Tag Archives: martin scorsese

Songs Ruined By Pop Culture

One the of great properties of music is its ability to serve as a sort of emotional shorthand.  Songs about love or loss allow us to experience these feelings vicariously while also drawing upon our own pool of half-buried emotion.  Songs can have personal connections to us, but what I’m talking about are the broader, surface-level connections that we all feel to some degree.  Every time you hear Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” you don’t get a knot in your stomach thinking about a dark-haired girl I knew in 8th grade. But when we all hear The Beatles “Something” or Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” we all feel an approximation of the same thing.

This ability to instantly invoke feeling makes music the perfect complement to film and television shows that want to underscore and heighten their down dramatic moments.  When used effectively, the results are memorable and wonderful.  That said, there are some songs that are used a little too frequently in films/shows, turning a wonderful thing into a cheat, a lazy-shorthand for actual emotion.  Worse, there are other uses of songs in various pop culture where, even when not overused, become so iconic that the song ceases to have a life outside this one specific use.  For me, these songs are ruined.   Perhaps ruined is too strong a word, but whenever a song becomes unlistenable without conjuring up residual cultural baggage that’s what it feels like to me.  Ruined.

Don't drop that thing on your head...

Don’t drop that thing on your head…

Here are some notable songs “ruined” by pop culture:

1. “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel.  Most casual music fans are probably under the impression that this is a Bob Dylan song.  “Stuck in the Middle With You” feels like a Dylan song because the song was conceived as a spoof of Dylan.  The song was released in 1972 and by 1973 reached all the way to #6 on the Billboard Music Charts. Songwriters Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan put out two more albums and then disbanded, with Rafferty going onto have moderate solo success including a hit with his 1978 song “Baker Street.”  The song probably would have remained a curiosity/answer to a trivia question had director Quentin Tarantino not resurrected the song for his feature film debut Reservoir Dogs.  The song took on a fresh, demonic connotation when Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, gleefully tortures a policeman while dancing to the track.   Now 99.99% of people are unable to hear “Stuck in the Middle With You” without thinking about ears being lopped off.

2. “Gimmie Shelter” by The Rolling Stones.  The first cut off the Stones 1969 classic LET IT BLEED, “Gimmie Shelter” is an epic tour de force.  The song is notable for prominently featuring vocals from a non-Rolling Stone (singer Merry Clayton) and for tackling the Vietnam War, which was raging at the time. The song’s dark, seductive groove and “rape and murder” references make the song ideal for use in films with violent content.  So not surprisingly, the the song has been used in countless cops ‘n robbers shows and films.  I also think it’s impossible to make a film about the Vietnam War without using this and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” But the person who really ruined this song was director Martin Scorsese who has used it in not one, but three films: Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. It’s a great song, but it has been done to death.  For a song about the horrors of the Vietnam War, I sure do think of garlic-breathed mobsters when I hear it…

3. “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. Originally released in 1986, “In You Eyes” was the first song on the second side of Gabriel’s fifth solo album SO.  Essentially a perfect time capsule of 1980’s pop, SO also famously featured the hits “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer.”  At the time of the album’s release, “Sledgehammer” was the bigger hit due in part to a really cool stop-motion animated music video.  But all that changed three years later when Cameron Crowe used the song in his teenage love story Say Anything… The song gained renewed attention and immortality when, near the film’s climax, John Cusack blasts the song from a boombox hoisted high over his head.  I was but a babe when Say Anything… came out, so the nostalgia is a bit lost on me, but even I can’t hear Gabriel’s song without thinking of Cusack.  The song’s been used over the years in similar context, but everybody is really just copying Crowe.

4.  “All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan but covered famously by Jimi Hendrix.  Everybody agrees that Hendrix was a guitar god, and his cover of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” is an amazing interpretation (seriously, have you heard Dylan’s version?) but much like “Gimmie Shelter” the song has been co-opted by filmmakers who use the song as a kind of shorthand for “doing drugs in ‘Nam.” The song’s use in Forest Gump is the gold standard of such use (that film is probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to using music as lazy shorthand).   The track’s overuse has reached the point of cliché, I actually laughed when I saw Zack Synder’s Watchmen film where the song’s use bordered on parody.

5.  “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood & The Destroyers.  The title track off the George Thorogood’s 1982 album, “Bad to the Bone” was not a hit.  But within a few short years “Bad to the Bone” became the band’s most recognizable hit.  How you ask?  Because the song has been used countless time to telegraph to the audience that a certain character is a badass.  Most famously the song was used in conjunction with Arnold Schwarzenegger in T2: Judgment Day when the muscular robot first dons his iconic black motorcycle jacket.  “Bad to the Bone” was a kinda cool tough-guy song that has now been watered-down into a novelty song, thanks in part to it’s uber-level of machismo.  Today the song is now mostly used in comedies in contrast with a particularly un-tough character (i.e. a loveable loser).

6.  “What I Am” by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians.  The impetus for this list was the recent use of Edie Brickell’s 1988 one-hit wonder “What I Am” on HBO’s Girls. This season on the show, an ill-advised cover of the song that makes its way onto YouTube and haunts a particular character. I hadn’t thought about/heard this song in ages, but the day after I saw the first episode of Girls third season, I started noticing the song was on the radio more than in previous years.   A catchy chorus and twisty, semi-thought provoking lyrics are now rendered meaningless thanks to the series.  This is now a song about defeat and the soul-crushing reality that none of our dreams are going to come true.  Thanks Girls.

