After less than an hour of research on this album, my trusty bullshit detector began flashing red.
As I dug in further, I couldn’t decide whether the bullshit was coming from the band or the buzz. Let’s look at the buzz first.
On the strength of two hit singles, fantastic radio exposure and tabloid headlines trumpeting Justine Frischmann’s intimate relationship with Damon Albarn, Elastica became the fastest-selling album in UK history, shooting to the top of the charts upon release. The reviews were universally favorable, and Albarn and Frischmann earned the monikers of “King and Queen of Britpop.”
Perhaps my British readers can help me out a little here—I’ve always found the ins and outs of British royalty confusing. Since Justine also slept with Brett Anderson of Suede, does that make Brett a prince or a duke? Or a pretender who should be locked up in the Tower of London? I’m also surprised that Justine earned her title on the basis of one album and intimate relations with two Britpop stars. Was her discovery of ants in the carpet the clincher? Well, shit—since I’ve written 484 reviews, fucked a whole lot more than two guys and have never had ants in my carpet, I hereby declare myself Queen of France! Now go eat your goddamned cake!
Retrospective reviews have been equally fawning and unusually assertive in their defense of the album. The BBC’s Anthony Leaver crossed the line into nastiness when he proclaimed: “Elastica is a neglected gem from a time when bands were dominated by effervescent lead singers – none more so than the first lady of Britpop, Justine Frischmann . . . Elastica is as memorable a record as the pretenders to Frischmann’s throne at the time – Sleeper with Louise Wener and Republica’s Saffron – were forgettable.”
Now I’m more confused. Now she’s the “First Lady?” I thought that was an American thing. Leaver’s review was written years after Justine moved to Colorado, so why does she get to keep her title if Harry and Meghan had to give up theirs? Does that mean Damon Albarn is the rightful prime minister?
That would be fucking awesome!
Then there’s poor Noel Gallagher, who certainly had a claim to some kind of title given his extensive contributions. Alas, Justine was quite vocal about her hatred of Oasis, so he didn’t have a chance at winnowing his way into the royal family. Speaking of Mr. Gallagher. . . the critics consistently blasted him for plagiarism (T. Rex, The Beatles) but to this day still give Justine a pass on the blatant ripoffs that had to be settled out of court. Quietus: “Originality Be Damned: Elastica’s Albums Reappraised.” AV Club: “Elastica’s debut stole from the best, embodying Britpop while staying punk.” Pitchfork: “Elastica’s obvious appropriation of two male bands’ riffs looks like citation more than theft.” Erlewine on AllMusic: “Elastica’s debut album may cop a riff here and there from Wire or the Stranglers, yet no more than Led Zeppelin did with Willie Dixon or the Beach Boys with Chuck Berry.”
Erlewine’s “review” is part of another pattern I found: universal acclaim for Elastica without much to back it up. Here’s Erlewine in his limited view of entirety:
Elastica’s debut album may cop a riff here and there from Wire or the Stranglers, yet no more than Led Zeppelin did with Willie Dixon or the Beach Boys with Chuck Berry. The key is context. Elastica can make the rigid artiness of Wire into a rocking, sexy single with more hooks than anything on Pink Flag (“Connection”) or rework the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” into a more universal anthem that loses none of its punkiness (“Waking Up”). But what makes Elastica such an intoxicating record is not only the way the 16 songs speed by in 40 minutes, but that they’re nearly all classics. The riffs are angular like early Adam & the Ants, the melodies tease like Blondie, and the entire band is as tough as the Clash, yet they never seem anything less than contemporary. Justine Frischmann’s detached sexuality adds an extra edge to her brief, spiky songs — “Stutter” roars about a boyfriend’s impotence, “Car Song” makes sex in a car actually sound sexy, “Line Up” slags off groupies, and “Vaseline” speaks for itself. Even if the occasional riff sounds like an old wave group, the simple fact is that hardly any new wave band made records this consistently rocking and melodic.
Sounds to me like Erlewine has a fetish for name-dropping and a hard-on for Ms. Frischmann but I am no more informed about the music than I was before I started reading. I see he’s still hung up on New Wave years after that fake genre bit the dust. And “nearly all classics?” “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” sayeth I.
Even the Wikipedia author of the entry on Elastica gets into the act. After noting that the album went straight to #1 in the U.K. (true) and was the fastest-selling debut album since Definitely Maybe (also true), the author comments, “The record also did well (italics mine) in the US, climbing to a peak of number 66 on the Billboard 200 after 11 weeks on the chart.”
Wow! I’m going to take full advantage of that re-definition of “did well” straightaway! I’m very proud that I graduated 66th in my class, that my high school softball team was rated #66 in San Francisco and that I came in sixty-sixth in the Miss California pageant (I would have placed higher but one of my nipple clamps fell off during my dance routine). True story: my dad did better than Elastica, placing 64th out of 65 in a local battle of the bands.
Conclusion: The buzz is so over the top that it cannot be trusted.
