When I first heard this song, back in 2001, it made me intensely nostalgic for my teenagehood in the 1980s. There was the beginning line, “a curse for this town”—I had grown up in a small suburb, and the Shins captured the feeling of wanting to live a different life somewhere else, but also being hopelessly attached to the place where you were from. Doesn’t the music remind you a little bit of biking around leaf-shaded streets?
But then what else punched my ’80s buttons? Something about the lyrics, which seem to be the words of a guy addressing someone he loved in the past who didn’t love him back? (“I was happier then … If you’d took to me …” etc.) Except that I didn’t have any particular situation like that in my life to look back upon and feel sorry about. Something about the poky, lo-fi acoustics? “New Slang” first reminded me of the Rain Parade, an underground band I liked a lot in the mid-’80s who, upon revisiting them later in life, I found to be crushingly boring. Except I don’t find the Shins boring at all—in fact, I love them—and comparing the two, the Shins don’t really sound anything like the Rain Parade. This video would seal the deal. The band members very cleverly reenact the covers of famous American albums from the ’80s, by underground groups by Slint, the Minutemen, Squirrel Bait, and Husker Du. Except I only listened to two of these records, The Replacements’ “Let it Be” and Cat Power’s “Moon Pix,” neither of which are among my favorite records of all time or anything. So the song and video make me feel nostalgic for an experience I didn’t have, and the covers of albums I mostly didn’t own, by evoking music that wasn’t so good anyway. But there’s no denying that minor key melody, that sad whistling.
Earworms is now just about one year old. Thanks, readers, for following this blog, and making the process of sharing my music-related thoughts so rewarding.
More late ’80s: Danielle Dax was a singer in the Siouxsie Sioux vein, and was genuinely interesting as a music-maker and songwriter, although she was too poppy to be underground and too unusual to be very popular, and maybe she wore just a bit too much finery—it was almost hard to tell what she looked like underneath all that hair and makeup and frills. Also, busy videos like this one probably didn’t help. Sadly, I think she recorded very little after the early ’90s. The Guardian recently called her the forerunner of Florence and the Machine and its ilk.
This is another video of a song that I liked from the jumble sale of the late ’80s. It was trashy, and I knew it, but I liked it anyway. It couldn’t have sounded more like New Order if it tried.
There’s a period of pop music history that I secretly love, even though no one talks about it much and I imagine music historians might think of it as a great big mess. In the late ’80s, everything got all mixed up—the alternative bands were putting out big, splashy, radio-ready albums; hip-hop was having its poppy moment; rock, indie gothy stuff, was enhanced by a dance beat and plinky-plonky noises. Thus, everything started to sound a little trashy. I bought a handful of crazy, slick singles and one-off albums by artists who had relatively short careers. No single one of these musicians really gained much traction in my life or in my record collection, but I think of the entire period as nevertheless being a whole lot of fun. I’ve been bookmarking some videos from this period as I come across them, and I’ll post them over the next few days.
This was a single I bought by a pair of sisters who were kind of like a British Salt ‘N’ Pepa. “Heat it Up” sounds like a lot of songs from this period—actually, it sounds a lot like “Pump Up the Volume,” with its spoken-word samples and chunka-chunka beat. The video, set against a big Twister board, is pretty typical too, with a total of three costume changes (one outfit for nightlife, one for painting the house, and one for traveling through Russia).
This is a historic day for Earworms! I’ve just come across the music video I’ve been waiting to see for the last twenty-three years. Though that’s not entirely correct: So rare is this video that I only had confirmation that it existed earlier this year. Since then I’ve been hoping that someone would post it to YouTube, and now someone has.
Miaow is the subject of an essay I wrote for an anthology I edited last year called Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives. (Today I also discovered, to my chagrin, that the book has been remaindered. But the good news is that you can now buy it for $5.70 at Amazon.) “When It All Comes Down” is one of the three singles the band released during the short time that it was around, from 1984 to 1987. My essay is about how Miaow’s quiet career took on huge proportions in my life, and about my long-held wish to hear the demo tapes for the album the band never recorded—a wish that was eventually gratified.
In my essay, I wrote that “When It All Comes Down” is “the apotheosis of Miaow’s art, three and a half mountain-high minutes of yodels and handclaps that made my heart want to burst.” It still does. I’ve watched this video three times now, and each time I’m more delighted—it’s as charming and exuberant as the song. (It looks like the video was transferred from a videocassette of Factory Records promotional clips, which explains the weird William S. Burroughs thingy at the very end. Also, the sound reproduction could be a tad clearer—the production on the actual recording, which you can find on iTunes, really sparkles.) Hearing the song again has also allowed me to discover something new about it—I caught the reference to the Beatles on my 150th-or-so listen, but it crosses my mind now that maybe the whole thing is an homage to “And Your Bird Can Sing,” twisty guitar lines, kiss-off lyrics and all?
