If You Want It, Here It Is
17 · 23 May 95
Billy Squier: 16 Strokes (The Best of Billy Squier)
I was never really a Billy Squier fan. I mean, sure, he had a good song or two, but so did The Jets, and you'd hardly expect me to buy albums by a band that looked more like a sitcom cast than musicians. When this compilation came out recently, though, a wave of nostalgia hit me, and I thought to myself, "Yeah, I wouldn't mind hearing 'In the Dark' again." So, I bought it, I brought it home, I put it on.
Yeesh. The first nine songs of this disc plunge me back into high school with all the subtlety and gusto of a redneck state-school frat hazing ritual. I'd forgotten how omnipresent these songs were. Squier epitomizes the hard-working, largely-unheralded core of early-Eighties FM rock, at least as broadcast in Texas, where I spent that half of the decade. Big guitars, a strained voice, square rhythms and enough keyboards to sound current; these were the ingredients of the post-Foghat rock mainstream as I lived through it. At the time, it probably wouldn't have occurred to us that it could be any other way. From ten years on, though, this stuff actually comes out sounding kind of interesting.
"The Stroke", probably Billy's best-known moment, opens the collection. As plainly a gimmick song as "Mickey" or "We Will Rock You", "The Stroke" in retrospect strikes me as a fascinating hybrid of metal, playground chant, and a particularly white version of rap. While I don't think anything in this song was actually produced with samplers, it has a lot of the chopped-up jerkiness that sample-heavy rap would later appropriate. The repetitive guitar bursts are dropped in very much as if they originated elsewhere, as if their presence here is a result of assembly, not performance, and especially toward the end of the song, little bits of bass or keyboards pop in, oddly processed, in a particularly sampler-esque way. The beat is the polar opposite of funky, but it does form the backbone of the song, and is the stable element off of which the other elements play. As a lumbering evolutionary precursor of Run-DMC's "Walk This Way", this song has come to seem surprisingly foresighted.
We quickly move on, though, into the realms of mainstream metal proper. "In the Dark", the second track, is perhaps Squier's most characteristic song. The oscillating synthesizer duels with his slashing guitars, the chorus soars, and the verses drop back to bass and drums in the time-honored rock-and-roll "look, ma, dynamics!" fashion. Yes, as I suspected it would be, it's good to hear this again, in much the same way that it's good to meet an old friend you never had a whole lot in common with at the airport and spend half an hour making pointless chit chat until their plane to Kansas City starts boarding. Then we're on to "My Candelabra" (which, for some reason, the track listing has as "My Kinda Lover"), which is sort of halfway between "The Stroke" and Foreigner. And we're into "Emotion in Motions" before you know it. Are these really different songs? Isn't that the same exact drumbeat we've just heard three times before?
Things finally change a little for "Everybody Wants You", whose smooth guitar drive in the verses reminds me of Rainbow. "She's a Runner" then works in a little populist heartland swell, starting off with only voice and guitar and bringing in some organ-y keyboards. The plains ache in Squier's voice hangs on even after the cheesier synth patches kick in, and the song ends up sounding to me like a lost collaboration between John Cougar Mellencamp and Jefferson Starship. The bass drum even ventures, tentatively, off of its beats, giving the song a little heretofore unknown groove.
Next is a cover of Foreigner's "Cold as Ice". Sure, it claims to be an original Squier song called "Rock Me Tonight", but I'm not sure who he thinks he's fooling. "All Night Long", then, is Squier's Aldo Nova impression (though to most people the idea of Billy Squier impersonating Aldo Nova will be about as unfathomable as watching famous ants imitate each other). And my nostalgic journey winds to a close with "Eye on You", whose slithering synthesizers are about the last thing I remember of Billy Squier.
Apparently, though, he's kept making records since, unfazed by my defection to radio stations that had no use for his persistent soldiering. And while the last seven songs leave little room for doubt as to why Squier has largely faded from sight, they also find him sounding surprisingly comfortable with where his style has ended up. "Love is the Hero", with its burbling bass-synth and machine-drum bursts, is catchy and appealing. "Don't Say You Love Me" is something of an Aerosmith rip-off, but competently executed nonetheless. "Don't Let Me Go" finally gets around to that metal staple, the acoustic guitar intro, which leads (as exactly half of them do) into a classic power ballad. "She Goes Down" and "Tied Up" are peppy party-blues, complete with lyrics that are inane even for Squier. "Facts of Life" adds a touch of slide guitar. And "(L.O.V.E.) Four Letter Word" sounds like Don Henley sitting in on an Unplugged session with some earnest metal band.
