Song 285: Roy Orbison, “She’s A Mystery To Me” (1989)

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It seems criminal to write about Roy Orbison and not write about his many classic songs from the fifties and sixties: “Only the Lonely,” “Crying,” and of course, “Oh Pretty Woman.” They’re amazing songs, and they’re superior to the one I’m writing about instead. But I recently rediscovered “She’s A Mystery To Me,” and, well, I really like it.

“She’s A Mystery To Me” was written by Bono and The Edge. You wouldn’t think a Roy Orbison song written by the two leaders of U2 would sound very good, but I think this song really works. Even though it came out in 1988, the track mostly lacks the era’s production trends: there are no tinny drums, no unnecessary electric guitar flourishes. It’s just Roy Orbison singing about a woman. Which is all anybody needs in a Roy Orbison song.

Dwight Yoakam reportedly once described Orbison’s voice as “the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window.” Bob Dylan said “he sings like a professional criminal.” It’s so covered in beauty and darkness that Bruce Springsteen called Orbison “the true master of the romantic apocalypse you dreaded.” It’s one of the best voices that ever was, and in one of the rare instances of Bono not calling attention to himself, he and The Edge wisely wrote to Orbison’s voice when they composed “She’s A Mystery To Me.” The song’s verses are simple and understated (a tone that suited Orbison just as well as operatic drama), but the chorus is a classic Roy Orbison melody: high and mighty.

According to Wikipedia, Bono said the recording process of this song was something to behold:

I stood beside him and sang with him. He didn’t seem to be singing. So I thought, ‘He’ll sing it the next take. He’s just reading the words.’ And then we went in to listen to the take, and there was this voice, which was the loudest whisper I’ve ever heard. He had been singing it. But he hardly moved his lips. And the voice was louder than the band in its own way. I don’t know how he did that. It was like sleight of hand.

The song’s record, Mystery Girl, was released in early 1989, a few months after Orbison’s death. I remember the day he died. I was eight years old, and my dad came into my room as I was getting ready for school. He said, “Roy Orbison died.” I didn’t say anything back, because I didn’t know what the right response was (and because I probably only had a vague idea of who Roy Orbison was), and a few seconds later, my dad left the room. I think he just needed to tell somebody that the voice was gone.


Song 147: Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (1989)

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I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is the best song to have been featured in a movie’s opening credits, which sounds like the lamest compliment ever, but think about how important opening credits are. The best ones set the tone of a movie before a character even says a word and are just as creative and artistic as the films they introduce.

Do the Right Thing has one of the best opening credit sequences in all of film. Rosie Perez does a dance that’s equal parts celebration and fight (and eventually dons boxing gloves for full effect). In a movie so full of life and determination, it’s a perfect way to start. And it’s all done to Public Enemy’s timeless masterpiece “Fight the Power,” as courageous and pulse-raising today as it was in 1989.

According to Wikipedia, “Fight the Power” contains 13 samples, including the opening speech, which is not included in the movie, or in the clip below. It’s from a speech by Thomas “TNT” Todd, a civil rights activist:

“Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight. Matter of fact, it’s safe to say that they would rather switch than fight.”

Fighting–for equality, justice, a place on the wall–is a huge part of Do the Right Thing, but so is ambiguity. The film is full of confusion and poor choices, so much so that statements like “do the right thing” and “fight the power” are easier said than done. In the “brothers on the wall” scene alone, a worthy cause is clouded by the annoying Buggin Out (played masterfully by Giancarlo “Gus Fring” Esposito), and it’s a white person (Sal’s son, played by John Turturro), who prevents a violent conflict by taking away a baseball bat. Nothing is straightforward.

The best political songs, however, are. I love that Chuck D doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and that he starts the song by setting the scene: “1989, another summer.” The song was released three years after Howard Beach and two years before the Rodney King beating, but nothing about it sounds dated. And can you imagine, today, two companies as huge as MCA (which distributed Do the Right Thing) and Motown Records (which distributed the “Fight the Power” single) would promote a song featuring the lyrics “Elvis Presley was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain/Motherfuck him and John Wayne”? Unbelievable.

And that production! The Bomb Squad really brought it on this one: it’s like five alarms going off at once, to the “sound of a Funky Drummer.” Those 13 samples make one big, disorienting mess, a backing track that captures the chaos and confusion of race relations circa 1989. (In an interview, Chuck D described the production this way: “We put loops on top of loops on top of loops.”)

I think “Fight the Power” is not only one of the best songs of all time, but a flat-out masterpiece, a track that Public Enemy never topped. Like the film it opened, it’s a celebration and a stance, a party and a battle, a story and a call to action. In other words, it’s hip-hop.


