Friday Music Focus: 2/19/16

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For a while I’ve been thinking about spending my Fridays writing about music. Everybody listens to it; everybody likes talking about it; it’s always on my mind, so why not? The following is tonight’s selection. (The post will be published after midnight, which will technically be Saturday, but we’ll pretend that it still counts for Friday. Forthcoming posts will be punctual.) Brilliance may not be the outcome – I have a tendency to listen to music without always knowing about the artists, or taking my time in researching them, preferring to maintain some kind of mystique – but at the very least you might hear some songs that you hadn’t heard before.

Zayn, “Pillowtalk” (from Mind of Mine, 2016). What is the most effective way to graduate from member of a cheerful, sanitized boy band to solo star? (See also for similar queries: Nick Jonas, once one of American music’s teen darlings.) I can’t provide a definite answer, or at least not a well-informed one since I know practically nothing about Zayn Malik and almost as little about his alma mater, One Direction. It always seemed to me that the biz was asking a lot if I was supposed to care excessively about a bright, shiny group of prepackaged hit-makers – designed by the industry to be teenage dreams – particularly since four out of the five are younger than me (although, granted, not by much). But I do like this single, especially the guitar part, so there’s hope for me yet. Pop music isn’t all bad, kids! (And it’s not always made for kids.)

New York Dolls, “Personality Crisis” (Musikladen performance, 1973). The pilot of Martin Scorsese’s new HBO show set in 1973, “Vinyl,” puts the New York Dolls front and center in the last 5-10 minutes of the episode. Actors playing the band members circa 1973 perform the Dolls’ “Personality Crisis,” an explosion of noisy energy so kinetic that it literally brings the house down, reducing the Mercer Arts Center to a glitter-dusted pile of rubble and leaving the main character (Bobby Cannavale) in a rock ‘n’ roll daze. (The venue really did collapse back then, resulting in four casualties, but not during a concert. That’s Scorsese utilizing his poetic license for dramatic purposes.) Despite the cinematic excitement of HBO’s offering, I return to the real band and their original song; the Dolls might not have been truly “punk,” but they were weird, colorful misfits who were louder and wilder than most of their competition. You had to be Arthur “Killer” Kane to be able to wear turquoise boots that high and a gold dress that short, and somehow Johnny Thunders foresaw the future of the ratty coiffures that hair metal musicians would have in the 80s.

The Stooges, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” (from The Stooges, 1969). Despite what the uninformed protagonists of “Vinyl” might think, it’s hard to argue that Iggy Pop and the Stooges (here’s a helpful guide for beginners) weren’t the forefathers of punk rock, along with MC5 and a few lesser-known bands. Time certainly moved at an accelerated pace in the world of rock: only five years passed between the Beatles shaking their shaggy Fab Four mop-tops on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Iggy’s bare-chested, vertebrae-contorting antics. Year after year, decade after decade, “Dog” retains the power to unnerve, knocking you backward with its opening notes, then the continuous, chunky (can such an adjective describe these sounds?) riff and that wacky use of sleigh bells.

T. Rex, “Metal Guru” (Top of the Pops performance, 1972) – T. Rex always struck me as kind of funny, given that their categorization as glam rock leaned more heavily on “glam” than on “rock.” Some of Marc Bolan’s songs had crunch and grit, like “Buick Mackane” and “20th Century Boy,” but when I was younger I used to find it perplexing that so much of his impact, or rather what I personally felt was most notable about his creativity and style, came from his fashion sense more often than from the tunes. But isn’t it interesting that this single, “Metal Guru,” a fairly short song which sticks to one particular melodic line and doesn’t have many lyrics, hit #1 on the charts in the UK? I doubt that anyone in the US would recognize the song unless they were T. Rex fans, but I suppose there must be people in Great Britain whose memories are long enough that they can remember when “Metal Guru” was on the radio, whether they liked it or not.

Manic Street Preachers, “Motorcycle Emptiness” (from album Generation Terrorists, 1992) – It’s unusual that the Manic Street Preachers made their US television debut only last year (on James Corden’s “Late Late Show,” incidentally), given that the band has been around for quite a long time, recording since the early 90s and performing for years before then. I don’t know to what degree an anti-materialist and anti-capitalist song like “Motorcycle Emptiness” is lessened or negated when offered to the public in a music video made for a major record label, but it’s the songwriting, as well as the beautiful riff that weaves its way throughout, that matter most. (Note: it makes sense to me that guitarist Richey Edwards and bassist Nicky Wire were the song’s co-lyricists; on an aesthetic level beyond shared musical interests, they looked nearly identical at the time.) It was a strange loop of memories that took me from T. Rex to the Manics, but some music is connected by forces stronger than genres or generations.

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