PICK THE PUNK (Segue of the Day: 1/30/17)

Heard on the radio yesterday, in this order…pick the punk. Don’t worry, there’s a right answer, but it’s easy (hint: it’s not the one who was an actual punk):

“Borderline” came out in 1984, a couple of years before the others, the last really great year for American radio singles. It was the fifth single off her first album and wasn’t her first big hit (“Holiday,” fantastic, had gone Top 20, and “Lucky Star,” desultory, had gone Top 5). But, accompanied by her first striking video, it was her first cultural “moment.”**

It was only hearing it in this context that I realized how clean a break it was. I always thought of Madonna as an assimilator, a natural hit machine, gathering up previous strands into something fresh-but-still-recognizable in the manner of  Tom Petty or Prince.

And in most respects–the cheesy, airless dance track, the hummable melody, the Supremes’ style beg in the storyline–“Borderline” is just that.

But the vocal has an off-hand quality that, in 1984, qualified it as a new direction. People had put that flat, affectless tone on the charts before, but usually as a novelty, not as an expression of passion. And nobody had made both an American hit (that thing that was always evading punks, which was why Belinda Carlisle stopped being one, hooked up with an ace rhythm section–that other thing punks kept not getting–and left her five thousand imitators, including the hundred or so who have been “critically acclaimed” somewhere along the way, writhing in the dust) and a great record out of it.

The affectlessness was affected, of course. If “Holiday” didn’t prove Madonna could sing, then her version of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” from her second album offered proof in spades. (I kept waiting for something that proved she could dance–that never happened.) “Borderline” now sounds like an attempt to capture the spirit Diana Ross breathed into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which meant it was Madonna’s first successful attempt at bringing the girl group ethos up to date.

But without the old power the Motown/Red Bird/Philles machinery provided for Ross or Ronnie Spector or Mary Weiss–with just an early eighties’ standard issue dance track carrying the bottom and the middle–even Madonna’s “Love Don’t Live Here” voice would have sounded fake by comparison. Too professional, too not-a-teenager-anymore, too Reagan-era ready, too much of what the rest of her second album would sound like. Not so much a grab for the charts (she already had hits) as for cultural power.

Too much of that too soon, and the record might have still ridden high by the numbers–sort of like “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” which made Number One and signaled that Belinda Carlisle was about to disappear. Madonna’s real power was that she could sit in the middle of the slickest piece of crap on earth and still be true to her dual selves.

That was why she she was able to redirect John Lydon’s nihilistic “No future for me/No future for you” into the hyper-nihilistic, truly revolutionary, “Future? Who cares about the future?” even as her lyrics were mostly clever updates of pop platitudes. Affected or not, that voice was the first pure expression of a vision a pop star could live up to without either killing or exposing herself.

For a while anyway.

Long enough to become iconic.

Hearing “Borderline” in the middle of a standard Jack-style eighties’ run on the radio in this new environment made me realize that was the record where she set the edge she was still trying to stay on when she talked about blowing up the White House last week in the slickest possible “of course we all know I both mean and don’t mean every word I say….who cares about the future?” way, only to be outdone by Ashley Judd going all Weatherman on her and sticking both Madonna and “Madonna” safely and securely in the consumable past.

That’s the problem with even fake nihilism. Sooner or later, somebody–some sad Sid Vicious type–takes it seriously and pushes you to a place neither of your dual selves really wants to go.

The only way Madonna can ever get back in the game now–ever be more than a celebrity or a cash register again–is to start making great records again.

I’d love to hear it.

I won’t hold my breath.

**(I still recall a quote by Belinda Carlisle’s Go-Go’s’ drummer, Gina Schock, from a magazine I stupidly threw out somewhere along the way because I thought the quote was in another magazine I saved. Asked about Madonna, she said: “Well, she’s probably undermining everything we’re trying to do. But every time ‘Borderline’ comes on the radio, I turn up the volume.”)

LIFE AND DEATH….IN A SHANGRI-LAS RECORD, WHERE ELSE? (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #33)

You think you know….You don’t know…

SHANGSSubject: The Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.”

How many times have I listened to this song? A thousand maybe.

And how many times have I listened close…I dunno. Nine hundred and ninety-seven maybe.

I don’t use the Shangri-Las for wall paper or “background” music. I’m not sure I could if I tried. And even if I did use them for background music, I certainly wouldn’t try it with this.

But, as I like to say, with these young women, the story never ends.

So last week I’m listening for that thousandth time–just another night with the fantastic (if unfortunately named) Myrmidons of Melodrama set that RPM put out some years back (a godsend that finally–finally!–collected all of their classic Red Bird sides in one place).

Basically, RPM put out the album twice. The first was released in 1995, acquired by me some time in the late nineties and one of about three (out of a thousand) that survived the great CD sell-off of 2002.

Then, in that same year of 2002 (and unbeknownst to me at the time–when you see me selling my CD collection, you know my life is at stake and my mind is, er, occupied), they released a slightly altered version, which it took me some years to acquire. Frankly, with so many items to replace or upgrade (still not done yet by the way), there didn’t seem much urgency.

Still, I knew it had a couple of things that weren’t on the first one. Nothing major, just a couple of pre-Red Bird sides replacing the other pre-Red Bird sides (all good, but none of which Mary Weiss sang lead on) and “stereo” mixes on ten songs, including the big hits (of which “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” was one). There were also, as it turned out, a few magical extra seconds of “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” which I didn’t know about and which therefore came as both a pleasant surprise and reason enough to be happy I had sprung for what even I–a Shangs’ fanatic–considered a luxury item.

