Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sail Away by Randy Newman

Randy Newman is the master of subversive, social comment, often hidden behind delightful and misleading melodies. It would be easy to discuss the brilliant, but obvious, tunes like Short People, Rednecks, or the prescient Political Science. However, Sail Away remains a perfect example of all that is Newmanesque.

Newman is deftly able to cast a spotlight on the hypocrisy that allows systematic inequality to take a foothold and thrive in modern society. Don't be fooled by the humour and the light and breezy tone, or the romantic southern composition that could have easily sat with one of his father's film scores. This is a dark piece.

Like Zappa before him, and Eminem after him, Newman turns the table on both overt bigotry and condescending enlightenment. He highlights the absurdity of the argument by framing the story from the oppressor's perspective. It is a bold, and sometimes contentious approach, and Newman is by far the best at it. So much so that he has received a considerable amount of uneducated criticism from the very people who
should be shouting his praises.

The furore surrounding Short People was ridiculous. The very same people who were outraged by the 'treatment' of short people were noticeable by their absence during civil rights protests, or any number of famous racial discrimination cases. Those calling for the boycott of Newman's music were, and remain, strangely quiet when 'short people' is replaced with 'black' or 'yellow' or 'red' and so on. In Rednecks, no-one is spared, from the easy targets of racist southern stereotypes to complacent, condescending liberals of the north.

Sail Away is Newman at his best. Sung from the perspective of the slave trader it plays almost like an advertising jingle to entice voluntary migration from The Jungle to The New World - "A Brave New World awaits those eager to embrace the values of the USA!" It's great to be an American! Sail away. Freedom. Everyone is free to take care of his home and his family...

Sail away is not just about the shame and disgrace that was organised slavery in America. It strikes a chord still resonant today as it was at the time of recording in 1973. Consider these facts: African Americans account for around 12% of the population yet take up around 40% of prison populations. An African American male is about five times more likely to be incarcerated than a white American. The ratio between black and white inmates on death row is 3:1 in favour of whites. Split by race, African Americans represent the lowest average household income in the United States, along with the lowest rate of home ownership.

"You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day. It's great to be an American..."

It is the stark contrast between history as we know it and the chilling perspective of the slave trader that provokes and prods the listener. It keeps the message of the song so vivid and strong decades after it was written.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hotel California by The Eagles

The Eagles have been often misunderstood, misrepresented and much maligned over the years. Most of that criticism has been undeserved. The album Hotel California remains a milestone record of the 1970's. It is a coded documentary of the times. Sadly, much of it is lost on the audience it laments.

As the exploits of the rock gods in the 60's became more public, they moved from shocking news, to entertainment pieces, to finally an expectation of the stereotype. It's not that they were different from
their jazz, blues, and rock 'n' roll colleagues of the 40's and 50's. It's just that the excesses became more public - to the point where it became part of their brand. What was hidden from the public in previous decades was now actively marketed to them. By the mid 1970's, the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle were so ingrained in the culture, the only eyebrows raised were to those who did not over-indulge.

Enter The Eagles. Riding high on the crest of a successful wave, they wiped out all competition before them, thrilling fans and critics alike. They could do no wrong - at least in the eyes of others.

At some point they look in the mirror, and either don't like, or don't recognise who they see. Lost, they look at each other and their surrounds; strangers in a strange land. Now excess equates to less. Everything is nothing. What is the point of doing anything when no sensation registers at all? They have become uncomfortably numb.

Hotel California is a triumphant statement about California in the mid 70's and the wider American psyche. Hotel California is like a documentary on a life fuelled by excess retold in metaphors and allegory. And with Joe Walsh joining the line-up, the band finally had enough balls in the sound for the music to match the words. The result is a very dark, sometimes Gothic record.

The one problem with a record of this style is that it can be too sophisticated for its own good. With audiences unfamiliar with the approach or unwilling to explore the lyrics further, they settle for a literal interpretation. With the passing of time the misconceptions about this song have escalated from the bizarre to the absurd.

One consistent interpretation that refuses to die is that the song is about a cult, and a hotel where that cult sacrifices people. The Eagles are practising Satan Worshippers and the Hotel California is their sacred Headquarters. Hmmm...That must be the one down on Devil-Gate Drive?

How misguided can people be? America? Oh yeah, they sing the one about a horse. It doesn't have a name, so the rider can't tell it where to go. So they get lost. Don McLean? He sings that one about a guy who drives a Chevy. And he goes out with this girl who bakes pies. But he has to leave. But what's it got to do with the movie, dude? If it wasn't such an indictment on consumer-age literacy standards it would be laughable.

I am sure the band found it laughable too, in the beginning. God (or the other guy) knows what they think now. They do have a sense of humour. The album supposedly features Anton LaVey in the inner sleeve photo. They play up to the myth again with the naming of the "Hell Freezes Over" tour and album. Just enough of a whiff to keep the conspiracy nuts busy as they laugh all the way to the bank.

The song marvels as a stand alone track, a chronicle of the train wreck that was 60's idealism meeting 70's hedonism head on. However, it is best enjoyed as part of the complete package that is the album.

And so there it is. In all its raw, majestic and ragged glory. If you haven't been there for a while, book yourself a stay. Hotel California - a great place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

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