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GUILT-FREE PLEASURES (A Defense Against The Dark Arts): “Freedom” by Wham!

There is really no such thing as a guilty pleasure in pop music. Unless you happen to love neo-Nazi ditties or glorifications of hatred or violence, I’d say it’s okay for you to dig whatever you wanna dig. Yes, even the hits of The Eagles. Why? BECAUSE THEY’RE POP SONGS! Guilt-Free Pleasures (A Defense Against The Dark Arts) celebrates pop songs. The guilty need not apply.


WHAM!: “Freedom”

It has never been cool to like George Michael. He sold something like, I dunno, a billion gazillion records, both solo and as the front face of Wham! (the latter alongside cohort Andrew Ridgely), so somebody must have thought he was okay. Critics grew to like him, too. 

But rock ‘n’ rollers hated him. I’m a rock ‘n’ roller. I think I’m supposed to hate him; loathing of teen-idol pop stars is listed in the rock ‘n’ roller’s job description, right between hoping to die before we get old and yelling for punters to get off of our cloud. Nonetheless, George Michael’s records never bothered me. I’d stop short of saying I was a fan, but nor were his songs an automatic prompt for me to change the station. It was, at worst, a peaceful co-existence; at best, it’s possible I may have tapped my toes a time or two.

My first awareness of Wham!–then referred to as “Wham! U.K.” here in the States–came in a Joey Ramone interview I read in some rock rag circa…1983? Maybe earlier. Joey dismissed Wham! as the sort of crap kids were listening to when they shoulda been diggin’ the rock ‘n’ roll. My loyalty to The Ramones was (and is) unshakable, so I had no reason to question Bruddah # 1’s distaste for this Wham thing, whatever it was. The first Wham! song I ever heard was “Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do),” an inoffensive, slight 1982 single that I probably didn’t hear until ’83. I didn’t hate it, Joey’s admonishment notwithstanding. 

In late 1984, I started a job at a record store. Wham! became suddenly ubiquitous, with the # 1 smash single “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and the mega-selling album Make It Big. “Careless Whisper” gave the group its second U.S. # 1, and would eventually be named the top single of 1985. 

I objected to none of it, not the bubbly confection “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” not even the slick ballad “Careless Whisper,” with its much-mocked line “Guilty feet ain’t got no rhythm.” It was pop music, and to my ears it was better radio fare than a number of Wham!’s contemporaries. I mean, there were certainly dozens of other 1985 hits (and non-hits) that I preferred to Wham!, from The Bangles and Prince to Los Lobos and The Long Ryders. I remained neither acolyte nor dissident. Wham! was Wham!, and there were plenty of other things more worthy of my devotion or my derision, whichever one applied.

In the summer of ’85, I decided I needed to supplement my record store paycheck with part-time employment at McDonald’s. At the ripened age of 25, I was the oldest cook on the crew, but still energetic enough to work retail all day, work a closing fast-food shift three nights a week, and hit the bars after midnight before going home, showering, napping, and heading back to retail in the morning.

You could say it was a foolish slog. To me, it felt like a second shot at being a teenager. Freedom. And there just happened to be a song on the radio that bore that title.

“Freedom” was Wham!’s fourth single off Make It Big (“Everything She Wants” was the third), and the only one to miss the tippytop of the Billboard Hot 100, settling for a peak at # 3. Compared to the ’80s bubblechirp of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” the mournful regret of “Careless Whisper,” and the relative anonymity of “Everything She Wants,” “Freedom” was something else again: it was pure, over-the-top, capital letters POP, almost (if not quite) bordering on power pop. Its giddy exuberance exploded from cheap speakers everywhere, demanding volume, delivering the irresistibly agreeable swoon of hooks and melody cranked to a deep-red, blissful saturation point. The Raspberries could have done this song. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles could have done this song. The Monkees should have done this song. Any of those prospects would have been intriguing. And I doubt that any of them would have surpassed Wham!’s incredible rendition.

It was product. Sure. It was disposable CHR fodder with no pretense of grit or substance. It was the 1980s in microcosm, and I’m not terribly fond of the ’80s. It is all these sins and more. And yet, there are moments when I think it’s The Greatest Record Ever Made. I confess this transgression without apology.

