Author Archive: altrockchick

John Mayall – Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton – Classic Music Review

We’d just returned from a lovely vacation to Chile, and after taking a day to sleep off the jet lag and pisco sour/vaina hangovers, we visited my parents to hand out the traditional gifts and share the traditional pictures. Show over, we sat down at the dinner table and my beloved old fart father immediately got on my ass.

“I think you’ve given Clapton short shrift,” said Dad.

There was no response from his usually loquacious child. From a father’s perspective, he saw a daughter with a quizzical look on her face and assumed he needed to elaborate on his original statement.

“I know you don’t like his solo work, but geez, there’s still the Blues Breakers album, Fresh Cream, Derek and the Dominoes . . .”

No response.

“Earth to Sunshine, Earth to Sunshine. Hello, Sunshine!”

The term of endearment yanked the daughter from her reverie, and looking directly into her father’s eyes, she asked the question that had initiated the break from the here-and-now.

“What’s a shrift?”

“What?

“You said I gave Clapton short shrift. What’s a shrift?”

“It’s a—uh—hell, I don’t know—it’s just a phrase.”

“I’m going to look it up.” I returned to the dinner table in less than a minute, accompanied by Merriam-Webster.

“‘Shrift’ means ‘a confession to a priest,” and ‘short shrift’ means ‘barely adequate time for confession before execution.’ Now that we’ve gotten rid of the death penalty in most civilized parts of the world, the meaning has morphed to give something or someone ‘little or no attention or consideration.’ So, you were saying . . . ”

“You’ve given Clapton short shrift.”

“You’re right.”

“What?”

“You’re right. I’ve given Clapton short shrift.”

Dad narrowed his eyes to communicate suspicion. “Wait a minute. What’s going on here?”

“What do you mean?”

“You never say I’m right. What are you up to?”

“I’m not up to anything. You mentioned some Clapton albums—which one do you want me to do?”

“It’s gotta be Blues Breakers. When that album hit the streets—I can’t begin to describe what an impact it had on every guitar player I knew. Within a few weeks, all the bands in town were messing around with “Hideaway” and “Steppin’ Out,” trying to get the riffs down, trying to get that sound.”

“Okay.”

“Okay what?”

“I’ll do Blues Breakers. Sounds like fun.”

Dad narrowed his eyes again. “What the fuck? Why are you being so goddamned agreeable all of a sudden?”

“Dad, you didn’t have to work that hard to get me to do another John Mayall album.”

He finally managed to put two and two together. “You were planning to do that album all along, weren’t you?”

“First thing on my to-do list when I came back!”

“So I really didn’t win, did I?”

“No, dad,” I said with a sigh. “I wish you’d just accept the fact that you belong to an inferior gender and that you’ll never, ever win.”

“Yes, please do,” added my mother.

*****

Before I shower Eric Clapton with encomia, allow me to point out that there were a few other guys who had something to do with making Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (BBEC from now on) one of the most enjoyable blues records around. The rhythm section of Hughie Flint and John McVie is rock-solid, handling the in-flight rhythm changes featured in several tracks with relative ease. Many of the rhythmic changes appeared in the original version of the cover songs, but here they help enhance a pattern of sonic diversity that characterizes the album, where each track serves as one tile in a multi-faceted mosaic of varying dynamics, tempos, instrumentation and recording approaches. Blues Breakers has far more diversity than the typical blues album, and if you ever get into an argument with someone who claims the blues is a highly limited form of music, this is the album you want to use to counter that argument. In the right hands, blues is a happy marriage of the familiar and the unexpected, and Blues Breakers reminds you of the innate flexibility and extensive possibilities of the genre.

Though Clapton has garnered well-deserved attention for his contributions, much of the credit for the album’s timeless listenability goes to the master of ceremonies, Mr. John Mayall. Doing his best imitation of Peter Sellers, Mayall played multiple roles—songwriter, arranger, organist, pianist, lead singer, harmonica player, second guitar, facilitator—and he was also the guy who thought it was a good idea to bring in a horn section on a few tracks to strengthen the links to Chicago blues. His unflagging enthusiasm for the music infuses the album with energy while setting a high bar for excellence in execution.

And speaking of excellence . . . BBEC was more than Eric Clapton’s coming out party. When you listen to the track that convinced Mayall, McVie and Flint that Clapton would be a good fit for the band (The Yardbirds’ “Got to Hurry”), you hear a highly competent, comparatively nimble lead guitarist who has obviously spent some time studying the work of the great blues guitarists—a solid performance but hardly game-changing. On BBEC, the power and clarity of his sound is shocking, especially when considered in the context of his times; the only comparison I can offer is the early solo work of Louis Armstrong with the Hot Fives, where the cornet sounds like full-on sunshine breaking up a dark, cloudy day. Just as jazz would never be the same after Armstrong, Clapton’s work here redefined and expanded the role of lead guitarist, leading to multiple generations of guitar heroes (and a whole lot of wannabes). The sound from that Les Paul plugged into a prototype Marshall on overdrive was stunning in itself, but even more importantly from a musical perspective was the quantum leap in Clapton’s phrasing skills—like the great lead singers, he frees himself from the tempo and plays to the feel of the song instead of always trying to be a good student and hit the right notes at the right time.

