Saturday, October 29, 2011

World Tour: Turning Japanese

Liz Phair: Turning Japanese


No Use For A Name: Turning Japanese


Asia represent! This well-covered and oft-parodied song is undeniably catchy, as noted by its long life in popular culture. The above image comes from the song's most recent incidence, a stylized art video featuring actress Kirsten Dunst first presented at a Tate Modern exhibit in London two years ago, seemingly in homage to the global cosplay movement.

But long before anime, manga, and other Japanese "identity artifact categories" swamped nerd and geek culture, the song's easily sung chorus and verses had featured in many iconic media products, from the original Jackass movie to video games (Rock Band 3, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks The 80s) to an old and overplayed KFC commercial. As an homage to this cultural cachet, I've skipped the crisp, bouncy 1980 original, and shared instead a pair of mid-nineties punk versions - both grungy as hell, as befits the song's frenetic pace updated for the angry, ironic pre-millennial set.

There's some debate on the interwebs about whether songwriter David Fenton of British new wave/power pop band The Vapors is being honest when he claims that this song is about "all the clichés about angst and youth and turning into something you didn't expect to"...or whether the term "turning Japanese" actually refers to the face males make when reaching masturbatory climax, an easy interpretation which would set Fenton's VH1 True Spin comment as a specious attempt to rewrite his own wild youth by saying otherwise. The song works both ways, and the original video doesn't help, with its geisha girl imagery merely muddying what would really be a question of which sort of racism we're talking about here - "Japanese" as a euphemism for distant and isolated, or "Japanese" as equivalent to squinty-eyed - so we'll let you make your own conclusions.

Friday, October 28, 2011

World Tour: Cuban Pete

Jim Carrey: Cuban Pete


Keep in mind that, in 1946, Cuba had not yet been taken over by Fidel Castro. There was no US embargo, and so artists of various sorts traveled freely between the two countries. So it is not surprising that a Hollywood studio would have made a movie that year to promote the newest Cuban musical sensation. The movie was Cuban Pete, and the star was Desi Arnaz. The song was a smash, with Louis Armstrong among others doing his own version.

Almost fifty years would pass. The song disappeared during my childhood in the 60s and 70s. In fact, I never heard it at all until 1994, when it was in a hilarious scene in the movie The Mask. Remember this?

World Tour: Canada

Pilot: Canada


Ear Worm Warning: Listen at your own risk

Look out California
Ooh-Ooh, I gotta warn you
Here comes Canada

So maybe it wasn't the smartest commercial move --trying to pit The Golden State against The Great White North, but the Scottish trio Pilot ( best know for their Top 5 hit "Magic") just couldn't help themselves.

 They named their third album, Morin Heights, after the tourist town in Quebec where they recorded with Roy Thomas Baker.With generous measures of Beatlesque melodies and Queen-like harmonies, Morin Heights has been called Pilot's "Abbey Road".

 Lyrically though, they've always been lightweights.Witness:

Canada, you proved your worth
You got snow peaked mountains tumbling down
You had them from birth

Though I prefer British Columbia with its majestic mountains and sunny islands, the list of rock bands who've recorded in Morin Heights is impressive: Rush ( naturally), The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Police, Cat Stevens and The Bee Gees, among others.

World Tour: Far Away In Australia

Dolores Keane: Far Away In Australia


Known primarily for her work as an interpreter of Irish folksong, both as a solo artist and as a founding member of longstanding Galway-based Celtic Folk band De Dannen, Dolores Keane toured and recorded non-stop for a quarter decade before throwing in the towel in the late nineties to focus on family and home life. But her songs live on, as does her reputation as the queen of the soul of Ireland: this traditional ditty, most recently re-released on her 1998 "Best Of" Greatest Hits collection, is short and sweet, with none of the disaster that so often accompanies the canon; its simple, direct interpretation showcases both the depression-era Irish ideal of Australia as a land of opportunity, and her strong lilting alto, providing apt entry for an artist whose debut appearance here at Star Maker Machine is long overdue.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

World Tour: Vietnam

Jimmy Cliff : Vietnam


Leon Thomas: Damn Nam (Ain't Goin' To Vietnam)


There's Vietnam, the country, and then there's Vietnam, the war. Both these songs, written in 1969, refer to the latter, when 550,000 American soldiers were serving there, Nixon had begun serving his second term, the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam demonstrations took place, and a growing majority of Americans thought the war was a mistake.

Jimmy Cliff in 1969 was a Jamaican reggae singer whose worldwide popularity was growing. Leon Thomas was an American soul/jazz singer releasing his first solo album. Both songs capture the anti-war sentiments of the day.

World Tour: Long Bed From Kenya

Betty Elders: Long Bed From Kenya


Between 1981 and 1995, Betty Elders released four albums that show her to be a very talented songwriter. Four albums in fourteen years is not a lot, but that turned out to be it. From the fact that she sung back-up on Norwegian artist Roy Lonhoiden's three albums, I’m guessing that Elders may have relocated to Norway no later than 2004, but that is just a guess. What I know is that Elders has an album’s worth of unreleased songs on her website. If anyone knows why Elders has not done an album in her own name in so long, please let us know in the comments.

Songs like Long Bed From Kenya are why I wish Elders would do more. Long Bed sounds at first like a song about growing older in a relationship. But, in the second verse, Elders adds a key detail. While the singer feels herself growing older, her partner remains smitten with a woman he met on a long ago trip to Kenya. The narrator ages, but the woman in the memory never does. The long bed sent home from that trip serves as a constant reminder to the narrator of a competition she can never hope to win. The story is told in just a few economical lines, but the emotional resonance is strong.

