Sunday, September 30, 2012

Glamour Boys: Duran Duran in the 1980s (Pt. 4--A Side Project Of My Own)

I was only eight years old when it happened. Of course I had no idea.

 Power Station, that was just John and Andy Taylor taking a little break, hooking up with fellow rock star Robert Palmer and having some supergroup fun. That "Bang A Gong" song sure sounds swell, especially when to you T-Rex = dinosaur. Why would any of that indicate disharmony within the ranks of their wildly successful pop group?

 Same with Arcadia. Except not at all, because I will never be of an age to care about Simon LeBon and Nick Rhodes' extracurricular douchecrabbery.

 I didn't know the end was nigh. I did realize, thanks to my older brother, that Duran Duran were on tap to record the title song for the upcoming James Bond film. I also knew, again thanks to my 007-nerd of a sibling, that Roger Moore was about three years too old for the role of the suave British Naval Commander/spy. But he had no idea that said song would be the last recorded by the original quintet for another sixteen years.

 Performing the (usually titular) song that plays over the flashy opening credits of a James Bond film is still a prestigious honor. Artist and production studio alike crave instant credibility, and this provides ample opportunity.


Reviews of the films themselves could take up a whole 'nother TJMD series…they most likely will not.  I am, thanks to familial interference, an avowed fan of the double agent on screen AND page, so as an excuse to write about one of Duran Duran's best-ever tracks, I present to you my own side project.  Reviews of each Bond theme, in chronological order.

DR. NO (1962)
"James Bond Theme"
John Barry Orchestra

Just as Cy Young's 511 career wins should be exempt from inclusion on any list of sports' most unbreakable records, so should Dr. No's opening track be excluded when considering the great Bond themes.  It is the Bond theme!  Yer not gonna shatter that sword in a duel anytime soon.

Combining the swing of a virtuoso big band with staccato guitar that sweats like casino walls while lacking the usual odor of desperation-sweat, this is all-time.  House doesn't win; Bond wins.  All the time.  He doesn't play the numbers, he is the number.

"From Russia With Love/James Bond Is Back/James Bond Theme"
John Barry Orchestra

This instrumental isn't too far from Percy Faith…but far enough.  Segues painlessly into the beloved theme, because no one is to forget that they are watching Bond, James Bond.  Did you know he's an orphan?  Pity.

Some rate the vocal version of the theme that plays over the end credits. Clearly I don't.  Sung by Matt Monro ("The Ugly Sinatra"), listening to it is as forlorn an experience as reading most Beat poetry.

GOLDFINGER (1964)
Shirley Bassey

If this song were a drama student, the teacher would tell it to slice the ham a little thinner.  The trumpets don't blare and whine, they wail and bleat.  Shirley Bassey's intensely dedicated vocal performance gives premature birth to the phrase "seductive silliness."  A top-tenner in the States, but just missed the top 20 in Bond's homeland of the United Kingdom.  Check in our column!

"Goldfinger" is the first of Bassey's unmatched three turns at singing a Bond theme (no other vocalist has done more than one) and as top-notch a flick as it is--sublimely ridiculous plot, hot bitches with ballsy names, cool cars, superbly-monikered villain and his imminently-deadly, cult-friendly sidekick--without Bassey's touch, it would all feel like the Discovery Channel without Shark Week.  The very first notes generate a massive excitement that endures throughout the entire 110 minutes of the film.  

Producer Harry Saltzman hated this one; thankfully, his was not the final say.

THUNDERBALL (1965)
Tom Jones

On the heels of Goldfinger's blockbuster success, Thunderball was an inevitable massive hit in theaters.  Never mind that nearly fifty years on, it's exposed as a tedious and suffocating Cold War relic.  

I'll give Tom Jones credit, he definitely "says it with his chest."  I would imagine this gusto extends to all facets of his existence, and would explain why throughout the peaks and valleys of his career he has maintained a reputation as a Lothario nonpareil despite looking like Burt Convy's death mask with some hair sewn on it.

Just like "Goldfinger" before it, "Thunderball" starts off with some egregious horseplay.  Also, it tells us the fantastical story of the dastardly bastard our hero must thwart lest the world suck significantly more. His name is not Thunderball, but--"He strikes like Thunderball."  It becomes slightly scarier when you learn what Thunderball is, but only a bit, and you may have fallen unconscious by that point in the film.

