Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Get The Knack - The Knack

Our world is full of causes:

Save The Whale.

Freedom of Speech.

Smokers have rights (yeahhhhh, good one Joe Jackson).

Knuke the Knack.

Hang on, back up there. Was there really such a movement? Knuke The Knack? We’re talking about the “My Sharona and other songs of lust” type Knack?” Yep, believe it or not there was such a movement. How the hell did that come about? Well, let’s back things up a bit before getting to that.

First of all, I want to get something straight. I’ve loved the first two albums by this great band “Get The Knack” and “..But The Little Girls Understand” (line from the Willie Dixon song, Back Door Man) for 30 years or so. They’ve ALWAYS been great and important records in my life. The other records (and there ARE more) aren’t too shabby either. I’ve always been aghast at the thought that supposed fans of rock music dismiss these albums as “not serious” or at best, as guilty pleasures. “Get The Knack” should be no more a guilty pleasure than “Exile On Main Street”. I’m not comparing the albums per se’ – I’m just saying that neither album is one that any rock fan in their right mind would be embarrassed to own. How did things happen in this cockamamie world where well-earned respect became repulsion from the “too-hip for thou” crowd?

According to a great DVD documentary on the band called “Getting The Knack”, journalists who were pissed off at the band’s management for not allowing them to do interviews turned on them. On the “Rock And Roll Geek” podcast episode where Berton Averre is interviewed (episode 399 if you want to look it up), he suggests it was more likely attributable to resentment from the in-crowd for their meteoric rise to fame. The same folks had supported them in their brief period in the clubs before the public at large knew of them. During this time, musicians like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen were volunteering to make guest appearances with the band.

If Averre is right, The Knack were victims of tall poppy syndrome. A bona-fide movement against the band was started called Knuke The Knack. I shit you not!!!  

The reaction against the band sure as hell couldn’t be about the music. The purpose of this article is to make that case.

“My Sharona” has two of the most recognisable pair of riffs in all of pop music. It has a drum riff AND guitar riff that everyone on the planet will recognise in a nanosecond. But “Get The Knack” is not just about that one brilliant song. On the afore-mentioned “Rock And Roll Geek” podcast, the host suggested that the record is a concept album dedicated to the subject of “blue balls”. 

What did the band's detractors actually say?
(i) Their songs were sleazy and sexist.
(ii) The music was a Beatles rip-off.
(iii) There’s the issue of the aforementioned bitterness towards the band’s lack of interviews.

I'm not going to make long winded statements to countermand these points - I will merely make the same assertions using language reserved for bands deemed to be more fashionable by the taste-makers:

(i) The songs are raw, savage, exciting and are about sexual angst. No one ever said the Rolling Stones were not to be taken seriously because of "Satisfaction". Mick Jagger wasn't claiming he couldn't get Satisfaction because his copy of the Guardian hadn't been delivered!!! What about anything from the Prince back catalogue?

(ii) Some of the songs are Beatlesque (with a reigned-in Keith Moon on drums). No one ever accused Teenage Fanclub of being Beatles rip-offs.

(iii) They were not media whores.

Now for the album itself.

(a) Get The Knack opens up with Let Me Out, Your Number Or Your Name, and Oh Tara - one of the best trio of tunes to ever open a rock LP. Let Me Out alone would knacker (pun intended) most musicians, but not our boys. It's a statement of intent about the band and the record we're about to hear. The incredible thing was this song was actually the B-side to My Sharona. Weren't B-sides supposed to be forgettable? No one told that to these guys. Bruce Gary's drumming is straight out of the Keith Moon Drum Manual.

Your Number sounds like Fieger had been living and breathing the first 2 or 3 Beatles albums all his life - remember, in my book that's a positive. Oh Tara is the album's first song of sexual frustration. When Fieger sings, "You squeeze my heart and then you let it flow", it's not a sappy lover's lament. It's a guy complaining he's not getting any. Oh did I mention the killer guitar riff?

(b) She's So Selfish has another killer pairing of drum and guitar doing a more intense variation of the Bo Didley beat. Thematically, this should have been My Sharona's flip side, as it's also about Sharona - the object of Fieger's lust and scorn. Two sides of the record and two sides of the Fieger.

(c) Maybe Tonight was necessary to give the listener a break from the aural assault. After the vitriol of Selfish, Maybe Tonight was the one gentle moment on the record. It's so beautiful that it sounds like a love song. Don't be fooled, sports fans - it's still about lust. The wolf in sheep's clothing. But isn't that so like real life?

(d) No such trickery for Good Girls Don't. Pure lust, with those Beatlesque harmonies and John Lennon harmonica. Why was there a cleaned up version for radio? It would have made more sense if ALL the lyrics changed or the title was changed to something like "Eat Your Soup". But changing a line like "wishing you could get inside her pants" to "wishing she was giving you a chance" is not turning Last Tango In Paris into a Disney production.

