Tag Archives: New York

38 – Talking Heads: Born Under Punches

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Can you dance in your head?

I can. There’s no limit to what’s possible up there. In a static bus queue, I’m body-popping with Michael Boogaloo Shrimp. Buying wine at the Co-op, I’m actually choreographing a Studio 54 freakout. Funny how when it’s real feet, hips and arms, I fall into the old ways. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of meeting me at a wedding, you’ll have been treated to the timid handclap, or the David Bowie knock-knee, or the shuggy boat (ask a Geordie). Of course, anything is acceptable at a private occasion. People expect the champagne to do the boogieing, and accept all manner of disgraceful manoeuvres with good grace. But this ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around. Sometimes dancing isn’t just an urge, it’s an urgency.

In pop music, dance is sex, of course; but it’s also a raison d’etre . My parents’ generation invented pop music, and Bill Haley’s ‘Rock around the clock’ was the prototype, the first patent to be stamped. Mum would always reminisce about going to see ‘Rock’ at the cinema, and being turfed out for ‘bopping in the aisles’. There’s no clearer example of how pop music became a religion in the 1950s, with its own temples and devoted congregations. Nothing new there – for us bipods, the Terpsichorean impulse is as old as legs themselves, and it’s the essential motor that drives many a ritual. But the pop era has depended on multiple instances of dance being the only thing that matters. Dance is liberty itself.  ‘Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free’, chirped Madonna ecstatically. That’s what flailing and frugging meant in the 1980s. Have you ever seen Footloose? 1984: the year Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards, miners were being battered by Thatcher’s truncheoned bullies and Ethiopian children were dying of famine. Oh, and somewhere in Oklahoma, kids were being denied their basic human right to jive. This is big stuff. Check out Re-flex’s sole hit from the same year: 100BPM recast as ideology. It brings a whole new meaning to party politics; no wonder Prince was warding off the apocalypse by dancing his life away.

There’s a tyranny of dance too though. It’s amazing how many songs actually order you to party. It’s all imperatives. Get into the groove! Everybody dance, too-da-loo-loo, clap your hands, clap your hands! Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight! I love being ordered around by those haughty Chic girls. When they tell you that ‘these are the good times’, there’s no possibility of argument. Everything they sing is incontrovertible. That’s what makes those Rodgers and Edwards records so perfect – certainty, inevitability, the sheer rightness of disco. But what if you dance out of doubt? What if you bite your nails while you tap your toes? What if your dancing shoes don’t fit and there’s the possibility of blood on the heel? Dance may well be a vertical expression of a horizontal desire – but what if there’s never any release, only a climax moving ever further out of the field of possibility? The answer you get is Talking Heads’ album Remain in Light, a still mind-blowing hybrid of St Vitus jitter and high anxiety.  Never mind the Higsons putting the punk back into funk. Remain in Light puts the funk back into funk, by reminding us that way before the f-word rode on syncopations and slap bass, it denoted something more troubled: a cold sweat, a quandary. ‘Take a look at these hands’ screams David Byrne in ‘Born Under Punches’, the Lady Macbeth of the Bowery. Two funks battling it out to the death: Byrneham Wood coming to Dunsinane.

He’s got form here, has David. The earliest, pre-Eno Heads kicked off with ‘Psycho Killer’, a stalking Parisian cat of a record – less new wave, more nouvelle vague. Twitchy of tail and twinkly of eye, ‘Psycho Killer’ led to some of the finest moments of hyperventilation in pop music – the Heads’ spidery, suspicious remake of Al Green’s ‘Take me to the river’, for example, which trades creamy soul for postmodern urban nightmare: don’t fall in love with the surface reflections, Dave, or you’ll fall in and drown. ‘Found a job’, also from the first Eno-produced album More Songs about Buildings and Food, seeks refuge from these nuits blanches in cartoon-gang disco-lite. This incarnation of the Heads, with Tina Weymouth bobbing up and down on her bass and Chris Frantz grinning at the drum-stool, would lead directly to the Tom Tom Club and the classic ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ – white hip-hop sketched with bright crayons. 1979’s Fear of Music, though, reasserted David Byrne’s penchant for troubled funk, and began to ask questions of the dance. Can you give in to disco while still worrying about the world? There are furrowed brows aplenty – ‘Life During Wartime’ imagines imminent Cold War meltdown as a Secret Seven scenario of bomb shelters and stockpiles (‘I’ve got some groceries and peanut butter / To last a couple of days’). But there’s also ‘I Zimbra’, a mad mashup of kwela and Dada that almost – almost – gives itself in to the sheer joy of the beat. Eno throws in a bit of geometry towards the end – some abstract synth shapes for the brain to ponder – but it’s perilously close to bypassing the head altogether for the loins and ligaments. And this is the blueprint for Remain in Light, a series of songs that continually rub up against themselves, staging pitched battles between the uptight and the unfettered. The single ‘Once in a lifetime’ is a perfect example of this not-quite yin-yang. Byrne’s televangelist spiel is one of the great expressions of midlife crisis; a sort of John Updike story for the MTV generation. It’s so familiar to us now – the beautiful house, the beautiful wife – but it never loses its punch. There’s almost unbearable fear in it (what will this depressed suburbanite do behind the wheel of the large automobile, pull a Willy Loman?) But I always think there’s a beautiful glimmer of hope. When Byrne asks ‘Where does that highway go to?’, he’s peeking over the horizon; when he cries ‘My God, what have I done?’, it’s the moment he realises he’s driving away, on and into the terror of freedom. Maybe, just maybe, the wondrous music has put oil in his tank. For how could the song not be life-affirming? How could those fizzing keyboard lines, like bubbles constantly rising and popping in the glass, not go to the head? How could all those percolating polyrhythms fail to cure the arthritic pains of middle age or the weltschmerz of Middle America?

