Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Best Pop Male Vocal of the 21st Century

I have come to understand that it’s not very manly to be interested in clothes. When one’s wife or girlfriend says, “Hon, do you think it might be time to get you some new duds?” a man is supposed to yank the bill of his ball cap down (provided, of course, that he isn’t wearing it in the tres chic backward style) and petulantly grumble, “Do we gotta?” Once at K Mart, he’s expected to look terribly embarrassed and uncomfortable as Wifey ascertains how many X’s (as in XL, XXL, and so on) he’s come to require, and to dash off to look at fishing equipment or guns or other manly items while Wifey makes the actual purchasing decisions. 

Procol Harum, 1967
When I was young and irrepressibly priapic, I was friendly with the English band Procol Harum, who went on stage in the clothes they wore on the bus and plane, which is to say they were the mid-60s equivalent of our grumbly ball cap-wearer at KMart. I’d seen this photo of them from back in the days when they looked rather more interesting, and asked why they’d become so inattentive to visual presentation. They were aghast. In their eyes, dressing up to go on stage diminished the music. Did I imagine they were pop stars, rather than Serious Musicians? 

On the opposite end of the scale were groups that seemed to have been assembled on the basis of their common devotion to fashion. One such group was LA’s Shady Lady, who always had the coolest new things Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were wearing months before any of the anglophile boutiques in West Hollywood could get them. Unlike Faces, whose Ronnie Lane never seemed to fully embrace the group’s sartorial aesthetic, there were no curve-lowerers among them. They all looked pop stars from head to toe at all times. They aped the Stones, poorly, but no more poorly than The New York Dolls did. Only one of the five approached competence on his instrument, but that didn’t keep them from swaggering. Oh, did they swagger! Seemingly having been coached by Kim Fowley, they would eagerly tell you within the first five milliseconds of having been introduced all about how they had a hotshot manager and a record deal, and were absolutely guaranteed to be The Next Big Thing. Looking as they did, you almost believed them.

I wrote about them for a local newspaper. They played a concert (which they later claimed had in fact been a rehearsal) at the Lindy Opera House in LA’s Mid-Wilshire to an audience of around a dozen fashion-conscious young women. The highpoint of the show was the singer firing a starting gun during one song. Local Newspaper didn’t publish my review, but word nonetheless got around that I’d thought them awful, and the drummer, who didn’t lack for chutzpah, came — alone!— to one of my own band’s gigs to holler, “You suck!” from the back of the club. When I gently (there was something oddly fearsome about him) confronted him between sets, he said we needed to figure out a way to co-exist, as both our bands were obviously destined to be around a long time. 

Both bands were in fact defunct within six months, his in large part because of their deplorable behaviour after a gigantic record biz party in San Francisco. They’d made quite an entrance. Having recently seen A Clockwork Orange, they weren’t just glamorous, but also a little scary. The singer brandished a cane with which he looked intent on giving someone a good thrashing. They’d apparently been signed to the short-lived label that was throwing the $25,000 ($427,000 in 2018 money) party. Afterward, when the million Los Angeles scenemakers who had to get back to the airport piled into taxis in front of the hotel in which the event had taken place, they roughly ejected a woman of my acquaintance from theirs. They later explained, as you’d have expected they would, that women were forever hurling themselves at them, and that their brutishness had been reflexive and self-defensive. Would Mick or Keef have had to apologise for such behaviour? Their label apparently disliked their explanation and dropped them. 

The singer turned out to be a nice guy. We played basketball at that big synagogue on the residential part of Hollywood Blvd. west of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. I didn't pass him the ball often enough to suit him, but he wasn't horrid about it. The drummer went on to join Zolar-X, a Bowie-aping foursome whose principal claim to fame was pretending not to speak any terrestrial language, which made things dicey for them when they went into Guitar Center to buy strings. More recently, I understand he’s serving an extended sentence for manslaughter. I was right about him being dangerous. 

Lots of other well dressed groups came and went, one of the most notable being the Queen-aping American group Angel, all tight-fitting white satin and beautiful hair. But the singer, of all people, had a distracting monobrow that doomed ‘em. Prince and his band dressed quite wonderfully, but I don’t think I’ve ever admired a pop act’s attire more than when Gnarls Barkley, augmented by a female string section and backing singers, performed “Crazy” on Top of the Pops dressed as a flight crew. The attentive will also note that CeeLo Green’s is the best pop male vocal of the 21st century so far. Can you name a track on which Otis Redding or Luther Vandross or even the glorious Smokey or Stevie or Marvin even comes close?

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