Thursday, 23 June 2011

The A-Z Of All Time Great Pop Singles: J

J is for...Johnny B Goode, by Chuck Berry / Marvin Berry & The Starlighters

"Woah...Rock 'n' Roll."

The very first line of Back To The Future. Can you think of a better first line in a movie? (Actually, The Wild Bunch's "If they move - kill 'em" is a close contender) For all the credit the Back To The Future movies get, they still don't get enough. Certainly not the first movie, which by my estimation is about as perfect a piece of popular art as has ever been produced by the Hollywood machine. Mind-bogglingly well-constructed, sublime lead performances, an endlessly quoteable script, a concept (time-travelling Delorean) so insanely, gloriously B-Movieish it's a wonder the movie ever got made, masses to say about the development of pop youth culture from the 50s Dawn Of The Teenager to the Mtv 80s, and with a love of Rock And Roll at it's heart, Back To The Future is the teen-adventure movie in excelsis. And smart? Like a fox.

.1. In 1985, the McFly family are enjoying a re-run of an old Honeymooners episode entitled 'The Man From Space'.

.2. In 1955, the Baines family are watching this episode's TV debut. Marty causes some confusion by stating that he's already seen this episode, calling it "a classic - Ralph dresses up as a man from space," and attempts to explain that he must have seen a "re-run."

.3. In the next scene, Marty and Doc are shown 're-running' the video camera footage Marty shot at Twin Pines Mall on a TV set. The notion of 're-running' situations, events and images is common to the whole trilogy, but finds it's purest expression here, where an earlier scene from the film is actually repeated on television, becoming a re-run.

.4. Marty, dressed in a radiation suit, is himself mistaken for a Man From Space earlier in the movie, and later dons the suit again to deliberately impersonate an alien.

I just think this is massively impressive; post-modern without being smart-alecy, it deals with complex ideas in a fun way, and totally integrates them into the story.

Uh...I was meant to be talking about Johnny Be Goode, wasn't I?

For people of a certain age, Marty's performance of this song at the end of BTTF defined their adolescent understanding of what Rock and Roll IS. "It's a blues riff in B, watch me for the changes, and try to keep up" is the only way anybody should ever introduce any song, regardless of whether it's actually a blues riff in B or not. The escalation of Marty's wild abandon as the spirit of rock and roll electrifies his soul, duck-walking, amp-kicking and Hendrix-wailing across the Hill Valley High School stage, remains one of the truly great celluloid evocations of pop music's almighty power. Lots of movies have great soundtracks, but few get pop music in the way BTTF does, or have done as much to engender a love of it in its audience. Like much of Berry's work, Johnny B Goode is a song about rock and roll, making it the perfect choice for this scene. From a film characterised by unparalleled attention to detail, you would expect nothing less.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The A-Z Of All Time Great Singles: I

I is for: 'I Think We're Alone Now' - Tommy James & The Shondells (1967) / Tiffany (1988)*
*And also Girls Aloud, but their version was uncharacteristically woeful and pointless. For shame, Girls Aloud.

(So check this out for inter-textual pop-geekery: My choice for 'H' (Heaven Is A Place On Earth) was knocked off the Number One spot in 1988 by my choice for 'I' (I Think We're Alone Now).You might - but probably won't - be interested to learn that the song that knocked Tiffany off Number One was another 'I' record, Kylie's 'I Should Be So Lucky', completing a remarkable triple-whammy of 80s Girl Pop chart dominance during this period.)

So, I have A Bit Of A Thing for 80s / early 90s Super Pop; The Bangles, Pat Benatar, Go-Gos and Ex Go-Gos...and yes, even Tiffany. Well...not really Tiffany. But this song at least, and one good song is all that matters. I've dug Tiffany's version on some level ever since I was a kid, but only I only found out that it was a cover-version a couple of years back. I like pretty much both versions equally. They have different things going for them, but they fulfill the same remit in their respective eras, that of being Definitive Bubbblegum Pop.

Tiffany's video for this, if you recall, was filmed in a mall. If you want to know what US teen-culture looked like in 1987, watch this video. It tells you everything you need to know. If you want to know what US teen-culture looked like in 1967...go buy the Doors first album. But also take three minutes to listen to The Shondell's original version of I Think We're Alone Now, because although it couldn't have less to say about the Woodstock Nation, it's certainly a very enjoyable slice of MOR Apple Pie pop-rock, and has the edge on 'Light My Fire' in that it's like about a fith as long, and has a chirrping crickets sound effect on it, and no matter how much acid he gulped, Jim Morrison never thought to put insect sound effects on his records.**

**Tiffany had the good sense to repeat the crickets sound effect at the beginning of her version, a pretty cool nod to the original. Thus ends the nerdiest A-Z post so far.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The A-Z of All Time Great Pop Singles: "H"

H is for: "Heaven Is A Place On Earth", by Belinda Carlisle

Few pop-music related things seem as wrongheaded to me as the concept of the "guilty pleasure". Nobody should feel guilty about the pop music they take pleasure from, at least not if the cause of guilt is simply the perception that the music which pleasures them is not Cool. For the pleasure someone derives from listening to a pop record to be found Guilty, we must accept that somewhere there is a judge and jury passing sentance on what is the Right Sort Of Music and what is The Wrong Sort Of Music. This sort of joy-killing fascism is the antithesis of everything pop music should be about, and is largely a construct of an entertainment industry which, in order to market it's product effectively, divides it's consumer demographic into managable sub-sections and pitches them in opposition against one another in an eternal battle of My Scene Is Better Than Your Scene.

The consequence of this tactic is that pop music becomes a tool of exclusivity, of elitism, a way of establishing who's Out and who's In. When you're a kid, this has it's uses. Maybe it's even a healthy part of growing up. But there comes a point when you're meant to out-grow that shit, and it strikes me that Babyboomer culture, with a premium placed on Cool, and Youth, and Being Hip To The Latest Groove, has prolonged the period of somebody's life where this sort of mentality is acceptable, or smart, or healthy, pretty much indefinately. I think that's a shame, because it means that people are more uptight, for longer, and feel less empowered to stand up and say "You know what. I think Gang Of Four are OK. But it's really more of an intellectual thing. What really gets my blood pumping is Heaven Is A Place on Earth by Belinda Carlisle, and Uncut Magazine can Go To Hell."

(Note: I DJ'd at the wedding of my very good friends Lee & Jud, and 'dropping' this record during my 'set' still stands as the most fun I've ever had behind a pair of decks.)

(Another Note: Belinda would have been one of two ex-Go-Go Girls to make an appearence on this A-Z, had 'R' not already been over-subscribed. Jane Wiedlin's unbelievably great 'Rush Hour', unfortunately, won't quite make the cut.)