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100 Years, 100 Songs: #78. Blondie – “Rapture”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 18, 2007

GET UP!

Here’s something Blondie has done that no other band could possibly boast: they had four #1 hits, each in a completely different style, each a complete classic, and each unmistakably Blondie. Their first, “Heart of Glass” was pretty much a straight disco number, but one that’s dated far better than any other crossover attempt from a rock band of the time. Their second, “Call Me,” was clearly cut from a more New Wave cloth, albeit one filtered through Giorgio Moroder’s production sheen. Their third, “The Tide is High,” was a rocksteady (read for us white people: reggae) cover, but one electrified with singer Debbie Harry’s unbearably suggestive sexual edge.

And then there’s the fourth–“Rapture.” I don’t even know where to begin to classify “Rapture”–it starts with a disco beat, but has salsa-y percussion, a post-punk guitar solo, a hip-hop breakdown and new wave lyrics (and a classic new wave video, like a much seedier “Puttin’ on the Ritz“). It’s not as danceable as “Heart of Glass,” not as galvanizing as “Call Me,” and definitely not as maddeningly catchy as “The Tide is High.” But it’s by far the coolest fucking song Blondie (or just about any of their peers) ever put out, and my God if it doesn’t stand as one of the all-time strangest singles to ever top the US charts.
Let’s start off with that disco intro. The beat–courtesy of drummer Clem Burke, who most likely hated to play it–is for me one of the great opening drum beats of the 80s, up there with “Billie Jean,” “True Faith” and Hall & Oates’ “Kiss on My List” (which, semi-ironically, ended up replacing the song at pole position). And with the three-bell chime that introduces the main hook of the song, mostly found in the bubbling bass of Chris Stein (I think), you can (and should) be already partying before the song even really kicks in.

Debbie Harry has never sounded even remotely like this before, and I don’t think she ever did again. Usually Harry’s highest vocal priority is her ballsy down-to-earthness, a hardened charm that shines through even in a song like “Heart of Glass,” where her glorious falsetto is offset with sing-spoken lines about love “being a pain in the ass.” But on “Rapture” she sounds otherworldly, a cross between Anita Baker and the diva from The Fifth Element, moaning orgasmically about lord knows what (probably rapture). The first two verses of the song already place this song squarely in alien territory–quite literally.

But Harry’s just getting started. “Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly / The DJ’s spinning, I said, my my / Flash is fast / Flash is cool / Francois sez fas / Flashe non due”. No idea what it means–probably nothing–but the namechecks of Fab 5 Freddy and Grandmaster Flash (who would later co-op the song / return the favor for a song that might be still to come on this list) would prove key, as well as the distinctly hip-hop cadence with which Harry delivered them. Basically, Blondie were…well, rapping. Eight years before “Epic,” four years before the first Beastie Boys single, even three years before “Rappin’ Rodney,” Blondie were learning a thing or two about what was happening outside of Manhattan, and “Rapture” stands as one of White America’s first ever introduction to the culture at large.

And the verse? Well, it’s not exactly Eminem, and Harry’s flow didn’t exactly get her any solo deals, but I maintain her storytelling–about a man from mars with an insatiable appetite for, alternately, cars, bars and guitars–is about as solid as most other party rappers of the time, and certainly makes for some decent quotables. And you’ll be consistently surprised with how much of it sticks with you–I even remember seeing the ladies of Veruca Salt on an old M2 sample hour rapping the whole thing from memory. Good enough for Nina and Louise, certainly good enough for me.

The bizarre thing is that even though “Rapture” is probably the least recognized and the least played (on radio, anyway) of Blondie’s major hits, it’s arguably proven their most enduring. KRS-One sampled Harry’s ghostly wail in the mid-90s for his only ever top 40 hit, “Step Into a World.” Mashup masterminds Go Home Productions had their first US club hit with their “Rapture Riders” blend, mixing “Rapture” with The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”. Even Reggaetoner Omawi Bling nicked the bass line for his “Tocame en Secreto” hit. And frankly, I can’t get enough–give me those bells, that beat, that bass line in any song and I’ll groove like a villain in a zoot suit to it.

“Step into a world,” indeed. Too bad Blondie didn’t spend more time there, it’s a pretty out there place.

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #79. Linkin Park – “In the End”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 7, 2007

Pushed as far as I can go

So I put this one off for a while. It’s tough writing about nu-metal if you expect to be taken seriously, since for such a large part of the general population (and by general population I mean the small cadre of internet music-obsessive folk) nu-metal remains the nadir of all popular rock music. Many still haven’t forgiven the dominance it claimed in rock around the turn of the century, the memories of which are still too fresh (and which haven’t even completely stayed in the past, considering the number of hits Papa Roach and Three Days Grace have managed in the last couple years) for it to be embracable in any conceivable fashion.

