Saturday, February 15, 2014

Whatcha Say?: 11 Great and Utterly Perplexing Pop and Rock Classics

Kids today are so literal. And nobody caters to that common denominator quite like the modern pop star. The committee-style songwriting that produces most contemporary pop hits doesn't leave much to the imagination. The first time you hear Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball" or Katy Perry's "Roar" (both written by gangs of five that include Lukas Gottwald, aka the guy whose alleged fat-shaming of Ke$ha allegedly caused her eating disorder), you pretty much know everything you need to.

We're a long way from the golden years of enigmatic pop and rock hits (the '70s and '80s), when songwriters and performers seemed to live to perplex music lovers, or at the very least, keep them guessing. If they weren't offering up big hits about space oddities (thank you, Bowie -- twice!), they were going on about strange reptilian bedfellows (Duran Duran's "Union of the Snake") or using German to create lyrical images of bombs bursting in air set to a nursery-rhyme melody (Nena's "99 Luftballoons").

I'm convinced that sometimes they didn't know what they were singing about either. Radio was a virtual land of confusion, but as these 11 head-scratchers prove, the art didn't always suffer for it.

"Virginia Plain" Roxy Music The song that inspired a future generation of new-wavers, via Roxy Music's performance of it on Top of the Pops in 1972. Is it about the state or about a girl (or the state of a girl)? And what was a largely British musical movement doing hanging on a song with such an American title? The third-line reference to U.S. Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia, suggests the former, only for the final line -- "What's her name Virginia Plain" -- to seal it as the latter while confounding us even more.


"Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" Carpenters It's a long, long way from "They long to be close to you" to "Please interstellar policeman/Oh won't you give us a sign." What a way to rock the love boat.


"Tusk" Fleetwood Mac Elephant parts and romantic suspicion make strange bedfellows indeed in one of Fleetwood Mac's greatest hits.


"Rapture" Blondie When I was a kid, the "man from Mars" that Debbie Harry rapped about scared me more than any other alien brother from another planet. I mean, who eats guitars?


"The Clapping Song" Pia Zadora The 1982 Golden Globe winner for "New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture - Female" had her lone Top 40 triumph (No. 36 in 1983) with a cover of a pop classic that made as little sense as the rest of her career. It was perhaps the guiltiest pleasure of my early teens.


"Iko Iko" The Belle Stars The British girl group scored a UK hit with its version of the "The Clapping Song" (No. 11) the year before Pia Zadora sent it into the U.S. Top 40. Some seven years later, The Belle Stars landed its lone U.S. hit when another cover of another nonsensical pop classic, the one that had preceded "The Clapping Song" as a 1982 UK single, went to No. 14 after being featured in Rain Man in 1988, two years after The Belle Stars split up.


"The Dreaming" Kate Bush No singer dead or alive has carved out a greater career producing arcane art than Kate Bush. Her 1982 single (my favorite song in her entire canon) has something to do with human conflict in Australia, of that I'm sure, but her lyrical imagery completely loses me ("Dangle devils in a bottle and push them from the pull of the bush"? Huh?) while thoroughly thrilling me.


"Burning Down the House" Talking Heads A four-minute stream of consciousness that miraculously -- and deservedly -- became Talking Head's biggest U.S. hit.


"Big Log" Robert Plant He's all out of love, so lost without her (cue Air Supply) and on a road to nowhere (now cue Talking Heads). That much I know for certain. But what does the title, which doesn't appear anywhere in the lyrics, have to do with any of it?


"The Caterpillar" The Cure Leave it to that other legendary frontman named Robert (Smith, along with bandmate Lol Tolhurst) to forget about the butterfly (such an overused lyrical metaphor) and focus instead on its larval form for the only single from The Top, The Cure's difficult 1984 album that bridges Gothic Cure with the poppier late-'80s/early '90s incarnation.


"Faron Young" Prefab Sprout What does an '80s alternative-pop band from Witton Gilbert in County Durham, England, know about country great Faron Young and his 1971 classic "It's Four in the Morning," which is also named dropped in the band's 1985 single? That's the question I always keep asking myself while I'm playing it over and over, again and again.


The Confusing Pop Songwriters Hall of Fame

Stevie Nicks Does anyone actually know who "Rihannon" and "Sara" really are? And don't get me started on the gypsy that remains.

Jim Kerr "You write the beautiful songs," The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde sang, presumably to her then-husband, Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr, on her band's great 1987 single "My Baby." Clearly she wasn't referring to Simple Minds circa 1979-81, the period that produced such near-cacophonous (lyrically and musically) masterpieces as "In Trance As Mission," "Thirty Frames a Second" and "Premonition."

Michael Stipe There's something about Stipe's voice, the band's musicianship and the meeting of the two that touched me enough to make R.E.M. my second-favorite band of all-time (after The Smiths). Stipe is one of music's great poets, and like the greatest poets, he defies semantic logic while stringing (and singing) words together in ways that create images as vivid as any hi-res photo.

Music by Enya, Lyrics by Roma Ryan If you haven't heard of Ryan, you've heard her words. She's the Bernie Taupin to Enya's Elton John, the woman who writes most of Enya's lyrics (and the husband of Enya producer Nicky Ryan), which are in various languages, including English, Gaelic and Loxian, a J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired language that Roma invented herself.

Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, David J and Kevin Haskins New Order's 1983 single aside, confusion never sounded so good as it did coming from Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, Love and Rockets and all of its members' various solo incarnations.
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