Saturday, June 18, 2011

“M¡PUNK”: A Nostalgic Stumble Through the Music of 1979-1981

When the Going Gets Tough, the Famous Get Weird

“Coming Up” Paul McCartney
Label: Columbia. Single released: April 11, 1980. Songwriter: Paul McCartney. Producer: Paul McCartney. Highest Chart Position: #1. Album: McCartney II.

"Emotional Rescue” The Rolling Stones
Label: Elektra. Single released: June 20, 1980. Songwriters: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards. Producer: The Glimmer Twins. Highest Chart Position: #3. Album: Emotional Rescue.

These two oldies acts were at their creative nadir during this time period. The masterpiece of 1973’s Band on the Run faded in the rear-view mirror, McCartney had recorded four dull albums in a row with his ad-hoc group Wings: Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Sound, London Town and Back to the Egg – the latter being so collossally forgettable that effectively killed off Wings as a viable band. Then there was that embarrassing pot bust in Japan. So what did Macca do? He returned to his home studio in Scotland all by his lonesome and played with his gizmos, making a sequel of sorts to his very first solo album McCartney that he recorded under similar circumstances ten years before.

But McCartney II was a sequel in numerals only. Where the first record had a charmingly informal, backporch kind of feel to it (Paul’s smiling bearded face on the cover), the second seemed to bring out all of the weirdness in this most cloying and eager-to-please ex-Beatle (his face on the cover looked pained and confused). When the album was reissued in its deluxe edition (a.k.a., “Ripe for Rediscovery”) this week, Pitchfork’s Joe Tangari wrote that McCII “is likely to be jarring for an unsuspecting McCartney or Beatles fan. It's largely experimental, devoting most of its songs to eccentric synth-pop that's just as weird as anything from the early days of new wave, and not all of it is compelling.” We second that one. Jump immediately to the irritating second track “Temporary Secretary” and see how long it takes for you to climb up on your roof with a telescopic rifle and a rubber pig mask.

If one goes back to the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s cover from 1967, you’ll notice that in the top row, wedged between Lenny Bruce and W.C. Fields, is the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who is known for his avant-garde experiments with electronic music. McCartney had absorbed the music of Stockhausen, John Cage and Luciano Berio when he studied at Guildhall School in London in the mid-1960s and had been making informal forays into loops, musique concrète and tape-splicing, which he referred to as “electronic symphonies.” (The trippy “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Revolver, with its creepy mutant-seagull cries – actually reversed tapes of McCartney laughing – was a result of this experimentation.) The short-lived Zapple Records was supposed to be the Beatles’ outlet for this kind of incessant noodling, with both Lennon and Harrison recording their own side projects of f---ed up sound collages and electronic squiggles. (One wonders what Ringo’s experimental album would have sounded like.) McCartney even arranged to record a spoken-word record with writer William S. Burroughs, whose “cut-up technique” of writing was the literary equivalent of tape-splicing.

McCartney II, therefore, is held tight to music snobs’ breasts as a cause célèbre in favor of McCarntey’s unacknowledged freaky side, something he would unfurl more prominently in the 1990s with his work with Super Furry Animals and Martin Glover of Killing Joke and The Orb. Like Neil Young’s Trans, the record can also be seen as a hippie’s contention with future shock. In fact, the very first song Sir Paul laid down was “Check My Machine,” a bizarre cut-and-splice trifle somewhat similar to the “Let It Be” B-side “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number).” He did this with no mixing console, preferring to plug the microphones directly into a Studer 16-track machine. When he recorded “Coming Up,” he recorded his voice though a filter and a vari-speed pitch shifter, then laid down a munchkin-like chorus with himself and his wife Linda. The result was the oddest single McCartney had ever released as a part of his “regular” ouerve.

“Coming Up” looked backwards and forwards simultaneously, taking in the chilly alientation of New Wave while keeping a danceable motorik beat somewhere between Kraftwerk and Disco. The song is somewhat sped up in all respects, like a time-lapse robot march, Sir Paul’s vocals compressed into a squeaky alien falsetto (“We can make it…stick with meeee!”), and a metrically-timed guitar part “that could have been lifted from a Talking Heads song” (Tangari’s words). In the single’s groundbreaking video, McCartney even takes the Hitler-mustachioed guise of Ron Mael of the electronic dance duo Sparks. It was also very silly and a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. That is, before the single was replaced on the American Top 40 by a live version B-side recorded in Glasgow in December ’79. While undeniably funky, it sounds more like a mid-70s Wings: McCartney’s stand-up comic persona and scratchy voice, changing the chorus to “Strummin’ On” and then that horrendous keyboard noise at the end that sounds like someone grinding his teeth into the microphone. It jumped to Number One in the U.S., effectively killing off radio play of its weirder brother. It didn’t float by unnoticed: John Lennon, who had spent most of the ‘70s in an infantile tit-for-tat with his old bandmate, so loved the strangeness of the studio version that he later cited it as his reason for getting back into the recording racket. One can even hear echoes of the song in “Walking on Thin Ice,” the last song Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded before his untimely death nearly eight months to the day that “Coming Up” was released.

The Stones, too, were “down in the hole” in 1980. They were two years after Some Girls and still had yet to release their last great album Tattoo You. The same month that the live “Coming Up” hit Number One, the Stones released one of their most forgettable albums on the same day they released one of their best singles. Emotional Rescue the LP was a pale knock-off of Some Girls and "Emotional Rescue" the single a retread of the Discoisms of “Miss You.” The U.K. press pilloried the album (“devoid of passion, bloated with clumsy posing and artifice”) and making it caused a growing rift between the trend-conscious Jagger and die-hard rocker Keith Richards – then coming off years of dope sickness – that would fester for the next decade or so. (“My finger was on the trigger,” Keef would later say of these sessions. “My reactions were certainly quicker, and my anger too.”) At the press interviews for the album in New York, Jagger nastily responded to a question of Richards’ involvement in producing with “You’ve got to be joking.” Richards, of course, didn’t help his case by swigging JD and snorting Peruvian flake while fielding questions.

But “Emotional Rescue” was the single that the Glimmer Twins could agree on. Its stripped-down minimalist-funk feel -- Stones biographer Stephen Davis called it “a rub-a-dub reggae disco format previously unknown to mankind” -- was the antethesis to the overproduced records of the time. It's simply Ian Stewart's sparse electric piano, Rod Wood's Larry Grahamish bass line, and the incomparable Charlie Watts' tightfisted restraint. Its spareness -- and strangeness -- reminds me of Prince’s “When Doves Cry," Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” or even Kelis’ “Milkshake.” Then there’s Jagger being the anti-Jagger: instead of his usual snarling or growling he puts the clamps on his voice; like McCartney, squeezing it into an odd falsetto. This combined with the unsettling theromographic images from the song's music video, which look like infrared photos of people being tortured, gives the sense that the Stones are hiding out in public and waiting impatiently for some kind of inspiration. "Rescue," indeed!

Of Jagger’s improvised aromatheraphy-tape talking at the end (“your kniiiiight in shiiiinging aaarmooouur…”), well, nobody’s perfect.

[FYI: For Part I of this ongoing series, go here.]

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