Song 116: Pixies, “Debaser” (1989)

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I have no idea if “Debaser” is supposed to be funny, but I find it hilarious. The way Frank Black starts the song as Luis Buñuel yelling “Got me a movie, I want you to know!”, how Kim Deal sweetly sings “deeebaaaaser” amid the racket, the very fact that Buñuel (or is it Dali? Or Black himself?) wants to grow up to be a debaser. It’s all very silly.

The hipster masses seem to have landed on Surfer Rosa as the Pixies’ masterpiece, and while I like that album a lot (the ghostly “Where Is My Mind?” especially), Doolittle is the one I’ve always loved. With its bouncy chaos and catchy tunes about slicing up eyeballs, the record is like a twisted Beatles album. It’s as if the Monkees sat down and decided to put out some disturbing psychedelia (which I guess they kind of did anyway, but I digress).

“Debaser,” the first track is kind of like Doolittle’s topic sentence. It’s not the catchiest song on the album (that honor goes to “Here Comes Your Man”), but it’s close, and hearing someone yell “slicing up eyeballs!” so early in the proceedings is typically jarring for this collection of songs featuring numerology, gouging away, waves of mutilation, and a creepy-sounding man saying “Hey! Been trying to meet you!” in front of a slinky bassline.

There aren’t many moments in pop music that I like more than when Black sings “Got me a movie, ah-ho-ho-ho!” in the second verse, with only an electric guitar behind him. It’s exhilarating, and I think that’s because it’s so much fun—we’re all complicit to his madness, if only for a few seconds. We all want to be mad geniuses and merry pranksters, and nobody makes this sound as enjoyable as the Pixies.


Song 90: Young MC, “Bust a Move” (1989)

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So many songs from 1989 lately! That wasn’t even by design; I had no idea these songs were from that year.

It’s safe to say that “Bust a Move” was the first hip-hop song I was aware of. I’m sure I’d heard other ones before it came along, but it’s the only one I listened to intently when it came on 94.5 (which, back then, was WZOU, featuring the Zoo Cat). “Principal’s Office” was another one, and it’s certainly the more age-appropriate Young MC song from that period, but the heart wants what the heart wants. Sometimes it wants a song about a man who cannot, despite his best efforts, bust a move.

According to the ever-dependable Wikipedia, “Bust a Move” is a story about “a young man and his frustration in several attempts to find (or seduce) a woman in various places and failing to be able to do so because he can’t dance; he isn’t able to ‘bust a move.'” I can’t argue with that, but I never thought of this song as having even that much of a narrative: to me, it’s almost a (filthy) nursery rhyme, but that’s probably more because it’s an early rap song.

I’ve been trying to think about why I like this song, and I can’t think of anything specific. I think Marvin “Young MC” Young is just a really good writer and rapper. This isn’t Shakespeare, but it’s not supposed to be, and lines like “every dark tunnel has a light of hope/so don’t hang yourself with a celibate rope” are pretty damn good for a kid who was only 22 when his debut (Stone Cold Rhymin’) came out. The track just holds together really well, and even though it’s obviously from rap’s early days, it’s also aged very well. It’s still got a great beat, and it’s always fun to rap along to.

One of the joys of doing this blog is learning so much about the songs. For example, “Bust a Move” features Flea on bass, and it includes a sample from the Bette Midler song “Daytime Hustler.” (Also: Bette Midler apparently had a song called “Daytime Hustler.”) And it’s always interesting to hear about parallel origin stories: just as Rick Rubin operated his first record label out of his dorm, Marvin “Young MC” Young auditioned over the phone to Delicious Vinyl while still in college, and the label delivered his record contract to his room.

Which is funny, because I also had a relationship with this song in college. But mine probably involved more beer.


Song 86: Janet Jackson, “Escapade” (1989)

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As I alluded to in my last post, I love songs with words you don’t hear very often but also aren’t distracting for the same reason. I’ve loved “Escapade” ever since my sister bought the Rhythm Nation 1814 cassette in 1989, but it never really occurred to me how unusual the title word is.  Yet it’s perfect for this song, right? The formality of the word contrasts nicely with the informality of the rest of the song (“Come on baby, let’s get away”). It brings to mind both a grand adventure and a slightly irresponsible night on the town.

And speaking of towns, when I learned that this (and much of the rest of Janet Jackson’s work) was produced by Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, formerly of The Time and onetime Prince cohorts, that “Minneapolis!” shout-out made a lot more sense. Without knowing that information, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Janet Jackson really, really wants to go on an escapade to Minneapolis, which doesn’t seem very likely. (I love you, Minneapolis, but you’re really more of a “sojourn” kind of city.)

Janet Jackson has made some great music, but I think this is her finest hour. The vocal performance isn’t flashy, because it doesn’t need to be; the proposal in the chorus is more of a coy come-on than an outburst or a sudden idea. The production, though, is a different story. I love those synth hits, which seem to encourage Jackson’s suggestion to get out of Dodge.

