Posts Tagged ‘Sting’

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.


Merriam-Webster defines ethnomusicology as “the study of music in a sociocultural context.” To pry into the social and cultural context of a musician’s life, students of ethnomusicology require a laboratory of specialized electronic equipment. This is why most ethnomusicologists are employees of the Department of Homeland Security. Notable ethnomusicologists to date include Charlemagne, Miley Cyrus, John Carter of Mars, the Dewey who invented decimals, the Dewey who beat Truman, the Dewey who beat the Spanish, Milli (but not, as is usually assumed, Vanilli), and Laurel Sercombe.

Here at Run-DMSteve we proudly support the sciences, however intrusive, which is why I am devoting today’s post to my sociocultural field notes on a peculiar tribe of male pop stars. Like me, they are known around the world by one name. Who are they and how did they get so mono? Let’s check the record.

Fear not, I burned all my notebooks (what good are notebooks?) after interviewing Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute.

Real name: Wladziu Valentino Liberace
Country of origin: USA
Superpowers: Piano, costumes
Gemstone: All of them

Mr. Showmanship loved the simple things: a solid-gold candelabra, a fur-lined cape studded with diamonds, a piano built to look like a Cadillac. He gave Barbra Streisand an early boost, which is bad, but he also served as an inspiration to Elton John, which is worse. For decades you never knew when this smiling terror was going to pop up on TV and race across the keys like the Pony Express.

But if you pay attention to Liberace’s music rather than the cheap theatrics, you’ll find that the man could flat out play. He usually played inoffensive crap (“You Made Me Love You,” “Somewhere My Love,” “Born Free”), but when he turned to the classics, particularly Chopin, you got a glimpse of the little boy who was hailed as a piano prodigy.

While I’m not going to buy the Liberace boxed set (if such a thing existed, it would be too heavy to lift), I must conclude that Liberace was better than his reputation. He was certainly a lot more honest than his tuxedo-wearing, piano-playing contemporaries Ferrante & Teicher, who peddled a lite-beer version of classical music as if it were the real thing.

Verdict: When I was a kid, every grandmother I knew loved Liberace. That’s not a bad epitaph. Reluctant thumbs up.

Real name: Donovan Philips Leitch
Country of origin: Scotland
Superpowers: Voice, beads, scarves, bells
Gemstone: A pyramid

If Donovan had been a one-hit wonder and if “Season of the Witch” had been his one hit, I would revere his name. The song is a pioneering, mind-blowing merger of folk, psychedelia, and the blues. If you’re looking for the place where metal began, “Season of the Witch” is an excellent candidate.

Unfortunately, Donovan was not a one-hit wonder. Amid the hippie bell-bottom antics and the odes to Atlantis and the girl he named for a shrub, we had to contend with “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” which was also the theme from a 1960s perfume commercial, and “Mellow Yellow,” which was a rip-off of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”

However, I must admit that there are two reasons besides “Season of the Witch” to listen to Donovan:

1)      “Sunshine Superman” is somewhat funky. There are bongos in there somewhere. True, Donovan sings about women having “little minds,” but that fits right in with today’s War on Women.

2)      “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is one of the funniest songs ever recorded. It sounds like a parody of the entire Psychedelic Sixties. It’s closest musical kin is Tommy James & The Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover” – you could easily trade vocals.

Verdict: Donovan couldn’t rock if he was strapped into a rocking chair that was sliding downhill on an avalanche of ball bearings, but “Donovan” is a great name. And then there’s “Season of the Witch.” Embarrassed thumbs up.

Real name: Yiànnis Hrysomàllis
Country of origin: Greece
Superpowers: Classified
Gemstone: Moon rock

In 1988 I went to work at a newspaper where one of our senior writers was in lust with Yanni. Roger didn’t care about Yanni’s music. He didn’t even know if Yanni played an instrument. When a Yanni record came in for review, Roger threw away the LP and kept the album cover (like the Joe Morton character in The Brother From Another Planet). He was particularly taken with Chameleon Days, on the cover of which our prodigiously mustached hero, dressed in synthetic fibers, is hugging a white rock.

