ALBUM RESCUE SERIES BOOK NOW AVAILABLE

Dalton Koss HQ is excited to announce that the Album Rescue Series book is now available for sale! Order your copy via our online retailer Lulu.com

ARS_cover

At Dalton Koss HQ we love to empower those around us. To accompany the Album Rescue Series book, the very talented SAE Institute audio students were asked to put together an album of songs reinterpreted from some of the rescued albums found in our book. Students put their Producer hats on and were given total freedom to scope their reinterpretation as they wished. The resulting record has some very interesting responses, many of which reflect the students’ area of passion or expertise. Have a listen while reading the Album Rescue Series book! (Note: language warning on some tracks). To hear this music, follow the SoundCloud link.

Album Rescue Series: Erasure ‘Wonderland’ by Professor Lisa Gotto

It’s the mid-eighties. I am ten years old and my teenage sister plays a song over and over; a mysterious, miraculous song that catches me instantly by its sheer beauty. Since she is the mature teenager and I am the baby sister, I’m not allowed in her room of course. So I cower in front of her door, waiting for that wonderful voice to sing and talk to me in a language I don’t know but understand right away. Melancholic that voice seems to me, soft and sad. No doubt what makes the singer so miserable: Olamu. This person, this Olamu, must have caused his bitter-sweet pain, I figure. I am sorry for his desolation, still I can’t wait to hear him sing of Olamu again and again. And then, when I am absolutely sure that nobody can see me, I begin to dance: slowly and hesitantly, swaying to the rhythm, more confident with every step. The tale of Olamu, its sound and feel, has set me in motion. “Pop is physical, sensual, of the body rather than the mind, and in some ways it is anti-intellectual; let yourself go, don’t think – feel“, writes Hanif Kureshi (1995: p.19). In this enchanted moment, I purely sense the heart of the matter. I have experienced something special: my entrance into wonderland.

Wonderland, Erasure’s debut album was a miserable flop in 1986. ‘Oh l’Amour’, my magical song, turned out to be the third consecutive commercial failure for the band. Just like the two preceding single releases, ‘Who Needs Love Like That’ and ‘Heavenly Action’. These songs didn’t crack the Top 50 in the UK, nor the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, ‘Oh l’Amour’ only reached number 85 in the UK single charts (but fared better in Germany, where it was a Top 20 success). Considering the album’s disappointing chart performance, it seemed clear that this new pop duo was not supposed to have a bright future. However, Wonderland hinted at what would become central to Erasure’s appeal. As a sparkling collection of catchy and soulful pop tunes, seemingly simple at first hearing, but increasingly fascinating because of their profound craftiness, Wonderland formed the nucleus of the band’s gorgeous, glorious, and glamourous pop career.

When Vince Clarke and Andy Bell met in 1985, their musical pasts and paths could not have been more different. Clarke had been the founding member of two paramount new wave bands and was an experienced and successful electro pop song writer. Starting with Depeche Mode, Clarke was the sole writer of their first three singles, including the breakthrough Top 10 hit ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. After leaving the band in late 1981, Clarke built an equally prominent career by forming the duo Yazoo with Alison Moyet. Both albums, 1982’s Upstairs at Eric’s and 1983’s You and Me Both, are regarded as new wave essentials, and their hit ‘Don’t Go’ became an electro pop classic. A succeeding short-lived project, The Assembly, with producer Eric Radcliffe initiated a UK number four hit single, ‘Never Never’, featuring Feargal Sharkey on vocals. As an electro master-mind, Vince Clarke had created a whole range of synth pop hymns, all of them vibrant and vital even in today’s standards.

Concurrently, Andy Bell had just begun to take his first musical steps. While selling women’s shoes in Debenhams and performing in a band called The Void, Bell’s first attempt to pursue a musical career was not promising. Fameless and nameless as he was, Bell responded to an advertisement in Melody Maker looking for a vocalist to take part in a new musical project. He auditioned. Clarke was searching for the perfect pop beat and pop group, and selected Bell to be his musical other half. His choice wasn’t instantly applauded. When Wonderland was released, some critics felt that there was no artistic progression from Clarke’s past, finding fault with Bell’s too shrill vocals and rejecting him as a bad copy of Alison Moyet. Others were appalled by the songs’ lyrics, finding them flat or banal and bemoaning a missing concept. Still others would hint at Bell’s effeminate dancing style, which, in their view, lacked any sense of coolness or confidence.

In a certain sense, the critics were right. Erasure is all about imitation, surface and artifice, about exaggeration and exaltation – deliberately so. Wonderland refuses any subtleties and intricacies; its tracks are either chirpy tunes (‘March Down The Line’, ‘Say What’, ‘Heavenly Action’) or overloaded tear jerkers (‘Cry So Easy’, ‘Reunion’, ‘My Heart… So Blue’) – no deep philosophy intended. The chorus of ‘Senseless’, a wonderfully self-referential song, expresses this state of being as, “It’s alright to feel the mood/ it’s alright, so good, so far/ Babe it’s alright“. Does it make any sense? Probably not. Does it have to make any sense? Definitely not.

