Before I wound up with International Relations as my college major, I seriously considered Cultural Anthropology. My multi-cultural background spawned a fascination with cultural norms, semiotics and the ways in which social structures are designed to protect cultural identity. Sadly, when I met with an advisor who delightedly recounted her field work in the rainforest where she feasted on giant bugs and slimy lizards roasted over a campfire, I laid to rest my dreams of becoming the next Margaret Mead.
Still, I find the subject fascinating, and while listening to Heaven Tonight—an album loaded with cultural messages regarding late 70’s America—I found myself wondering how the aliens would decode the messages if they stumbled across a copy of the album while visiting a post-apocalypse Earth:
The artifact was housed in thin cardboard depicting humanoids of mixed or uncertain gender. Four words were printed on the cardboard: cheap, trick, heaven, tonight. We assume that the intent behind the words was to describe the contents concealed within the cardboard (i. e., the artifact itself). This hypothesis was confirmed by samples of other artifacts collected from the culture that were marked in similar fashion. Based on this pattern, we surmised that the economic system involved the exchange of these packaged artifacts. Our original assumption that the exchange required one party to provide the other party with small pieces of metal or slips of green paper in order to receive a packaged artifact was called into question with the discovery of another artifact labeled “Pay Day.” This was a form of Earthling food high in simple carbohydrates such as glucose. Through complementary research we learned that “Pay Day” was also the term Earthlings used to identify the date on which they expected to receive compensation for their work. Combined with our discovery of primitive drawings printed on flimsy paper marked with the indecipherable legend “Dilbert,” we are now considering the possibility that the economic system employed people to engage in random, meaningless activity in exchange for this sugary foodstuff. This hypothesis is also supported by our analysis of skeletal remains indicating the planet’s inhabitants were grossly overweight.
Returning to the artifact in question, the words printed on the cardboard describe a product of low value (cheap) and of dubious quality (trick). We are frankly confused as to why the makers of the artifact would label their product in such a manner and expect compensation for it.
The reference to “heaven” concerns the primitive Earthling belief (shared by many of this planet’s cultures) that when an Earthling’s biological functions cease, the Earthling will somehow travel to a happier, peaceful place (heaven), but only if the Earthling practiced strict obedience to cultural norms during the life span. The word “tonight,” therefore, appears to be a form of inducement called a “sales pitch,” encouraging potential buyers to believe that by using the artifact, they can accelerate the process of traveling to “heaven.”
This hypothesis was confirmed by examining the artifact itself. We were able to discern that the black disk was a recording of current events in a form of music unique to Earthlings. Apparently, Earthlings used music as a means of dramatizing stories through a form called “song.” Each song on the recording describes interactions between Earthlings that we suppose had some significance to the members of the culture.
Although some of the interactions described in the songs remain elusive to our linguistic analysts, we have to conclude that the culture in question celebrated suicide as an efficient means of passage to “heaven.” We also learned that the culture used mind and body-altering substances to facilitate both sexual and suicidal rituals. The importance of melding sexual rituals with substance consumption was apparently reinforced through parental practices. One song depicted parents, under the influence of some form of stimulant or narcotic, engaging in sexual relations while their child observed. We can only assume that this was a form of instruction in one of the cherished cultural rituals. Given the findings of other research teams that the planet was extremely overpopulated, we believe that Earthlings, refusing to abandon their honored sexual rituals, raised the suicidal ritual to equal status in a vain attempt to balance population growth.
Our tentative conclusion is that the culture in question was a highly self-destructive culture, indicating a serious flaw in the evolutionary process aggravated by the unwillingness of the members of the culture to part with self-destructive rituals. It is no wonder, therefore, that this planet is now an empty, lifeless shell.
Our experience with the artifact confirmed this hypothesis. On the long journey home, members of the research team admitted to repeated, unauthorized access to the recording. An internal investigation by Humanoid Resources concluded that the music on the artifact was highly addictive, triggered uncontrollable spasms of euphoria and encouraged wanton and inappropriate sexual behavior among staff members. Our HR representative recommended that the recording be destroyed before our arrival to avoid potential planet-wide contamination. The research team strenuously rejected the recommendation, and in response, unanimously decided to eject the HR representative into deep space through a convenient airlock.
I believe the team’s response to be wholly appropriate and consistent with our planet’s deeply-held belief in the preservation of knowledge. However, we do recommend that the recording be kept in a high-security vacuum chamber and that access be limited to researchers whose advanced age have caused them to lose all interest in sexual relations.
While the aliens may have missed a few subtleties, you have to forgive them: by all accounts, 1978 was one weird fucking year in the U. S. A. Serial killers dominated the headlines. A former beauty queen and wacko Christian launched a nationwide anti-gay campaign. The citizens of Love Canal learned their homes had been built on a toxic waste dump. California voters staged a tax revolt, ensuring decades of underfunded schools and right-wing bullshittery. 909 people committed mass suicide in a forsaken place called Jonestown. Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were gunned down in cold blood by an ex-cop supervisor who would later mount a successful defense based on his obsessive consumption of Twinkies.
