Pop Stars Are Not Your Friends

The first full-length article I contributed to Star Hits was a feature on the group Madness. The piece turned out fine, editorially rendered in the trademarked Smash Hits fashion, but getting there turned out to be no fun at all. This excruciating interview taught me a lesson about journalism if not life itself.

Now We Are Six: England’s magnificent seven, Madness, cope with the loss of founding member Mike Barson. Whither now the nutty boys wonders Mark Coleman.

The musical circus called Madness has always lived up to its name. From the snazzy reggae-flavored ska of “One Step Beyond” (which kicked off their career in England) to humorous pop portraits like “Our House” (which broke them in the States), Madness sound like they’re having a blast and playing music at the same time. These seven young Brits just have a way of drawing in listeners and making them feel like part of the celebration, too.

Better make that six young Brits. Just when Madness’ much-awaited Keep Moving LP hit the streets, keyboardist Mike Barson announced that he was leaving the group he founded. That’s a tough break for any band, but for a group whose friendship was a big part of the sound, it could have been fatal. How will singers Carl Smyth and “Suggs” McPherson, bassist Mark Bedford, guitarist C.J. Foreman, sazist Lee Thompson and drummer Woody Woodgate carry on?

Sire Records resided on 54th Street just off 5th Avenue, spread across several floors of a slim high-rise. It was a far cry indeed from the humble Lower East Side flats where I’d interrogated Sonic Youth and Bush Tetras. Exuding a professional friendliness, which I found neither seductive nor off-putting, the publicist guided me into a plushly carpeted conference room.

Vocalist Carl Smyth and “Suggs” hunched over an upright piano in the corner of the room: toying with the ivories rather than tickling them, I’d say. They immediately admitted to abruptly cancelling the American tour that brought them here — because they couldn’t find a suitable pianist to substitute for the departed Mike Barson. They were quotably honest about their uncertain future, and with my polite probing out of the way, obviously relieved to recount past glories for the duration of the interview.

We chatted for nearly an hour and I quietly decided it had proceeded rather well. “Hey I’m really hitting it off with these guys!” When the publicist re-entered the room, I turned to greet her and the two Madness members drifted back to the piano for more tuneless tinkling. I switched off my tape recorder and prepared to to leave. Before I could say goodbye and thanks, “Suggs” asked the publicist where to find some authentic New York pizza and I piped up: “John’s on Bleecker St is fantastic!”

My suggestion wasn’t acknowledged. Nor was my presence in the room. As though I no longer existed! I tiptoed out, humiliated beyond words. Perhaps I overreacted, but the experience burned a tattoo on my brain: POP STARS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS.

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Public Image, Limited Viewing: PiL @ The Ritz

One night in May 1981 I toyed with the idea of seeing Public Image Ltd, when the post-Sex Pistols vehicle of John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon pulled into the Ritz. One year previous, the group executed a mesmerizing set at an old roller rink in Detroit, weaving abstract guitar squalls around pulsating reggae bass lines as Lydon’s incantatory catcalls floated through the air like ominous clouds. One year later the group had evolved – or devolved – into a purely conceptual expression of Lydon’s free-ranging contempt for his audience’s expectations.

Rout and roll at the Ritz

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Billed as a video performance rather than a concert, this PiL appearance promised to be different from the usual fare at the Ritz, a cavernous dance hall on East 11th Street. The video aspect was ironic in that the Ritz, like most other new music clubs that followed in the wake of CBGB and the doomed Max’s Kansas City, prominently placed television screens throughout the club. The Ritz was slightly more democratic than the Mudd Club or Danceteria since tickets were sold in advance and there was no exclusionary door policy. Pay the price and you could get in, whether you were a clueless “Bridge & Tunnel” person from the outer boros/suburbs or a bonafide “slum & loft” downtown hipster.

As it happened a sudden thunderstorm and the usual lack of funds prevented me from joining the line for PiL tickets. This was a lucky stroke because the show sparked a riot. Lydon and his compatriots cavorted in silhouette behind the club’s 30-foot wide video screen, baiting the crowd until they responded in kind with hurled bottles, eventually storming the stage and pulling down the screen. If rock and roll was now bankrupt, as John Lydon kept insisting, at the Ritz he proved his point by painting himself into a corner. The only escape was selling out.