Seen in this way, all that Wonderland comes to stand for, its plastic pop sounds, its simplistic dance rhythms and electronic beats, its ebullient melodies, its corny cover art work, its bubble gum synth pop pleasure, are not deep flaws but a statement. Wonderland is the champ of camp. In her famous Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag (1964) defines the term as “a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Camp, according to Sontag (1964), is characterized by audacious extravagance and ostentatious theatricality. Its quality as a form, style or expression lies in its capacity to ironically comment on any notion of normality, parodying it through an aesthetic sensibility that inverts the relation of surface to depth.

While Sontag (1964) developed her observations in the mid-sixties, Erasure’s stance to camp is inextricably linked with the pop cultural media universe of the mid-eighties. This can be seen most clearly in the band’s music videos. Not until the age of cable and satellite and, notably, the emergence of MTV, did video evolve as a significant pop cultural form. Erasure’s first music videos demonstrate a specific pleasure for this new kind of visual aesthetics, bringing together a whole range of audiovisual styles and modes of performance by drawing on drag and dance, televisual imagery and commercial superficiality. The music video for the debut single ‘Who Needs Love Like That?’ takes place in a mock western setting featuring Clarke and Bell in dual roles: both of them are dressed as cowboys but appear in woman’s drag as well. In what looks like a garish mixture of B-movie location and cartoon-like situation, everything we perceive is a masquerade that is in excess of itself. This overplay of style also informs Erasure’s second music video ‘Heavenly Action’, an outrageous science fiction parody complete with a toy-like spaceship, gaudy space flying suits, fantastic landscapes of planet cupid, and a bunch of child actors appearing as pink putti. Using the western and the science fiction genre as entry points, both videos revolve around a playful exposition of the fabrication of spectacle, which then becomes a self-conscious spectacle in its own right.

The most interesting and self-reflexive of Wonderland‘s videos is ‘Oh l’Amour’. Not as flashy and flamboyant as the former clips, this video concentrates on a studio performance of Erasure, featuring not only musicians Clarke and Bell but also what lies at the heart of their synth pop endeavor, i.e. computerized sounds and aesthetics. The lead part is played by the BBC Micro, a computer system which Clarke used to compose ‘Oh l’Amour’, featuring prominently in the video to provide the song’s text and graphics. The video begins with a computer screen displaying the UMI music sequencer, ready to play the music we are about to hear. In what follows, a pixelated font delivers not only the song’s lyrics but also command lines of the computer program itself, resulting in a kind of hybrid poetry of sound and system. Further, the digital elements that were confined to the screen in the beginning spread through the studio’s scenery as the video progresses. Bit by bit and byte by byte, the computer code seems to emancipate itself from its purely functional destination, dancing around the band or waving like a digital curtain in the background. The video lays bare the ways in which configurations of technology, music text and context take shape in specific arrangements. Programmability and pre-fabricated sounds are not presented as cold machinery lacking emotion and melody but appear in perfect harmony with Bell’s vocals and movements as well as with Erasure’s overall sensations and sentiments.

At the end of the piece, a blinking cursor erases the refrain’s line ‘Oh l’Amour’ to replace it with ‘What Now?’ articulating a moment of hesitancy, an instant of tentativeness when a formation is still groping with its own limitations. What now, in 1986? A new pop duo demonstrates a specific kind of innovative strength, enabling novel developments both within synth pop sound culture and the music video form. It wouldn’t take long until Erasure’s energy poured over the airwaves right into their fans’ hearts; including that of a ten-year old girl stepping into wonderland.

Erasure-Wonderland-Back- (1)

References

Kureishi, H. 1995. That’s how good it was. Page 19. In: Hanif Kureishi and John Savage (Eds). The Faber Book of Pop. Faber and Faber. London UK and Boston USA.

Sontag, S. 1964. Notes on Camp. http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Sontag-NotesOnCamp-1964.html (Accessed 25/08/2015).

The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Erasure ‘Wonderland’ is written by Professor Lisa Gotto, one of ARS’s guest authors. Lisa Gotto is a film professor at  the International Film School in Cologne, Germany. (Follow Professor Lisa Gotto on Twitter @lisagottolisa)

Professor Lisa Gotto.
Professor Lisa Gotto.

