Monday, September 27, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #85

This week's NW4NW entry is unusual in that it is as much about the story behind and history of a specific song as it is about a particular artist.

We begin with a Belgian musician by the name of Roger Jouret.  In the mid-1970s, Jouret was the drummer, singer and main songwriter for the post-glam, proto-new wave band Hubble Bubble (perhaps best known for their cover of The Kinks' "I'm Not Like Everybody Else").  When that band's bass player was killed in automobile accident in 1977, the remaining members of the group went their separate ways.  Jouret launched a solo career, assuming a purposefully ironic Punk Rock pose and rechristening himself as Plastic Bertrand. Bertrand hooked up with producer Lou Deprijck, who had just recorded a demo of a song called "Ça Plane Pour Moi" (translated alternately as "All's Well With Me," "All's Cool With Me," and "That Flies With Me").  Sung in idiomatic French in a near monotone over a chugging melody, the single appeared in December of 1977 credited to Plastic Bertrand.

With his prepackaged image and easily hummable song, Bertrand began showing up all over European television, propelling the song to hit record status in France, Belgium and the UK.  But a nasty rumor had begun: Plastic Bertrand  was, in fact, so plastic as to not be the real voice on the record!  Jouret insisted that was him on the single for many years, until 2006 when a linguistic expert concluded that Bertrand could not possibly have been the singer. In fact, it is Lou Deprijck's original demo vocal that is heard; the backing track was recorded with a variety of anonymous studio musicians, so Jouret did not actually appear on the single at all! (And you thought such scandals began with Millli Vanilli!)

This was not the only controversy associated with "Ça Plane Pour Moi." In November of 1977, just a few weeks before the Plastic Bertrand single hit the shelves, another artist, Elton Motello, released a very similar single, "Jet Boy/Jet Girl."  In fact, Motello's record used the same studio-session backing track as "Ça Plane Pour Moi," but replaced Deprijck's French vocal with Motello's English.  Motello had written completely new lyrics, unrelated to "Ça Plane Pour Moi," for his song. He also looked to capitalize on the Punk/New Wave movement with his exceedingly graphic, designed-to-shock tale of a gay young man losing his older, bi-sexual lover to a woman.  While the lyrics may still seem a bit extreme in today's climate, in 1977 they were positively scandalous, and the record was banned from airplay in many places.

Because Motello's record had hit the shelves first, and since Motello had listed the title on the single's sleeve as "Jet Boy/Jet Girl (Ça Plane Pour Moi)," many people in non-French speaking countries assumed that one was a direct translation of the other.  This created a minor backlash against Plastic Bertrand's record as being obscene at worst, and an odd foreign-language cover at best.

Through all it's crazily twisted backstory, "Ça Plane Pour Moi" has remained a very popular song and a staple of classic New Wave compilation albums and club playlists where early Wave is featured. It has been covered by artists ranging from Sonic Youth to The Presidents Of The United States Of America to Kim Wilde; it's evil twin song, "Jet Boy/Jet Girl," has been covered by bands including The Damned and Chron Gen.

So here's the single that started all the trouble, Plastic Bertrand's "Ça Plane Pour Moi." Enjoy!

Plastic Bertrand - Ca Plane Pour Moi

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

5 Great Punk Rock Videos That Actually Got Played on MTV

Although there is now an entire generation of kids who could never comprehend it, once upon a time MTV actually played music videos.  All day long, every day of the week, nothing but music videos.  For a solid three-year period from 1981 to early 1984, MTV was a visual jukebox - a radio station on TV.

During that period, the only Punk Rock you might see would be The Ramones or The Clash, both of whom were considered "safe" by mainstream standards.  Punk bands didn't make music videos - heck they barely had enough funds to self-release their records, and "selling out" by making product for Corporate Television went against the DIY ethos anyway, right?  Well, at least until Green Day realized there was a buck to be made...

