Wednesday, October 28, 2015

TMFW 112 - Naked Eyes' Biggest Hit, on the Charts for the Fifth Time

[NOTE: maybe you will read this one and say "duh."  But it was new to me and blew my tiny mind.  And hopefully there's something in here for you in any event.]
Today's TMFW has a good mix of things I like: (a) one-hit wonders, (b) cover songs that I (foolishly?) didn't realize were cover songs, (c) cover songs, period, (d) weird differences between UK and US chart performance (see, e.g., the story of the maybe-a-cynical-bet girl band Vanilla in TMFW 46 or Bob the Builder's chart dominance in the Bonus Facts of TMFW 105), and (e) Burt Bacharach.  So let's get into it.
Our story begins with an earworm that my wife had earlier this week: "Take a Letter, Maria."  As she sang the refrain over and over, I was infected too.  "Who sings that?" she asked, and though I knew it was the wrong answer I guessed Sam Cooke.  We looked it up and saw that it was not Mr. Cooke but instead an artist named R.B. Greaves. (There's the one-hit wonder part: Greaves hit #2 with that song, but never cracked the top-20 again).  
With the song stuck in our heads, we had to play it so that we could purge it.  Thanks to Apple Music (which I find to be really great when it works, but I also find only works sometimes), we started listening to Mr. Greaves' body of work.  The song immediately after "Take a Letter, Maria" featured a familiar melody, and the lyrics started "I walk along the city streets you used to walk along with me..."  Within a few seconds, it was at the refrain: "how can I...forget you...when there is always something there to remind me?"  It was a cover of the big Naked Eyes synthpop hit from the '80s - or more likely, the other way around.  (There's the cover songs part.)
What the heck?!  This dude R.B. Greaves was the guy who did the original version of Naked Eyes' "Always Something There To Remind Me?"  I needed to figure this out.
Google brought me to a long and detailed Wikipedia entry on the history of the tune.  It was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David in the early '60s (there's the Burt Bacharach part).  And it turns out R.B. Greaves wasn't the first to perform it, or even to chart with it (it was his follow-up single to "Take A Letter, Maria" and he hit #27).  
In fact, by the time Naked Eyes recorded their version of "Always Something There to Remind Me," it had been on the charts four times: by Lou Johnson (#49 in the US in 1964), Sandie Shaw (#1 in the UK, Canada, and South Africa but only #52 in the US in 1964 - there's the "weird differences between the US and UK chart performance" part), Dionne Warwick (#65 in 1968) and Mr. Greaves (#27 in 1970).  And it had been released (at least) on records by The Four Seasons (1965), Brenda Lee (1965), Percy Faith (1965, an instrumental from Latin Themes for Young Lovers), Johnny Mathis (1967)  The Troggs (1967), Jay and the Americans (1967) Patti Labelle (1967), Jose Feliciano (1968), The Delrays (a local St. Louis act that briefly featured future Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers member Michael McDonald, 1968), Martha and the Vandellas (1968), and Peggy Lee (1970).  It had also been performed by The Carpenters (in 1972, as part of a medley) and Donna Summer (partly in French, as a duet in 1976).  That's a lot of famous acts that covered the song.  
I had no idea; the Naked Eyes version was so perfectly '80s, I assumed that those guys had written it.  So there's your TMFW for today: the synthpop song that made Naked Eyes famous had been done (and done and done and done) before they got to it.  
BONUS FACT:  The song is still being recorded.  UK girl pop group All Saints performed a version at a Burt Bacharach tribute concert (accompanied by Bacharach himself) in 1998, Champaign, Illinois band Braid did a rocking version in 2000, and Chicago musician/producer Jim O'Rourke did a surprisingly straightforward version with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth in 2010.
BONUS FACT 2:  The likely reason that R.B. Greaves sounds a bit like Sam Cooke is that Cooke is his uncle.
BONUS FACT 3:  While Sandie Shaw's version of the song was a smash in the UK but fell outside of the top-50 in the US, Naked Eyes' version hit number 8 in the US but only made #59 in the UK.  Go figure.  
BONUS FACT 4:  I am ashamed that I did not know that ex-Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers member and "yacht rock" legend Michael McDonald was from my hometown of St. Louis.  More specifically, he grew up in Ferguson, where for a time he was raised by a single mother in an apartment complex near where Michael Brown (who made Ferguson famous for more sobering reasons) lived.  McDonald released a thoughtful statement in the wake of the shooting mourning the event.  
BONUS FACT 5:  Naked Eyes got their name during contract negotiation sessions with the label, but might have suffered a worse fate if the label guys got their way.  According to a 1997 interview with founding member Pete Byrne, "[w]e were looking for a name that suggested 'two,' and 'Naked Eyes' just popped into my head. I thought it was a great name, but the Record Label thought otherwise. I remember one meeting with about ten people, and they were asking everyone what they thought. Some of the ideas were truly awful...I suggested, as a joke, we call ourselves 'Boulevard Credibility.' One of the Marketing people leapt to his feet in agreement..."

