This is the first in a series of columns I'll be doing about five miscellaneous songs I have been listening to recently without any sort of connecting thread. These are just songs I have been really enjoying and seem interesting to talk about. You can listen to all the tracks featured in this article by clicking the title of their section.
Margaret Thatcher's government came into power in Britain in 1979 on the promise that they would build a “New Britain” but much of their time in power was defined by destruction and collapse. The socialist welfare state was subjected to severe austerity programs, the trade unions were dismantled, and once-inviolable public entities like the railway, the docks, and the power grid were opened up to private investment. The most prominent physical manifestations of this “New Britain” could be found in the geography of the country's ancient cities, where massive corporate developments like the Canary Wharf complex in London were constructed over lands previously used by state-owned companies and public housing estates. Explosions and other loud noises once again rocked the cities of Britain but this time were caused by the forces of “progress” rather than by foreign enemies. The ruff English lasses of Girlschool provide a ripping, futuristic musical premonition of this tumultuous era in their 1980 song “Demolition Boys,” the lead track off of their album Demolition. The main riff of the song rains down on the listener like a collapsing building, but keeps a steady groove, much like the best work of the group's mentor, Motorhead impresario Lemmy Kilminster. Lead singer Kim McAuliffe declaims the eponymous Boys' arrival in a fierce, cool bark that cuts through the mix like blue sparks flying from an acetylene torch. The lyrics are punchy and simple but also carry a significant political message: the Demolition Boys are knocking down buildings and causing general chaos to “make way for a new high rise,” like angels of destruction coming to claim a decadent, dying old city. It would be the perfect soundtrack for an all-female post-apocalyptic biker gang running riot through the ruins of post-austerity Britain, carrying chains and spiked bats to beat on anyone who gets in their way.
“Can I make somebody cum right now?” Marvin asks near the end of this track, and after sitting through its full 10 minutes, some people might be tempted to reply “I don't know, can you?” Cynicism is an understandable response to his come-ons, especially in the face of their unabashed raunchiness, but for many people, including the scores of couples and single young women who flocked to his concerts in the 80s and 90s, there's something magnetically charming about his audacity. I considered myself somewhat of an aficionado of sexy classic R&B but even the most explicit works of Prince and Millie Jackson didn't quite prepare me for this delirious celebration of oral pleasure. Marvin, in the guise of “Jody” the mischievous no-count ne'er-do-well of Black American folklore, advertises his oral sex skills to the women of the world, and reprimands the men in his audience for not using theirs on their own partners. His delivery when speaking reminds me of a drunk, defrocked Baptist preacher, or a stand-up comedian, but when he switches to singing is a fluffy falsetto in the style of Marvin Gaye or Al Green. He eschews the synthesized funk of the 1980s for a sprightly horn and organ driven southern-soul arrangement reminiscent of Stax and Hi Records, which further pushes the song toward blue comedy rather than sweaty R&B eroticism. You can just imagine how this song would come to life in a live setting, and would become even more funny with the interaction of the crowd. Gene and Dean Ween definitely didn't listen to this song before recording GodWeenSatan in 1990, because they would have realized their epic length R&B pastiche (and Sease-ian tribute to cunnilingus) “L.M.L.Y.P.” had already been outdone as both a song and a joke four years before.
I believe that as the two marriages that made up ABBA disintegrated, their music got better and better. The snowblind Nordic idylls of “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me” are beautiful to visit, especially among friends and family at a party, but for solitary headphone listening I prefer their more melancholy works. There was a strain of sadness and regret running through most of their musical career but harsh, negative emotions really took over on their last two albums, Super Trouper, and The Visitors. This track comes from the latter, and is a moody epitaph for their career. Agnetha Faltskog, one of the group's two lead vocalists, sings lyrics written by her soon-to-be former husband Bjorn Ulvaeus, which paint a portrait of a woman living a quiet, unremarkable life defined by routine on “the day before you came,” before everything was disrupted by the pain and passion of love. Although Ulvaeus claims that the lyrics were not directly inspired by the drama that was tearing the band apart, they could be read as longing for the days before the group's massive international success, when things were less complicated. Her tale is accompanied by synth-pop instrumentation from Benny Andersson, which sparkles with space and light. Pads envelop Agnetha's voice like “the sound of rain” she describes, and are enhanced by ghostly backing vocals from Anni-Frid Lygstad. It's a nigh-perfect fusion of the grey, Protestant anguish the Swedes do best (see also Ingmar Bergman, August Strindberg), and danceable European disco-pop.
The “twee-pop” scene of the mid-80s took inspiration from two places: The Velvet Underground, and very British 60s pop confectioners. They plucked at 12-string Rickenbackers like George Harrison, thumped on tom-toms like Moe Tucker, and tried to sing like The Byrds, but often settled for the plainspoken tones of “I'm Set Free”-era Lou Reed. The Jacobites were interesting because they instead opted to imitate rambling, mellow 60s and 70s rockers like The Faces and especially The Rolling Stones. The latter's influence can be heard prominently on this song, from their album Robespierre's Velvet Basement, especially in the vocals, which recall Mick Jagger in his sweetest, most passive-aggressive Eddie Haskell mode. Lead singer Nikki Sudden does such a great Jagger impression that if it weren't for the synth arpeggio complementing his glistening 12-string playing, one might mistake this for a lost Stones b-side from around the time of Between the Buttons. Most of the groups who take influence from The Rolling Stones usually gravitate toward the R&B riffs and loose raucous energy of their more uptempo numbers, and neglect the moments in their discography when the party is over and the boys start singing sad, slow songs like “Ruby Tuesday” and “Moonlight Mile,” which put the debauchery into relief. The Jacobites thoughtfully interrogate Jagger and his disciples' macho Byronic pose and give the listener a glimpse into an alternate history of pop and rock music where the soft, sensitive songwriters of the 60s and 70s took their cue from Aftermath rather than Rubber Soul.
Most of Bob Marley's political legacy has been effectively whitewashed by the massive cottage industry that sprung up around his music and public persona in the years after his death. He is usually depicted as a benevolent Christlike exponent of universal love and compassion whose views on social justice go no deeper than the anodyne sentiments presented in John Lennon's “Imagine.” The positive sentiments of “One Love” and “Three Little Birds” are an important component of his beliefs, but they were by no means representative of their whole. It is probably startling for many people used to the generalized “right on, man” attitude of “Get Up, Stand Up” to hear a song like “Zimbabwe,” because it advocates not just for revolution, but for radical pan-Africanism. It was written shortly after the victory of Robert Mugabe's forces over the army of British-supported white colonizers that had occupied the area now known as Zimbabwe for a century, and was performed by The Wailers at a 1980 ceremony celebrating the independence of the new country. The lyrics promote the unity of African peoples against their oppressors, and direct action—the overthrow of unjust power structures—but the music is joyful and optimistic, replete with typical sunny Wailers backing vocals and a soaring, triumphant melody, which Marley sings with the conviction of a vanguardist. Songs like this in his catalog should not be forgotten, because his music was not just a call to “stand for your rights” but to take action to make sure those rights are protected.