One note about the source recordings: the album was recorded during the time of transition from stereo to mono. The original album came out in mono; there was a stereo release in selected countries a few years later. I personally don’t think you get all that much from the stereo version, as Mike Vernon did a fabulous job producing the album, but they’re your ears, so go with what sounds best to you.

The Otis Rush piece “All Your Love” serves as a good warm-up number, delivered in a slower tempo than the Rush original and without the horn support that makes Otis’ version an incredibly sexy dance number. Without the horns and the more assertive drums of Rush rendition, it falls upon Clapton to shoulder the load, and he starts out with straight-up supporting fills in response to Mayall’s vocal. His moment in the sun is counter-intuitive—he gives his nimble left hand a rest and gives us a deliciously slow, lingering arpeggio in the luscious, thick tone made possible by the Les Paul-Marshall combination. The sound is so fascinating that Clapton actually slows down, falling behind the beat, savoring each and every note like he’s sampling a vintage Château Margaux, letting each sustain fully run its course until the full chord slide that heralds the ending of this magical moment. The band then shifts to double-time, where Clapton snaps out of his sonic reverie and lets it rip.

“All Your Love” is just the foreplay that leads to the orgasmic experience of “Hideaway,” the Freddie King number that inspired young Eric to take up the guitar. Both the original and the tribute are instrumental masterpieces designed to brighten your mood and get you to shake your fanny, legs and whatever else you’ve got. The essential difference between the two is in the attack—Freddie takes a more laid-back approach, leaving more room for the rhythm section to drive the song, whereas Clapton sees it as his opportunity to leave it all on the field. After years of intense practice and deep study of guitar and scales, and following the ultimately dissatisfying experience with The Yardbirds, Clapton finally found someone in John Mayall who was more than willing to give him the chance to release his incredible potential. On “Hideaway,” Mayall made sure that the rhythm section (Mayall on organ, McVie on bass, Flint on drums) provided a solid foundation while doing nothing to draw attention to themselves, rather like the foundation of the house that does its work with invisible efficiency. This is Clapton’s moment in the spotlight, and he fucking nails it.

The solo integrates the prominent patterns of the original, all presented with more oomph thanks to the Les Paul-Marshall sound. The first verse is pretty close to Freddie’s version, but Clapton’s greater dexterity is clearly audible in the additional notes contained within the runs and the quick full chord downslide that doesn’t appear in the original. At this point, I’ve already concluded that the teenage guitar players of my dad’s era who wanted to emulate Clapton after hearing “Hideaway” were the most hopelessly naïve human beings our species has ever produced: they simply didn’t have a fucking chance. In the second verse, Clapton follows Freddie’s lead and clips his notes; the difference is that Clapton not only varies his attack but produces a greater number of notes to clip. When we arrive at the “catchiest” phase of the song, Clapton plays the slower boogie-woogie variant riff with absolute precision, letting the fat sound carry the load. When we return to the verse structure, the two versions take different paths, with Freddie staying down low and Clapton letting it rip. On the next verse, Clapton plays tribute to the original by duplicating the partial chord attack but while Freddie disappears into the rhythmic support role, Clapton uses those bars to add a set of very tasty riffs. Mayall’s band executes the boogie-woogie stutter on the next segment with greater precision than Freddie’s combo, with Clapton backing off to reproduce the main theme. At this point, Freddie repeats the first verse pattern whereas Clapton launches an all out assault that leads to some of the sweetest high note bends on record, finishing up with yet another extraordinary rush high on the fretboard. I invariably want to scream when this piece ends because it’s so damned short (a little over three minutes) and like a great orgasm, I wish the experience would go on forever.

In the Mayall original “Little Girl” we hear some of the best band work on the album, spiced with a couple of in-transit duets that knock my socks off. The first is the opening duet featuring Mayall on organ and Clapton on lead where they match each other note for note before heading in separate supporting directions. The second comes at the start of Clapton’s solo, when John McVie steps out of the shadows and supports Clapton’s pizzicato attack with some of his own before both guys start flying all over their respective keyboards. McVie remains prominent for the rest of the song, and lo and behold, Hughie Flint slipped in some shimmering cymbal work while Mike Vernon wasn’t looking (Vernon had allegedly instructed Hughie to stick to the high hat). All things considered, “Little Girl” is probably the best ensemble number on the album.

Unfortunately, it’s also one of John Mayall’s most regrettable compositions. This is one of two rescue songs on the album, both written by Mayall, and both display to varying degrees the obtuseness of the unenlightened men of the era who never really got their heads around the immense socio-cultural impact of The Pill. “Little Girl” is the worst offender, and how you measure its offensiveness depends entirely on whether or not you insert or omit a comma between the words “love” and “child.”

