September 19, 2019

A Tale of Two Songs

It was mid-80s and I was dancing at the new college bar and the song playing was Frankie Goes to the Hollywood’s Relax. And I remember thinking...am I hearing it correctly? Can this possibly mean what I think it means?

It’s interesting that at a conservative college back then there was a culture that enabled clean-cut kids in their teens to osmosis lyrics that, to put it mildly, failed to edify.

I was curious as to the genesis of the song, of how it traveled from the dregs of excess libido to the ears of millions of American kids, bypassing the antibodies of the (admittedly weakened) culture?

And it’s a familiar story - the quickest way to success is to get banned. It was done so by the BBC and it grew famous and climbed the charts. But it also had help from a famous producer.

The songwriter claimed the words came to him while he was walking around Liverpool minus any “oh, I’ll sing these words and this record’ll be banned” considerations. They performed it on a UK television show, and the producer took it on and changed it radically (ultimately leaving only the lead vocalist in the final version).

The ad campaign courted scandal for promotional purposes by emphasizing gay sexual imagery. And the singer-songwriter himself apparently lived it, being diagnosed with HIV within a few years of the record’s release.
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Another song from the past was written in 1964 (recorded five years later) called In the Year 2525.

It’s not too bad for prophecy. In the future you:
Ain't gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie
Everything you think, do and say
Is in the pill you took today
(Is that pill social media?)

And:
You won't need no husband, won't need no wife
You'll pick your son, pick your daughter too
From the bottom of a long glass tube
Couple more stanzas:
Your arms hangin' limp at your sides
Your legs got nothin' to do
Some machine's doin' that for you
I'm kinda wonderin' if man is gonna be alive
He's taken everything this old earth can give
And he ain't put back nothing
The writer, Rick Evans, lived off royalties:
“Rick, still in his twenties, found himself set for the rest of his life, which meant, to him, that he’d never have to work at a job that didn’t interest him (“I couldn’t sell shit to a dung beetle,” he'd say). It helped that Rick “happened to enjoy relatively simple things: music, the sky, and ‘spacing.’”
He exchanged letters often with a friend who wrote:
Rick’s observations about society were often scathing, but also filled with a sort of mystified affection. Things that interested others baffled him. The country club? Football? Why?
Rick grew up loving all things science, especially astronomy and the prospect of space travel. ..More than anything, Rick enjoyed his own mind, his own far-reaching imagination. He was more comfortable with solitude — months of it — than anyone I’ve known. Why would he prioritize socializing with people who talked about “window treatments” when he could be in the “zone,” a state of mind not so conducive to camaraderie?
He wrote: “Music is an audio display of our love affair with organization presented in a way that responds to our complex emotional dictates...The players who are ‘getting it right’ with rock are every bit, if not more, in tune with the business of expressing honest human emotion; maybe even more so than with the players of the more refined types of music such as classical, because they are playing their music, not interpreting someone else’s.”
He mused that we only can attempt to reproduce the sound that Chopin, say, intended. There’s no way to know, really. “One thing for sure, though,” he wrote. “Our very best attempts at rock are exactly that. There’s none better than that which is labeled the best at this very instant.”

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