Since the buzz focused almost entirely on Ms. Frischmann (understandable since she was the frontwoman and better at marketing herself to the press), and since she either wrote or had a hand in writing all of the songs on Elastica, any evaluation of Elastica’s music has to begin with her.
Honestly, I have no idea why both the media and the UK public found her so fascinating. Based on what I’ve read, she comes across as insufferably arrogant, mean-spirited and highly pretentious. In her Elastica role, she presents herself as a more artsy version of Sandy in Grease after she took up cigarettes, donned some leather and decided she was a greaser after all. Girls with attitude—“bad girls,” if you will—always present an irresistible challenge to horny males, and since most journalists and music critics are men, we can safely attribute at least part of her success to her “tough girl” aura.
While most of the glowing reviews were predictably male, the one that really put my knickers in a twist was Judy Berman’s retrospective review on Pitchfork. In addition to soft-pedaling the plagiarism issue and praising Justine for her “searing lyrics” (wut?) Ms. Berman celebrated Ms. Frischmann’s dismissal of the Riot Grrls and feminism in general:
Frischmann’s self-assured, aggressive yet not explicitly feminist persona was something new, even in an early-’90s rock landscape where powerful women were everywhere. She had no patience for the riot grrrl movement. Like its male critics, she took issue with many of the associated bands’ rudimentary musicianship. “It seems stupid to me to be in a band if you’ve no actual talent or gift for it,” she told Select. But Frischmann’s objection to the movement was more personal: “A lot of the riot grrrl bands I’ve seen have made me feel ashamed to be a girl.”
Female identity, in general, held little appeal for Frischmann. Unlike her contemporaries Liz Phair, Courtney Love, Tori Amos, Polly Jean Harvey, and Salt-N-Pepa—all of whom brought rare, explicitly female perspectives to their male-dominated genres and scenes—she had little interest in enumerating the highs and lows of womanhood. “We’re not writing songs for women or things women might feel,” she explained to Manning. “We try not to marginalize ourselves.”
There has always been a sharp philosophical divide between women artists whose work is explicitly feminist, or at least openly concerned with representing the female experience, and women artists who would prefer to be thought of simply as artists. “As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag,” Patti Smith, one of the latter camp’s most notable members, once famously opined. The riot grrrls’ approach to female agency has won out in 21st-century pop culture. That may well be for the best, but it’s still worth stepping outside that relatively new progressive orthodoxy for long enough to remember that refusing to be defined by your gender can also be a revolutionary act.
Idiots like Ms. Berman and Ms. Frischmann sound very much like the morons who declared that the United States had entered a post-racial period once Obama was elected president. How’s that working out? I also wonder how the friends and families of all the trans people who have been murdered in the last decade would react to the Berman-Frischmann declaration of a post-gender society. What we have here are two broads in denial, heads firmly planted up their asses in an attempt to court the favor of the patriarchy. “I don’t want to be seen as a woman” ignores the simple reality that NEARLY EVERYONE ON THE PLANET WILL DEFINE YOU BY YOUR DICKLESSNESS AND THAT DEFINITION HAS MANY ADVERSE CONSEQUENCES.
Ms. Frischmann’s head-up-her-ass orientation is clearly evident in the lyrics on Elastica. “Searing” is certainly not the word I would use . . . “simpering” comes closer . . . “dick-teasing” is probably most accurate, but some are just out-and-out cruel and nearly all are suggestive to the point of meaninglessness. “In the same way I think a partly clothed body is sexier than a naked one, it’s more interesting to do a partially cloaked lyric than a blatant one,” Frischmann told Rolling Stone in 1995, giving herself a convenient out for her gibberish. As for the music, Justine Frischmann had a lot of nerve to attack the Riot Grrls for their musicianship, as Elastica was really nothing more than a very average post-punk band trying to peddle themselves as some kind of Britpop reincarnation of the Velvet Underground. The truth is Elastica is neither original (see plagiarism, above) nor musically adventurous.
And no, Ms. Berman, Justine Fleischmann’s persona was nothing new. Coquettes have been applying their talents for centuries. Just because this one wore black, played guitar and adopted an attitude of superiority doesn’t make her any less of a flirt.
Just to put this review in perspective, my favorite 1995 album was Rancid’s “. . . And Out Come the Wolves,” an album a hundred times as ferocious as Elastica. I have no qualms when it comes to rough, kick-ass music, as Elastica is purported to supply. I will now proceed to review each song on the album, putting aside my feelings about Ms. Frischmann and giving her a fair shot. Having given positive reviews to several Oasis albums, I have conclusively proven that I can put aside my feelings about asshole lead singers when evaluating their work.
Blow-by Blow Review
“Line Up”: This was one of the singles that preceded the album, spending a grand total of three weeks on the charts and topping out at #20. I’m surprised it hung on that long—the mix is terrible, with the low-fi guitar distortion drowning out the lead vocal. The rhythm section of Annie Holland (bass) and Justin Welch hold up their end of the bargain, but what the fuck was the point of those carefully-timed grunts? Yeah, I love music that reminds me of someone chucking it all up in the loo. The chorus is probably the best part of the song, with Donna Matthews’ harmony helping to make the listener aware of the existence of something resembling a melody.