Revenge of the Nerds Pt.2

Another staple of the pre-MTV video scene, “Once In A Lifetime” is arguably Talking Heads’ best-known and best song. Of course MTV dropped the video into heavy rotation pretty much from day one, making it hard to believe now that “Once In A Lifetime” got next to no radio airplay at the time and never dented the Billboard pop charts. The elements are as singular and arresting today as in 1981: David Byrne’s twitchy and convulsive “dance” (choreographed by Toni Basil of “Mickey” fame), the searching and vaguely existential lyrics (including phrases lifted from radio/TV preachers), the fluid and funky backbeat (inspired by Hamilton Bohannon’s rolling disco grooves). As a devoted swimmer I totally relate to the aquatic theme – “water flowing underground” = life progressing along unpredictable and barely detectable currents. And as a middle-aged man I lately find myself wondering how did I get here? And how did young David Byrne stumble onto something so profound and well, elemental? Apparently “Once In A Lifetime” is something of an anthem among hydrogeologists as well.

http://waterunderground.org/2014/04/19/best-groundwater-song-ever-once-in-a-lifetime-by-the-talking-heads/

Silk Stockings & Sweatsuits

Back in the day, hip-hop meant not only music but the street culture surrounding rap: DJing, breakdancing, graffiti writing. All these elements are displayed in Blondie’s “Rapture” video. Since the song reached #1 on the Billboard Top 40 in February 1981, perhaps it’s the first time many American heard rap. Yes, I agree “Rapture” isn’t a real rap. It’s a catchy approximation. The “Rapture” video, unsurprisingly, became a staple in the pre-MTV NYC club scene.

Debbie Harry struts her stuff around a low-budget set, nods to the DJ spinning (a spaced-out Jean Michel Basquiat), watches Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy spray-paint graffiti, awkwardly cavorts with her Blondie band mates, window-shops upscale department store displays. That last moment transports me to the NYC of past times, where the vast gaping disparity between rich and poor living on the same tiny island was always visible. Silk stockings and sweatsuits, side by side.

Dancing Alone, Eyes Wide Open

In the period just before MTV launched in August 1981, music videos were already a presence in the cavernous Manhattan clubs known as “rock discos”. Shown between live performances on a big screen behind the stage and/or on strategically placed television sets, these now-familiar three or four minute clips seemed like a novel distraction (at best) or totally beside the point (at worst). Still, most people hadn’t witnessed them before. Up till then, music video meant American Bandstand, Soul TrainSolid Gold, Midnight Special and/or Don Kirshner‘s Rock Concert.

Watching TV in a music club always felt off to me. Disorienting. But the quirky visuals and eclectic sounds were captivating, especially if you didn’t know anybody and were less-than-confident about chatting people up on the fly. As MTV did in its infancy, NYC clubs fished videos from a shallow pool of new wave and post punk artists with a decided preference for English accents.

What follows is the first of a series: My Top Ten music videos of the just-pre-MTV era.

John Lennon’s murder still haunted NYC in early 1981. Recorded on 12/8/80, the day before he was shot, Yoko Ono’s “Walking On Thin Ice” is John’s last recorded performance as well as her most (some would say only) accessible and satisfying piece of music. Nervous funk bass, ominous synth sighs, calmly obsessive vocals and Lennon’s harsh guitar snaking throughout: it works as epitaph even if it wasn’t intended that way. The video, put together after the tragedy, contrasts footage of the Lennon/Onos (with Sean) in bucolic repose with shattering sequences of Yoko solo, silent and grim, walking through the city with her memories and the shattered, shattering words and music. I met a girl…who tried to walk across a lake…of course, there was ice…

Of course, since this is John and Yoko, there is also an extended and embarrassing scene of the iconic couple making love. Their naked on-camera romp is so tender by today’s standards it barely qualifies as prurient, let alone pornographic. Yet it’s worth noting these pioneering media artists would have been right at home in the bare-all atmosphere of reality TV and social media. TMI was always an important part of their repertoire.