Sunday, April 24, 2016

Totally Different Head I

"The Devil Take Your Stereo"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]



On September 27th, 1982, at 8PM on CBS, the first episode of Square Pegs premiered, and I was among those watching.  Besides being the first time I ever saw the future star of Sex and the City and the future Star from The Lost Boys, it was also the first time I saw Merrit Butrick, who would go on to be Captain Kirk’s son before dying from AIDS complications at a tragically young 29.  But that night in 1982, he was Johnny Slash, and he would utter what was to become that character’s indelible catchphrase:

Punk?  No way.  I’m New Wave.  Totally different head.  Totally.


I never knew what “totally different head” meant ... hell, I still don’t.  But for me it’s always meant an odd combination of punk and new wave: something or someone who is neither one nor the other, but perfectly balanced betwixt the two.

I would love to tell you the story of how I discovered Human Sexual Response, but it’s too long a tale to go into here.1  Suffice it to say it was way beyond what can reasonably be described as “accidental” and more along the lines of “the universe clumsily shoving me down an unforeseen path.”  Via that bit of karmic intercession, I ended up with a copy of In a Roman Mood on cassette, which I promptly wore out.2  I can’t say that HSR is one of my favorite bands or anything, but it was influential in that it introduced me to what I felt then was a completely unique sound.  I stll feel that today, although perhaps without the qualifiers.  There is other music which comes close, and that’s what you’ll find populating this mix.

HSR was an extremely unlikely band from the get-go.  Founded by four vocalists who originally started out as a kazoo band,3 they added a power trio to round out their sound, giving them some musical muscle to accompany their harmonics.  They only produced 3 albums and an EP before breaking up—a mere 4 years after forming—and were, at the very height of their popularity, barely known outside their native Boston.  Their biggest hit was “Jackie Onassis,” which was the only lead vocal done by their only female member.  They were probably most famous for their song “Butt Fuck,” and not necessarily for the right reasons.  None of them achieved much fame in later groups, and several of them dropped out of music entirely.4  They are usually categorized as a new wave band, but they’ve quite a few punk chops.

Their debut album (Fig 14) is usually considered their best, but I have a fondness for In a Roman Mood (their sophomore effort), because it’s how I discovered them.  And one track in particular, “Land of the Glass Pinecones,” has always fascinated me.  It’s fundamentally just as weird as its title suggests, with lyrics such as “the squirrels never scatter them: they know what rhinestone seeds portend” and “the splinters fly throughout the land and pierce the eye of every man.”  Musically it somehow manages to sound both familiar and utterly alien.  For the longest time I was sure that it reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite place it.  And yet I was also sure I’d never heard anything like it before.

Punk and new wave are very different forms, but they have things in common.  They’re both fairly uncompromising forms, for one thing: they don’t much care if you don’t “get” them, or if they offend you (for punk) or baffle you (for new wave).  The quintessential punk band is the Sex Pistols, and the quintessential new wave artist is Gary Numan.  We might even go so far as to boil the pair of subgenres to a single song each, perhaps “Anarchy in the UK” and “Cars.”  One distances itself from the listener with harsh guitars; the other uses alien synth chords.  Very different ... but is there a place to meet in the middle?

Perhaps the clearest conceptualization of such a fusion exists in Adam and the Ants, who both rose out of the original punk scene (Adam played with the band that shared the stage with the Sex Pistols’ first concert5) and were one of the first new wave bands (they were contemporaries of Numan).  While I love Adam and the Ants, and in particular the album Prince Charming, and particularly in particular “Stand and Deliver,” which not only stands as our centerpiece here but also provides our volume title, in general I’m not sure they’re punky enough to convey the feel that I’m going for here.  What really inspired me to build a mix around “Land of the Glass Pinecones” was my rediscovery of the 3Ds.

