Like the Crystals, the Ronettes, and the Righteous Brothers, Darlene Love was raw material for Spector’s magic touch: a 21-year-old Angeleno who sang with two other black women as the Blossoms. Since the late 1950s they had made nowhere singles for various L.A. labels; as they would do after the Spector era faded, they backed up better-knowns to pay the rent. For “He’s a Rebel,” a million seller, Darlene Love got $1,500 and the chance to stay in the studio with the first pop auteur.
Though she never had another ride on a number-one record, Love added her voice to a handful of the most perfect and affecting rock ‘n’ roll singles ever made. When one matched Love’s voice to the various names applied to it—after “He’s a Rebel” she recorded as Blue Jean #1 (and lead singer) of Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, again as the Crystals, and finally as herself—it became clear that Love had more talent, and more individuality, than any other Spector singer. On such marvelously grinning discs as the Crystals’ “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and her own “A Fine Fine Boy,” Love merely made room for herself within Spector’s concept (“Love is more important than a diamond ring”) and humanized his obsessive noisemaking. Sometimes, as with her own astonishing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” she sang with so much force and passion she exploded Spector’s wall of sound and revealed herself. Listening, you connected not with the unforgettable event of the record—Spector’s intent—but with a real woman. Still, the story was hard to keep straight. When Darlene Love appeared on July 19 at Berkeley Square, a congenial new wave venue, the flier announcing her show promised FORMER CRYSTALS LEAD SINGER (DO RUN RUN). The tune was “Da Doo Ron Ron”—and it wasn’t her record.
Nevertheless, she opened with it. Backed by San Francisco’s Dick Bright and the Sounds of Delight—eight pieces plus Steve Douglas, who played saxophone on Spector’s hit, two female chorus singers, and Gloria Jones of the original Blossoms—Love came off as an odd anachronism. The arrangement was too fast, too light, the performance not strong enough to deflect one’s knowledge of the record: one of the most complete records of the last 30 years. And then suddenly the performance shifted, took off—became new.
This trim, 41-year-old woman reached for her own material, claimed it, and transcended it. She was so blithely, easily strong that just as she was once Phil Spector’s raw material, a handful of songs that she did not write and that in the history books are associated less with her name than with Spector’s became her raw material. She overwhelmed the associations one brought to the songs, or made such associations unnecessary. “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” (Love) or “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Heart” (Bob B. Soxx) sounded anachronistic only in their first moments; then Love took them away from one’s memory and tossed them back as if one had never heard them before.
The band was fine, mad with enthusiasm; Steve Douglas’s tone and his touch made every break special. Darlene Love’s voice was fuller, purer, and more soulful than one could credit. On the loudest, highest notes she lost not a bit of expressiveness; song by song, her voice seemed to get not just better but bigger. I kept waiting for her to lose a line, slip a note, feign interest, but she never did. She took teenage love songs and blew them to pieces with adult knowledge, put them back together with twenty years of craft, and then exploded craft with heart. One heard a voice; one connected with a real woman.
I’d hoped for “Christmas” but not expected it; this was July, after all. On the original 1963 recording Spector crashed an entire orchestra into the first groove of the cut and then let Love loose for her most desperate, personal vocal. It can’t be topped. At Berkeley Square, Darlene Love didn’t top the recording—she simply became the first person since Preston Sturges to pull off Christmas in July.
Darlene Love, today, is one of the best voices in popular music. She’s looking for a label and she hasn’t found one. She can’t record her old material: what was liberating in person would inevitably be confining on record—though there are a few tunes from the Spector period, such as Love’s almost tragically gorgeous “Strange Love,” that are neither well-known nor teenage. Love needs the right producer and the right songs; she needs what Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt gave Gary U.S. Bonds last year, but with more room to move. Where is L.A.’s I.R.S. label—and not just because there would be no Go-Go’s without Darlene Love? Her return to obscurity will be everyone’s loss.
