From 1987 to Eternity: How Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” made sense of Pop music and the feeling of being alive

2016, the year that took David Bowie, Prince, and George Michael among others, has inarguably changed the way we talk about music, the 1980’s, and the art in dying.

free enough to dance

80’s pop icon George Michael, who died unexpectedly on December 25, 2016. Credit: Yves Larson, Wikimedia Commons.

Season three of British Sci-Fi anthology Black Mirror (described as “The Twilight Zone for the digital age”) dropped back on October 21 of last year, but because of the extreme emotional heft I had come to expect from each of its previous seven episodes, I didn’t dive into the most recent batch until the final days of winter break. By the time I queued up the show’s fourth episode, “San Junipero”, on December 30th, October felt like a distant memory from several lifetimes ago. There’s no doubt that those final months of 2016 landed an unnatural number of gut punches on an unsuspecting public, and that’s left many music lovers still reeling from the rapid-fire death notices of musical giants Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones, and George Michael. It’s always been hard when any seemingly larger than life musician joins that never-ending jam session in the sky, but to lose any of those three distinctly unique voices so quickly after David Bowie, Prince, his protégé Vanity, Juan Gabriel, Glenn Frye, Merle Haggard, Guy Clark, Leon Russell and Phife Dawg… like any death, it begins to feel almost beyond human comprehension after a while. Each of those losses pulled at me, pervading my thoughts and elevating my emotions at strange times for reasons that frequently escaped me.

           So it was as the jubilant overtones of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth”, with melodies as flashy as the neon marquees and fashions quickly illuminating the TV in my mom’s living room, established before me the titular beachside town of San Junipero in the year 1987. The song moved me with a cocktail of bizarre emotions— heady melancholy, with underlying notes of ceremonious joy. I’d never felt this, or indeed any connection to the song, despite having heard it countless times over my relatively short lifetime. I chalked my odd reaction up to some combination of the vague link to the 1980’s, the recently deceased Wham! frontman, and the passage of time always being most apparent closer to the end of the calendar year— or, as I’d recognize it later, nostalgia.  Which of course begs the question: why does our generation often feel nostalgic for periods of time that most of us weren’t even alive for? While “San Junipero” writer Charlie Brooker’s song choices initially appear to merely ground the episode’s setting in the familiar, they function on a secondary level to subtly escalate his plot as it twists from outdated shorthands from the Reagan years to sentimental and profound statements on how we’ve come to define death three decades later. That the audience’s first musical introductions to carefree Kelly and bookish Yorkie are “C’est La Vie” and “Girlfriend in a Coma” aren’t pure happenstance. In fact, through these and other feats of storytelling that would not work on any other program, Black Mirror imbues songs like Carlisle’s with an urgency they’ve long lacked or by weaving them through this sense of falsely imagined nostalgia to create both the central theme of the episode and the framework for its entire narrative.

           As a show that routinely hinges on the twists presented late in the third act, that everything is exactly as it appears and not as it seems within San Junipero is par for Black Mirror’s course. But to pull the curtain abruptly back on the episode’s breathtaking final sequence, which is for my money among the best footage ever put on television, would be a disservice to both that last scene itself and each layer of “San Junipero” that builds up to it. Not even the most succinct plot summary I can write suffices it: the episode begins with and quickly focuses on two young women, the club hopping Kelly and fresh faced, bookish Yorkie, who hit it off after they meet in a dance club called Tucker’s one weekend in 1987. It ends some forty-odd years later, as “Heaven is a Place on Earth” plays while Kelly’s coffin is lowered into the ground next to her deceased husband and daughter. The song continues as a robotic assembly arm permanently archives Kelly’s consciousness alongside her newly wedded wife Yorkie’s into an immense server farm. The outside bears the name “SAN JUNIPERO”, an online virtual reality service specializing in “immersive nostalgia therapy” that also preserves memories of the dead in a digital afterlife. Inside the system, avatars of the two of them drive alongside the ocean in the light of day for the first time together.

           In an earlier scene, the real, elderly and frail Kelly remarks, “Uploaded to the cloud, sounds like heaven.”

           “I guess”, replies Greg, Yorkie’s caretaker and ex fiancée.

           But the episode is not about this or any other neat future or endless fantasy supplied by binary code. It is about 2016, a year that resonates with how Black Mirror has applied Murphy’s Law to each new bit of technology we’ve come up with in every passing day. It’s about realizing the potential for beauty that tech might have without ever sacrificing the details that might also completely break our hearts. It’s about someone rethinking what death means if Heaven really is just a place on Earth. It isn’t about two girls in a relationship during an idealized version of the 1980’s. Even some of the earliest dialogue between them acknowledges the virtual paradise’s revisionist nature with a tongue firmly in cheek, like when Kelly says that most of the dancers in Tucker’s dress the way they do because they “saw it in a movie or something”.  No, San Junipero is about the boundaries between pop music and politics that queer artists smashed thirty-plus years ago. Kelly’s unshakable sexual confidence, presented in conjunction with her purple-gold paisley jacket, easily calls to mind Prince’s androgynous revolution circa Purple Rain. The episode’s soundtrack is coded with dual meanings, a technique similarly employed by George Michael in writing songs like “Freedom! ’90”, both a dance hit and a strong comment on the prejudice he encountered as a gay man. If David Bowie’s every posture and gesture wasn’t enough indication, his final album ★ was an expression of how he literally lived and died so that a place like San Junipero, not just accommodating but encouraging people of all creeds and colors to get together and dance, might come to pass. And “San Junipero” isn’t even all that concerned with pondering what happens after we die and someone chucks us in the ground or into The Matrix, or whatever. It’s a meditation on what the point of living is. And as much as the episode doesn’t definitively come right out and say it, the point in Kelly and Yorkie spending eternity cruising that endless highway seems to be to love one another. And maybe that all starts with learning how to dance.

C’est La Vie.

Advertisements

Every Day is Halloween: A standingonthebeach.com Fall Festival Playlist, Part Two

No, the other Samhain. Source: Andreas Lindmark

No, the other Samhain. Source: Andreas Lindmark

Two weeks ago, I posted part one of my Halloween playlist featuring some catchy gems for getting down to this Samhain, whether that means lighting actual sacrificial bonfires or just enjoying the XTC song of the same name. Since time’s slipped away from me lately and this blog gets the most hits at 4 AM on the weekends anyway, here I am posting part two in the most timely manner I know how to.

spotify:user:1292871178:playlist:4ZQaPbTWgxhHPOFJKzEUiR

TWELVE: “Dragon Queen”- Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Where’s That From??: 2009’s It’s Blitz!

“My mouth is blowing right off
I’m so gone
Incoming, out clubbing
Not loving, slow your body down”

Shaking off Depeche Mode and slinking into this sexy little number by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the songs are thematically connected by and possibly even by mouths. There’s a good opportunity to transition from one song to the next, even if “Shake the Disease” mopes and haunts everywhere that “Dragon Queen” shakes and rocks.

THIRTEEN: “Lizard King”/ “Cowboys”- Sad Lovers & Giants
Where’s That From??: 1991’s Treehouse Poetry/ The 1996 compilation E-Mail From Eternity

” Like souls thrashing in darkness
Sometimes we lose control
Together we are strong
No man is an island… “

” We’ve talked now it’s time to shout
Let’s focus sides again
All views can’t be reconciled
This compromise feels tame “

So when building this playlist the first time, I used only my personal music library. Then I lost it, had to rebuild it mostly from memory and uploaded it to Spotify to embed at the top of this post and to document any further changes. In the process of transferring it to Spotify, a bit of my artistic vision had to be compromised since Spotify’s missing the one Sad Lovers & Giants album I needed for this playlist. If you can track down the spooky Doors-laden and reference heavy “Lizard King”, I believe it’s a better fit for the playlist. It’s like a friend who dresses up as the best Jim Morrison you’ve ever seen, even if he doesn’t sound a lick like him. If you can’t, well, “Cowboys” is a fine substitution and Spotify’s got your back.

FOURTEEN: “Kings”- Chelsea Wolfe
Where’s That From??: 2013’s Pain is Beauty

” The voice of God despairing him
Then crept into the severed heads
Of dreams we have forgotten and
Lost upon the rotten minds
Of unjust fools who’ve forgotten
Lost upon the rotted hearts
Of those who have forgotten us “

Golly, Chelsea Wolfe is goth as fuck. If Sad Lovers & Giants brings a wispy and somewhat whimsical fall air to the playlist, Chelsea Wolfe provides a full-on icy synth-tronic arctic assault. This is, after all, from the same person who brought the world titles such as “Destruction Makes The World Burn Brighter”, “I Died With You”, and “Carrion Flower”, so that much is probably expected. But it also kickstarts a religious theme that will follow throughout the next several tracks, carrying on with..