And so the Heads come to the power of dance through intellectual and spiritual crisis. Listening to the first side of Remain in Light (and this is definitely an LP with ‘sides’) is like seeing a man looking in one direction as his feet carry him in another. Byrne protests ‘but…but…’ while Harrison, Frantz and Weymouth (not to mention Eno) chivvy him constantly with the enchantments of rhythm. ‘Crosseyed and painless’ relates this very story. Byrne has ‘lost [his] shape, trying to act casual’; he seems obsessively worried that he is becoming untethered from ‘fact’, but then the pulse of the music convinces him eventually that ‘facts continue to change their shape’, and the brain can expand to incorporate the change. You can indeed go crosseyed, and it won’t be painful; if you lose control, you merely open up endless new possibilities. This was the ethos behind the creation of the album, and so ‘Crosseyed’ becomes a kind of meta-commentary on recording strategy. ‘Born Under Punches’, similarly , is the sound of a guy torn between being a ‘government man’ and a ‘tumbler’ – a man in a suit with an agenda in his briefcase, and a gymnast preparing to turn spontaneous somersaults. ‘All I want is to breathe’, sings Byrne, loosening his tie. The track is constantly teetering on this edge, between limit and licence, and to hear the corporate middle-manager bursting out of his confines is almost akin to hearing a body in the process of being created. One of the many moments I love in this track is at around 1:25, when Byrne does away with words altogether: “ng-zada, ng-zada, ng-zada”, he murmurs, as he attempts to keep speech moving through the propulsive groove only to get stuck on the beat and dribble into gobbledygook. It’s panic at the disco, for sure – a ‘my God, what have I done’ moment, or rather, ‘What the fuck am I saying here?’ Byrne also has to dodge the brickbat bass-guitar and boomeranging sonic effects, like an avatar in a videogame attempting to steer a course and get through to the bonus round. But by the end, I think he’s triumphed. He has conquered his fear of music and is ready for the next level.

Apart from this, it still just sounds bloody amazing. Adrian Belew’s unhinged, blibbety-bloop Morse code of a guitar solo; the mystical, spine-tingling backing vocals; the looped offbeats that always sound like they’re about to trip up the track by the boogie-shoelaces. It’s incredibly three-dimensional music, and your arms and legs expand to match it. I urge you take the punch (see, imperatives again!), and dance in your head to the Heads. Just make sure it doesn’t come onto your I-Pod while you’re in the Co-op, otherwise you might just find you’re a-tumble in the aisles.

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7 – Blondie: Picture This

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There’s a hair salon just round the corner from my house.  It’s called Parallel Lines and the signage is black and white stripes with red script. I’ve never ventured in, but I like to imagine that Debbie Harry works there, in a kind of Stella Street scenario. Sometimes, she wears that binbag from the ‘Atomic’ video and coos ‘Oh, your hair is beautiful’ just like in the song. If I really run with the fantasy, she’s the mastermind behind Grace Jones’ buzz-cut (in my Stella Street script, Jones pulls the pints at the pub next door, and has her own line in filthily named cocktails). Most of the time though, Debbie just waits for customers, filing her nails insouciantly and pouting at herself in the mirror.

Back in reality, I suspect an iconic album has been hijacked for kudos. It says a lot about the status of Parallel Lines, thirty-three years after it was first released, that its imagery is still a byword for a certain kind of Manhattan cool. That cover! Debs in a virginal white dress, surrounded by her band of merry men in black suits and Converse sneakers. They look like they’re having so much bloody fun. God would I have loved to be a Blondie boy sauntering down the Bowery, my skinny tie flapping in the breeze and my head full of infectious new wave hooks. I’m getting the CBGBs just thinking about it.

Blondie blew in from the Lower East Side at a truly great time for pop music, and they made it even greater. The ‘new wave’ was a loose, contentious term – it meant anything from punk with a melodic punch to synth-pop or even what we would think of as ‘post-punk’ – but its domination of the charts in the late 1970s briefly made Top of the Pops the smartest show on the box. Many of my favourite acts from this period had a way with the knowing wink and the mis-mime, but the sheer joy of big tunes and loving arrangements limited any danger of becoming clever-clever. ‘Oliver’s Army’ is a good example; Elvis Costello can spit and politick and cock his glasses at a professorial angle all he likes, but nothing dims that gleeful piano, a sincere homage to ‘Dancing Queen’ banging out in the taproom of the Bull and Bush.