In The Last Party, the allegedly “definitive” history of Britpop, John Harris commented, “‘Line Up’ was a brittle joke at the expense of some unnamed starstruck hanger-on, whose life revolved around the parade of groups who passed through the pages of the music papers. Its title came from Justine Frischmann’s wry observation that the press was in the habit of placing groups on its conveyor belt, well knowing that all but a few would quickly topple off.” With half the lyrics buried in the mix, you’d have a hard time discerning the subject matter without a lyric sheet. As it turns out, the attack on the “conveyor belt” is only covered in the chorus, whereas four verses are devoted to attacking the groupie Ms. Frischmann derogatorily labels “drivel head.” Though she attempts to mitigate her attack by referring to the drivel head as “another victim” of media manipulation, the amount of bile Ms. Fleischmann spews on an adolescent too young to know any better crosses the line into cruel excess, suggesting she was really pissed off at the girls who tried to get a piece of whichever pop star she was fucking. At the very least, Ms. Frischmann failed to display a whit of the emotional intelligence usually present in the female half of the species, but since she’s in denial about her own womanhood, her deficiency makes perfect sense.
“Annie”: Ah, that’s better. Though the lyrics are fathomable to insiders only, this exceedingly brief (1:14) tribute to Annie Holland is tight, powerful and pleasantly melodic—power pop, Britpop style. It’s also an only-in-Britpop experience—Jane Oliver (Graham Coxon’s love interest) helped with the writing and now we know where Damon Albarn came up with the idea to insert the term “Jackanory” into “Country House.”
“Connection”: I remember hearing this song on FM radio back in the mid-90s and loving it for the powerful bass and nasty guitars and hating it for those goddamn grunts. The opening riff was clearly stolen from The Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba,” but rather than attack Elastica for their unethical act of ripping off a valuable contribution to music history, I will attack them for their incredible stupidity and lack of imagination. The riff is a simple two-note pattern that a hundred thousand guitarists have probably stumbled on while fucking around on the fretboard. It would have taken twenty minutes and not a whole lot of brainpower to come up with a suitable alternative that worked with the chords Elastica attached to the riff.
Legal issues aside, the music is irresistibly sexy in a suggestive sort of way, with the libido-tickling reaching its peak during the stop-time harmony-enhanced vocal on the phrase “a connection is made.” The lyrics contain some memorable and euphonious phrases but you’d be hard-pressed to find any cohesive meaning beyond the mistaken but ubiquitous belief that getting into a relationship compromises one’s rights as an individual. Ms. Fleischmann’s vocal is one of her best on the album, drenched in the attitude that made her so attractive to the British listening public.
“Car Song”: I’ll give this one an A+ for the retro background harmonies (though they’d fit better on a train song), a C for Justine Fleischmann’s kittenish vocal that caused Erlewine’s willie to go all a-tingle and an F for the nudge-nudge-wink-wink lyrics.
“Smile”: Oh! The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that accompany romance with rock idols! Jealousy so strong that judgment cannot cure! Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty! Hark! Who’s there? What, ho! My love! Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say “ay,” and I will take thy word. Take thou my sloppy seconds!
For those of you playing at home, name the four Shakespearean works cited above, a task that will ply you with far more satisfaction than listening to this dumb ass song.
“Hold Me Now”: One of the more musically interesting songs is compromised by sloppy, laid-back, oh-so-artsy performances by everyone in the band with the sole exception of Annie Holland. She’s a damned good bassist.
This is one of two songs where Justine plays the dominatrix, and frankly, she’s not very good at it. A big part of her schtick is demeaning the submissive (“I’d take somebody else if I could”). This is the unsophisticated kindergarten-level form of domination popular with wealthy executives whose psyches are riddled with privilege-generated guilt so they go see a dom for punishment so they can feel better about inflicting sadism on their subordinates.
“S. O. F. T.”: According to Donna Matthews, the initials stand for Same Old Fucking Thing. To drive that message home, Donna gives us the same old fucking dissonant-and-spacy guitar patterns that seem to be her go-to when she hits the limits of her severely limited riff repertoire. The song appears to be yet another in a long line of anothers where rock musicians bitch about the meaninglessness of their quest for fame and recognition then immediately write songs in the hope of gaining fame and recognition.
“Indian Song”: This one resembles many a song from the thankfully brief Maharishi era where acts like Donovan, The Beatles and the usual host of others attempted to enlighten the masses with a dose of spiritual awakening. And how about these searing lyrics!
If you want to,
Then you’ve got to
Let it show,
It is waiting,
It is waiting.
If you want to,
Then you’ve got to
Let it go . . .
I’m not feeling a eureka moment.
“Blue”: You asked for it—well, you’ve got it! Another opening with amp buzz! Pixies soft-Loud! Throw in a few punk licks! Harmonize because that’s what girls do! More searing lyrics!