FIFTEEN: “Imitation of Christ”- The Psychedelic Furs
Where’s That From??: 1980’s The Psychedelic Furs or the 2009 compilation The Best of The Psychedelic Furs

” The nails are words
The nails are lies
To make it crawl
And make it scream
And make it real
And make it bleed
And make it bleed
And make it bleed
And make it dream “

Where keyboards have driven every song on this part of the playlist so far, The Furs mix things up here by mostly following a saxophone lead throughout this song. The saxophone is less creepy for sure, but that’s not the point. I’m sure we’ve all been to a party where we’ve seen a lazy white guy with long hair, a beard and a robe who opted out of doing the cool thing and instead of being The Dude, they did their own imitation of Christ, a stance this band would probably stand by as it’s fairly critical of religion. The Imitation of Christ that the song refers to is a Christian devotional, and with lyrics like those above that stand in stark contrast to anything even remotely removed from devotion. So for this reason, when you see hairy white dudes this Halloween season, I hope you think of The Psychedelic Furs.

SIXTEEN: “Impasse Satan”- Pink Turns Blue
Where’s That From??: 1991’s Aerdt

” Then for some reason, har
The dead are still lying there, har
You harlot, you murderer, har
Nothing but words then,
Nothing but words then, har?
There is no climbing back, har
Nothing of flesh and blood, har
You want me alive, har. “

The final track of the religiously supercharged Pink Turns Blue album Aerdt  is a re-telling of Satan’s fall from grace, one that’s less with concerned with sympathy and more concerned with blunt feeling and understanding of the figure. The lyrics above connect it with the Furs track, but the lines “Stranger than mankind/ shan’t I be alone?/ why shan’t I be alone?” very much explain it all. It’s a song that legitimizes and humanizes every kind of the many devil costumes, whether they’re the cool, svelte David Bowie kind of devil, a “sexy” devil, or even a cool, “sexy David Bowie” kind of devil. They’re all rooted in the same permissive empathy of one who’s been left alone, which no partygoer ever should be.

SEVENTEEN: “Higher Hell”- Echo & The Bunnymen
Where’s That From??: 1983’s Porcupine

“Smack in the middle of today
Got to find new words
Merely got to simply say
I think we all misheard

Just like my lower heaven
You know so well my higher hell “

Another song that uses religious themes, but Echo & The Bunnymen covertly consider themselves less with certain figures as they do religion’s certain duality. From that standpoint there are many directions to go in, especially concerning All Hallow’s Eve. Plain clothes versus fun costumes!  Real food versus candy and booze! The light of day as opposed to the dead of night! Hey, speaking of that dynamic…

EIGHTTEEN:“Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”- The Damned
Where’s That From??: 1980’s The Black Album

” I try to be to true, he tries to be cruel
I’ll hold you gently but he’ll smother you
My clothes will impress you
And his claws will undress you… “

Like Frank Sinatra told Al Bundy’s clan, you can’t have one without the other. The costumes, drinks, candy and night give their way to hangovers of their own when the day starts again on Sunday this year. But let’s make the most of that extra daylight savings hour, because as Love and Rockets tells us…

NINETEEN:  “It Could Be Sunshine”- Love and Rockets
Where’s That From??: 1986’s Express 

” My love for you won’t last for one day
My love for you will last for two “

Those are the lines the song ends on, and with the aforementioned daylight savings giving us an extra hour of Halloween this year, what’s not to rejoice? Dip into November 1st while you’re at it! It stays dark longer in fall anyways, and it could always be sunshine instead.

TWENTY: “Carcass”- Siouxsie And The Banshees
Where’s That From??: 1978’s The Scream

” Someone’s in cold storage
Thawed in Heinz main courses
Carved in a new tin
He got you with the cleaver
He hung you up forever
Anticipating new skin “

Because what kind of Halloween playlister would I be if I skimped on Siouxsie Sioux? As if this song wasn’t perfect enough on its own, it gets bonus points for conjuring an image that’s up equal parts Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Rocky Horror Picture Show, both holiday staples.

TWENTY-ONE: “The Hanging Garden”- The Cure
Where’s That From??: 1982’s Pornography

” Creatures kissing in the rain
Shapeless in the dark again
In the hanging garden please don’t speak
In the hanging garden no one sleeps “

Again, because what kind of Halloween playlister period, would I of all folks be if skimped on the dark Cure stuff? This song is quoted verbatim and in full in James O’Barr’s comic version of The Crow, which if I had my way would be mandated scholastic Halloween reading or, depending on the laziness of the teacher, even viewing. Like “Carcass” though, it stands fully on its own legs. It’s a song that, despite the roots it has in the Pornography album (which I’ve talked about before), has a big and strangely accessible sound. While “Close to Me” or even “In Between Days” might also suit a party atmosphere, this is not that kind of party.

TWENTY-TWO: “Ghost Rider”- Suicide
Where’s That From??: 1977’s Suicide

” Ghost Rider, motorcycle hero
Hey baby baby baby he’s a-lookin’ so cute
Sneakin’ round ‘n’ round ‘n’ round in a blue jumpsuit “

Electronic pioneers Suicide are mostly remembered these days for a sample of this song that repeats throughout M.I.A.’s “Born Free” (here’s Martin Rev of Suicide getting his due on that song during a performance on David Letterman), but  “Ghost Rider” is an early no wave jam about a Marvel Comics character who’s literally a flaming daredevil skeleton on a motorcycle. In short, it’s so awesome and Halloween I had no choice but to put it on this mix.

That’s it for part two. Look for the last part to drop in the next two days!

Everyday is Halloween: A standingonthebeach.com Fall Festival Playlist, Part One

There comes a time every October where we collectively set down the pumpkin spice lattes, put on our costumes and pick up a cup of glow-in-the-dark punch or pumpkin spice latte and rum. That’s right, there’s only three more weeks until Halloween Weekend and your admin’s got a treat for you to trick out all over wherever you decide to lay your candy down this season: 120+ minutes of music, spread out over three weeks, intended to kick off a bash that’d make even the likes of Dave Kendall proud. And yes, you did read that url correctly! I’ve moved to standingonthebeach.com for as long as this head remains attached to these shoulders. So while we’ll miss staples like Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London, The Misfits’ “Halloween”, Dead Kennedys’ “Halloween”, or even Magnolia Electric Co’s cover of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” (What can I say? It really is just that good of a song), I’ve managed to include some tracks from newer artists that follow in the great tradition of ~spooky alternative music~ for kicks and grins. Now let’s ring that doorbell and get this party started.

spotify:user:1292871178:playlist:1OaGKLlpzfzca1XIXjcGUv

ONE: “Sacrificial Bonfire”- XTC
Where’s That From??: 1986’s Skylarking

” “Fire!” they cried
“So evil must die
And yields are good.”
So men pull back hoods and smile,
The scapegoat blood spilled,
Spittled and grilled, it crackled and spat
And children grew fat on the meat.

Change must be earned,
Sacrificial bonfire must burn.
Burn up the old
Ring in the new, burn up the old, ring in the new. “

This song actually closes out Skylarking, which appropriately begins with the song “Summer’s Cauldron”, but in the spirit of the pagan Samhain tradition which we as a society co-opted for our own nefarious candy infused, medical insurance-complex based purposes, I’m celebrating the song a little differently here. Every playlist must start somewhere, and this song’s literally about exactly what I just described. XTC’s Andy Partridge was said to have made a toy store his preferred songwriting muse during his time in the band and this particular piece bears that mark as well as Partridge’s signature acerbic and satirical lyrical wit.

TWO: “Witch Hunt”- The Church
Where’s That From??: 1992’s Priest = Aura

” Wake up baby, oh baby open your eyes,
Look around you, this may be your last sunrise. “

Is this a fun, creepy carnival tune or an accurate picture of 18th century New England? Are white people who dress up like other ethnicities assholes or just poorly informed? Is The Church vocalist Steve Killbey a man or a God? Let’s keep the reflections here short and sweet to keep it going like this song.

THREE: “She’s in Parties (Single Edit)”- Bauhaus
Where’s That From??: The 1986 compilation 1979-1983 Vol. 2

” Hot lines under a rain of drum
Cigarette props in action
Dialogue dub, now here’s the rub
She’s acting her reaction “

The immaculate Goth Rock kings in Bauhaus had broken up by the time this song actually saw the light of day or perhaps more accurately the dead of night, but like the bass fade at the end of this song I think that only serves to further their mystique. Think about it: if Bauhaus had lived on forever, the genre would’ve never evolved the way it did, and we’d probably be stuck with songs that sound exclusively like this.