I’m gonna give you a love, child, you won’t feel bad again
OR
I’m gonna give you a love child, you won’t feel bad again

Since the magical effect of one fuck is unlikely to last a lifetime, the more plausible interpretation dispenses with the comma, because when you have a kid, well, it’s a lifetime kind of thing. Here are the full lyrics, sans comma:

You’re gonna be mine, little girl, you’ve been through 18 years of pain (2)
I’m gonna give you a love child, you won’t feel bad again

You’ve been mistreated, little girl, but I swear, I swear it’ll be outgrown (2)
I’m gonna give you a love child, something you’ve never known

You’re gonna be mine, little girl, even if I can’t have you by my side
You’re gonna remember the love child, that made you satisfied (2)

Wait . . . what? Let me try to get my head around this. You’re going to cure my PTSD—no doubt the result of a lifetime of male-initiated abuse—by knocking me up and then hitting the road? So, going through the physical trauma of childbirth and becoming a single mother with non-existent self-esteem and no source of income is supposed to make me feel better? Really? You really think that? Well, sonny, you better hit that fucking road right now because I’m about to kick your nuts so hard you’ll never make an appearance inside any woman’s pussy as long as your sorry ass inhabits this earth . . . which I hope won’t be for very long.

Even if you insert the comma, it really doesn’t change the interpretation much. Any man who thinks he’s such a stud that he can transform a woman’s future with a one good fuck is a narcissistic asshole who deserves a good whack in the balls as much as the love child guy. We have too many of those assholes in the gene pool already.

Mayall does much better when he changes the subject to the cherished Southern tradition of sending black men to jail on little more than a racist whim. “Another Man” is extreme Delta style—harmonica, vocal and hand clapping, no guitar. The song conjures up the image of a man crouching in the cotton fields sharing the latest news with his friend once the overseer is out of sight—“another man done gone . . . he’s on the county farm . . . I didn’t know his name” are all the words we need to put the story together, a tale of intimidation and oppression where your best chance of survival means knowing nothing and saying less. We’ll hear a second exploration of this theme on Side 2 with “Parchman’s Farm,” but this is a brilliant little piece by Mayall that earns him partial forgiveness for whatever the hell he was thinking when he wrote the words to “Little Girl.”

“Double Crossing Time” was allegedly written in response to Jack Bruce’s sudden flight to Manfred Mann. Rock star gossip aside, Mayall does an excellent job tinkling the ivories, with just the right amount of touch and sensitivity to the rhythmic flow. Clapton opts for a contrasting aggressive approach, bursting out of the background with a screaming solo featuring exceptionally long sustains. Mayall’s vocal mirrors Clapton’s anger, resulting in a solid and intense performance that probably helped them get over the Bruce fiasco pretty quickly.

Producer Mike Vernon really didn’t want Mayall to do “What’d I Say,” feeling that going up against Ray Charles was a losing proposition—and he really resisted the idea of a drum solo for Hughie Flint. Hughie wasn’t keen on the idea either, but Mayall argued that the song always elicited a positive response from a live audience. If that’s the case, they should have done a live recording, because this piece goes nowhere in the studio. Mayall is competent on the organ, and Hughie’s solo isn’t that bad, but it lacks the exciting spontaneity of the Ray Charles original.

Side 2 opens with a bright horn combo, the intro to our second rescue song, Mayall’s “Key to Love.” Unlike “Little Girl,” the guy isn’t itching to saddle a broad with a kid, but seems more like the hanger-on who thinks the babe will eventually change her mind and spread. My main quibble here is that the horns bury a brief Clapton solo, which contradicts the notion of Clapton as featured artist. Next up is a version of Mose Allison’s adaptation of Bukka White’s “Parchman’s Farm,” a euphemism for the Mississippi State Penitentiary. It’s actually John Mayall’s adaptation of Mose Allison’s adaptation, as Mayall chooses to drop the key closing line in Allison’s version where the convict admits he killed his wife and replace it with a repetition of the closing line of the first verse: “ain’t other done no man no harm.” I suppose that could imply “but I have done women harm,” but Mayall’s translation clearly calls out the injustice of the too-frequent occurrence of the innocent black man winding up in jail. Mayall’s musical interpretation is actually light-hearted, a speedy run through the spare tale featuring high-speed harmonica—and I love hearing John Mayall defy the physiological limits of human breathing as he attacks a harp.

The horns that open “Have You Heard” are absolutely first-rate, featuring a marvelous high-end tenor sax solo from Alan Skidmore that stretches the scale and threatens to go free-form from time to time. The horns shift to unison in Stax mode during the second verse, and unlike “Key to Love,” they balance out Clapton’s fills without drowning him out. When Clapton steps up for his solo, he is in full command of the instrument’s voicing, expressing all the pain and anguish of lost love with a combination of soul-ripping attack and high-end bends. This would compete with “Little Girl” for best ensemble piece on the album had the horns actually played with the rest of the band, but I will compliment Mayall and Vernon for some damned solid post-production work.

