Lee Hazlewood – “You Look Like a Lady”
Tom Jones – “Stop Breakin’ My Heart”
The Asteroids Galaxy Tour – “Gold Rush Part 1 / Dollars In the Night / Gold Rush Part 2″
Thee Mighty Caesars – “69 Seconds”
Television Personalities – “I Was a Mod Before You Was a Mod”
Otis Spann – “I’m Ready”
Liz Brady – “Palladium”
Cal Tjader – “Soul Motion”
The Ups and Downs – “In the Shadows”
The Jetset – “The Man Who Lives Upstairs”
Long Tall Shorty – “Falling For You”
Neils Children – “Get Away From Me, Now”
The Chantalles – “I Want That Boy”
Booker T & the MG’s – “Hang ‘Em High”
Manual Scan – “New Difference”
Makin’ Time = “Honey (Fast version)”
Jacques Dutronc – “les Cactus”
Style Council – “The Whole Point of No Return”
Tom Waits – “More Than Rain”
I know what you’re thinking and nope, sorry, Hazlewood released the album that one is on after demoustaching. I know, I know, it seems wrong to me, too, Lee hazlewood without a mustache, but it happened and we don’t talk about it.
John Cooper Clarke – “Midnight Sun”
Makin’ Time – “I’m Not Really a Welder”
The Moodists – “Where the Trees Walk Downhill”
Graduate – “Elvis Should Play Ska”
Department S – “Somewhere Between Heaven and Tesco’s”
The Headcoatees – “True To You”
Franz Ferdinand – “Tell Her Tonight (in German)”
Broder Daniel – “Lovesick”
United Future Organisation – “Fool’s Paradise”
The Prisoners – “Say Your Prayers”
The Real Kids – “She’s Alright”
The Pretty Things – “Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut”
Rousers – “Face Toward the wall”
Powder – “I Try”
Purple Hearts – “Restless Dream Recurring”
Mick Harvey – “The Ticket Puncher”
The Fall – “Jawbone and the Air-Rifle”
The Go-Betweens – “People Say”
Tom Waits – “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”
Unfortunately, this is still the mental image that some of my friends have of white people who listen to reggae, in spite of years of trying to recondition them to think of this.
As I’ve noted before, this is kind of a guilty pleasure of mine, due in part to personal history: I was in junior high in the mid-1990s, when there was kind of an international popularity for the more watered-down variety of reggae music easily palatable to a North American audience. While some of the artists in this reggae sub-genre have a debatable reputation for insincerity and watering-down the genre, and others have managed to retain a modest following amongst reggae enthusiasts, reputation alone is not always the factor in whether or not any selection by any artist associated with this reggapop is inherently bad, musically, and some of it has even regained a modicum of cred among the “retro 1990s” enthusiasts —apparently, in his native Canada, Snow has regained some chat success and, while easily dismissed amongst reggae enthusiasts over the age of twenty during the peak of his 1990s popularity, some enthusiasts have since decided that Snow does fairly represent reggae as a genre and possesses and displays a genuine, sincere love for the music as it was introduced to him by Jamacian immigrants to the Toronto neighbourhood of his youth.
In the immortal words of Ishkur’s Guide of Electronic Music: “…please, if you’re a white MC, unless your name is Snow, do not try to inundate your rhymes with an annoying faux-rasta chatta. You sound like a god damn retard when you do that.”
There is, though, an element of truth to when a genre of music associated with a particular subculture gets commercial, the commercialised version loses much of what made the original artists of the genre so interesting in an effort to give it broader appeal. While, in theory, the commercialised version has every potential to be objectively good music, the dilution of that spark from the genre can understandably turn people off, especially when they’ve been fans of that genre of music since long before it became commercial. On the other hand, when a commercial example of a genre is objectively good, it’s not uncommon for that to become something of a gateway to the better stuff. It’s not necessarily a bad thing when a genre gets a bit commercialised, but it’s certainly understandable that it would annoy hardcore fans.
So when I hear one of those old reggapop songs from the mid-1990s, even long after I’ve come to appreciate better representations of the reggae genre, I have this fondness for a lot of those songs. It’s not just about nostalgia, it’s also about appreciating the structure of a song that takes the most-accessable elements of the genre and infusing it into pop music. As once was noted in The TISM Guide to Little Aesthetics, by the Australian alternative pop-rock band TISM, writing pop music structures can be harder than it sounds. Of course, writing good reggae can be harder than it sounds, as well, and the gist of the full quote is that a lot of “post-modern” music essentially hides poor craftsmanship of their work behind gimmicks like feedback and unusual tunings. It takes a kind of talent to take such an insular genre as reggae, and write pop music with, at the very least, a clear love-affair for that genre, and write it in a manner that can have very broad appeal.