Still, I’ve been very pleased to see the growing number of internet writers starting to stick up for LP a little bit. They’ve rightly come around to the awesomeness of the intro to “Faint,” the “SHUT UP WHEN I’M TALKIN’ TO YOU!!!” climax to “One Step Closer,” the Holly Brook-sung hook to Fort Minor’s “Where’d You Go” (well, not that last one). Stylus writer Ian Cohen even echoed many of my opinions on the band in a phenomenal piece on Hybrid Theory recently that partly confirmed my suspicions that in time, unlike say, Vertical Horizon, critics will eventually come around to Linkin Park (though sorry, Ian, the only LP, uh, LP that I’ve heard all the way through is Jay-Z mashup album Collision Course). It’s just a matter of time.

What interests me, though, is that the critics who have started to come to LP’s defense are ones whose music listening is mostly pop or hip-hop oriented, not rock. And I think this is really telling, since even though LP mostly get played on rock stations, seem to be mostly associated with rock fans, and play a bunch of rock instruments, they don’t really feel like a rock band. The playing is all extremely mechanical, closer to the immaculate heaviness of Nine Inch Nails and the sleek, dark grooves of Depeche Mode (both of which, unsurprisingly, the band has covered). It’s too clean, too streamlined to really feel like rock–it’s not the kind of music that’s created in garages.

And this is what the biggest misconception of nu-metal seems to be to me: it really was, at first at least, a fairly progressive genre. When you consider the bands ruling the airwaves in the year or two before KoRn and Limp Bizkit hit, it’s all either simple, MOR-ish pop/rock in the vein of Matchbox 20 and the Goo Goo Dolls, post-post-grunge one-offs like The Verve Pipe and Marcy Playground, or weirdo attempts to branch out from early-mid-90s bands not knowing what to do after the death of the alt-rock era. Point is, rock was hardly at its most forward-looking. Enter bands with turntablists, down-tuned guitars, and some overbaked attempts at machismo and pre-emo superangst–all stuff that at the time, was still strictly the property of outsider bands like Tool and The Deftones–and hey, now we’re actually getting somewhere. It beats the hell out of “All for You” and “Lakini’s Juice,” no?

And to say that Linkin Park was the brightest light of the bands that swamped the charts in the wake of the nu-metal explosion is practically a non-statement. Sure, they were formulaic as any of them–possibly more, even, it’s almost insulting how similarly strutured the great majority of their songs are:

  • Begin with cool, eerie quiet part leading into loud slamming part intro
  • Extremely tense rapped verse traded off with huge screamy chorus, repeat
  • Even huger screamier part climax
  • End with same cool eerie part

But you never really mind, ‘coz it’s just such a fucking ingenious format, and it’s done with obvious craftsmanship that doesn’t come at the expense of any of the song’s energy. Despite how oldsters will tend to tell you that bands like Anthrax and Faith No More already did all this stuff decades ago, this way of creating rock music in a totally unorganic way is still relatively new for popular rock–metal, no less. Plus those cool, eerie parts are really, really cool.

In the End” isn’t really an exception to their formula, but it feels like it should be. Immediately, with that inconceivably melancholy piano hook over the stutter beat leading into the song’s first verse, the song just seems special–all preconceived notions of what nu-metal is or should be just vanish, and you’re left with what is simply great pop/rock music. And man, does the song hit the ground running–I read something in SPIN with one of the Sleater-Kinney girls talking about how the two lead vocalists in their band play the music’s conscious and subconscious, and though I couldn’t give a fuck about their vocal interplay at all, I think it applies perfectly to the instantly established rapport here in the simultaneous vocal lines between rapper Mike Shinoda and lyricist Chester Bennington. It’s hard to tell which is which–Bennington could be the despairing undercurent to Shinoda’s angry ranting, or Shinoda could be the simmering frustration under Bennington’s surface depression–but it’s a fascinating blend either way.

And as vocalists, “In the End” is unquestionably Bennington & Shinoda’s masterpiece. Even LP haters tend to acknowledge that Bennington knows how to really wail when called on to do so, but he’s just as unsettling here playing defeated as he normally is doing pissed-off. And say what you will about Shinoda, or his dozens of miserable side-projects–motherfucker can rap. No kidding at all, I’d put him up against the great majority of rappers in the top 40 this decade. I didn’t really quite get it until I saw Shinoda performing the song live on the Collision Course DVD and I watched the way he could just control an audience–with his words, with his flow, even with his hand motions. You can just feel the intensity, and even moreso, the sheer concentration and force of will that Shinoda puts into his raps, and personally, I find it stunning. You don’t find too many other rock bands with two lead vocalists (and I mean vocalists who’ll trade off leads in almost every song), much less ones as indvidiually talented and as meshable as these.

