Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Request Line: “Sacramento,” “Rasputin,” “What Do All the People Know,” “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hands”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 11, 2010

Reader Erick writes:

I’ll add to your backlog as well…

Middle of the Road – Sacramento (ed. note: Originally “Hotel Indiscreet” by Sagittarius, but changed by the requestor when YouTubes were unavailable)
Boney M – Rasputin
The Monroes – What Do All the People Know
Primitive Radio Gods – Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand

Nice mix here, certainly. Hope to run through a couple of these this week.

Does this actually sound like ABBA, or is this just what all 70s European pop groups with blonde, chipper-yet-dispassionate female lead singers invariably end up sounding like? Chuck Klosterman wrote a long essay in Eating the Dinosaur about how ABBA were, against most odds, able to remain consistently beloved for decades primarily because they were always entirely peerless in sound, and thus could not be traced back to any specific point in time as being “dated.” Perhaps this was actually just an extremely North Americanized view to take of things, and in reality ABBA had dozens and dozens of soundalikes overseas that were simply unable to make the jump across the pound. In any event, Middle of the Road were from the very beginning of the decade (debut single “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep,” a UK #1 hit, was from ’71, whereas ABBA’s debut single was in ’72 and true breakthrough was all the way in ’74), so perhaps Anni-Frid, Bjorn, Benny and Agetha were just ripping them off the entire time.

Anyway, origin of the species aside, this song is fairly wonderful. I’d never heard of it before (and am fairly curious about where you have, Erick, if you feel like sounding off below), considering that it was a mere #23 UK hit from a band that never even made a dent in this country, but I’ve since watched YouTubes of several other Middle of the Road hits, and they’re all similarly delightful (though I feel the subject matter of “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” is far weightier than anyone in the band or crowd is properly acknowledging–how many pop songs mention Claymores in their pre-choruses anyway?) “Sacramento” is probably the best, though, with its breezy, alternately glammy and rootsy guitar riffing and galloping, “Kodachrome”-esque beat. The harmonies are lovely, the verses, choruses and bridges feed into each other with admirable fluidity, and the lyrics have that great Super-Happy Song About a Possibly Extremely Depressed Subject contrast to them that all the best foreign-bred pop songs seem to have for some reason. As usual, the YouTube commentors hit the nail on the head: “Its a great song with rhytm, flair and a good melody. i think it rocks.” Right you are, Rodnox.

Couple questions must be asked, though–mainly, Why Sacramento? What are the odds that these Scotsmen and women have even been to the relavtively unglamorous capital of our most populous state? The opening lines (“There’s something about the weather / That everybody loves / They call it the Indian Spring of Sacramento”) seemed relatively inaccurate to me, so I googled the phrase “Indian Spring of Sacramento,” which returned a scant 264 hits, nearly all of which were lyric pages for the song. Seeking further corraboration of my suspicions, I found a blogger’s old take on a number of Sacramento-related songs, where my doubts were confirmed: “No sooner than we get through the first line we know this summery song is a lie. Indian Spring? What is this shit?” Perhaps this was one of those Bay City Rollers-type situations where MOR just threw a dart at an American map and went with the nearest city (not out of the realm of possibility, especially considering that BCRs guitarist Neil Henderson joined the group a few years in). On a related note, though, I’d understand that maybe filming the song’s video in Sacramento itself might not have been possibile due to financial and/or travel constraints, but wouldn’t you want to at least set it in a city that could theoretically be Sacramento–rather than, say, some canal in Amsterdam? Perhaps this is how little respect MOR had for their people’s pre-existing knowledge of Sac-town in general.

I dig it. Hope to hear it over the loudspeakers during timeouts one day in my inevitable pilgrimage to ARCO Arena.

I would like to say some things of note about this song. Unfortunately, my ex-Stylus co-writer (and current Singles Jukebox mastermind) William B. Swygart already wrote everything about the song that could possibly need to be written. Except, perhaps for three things:

  1. That video is incredible. The maniacal grace of Bobby Farrell’s prancing, the “Are we really wearing these costumes? In public??” expressions on the backup singers’ faces, and the unimpressed and mildly perplexed reactions from those in attendance.
  2. “He could preach the bible like a preacher.” Definite winner of the Honorary America “The Heat Was Hot” Award for Lyrical Redundancy.
  3. Not enough love for the drums in the intro. Almost like something off of The Flowers of Romance.

Definitely read that article, though, if you haven’t already. Swygart speaks the truth.