There remains the question of whether anybody who doesn't already have moldy copies of early Squier albums sitting in boxes somewhere actually needs to be reminded of his contributions to music. Possibly not. If you lived through the Eighties, the chances are decent that you heard about as much of this sort of half-macho, half-preening quasi-metal as you could stand, and maybe more, and the last thing you need is to suffer through more on your own time. On the other hand, this is a sort of music that has largely fallen into commercial disfavor, with Heart being about the only band obliviously insisting on still playing it, so if you find yourself wistfully recalling the days when "Jukebox Hero" represented the state of the American zeitgeist, you're probably going to have to turn off the radio and shell out for some CDs of your own. And while Billy Squier might not be the first person you think of to feed this particular void, he's actually not at all a bad choice.
Badfinger: The Best of Badfinger
In my explorations of power-pop, Badfinger seems to come up in conversation almost as often as Big Star. And as the only Badfinger song I could knowingly hum was "Baby Blue", and that only because both Aimee Mann and Barbara Manning's SF Seals have covered it in the last year, I figured this was a gap in my musical literacy worth filling in. Plus, this compilation just came out, and I'll buy just about anything if it shows up on the new-releases rack.
My first reaction to this collection, which I suspect is a relatively common one, was "What are all these Beatles songs doing on a Badfinger disc?" A serious Beatles enthusiast would know, of course, that these aren't their songs, but the Beatles to me are history, not music, and so I've paid about as much attention to them as I have to the French Revolution, which is to say not very much (it was late in a century, either the 18th or 19th, and it was a far, far better thing than whatever it was they were revolting against). So, to me, quite a few of the songs here sound essentially the same as the Beatles did before they got weird. I suppose if you'd pressed me, I'd have admitted that even I could tell that "Without You" and "Day After Day" probably weren't Paul, John, George or Ringo's, but if you'd put this album on for me saying it was a collection of Beatles b-sides and rarities, I don't think I would have questioned it until "Baby Blue" finally starts up, at track 17.
And so this compilation is something of a disappointment to me. I bought it hoping that Badfinger's music would strike me, like Big Star's does, as this strange prescient moment in pop, when influences that would later rise to prominence appeared almost fully formed, only to be blithely ignored. Instead, they're a half-assed Beatles knock-off, of their time to the point of personal irrelevance. The most remarkable thing about them, to me, is that they've survived this long. I suppose if you've worn out all your Beatles records, and still hunger for more music like that, Badfinger are a source to be tapped, but I just can't empathize with this feeling, any more than I can imagine diving enthusiastically into a newly discovered play by one of Shakespeare's less-talented contemporaries. Shakespeare's own plays are tedious enough, and they're the era's best, so why people won't just seal up the vaults and concentrate on Gene Wolfe, I'll never understand.
The Motors: Airport (The Motors' Greatest Hits)
And so I'm explicitly admitting my insupportable historical biases again when I say that while I doubt I'll ever listen to the Badfinger compilation straight through again as long as I live, I fully expect that the Motors will get pulled out regularly. British power-pop forerunners who lasted from 1977 to 1980, the Motors were interesting to me as the long-sought-for answer to my admittedly trivial question, "Didn't Bram Tchaikovsky play with some other band before going solo?" Bram didn't have anything to do with the songwriting here, but the sound of his subsequent solo albums owes an enormous debt to his tenure in the Motors, and the combination of his playing and the rather higher grade of artistic inspiration represented by songwriters Nick Garvey and Andy McMaster makes for a pretty cool synergy.
The Motors' version of power pop comes at an interesting crossroads between early-Seventies pomp excess and late-Seventies punk edginess. On the one hand, I hear clear musical ties to skinny-tied American bands like the Knack and Shoes. On the other hand, at times the Motors show a penchant for operatic overproduction that would make Yes proud. The experience of listening to this compilation the first time through was precisely the one I'd been hoping for when I bought the Badfinger best-of.
