Archive | April, 2015

Certain Songs #178: The Cat Heads – “Victim”

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Album: Hubba!

Year: 1987.

It was the autumn of 1987, and I was going through the worst break-up of my life, so I decided to use my KFSR guest list privilege and go see a band called London Down play at the Oly Tavern. I don’t remember anything about them – and the internet is of no help whatsoever – but opening the bill was a San Francisco band called The Cat Heads, whose debut album Hubba! had been floating around the radio station for a couple of weeks.

However, I hadn’t played anything from

Hubba! –  even in 1987 there was an overwhelming amount of music to discover – so I didn’t know anything about The Cat Heads. Which made it that much better when I was totally and utterly blown away. As far as I was concerned, this was the first band I’d seen that reminded me of The Replacements: cocky and ragged and fun and sloppy and able to turn on a dime and break your heart while punching you in the face in order to steal that dime for a phone call.

So naturally, I immediately bought Hubba! and fell in love. What’s not to love: everybody wrote and sang: you never knew where the next song was coming from or what kind of song it would be. And while none of them were as good at songwriting as Paul Westerberg – because c’mon – the ragged rock ‘n’ roll spirit that I loved then and love now powered every single song on the record.

Like “Victim,” which is probably bassist Alan Korn’s punk rock ode to S&M or something, but I’ve literally spent the last 28 years grooving on Melanie Clarin’s big beat and the twin guitars of Mark Zanandrea & Sam Babbit crawling up and down the track and not really paying attention to the words. 

Well, except for the last chorus,

I don’t wanna cause no friction
But I’m just dying to be your victim

which has always reminded me of the Television song “Friction” despite having nothing whatsoever to do with it.

I guess that everybody has to have an obscure band that they love and can’t understand why that band is so obscure in the first place. And The Cat Heads are mine.

Fan-made video for “Victim”

“Victim” performed live at the Cat Heads reunion in San Francisco, 2006

Certain Songs #177: The Cat Burglars – “Song For Julie Newmar”

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Album: Meet The Cat Burglars.

Year: 1985.

About 30 years ago or so, a weird song just kinda showed up at my college radio station KFSR and became a unlikely hit. It was a tribute to Julie Newmar, who was one of the women who played Catwoman on the 1960s Batman TV series.  While it was received at the time as a novelty song, future rock historians have reassessed it as something much deeper.

One thing you have to remember about 1985: it was pretty much the last moment where that the 1966 TV series was the dominant cultural representation of Batman. (Even the Filmation cartoons took their cue from it, otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten that motherfucking Bat Mite.)  Frank Miller would put out The Dark Knight Returns the very next year, followed by the Tim Burton’s films, and Batman would grow ever darker.

However, in 1985, a Batman-oriented song by a band of deep thinkers who clearly loved that Batman TV series could still find a small audience.  And of course, “Song For Julie Newmar” had more than just lust for a Batman actress on its mind,as a deep dive into the lyrics will soon reveal. It’s actually a trenchant look at the price of fame and how it can twist our perceptions of the famous.

No one ever found out who The Cat Burglars really were: to the listening public, they were known only as Bob Feline, Jools Newmar and Anonymous.

Julie, can you hear me?
I can see you on TV
Hiding in the Batcave
Just 14 miles away

Of course, that opening line is a reference to The Who, but the rest of the verse raises. Is Bob Feline saying that Julie is on the Batcave’s TV, or he’s watching her on TV, hiding in the Batcave. The “14 miles away” is of course, the distance from the entrance of the Batcave to Gotham City. But everybody knows that.

Then you’re in the Twilight Zone
Sitting on your evil throne
Crank calls on the Batphone
And something’s in your hair.

This is a reference to the famous Twilight Zone episode “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” where Ms. Newmar played the Devil. Bob Feline has noticed the parallels in this role to her role as Catwoman, especially that in both of these roles, she’s got something sticking out of her hair: a costuming consistency that links the two characters in the minds of a generation.

Then, on the bridge, Feline observes:

Cat or devil, horns or ears
You call forth the greatest fears
Batman’s who you love and hate
I thought he was overweight

Who is this woman? That’s what Bob Feline wants to know. In his mind, she is both terrifying and alluring, but in a way, it doesn’t matter, because she’s clearly got only the Batman on her mind. Which pisses Bob Feline off, since Batman clearly needs to lay off the late night visits to Gotham’s Waffle House.

Dancing at the Pink Sandbox
Temporarily Woolite socks
You were better than Eartha or Lee
In fact, you still look good to me

Meanwhile, while generation after generation of Batman scholars puzzle over the hidden meaning of “temporarily Woolite socks” by pouring over Julie Newmar’s IMDB page – or maybe the socks she was dancing in at the Pink Sandbox were washed in Woolite, but who could know that? – the song shifts musically into a straight “Like a Rolling Stone” parody.