But in those early years, Punk was not represented in the MTV world. At least, not very well. However, those of us who stayed up late at night as endless Triumph and Def Leppard clips flickered on our screens were, on rare occasion, rewarded with a once-in-a-lifetime viewing of a real, honest-to-gawd Punk Rock video.  Here are 5 of my favorites from that era that I still can't believe actually got airplay on MTV:

The Minutemen: "This Ain't No Picnic" (1984)
Brilliantly intercut with footage from one of then-sitting President Ronald Reagan's war movies, San Pedro's The Minutemen find themselves under attack as they blurt out one of the best of their sub-two-minute blasts.  Find this one on the stunning Double Nickels On The Dime, which, if you do not already own, you need to.

Black Flag: "TV Party" (1981)
Don't know which is funnier: seeing a very young Henry Rollins, listening to the band rattle off TV show titles of the era (remember Fridays? Quincy? That's Incredible?), or the whole generic-beer-and-beanbag chair aesthetic of the clip.  A classic nonetheless, and a song which Black Flag recorded several times, most notably on the Damaged album.

The Anti-Nowhere League: "Streets of London" (1982)
That's Nick Culmer, better known as Animal, spewing out slightly re-written lyrics to a UK '60s folk chestnut and wielding an axe as frontman for The Anti-Nowhere League.  The track can be found on the album We Are...The League alongside other sick-joke punk extremities as "I Hate...People," "Let's Break The Law," and the stunningly offensive "Woman."  At least, I think they were joking...

Kraut: "All Twisted" (1983)
New York hardcore band Kraut were the only Punk band that I discovered via MTV!  Came home from school one day, turned on the TV, and this gem came blaring out at me. Ran out and bought the album, the long out-of-print An Adjustment To Society, that weekend. Quickly learned that the boys had cleaned up the song for broadcast (the line "Can't you fucking see?" was changed to the obviously dubbed "Can't you people see?" in the clip).  Thankfully, the entirety of their recorded output can - and should! -  be had these days on one disc, Complete Studio Recordings

Angry Samoans: "Time Has Come Today" (1982)
To me, the most surprising clip on this list. Who'd ever expect LA's snarkiest cartoon-punk assholes to see airtime on MTV? That's former music critic "Metal" Mike Saunders on vocals as Angry Samoans snarl through their take on the old Chambers Brothers classic, found on their outstanding (and guaranteed to offend almost everyone) Back From Samoa LP.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #84

We've Got A Fuzzbox & We're Gonna Use ItImage by Diego's sideburns via FlickrIn Birmingham, England, in 1985, a group of fresh-out-of-high-school girls decided to form a band.  They could play their instruments well enough to get by, but they had a giddy, loopy enthusiasm and a crackling energy that propelled them much further than their amateurish musical talents could have taken them alone. And they had both the neatest gimmick and the most unwieldy band name in history.

When sisters Jo and Maggie Dunne began practicing with Tina O'Neill and Vickie "Vix" Perks, they quickly decided they needed something to set them apart from the crowd.  Sporting multi-colored mohawks, gaudy thrift-store outfits and neon make-up, they had a signature look; now they needed a sound.  They found it in the form of distortion pedals for their guitars, which prompted Maggie to announce to her cohorts, "We've got a fuzzbox, and we're gonna use it!"  Not only did that become the band's statement of purpose, they adopted it as their name as well.

Within a year, We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Gonna Use It had their first record out on the independent Vindaloo label, the double A-side "XX Sex"/"Rules And Regulations." Both songs were heavy on the distortion, burbling along with chanty cheerleader vocals and very simple arrangements; both were irresistibly catchy.  The single was soon expanded into a 5-song EP, with all five tracks on one side of a 12-inch record; the other side was unplayable, as the band etched self-drawn caricatures of themselves and messages to their fans into the vinyl.

The record sold well enough to get We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Gonna Use It  noticed by the Geffen label, who rushed them into the studio for their debut album.  Bostin' Steve Austin appeared in mid-1986 in the UK, with the lead single, "Love Is The Slug," receiving a ton of airplay.  Geffen decided to release the record in the US, but they had two changes in mind: first, the title of the album was changed to the band's name. And second, about that name...they'd never get played on the radio with a name like We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Gonna Use It, so the label had them truncate it to simply Fuzzbox.