The original choice for a theme was a song entitled "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," pretty much the greatest possible description of these films.  Shirley Bassey was brought on board, then Dionne Warwick, but then United Artists, in the dynamite-fuse-finite wisdom of all major motion picture studios, decreed that since the movie was named Thunderball, the song must also be named "Thunderball."

Nancy Sinatra

"One life for yourself/And one for your dreams."

A perfect aural representation of the film's Far East setting, "YOLT" is one of just a few Bond themes that has gained renown as a worthy song even when considered independently of the behemoth it was created to help keep upright.  Yes, Robbie Williams' shameless sampling for "Millennium" was horrific, but the use of this song in the closing minutes of Mad Men's fifth season was mute-button brilliant.  It's much more than a song for the hero.  Much much more.

Neither soundtrack god John Barry or Miss Sinatra herself were terribly thrilled with the vocal take here, and technically it is tremulous in parts, maybe even timid.  Compared to Queen Shirley's gleaming tour de force, it can seem lackluster.  But considered within the proper context, and judged on its own merits, Nancy's vox perfectly serves the theme of the song.

John Barry Orchestra

The studio was in a frenzy over having to replace Sean Connery in the role, but the composition crew wasn't having an easy time of it either.  How the hell do you fit that title in a song?  And what rhyme do you use?  NervousCervix?  John Barry did better emerging from his muck, blessing our ears with a blue-orange instrumental that takes the classic theme and traumatizes it just enough so that we recognize it on sight, but can't help but acknowledge that it's been through some shit.  Moogs.  Alpine horns.  What rhymes with, "Best chase scene music ever"?

Shirley Bassey 

Vibrant.  Mesmerizing.  Powerful.  Everything the movie was not, despite the best efforts of Wint and Kidd, Bambi and Thumper, Jimmy and Dean.  Diamonds cascading out of a purple velvet bag.  

"I don't need love….Diamonds never lie to me."

Just like Shirley's prior contribution, Harry Saltzman was not fond of this one.  I can't believe they let this guy have money.

Paul McCartney & Wings

The first Bond theme classifiable as "rock," this was a huge chart hit as well as strong contender for most successful and well-known of them all.  Getting a fucking ex-Beatle to write and sing a Bond song?  Anything less than pyrotechnic bliss would have been an unspectacular failure following the true meteoric trajectory.  What Macca delivered was:  piano ballad/rock opera/reggae shuffle/reset.  Also the lyric "If this ever-changing world in which we live in," which suffers from the same redundancy as my last name, but (also like my last name) is forgiven just because it's so damn fly.

Lulu

I love this song, for the reason many despise it--it is so ridiculous that it sounds like a parody of the Bond franchise.  Those near-comically zig-zagging strings, countered with mournful brass and--best of all, like blue ribbons and gold stars all over its chest--that 1970s porno-wah magic.

Lulu handles the entendre-laden lyrics with all the gusto they have coming to (and from) them.  It's really the lyrics fans have beef with, for leaning too hard on lascivious puns, to which I can only reply--these are James Bond movies.  Pussy Galore.  Honey Ryder.  Goldfinger's first name was Auric, for Christ's sake.  Speaking of Jesus, do you know how many times the not-accurate anniversary of his birth is celebrated annually?  I mean in this movie alone Bond flirts briefly with a swimmer named Chu Mi and sips Foo Yuk during a dinner with Mary Goodnight.  You don't go to a candy store and bitch about all the chocolate, do you?  WOW, THIS DOG PARK WOULD BE A GREAT PLACE TO HANG OUT IF IT JUST DIDN'T HAVE ALL THE DOGS!

John Barry's least favorite of all the themes.  Good for him.

"Nobody Does It Better"
Carly Simon

Another for the pantheon.  Huge hit, and so wonderfully crafted by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager that it has long outgrown its initial role as "just another Bond tune" and been featured in other movies.  It also appears on AFI's "100 Greatest Movie Songs" at #67, the only 007 track so honored.  

All Carly had to do with this one was show up, and she did.  

The lyric "Nobody does it better/Though sometimes I wish someone would" has always intrigued me (in that one-eyebrow-up way, as opposed to both of them).  It nails the frequent agony of loving a jet-setting super-sleuth who will always put his majesty above his conquests.

MOONRAKER (1979)
Shirley Bassey

Queen Shirley's final turn at the mic is also her least impressive, although very little of the underwhelming atmosphere is directly attributable to her efforts.  She was a last minute choice, after Johnny Mathis flaked out.  Maybe he saw the lyrics?

