Posts Tagged ‘Michael Jackson’

I haven’t listened to Diana Ross for years. With so few audio reminders to fluff my memories and make them smell fresh, they thinned out, and I somehow developed the idea that her voice was too refined, that she made me feel as if I were using the wrong spoon for my soup. The Diana Ross neighborhood of my brain became depopulated and was rezoned until it merged with the Barbra Streisand neighborhood.

(It didn’t help that Ross’ “Touch Me in the Morning” could in places easily slip into Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” Both songs were released in 1973, when I was a teenager with a Pink Floyd collection.)

Then I launched this new project, and after a lapse of a lifetime I re-encountered Diana Ross. I’m not in love, but I am impressed. Maybe I needed to grow up and slow down before I really got it.

Ross released 17 albums in the 1970s. I’m only going to consider a few because I’m not writing her biography and frankly, her three bad soundtracks almost sank me. So here’s my guide to the Diva of Divas.

Diana Ross (1970)
It’s difficult to run this through our central processing units today, but in 1970, Diana Ross was just another girl singer in a girl group. Sure, The Supremes were the queens of the hill, but how many girls left their girl groups to start a solo career, and how many succeeded? Until Ross came along, the answer to the success part was zero.

Diana Ross starts slowly for me, stirred only by “You’re All I Need to Get By.” But track 5 is her cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which could level the mountains and alter the rivers. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell  sang this song as two lovers on a recognizable earthly plain, but Ross turns it into a one-woman, 6-minute symphony that takes place on a cloud or maybe in Asgard. She doesn’t need Marvin Gaye or anyone else.

The rest of the album hits hard for music that isn’t rock ’n’ roll. “Something on My Mind” is the stealth gem that lives in the shadow of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” “Keep an Eye” has a Michael Jackson-like bass line and urgency – even though the adult Michael Jackson won’t appear until Off the Wall in 1979. “Dark Side of the World” is a good song and a good closer.

You can’t really call Diana Ross a debut, because Ross had already been performing for years in The Supremes, but however you want to characterize it, this is a highly desirable record for your collection.

Diana Ross Fun Fact 1: Ten of these 11 songs were written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. I’ll return someday to this husband-and-wife superhero team-up.

Diana Ross Fun Fact 2: In addition to Diana Ross, Ross also released Diana Ross in 1976 and Diana in 1980. Also Diana! The Original TV Soundtrack in 1971. And then there was Ross in 1978 and Ross in 1983. I understand, I like my name, too. This is why our first eight dogs were all named “Steve.” But let’s give a special award to Peter Gabriel, who released Peter Gabriel in 1977, Peter Gabriel in 1978, and then – how sweet the sound! – Peter Gabriel in 1979.

Everything Is Everything (1970)
Ross’ Everything Is Everything has a few problems. It’s overproduced. There’s an orchestra playing in that studio, plus the horns you’d hear before a fox hunt or a joust. There’s a female chorus (I like them) and a male chorus (but not them). There were many points on this record when I wanted everyone to shut up and let the woman sing. (I feel the same way about Beyoncé’s oeuvre.)

The next problem is choosing to cover “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” a Burt Bacharach and Hal David travesty. Richard Chamberlain sang the original in-between his hospital rounds as Dr. Kildare. Then Dionne Warwick gave it a go. I thought it was saccharine X-treme.

Then The Carpenters laid into it. There was a girl in my high school who had me mesmerized, but she loved The Carpenters and this song. Actually, she loved the song, she had no idea who it was by. I think she thought that musicians made up songs as they went along, just like people who think actors create their dialog while they’re speaking. Or maybe she thought her radio made up the song. I wanted her to join me in acts I could not yet name but she was a musical idiot. This kind of cognitive dissonance can really trip you up in adolescence. Ross does a better job with “Close to You” than anyone else I’ve heard, but I still hate it.

“DoobeDood’nDoobe, DoobeDood’nDoobe, DoobeDood’nDoobe,” written by her producer, Deke Richards, also falls below acceptable standards. The producer should’ve been imprisoned for the title alone. When Ross sings it, it sounds like Santa Claus is coming to town with Frank Sinatra. But Deke redeems himself with the ballad “I’m Still Waiting.”

