Tagged: The Ramones

On the naming of artists

The other night, I met up with Carla DeSantis Black, creator of ROCKRGRL Magazine, who moved to Austin late last year. We share some mutual friends and some obvious interests, so it was a natural meeting. I talked about the blog, school, and other things I’m working on. She talked about some projects she’s getting off the ground. We talked about facilitating workshops for Girls Rock Camp and the current state of women in music.

One thing that she brought up that I found especially interesting was the recent crop of female artists using pseudonyms instead of their given names. I hadn’t really thought about it much, but indeed it’s a phenomenon–Glasser, tUnE-yArDs, Bat for Lashes, St. Vincent, Noveller, Circuit des Yeux. Many of these women either started out or continue to write, record, and tour as solo artists. Black is encouraging female artists who record under aliases and do much/all of their act’s writing, recording, and performing to use their given names in order to claim ownership of their work.

Circuit des Yeux, aka Haley Fohr; image courtesy of imposemagazine.com

Of course, adopting a nom de plume is standard practice in popular music. Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara. Erica Wright renamed herself Erykah Badu to honor her African roots. In the grand tradition of drag artists, Christeene Vale was born Paul Soileau. The Donnas and the Ramones created a group identity by sticking to one name. David Bowie was born David Jones, but didn’t want to be confused with the Monkees’ front man. Given hip hop’s inclination toward nicknames, Kanye West’s decision to record under his given name is damn near revolutionary and certainly political. My presence is a present, kiss my ass.

The process of renaming is as old as the entertainment industry. A-list aspirants continue to lop “ethnic” surnames, use middle names, or invent stage names. Reinvention is intrinsic to constructing a persona. Often, a performer’s decision to adopt a stage name says a great deal about racial and ethnic identity and the politics of assimilation. In music, which is tied to fantasy and the imagination, it may also say something about artistic creativity, the desire for metamorphosis, and a need for creative release shared between performer and fan. Actors often use stage names to seem more relateable to an audience. Musicians often use them to trouble relatability, if not transcend human existence entirely.  

But what does it mean when female musicians use a moniker instead of their given names, especially white women associated with indie music? Is it a defense against being reduced to a chick musician or singer-songwriter? Do aliases subvert expectations and provide artists more space for play? Is it particular to female artists already prone to musical abstraction who eschew traditional instrumentation, or are we seeing it elsewhere? Can we apply these concerns to female MCs, deejays, and electronic artists, who usually go by nicknames and aliases as well? Does it obscure their individual efforts? Is it political? Is it anti-feminist? What do you think?

Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s by Jacqueline Warwick

Cover to Girl Groups, Girl Culture (Routledge, 2007); image courtesy of routledgemusic.com

For financial reasons, I was only able to swing one day of Fun Fun Fun Fest so I’m blogging while many in this fair city are catching some good music in Waterloo Park. Although, admittedly, if you’re gonna do one day of the festival, I think yesterday was the way to go. I got to check several bands I’ve never seen before off my list: No Age (who I’ve missed by a marrow margin at least three times), Jesus Lizard, Pharcyde, Les Savy Fav, and Death.

But if you have the scratch, please make sure everyone sees one of Mika Miko’s last shows ever on the black stage at 2:55. I might try to get down there later just to hear it from the other side of the fence.

Mika Miko’s exceptional presence on this year’s bill seems as good a place as any to remember that, as Melissa at GRCA astutely pointed out in her recent post, this year boasts a very dudecentric line-up. So I’ll review Jacqueline Warwick’s book Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s book in the hopes that at least one historically significant girl group or all-female band will reunite for next year’s FFFF like Death did this year. And like the Shangri-Las did at CBGB’s in 1977.

As much as I hate comparing women’s work so as to pit them in opposition, Warwick’s book is a tremendous example of how effective it can be to narrow the scope of the cultural moment being covered, something I wish Charlotte Greig would have considered when penning her book on girl groups. While Greig truncates the history of the girl group era in order to broaden the definition of what a girl group is, Warwick focuses primarily on this brief but important moment in history (roughly between 1958 and 1965), considering its ongoing influence as an epilogue.