Album Rescue Series: The Beastie Boys ‘License To Ill’

It’s 1986 and I am a fresh-faced skinny 23 year old. I’m working for Roadstar PA Systems of Sheffield who are located in the Socialist republic of South Yorkshire (sic) in the UK. Roadstar are the new upstart audio hire company supplying large concert PA systems to international rock ‘n roll bands like The Eurythmics, The Alarm, Runrig and a host of other bands that have long since disappeared into obscurity. I’d only worked for this company for 18 months when I’m told my next tour will be a Def Jam Record’s package ‘Raising Hell Tour’ of Europe featuring; Run DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. Back in 1986 very few people, me included, had heard of Def Jam Records and I remember being very disappointed that my boss at Roadstar had assigned me to this tour. I was bottom of the heap on the audio crew, my job was to set up and pack down the audio equipment and I didn’t even get to touch a mixing console, never mind mix a band. On paper this wasn’t a very appealing gig, in fact it sucked big time. The ‘bands’ weren’t actual bands but one bloke playing some records, with one or two, or in the case of The Beastie Boys’, three blokes shouting over the top of these beats. The first show was two nights at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on Friday 12th and Saturday 13th September 1986. Because I’d left school at the age of 16 my education was extremely limited and I didn’t know that the name Odeon was the name used to describe ancient Greek and Roman buildings built specifically for music; singing exercises, musical shows and poetry competitions. With 39 years of hindsight, and lots of expensive education behind me, the name seems very apt. In Europe, back in the mid 80s, Hip Hop music was a relatively new phenomenon, and as with anything new, it was largely misunderstood and mistreated by the media.

BB AAA Pass
Original backstage access all areas pass from the Raising Hell European tour. This was the first time I met the Beastie Boys.

Rap music’s antecedents lie in various story-telling forms of popular music such as talking blues, spoken passages in gospel music, and the call and response of field music. Its more direct formative influences came from the 1960s, with reggae DJs toasting over strong bass beats, and stripped down styles of funk music, most notably James Brown’s use of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ raps over elemental funk beats. Initially this was part of New York’s dance scene where it had morphed out of block parties at which DJs played percussive breaks of popular songs using two turntables to extend the breaks. Black and Hispanic kids would competitively ‘rap’ over these breaks to gain kudos in their neighbourhoods. You can see the appeal of this music in Thatcher’s unfair, unjust urban locations. Zeitgeist; there’s that word again; it appears in almost every Album Rescue Series entry. Two sold out nights at London’s 3,500 capacity rock venue; the Hammersmith Odeon, was pretty impressive by four new unheard of New York ‘bands’ signed to an unknown obscure niche record label. Due to trouble outside the venue before and after these shows, Hammersmith Odeon refused to host any more rap groups for several years afterwards. This is a pattern of events would follow us around the world for the next few years.

At the production rehearsal, held early afternoon before the first show, we had a pretty big problem. Last band on the bill, The Beastie Boys, had taken an instant dislike to Roger ‘the Hippy’ who was supposed to be mixing their front of house sound. Roger came with the PA system and had a pretty impressive track record of mixing bands like Nils Lofgren and Katrina and The Waves. This palmares did not impress the Beastie Boys and it was obvious that Roger’s unfamiliarity of this new genre was problematic. Just before doors, the Beastie Boys hit the stage for their sound check. It was like a gigantic chaotic atom bomb going off. DJ Mix Master Mike was dropping some huge phat beats at a ridiculous high volume while the already sloppy drunk MCA, Ad Rock and Mike D start running around the stage screaming, “turn this shit up”. It was powerful, chaotic, and primeval, it was also kind of scary in an aggressive way and as a punk rocker I relished every single second of it. In complete opposition sound engineer Roger was not enjoying a single second of it and he tried to control this chaotic shambles by asking, “Could the lad in the red cap please give some level on the radio mic and the rest of you please shut up”?

I was stood at the side of the stage like a punk rock Aristotle watching this epic Greek tragedy unfold when Mike D (the lad in the red cap) grabs hold of me and screams “Yo homie, you know how to mix mutha-fucking sound right?” Indeed I mutha-fucking did and on the spot they tumultuously fire Roger and promote me to front of house engineer. Result! I’m only 23 and I’m now the front of house engineer for the most exciting band on the planet. A few months later, in 1987, I’m re-united with the Beastie Boys when we embark on their headline world tour to support the newly released debut album License To Ill. I guess these guys liked my attitude. I spent the next few years of my life touring the world as live sound engineer for The Beastie Boys and that made me very happy indeed. My personal mantra has always been “do what you love and love what you do”. It started that day and I’ve stuck to it.

So why this album rescue; everybody loves this album and has fond memories of it? With over 10 million albums sold, it’s an undeniable retail success. Granted it took 30 years for the album to achieve its Diamond status, but that’s a considerable number of albums to shift by anyone’s standards. Not only did the punters buy it by the truckload, but the music press loved it too as did lots of radio stations. Licenced to Ill was the first rap album to reach number one on the USA’s billboard charts and it’s the eighth best selling [1] rap album of all time. This pattern repeated all over the world although huge sales do not constitute a great album alone.