Come down here and I’ll show you the wrong way
Try to rearrange this tired old line
Connect this smile and keep it standard
And reflective, blue
I can read your mind,
If you want to
I will let you blue.
I can read your mind,
I will let you
If you want to.
“All-Nighter”: I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album with two songs devoted to male impotence and consequent female frustration. As I don’t want to be seen as piling on, I’ll save most of my comments on this curious theme for the second song, but I can’t help but point out that there is only one common denominator in both songs, and that would be the person who wrote the lyrics and can’t figure out why guys aren’t getting it up for her.
“Waking Up”: The “Oh For Fuck’s Sake Award” goes to this plagiarized piece of shit lauded by the critics. Here’s the Wikipedia consensus:
“Waking Up” received positive reviews from music critics. Louise Gray called it “magnificent”. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic wrote that the song “rework[ed] the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” into a more universal anthem that loses none of its punkiness”. In his review of the single, Jack Rabid wrote that “Waking Up” is a “great song” that “sounds like Wire covering the Stranglers, with a sharp female singer. = Music & Media wrote: “The A-track is not only loud but definitely a song too, stretchable to more than just the alternative format.”
Wow! It’s “definitely a song, too!” Gotta get my hands on this one!
The song’s story: “I’m a privileged white asshole who finds it so haahd to get up in the morning, dahling, and ‘if I can’t be a star I won’t get out of bed.'”
On behalf of all the sincere and serious musicians who work hard and their craft and whose talents are often ignored by the media-mesmerized public, I say fuck you, Justine Frischmann.
“2:1”: The opening passage featuring Justin Welch on drums and Annie Holland’s bass is the best musical passage on the entire album. Unfortunately, Donna “single-tone” Matthews steps in and buries the rhythm section with the same old fucking thing, leading to a robotic vocal with nonsensical lyrics. Eventually, everything is buried in the mix, resulting in one big pile of electrified goo.
“See That Animal”: A song so thoroughly awful that I refuse to waste any energy on an explanation.
“Stutter”: I find this song deeply offensive on two counts. First, applying the title “Stutter” to a song that in part makes fun of a guy who can’t get it up has the implication that people who stutter are equally valid targets for verbal abuse. Secondly, responding to a flaccid member with accusatory taunting, interrogation and psychological noise is the least effective way to inspire a hard one:
Is there something you lack
When I’m flat on my back
Is there something that I can do for you?
It’s always something you hate
Or it’s something you ate
Tell me is it the way that I touch you?
Have you found a new mate?
And is she really great?
Is it just that I’m much too much for you?
The arrogance of that last line is a backhanded way of saving her own self-esteem. As the blogger/author Stonekettle has said repeatedly about the Trump administration, “No more self-awareness than a dog licking its ass in public.”
And zero emotional intelligence.
“Never Here”: This is Justine trying to cash in on her intimate relations with Britpop stars by writing a song about her eventual dissatisfaction with Brett Anderson. Musically, it’s one of the more cohesive pieces on the album thanks to the strength of the rhythm section, but . . . since she doesn’t mention Mr. Anderson by name, who leaked the backstory to the press?
“Vaseline”: In yet another burst of critical laziness, Erlewine wrote, “‘Vaseline’ speaks for itself.” Oh, really? Here are the lyrics in their entirely:
When you’re stuck like glue, Vaseline
When you need some goo
When you’re stuck like glue, Vaseline
When you’re black and blue, Vaseline
When you’re stuck like glue
Give me some
When you’re stuck like glue
If you’d like to woo, Vaseline
If it’s hot like you
Give me some
Do you need a clue
I want some Vaseline, Vaseline, Vaseline, Vaseline, Vaseline, Vaseline
Obviously the man has never engaged in sodomy . . . but then I’m not sure Justine has. If a dick is stuck between the cheeks, how the hell are you going to squeeze the Vaseline into the anal cavity? And if you tried to slip it in without any lubricant, well, you’re an idiot who deserves to be thoroughly embarrassed when the EMT’s arrive to pull your dick out of the fire.
Superficial sexual titillation, nudge-nudge-wink-wink.
It took four years and a few band changes for Elastica to finally release a second album (Menace). As creativity wasn’t one of their strong suits, this is hardly surprising. A couple of decades later, Justine Frischmann shared her regrets about the second album and claimed that Elastica should have been a “one-album project.”
That’s one album too many in my book. Elastica wins my award for Most Overrated Britpop Album by a landslide.
P. S. if you find yourself pissed off at what you consider to be my complete idiocy, please read my essay, “The Truth About Beets” before you comment.
The management thanks you, and have a happy new year.
One of my most memorable Christmas moments happened when I unwrapped the gift from my father to find Bobby Sherman’s puss surrounded by a cheesy-looking wreath drawn by the junior assistant graphic artist intern at Craig Braun, Inc.