Often called the “New Zealand Pixies,” the 3Ds did produce a sort of wall-of-noise punk-reminiscent sound similar to the Pixies.  But, while the Pixies were fundamentally a grunge band at heart, the 3Ds have a strong new wave streak running through their sound.  I found a CD compiling their first two EPs, Fish Tales and Swarthy Songs for Swabs, in some record store that I visited with my dad.  While he was flipping through 45s from the 50s and 60s, I was desperately trying to find some reason for this not to be a wasted trip.  So I was perfectly willing to blow a few bucks on a CD based on it having a cool cover image and knowing nothing else about it.  And I really liked it, but after a while I moved on to other things.  A few years back, though, I pulled it out again and gave it a spin, and it had held up really well.  Better yet, several of the songs really put me in mind of “Land of the Glass Pinecones,” and the first vague idea for this mix was born.

What really decided the issue, however, was yet another discovery.  Punk and new wave, as I said, were fairly uncompromsing forms.  But they both eventually softened somewhat: punk into what’s often called “post-punk,”6 and new wave into the synthpop that most people actually think of when they think of the 80s.  Now, I like punk, and I like new wave, and I like post-punk, but I really like synthpop.  My favorite 80s bands (which also constitute the bulk of my favorite bands of all time) are, with very few exceptions, synthpop bands: Depeche Mode, New Order, Tears for Fears, and the extremely awesome Yazoo (who we’ll touch on in just a minute).7  There are even more synthpop bands, such as Naked Eyes and a-ha, that may not be in my all-time favorites, but they’re pretty damned close.  Into that latter category let’s throw Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, a.k.a. OMD.  If we’re talking about all-time favorite albums, I would easily throw in Crush, which one of my two best friends from my high-school-and-just-after period introduced me to.  But I didn’t like their follow up8 quite as much, and it’s all downhill from there.  Of course, OMD has an extensive catalog going back in the other direction as well, but aside from being familiar with “Enola Gay,” I never got into it as much.  It was a lot more challenging—more new wave than synthpop, really—and I wasn’t ready for it back then.  But a couple years back I decided to give it another try, and picked up Organisation and Architecture & Morality.  And, in perusing them, I stumbled upon “The New Stone Age.”

And that was it.  That was why “Land of the Glass Pinecones” sounded familiar and foreign all at once ... it sounded like something I’d heard but didn’t really like that much: early OMD.  And once I found that, I started remembering all sorts of other songs that would work here, and I was off.

So this mix consists of some punk (or post-punk) songs which have a bit of a new wave feel, and some new wave (or synthpop) songs which have a bit of a punk feel, and a few beautiful songs which are the perfect melding of both.  In that latter category, there is of course our mix starter from Human Sexual Response and two songs from the aforementioned 3Ds.  Other bands which are particularly well-suited for this mix are the wonderfully quirky Missing Persons, who give us a track introducing our final stretch, and the Cars, who we may sometimes forget were a seminal new wave band (and native-Boston contemporaries of HSR) before they become much poppier in the mid-80s (the track I chose is from their very first album and so may not sounds like you think the Cars should sound).  Both have strong new wave chops but a lot of punk-reminiscent muscle as well.  But in the category of bands so quirky you can barely stand it, it’s tough to beat Sparks, two LA-born brothers who’ve had so many different styles they practically are one themselves.  But “I Predict” (quite possibly the first Sparks song I ever heard) is from a period where they were strongly new wave, but still with punk/metal leanings.  Though I don’t care for Sparks overall, I absolutely adore “I Predict,” and it’s precisely the strong opener this mix needed.

On the more punky side, I knew that I had to include post-punk icons Joy Division.  There are two songs on Substance which I felt really epitomized this mix; the first of those, “Digital,” is our volume closer.9  Joy Division, of course evolved into New Order, which leans more towards synthpop, even further evidence that all these styles are connected.  For this mix, I went with “Angel Dust” off my all-time favorite New Order album, Brotherhood.  It’s got a solid buzzing guitar line that injects a touch of punk power into their new wave/synthpop melodies.  And, while they’re not exactly punk, I couldn’t resist pairing up the New Zealand Pixies with the American Pixies: the Pixies.  Their style is pretty fluid as well, ranging from some angry punk/grunge like “Debaser” and “Planet of Sound”10 to the sweet pop of songs like “Here Comes Your Man” to WTF moments like “La La Love You” or “Palace of the Brine.”  For this mix, I really felt that “Mr. Grieves” was a beautiful transition coming off the 3Ds’ “Fish Tails,” and the title track from Trompe le Monde is excellent in the closing stretch, this time leading into the 3Ds: if you can’t hear “Planet of Sound” immediately after the final notes of “Trompe le Monde,” the opening strains of “First Church” is an excellent second choice.