And the sentiment–well, it’s hardly an original or terribly creative one–“I tried so hard / and got so far / but in the end, it doesn’t even matter.” It’s hard to find fault in the brutal simplicity of it, though, especially considering that the band never goes cheap or over-the-top with their suicide solution–ultimately, what it really sounds like is a spiritual descendent of The Smiths’ similarly basic and all-encompassing paean to futility, “Asleep“. And apparently it was universal enough to send the song all the way to #2 on the charts–pop supremacy not reached be a metal (or even metal-ish) band in nearly a decade.

The saddest thing for me about LP’s mega-success was how few of the nu-metal bands to rise in their wake really followed their example. Most of them got the parts about switching between quiet and loud, and about screaming the important angry parts (a system arguably in place as far back as Nirvana, or even further if you want to get technical), but few, if any, got the parts about the gorgeous production, the shimmering hooks and the brilliant vocal interplay. Or, like the band says (sing/rap it with me now!) “One thing / I don’t know why / it doesn’t even matter how hard you try…”

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #80. Otis Redding – “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 13, 2007

“Watchin’ the ships roll in / And then I watch ’em roll away again”

Untimely deaths have a way of imbuing even the most relatively inconsequential of songs with a sort of gravitas that would never have otherwise seem intended. It’s why John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” sounds haunting and tragic instead of just boring and retro, why Blind Melon’s “No Rain” is far more likely to make you weep than smile despite being one of the most utopian songs of the 90s, and why INXS’s “Not Enough Time” temporarily became the definitive sound of a nation in mourning back in 1993. Or, at least, it might have if Michael Hutchense had killed himself about a half-decade earlier. Whoops.

And so when viewed in context with the plane crash that would claim Otis Redding’s life a mere few days after its recording, we tend to see the hard-earned tranquility of a song like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” as something close to a transmission from the next world, saying that he’s finally achieved total peace and serenity. Which, especially when compared to the irrepressible energy of so many of Otis’s earlier hits, definitely carries some logic to it, but it’s an incomplete picture, since the song isn’t really quite the celebration of life’s doldrums that it initially seems.

Really, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is closer to being the Waiting for Godot of 60s soul. Despite the blissful feeling of inactivity implied by the song’s famous chorus (“watchin’ the tides roll away / wastin’ time”), the verses are sort of unnerving in their despair over the inactivity. “I left my home in Georgia / Headed for the ‘Frisco bay / ‘Coz I got nothing to live for / And looks like nothing’s gonna come my way,” Otis bemoans, plagued by “this loneliness [that] won’t leave me alone”. This isn’t the statement of hope and faith implied by the last testament of the similarly taken-before-his-time Sam Cooke. This is Otis saying a change isn’t gonna come, and it’s fairly dispiriting to hear.

But there’s still a certain dignity to Otis’s acceptance of his static fate that keeps the song from ever lapsing into melodrama. It’s in the song’s climactic (and even somewhat empowered) bridge, in which Otis concludes “I can’t do what ten people tell me to do / So I guess I’ll remain the same, yeah.” It’s in the music, a sturdy, clipped rhythm punctuated by some exceptionally placed horns, and by the wave and bird sound effects that give the song its sealegs. And of course, it’s in Otis’s brilliant vocal, appropriately restrained and mellow but maintaining enough fire to make his going gently into that good night all the more heartbreaking.

Mostly, though, it’s in the whistling. Arguably the most famous whistle hook to ever appear on a modern pop song, the outro to “Dock of the Bay” says everything necessary to say that Otis couldn’t possibly vocalize in words. And I don’t even know what that is, exactly, but it’s something rousing and melancholy and peaceful all at the same time, and it’s one of the best musical epitaphs a legend like Otis could possibly have hoped for. And beyond that, it’s just an insanely catchy hook, so its use as the formative break for De La Soul’s similarly divine “Eye Know” 20 years later is both insanely inspired and totally unsurprising.

And even if Otis was still alive today, it’s hard to believe the song wouldn’t be just as powerful.

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #81. Mogwai – “Mogwai Fear Satan”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 30, 2007

“By far the most accurate sonic representation of the Big Bang theory in the history of music.” -Nick Mirov, Pitchfork

Sixteen minutes and thirty seconds. Three guitar chords. One sonic apocalypse.