(e) My Sharona - no point in me writing about this song. You either hit your head in amazement and wonder why YOU couldn't come up with a song as great as this (killer riff, killer guitar solo, REAL rock and roll lust) or you're deaf!!! You're probably reading this article because of THIS song anyway, so you must love it. Right?

(f) Why should I go on. Just listen to the rest of the damn album. Every other track is a winner. I've either sold you on the album, you already agree with me on its greatness, or you don't like great rock music. Of the remaining tracks, in particular, listen to the album closer Frustrated. Poor Dougie (like poor Mick before him) still isn't getting any satisfaction.

So after the release of Get The Knack, the inevitable downhill slide occurred and the band were history within a couple of years (with a couple of reformations along the way). Fieger finally got what he wanted - his muse - and that too had a typical rock and roll lifestyle downhill slide.
None of that matters. All that's important is that this album gets re-evaluated as a bona-fide rock and roll classic. I'm going to get myself in trouble here, but I don’t understand why Never Mind The Bollocks (or Nevermind for that matter) are revered and this album isn't. Steve Jones is on the record as saying that The Knack were one of the SexPistols' favourite bands. Foes that earn brownie points with so-called "serious" rock fans and historians? 

I want to see making this album revered as MY cause.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Paleo Cinema

Just a quick entry to say thank you to Terry Frost, host of the excellent Paleo Cinema Podcast for making a reference to my blog on his show. In keeping with the spirit, I'll discuss a film soundtrack sometime very soon.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Songs That Left Me Speechless Part 2 - "Launceston" by Ice Cream Hands

Aaah….unrequited love. Hands up out there if you’ve ever experienced it? That many, huh? I bet you have a song that you identify with in relation to your dilemma. Something where the songwriter had a turn of phrase coupled with a chord sequence that sounded so bittersweet. You took that song home and adopted it like a stray puppy.

It would hardly be overstating it to say that the pop catalogue is a wasteland of songs about love gone bad or love that never really was. It’s the only topic Roy Orbison and Chris Isaak ever sang about.  Some are brilliant in their execution like Richard Thompson’s beautifully sad “Waltzing For Dreamers”. Some of these songs also serve as great case studies into unhealthy obsession like “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”. Some songs are so awful, you think the songwriter (assuming he or she is writing biographically) had it coming – “All Out of Love”, anyone?

The Ice Cream Hands came onto the scene in Melbourne back into the 1990s, and sounded like they breathed the same air previously inhabited by The Beatles and Big Star, with a good dose of Beach Boys thrown in. These guys didn’t have songs with hooks – their songs had talons (thanks for the quote, A). Their gorgeous melodies and harmonies would set up camp in your head and (if you were lucky) could not be evicted – that is if you bothered to listen. Not too many members of the Australian general public did. Talk about unrequited love.

The Hands produced 5 albums of incredible “power” pop. Their swan-song was an album called “The Good China”. The whole album is worthy of an analysis, but I’m going to focus on one song called “Launceston”.

The story has our hero recalling a better time when the woman who broke his heart took him to her home in the northern Tasmanian town of Launceston. She's eventually is lured to London and makes a glib invitation for him to visit her, not expecting himto ever show up. Guess what? He shows up. Story-wise, it’s nothing new – it’s just unrequited love.

Aaah, but the real story is in the telling.

The song works in three parts:

1) The verses convey the first-person narrative of the trips to Launceston and London by the main character. He mistakes a one-night fling (in the mind of the woman) for something deeper. Musically, this is gently conveyed by a series of major descending chords.

2) Then we have the bridging lines between the verse and next verse, or verse and chorus. Musically, this gets a little more intense. A foreboding 3 note piano motif is repeatedly invoked. Lyrically, our hero (or obsessor depending on your perspective) is looking out the plane window at the idyllic fields of Tasmania upon his return journey from London. He’s also looking over his shoulder to a more idyllic past before the rejection.

3) The big chorus. It’s only one line that’s repeated, but what makes it interesting is which character is singing the line: “Stay, anything is possible tonight”.
a) Is it our lovelorn protagonist in London, sadly begging his heart's desire for reconsideration?
b) Is it indeed his beloved having an unexpected change of heart?
c) Or is he recalling her original invitation to him back from the perfect time in Launceston?

The chorus is musically intense, and when the Beach Boys harmonies kick in during the second round of the chorus, you feel an emotional kick in the guts. The first time I heard this, I couldn't comprehend something so sad was also so damn beautiful.