As mentioned somewhere in my musical babblings, my socialist-activist family has a long-standing agreement that the price of any single Christmas gift given to a fellow family member shall not exceed twenty-five U.S. dollars (now 30 €). We spend most of the Christmas budget on donations to various charities, usually to those providing services to the homeless, the hungry and domestic violence victims as well as a variety of environmental causes.
When you’ve only got 25 bucks to spend, your gift selection has to be inspired. The best gifts are either personally meaningful, capable of triggering riotous laughter, or both. A good example is a gift my mother gave to my father one year after his fantasy baseball team spent nearly every day of the season mired in last place: a statuette of a horse’s ass with the pedestal legend, WORST MANAGER OF THE CENTURY. It was personally meaningful because my dad put a lot of effort into creating the shittiest fantasy team in history and he was humble enough to break out in riotous laughter when he opened the gift. When my parents moved to Nice, my father refused to entrust the shipping company with his statuette and placed it in his carry-on luggage, surrounded in bubble wrap.
Sadly, I didn’t know how to react when I found myself in possession of Bobby Sherman’s Christmas Album. Was it a joke or was I supposed to be deeply moved? Should I weep tears of gratitude or feign hideous laughter? Finally, I gave up.
“I don’t get it, Dad.”
“You’ve been immersing yourself in pop culture, right? Well, you won’t find a better representative of pop culture than Bobby Sherman.”
A little background is necessary here. I wasn’t too keen on the flimsy, rah-rah, America-is-the-greatest-country-ever version of history they taught in public schools, but I was very curious about how our entertainment-centric culture came to pass. Grounding my search for knowledge in the common wisdom that identified television as the primary driver of cultural change, I started binging on television reruns and hanging out at the library poring over back issues of TV Guide. Soon I figured out that the intersection of television and popular music was a very significant development (see Presley, Elvis; Beatles, The; Monkees, The), so I wound up researching that angle as well.
In my rather haphazard, follow-any-lead-that-looks-promising approach to research, I stumbled onto Bobby Sherman. I learned that Bobby was the house singer on a pops show called Shindig, became something of a heartthrob after landing a part on a show called Here Come The Brides and capitalized on his rising fame by releasing a string of pop hits like “Easy Come, Easy Go.” Given that there was no YouTube in the primitive 1990s and that neither show had yet to make it to VHS—and not having the money to waste on a CD by an artist whose discography didn’t seem particularly compelling—I decided to end my exploration of Bobby Sherman, writing him off as a relatively insignificant blip in the timeline (like Tiny Tim or The Partridge Family).
Dad had no idea I’d already crossed Bobby Sherman off my to-do list when he bought that present, so I found myself in something of a pickle. I think I managed one of those wan smiles that Eugene Levy did so well on Schitt’s Creek when he tried to make contact with the local Neanderthals and said, “Thanks, Dad.”
“Let’s listen to it.”
That suggestion filled me with dread, but maman saved me by reminding him that he hadn’t opened his gifts yet. Little boy that he is and will always be, he eagerly turned his attention to his goodies and forgot all about poor Bobby.
A couple of days later I listened to Christmas Album in the privacy of my boudoir. To be completely candid, I thought it was bloody fucking awful. I noted that Bobby had a hard time hitting the right notes on the “rock” songs, as if he was trying to throw some blue notes into the mix without really understanding what a blue note was. He seemed to put more effort into getting the slower and sacred stuff right, but he still didn’t knock my socks off. A couple of tracks were downright horrid, as I shall explain in the review. At this stage in my life, I was drowning myself in hardcore punk and trying very hard to become the best slut I could be, so in fairness to Bobby, I probably wasn’t his target demographic. Bobby Sherman was all about good clean fun, and his nice was not going to work with my naughty.
A funny thing happened the next day—I woke up with Bobby Sherman songs playing in my head. At first, I was tempted to chalk it off to post-traumatic stress syndrome but when I found myself humming along to the vague memory of one of the tunes, I decided there might be more to Bobby Sherman than I thought.
I followed up on that hunch after the new year. One morning I hopped on the J car on Church, got off on Market, navigated my way past a pile of used needles at the exit near the Safeway and walked the rest of the way through a light rain to the new library building in the Civic Center. I made my way to one of the information desks, where I waited in line for the forty-something matron to finish helping a patron. When I saw that she kept her hair in place with bobby pins, I knew I had come to the right place.
“Hi, I want to look at everything you have on Bobby Sherman but I’m not sure if I should start in the book stacks or—”
At the mention of the words “Bobby Sherman” her matronly visage magically transformed into the fawning face of a teenager in love. “Bobby Sherman! Oh, my, I had such a crush on him and those blue eyes of his! You know, he just came out with his memoirs so you might want to check if we have it—oh my, Bobby Sherman! Such a wonderful man!” She went on about seeing him in concert and actually getting his autograph and would have gone on forever but there was a line of people behind me and I didn’t want to be the cause of getting her ass fired while she was in the throes of Bobbymania, so I slowly backed off, nodding and smiling in appreciation and thanking her for the info.
