Thursday, February 14, 2019


OK, so I'm going to run with this idea of a named couple a little further, given the groundswell (ha!) of acclaim to my previous post, mainly due to this also being a terrific track, long loved by me.

I am uncertain who the named Johnny and Mary might be, I can find nothing about them, but I'll wager it took a fair bit of relationship counselling, should they have ever stayed together, the lyric outlining classic partner dysfunction. It probably wasn't the John(ny) and Mary in the Dustin Hoffman/Mia Farrow film but the song could be a nice projection of their possible fate. I doubt also it was the inspiration for the 10,000 Maniacs spin-off duo of John and Mary, Lombardo and Ramsey respectively, but that at least allows a link. I always feel the song owes some little debt to the classic standard, 'Frankie and Johnny', tho' it was clearly after the failure of aforesaid counselling for that lyric to play out. I always associate them, anyway, but with upward of 256 versions of that staple, and several films, I won't pursue that one. Or not too hard, anyway.

Robert Palmer always stuck out a little from the company he kept, never quite embracing the tribalisms of any of his bands, or the image of the day. I feel he was always happier in the slick suits of his solo days than the hair and flares of earlier band Vinegar Joe. He seemed always a soul man, whether in a rock band or even in the song featured here, an early example of synth-pop. Even in, arguably, his most famous period, the MTV years of 'Addicted to Love', producing unashamedly rock anthems, as memorable to men of a certain age for the band in the video, he managed to maintain a sharp sense of funky. Indeed, his keenest work was inspired, arranged and backed by Lowell George, from deep south mavericks, Little Feat, fusing soul, jazz and country to a broad based rock and roll shuffle, together with the Meters, metronomes of the New Orleans melting pot of influences. He was also an early adopter of reggae, after moving, mid 70s, to a house nearby the famed Compass Point studios in the Bahamas. Not bad for a boy from Scarborough, on the north Yorkshire coast. It is strange to think he was considered almost an elder statesman when, in 1985, he hooked up with members of Duran Duran and from Chic, to form The Power Station, his vocals bridging the diversity of influences into a malleable fusion. All the more so when you remember he died, tragically young, at only 54, in 2003, some 15 odd years later.

Back to the song, living on after the author's death, passing through quite a few hands from Status Quo to Ellen Foley. But it is this version that lingers longest, sung by another englishman, from even further up in the north of England, another rough hewn lad happier in ties and tux, one Bryan Ferry, here fronting a rearrangement by Todd Terje, a norwegian electronic artist.

Enjoy more!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

happy/unhappy couples: The Letter

purchase [The Letter]

Even though I didn't grow up in the US, my American parents had those perforated, punch-out valentines card booklets for us kids. (Are they still being produced?) Send your sweetie a card. A love letter.

This past week I had my students write a "real" letter. You know? Paper and envelope kind of letter. In this day and age.

After the fact, it got me thinking: I wonder if Jeff and Lauren are a happy couple these days. I wonder if they would have been happier if they had been sending old-fashion letters instead of the electronic version. It's a dying art it is, writing snail mail.

<The Letter> seems to include both happy and unhappy in one swell foop: The couple must be happily in love: the love-letter included lots of love in the form of "can't live without you no more..." (happy), but the distance between is painful: "ain't got time to take a fast train ..."(unhappy). The couple is probably going to be happy when the singer gets there, don't you think?

The songfacts website suggests that the studio addition of the jet plane taking off may have contributed to the song's success (take yourself back to 1967: when people wrote letters and we spelled it "aeroplane").

Happy/Unhappy Couples: Voices Carry

’Til Tuesday: Voices Carry

If you watched MTV in its early days, you almost certainly saw the video above, of ‘Til Tuesday’s 1985 song “Voices Carry.” It was one of the most popular videos of that era, winning the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist in a Video, and singer Aimee Mann won Best Female Performer at the American Video Awards. It has taken up residency on most lists of all-time great videos, and it likely propelled the song to a No. 8 slot on the Billboard singles chart. Despite positive critical reception, the band never again reached that level of popularity, broke up after its third album, and Mann went on to a successful solo career (managed by ‘Til Tuesday drummer Michael Hausman).

The video, directed by D.J. Webster, was unusual, in that not only was it shot like a movie, it included dialogue over the music. It tells the story of an unhappy couple—a man, played by actor Cully Holland, dressed and acting like a rich, obnoxious Wall Street guy, and a woman, played by Mann, with untamed, platinum blond hair, the bassist in a New Wave band. The man is controlling and dismissive, denigrating her music as a “hobby,” and trying to get her to act and dress like the arm candy that he believes he is entitled to. Meanwhile, we see Mann playing and singing with the band, and when she returns home, her boyfriend yells at her and, to the extent possible in a video shot for MTV in 1985, forces himself on her, while he fantasizes about a romantic lovemaking session with a brunette, neatly coiffed, version of Mann.