By taking this approach, Warwick considers the girl group era and its participants from several different, often surprising, areas of inquiry. As a result, she proves the cultural signficance of a popular form dismissed by many as superficial, polished, and phony who instead tend to favor rock music’s supposed transcendent raw authenticity, and argues strongly that this binary construction is inherently gendered. Duh, and amen.

Warwick posits that one of the most important things about the girl group era was its insistence on putting girls and young women in the spotlight, introducing a complex, celebratoryn and at times contradictory performance of what the author calls “girlness”. Often, these ladies were working class, and of African American or mixed racial and ethnic heritage. They had few options for financial mobility and minimal career prospects being marriage, motherhood, clerical jobs, and day labor. Forming vocal groups together and cutting records gave them access to other opportuntities toward professional advancement and personal growth, expanding the idea of girlhood as an identity across race and class lines. 

Sometimes these groupings resulted in the cultivation of considerable, devoted fan bases that, in The Supremes and The Ronnettes’ cases, were comparable to Beatlemania. Some of those fans were even other male-only rock bands, like The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and later, The Ramones. Take that, pop-rock, girl-boy binaries!

In other words, I’m telling you to read this book.

One thing I appreciate about Warwick’s book from the outset is the celebration of the female voice. As I’ve long believed and argued extensively in this blog, we cannot give short-shrift to singers. While they can assuredly be tokenized and objectified, but they can also be empowered, embodied, and forge their own agency. Heartenly, she finds much going on with the voice, a distinct instrument no matter how it may have been manipulated or homogenized by label owners like Motown’s Barry Gordy and producers like Phil Spector and his overwhelming wall of sound. She hears the genteel precision of Diana Ross’s soprano, the urgent purr of Ronnie Spector’s husky alto, the untrained wavering of Shirelle Shirley Owens’s pitch, the gutteral inflections on Supreme Florence Ballard’s tone, the put-on nasal affectations of Broadway-trained groups like The Angels, the racial dimensions of Dusty Springfield’s blue-eyed soul, and the teenaged monotone of Shangri-La Mary Weiss.

She also hears these girls singing to one another, often in their own forms of feminine dialect and for the purposes of providing support and advice. On record, acts like The Dixie Cups, The Crystals, Betty Everett, and The Velvelettes would pepper their songs with seemingly nonsensical words and phrases like “iko iko,” “da doo ron ron,” “shoop,” and “doo lang doo lang,” often provided by backing vocalists as a means of support for the lead vocalist, who might be intimating her feelings about burgeoning romance or her conflicted feelings in the aftermath of a break-up.

Often, these girls were providing one another moral support and providing advice as well. While Warwick notes that advice songs tended to be the domain of girl groups with African American members like The Velvelettes, The Shirelles, The Chiffons, and The Marvelettes, they often imparted wisdom to their audiences that they learned from their mothers or their sisters, as well as sharing what they’ve learned from their own experiences. In doing so, these songs provided a counterargument to the assertion that girl groups only sang about boys and also expanded female discourse in popular music by including the words and experiences of generations of women into then present-day pop songs by girls.  

It cannot be ignored that while many girl group songs were written by men, not all of them were. As mentioned elsewhere, Brill Building stalwarts like Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich, and Carole King were of paramount importance to the era. Many of these women, like Greenwich, wrote about seemingly teenage issues like young love and treated it as legitimate, at times giving it life-and-death importance, as she did on The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.” 

King is a particularly interesting case as well. Before striking out on her own as a solo artist, she wrote many important songs for girl groups. Some songs, like The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” address the troubling and dangerous aspects of patriarchy and oppression, and have been covered to harrowing effect by bands like Hole and Grizzly Bear.

Other songs King penned gesture toward the era’s prescience regarding shifting cultural attitudes toward feminism, female agency, and sexual autonomy, as on The Shirelles’ anthemic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” 

Girl groups were also clearly singing with one another, as girl groups often were comprised of siblings and relatives who wore matching outfits and performed intricate choreography to suggest that these girls were a unit, despite at times having clearly defined lead singers and stars who (especially in Diana Ross’s case) were thin and had a more conventional look and sound.