I never understood the term “post-rock” as applied to a band like Mogwai. Sure, it makes sense for bands like Tortoise, Disco Inferno or A.R. Kane, because so much of the music those guys made legitimately sounds like it exists in a world where the standards of rock and roll are no longer a relevant consideration. But for me, at least, Mogwai represents so much of what is wonderful and beautiful about rock music–the thunderous power, the shivering emotion, and the brilliant sense of affirmation–that I can’t imagine a world in which the band and rock could not co-exist.

I’d prefer to think of Mogwai as the world’s best Christian Metal band. And obviously, I don’t mean that in the Stryper sense–the overwhelming majority of Mogwai songs are instrumental, and aside from this song’s title, I can’t think of another religious reference the band makes in their entire catalogue. But when you listen to a song like “Mogwai Fear Satan,” you can hear the sense of righteousness and the search for salvation shining through every note, and more than any band I can think of (with the possible exception, inevitably, of Rush), the band’s best songs sound like they are literally trying to combat the evil forces of the world with the power of rock & roll. Without lyrics, and with a totally straight face.

And for the most part, it works. Listening to the ascending three-chord riff of “Mogwai Fear Satan,” the chugging subtly harmonizing bass, and the waves upon waves of crashing drums, all of which are repeated hundreds of times throughout the course of the song, you are filled with the overwhelming sense of belief–in God, in love, in whatever the strangest and most wonderous powers of the universe are, in whatever will have you as a believer. For the sixteen and a half minutes of “Mogwai Fear Satan,” evil simply can not exist.

And yet, all I want to do while listening to it is weep with sadness. And that’s largely because it feels like the end–and not just because it happens to end the album it appears on, 1997’s stone classic Young Team, marking easily one of the best album closers in history, and not just because it so obviously sounds like the end of the world (try to listen to it without picturing the world collapsing around you–doubt it can be done). Really, it’s just because it feels like the end of all things, as if there’s nothing that could possibly come after it, because what is there that could follow “Mogwai Fear Satan”?

That’s not to say that it’s a perfect song–if it was, you can be certain it’d be significantly higher on this list. The song doesn’t quite pace itself the right way, being a bit too anxious to get to the apocalypse that it doesn’t take as much time as I’d like to build to it, and spends a bit too much time with the fallout afterwards. But the emotions evoked by the song’s best parts are as powerful and as beautiful as any other song on this list, and such brazenness in the face of evil…well, it’s always admirable. If Mogwai legitimately do fear Satan, or anything else for that matter, they’ve got a strange way of showing it.

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #82. Paul Revere & the Raiders – “Steppin’ Out”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 24, 2007

“Tell the truth, child!”

Paul Revere & the Raiders are probably my all-time favorite second-tier band. They were never really among the most innovative, most creative, most memorable or most interesting bands of the 60s, and they were helped little by some ultimately poor career management, including

  1. Being named after their relatively inconsequential drummer organist (see also: Dave Clark Five, Spencer Davis Group–drummers non-essential band members would never have this kind of supremacy in rock again) just because of his ridiculous name
  2. Dressing in similarly ridiculous Revolutionary War-era costumes to complement the ridiculous name
  3. Getting beaten by the Kingsmen to record “Louie, Louie” by like a week
  4. Making the monumentally stupid decision to cover a little song called “Indian Reservation (Lament of the Cherokee Indian),” a hugely awful song that would yet somehow go on to become their biggest (and, somewhat uncoincidentally, basically their last) hit, cementing their legacy as rock & roll punchlines

It’s too bad, though, ‘coz they wrote (or just played) some seriously, seriously kickass songs, and had a string of hits in the mid-60s that, while compeltely ignored by both oldies and classic rock radio today, is practically unparalleled by any other American band from the 60s.

1965’s “Steppin’ Out” was the first of their big ‘uns, and remains my personal favorite. Running a scant 2:14, “Steppin’ Out” is all business, opening with two harsh organ chords, a searing guitar line and singer Mark Lindsay’s piercing “YAY-UH!” opener, and barely taking a second’s breath until the song eventually runs out of gas. I still find the song’s sound somewhat startling considering when it was recorded–loud, shrill and driven by near-fatal levels of testosterone, if the song was just a little more depraved, it practically could’ve fit on a Stooges album.

