Some notes on neither/nor bands:
Love them or hate them – here they are… There are guilty pleasures found in rock music just like the fast food aisle, but these are the left overs from a good stew. After you indulge in these bands, and understand their musical world, they leave a taste that you grow a fondness for. But as a cartesian nightmare, you have to confront the painful process of where to put their CDs in your collection. Anywhere? They don’t belong anywhere, yet they are everywhere, and deserve to be included. These are the cute mongrels among thoroughbreds. They are uncompromising in their personas, stubborn in their musical tastes and defy categorization. And what turns your head in the most confounding way is that they are really good at what they do. They have to be, otherwise they wouldn’t even be as good as one hit wonders, but there they are – putting out hit after hit. I had girl friends who made me tapes of “our” songs, and in the mix, I’d find these weird choices. Yet, I would always end up loving these anomalies more than the usual popular bands. These neither/nor groups have that effect: they manage to change your taste and become your most guilty pleasure by their sheer conviction. Like termites, these artists tunnel their way through their music in a thoroughly self-involved way and create personas that light up billboards. They create a safe fantasy, and exude their own aromatic sexuality which emits a pleasant attraction to both men and women. A beautiful tease, you can sense their steaminess in almost every song. Finally, they make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a weird and complex endeavor with their presence, yet the listener, in an overall way, understands why they were let in the door after all the shouting.
Here are some examples:
(1) ABBA Coming on the scene in 1973 before disco poisoned everything, there is still no band as giddy as ABBA since then. Joyous and urgent, ABBA sounds like a carnival alpine bobsled ride. And Benny Andersson plays chunky Tchaikovsky-like major chord piano riffs in almost every song, giving it a kitschy elegance. Their songs are just as emphatic – “I do, I do, I do, I do, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, and fit like a snug jogging shoe into a 3 min commercial time slot. ABBA is irresistible with their cheery surface and fresh-faced swedish good DNA. You get the impression that they mountain climb or marathon when they’re off stage, then leisurely enter the studio with a few terrific hooks and another ABBA gold is printed. They are winners and make it seem so easy and natural. But it isn’t, their songs are crafted, smooth, and come out at you with their bright light. The ladies, swaying their rears in tight white body suits with angel wings, sing from their guts and on pitch. ABBA cultivated a position of neither sterile synth/nor strictly rock band, but as a hybrid swedish folk/rock/dance band that sings about desire, innocence, and money. Their subject matter is universal and international, appealing to everyone. They are uncompromisingly ABBA, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had to believe in angels to let them in.
(2) Sade Gorgeous, elegantly romantic but never stale or hack, Sade is neither jazz nor pop, but a Caribbean blend of smooth funk and sway. It was too good to be true: A beautiful former model, who can sing breathy torch ballads like a goddess, backed by slick studio level musicians. Sade sings cool and hot, which is profoundly erotic. She is a genius of all things love, a warm sea breeze on a Jamaican beach. And she takes the listener there. Sade gets played at every Cabo San whatever wedding or party, and yet her songs are intimate – she is singing just to you. Men run up to the stage to bring her flowers. Sade has the quality of never being rushed to put out her music at the expense of quality. It seems her music is tightly monitored and reserved. Just when you think she is finished with recording, she comes out with another fresh perspective and another view of love. But Sade has what every great musician has and that is a musical ear and a fine sense of musical economy – one that is always fresh, surprising, and relentless.
(3) Neil Diamond I am including this performer for his song writing ability and not so much for his singing. And viewed from that perspective, Neil Diamond is a pithy nexus in the history of Rock and Roll. It’s astonishing as to the quality and quantity of the songs Neil has written for himself and for other performers as diverse as the Monkees. Yet, he is viewed as the Jewish good son from Brooklyn on the edges between pop and rock. Like the Beatles, Neil Diamond departed from the Everly Brothers harmonic sound and innocent posture. He mines a soft-core folk/pop on the right of Elvis’ sentimentality of Americana. Neil Diamond emerged from the pre-British invasion, and followed the line of white middle of the roaders such as Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson, and Bobby Darin – Mack the knifers who were filing down the edges of Sinatra and distinguishing themselves loosely with black R&B. Too stiff for the black soul of Sam Cook and too groovy for folk, Diamond’s hit- “Cherry Cherry” remains something more than a swinging one hit wonder. It seemed Neil Diamond went underground after that, but his subject matter remained centered on the ideal and home life. That idealism was on the minds of many in the sixties. And he later followed that with a raspy and groveling singing style, leisure suit, and came back in the 70s when aging suburbanites were waiting for him.
(4) Alice Cooper Neither glam nor heavy metal, Alice Cooper is a relentless artist, golfer, restaurant owner. Easy Action, Love it to Death, and Killer, remain as the terrific core of the band’s sound and legacy. I am luke warm to School’s Out and really lose patience with the over indulgent and alcohol driven theatrically of what followed. Some would find this debatable, but when his band left him as a solo artist he was hard to watch. The Alice Cooper band was blistering and sleek when they played live. They had that Detroit drive when they played in concert, and the records really don’t capture this quality. It’s as though there is a matte finish on their sound and the CD versions seem sped up. But in the end, Alice needed a context of a band playing behind him on stage, he really couldn’t sustain it all by himself. And even after all these years, when he plays at fairs with a newer and younger band, he makes a point of bringing his daughter on stage. There is no reunion band in sight. In the overall context of the era he belongs to, a good comparison to the height of Alice Cooper are the Stooges. Both were anti-hippie and swishy teased punk. But Alice Cooper comes off as theatrical and polished – they would play in record order in concert – against the raw throw-away chaos of the Stooges. Even then, Alice’s eye make-up gets mannered from goofy lashes to black eye socket filler after Killer. Ironically, Micheal Jackson’s zombie Thiller video became more popular than the manneristic horror rock invented earlier by (“I love the dead”) Alice Cooper. Such is the case for Neither/Nor bands, they are sometimes at the mercy of sure-sighted and stronger constituents.