Then Yanni took up with Dynasty actress Linda Evans. Roger was disgusted. “I’m throwing him out of the nest,” he told me after he banished all images of Yanni from the office.

Verdict: I tried listening to Chameleon Days. The cover really is the best part. Thumbs down, if not broken.

Real name: Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner
Country of origin: England
Superpower: Unknown
Gemstone: Pb (atomic number 82)

In the late 1960s the Red Sox had a relief ace named Lee Stange. The press nicknamed him “The Stinger.” Once, during a rain delay, while the Red Sox radio announcers were stalling for time by reading their fan mail, they had to reassure an aggrieved lady that they were not calling her favorite pitcher “The Stinker.”

This brings us to Sting and his best-known album: …Nothing Like the Sun (1987). I’m listening to this thing from Sting as I type and it sounds like his old band, The Police, with a dash of Paul Simon, but with nowhere near the quality of either. All is calm on most of this record, as if the speakers only go to 4. The easy-listening hit for old people was “Be Still My Beating Heart.” The bright, bouncy hit for young people was “We’ll Be Together.” The song you fell asleep to was “They Dance Alone.” The thing from Sting that for me didn’t swing was his cover of “Little Wing.” The album I should’ve listened to was Simon’s Graceland (1986).

Verdict: If you’re going to call yourself Sting, you’d better sting something. Otherwise people might think they’re hearing the wrong word. Also, never pose nude in the desert. Even Morrissey never tried that. Two thumbs down.

Real name: As befits a titan, he has two: Bek David Campbell and Beck Hansen
Country of origin: USA
Superpower: Can remember every song he’s ever heard
Gemstone: Vinyl

I’ve written about Beck before. If I have any gods, two of them are Beck and John Updike. And what do you know – my favorite Updike character is Henry Bech. Is this a coincidence, or further proof that Oswald did not act alone? Neither – it simply proves that gods are not infallible. As a stage name, “Beck” is a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me. Besides confusing him with Updike’s monumentally lazy character, the name Beck makes me think of chickens, Glenn Beck, Jeff Beck, Jeff Beck’s album Beck-Ola, and bending it like Beck(ham).

Bek/Beck had the right idea – a solid Anglo-Saxon syllable that begins and ends with a strong consonant. It’s just the wrong syllable. One of his other names, “Hansen,” would’ve been an improvement, plus it might’ve stopped the three-brother teen menace that appeared later in the ’90s.

Verdict: Two thumbs up for his music, two down for his name.

Real name: Marshall Bruce Mathers III
Country of origin: USA
Superpower: Surviving his childhood, teenhood, young adulthood, and his upcoming middle-agehood
Gemstone: Empty can of Red Bull

Eminem and I come from different historical eras. His first job was rapping. My first job was working 15 years on the Erie Canal. If I liked his music, he’d be in trouble. But I can appreciate him for his sneaky vocabulary, his ability to rap out a song while arguing with his back-up rappers about his raps, and the humor in his first full-length, The Slim Shady LP (1999).

My problem with Eminem is that I can’t take the Minnie Mouse quality of his voice. The man sounds as if he’s resting between tanks of helium, which is ironic for the star of the mega-gritty 8 Mile. There may be a rapper out there for me, but Eminem isn’t the guy. Nice name, though.

Verdict: The only thing I can think of that would be worse than an Eminem concert would be a Beach Boys concert. Two thumbs making gangsta gestures. Yo bring it on down.

Real name: Steve
Country of origin: Massachusetts
Superpower: Can be wicked annoying
Gemstone: Bauxite

(All ethnomusicology research needs a control group. The control group for this study is Run-DMSteve. To guarantee our objectivity, I’m turning over this section to my dog, Storm Small.)

Steve has had a difficult time holding onto a nickname. I’m not counting the stuff his parents still call him.