That album is wonderful from start to finish.  The band's originals are uniformly enjoyable, hook-filled bits of punky-pop bubblegum. Their cover of Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit In The Sky" is jaw-dropping and not to be missed, and "Love Is The Slug" became a cult favorite and their most well-known song.  They seemed set for big things, but unfortunately the label wasn't done tinkering with the band.

A second album, Big Bang!, was unveiled in 1989, and left everyone scratching their heads. The girls had ditched their signature look in favor of a much more polished, "video-friendly" image. Worse, their was nary a fuzzbox to be heard anywhere on the record.  In fact, the girls did not play a single instrument on Big Bang! Geffen had essentially recast them as Bananarama version 2.0, sapping every last bit of personality from them.  A few of the songs weren't entirely bad: "Pink Sunshine" and "International Rescue" were pretty solid pop songs, but this wasn't what anyone who loved the first record wanted to hear. The only thing remotely reminiscent of the old Fuzzbox was their decision to cover Yoko Ono's "Walking On Thin Ice," and even that turned out to be a better idea in theory than in execution.  A single from what was a planned third album appeared later ("Your Loss My Gain"), but the backlash was too great to overcome, and Fuzzbox called it a day.

Vix went on to record a solo album while the other girls all dropped out of the music world completely.  The two albums fell out of print, but a few "best of" compilations of Fuzzbox songs have appeared over the years, the best being 2004's Look At The Hits On That!!, which collected the early singles and the best songs from the two albums along with a DVD containing all of the girls' promotional videos.

In early 2010, Fuzzbox got back together for a reunion. Only Tina did not join in; in her place they added a new drummer, Karen Milne, and bass player Sara Firebrand and launched a summer UK tour. They also recorded a new single, covering M's New Wave classic "Pop Muzik." Whether a new album is in the works remains to be seen.

This week's NW4NW entry is the clip for "Love Is The Slug," which still remains among my favorite songs and videos from the era. Enjoy!

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Monday, September 13, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #83

There was a period of time between 1982 and 1983 when the New Wave world seemed to be overrun by synth duos. Two people and a keyboard was the recipe used by Yazoo, D.A.F., Soft Cell, The Twins (not of the Thompson variety), Naked Eyes, and on and on. The synthesizer was the instrument of the future, after all: it could replace an entire orchestra with its plinky electronic approximations of other instruments, so all you needed was one person to focus on the music and one to focus on the vocals, and viola! Instant band! And without all the headaches of having to deal with a room full of musicians and their egos and "artistic visions."

Of course, after the novelty of the synth duo approach wore off, we were all left sitting there thinking, "don't these bands all kinda sound the same?" Well, yeah, they did, but let's not let details get in the way of a good story, shall we? Those synth duos sold a lot of records and filled a lot of dancefloors, after all.

One of my favorites of the genre was comprised of Neil Arthur (vocals) and Stephen Luscombe (synth), who got together in Middlesex in late 1979 and were soon releasing synthy burbles under the name Blancmange.  During the height of the synth-duo era, Blancmange hit the UK Top 40 five times, with their biggest success coming from their 1982 breakthrough single, "Living On the Ceiling," which reached #7 and saw considerable exposure here in the US via MTV and college radio.  Their follow up single, "Waves," managed to hit the Top 20 as well; both songs are found on their debut album, Happy Families (1982).

Blancmange were something of an anomaly in the synth-duo genre in that they were able to maintain their popularity through a second album. Mange Tout was released in 1983, and generated three more hits: "Blind Vision," "That's Love That It Is," and "Don't Tell Me," with the latter nearly eclipsing "Living On the Ceiling," reaching #8 in the UK.

By mid 1984, however, the synth-duo were a dying breed. A few more singles and a third album, Believe You Me, appeared under the Blancmange name, but the moment had passed.

Oh, and about that name...many of us here in the US scratched our heads wondering where that name came from, while our British counterparts knew full well that a blancmange (don't pronounce the "nc" in the middle) is, according to Wikipedia, a "sweet dessert commonly made with milk or cream and sugar thickened with gelatin, cornstarch or Irish moss, and often flavored with almonds. It is usually set in a mould and served cold. Although traditionally white, blancmanges are frequently given a pink color as well."  Um...that could either be delicious or nauseating.