And the thing is angry. Too many heartbreak songs dwell on the victimization aspect of the situation, but most of the best ones realize that to get over it, you’ve got to get mad, dammit! And Lindsay sells this point with every acidic syllable of “Steppin’ Out,” an old-school style tale of a man going off to war and returning to find his true love has been unfaithful (“‘Coz when I came back, I heard the bad, bad news / Seems our great romance has been a-gettin’ abused”). On paper, the lyrics would make it sound like a country song, but the bitter, caustic edge he sings it with puts it squarely in Nuggets territory (and I’m pretty sure it’s on one of the bonus discs on the box, thank God).

Then there’s that chorus. It’s only two lines, really, and it’s barely differentiable from the verses they stem from, but it still kills me every time: “Tell me true / Don’t lie to me! / That you been step-step-step-step-STEP-STEP-STEPPIN’ OUT ON ME!!!” The stutter on the “step” just builds up all the frustration and anger from the verses until it just explodes into the “STEPPIN’ OUT ON ME!!” part, the most furious, empowering repudiation of cuckoldery I’ve ever heard. It’s so good that I didn’t even realize until just now that Lindsay commits the cardinal lyrical sin of rhyming “me” with “me”. Who fucking cares?

They’d apply the same sort of blistering energy to a number of other incendiary topics over the course of their career–lust (“Hungry“), anti-drug use (“Kicks“), and uh, getting stuck at an airport (“The Great Airplane Strike“), but for me, “Steppin’ Out” is still the best example of why The Raiders are so criminally overdue for a cred reboot. Where’s Wes Anderson when you need him?

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #83. America – “Sister Golden Hair”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 15, 2007

“I ain’t ready for the alter / but I do agree there’s times / when a woman sure can be a friend of mine

It probably wasn’t too wise for America to write several of the stupidest songs ever written before they unleashed their masterpiece. Observe some of the more telling chesnuts from their early singles:

“The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz / And the sky with no clouds / The heat was hot and the ground was dry / But the air was full of sound” (“A Horses With No Name,” 1972)
“‘Cause the free wind is blowin’ through your hair / And the days surround your daylight there / Seasons crying no despair / Alligator lizards in the air / IN THE AIR” (“Ventura Highway,” 1972)
“Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man / that he didn’t, didn’t already have / And cause never was the reason for the evening / Or the tropic of Sir Gallahad” (“Tin Man,” 1974)

Improbably enough, these were all still great songs–apparently Dewey Bunnell’s skills as a consummate soft-rock tune craftsman far outshined his skills as a lyrical saboteur. But it was kind of hard to take them seriously, and consequently, no one really gives them the credit they deserve for “Sister Golden Hair,” the breezy 1975 classic that managed to be as smooth and heartbreaking melodically as the rest of America’s AM gold, while actually maintaining a sort of lyrical coherence. Huzzah!

Actually, I think the lyrics to “Sister Golden Hair” are pretty nifty, though probably not as much as the song’s Wikipedia page. It’s about a guy not being able to committ to marrying the titular female, despite loving her, or some such. Written by Gerry Beckley instead of Dewey Bunnell, it’s even got one of the better opening couplets of the 70s, “Well I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damned depressed / So I set my sights on Monday, and I got myself undressed.” And it’s got a hell of a title–one of those simple imagistic titles that ends up being way more evocative than it should be–and it comes from a non-chorus lyric in the song, which always scores points with me.

Of course, it’s still more about the music than anything. Like “Take It Easy” mixed with “My Sweet Lord,” “Sister Golden Hair” was maybe the decade’s most seamless fusion of country inflections into a rock/pop song. But as produced by George Martin–just about the only non-Beatles related credit I think I know of his–the song has such a beautiful, lush, full feeling to it, that it obviously stands apart from the decade’s “Amie”s or “Can’t You See”s. Plus, they were Brits anyway. I know, total false advertising, but I guess they prove that you don’t have to trust a band to know all the words to their songs.

That’s about all I got on this one. Just turn on your local mix station, it’ll probably be on within the half-hour.

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #84. Geto Boys – “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 7, 2007

“Oh wait, that shit is on?”

These days we can afford to take introspection in hip-hop for granted. After DMX had a million consecutive #1 albums and Eminem somehow managed to become the biggest rapper in the world, and emo-rappers like Atmosphere and Sage Francis made the genre seem an acceptable hybrid, hearing rappers get in touch with their emotional side isn’t that shocking. At the turn of the 90s, though, when rap seemed to be either excessively lightweight (Hammer, Ice), blisteringly violent (NWA, Public Enemy) or clever but kind of jokey (De La, Tribe, “The Humpty Dance”) it’s hard to imagine how a song as heartfelt and vulnerable as “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” could’ve found rotation.