I’m sure that millions of people looked back on 1978 while celebrating on New Year’s Eve and raised their glasses to the toast, “Good riddance to one shitty year. It sure can’t get any worse!”
Hello, Ayatollah Khomeini!
In such an ugly cultural context, Heaven Tonight must have seemed like manna from . . . well, not from heaven, but from one very tight rock ‘n’ roll band. While 1978 also featured The Cars’ eponymous debut album and Blondie’s Parallel Lines, neither of those records feature the unabashed commitment to hard-driving, melodic rock ‘n’ roll. Some critics of the time lumped all three bands (along with The Police and others) into a completely fictitious genre called “New Wave,” but really, Cheap Trick’s high-energy, melodic music bears more similarity to the Jeff Lynne edition of The Move, mid-cycle Beatles and early Who than with whatever the hell “New Wave” was.
While the influence of the great British melodic rockers is obvious, Cheap Trick was more than a fawning copy band or pale imitation of the originals. This is obvious in oh, about fifteen seconds into the killer opening to end all killer openings, “Surrender.”
When I first started this blog some 1.5 million words ago, I didn’t know shit about blogging, so I followed the advice of the experts. One of those perfectly worthless pieces of advice was to create lots of lists. Apparently people still follow that advice, for every day I wind up on some webpage with those awful fake ads near the bottom of the page like, “63 Celebrities Who Now Look Like Death Warmed Over” and “10 Ways to Reduce Sodium So You Can Still Eat French Fries” and “15 Ways to Attract Women If You’re a Hopeless Loser.” The advice I read explained that lists stir up controversy and controversy is the best way to drive millions of web surfers to your site to tell you how full of shit you are. This being a music blog, I created a whole bunch of lists: The Ten Best Bass Performances, The Ten Sexiest Songs Ever and, of course, The Ten Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Songs. I did the lists even though every fiber of my being rejected the very concept of a “best of” anything list and I have rarely followed the conventional wisdom that “experts know best.”
Sigh. I guess even dominant, whip-wielding women have bouts of insecurity.
I’ve deleted all those lists and didn’t even bother to keep copies. The only thing I remember about the list is the song I rated as the best rock ‘n’ roll song ever: “Surrender” by Cheap Trick.
To set the record straight, I don’t know if “Surrender” really is the best rock ‘n’ roll song ever or even how you would go about determining that. All I do know is that “Surrender” captures the essence of great rock ‘n’ roll and leaves me in a state approaching ecstasy every time I hear it. I’d rather stay in that state of ecstasy and not have to write about it, but if I were to do a visual-only review of “Surrender,” I’d have to do a video selfie of me having an orgasm, and I promised my mother I would restrain my exhibitionist tendencies and not post any more nudes or stories about my sex life.
Believe that if you want.
So, let’s use boring old words to describe why “Surrender” is such a fabulous example of the art of rock ‘n’ roll:
The Key Changes: Key changes are often used in mid-tempo songs to shake things up a little. Think of Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser,” where Duane plays the exact same riff over and over again throughout the song. If he hadn’t changed keys several times, you’d want to strangle Duane Eddy sometime in the middle of the fourth go-round. Key changes pique the listener’s interest, induce a heightened sense of anticipation and make those mid-tempo numbers sound a bit less sluggish.
“Surrender,” on the other hand, is a fast song with two key changes. Shockingly, the first key change occurs right after the bashing power chord intro, at the beginning of the first verse. In fast-tempo songs, a key change gives the listener the illusion of acceleration, stimulating interest and raising the heart rate. By making a key change after an already-powerful opening, Cheap Trick sends a clear message: “We’re going all out with this fucker, so hang on for one hell of a ride.”
The second key change occurs just before the last verse, just at the moment when you might be feeling pretty comfortable with the groove. “Fuck that,” responds the band, hitting the accelerator and raising the excitement to off-the-chart levels. That final key change triples the power of the double-orgasmic climax when Robin Zander’s voice soars on the word, “a-WAAAAAAAAAAY.”