I have a policy against posting those YouTube videos where someone attaches an audio recording to a picture of an album cover or something, but since there’s only one official Miaow video, and since I’d like you to enjoy a few more Miaow songs, I’m making a few exceptions. This is the great “Sport Most Royal,” which appeared on the legendary C86 compilation and is an ode to the Hampstead women’s bathing ponds:
Here’s “Belle Vue,” Miaow’s first single:
Finally, “Angel’s Spit,” below, is a demo from the unrecorded album Priceless Innuendo:
I should have just bought that boxed set of all of those Beatles reissues when they came out last year. Instead, I thought, why not buy them one at a time, and spread out my enjoyment? I did for a while, and got as far as Help! But then I was faced with Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I stalled. I bought those three albums on cassette when I was in high school, along with a skimpy compilation called 20 Greatest Hits, and played them a lot. That was as far as my intensive early Beatles study went; I didn’t investigate forward or backward. So, with these reissues, the early recordings—the “deep cuts,” as they say; I obviously know the hits—were new to me, and the late stuff would be new to me when I got to it. But I just couldn’t imagine having to listen to those mid-period albums, the great ones, again. And so I stopped buying, and a year went by.
But I was troubled by having just five early Beatles records in my collection. It looked weird. Was I ever going to complete the set? The other day it occurred to me that maybe the answer was to just go out of sequence and jump forward. I was placing an Amazon order, and threw in Magical Mystery Tour. It came this morning.
Confession: I have a habit of making up songs about my dog, and of altering existing popular song lyrics so that they’re about my dog. Pretty much every song that I play, I make up a dog version. So this morning I couldn’t help coming up with “Toby, You’re a Rich Dog”: “You keep all your kibble in a big blue bowl … How does it feel to be one of the beautiful puppies?”
One Christmas morning my mom gave my dad a copy of Photographs and Memories: His Greatest Hits, by Jim Croce. My parents seldom listened to music, so this gift was enough of a rarity to make me look up from the ten thousand shiny new toys and books that surrounded me and take notice. Dad got a record! If my dad liked something, then I liked it, or at least I tried my best to like it. We must have listened to the record that morning, on the long stereo console in the dining room. (I listened to music sitting upright in a chair at the dining table.) Jim Croce’s lyrics were easy to remember, and some of the songs told little stories of the kind that might especially appeal to kids—“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” were both about tough city guys who get their comeuppance from unassuming looking rivals, each in a violent way (fisticuffs in the first instance, knife and gun in the second). These songs brought an air of street menace into our safe suburban home—they seemed akin to the gritty cop shows my dad watched on television, which I avoided—so that Jim Croce was a step outside of my comfort zone. Also, he looked and sang like … sex. Not sexy, but with an overwhelming air of confident, masculine sexuality. I was at that time taking piano lessons from a nun at a nearby convent. What must she have thought when I brought in a book of sheet music of these songs for her to teach me? On the inside front cover was a photo of the singer, with his homely, satisfied, smiling face, leaning back on a park bench with his shirt mostly unbuttoned. Sister Mary Gerald’s disdain was palpable. I presented her with the book, and she waited until the last five minutes of our lesson before she got around to it. “Alright,” she said with a sigh, “let’s take a look at your sight reading.” I fumbled my way through a number, and she clucked as though my failure with the song was predestined.
By the time I learned about him, Jim Croce was already dead—he was killed in a plane crash in 1973, at the age of 30 and at the height of his fame. One evening not long after that Christmas, while Photographs and Memories was still new to our home, I was playing alone in my room when my dad walked in holding the inside sleeve. He sat down on my bed. “Listen to this,” he said. There was a memorial essay about Jim Croce on the sleeve, and he read it aloud. I half-listened. My father’s tone was mournful, and it made me uncomfortable—he must have read the essay before, while listening to the record out in the dining room, and thought it was sad, and wanted to share this sadness with me. When he finished, he shook his head and looked up. “Isn’t that sad?” he asked. “What a loss.” I fidgeted. I wanted to get back to playing.
I can’t figure out now if I like Jim Croce’s songs or not—I can’t sort out my memories from my present critical feelings. When I hear these songs I think about how maudlin they are; I reject them. And yet they do their work—they make me want to break into tears.