FOUR: “Shot By Both Sides”- Magazine
Where’s That From??: 1978’s Real Life

” I wormed my way into the heart of the crowd,
Wormed my way into the heart of the crowd
I was shocked to find what was allowed
I didn’t lose myself in the crowd “

Isn’t that the eternal dilemma of every Halloween party: how far into it you can get, emotionally and physically? “Shot By Both Sides” is an urgent song, so I’v placed it relatively close to the beginning to keep things interesting. The way Magazine turns an already great hook into a fast paced drama is immediately thrilling and relatable. Plus it feels perfect for the customary party gesture of chugging something quickly, like a handful of candy corns for example.

It isn't Halloween until someone busts out the cornz. Source: Will Culpepper

It isn’t Halloween until someone busts out the cornz. Source: Will Culpepper

FIVE: “Red Right Hand”- Arctic Monkeys
Where’s That From??: The “Crying Lightning” single or the Japanese and iTunes editions of 2009’s Humbug

” You’ll see him in your nightmares, you’ll see him in your dreams
He’ll appear out of nowhere but
he’s not what he seems
You’ll see him in your head,
and on the TV screen
Hey buddy, I’m warning you to turn it off
He’s a ghost, he’s a god,
he’s a man, he’s a guru. “

For their third album (produced interestingly enough by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, who we haven’t heard the last of on this playlist) and 2009 tour of Nick Cave’s Australia, Arctic Monkeys went back to their roots, removing their recently acquired stoner-Yacht Rock caps and putting on some Bad Seeds costumes for this cover. Honorable mention goes to the version by co-writer Nick Cave, which has an explicit connection to Halloween thanks to its appearance in the first three films of the Scream franchise.

SIX: ” Fake Blood “- Mission of Burma
Where’s That From??: 2004’s ONoffON

” You convinced me
When the capsule broke
In the artificial light
A red so true
You’d never doubt
It gushes out “

Mission of Burma’s legendary classic “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” almost flowed into and took this spot, but it’s just not quite Halloween-y enough for this playlist. Better a late period-album track than no Mission of Burma at all though.

SEVEN: “Who Do You Want To Be”- Oingo Boingo
Where’s That From??: 1987’s Good For Your Soul or the 1997 compilation Best O’ Boingo

” I think I’ll be a Teddy Boy, I think I’ll be a Hunk
I think I’ll be a Tough Guy and I think I’ll be a Punk… “

While there is a science to party playlisting, there’s not really a place for “Weird Science” or “Dead Man’s Party” here. But in addition to penning all those songs, Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman, as the literal voice of Pumpkin King Jack Skellington, is one of the undisputed lords of the holiday for a lot of folks. Taking its cue from Good For Your Soul’s darker and more serious themes, “Who Do You Want To Be” functions as one of the high points of The Mystic Knights socially conscious, Devo-esque pop career and on a second level as a serious question of what the most obvious and personal aspect Halloween is about: what exactly does your costume say about you?

EIGHT: “Sex Dwarf”- Soft Cell
Where’s That From??: 1981’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret

” When we hit the floor you just watch them move aside
We will take them for a ride of rides
They all love your miniature ways
You know what they say about small boys

Sex… Dwarf. “

While this song earns a spot on the list based on reputation alone, I think Marc Almond and Dave Ball hit something right on the head when they wrote “Sex Dwarf”. Halloween’s all about hinting at our hidden predilections, whether that means dressing and acting like Donald Trump’s hairpiece or simply a sex dwarf. It’s the one night of the year that we’re supposed to be free to do that, and if you can’t get down with “Sex Dwarf”, then you can’t get down with me.

NINE: “Dead Disco”- Metric
Where’s That From??: 2003’s Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?

” Remodel,
Everything has been done “

Another song that deserves a place basically through superficial characteristics, in this case specifically its killer title. “Dead Disco” wouldn’t be out of place anywhere, least of all a party following Soft Cell. Check out that complimentary beat and synthlines and tell me I’m wrong.

TEN: “Skeleton Kiss (Death Mix)”- Christian Death featuring Rozz Williams
Where’s That From??: The re-recorded version off 1992’s The Iron Mask

” Churches should be there
I think of adventures of admiring corpses
I’m retiring in the corner “

Say what you will of Rozz Williams’s lyrics on this one, but Christian Death was just about as morbid as morbid gets. Before we get to that though, a little background: after blazing basically every trail with regards to Deathrock, a genre that bridged together American Hardcore Punk, Post-punk, Goth Rock, and Metal, Williams abandoned the Christian Death band and moniker, only to have them snatched out from underneath him by former bandmate Valor Kand. Williams sued and lost the rights to the name “Christian Death”. Ignoring a court ruling, Williams began performing and recording with his own version of Christian Death again, hence the distinctive “featuring” credit. But like I said, dude ate, drank, breathed, and lived Deathrock. Even after he stopped producing music as Christian Death. He formed several more similar groups with ex-Christian Death members including Shadow Project, named after a study of the effects of post-war Hiroshima, until he committed suicide in 1998. The cabinet he used to hang himself in now sits above a photo of Williams holding a human skull in the LA Museum of Death, a move I believe to be totally in the spirit of every sensibility he held in life.

ELEVEN: “Shake The Disease”- Depeche Mode
Where’s That From??: The compilations Catching up With Depeche Mode or The Best of Depeche Mode, Vol. 1 

” Now I’ve got things to do
And I’ve said before that I know you have too
When I’m not there
In spirit I’ll be there “

Possibly Depeche Mode’s greatest death waltz and as appropriate a place as any to pause on this playlist, “Shake The Disease” is a somewhat simple song with a complicated lore at its core. Not only do the lyrics above directly reference the final verse of “Stories Of Old” off DeMode’s previous album Some Great Reward, already a high and somewhat foreign concept for an electronic band, but it was a massively popular song with such a hauntingly beautiful melody and video without ever appearing on an album properly. It’s hard to track and tack down why this song is good and has earned a spot on the mix but it does so effortlessly. Maybe because the next best alternative is Depeche Mode’s  “Black Celebration”, and we’re far too clever for a song that’s that obvious. Halloween calls for a few surprises, and may this stellar track be the first of many.

That does it for side one of this playlist. Check back later this week when I’ll be posting part two! And again, welcome to the new standingonthebeach.com!

The Importance of Being Cramped

Yep, there they are: Poison Ivy, Lux, and the other two that everyone has to Google. Credit: kentarotakizawa

Yep, there they are, Poison Ivy, Lux, and the other two that everyone has to Google. Credit: kentarotakizawa

About three months ago, Spoon did a cover of The Cramps “TV Set” for the Poltergeist remake. Also, on that note, why is it that anytime in the past two years that pop music’s wanted to acknowledge Goth Rock royalty it’s come in the form of truly forgettable movie soundtracks? But in any case, I was caught completely off-guard by Spoon’s late night Conan performance the first time I saw it. Even today when I heard it the song again on radio I’m still haunted by that cover. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great take from, what was for me a totally unexpected source, but it likely has more to do with being the first good bit of Cramps news in a long time. Maybe the last we’ll ever get after frontman Lux Interior’s truly unfortunate death in 2009. And if you don’t get what’s so important about the band, here’s why I like ’em: because they’re so consistently good. I’ve witnessed a legitimate argument between whether their cover of “Goo Goo Muck” or late period original composition “Creature of The Black Leather Lagoon” was the more “definitive” Cramps song. It didn’t matter of course, because no matter what they did, they were still uniquely and indisputably The Cramps. Their rockabilly voodoo gave the world Garage Punk, for Elvis’s sake! If one looks at the album cover for Songs The Lord Taught Us, they wouldn’t just tell you they look like the punk version of Queen, they’d know deep down in their miserable little guts that they are the punk version of Queen. They’re a band that snagged the legendary Alex Chilton, spit out a pretty by the numbers compilation, and still turned it into their most famous work. That’s why The Cramps matter so much after all. No matter how many times you kill ’em, you’d better watch your back come 3AM. You just might find they don’t stay so dead. Below I’ve embedded part of the creepiest and best use of The Cramps’s music on film (fret not; it isn’t Poltergeist) from the 1987 cult classic Near Dark. For best results, crank it loud on your own TV Set. NSFW language and content ahead.