After much analysis, the one thing I’d say that sets this song apart in pop history is that it’s maybe the only love song I know that asks questions in a completely non-rhetorical-sounding manner. The history of pop music is strewn with questioning love songs–I knocked four of ’em with the same title out in an article a couple months ago–but most times, these questions are meant as mere topics of contemplation, more of self-analysis than anything else. Was Shirley Ellis actually expecting her boyfriend to admit that he wouldn’t still love her tomorrow? Did Boy George really want to know if his lover wants to hurt him and/or make him cry? Doubtful. “What Do All the People Know,” on the other hand, is Monroes singer Jesus Ortiz being so thoroughly dumbfounded by his emotions that he actually asks his maybe-love to explain his own feelings to him, in a very literal and practical manner. He’s so romantically inarticulate that he’s willing to put his trust in the only other person with intimate knowledge of the situation to explain what the fuck is going on. Pretty deep stuff for a new wave one-hit wonder.

Not the only thing to recommend the song, of course. The synths shimmer and sparkle in a way that the instrument would never really do the same again after 1982, and the hooks and production in general couldn’t be much sharper. I think there’s two musical keys to the song, though, one which I love, and one which I’m still sort of unsure about. The first is the double-tracked vocals–kept at an octave’s distance for most of the song, and stereo-seperated to essentially be coming out of one ear each. It’s a brilliant tactic, one that makes the two vocal strains feel like conscious / subconscious interplay (and you guys know how much I love conscious / subconscious vocal interplay) and really furthers the sense of confusion and general sensory overload already obvious from the song’s lyrics. (Plus, it gives you two different options for singing along, which is always appreciated for those of us for limited vocal ranges).

The key that I’m not quite sure about is that little bit of negative space in the chorus. You probably know what I’m talking about–that tiny gap after Ortiz sings “Lately I am so confused / I really don’t know what to do” and for about a second, the vocals unexpectedly stop and it seems like the song is just kind of treading water, offering a few minor keyboard stabs but really just sort of lingering, directionless. It should be negligible in the grand sceheme of things, lasting barely a few seconds before the song launches back into the “Could you be the one I’m thinking of?” part, but every single time I listen to the song it ends up being the one part of it that I can’t help but fixate on, so I have to figure there’s something to it. Just a moment for Ortiz to collect his thoughts? An extension of him being so confused and really not knowing what to do? A chance for a really lame keyboard mini-fill? Couldn’t say, but for whatever reason, I feel like the answer to all of Ortiz’s questions are somehow contained in that moment of lyrical hesitation.

In any event, it’s a beautiful and mysterious song, and it passes the test of making poorly-assembled YouTube movie montages seem meaningful by playing underneath them. I’d be remiss not to shout out here to friend of the blog Lisa Berlin, who has forever ranked this song in her top five songs of all-time and who once drunkenly hugged me at a party for playing this song, back when I only sort of knew her. (Although I might be mixing that part up with the Raspberries’ “I Wanna Be With You.”)

Another song that I’ve loved so much for so long that it’s hard for me to approach rationally. Not that I’m really sure that there is a rational approach to take to “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hands” to begin with. It’s a song that exists in no particular genre and certainly to no particular scene, a song whose lyrics feel deeply meaningful while on paper being at best incoherent and at worst insultingly asinine, a song incongruously used as seduction music in The Cable Guy (either because Matthew Broderick was a proponent of the belief that all songs with prominent bass lines are seductive or because Leslie Mann was a closet Primitive Radio Gods megafan), a song whose music video seems designed for the sole purpose of lending after-the-fact relevance to its unwieldy and otherwise entirely non-sequiturial title. And most inexplicably, it was a song that topped the Modern Rock charts for the entirety of August 1996, officially cementing ’96 as the biggest period of identity crisis for rock music in the post-grunge era. It’s one of those songs whose popularity can only be explained by the fact that it was really a pretty great song.

The most impressive thing about SOABPWMIMH (besides what an awesome acronym it makes for, anyway) is how it blends elements from so many different styles in a way that never feels anything but completely natural. It has a dance-inspired shuffle beat (heard before in countless other songs, though for some reason the only one that comes to mind is New Order’s “Ruined in a Day“) and a sort of trip-hoppy bass line. Its primary hook is a line from an old blues song, sampled in a DJ Premiere-esque hip-hop style. It has a piano solo that sounds like it’s stolen directly from a smooth jazz song, although maybe I only think that because smooth jazz is the only genre I’ve ever heard to be even partly reliant on the piano solo as a structural fixture. The vocals are sung intimately like a singer/songwriter, but deliver lyrics that sound like something off a slighly-dumber Wowee Zowee. And the whole thing ends in a near post-rock cacophany. But you don’t think about any of this when you’re listening to the song, of course. It just sounds like “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hands. ” And it’s lovely.