Eric Clapton’s debutante moment also featured his first lead vocal. Unfortunately for those who like their triumphs to arrive free of flaws and disappointments, Clapton chose to do Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” a song requiring far more vocal talent than Clapton would ever develop. I appreciate his deep admiration of the King of the Delta Blues, but I wish he’d chosen a different way to express that admiration. Nobody does Robert Johnson like Robert Johnson.

Fortunately for the listener, Clapton steps away from the mike, grabs his Les Paul and leads the band through Memphis Slim’s “Steppin’ Out.” Here there can be no comparison to the original since Memphis Slim was a piano player, so Clapton has only the musical structure to guide him on his journey. He takes a spirited approach in contrast to the late-night naughty tone of the original, with a dazzling variety of bends, off-rhythm phrasing, licks within licks and complete command of the blues scale. Of the two songs on the album mentioned by my dad as practice pieces for budding guitarists, I think “Steppin’ Out” is the more useful lesson because of its relative faithfulness to the blues scale. Master the opening riffs and you’ve learned half of two blues scales (C and G) in one sitting! And guess what? If you keep moving your fingers up or down a fret and play the same notes, you have the essence of all the major blues scales! Amazing! It would be a really good idea if you took the time to master all the scales in their entirety and ponder how the structure of the scale gives a song a certain feel, but if you just learn the two scales on the intro, I guarantee that you won’t embarrass yourself the next time you jam with the gang and someone shouts “Blues in C!” And with lots and lots of practice, you may be able to duplicate Eric Clapton’s agility and broad understanding of music just about the time old-age arthritis sets in. Good luck!

I don’t know if it’s true that no blues album would be complete without a least one Little Walter number, but I’d be fine with that criterion. “It Ain’t Right” was a high-speed rocking blues Little Walter put together when his Chess mate Bo Diddley was making a name for himself in rock ‘n’ roll circles, and the Mayall version is pretty faithful to the original. The guitar on both versions is a frantic, barreling boogie riff that requires tremendous discipline, fast fingers and intuitive knowledge of the fretboard—a difficult proposition indeed. Clapton, of course, nails it with ease, committing himself fully to the supporting role. Mayall has a great time trying to emulate one of his harp heroes, and manages to get pretty damned close to a very high bar.

Wow! This was fun! BBEC is certainly an uplifting experience, an album of good vibes, great energy and best-in-class musicianship. John Mayall is all about the music, and I always approach a Mayall album with a positive orientation because I know he’s going to give it all he’s got and bring in musicians willing to do the same. And though I abhor the whole Clapton-is-God thing as much as he does, his performance on BBEC changed musical history, so the adulation is somewhat understandable . . . but I think the story is much more meaningful if we attribute the result to the hard work and absolute dedication of a living, breathing human being.

Billy Idol – Greatest Hits – Classic Music Review

I love to dance, and I have absolutely no problem dancing with myself.

On one of my last trips to Las Vegas, I surprised a ragged group of early-morning gamblers by dancing the entire length of the casino walkway at the Bellagio. The motivating moment came right when I stepped off the elevator and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” started blasting out of the casino music system. I didn’t think, I didn’t stop to see if anyone was watching, I just caught the beat and started dancing towards the lobby. I remember a few blank stares from the old men sipping their Bloody Marys at the Pai Gow poker table and appreciative smiles from the much younger security guards. I arrived at the lobby a tad early, so I just finished my routine on the slick part of the floor before stepping onto carpet and heading to the taxi stand as if nothing unusual had happened.

And from my perspective, nothing unusual had happened. I guess I’m kind of like a kid in that way: when I have the urge to dance, I dance, and I don’t care whether it’s on the dance floor or on my way to the ladies’ room at work or when I catch a hint of a tune in the air as I stroll around the neighborhood. I think it’s weird that we accept spontaneity in children but think an adult who starts dancing on the street, corridor or walkway is a person in urgent need of mental health treatment.

Fuck that. If you want to hang out with me, be prepared for impromptu spurts of dancing. If you find that disturbing, hang out with someone else.

The problem I’ve run into lately is that there hasn’t been much in the way of good dance music lately—at least in the way I would define good dance music. I favor R&B-based rock and 60’s soul music, two genres that aren’t particularly popular at the moment. My favorite bands to dance to are The Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and my favorite soul-inspired dance music comes from Aretha, The Temptations and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. It’s hard to find to a dance club with a DJ or a band laying down that kind of stuff, especially here in Euro-Beat Land, but it was getting harder and harder in the States before I left. The only places on the Vegas strip that consistently featured 60’s-70’s rock and soul (live or through the sound system) were Mandalay Bay and Margaritaville; the rest had all gone hip-hop, a genre I find as boring as a bad fuck.

