Friday song: "Don't You (Forget About Me)"

"Mad About Music" is closing down, so we're featuring one last song as a farewell

By Kent Anderson

In August, Rick Anderson and I launched this e-newsletter, “Mad About Music,” in hopes it would catch fire and create enough momentum to last years. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and some very kind support from many of you, our results have fallen far short of expectations, and we have decided to stop producing new content after today.

Our love of music will not abate, and we will continue to write about music and music topics in our other pursuits.

In accord with this, we’re going to feature as our swan song a tune many our age associate with the film The Breakfast Club, a 1985 sensation that gave the world the “Brat Pack” and launched the career of Simple Minds, the band that performed this influential and enduring song.

The song is one of the few Simple Minds recorded which they didn’t write themselves. It was written for the film by Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff. Forsey also co-wrote the song “Flashdance — What a Feeling” from the film Flashdance. Schiff had been a guitarist in Nina Hagen’s band and co-wrote one of her biggest songs, “New York / N.Y.”

Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music were the first choice to perform the song, but they turned it down. Simple Minds at first resisted recording the song, because they didn’t write it and didn’t like some of the lyrics. But upon seeing a screening of the film, and after further discussions, they agreed to give it a go, and recorded the song in a few hours one day. It gave them their first #1 hit, and made them a major act in the US for a few years.

John Hughes, the director of The Breakfast Club, wasn’t done changing lives. In 1984, Forsey, the song’s co-writer, took over as drummer for the Psychedelic Furs and produced their album “Mirror Moves” that year. When Hughes found out that Forsey wrote “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” he delved deeper into the Psychedelic Furs’ music and discovered the group’s 1981 song “Pretty In Pink.” He made that the title song to his next movie, which was released in 1986. This gave the Psychedelic Furs a huge career boost and a surprising hit.

The song’s “la-la-la-la” coda is a case of a placeholder becoming the actual lyric, as neither songwriter could think of actual words that made sense to end the song.

Before we go, we’d like to thank everyone who read, subscribed, and participated. We truly appreciate the support. We will be donating any remaining proceeds to local charities for the holidays.

Cheers!


Farewell

The Apparently Universal Appeal of Dub

Durable and popular, the form has inspired much over the years, and continues to do so

By Rick Anderson

The word “dub” has lots of different meanings, both musical and otherwise. In the realm of pop music, it refers to a practice that originated in late-60s/early-70s Jamaica: thrifty reggae producers figured out that when they released singles for radio play, they could save money by putting an instrumental version of the A side onto the B side (instead of recording a different song). But this business innovation led to a musical one: producers also saw in this practice the opportunity to exercise musical creativity of their own, and took to altering the instrumental mix by dropping instruments and voices in and out, adding effects like phasing and delay as well and turning the original song into a funhouse-mirror version of itself. This practice proved enormously popular in Jamaica’s open-air “sound system” dances, where another innovation sprung up as well: while the “selector” spun the dub version of a song, a “toaster” or “deejay” would pick up the mic and improvise spoken lyrics over it.

For an oustanding example of how dub works, check out the song “Baby I Love You So” by Jacob Miller, and then listen to producer King Tubby’s dub version (titled “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown,” which many — including myself — consider to be the most perfect example of dub ever recorded.)

For an example of a “deejay cut” over a dub version, listen to I-Roy’s “Roots Man.”

Both of these practices, of course, eventually led not only to modern remix culture but, very directly, to the development of hip hop: it was a Jamaican expatriate, Kool Herc, who is generally credited with being the pioneer of rap music in New York.

Unlike many other pop music innovations, dub has proven to be exceptionally durable, penetrating a wide variety of musical styles and cultures and remaining a touchstone concept in music production today. Songs that have no relation whatsoever to reggae will be released in remixes labeled “dub” versions, and dub itself has become an organic and highly international musical style, with hundreds of artists making dub-inflected music that isn’t based on any preexisting material.

For a few more excellent examples of old-school dub, check these out:

And to see some ways that dub has permeated modern dance and pop music, consider these examples:


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Friday song: "Alone" by Heart

A symphonic version reveals how flexible a great song can be

By Kent Anderson

As the center of the band Heart, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson blow the world away every time they step into the spotlight — whether they are elevating Led Zeppelin or singing a version of one of their own classics. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

When it comes to power, accomplishment, and artistry, there are few who compete with the Wilson sisters. They were Army brats, and to provide stability to a family often uprooted and moved, their father would devote Sundays to music — everything from Motown to opera.

Heart has achieved major success multiple times, from the 1970s to the present. The Wilsons are both excellent performers — Nancy is a great guitarist and vocalist (you might be surprised), and Ann’s powerful vocals are legendary.

The song “Alone” is one of the group’s biggest and greatest hits. Written by the songwriting team behind Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Cindy Lauper’s “True Colors,” its history holds some interest. The writing duo — Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly — recorded the song themselves for an album they were signed to make under the name i-Ten. It was not a commercial success, but the song “Alone” stood out, and stayed on their minds.

Years later, when they heard Heart was looking for a power ballad for their new album, the songwriters dusted off the song, shifted some lyrics and melody lines at the beginning to smooth some rough edges they found, and presented it to Heart’s producer at the time, Ron Nevison. He loved it, and the rest is history.