If pop music is about love or money, the Gang of Four (b. Leeds, U.K., 1978) makes music about the wish to love money; the essence of their performance has been a dramatization of false consciousness in postindustrial society and of the displacement and incomprehension it produces. Flat, accepting images are shot up with complex puns and implacably unstable guitar-drums-bass rhythms; singer Jon King’s everyman embrace of the commodity is exposed as Konsumterror (Ulrike Meinhof) and his identification with the status quo as hysteria. Images break down: leisure becomes work, work a fantasy, pleasure a contract, and (in the band’s neatest summation of the matter) at home you feel like a tourist.
Thrilling on Entertainment! (1979), this unlikely approach to the bop that just won’t stop (Gene Vincent) was more than a little boring on Solid Gold (1981). Simply, the band’s rhythms were made all too stable. Without the constant questioning—or disruption—of each element of the music by every other, the band’s drama edged close to agitprop. Argument became point of view—and contradiction was reduced to irony.
Sound is the metaphor that supports and translates the Gang of Four’s themes, and on Songs of the Free (Warner Bros.) the sound is texture. The clash of elements is replaced by a constant shifting of the distance between the singer and the music—or the singer and the singers. Guitarist Andy Gill’s dour attempts to talk-sing his way through mystification—“No-man’s-land surrounds our desires,” he says, but desires are located in “the space between our work and its product,” which makes that space itself a no-man’s-land—frame King’s melodramatic angst, an angst at times so fierce it dissolves melodrama; new bassist Sara Lee’s hard-nosed soprano cuts the ground out from under King’s hopeful narrative in “I Love a Man in a Uniform” with the same strength she uses on “We Live as We Dream, Alone” to hammer out the offbeat against Hugo Burnham’s kick drum. “Time with my girl, I spent it well,” says King as a man about to join the army in the face of economic redundancy; “Oh, man,” says Sara Lee to herself, “you must be joking!”
The elements of the Gang of Four’s music work differently on Songs of the Free because what the band is now putting on its stage is not only the isolation of almost indecipherable alienation but the piecemeal recognition of a common predicament; not just the false consciousness of acceptance but the doubt and willfulness of resistance. Resistance—saying no, and then groping for a way to act on the negative—is presented as a struggle for consciousness. What you hear in “I Will Be a Good Boy,” “The History of the World,” “Of the Instant,” and in the devastating “We Live as We Dream, Alone” is the struggle to think; what you hear in “I Love a Man in a Uniform” is the absurdity and submerged panic of failing even to try. The deliberate, thought-out textures of the sound—and the sometimes gleeful, sometimes baleful punning of the lyrics, which you don’t catch right off—seem to symbolize, to act out, thought as such. The result carries an almost cinematic suspense: hearing the singers try to think, hearing the band add and subtract force from the adventure, you can’t help but wonder, will they make it?
Rock ‘n’ roll is a metaphorical arena. In early 1964, Lesley Gore made the Top 10 with “You Don’t Own Me,” celebrated ever since as a protofeminist manifesto. Less well-known is that Gore (or her managers) backed off: the follow-up was the all accommodating “That’s the Way Boys Are.” Message: he may treat you like garbage—but they’re all like that, and we love ’em for it!
Metaphors die: today Joan Jett is the queen of Top 40 punk, and her teeth-bared version of “You Don’t Own Me” is devoid of tension; she sings as if the matter was never in doubt. And metaphors are turned around: Y Pants is a three-woman minimalist band from New York, and its version of “That’s the Way Boys Are” (on Beat It Down, Neutral) puts more tension into the tune than the tune or the world it speaks for can hold. With the nicest, most unquestioning a capella vocal, a woman relates the sad facts of romantic love while her sisters confirm there is no way out: “That’s the way boys are.” It’s lovely—like listening to the Fleetwoods. And then the screaming starts, edging its way up out of the speakers, louder even as the girls keep singing, horrible screaming, twenty-years-in-the-snake-pit screaming, screaming that decent people should not have to listen to—
Rock ‘n’ roll is a metaphorical arena, and that is why you can find the abyss in a harmless old pop song.
Since 1978 the all-female Zurich band Liliput has issued a string of uniquely cutting and feisty singles. Liliput (Rough Trade import), the group’s first LP, isn’t bad—but from a combo so dada-brazen and riot-toughened, it sounds tame. One exception: “Do You Mind My Dream,” which with a typically Liliputian chant offers a typically Liliputian sentiment—the equation of “weight control” and “thought control.”