In Between Days: The Story of The Cure’s The Head on the Door, pt. 2 (1985-2015)

On Wednesday, The Cure’s The Head on the Door turned 30. I decided to write a little about it, here’s part one. Ready?

And so, some 1400 words and a day later, I’m still not quite ready to begin talking about what I’m supposed to. The state of The Cure’s musical disarray is part of what makes The Head on the Door what it is, so sorry, not sorry, there’s a bit more background. I really can’t understate that the band had been making music for six years by 1985. And I only covered half of that time in the last post! It’s almost impossible to imagine doing the pressure that comes with doing the same thing over and over without much success for that long. Almost.

30 years ago, The Cure was practically a less sunny Rita Ora. Poor Robert Smith. Poor, poor Rita Ora. Photo credit to Neon Tommy

30 years ago, The Cure was practically a less sunny Rita Ora. Poor Robert Smith. Poor, poor Rita Ora. Photo credit: Neon Tommy

All that (mostly) less than stellar reception to his music really did do a number on Robert Smith. He was already depressed by his own admission when he was making Pornography in 1982, and the firing of bassist (and one-third of the band) Simon Gallup during the album-supporting tour that followed probably didn’t help his mood any. And to be absolutely sure, Pornography is bleak as bleak gets. But I’m not so sure that what Smith came up with is significantly less so. “Let’s Go To Bed”, “The Walk”, and “The Love Cats” are only considered happy because they belie Smith’s totally spot-on mockery of pop music at the time. Even the “happy” moments of The Top (the album’s lone single “The Caterpillar” takes half a minute to get there), The Glove’s Blue Sunshine (if that album even has a happy moment… maybe “Punish Me With Kisses”? Maybe?) and Smith’s biggest contribution to The Banshees are a mixed bag. All of Robert Smith’s musical projects post-1983 are apparent products of a “chemical vacation” at work. Years later, Smith himself said of his regimen to uh, keep his mind limber, in 1983-1984:

” It was kind of an experiment in disorientation which ended up as the Glove album. There was this unspoken idea that we should make the album while experimenting with as many different drugs as we could get our hands on. […] The Cure were living in a pub, an incredibly stupid thing to do, and recording in Reading while the Banshees were at Eel Pie studios in Richmond. So I’d finish with the Banshees, get in a cab to Reading, and the barman would leave the bar open for us because we were living there. I’d usually meet up with Lol Tolhurst and Andy Anderson, then Andy would make a big pot of magic mushroom tea before I’d start work on the next song for the Top album. “

This is why, so many years later, Pornagraphy is heralded as one of the omens of the Goth-rock movement: because it conveys, without a single murky detail, how miserable the band was when they made it. In contrast, The Top really doesn’t illustrate anything clearly, other than that Smith, now truly The Cure’s chief architect, was on a hell of a lot more drugs. When I called 1985 a make-or-break moment for The Cure, it wasn’t an exaggeration. While Smith may have only reluctantly experimented with the single format in 1983, as evidenced by his choice to only promote “The Caterpillar” from The Top, the music-listening public saw it as an unusually confident and aggressive chart campaign quashed by another challenging Cure album in 1984. The only thing holding back The Cure, it appeared, was Robert Smith himself. So in the last months of 1984, Smith, having reconciled with Simon Gallup, recorded a home demo of what would eventually become The Head on the Door‘s opening track and first single, “In Between Days”.

By February 1985, Smith had recruited Porl Thompson as a full time guitarist (while on tour in support of The Top), convinced former drummer Lol Tolhurst to switch over to keys exclusively, acquired a new drummer in Boris Williams of Thompson Twins, and was ready to take The Cure into the studio.  These efforts left the band with 16 potential songs, all again written by Robert Smith; ten of which would comprise The Head on the Door‘s final tracklist. Two of the remaining sketches materialized in parts of album tracks “In Between Days”, “Close To Me”, and “Six Different Ways”. The remaining four completed songs, “The Exploding Boy”, “A Few Hours After This…”, “A Man Inside My Mouth”, and “Stop Dead” were released as B-sides, though apparently not without some hesitation. “The Exploding Boy” was among four songs previewed on the band’s sixth and final Peel session before the album’s release, and before launching “Stop Dead” for the third time live ever in October 2013, Robert Smith briskly remarked,

”  Right, I still think this was a single. “

All of this would amount to The Cure prepping two proper album singles for remarkably, the first time in their career. “In Between Days” was released on July 15, ahead of the album’s drop date in late August, while “Close to Me” would follow two weeks after The Head on the Door. Later, in the U.S., Elektra would even wring a third, promotional single and video out of the album in the form of double A-side “A Night Like This” simply because audiences could not get enough of The Cure. Every song on The Head on the Door is just that good.

Skipping ahead to track two on the album, which is only permissible in this specific instance, “Kyoto Song” seems to find Smith catching a glimpse of himself for the first time during the chemical vacation of 1983. The song floats between the echoes of slow acoustic guitars and drums, working with lyrics about nightmares “of death in the pool” and “lying on the floor of the night before” to call to mind awakening in the haze of an opium den. But nothing in the actual city of Kyoto, that’s too concrete an idea to be realized in this space. The Top immediately becomes worthwhile for the reflection to it posed here alone.

Even though the two are consecutively listed and both share an acoustic guitar, which is far from the norm for The Cure, “The Blood” stands as possibly the strongest contrast to “Kyoto Song” on the record. Where “Kyoto Song” is content to fade away, “The Blood” is exhaustively burning itself out. Despite claims its paralysis, the song’s rattling castanets at you before you know it. And lest anyone think the reference to “The Blood of Christ” a strictly religious matter, it’s only vaguely more so than “Other Voices” off 1981’s Faith. “The Blood” however does dabble slightly with the idea of cultural transubstantiation. Smith’s inspiration for the song came from a specific kind of Portguese wine he’d grown fond of drinking: Porto Lágrima red, whose labels typically feature the image of Christ.

Even compared to what later Cure album singles like those from Disintegration would bring, the particular one-two of “In Between Days” and “Close to Me” is tough to beat. “In Between Days” is another single in the mold of the three from 1982-1983 in that it’s also ridiculously easy to misinterpret. With Williams introducing himself, the song and the album by providing a light but loud opening fill, Thompson and Gallup quickly establish an immediately prominent rhythm section that doesn’t grab attention as much as it suggests following a bouncing ball, and the airy synth melodies that follow swirl around simple rhymes that are perfectly innocuous from the distance of say, grocery store speakers. It’s the most innocent rumination of a collapsed love triangle this side of, well, “Bizarre Love Triangle”. And “Close to Me”, like “Boys Don’t Cry” before it, is a song that feels like Robert Smith nailed its every note, every pause, every breath, clap, and trumpet break down in his head well before he first committed it to tape. Its accompanying music video, which happens to be one of the most iconic of all time, serves as both a perfect compliment to the song.

All in the video: the then-recent now-iconic shock of Smith’s hair and smudged makeup, a take on the song’s title so literal its intimacy becomes claustrophobia, and perhaps most importantly, the band taking taking the piss out of themselves long before anyone else had the chance to, by miming the song’s quirkier instrumentation with a comb, bare hands, an impractically small keyboard and a rubber duck. Long has the debate raged among fans of the band as to the perfect Cure primer for non-listeners, and if it’s not The Head on the Door in its entirety, the “Close to Me” video alone is just about as good an introduction to The Cure that I can think of.

Some tracks on The Head on the Door, like its primary singles, seemed readymade for the nightclub floor. Others, like “The Baby Screams” and “Screw”, feel just as determined to get there eventually.“Screw”, the second-to-last song on the album and also its shortest, is a perfectly fine example of track that’s neither last nor least. It’s where the album’s spotlight is focused foremost on bassist Simon Gallup, whose bass opens and carries the rest of the song under a myriad of slinking synthesizers and vocal harmonies. “The Baby Screams” recycles its disturbing diction and hypnotic commitment to the groove from “The Walk” and “Close to Me” in almost equal measure. An imminently upbeat song that layers its guitars as well as its handclaps, “The Baby Screams” is made that much more danceable by merit of opening the album’s second side and being placed immediately before “Close to Me” in sequence. For three minutes and 44 seconds in 1985, The Cure managed to channel a 16th century dancing plague by way of New York’s Studio 54.

