen understanding that what a rock band “rock” over is potentially the most enduring aspect of the music. And that’s what I feel as Revolver  turns 50.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1966, classic albums, European Classic Music, George Harrison, Indian Classic Music, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, pop rock, Psychedelia, Ringo Starr, rock 'n' roll, rock and soul, rock guitar, The Beatles

Chaos & Disorder At 20: Prince Righting The Wrong

Chaos & Disorder

Chaos And Disorder is a Prince album born out of frustration. Feeling stifled despite the creative freedoms the Warner Bros label had given him over the year,the transition from Prince to his O(+> identity has him controversially writing ‘slave” across his right cheek in black makeup pen.  He also released a series of albums on his own and leading the New Power Generation whose lyrics functioned as angry tirades at his own label-including this one. Of course since the mid 1990’s was a very angry period in popular music anyhow,it all mirrored the times too. Yet on a strictly musical level,O(+> was having other ideas.

It’s hard to believe it was 20 years ago today that Chaos And Disorder hit the record stores. Personally,I remember it being a bit of an afterthought in record stores. Not prioritized in terms of promotion,and getting mixed reviews. Upon first listening to it upon picking up a cassette of it a few years later,I kind of liked it. The first five songs are very catchy and instrumentally dense rockers with a pop twist,while the last half of the album were hyperactive funk/rock fusions mixed with psychedelic style ballads. Several years ago,I got a hold of a the CD pre-owned. And started listening to it a bit more often.

Looking at it more recently,it could be described at representing for Prince in the mid 90’s what Around The World In A Day represented for him in the mid 80’s. Prince & The NPG’s first albums of the 90’s were generally hip-hop and techno house based. So on Chaos And Disorder,Prince returned under his then new name with an album that got back strong into his hard funk and catchy pop/rock roots. Only again,the thematic mood was on the dark side. I wrote an Amazon.com review almost a decade about the album. This goes into this album song by song a bit more. So enjoy this part of my breakdown of Chaos And Disorder:


It wasn’t long after Prince exited Warner Bros,changed his name to O(-> and released     The Gold Experience did he begin to collect some of his “private music vault” for this album in 1996.Considering how well the same idea worked 15 years earlier with Dirty Mind he didn’t see how it wouldn’t work on ‘Chaos And Disorder’, and musically it did. Both albums have the one similarity of being Prince’s more rock oriented music. Prince’s style on the rock guitar is showcased throughout the uptempo songs on this album.The title track,”I Like It There”,”Into The Light” and “I Will” are extraordinary rockers.

For those who enjoy more pop/rock the easy going “Dinner With Delores”,with it’s 70’s soft rock feel will fit the bill nicely and it is actually one of his best songs of the period. The loud blues rock of “Zannalee” is not exactly typical of Prince but it challenges him as a musician.Don’t think that just because this is often hyped as Prince “rock” album (which in many ways it is) Prince is his always eclectic self on the zesty funk-rock hybrids of “Right The Wrong”,”I Rock Therefore I Am” and “Dig You Better Dead”-all three of which are also some of his strongest songs.

‘Chaos And Disorder’ is Prince’s final “official” Warner Bros. album and presents some his most direct songs;most of these tunes are less then 3 and 4 minutes and have a very refreshing directness.One thing that anyone considering purchasing this should know is this was released during a very trying time for Prince-he was fighting with Warners,had the “SLAVE” tattoo on his face and the lyrics here are filled with a lot of bitterness and edginess.As with many of Prince’s mid 1990’s music it will certainly get your attention.But even I found myself revisiting it after all these years of thinking of this as one of Prince’s weakest albums and maybe more people should do that.


Unsure if Prince ever conceptualized it,but the music on Chaos And Disorder  is of a sort that could function very well as a live performance setup-with different costumes and sets. Despite the music’s theatrical potential,Prince never toured for this album. Maybe that was a good thing in hindsight because Prince’s studio albums always created their own type of theatrical (and mostly extremely funkified) musical world. As controversial as Prince’s stance on his rights as an artist during the 1990’s was,Chaos And Disorder might very well be the best examples of how that era translated onto an album for him.

 

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Filed under 1990s, funk rock, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, New Powe Generation, O(+>, pop rock, Prince, Psychedelia, rock guitar, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, Warner Bros.

Paul McCartney: The Cute Beatle With A Bag Of Many Grooves

Paul McCartney

People have had discussions about who their favorite Beatle was. Each had their own distinct creative personality that made them work so well together. Yet if someone asked me which former Beatle appealed to me most musically,it would be Paul McCartney. As a composer/singer/multi instrumentalist,Sir Paul is possessed of the same multi faceted creativity of people such as Todd Rundgren and the late Prince Rogers Nelson-worthy of their mutual Gemini stars. He has his own distinctive approach to melody and groove-extending across hard rockers,easy going pop ballads as well as his most soulful side.

That soulful side of McCartney is what I’d like to talk about today. One of the key factors of him in general is how well he understands the importance of groups to his music. Between The Beatles and his second band Wings, McCartney always realized what other musicians from John Lennon to Denny Laine could offer him instrumentally than if  he just played everything. Between arranging horns and working with musicians such as fellow bassist Stanley Clarke,Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and the Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart, here are some of my favorite of the soulful,funkier songs from Paul McCartney.


“She’s My Baby”/1976

On the album Wings At The Speed Of Sound,the members of Wings all contributed their songs to the mix. This had mixed results,but one of my favorite contributions from McCartney himself was the stripped down melodic funk of “She’s My Baby”. Especially with it’s somewhat jazzy Fender Rhodes electric piano solos.

“Arrow Through Me”/1979

This dramatic blend of reggae rhythms and West Coast style jazz/funk was the song that caught my attention most. From the reverbed snare drum traps to the processed electric piano,it’s no wonder that this imaginative and melodic groove became the basis for Erykah Badu’s “Gone Baby Don’t Be Long” over three decades later.

“Coming Up”/1980

McCartney played everything again on this song,while channeling his inner James Brown. In this case,turning his one man band (including his chicken scratch guitar) into a drum. Not to mention having one of the snappiest melodies of McCartney’s career to boot.

“Secret Friend”/1980

This is another very early 80’s song from McCartney’s second proper solo album that truly blew my mind. It’s a technological carnival of Brazilian percussion,funky bass/guitar interactions and a very psychedelic East Indian type melody. And keeps it all going for well over ten minutes as well.

“What’s That Your Doing”/1982

Instrumentally speaking,this thickly bassy and percussive hard funk jam seems to be more the work McCartney’s duet partner on this song Stevie Wonder. But it leaves plenty of room for McCartney’s bass and guitar abstractions. Especially when the chorus of his Beatles classic “She Loves You” appears on the extended outro. My absolute favorite song from the McCartney/Wonder collaboration.

“Dress Me Up As A Robber”/1982

A superbly composed piece of Brazilian jazz/funk from Paul on his 1982 album Tug Of War. The rhythm guitar and synth bass are some of the hottest McCartney had done up to this point. Especially on the breakdown on the bridge of the song that reminds me Gap Band songs from that same period.

“Hey Hey”/1983

Stanley Clarke’s early 80’s collaboration with Paul McCartney continues on this expansively melodic jazz fusion instrumental from McCartney’s underrated 1983 album Pipes Of Peace. It starts out as a kinetic Afro-rocker almost,then mellows into a jazzy reverb laden keyboard and bass driven bridge. One of my favorite instrumentals from McCartney.

“Tug Of Peace”/1983

McCartney pulls out a full blown electro Afro funk percussion extravaganza on this song. Structurally,it’s a lyrical reboot of the title ballad of his previous album “Tug Of War”. But the feeling is much more revved up rhythmically-almost as if to say that peace is a source of joy while war slows you down. And this is all aside from McCartney delivering one of the finest bass like low rhythmic guitars of his career.


Discussing the music of Paul McCartney in a soul,funk and even jazz context might seem atypical. But it really isn’t when one considers the way in which musicians intermingle. In Liverpool,most of McCartney’s musical acquaintances were playing the same type of music basically. He the man traveled the world and gained more experience,the newer musicians he became associated with continued to expand his stylistic and rhythmic repertoire beyond even where the Beatles had take their music. And it’s his creative flexibility that is the core of the man whose turning 74 today.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, bass guitar, chicken scratch guitar, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, funk rock, jazz funk, Paul McCartney, pop rock, rhythm guitar, Stanley Clarke, Stevie Wonder, Wings