Discipline: “Surrender” is a terribly exciting song. Whenever I listen to it, I’m moving, shaking, singing loudly and maybe relieving my sexual tension through a light touch with the index finger. Because I can hardly control myself, I’d be the last person you’d want to jump in and jam with Cheap Trick. “Surrender” is the kind of song that gives the average musician a thousand temptations to overplay, to add an extra drum roll or slip in a superfluous riff. It is fortunate for music history, then, that Cheap Trick had been playing this song for years and approached the arrangement with a firm application of discipline. Every note, every thrust, every bash is exactly what needs to be there and all that needs to be there. The interplay between rhythm guitar and lead vocal on the verses is perfect, with subdued but punchy pizzicato guitar opening up to full strums only in the open spaces. Tom Petersson places his heart-skipping bass runs in the power chord sequence that open the song and serve as the bridge between verses, but in those verses he sticks tight to the rhythm. Bun E. Carlos has more opportunity to “enhance” the song on the drums, but his extended rolls and skips are timed exactly to what the song needs in the moment. The effect of this blessed discipline is that it allows the listener to supply the excitement, a perfect example of aesthetic interaction between artist and audience.
Unconventional Lyrics: The unforgettable opening couplet draws meaning from both words and phrasing. The first line is rather simple: “Mother told me, yes she told me, I’d meet girls like you.” Yeah, so what? The so-what is in the delivery: the disapproving sneer on the word you, packing with it the underlying meaning of “disgusting slut who wishes to entrap me in her evil feminine wiles.” The second line takes us by surprise because a.) it doesn’t come close to rhyming and b.) the reference to VD or crabs is not at all what we were expecting to hear. The lyrics to “Surrender” are both unconventional and anti-authority, as is true with the best lyrics in rock. Here, though, the rejection of authority is less social protest against a dangerous power and more “this notion of authority is completely fucking weird.” I find it fascinating that the last verse adds a bit of ambiguity to the mix by backing off on the anti-authority message and revealing the ultimate authority figures as human beings who are just as horny and just as open to the pleasures of stimulating substances as their teenage offspring:
Then I woke up, Mom and Dad
Are rolling on the couch
Rolling numbers, rock and rolling
Got my Kiss records out
I do wish they would have stuck with the original lyrics on the WACs line: “Now I had heard the WACs were either old maids, dykes or whores.” Much more reflective of contemporary misogynistic beliefs.
Great Vocals: The vocals on “Surrender” are outstanding, and the harmonies are particularly well-arranged. Cheap Trick applied harmony like a painter applies an additive color to a painting that is nearly finished: just enough to enhance the mood instead of slopping it on the canvas. The application of harmony on the repetition of the word “surrender” in the chorus gives me a frisson every time I hear it, largely because the first “surrender” is sung in unison—the harmony on the repetition is like a subtle but remarkable color that leaps out from the painting. And the choice to not add harmony to Robin Zander’s vocal on the “A-WAAAAAAAAAY” fade was and equally brilliant bit of sonic diversification. That must have been a hard choice for the simple reason that the harmony on the end-of-chorus renditions of “away” sounds fucking fabulous, but it was the right choice—an inspired choice.
“Surrender” demands a strong follow-up, and Cheap Trick delivers with the high heat and rich chord structure of “On Top of the World.” The 35-second intro is an absolute gas, with Rick Nielsen’s fingers flying all over the landscape of the fretboard like a mad stunt pilot, grounded by the three-note secret-agent flavored riff from Tom Petersson. The rapid four-beat cut to the opening chorus is executed with thrilling precision, as is the transitional phrase to the more melodic and flowing verses. Those verses are marked by a daring mixture of major and minor chords that meld beautifully and unexpectedly with the repetition of the introductory pattern. The lyrics describe two high-school dropouts trying to carve out some kind of existence in the lower end of the economic scale. Lacking connections, education, dreams for the future and a basic understanding of personal finance management, they are perfect targets for P. T. Barnum’s descendants who are more than willing to exploit their ignorance through media and religion:
It wasn’t easy—it was hard as hell
You didn’t get luck in a wishin’ well
Never worked so hard—had so much pain
Wouldn’t change for anything
Learned love from a movie screen
He was tough, she was wild at fifteen
Hated school and had no dreams
Wasn’t going very far
Then he got religion and she got a god
It’s on her back and it’s in his job
And it costs lots of money, honey—oh, no
The Seventies were the decade of the Great American Decline, both real and perceived. Watergate, The Energy Crisis, rising inflation and defeat in Vietnam shattered beliefs in fair play and American Exceptionalism. Violent crime and fear were on the rise, leading to the resurrection of the Wild West myth of the sheriff who rides into town and wipes out the bad guys. The 70’s version manifested itself in the forms of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, who reinforced the message that the system was irreparably damaged by working around inconvenient obstacles to frontier justice like civil rights and Miranda. The fearful masses ate it up and made Eastwood and Bronson box-office heroes. Religion always thrives in fear-saturated climates, and it was in the 70’s that the horror of evangelistic, fundamentalist Christianity began to gain traction, thanks to the “born again” movement. Jimmy Carter’s disclosure that he was a “born again” Christian re-introduced religion into politics and legitimatized the insertion of religious dogma into policy and law. The characters in “On Top of the World” (a seriously ironic title) are the young people who forty years later would vote in droves for Donald Trump—ignorant, religious hypocrites who carried their fears with them into the future. And like all religious hypocrites, they are fundamentally weak people who sin like bastards:
Got lucky with the girl next door
She was lonely and didn’t care
She was young, she was dark, she was fair
Wrapped herself around you with her stare
You’d explode if she would touch you there
Touch you there—touch you there
“On Top of the World” is one of Cheap Trick’s richest songs, a fabulous composition strengthened by acute insight into the decay of American culture.