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

TMFW 111 - All that She Wants, is Another Führer

I am squeezed for time this week, and my drafts folder is full of half-baked ideas and quarter-researched posts.  So I was thinking that this might be the inglorious end of TMFW.  Then on the train ride home, fate stepped in and pointed me to today's entry.  
My inspiration was three-fold.  First, on my commute earlier this week, I heard "The Sign" by Ace of Base.  I legitimately love that song.  If you disagree, I will fight you.  Ace of Base does not get the respect that they deserve (over 30 million records sold!)  
Second, a few weeks ago I read this excellent appreciation of Time Life's ubiquitous-in-the-80s Mysteries of the Unknown book series.  (And their memorable commercials: "Read the Book!" "It's coincidence.")  I had and loved the first three books, which I cannot believe my mother bought me.  When I was a kid, I loved UFOs and mysterious happenings and secret symbolism, and even as a (more cynical and science-minded) adult I still appreciate how people can weave almost-plausible theories out of crazy, random connections and innuendo.  I am not a conspiracy theorist but I like conspiracy theories.  
Which brings us to inspiration #3 and today's TMFW.  Via a post on, I learned about this firmly-tongue-in-cheek-yet-oddly-compelling Cracked article that details all of the "hiding in plain sight" clues that Ace of Base is...secretly a neo-nazi band.  (No, for real.)
The premise is not a totally crazy one: the main guy behind the group - a fellow named Ulf Ekberg - was unambiguously involved in the neo-nazi movement as a young man.  He was a member of the band Commit Suiside [sic], which featured songs with (translated) names like "Don't Touch Our Land" and "White Power, Black Head Slaughter" and lyrics like "men in white hoods march down the road, we enjoy ourselves when we're sawing off [n-words]’ heads/ Immigrant, we hate you! Out, out, out, out! Nordic people, wake up now! Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot!"  Ekberg has said repeatedly and eloquently that he held onto those beliefs only until he was 17, and that he left them behind completely and reformed his thinking.  
Only 5 years later, Ace of Base put out their first and biggest record, which sold 19 million copies (9 million in the US).  So with the background knowledge that the main dude had a radical history, take these into consideration:
*  Particularly successful German U-Boat commanders were called "aces," and a famous U-Boat base was known by the Allies as the "Base of Aces" because there were a number of hot-shot Commanders whose boats were parked there.  If Ace of Base wanted to tout their mastery over low musical notes, one would expect their name to be Ace of Bass.  (Hmm...)
*  The song "Happy Nation" - the title of the record everywhere in the world but the US - talks about people "living in a happy nation, where people understand, and dream of [the] perfect man," and has a verse about "a man will die, but not his ideas."  (Double Hmm...)
*  The song "All That She Wants" tells the story of a lazy, drag-on-society woman who wakes up and decides "it's not a day for work, it's a day for catching tan, just lying on the beach and having fun."  The song goes on to warn that "all that she wants is another baby, she's gone tomorrow," suggesting that the woman is of impure motives and loose morals.  The video depicts just that, and the woman who is no good is shown right away (within 15 seconds!) in two close-up shots holding jewelry with the Star of David.  (Okay, case closed.)
So there's your TMFW for today: if you try really hard, you can make the case that Ace of Base was out to indoctrinate the vulnerable youth of the world with a hateful neo-nazi message.  One might even say that the band hoped that the kids would see the sign, and it would open up their eyes.  It's a shame that it took over 20 years to figure out.  
BONUS FACT:  TMFW-favorites The Mountain Goats do an excellent cover of "The Sign."
POINT OF CLARIFICATION:  I do not actually believe - and you should not either - that Ace of Base were neo-nazis.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

