Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Carry On Wayward Son"

It's guilty pleasures time here at SongsWithoutWhich Towers.

Everyone, and I mean *everyone*, no matter how peerless their taste, has locked away in their collection a small, shiny cadre of songs that their self-aware selves really would prefer not to like, but which they cannot help but adore.

I'm sure the same goes for films, books, even clothes perhaps but we're not going to open those cans of worms here. What I am going to question though, is why such songs are deemed to be "guilty" pleasures. What is it about these songs that make us furtive, embarrassed and keen to keep them hidden away?

When you hear a song, you're listening to a three-minute *universe* - the writer(s) have tried to create an aural keystone, a sort of complete statement. The lyric may not say it, the chorus may not be a distilled wisdom of the ages, but the sound, the words, the production, the instrumentation, the atmosphere, everything about the song is conveying *something*.

And while in the case of a song like "I'm in Love With A German Film Star", for example, the entirety of the song is about being "cool", most songs don't try to be quite so didactic. For the most part, the subject of your guilty enjoyment is something that most of your contemporaries will dismiss as being "bad", and that's where I run into difficulties.

For me, music has always been something I react instinctively to, and I couldn't explain to you why my heart beats faster when I listen to one song and remains resolutely unmoved by another. I'll try and analyse the hell out of it afterwards of course, but by that time the horse has already bolted and I couldn't unlike the song if you paid me.

In any case, a guilty pleasure doesn't have to be the whole song. For example, I confess to having a soft spot for the rhythm section in Wham's "Everything She Wants" even if the rest of the song leaves me tepid at best. I'll very happily listen to the opening two minutes before the song sort of gives up on the groove and I lose interest.

My guilty pleasure is, or rather has become pretty much the whole AOR catalogue. From Alice Cooper through Kansas and on to Journey and Toto, I have an irresistible attraction to the monstrous calculation that is the US FM format. I watched a documentary recently that attempted to explain how AOR was "invented" in the 1970s as a response to the British invasion of the preceding decade and I can totally understand how the American instinct to build things bigger, better, shinier and louder couldn't resist taking back the blues format and industrialising it. This makes perfect sense when you consider how punk rock harked back to the Kinks and Small Faces while at the same time deriding what the Americans had done to "their" music.

If you think back to the songs that came across the Atlantic in the 60s - by the Kinks, the Stones, Yardbirds as well as the Fab Four - their format seems to be *small* in relation to the version that came back the other way ten years later. Where songs like "Sha La La La Lee" or "You Really Got Me" are scrappy, tinny, tight and so stripped-down that you can count the instruments, "Don't Stop Believing" and "Carry On Wayward Son" are orchestrated, bathed in echo, reverb and have more components that you can count. The harmonies are still there but they're sugary and gentle, where ten years before voices tended to conflict to produce the harmony. Listen to the Kinks almost forcing the harmonies and compare that to how the voices seem to be gently layered in "Carry On".

And that's perfectly fine with me. Hearing Brad Delp's overdubbed voice climb its way to heaven on "More Than a Feeling" was one of the most important moments in my musical life, and the sugared-up harmony became like musical catnip to me. I don't often fall for the over-elaborate guitar solos, mind: I still find musical nirvana in a simple, stately solo such as the one in Tears for Fears' "Shout" rather than in anything Eddie van Halen cooked up.

I guess it's something to do with luxury. A well-constructed AOR tune feels to me like a large and comfortable car, with a soft suspension, classy-looking dials on the dashboard, hand-stitched leather seats and a great big throbbing V8 under the hood. When you floor the pedal, not only does the car leap forward like a scalded impala, but it makes a sound like Mother Earth being put through a blender. It has both power *and* grace.

There may be some element of cynicism in all this - you often hear musicians talk of their search for the perfect hook, the "killer riff", and you do wonder what the motivation is. I would have thought that a musician would be more interested in doing justice to their muse, to writing as a "complete" a song as they can. But I may be doing musicians a disservice.

On another note it's illuminating to see a group of portly gentlemen farmers - watch the video and tell me that I wasn't dreaming when I thought I was watching a bunch of rebel Amish elders - recreating their youth. I recently trawled through clips of the Cream reunion at the Albert Hall in 2005 and felt the same emotions: sadness that time has taken its toll on these brilliant musicians, and admiration that even in their 60s and in some case 70s, these guys can still hack it.