Billy Idol’s music lies somewhere on the fringes of my dancing tastes; there are some songs that immediately propel my ass out of the seat and some songs that reek too much of disco glitz for me to bother. It makes sense when you consider that Billy Idol himself has always existed somewhere on the fringes—not quite a rocker, not quite a punk, not quite a pop singer. Like the band he came from, he doesn’t seem to belong in the era he inhabited. Generation X would have been much better off as a British Invasion band; I place Billy Idol in that brief space from 1959 to 1963 after Buddy Holly died but before The Beatles arrived. That was a particularly weak period for rock ‘n’ roll (many were predicting its impending doom) but a great time for dance music. Billy’s melding of Gene-Vincent-style rock with classic dance tropes might have played well in that era, especially with die-hard rockers clinging to fond memories of “Be-Bop-a-Lula” and pre-Army Elvis. I find it interesting that Billy’s family had temporarily relocated to Long Island during that time, and though he doesn’t name any of that era’s stars as influences in his autobiography, perhaps the omnipresent pop music blaring out of car and home radios may have left an impression on his still-developing brain as he wandered around the neighborhood.

Along with the mid-80’s version of Robert Palmer, Billy Idol eventually became a major purveyor of what is called “dance-rock,” a genre defined by Wikipedia as “a post-disco genre connected with pop rock and post-punk with fewer rhythm and blues influences, originated in the early 1980s, following the mainstream death of punk and disco.” Sifting through the genre-babble, we find one compelling truth which explains why Billy Idol will remain forever on my fringes: the absence of grounding in R&B. Still, he did produce some of the better dance music of the 1980’s, and in honor of his contributions to dance, I will judge his work by using the gold standard of critical judgement in play during the late 50’s and early 60’s: The Rate-a-Record segment from American Bandstand. I will adhere to the traditional scoring system, rating each song on a scale of 35 to 98, which means a 70 will at least earn Billy the honored designation, “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” However, there will be no song-by-song score-averaging on the chalkboard, because a.) I’m not inviting anyone else to participate b) I don’t own a chalkboard and d.) This is my fucking blog and what I say goes! However, I will give Billy an aggregate average score at the end of the review to confirm or disconfirm the dance king hypothesis.

One more note before I literally get my ass in gear. This greatest hits collection was released in 2001, and at that time, Billy Idol hadn’t released a studio album in eight years. That final studio effort was the infamous Cyberpunk, an experimental electronic album that many consider the rock equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I don’t think it was that bad, but it sure as fuck wasn’t Radiohead. There is one song in the collection from Cyberpunk, but you’ll have to wait for my thoughts on that because, miracle of miracles, the compilers present the songs in chronological order. Hallefuckinglujah! Can we get those geniuses to take a look at Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy and sort out that mess?

Just a thought. Let’s get our butts into gear!

“Dancing with Myself”: In an interview with Rolling Stone, Billy claimed that this song was “really is about people being in a disenfranchised world where they’re left bereft, dancing with their own reflections.” Yeah, okay, whatever, Billy. If you read his autobiography, stunningly titled Dancing with Myself, you will run across numerous instances where Billy attempts to imbue his life with literary, philosophical and historical significance, as many aging rockers are wont to do as they look back on a life where they spent a lot more time on drugs and in vaginas than in the library or at Left Bank cafés. Billy also agreed with the assertion that the song was about jacking off, conceding that there was “some sort of masturbatory element” in play. Now we’re getting into Freud territory, and HEY! I THOUGHT THIS WAS A FUCKING DANCE PARTY!

Let’s just say that all rock ‘n’ roll is about disenfranchisement, the existential angst attached to a meaningless bourgeois existence, sex, sex, sex and move the fuck on.

The evolution of the song reflects Billy’s journey away from punk and into the bright lights of MTV-influenced stardom. The original 1979 Generation X version can be described as choppy at best, while the update on Kiss Me Deadly is pretty close to the popular rendition in form and structure. All Billy did take that second Generation X version and tinker with the mix, raising bass levels (yay!) and his vocal (good idea) while easing up on the guitar (makes sense). The mythical version of the story ends with “and it became Billy’s first hit in America,” an assertion that depends entirely on how you define “hit.” I would argue that making #27 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart might qualify as a “squeaker,” but hardly a “hit.”

Still, the song does kick ass, and it has many of the ingredients you’ll find in any great dance song. One: a clarion call to get your ass out of your seat (the strong introductory beat and assertive opening guitar riff)—a passage just long enough to take one last swig of your favorite cocktail and lead your honey to the dance floor. Two: easy-to-grasp catchphrases (in this case the title) and wordless vocalizations (oh-ho-oh-oh) that even the dancer on her fifth Long Island iced tea can use to occasionally reconnect with reality. Three: stop-time segments. “Dancing with Myself” offers two forms of stop-time; the least important are the two breaks where the band cuts out and Billy does his imitation of either Elvis, Gene Vincent or both. The most important is that glorious moment when most of the band cuts out and it’s just bass, drums, clapping hands and you. This is the moment when dancers scream with delight, where they experience a moment of virtual nakedness with nothing intervening between body and rhythm. It’s always a mistake to end these titillating segments by shifting immediately back into overdrive, and Billy avoids that faux pas by slipping it in slowly through the re-introduction of the oh-ho-oh-ohs. Now we have the start of a strong build, and after a while, you can’t wait for the band to fucking let it rip. Although the song falls somewhere between dance floor and mosh pit, I loved my time in the mosh pit (still do, when I can find one) and my teenage years were set to music at higher speeds than what is considered normal. BANDSTAND SCORE: 80.