Motown brought out their big songwriting guns for this album, and Ross shines with Aretha Franklin’s “I Love You (Call Me)” and Marvin and Anna Gordy Gaye’s “Baby It’s Love.” She also does well with “The Long and Winding Road,” even though she has to tunnel her way through sedimentary layers of sound.

She takes on The Beatles again with “Come Together,” and though the male chorus does its best to screw things up, by the end Ross has turned it into a taunt, as if daring men to fight over her. I’m sure plenty of men have fought over her.

Everything Is Everything isn’t as good as Diana Ross (the 1970 Diana Ross), but I could understand throwing a punch for it.

Diana Ross Fun Fact 3: Donny Hathaway released his first album in July 1970 and called it Everything Is Everything. In November, Motown released Ross’ Everything Is Everything. At least they didn’t call their albums Peter Gabriel.

Surrender (1971)
Ashford and Simpson are in, Bacharach and David are out, and the music starts with a spine infusion. “Surrender” bites down hard, “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You” is urgent, and the utter power of “Remember Me” places it within the inner circle of Motown songs. This is the only Diana Ross song that I wish she’d recorded with The Supremes.

Unfortunately, “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime)?” is the end of the music I like here. The rest of the album trails off into likeability, not movability. Heed my Rule of 4: If I find four songs that I like on one album, I go get that album.

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Soundtrack for the Billie Holiday biopic. The 35 tracks are mostly snippets of tough-guy dialog from the film, including people talking over Ross while she’s trying to sing, as when an angry crowd ruins “The Man I Love.” I already hate this stupid movie and I haven’t seen it. But when you finally get to Holiday’s music, it’s as if Ross is opening a door to the spirit world and walking Billie Holiday right through it.

“Lady Sings the Blues” is breathtaking, but it’s only a minute long. I liked all of these songs, from “All of Me” to “You’ve Changed,” but the rubber meets the road when Ross goes for “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s signature song, the 1930s song protesting lynching. She rips your heart out.

Ross was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Holiday. (Liza Minnelli won for Cabaret.) It’s possibly easier to win an Oscar for a great performance inside a good film as opposed to a great performance inside a stupid one. How stupid is this movie? Judging by the soundtrack, monumentally stupid. There’s no opening theme. The closing theme is a short instrumental performed on the piano by somebody who is learning piano. You had Diana Ross waiting in the bullpen, why not call her in in relief? Where is the love?

Touch Me in the Morning (1973)
Ross recorded three albums in 1973: this one, Last Time I Saw Him, and Diana & Marvin.

The songs on Touch Me are not my thing, but they must be somebody’s. These songs may be the finest soft-rock ever recorded: “We Need You,” “Leave a Little Room” (with a debt to Paul McCartney and “Baby I’m Amazed”), and “Imagine” (what a bass line).

“I Won’t Last a Day Without You” was not a hit for its writer, Paul Williams, in 1971. Maureen McGovern took it out for a spin but with no better results. There followed a flurry of mid-’70s covers by Barbra Streisand (made me tired), Andy Williams (made me sleepy), Mel Torme (made me wonder how long the man could hold a note), and, of course, The Carpenters, who shoved it through their meat tenderizer. Ross turns in her usual competent performance but surprise, Run-DMSteve still doesn’t like it.

“My Baby (My Baby My Own)” is from another of Ross’ projects. It’s about, if I have this right, her baby. Being from another project, it’s very different from the other songs. Despite its subject, it’s menacing. “Brown Baby/Save the Children” is also from the Baby My Baby project. The first half could be a sequel to “Young, Gifted and Black.” The second half is a cover from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I would’ve been happier with the Baby My Baby album, if it had ever been released, than with Touch Me in the Morning. 

Regarding the title track, I may never play it again, but at least now I can hear how it’s related to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wishing Well” and Bread’s “It Don’t Matter to Me.”

Mahogany (1975)
Her second bad movie. Diana Ross could not catch a break in Hollywood. “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going to)” exploded into the top spot on the charts, though not in my house.

Ross had an equally big hit in 1975 with “Love Hangover,” which you can find on Diana Ross (the 1976 Diana Ross, not the 1970 Diana Ross). The 1976 Diana Ross also includes “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Maybe,” which has some of the power of “Remember Me.”