The song starts off cleverly. Right from the opening line, "Before the northern lights took her away from me", we already know, whatever comes next in the tale, the relationship is not going to end up happily ever after. (Or does it? Read possibility (b))

When the man pays her the visit in London, and Chuck sings,"she looked me up and then she....looked me down", his vocal delivery tells us more than the words actually do. We can hear her dismissiveness in those three words "looked me down".

Sweet memories mix with bitterness "before she fell for a guy from Fulham". In this guy's mind, Launceston is sung with the fondness usually reserved in song for cities like Paris. In the world if this song, London is just a tacky town with nothing going for it.

I defy you to remain unconvinced of this song's greatness over the last couple of minutes with the swelling harmonies. Any song that can make you care for its character's dilemma has achieved something, and the Ice Cream Hands have done here in five minutes what most Hollywood directors can't accomplish with the luxury of two hours. Listen to this song.Listen to it again.make sure you listen to it with someone you love - and hopefully who loves you in return.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Weddings Parties Anything - The Big Don't Argue

It’s often great to recall the first time you experienced a band, and recall what you fell in love with in the first place. I had two first-time experiences with Weddings Parties Anything.
Back in March 1986, I went to the sweatbox in Melbourne known as Festival Hall to see Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. The hall was full of geeetar freaks watching Stevie’s fingers for any sign of technique they could steal. Also on the bill was The Fabulous Thunderbirds, featuring Stevie’s hero and brother, Jimmie Vaughan.  Starting out the night was a local band, Weddings Parties Anything. I’d never heard of them, and judging from the muted reaction of the blues boffins in the audience, neither had they. There have probably been odder, more in appropriate bands linked on a bill, but they certainly didn’t belong here. I thought the music was okay, but nothing to take me away from the blues nirvana I was to experience that night. That was my first first-time.
The second first-time came about three years later. I’d read in the street press about this new album The Big Don’t Argue by Weddings Parties Anything (or Weddoes to the faithful). The reviews were reverential so I used that as an excuse to buy a copy. I took the CD home, put it in the player, and pressed play. This was my second first-time.
That night, I had two epiphanies.
The album opened with a version of a traditional folk song, “Streets of Forbes” about bushranger Ben Hall. This is a famous folk ballad, and not something you tamper with, but if it’s at all possible the Weddoes treated with reverence while kicking it in the nuts. They played it like a demented version of the Pogues (whom they’re often compared with). Never mind having heard the song many times before, they played with passion which had me enthralled. The production was vibrant. When lead singer Michael Thomas got to the final line about the police hauling in the dead body of Ben Hall, “And they led him through the streets of Forbes, to show the prize they had”, he gave one of rock’s great screams - in a folk ballad, yet. This was epiphany number one.
WPA had been together for about five years before The Big Don’t Argue was released, and had two other albums under their belts, “Scorn of the Women” and “Roaring Days”. Like other songwriters with a folk bent, Mick Thomas liked to tell a story. Sure he could write a love song, but it had to be enveloped in a story.
He could tell tales of rejected conscripts during WW2, unfairly accused of cowardice. He could describe the heartbreaking duality of a nurses’ strike in Victoria against unjust working conditions (“Oh sisters of Mercy why can’t they see / That a daughter of charity you’ll never be"). It could be something as simple as describing the feelings while going on a walk on a beautiful Sydney spring day with only enough change in your pocket for a cold beer ("Ticket In Tatts").  Yes, Mick had a way with a tale.
On the night I first heard The Big Don’t Argue, one of his tales gave me my second Weddoes epiphany.
Song number five tells the story of six escaped convicts from Macquarie Harbour, who have to resort to cannibalism to stay alive, until the only one left is the narrator – and he’s not even sick bastard carrying the axe! I’m sure the expression Bigger Than Ben-Hur was invented for "A Tale They Won't Believe". There is a pattern to the song where the listener knows one convict is going to get knocked-off in each verse. Yet, I found myself listening to this song like there was still some story revelation to be had. That’s the success of a great songwriter with a story to tell – make a predicted outcome still exciting. The tale, the way with a lyric, the viciousness of the music (the guitars are played like weapons – calling a guitar an axe, actually makes sense here). After I played this song for the first time, I felt out of breath. What did I do? I played it four more times before moving onto track six.
I’ve only mentioned two songs here, both about a violent chapter in Australian history. This album also featured songs to have you crying into your beer, like the “Ballad of Peggy and Col”. You would also find yourself laughing at the misadventures of the luckless protagonist in “Knockbacks In Halifax”. Both of these songs cover ordinary situations, but both are written from the perspective of a songwriter with a knack for observation and the gift of vivid description.
All the WPA albums were great. Mick leaving his heart on his sleeve could sometimes work against him. The self-righteousness of songs like “Telephone In Her Car” or “For Your Ears Only”, both from WPA’s Difficult Loves album could make one cringe. The Big Don’t Argue, however, was a career highlight, or to use a description keeping within the band’s love of Australian Rules football, a best on ground. If you haven’t heard it, forget about getting a good book out tonight, just listen to The Big Don’t Argue tell you a bunch of tales.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Zombies - Odessey and Oracle