“Mony Mony”: This is almost cheating, but apparently Billy needed a follow-up to “Dancing with Myself” and didn’t have a decent enough original on hand. Tommy James and the Shondells were among the last purveyors of rock-oriented dance until the hippies took over and instead of babes shaking their asses to driving beats there were babes with long hair tucked into floral headbands spinning around in circles in fields of poppies as sitar music wafted through the air. This was the time when even The Stones lost touch with their rhythmic core, and tripping supplanted dancing in the world of rock. Motown was still cooking, though, and considering this historical cleavage between rock and soul inspired me to come up with a better way to understand the Rate-a-Record scale, both in terms of virtues and limitations:

“Strawberry Fields Forever” is a 35. “Chain of Fools” is a 98. Got it?

Like the Rascals, Tommy shifted to mellower music, producing the lovely but not particularly danceable “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” But before he realigned his chakras to conform the demands of the enlightened ones, he left the listening audience with one last chance to shimmy, twist and frug. “Mony Mony” (so named because Tommy looked out on the New York skyline while writing the song and espied the Mutual of New York Building) was built for no other purpose than dance. The lyrics exist to serve the beat; the words only make sense when you’re in the rhythmic trance and can’t expend any effort trying to put together a coherent thought. The phrase “mony mony” is euphonious and echoes the word “moaning,” reminding listeners of the thrill of an orgasm. We hear “shoot” and “shot,” a nod to the penises in the audience, and few dance songs would be complete with at least one “feel all right” (“Mony Mony” has ten, plus three “feel so good”s).

The song was a natural for Billy, and he comes through with a spirited, faithful-to-the-original performance. The song opens with the bass-driven stop time we heard in “Dancing in the Streets,” but here it’s repeated later in the song, indicating that Billy believed he’d found a winning formula, a “signature sound.” That in itself makes the song less appealing to me, but when you’re in the heat of the dance moment, you really don’t give a shit about rock star marketization. The only mystery is why on earth the compilers included the studio version instead of the much stronger live version that hit the top of the charts a few years later. Oh, well, I can only work with what I’ve got—oh, bullshit. BANDSTAND SCORE, STUDIO VERSION: 70. BANDSTAND SCORE, LIVE VERSION: 85.

“Hot in the City”: As will become painfully obvious as we proceed through the timeline, a lot of Billy’s songs consist of repurposed themes from songs of the 50’s and 60’s. Here we have the hot-summer-night theme where the young and horny descend on a city to celebrate the fact that they’re young and horny and have descended on the city. Born in 1955, Billy qualifies as a Baby Boomer, so we have the ludicrous couplet “Don’t be afraid of the world we made/On a hot summer night” to remind us of that generation’s self-professed omnipotence. You made a whole world just by getting drunk and fucking? Wow! You people really are far fucking out!

“Hot in the City” also features built-in flexibility in that wherever Billy traveled he could endear himself to the crowd by replacing “I can really feel the heat now . . . New York!” with “Kansas City!” or “Billings!” or “Dogtown, Alabama!” or “Chicken, Alaska!” The latter city fits the theme very well with their welcoming sign, “I Got Laid in Chicken, Alaska.” According to Billy’s bio, if he wasn’t doing drugs or on the stage or in the studio, he was fucking. Sometimes in the studio. Yeah. No shit.

Most of the song is somewhere between a slow dance number and a let’s-take-it-down-a-notch song to allow the sweat to dry. At one point shortly after the halfway mark, the band changes the rhythm, ripping you away from your partner so you can get the sweat dripping again . . . then it’s back to tweenerville. The shift improves the song’s listenability by making it more interesting, but we’re more concerned with the dancing experience on this show. BANDSTAND SCORE: 50.

“White Wedding”: Billy goes goth in a mystery-laden minor-key mood piece where the only story (if you can call it that) can be found in the campy video featuring chicks in full-body patent leather, a barbed wire wedding ring and an exploding kitchen. The lyrics are largely in the form of questions but I haven’t been able to find the Jeopardy answers to help my readers make sense of it all. Point: Billy Idol was more performance artist than lyricist, and his songs are mostly designed to invoke mood rather than increase your understanding. “White Wedding” is a horror movie set to music, designed simply to titillate.

So, turn off your language processing center, focus on Phil Feit’s seriously hot bass guitar and let your legs and ass do the rest. BANDSTAND SCORE: 81. 