I like “Love Hangover,” but I wouldn’t use it to keep a dance moving. It’s too slow even when it speeds up. But it’s an excellent driving song.

The Wiz (1978)
This finishes the Diana Ross Bad Movie Trilogy. Out of respect for a woman I increasingly admire, I’m ending this entry right here.

The Boss (1979)
Ashford and Simpson back up Ross again and the trio turns in a pretty good disco album. “The Boss” is a We Are Family/I Will Survive song. It’s not good enough to be an anthem, as it could also be a synchronized dance routine on a dumb TV show. The bass reminds me of Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” from the 1976 film of the same name. “Once in the Morning” is Michael Jacksonish with a “Boogie Oogie Oogie” bass.

This survey of the first decade of Diana Ross’ solo career doesn’t end on a triumphant note, but she’s only just begun. In the ’80s, which is beyond our event horizon, Ross will release many dance and soul hits, including “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.” Plus her album covers will feature some spectacular hair styles. The main lesson I learned from this dash across the ’70s is that Diana Ross can follow any direction popular music takes and produce something memorable and make it all sound simple, as if the songs were already there and she just discovered them.

Ross is not too refined; she’s godly – a black, female Sinatra. And I’m no longer a teenage boy wondering what all the fuss with her is about and putting Pink Floyd on the turntable.

Tomorrow: Disco, the theme music of the Carter Administration!

 

Today I heard “Ghosbusters” (three times on two stations), “Thriller” (twice), and once each for “Spirits in the Material World,” “The Purple People Eater,” “Monster Mash,” “Season of the Witch,” and “Every Day Is Halloween.” From this sample I deduced that Christmas music is always about Christmas but Halloween music is never about Halloween.

Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” is about ghosts, sure, but it’s also about as scary as “Y.M.C.A.”

Michael Jackson sets a scary scene in “Thriller,” but it turns out to be a movie on TV. “I can thrill you more than any ghost,” he claims. Uh-huh. As for Vincent Price’s monologue, remember that the root of it is “And whosoever shall be found/Without the soul for getting down/Must stand and face the hounds of hell/And rot inside a corpse’s shell.”

It’s always a mistake to put Vincent Price on your record.

Sting is scary, music by The Police is not.

Sheb Wooley’s Purple People Eater has one eye, one horn, flies, and devours people, but it came to Earth to form a rock ’n’ roll band. The last word in the song is “Tequila.”

In Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” all they wanna do is dance, dance.

Songs with “witch” in the title are usually about a woman who won’t have sex with the singer. God knows what Donovan was getting at in “Season of the Witch.” He threw me with the line “Beatniks are out to make it rich.”

For the boys in Ministry, every day is Halloween because they dress like goths, not because they come to the door asking for candy.

David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters” are actually “super creeps,” Oingo Boingo’s dead men are going to a “Dead Man’s Party” which makes it a descendant of “Monster Mash,” and The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You” is a love song, and not to a ghost.

We humans like being scared…in our books and movies. We love haunted houses and Halloween. We love opening the door on another batch of kids dressed as monsters, ninja assassins, witches, Jedis, superheroes, and roller-skating ninja assassin prom queens. But we don’t like being scared in our music. Wagner can be frightening, but that’s because I don’t want to be trapped for weeks in one of his operas.

Unidentified noises in the night, when we’re in bed, scare us. Songs don’t. I don’t know why.

Tonight, my parents opened the same door for trick-or-treaters that they’ve been opening since 1957. There must be adults who got candy from my Mom and Dad back when they were kids and who are now bringing their grandchildren around. And I’m their son. OK, now I’m scared.

 

Purple Rain
Prince & The Revolution
1984

Purple Rain is the soundtrack to the movie of the same name. This soundtrack rocketed Prince to the level just below worldwide godhood – an orbit occupied at that time by only two North Americans, Michael Jackson and the ghost of Elvis. (Madonna joined Michael and Elvis later that year when she unleashed Like a Virgin.) Purple Rain has some slow spots. But when it’s good, it’s hammer-you-like-Mjölnir good.

As a critic, I should do my homework, but I was never good with after-school assignments. I haven’t seen the film. As much as I love this guy’s music, I know that Prince’s real topic is Prince. I can handle that on an album but probably not with visuals.