Surely all of these metrics prove that this album is not in need of an album rescue? OK, I’m pushing the boundaries here. This is not so much an album rescue, as a critical reappraisal, which is a rescue of sorts. With this album Mike D, Ad Rock, the late MCA and their record company, Def Jam, pulled off the greatest post-modern Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle of all time. Licensed To Ill remains the most creative and intelligent post modern parody ever created in any creative medium. There I’ve said it. When the Beasties Boys rap about drinking, robbing, rhyming, partying, fighting, pillaging and brass monkeys, we should really contextualise this subject matter through the lens of situational ethics. The father of situational ethics, Joseph Fletcher (1966) stated, “all laws and rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love”. This album was definitely born out of love and I believe that it’s almost impossible to be critical of anything created out of love. In situation ethics, right and wrong depend upon the situation. There are no universal moral rules or rights, each case is unique and deserves a unique solution. As with other great parodies e.g. David Bowie’s (1967) The Laughing Gnome, a parody of Anthony Newley, the artist needs to fully understand and love the material that they are engaging with.

Maybe the correct way to rescue this album is to re-imagine, re-evaluate and re-contextualise it? Through this process we can construct an alternative discourse to the commonly misheld one. The buffoonery and cartoon controversy normally associated with this album can be dispelled and instead I’d like to reposition this album, as a deeply intelligent work of art, created by artists not fools. Granted the creators don’t do themselves any favours with their post-modern slapstick shtick parody. As with all post modern texts it’s all about surface, hedonism and fun devoid of any substantial meaning, which is why most people don’t fully appreciate this album. Licensed To Ill is a remarkable ironic marriage of heavy metal guitars, funk beats and edgy poetic rap lyrics. Hand crafted under the tutelage of producer and Def Jam founder Rick Rubin, this album is a substantial ground breaking piece of historical work.

Rap music was not supposed to be made by rich privileged upper class Jewish kids. Had they played by the rules then they would have become the stereotypical doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants or even presidential candidates. But their privilege and education provided the cultural capital fuel that ignites this album. Having an acute understanding and passion for different subcultures, pop culture, jokes, music, fashion and art all provided the foundational material on which this album was built. The traditional elements of rap, such as guns, ghettos, money, hoes, sex and drugs are largely eschewed or at least re-appropriated via intoxicating creative wordplay. Their parody was so impenetrable and utterly convincing that it wasn’t immediately apparent that their obnoxious, misogynistic, hedonistic patter was a consciously constructed part of their persona. Luckily for us the passing years have clarified that this album was a huge postmodern joke made all the funnier by those taken in by the joke or completely unaware of the joke.

This album is a classic example of what French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss termed “bricolage”. This album is the sound of the Beastie Boys acting as classic bricoleurs. They are taking some very specific symbolic objects such as music, language, clothing, appearance and forming a unified signifying system in which these ‘borrowed’ materials take on a new and more powerful significance. Not only is the notion of bricolage at play in their music, but it’s also at play (literally) in items such as VW car badges, clothing and even their language e.g. the use of the word “homie” as a shortened version of “home boy”. Criticism about the Beastie Boy’s lack of conviction and authenticity abounded at the time. They were unfairly compared to the punk rockers that a decade before them had taken to the streets to hurl bricks at the riot police. They consciously understood that punk rock had achieved zero and that the youth of the mid 1980s was not prepared to face the tear gas and baton charges. Instead the Beastie Boys instigated a much more effective covert semiotic guerrilla war and it was all expertly delivered under the cloaking device of extreme parody. Their work on this album and every other album they have made is intellectual, inter-textual, is constantly in dialogue with other forms of cultural expression and it can only be fully appreciated when it is located in its original context, which is in the mid 1980s.

Listening to the cajoling rhymes of this album in 2015, filled with clear parodies and absurdities, it’s difficult to imagine the offense that many people took back in the 1980s. This is one of the funniest and most infectious albums ever made and it’s all articulated via the gonzo literation of some posh bratty Jewish kids from New York who in all probability are much cleverer then we are. The parody of this album is not offensive to the traditional black rappers; instead it points its undercover barb at frat college jocks and lager louts; the people who bought the album. Their hedonistic beer soaked version of life was intoxicatingly aspirational, in an alternative way, and made to look very appealing via their gleeful delivery. The subject matter of this album is completely contradictory to the dominant mid 1980’s monetarist aspirations because it celebrates the very conditions of its enforced leisure; namely boredom, meaninglessness, dehumanisation, commodity fetishism, repetition, fragmentation and superficiality. Track seven, the huge worldwide mega hit of Fight For Your Right (To Party), is the personification of their new worldview.