When he worked at a restaurant in Harvard Square in the late ’70s, where he washed dishes and had a psychedelic experience at midnight in front of the griddle, they called him “Animal” and “Jaws” because he ate everything that wasn’t bacon. But he let his comrades down when they entered him in a muffin-eating contest and he couldn’t even break into double digits.

“Wolverine” stuck for about 2 minutes before Special D changed it to “Tangerine.”

Accused of Lurking dubbed him “Blue Pencil” for his skills as an editor who fights crime, but that name only works when Steve is actually employed.

In the late 1990s, Shawn, another co-worker, suggested “Run-DMSteve.” Though Shawn was employing a technique called “satire,” the nickname Run-DMSteve has turned out to be a winner in the electrifying world of blogging. Someone from Japan looked at this blog last week, and someone from Finland dropped by last month. Not bad for a guy who used to go to concerts in what he termed his “tough guy” sweater.

Verdict: Job or not, he keeps those kibbles coming. Four paws up!

Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan
Various artists

What was the first rock ’n’ roll song? Scholars debate “Rocket 88” (1951) vs. “Rock Around the Clock” (1955). As if! The first rock ’n’ roll song was obviously “Please Please Me” (1963), because that was the first rock ’n’ roll record I ever owned.

I have no memory of how “Please Please Me” entered my little world. The perp might’ve been one of my younger, hipper aunts, the one who could correctly identify Jerry Lee Lewis and The Beach Boys. The record could also have come from my father’s only known visit to a record store. In the wake of The Beatles’ 1964 appearance on Ed Sullivan, my dad, Run-DMIrving, went in search of music that would appeal to Young People, as he had three of them at home. At the store, Dad (who cries every time he hears Mike Douglas sing “The Men in My Little Girl’s Life”) was advised by two teenage girls and returned with a stack of 45s: The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, Glenn Miller leading his band in “Moonlight Serenade,” Liberace leading an assault on Mozart, nursery rhymes, country songs about prisons and coffee, something about a purple people eater, and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” I don’t know who those girls were, but I’ll bet they’re the ones who invented satellite radio.

I quickly lost the paper sleeve to “Please Please Me,” but we had crayoned all over it anyway. We probably tried the same trick on the black-and-silver inner label. Then, to completely erase the value of this artifact, I played it repeatedly on our 1940s-era turntable. The tone-arm tracked at a sure-footed 10 pounds and you could imagine if not actually see slivers of vinyl curling up in the wake of the needle. This record rests in peace today inside the huge console phonograph my parents bought in 1970, sandwiched between the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof and Grand Funk Railroad’s Closer to Home.

Whatever your choice for the first rock ’n’ roll record, no one back then would have believed that anyone could make a living for 50 years in this business. Most bands never have a hit and most of the ones that do have only one. But here’s Bob Dylan in 2012 with 50 years of music behind him, still touring, still recording, and still holding the attention of fans, critics, scholars, and idiot bloggers.

Amnesty International is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a tribute to Bob Dylan: Chimes of Freedom. This is an enormous block of music, four CDs in its initial release and two CDs in a follow-up from Starbucks. Because I’m not a fan of Dylan, I opted for the set I could buy at my neighborhood Starbucks, which also gave me an excuse to buy a cranberry-orange scone.

Run-DMSteve vs. Bob Dylan
I admit I have made a few comments about Dylan that have not been entirely positive. However, it doesn’t matter what I think of the music of Bob Dylan or the films of Bob Dylan or the art of Bob Dylan or the many religions of Bob Dylan or the man Bob Dylan. What does matter is that the only artists who have had a greater influence on popular music in the past 50 years were John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Dylan deserves all the acclaim he gets, though he probably doesn’t deserve Ke$ha covering “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” which is what happens if you buy the four-CD version. I’d rather hear Lady Gaga take a swing at “Lay Lady Lay,” but I regret that that one only exists in my head.

The Starbucks Chimes of Freedom is not a history of Dylan’s career. More than half of this set is from the 1960s, with most of those songs from two albums, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’. Well, those are two pretty good albums, even if they leave the final g off their verbs. Starbucks also omitted “Lay Lady Lay,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” most of Nashville Skyline, Blood on the Tracks, and Desire, and everything he’s recorded since 1997’s Time Out of Mind.