The library didn’t have the memoir, but a few months later I managed to borrow a copy from the mother of one of my friends, who cradled the book in her hands, gazed longingly at the cover, expressed her devotion with the same intense fervor of the library lady and reluctantly parted with the book while warning me to keep it in mint condition if I valued my life. I’m happy to report that I took very good care of the book, and combined with other information I gathered from various sources, I formed a very clear picture of one Robert Cabot Sherman Jr.
Bobby Sherman was (and is) a really nice guy.
His entertainment career was scandal-free. In all the time he spent in the decadent entertainment center of the universe (that would be Los Angeles), there is no evidence that he ever dropped acid or snorted cocaine. His first marriage ended in divorce, but you never heard a nasty word from Bobby about his ex, even after she hooked up with his Here Come the Brides castmate David Soul. There are no stories of narcissistic tantrums, no beefs with directors or fellow actors, no complaints from the musicians he worked with. All through his years in the spotlight, he was exceptionally respectful of and attentive to his fans, often expressing sincere gratitude for their undying support. As his career faded, instead of kicking back and living off his riches, he trained to become an Emergency Medical Technician and then volunteered with the LAPD, training officers and paramedics in CPR in addition to saving lives. In the period following my initial study of Shermanology, Bobby remarried and together with his new wife Brigitte, opened the Brigitte and Bobby Sherman Children’s Foundation:
The BBSCF is a Ghana-based youth center dedicated to blending music and education together. The mission of the BBSCF is to provide children in Ghana with quality education and the tools needed to succeed. Our goal is to prepare and motivate children at the BBSCF to continue their education after high school and to allow them to experience the magic of expressing themselves through music.
Needless to say, I had a hard time getting my head around Bobby Sherman. At the time I did the research I was seriously into Oasis and had a terrible crush on Liam Gallagher. I can’t say “Bobby Sherman” and “Liam Gallagher” in the same sentence without choking! Bobby Sherman is the alt-alt-alt-universe version of Liam Gallagher! Liam Gallagher is the Brillo pad to Bobby Sherman’s soft and fluffy Downy-scented sheets!
Bottom line: I was a horny teen who spent her weekdays longing for the bruises I’d collect in the mosh pits on weekends. I liked the abrasive. I liked the rough stuff. I liked the dark and the light, and in trying to get my head around Bobby Sherman, all I could see was light. My verdict was that Bobby Sherman was simply too good to be true, a conclusion reached despite mounds of evidence that proved otherwise.
OMG! I was a teenage Trump!
The denouement of yet another one of my overly-long introductions is this: I re-listened to Christmas Album several times and finally figured out what I found so appealing about Bobby Sherman: the lack of pretense. He sounds like he’s giving an honest effort and having a good time doing so. Although his ambiguous style that lies somewhere between pop and easy listening isn’t really my bag and though there are clearly some tracks on the album that flat out don’t work, Bobby Sherman has had a major influence on my family’s extended Christmas celebration, especially when it’s time to do the tree-trimming.
No one is allowed to put one fucking ornament on that tree until the first sounds of the Christmas Album blast through the speakers.
About that album cover . . . Craig Braun was the guy responsible for the peelable banana cover on The Velvet Underground and Nico as well as the zipper on Sticky Fingers, so it’s obvious that Braun had decided that a super clean seriously uncool teen idol like Bobby Sherman wasn’t worth a scrap of his innovative energy. For Braun, this was one of those jobs you take to pay the bills and keep the office open.
That little sidebar contains an important lesson to those of you in the audience who wish to explore Bobby Sherman’s Christmas Album: leave your artistic snobbery at the door. You can’t appreciate a completely unpretentious guy like Bobby Sherman unless you surrender your own pretense. Bobby Sherman wasn’t trying to create art, he was trying to make music that made people happy and helped them forget about their troubles for a while.
With that lens firmly in place, allow me to guide you through the eleven tracks that make up the Christmas Album.
“Jingle Bell Rock”: I’ve always thought this song qualified as false advertising, as it really isn’t a rock song. The Bobby Helms original has a slight rockabilly influence thanks to the guitar, but Helms was one of those country singers who attempted to straddle the line between country and rock to appeal to the teens who were gobbling up anything labeled rock during the mid-50’s.
Bobby’s take is certainly more exuberant, though hampered by a cornball arrangement featuring horns and strings and a horrid ensemble of backup singers who took their cues from the Ray Conniff Singers, the vocal group that ruined many a recording during their inexplicably lengthy run. The only people rocking on this track are the unnamed drummer and Bobby himself, who manages a few husky growls to compensate for more than a few missed notes. Despite the missing pieces (no guitar or audible piano) and the obvious missteps, Bobby’s energy carries the day, bringing smiles to my family of tree-trimmers year in and year out.
“Christmas on Her Mind”: Bob Lind of “Elusive Butterfly” fame wrote this piece about an optimistic, innocent, see-the-good-in-everything-and-everybody maiden, but if you change the gender, his depiction comes damned close to describing none other than Bobby Sherman:
She’s an outbound mellow downed easy
feet on garden grounds sunny weather good time child
She’s got a sweet warm break the storm custom
tailored angel form unrestricted open smile
Everyone around her is hung up with space and time
Still she stays a bright eyed child
With Christmas on her mind . . .