The mid 1980s were a time of money, MTV, excess and spring break in warm sunny nirvanas such as Panama City and Daytona Beach. The interesting thing about Fight For Your Right To Party is that it was originally intended to be a parody of popular party rock songs of the time like Twisted Sister’s I Wanna Rock, although that intent was seemingly lost on the audience. It’s as if The Beastie Boys where insider dealers (something that was also popular in the mid 1980’s) and were poking fun at their own kind. Just sampling and scratching Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to hip-hop beats does not make for an automatically good record, though there is definitely a visceral thrill to hearing those muscular riffs put into super serious overdrive. Their artistry wasn’t just confined to the writing and recording of the album but also in their exceptional understanding of the media as a conduit or delivery system for their powerful message.

I vaguely remember visiting Scotland on the License to Ill world tour.
I vaguely remember visiting Scotland on the License to Ill world tour.

This debut album, and its subsequent tour, provoked moral panic and media outrage resulting in tabloid headlines across the world. The Beastie Boys instantaneously became the latest folk devils, the band that the media loved to hate. Popular myth would be fuelled by stories of the band’s controversial behaviour. The media and popular tabloid press amplified and greatly exaggerated events on this tour out of all proportion, which greatly increased album sales. In part this was due to the exuberant stage show that was purposefully designed to mimic the album. As a member of that tour, I saw none of this behaviour, what I saw was lots and lots of identical looking hotel rooms, airport lounges, venues and the inside of tour buses. I remember helping a very home sick MCA backstage in Germany make a collect call to his mum and dad back in New York. Album Rescue Series is no place for these antidotes but you will be able to read them in my forthcoming book Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. The Beastie Boys and their producer Rick Rubin had read Stephen Davis’ version of Led Zeppelin’s hotel destroying tour exploits, Hammer of the Gods (1985), and it had made a big impression on them all. Not only is the album’s lyrical content heavily influence by this book and lifestyle, but the album cover’s artwork is also highly inter-textual.

Just like a centre page fold out cartoon from a Mad comic, the fun is in the detail.
Just like a centre page fold out cartoon from a Mad comic, the fun is in the detail.

The smouldering aeroplane crashed into the side of a mountain cover illustration is a deceptively complex piece of work both artistically and semiotically. The image is darkly humorous, but not out of step with the times or the sonic content of the album. Artist David Gambale (aka World B. Omes) created a pre-Photoshop collage of various airplane parts then illustrated over it using water-soluble crayons. I’m not an artist but I’m guessing the process must have taken significant hours and the dramatic results are worth it. The plane on the album cover is an inter-textual reference to the legendary Starship, a Boeing 720 airliner owned by Bobby Shering and converted into a kitsch rock-star flying tour bus. Led Zeppelin were the Starship’s most famous occupants and even wrote the song Stairway To Heaven about their on board experience. The Starship would transport any rock band that could afford the exorbitant hire fee e.g. The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Allman Brothers. Stripped of it’s reference, an aeroplane is not glamorous, its merely an ecologically unsound, inefficient and very expensive form of transport. Ever since “the day the music died” (McLean D. 1972) back in 1959, when a chartered flight claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, plane crashes have ended the careers of some of music’s biggest names. Patsy Cline’s plane went down in 1963, silencing one of the greatest voices to ever crossover from country music to popular music. We lost the great Otis Redding to an airplane accident in 1967, and just a few years later, singer-songwriter Jim Croce’s career was terminated just as it was starting to take off. Perhaps none of the above was as startling as Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s horrific 1977 plane crash, which killed three members of the band, the assistant road manager, co-pilot and pilot. Airplanes are symbols of both extravagant rock star excess and sombre tragedy. What better way to announce a new young band to the world than to crash their jet into the side of a mountain before their career had even taken off? Just like a centre page fold out cartoon from the Mad comic, the fun is in the details. The plane’s tail number “3MTA3” spells “Eat Me” backwards. The Beastie Boys logo on the vertical stabilizer was intentionally designed to evoke the Harley-Davidson logo. Many people have commented about the connotations of how the smouldering plane resembles a stubbed out spliff. Via this album, the Beastie Boys are displaying an advanced understanding of semiotics that Roland or Ferdinand would be immensely proud of here.

Sitting in the cockpit of the Lisa Marie at Graceland.
Sitting in the cockpit of the Lisa Marie at Graceland.

I am quite prepared to stick my neck out here and argue that the Beastie Boys have never made a bad record: Paul’s Boutique (1989), Check Your Head (1992), Ill Communication (1994), Hello Nasty (1998), To The 5 Boroughs (2004), The Mix-up (2007) and Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (2011) are all masterpieces in their own right. Even their other parody record, The In Sound From Way Back (1998), which precisely parodies Perrey and Kingsley’s 1966 album of the same name, is another masterpiece. If we ignore the 10 million copies sold of License To Ill and listen to it minus the filter of parody then we are getting very close to rescuing this album. It isn’t only the music or the rhymes that translate beyond the parody crime scene. License To Ill clearly shows the Beastie Boys didn’t give a fuck at exactly the time when the world desperately needed to be shown how not to give a fuck. Flying in the face of rampant yuppie materialistic capitalism they demonstrated that you could be ground-breaking, cutting edge, important, creative and relevant all at the same time yet still have no goals beyond getting drunk and partying hard.