There were other reasons to be happy. RPM had already done a better job of remastering this music than anyone else, and–surprisingly, because mono is the watchword for records from this period–the stereo mixes were vastly superior to any previous release of these endlessly repackaged songs, most of which I have in a dozen or more sources.

So, in all that, I missed this…

At the end of the bridge of “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”–a bridge that is the peak moment in rock and roll arranging (I rank the overall arrangement slightly behind “Midnight Train to Georgia,” where Gladys and the Pips spend four minutes finishing each other’s breaths, but the bridge here is unmatchable) and ups the already impossible emotional stakes five times in twenty-seconds.

Only it turns out that in this mix–and no other–it’s six times in twenty-three seconds.

And that extra three seconds lifts the song to a whole other plane.

Mind you, I say this as someone who, before last week, would have sworn such a thing wasn’t possible.

Shoulda’ known better than to ever underestimate Mary Weiss.

Because, here, after one of the Gansers (I think) shouts Mama! and the strings soar past her (and every opera aria in history) and the group croons/chants You can never go home anymore like a tolling church bell and somebody (Marge? Mary Ann? Mary?…I can’t find out and it’s driving me crazy) shouts MAMA! and Mary cuts her off with No I can never go home anymore, she then tops herself–or make that, tops herself topping all the other crazy stuff that has gone on for two and half minutes and been taken to whole new levels of craziness those five times in twenty seconds.

On every other version I’ve heard, Weiss then cuts straight to the last verse.

Here (listen close!) she says:

“Listen…I’m not finished.”

When I finally heard that last week (maybe the sixth or seventh or tenth time I’ve “listened” to this particular mix), it was like having my own life grab me by the throat.

Because that’s the essence of everything the Shangri-Las stood for in the rock and roll revolution.

Sixteen-year-old working class kids who were born to be kicked saying: “Listen…I’m not finished.”

From there, you can go anywhere you want.

Amy Winehouse used this music to drink herself to death.

I’ve been using it for thirty-five years to stay alive.

Different strokes for different folks I guess.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations are out and I’ll have plenty to say about that later in the week.

Had to get this–by a group that recorded barely thirty sides and is more deserving than thirteen of this year’s fifteen nominees (and not behind the other two)–in here first.

 

EVERYTHING I REALLY NEEDED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM ROCK AND ROLL (Lesson #2: The George Goldner Story)

Weird.

Here’s a George Goldner time line, which I swear crystallized in my head for the first time last week, when I happened to pull some of his label-specific collections off the shelf where they reside, neatly, in chronological order.

For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Goldner was one of the truly great record men of early rock and roll. He was also what is, these days, most often described as an “inveterate gambler.” That’s a polite term for gambling addict, which is itself a polite term for gambling junkie which is itself a polite term for degenerate gambler, a phrase that is evidently no longer in use.

Hence–a little miniature history of rock and roll, seen through the prism of George Goldner’s career:

1947: Begins first record label, Tico, specializing in Latin music.

1953-4: Recognizing the rising popularity of R&B, he starts two new labels. The first is Rama. The second is Gee, named after Rama’s seminal hit recording with the Crows, which was one of the first R&B records to cross over to the white Pop chart.

1956: To pay off “inveterate” gambling debts, Goldner sells half interest in Tico, Rama and Gee to “mob associate” Joe Kolsky.

1957: Goldner and Kolsky partner with “mob associate” Morris Levy to start a new label. They call it Roulette (surely proving somebody–God perhaps–was not lacking for a sense of mordant humor). A few months later, Goldner, to pay more gambling debts, sells his interest in Roulette, plus his remaining interests in Tico, Rama and Gee, to Levy.

1957: After selling all his interests in the four successful labels he had already founded, Goldner begins two new labels. The first is called Gone. The second is called End. They are also successful.

1962: The inveterate gambler sells Gone and End. To Morris Levy.

1964: Goldner begins one last venture, becoming a founding partner, with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (two of the very few record men who were as accomplished as he was), in Red Bird records and its Blue Cat subsidiary. Like all of Goldner’s other labels, this one has hit records, makes lots of money.

1966: Leiber and Stoller are offered one dollar for their interest in Red Bird and Blue Cat. It is an offer they can’t refuse. Technically, they sell to Goldner, who promptly turns over his interest to Levy….to cover his inveterate gambling debts.

1970: Goldner dies of a heart attack.

1990: Morris Levy dies of cancer, two months before he is scheduled to report to prison, following conviction on two counts of conspiracy to commit extortion. The investigation which ultimately led to his conviction was begun as “ investigation into the alleged infiltration of organized crime into the record business.”. Of course it had.

Books have been written about this stuff (I just started Tommy James’ autobiography where he evidently describes his own relationship with Levy at length). There’s even an off-Broadway play about Goldner’s life.

But “The George Goldner Story”–and a large part of the history of corruption in modern America–really is in those first six label names.

Tico….Rama….Gee….

Roulette….

End….

Gone.

The loss was certainly not Goldner’s alone.

In the decade when the rock revolution’s enduring archetypes were being formed–roughly 1955 to 1965–there were four truly great sixteen-and-under vocalists.

One of them, Brenda Lee, ended up having a long run of hits and a mighty career as one of America’s greatest (if most unsung) vocalists.

The other three–Frankie Lymon, Arlene Smith and Mary Weiss–recorded for labels owned, in whole or part, by George Goldner.

They did not have careers.

Tico….Rama…..Gee….

Roulette….

End….

Gone.

I’ll be writing more about Goldner and his most famous protege–one Phil Spector–in the coming days. I just wanted to provide a little background for what I’ll have to say then.

For now I’ll just reiterate.

People make history.

Nothing happens in a vacuum.