TMFW 110 - The Real Estate Agent Who Inspired a #1 Hit

Using a woman's name as the title (and subject) of a song has long been a good shortcut to songwriting success.  The '70s and '80s spawned a number of hits using that formula: TMFW 72 subjects Boston's "Amanda,"  TMFW 23 subjects Toto's "Rosanna," and TMFW 32 Bonus Fact subjects Hall & Oates' "Sara Smile" are three good examples out of dozens.  
Today's TMFW is about a famous "name" tune of the early '80s: The Knack's "My Sharona."  I love that song.  The track was the debut single for The Knack, and was released in 1979.  It was a big hit, spending six weeks at number 1 and topping the year-end chart.  Being a young(ish) person, I only really came to appreciate the song when it made a "comeback" of sorts following its appearance in the 1994 movie Reality Bites.  (In fact, the song was released as a single off the movie soundtrack, and charted at 91.)  
Like the Blues Traveler song "Hook" in TMFW 20, I often sang the lyrics to "My Sharona" without ever really paying any attention to them.  But if you really listen, they are pretty suggestive.  Actually, they are straightforwardly and aggressively suggestive.  The whole song is a come-on by the singer to Ms. Sharona, asking repeatedly when she will finally give in and hook up with him.  The lead-in to the refrain has the singer offering "never gonna stop, give it up, such a dirty mind, I always get it up for the touch of the younger kind."  Classy stuff.
As it turns out, there was a real Sharona, and the song was pretty much autobiographical.  Doug Fieger, the lead singer of The Knack, was 26 years old and living with his girlfriend of several years when he met Sharona Alperin.  Ms. Alperin was only 17 years old, and was still in high school at the time, but Fieger was smitten.  He asked her out several times, but she said no, and though she continued to be a fan and friend of the band she was steadfast in her refusals.  Frustrated, Fieger wrote "My Sharona" as a sort of plea.  (Sharona inspired at least two other songs on The Knack's debut album, too - "Frustrated" and "(She's So) Selfish.") 
Alperin was flattered/impressed by the song, and is the cover model for the "My Sharona" single (you can see it at the top of this post).  The song, in addition to being a giant hit, worked as intended.  Fieger and Alperin dated for several years, with Alperin traveling the world with the band during their heyday.  
Alperin and Fieger remained friends after their breakup.  Today, Alperin is a real estate agent in Los Angeles.  You can see her current listings (and hear the song that she inspired) at  Fieger died of lung cancer in 2010, at the age of 57.  Sharona was with him during his last days, and spoke at his funeral.
When you place it in the context of a 26-year-old begging a high school girl to "give it up," with lines like "keeping it a mystery, it gets to me, running down the length of my thigh," "My Sharona" is a front-runner for creepiest #1 song of all time.  But it's freaking great, too.
BONUS FACT:  One of my favorite "name" songs of the '70s is 1977's "Ariel," by Dean Friedman.  It peaked only at 26, and I discovered it only a few years ago (thanks, XM!), but it is just about a perfect specimen of '70s post-hippie AM Gold.  
BONUS FACT 2:  "Ariel" is from Paramus, New Jersey, where everything is still closed on Sunday (and they are proud of it, thankyouverymuch).
BONUS FACT 3:  I did not discover this until doing research for today's entry, but Friedman also wrote the 1981 song "McDonald's Girl," a fun song about a crush he has on "an angel is a polyester uniform."  That is of particular interest because TMFW-favorite Barenaked Ladies frequently covered "McDonald's Girl", and radio play of that song helped them secure their first record deal.  But the song did not appear on any of their commercial releases.  In my youth, it was a sort of shibboleth to identify fellow "real" Barenaked Ladies fans.  

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

TMFW 109 - The Worst Singing Competition

TMFW pal and Washington Post journalist Radley Balko sometimes tweets links to what he calls "your daily misanthropy."  Whether the stories are about bureaucrats harassing a family with a special needs child, or abusive day care workers, or modern-day racism, or even something like increased support for banning books, the links are typically sober reminders that our world is sometimes a crummy place with crummy people.  So with that as a background, let's get to today's not-much-cheerier TMFW.

When American Idol launched in summer, 2002, it was a nearly instantaneous success.  19 of the 25 episodes were in the Nielsen weekly top-10, with each of the last six coming in at #1 or #2.  And after Kelly Clarkson won the show, her debut single "A Moment Like This" was certified gold and set a then-Billboard-chart-record when it jumped in one week from number 52 to number 1.  Subsequent seasons were an even bigger deal - an Idol episode was the highest-rated television show of the year for eight consecutive years from 2003-2011. 