“Rebel Yell”: Billy Idol’s most original contribution to music was inspired when Billy was hanging out with The Stones at VH1 and observed them guzzling down a bottle of Rebel Yell Bourbon Whisky. “Great song title,” he thought. “Great band name,” I would have thought had I been there, but then again, maybe not because I was less than a year old at the time.

I have to confess I loathe the so-1980’s synth intro, which sounds terribly cheesy in comparison to the kick-ass rock that follows. Once they finally get there, Billy and the boys have my full attention with the pulsating beat and sharp guitar punctuations. Billy delivers the opening lines in low heat, but that moment when he breaks the pattern and takes an octave leap to growl out “Pray help from above!” gives me tingles in my sweet spot. Quick story line: horny babe shows up at Billy’s pad, says “Fuck me!” and then they fuck. I love stories with happy endings! But it gets better—it turns out she’s a hold-nothing-back screamer, which may lead to some problems with Billy’s neighbors, but believe me, if you’re the one inspiring those screams, you couldn’t give a flying fuck about the neighbors . . . unless they want to join in the fun.

Here’s a tip about screamers. The first time is hot. The second time you think, “Hey, I must be pretty good in the sack to inspire such passion!” When the third time comes around, it finally dawns on you that your performance has nothing to do with it—the scream is just the broad’s “sexual brand.” End the relationship immediately.

“Rebel Yell” does have its flaws in addition to the synth. The bridge makes no sense whatsoever, as we leave the bedroom to go to . . . 7-11?

He lives in his own heaven
Collects it to go from the 7-11
Well he’s out all night to collect a fare
Just so long, just so long, it don’t mess up his hair

And I suppose that Billy’s use of the phrase “in the midnight hour” may call into question my claim that “Rebel Yell” is his most original contribution, but you know what? I’m sticking with that claim. You figure it out. BANDSTAND SCORE: 90.

“Eyes Without a Face”: Hmm. This is low dance disco number full of shimmery sounds and girlfriend Perri Lister doing call-and-response lines in not-particularly convincing French. Once again, the bridge proves to be a challenge for Billy, as he interrupts both mood and story line by introducing a double-time guitar over the slow beat, and relocates the song to Las Vegas. There’s a seriously exaggerated interpretation of the lyrics on Songfacts that attempts to connect the song to the plot line in a horrid French film with the same title featuring a plastic surgeon who abducts pretty women and slices off parts of their faces to graft onto his disfigured daughter. Methinks Billy liked the title, period, and attempts to transform the perception of this song into an artistic statement about the deficiencies of modern love are like trying to assign the same lofty status to a Viagra commercial. Sorry—the words are as shallow as the slick music and the rhythmic interruption was a really, really bad idea. BANDSTAND SCORE: 40.

“Flesh for Fantasy”: If someone’s going to try to tell me that Billy wrote this one about how tragic it is that modern existence means a world where we build superficial relationships based on physical attraction, and rather than achieving true intimacy, we cling to fantasies that can never be fully realized, I’m gonna . . . I’m gonna . . . Aargh! I can’t scream because then you’ll all think I’m a fake screamer and no one will ever fuck me again!

Sorry. Mid-review tension release.

Look. Billy Idol songs are not deep or particularly insightful. Titillation is the name of the game, and post-recording commentary on their “hidden meaning” is nonsense squared. The only words in this song you need to pay attention to in this song are “flesh,” “fantasy,” and “it’s after midnight.” Put it all together and you should be able to grasp the “meaning.”

This one sounds like a knock-off of a David Bowie disco-era song, and it seriously sucks. While it has a nice beat, Billy’s man-up voice on the chorus makes him sound like the last person I’d want fantasizing about my flesh. BANDSTAND SCORE: 50.

“Catch My Fall”: Ah, the “be there when I stumble” song, a theme explored by Chrissie Hynde, Pat Benatar dozens of others. What saves the song in the Rate the Record scoring model is a solid bass-driven rhythm and a few sprinkles of sax. Billy delivers his vocal in a comparatively subdued manner, and the only catchphrase a dancer can sing to is “If I should stumble, catch my fall.” Not exactly what you want to say to reassure your dance partner. BANDSTAND SCORE: 65.

“To Be a Lover”: Billy does his very best Elvis imitation over a curious mix of disco, soul and sprightly piano and winds up cracking the Top 10, which says more about the quality of pop music in the 80’s than musical excellence. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, though. BANDSTAND SCORE: 70.

“Don’t Need a Gun”: I deeply appreciate any and every anti-gun song every written, but this is a pretty weak protest in comparison to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special.” For one thing, Billy has a hard time staying on message, throwing in superfluous references to Gene Vincent, Elvis and Johnnie Ray in between equally irrelevant titillation lines (“Just need your love and I feel that heat yeah).” When he finally gets to the point, he suggests “When the other man has none/You don’t need a gun,” implying, “But if you both have guns, fire away!” The last thing I want to dance to is a dumb song that reaffirms the value of old-time Western shootouts. BANDSTAND SCORE: 35.