That record is from 1979, perhaps the most astonishing year in the history of the British pop charts. Look at the Top 75 from this week thirty-two years ago, and marvel at Chic’s ‘Good Times’ brushing past Public Image Ltd’s ‘Death Disco’: utterly, diametrically opposed, and both complete game-changers. Then consider Blondie’s ‘Heart of glass’, one of the year’s many great chart-toppers. Their hipper fans saw it as a cynical dancefloor cash-in, but most now think of it as the band’s defining statement. Punk and disco, the two great influences on late seventies Anglo-American pop, are mixed to perfection: it’s a true martini moment. It also pretty much invented the 1980s, and all subsequent revivals. Moroderish sequencers, a creamy female vocal, a camera-literate image; ‘love’s true bluish light’ was, more accurately, a blueprint. Back on Stella Street, Debbie’s doing Kim Wilde’s highlights for her. Alison Goldfrapp’s booked in for later. Karen O even popped in for a quick demi-wave a couple of years ago.

‘Heart of glass’ was recorded in NYC and the video sees the band larking around in Studio 54, but Blondie’s sound is actually as European as it is American. Their producer, Mike Chapman, was a veteran Brit used to churning out hits for second-rate glam rockers (he was the man behind ‘Tiger Feet’, ‘Blockbuster’ and ‘Living next door to Alice’, as well as, rather more strangely, Tina Turner’s ‘The Best’). I forgive him everything for Parallel Lines, though, and especially the impeccable suite of three that kicks off the first side. ‘Hanging on the telephone’, ‘One way or another’ and ‘Picture this’ are a little soap opera all on their own. They celebrate the urgency and frustration of desire, played out in subway stations, Laundromats and burger joints. From the moment that phone beeps, and Debbie announces she’s in the booth across the hall, we are thrust into a scenario of longing and libido. The whole of ‘Hanging on the telephone’ is the sound of that blood rush when you realise the guy or girl you’re obsessed with might actually answer your call. By the end, Debbie can only yell ‘hang up and run to me’, over Clem Burke’s frenetic tom fills. We presume he leaves her hanging, because ‘One way or another’ tries a different approach. It’s a fantasy of abduction; Debbie intends to kidnap the object of her desire in a supermarket, and the mock-sirens towards the end suggest she’ll have some explaining to do, possibly down at the station.

All this overheating raises the blood pressure, and that’s when Debbie decides to change tack yet again and see if she can croon her way to glory. ‘Picture This’ has a vocal to do time for: honey in the verses, grit in the choruses. She’s still stalking, but she’s gone from being possessed to regaining her self-possession, by way of a coy mock-modesty. ‘All I want is a room with a view’, she sings, as if it were the smallest thing to ask for. She’ll even be generous, though her largesse is undercut by a tacit admission that she’s still obsessed: ‘I will give you my finest hour, / The one I spent watching you shower’. That’s a killer couplet, but it is only outdone by the next one: ‘All I want is a photo in my wallet, / A small remembrance of something more solid’. Yet what she really wants is to burn her own image indelibly into this guy’s head. ‘Picture this – my telephone number’, she cries, and we’re back in that booth across the hall. Ah, the days before mobiles, when girls would huddle over the coin-ops on street corners, passersby momentarily catching a stream of mascara behind glass…

Though thoroughly New York, and thoroughly new wave, ‘Picture This’ eschews archness. Instead, it revels in mood swings. The key change from Debbie’s first ‘oh yeah’ at 1:38 is triumphant. She thinks her chorus, with its keening licks and gorgeous background harmonies, has done all the work, and her beau is coming back. The following instrumental cruises melodiously, but storm clouds gather around ten seconds later, the keyboard banking up ominously. Debbie shrugs her shoulders; nothing for it but to try another cooing verse, I guess.

‘Picture This’ was the lead single from Parallel Lines, and its least successful (though hardly a disaster, peaking at number 12). Nevertheless, Blondie performed it to perfection on Top of the Pops. Debbie points her box brownie at us, and suddenly the song becomes about her own image, and the level of control she has over it. The cameraman may be filming her, but she’s really behind the lens. Undoubtedly, Madonna was watching and taking notes. But quite apart from the cultural studies cleverness, there is something completely natural, inevitable about this performance, and the band behind it. As with so many groups of their era (The Clash, The Stranglers, Devo, Talking Heads), if Blondie hadn’t happened, somebody would have had to invent them. They were necessary, essential; a five-piece justification for pop itself. When I listen to their best songs, my spine tingles and my eyebrows rise; body and mind are on equal terms. I somehow doubt that a treatment in the Parallel Lines salon on the Iffley Road can ever match that.

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