“California Man” is a cover of the Roy Wood composition that would turn out to be the A-side of the last single The Move ever released (and the only one to chart in the U. S. at a pathetic #93). In this case, Cheap Trick’s cover proves to be the superior version, as the original feels more like poor satire than commitment. Cheap Trick’s take is an all-out bash with a strong groove and their typically superb harmonies. I also love the way they introduce the riff from The Move’s “Brontosaurus” in the instrumental break, as it’s one of my favorite late Move songs (sadly buried on one of the shittiest albums ever made, Looking On). It’s followed by the b-side and fan favorite, “High Roller,” a group composition about a drug dealer that alternates between two distinct moods—one dark, edgy and masculine, and the other filled with lush harmonies—with each depicting a different approach to seduction. The lyrics set to the edgier music highlight the dealer’s braggadocio (“What I buy is mine/And I always get the things that I choose”) and the classic view of many American males that “my money is my dick.” The lush section reflects this loser’s attempt to “try a little tenderness,” but it’s still extreme paternalism exploiting the vulnerability of the damsel in distress. What I really notice in “High Roller” is how superbly Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos navigate the rhythmic shifts, eliminating any sense of awkwardness in the transitions.
“Auf Wiedersehen” certainly generated a lot of controversy, with some people hearing it as advice to teenagers to ditch the romantic notion of offing oneself, and others hearing a sick celebration of suicide. I offer a third interpretation: “You want a ride to the bridge?” What I hear is an attitude combining incredulity and irritation towards a person considering suicide. The verse that backs me up is the verse where they quote Dylan:
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is a joke
And for you we sing this final song
For you there is no hope
Yes, there’s no hope for you if you’re drowning in self-pity and want to use the threat of suicide to make people feel sorry for you. Grow the fuck up! The arrangement is positively wicked and slightly deranged, opening with an eerie guitar mix that leads into the tight-as-a-great-fuck rhythm. Bun E. Carlos is on fire in this sucker, with dramatic rolls and bashes that punctuate the fundamental madness of a human being taking his or her life on a whim.
We get back to more familiar rock territory with “Taking Me Back,” a mid-tempo rocker with comparatively unremarkable lyrics. What makes this song worth a spin is a diverse arrangement with some very nifty keyboard/synth work from Jai Winding and a strong lead vocal from Robin Zander. While “Taking Me Back” is a keeper, “On the Radio” is the weakest track on the album, a song with a theme that’s definitely “been there, done that” and ends with a limp attempt at DJ satire. It’s relatively pleasant and inoffensive, but doesn’t come close to moving my rather demanding needle.
The only slow song on the record is the title track, a rock dirge that mingles the styles of early ELO (in the faux supporting strings) and the Led Zeppelin model of Jimmy Page (in the descending, dramatic guitar riff). “Heaven Tonight” is a thoroughly creepy song, which is exactly what a song about death from drug overdose should be. The nightmarish soundscape, melding a child-like lead vocal with a relentless, dirge-like rhythm make the story in the lyrics come to life. Whenever I hear the song, I conjure up images of a dirty, poorly-lit room where ghostly shadows push the limits of physiology to reach the high to end all highs. I can feel that ache, that overriding need to free themselves from the pain and ugliness within and without. And finally, that split-second of terror when the user becomes semi-conscious that life is about to end:
Downed the line, couldn’t get much
Couldn’t get much, higher if you tried
And tried and tried, you’re as guilty
It’s the crime, oh, oh, it’s a crime
You can never come down, you can never come down
You can never come down, you can never come down
Down inside—you’re getting nervous
You’ve never been this high before, oh no
Ugh. I can’t say I “like” the song, but I admire the composition and the clear intentionality that went into its creation.
Hey! Let’s lighten the mood with a little skin flute! “Stiff Competition” finds Rick Nielsen wondering if the male appendage has a mind of its own, and hey, Rick—every broad on the planet knows that! Sometimes that little feller won’t stand up no matter what a girl does, leading to stammered apologies, self-immolation and expression of the ridiculous sentiment, “Uh, I’m really sorry because, uh, I really wanted to please you.” Hey, asshole! Got a tongue? Put it right there where I’m pointing—yeah, that bulging pink thingy. Now, lick! Suck! Kiss! Blow! Good boy! Well, look at that! That little feller just became a pretty big feller! Come on in! The party’s just getting started! “Stiff Competition” is not an I’ll-pull-mine-out-and-you-pull-yours-out-and-we’ll-see-who’s-the-real-man kind of competition, but the competition between the male brain and the independent brain that exists in every guy’s johnson. It’s also a fab stadium rock song that has made a few appearances on those naughty playlists of mine.