“Sweet Sixteen”: Where have I heard that phrase before? Chuck Berry? B. B. King? The Blue Mountaineers? And what the fuck is this? Disco country music? Well, Billy did express his admiration for Tex Ritter in his bio, so I guess he finally got to play out a long-standing fantasy. Billy called it a “heartfelt lament” about his lost relationship with Perri Lister (who was a teeny bit older than sixteen). Okay, but the tale in the song is about the guy who built a castle in Florida in honor of a woman who blew him off. Not exactly a metaphor likely to evoke much empathy from your average listener, and the rhythm is pure square dance. Wake up and smell the hay? No thanks. BANDSTAND SCORE: 35.

“Cradle of Love”: Billy’s only #1 mainstream rock hit in the U. S. is a slickly-produced dance-rock number about robbing the cradle, the act of fucking and sometimes marrying an underage girl. To his credit, Billy thought the song was crap, too, often replacing the line “It’s easy, I know how to please me” with “It’s cheesy, this song is so cheesy” in live performances. To put it mildly, I hate this fucking song, and looking back at this juncture in modern music history, Nirvana couldn’t have entered the scene soon enough. BANDSTAND SCORE: 35.

“L. A. Woman”: This is a spirited, somewhat faithful and sanitized version of The Doors’ blues-jazz influenced original. The critical difference is Billy Idol is not Jim Morrison, so you miss the many nuances Morrison could apply to a vocal. There’s also a certain breeziness in The Doors’ version that I find absolutely delightful. Still, it’s a very solid dance number, so we’re going to help Billy out of his Rate-the-Record slump on this one. BANDSTAND SCORE: 75.

“Shock to the System”: As promised way back at the beginning of this review, here’s my review of the single from the controversial Cyberpunk album. Okay . . . I like the ferocious rhythm, which could definitely inspire heavy bruising in the mosh pit. The various electronic and natural parts come together pretty well, all things considered. The problem with the song is that it’s a fragment of a half-baked idea that winds up saying nothing. Billy told MTV that he had already written lyrics for the song when the Rodney King riots filled his TV screen and “inspired” him. Uh uh. Sure. Here’s what he wrote about the riots:

It was a night
Hell of a night, L.A., it really was
Oh what a riot
I said yeah, come on
It makes my life feel real
Fear police and civil corruption oh yeah
Is there a man who would be king
And the world stood still
Ah yeah loud
You can rock this land baby
Yeah
I said yeah, come on baby
Shock to the system

I’m sorry, but does that stream of gibberish say anything at all? I think Billy was trying to exploit the riots in an attempt to stay relevant as his career was in full fade. It didn’t work, but I won’t let it affect the Rate-a-Record Score. BANDSTAND SCORE: 80.

“Rebel Yell” (live and acoustic): I’m not going to score this one, as getting credit twice for a highly-rated song would skew the final average in Billy’s favor and render my statistical analysis meaningless. I will say that “Rebel Yell” works as well on an acoustic guitar as it does on electric guitar—the song’s ass-kicking power is buried deep in its genes.

“Don’t You (Forget About Me)”: And I won’t score this obvious bonus track to skew the final average in the other direction. Memorable it is not. Forgettable it is.

Okay! Let’s see how Billy did! 80, oops—can’t count the score for the live version of “Mony, Mony” . . . okay, he’s going up, up . . . uh oh . . . bad stretch there . . . can he pull victory from the jaws of defeat?

AGGREGATE BANDSTAND SCORE: 61.14

Aww. Sorry, Billy. You didn’t make the cut that would have earned you the highly-prized and sought-after “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” designation for the entire compilation, but hey! Look on the bright side! You would have creamed any Radiohead or Pink Floyd album on the Rate-a-Record scale!

What? You want to know where you went wrong? Well, it’s pretty obvious that most of your best stuff came early in your solo career . . . and once you found yourself on top you followed the old saw, “Don’t mess with success.” The music became pretty formulaic, the lyrics never rose above mediocre, and to be honest, you don’t sing the later-period songs with half the enthusiasm you brought to the early hits. I’m not a psychologist, but I think the problem was you spent too much time and energy being Billy Idol, when what you really needed to do is connect with William Michael Albert Broad—you know—that kid who spent part of his childhood in Long Island, the one who got all excited when “She Loves You” blasted through his crappy little radio, the young lad who listened to everything from Robert Johnson to Camelot. Sounds like that kid had a pretty broad perspective on life that could have helped make your music more diverse and engaging—less image, more substance—you know, that kind of thing.

Oh, no—I don’t want you to lose the danceability factor, but let me give you something to think about: sex isn’t all about titillation, and it’s a lot more satisfying when you engage body, brain and good ol’ fashioned human emotion.

Just sayin’.

%d bloggers like this: