Request Line: “I Got You,” “Hurts So Good,” “Another Girl, Another Planet,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 30, 2010
Reader Jonathan writes:
I’m a huge fan, have been for many years. My requests: “I Got You” by Split Enz, “Hurts So Good” by John Cougar Mellencamp, “Another Girl, Another Planet” by The Only Ones and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something.
Good to hear from you after all these years, Jonathan. And some fine choices, if I may say.
Maybe the tensest love song ever written. Which is a little odd, considering if you looked at some of its lyrics on paper–namely, the classic opening line “I got you / And that’s all I want”–it’d seem sentimental almost to the point of sap. Even that starter couplet carries a wave of unease to it, though–the way singer Neil Finn seemingly jumps into the measure a step too early with the “”I got YOU!!,” reeking of over-anxiousness, before catching his voice betraying him and settling into the by-comparison disarmingly reversed “…and that’s all I want.” Of course, with that musical backdrop–the creeping minor guitar chords, the slinking drum shuffle, and those endless layers of twilight synths–even the first verse and chorus of “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes” could probably be made to send like something off Disc 2 of The Wall.
“I Got You” is a very weird, quintessentially contradictory song, and if it was even a little bit less good it probably would never have sniffed crossover success in the United States. (In New Zealand, where Split Enz are from, the Finn bros are basically rock royalty, so it probably would’ve gone top ten even if it was just a sound-collage cover of the James Brown song.) As it is, though, it’s never less than riveting. The lyrics oscillate between moving and disturbing and such a moment’s notice that sometimes it’s almost impossible to know how to feel. Take the line in the final verse: “There’s no doubt…that when I’m with you / When I’m without…I stay in my room.” At first it sounds like it’s going to be a testament to the feeling of security, the feeling of strength that Finn’s beloved gives him–and it turns out to basically be about the exact opposite of that. The whole thing is an emotional mine field like that, keeping you on your toes and making the moments of explosion–the out-of-nowhere echo on the “Sometimes we SHOUT!–out-out-out” line, Finn’s final cry of “You’re always out / IT GETS ON MY NERVES!!!“—all the more powerful.
Musically, the song is pretty twisted as well. As heavy as the swings are with the song’s lyrics on the verses, the music is just as volatile, sounding simultaneously alienating and comforting, catchy and dischordant. And the song’s real coup comes in the transition between the verse and the chorus. In essence, it’s your basic quiet-loud trade-off, but in terms of sheer intensity, it works the other way around. The verses are so ridiculously nerve-wracking in their plodding stalk that when it actually comes time for the chorus–a much poppier, almost British Invasion-sounding blast–it comes as a huge relief, almost to the point where it’s actually too great a comedown from the thrall of the verse. Really, the chorus in this song sounds more like a bridge–a totally messed up way to go about writing a great pop song, but damned if the whole thing doesn’t work beautifully.
Gotta love that chorus statement too– “I don’t know why sometimes I get frightened.” The entire verse is Finn battling between feelings of deep devotion and even deeper resentment for his Gotten One, but the chorus reconciles all of it in one blanket sentiment: I just feel so deeply right now that I’m thoroughly unable to approach my feelings rationally. Hard to put it better than that. Certainly one of the best songs ever written about the insecurity and uncertainty inherent in relationships, and one of the more enduring classics of the new wave era.
(Side note: Vitamin C, of “Smile” and “Graduation (Friends Forever)” fame, actually covered this song once, and it is marvelously bad. C couldn’t seem to decide whether she wanted to go 4AD or Stars on 54 with the cover, so she decided to do both. Worth half a listen.)
As you may have noticed on this blog, I tend to talk in superlatives and near-superlatives a whole lot–some might say too much, even. So it’s a good thing you asked me to write about a John Cougar Mellencamp song, since the only superlative that could easily be applied to him is that he skirts superlatives like no other rock star in history. Forgoing some sort of supreme yo-yoing ability that he may possess unbeknownedst to us, there is nothing that JCM has done in his life that he has been the absolute best at, and if a person exists who actually cites him as their all-time favorite artist, you are relatively unlikely to meet them in your lifetime. For a man with such impressive career success and longevity as he–and 21 top 40 hits stretching over three decades is certainly nothing to sneeze at–Mellencamp’s legacy in rock is still that of the ultimate B Student, one who always showed up to class on time with acquitted himself admirably in discussions and on tests, but who, for whatever reason, lacked the necessary drive and the needed skill to achieve true greatness.