When The Head on the Door isn’t spending most of its ten tracks pushing The Cure into a very hard mainstream pop angle, the are moments that pull briefly back to and acknowledge the band’s past. The sugary sweet “Six Different Ways”, whose main piano part mutated out of one Smith worked on for Siouxsie & The Banshee’s “Swimming Horses”, is made a dark spot on the record only when knowing the loose association it has to its parent song. It’s kind of like retroactively reading Animal Farm discovering that the story really happened, but with Joseph Stalin instead of a few cutely named pigs. However, the aforementioned half-single “A Night Like This” sees the group reflexively back in touch with the despair felt on prior Cure albums.The lyrics, romantic in nearly every sense of the term, depict an internal struggle that teeters between wistful melancholy and insufferable desperation to the point of near-ambiguity (“And the smile, and the shake of your head/ and the smile, and the shake of your head”). Had the band finally collapsed following this record, still a very distinct possibility, “A Night Like This” would have certainly been their swan song. But thankfully Smith began a career of turning emotional trainwrecks into perfectly formed musical gems, a skill he’d have mastered by 1989’s Disintegration, with this song. He vocalizes every lyrical detail powerfully, with tinges of anger, guilt, and calmness when they’re needed, and the delivery never feels overstated. As a matter of fact, the song has one of the fullest arrangements on the album and no one on it feels displaced. From the gentle guide of the intro’s piano and rhythm guitar, to the harsh lead guitar that exists only to remind you of its enormity. Even the saxophone, more likely to be heard in a song by Men at Work or Huey Lewis & The News, sounds how only The Cure would play it here.

Giving pause to the album, side one and two closers “Push” and “Sinking” respectively, expand on the same greater idea of the album, albeit with different means. Further documenting The Head on the Door‘s lyrical themes of failed romance, the rushing “Push” showcases perhaps the best instrumental hooks Smith would ever write, all in one composition. The band is tight like no other song on the album, and I use the phrase “band” intentionally: Smith doesn’t even come into the song until slightly before the halfway mark. By experiencing the perfect realization of The Cure as a collaborative dynamic, “Push” emphasizes, for the listener and Smith alike, how important unison was to their continued survival. Similarly lyrically sparse but lush in all other regards, “Sinking” clocks in at 4:58, the longest runtime of any song on the album. True to its title, “Sinking” features each instrument echoing into the song one at a time as Smith contemplates slowly losing himself in the passage of time. Due to the length, I think Smith turns in his strongest performance on the album given what little lyrics he has to work with. Smith’s singing on “Sinking” ends abruptly, while the band continues playing, giving the illusion that he’s sunken in to his own music, “like everybody else.” That’s an unsteady, restless, and beautiful thought, and if The Cure had ended there forever, it would be a conclusion I could live with.

Obviously though, they didn’t. The Head on the Door became The Cure’s breakthrough, and set them up for further success throughout the rest of the decade. But it led to so many other things too. For a lot of Americans, myself included, it was the first exposure to The Cure. I can still distinctly remember time a Cure song: it was a short sample of “Close to Me” that played on a VH1 commercial in the early 2000’s. It was the first album in the whole wide “new wave” spectrum that clicked for me. If I trace it back far enough, it was my first stepping stone towards goth rock too. It’s an album that’s loaded with stories. Just listening to it again while I was trying to write this piece made me aware of how happy it makes me. It’s impossible for me to imagine a reality that forgot The Head on the Door and I don’t think anyone should ever have to try to.

Your admin, after a long three days.

Your admin, after a long three days.

In Between Days: The Story of The Cure’s The Head on the Door, pt. 1 (1982- 1985)

I set a goal for myself last year, either around or on the album Disintegration‘s 25th anniversary, that I would write about The Head on the Door‘s 30th. I think I deemed myself unqualified to write Disintegration both because of how big an undertaking that would be and the sheer volume of people who have had, what is literally a lifetime to me, to write about that album. In any case, I was a little disappointed on Disintegration day last year, and I woke up and realized today’s the day. What follows here are my raw, unfiltered thoughts on The Head on the Door, which sits at such an odd level of popularity that I think I actually am qualified to talk about it. For a lot of people it doesn’t quite hit the same notes that Disintegration, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me or even Pornography does. Which is a shame, The Head on the Door is still great, but once you start listing things past the “third-best”, you get into a really weird “who really cares?” limbo. To use Dylan as an example, it doesn’t really matter for a lot of folks how underrated John Wesley Harding or Desire are, or whether Christmas in The Heart is secretly the best or worst of the Christian albums, none of them touch Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61, or Blood on the Tracks. Point is, nobody, not even diehard Cure fans, will really go to bat over an artist’s fourth-most popular album. unless they are A. talking about Rubber Soul, or B. writing one of those 33 & 1/3 books (in which case, if it’s really that easy, hi!).

Credit: Derek Baird

History doesn’t remember anyone from the 2002 Winter Olympics Skeleton competition that wasn’t Jim Shea, Martin Rettl or Gregor Stähli and neither do I. Photo credit: Derek Baird

In any case, I think what’s most important about The Head on the Door is not the album’s survival 30 years later, it’s that The Cure survived up to 1985. It’s some small miracle that the ground stabilized beneath The Cure the way it did. Making the album really proved to be the band’s make-it-or-break-it opportunity, especially once you consider how thin Robert Smith had spread himself in the three years prior to that point.

After the music press at large considered The Cure’s 1982 album Pornography a flop, Smith, already devastated by the now legendary depression, drug abuse, and fighting within the group during the making of the album, dissolved The Cure to accept a position playing guitar full-time on tour with Siouxsie & The Banshees. When Siouxsie Sioux and drummer Budgie stepped out of the band to record as The Creatures in 1983, Banshees bassist Steven Severin and Smith, fueled mostly by speed and LSD, wrote and recorded as The Glove. Siouxsie could seemingly do no wrong at this point in time, with The Creatures lone single, a worthy take on jazz standard “Right Now” being almost universally hailed by critics in the U.K. as “keen”. Meanwhile, The Glove’s only album, the experimental, psychedelic-synth-pop collage that was Blue Sunshine, was, like Pornography, received with little fanfare on its initial release. When it came time to record the next Banshees album, a frustrated Smith unsurprisingly walked out of the initial sessions.

So by 1983, Smith had been double-sidetracked from The Cure for over a year with little to show for his efforts. For most of 1982 and 1983, the only members of The Cure were Robert Smith and drummer Lol Tolhurst, Smith’s most consistent collaborator since childhood, and the only new releases they recorded together in this time were three standalone singles. The first was the spry, poppy and sarcastic “Let’s Go To Bed”, cut in Pornography‘s aftermath late in 1982, one month after Smith spent a subsequent stint in detox. At the time of the single’s release, Smith lamented not making “Just One Kiss”, the single’s Pornography-evoking B-side, the lead, but something about “Let’s Go To Bed” resonated well enough with Smith to experiment further with non-album songs.

The early months of 1983 gave way to the electronic and disco baiting track “The Walk”, on which Smith had convinced Tolhurst to trade in his drums for synths while Smith traded in some of his mope for funk, but the song wouldn’t be released until shortly before The Glove’s Blue Sunshine album in the summer of 1983. Keeping in mind that The Cure had recorded enough material for two albums and three singles (plus B-sides) by the same time between 1981 and 1982, it began to seem like The Cure’s output had slowed to a grinding halt. Further complicating the matter was how distinctly different these two songs were from anything the band had released since 1980’s Seventeen Seconds, the point where gloom crept into The Cure. Sure, Smith was no stranger to pop music; after all, he began his commercial music career in 1979 with the release of “Boys Don’t Cry”, a pop song whose every hook Smith crafted so perfectly that it hardly changed after the first time he ever recorded it. But after Smith built a name for himself on the band’s increasingly dark and prolific output which came to a head with Pornography, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the same hand that wrote “Boys Don’t Cry” also wrote “Faith”, or that it was writing anything at all.

The final single came only after Smith returned to the studio with The Banshees following the unexpected success of “The Walk” (The Cure’s first top 20 hit), where he left his only real mark on that band by way of his arrangement of “Dear Prudence”. As Siouxsie Sioux demonstrated with The Creatures, anything she recorded afforded her to coast though the charts; whether or not Smith was playing in The Banshees was irrelevant: people loved Siouxsie records. Hearing both Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Creatures continuing to succeed without his contributions but with his producer of choice, Mike Hedges, Smith decided to pen a direct response to “Right Now”. The result, “The Love Cats”, was a single similarly tinged by jazz and Bowie-inspired pop (most were content to call it “New Wave” and leave it at that) and it was another left-turn success for The Cure, despite being hastily recorded. This led to the curious Top of the Pops broadcast below, where Smith mimed first “The Love Cats” with The Cure and then “Dear Prudence” with The Banshees on the same night.