But it occurred to me last week when I saw Boyhood that I should do a soundtracks week, and if I do I might revisit this issue. I already have the following films lined up: Purple Rain, Stormy Weather, Almost Famous, Footloose, Backbeat, The Wiz, The Crow, The King and I, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Dazed and Confused, Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion, Krush Groove, ’Round Midnight, Rocky Horror Picture Show, High Fidelity, Chicago, Kansas City, Escape From New York, Meet Me in St. Louis, Viva Las Vegas, Head, Shaft, Great Balls of Fire, Where the Boys Are, Never on Sunday, all of the Batmans (or at least the one scored by Prince), anything where they play AC/DC’s “Back in Black” or “Highway to Hell” before the big battle, and Amadeus.

[Editor’s note: My wife has asked me to mark on the calendar the weeks I’ll require for this project so she’ll know when to fly to Kauai.]

On Purple Rain, “Let’s Go Crazy” kicks things off in typical kick-you-in-the-posterior, kick-things-off Prince fashion. I can only borrow a phrase my late father-in-law learned back in the 1940s when he wanted to express his appreciation for an attractive woman: “What a tomato!”

I often skip “Take Me With U” and “The Beautiful Ones.” They’re too earnest. But I don’t skip “Computer Blue,” which is funky, danceable, and (I think) told from the point of view of a man who lives inside a computer. He’s kinda blue. This is another song that David Bowie would’ve killed for 30 years ago.

“Darling Nikki” is sex. That’s all. You don’t dance to it, you scare your parents with it. An aspirational number for every gender, particularly female-type persons who grew up under the sway of Madonna or (God help you) Britney. The final minute is dumb. It was dumb in 1984 and it’s still dumb in 2014. There. It had to be said.

“When Doves Cry” has no bass player and doesn’t need one. How many confessional, soul-flayed-open, bass-less songs that compare the singer to his father and his lover to her mother go straight to #1? I like Prince best when he’s more light-hearted, but I can’t help liking this song.

“I Would Die 4 U” is a good rocker, but it’s really the set-up for “Baby I’m a Star,” which goes nova within seconds. This is one of the songs I want played at my memorial service.

Hey! Look me over
Tell me do you like what you see?
Hey, I ain’t got no money
But honey, I’m rich on personality

OK, big finish
And finally, “Purple Rain.” For once, Prince ends rather than begins an album with the title track. I suppose this was the music for the triumphant, light-washed and love-filled final scene in the film, and I suppose if I’d been in the theater for it, it would’ve given me chills. All 9 minutes of it. Listening to it as I have all these years without the movie in front of me, I always wish it were shorter. Well, it definitely sets a mood, and there’s a guitar onslaught halfway through that would’ve caused Huey Lewis or Night Ranger to spontaneously combust. Send the violins off to somebody else’s house and I’d be a lot happier.

It was with this record that I finally recognized the twin messages of empowerment and reassurance in Prince’s lyrics. I heard this 20 years later in Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” When I launched this blog after one of her concerts, I wrote that she was “Prince in a bikini.” I shouldn’t have been so flippant. Lady Gaga is not one of the many young women Prince has mentored, but she’s definitely his heir. Also, Prince has probably worn a bikini.

You knew this was going to happen
I should’ve figured that when I started out to review every Prince album ever made, he’d strike back by making more. Sure enough, he has a new album. If I had chosen Sir Paul instead of Prince, the same thing would’ve happened.

Scoreboard
Just as 1999 ran into the buzzsaw of Thriller, this year Purple Rain was overwhelmed by Born in the USA. Not many albums can stand against Born in the USA and not look silly. Purple Rain is one.

Rolling Stone’s best albums of 1984:

Winner:
Born in the USA – Bruce Springsteen

Runners-up:
Purple Rain – Prince
Private Dancer – Tina Turner
How Will the Wolf Survive? – Los Lobos
Learning to Crawl – The Pretenders

In 1984, Rolling Stone gave their readers the vote. They too went for Born in the USA in the top spot. These were the runners-up:

Purple Rain – Prince
1984 – Van Halen
Sports – Huey Lewis & The News
Eliminator – ZZ Top

Nobody picked Amadeus. Dudes!