Licensed To Ill marks the turning point in cultural history when the slacker generation (the three members of band are born 1964, 65 & 66) start making music for the millennial generation. This album proved that you could live life as one giant inside joke, speaking in tongues and making hilarious obscure references to Chef Boyardee or Olde English 800 and no one outside your circle of jerks would be any the wiser. Oh how we laughed. License To Ill accurately predicted the future to the Millennials upon its release in 1986. The mantra bestowed on them was “follow your dreams” and because they were constantly being told they were special, this cohort tends to be over confident. While largely a positive trait, the Millennial’s confidence has been known to spill over into the realms of entitlement and narcissism. They are the first generation since the Second World War that is expected to be less economically successful than their parents. The Millennial’s optimism is founded in unrealistic expectations, which often leads to disillusionment. Most Millennials went through post-secondary education only to find themselves employed in low paid dead end jobs in unrelated fields to the ones they studied or underemployed and job-hopping more frequently than any previous generation. License To Ill soothsaid this bleak scenario but then also gave us a not too cryptic optimistic answer, which was “Fight for your right to party”. I rest my case.

[1] http://www.musictimes.com accessed 11th August 2015

The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. This week’s Album Rescue is by Tim Dalton. (Follow Tim on Twitter: @touringtim)

Album Rescue Series: David Bowie ‘Tonight’ by Dr Ian Dixon

You might remember him from such extravagant masquerades as Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke; from outrageous publicity stunts such as proclaiming himself Satanist (Sandford, 1996), born again Christian (Leigh, 2014), bisexual, Nazi apologist (Trynka, 2011), even an alien. You might recall his feminine make up, his Kabuki and Kansai suits, his “screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo” (Bowie, 1973), his double reinstatement of the Pierrot theme (1967, 1979) or just pacing before a bulldozer surrounded by clerics of varying denominations in Ashes to Ashes (1979). That’s right! The inimitable David Bowie.

In the late 1960s, Bowie’s band, The Konrads, played at weddings, was ignored and booed off stage then, in the 1980s, Bowie played to audiences in the hundreds of thousands for the Serious Moonlight tour. During the 1970s he was hounded by the press for sexual excess and conspicuous public perversion then succumbed to monogamous marital reclusiveness in the 1990s. He has played, sung, written, arranged and produced for mega-stars such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, supported lesser-knowns such as Mott the Hoople and generally championed bands globally for their prog rock adventuring. He’s terrified himself with the constant threat of ‘madness’ as exemplified by his beloved brother Terry’s schizophrenia. He’s slept with more people than you could poke a stick at: everyone from Marianne Faithful to Nico, Charlie Chaplin’s widow, Oona O’Neill Chaplin, transsexual Romy Haag and supermodels Winona Williams and his scintillating wife, Iman Bowie.

Above all, Bowie represents the triumph of high art in popular music having firmly wedged himself into the zeitgeist with iconic songs like Space Oddity, Starman, Rebel Rebel, Heroes, Fashion and Let’s Dance while exemplifying the very spirit of rock creativity and its synthesis with art and literature, referencing works from Sigmund Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams to George Orwell’s 1984. David Bowie acts on stage and screen (especially noted for his exemplary physical gyrations in the stage play version of The Elephant Man in New York, 1980). He writes music in irreconcilably contrasting styles, even movie soundtracks for Nicolas Roeg’s (see Big Audio Dynamite) confusing extravaganza: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and the downbeat realist drama Christiane F. in which he plays himself (as he did in far more capricious vein in Zoolander (2001)). More recently, Bowie performed in The Prestige (2006) alongside Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale (Batman, Wolverine and Ziggy Stardust on the same screen! Now that’s a film worth seeing).

This is David Bowie: inexhaustible, inspired, insecure, admirable, charismatic, a man with impeccable manners and a reputation for rapidly writing songs that go from 0 to 100 in seconds. Fame (1976) was apparently penned with John Lennon in less than twenty minutes (Sandford, 1996)). In short, the man is a genius (antiquated modernist term though it be), which prompts the question: how did Tonight (1984) mess it all up so irrevocably?

Tonight, produced by Bowie, Hugh Padgham and Derek Bramble followed the unprecedented commercial and artistic success of Let’s Dance: his top selling album in which the production smarts of disco-funk king Nile Rodgers met with the sharp guitar excellence of Stevie Ray Vaughan (before the latter left the tour in a helicopter: disdainful that Bowie had matched his own outrageous egotism (Sandford, 1996)). Bowie’s 16th studio album, Tonight, reached number one on the British charts. Yet, despite its commercial success fans still whisper that the success was merely ‘off the back of’ Let’s Dance, which had skyrocketed Bowie’s fame.