The proper follow-up for Pornography came in 1984 as the album The Top. And while The Top still bore “The Cure” name, unlike 1982’s Pornography, the songwriting credits of which were shared collectively among the members of the band, Smith wrote nearly all of The Top‘s ten songs (with three exceptions, again co-written with Lol Tolhurst) and played nearly everything on it. Here’s the breakdown of the album’s four musicians: Lol Tolhurst played only keyboards, Andy Anderson, appropriately of The Glove, handled drums and percussion, future Cure guitarist Porl Thompson was credited with a sparse guest appearance for saxophone here, and Robert Smith provided vocals, bass guitar, guitar, keyboards, organ, violin, harmonica, and recorder. Among the most devout of Cure fans, this is why The Top sits at or near the bottom of comprehensive album ranking lists: the unhinged and unsteady sleep-deprived, acid-circus hallucinations that make up The Top feel much more like Robert Smith going solo than a proper Cure album.

So to recap, in the span of three years, The Cure went from a fairly standard and certainly efficient three-piece lineup, to a thin-but-slick, two-man hit single making operation, to what may have just as well been Robert Smith sitting in a furnished studio taking the brown acid. And rightly so! To Smith, it probably seemed like nobody even liked The Cure in 1982, so why bother? And no two people, least of all Robert Smith and Lol Tolhurst, could even agree on what The Cure was, for that matter. But what was clear was that The Cure achieved their most success in The U.K. charts in five years at a time when they weren’t even really trying. Looking at the common elements between the three post-Pornography singles, three important things stand out:

  1. Robert Smith was coming into his own as both a musical and stylistic force to be reckoned with, but he needed someone to pull in the reins.
  2. The Cure were more than capable of reaching their opposite extreme, the delirious pop heights their contemporaries chased, just as well as they languished inward in their own despair, if they only would.
  3. For the first time in their entire career, The Cure was in a position to make just about any music they wanted: happy songs, sad songs, either, both, or none.

The Ten Trillest Musician-on-Musician Burns of All Time, Ranked!: The Definitive Online Viral Content List

Dave Grohl does not appear at any point in the above listicle.

Dave Grohl does not appear at any point in the above listicle.

Everyone’s aware, or at least they should be, that commenting on links you see on Facebook is equivalent to yelling into an echo chamber with thousands of other people at once. It’s a complete waste of time. Almost as much as actually reading the slow-loading clickbait trash from sites like answers.com.

“Also, we lifted most of these from Flavorwire.com when no one was looking.”

For a website seemingly priding itself on providing answers, Answers Celebs provides shockingly few of them; Boy George calling Madonna “a vile, hideous human being” is hardly one of The 10 Meanest Musician-to-Musician Insults Ever. It’s hardly mean, hardly an insult, and Boy George is hardly a musician. In fact, in my opinion Boy George has spent more time doing community service than producing quality hits (that’s what a quality takedown looks like, for any aspiring gossip columnists/ Boy George celebrity roastmasters out there). So just for you, lovely reader, I’ve compiled the top ten most gruesome acts of vicious, musician-on-musician violence this side of MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch. All for you right here, right now, and free of charge. Yes, there will be Morrissey. No, I will not take the easy way out and post the time he hated on Saint Madge. It’s called flogging a dead horse for a reason, and it’s not just because Madonna has large front teeth (Answers, you really should have your notebooks out by now). And as long as this list exists, there’s no reason to share that other one any longer, right?

TEN: NICK CAVE ON RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS

I just called Answers out for copying off a four-year-old post from Flavorwire, but this one’s too good not to mention. Nick Cave is, in the truest sense of the word, an artist: he writes books, he does spoken word, he’s known to write screenplays and film scores, he acts and, for the purpose of this list, he makes music. He’s also Australian, perhaps the one and only link he sees to Red Hot Chili Peppers (Flea’s from Australia too, look it up!). I’ve never found the source of this one, but it’s pretty indicative of how Nick Cave views their differences:

“I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the fuck is this garbage?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

 NINE: PETER HOOK ON BERNARD SUMNER

The arguments over the lasting legacy of Joy Division between former bandmates Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook that have played out the past few years have come to feel like a post-punk meeting of the unstoppable force and the immovable object. The cycle typically goes something like this: Peter Hook says or does something moderately contentious, regarding his time in Joy Division or New Order, Bernard Sumner does the same but with his own spin on it. Hook somehow responds, and Sumner issues a response to Hook’s response, and the indie-music conscious follows along until we’re caught in some sort of time loop that, when zoomed far enough out, looks something like the Unknown Pleasures cover.

Seriously, doesn't it look like something from the opening of The Twilight Zone?

Seriously, doesn’t it look like something from the opening of The Twilight Zone? Credit: Rockonmytongue

To anyone who found that last paragraph pretentious, look at it this way: Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook used to get along and play music together, but now they don’t. Instead, they play mostly the same songs in mostly the same way, like British versions of the Heat Miser and Snow Miser.

That said, I tend to find myself on Peter Hook’s side of the back-and-forth. At the end of the day, if nothing else, I find he does a better version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by himself than whatever this is, and that’s good enough for me. Here’s Hooky’s icy reply to New Order announcing the Joy Division Twitter account last year:

EIGHT: TED LEO ON JUSTIN VERNON

As you would expect after reading the above, Twitter’s become the go-to medium for curt, snide remarks in the digital age. The  short 140 character per-tweet limit and its immense popularity with “verifieds” and “normies” alike has cultivated the perfect storm of petty celebrity pull quotes. It used to be that you’d have to wait to pick up a weekly tabloid to see Cher’s latest dumb comment on Donald Trump. Now, thanks to Twitter, you only have to wait for one of them to check their phone. So thanks to Twitter, virtually everyone’s now plugged into everyone else, with the ability to instantaneously opine on anything. Which is kind of 1984 scary, but that’s nothing compared to this sweet zing on Bon Iver!

Back in 2012, Joss Whedon lookalike Kanye West collaborator Justin Vernon of Bon Iver had some choice words for the RIAA, who were recognizing the indie music outfit with four nominations at that year’s Grammy Awards ceremony. Vernon declined a request for his group to play live that year, saying that the organizers wanted him to share the stage with other musicians. In Vernon’s own words, Bon Iver and any potential collaborators “were being asked to play music that had nothing to do with that [record that we made].” Those collaborators? Most likely The Beach Boys, playing alongside commercial music genius Brian Wilson for the first time in decades. Despite his anti-award show convictions, Vernon still managed to show up to accept the group’s award for Best New Artist. Vernon said by declining to perform, Bon Iver “kind of said ‘fuck you’ a little bit” to show organizers. All of this set off the bullshit meters of Ted Leo, myself and, well, just five other like-minded people:

Also, for anyone whose bullshit meter’s been set off by the mention of Ted Leo on this particular blog: he’s a fantastically talented guy who holds some of the best 80’s music close to his heart: he’s done my favorite covers of “Everybody Wants to Rule The World” and Split Enz’s “Six Months in a Leaky Boat”. And if that’s not enough, he’s currently sharing his stage with Aimee Mann, formerly of ‘Til Tuesday, in The Both.

SEVEN: MARTIN GORE & ANDY FLETCHER ON DEPECHE MODE

Something weird happened between 1984 and 1988: it became cool to like Depeche Mode. The band’s output post-1983 gained leanings that were gloomy as all hell, due in no small part to Martin Gore replacing Vince Clarke (later of Erasure) as the group’s primary songwriter. Gore’s vision for the band, electronic experiments with sparks of pop and industrial music, bears almost no resemblance to Clarke’s synthpop drenched compositions like their first release, “Just Can’t Get Enough”. Subsequently, one ends up looking at and listening to what feels like two different bands. This newer, slimmer Depeche Mode comes off like the biggest band in the universe (see Dave Gahan’s suit in the video above) and the younger Depeche Mode, well, they can come off as a real flock of weirdos (see Dave’s suit here.) Unsurprisingly, in this 2005 interview for The Big Ones, you can hear by the tones of founding members Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher that, despite being interviewed separately, neither has any love lost for “the early stuff”:

Simon Amstell: And the worst [Depeche Mode song]?

Martin Gore: “What’s Your Name?”.
Andy Fletcher: “What’s Your Name?”. Off Speak & Spell, our first album.

Amstell: How did that go?

Gore: “Hey you’re such a pretty boy,-”
Fletcher, unconvincingly: “-Hey you’re such a pretty boy, you’re so pretty. P-R-E-, double-T-Y.”

Amstel: Sounds nice.

