Friday, August 18, 2006
ABF Friday: Now Hear This edition!
In the course of 28 hours in the family car (12 hours to St. Louis each way, plus stops), one thinks all kinds of thoughts, mostly about music. For the most part, we alternate between the music of the parents and the music of the children, though (as you may have gathered by now) these categories overlap considerably, because Janet wants to hear Blur and I want to hear Franz Ferdinand and Jamie’s listening to the Beatles and Nick is playing Joy Division’s Closer for me in the Indiana darkness because he insists that it’s at once “really good” and “unlistenable for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch.” He pointed out that Stephen Morris’s drumming on the record really isn’t bad, which is true, though I still don’t forgive Morris for mucking up a perfectly fine song like “Transmission” with all manner of truculent nonsense, from his busy-busy sixteenth notes to his inexplicable refusal to accent “dance, dance, dance” with triplets on the snare. And that led to a discussion of how the DIY-“anybody can play” aesthetic of the era obscured the fact that most of the drummers of the day were pretty damn fine musicians. John Maher of the Buzzcocks and Clem Burke of Blondie were notorious overplayers, sure, but when they keep themselves in check and play tastefully and inventively (Maher on “Ever Fallen in Love,” say, or Burke for all but the last few seconds of “11:59"), they are wondrous to hear. Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, D. J. Bonebrake of X, and of course Pete Thomas of the Attractions . . . these guys could play, people. The outliers, of course, are Chris Franz of the Talking Heads and Topper Headon of the Clash. The Bérubé jury was hung over whether Stewart Copeland, by far the Class of 79’s most attentive and accomplished student of reggae, really counted as part of this group, and our verdict on the Pretenders’ Martin Chambers was “competent but uninteresting.” Except for “Precious,” “Tattooed Love Boys,” and “The Wait,” where he plays fast and pretty clean.
But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today! We’re here to talk about Opening and Closing Statements.
The first song on This Year’s Model is “No Action.” (This by way of explanation for you iPod kids out there.) From the first verse, it is clear that Mr. Costello has taken the work of his debut album to the Next Level, and the agent of clarity is Pete Thomas Himself, whose startling drumming announces that we are in for something brittle and nervy and frantic and unpredictable. The album closes, of course, with one of the most stunning one-two punches in all of rocnrol, “Lipstick Vogue” and “Radio Radio.” Let me tell you kids, back in ‘78 we would listen to that record again and again, and it would leave us drained and gasping every single time. And yes, the songwriting is first-rate, but the drumming is something well beyond that, something of a higher order of being altogether.
OK, now switch gears for a moment, and put on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Different sound, different feel, different everything . . . but that opening song is also, quite clearly, an Opening Statement, issued not so much by that party chatter or that sweet horn as by the brilliant and eccentric backing vocals with which Mr. Gaye provides himself throughout the song. Those vocals, from the subtle layers of oohs/ aahs to the doubling of the lyrics by that second voice in the second verse, constitute the chorus that make it clear not only that Marvin Gaye is no longer too busy thinkin’ ‘bout his baby and ain’t got time for nothin’ else, but also that the social conscience on display is, somehow, not Gaye’s alone. (Meanwhile, the wonderful, almost floating bass line assures us, particularly in that cascading run at the end of the first verse, that we will stay in the groove in the midst of all our troubles.) The Closing Statement consists of “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” which somehow combines a cry against Vietnam and trigger-happy policin’ with a complaint about the singer’s unfortunate tax situation. Not as electric as “Radio Radio,” perhaps, but as a “message” song it’s held up quite well, more for its ominous feel than for its specific lyrical content.
So here’s today’s Arbitrary But Fun exercise: what are some of the most effective opening and closing statements in the popular music canon?
Three qualifications to this question. One, no Beatles allowed. The Beatles were, among other things, exceptionally conscious of the opening/ closing dynamic, and before anyone cites that Pepper record at me, I hasten to point out that their very first album, opening with “I Saw Her Standing There” and closing with “Twist and Shout,” is just as invested in the opening/ closing effect as is their more “mature” work, right through McCartney’s savvy decision not to end their recording career with “The End.” Two, while avoiding the Beatles, one might also consider opening statements that are too self-conscious as opening statements, like Mr. McManus’s “I just don’t know where to begin” on Armed Forces and his followup self-conscious commentary on his alter-ego-consciousness in King of America’s “Brilliant Mistake.” And three, you could take note of the opposite strategy, the one preferred in the 1990s by, among others, Archers of Loaf (opening Vee Vee not with “Harnessed in Slums” but with the throwaway “Step into the Light”) and Liz Phair (opening Whip-Smart not with “Supernova” but with the droning “Chopsticks”): making an opening statement by not making an opening statement.
And now, if someone would be so kind as to take me to the bridge.