The song’s title contrasts with its story. The lyrics tell us that the singer is madly in love with a hinge-heeled girl who thinks relationships should be open and free, non-exclusive, and she laughs and tells our besotted hero he should go out and try it. But he doesn’t want that kind of freedom; he wants commitment, trust, stability, an everlasting and monogamous meeting of hearts. I don’t want your freedom/I don’t want to play around. All he wants right now is her, not some other floozy de nuit. He wants the true love promised in pop songs. 

It was also what I wanted, and I got it. In that summer of 1985, I celebrated my first wedding anniversary. Brenda and I have now been married for nearly 35 years. We’re still in love. Just like pop songs always said we could be. 

Wham! itself wasn’t built to last. George Michael went on to a successful and well-regarded solo career; he called his second album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. Guilt-free pleasure, right? I never again embraced any of his work to anywhere near the degree I exulted in Wham!’s transcendent pop song “Freedom.” But I respected him. He was one of the many casualties of 2016, a year which took away so many of our pop idols, a year that seemed crueler than any other cruel, cruel year. 

Before Michael’s death, I had already reconnected with my delight in Wham!’s wonderful pop song “Freedom.” The track’s a bit too long–pop songs sound best with running times of two to three and a half minutes, not over five–but its charm remains, and I love it without reservation or shame. It sounds great with some Motown and some Badfinger, some Aretha FranklinKai DanzbergDusty SpringfieldSqueezeThe Isley BrothersLisa MycholsHerman’s Hermits, and yes, even alongside some Ramones. Joey Ramone was wrong, at least this one time. But you know that I’ll forgive you/Just this once, twice, forever. Forever. Let “Freedom” ring. 

VERDICT: Innocent, not guilty.

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Categories
Birthdays

Smokey Robinson

Born on this day in 1940, in Detroit, Michigan, singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson. Robinson is one of Motown Records‘ most successful artists, both as a member of The Miracles and as a staff songwriter.

Categories
Boppin'

LP Cover Cavalcade #2

THE GO-GO’S: Beauty And The Beat

The Go-Go’s do not get anywhere near the level of respect they deserve. A self-contained rockin’ pop combo that wrote nearly all of their own material, The Go-Go’s scored hits in the early ’80s, and released three fantastic albums before splintering in the acrimony that claims many a great group. They’ve reunited a few times since then for concerts and additional fine recordings. They should have been a shoo-in for induction into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame years ago. They have never even been nominated.

Their debut album Beauty And The Beat was my favorite new album in 1981. Nearly four decades later, I remain as fond of it now as I was then. It is very nearly a perfect album, with the cold-sounding, dispassionate new wave number “Automatic” the only track I don’t like. The rest? “How Much More,” “Lust To Love,” “Skidmarks On My Heart,” “This Town,” “Fading Fast,” “You Can’t Walk In Your Sleep (If You Can’t Sleep),” “Can’t Stop The World,” and “Tonight” are all engaging as hell. The first single “Our Lips Are Sealed” was one of the two best things on the radio in ’81; the other best thing on the radio that year was also by The Go-Go’s, also from Beauty And The Beat, and it was their signature tune “We Got The Beat,” a magnificent single that earns its own entry in my book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1). Gotta respect The Go-Go’s.

HERMAN’S HERMITS: Hold On!

Although I did indeed see Herman’s Hermits in their 1966 movie Hold On! when it was still in theaters, let’s forget about that. And believe me, it’s an easy movie to forget. Instead, let’s move ahead by a decade and change, to when I was an 18-year-old college freshman in 1978. That’s when I scored a truly beat-up copy of the Hold On! soundtrack LP, a record that was a lot more interesting than the cinematic trifle that spawned it.

One may be tempted to likewise dismiss the album as a trifle, but it was at least an interesting trifle; I loved some of it, and I wasn’t much put off by the rest. If I could take or leave (mostly leave) “The George And Dragon,” “Leaning On A Lamp Post,” and Shelley Fabares‘ “Make Me Happy” (which skipped on my copy anyway), I had more enthusiasm for “Hold On!,” “Wild Love,” “All The Things I Do For You Baby,” and “Gotta Get Away.” My biggest go-to tracks on Hold On! were “Got A Feeling,” “Where Were You When I Need You” (which I heard and loved here before discovering that it had later been a hit for The Grass Roots), and “A Must To Avoid.” “A Must To Avoid” quickly became my favorite Herman’s Hermits (at least until I heard “No Milk Today”). My local heroes The Flashcubes used to cover “A Must To Avoid” in their live sets, and that was okay by me.