It was this image coordination that made The Ronnettes able to ingratiate night clubs when they were underaged, gave them the confidence to perform at those night clubs, and provided them with a sense of belonging that made them tough enough to brave any New York City street. It also makes this sense of actual or engineered sisterhood and camderadie seem especially fragile when success encroaches on it, as the tragic dimensions of Estelle Bennett and Florence Ballard‘s post-girl group lives remind. 

Warwick shies from making any explicitly queer connections to girl groups beyond passing references to Springfield and Lesley Gore’s orientations and their relationships with the closet. I would have liked a bit more discussion of the queer dynamics of the groups’ homosocial bonding both on- and off-record. A brief appraisal of queer fandom (seemingly most pronounced among certain circles of gay men, though not exclusively) would also have been appreciated.

That said, I do appreciate Warwick reminding her readers of girl groups’ continued impact. As this is the section of the book that gets less focus, it would be worthwhile to read Warwick’s and Greig’s books together to get a larger sense of how punk, hip hop, and contemporary pop music were influenced by girl groups.

I would hasten to add country music to the list of genres that were shaped by this era. Given last night’s Saturday Night Live, which featured crossover star Taylor Swift as both host and musical guest (a rare opportunity for most pop stars, unless they are Justin or Britney). Watching her play a brace-faced teenager in a skit about parents who are worse drivers than their kids and her performance of “You Belong To Me” complete with careful, song-appropriate gestures, it was clear to me that the girl group era continues. As Mika Miko performs one of their last shows later today, I’ll wonder where it’ll permeate next.

Love love love Linda Linda Linda

The girls of Paran Maum

The girls of Paran Maum

I finally got around to rewatching Linda Linda Linda last week, a Japanese movie released in 2005 I saw for the first time last summer after several people told me “you gotta check it out, you’ll love it, it’s totally your kind of movie.” And it really is. In fact, it might be your kind of movie too (especially if you’re my friend Caitlin, and I’ve been meaning to watch this movie with you for over a year). A touching, feel-good movie about a group of teenage girls putting a band together for a school festival? It’s pretty much a crowd-pleaser, especially for feminist music geeks who like movies.

The plot is as follows: guitarist Kei Tachibana (Yuu Kashii), drummer Kyoko Yamada (Aki Maeda), and bassist Nozomi Shirakawa (Shiori Sekine of Base Ball Bear) have a band and are playing Hiiragi-sai, their school’s annual festival. They’ve got a great set list of covers from The Blue Hearts, a popular Japanese rock band. Problem is, their singer-guitarist has quit the band, leaving them down a frontwoman days before their gig. They need a replacement and are adamant about it being a girl. They decide on Son (Bae Doona), a shy exchange student from South Korea whose Japanese is shaky and has never sung in front of an audience before. They rise to the occasion, with a little bit of struggle and growing along the way. Might sound like familiar territory, but it’s totally delightful.

One thing I really enjoy about this movie is how rehearsal is central to the girls’ interactions. For one, the time and effort they spend in practive, is critical in any band learning how to play together and key to their homosocial interactions. While some movies might document a band’s progression in one “rockin’” montage, this movie devotes several scenes to the band’s improvement, as well as the frustrations and tensions that result from feeling like they’re not getting their sound right. In their first rehearsal, they muddle their way through The Blue Heart’s hit “Linda Linda,” only to giggle at how horrible it was before trying again. Later, we find the girls forced to practice quietly at Kei’s ex-boyfriend’s studio space well into the night.

I also enjoy their commitment to the band. While the girls do have ex-boyfriends and crushes, they choose to balance boys with other issues their band usually comes first. In a key scene, Son is asked out by a male classmate named Mackey at school. The rest of the girls look through the window of an abandoned classroom, watching their lead singer choose the band, and her friends, over some guy who happens to like her but that she doesn’t know.

Sometimes the band wears on the girls, and the movie reaches a climax when the girls have worked so hard that they collapse after an all-night practice that makes them late to their gig. Their ambitions sometimes eclipse reality, as is clearly evident with Kei dreams about opening for The Ramones while sleeping through much of the festival. Yet, their drive still gets them to the gig, with their talent ultimately ensuring a rousing success at the festival and the promise of this new band.