The Motors' closest approach to perfection, in my opinion, comes on the rousing 1980 single "Love and Loneliness". Arpeggiated synthesizers, crashing drums, a rousing backing choir, all adorning a tune of almost pathetically eager simplicity, the lead vocals sung with almost no flair at all (by Garvey, I think), this is everything that made overproduced new-wave pop glorious. It is a near-flawless explication of how epic a three-chord pop song can become if you only get about three thousand people to pitch in and make something of it. For five minutes, I'm completely transported, adrift in oceans of reverbs, buffeted by ripples of synths, basking in the glare of the harmony vocals. It's totally absurd, in the best possible way.
At the other end of the spectrum, Garvey and McMaster's most misguided moment, to me, is the close-to-unbearable "Tenement Steps". "MacArthur Park" is a picture of poetic sophistication compared to this, West Side Story a textbook exercise in melodic restraint. The mismatch between the histrionic music and the clumsily "meaningful" poverty lyrics is so plain that I can't hear this song without seeing the street urchin chorus line from "Every Sperm is Sacred" in my mind, dancing around like starvation and ghetto suffering are really no more oppressive than an afternoon visit from a slightly irritating, but still basically lovable, uncle.
The rest of the collection spans the range between these two pretty evenly. At the good end, "Freeze" is a churning, straightforward rocker, "You Beat the Hell Outta Me" is worthy of Meat Loaf, "Soul Redeemer" reminds me of the Jam's "Beat Surrender", the live version of "Cold Love" is scratchy and reggae-ish, "Time for Make Up" sounds like an early Madness song, "Dancing the Night Away" and "Love Round the Corner" are the most like what Bram's solo career would sound like, and "Metropolis"' classically New Wave bass-synth riff is so good that Robert Hazard later ripped it off wholesale for "Escalator of Life".
At the extreme I'm uncomfortable with, "Forget About You" is vaguely disco, "That's What John Said" is a painfully cheesy waltz, and "Airport", the band's one big hit, is the sort of thing I'd much rather see left to Hall and Oates. Still, with seventeen tracks and about 73 minutes of music here, a bit of judicious track programming is bound to uncover a solid dozen songs from whatever subset of this sort of thing you prefer.
The Records: Smashes, Crashes and Near Misses (The Best of The Records)
Caroline, who put out the Motors compilation, has a whole list of compilations by similarly underappreciated bands (most of whose names seem to be The Somethings). This one, by The Records, is actually a 1988 release that hasn't been available domestically until now. The release of both compilations on the same day seems especially appropriate; in fact, the Trouser Press entry for the Records begins "Like the Motors, the Records were...".
I bought this one because the first track, "Starry Eyes", was covered by Too Much Joy on their album Mutiny, and I was interested to hear the original. It's okay, but TMJ's is better. The rest of these twenty songs make me feel about the same way. The Records aren't as adventurous as the Motors, so you won't find tight-formation phalanxes of backing vocalists here, nor any attempt at rock-opera grandeur. Instead, this stuff is more like the Knack without the wit, or like a British pop version of the Smithereens. It's sincere, guileless, amiable and often somewhat amateurish, but usually in a good way.
My favorite song here is "I Don't Remember Your Name" (with the adorably sheepish follow-up line, "I think it's best that I level with you"), a moment of painful youth delivered with no hint of pain at all, which I find strangely charming. There are some other good bits, but overall it has to be said that the Records, frankly, weren't very good at anything. Their singer is basically terrible, and the instrumentalists are adequate at best. The songwriting is serviceable but no better, and the lyrics are eminently forgettable. Overall, most high-school talent-show bands probably deserve a retrospective as much as the Records. Yet, there's a sense in which I like this album precisely because of its mundanity. Listening to it, I can imagine that there was a time when power-pop ruled the earth, when this is what radio filler sounded like. I hear an alternate universe in which the Records are the banal undistinguished default state of pop music, where they're the song that comes on the radio that makes you say "God, why don't they ever playing anything good?", but yet you don't change the station. The Records are forgettable, but I support the perpetuation of their music, if nothing else, as an object lesson on how to be forgettable with such earnest grace. Every other worthless band should do so well.