The final, iconic, sequence (based on a scene from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much) starts with the couple, dressed to the nines (if anything, the video shows that Aimee Mann can pull off hats), in the audience at Carnegie Hall, surrounded by similarly well-dressed people. The boyfriend’s smug superiority turns to disgust when he notices that Mann has a small rattail braid peeking out from her hat, and as his annoyance increases, Mann begins to sing along with the song, increasingly forcefully, as the audience begins (not at all without cause) to look askance. As the boyfriend becomes more and more agitated, Mann begins singing louder and louder, before finally standing up, elbowing him on the way, ripping off the hat, displaying her wild hair, and belting out, "He said, shut up! He said, shut up! Oh God, can't you keep it down?” And as the audience turns to watch, the boyfriend buries his head in shame. In so many ways, this song, and especially the video, was way ahead of its time. Add your hashtags here.

Interestingly, Mann originally wrote the song, and the band performed it, about a lesbian relationship. But the record company was not that progressive, so they changed it to an abusive heterosexual couple. Cully Holland, the actor playing the toxically masculine boyfriend, died in 1991, with only three other credits on his IMDB page, and a little Internet research turns up that he died either of AIDS or suicide, and that he was likely gay. So, you had a song about lesbians turned into one about heterosexuals, with the aggressive male member of the couple played by a gay man. The mind reels.

Although many of Mann’s songs deal with difficult and serious topics, she has a great sense of humor. I’ve seen it in her live performances, and it emerges in interviews. Understanding the place of the “Voices Carry” video in music history, she decided to parody it, in a video for her 2012 song, “Labrador.” It begins with a faux “Behind the Scenes” interview with director Tom Scharpling, played by Jon Hamm (who appears to be game for anything), suggesting that they do a shot-by-shot remake of “Voices Carry.” Mann states that she thought it was a stupid idea that she was tricked into doing when Scharpling claimed that the contract was a birthday card for his nephew, which she signed while on the phone, The video is, essentially, the same as the other one, although Mann, more than a quarter century on, and with long, straight hair and dark framed glasses, looks nothing like she did in the original, and the boyfriend is played by drummer Jon Wurster, whose high-pitched voice and little pony-tail mocks the Wall Street bro look of his predecessor. There are other fun bits in the “Labrador” video, which actually looks like it was shot in New York (Boston was the location of the original, except for the façade of Carnegie Hall), but I’ve written too much already, so just watch:

Sunday, February 10, 2019


Is there a more archetypal US couple than Jack and Diane? Well, of course, the answer is an unreserved yes, but, ignoring that, this couple have maintained an ongoing virtual life, come what may, in the nearly 37 years since John Mellencamp brought them first to our attention. Hell, he wasn't even John Mellencamp then, being still the John Cougar some manager thought sounded cooler than his given name. But ain't it a great song?

The song very nearly didn't make it, Mellencamp having dumped it, being unable to get his band to give the accompaninent he heard it as needing. It took Mick Ronson, yes that Mick Ronson, to insist he give it another crack, this time with Ronson on additional guitar. The iconic hand claps shouldn't even be there, being initially just part of the click track to facilitate the arrangement. But it just sounded better with than without. And should you still be pondering the Ronno/Mellencamp linkage, most odd in retrospect, the Spider from Mars and the midwest journeyman roots artist, remember then that John, then Johnny, Cougar was being pushed as a slightly Bowie-esque retro-rocker in the mid 70s, and that the aforementioned manager was Tony DeFries, the famous main man of MainMan, who also looked after Bowie. Anyhow, this song was many years after the DeFries management, but I am sure that's where the pair of them first met. Ronson subsequently invented himself as a go-to guitarist for anyone from Bob Dylan to Ian Hunter, ditching the spandex and stack heels along the way, whilst DeFries ditched Cougar to the no lesser delights of Rod Stewart's management team and Billy Gaff.

The song did well. Number 1 in 1982 for 4 weeks, still his biggest hit. It has also given birth to a number of references across music and film, as the names Jack and Diane have almost come to be generic of just about any young couple in their struggle to stay together. It was certainly the first I had heard of the artist, his earlier US hits having failed to translate across this pond. And I heard no more of him for some time, despite ongoing success in the US. I guess my tastes had always been a tad rootsier than the charts, and I was developing a taste for Steve Earle, as he ploughed his country into a rock furrow. What I didn't know was that (by now named) John Cougar Mellencamp was traversing the opposite direction, in 1987 they each perhaps halfway in the transition. Earle produced 'Guitar Town' in 86 and, a year later, Mellencamp produced 'The Lonesome Jubilee', still, for me, his masterpiece.

Of course he has made many a record since then, most of it in a similar vein, much of it to a high standard. A heart attack slowed him a little in the 90s, yet ironically boosted his status. By his return to performance he was being greeted as a similar icon to the working man as Springsteen, and would appear on stage with the Bob Dylans, Willie Nelsons and Neil Youngs of this world. And so he has continued, increasingly a politicised performer, albeit with views fairly constantly to the left of centre, no small critic of the current regime. (Indeed, I hadn't realised until this day that he was, in fact, one of the founding fathers, with Young and Nelson, of Farm Aid.)

So what of Jack and Diane? Well, they made a (brief) reappearance in the 1998 song, 'Eden is Burning', but the song is, presumably, so allegorical as to give no personal update. But I'll bet he worries who they voted for, last time around. But he still plays it.