Kei Tachibana, future seasoned professional; image courtesy of cinemastrikesback.com

Kei Tachibana, future seasoned professional; image courtesy of cinemastrikesback.com

I do find the girls’ fandom of The Blue Hearts, whose songs they cover, to be quite interesting. For one, girls identifying with a fast, hard-rocking all-male rock band, while at no time talking about how cute certain members are, seems to suggest a wider range of possibilities for who can influence a girl. The band even goes so far as to call themselves Paran Maum, which is “blue hearts” in Korean (an indication of Son’s importance to the band). There’s a lot of talk on this blog about the importance of women and girls influencing one another in popular music. However, we shouldn’t short shrift what it means for girls finding their sound and voice through boys and men or ignore the progressive and possibly queer potential in girls identifying with boys. Like Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, and Sleater-Kinney before them, these girls don’t plug in and rock out to be with the band — they are the band and want to thrash just as hard as the boys.

Nozomi, Kyoko, and Kei help Son learn The Blue Hearts; image courtesy of cinemastrikesback.com

Nozomi, Kyoko, and Kei help Son learn The Blue Hearts; image courtesy of cinemastrikesback.com

And, of course, we cannot ignore the obvious queerness of an all-girl band who work closely together to perform a song clearly written for a girl from a boy and maintaining the boy’s words and intent. It’s where the movie gets its name and the band gets its purpose, after all.

As there are queer dimensions to the girls’ fandom, they also have an interesting relationship with fashion, ethnic identity, and music history, perhaps in some ways analogous to Mitsuko’s relationship to Elvis Presley and rockabilly fashion in Mystery Train. Kyoko rocks a Joan Jett-style mullet and weave punk fashion into their school wardrobe. She also shorten the length of her skirts, sport funky sneakers, and plays with accessories. Son and Nozomi opt out of fashion-plate status, feeling more comfortable in frumpy attire, while Kei prefers a more athletic, clean-cut look. In short, while they’re all required to abide by standardized dress, like many girls, they figure out a way to create and play with looks that better reflect their personality, and some are clearly influenced by rock music in constructing their identity.

Just as Paran Maum are influenced by The Blue Hearts, The Blue Hearts are clearly influenced by The Ramones. I don’t want to suggest that the Japanese cherrypick through relics and artifacts of bygone western pop culture because they are uniformly obsessed with American culture. For one, The Blue Hearts were active and popular in Japan during the late 80s and early 90s, in large part because they were heavily informed by classic British and American punk.

For another, The Ramones themselves had a similar relationship with their own American past, turning to surf rock and girl groups from the 50s and 60s. For them, while most 70s rock bands were trying to set a record for the longest organ solo, rock music needed the return of the three-minute pop song.

In addition, it’s worth pointing out that the movie itself has an interesting relationship with Japanese and American music culture via the presence of former Smashing Pumpkins’ guitarist James Iha, who is Japanese American and composed the movie’s instrumental tracks.

As this movie depicts a band’s need to improvise, make quick decisions, and embrace makeshift situations, encouraging girls to be independent thinkers, so to does it showcase ingenuity. A tremendous example of this for me is Son’s ability to find surprising rehearsal spaces like empty karaoke rooms in order to become more comfortable with her voice and the microphone. In a lesser movie, Son’s scene in the karaoke bar would come off as oppressively quirky. Here, I find it touching. We see a girl negotiating with a male employee over the room and witness her becoming increasingly comfortable, if not still a bit awkward, with her voice, an unfamiliar language, and a developing stage presence. That she’s doing it on her own, in a space she’s found for herself, seems as good an example as any of how girls have to be creative and free-thinking for the assurance of their own maturity.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen too many Japanese movies and have nothing more than a cursory, Criterion-approved understanding of Asian cinema, along with its influence and heterogenity. One thing that struck me is how much like a Wes Anderson movie Linda Linda Linda felt in terms of its reliance on long tracking shots, wide angles, deadpan humor, panoramic framing, and meditative pacing. That said, I hasten to add that Anderson has stated an indebtedness to the French New Wave and American directors like Hal Ashby, I’m assuming Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu left an impression as well. Having never seen an Ozu movie at the writing of this post (though I do have Good Morning at home), I can’t help but wonder if Linda Linda Linda is actually continuing its nation’s film tradition and that the only folks who’d argue an Andersonian influence are just Western viewers with a shallow scene of cinephilia.