 There are countless other examples of song ruined by pop culture, Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was forever stamped by Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey in Wayne’s World as was “Sweet Home Alabama” in every movie to every take place in the South (or feature Southern characters).  I’m sure just how ruined these songs are depends on your film/TV watching habits.   I’m curious to hear what songs you the reader feel have been used to death or ruined by pop culture.  Speak up in the comments section.

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Crossfire Hurricane & Becoming A Better Stones Fan

I love documentaries.  I really love them.  I don’t think I’ve seen a bad documentary, per say.  I subscribe to the theory that at the very least, a documentary will tell or show you something you didn’t know, and thus it wasn’t a complete waste of time.  Some are better than others.  The Martin Scorsese film on Bob Dylan, for example, is a damn good documentary.  Recently, I sat down and watched HBO’s Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane, which while not as good as Scorsese’s No Direction Home, was entertaining.

crossfire hurricane poster

And how could anything about the Rolling Stones not be entertaining? As far as legendary bands go, the Stones are tops when it comes to drugs, debauchery, death, and deceit.  All the makings of a compelling documentary, right?  Well Crossfire Hurricane covers all the major points in the band’s storied career, but doesn’t really dig in very deep.  Some of it felt rushed and major chapters in the band’s career are glossed over. It wasn’t until the credits started to roll (and I thought, “That’s it?”) that I saw what the problem was: the band were the producers.

So Crossfire Hurricane is really the whitewashed version of the Stones as told by the Stones. If you’re super-fan, you’re not going to necessarily gain any new insights, but the backstage/behind-the-scenes footage is worth seeing.  We see the Stones at the height of their success doing drugs and running around half (or totally) naked backstage.  It’s all very cheeky and fun.

I really wanted to recommend Crossfire Hurricane as THE Stones documentary to see…but it’s not.  The real story is what happened after the credits had rolled: the next morning, all I could think about were the tunes.  I fired up Spotify and started skipping around in the band’s massive back catalogue. And then a funny thing happened: I discovered my all-time favorite Stones song.

STICKY FINGERS, compliments of Andy Warhol.

STICKY FINGERS, compliments of Andy Warhol.

I was listening to STICKY FINGERS while doing my laundry, when I heard “Bitch.”  I’d of course heard it before, but I didn’t hear it until this week.  The cocky, self-assured Jagger vocals, the brilliant Keef guitar lick…it was your standard-issue Stones song until the horns kicked in.  Holy shit, the horns take “Bitch” from good to fantastic. It was like hearing “Satisfaction” for the first time: I was blown away.

Which got me thinking, if a great never-played-on-the-radio song like “Bitch” could hit me like a bolt of lightning—what other astoundingly great Stones songs am I missing out on? Suddenly being a more causal Stones fan doesn’t seem so cool.  There is only one course of action: I must listen to everything by the Stones to ensure that I’m not missing out on any other gems.

To be fair, “Bitch” was a B-side to “Brown Sugar” so it wasn’t cast off into complete obscurity, but with B-sides like this who knows what awesome deep-cuts I’m missing out on.  These are the problems of a true music-nerd.  There are too many great bands with too many great songs left undiscovered.  Whenever I find a blank spot on my musical map, I try to fill it in.  That a band like the Rolling Stones has so many blank spots on my map is embarrassing, to be sure.  So even though I’m pretty sure I could die a happy rock-enthusiast without hearing the entirety of the Rolling Stones 80’s output—I’m gonna listen to it all.  Just knowing the singles and key albums is good, but the odds ‘n sods/deep-cuts are what keep me going, both as a fan and as a human being.

That endless quest for my next favorite song, that’s the very essence of what DEFENDING AXL ROSE is all about.  In the coming days, weeks, and months, I’ll post more about my travels in the Stones back catalogue.

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“3 Pears” by Dwight Yoakam

Inspiration, it is said,  can come from the most unlikely of sources.   Case-in-point: I heard an interesting interview with country-singer Dwight Yoakam today.  He was promoting his new album 3 PEARS, and he said that the title track was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s documentary about George Harrison.  There was footage in the documentary of John Lennon goofing-off and wearing three pairs of glasses.  It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of moment, a throw-away bit of footage that stuck with Yoakam and inspired him to write a song.

As a music geek, and a student of humanity, I find these little anecdotes to be priceless nuggets.

Uno. Dos. Tres.

Yoakam talked about the duality of Lennon–how much he loved to joke but how sad he was inside.  The three glasses make an almost-mask, covering his face, a perfect metaphor for how Lennon used comedy to hide.  Yoakam’s song, called “3 Pears,” a joke-title no doubt an homage to how Lennon’s band chose to spell it’s name, is really good.

The song is a fun bit of hippie-country, the kind that’s sadly in short supply these days.  I really dig how Yoakam lyrically invokes Lennon with a couple of pseudo-psychedelic phrases.

My favorite:

“That means where you are is where you at
When your head is cold, to ṗut on a hat”

“3 Pears” is a shiny-happy song that really surprised me, and I’ll bet it’ll surprise you too.  Check out the rest of 3 PEARS while you’re at it–it’s a damn fine album.

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