Tonight is the album Bowie biographer Paul Trynka called, “a perfect storm of mediocrity”’ and “leaden white reggae” (2011, p. 408), and Melody Maker (1990) refers to as “rotten”’. The album relinquished Bowie’s former acumen at predicting the market and trailed the reggae wave by some years (Leigh, 2014). Tonight, the album after Bowie’s telepathic ability to predict the market, saw him leave behind the music-fashion predictions that had secured his place at the top of the pops – folk-rock, glam rock, theatrical grunge, techno and ambient, disco-funk, plastic soul and new romanticism. Tonight represented a loss of confidence on Bowie’s part and a switch to mainstream as a source of inspiration rather than underground music, which had serviced the master for over a decade. Where previous fare had included The Velvet Underground, Brian Eno’s ambient music and classical composers such as Gustav Holst, Hanns Eisler and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Tonight relied on sources from The Police, Laurie Anderson and The Thompson Twins.

Relying heavily on the 1980s big drum sound, even the dance anthems of Let’s Dance succumb to the tragedy of falling behind, but Tonight brings it home and nails the coffin shut on a decade of unprecedented reinvention and primavera excellence in popular music. 1983 was the year that dedicated Bowie journalist Charles Shaar Murray, “David’s number one cheerleader in the British press”’ (Leigh, 2014, p. 153), stopped documenting his albums. Having said that, this album represents moments of impeccably slick production, excellence culminating in the seamless pop icon Blue Jean. Indeed, Tonight fairly defines the self-conscious interplay of tasteless narcissism and artistic pursuit (that’s a compliment).

However, a closer scrutiny of the individual tracks leaves us wanting for an album worthy of the Bowie oeuvre. The songs combine the would-be sublime with the loud ordinariness of a moribund fad. Tracks such as Loving the Alien mix orchestral strings in the background in a fashion already exhausted by E.L.O. and Bowie chooses to ride the “leaden white reggae” wave headfirst into oblivion (Trynka, 2011, p. 408).

On Tonight, lacklustre guitar riffs by the otherwise stupendous Carlos Alomar remain a sad indictment hung on Bowie. Tonight plummets his hard-won mega-stardom into the absolute mediocrity of an absolute beginner (neither was his reputation rescued by his subsequent album, Never Let me Down, which in Bowie’s own words was “apocryphally awful”: plastic emotion succumbing to pure schmaltz). Perhaps, on track two of Tonight, Bowie was offering himself advice by repeating the affirmation: ‘Don’t look down’, as the resurgence of his monolithic cocaine addiction propelled his personal paranoia to sheer megalomania.

Where are the incisive lyrics so prevalent in Scary Monsters? Where are the sublime melodies which saw seasoned musicians such as Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Marc Bolan consulting with a 23 year old Bowie in 1970 (Vizard, 1990)? Some say his cocaine addiction all but wiped out his former genius: a phenomenon Bowie likens to having Swiss cheese for a brain: far from decrying this fact, Bowie celebrated it when he appeared on Parkinson (2002) touted as the “Peter Pan of Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

Bowie’s version of God Only Knows is not only embarrassing, it’s one of the most disingenuous tracks in rock history. The delivery, in the words of biographer Paul Trynka, is akin to a “pub singer punting for wedding and bar mitzvah jobs” (2011, p. 408). In this sad, crooner version of The Beach Boys’ 1966 classic, jaunty epistle, Bowie experiments with his ever deepening vocal delivery: a rumbling, bass register assisted by decades of chain smoking. This quality would be exploited to far greater effect on Heathen (1999) as he had done on Diamond Dogs (1974) and Let’s Dance (1982). On Tonight’s God Only Knows, however, everything from sentimental strings to turgid tempo, the ‘big sound’ rim-shot drums to the super-charged romanticism announces that this was simply a bad choice. With this version (and to his credit), Bowie’s tongue is firmly wedged in his cheek, but the delivery is so cringe-worthy nobody seems to have noticed the irony. The song begins as saccharine-schmaltz with a semi-shouted Sprechgesang quality weaved in for good measure then descends to pure bathos. With God Only Knows, Bowie outdoes the stain on Across the Universe: his previous highpoint of pure awful on Young Americans (1975) (when teaming up with John Lennon on the inspired Fame – an iconic track not even the pretentious 1990 remix could overshadow).

The eponymous track, Tonight, features steel drum and marimba rhythms (supplied by Canadian, Guy St. Onge) and played without the authenticity of Jamaican verve, even though Mr Bowie is ‘familiar’ with Jamaican culture (particularly Jamaican women) since his teen years in South London directly after the Second World War. There are, however, some exemplary backup vocals on this track, which also constitutes a beautiful synchronicity of timbre between himself and Tina Turner (the grandma and grandpa of rock together!).