I’m also not entirely clear about the nature of Japanese schools. I came through an underfunded, less-than-superlative Texas public school system. Thus, Paran Maum’s school seems like a tony liberal arts magnate where teenagers are given considerable support and resources for their artistic inclinations, thus implying that the students come from respectable middle- to upper-middle-class families. But I’m not sure if this high school is exceptional in Japan or an indication of the country’s to education and their status as an economic superpower. So while I initially feel the need to mention the classed dimensions of privilege that allow the girls the fine arts education and leisure time to form a band (instead of, say, take jobs or quit school to support their families), I don’t want to suggest that what I see as an American viewer is in accord with Japan’s classed realities.

That said, despite my unfamiliarity with Japanese culture and my clearly raced position as an American white woman, I felt the band’s ambition and spunk tremendously inspiring and universal for anyone wants to see girls tear it up. I rooted for them through their hard times and had a smile on my face when they plugged in and finally let it rip.

Like Kei, Im really glad Son is in the band; image courtesy of bateszi.animeuknews.net

Like Kei, I'm really glad Son is in the band; image courtesy of bateszi.animeuknews.net

Why I’m not surprised that Sonic Youth were on Gossip Girl

LES meets UES in matrimony; image courtesy of gossipgirlinsider.com

LES meets UES in matrimony; image courtesy of gossipgirlinsider.com

So, I finally saw last week’s episode of Gossip Girl. For my money, there is nothing surprising about Sonic Youth performing “Starpower” and bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon marrying Rufus Humphrey and Lily van der Woodsen-Bass-etc. The reason, as I will outline chronologically below, is that flirtations with mainstream popular culture is completely in keeping with their career. This cameo isn’t an isolated incident. If anything this network-savvy band pioneered how indie does synergy.

March 1, 1988: Ciccone Youth, a side project formed in 1986 between the band and Minutemen bassist/co-founder Mike Watt releases The Whitey Album. In this configuration, they took part of their name from Madonna’s surname. They also covered some of her songs, including “Into the Groovey” and “Burnin’ Up.” For good measure, they also covered Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” Were they taking the piss or celebrating 80s blockbuster pop? Maybe both? You decide.

June 26, 1990: Goo is released on DGC, marking their major label debut. 

In 1991, the Goo video album is released, a clip accompanying each song on the album. Among them are “Mildred Pierce” which features Sofia Coppola dressed as Joan Crawford, who starred in the 1945 film noir of same name, “Disappearer,” which was directed by Todd Haynes, and a few clips directed by Tamra Davis, including “Dirty Boots” and “Kool Thing,” which also featured Public Enemy’s Chuck D.

September 17, 1991: Kim Gordon co-produces Pretty on the Inside, Hole’s debut album, released on Caroline, a subsidiary of Virgin.

July 21, 1992: Dirty is released. Two noteworthy music videos come along with it. Actor Jason Lee, then unknown, is featured as a tragic skateboarder in “100%. The clip was co-directed by Davis and Spike Jonze, who just made some movie about kids and monsters based on a children’s book. Chloë Sevigny, once a Sassy intern, stars in “Sugar Kane,” which also showcases Marc Jacobs’ Perry Ellis grunge collection.

August 9, 1993: “Cannonball” is released as the lead single to The Breeders way-ruling Last Splash. Kim Gordon co-directs the music video with Jonze.

September 14, 1993: Judgment Night is released, along with a successful soundtrack from Epic that pairs alternative/metal acts with rap groups. Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill collaborate on “I Love You Mary Jane.”

Cover to Judgment Night (Epic, 1993); image courtesy of brianorndorf.com

Cover to Judgment Night (Epic, 1993); image courtesy of brianorndorf.com

1994: Kim Gordon creates X-Girl with Daisy von Furth, a sister clothing line to Beastie Boys Mike D’s X-Large collection. I see DJ Tanner wear an X-Girl blue jumper on Full House and want one.