In retrospect, I find the trend in the 1990s a bit amusing, cos that’s when the trend for reggae-pop was considered to be “international” —which seems to be a slick way of saying “America finall has caughy on to what Britain and the Commonwealth was into ten years ago”. No, really. Look at the timeline for the surgence in reggae-infused pop music, and you see a bit of an explosion for such in the early-to-mid 1980s in Britain, almost all of which of which were ignored Stateside at the time, until The Police practically dropped any semblance of a reggae-ish sound and hit the US charts a couple times, then there’s a dormancy for a few years, and then, around 1992/93 (around the time I started spending my summers in London), suddenly it’s all the rage on the other side of the Atlantic. Face it, America, you invented the term “international polularity” to mask the fact that you’re actually pitifully behind the times.
And apparently some places on the Internet assert that this pop music-reggae of mid-1990s popularity is technically an offshoot of Dancehall rather than proper Reggae, and the subculture around Dancehall certainly is not without its problems and contradictions (while Dancehall musos certainly seem to entertain Rastafari imagery, it’s often juxtaposed alongside the trappings of market capitalism, sexism, bigotry, and violence), and as a Queer gentleman, myself, I can’t ignore the criticisms of homophobic content in several prominent Dancehall lyrics.
Maybe “love” is a bit strong a word here, cos it’s not like I go out actively collecting some long-coveted twelve inch mixes of my youth, but I don’t hate it and yes, at risk of looking like the biggest dork amongst my skinhead friends, or at a record swap, I’ll gladly admit that I still unashamedly enjoy some of it —it may not be the most accurate representation of reggae as a genre, but I will hold to the belief that the stuff I like is still good music.
Saint Etienne – “Railway Jam”
Department S – “Whatever Happened To the Blues?”
Dexys – “You”
Paul Bevoir – “Changing Places”
Madness – “Believe Me”
Gli Evangelisti – “Un ragazzo di strada”
Tony Clarke – “Landslide”
The Out Cast – “You’ve Gotta Call Me”
The Smiths – “Work Is A Four Letter Word”
Purple Hearts – “Plane Crash”
The Small Faces – “Tin Soldier”
The Meddyevals – “Place called Love”
The Kinks – “Village Green”
The Ordinary Boys – “Over the Counter Culture”
The Monochrome Set – “Two Fists”
Prince – “4 the Tears In Your Eyes”
Skandalous All-Stars – “Cult of Personality”
Alexei Sayle – “The Winebars of Old Hampstead Town”
There’s something about a few artists that were kinda popular, especially (as I remember) in gay clubs in the mid-1990s, that seemed to pick up where French Ye-Ye left off, in it’s quirky Lolita-infused charms. I posit that this revival really began a decade before, as the singer who, in my opinion, really seemed to “get” that musical aesthetic was Franco-American, Harvard drop-out ZE Recordings artist Cristia Monet, best known as “Cristina”. Cristina was first known as a member of Kid Creole’s Coconuts, and she was married to ZE cofounder Michael Zilkha, but she certainly carried her own as a singer and is considered a part of NYC’s 1980-93 “No Wave” movement. Her updated version of Leiber & Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?”, originally made famous by Peggy Lee, was issued a cease and desist order that would only later become rivaled by the one earned by The Evolution Control Committee’s “Rocked By Rape” and The ECC’s “whipped cream mixes” of Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause” and “By the Time I get to Arizona” (the latter two are actually supported by Chuck D of Public Enemy, it’s Herb Alpert, whose music is mixed into vocals-only B-sides of the Public Enemy songs, who was angered by the remixes). Her cover of “La Poupee qui Fait Non” also makes a clearer call back to the various French and Spanish girl singers of the 1960s.
Unfortunately, Cristina’s career as a singer was short, due to reasons I can only guess at; regardless, British artist Richard Strange described her as “elegant, intelligent, beautiful and the wittiest girl I have ever met. In a sassier, zestier, brighter, funnier world, Cristina would have been Madonna”, and that should come as clear as anything that her talent was at least on part with earlier girl singers who achieved less fame.