After the haunting excellence of China Girl on Let’s Dance (even though Bowie ultimately despised his version), Bowie attempts again to resurrect some of the genius performance from Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot on Tonight’s next track Neighbourhood Threat. Regrettably, Bowie fails to achieve the ‘messed-up’ resignation of Iggy (even though Bowie had produced Pop’s album during a period of unmitigated creativity in Berlin: 1975-1977). Bowie himself declared the song ‘disastrous’, mentioning a plethora of different musical styles tried and failed in attempting to resurrect the song. To Bowie’s credit, however, this desperate anthem of street survival, Neighbourhood Threat, contains some perfect scintillation of bass guitar and drum combinations, notably, this time-tested pop music convention kicks the song off immediately. This effectively reinvents the song in a new genre, which is no small feat. In the past, my friends spent many a debauched night playing song-for-song: Bowie-Pop-Bowie and debate the merits of the differing versions (Iggy invariably won!) Neighbourhood Threat oscillates between glossy disco backing singers and three-chord guitar riffs including inspired contrapuntal movements between competing melodies as Bowie peels off: “Will you still place your bets, on the Neighbourhood Threat?

And so we arrive at Blue Jean: the listener sighs, ‘at last!’ as the album really takes off. This song represents all that could have been on this lively, but flawed album. The hit-parade anthem Blue Jean employs a characteristically remote vocal delivery, yet remains a capricious interpretation, sporting lyrics such as: “She’s got a turned up nose”. This is counterbalanced against an impassioned screaming of: “Sometimes I feel like. Dancing with Blue Jean. Somebody send me!” Senseless lyrics though they may be, the subtext of being out of your head in love with someone bad for you fairly drips from the vinyl (yes, vinyl, which dates-stamps this particular critic irrevocably). Indeed, even the deliberately fake, ‘cracked actor’ vocal rift finds its perfect place in this hit tune. The driving double-time beat of the verse leads seamlessly into the middle eight and chorus. The hit retains a genuine improvisational quality floating over the slick arrangement: the superb placement of shrieking, grunting saxophone riffs (played by the man himself) sets off the exemplary guitar solo played lovingly by long-time Bowie axeman, Carlos Alomar.

Wouldn’t it be sublime to leave this album at this point so we won’t even have to mention Tumble and Twirl, with its impulsive 6/8 time signature and gurgling, hyper-romantic Robert Smith-type vocal delivery? The song (and alas most of the album) reminds us of the tragedy of conscious postmodern caprice believing its own hype. Indeed, I Keep Forgetting (Leiber and Stoller’s reworking of Chuck Jackson’s original), and Dancing with the Big Boys makes the listener want to rip the album off the player and put Scary Monsters back on (lest we keep forget that Bowie was once the giant of progressive, edgy popular music). With a decisive rim-shot, the album ends: the big brass nightmare is over and we are left in a welcome abyss, where the absence of noise is somehow meaningful by comparison. Is the album too clean – did he not smoke enough ganja to render effective, dirty reggae (it was, after all, not his drug of choice (Leigh, 2014))? Was it all just a waste of space and vinyl and unsmoked ganja?

Yet I resist the urge to do just that and, as I cogitate the theme of this collection: Album Rescue Series, I must acknowledge that it is the very genius of Bowie’s former glory that raises the bar for the artistic and commercial success of such a venture. Ironically, this means he is judged harshly by fans and critics. Indeed, the album represents a clash between commercialism and artistry. On reflection, the advancement in engineering is exemplary; the sound is clean and seamless to the very edge of technological capacity in the 1980s. We must pay homage to Bowie for venturing even further into new terrain creating a synthesis of reggae and white cynicism, for maintaining a modicum of intelligence within the lyricism. In the notoriously shallow zeitgeist of the 1980s it stands out as experimental (within tight, commercial parameters) and colourful. Perhaps his old buddy Christian Bale should play this album during his scathing (ironic) indictment of 80s pop in American Psycho (2000).

Bowie has, and will always have, extensiveness and inclusiveness in his music – ever increasing range vocally, musically and inter-disciplinary influences: far from a mere follower of the market. We must acknowledge that the contemporaneous market had painted Bowie into a corner. The pressure to emulate the commercial success of Let’s Dance or the artistic excellence of Scary Monsters must have represented extraordinary insecurity for this mega-star. The music on Tonight is crisp, inventive, unique and (largely) unpredictable. Bowie is to be praised for continuing his experimentation with musical styles beyond mega-stardom. Thus, within David Bowie’s musical milieu, Tonight is an album definitely worth playing. Although other Bowie albums might be written off, there is, in Tonight: sweat behind the market positioning; pain behind the commercialism; excellence in the production; and sheer balls in the risk.

DBtonight_back

The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. David Bowie ‘Tonight is written by Dr Ian Dixon, our first in a series of guest academics. Dr Ian Dixon is a well known Melbourne-based film and television director who is also one of the world’s most eminent David Bowie scholars. (Follow Dr Ian Dixon on Twitter @IanIandixon66)