My favorite thing about the song would have to be the sample. The list of people that Moby was accused of ripping off when Play started to go multi-platinum was a long and obscure one, but perhaps the most obvious example was one that no one ever bothered to mention, the Primitive Radio Gods here. Listen to a song like “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad” or “In This World” (the latter off 18, but probably a better example) and tell me you don’t hear the similarities with how the vocals are used to the “I’ve been downhearted baby, I’ve been downhearted baby / EEEEEEEEEEVER since the day we met” line (taken, btx, from B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get“)–that fantastic disembodiment of a lyrical hook to provide a sort distant, eternal commentary on the rest of the song. But the PRGs take it to a whole new level at the end, when B.B. drops out and lead singer Chris O’Connor belts out the hook himself. It’s a gamble, but one that pays off with incredible dividends–a moment shocking and capturing, considering how vocally reserved he’d been most of the song. One of my favorite musical moments of the ’90s, no doubt.

It also has to be mentioned that Primitive Radio Gods did this song perhaps their greatest possible favor by disappearing immediately after. Throughout the years since, many people have been understandably tempted by SOABPBWMIMH’s greatness to pick up a copy of Rocket for $3 in their local CD store’s used bin, and those people have, without exception as far as I can tell, always come back cruelly disappointed. I can’t even imagine what the rest of the album would sound like, and that’s probably the whole point–I’d bet that either it all sounds exactly like “Phone Booth” and it makes that song sound less special by association, or none of it sounds at all like “Phone Booth” and you wonder why they were only able to capture that magic once. Ultimately, this song is too weird to exist anywhere but in a complete cultural vacuum, stripped of anything even vaguely resembling context, and that’s why I’ll never consciously listen to another Primitive Radio Gods song as long as I live. I’d probably rather just listen to this one again anyway.

5 Responses to “Request Line: “Sacramento,” “Rasputin,” “What Do All the People Know,” “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hands””

  1. MBI said

    “none of it sounds at all like “Phone Booth” and you wonder why they were only able to capture that magic once.”

    This, from what I understand, is the correct answer. In fact, from the couple reviews I’ve read, there’s a good chance that, but for “SOABPBWMIMH,” the Primitive Radio Gods would rank among the worst rock bands of all time.

  2. ZD said

    I don’t know Phonebooth all that much and somehow associated it with some other song whose title was eluding me during the reading of the above. Then you mentioned Moby…oh, right, Porcelain. Nice work.

  3. Erick said

    “I’d never heard of it before (and am fairly curious about where you have, Erick, if you feel like sounding off below)”

    I create a lot of custom radio stations online (usually on Last.fm) and I probably entered Spanky and Our Gang or Laura Nyro or something as one of the variables and this was one of the results. Good way to find new stuff.

    Thanks for doing my picks! Great comments, you noticed the same things I did about “Sacramento.” I should have known the Swygart thing would queer “Rasputin”! Oh well.

  4. frogboots said

    Oh lord, how I love this song. How I loved this song all through that summer of 1996 (right before my senior year of high school, good god). I loved the sample, especially, when I barely knew what sampling was; I was delighted when I found Moby (a delight that wore off) because it reminded me of SOABPBWMIMH.
    It may be embarrassing to admit this in a public forum, but I still feel all chills and goosebumps when I listen to this song alone at night. I’m not sure the title is quite the non-sequitur you suggest, but that could just be because I’ve spent 14 years thinking about it.

    I did, at one point, actually own the Primitive Radio Gods album, and it was not at all like SOABPWMIMH. It wasn’t especially good – there were one or two catchy tracks, but nothing spectacular – but I would not go so far as to say one of the worst rock bands of all time. Also, Chris O’Connor was an air-traffic controller, which HAS to be worth some kind of bonus points.

    And you’re absolutely right about the effect of him actually singing the sample line – it is shocking and captivating and pays off hugely. I’m going to have to listen to that song again, soon.

  5. Lisa B. said

    Shirley Ellis was the singer of “The Name Game.” The singer in the Shirelles was Shirley Alston. I totally used to mix those up all the time too.

    Cheers for the shout-out. I actually think both those songs may have earned hugs…

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