I read that this song was written after a failed attempt to cover Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run”, which I find really fascinating. You can hear some similarities between the two (that “ooooh”, especially), but Jackson seems to have written the song’s opposite: not only can you run, you should. You should run away with Janet Jackson. Or Ms. Jackson, if you’re nasty.


Song 85: They Might Be Giants, “They’ll Need a Crane” (1989)

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It wasn’t always this way. Because of a severe aversion to “Particle Man” (an aversion that persists to this day), I wrote off They Might Be Giants for ages. I thought they were the band that they’re so often mislabeled as: a “quirky” novelty act that made silly songs about silly things. They can, of course, be very silly, but never to the detriment of the world they’re building. A worm that plays the drums? Sure. A song sung by The Replacements because they’re The Replacements? Why not. We end up accepting these premises because the two Johns take them seriously.

In the case of “They’ll Need A Crane”, it’s the title that throws you off. You don’t typically see the word “crane” in a song title, especially one about a dissolving partnership. It’s been said that the song is about Linnell’s parents’ divorce, which would make this one hell of a sad memoir. But it’s a beautiful one.

Reducing the characters to simply “Lad” and “Gal” somehow makes this song even more poignant than it already is. I think it makes the story more childlike, making this a kid’s-eye view of a slowly imploding marriage. Similarly, the verses are overly simplistic, as if they’re the Dick and Jane of their own story. Then there’s that bridge, which, with its fragments of conversations and images, brings to mind a kid overhearing his fighting parents. It’s actually one of my favorite bridges ever, mostly because it stops you in your tracks with a melody that creeps upward and a sudden shift to acoustic guitar after a couple minutes of electric and electronic instruments. It’s jarring, and just as you’re getting used to it, the bridge ends with the line “Baby, wait, I didn’t mean to say nightmare.”

It’s funny what can be comforting. In the They Might Be Giants documentary Gigantic, Sarah Vowell talked about calling up Dial-A-Song in a moment of emotional turmoil and being immediately soothed by John Linnell singing about an ant crawling up your back in the nighttime. I have a similar reaction to They Might Be Giants, and I’m not sure why that happens.

I’m glad, after years of friends’ cajoling, that I finally decided to give They Might Be Giants a shot. They’re now one of my favorite things, and I am absolutely convinced that Linnell and John Flansburgh are two of the best living songwriters. The lyrics are equal parts whimsical and devastating, and the melodies are symmetrical in a way that usually only happens in Beatles songs and classical music. They’re still around, and still putting out good music, for which I am grateful.


Song 55: Phil Collins, “I Wish It Would Rain Down” (1989)

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This was another one I first heard on the school bus. Why, as a third grader, was I obsessed with a midtempo song, sung by a 38-year-old bald man, about a very adult-sounding relationship? We may never know, but again, I was a very old young man. (The only age-appropriate thing about this memory is that my friend Brad and I had a joke about the album’s title: we’d rename it “Butt Seriously” and then laugh for a solid five minutes. Ha ha. Butts.)

Furthermore, why, as a 33-year-old, do I still like this song? “In the Air Tonight” is a much cooler Phil Collins song, and “Against The Odds” is a better written one. But I always come back to “I Wish It Would Rain Down.” One thing I like about it is an element that it shares with Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately”: a moment when the bass stays on the fifth and different chords are played on top. I explained that a little bit in my “Queen Jane” post last month, so I won’t go into it much here. But in the case of “I Wish It Would Rain Down,” it’s the moment when Collins sings “rain down”: the bass note is playing something different from the chords. It gives the chorus a little added drama.

I had never seen the video for “I Wish It Would Rain Down,” and hoo boy. It is a big bowl of ridiculous. The great Jeffrey Tambor has a speaking role, as does Eric Clapton, who says of Collins’s character, “He used to be the drummer in a really good band, and when the singer left, he took over.” (Just like how Peter Gabriel left Genesis, so Phil Collins took over, get it? GET IT??? Ugh.) You are a pretty good guitar player, Eric Clapton, but you will not be winning any Oscars anytime soon. (Unlike “Billy” Collins, who wins an Oscar in his imagination, before the big twist ending.)

The rest of …But Seriously (heh heh, butts) is typical ’80s schlock: the pandering let’s-care-about-the-homeless track “Another Day In Paradise”, and the nostalgia-mining “Do You Remember” (whose video features time travel and a producer saying “Your root beer float’s here, and there’s a phone call for you”–the eighties!!). But there’s something subtle about this track, which is a strange thing to say about a song in which Phil Collins basically sings gospel. I’m not sure I can explain it any better than that: a song I like features Phil Collins singing gospel. Musical taste is a very personal thing.