SIX: ROBERT SMITH ON SPANDAU BALLET

Anyone who knows me knows I adore The Cure, so it was hard narrowing it down to just one choice Bob dig. But another something weird happened between 1990 and 2015: it became, to my great confusion, cool to listen to Spandau Ballet. Some weeks ago, David Letterman made a remark regarding his departure from The Late Show, that he found himself revered among people who once found him distasteful by simply remaining famous for a long enough period of time. I can only guess the same applies to Spandau Ballet.  And whether it’s Phil Dunphy or an EDM DJ, the collective “we” agrees: “True” is not the song we need to hear right now, but it’s the one we deserve. Roll tape on Robert Smith:

“You can’t drink on an eight hour flight, pass out, and then go onstage. Well you can, but…then you’re Spandau Ballet.”

FIVE: LIAM GALLAGHER ON NOEL GALLAGHER

Best to let this one speak for itself. As with any video of either Gallagher speaking candidly, strong language ahead.

FOUR: NOEL GALLAGHER ON LIAM GALLAGHER

Illustrated by Jena Ardell, jenaardell.com
Illustrated by Jena Ardell, jenaardell.com

THREE: NOEL GALLAGHER ON NOEL GALLAGHER

In 2009, after Liam broke yet another one of Noel’s guitars, Oasis went Champagne Supernova for what looks like the last time. But when The Almighty closes one door, another is sure to open. In this way, Oasis’s breakup gave way to the magnicifent retrospective Time Flies… 1994-2009. I bet you’re wondering, “What’s so great about it? Why did they have to break up to put it out? What’s Noel actually singing in the chorus of ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’?” The answers to these questions lied for a long time only with the most devout Oasis fans. You see, the third disc of the deluxe box set edition was actually a DVD containing every Oasis music video with commentary by Noel Gallagher, and that alone makes the set worth its weight in commemorative gold (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? records.

These commentaries didn’t hit the internet until a good four years after their original release, but I’d go so far as to say they’re a genuine lost masterpiece, this generation’s Basement Tapes. And above all, the best thing Noel Gallagher ever recorded. I say that knowing I’ve watched that commentary highlight reel more times since I first became aware of it last year than I have in the 11 years it’s been since I first heard “Wonderwall” at a particularly disheartening middle school dance. Every second of this video is worth hearing, and while no transcription does Noel’s words justice, I’ve narrowed it down to my favorite bits:

On “Whatever”:

“Oh, I was fuckin’ drunk in this video. Look how pissed I am there.”

“That’s me really pissed.”

“I was- I can’t begin to tell you how pissed I was. I was shit-faced.”

On “Roll With It”:

“This song’s a bit of a throwaway for me…although we did play it on our last tour and people went fuckin’ apeshit for it. And it is- it is a good song to jump up and down to, drunk.”

On “Stand By Me”:

“Maybe the motorbike’s rushing to the radio station to say, “Stop! This is shit.”

“I have to say, after all these videos… if you needed four guys to walk around in slow motion, we were the fucking- we were the best at that.”

TWO: TINA WEYMOUTH ON MINI-KISS

Just so we’re perfectly clear– these are ex-Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth’s thoughts on a KISS tribute band that consists exclusively of little people. When prompted to recall the worst gig she had ever played, Weymouth responded:

“Our supreme Spın̈al Tap moment was with Tom Tom Cub. They were celebrating the Howl! Festival in New York. We agreed to do it because we thought it’d be great to do something for the community and the arts. The opening act was a band called Mini Kiss: a group of dwarfs, or midgets … little people, whichever is the politically correct way of saying it … dressed in full outfits and makeup, but with no instruments, lip-synching to Kiss songs. By the time we went on, most of the 30 people had left. The band was almost larger than the audience. And we went out there and played our hearts out. At the end of the gig our crew backed our rental truck into the marquee and every penny we made had to go to the replacement of that.”

I don’t have anything else to say about that, except to again confirm to you that Mini Kiss is a real thing that exists outside of Tina Weymouth’s and my own personal nightmares.

ONE: MORRISSEY ON DAVID BOWIE

It’s old hat at this point to sit back and giggle at the neverending font of ridiculous half-wisdoms that make up Steven Patrick Morrissey. So, what if I told you I didn’t even have a Morrissey quote to stick on this post? Rest assured, there’s still a Mozzer at the end of this book. But you wouldn’t believe it, would you? And that’s how those clickbait hooks get sunk deep in you. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, after all…

On paper, Morrissey and David Bowie fall into similar lots. They’re both distinctly English, vaguely glam, sexually ambiguous, emotionally charged old men. And to their credit, they were friends once. Here’s Bowie talking a little more about their connection in the 90’s:

So it should come as little surprise that Bowie enlisted Morrissey as his opening act after declaring his admiration after in 1995. And it should come as even less surprise that Morrissey felt overshadowed by Bowie, didn’t show up for the first U.S. date and walked away from the rest of the tour entirely. But in a rare move for Moz, the former Smith attempted to mend fences with Bowie in 2013. Following the announcement that Morrissey would reissue his second album Kill Uncle, Morrissey announced his intent to also re-release non-album single “The Last of The Famous International Playboys”, with this private photograph of him with Bowie circa 1992 on the single’s cover. Cute, right?

Except Bowie blocked Morrissey from using his image for the final release. Possibly because Morrissey left the best Kill Uncle song off the record again, but more likely because Bowie was signed to EMI at the time. Despite Bowie having had no legal rights to the photo, EMI also owns rights to The Smiths catalogue, a fact that Morrissey has made no secret of his displeasure with. So what was that handsome devil to do? He certainly couldn’t have used the original cover. No, what other famous international playboy would make for as spectacular a photograph?

moz reissue cover

Apparently Rick “Never Gonna Give You Up” Astley. Yup, we all just got Rickrolled by Morrissey.

So I suppose that with this post I’m officially returning from an officially much needed hiatus. Thanks for everyone who’s stuck around for the past year, and I’m really looking forward to maintaining this blog again, even if nobody’s paying super close attention to it. If there’s anything you’d like to see discussed or covered on Standing on The Beach in the future, shoot me a tweet below, or just hurl some insults at me in the comments!

Why Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” is the only Video of the Year I’ll ever need.

With the eve of the 31st annual MTV Video Music Awards upon us, I’d like to posit some quick thoughts on what’s undisputably one of the most iconic music videos to ever grace the awards.

Go ahead and search the term “sledgehammer” on Google. This video is the second result. Either someone’s done a hell of a job on the marketing side ensuring the video gets still views more than 25 years after its initial debut, or people genuinely think about “Sledgehammer” more than they do, well, actual sledgehammers. And for good reason: it’s tied for the most VMA nominations (Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” pulled 10 as well in 2010) and holds the record for most VMAs awarded to a single video with nine taken home in one night, including the coveted “Video of the Year”. But those are just statistics reflective of the opinions of people watching MTV at the time. “Sledgehammer” has endured because it’s still a thrill to watch all these years later.

When you look at this video on paper, it is, for the most part, a strictly literal interpretation of the lyrics. So it’s a bunch of double talk about sex brought to life around Peter Gabriel’s upper torso. In “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution”, director Stephen R. Johnson said of the song:

“I didn’t even like the song, frankly. I thought it was just another white boy trying to sound black.”

But then you actually see the final product and it sticks with you, whether you first saw it on MTV or YouTube. That flute solo accompanying magnified sperm swimming like koi in a garden pond. Gabriel seemingly coming to life as the song does. And yes, there are those god-damned chickens. There are just as many visual hooks in the video for “Sledgehammer” as there are in the music. All of the genius of Johnson’s visuals coming together perfectly with Gabriel’s songwriting. No small feat. “Video Killed The Radio Star”, this ain’t. For 16 hours at a time, Gabriel was placed under a glass sheet as the stop-motion for the video was shot frame by frame. Gabriel was also 36 years old by the time “Sledgehammer” hit number one. His target demo on MTV was half his age. His old band, Genesis, were enjoying the fullest measure of musical success they ever would in their career, with a number one single in the form of “Invisible Touch” and another nominee vying for Video of the Year that year in “Land of Confusion”. There were tons of obstacles in the way of “Sledgehammer” being made at all, much less it being made into the success it was.

But in the history of the network, no one video has been played more times than “Sledgehammer”. Not “Thriller”, not “Vogue”, not “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. “Sledgehammer”. The song went on to replace “Invisible Touch” at the top of the charts stateside. And eventually, “Land of Confusion” did beat out “Sledgehammer” at the Grammys in the short-lived “Best Concept Music Video” category. But 11,000,000 combined views on YouTube and nine moonmen can’t be wrong.