The next song is . . . wait . . . what the hell? What is Jeff Lynne doing on my Cheap Trick album? “Hello, how are you . . . ” Is this an amped up version of “Telephone Line?” The chord changes are definitely Jeff Lynne . . . what the fuck? Did someone pull a . . . cheap trick on me? Dad! You sneaky prick! No, no, the label says Cheap Trick! It really is Cheap Trick!
If you didn’t believe me when I said that Cheap Trick was heavily influenced by “the Jeff Lynne edition of The Move,” all you have to do is listen to about thirty seconds of “How Are You?” Robin Zander’s vocal is full of Lynne affectations, and the series of chord changes reflect Lynne’s penchant for riffing off the main chord with the sixth, seventh, diminished or augmented variation. What’s funny is I don’t consider “How Are You?” a ripoff, but an enhancement—I like this song better than anything Jeff Lynne was doing in the late 70’s with the heavily commercialized version of ELO. The song is a monologue by a very frustrated male with a lofty opinion of his prowess who chooses to take out his frustrations on his female partner:
How are you?
How’d you sleep last night?
Did you dream of me all night?
How are you?
You shouldn’t sleep all day
Such a beautiful day
How are you?
What’s with you?
How could you?
I heard your voice
I couldn’t stand it
You know you talk too much
You even scare my friends
What’s with you?
The world you said
I know you’re lying
You lie in bed
You lie, you lie
You lie there crying
What’s with you?
How could you?
Why did you?
And they say women bitch. What a fucking asshole.
The band plays with noticeable energy, peaking on the classic rock chorus in a way that makes you want to get out of your seat and hit the dance floor. Jai Winding’s piano intro is delightfully disarming and his rhythmic work on the song blends well with Petersson and Carlos. And Rick Nielsen’s witty insertions—falling bends to highlight frustration, rising bends to signal the “what the fuck” moments in the monologue—are an absolute delight.
Heaven Tonight ends with a sop to Cheap Trick fans, a snippet of a live performance of “Oh, Claire,” a Cheap Trick traditional harkening back to the days when they were gigging in Eau Claire, Wisconsin instead of shaking the rafters in arenas all over the world. It doesn’t sound like much, but it works as an album closer—a truncated encore of sorts. It also serves as an appropriate bridge to their next release, the fabulous Cheap Trick at Budokan.
After re-engaging with Heaven Tonight, I wondered why the hell it took me so long to review a Cheap Trick album. At their peak, they produced a series of great melodic rock albums, a streak that ironically ended when they decided to have George Martin and Geoff Emerick produce the more avant-garde All Shook Up. On paper, you wonder how that combination could have missed—a seriously promising melodic rock band exploring new directions decides to make an album with the producer of the greatest melodic rock band of all-time, supported by the engineering genius who gave us Revolver and Sgt. Pepper.
Go fucking figure. Still, if Heaven Tonight turns out to be the only artifact to survive a post-nuclear earth, we can take satisfaction from knowing that the human race made one lasting contribution to galactic happiness.
And if they turn out to be one of those alien races where the women have seven clitorises and the guys have seven penises, all the better.
Aladdin Sane has languished near the bottom of my Bowie to-do list for some time. Rarely one to follow a linear path, I’d actually decided to skip several post-Ziggy albums and immerse myself in the Berlin Trilogy this year. I’d already begun preliminary research and exploration into Low, Heroes and Lodger when something terrible happened.
Donald Fucking Trump.
My longstanding tradition at the start of every year is a sacred ritual of personal cleansing: my blues jag. I usually listen to nothing but blues in January of each year to help me reconnect with what’s real. The blues is the art form of naked feeling, unspoken taboos and facing one’s demons. Listening to Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King and others remind me of what’s essential.
With an incompetent, raving maniac assuming responsibility for the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, I found I had no appetite for self-reflection and was not in the right frame of mind to drown myself in the blues. Up until 2016, I had no interest in politics and had never voted before. The U. S. campaign and election turned me into a news and history junkie, screwing up my body clock and threatening the three priorities that had made my life a very happy one: sex, music and baseball. Donald Trump represents a clear and present danger to my translation of life, liberty and happiness.
Okay, the sex part was never in any real danger. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that dickless jerk interfere with my need to fuck long, hard and often.
But Trump’s election roughly coincided with the Cubs winning the Series, leaving me to face the already too-long off-season without action on the diamond. And as for music, all my carefully laid plans for the year went up in orange smoke as I shifted my focus to reviewing albums concerned with looming dystopia (OK Computer), political protest (Rehearsals for Retirement) and an affirmation of the threatened concept of world citizenship (Streetcore).