Desserts aside, this week's NW4NW entry celebrates the synth-duo in the form of the band Blancmange, and their fantastic first hit, "Living On the Ceiling." Enjoy!

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Monday, September 6, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #82

It's Labor Day, kids.  Last night, temps around here dropped into the 50s (beautiful sleeping weather if you ask me).  The local rugrats are all either back in school or headed back this week.  It all means summer is just about over. Not complaining much about that this year - far too many days over 90º  and 90% humidity for my liking - but it's always sorta sad to see the summer end. So, before the cool breezes turn to jacket weather, how about one more bit of summery fun, in the form of this week's NW4NW?

And what better band to fit the bill than Malibu's own The Surf Punks? The band originally came together in 1976, with a pair of celebrity-related surf-n-sand enthusiasts at the core: Dennis Dragon (brother of Daryl Dragon, better known as "The Captain" of The Captain and Tennille) and Drew Steele (son of Gavin McLeod, better known as Captain Stubing of The Love Boat) began writing and recording in a little garage-based studio across the street from Zuma Beach.  John Heussenstamm and John Hunt rounded out the band, with the late Scott Goddard lending occasional vocals.

They were goofy, wickedly funny, and made great music. Their songs covered the topics they knew and loved best: surfing, tanning, drinking beer and chasing girls. Their incredibly awesome debut album, My Beach (1980), contains classics like "My Beach," "My Wave," "Beer Can Beach," "Teenage Girls," "Big Top," and "Punch Out at Malibu." Deep, intellectual stuff it's not.  But it is the perfect soundtrack to summertime on the beach.  With a sound falling somewhere between The Beach Boys and The B-52s with a strong seasoning of LA Punk Rock and Jeff Spicolli attitude, The Surf Punks were the musical equivalent of the rock-n-roll/T&A movies that used to be shown late nights on the USA Network in the early '80s. The whole thing seemed like it was going to be a one-and-done novelty act record.  Only problem was, someone forgot to to tell that to the band or their fans.

The Surf Punks actually found enough depth in the shallow waters they were surfing to release another collection of songs about surfing, beer and girls in bikinis.  Locals Only was released in 1982 and found a fan base eager for more of this stuff.  Not quite as consistently sharp or funny as the debut, it does have its moments - notably the title track.

After disappearing for a few years, The Surf Punks reappeared on record store shelves in 1988 with Oh No, Not Them Again! and, later in the year, Party Bomb.  They were still mining the same lyrical and musical veins, but the joke was finally wearing thin.  They were now basically a parody of themselves, which is a doubly bad thing when your band was built on the edges of self-parody in the first place.

Nonetheless, those first two albums  remain essential summer listening material.  So, as the summer of 2010 comes to close, we celebrate The Surf Punks in all their glory with two picks: first up, a clip of them performing "My Beach" taken from the movie Urgh! A Music War; after that, an audio-only clip for the second LP's title cut, "Locals Only." Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Of Ugly Logos and Local Talk

Want to direct your attention to a couple of blog posts recently posted by my friends Daniel Klotz and Kelly Watson regarding Lancaster, PA's recently announced "rebranding," and specifically the lunacy surrounding our fair city's new logo.  Klotz provides a comprehensive timeline that should bring everyone up to date; Watson delved a bit deeper into the logo's *ahem* pedigree, and later gave the design firm that was contracted to create the logo a chance to be heard.

I don't have much to add to their words; among those three posts the story to date is covered efficiently.  I will say that, regardless of where it came from, the new logo is just plain ugly, more befitting the Lancaster that built the concrete monstrosity known as the Brunswick Mall than of a Lancaster that has been casting its hopes for present-day cultural significance among the arts crowd centered around Pennsylvania College of Art and Design and Gallery Row downtown.

As my hometown continues its futile straw grasping in search of some sort of salable identity with which to draw people back into downtown life, I continue to be astounded at, frankly, the stupidity of it all.  For instance, I have yet to have anyone satisfactorily explain to me what "A city authentic" actually means; I do know a city that would splat a cookie-cutter Marriot Hotel within the gutted facade of the beautiful, unique, 100+ year old Watt & Shand building may be a lot of things, but "authentic" isn't one of them.

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