If this sounds like a prolonged slam on Johnny C…well, yeah, it’s probably not exactly a compliment. But I do have mad love for the Cougar, and I don’t want it to sound like being a solid regular in pop and rock music’s second tier is in any way an undesirable fate. Of JCM’s twenty or so biggest hits, at least ten of them were well above-average songs, about five of them deserved to go on to be classic rock radio standards, and one of them was a classic in the truest and most conventional of senses. “Hurts So Good” wasn’t that one classic–that was, of course, “Jack & Diane,” a song we’ve all come to take for granted, but is actually far more creative, clever, and insightful a little ditty than you probably recall. But it was definitely in that next-highest level, a fine song with a good lyric and a memorable riff. It’s a solid 7.5 of a song, and for that reason, quite possibly the definitive John Cougar Mellencamp number.
No point in deep analysis here, since Mellencamp never really gives you all that much to work with on that regard, so I’ll just list a couple of things that I always liked about this song.
- The handclaps on the chorus. Subtle, but very important, like those of any number of songs by The Cars around the same period.
- The short, semi-funky drum break in each of the verses (“With a girl like you…”) Surprisingly raw for a JCM number.
- The unapologetic endorsement it provides of men in their thirties still lusting after the kind of girls they dated in their “young boy days.” Refreshing. Sort of.
- The absolutely ridiculous video. I think someone on I Love the 80s Strikes back called it the worst video ever made, but I might be projecting with that. Especially gotta love the balding drummer with suspenders and the chick on the bar draped in chains, even though despite the song’s title, there’s really not much actual BDSM going on in these lyrics.
- Very, very tight chorus. Gets a great lead-in from the verse (“C’mon and make it hurt!”) and sums itself up beautifully at the end (“Sometimes love don’t feel like it should / You make it hurt so good.”)
Quality song. You know what else was kind of underrated? Linda Ronstadt’s “Hurt So Bad.” Kinda wonder if this song was a response to that one in some way, though I suppose Johnny Cougar had better things to do with his life in the early 80s than sit around and listen to mopey Linda Ronstadt records.
You know what no one ever talks about with this song? How much it sounds like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” This clawed at my brain for years before it finally dawned on my one day, and now I can’t stop thinking about it whenever I listen to it. Seriously, try singing “I always flirt with death…” over those piano chords sometime–it’s uncanny. (It’s also almost definitely entirely coincidental, unless Steve Perry possessed unknown British pop-punk influences that he never exactly betrayed in his songwriting.) Once again, if I was in an aspiring young indie band, some sort of cover mashup of the two songs–I think Only Ones’ vocals + Journey backing works better, personally, though the inverse might be a little less corny–would be my second ace in the hole for live shows, after the previously-mentioned “Is This Love?” hybrid medley. (Don’t let me down on this one, aspiring young indie bands. I can’t keep dropping all this free knowledge on you forever.)
Anyway, the Only Ones’ status as first-wave punk’s greatest one-hit wonder is a fairly deserved one. Yeah, sure, there are gonna be people out there who insist that Special View is essential listening (namely, there’s 90s indie stars / all-time rock curators Yo La Tengo, who both covered “The Whole of the Law” and stole a chorus from “Lovers of Today“). But the overwhelming majority of today’s serious music listeners could not name more than one Only Ones song, and that seems OK to me. There’s the stink of accidental brilliance ot “Another Girl, Another Planet,” the feeling of decidedly unrepeatable karmic allignment, for a preternaturally catchy two-and-a-half minute gem with absolutely no perceivable flaws. If The Buzzcocks wrote the textbook for the next three decades of pop-punk with Singles Going Steady, then the Only Ones at least got in the foreword here. (In fact, if I had to burn a friend a copy of Singles Going Steady–assuming this was still the 1930s and we still “burned” each other “copies” of “albums”–I would probably just throw this song somewhere ont he first side. It seems only fair.)
The key, besides the fact that the Only Ones used a chord progression that was obviously powerful enough to sustain an eternity of abuse at asshole bars and drunk-girl karaoke nights, is the slurred vocals of vocalist Peter Perrett. The most common question asked when discussing “Another Girl, Another Planet” is if the song is actually about love or heroin, and the answer is, alternately, love, heroin, both and who the fuck cares. Whether undone by the love of a good woman or a very good needle, Perrett always sounds one step away from total dissolution in this song, constantly dropping his register, extending notes past the measure, dragging behind on cues. In other words, it sounds like good shit and we all want some. A fine illustration of this comes with Blink-182’s admirable but largely misguided cover of the song for their greatest hits album. Notice how on the chorus, every word is clean and evenly spaced: “I think-I’m-on-another-world-with-YOU!!!” Then, compare it to the Only Ones’ rendition: “Ahhhthink I’monnn anotherr WORRRRRLLLD withyou…” Blink sound energized and sprightly from their rush, The Only Ones sound paralyzed from the neck down from theirs. I’ll take the latter.
In any event, when you have both Blink-182 and The Replacements–two of the most important punk bands of the post-first wave era, but for wildly different reasons–covering a song, that probably speaks pretty highly to its quality. I’ll speak to it, too–it’s a great song.
When I say that they don’t write ’em like this anymore, you’re just going to have to trust me on that. We’ll get another twelve “Smells Like Teen Spirit”s, another fifty “Wonderwall”s, and about a thousand more “Creep”s before we ever get another “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It’s not so much that the song actively shoots for mediocrity–I don’t know either Toby or Todd Pipes personally (and by the way, if you knew the names of the brothers that formed the core of Deep Blue Something, or if you knew that there were brothers in Deep Blue Something, or if you knew that human beings of any sort were in fact involved in the making of this record, give yourself a BIG ol’ pat on the back), and don’t want to presuppose anything about their intentions. But the song does so very, preciously, historically little to steer itself out of the way of bland averageness that it at least sounds like it couldn’t have possibly been that much of an unintended consequence. (That, or it’s just the result of some unbelievably obtuse dada experiment–we’re still not sure, really.)
First of all, of course, the subject matter. A break-up lamentation (“You’ll say the world has come between us / Our lives come between us / Still I know you just don’t care”) was certainly nothing new in the world of pop music, even in the long ago of 1996, though slightly less traditional was the use of a shared sense of vague reverence for a classic 60s film as the principal argument said break up. Most notable about this is not just the lack of precedence for Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard swooping in to save a relationship, but the fact that this unusual establishment of common ground doesn’t even invoke any strong feelings at all. What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you ask? “Well, I think I remember the film…and as I recall, I think we both kinda liked it.” And why, by the way, is Pipes trying so hard to dissuade his girl from leaving? “It’s plain to see we’re over…and I hate when things are over.” As far as grand gestures go, this one certainly ranges towards the less-than-urgent variety.
Even less committed to making this damn thing work is the music itself. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” would technically be categorized as a rock song, but despite the band’s egregious use of the jump-in-the-air-as-the-music-kicks-in technique in the video the amount of legitimate rocking it does is negligible at best, treacherous at worst. Meanwhile, the recurring guitar break that appears in between verses and choruses is not only thoroughly anonymous and unmemorable, but at points practically inaudible–and this is the closest thing the song has to an actual hook. And if there was any chance of the song having any musical character beyond that, it’s quickly canceled out by the song’s oppressively tidy production, which shaves down any rough edges that could have possibly interfered with the song reaching heavy rotation on VH1 (though needless to say, they needn’t have worried.) Oh, and if you haven’t seen it before, I’ll give you one guess as to what happens in the video for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” If you guessed “The band gets together to literally eat breakfast at Tiffany’s“….well, WRONG, because they actually just set up table on the street outside, presumably because they couldn’t secure the location and/or the copyright approval.
But I don’t think I’ll be surprising anyone when I say that despite all of this, I absolutely love this song to pieces. What might be a little more surprising–to me, anyway–is that most children of the 90s seem to feel similarly. There aren’t too many songs I’ve heard done in as many different karaoke groups as this one, and I don’t ever remember it being received with anything less than complete approval and wholehearted singalonging. Despite the 15 years of absolute obscurity that Deep Blue Something have experienced since their one moment in the not-too-bright sun, everyone remembers this song, and everyone knows that chorus. This was even illustrated perfectly in a recent SNL sketch, the latest in their now-apparent series of “Four guys tell embarrassing stories, then sing along to a 90s song’s chorus” bits. It’s just one of those songs that’s so absurd and so mundane that you don’t have any choice but to smile and accept it. You know, like life.
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