Fortunately, Streetcore put me back in touch with the form of music conceived in the blessed spirit of defiance: rock ‘n’ roll. Joe Strummer’s fabulous rock songs on Streetcore triggered an insatiable desire for a serious rock ‘n’ roll fix. I frantically scanned my music library for albums with great rock songs, tore up the old plan and came up with The Altrockchick Trump Survival Plan: rock the fuck out! I’ll probably be on a rock jag for a while, and you’ll know I’ve returned to relative sanity and security when you see a blues review. When you see a jazz review, you’ll know I’m at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy and all is well in the sex, music and baseball departments.
Back to Aladdin Sane. Though I don’t consider it his best work from an artistic perspective, it’s one of his better rock albums, featuring no less than three songs that make frequent appearances on my fuck playlists. Bowie was never a rocker in the purist sense of the word; he played in many genres, imbuing those genres with his own unique perspectives and sense of style. But whenever he found himself in a rocking mood, that man could kick some serious ass!
The album was put together in between Ziggy Stardust U. S. tour dates, motivated by the desperate need for a quick follow-up to capitalize on the listening public’s sudden craving for more tunes from the budding rock ‘n’ roll superstar. Given the circumstances, it’s probably more accurate to view Aladdin Sane as a theatrical work—the soundtrack of Bowie’s U. S. touring experience rather than a carefully-shaped musical opus. Bowie referred to the album as “Ziggy Goes to America,” and Aladdin Sane is a crucial part of Bowie’s adopt-a-persona period which ran from Ziggy Stardust all the way through Station to Station and The Thin White Duke. During this period, Bowie placed equal emphasis on music, style and stagecraft, and Aladdin Sane, with a setlist ranging from glam to doo-wop to cabaret, captures the essence of this phase in Bowie’s career.
The album kicks off in unbelievably frustrating fashion with the horrid recording of “Watch That Man.” A little bit of research will tell you that there was a big hoo-hah between the producer and the record company over two versions of the mix: the one you hear on the album and another where you can actually hear David Bowie singing. The record company didn’t like the first, called for the second, decided they liked the first better and let producer Ken Scott take the heat from all those fans screaming, “We can’t hear David!” The truth is the problem with the mix goes far beyond David Bowie’s virtual disappearance: the track completely lacks any sense of dynamics. After a very brief guitar and bass intro, the rest of the song is just one layer piled on top of another as if Ken Scott was actually trying to make the soufflé collapse. Further research indicated that Bowie and Scott might have overdosed on that extraordinarily overrated but extremely popular party album Exile on Main St, and divined that throwing everything into the mix was the new black. Compare “Watch That Man” to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” (next review on the list!) and you will clearly understand the difference between “sloppy mess” and “the power of discipline and restraint.”
I will now suppress an overwhelming urge to lecture my readers on the power of discipline and restraint in a sexual context.
The title track is . . . well, as a song, it’s pretty bloody awful for the most part. The melody qualifies as “extremely labored,” a pattern of notes and rhythms that simply refuse to flow. Inspired by his reading of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, Bowie’s lyrics reflect the oh-so-romantic lost generation period between the world wars when decadence was celebrated in cafés in Paris and Berlin while the world headed for another global calamity. The title, a pun on “A lad insane,” is likely a reference to his schizophrenic half-brother, but the connection between his brother and the “lost years” of the 1920’s and 30’s is never clearly established. What makes the track worthwhile is the combination of Mike Garson’s frenetic piano and David Sanborn’s tenor sax work. Garson’s 90-second solo is a riveting experience as he slips in and out of the base rhythm with a series of amazing runs and abrupt chording, showing us a universe of musical possibility within a frightfully simply A-G chord pattern. Although I’m a pianist of no repute at all, I do know a great pianist when I hear one, and Mike Garson is the bee’s knees (check out his album Jazz Hat for additional confirmation).
“Drive-In Saturday,” one of the singles from the album, was of two astonishingly gracious gifts that Bowie offered to Mott the Hoople (“Suffragette City” was the first). Apparently Ian Hunter had a problem with the complexity of the chord pattern and turned it down. I’m assuming he wasn’t referring to the “Angel Baby” chord pattern of the verses, but the three-step key change in the chorus that does lead to a more varied chord pattern. Fuck, man, that’s the best part of the song! If it weren’t for the key change and new chord structure, “Drive-In Saturday” would be as limp as “Crocodile Rock.” What the fuck’s the matter with you, anyway?
Stunningly, Bowie took the news of Mott’s rejection way too hard and shaved off his eyebrows. I . . . I . . . don’t know how to deal with that bit of gossip.