On the new wave/synthpop side, we see several of those bands I mentioned as my favorites up above: New Order and OMD we’ve already seen, Tears for Fears gives us “Change,” one of their quirkier tunes from their debut album, and then we have Yazoo (known simply as “Yaz” in the US).  We touched on Yazoo briefly back in Darkling Embrace, but their tune there was in the “somewhat surprising” camp.  Here we start to hear a bit more of what they’re really known for.  It’s odd that I don’t particularly like super-early Depeche Mode, when Vince Clark was a driving force, and I’m distinctly “meh” on Erasure, the band where Clark really made a name for himself, but his project in between the two—Yazoo, featuring the husky tones of Alf Moyet, who was to the 80s what Adele is to the 2010s—I absolutely adore.  “Don’t Go” doesn’t have much of the punk power that a lot of these tracks do, but it has just enough, and I would have felt really weird putting together a mix anywhere in the vicinity of new wave without including Yazoo.

Other synthpop greats featured here include the Fixx, who could be both poppy and edgy (their track here is bit of the latter), and Split Enz, who would eventually morph into Crowded House and craft some beautiful alternative pop in the mid-80s.  But “I Got You” is a lot more new-wave-inspired, and works perfectly for this mix.  I also chose a track from Wang Chung, which was a bit of a strecth, and it almost hit the cutting room floor several times, but in the end I felt that “Don’t Let Go” retained just enough power and quirk to work here.  Only slightly less of a stretch was choosing a tune from synthpop poster-children Pet Shop Boys: “Two Divided by Zero” shows a bit of range from this band that got pigeonholed by “West End Girls” (a bit unfairly, in my view).  In the solidly-new-wave camp, I already mentioned Adam and the Ants, and there’s a also a track here from Men Without Hats that isn’t “Safety Dance.”  Yes: they had other songs.  (Honestly, most of them weren’t very good.  But “Antarctica” is an exception, in my opinion.)


Totally Different Head I
    [The Devil Take Your Stereo]


        “I Predict” by Sparks, off Angst in My Pants
        “Land of the Glass Pinecones” by Human Sexual Response, off In a Roman Mood
        “Don't Go” by Yazoo, off Upstairs at Eric's
        “Fish Tails” by 3Ds, off Fish Tales & Swarthy Songs for Swabs [Compilation]
        “Mr. Grieves” by Pixies, off Doolittle
        “I'm in Touch with Your World” by The Cars, off The Cars
        “Some People” by The Fixx, off Shuttered Room
        “Angel Dust” by New Order, off Brotherhood
        “Stand and Deliver” by Adam and the Ants, off Prince Charming
        “Change” by Tears for Fears, off The Hurting
        “Just Another Day” by Oingo Boingo, off Dead Man's Party
        “Don't Let Go” by Wang Chung, off Points on the Curve
        “I Got You” by Split Enz, off True Colours
        “Lovely 2 C U” by Goldfrapp, off Supernature
        “The New Stone Age” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, off Architecture & Morality
        “Antarctica” by Men Without Hats, off Rhythm of Youth
        “Leave You with a Letter” by The Black Belles, off The Black Belles
        “Good Die Young” by Divinyls, off What a Life
        “Two Divided by Zero” by Pet Shop Boys, off Please
        “Clandestine People” by Missing Persons, off Rhyme & Reason
        “Trompe le Monde” by Pixies, off Trompe le Monde
        “First Church” by 3Ds, off Fish Tales & Swarthy Songs for Swabs [Compilation]
        “Digital” by Joy Division, off Substance [Compilation]
   
Total:  23 tracks,  75:43


In the category of less obvious choices, I found it instructive to look at the years each of these songs came out.  The majority of them occupy a band from 1978 through 1986, peaking in 1982 (4 tracks).  This makes sense, as this was when punk and new wave were crossing streams.  There’s a second grouping in 1989 – 1991, when the Pixies and the 3Ds were active.  But there are two outliers: modern songs11 who have achieved a bit of a throwback sound, at least to my ear.