Divided into four verses between the three Geto Boys–first and third to Scarface, second to Willie D, and the fourth to Bushwick Bill–“Mind Playing Tricks on Me” is a harrowing look into the paranoid, suicidal mindset of the three rappers. As the single’s cover testifies, this wasn’t a put-on–Bushwick Bill had recently shot himself in the eye, somehow survivng the icnident to perform on the group’s biggest and (deservedly) best-remembered hit. But you don’t need the real-life framing to appreacite the veracity of “Mind”–the verses contain some of the most disturbing, piercing thoughts and images I’ve ever heard in modern pop music.

The narrative flow of “Mind” is practically unparalleled in hip-hop. After a mood-lightening false start, Scarface starts with his first verse, probably the song’s most externally fearful–a sweat-drecnhed tale of dark-alley anxiety (“Four walls just staring at a nigga / I’m paranoid, sleeping with my finger on the trigger”). Willie D joins him on it in the second verse, but comes to the song’s first revelation that all is not what it seems, when the crazy motherfuckers seeking vengeance on him (“Is it that fool that I ran off the block / Or is it that nigga last week that I shot?”) turn out to be a bunch of old dudes.

From there, Scarface returns feeling a lot more self-analytical. no longer paranoid about the people after him but about the forces conspiring in his own mind. His thoughts drift to religious crisis (“Every sunday morning I’m in service / Praying for forgiveness”), his spurned woman (“She helped me out in this shit / But to me she was just another bitch”) and even offing himself (“I often drift while a drive / having fatal thoughts of suicide”), but realizes that with his son to look after, that’s not even a possible escape. It’s by far the song’s most depressing verse, but intelligently, the Boys don’t leave it as their parting thoughts.

That duty instead is left to Bushwick Bill, who closes “Mind” with its least revelatory but perhaps most memorable verse. The story, which begins with one of the great opening lines in hip-hop (“Last year Halloween fell on a weekend / Me and Geto Boys are trick-or-treatin'”), tells of the trio “droppin’ them motherfuckin’ B’s” on some dudes under the guise of Halloween, only for Bill to come to his senses, “hands bloody from punchin’ the concrete,” and realizing “it wasn’t even close to Halloween.” It doesn’t give details into Bill’s psyche the way the other two Boys did, but it still speaks just as loudly, especially in the song’s classic finale (“daaaaamn homey / My mind is playin’ tricks on me.”) It’s the perfect, relatively low-key way but still incredibly vivid way to end such a nerve-wracking song.

The real coup of “Mind,” and the most immediately striking thing about it listening to it for the first time, is the choice of sample for musical accompaniment. Given the song’s crazed, fatalistic midnight vibe, you’d expect a horrorcore-style beat to go with it, or at least something like Ice-T’s “Midnight” or something off Elif4Zaggin. Rather, the song takes its groove from Isaac Hayes’ symphonic soul instrumental “Hung Up on My Baby,” a laconic, melancholy guitar hook that remains just sort of sad, instead of the dark, almost scary loop you’d expect. And it ends up working perfectly–its almost easygoing vibe reflecting that this is just the way life is for these three dudes, and that moments of fear and introspection like this aren’t particularly out of the ordinary for them–just sort of sad.Classic video, too.

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #85. Ween – “Birthday Boy”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 23, 2007

“You’re no longer a teenager, you’re a full-grown 20…”

All right, so full disclosure: this isn’t actually the 85th best song of all-time. My original list had it pegged at #77, which still seems about right to me. But fuck it, I turn 21 today, and I don’t really feel like writing about paranoid southern rap, so that’s gonna have to wait until next week. And of course, apologies to Gene and Dean for the eight-place insult–know that the moral victory is yours after the next eight classics, at least.

Birthday Boy” is by far my favorite birthday song of all-time. Which is sort of strange, I suppose, because a) superficially at least, the song is only tangentially about birthdays, and b) it’s actually kind of a downer. If I really felt like celebrating today, which I do, I should probably be writing about Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday Sweet 16,” or that super-enthusiastic Stevie Wonder “Happy Birthday,” or at the very least, The Sugarcubes’ bittersweet”Birthday” (whcih, truth told, I am sort of bummed there isn’t room for on this list). But despite the undeniable joy and general celebratory vibes of those songs, they don’t get what a birthday’s really about for me. And “Birthday Boy” sort of does.

Ween’s not a band whose songs are generally associated with great displays of emotion. The number of love songs in their catalogue probably just outnumbers the number of songs about pot or tacos, and generally the songs about pot or tacos are better anyway. But if you insist to one of their fans that Ween are just a joke band, they’ll probably slice your throat before you get the last word out, and that’s because of songs like “Birthday Boy,” which is one of the most powerful, sincere indie love songs I’ve ever heard. It’s still a Ween song, for certain–the half-dozen false starts, the ridiculously lo-fi production, the outro courtesy of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” (the point of which I’m still unclear on, which is probably the point to begin with)–but even on an album full of lunacy as inspired as 1990’s GodWeenSatan, “Birthday Boy” is a hell of a blindsider.

