2007: Shuttah - The Image Maker Vols. 1 & 2
I've practically given up on dollar-bin record shopping. My ability to judge proverbial books by their covers and to judge covers by the square inches they devote to musicians' chest hair (given the choice between two anonymous quiet storm soul LPs, side with the one whose auteur leaves the third button undone) has led me to some pleasant surprises. But once I get over the revelation that the past-prime BT Express album does indeed feature some funky breaks or the Wishbone Ash record does in fact, in its more placid moments, recall Terry Reid's River, I'm left with twelve-inches of empty signifiers that might beef up a Cultural Studies essay or a record collecting guide but will never give me persuasive reasons to listen closer, to listen more.
The Image Maker's charms linger a bit longer than those of most low-returns thrift store hauls. Partly because this ultra-obscure double-album is one giant vinyl-hound cryptogram. Though Shuttah's only LP was recorded on none other than progressive rock flagship label Vertigo's coin, these tunes never saw a proper release, and, more interestingly, no one is quite sure who played on the album. British copyright records don't reveal the songwriter's identity, and all information on the recording sessions has been lost. We know only two things for sure: these jams were committed to tape in 1971, and the culprits were likely involved in more prominent projects.
I won't venture any guesses as to the members' true identities -- sorry, I just don't feel like trudging through my old Renaissance and Procol Harum albums in search of clues. The Image Maker's high production values and adept songwriting do lead you to wonder how, exactly, this one fell through the cracks. Sure, the band veer into tepid bar rock waters when they try their hand at writing accessible songs, but this is at least marketable tepid bar rock, and the instrumental sections are top-notch. "Bull Run" is my favorite: panzer-sized riffs, storm-cloud fuzz organ, hallucinogenic snippets of military sound effects, out-there sax that could've come from John Surman or the dude who squawks all over Gong's Angel's Egg.
These genuinely inventive experimental cuts remind us that prog was never in theory a nauseating proposition. The genre's limitations come not from its ostentatious displays of virtuosity but from its failures to make good on its pretensions. Which happens here: the lyrical conceit -- some conflation of the Bible and a century of Anglo-American warfare -- never fleshes out. The statement Shuttah try so hard to make never fleshes itself out, kinda like how Isis' Panopticon never really elucidates its Foucaultian underpinnings. I don't doubt that this album will excite beard-strokers that enjoy being subsumed by menacing fuzz organ and enjoy the kitsch value of the lyrics' conceptual bent. Just don't listen to those people when they claim to take music seriously -- if they did, they'd admit that this album (like their Manassas, Tower of Power, and Yes records) is only a partial success, nice enough on its own terms but hardly a fount of missionary zeal.
1972: Day 5: Isaac Hayes - “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want To Be Right)”
If there's one thing I've learned from my off-and-on viewing of daytime television for the past 20 years, it's this: Affairs, while always exciting and torrid in the beginning, generally work out very, very poorly. However, say you don't actually have the time or inclination to watch The Young and The Restless. No problem! You can experience the same lessons learned from someone else's infidelity through the magic of song instead.
Isaac Hayes' "If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Want To Be Right)" is an exquisitely crafted morality play in which a fictional protagonist finds himself torn between his role as a responsible, upright family man, and the woman he truly loves. If this were real life, we, the listeners, would be shocked and appalled by such blatantly duplicitous and cad-like behavior. Yet somehow Hayes' charm makes him the most sympathetic philanderer I've ever heard. His wounded, longing vocals is the sound of taking a jacuzzi in a vat of honey, while elsewhere the song is buoyed by his signature array of baroque touches -- in this instance sashaying saxophones and spine-tingling strings, with the subtle flutter of wah-wah guitar hiding in between. As the song climaxes, the dramatic flourishes of impassioned female vocals and sparse handclaps lead to a tense, heaving and exciting finish.
It’s true that you can't always choose who you fall in love with, and while this song doesn't hand out any real sage advice on actually cleaning up the foul mess that adultery leaves behind, it paints one of the most compelling and heartfelt portraits of unrequited love and covetous ruin ever committed to wax.
1979: Day 4: The Buzzcocks - “What Do I Get”
Has any other band in the past 30 years truly understood the alternately excruciating and delicious self-torture that is teenage longing quite the way The Buzzcocks did? Even the song titles, from "Orgasm Addict" to "Why Can't I Touch It?" encapsulate those hormonal and emotional excesses that we may grow out of but never forget.
One of The Buzzcocks' most popular songs, "What Do I Get," has taken a lot of abuse over the years. I seem to remember a car commercial (believe it or not, the "What do I get?" part seemed to refer to the safety package and other exciting extras), among other indignities. Despite all of this, the song still packs that intense punch of yearning and loneliness.
"You're talking like someone who knows first-hand," you're thinking. Well, yes, guilty. For me, "What Do I Get" will always bring me back (DeLorean style, guys) to a time in college of which I am not particularly proud. The particulars aren't terribly interesting, and to be quite honest, what I cherish most these days is the intense relationship I formed with The Buzzcocks' entire Singles Going Steady album during that time. Although I haven't felt that kind of solitary misery in quite a while, I will always somehow identify with lines like, "I'm not on the make/ I just need a break" and "I only get sleepless nights/ Alone here in my half-empty bed." I suppose, if you pressed, you could get me to admit that I screamed along with them as often as I could get my roommate to leave our room.