The first is from Goldfrapp, who we first met back on Smokelit Flashback III.  Goldfrapp has a fairly eclectic style that spans electronica, trip-hop, and dream pop, with touches of disco, and occasionally, yes, new wave.  They’re not particularly punky, but “Lovely 2 C U” has some uncharacteristically buzzing guitar work that gives it a little extra oomph and earns them their spot here.

Contrariwise, I don’t think anyone would object to my saying there’s a lot of punk in the Black Belles, a vaguely obscure band12 once promoted by Jack White on The Colbert Report.13  But I’m not sure most folks would agree that there’s any new wave in their self-proclaimed “garage goth rock.”  And, for most of their music, I’d agree.  But perhaps I’m hearing something in “Leave You with a Letter” that no one else can.  It certainly works for me.

Our final two tracks are safely within the original time boundaries, both hailing from 1985.  On the one hand, we have Oingo Boingo, another band which pushed boundaries, but wasn’t afraid to be a little new wave and/or a little punk.  “Just Another Day” is another tune which almost didn’t make the cut: it’s got enough punk (or post-punk) attitude, but its new wave is awful faint.  Still, it’s a good, solid tune for the middle stretch of the volume.  And last but not least, Australia’s Divinyls, who will probably forever be known in the US as that-band-that-sang-the-I-touch-myself-song, are instead known to me as the brilliant architects of “Pleasure and Pain” and its accompanying album, What a Life.  Nearly every track on this album is a winner.  Certainly the band displays some clear new wave influences—I’ve always detected a touch of the Motels in them, and the Motels are new wave royalty.  And there’s no denying they have a strong punk ethic ... I suppose the only reason they’re in the “less obvious” camp is because “I Touch Myself” doesn’t really hint at what they’re capable of.  For this volume, I chose “Good Die Young,” a song made all the more poignant by the fact that singer Chrissy Amphlett died at 53, simultaneously battling breast cancer and multiple sclerosis.  I think this track retains all the power they had in their heydey, despite the intervening three decades.


Next time, we’ll come down off this punky high and once again drift off to dreamland.



__________

1 Perhaps I’ll do a separate blog post on that one day.

2 This album has become remarkably hard to come by in the intervening years.  I had to get my father to buy a copy on vinyl from one of his record collector friends, then burn it for me onto CD.  For purposes of a download link, I’ve found some random person offering a free zip file of the MP3s.  I don’t typically support things like that, but I literally can’t find any way to point you at something you can spend money on that might even partially get back to the artist, so I’m making an exception in this case.

3 No, seriously.  Wikipedia swears that’s true.

4 Two of them run a bed-and-breakfast in New York and one moved to Silicon Valley to work for a tech company.  The latter would eventually become the mother of Glasser.

5 In fact, the Sex Pistols were opening for them.

6 In general, I object to this term as somehow even more useless in descriptive terms than “alternative.”  Yes, it’s music that chronologically comes after punk ... so what?  But it’s a common enough term that I use it anyway, because it’s better than inventing my own term and then having to explain what it means every time I want to use it.

7 In case you’re wondering which bands constitute the very few exceptions, they are INXS and REM.

8 That would be 1986’s The Pacific Age

9 We’ll see the other one on volume II, I’m sure.

10 Both of which we’ll see on another mix in the fullness of time.

11 By which I mean songs from within the past 20 years.  In this case, one from 2005 and one from 2011.

12 They have a discography on AllMusic, but no bio, and an entry in Wikipedia that’s not a stub ... but just barely.

13 Which, like most of the people who have heard of them, is how I first heard of them.