Bobby’s vocal is appropriately mellow and restrained in keeping with classic Bob Lind vibes, supported by banjo, bass and drums. Producer Ward Sylvester makes a game attempt to integrate newfangled recording techniques, but pretty much blows it by assigning heavy reverb to both the vocal and the backing track, shoving everyone to the back of the studio and requiring the listener to crank up the volume to hear the lyrics. Unfortunately, “Christmas on My Mind” is not the only track on the album where “special effects” are used to make Bobby seem more hip and relevant, and all of them are complete failures. The failure here is particularly puzzling because the song is perfectly suited for Bobby’s voice, so there was no need to gussy it up.
“Blue Christmas”: I hate to be sacrilegious, but I’ve never cared for Elvis Presley’s take on this song—it sounds like a self-parody of his stylistic emphasis on bottom notes (later mimicked by Shakin’ Stevens in his shot as an Elvis impersonator). It’s likely that Elvis based his version on Billy Eckstine’s attempt, which has the virtue of greater lyrical clarity but none of the harmonic magic displayed by the Jordanaires. I do like the mournful fiddle in Doye O’Dell’s original but I’m not too fond of the harmonies, and while I love the steel guitar on Ernest Tubb’s hit version, Ernest doesn’t sound particularly broken up about having to spend Christmas without his honey by his side. The Beach Boys’ attempt at this song can be summed up in one word: ridiculous.
All this Goldilocks stuff means that Bobby had a clear shot to top them all but sadly came up a bit short. He sings with genuine sincerity but there just isn’t enough oomph in his voice to express the deeper, bluesier aspects of having to spend Christmas all by one’s lonesome.
“Love’s What You’re Gettin’ for Christmas”: We return to the faux-rock Bobby with a sprightly little number that practically begs for a carefully choreographed dance routine—and I came very close to developing one a couple of years after receiving the gift of Bobby Sherman, only to be foiled at the last minute by my mother.
To help you appreciate the brilliance of my original concept, let me share the first two verses with you:
How do you go about
Tyin’ a bow about love?
Where is a package sold
So big that it’ll hold love?
Love’s what you’re gettin’ for Christmas
That’s what you’re gettin’ from me
Only thing I wonder
How to get it under your tree Christmas morning
Can’t write to Santa and
Just ask the man to send love
No shop to drop in for last-minute shoppin’ for love
Love’s what you’re gettin’ for Christmas
Christmas morning you’ll see
A beautiful present of love wrapped up in me
I won’t delve too far into the details but the nascent idea for my performance at the annual Irish-side of the family Christmas bash involved wrapping myself in a huge gift box wearing a leather bow tie and fishnets, then launching into a lyrically-sensitive dance routine leading to a thrilling finish where the box falls away and there I am in nothing but a mini-hula-skirt of red-and-green streamers with matching pasties covering my nipples.
I thought it was a great idea. My mother thought I would give my grandfather a heart attack, and that was that. I don’t know if I would have given Bobby Sherman a coronary but I bet a million dollars he would have blushed.
Bobby gives a performance similar to that of “Jingle Bell Rock,” with his enthusiasm interfering with his ability to stick to the notes. His ability to communicate that he’s having the time of his life overcomes any defects, and though the lyrics are as corny as corny can get, I always get up to dance to this song during the tree-trimming, keeping it clean and tame so I don’t wind up killing my father.
“Christmas Wish”: This is kind of the Wonder bread, poor-me version of “Blue Christmas,” which makes sense because it was written by Bobby Goldsboro, peddler of the unbelievably self-pitying “See the Funny Little Clown” and the dreadfully sappy worldwide smash hit “Honey,” where he sings about the strange disappearance of his wife at the hands of a gang of kidnapper angels. The girl doesn’t croak in this piece, but simply chooses to spend her Christmas with someone other than one of the two Bobbies. The Sherman edition of Bobby sounds appropriately sad, the sadness communicated in his lower voice and obvious restraint.
“Amen”: Oh, man. Bobby decided to go up against two fairly definitive renditions of this song, one featuring the gorgeous harmonies of The Impressions and the other more widely-disseminated performance of Jester Hairston on behalf of Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. This is a spiritual, and Bobby’s overwhelming enthusiasm comes across as more rah-rah than spiritual. He sounds too much like an evangelical preacher getting people all worked up so he can steal their money. Since we all know that Bobby Sherman wouldn’t do that, his performance works on exactly zero levels.