Random Pan of the Day
Prince, Around the World in a Day (1985)
A good album from anyone else but a disappointment from Prince. (Be fair: How do you follow the stupendiosity of Purple Rain?) For the first time in years, the opening track of a Prince album doesn’t rock the house. “Around the World in a Day” doesn’t even knock on the front door. “America” is too much like “Baby I’m a Star,” this time with a few remarks on poverty (he’s against it). The religious-themed songs (Prince became a Seventh Day Adventist around this time) don’t make me jump up and shout “You go, God!”

The one song that’s up to Prince’s standards is “Raspberry Beret,” which sounds vaguely like Michael Jackson territory. I like it, but The Jackson Five would’ve done it better. (The J5 could never have written lyrics anything like Prince’s, though.)

R.I.P.: Paul Revere, 1938-2014. Thanks for the kicks.

1999
Prince
1982

Is there a better way to open a prom, a wedding, a bar mitzvah, an election, a Supreme Court hearing, the Ring cycle, or yet another Christmas production of the Messiah than with “1999”? You’re smiling just thinking about it, just like you do when you hear The Rolling Stones start up “Start Me Up.” We humans have been wired to be happy when we hear “1999.” How can we not? The first words on the record are spoken by God! That’s a God I can get behind.

“1999” is going to be huge forever, but I predict a surge in 2099. In case I don’t make it that far, I want one of you to grab your personal anti-grav fanny pack and hit the dance floor in my memory.

Prince names his third album in a row after the opening track and each time the opener gets better. How do you follow an overture like “1999”? Before we answer that question, let’s take up another: What makes Prince’s records sexy? I have a theory, which I will illustrate by comparing him with two of his peers, Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson.

My theory, which is mine: Why Prince is so Lovesexy
1. Funny guy who makes fun of himself: Prince yes, Mick says who, Michael no.
2. Really wants to have sex with you: Prince yes, Mick yes, Michael not applicable.
3. Really wants you to enjoy it: Prince yes, Mick says what, Michael not applicable.
4. Willing to be vulnerable: Prince yes, Mick just left with a groupie, Michael yes*.

* When he was younger. Way younger.

The first half of 1999 is the house party
“Little Red Corvette” gives us a breather after “1999.” The macho narrator at the song’s conclusion who wants to tame your “little red love machine” started far short of that:

I guess I should’ve closed my eyes
When you drove me to the place where your horses run free
’Cause I felt a little ill when I saw all the pictures
Of the jockeys that were there before me

The sweet-sounding “Delirious” comes next, with plenty more car imagery. “1999” is my favorite Prince song, but so is “Delirious,” and also the next one, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” It takes almost a minute for that one to get going because the man knows he’s got us.

The second half of 1999 is the private-club rave
Five and six tracks in and we’re still smoking. “D.M.S.R.” (dance, music, sex, romance) and “Automatic” are some of the best funk ever recorded, but these songs are long – 17 minutes together. (“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” runs seven minutes but feels shorter.) After the headrush of the first four songs, they bog things down.

“D.M.S.R.” is an amalgam of Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love,” Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Till You Get Enough” (without the string section), everything by Ohio Players, and of course Prince. The synthesizers are the stars, but everyone’s playing them in the ’80s, including The Rolling Stones – listen to what they do the following year on “Undercover of the Night.”

“Automatic” takes on the computer-chipped Gary Numan at his own frigid game. David Bowie of the Station to Station/Low/Heroes period would’ve killed to write a dance groove like this one – but Bowie would never have let it run loose for 9 minutes.

A pause while we consider a sex act
Could it be that Prince was writing 8- to 9-minute rhythmic dance songs because he wanted to create a soundtrack for the average length of intercourse? Or what men think is the average length of intercourse?

Now stop considering a sex act
The air leaks out of this album with “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute),” which is like a serious version of The B-52s, which is like a terrible idea, and “Free,” which offers no surprises, which for Prince is a surprise. Teddy Pendergrass, Rod Stewart, and even Supertramp could’ve recorded “Free” while they were walking from their car to the front door of the studio.

Prince tries to seal the leak but gets mixed results with the final three tracks. “Lady Cab Driver” (this being a Prince album, you know how the ride went) rocks, but not over the entire 8 minutes. “All the Critics Love You in New York” is a dues song; at least he held off for five albums before birthing one. But “International Lover” is a strong finish. The spoken word ending, which includes the title of this post, is funnier and sexier than Mick Jagger’s knight-in-shining-armor shtick at the end of “Emotional Rescue” (1980).