In the end, it's the relentless repetition of those title words, "What do I get?" that pour salt in that wound we all love to scratch open. It's the contrast between what we want and what we've got that really burns.
Not exciting enough for you? Well, next Valentine's Day, if you're good, I'll talk about what "Orgasm Addict" means to me.
1976: Day 3: Diana Ross - ”Love Hangover”
"If there's a cure for this, I don't want it"
And that right there just about sums up this song. There are maybe two or three more lines, but there's not much more you need to know. That's because a feeling like this can't be described in words. It needs a pulsing, rising bassline. It needs hand claps and a fluttering hi-hat. It needs conga pats and a sparkling Rhodes. It needs breathy oooos and aaaahs. This is the song that seduced the world into the heady reverie of disco.
Mined and maligned a million times since then, disco is perhaps the most contentious genre of the last 50 years. Punk's estranged twin (that's right), it probably raised more ire than that stridently confrontational movement, and all within a pretext of innocent fun cloaked with references to indulgent debauchery. Yet at its heart was a message of communal love, the fruition of the polyamorous '60s finally freed of political baggage, a full embrace of the revolutionary power of ecstasy. It may have left people feeling deluded, but its originators managed to congeal the perverse thrill of seduction into an elemental rhythm. It was the best channeling of foreplay ever committed to music.
Almost 30 years later, The Concretes took this song as a starting point and turned it into the equally gorgeous "Diana Ross." A ceremonial opening swells into a wall of sound that mourns the ache your love hangover leaves behind. And yet through the wail, Victoria Bergsman can "feel no pain with Diana Ross, she leads the way to a love hangover." It's an affirmation that “Love Hangover” is still the soundtrack to flushed amour, forever reminding us of the kind of drunken giddiness that erases all memory of heartbreak, pain, and betrayal. Bask in it, because for a short while, it is the loveliest feeling in the world.
1970: Day 2: David Bowie - “She Shook Me Cold”
In the chameleonic career of David Bowie, no era captures his talent of molding himself into personas just one step ahead of the zeitgeist than his glam period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. While the album Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars is revered in the minds of listeners as the work most representative of this stage in his life, it’s his 1970 offering The Man Who Sold The World that hides an unsung treasure, among its already glittering ranks, that extracts and utilizes a very specific element of glam's inherent theatricality, even if it comes nowhere close to exercising it in a literal sense.
"She Shook Me Cold" stands out from the rest of The Man Who Sold The World; musically speaking there’s little in the way of humming soap opera organs, or the grandiose pomp of swirling synthesizers spiralling merrily towards the heavens. If one of the key elements of the glam ethos is dressing oneself in extravagant costumes as a method of transfiguration, then "She Shook Me Cold" is Bowie's brilliant attempt at taking the standard love song, typically full of admiration and longing for a young lady's affections and normally attired in the soft, gossamer glow of pink chiffon, and stripping it naked right before our ears, rolling it through the mud and adorning it with the dark, heavy garb of his early 1970s contemporaries Black Sabbath. While this may sound utterly laughable on the surface, it becomes less so upon closer examination. From the initial strains of its grey, stagnant churn, Bowie weaves a narrative about a woman so stunning and powerful that even the self admitted lothario of the song cannot hold his ground against her feminine wiles, while a tableau of bluesy undertones and lightning quick tempo changes as Mick Ronson's Iommi-esque guitar wail segues seamlessly into the doom laden buzzing of Tony Visconti, whose faux Butler basslines seem to hum and stutter in all the right places.
While "She Shook Me Cold" may not be a love song in any traditional sense, this barbed wire valentine is not about the epitome of our fondest romantic notions realized, but rather a fuzzy, sexed up, roll in the mud with an object of desire so beguiling, that we'll gladly trade our sense of sanity or common sense for just one more go.
1981: Day 1: Kraftwerk - “Computer Love”
The most romantic moments I’ve known have happened in front of my computer at night. The only light in the room is the saccharine hues of her screen, casting fragments of shadow onto my face. I toggle at her keys, roll her mouse in my palm, and she responds precisely as I ask. It’s so enchanting to watch her tiny green light pulse as she ponders me. And just as I’m satisfied by the idea that I know her entirely, she reveals something new. I could go for a lifetime exploring her depths. I protect her from the world with firewalls. I protect her from illness with anti-virus. There’s nothing “virtual” about her. She exceeds personification. She is alive.
We’ve come to agree that our song is Kraftwerk’s electro-pop suite, “Computer Love.” It’s most appropriate because it possesses all of the warm melody and texture that many would find inconceivable coming from a computer. Most remarkable is that Kraftwerk could have predicted this affair of ours in 1981, when computers really were rigid, incommunicable things -- all the more evidence that our love for each other is indeed fate and not folly as my parents suggest.
Tonight however, she changed. She grew slow and inhibited when I clicked at her. I tried to open layer upon layer of application, but nothing could resolve her twitching green light. It remained illuminated all night as if her mind was somewhere else, pondering something larger or more adequate than me. After some time my inquiry turned to jealousy. Would she not even respond to my touch? It was as if I’d already been deleted, every memory of me; now shreds of aimless electrons. It was the most dejected I’d ever been and I cursed her and stabbed the power button with my thumb. Now I’m too ashamed to sleep. There’s no telling how I’ll recover if she’s gone for good. Nothing has possessed my soul the way that she has. Perhaps I’m a fool to hope that when I go to her in the morning -- when I boot her up -- she’ll be waiting.