Although the doo-wop modeling feels a bit trite, David Bowie’s vocal on this song is one of his best, full of energy and playfulness, particularly on the chorus. The lyrics to “Drive-In Saturday,” filled with references to Mick Jagger (sexy), Twiggy (sexless) and Jung (not as hung up as Freud), are post-apocalyptic in the vein of Side One of Ziggy Stardust, describing a world where people have to watch old porn flicks because they’ve forgotten how to fuck.
I DO NOT WANT TO LIVE IN THAT WORLD.
Alladin Sane is one of those albums that get better the further you go, and it doesn’t get much better than “Panic in Detroit.” The song works on so many levels that the best phrase I can come up with to describe it is “a masterpiece of contradiction and cohesion.” The lyrics and Bowie’s anxiety-ridden vocal capture the manic anxiety of existence amidst the chaos of riot-torn Detroit in the mid-60’s, where both property and the fundamentals of social order went up in frustration-fueled flames:
He laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening gloom
The police had warned of repercussions
They followed none too soon
A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive
Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit
Putting on some clothes I made my way to school
And I found my teacher
crouching in his overalls
I screamed and ran to smash my favorite slot machine
And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights
This is a very impressive expressionistic rendering of the Detroit riots, made all the more impressive by the fact that Bowie wasn’t within a thousand miles of Detroit during the explosive years from 1966 to 1968. Iggy Pop told Bowie about the riots and the 60’s revolutionaries inhabiting the milieu, and through the magic of artistic alchemy, David Bowie made the scene come alive.
The story told in word and voice gains exponential power from the supporting music. The rhythm, combining Latin and R&B influences and propelled forward by congas and Trevor Bolder’s accelerating bass runs, amplify the sense of urgency; Linda Lewis’ orgasmic cries intensify the sense of panic; and Mick Ronson’s amazing guitar somehow manages to communicate a sense of structure (though the repeated riffs) and a structure coming apart at the seams (through the clipped distortion and the occasional guitar scream). “Panic in Detroit” is a song that sounds like it’s coming together and falling part at the same time, giving the listener an incredibly thrilling experience.
I should have said, “thrilling in every sense of the word,” for despite the depiction of violent upheaval, “Panic in Detroit” is one of the sexiest songs I’ve ever heard. I always place it after the one-hour mark in my fuck playlists, when the foreplay is long over and all parties involved have succumbed to call of the wild. At that point, the section of the brain concerned with language has been anesthetized by estrogen and/or testosterone, rendering lyrics irrelevant and making groove paramount . . . and the layered groove of “Panic in Detroit,” is intensely erotic.
“Cracked Actor” is another track that frequents my fuck playlists, with its thick guitar, slamming drums and cry to “suck, baby, suck.” This is a very flexible track suitable for both the erotic trance and the warmup period, particularly if the heat is generated through a supple whip or stiff riding crop. The Hollywood loser who serves as the main character is one of those obnoxious pricks who fucks mindlessly and heartlessly, needing plenty of drugs to keep his little skippy hard. I tune the loser out and surrender myself to the lure of Ronson’s kick-ass guitar and Woody Woodmansey’s drums.
Bowie then transforms the mood with “Time,” an ingenious mix of Berlin cabaret, electrified Jacques Brel and Hunky Dory pop. My mother was absolutely thrilled when David did Jacques Brel in a brief acoustic interlude during the Ziggy Stardust concert at Winterland, and his admiration for Brel reflects both his intensity and sense of drama in song. “Time” is the most theatrical piece on the album, opening with Mike Garson’s melodramatic stride piano and punctuated with dramatic pauses that demonstrate the power of silence in the auditory arts. I think critics who pooh-poohed the song for its incoherent lyrics made the mistake of listening for poetry when they should have followed the dramatic peaks and valleys. For me, “Time” demonstrates Bowie’s superior acting skills in comparison to other rock and pop singers of the time (try to imagine Paul McCartney covering “Time,” for example), and his ability to make the bizarre familiar with a strong chorus without detracting from the artistry of the song.
Speaking of Hunky Dory, “Prettiest Star” should sound very familiar, with its melody and feel echoing “Kooks.” This lovely little tune actually pre-dates Hunky Dory, as the original version was a follow-up single to Space Oddity that he recorded with Marc Bolan of T. Rex fame. The single bombed, perhaps because the world wasn’t quite ready to overdose on an androgynous rock star, or perhaps because Bowie was still in relative infancy and still working on his phrasing. I’ll go with the latter explanation because the two versions are similar but the Aladdin Sane version features a more confident, in-command Bowie and a cleaner glam-rock arrangement.