“Prologue”: This is a kinda sorta intermission structured as follows: a vocal group reminiscent of Alvin and the Chipmunks sings a verse from “Jingle Bells,” and each verse is followed by a satiric advertisement. The advertisements include:
- Stench Mouthwash, to prevent the bad breath of shopping mall Santas from ruining your child’s Christmas experience
- A loan shark offering cash to help youse guys troo the holidays (mob accent performed by Bobby)
- Cloud Nine Tablets to help you reduce the stress that comes with the season
- Santa’s Playground Used Car Lot with acres of decorations and used cars at bargain basement prices
The piece ends with the chipmunks going dissonant and the lead chipmunk moaning, “What’s the use?” Bobby designed and arranged the piece, which does a semi-effective job of bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas but falls short of producing the humorous effect I think he intended. I always remember to remove it from the playlist before we trim the tree as it spoils the jollity of the moment.
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”: Ugh. I never bought into the Santa Claus bullshit. One of my earliest memories is of my dad explaining how Santa was going to climb down the chimney and bring me and all the children in the whole wide world all kinds of presents. I responded by asking two very logical questions. “Why doesn’t he just knock at the front door like everyone else?” and “What about Sandy? She doesn’t have a chimney.” My dad couldn’t answer either question and switched gears in an attempt to sell me on flying reindeer but by then I’d pretty much tuned out.
I have no idea why this song is eternally popular. Essentially it describes a creep who spies on children while serving as judge and jury of childhood crime. Jolly old bloke, my ass. Santa’s a goddamned fascist.
This is another “rock” arrangement very similar to the other “rock” arrangements, improved somewhat by the presence of a piano. Bobby sings it as well as anyone has, I guess.
“Yesterday’s Christmas”: The second original composition on the album is delivered in narrative form, with Bobby recalling memories of Christmas past . . . or so he claims:
I can remember the Christmases I’ve seen
By the things that most people know
With fresh pine tree smells, songs like ‘Jingle Bells’
Going for sleigh rides in the snow
The problem with that “memory” is Bobby Sherman spent his childhood in the greater Los Angeles area. Oh! Maybe he meant palm trees. Simple mistake—anyone could confuse those two trees. After all, they look so much alike with all that . . . bark.
I suppose it’s possible that his family spent the holidays in the San Gabriel Mountains or the lower Sierras, but to my ears it sounds like what he remembers is the myth of Christmas as perpetrated by Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin in “White Christmas.”
He does come up with one good line that is geographically consistent, “The streets of the city became a crystal charm.” What I find most curious about the performance is his apparent lack of enthusiasm for his own creation. He’s usually more expressive than what he offers here.
“Christmas Is (Make It Sweet)”: If you liked the segment on the show when Andy Williams hung out with the Osmond Brothers, you’ll love this little number featuring Bobby coaching two little boys in the art of singing and then joining with them for a finale of sorts. The difference is that the Osmond Brothers were professionals who knew how to hit the notes and these little whoopers are anything but. Nonetheless, they give it their all and Bobby gives them very supportive feedback.
The best part of the song comes when the kids are leaving the studio and Bobby appends his Christmas blessings with a bit of wisdom: “And if we remember that all gifts we give are given in love, we’ll have a very merry Christmas.”
America would be in a much better space right now if Bobby Sherman had become the ultimate male role model in the ’70s instead of brain-dead macho losers like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson.
“A Song of Joy (Himno A La Alegria)”: For those of you who haven’t already figured it out, this is an adaptation of the vocal segment known as “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth. The piece was originally arranged by Waldo de los Rios and turned into a worldwide hit by Spanish actor and singer Miguel Rios, an early contributor to rock ‘n’ roll in Franco’s Spain. Bobby’s version came out only a few months after Miguel’s, a pretty ballsy move that had to invite comparisons.
Though he replaces the attention-grabbing symphonic introduction that marked Miguel’s effort with a rather dull and dreamy flute-centric preamble, it’s clear from the get-go that Bobby is on top of his game, delivering his strongest vocal on the album. His approach is gentle and serene on the opening verses, reflecting a quiet faith in the ability of the human race to come together in love and understanding. As the song progresses, Bobby delivers his lines with heartfelt passion and greater power, more than holding his own over the full orchestra and chorus. It is clear from the effort and passion he displays that he loved the song and its message of universal brotherhood (I’ll give him a pass on the sexist language):
Come, sing a song of joy for peace shall come, my brother
Sing, sing a song of joy for men shall love each other
That day will dawn just as sure as hearts that are pure are hearts set free
No man must stand alone with outstretched hand before him
Reach out and grasp it in yours with love and clasp it in yours for ever more
Then sing a song of joy for love and understanding
While I admit that Bobby Sherman’s music isn’t exactly my cup of tea, I look forward to our annual reunion with great anticipation. Christmas has taken on so many meanings over the years—religious, secular, commercial—that we sometimes lose sight of what I believe is the central meaning of Christmas: above all, it is the season for giving. It’s the time where we express our appreciation of the people we love through gifts and get-togethers, and it’s also the time when people are most open to reaching out and grasping the hands of the less fortunate. And though I cherish the timeless beauty of Charlotte Church singing “O Holy Night,” listening to Bobby Sherman’s Christmas Album helps me connect with the essential meaning of Christmas—and thinking about how he’s chosen to live his life reminds me that the season for giving doesn’t have to end on December 26.