The song’s story, as told in the first two verses and chorus, is a relatively simple and classic one–guy lets girl go, thinks he’s glad to do so, but then realizes how much he misses her, and how lonely he is without her. It’s devestating, though–partly because of the poignancy of the lyrics (“When the wind blows, and there’s a chill in the air / I hope that someone is taking care of you”), but mostly because of the song’s presentation–a simple guitar & vocal affair, but rather than play it for a cheap acoustic ballad, Ween turn the amps up to 17 and play one of the most heartfelt guitar lines you’ve ever heard as if it was something off of Raw Power. It’s almost as if they wanted to ensure that no college sophmore assholes would cheapen their masterpiece by using it to get laid (luckily for them, Extreme’s “More Than Words” was released one year later and the issue became a moot point).

But the section that seals the deal for “Birthday Boy” is after the second chorus, when two answering machine messages that Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman got on his birthday are played (don’t know if they were for real or not, but it doesn’t really matter). Broadcast while the super-melancholy riff is still playing, it makes me feel like just about every birthday has since I got out of High School–not so much a time for unmitigated joy and partying, but more of a time for serious reflection, for thinking about the things your life is lacking and the things that you should probably try to fix over the next year. And even though it seems unrelated to the rest of the song, it’s exactly the conclusion that “Birthday Boy” needs, because it’s getting answering machine messages like that that probably would prompt Gene to write this song.

So salut, Gene and Dean. I’ll see if they have Meddle on the jukebox at the bar tonight.

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #86. Black Flag – “TV Party”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 16, 2007

“TONIGHT!”

The main thing missed by people who thought Black Flag’s 1981 album Damaged was going to be the downfall of youth in America (not that I have any evidence such people existed, but AMG swears it, and they know best), as well as most of the reviewers I’ve seen take on the album, is how fucking funny it is. I mean, yeah, an album with titles like “Depression,” “No More” and “Life of Pain” isn’t going to be all sunshine and rainbows, but I feel like the album wouldn’t be half as legendary (or even half as listenable) as it is without lyricist Greg Ginn’s exceedingly black sense of humor. I mean, there are definitely some harrowing moments and whatnot, but how can you hear a line like “I wanna live / I WISH I WAS DEAD!” or “They say that things are gonna get better / All I know is / THEY FUCKING BETTER!” and not chuckle?

And then there’s “TV Party“–probably the most well known Black Flag song (it was even in a Futurama episode, for some reason), and up there with Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” and Dead Kennedys’ “California Uber Alles” as the national ambassador for early-80s L.A. punk. It’s not exactly the band’s definitive song–not a single mention of violence from singer Henry Rollins, even towards himself–but it might be the most blanketly relatable, probably the catchiest, and definitely the funniest.

The song is an exceedingly simple one, and can be more or less summed up with the introductory three-word chant (after bassist Chuck Dukowski’s awesome rumbling lead-in)–“T…V… PARTY TONIGHT! T….V… PARTY TONIGHT,” which Rollins goes on to elaborate on in the first verse–“We’re gonna have a TV party tonight / (all right!) / We’re gonna have a TV party all right / (Tonight!)” The song’s lyrical complexity level rarely rises above this, especially not in the extremely straightforward chorus, “We’ve got nothing better to do / Then watch TV and have a couple of brews.” Simple enough.

As the song progresses, it gets more and more invested in the titular concept. From the bridge of the band members shouting out the names of shows they presumably planning on watching (consequently teaching a ten-year-old me more about the world of 80s television than I ever learned watching VH1) to the increasingly pathetic verses (“I wouldn’t be without my TV for a day / (Or even a minute!) / Don’t even bother to use my brain any more / (There’s nothing left in it!),” the song keeps upping the stakes. Until the last verse, anyway, where Rollins comes to a startling discovery (“Wait a minute, my T.V. set doesn’t work / (It’s broken!)” leading to the song’s tragic conclusion–“NOOOO T….V…. PARTYYYY….TOOONIIIIIIIIIGHT!!!

