Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Post of the Week (From Last Week) - Best Embed Category

Thank you, Alex Balk, for this.

As much as British and American pop music have fed on each other and gradually melded together over the years, there are still things like the career of Ian Dury and the massive success of "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" that demonstrate the cultural gap that still exists (or at least existed 30 years ago). Dury had some strange mix of art school weirdness and naughty boy "lad" humor and attitude which seemed to resonate with a significant segment of the British pop single buying public. Whatever it was, it doesn't quite piece together into an appealing whole for me.

While I'm not 100% on-board with "Rhythm Stick", I do find it remarkable that a song with aggressively off-key talk-singing and a Roland Kirk-style double sax solo could make the top of the charts. Take a look at the top singles from the US and UK in 1979, and you'll see that there was more room for weirdness, stuff that was edging toward the avant-garde, on the British charts. Tom Ewing, as usual in his ongoing quest to review every UK #1, throws some light on the matter. I love the phrase "goblinoid malice" - watch the YouTube clip embedded in Balk's post and try to come up with a better description of Dury's stage prescence.

Something I am 100% on-board with is Wreckless Eric's "Whole Wide World"*. Why do I love Eric's vocals, none too pleasing to the ear in any conventional pop sense, and find Dury's off-putting? Maybe because the vocals on "Whole Wide World" sound urgent, desperate, a punk kid's jumble of emotions pushing past technical limitations toward expression, whereas the vocals on "Rhythm Stick" seem like an art move, a piss take, a challenge. Dury is flaunting the fact that he can't (or won't) sing, daring us to take him on his own terms.

Maybe I'm just not a fan of talk singing (I'm not much of a Lou Reed fan either), or maybe I've fallen into Dury's trap, let myself be provoked by his subversion of my expectation of what a pop (or even punk) vocal should sound like. I can see that the contrast between what the band is doing and what Dury is doing gives the song its essential tension, but I still have a hard time warming to it. Maybe I just haven't heard it enough to get over the shock that it still carries after all these years.

If "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" could be considered post-punk with its incorporation of jazz and funk elements, then "Whole Wide World" is the purest fulfillment of the promise of punk as a "back to basics" movement, stripping rock'n'roll down to its most basic elements. In fact, it goes farther than that, taking the rudimentary I-IV-V progression of early rock'n'roll and blues and chucking out the V as an unnecessary ornamentation. "Whole Wide World" makes "Roadrunner" sound like "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "Mr. Blue Sky" (slight exaggeration!). The abrupt ending just shy of two minutes in the video is painful. I want the two chord groove to go on and on until it washes away all the world's problems and ushers in the era of Pax Ericanus.

The greatness of Nick Lowe's "So It Goes" is an essay that will have to wait for another time, though the video has a different version than I'm used to (is this the album version and I'm used to the single version? The backing vocals are definitely different).

*Seeing Eric perform WWW live a few years ago in a small bar with Amy Rigby was a highlight of my concertgoing life. Rigby had to talk him into doing it as an encore (maybe it's a schtick they do every night, but it didn't seem like it). Maybe he just felt like taking a break from his big hit for one night, but really, who could've gone home happy without hearing it? Not me.

Bonus Link

An online exhibit of the brilliant single sleeve designs of Barney Bubbles (including many Dury and Lowe sleeves)

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