This performance of Long Bed comes from a mainstage performance of the song at the 1998 Kerrville Folk Festival. Elders also recorded a more fully arranged version of the song on her last album Crayons. But this version, with just voice and guitar, puts the focus on the songwriting, and it holds up just fine.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

World Tour: Dominion/Mother Russia

The Sisters of Mercy : Dominion/Mother Russia


Mother Russia, released in 1987, is about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster the year before. The "old man in a dry season", a reference to a T.S. Eliot line, is Reagan, and the whole song expresses Andrew Eldritch's anti-American sentiments, with numerous references to the Cold War.

The Sisters of Mercy released 3 albums, each with a different line-up; the consistent member is Eldritch (well, and his drum machine, Doktor Avalanche). Their last recording was in 1993, but they (for various values of "they") still tour. In fact, I enjoyed their gothic rock sound so much that I ventured off to see them live a few years ago, which turned out to be one of the weirder and most distancing concerts I'd ever been to. The continuous use of 3 fog machines rendered the stage nearly opaque, so much so that it wasn't until halfway through the show that I realized there was actually a live bass player up there—and I was a mere 15 feet from the stage. At least I presume he was live. I don't think any of us could tell if the musicians were simply acting out to prerecorded music or not, and the in-between comments were kept to an absolute minimum.

I do recommend their music as great work-out stuff, though. That heavy drum beat is hard to surpass for exercising to.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

World Tour: It's A Long Way Back To Germany

Ramones: It's A Long Way Back To Germany (link now working)


As a German living outside Germany, the title of the Ramones song appeals to me. The track turned up as a bonus track on the 2005 remastered edition of the Ramones’ 1977 album Rocket To Russia. It is billed as a UK b-side, without any further information. It seems it was also a b-side elewhere, to 1978’s “Do You Wanna Dance”.

“It's A Long Way Back To Germany” was written by Dee Dee Ramone, whose mother was German and who spent much of his formative years in West-Berlin, until he returned to New York City at the age of 15. He also sang a bit in German on “Born To Die In Berlin”, the final track of the final Ramones album in 1996. Dee Dee died six years later, not in Beelin but in LA.

Rocket To Russia featured a song that has been covered twice by German bands. “Rockaway Beach” was first done in 1979 as “Müngersdorfer Stadion” by the Zeltinger Band, a punk rock band fronted by the balding, overweight and often kaftan-wearing Jürgen Zeltinger, one of West Germany’s first openly gay recording artists. Performed in Kölsch, the dialect that is unique to the city of Cologne, the setting of Rockaway Beach in the Ramones song became the public swimming baths adjacent to the football stadium of the same name, and hitching a ride there in the Ramones song became fare-dodging on public transport. (You can get the song HERE.)

In 2005, another German punk band, Die Toten Hosen (from Düsseldorf, just down the road from Zeltinger’s Cologne), covered “Rockaway Beach” in English, as the b-side for their “Alles wird vorübergehen” single.

You might find it quite easy to sing along to “It’s A Long Way Back To Germany”. Just sing this: “You by the phone, you all alone. It’s a long way back to Germany. It’s a long way back to Germany.”

(Image borowed from

World Tour: Baby, Let's Go To Mexico

Sir Douglas Quintet: Baby, Let's Go To Mexico


While we're visiting Mexico....

The godfather of Tex-Mex rock'n'roll, Doug Sahm earned the nickname Doug Saldana from South of the Border fans. "They said I had so much Mexican in me that I needed a Mexican name" he told biographer Joseph Levy.

This song sure makes visiting Mexico sound like a good idea. I've been there a few times and I'd suggest visiting somewhere other than one of the country's famous resorts mentioned in this tune. The shot above is of Taxco, the silver capital of Mexico. It's a beautiful city with streets so narrow even the VW bugs used as taxis have to do three-point turns to get through town. One very "Taxco" experience involves another kind of bug: jumiles. Stink bugs that are often eaten alive. Quite spicy. And crunchy too.

Monday, October 24, 2011

World Tour: Mexico

Jump: Mexico

[ Purchase ]

This fantastic song by Jump (previously known as Jump Little Children) is less about Mexico as a country, and more about how far away Mexico is. The song is a beautiful tale about how the singer won't let his lady leave him again unless she goes far away to Mexico, because as long as she's closer she will just rebound back to him, so if she wants to go she better go far away and not come back to him again.

It appeared on their 1994 album "Between Dim & The Dark", a great album and and even greater song.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

World Tour: Kingdom of Spain

The Decemberists: Kingdom of Spain (early version)


Kingdom of Spain presents the king and queen in all of their apparent splendor, but we soon learn of their cruelty and misuse of power. The song tells the story in three short verses, but that is all that is needed. The song can be found on the Decemberists EP Picarsqueties, but that is not the version heard here. On the EP, the song is backed only by chiming piano chords that can also be heard as funeral bells. The version I am featuring has a fuller arrangement, with bass and intertwining guitars, and I like the way it enhances the structure of the song, by splitting each verse into two aspects. This version can be found on an import collection from Spain called Acuarela Songs 3. The songs an this album are by various indie artists from the year 2004. Many, like the Decemberists, sing in English, and all of the songs were original to this collection.