"Just like the Moonraker goes in search of his dream of gold/I search for love, for someone to have and hold."

Yeah.  It just goes on like that.

Sheena Easton

Follows the pattern established by "Live and Let Die" and "Nobody Does It Better":  top 10 in the U.S. and U.K., Oscar nomination.  Yes, it's more "soft chick-shit."  Eat it, piggish fanboys.  The chorus is better than your blog, probably.  Everything that was good and right about 80s pop balladry.  What didn't that decade do with supreme excellence?  Oh, right...elect American Presidents.  That aside!  Spacious, warm, worth revisiting. Work that, Sheena.

OCTOPUSSY (1983)
"All-Time High"
Rita Coolidge

A resolute non-smash as handled by a country crooner several years past her peak.  A surprising choice, and one apparently made to appease the daughter of producer Cubby Broccoli.  If its reputation is that of a half-ass love ballad that has squat to do with the film it precedes--well, it's still rather catchy.  Yes, there's certainly times it sounds like the music to a Stephen J. Cannell TV drama, but it was the 80s!  Best decade ever!

Duran Duran 

The only Bond tune to hit #1 in America was born unceremoniously:  Duran bassist and mega Bond-freak John Taylor approached Cubby Broccoli at a party, possibly stumbling the entire way, and blurted, "When are you going to get someone decent to do one of your songs?"

Common sense would have dictated Cubby pat John on his head, chuckle, and moonwalk to the adjacent room.  But, it seems Mr. Broccoli never heard the last time Duran Duran provided a theme for a movie (that never was), the bloodless and brainless "Wild Boys," and took up the pixilated bassist on his "offer."

"A View To a Kill" is as magnificent a piece of potent pop menace as A View To A Kill is a rancid bucket of stercoraceous vomit.  It's right up there with "The Man With the Golden Gun" as far as being a sonic parody of the entire brand it's intended to celebrate, but this time erring on the side of devilish suspense.

It goes without saying--yet, here we are--that the lyrics are absolutely state-of-emergency impenetrable.  "A sacred why/A mystery gaping inside/The weekend's why."  Yep!  "That fatal kiss is all we need."  Mind you, John Barry's orchestration alongside the band makes this all sound positively Wilde.  The last truly great Bond theme, and I have little faith that it will be challenged anytime soon.  

John's bass challenged Jaws from Moonraker to a refrigerator-eating contest and won decisively.  Score one for determined fanboys.  

a-ha

Made top 5 in the U.K. but didn't make a dent here, 'cause unlike much of Europe, we Americans picked up on the fact a-ha had the one undeniable song that would endure, and chose to ignore the rest of the relative clap-trap they produce.  (See also:  Spandau Ballet.)  So while on this side of the pond the decision to let the musical pride and joy of Norway headline the soundtrack was greeted with furrowed brows and narrowed eyes, it made sense over there.

The introduction sounds enough like Madonna's "Angel" to convince me a good song is about to happen.  But the lyrics are prophetic:  "Set my hopes up way too high."  Yep.  "Living's in the way we die."  Wow, way to extinguish all the tension from the one room that needed it.  Does your lifestyle determine your deathstyle as well, pray tell?

The Pet Shop Boys were originally on board, but pulled out after learning their services would be required for the theme song only, and not the entire soundtrack.  I appreciate their collective ego and ambition, but ah, what brilliance the authors of "West End Girls" might have wrought!

Gladys Knight

That intro is so fantastic...

OHHH NOOOO!
ANOTHER FILM WITH DALTON!
HE DISAGREED WITH SOMETHING THAT ATE HIM!
SHARKY SHARKY SHARKY!

Bombastic bubble plastic.  Which isn't an insult.  I admire the chutzpah of recreating "Goldfinger" as an R & B song.

GOLDENEYE (1995)
Tina Turner

Just as the flick was a throwback to the days of when studios made intriguing, exciting, memorable installments to the series, the title song is a nice return to the days that a Bond song didn't make me press the fast-forward button through the remote control.  Short sharp stabs from nylon and lace-covered blades work well alongside surprisingly inoffensive lyrics from the two biggest douchebags in U2.  

Sheryl Crow

"Darling, I'm killed."  

Oh Christ, if only.