On a more popular note, we have The B-52s. It’s kind of hard to think 1960s retro and not think of the downright parody bouffants of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson (even though the ladies haven’t really worn them since the early 1990s). While maintaining a steady stream of influence, and certainly about as popular as fellow retrofuturist rockers, DEVO, during the same 1979-1983 period, their career didn’t reach its peak in sales until 1990, with “Love Shack” –but I really dislike that song, and it’s my blog, so here’s “Rock Lobster”, instead.
While it’s certainly tempting to tag The B-52s as part of the Ye-Ye Nouveau, let’s face it, their sound is hard to describe as anything by “bizarro retropop”, and their “boys vs girls” vocals make them too dissimilar from the girl singers typically associated with ye-ye (while there were certainly a few boy singers associated with ye-ye, the dominating gender for the sweet and typically unthreateningly romantic genre has been female), but they certainly helped prove that there was not only a timelessness to a lot of “signatures” to a 1960s sound —rock organ, a tinge of surf to the guitar, hell, just listen to them— but there was certainly an audience for it, and if a group could weave those elements, along with competent songwriting and talented performers, there was even an incredibly devoted market for it.
It’s also hard not to go any further in this without a mention of Grace Jones, even though I hesitate to include her work for similar reasons I hestitate to do the same for Mari Wilson. Ye-ye is a cute and girlish genre, but Jones is sophisticated. Ye-ye can be quirky, true, but Jones is scary in all the best and most seductive ways.1
Now fast forward about ten years —except when it’s only about seven.
Now now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not forgetting Mari Wilson or Virna Lindt, or even Fay Hallam, but there’s a clear difference between Hallam and those generally lumped in as “girl singers” —it would be like calling Mo Tucker a “girl singer”. Even Virna Lindt’s poppier singles for The Compact Organisation were, frankly, quite a bit weirder than that quintessinal “girl singer” sound, and while Wilson certainly comes closer, her alto, while certainly taking a nod from Motown, is more torch singer or jazz chanteuse than the cutesy girl singer vocals associated with Transeuropean Ye-ye.
Now, obviously, despite a loyal fanbase, and one that continues to grow via the Internet (where everything old is new again), Cristina’s popularity was limited. It’s easier for people as a whole to remember Til Tuesday than Cristina. It’s arguable to say that Cristina’s and The B-52s’ quirky retro-pop helped pave the way for the fleeting popularity of Betty Boo and Deeee-Lite.
Mods, in my experience, are incredibly averse to Hip-Hop and Rap. If you point out that, historically, Mods have looked to “Black music” (Jazz, Soul, Rhythm & Blues, Ska, Reggae, Funk) for cultural cues, there’s almost always some disparaging comments made about hip-hop and rap, as if it’s some kind of justifiable, rather than arbitrarily determined exception. Pete Townshend quotes from the early 1990s are trotted out as if they were short and punched enough for a bumper sticker, and exceptions are readily made (at least by a few) for Paul Weller’s odd little attempt to introduce Hip-Hop and rapping to a modernist idiom on a Style Council album, but for the most part, the topic of rap and hip-hop music is avoided on Mod Internet fora, and its inclusion into rotation of the sides at a club night is practically unheard of —I’ve never seen it, and if they used to look at me sideways for including Pizzicato 5 and Saint Etienne in my sets at the now defunct night in Ypsilani, Michigan, then I figured it was best to leave the hip-hop at home.
It’s hard to not listen to “Where Are You Baby?” (yes, even after the intro bars, a sample from The Velvelettes’ “He Was Really Sayin’ Sominething”), from 1990’s Boomania and not pick up a strong mid-1960s influence. Aside from the rapping, the music and composition are clearly coming from the same school of musical aesthetics as The B-52s, and the prominence of feminine vocals certainly give it consideration for the school of girl singers. Hell, mute the video, if you feel like, and pipe it onto the projection screen during a garage set, and it’s clearly at home, with all of its kitschy 1960s futurist sparkle. The Boomania! record is well-steeped in 1960s sound aesthetic for a dominant portion of the tracks, regardless of the modern idiom of hip-hop.
Her follow-up album, 1992’s Grr! It’s Betty Boo included “Curly & Girly” and “Skin Tight”, among other songs, which offered far more callbacks to the 1960s sound, and a lot less rapping, and more singing. Her voice is sweet and girlish, and while a handful of lines from her work is arguably “naughty” by 1960s standards, it’s tame and flirty by 1990s standards (even if there were a few infamous examples of clear sexual innuendo, usually written by Serge Gainsbourgh).