Though there had already been several singing competition shows before it - American Idol was itself an import of the UK show Pop Idol - the breakout success of American Idol spurred lots of imitators.  There were country versions (Nashville Star and CMT's Next Superstar), rock versions (Rock Star: INXS and Rock Star: Supernova), a Disney version (High School Musical: Get in the Picture), a competing Simon Cowell version (The X Factor), a let's-sing-duets version (Duets), and on and on.

Which brings us to today's TMFW: the singing competition Superstar USA.  The show, which ran in 2004 on the WB (now CW) network, was a "spoof" on the singing competition genre.  Instead of looking for a genuinely good singer, Superstar USA sought out the worst.  That was not a novel concept: highlighting bad singers or awkward performances during the audition phase of American Idol was a hugely popular feature of the show.  In January, 2004 William Hung famously performed "She Bangs" and became a celebrity.  His first record sold 200,000 copies.  And in 2010 Larry Platt became briefly famous with his song "Pants on the Ground."  That one sold 150,000 copies on iTunes.

But in Idol's case, the bad singers were sprinkled in with lots of good ones, and their moment of infamy/celebrity was truly a moment.  Because the plainly mean and derisive concept of "make fun of bad singers" would not be very fun to watch if it were played straight up over an entire season, the show's judges (which included Vitamin C and Tone Loc) pretended as though the singers were great.  You can see in eventual runner-up Mario's audition, or fourth-place finisher JoJo's audition, or top-12 performer Frank's audition, or Chad's audition, or Robert's audition, the show sought out naturally awkward people and then had their judges heap absurd praise on their performances.  (Then on the flip side, the show dismissed decent singers out of hand.  One judge brought a young woman to tears by declaring that her very short performance of "Midnight Train to Georgia" was disrespectful to Gladys Knight and "...a little disrespectful to the Pips.")  The eventual "winner" of the competition - Jamie Foss - did not learn of the premise until the very last moments of the show.  Thankfully, she was so thrilled with her victory that she didn't seem to care.

As it turns out, the show was self-evidently mean and derisive even when it was dressed up as satire. Though IMDB reviewers recall the show fondly and give it a 7.9/10, contemporary reviews called the show "the meanest show ever" and "a huge leap the race to the bottom of the reality show barrel," and declared that it "suck[s] in a way that few TV shows have ever sucked before."

The show is perhaps most famous for the cruddy way that they pulled off its finale, which was recorded before an audience.  Understanding that the audience would recognize the performers' lack of actual talent and may not be very enthusiastic, the producers of the show told the audience before the taping that the contestants were there with the help of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, thus implying that they were dying of a terrible disease instead of being secretly and elaborately mocked in pursuit of advertising dollars.  Before the show aired even its debut episode, it was forced to "sincerely apologize" for that stunt.

Mercifully, Superstar USA was a total ratings bust.  It lasted only 1 season before it was killed by the WB.


BONUS FACT:  Jamie Foss has a website touting her victory on the show, where she spins Superstar USA as "a send-up of the genre, where hopefuls had all the determination and drive to make it as a singing sensation, even if they lacked the voice."  I wish that she had gone on to a successful career, but the site features links to a sad IMDB page (the only role was as "waitress #1" in 1 episode of Las Vegas in 2005) and a sad Wikipedia page (showing that the entry was deleted because Ms. Foss was "only known for Superstar USA. Has not released any songs or done anything music-related since the show"), and has a space to click for a "Jamie Fan Site" that is not clickable and has no link.  [insert frownie face here.]

BONUS FACT 2:  I can't believe there was ever a market for it, but you can buy a copy of the "soundtrack" to Superstar USA on Amazon.

BONUS FACT 3:  American Idol presented Larry "Pants on the Ground" Platt as an unhinged oddball.  But his history is actually pretty amazing.  Platt was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, and earned his nickname "General" from the Reverend Hosea Williams.   He took part in the march from Selma to Montgomery and was beaten on "Bloody Sunday" as the marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  The City of Atlanta recognized his efforts by declaring September 4, 2001 "Larry Platt Day" in the City and in 2005 the Georgia House of Representatives commended him for his "many valuable contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and his dedication to the struggle for equality and human rights."  It's a true shame that the first line in his obituary is sure to be his 30 seconds of foolishness on a Fox reality show.