What this is is a series of loving tributes. Unfortunately, while the 31 artists from around the world are undeniably talented (not counting Sting), most of them are way too loving. An air of reverence, almost as if they’re asking for permission, inhibits them from cutting loose and owning the song they’ve been assigned. No one goes head-to-head with Dylan à la Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” or Beck’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”

It doesn’t help that several people tried to imitate Dylan’s voice. I can hear that from any street-corner musician on my lunch break. Two tracks from Blonde on Blonde suffer this fate. Mick Hucknall of Simply Red does a pretty good Dylan on “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” and the Israeli Oren Lavie proves on “4th Time Around” that he can imitate Dylan and Leonard Cohen simultaneously. This is not an evolutionary advantage.

Here’s what good
Joan Baez sings “Seven Curses,” a track that was dropped from the Freewheelin’ album. I’m astounded by the purity of her voice, as she’s been around as long as Dylan. Airborne Toxic Event gives us a memorable “Boots of Spanish Leather,” though the chorus threatens to slide into “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.” K’Naan, a Somalian rapper, works against an intrusive string section to transform “With God on Our Side” into a heartfelt foot-tapper. Raphael Saadiq (from the USA) is no Beck, but I like how he turns “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” into a languid honky-tonk.

Then there’s RedOne, a Moroccan who produced Lady Gaga, and Nabil Khayat, who is from Lebanon and who otherwise is a mystery to me. Their version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” rewards more than one listen, despite the echo of the 1993 Guns N’ Roses version.

Patti Smith gives “Drifter’s Escape” a real country flavor, befitting one of the gems from  John Wesley Harding but something I wouldn’t have expected from her. Diana Krall does a lot with “Simple Twist of Fate,” one of only two songs here from Blood on the Tracks. The reverence that undercuts others somehow works for her.

Mexico’s Ximena Sarinana is an actress and a singer, like Zooey Deschanel but with a more appealing voice. She turns “I Want You” into a cross between a low-budget carnival and a high school march. Mariachi El Bronx’s “Love Sick” is fun but slow, as is the Silversun Pickups’ rendition of “Not Dark Yet,” which is dreamy and U2-like without U2’s ability to floor it.

Kris Kristofferson’s “Quinn the Eskimo” is so singular, it’s too weird to listen to a second time!

The trouble with big names
Just because you recruit a famous artist to interpret the song of another famous artist doesn’t mean you’re going to wind up with something famous. What bigger name is there than Johnny Cash? His duet with Dylan on Nashville Skyline’s “Girl From the North Country” was the highlight of that monumental album. Here he sings another ’60s favorite, “One Too Many Mornings,” but he’s in the harness with a North Carolina folk duo named The Avett Brothers. The Avetts play well, and they sing OK, but OK isn’t good enough when you’re standing side by side with Johnny Cash, mister.

Seal is a British soul singer; Jeff Beck is a Stone Age guitar god and jazz-fusion pioneer. They were assigned the most awesome Bob Dylan song ever, “Like a Rolling Stone” (#1 on Rolling Stones’ list of the top 500 songs of all time). Sadly, combining Seal’s voice, which is brassy and opaque, with Beck’s guitar playing, which is fast and furious, gets us just about nowhere. But they’re livelier than their cohorts Pete Townshend, Bryan Ferry, Mark Knopfler, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Adele, and Jackson Browne. These folks are simply uninteresting, except for Jackson Browne, who also manages to be irritating.

Ziggy Marley does fine with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and if I liked reggae I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed it.

Bottom of the barrel
The one irredeemable track comes to us courtesy of Sting: “Girl From the North Country.” I can’t tell if Sting is serious, if Sting is kidding, or if Sting has a head cold. Somewhere in the middle his mind wanders and he strays dangerously close to Simon & Garfunkel’s “April Come She Will.” I can forgive him for his cover of “Little Wing” on Nothing Like the Sun, but this means war.