Why is “The Message” (Sugar Hill twelve-inch), the new rap record by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five of the South Bronx, so powerful? It’s because the song’s politics are clear—this is a perfectly rhymed 1982 account of the Hobbesian war of all against all—but more so because this song is an inescapably muscular piece of rhythm, and that rhythm is generated almost completely by the voice. It’s a shock to hear a person speak with such plain intent:
Close to the
Some groups say their music is for people who like to think while they dance; “The Message” must be for dancers who are willing to be scared.
Oh Ok, a two-woman (voices, bass), one-man (“he just plays drums”) band from Athens, Georgia, uses the white, suburban, chirpy girl-group sound of the Kalin Twins (“When,” 1958), the Angels (“My Boyfriend’s Back,” 1963), and everyone’s high school cheerleading squad. Stripping that sound of its outdated themes and emotions (“Love me or I’ll die”; “Get that ball and fight”), Oh Ok makes it modern—or at least as timeless-rootless as a day spent in a shopping center.
If there is such a thing as a generic American voice, Oh Ok may have found it—and found what to do with it. The four songs on Wow Mini Album (DB) come off like a conversation you might overhear while standing in line for a matinee of E. T. The minimal dance rhythm is firm and tight, never calling attention to itself; the tone of voice is appealing, thoughtful, earnest, sunny. What’s surprising is that the voice is as sure of itself, as determined, as it is aggressively ordinary: all those years of cheerleader practice have made this voice subversively appealing. “I-I-I-I-I am a person,” says Oh Ok’s Linda or Lynda (the band has one of each). “I speak to you. I am a person, I am a person, and that is enough.” It’s sweet, it’s flirtatious, and in its own way it’s probably as much of a challenge as X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage Up Yours” was in the caterwauling punk heyday of 1977.
Pointed comparisons between the United States and Weimar Germany are not meant to suggest that we are in for an artistic renaissance but that America is about to produce fascism. Such an analogy, high on the hit parade of left intellectuals in the 1960s, has recently been revived by an unlikely polemicist: conservative political analyst Kevin Phillips. The simultaneous release of Phillips’s Weimar-specter book, Post-Conservative America (Random House), and two albums featuring the songs of Bertolt Brecht and communist composer Harms Eisler—all music on Sylvia Anders’s Change the World: It Needs It! (Labor) by Eisler; half by Eisler, the rest by Kurt Weill and others, on Robyn Archer Sings Brecht (Angel)—may or may not be significant. I can only report that both the words and the music do sound suspiciously up-to-date—particularly the nasty little vignette of “Abortion Is Illegal” on the Anders LP—and that the spare treatment Anders gives the tunes on Change the World is far more effective than the somewhat lugubrious renditions of Robyn Archer.
The Nig-Heist’s “Walking Down the Street“ speaks as clearly for white male California anticulture as Moon Unit Zappa’s “Valley Girl” does for the feminine version. That’s mainly because there’s about the same amount of art in this blithering piece of Redondo Beach hard core as there is in a teenager’s decision to drink enough to make himself throw up. Send $2 to Thermidor Records, 912 Bancroft Way, Berkeley 94710—you won’t hear this on the radio.
- New Order, “Temptation” (Factory import 12″)
- Howlin’ Wolf (Chess import reissue, 1962)
- Captain Beefheart, Ice Cream for Crow(Virgin)
- Bunny Wailer, Tribute (Solomonic reggae import)
- Black Uhuru, “Dub of Eglington,” from Darkness (Island import 10″ EP)
- Warren Zevon, The Envoy (Asylum)
- Dave Bartholomew, “The Monkey,” from The Bluebeat Years (Island import reissue, 1957)
- Minutemen, bean-spill e.p. (Thermidor)
- The Inflatable Boy Clams, “I’m Sorry” (Subterranean)
- The Crickets Featuring Dean Barlow (Jay-Dee/Relic doo-wop reissue, 1953-54)
California, September 1982