The sharp-eyed among you will notice some scribbling near the photos on my LP cover. The Herman-less Hermits played a bar called The Gin Mill in Liverpool, NY that very same summer of ’78, and you’re damned right I was there. The Hermits put on a swell show, after which I solicited autographs from bassist Karl Green, guitarist Derek Leckenby, and drummer Barry Whitwam, plus guitarist Frank Renshaw, who had replaced Keith Hopwood in Hermitdom. I saw original Herman’s Hermits lead singer Peter Noone on several subsequent occasions, including one show with his fab early ’80s new wave group The Tremblers, but have never had an opportunity to get him to add his signature alongside those of his erstwhile co-workers.
THE KINKS: The Great Lost Kinks Album

About a year before The Who‘s vault-raidin’ 1974 compilation Odds And SodsThe Kinks‘ by-then-former American label Reprise issued The Great Lost Kinks Album, a collection of 1966-1970 recordings that The Kinks would have preferred to leave as lost. Gentlemen, start your lawyers! 

I associate this album with The Vinyl Jungle, a small and short-lived record shop in my college town of Brockport in the fall of ’77. I remember seeing the album for sale at The Vinyl Jungle, but I passed on it and instead bought a Kinks compilation called The Pye History Of British Pop Music. I didn’t get my copy of The Great Lost Kinks Album until many years later, when I was considering (and finally deciding against) writing a book about the 500 definitive albums of the ’70s. This LP wouldn’t have been among the records discussed in That Great Lost Carl Book, but I scooped it up at the same time I was grabbing cheap-cheap-cheap vinyl by Lynyrd SkynyrdFoghatZZ Top, et al. for research. Far out, dude. The Great Lost Kinks Album was of much more interest to me anyway, and I especially fell for “This Man He Weeps Tonight.” All of its once-rare tracks are now readily available, the lawyers all paid and satisfied.

THE RUTLES: The Rutles

My introduction to the fictional Prefab Four The Rutles came when Eric Idle of Monty Python’s Flying Circus hosted Saturday Night Live (then still called NBC’s Saturday Night) in October of 1976, when I was a high school senior. Idle played a clip of his faux Beatles mugging through “I Must Be In Love,” and I was hooked. When The Rutles’ TV special All You Need Is Cash appeared in March of 1978, I was all in. I reveled in the promo clip of “Ouch!” that was shown on Midnight Special the week before All You Need Is Cash, and was one of several floormates crammed into the dorm room across from mine to watch the TV special itself when it aired.

Alas, I was the only one among my group who dug it.

Undeterred, I bought the 45 of “I Must Be In Love”/”Doubleback Alley,” and gratefully accepted a gift of the companion album The Rutles, brought home from England by my sister Denise. Number one, number one…!
VARIOUS ARTISTS: The Motown Sound Vol. 6

My very first Motown record? Could be, though my lovely wife Brenda thinks this was her LP rather than mine. If only we’d kept better track of stuff prior to the matrimonial merging of our collections. Either way, I do remember that we picked it up on a visit to the weekly flea market at Syracuse’s Regional Market, probably in 1979. It would have been around the same time (if not the same weekend) that Brenda snagged her flea-market copy of The Kinks’ Greatest Hits!, and/or when I got my 35-cent copy of The Who’s Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy. We were frugal shoppers. In spite of many, many cullings of the collection over the years, all three of these LPs still remain in our vinyl library.

And it certainly could have been either one of us who grabbed this Motown sampler. Brenda had grown up listening to soul and R & B on the radio, and this would have been a natural thing to add to her personal stash. I was just beginning to appreciate how great all that stuff was, and would have been drawn to my favorite Supremes song “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” my favorite Four Tops song “It’s The Same Old Song,” and my favorite Stevie Wonder song “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” and probably to The Miracles‘ “Going To A Go Go.” The rest would have been a history lesson waiting to happen. So: Brenda’s record? My record? 

C’mon.
Our record now.

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This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here.

The many fine This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio compilation albums are still available, each full of that rockin’ pop sound you crave. A portion of all sales benefit our perpetually cash-strapped community radio project:
Volume 1: downloadVolume 2: CD or downloadVolume 3: downloadVolume 4: CD or downloadWaterloo Sunset–Benefit For This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio:  CD or download

Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 155 essays about 155 tracks, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).