August 25, 1994: Sonic Youth contributes “Genetic” to the My So-Called Life soundtrack. Released on Atlantic, the compilation features other Juliana Hatfield, Afghan Whigs, Daniel Johnston, and (of course) Buffalo Tom, who every fan remembers played a show on Pike Street.

Track list to the My So-Called Life soundtrack (Atlantic, 1994); image courtesy of mscl.com

Track list to the My So-Called Life soundtrack (Atlantic, 1994); image courtesy of mscl.com

September 13, 1994: If I Were A Carpenter, a Carpenters tribute album, is released on A&M. An alternafest, acts like American Music Club, Shonen Knife, Babes and Toyland, and Matthew Sweet share time with SY, who cover “Superstar.” In late 2007, the song would make an appearance in the movie Juno.

Cover to If I Were a Carpenter (Rhino, 1994); image courtesy of whizzo.ca

Cover to If I Were a Carpenter (Rhino, 1994); image courtesy of whizzo.ca

October 27, 1995: CBS airs “The State’s 43rd Annual All-Star Halloween Special,” marking the MTV sketch comedy troupe’s network television debut. Sonic Youth is the musical guest. Few people watch (I am one of them), and CBS decides to pull the plug. 

May 19, 1996: Fox airs “Homerpalooza,” The Simpsons‘ penultimate episode of its seventh season. In it, Homer goes on tour with Hullabalooza (re: Lollapalooza), taking canons to the gut to the bemusement of thousands of jaded slackers. Several acts made guests appearances, including Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill, Peter Frampton, and Sonic Youth. The band also provides an “alternative” version to Danny Elfman’s iconic theme song, perhaps getting closer in tone to what creator Matt Groening had originally envisioned when suggesting that avant-jazz composer John Zorn write the show’s theme song. The song is later featured on Rhino’s Go Simpsonic With The Simpsons: Original Music From The Television Series compilation.

Im so disillusioned!; image courtesy of taringa.net

"I'm so disillusioned!"; image courtesy of taringa.net

June 5, 1996: James Mangold’s debut feature, Heavy, is released in the states. Moore composes the score.

June 1998: I watch the “Kool Thing” video at a Gadzooks in the Mall of America during a trip to Young Life camp in Minnesota.

July 13, 2001: Larry Clark’s Bully is released in theaters. Moore composes the score.

July 25, 2005: Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, the director’s take on Kurt Cobain’s final days, is released in the states. Gordon appears as a record executive based on Danny Goldberg trying to turn the main character’s life around. Moore also served as a music consultant.

May 2006: Former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold joins the band. This has nothing to do with matters of synergy or cross-promotion; I just happen to think he’s kinda cute. He was also featured in a comic strip, but the name escapes me. His catchphrase is something to the effect of “I’m Mark, the bassist from Pavement” but I’m butchering it. My friend Susan told me about it, so maybe she’ll share in the comments section.

Mark Ibold, perhaps around the time he was dating Oksana Baiul and before the Pavement reunion tour; image courtesy of amazon.com

Mark Ibold, perhaps around the time he was dating Oksana Baiul and before the Pavement reunion tour; image courtesy of amazon.com

May 9, 2006: Moore and Gordon appear with daughter Coco in “Partings,” the Gilmore Girls‘ season six finale. 

June 15, 2007: Pitchfork reports that SY will be contributing a new track to an SY retrospective distributed by Starbucks.

November 21, 2007: Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There is released. Gordon’s makes a cameo as folkie Carla Hendricks, who is based on Judy Collins. The casting furthers my suspicion that SY friend Todd Haynes must have been influenced by the band’s fandom of The Carpenters and preoccupation with Karen Carpenter’s tragic struggle with anorexia. They cover “Superstar.” He makes a biopic about Carpenter called Superstar. Coincidence?

September 8, 2008: Choosing not to renew their contract with Geffen, SY sign with indie stalwart Matador.

November 3, 2008: Moore and former Be Your Own Pet frontwoman Jemina Pearl cover The Ramones’ “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” specifically for “There Might Be Blood,” a season two episode of Gossip Girl

February 16, 2009: Gordon debuts a clothing collection called Mirror/Dash for Urban Outfitters.