Wanna be startin’ something
1999 was released just one month before Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the biggest-selling record since the invention of the sackbut. I said a while back that I’d take Prince over Michael for career performance and Michael over Prince for peak performance. Thriller is Michael’s peak, and it’s Mount Everest. Prince has to settle for Mount Rainier. No shame in that; Rainer has many neighbors and dwarfs all of them.

1999 is my favorite of the two, but Thriller is the better album.

Rolling Stone’s best albums of 1982:

Winner (tie):
Nebraska – Bruce Springsteen
Shoot Out the Lights – Richard and Linda Thompson

Runners-up:
Imperial Bedroom – Elvis Costello
1999 – Prince
The Blue Mask – Lou Reed
Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

Random Pick of the Day
The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers (1971)
The Beatles are #1. The Rolling Stones are #2. Why is this? Because The Beatles were original. The Rolling Stones are not. The Stones excel at other people’s genres (including disco but excluding punk). They didn’t invent hard rock, but Sticky Fingers is the best hard-rock album this side of Paradise. It’s easily worth the entire Pearl Jam catalog. Take away “You Got to Move,” a blues cover (oddly, for them, it’s not a good one), and this record is almost perfect.

Random Pan of the Day
The Rolling Stones, Undercover (1983)
By this point the Stones were well on their way to becoming the Christmas fruitcake of popular music. The only salvageable song on Undercover is “Undercover of the Night.” It would’ve fit well on their last good album, Some Girls (1978). The rest is crap.

A few years ago, I set out to listen to every Rolling Stones record in chronological order. After I listened to Undercover I was so annoyed that I dropped the project.

Compensation: If you type in “Undercover” on Rhapsody, you also get an electronic dance trio by that name. They play dancified covers of big ’70s pop hits, including Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” and Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” They’re not bad. They’re better than Foreigner!

 

In Seattle in the early ’80s there was a fannish group that lived together in a house called Star Base. It was part of an informal chain of Star Bases around the country, from the first generation of Star Trek fans. They had a charter and I think they were incorporated as a non-profit. (I was present when the charter was dissolved, but I was too distracted by one of the female board members and the sweater she was wearing to take in the details.)

Seattle’s Star Base was part of a larger group of science fiction fans who lived around Seattle, with a satellite group in Olympia. They threw raucous parties at their house on Phinney Ridge. Bet their neighbors liked that. It was mostly women living at Star Base, and from the outside this group looked as if a) every day was Gestalt Therapy Day, or b) they were training for a covert mission overseas.

I’m not making fun of these folks. For all the hijinks and emotional maelstroms that went on there, I have never met a group of people who got so much done in a day. If you had to get to the moon by close of business Friday, they’d get you there. They ran sci-fi conventions, held jobs, and saved lives.

I just noticed that “hijinks” has three dots in a row. Looks Danish.

Raspberry beret/The kind you find in a second-hand store
When I first met them, Michael Jackson ruled at Star Base (along with Rocky Horror and a true ’70s horror, Meatloaf). Every year at Norwescon, the region’s biggest convention, at midnight during the Saturday night dance, the djs played Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” from Off the Wall (1979). If you lived at Star Base or partied at Star Base or had sex at Star Base or wanted to have sex at Star Base, you got on the dance floor and participated in a group dance that I thought was kinda dumb but everyone had fun doing it so forget me.

But Prince was already making inroads among the female population of Star Base. Just look at the cover of Dirty Mind (1980):

Prince - Dirty Mind

Michael Jackson always seemed sexless to me. Not Prince.

Raspberry beret/And if it was warm she wouldn’t wear much more
I learned about Prince thanks to the Star Base population. I’ve never really written about him, probably because he’s released more albums than Chicago and I feel intimidated when I consider him as a subject. Today I’ll do a little to make amends.

You can’t think about Michael Jackson and Prince without noting the startling coincidences in the lives of the two men. They were both born in the Midwest in the summer of 1958. Michael Jackson started out as a Jehovah’s Witness. Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness as an adult. They began their solo careers within a year of each other. Michael Jackson named his son Prince. Prince would’ve done the same thing if he had felt like it. The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters. And so on.

