Monday, June 06, 2005
Jesus Christ I Love Junk
Can anything compare to the feeling I had somewhere in the early Eighties when I floated joyfully out of a screening of "A Hard Day's Night" with three friends (in the pre-VHS era, it hadn't been seen anywhere since 1965), and we bounced madly down Bleecker Street, Beatling Liverpoodlingly all over everyone and everything in our path, knowing that the noblest and bravest aspiration -- in fact the only honorable aspiration for a young man in the waning days of the Twentieth Century -- was to be in a rock group consisting of two guitars, bass and drums and lots of vocal harmonies?
Anything else -- any other way of making a living! -- came a stupefyingly dull second.
One-a those DishNetwork stations way up the dial has been showing the movie "That Thing You Do" pretty incessantly, and sucker that I am I just can't click past it.
It's that damned song. (Go ahead, have a listen.)
"That Thing" is set in March of 1964, a few weeks after the Beatles' epoch-making invasion of America, and of course tells of the rise and nearly immediate fall of The Wonders, one of the thousands and thousands of little rock bands that immediately formed in the aftermath of that mindboggling event, who rise to near-stardom on the strength of their one Beatlesque hit and then immediately sink without a trace. It's a really touching little movie in a lot of ways, especially in the scene where the lads first hear their song on their local radio station and do a little Liverpoodling of their own in the staid main-street appliance store where they work. We'll never know the Sixties again. All that possibility.
But that scene isn't the one that really gets the old lower lip trembling and puts a mist in the eye for Lost Youth.
No, what sets me off is a tiny little detail shown while they're recording the song in a borrowed church -- nothing more than an establishing shot, really: The song's producer (played by Chris Izaak) and Liv Tyler as Faye are recording the handclaps heard throughout the song as the band plays in the background:
Beat, clap-clap, clap! Clap-clap, clap!
What makes rock and roll so goddamned wonderful, so worth giving your whole life over to, is lurking somewhere right in those stupid bubblegum handclaps. Somewhere in that little syncopated figure, that obvious bit of calculated cultural junk, lies something that's as close as a human being can aspire to Perfection.
I've spent quite a lot of my adult life (seriously -- more than is healthy) thinking about what makes a song deserve to be called Beatlesque. My slavering devotion to the music of Andy Partridge and XTC (and especially their wonderful psychedelic alter egos, the Dukes of Stratosphear), probably the artists most often associated with that adjective, has no doubt fueled that obsession.
Adam Schlesinger, later of Fountains of Wayne, wrote the song to order (he won a competition that Andy Partridge also entered), and it's clear what his brief was: Write a song that will invite immediate comparison to the early Beatles without being a Rutles-ish pastiche or parody. It must be as sincere as possible without being mawkish. Above all, it must invoke the huge quivering shot of amphetamine optimism that the Beatles injected into a country that was plunging into depression over the Kennedy assassination.
Interestingly, if you make a study of early Beatles records, there's no one song that's got all the elements Schlesinger packed into this one. Perhaps most glaringly, the only Beatle song that I can find that overtly emphasizes that stomp-clap-clap, (pause) clap beat is a Motown cover: The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman." Play "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (released in the U.S. two months before this movie takes place) next to "That Thing You Do," they're plainly different beasts: They share drive, energy, infectious enthusiasm, wonderfully unpredictable chord changes, great ensemble singing, varied textures -- but Schlesinger is writing with, what, thirty years' worth of hindsight, having absorbed not only the original Beatle texts but everything that came after, from Badfinger to Big Star to ELO to Utopia to XTC.
Some of that stuff is going to rub off.
The background vocals alone are just fantastic, with passing tones created by moving from major to equivalent minor keys. Check the lines, "Just so hard to do," (I-I7-IV-iv yeah!) the "ahhhs" under the second verse leading into the "I've tried and tried" bridge (awww, fuck that's great) and the entire middle eight. Masterful.
The chord tab that I found on the Net gives a little notation -- "Wow!" -- at the end of the middle eight, where the while thing modulates upward a half-step from the B7 that's the V7 of our home key, E, into C ("I just can't take it any more!"). This makes absolutely no sense harmonically -- but yes. Wow.
That is Beatlesque. Breaking rules because you don't know they aren't supposed to be broken.
But maybe that's the bittersweet thing, right there. The Fabs broke rules not knowing they were rules and created magnificent music that we'll never hear again the way we heard it when it was new. But in order to be Fabulous, you have to break the rules in ways that you've carefully studied, having tweezed apart every Beatle record down to its submolecular components to find out what makes it tick.
And how many young men now consider it their sacred, noble duty to form wonderful little two-guitars-bass-drums-lots-of-vocal-harmonies rock bands, for the sheer joy of hearing Beatlesque music coming from their mouths and instruments?
But the fact remains: there is still no more honorable work.