How does it feel?
To be a cat?
To be stared at?
To be caught by a bat?
To be far from flat?
2F3567!
Like a Batman villain
Like a Batman villain

Setting aside the dodgy-by-2015-standards “to be far from flat?” and the weird shouting of the Batmobile’s license plate number, these are all incredibly trenchant questions. What is the price of fame if you have play a cat? Or be caught by a guy in a bat suit? Is it too much? 

What is it like to be a Batman villain?

Can you even deal with the fact that you’re not even the only person to play that villain? And the world will rank you against the other people who played that villain forever? The whole world wants to know, Julie.

And the song shifts gears once again, going into the famous “Louie Louie” riff, as Bob Feline, now joined by his compatriots Jules Newmar and Anonymous, decides to make his move.

Julie, Julie, oooooohhhhh
I said, we gotta go now
Meow meow meow meow meow meow
Julie Julie, oooooooohhhh
I said, we gotta go now
Meowwwwwwwwwwwww

Why the meows? Some scholars think that the Cat Burglars are making fun of her for being cat caught by a bat, but I think that they they’re saying  “look, Julie, we can be cats too!!”  This is reinforced by as they stop the song cold so that Bob Feline can cosplay as Batman via The Troggs.

Catwoman, I think I love you
But I wanna know for sure

Then, the whole song falls apart for a second as there’s what sounds like a recording of a kitten locked in a bathroom, The Joker laughing,

a jealous Robin calling her a “hateful hussy. and the Penguin going “wak” “wak” “wak” in a desperate frenzy of just trying to get her attention before reprising the “Julie Julie” part as a round.

Did it work? History records that the photo with his post is allegedly Julie Newmar actually listening to “Song For Julie Newmar,” but of course The Cat Burglars themselves had a checkered history to say the least. While they had a couple of other minor songs – “Saturday Morning” and “Take a Walk (to The Litter Box”) – those seem to be lost to history, and besides this song, the only existing recording is a live concert on KFSR, where they sounded over-reverbed and under rehearsed.

I happened to have been around for that – in fact, it was one of the first times I ever played drums – and the problem was that The Cat Burglars, in order to protect their identities, wore cat masks the whole time. Even during rehearsals. The other musicians who backed them, Blake and Ross and Joseph, could probably testify how intransigent they were the whole time.

 And while Kirk & I tried to impress on them just how important a live radio broadcast could be to their career, they were far more wed to their concept, and stuck to wearing masks even while playing in a closed radio studio. Such, I guess, is the price of art.

That said, noone was surprised when they died soon afterwards, leaving this as their one legacy.

“Song For Julie Newmar” on Soundcloud

Certain Songs #176: The Cars – “All Mixed Up”

(But really, side two of The Cars.)

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Album: The Cars.

Year: 1978.

So just as “Just What I Needed” was a stand-in for the triptych of singles that introduced The Cars as the great singles band they would be throughout their entire career, “All Mixed Up” will be a stand-in for the songs on the second side that made The Cars the only great album they made in that career.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  side two of The Cars is one of the greatest artistic achievements of Western Civilization. And because I think of the four songs that comprise it as one single suite – a la Abbey Road or Dark Side of the Moon – I’m going to write about them all together.

With its phased-out drum opening, “love the one you’re with” lyrics and two long Elliott Easton guitar solos, “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” is probably the single most conventionally “rock” song on the whole record. But when the the “ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhs” kick in just before the chorus it’s also pop song nirvana, as is the moment between when it ends and “Bye Bye Love” begins as a jumble of drums and guitars.

Blink and you’ll miss that an entirely new song has started, until you realize that the tempo has dropped and the riff has gotten somewhat Beatlesque and and the lyrics somewhat surreal:

Substitution mass confusion
Clouds inside your head
Involving all my energies
Until you visited
With your eyes of porcelain and of blue
They shock me into sense
You think you’re so illustrious
You call yourself intense

The passion with which Benjamin Orr sings this the second time around totally negates that it just might be utter nonsense. Also negating any kind of reason you might want to bring to a song that steals its title from The Everly Brothers: Ocasek’s high harmonies on the big chorus.

 “Bye Bye Love” ends the same way it started – a jumble of drums and guitars – but also leaves us with a lone synthesizer announcing that we are moving into the future, for that is where we all shall live. And how are we moving into the future, you might ask? Why, in stereo!

With Ben Orr and David Robinson is such perfect lockstep that you barely notice that they’re fucking around with the beat, “Moving in Stereo” glides with such effortless technological cool – even 35 years later – that you might not even realize that it’s basically one riff repeated over and over and over and over again. 

But what a great riff! If that’s the reason that Greg Hawkes gets a songwriting credit, totally worth it.