In a category by themselves
The Dave Matthews Band’s core competency is sanitized rock ’n’ roll. They always make me think of the ribbon of white paper you have to break to use the toilet in your motel room. They were assigned “All Along the Watchtower,” and I don’t envy them having to walk in Dylan’s and Hendrix’s footsteps. But what I heard on this track was the Dave Matthews Band deciding to have fun in their doofus Dave Matthews way.

And they do! Dave’s voice sounds as if it’s been filtered through a kaleidoscope, and there’s some inane horn-playing and scat-singing, but this is one of their few songs that I’ve ever listened to all the way through. I especially liked the part where they flirted with “Stairway to Heaven.” The song ends like a car full of crash-test dummies.

Consumer report
There’s something inherently wrong with these multi-decade career retrospectives. I can’t figure out who listens to these things. If you love Bob Dylan, do you love him in every one of his decades? If you agree with Dylan that everyone must get stoned, do you want to hear his Christian music? If you were attracted to Dylan by his conversion to Christianity, how will he win you over with the rest of his oeuvre? It seems to me that tributes work best when the band didn’t change much over the years (Pink Floyd, Depeche Mode), didn’t last long (The Smiths), or when the artists are covering a single album (This Bird Has Flown, the 40th-anniversary salute to Rubber Soul).

Enough philosophizing. Dylan never fails to provoke, and how many pop artists can say the same after 50 years? Or even five? If you adore Bob Dylan, buy the four-CD set. As for Starbucks, every now and then they come up with a winner. Unfortunately, their Chimes of Freedom isn’t one of them. Everybody must get sconed? No, those aren’t good for you either.

I’ll see you in 2062 for the 100th anniversary tribute to Dylan, featuring Grand Dame Gaga, Yo-Yo Ma 2.0, Clone McCartney, Sir Justin Bieber, Adele (looking for a do-over), and probably Sting.

MTV went on the air in 1981 and immediately rewrote the musical map. It’s easy to see how round-the-clock music videos made stars of talented people with outlandish personalities, like Michael Jackson and Madonna. I thought it would be more interesting to see what MTV did for a band with loads of talent but no personality. That band would be Dire Straits.

You probably remember their first album, released in 1978, if only for their Top 10 single “Sultans of Swing.” Guitarist Mark Knopfler wrote offbeat songs in an observational style somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger; he and his bandmates could play pop, jazz, and country. Their follow-up, Communiqué (1979), was less of the same, but it established the Dire Straits pattern:

  • The good songs were on the odd-numbered albums.
  • All of their albums sold well in their native UK.
  • Dire Straits made hard rock for people who liked soft rock. If you wanted something tougher than The Doobie Brothers or more authentic than Steely Dan, Dire Straits was the band for you.

Dire Straits’ third album, Making Movies (1980), was easily the band’s best and one of the best albums of the decade. And I say this as someone who doesn’t like soft rock or Knopfler’s voice. “Skateway” and “Romeo and Juliet” are lovely and haunting, and as for “Les Boys,” how often do you stumble across a song about German transvestites?

That ain’t workin’…that’s the way you do it
Because Dire Straits had a profitable history, their label, Warner Bros., was willing to bankroll a venture into the New World of music videos. And they didn’t just slap something together to fill the sudden demand for content, either. The videos for “Skateway” and “Romeo and Juliet,” particularly the former, remain stylish and interesting 30 years later.

Dire Straits was still selling records and MTV was still running their videos in 1985 when they released Brothers in Arms. This was the band’s commercial blockbuster (though the album runs out of gas well before it’s over), and I’m convinced they had MTV to thank. Their big hit, “Money For Nothing,” was perfect for MTV. It had a killer guitar line, you could pick up all the words on the first listen, it was an anti-MTV song for the snobs in the audience, and the insanely popular Sting sang the falsetto “I want my MTV” to the tune of The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” (In my mind, attaching Sting to a project means burn before listening, but in 1985 he was a god.)