Is this bad? Hmm, maybe. I suppose it depends on your outlook. I’d say it’s no worse than The Flaming Lips performing on Beverly Hills, 90210 (although, maybe for it to be equal, Wayne Coyne would have to play a short-order cook at the Peach Pit). Beyond paying the bills and circulating their brand, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a fair amount of post-modern, art-school, post-Warholian why-the-hell-not? factoring into all of Sonic Youth’s above-ground forays. Or maybe they (gasp!) like many of these texts and ventures. 

Perhaps the band knows that dabbling with the mainstream is tricky business. Maybe this explains why Moore (and, to a lesser extent Gordon and guitarist Lee Ranaldo, though not media-shy drummer Steve Shelley) cultivated an authoritative presence in recent music documentaries like Punk: Attitude, Kill Yr Idols, and I Need That Record! It may also have fueled a need for an outlet through which to channel more experimental projects, resulting in the band releasing more challenging work through the Sonic Youth Recordings collection, along with Shelley’s Smells Like label and Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label. In addition, Ranaldo has done a considerable amount of writing, creates installation projects with his wife Leah Singer, has an extensive solo career, and has performed improvisatory film scores as a member of Text of Light.

And, you know. The band is still really good. Even as folks mine their discography or weave them into above-ground mainstream corporate media culture enterprising, they’re still challenging themselves and making great music. Earlier this year, the band released The Eternal, their 16th album. Peaking at #18 on the Billboard charts, it also boasts a consistently great set of songs and a painting by late guitarist John Fahey for its cover. This blurring of art and commerce, for good or for bad, is in keeping with the band and their contributions to music culture.

R.I.P., Ellie Greenwich

 

Ellie Greenwich at the piano; image courtesy of urbanhonking.com

Ellie Greenwich at the piano; image courtesy of urbanhonking.com

Brill Building pioneer songwriter Ellie Greenwich died of a heart attack yesterday after complications with pneumonia. She was 68.

Greenwich was most famous for the songs she wrote for girl groups. She rose to success with her husband Jeff Barry with smash hits like The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” and The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron.”

She also penned or helped write songs like The Exciters’ “He’s Got The Power,” The Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love,” and The Shangri-Las’ tragic “Leader of the Pack.”

It should be mentioned that she started making a name for herself in the early 1960s, a time when women’s “proper” full-time job was as wife and mother. Instead, she slogged it out, working with male producers like svengali Phil Spector as well as her male colleagues at the Brill Building, including her husband. As I mentioned in a review of Charlotte Greig’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, Greenwich also had to negotiate the pressures of being a professional woman with being a traditional wife, opting for the former over the latter when she and Barry divorced.

In addition, she wrote so many monster hits, primarily for women and girls, many of whom were girls of color and were also finding access to careers beyond the clerical field and service industry during the time of this nation’s (on-going) integration. And she continued as a writer even after the girl group era, penning her autobiography, a musical, and songs for folks like Cyndi Lauper, who recorded “Right Track Wrong Train” as the b-side to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” In recognition of their contributions to popular music, she and Barry were inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame in 1991.

I’d also add that Greenwich’s songs were tremendously informative on punk and indie rock. Bands like The Velvet Underground and The Ramones took to the Brill Building’s hollow sound and economical, riff-based songwriting, a legacy to which Greenwich contributed (of course, VU singer and guitarist Lou Reed got his start as a hack songwriter for Pickwick Records). Indeed, it doesn’t take much to turn the Brill Building’s assembly line style into a commentary and joyful celebration of consumer culture and America’s odd normality, something Parenthetical Girls seem to be doing here.

And her songs continue to be covered extensively. Every holiday season, you assuredly hear this song if you’re at the mall, which Barry and Greenwich wrote together.

I’ve also heard local or less-established bands who are heavily influenced by girl groups cover Greenwich’s work. Take “Then He Kissed Me.” The Crystals recorded it in 1963. Yet bands still cover it. I remember it being a setlist staple for The Carrots, a local band heavily influenced by the girl group, when they started out.

The Carrots; image courtesy of pukekos.org

The Carrots; image courtesy of pukekos.org

So, Greenwich will be missed, but her memory will live on as long as her records keep spinning. I think I’ll go throw one on right now.