The song’s dynamics lend themselves to various performance settings. It works as a rock power ballad, an acoustic tug on heartstrings, or, as below, an orchestral number. I chose to feature an orchestral arrangement.

Enjoy!


What Makes an Irish Fiddler Stand Out?

The remarkable case of Martin Hayes

By Rick Anderson

Anyone who has spent time listening to traditional Irish music will know that one of the hallmarks the genre is virtuosity. The ability not only to play a tune, but to play it fast, without sacrificing expressiveness, and creating new musical ideas on the fly while staying within the melodic and harmonic territory defined by the tune — that’s what characterizes the playing of Irish music’s most famous players. Placing a premium on not only manual but also mental dexterity is something that traditional Irish music has in common with jazz and bluegrass as well.

Which is what makes it all the more remarkable when an Irish instrumentalist turns his or her back on ostentatious virtuosity and focuses instead on ideas and emotional expression. Several outstanding artists have done this over the years, but the one I consistently find most compelling is a fiddler named Martin Hayes.

I was introduced to Hayes about 20 years ago when I received a review copy of his second album, Under the Moon. I had spent a lot of time listening to and writing about Irish music at this point, and this was unlike anything I’d heard before: where other fiddlers tended towards virtuosically elaborate ornamentation at thrillingly headlong tempos, Hayes’ approach was — while not exactly slow, certainly deliberate and even contemplative. Listen to the opening track, a set of two barndance tunes: although both are intended for dancing, he resists the temptation to take them at rollicking tempos and instead carefully lays out the melodies and then creates variations with elaborate care, sliding into and around melody notes, inserting trills and cuts and strikes in different places and never letting the listener lose sight of the melody. Or consider his take on the session favorite “Rakish Paddy,” which he imbues with plenty of rhythmic vigor while keeping it at a stately tempo. Its modal melody sounds positively eerie in this setting, making his version truly unique.

Interestingly, seeing Hayes in concert is quite a different experience from hearing Hayes in a studio recording: there’s more flash, more flamboyant energy. I love both experiences, but it’s his albums that really get me where I live.


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Thinking about Joy Division As a Middle-aged Man

There's no turning back the clock, but the music still works, albeit in some different ways

By Rick Anderson

Like many people who graduated high school in the early 1980s, I discovered Joy Division in my mid-teens — in my case, shortly after frontman Ian Curtis had committed suicide and the remaining band members had decided to continue under the name New Order.

Joy Division is, of course, a legendary post-punk band — perhaps the ne plus ultra of British postpunk style: darkly introspective where punk was exuberantly demonstrative, slow where punk was fast, resigned and depressed where punk was impatient and angry. In the specific case of Curtis, I’ll suggest what may seem like an odd parallel: he was to British postpunk what Hank Williams was to mid-century country music — that is to say, someone who took existing lyrical tropes to a revelatory new depth. There is, I would argue, a direct conceptual line between Williams’ “Did you ever see a robin weep/When leaves begin to die/That means he’s lost the will to live/I’m so lonesome I could cry” and Curtis’s “I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through/I’m ashamed of the person I am.”

Much has been written about Joy Division’s musical innovations as well, in particular the near-complete switching of roles between the bass (which tends to play centrally important melodic figures in mid- to high registers) and the guitar (which functions more rhythmically and texturally). But while I’ve been listening to Joy Division with great pleasure for almost 40 years now, and continue to respond with excitement when previously-unreleased material is unearthed, and even read with great interest a recent book on the band by Jon Savage, one question has been nagging at the back of my mind: would I love them as much if they had come on the scene now, when I’m in my 50s?

Maybe, and maybe not. Certainly the emotional and developmental context is very different; I’m no longer (thank heaven) the same person I was in my teens, and Joy Division’s angst-ridden music couldn’t stroke the same chords of worry, confusion, and longing that they did for me at that time because those chords are no longer there — or, at least, they’re now tuned to a very different key.  

On the other hand, my appreciation of Joy Division was never just about the emotional content of their songs. Their music did old things in new and exciting ways, and also did new things that other bands had never done before — and I can and do still appreciate those things. Because I was there when the music was new, when I listen to it now I remember how exciting those new things were at the time, and that contributes to my continued enjoyment.

And of course, there are the songs, which — in many cases — are simply outstanding by any objective criterion of pop-song quality. I’m not just talking about the obvious “hits” either (such as they were), like “She’s Lost Control” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (the latter having now lost some of the pungent relevance it had when the Captain & Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” was still riding high on the charts). Other, less celebrated cuts are genius as well; in that list I’d include “Transmission,” “Colony,” and “Isolation.”

So the bottom line, I guess, is that there probably isn’t any way to know for certain whether I’d respond to Joy Division in the same way if I heard them for the first time now, as a middle-aged man. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But whatever your age, if you haven’t yet spent some time with this remarkable band, I’d strongly recommend it. I’d suggest starting with their first full-length album (Unknown Pleasures) and then moving to their second (Closer). No matter how you respond to those records, I would then recommend checking out the faster, harder, rawer music they made prior to those albums, back when they were called Warsaw. Then, if you find you’re still interested, move on to the extensive odds-and-ends collection that came out as the band was in limbo following Curtis’s death (Still). All of it is worth hearing, and who knows—maybe it will change your life, no matter how old you are.


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