I have a terrible confession to make. . It’s too embarrassing for a true rock fan to make....but here goes....I had no idea of the existence of The Zombies’ “Odessey and Oracle” (their misspelling, not mine) until January 2008. There I said it. Saying it quickly makes me feel no better. Apart from the magnificent “She’s Not There”, I had no idea of anything else that they did (and they didn’t have a large recorded output). That’s probably the way classic hits radio stations would prefer it.
I was going away on a beach holiday with the family, so I figured a copy of Uncut Magazine would make for some good holiday reading. Neil Young was on the cover with the headline “I’m not ready to go yet” (would he call an interview with Uncut if he was?) If I was going to be away for the week, I figured I’d read this from cover to cover, even covering those articles about bands I didn’t like or have no clue as to who they were. The Zombies featured in an article about the making of the band’s funky single “Time of the Season”, and interviewed all surviving members (Paul Atkinson died in 2004).
I learned that after 8 years of slogging it out to a largely disinterested general British public (and a disastrous tour of the Phillipines – something in common with the Fab Four),they decided to call it a day, but would record one final album, then split. That album was “Odessey and Oracle”. By the time it got released in the US (with a little help from fan, Al Kooper) and became a number one hit, the Zombies were no more. Oh sure, for a number of years, there were fake touring versions of the band, but not the real thing featuring all members – Colin Blunstone, Chris White, Paul Atkinson, Hugh Grundy and Rod Argent. This article and one that appeared about the same time in a Mojo magazine about the band’s reformation to play the album live 40 years later had me intrigued. I ordered and bought the album.
Make no mistake folks, this album is a bona fide pop classic. It’s been labelled with the psychedelic tag, but the music on this album could have been released any time and fans of great melodies and gorgeous harmonies would still find it fresh. After I bought the album, I must have played it 4 or 5 times a week for a year. No shit – it’s THAT good. My 9 year old daughter knows every lyric on the album. When Judgement Day comes and my faults are being itemised, I know I’ll have the introduction of this record to my daughter on the good side of the scale.
The album opens up with a killer trio of tunes. How the hell did they get away with opening up the album with a love letter from a man to his girlfriend, who just happens to be a prison inmate? How how many other love songs have THAT as a twist? This could have easily been tacky, but somehow on “Care of Cell 44”, the lyrics work. Then there’s that “aaaaaaahhhhh” harmony in the chorus. Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson should have been nervous. The next track “A Rose For Emily” will break your heart. Lyrically, it’s sort of a companion piece to “Eleanor Rigby” with a tale of humanity forgotten. While you’re still scratching your head and asking how much beauty can come from sadness, then comes “Maybe After He’s Gone”. There are many songs about unrequited love (hell, Chris Isaak and Roy Orbison made careers out of them). This is more of a “my girlfriend doesn’t love me anymore because she found someone better” song. Now there are songs and real life situations where the ditched party doesn’t take it so well. Revenge or sadness may be normal emotions. The protagonist of this song takes the view that he’ll wait for the new beau to leave and then will be accepted back in the affections of his former love. This seems pitiful and pathetic. However, I’m sure this is what Chris White meant to convey when he wrote the song. It wasn’t just a lame piece of album filler, not with this lyric as the opening verse:
She told me she loved me
With words as soft as morning rain
But the light that fell upon me
Turned to shadow when he came

Further melodies with melancholy are abound on this album, but there are also songs covering other emotions. One is the truly romantic “This Will Be Our Year”. On a planet where love of great music was more of a priority, this song would be played at weddings, not Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Ruin, I Ruin It For You”...or something like that. I won’t describe it – just listen to it with someone you REALLY love.
Think of all the anti-war songs you’ve heard and anti-war films you’ve watched. They can all be distilled into "The Butcher's Tale". This is one very scary two and a half minute song, set in World War One. I’ve never heard anything that brought the front line so close to the observer. The musical accompaniment to Chris White’s frightened vocals is a pump organ which makes the song sound positively gothic. When the protagonist sings “I can’t stop shaking, my hands won’t stop shaking”, you really feel his fear. This song seems out of place with the joy and melancholy of the rest of the album, and yet, I can’t imagine the album without it.
When I told a friend who works as a broadcaster that I’d discovered this album, he told me how he envied me for getting the feeling of hearing this album for the first time. He’d lived with it for years. The songwriting of Chris White and Rod Argent and the breathy vocals of lead singer Colin Blunstone as well as the musicianship of all of the band contribute to a true work of art. If you haven’t heard this album, feel no shame. Just get it. I truly envy what awaits you.