The “Money for Nothing” video is as fun as it ever was; the computer animation looks like the distant past’s vision of the far future. You just have to overlook the matching 20 Minute Workout sweat bands the boys are wearing.

Success isn’t just being in the right place at the right time. Even if the planets line up for you, you have to recognize that they’ve done so. And you must possess the skill and the desire to produce a positive outcome. Even though the Dire Straits express ran right off the rails after Brothers in Arms, let’s give them credit. When opportunity knocked, they gave her a big old smooch.

Now look at them yo-yo’s: A few of Dire Straits’ contemporaries
Elvis Costello debuted about the same time as Dire Straits, with My Aim Is True (1977). But Costello was unable to use MTV the way Dire Straits did. (Whether he wanted to is another question.) By 1981 he’d released five albums on four labels and the four of them together didn’t have the resources of Warner Bros. His biggest hit, “Veronica” (in collaboration with Paul McCartney), was six years off. His early albums had a smallish following and he had an undeserved punk reputation.

Costello is far more talented than Knopfler, which is saying a lot. Lots of people are better than Coldplay. Not many are better than Mark Knopfler. Costello’s songs were too angry and angular to fit in the sanitized environment of the early MTV. Plus you can’t categorize Elvis Costello. That to me is a virtue but I don’t run my own network.

The B-52s
Regular readers and people who put up with me socially know that I love this band. They produced two dance-club faves in 1979 and ’80: The B-52s and Wild Planet. Like Costello, their only Top 10 hits, “Love Shack” and “Roam,” were years away.

In 1981 The B-52s were too weird for MTV, which is a weird concept now. When Special D and I saw them in 2007, people brought their grandchildren. Warner Bros. was behind The B-52s but apparently they saw no need to pay for fancy videos early on, even though this is the band that gave us “Rock Lobster,” the greatest song ever recorded.

The Talking Heads
The Talking Heads had four albums in play by 1981, but like The B-52s they were viewed as weird. (Here’s how to tell the difference between the two bands: Talking Heads are Rene Magritte. The B-52s are an inebriated Norman Rockwell.)

Talking Heads’ sole foray into the top of the charts, “Burning Down the House,” appeared in 1983. That song had an elaborate – and boring – video. The most interesting artists sometimes made the least-interesting videos. Talking Heads were one example; David Bowie was another.

The Pretenders
A tough woman singing about sex? Not in 1981!

The Allies
The Allies were a Seattle band that made their own video and won MTV’s “Basement Tapes” competition in 1982. “Emma Peel” is a little creaky now but was amazing then, given its backwoods origins. Also, I was almost in it. Unfortunately, the band lacked the material to follow up on this success, even though they sound very similar to our next contestants, The Romantics.

The Romantics
The Romantics are a rare example of a band that succeeded despite MTV. These power poppers had a hit in 1980 with “That’s What I Like About You.” The video was the laziest kind, a performance, and frankly, these guys are not visually appetizing. The Romantics had another hit in 1983, “Talking In Your Sleep,” but the video, in true MTV tradition, is too stupid to be believed. (If you don’t believe anything could be that stupid, watch the first 25 seconds.)

That’s my idiosyncratic tour of the protoplasmic MTV. Money for nothin’…chicks for free.

Goodbye: Gil Scott-Heron, 1949-2011
I wish MTV had existed in an earlier time. They wouldn’t have touched Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” with a barge pole, but what a video that song would’ve made! Rest in peace.

Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time

Carlos Santana has been a cultural icon for 40 years. But how much do we really know about him? Let’s check the record.

Yay! Carlos Santana Fun Facts!

  • Has released more albums than The Rolling Stones, and they had a head start.
  • Wears a stupid hat.
  • Recorded the most popular versions of three Classic Rock mainstays: “Oye Como Va,” “Evil Ways,” and “Black Magic Marker.”
  • Made a comeback in 1999 with Supernatural, which was kinda cuddly coming from a Classic Rock guy.
  • Rolling Stone ranks him 15th on their list of 100 greatest guitarists, behind Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays.
  • I may be looking at the wrong list.