Betty Boo’s image for the two albums was carefully constructed as sort of part Betty Boop (no, really! [eyeroll]) and part Barbarella, and other nods to the cute tough girls in teensploitation films.
Then there was Deee-Lite; if you were at least five and had a radio or (worse) cable television in 1990/91, this song was IMPOSSIBLE to escape for several memorable months, and remained in regular rotation on Stateside music video channels well into 1993, in spite of the fact that Deee-Lite had a recording career that outlived Boo’s by about four years, and researching their girl singer shows absolutely no period of inactivity in music or fashion (which is her education background):
Deee-Lite is one of the strangest bands I’ve ever heard, even still. Lady Miss Kier, originally from Ohio (like other cool people), is still actively singing, DJing, active on Twitter and FaceBook, and even active as a gay living club icon; her single “Aphrodite” is more downtempo than the Deee-Lite catalogue, but totally worth checking out. I haven’t really followed the other members of the band, but a quick search on Towa Tei looks like he moved band to Japan; I can only guess what Ukraine-born Super DJ Dmitri or Kansas native DJ Ani are up to, but if you know funk music, you should be able to recognise Bootsy Collins in that video —which probably helps to explain a lot. Deee-Lite is one of those groups that, like Army of Lovers, never ceases to impress me, if only because, if you know what to listen for, you can tell that this group is composed of people who are freaky-smart, and geniuses of composition, but so far ahead of their times, that this weirdness has only breached “retro-chic” because it’s kinda kitschy, in a way. You can easily hear influences from Parliament and P-Funk, Salsa, Reggae, and Soul, but trying to pin-point what elements of each song was born from what influences is at least forty-seven times harder to do.
The video? OK, I’ll admit, it’s far more psychedelic and hippie-influenced than “properly Mod”, but the dancing is top notch, and even today, I doubt Lady Miss Kier would be turned away at the door of a Mod night for looking costumey, at least not by anybody who actually knows 1960s women’s couture. I’m also really disappointed that I didn’t post this during US Election Season:
The Infinity Within record was an effort to be more serious and activist, and the sound is more House than Funk, but the design on the album cover is plucked right out of 1967. Social consciousness had a huge revival in the early to mid 1990s, so you’d think a socially conscious Techno Dance record with a neo-psychedellic rectrochic coolness and just a dash of Hip-Hop sensibilities would do better, but it turns out that people never listened to dance music to think, but to, you know, dance. Which is sad; the reason that Country Joe & the Fish don’t have staying power is cos when you’re writing anti-war songs about a specific war, well, the chances of another war lasting over a century are pretty low, so you can’t count on an incredibly specific anti-war song to remain relevant even a full generation later —in most cases, you’d be lucky if that song was still relevant a decade later. Other “issues” songs also come off as dull and patronising, or just trying to say too much about something that’s very simple, or oversimplifying complex ideas. Let’s face it, most pop music is for people between the ages of fourteen and twenty, they are not stupid, and bullshit can be easily sniffed out; as refreshing as it is that “Rubber Lover” looks at the issue of safer sex and boils it down to “Put a rubber on your ding-a-ling” between verses of Lady Miss Kier swooning with the line “Have a good time” —which is really all everybody outside an abstinence-only school district was trying to say in those awkward sex ed classes— the fact that the kids got a false positive on their shitometers makes you realise it’s kind of a shame this record sold so poorly in comparison to Deee-lite’s previous offering.
Their final studio album, Dewdrops In the Garden, probably one of the finer examples of electronic neo-psychedelic music, and taking more of a trip-hop lead with some jazzier reflections in a handful of tracks, so still celebrating a myriad of sounds originating in the 1960s, but very different from the poppier World Clique from five years prior.
While you really can’t deny that they are, in essence, a bunch of techno-hippies with a glam-funk aesthetic, you also can’t deny that they did amazing dance music that could easily fit in with a Shibuya Kei set, at the very least, offering up a sound that utilises the best of 1990s techno dance music to create a potpourri of 1960s sounds.
All in all, the era of the sweet girl singer never ended, and the sensibilities of ye-ye have continued, even if the style has modernised to the point that the typical superficial listen makes it seem like something completely new and different.
1: If you say Mari Wilson isn’t as sophisticated or weird as Jones, I’ll only give you half. Her voice is actually very well trained and stands there with any of the great lady lounge singers. On the other hand, where Grace Jones is kind of the seductive alien, Mari Wilson could easily prove herself gleefully aberrant. She’s a lot weirder than most people give her credit for.