“Show for me, and I will show for you.”

Debunking the Myth of the One-Hit Wonder

Men at Work’s “Down Under”, off their debut, 1981’s Business as Usual, is easily the band’s biggest hit. It’s a perfect example of a pretty common trend at work in the 80’s: band becomes big in their home country, band produces a killer video, band becomes overnight sensation in the US and proceeds to disappear from our cultural landscape. Other examples of bands with a single number one:

But a quick note on Men at Work: although their output as a group didn’t last past the 80’s, until 2012 (following the death of founding member and saxophonist Greg Ham) the band would periodically reunite with guest musicians.And disregarding their reception in the U.S., the group to this day remains huge in Australia. Also frontman Colin Hay found new life as an acoustic songwriter, incorporating “Down Under” and other acoustic Men at Work songs into his routine. He also appeared memorably on an episode of the television show Scrubs as… himself? Kind of? which turned on his music to a new generation, and showcased his current musical sensibilities.

And A-ha, while remembered primarily in the states for that video, went on to crack the top 20 in America again with “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” (it went to number one in the U.K.) and pen the theme for The Living Daylights, a James Bond film. A Timothy Dalton Bond film, but a Bond film nonetheless. Actually, when placed in that context, A-ha sounds like poor imitators of Duran Duran, which they certainly were not. While Duran Duran continues to garner more acclaim for their facial hair than their new music, A-ha gracefully bowed out of the music game in 2011 after one final performance in their native Norway.

It may as well be a crime to call Devo simply a “one-hit wonder”, as they have enjoyed a huge cult following since their formation in Akron, Ohio in 1972, a full eight years before the world heard “Whip It”. Without going into too much detail, the members of Devo created a mythology bordering on the religious (and sometimes actually religious when performing as Dove, The Band of Love) since their first music video in 1976 concerning “The Truth About De-Evolution” (De-EVOlution, DEVO). Boosting a barge load of singles well known in alternative circles, including “Girl U Want”, “Beautiful World”, “Uncontrollable Urge”, “That’s Good”, and of course, their cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, Devo absolutely transcends the notion that one song defines a one-hit wonder. Individually the members of Devo, most notably Mark Mothersbaugh, have gone on to take production roles in music in other forms of media. Bob has written and/or produced scores for the television shows Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Rugrats, Big Love, and Regular Show, the earliest entries in the Crash Bandicoot series of video games as well as The Sims 2, and popular films almost too numerous to name. Almost. Happy Gilmore, both Rugrats movies, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and its sequel, 21 Jump Street and its upcoming sequel, The Lego Movie, and a whopping five films by acclaimed filmmaker Wes Andersen: Bottle RocketRushmoreThe Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Moonrise Kingdom. Despite the recent deaths of two of their longtime members, drummer Alan Myers and guitarist Bob “Bob 2” Casale, Devo continues to tour as a band in their spare time with noted percussionist Josh Freese. They recently announced a “Hardcore Devo” tour, spotlighting material exclusively from before they were signed to Warner Bros. in 1978 in tribute to Bob.

Aimee Mann, besides fronting ‘Til Tuesday until their breakup in 1988, is one of the most amusing wits on Twitter and has come into quite a solo career of her own. Her unique folk-ish stylings may come as a stark contrast to her time with ‘Til Tuesday, but the video for her single “Labrador” off 2012’s Charmer directed by musically-minded comedian/host of The Best Show on WFMU Tom Scharpling, is a shot-for-shot remake of the original video for “Voices Carry”. It also “stars” Scharpling’s compatriot and partner in crime Jon Wurster (hailed as “the funniest drummer in Indie Rock” for The Mountain Goats, Bob Mould and Superchunk). She appeared, briefly, in one of my favorite films, The Big Lebowski, as the girlfriend of nihilist new-wave-kraut-rocker Uli, so it’s fantastic to see she managed to leave behind the 80’s while still maintaining a strange closeness to the genre that first made her famous. Her most recent effort, a collaboration with former tourmate Ted Leo, The Both, is available to pre-order (with bonus tracks!) from Barnes & Noble now.

While it’s easy to mistake “She Blinded Me With Science” as a novelty song, Thomas Dolby was securing his place in pop music history before he even made it. He began building his own synthesizers, showing a penchant for electronic music and sampling long before it caught on as well as providing support as a live sound engineer for legendary post-punkers The Fall as a teenager. He played the signature keyboard line on Foreigner’s “Urgent” and additional keys for Def Leppard on Pyromania. After several minor hits in the U.K., Dolby officially released “She Blinded Me With Science” in 1983. Immediately going into heavy rotation on MTV, the song was characterized by those traits Dolby was building in his teens: synths, sampling, and, well, science. Dolby became an even more sought out commodity, working with George Clinton, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock throughout the decade. Presently, he’s a professor of the arts at Johns Hopkins University and previously served as the TED Conference’s music director from 2002 to 2012.

Gary Numan, the principal architect at the center of Tubeway Army’s synth driven new wave and pop, dropped the Tubeway Army name from his band in 1979 after the success of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and retained the musicians.While a number one in England, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” was known almost exclusively as a dance floor hit stateside. That’s okay for our purposes, as Numan would go on to record a cross -country #1 in 1979 in “Cars”. “Cars” charted in the U.K. two more times, in consecutive decades: as a remix in 1987 and the original single would again crack the top 20 after its use in a beer commercial in 1996.”Cars” and the album its culled from, The Pleasure Principle, influenced countless others who came after Numan, but I’ll go ahead and name drop a few; Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, The Dead Weather, and Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz have all covered Numan or otherwise sung his praises in recent years. After influencing those and many more alternative acts who emerged in the 90’s, As was usual for him, Numan changed his musical direction to reflect that of his disciples, gaining a sense critical acclaim that had been absent for most of the 80’s.His most recent album, Splinter: Songs From A Broken Mind, showcases electro goth at its finest and is available wherever you buy music now.

So it would appear there is life after one hit after all. And who knows, like others on this list, Gotye or *shudder* The Lumineers may make a comeback after some time away.from the commercial side of music. I’d be interested to see what lessons the one hit wonders of the past few years take away from their forerunners 1980’s.

Put on Your Red Shoes and Dance the Blues: How Nile Rodgers, Stevie Ray Vaughn, David Bowie and Friends Took 1983

First of all, as if it needs to be said, David Bowie is the immaculate heart of great 1980’s music. Not only did he produce some of the strongest work of his career in the decade through an album called Let’s Dance, but everything that came after him clearly bears his influence. Look at the above clip, for instance: his hair, his makeup, his attire, all staples for new wavers. And that’s merely one incarnation of his ever-changing style, which may in some cases catch all of every genre out there. This is after all the man who brought together disco king Nile Rodgers and blues guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughn. Don’t believe me? Check out the video below.

In terms of his discography, Let’s Dance isn’t as highly revered as say, Ziggy Stardust or Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. In fact, some would herald it as the beginning of the end of Bowie’s most solid musical output. So in the greater scheme of things, why does Let’s Dance matter?

Well, Bowie’s pull was so great by the time 1983 rolled around that he secured such diverse artists to play on his records and still make it sound uniquely his own. Another big name to get credit on Let’s Dance was Iggy Pop, who co-wrote “China Girl”, the album’s second single, with Bowie. The song appeared previously on Pop’s Bowie-produced 1977 album The Idiot. After seeing SRV play in Switzerland the year before (with Jackson Browne, no less. And Bowie’s star-studded entourage increases by one), Bowie was so impressed with his mastery of Texas blues that he drafted him to play in the sessions for the album. And as Rodgers pointed out earlier in 2014,

“Well, I call David Bowie the Picasso of rock’n’roll, because that’s how I think of him, so I always embarrass him when I see him, by saying that.”

Bowie is the Picasso of rock, as he takes influence from those around him and pieces them together into a unique mosaic of music. Showing musical diversity and reinventing himself again through the “China Girl” example, Bowie manipulated the direction of 80’s music. Not just through his influence in the previous decades but also by reclaiming the musical landscape he had curated in the early alternative scene.

Let’s Dance would go on to catapult Stevie Ray Vaughn’s solo career with Double Trouble to super-stardom, turn Nile Rodgers into a production powerhouse (linking him to other big name 80’s acts such as INXS, Duran Duran, and Madonna), and provide Bowie with the highest selling album of his career. Bowie not only made classic alternative in his image, he made it accessible. And it was good. That’s why it matters 31 years later.