Excuse me but I need a mouth like yours
But the differences are far greater. The Michael Jackson who launched his real debut effort (without his father hanging over him) with Off the Wall emerged with his sound fully formed. It didn’t change by a molecule until the day he died. Prince has experimented so much with his sound, he makes Beck look like he’s chained to a chair. Only David Bowie and maybe Paul McCartney can keep up with this guy.

Michael at his peak gave us “Billy Jean,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” and “Thriller,” but for overall accomplishment I’ll take Prince. Period. There’s a lot of uninteresting filler in Michael’s oeuvre. Of the songs I’ve heard on Prince’s army of albums, I can’t say that all of them are worth repeated listens, but rarely is something uninteresting. And as for high points – “1999,” “Delirious,” “Dirty Mind,” and “Let’s Go Crazy” are pretty good songs.

To help me forget the girl that just walked out my door
I’m launching The Prince Project beginning today. What is The Prince Project? Bill Murray to Dan Ackroyd in Ghost Busters: “I don’t know.” I’ll figure it out as I listen. Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome. You’re also welcome to keep me company in my little red corvette by loaning me a Prince CD. There are only about 35 to choose from.

If I could put Star Base to work on this, we’d finish this project before we began.

Random Pick of the Day
The Byrds, Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)
The superb Bob Dylan covers include the title cut and “Chimes of Freedom.” The Gene Clark originals, particularly “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Here Without You,” are like folk versions of The Beatles. The song that really kills me is Pete Seeger’s “The Bells of Rhymney.” This is one of my favorite songs of the 1960s.

I rate this album a Must Buy, even though Mr. Tambourine Man falls apart in the final laps and even though “Eight Miles High,” “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” aren’t on it.

Random Pan of the Day
Bad Company, Bad Company (1974)
Bad Company is nowhere near as good as Free or Mott the Hoople, the bands that begat them. Bad Company is nowhere near as good as AC/DC, though it’s obvious that AC/DC wouldn’t have existed without Bad Company. Whether that’s reason enough to build a time machine and return to 1974 with a bazooka is your call.

So what do we have on their debut? The origins of the arena buttrock format: “Can’t Get Enough,” which is about sex, “Movin’ On,” which is about leaving after sex, and “Bad Company,” which is about why it’s tough to be Bad Company, so I guess you should have sex with them to make them feel better. And then there’s “Seagull.”

“Seagull” is a rock-star dues song. Just the thing to include on your first album. In this epic tonal composition, “seagull” means “our awesome band” and “never asking why” means “we are so stoned” and “until you are shot out of the sky” means “until they stop buying your records.” Bad Company gets major demerits for writing a dues song when they should’ve been paying fines.

Ernest Hemingway said it best: “As musicians they are fatal.”

 

“Ghostbusters”
Ray Parker, Jr.
1984

R&B hitmaker Ray Parker, Jr. once said that his biggest challenge in writing the theme song for this movie was the lack of words that rhyme with “ghostbusters.” PolitiFact rates this assertion as True. The only two rhymes I can think of are “feather dusters” and “workplace clusters,” neither of which work in the context of fighting off an invasion from the afterlife.

“Ghostbusters” is a rip-off of Huey Lewis & The Snooze’s “I Want a New Drug.” I don’t care which one came first. Both of them go on way too long (3:59 and 4:45, respectively) and anyway they’re both distant descendants of the “George of the Jungle” theme. In 1987, Michael Jackson reused this riff for “Bad” (at 4:06 it fits right in). The result of all this cross-pollination is that whenever I play Weird Al’s “I Want a New Duck” I hear this whole crowd singing.

Ghostbusters was a silly movie, but it gave us two lines that we’re still quoting here at the Bureau: “Zool, you nut” and “Here’s  your mucous, Egon.” Parker’s song gave us two more: “Who ya gonna call?” and “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.”

It was Loyal Reader Tilda who demonstrated the versatility of that second phrase. Shortly after the movie was released, when the Orioles were scheduled to play the Mariners, she announced, “I ain’t afraid of no birds!” I’ve been customizing this line ever since, particularly whenever I find myself trapped in another workplace cluster.