We interrupt this program for a mid-review rant. “Let’s Spend the Night Together” will never appear on my fuck playlists, no matter who’s singing it. Why? It’s very simple: I hate fucking euphemisms. Let me clarify that sentence: I hate fucking (used as an intensive) euphemisms and I hate fucking euphemisms (euphemisms applied to the sacred act of fucking). Is that fucking clear now? A euphemism is “a generally innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant.” I wholly reject the notion that sex is offensive or unpleasant, and anyway, what the hell would “innocuous sex” look like? We keep our clothes on and stare longingly at each other’s genitalia? Yes, yes, yes, I realize that open discussion about sex was not socially acceptable in the mid-60’s when Jagger and Richards wrote this tune, but I find hypocrisy annoying in any era. While thousands of sexual euphemisms have been employed in popular music over the centuries, this one really pisses me off because it’s so painfully obvious what two people are going to do if they spend the night together. If they were spending the evening together, okay—let them play Scrabble or catch an early movie. But if they’re spending the night together, and they’re consenting adults, NO ONE IS GOING TO BELIEVE THAT SPENDING THE NIGHT TOGETHER MEANS WE’RE HAVING A SLEEP-OVER OR A PLATONIC PAJAMA PARTY. So why not go ALL THE WAY? “Come On, Let’s Fuck Together” would have been a vast improvement—even if the censors bleeped the dreaded F-word.
We now return to our review of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane.
Euphemisms temporarily aside, David Bowie’s version of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is far superior to the original, which lopes along like a humble cowboy faced with a reluctant virgin. An exploding synthesizer and Mike Garson’s radical, dissonant, urgent piano set the tone, and wham!—the band starts down the track like a bullet train. When Bowie sings “I’m in no hurry, I can take my ti-hi-hime,” he is lying through his teeth, suffering from serious anxiety that his balls are about to explode. When he cries, “Oh, my!” in the second verse, I know that all I have to do is show him my tits and he’ll come in a New York second. The slowdown leading to Bowie’s poetry is a bit of theatrics I can do without, but without those kind of diversions, Bowie wouldn’t be Bowie, and I love him for that.
And I love him even more for “Jean Genie,” a fuck playlist perennial. I find it fascinating that this song thrills me so, given its lengthy musical genealogy from Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” to the Bo Diddley original to the raving Yardbirds version of the mid-60’s. I can feel my ass getting into gear as soon as I hear Mick Ronson’s hard-and-fast picking and the entry of Trevor Bolder’s bass. When the band settles into the irresistible groove they maintain their discipline like good boys and give David plenty of room to play. Instead of going manic on us, though, Bowie approaches the vocal with a laid-back but unmistakeable attitude, reinforcing the tease. When part of the band jumps the chord pattern a bit too soon and Bowie responds by telling them to “Get back on it,” he sounds like a man on life support desperate to maintain contact with the building, teasing groove. I tend to agree with the characterization of the lyrics as the “stylized sleaze” of the Velvet Underground, forming part of the erotic background instead of telling a story. This fits the backstory, where Bowie said he wrote the song in the apartment of one of Warhol’s female devotees, whom he described as a “sexy girl.” Given his tendency to indulge in long, unintelligible explanations of some of his works, his brevity speaks volumes. “Jean Genie” is about sex, meant to inspire sex, drips with sex, and should be the national anthem of the entire fucking world.
Alladin Sane closes quite appropriately with the drama queen tour-de-force, “Lady Grinning Soul.” Mike Gerson’s piano in this piece falls somewhere between Liberace and Liszt; I picture David doing this vocal in a full-length evening gown at the late-night drag show. While it would have been easy for this song to inspire the giggles, Bowie’s obvious sincerity and commitment to the role make for a strangely alluring listening experience. The lyrics are the best on the entire album, describing a multi-talented, independent woman—just the kind of woman who strikes terror into the hearts of the insecure male population. David Bowie encourages men everywhere to give into her temptation AND SO DO I!
She’ll come, she’ll go
She’ll lay belief on you
But she won’t stake her life on you
How can life become her point of view
And when the clothes are strewn
Don’t be afraid of the room
Touch the fullness of her breast
Feel the love of her caress
She will be your living end
David’s acoustic guitar solo is pretty impressive, too, and I love the way the fade gives everyone in the band a little action, as if they’re taking their final bow. Theatrics at its best.
Sensuous and dramatic, curious and curiouser, displaying remarkable variety in style and arrangement, Alladin Sane may not be one of Bowie’s best albums, but let’s pause on that thought for a minute and put it into context. If this is not one of his best albums, it’s because we set the bar higher for David Bowie—and I think he made similar demands of himself throughout his career. The truth is that most musical artists would kill to have one album as good as Aladdin Sane, because even when Bowie wasn’t at his best due to circumstances or mood, he was still David Bowie—unique, irreplaceable and fully committed to his art. More than most musicians who kick around for a while without focus or intent, David Bowie understood the vital importance of commitment, of giving it all you’ve got, regardless of the risk.
You can’t clone that. You have to be that. David Bowie is one of the few who got that.