And, finally, “All Mixed Up, which sealed the deal for me.  More so than the guitar solo in “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” or “Substitution / mass confusion / clouds inside your head!” in “Bye Bye Love” or the messing with the beat in “Moving in Stereo,” the entirety of “All Mixed Up” just slays me.

Starting with a quiet opening fading up from the final synth fade of “Moving in Stereo,” “All Mixed Up” slowly builds through the first verse until Orr utters the title phrase a few times, and it just explodes. For a moment. Then it pulls back.

And up and down and up and down it goes, with David Robinson never fully committing to a straight beat until – suddenly – a drum roll annoucing what I’ve always called “The Phil Spector part:”  

She says to leave it to me
And everything will be alright
She says to leave it to me
And everything will be alright

And as that big Phil Spector beat does battle with those Roy Thomas Baker harmonies leading into an especially terse Elliott Easton guitar solo, “All MIxed Up” finally shifts into fourth gear, and never lets up.

The end, where the bring back the Phil Spector part one more time only to layer instrument upon instrument (even a sax solo) over it, “All Mixed Up” sounds like the Last Pop Song of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Era. It wasn’t, of course, but it sure feels like that’s what they were going for.

Side two of The Cars was like nothing else I’d ever heard and yet instantly familiar. It didn’t change my life – but it opened me up to the possibility of my life changing.

“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight performed live in 1978

Fan-made video for “Bye Bye Love”

Fan-made video for “Moving in Stereo”

Fan-made video for “All Mixed Up”

All of the songs I’ve written about

Certain Songs #175: The Cars – “Just What I Needed”

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Album: The Cars.

Year: 1978.

Has there ever been anything more precise than “Just What I Needed”?? From the guitar & drum crashes on the opening, to how the instruments build during the first verse, and then the introduction of Greg Hawkes’ synthesiser hook where you would expect the chorus to be.

It’s that synth hook, of course, that grabs you. Once it enters your head, it never goes away, and it shows up during the back half of the rest of the verses just to remind you who the boss of the song is.

It’s all so precise – with every single note exactly where its supposed to be – that you almost fail to notice how weird it all is. I mean why would they put that synth hook in between verses? Why did the archetypal new wave vocalist have what sounded like Queen singing backing vocals on the big hard rock chorus? Why did the drummer do a secret double-time during the last verse? “Wasting all my time time?”

It was a mystery. How could something that was made so precisely from such familiar materials feel so strange?  “Just What I Needed” was like a UFO made from Mercedes-Benz parts. 

In early 1978, I’d been reading about “Punk Rock” and its immediate record-company-sanctioned twin the “New Wave,” in Rolling Stone and Creem, but precious little of it had made the Fresno airwaves. Maybe a stray Talking Heads song, possibly even a Ramones tune. But nothing had penetrated my thick, white, suburban classic rock skull.

Until “Just What I Needed.”  It was cool and mysterious and new and not too threatening all at the same time. For the first time in my life, I heard a New Wave song on the radio and thought: maybe I should find out what the rest of the album sounds like.

Next time on Certain Songs: 15-year-old Boy Decides to Buy The Cars, and You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next!!

Fan-made video for “Just What I Needed”

All of the songs I’ve written about

Certain Songs #174: Carly Simon – “You’re So Vain”

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Album: No Secrets.

Year: 1972.

Decades before Taylor Swift got criticized for writing songs about her ex-boyfriends, Carly Simon did the same damn thing, and has been playing hide-and-seek with the truth ever since. Warren Beatty? Mick Jagger? David Geffen? In the end, it really doesn’t matter, because “You’re So Vain” is a textbook pop single.

First off: the production, spearheaded by 1970s uber-producer Richard Perry. At least until the strings come in at the end, “You’re So Vain” is kinda sparse and surprisingly swampy, allowing you really hear the sly internal rhymes (”yacht,” “apricot” “gavotte” is genius) in each verse.  

Even better is how each the drums in each verse drop out at the end for just a measure or so before building into the chorus. 

About that chorus. It’s just brilliant, isn’t it? It’s one of the all-time great “fuck yous” to be sure, but there’s also a bit of a wistful sigh that undercuts the nastiness.

You’re so vain
You probably think this song is about you
You’re so vain, you’re so vain
I’ll bet you think this song is about you
Don’t you?
Don’t you?
                

Oh, and from the second verse on, that other voice doubling Carly Simon’s? Mick fucking Jagger, doing some of the best harmony singing of his life. If you listen for it, you can totally here his unmistakable cadence on the “Don’chews,” but he’s also not dominating. I’m guessing that there are people who have gone their entire lives not knowing that he sang on this song.

It all added up to a song that sound amazing on the AM radio – just fucking huge to my pre-teen ears – and was not only a huge smash at the time, but has become a pop culture staple.

Video for “You’re So Vain”

All of the songs I’ve written about