Guitar Heaven is a reinterpretation of 14 “greatest guitar classics of all time,” with guest vocalists (and Yo-Yo Ma?) adding their superpowers to Carlos Santana’s. Now we can learn more about Santana, and the first thing we learn is that he has brain damage. When did T-Rex’s “Bang A Gong” become a guitar classic? It has more sax than guitar. It has more lame than cool. It’s Golden Oldies, not Classic Rock. I couldn’t understand why this number was included until I remembered that T-Rex’s Marc Bolan, like Santana, wore a stupid hat. Oh, OK then.

Then there’s “Photograph.” Don’t get your hopes up. This isn’t “Photograph” by A Flock of Haircuts. I would’ve loved to hear what a Category 6 hurricane like Santana could have done with that New Wave dirge. Nor is it “Photograph” by The Verve Pipe. The guitar on that one is as lazy as an afternoon at Starbucks. Santana would’ve turned it into Alien vs. Predator. Alas, this is “Photograph” by No Depth Leppard. If you have to pick something by Leppard, why not “Rock of Ages”? It’s a much tougher song, probably because the lads were imitating someone a lot tougher than them, Joan Jett. Santana sounds bored on this track. Santana smash puny Leppards!

And couldn’t he fight the urge to include “Smoke on the Water”Rolling Stone ranks this immortal doorstop 426th on the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” By my math that means there are 425 other songs that are better. “Smoke on the Water” has already been covered by Pat Boone. I believe we can call his version definitive. Stop it!

Shut up and play the music already
Right. OMG! Leading off is the most hilarious song ever recorded: “Whole Lotta Love”! Led Zeppelin’s version enthusiastically rattled along like a Model T on a log road. Santana easily duplicates that effect, brightening Jimmy Page’s sound without blunting the song’s inherent stupidity. (You’re going to give me every inch of your love? You nut!) Santana jettisons the psychedelic on-ramp that Led Zep installed in the middle, but the replacement, a sort of highway rest area, is not an improvement. You’re still waiting for the pistons to start jerking again. Chris Cornell adds his strong yet curiously inexpressive voice, making the whole thing sound like Audioslave if anyone in that band could play guitar.

Next up: The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Santana sizzles in the blues half of this song but loses his way in the jazz half. This from the man who played one of the two guitars on the jazz landmark Love Devotion Surrender…I blame Supernatural. Extra credit to Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots for standing in for Mick Jagger without sounding ridiculous.

Of all the vocalists, Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty turns in the best performance. He’s completely convincing on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” and the music gives him the space he needs – Santana doesn’t fill every microsecond with fireworks. These well-chosen moments of quiet demonstrate what an awesome guitarist Santana is – one of the best in the history of pop. Only his stupid hat keeps him out of the front rank.

My favorite track is Santana and Nas’ collaboration on AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” (Sure, they’ve removed the air of danger, but admit it, after 30 years AC/DC are about as dangerous as The B-52s.) Santana rips the bones from its back. Nas alternates between rapping the lyrics and rapping about Santana.

Anything else any good? No.
Santana purees Creedence Clearwater Revival’s anti-war “Fortunate Son” into a fruit smoothie that suggests The Spencer Davis Group’s pro-sex “Gimme Some Lovin’.” Scott Stapp of Creed handles the vocal on this track, but for once something isn’t Creed’s fault.

Which brings us to Yo-Yo Ma, who adds something to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” though I can’t tell you what. He would’ve made more of a difference on the drums. The song is so sluggish you gradually lose the will to live.

And what’s the deal with “Little Wing”? Joe Cocker’s voice is mixed so far into the background, he sounds like Bruce Springsteen. Or was he singing his part from out in the parking lot? This version of “Little Wing” can’t touch Jimi Hendrix’s or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s, though it easily outpaces Sting’s La-Z-Boy go at it.

Scoreboard totals
25% of the 14 songs on Guitar Classics rawked (I gave “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” half a point). That’s a solid score in the elite world of Run-DMSteve. A tip of the hat to Santana! Don’t change your evil ways. Baby.