I always find music inspiring. I grew up playing the piano and up until a brief few years ago, wouldn’t be caught dead without some sort of playback device in my hot little hands. I remember begging my parents for a walkman when I was a teenager, and getting a Sanyo portable cassette player instead. This was fine by me, the brand wasn’t as important as the fact that I could take music wherever I went. In college, it was a Sony Sport Walkman. You’d be surprised how rugged a device you need for schlepping back and forth on Toronto Transit. Admittedly, Robin got an iPod before I did, but I was still using my portable disc player in the car. I had managed to snag one of those nice models that would also play mp3 files off of re-recordable discs.
During the college years, I started listening to Alan Cross‘s “Ongoing History of New Music” on CFNY (102.1: The Edge in Toronto), and really missed it when I left. I was delighted to find the archive online at one point, but I think it has since been replaced. Heck, last time I listened, our local radio station had replaced Ongoing History with some sort of local New Music Talent Search. Cross’s blog indicates that he may have moved on to something else (The Secret History of Rock). Be that as it may, it’s just one more indication of my liking for weird music trivia. In the past year, I found a book called “Talking to Girls about Duran Duran” by Rob Sheffield. For about three months afterwards, I wanted to start writing my own memoirs about songs — but unless I have something very particular in mind, there’s not really much to say. Either that or my life hasn’t been all that interesting… :-/
Those two long paragraphs that could have easily be broken into their own blog posts just serve as introduction to what I hope will be a regular feature of the blog.
The first song I’m going to delve into is a little ditty called “Common People”. Back in May of 1995, I was getting ready to go to college. I was working at an art gallery and waiting for final confirmation that I would be moving to Toronto to study at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Meanwhile, somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean, a bunch of Brits were releasing a song about poverty tourism. It barely registered on my radar, at least until I headed off to the much more urban wilds (we’ll get into my somewhat
rude surprised bewildered awakening to urban culture a little later this series). Even then, I dismissed it as just another pop song and didn’t even bother to listen to the lyrics. When I did listen to the lyrics, I was stunned. People think like this? Really? This is what pop music is about? Take me back to my Crowded House CDs, stat! Who ordered a side of vague Social Justice with my music?! Take that back to the kitchen, please! Of course, it was a pop song about some entitled chick wanting to be like “common people”, but the “common people” delivering the song looked just as polished and entitled as the snotty rich kid who just has to call her daddy to make everything OK again. Not a great presentation, thanks.
I conveniently forgot about this little gem until Robin started laughing his arse off one evening while reading Cracked.com. I will preface this by saying that there is a great respect for William Shatner in this household (you can already see the slippery slope this post is going down, can’t you?). The man is in his 80’s, and he’s still not only doing the lecture and convention circuit, but also releasing albums and making TV shows. When I get into MY 80’s, I’d love to be even half as active (and interesting!).
When asked just what he was giggling about, Robin reminded me of the song “Common People” and suggested I read the article. He wanted me to watch both videos all the way through, but I can only take so much of the bored hipster look and proceeded almost immediately to the Shatner version. My jaw dropped. I attained a manic grin. I downright chortled.
Imagine, if you will, a super-saccharine europop backing track that counterpoints a narrative by an aging and jaded man about an encounter with some entitled eurotrash poverty tourist that could have taken place anywhere between somewhere in the 60’s during the height of Beatlemania, and the late 1990’s, when you had a bunch of glam-tarts trying to take over from the disillusioned GenX Grungebabies still living in Mom’s basement (I’m qualified to speak on this; the basement was quiet). Then comes a vaguely familiar proto-punk voice overtop, climaxing in a choir, only to have the older, jaded man come back even more viciously — almost with the tone of a disapproving father figure.
It’s hilarious and it’s stunning.
The song was apparently produced by Ben Folds for Shatner’s “Has Been” album, with which I was already peripherally acquainted. Robin is a huge Henry Rollins fan, and has hooked up his iPod to the car stereo more than once during a road trip to have Henry regale us with tales of his exploits. One of the most-played clips is of Henry’s experience during the recording of “I can’t get behind that”, also off the “Has Been” album (I suggest you give it a listen).
All I can really say is this: If your sole experience of William Shatner’s recording career has been limited to the tracks on the “Spaced Out” album (which actually is a compilation that contains tracks from Shatner’s “Transformed Man“), you’re missing a lot. The man may not have a super-cool singing voice, but he does have an ear for poetry and the delivery of dramatic lines. When you think of music as more than a song and get right down to it, what you’ve got is a group of characters delivering lines to tell a story — and that’s exactly what he does. He takes an overly-processed pop song about some hipster’s experienc with an entitled rich girl and turns it into the kind of experience that men of my acquaintance laugh derisively about over beers or whiskey. He becomes the “common person” that the song pays lip service to.
The singer who can carry a tune, by the way? Joe Jackson. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was equating him with bitter soft-rock ballads of the 80’s and is now pleasantly surprised to find out that he’s actually a peer of Elvis Costello in that one odd punk formation of the 70’s and 80’s. You’re welcome.