In honor of Tilda and her sidekick Rickalope’s 23rd anniversary, everyone go listen to Ray Parker’s “You Can’t Change That.”

Random Pick of the Week
Mark Lanegan Band, Blues Funeral (2012)
Tilda strikes again – thanks for the tip, kid. Mark Lanegan was the singer in Screaming Trees and a man who, judging from that work and his solo albums, never fails to find the gray cloud around every silver lining. Blues Funeral is not what I’d call perky, but I love two tracks, the rocking “Riot in My House” and the almost-danceable, techno-influenced, unapologetically romantic “Ode to Sad Disco.” I’d have to love that one just for putting the word “disco” on a Mark Lanegan album.

Random Pan of the Week
Can, Monster Movie (1969)
Rhapsody says of Can’s first record, “The band fails to play a single note that is not ahead of its time.” Big talk for an app with more bugs than a Cape Cod cranberry bog during an August sunset. These German avant-gardesters make me want to holler, and not about anything good.

RIP, Ray Manzarek (1939-2013). This. Is. The. End.

“I am what I am. Thank God.” – Jimi Hendrix, “Message to Love”

A co-worker entered my humble cubicle one day late in 2012 and said, “Flashback!” He was looking at the two shelves above my desk, which held a row of CDs, a display of old postcards, and the Pets.com Sock Puppet Spokesthing. While he gushed about these ancient cultural artifacts, I saw my possessions through his eyes. I realized that I could’ve decorated my space the same way at the job I had in 2000. In fact, I know I did.

I’m stuck in time!

In an email later that morning to this co-worker, after stating that I didn’t care what he thought of me, I wrote without even thinking “I’m through being cool!” and hit Send. Then I thought, Oh no, it’s Devo! I’m really stuck in time.

Rather than consider what all this says about me, let’s use it as an excuse to go back to the future. Welcome to 1986 Week, commemorating that stellar year when, as Paul Simon sang on Graceland, “I was single/and life was great!”*

Most of the artists I loved in the ’80s released nothing new in 1986. Echo & The Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs, The Cure, U2, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen held off until 1987 (when Prince gave us Sign ’O’ the Times, his equivalent of The White Album, and U2 gave us their masterpiece, The Unforgettable Fire**).

The B-52s didn’t record again until 1989, but in 1986 The Rolling Stones dressed up just like them.

Dirty Work

By 1986 Romeo Void had broken up. David Bowie and Michael Jackson had left the bulk of their best work behind. Gary Numan had left all of his best work behind. Robert Cray debuted with Strong Persuader, though I prefer what he did later. Duran Duran released Notorious, which was notorious for being awful. I refuse to listen to Madonna’s True Blue or Boston’s Third Stage. I can’t decide which is funnier, The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill or Metallica’s Master of Puppets. I’ll get to Depeche Mode, The Pretenders, Paul Simon, Talking Heads, and Siouxsie & The Banshees as 1986 Week progresses.

What was the best song of 1986? Yo, pretty ladies around the world: Put your hands in the air like you just don’t care for Cameo’s “Word Up!”

Don’t expect 1986 Week to last all week. Don’t expect a comprehensive survey. Don’t get all army-foldy on me, either.

As we used to say in the peculiar slang we employed back in 1986: See you tomorrow!

* Special D is fond of quoting that line to me. Hey doll: “I sure do love you/let’s get that straight.”
** A tip of the critic’s pointy hat to my friend and fellow softball player Donald Keller, who put “mantlepiece” in my head whenever I want to say “masterpiece.” 

Random 1986 Pick of the Day
The Chills, Kaleidoscope World
1986 gave us albums from The Chills, The Cramps, and The Creeps. This reminds me of an evening I spent at Fenway Park in 1979 when we had three pitchers on hand named Clear, Frost, and Rainey.

I don’t know a thing about Kaleidoscope World; I just needed a Chills album from 1986 to fit my theme. The album I have heard is Submarine Bells (1990), which has two lovely pop songs, “Singing in My Sleep” and “Heavenly Pop Hit” (nice try, boys).

Random 1986 Pan of the Day
Stan Ridgway, The Big Heat
I must honor this man for rhyming “Tijuana” with “barbecued iguana” in Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio.” Sadly, on his solo debut he sounds like The B-52s’ Fred Schneider with really bad hair.