This charted high in the U.K….in fact all the latterly Bond themes have, while receiving little chart love in the States…which puts the whole "England is better than America" argument into serious question.  There's other things.  Like how the populace not only didn't kill the Gallagher brothers before they could escape the borders and poison other countries but actually permitted their preposterously unoriginal drudgery to flourish, like they wanted it to happen.  

Co-writer Mitchell Froom separated from his then-wife Suzanne Vega a year after this song was released.  I have seen no evidence tying the split to an affair with Crow, but this song is so repulsive that it could put foul, deceitful thoughts in anyone's head, so…I wouldn't be surprised.  

What's most disgusting is that this was not the original theme.  K.D. Lang's "Surrender"--a vastly superior track that sounds like a song that belongs in a James Bond movie--was relegated to the closing credits when Eon Productions decided to go with a bigger name and more conventionally attractive  (read: non-lesbian) image.  

AND--that picked guitar melody in the verse is just "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" by Def Leppard sped up a little bit.  

Garbage

Yep, another U.K. Top 10 hit.  England, I don't see the use in your defamation of America's character.  How can we improve if our mother doesn't set a sterling example for us to follow?

Anyway I listened to this song three times and can't remember any of it.  

Madonna

Well, this hit the U.S. top 10 as well…sigh.

This is only the second-worst musical moment in the movie ("London Calling," anyone?).  Fans of this song gush over how edgy and fresh it is/was.  My thoughts are for the poor runner, she died on the track, and no one came forth to claim the corpse.  There it laid, till the elements had their way and nature took its course.

"You Know My Name"
Chris Cornell

Y'know, "Die Another Day" doesn't sound like the wretched crime against cognitive abilities that it is when paired with the film's opening credits.  Same here.  While "You Know My Name" isn't near that level of horrible, it is an undergrown Soundgarden indeed and let us move on.

"Another Way To Die"
Jack White & Alicia Keys

Jack White took inspiration from On Her Majesty's Secret Service and somehow this happened.

"Something that you think that you can trust/Is just another way to die."

A random Tuvan person throat-singing the content of Swizz Beatz' paternity case court files would be more riveting and, frankly, musical.  This is the facile strut of someone who just got shot in both kneecaps.  Bond songs shouldn't make you root for the villain.

So…to conclude:

BEST BOND THEME:  "A View To A Kill."
WORST BOND THEME:  "Die Another Day."

Well done, boys.  And Maddy...the 80s are very disappointed in you.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Splash of Her

"A Splash of Her" is a new project put together by myself and Patrick Suddath, a zine that features a subject near and dear to each of our hearts:  women in music.  We put quality time into making this a mini-masterpiece.   Below, check out the promo video and if you are so moved, a link to purchase the zine.  Thanks, and enjoy!
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Money Order also accepted.

Glamour Boys: Duran Duran in the 1980s (Pt. 3--The Model For All Years)


11/21/1983

(I'd have posted a hi-res pic if everything from the title to the uncomfortable relationship between the colors to the random strip of tiger pattern didn't piss me off so much.  Then there is of course the title of the album itself.)

Duran Duran brought in producer Ian Little to cultivate the foxy music babylon.  The completely unappealing title refers to the band members and the two men it took to manage them at the time, with the "ragged tiger" representing success.

Yeah, they'd reached that point.

Hanging with Warhol, getting hospitalized for "nose problems," dancing barefoot on smashed vodka bottles, publishing alleged art books, pursuing models then dumping them after a fortnight with no hoo-hah, and even taking wives...t'was the Duran era.

Music was still somehow at the center of it all, and after an album which managed to be both brilliant and popular, it was time to see how much heat the band could take without cracking.


"The Reflex"--The "so-gouda-it's-good-huh?" remix is the one most folks know (which made popping the cassette into the deck for the first time real interesting).  The band was not happy with the original's lack of "hit potential" (whereas I could give a toss) and sent the tracks to Nile Rodgers with a plea to work magic.  After waving around some steel drums, wooden blocks, and vox trickery, a rabbit came out of the hat, and the Duran boys had a #1 smash on both sides of the pond.

Nineteen years on, I can say confidently that I prefer the original version.  The things about the single remix that helped endear me to "The Reflex" as a young girl simply haven't aged well.  The fade-in is lightweight.  The "why-yi-yi" breakdown is superfluous filler.  Simon LeBon's words are ridiculous enough on their own.  I like them that way.  The man acknowledges his absurdity:  "Every little thing the reflex does/Leaves you answered with a question mark."  In other words, the song doesn't mean shit.  Thank you, good night, drive safely.