So obviously, the song isn’t really a loving tribute to the wonders of the televisual medium. It’s at least 90% satire, damning the sort of mindless zombies who do nothing but sit around and watch TV all day, arguably making it somewhat hypocritical for me to be extolling the song’s virtues on this blog. Nonetheless, I do firmly believe that there’s a certain affection for the box underneath all the sarcasm–self-hating affection, but affection nonetheless. Anyway, there’s no way Black Flag could’ve come up with a song like “TV Party” without having experienced sitting around the house for days just watching TV and knocking back beers with friends at least a couple of times–what group of 20-something males hasn’t? Plus, look at how much fun they’re having in the song’s equally classic video–when the song reaches it’s denouement, it does legitimately feel like kind of a bummer (though I can’t imagine missing That’s Incredible! was really too much of a loss).

All right, so maybe I’m just looking for a little self-validation here. But hey, I’m not the one with his own talk show on IFC every Saturday night. I wonder if the rest of the band gets together to watch it? That’d be nice, wouldn’t it?

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #87. My Bloody Valentine – “You Made Me Realise”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 5, 2007

Well you might as well commit suicide

My Bloody Valentine really knew how to translate their music into the images that provided their album and single covers. The blinding white-out of Isn’t Anything, the moaning rapture of Tremolo, and of course, the drowned-in-pink guitargasm of Loveless–it’s hard to imagine listening to their albums without those mental images, they get the feeling of the music so right fucking on. You Made Me Realise might be the most literal translation, but it’s also probably the most telling–a pretty young girl lies naked in a field of grass, looking lost in thought of feeling. It seems like an image of near-total bliss, until you realise (sic) that the long blade of grass pointed at her face is actually the blade of a knife, being held to her throat.

The YMMR cover was one of my very favorites for years before I came to this revelation, and once I did, it made me appreciate the cover, and the song, even more. ‘Coz without the knife, the picture is incomplete–even though it’s the bliss-out portion of the picture that most people associate with MBV, and rightfully so, since the music is as rapturous as almost any ever created. But it’s the presence of the knife–the tension, the danger, the near-psychosexual perversion–that gives the best My Bloody Valentine songs their power, that prevents them from floating away on a lighter-than-air bed of pillowy guitars and seductive coos.

You Made Me Realise” is, as I see it at least, the big bang of shoegaze. It existed in various forms before MBV got to it, sure–The Cocteau Twins, JAMC’s “Upside Down,” Spacemen 3’s Perfect Prescription, even parts of Dinosaur Jr.’s early stuff. But it wasn’t until “You Made Me Realise” that all the genre’s hallmarks really came together–the piercing, crashing guitars, the unified bass-drum attack, the boy-girl harmonies and sensual lyrics, and perhaps the most important trademark of all, the feedback-squall bridge. In some ways, the song is just as epochal, and definitely just as exciting, as “Johnny B. Goode,” “Anarchy in the U.K.” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” even if it was only heard by a small fraction of the people.

And even more than those songs, it explodes in its first seconds of existence, the first noticeable thing being just how discordant the thing sounds–angular, out of tune (with each other, if not with themselves) guitars basically just hammering the some two chords, with tinny, razor-thin sounding drums and uncomplimentary bass just adding to the assault. In fact, one of the most striking things about YMMR is that thin, sharp sound, in fierce opposition to the lush soundscapes that MBV would make their name perfecting.

But when the verses kick in, the initial dischord immediately makes sense. Sung by lovers and lead vocalists Belinda Butcher and Kevin Shields, the two’s heavenly harmonies come as gorgeous release from the intro’s onslaught, and even though their voices are distorted to sound just as piercing as the rest of the song, the song is suddenly so sweet that it doesn’t matter at all–you don’t care that the knife is still there, because you’re lost in the grass and the clouds. The vocals are almost totally incomprehensible–you can only really pick up a word or phrase here and there, until the chorus, which consists of the only four words you need to understand to get the song–“you made me realize.”

And then there’s the feedback breakdown. It would be practically obligatory for shoegaze bands only a few years afterwards, but I can’t imagine what it must have sounded like back in 1988 when Sonic Youth were possibly the only rock band that would dare interrupt such a tight groove to just break into atonal, arrhythmic, sheer guitar noise, and even when they did it it sounded nothing like this. It’s enthralling, and still sounds totally mind-melting almost twenty years and countless sonic revolutions later.

But what really makes this song for me is how tight it is. Even with the white noise bridge, the song still clocks in at under four minutes, something that later My Bloody Valentine songs would have real trouble doing. Which reminds me of my original point, and why I’ll always prefer Isn’t Anything to Loveless–sure, the latter is a glorious, seminal and heartcrushing work. But unlike with “You Made Me Realise,” I keep going back to it looking for the knife among the blades of grass, and it just isn’t there–not like this, anyway.

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