030. Joe Jackson “Look Sharp!”
Look Sharp!, 1979
Second only to Elvis Costello in the wave of brilliant, original, witty, acid-tongued, and musically adventurous young English singer-songwriters who came to prominence following the brief rule-rewriting that punk allowed, Joe Jackson is unfortunately mostly remembered as a classy new wave (in the VH1 sense) artist, the singer of Broadway-for-the-Eighties standard “Steppin’ Out,” and maybe by swing kids for his tribute to Louis Jordan, Jumpin’ Jive. But his original run of taut, nervy pop albums — played with a stripped-down virtuosity that acknowledged his classical training but refused to be shackled by it, and seething with a sarcastic vitriol that was never as layered as Costello’s, but never overreached as much either — are among the greatest run of records in rock & roll. At least four songs from his energetic, snidely wistful debut album could have occupied this spot with equal grace and fire; I chose the title track mostly because I love the kickdrum-and-piano middle eight, and because the lyrics are brash youthful self-confidence personified: taking no shit from anyone, sneering at the cautious advice the second person is offering, and dressed to the nines at all times — also, I’m a sucker for a good colloquial pun, and “look sharp,” with its double meaning of dressing spiffily and watching out for danger, is a superb one.
029. Labelle “Lady Marmalade”
(Bob Crewe/Kenny Nolan)
I should probably point out that I’m white, male, straight, and terminally unfunky. Yet even I can dance to this. And have. (Not in public.) Labelle were a consciousness-shifting act, on the level of Sly & the Family Stone and Funkadelic, who remain criminally underappreciated today, difficult to find even on compilations — except for this song, their only hit. This cold shoulder is partly due to the fact that their dialed-to-eleven hard-funk sound can be difficult to get into, especially on the less rocking tunes, and partly it’s leftover chauvinism from the 70s, when a tear-the-roof-off-the-mother act like Patti, Nona and Sarah was still looked down on for having a largely gay audience. (By the way, what the hell has happened to gay taste in America? From Labelle to Madonna is not an improvement.) “Lady Marmalade” briefly resurfaced in the worldwide pop consciousness thanks to Moulin Rouge, but its snapshot life story of an aging transvestite is both a bitterer and a better story than that cotton-candy fluff — and than Lou Reed’s condescending, daring-you-to-be-shocked “Walk on the Wild Side.” (The Bob Crewe of the credits, by the way, was one of the masterminds behind Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons a decade earlier. You think you know a guy.) Not too long afterwards, they gave up the high-camp space-age accoutrements and Patti became just another diva, belting out high-processed smarm for aging black boomers. Nona still kicks ass, though.
028. Tom Waits “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)”
Small Change, 1976
It’s not a small trick that Tom — and you want to call him Tom, even after listening to just one record, that’s how convincing his friendly-neighborhood-hobo voice is — pulls off with this song: he manages to fully incorporate the lonely boozehound persona that he played (both on and off stage) to great conviction in the 70s — so much so, in fact, that it hovers on the edge of conscious self-parody — but the surreal, fragmented imagery of the lyrics (not to mention the actual drunken stumbling of the piano line) also point towards the increasingly arty, omnivorously apeshit direction he would take in the 80s. But he always had a way with a half-dozen words, and rhyming “creampuff Caspar Milquetoast” with “the IQ of a fencepost” deserves some kind of post-Beat Poetry award. He sounds tired here (which is part of the point of the song, yes, but), tired of the Everyman Barfly shtick, tired of not finding any answers in the bottom of a bottle, tired even of the stripper and her pasties on the cover of the album — tired, that is, of making up bullshit about himself and the world and then feeling obligated to live up to it (one reason he’s gotten better as he’s gotten older is that he’s lived up to everything, and can just make up bullshit from the comfort of the family homestead). So we get the bit of the Piano Man’s life that Billy Joel was too chickenshit, or maybe too successful, to tell us about, and it warms the cockles of the liver.
027. Richard Hell & the Voidoids “Blank Generation”
Blank Generation, 1977
This is a doo-wop song. No, seriously; underneath Robert Quine’s atonal, arhythmic guitar chopping and Hell’s wasted-hipster yowl, it’s a swinging 50s R&B beat, and then just to drive the point home there’s those falsetto “ooh-oohs” after the chorus. Sure, it’s doo-wop as written by Charles Bukowski and orchestrated by the bastard offspring of Link Wray and LaMonte Young, but it’s doo-wop nonetheless. And in the grand tradition of the great doo-wop songs, it’s terminally misunderstood; Hell wasn’t being nihilistic in calling his generation blank, but saying that they were a blank slate, capable of anything. (We’re supposed to fill in our own adjectives when he goes “I belong to the! . . . generation.”) Of course the possibility of the nihilistic interpretation was always there too, and Quine’s slashing, corrosive Stratocaster probably sounded like the end of the world to people used to Peter Frampton or Glenn Frey, but what did they know? If the Ramones get to take credit for laying down the definitive punk-rock sound, Richard Hell is the one who layed down the definitive punk-rock fashion, all tatters and safety pins; McLaren and Lydon only transplanted it to England. And he wrote great street-punk beat poetry, the epitome of New York punk, which was always much cooler and even artier, in its way, than the London equivalent.
026. Talking Heads “Life During Wartime”
Fear of Music, 1979
This is where the Heads’ white funk began to coalesce into something not just original, but world-changing. Sure, “Psycho Killer” can lay claim to being the first real college-radio hit and begetting Amerindie music in all its screwy, unafraid glory, and their cover of “Take Me to the River” pointed out that a black backbone, however transmuted, was essential to making their sound really jump as nervously as David Byrne’s voice, but here, with Brian Eno on the boards and Byrne’s first truly immortal set of lyrics — “This ain’t no party/This ain’t no disco/This ain’t no fooling around” — the band set up a bubbling, herky-jerky groove and hung onto it doggedly. And Byrne spins a quietly paranoid scenario of a high-pressure environment filled in with low-key, everyday actions. It could be set anywhere in the world — and is, and has been, and will be again — but it also marks the emergence of a distinctively global political conscience that would be the banner of left-leaning musicians during the ugly 80s, from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts to Sandinista! to Live Aid. World music is such an ugly label, but Byrne’s and Eno’s gradual absorption of reggae, trópicalia, afrobeat, krautrock, gamelan, and highlife into the Talking Heads’ original mixture of John Cale with James Brown produced one of the wisest, loveliest, and — dammit — most danceable musics ever to inhabit the earth.
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