Now what to dig about the original?  The intro, with the guitars trying to mask their burps and groans.  The refreshing lack of steel drums, the one instrument along with French horn that has absolutely no place in a rock song.  And of course, at no point during the original version do we get:

WHY-YI-YI-YI W-W-WHY-YI-YI!

I love Nile Rodgers, I mean just this weekend I watched Coming To America and marveled at his soundtrack work, but sometimes a red wheelbarrow is just a red wheelbarrow.

"New Moon On Monday"--The video--which the band despises, as it makes them look like derelict ponces--is overlong and confusing.  Whereas the song is perfectly structured and confusing.  (And the very beginning reminds of me of Red Rider's "Lunatic Fringe," so, another check in its column.)  Despite no overhead handles to grip, "New Moon" is still a smooth ride, with a strong rousing rebel chorus that is in competition with "Hungry Like the Wolf" for Best Duran Chorus Ever (and by default, Best Pop Chorus Ever).  Songs like those you don't listen to just the once.

"(I'm Looking For) Cracks in the Pavement"--"My head is full of chopstick."  Just the one, then, sweetie?

"If I had a car/I'd drive it insane."  Now that I wish I had written.

This one's about thwarted ambition, which LeBon knows nothing about at this point in his life.  Once upon a time he did, but after a certain amount of records sold, money earned, and vaginas entered, a man's hardscrabble past is instantly expunged from the permanent record.  None of which invalidates the song.  It's fine.  But whereas the pair of tracks prior to it sounded like lush condos, "Cracks" is a one-bedroom walk-up.  LeBon's a sex-god Pynchon, you see, too distracted by his own fabulous brain-games to play well with others.

"I Take the Dice"--One could only hope that Andrew Farriss taking Jerry Casale's place in Devo would ever sound this good.

"Of Crime and Passion"--Seven falls short of Rio in the "pop masterpiece" stakes, but certainly not for lack of effort.  "Of Crime" stumbles about in the manner of "Dice" just before, but this one has weight behind it, and a gleam of cognition in its eyes, so it deserves some attention paid to it.

"Union of the Snake"--Duality is the theme.  First, the boys take inspiration from two sources:  Bowie's smash comeback "Let's Dance," released earlier in the year, and the Tantric lore of Shiva and Shakti.

Imagining that Shiva (male energy) is at the head and Shakti (the female energy, represented as a cobra) is at the feet, Shakti uncoils and slithers upward, meeting Shiva at the head.  This melding of the male and female energies can be understood as the actualization of the soul, a conciliation of one's passive and aggressive strengths; but I suppose it's more fun to see the word "Tantric" and apply the sexual union sticker on this one.  And it is pop pop pop music after all, where all songs are about fucking, except the ones about fucking, which are actually about fame.

The actual song does it up big-style, managing yet again to eroticize synthetic sounds, and topping it all off with a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Monstrosity of a chorus.  I am at it's beck and call forever.

"Shadows On Your Side"--The subject is fame.  Write about what you know.  Write about what you know you can hammer into the fucking ground till the Earth's core begins to bleed.

The music would fit tidily in with the Ninja Gaiden series of video games.  Oh those fucking birds!  Duran Duran will kick their asses whilst leaping over tigers whilst decapitating mercenaries with kitanas whilst breathing fire whilst retrieving the ancient golden demon statue of ancients!  'LET'S FUCKING GO!

"Tiger Tiger"--An instro to show off chops.  And, presumably, sticks.

Dedicated to the tigers in Ninja Gaiden, and the fun to be had jumping over them.

"The Seventh Stranger"--Originally the title track, until some kind of sanity prevailed.  Pity it didn't stay around.

All the sounds bouncing around here intrigued me as a kid--less so now, which is par for the course, but it's still a minor gem--expertly threaded, keenly pressed, and worn oh so well.  Seven would have benefited from a few more songs in this vein.

The singles are spectacular, but the first two records laid waste to the conventional wisdom that 80s pop couldn't sustain a long-player.  LeBon is in the pocket so snug you'll never want to take your jeans off, and the band are on top of their game still, but too often the melodies are unchallenging to mind and body.  The malaise of massive success has taken up space in the guest bedroom, and unfortunately, it would not vacate the premises until long after another resident of the palace Duran already had.