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ALBUM REVIEW: PAUL WELLER, “(Music From The Film) Jawbone”

For the first time in his long and storied career, Paul Weller has written, recorded and delivered his first movie soundtrack score, (Music From The Film) Jawbone.  Certainly, a labor of love, as the movie’s theme is about a boxer and Weller’s late father, John, was an amateur boxer in his younger days, the film stars Ray Winstone and writer Johnny Harris.  The plot is essentially a former boxing champion trying to once again gain glory.

 The thing about the music is it’s not what I would expect -from Paul Weller or from a soundtrack album  There are only 7 tracks and the opener, “Jimmy/Blackout” is 21:30 of soundscapes and ambience of twisting moods. There are some sound effects (like a radio dial being twisted) and melodically controlled guitar feedback; cellos and pianos float in and out and then a hard rock band kicks in at around 11 minutes and then disappears into an aural mist and continues this hypnotic path until 17 minutes in, a chorale starts to sing and Weller’s voice is heard in an echo, sounding not-too-dissimilar to Scott Walker (!) – an absolutely stunning and heart-stopping performance.

“The Ballad Of Jimmy McCabe” is soft, sweet, acoustic and sung with such gentility by Weller that it makes you want to weep; it’s an emotionally powerful track in its simplicity; easily, it’s one of the most beautiful things he’s ever written and performed; “Jawbone” is a heavy rock/effects workout with some fiery guitar and ending with snippets of dialogue.  “Bottle” is another tear-wrencher with Weller’s voice and acoustic guitar – it seems like he’s hitting new strides and getting better as he gets older, especially with his acoustic-based work while “Man On Fire” is another series of ambient soundscapes.

All in all, it’s a fine piece of work from someone I’ve loved and respected for 40 years and it seems to err on the side of true that no matter what, Paul Weller STILL knows how to deliver the goods.  It also makes me want to see this movie and how the music fits in.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

(Music From The Film) Jawbone is currently available

http://paulweller.com/home/

ALBUM REVIEW: THE HANGABOUTS, “Kits & Cats & Saxon Wives”

The Hangabouts, a hearty trio from the Detroit area, have just unleashed their sophomore full length album, Kits & Cats & Saxon Wives (a clever title!) and this one pops and rocks in all the right places.  A melodic aggregate of John Lowry, Gregory Addington and Chip Saam, these gentlemen mix together pop, psychedelia, Anglophile influences and Nuggets-styled garage rock in a heady stew, which comes up aces.  Produced and mixed by the band with mastering by Andy Reed (of the glorious Legal Matters), the sound is neo-vintage.

Starting with the album’s title track, you immediately hear/feel the influences – a mix of “…Mystery Tour”-era Fabs, the first “band” incarnation of The Bee Gees, some Barrett-eque undertones and a sound that recalls the style of recordings during the late ’60’s; “Cricket Time” is more of the same, with crisp riffs and a very Roy Wood/Move vibe and I need to point out that the harmonies are completely one-the-one with these gentlemen.  “Sinking Feeling” is what, in another era, would be the single and features Molly Felder on vocals – a deliciously classic pop song with acoustic guitar driving the musical body and an early ’70’s vibe; “Twelve Songs” is pop sweetness at its finest with shimmering guitars, a keyboard melody underlying and twangy riffs interspersed (listen for the organ break as well); “Selling Out” is, naturally, Lennon-esque with the piano and vocal opening and the structure; “All Day All Night” has a Dwight Twilley/Shoes vibe and is a delightful throwback to American ’70’s power-pop and “Follow The Sunshine” is a lower-volume but is a fine way to close this collection – a genuinely warm piece that suits its title and has that “feel good” emotion.

For a trio, this is a very well-fleshed out gathering of material – and certainly, The Hangabouts know their craft.  They have all the right elements of a great pop band and at this point in time, that’s more than one could hope and ask for.  Mark this one as another “must check out” – you will be very glad you did.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Kits & Cats & Saxon Wives is currently available

https://www.hangabouts.com/

 

Soul Serenade: Parliament, “Flash Light”

Three years ago in this column, I wrote about a group called the Parliaments. My story spoke about how they got their start in the back room of George Clinton’s barbershop in Plainfield, N.J. in the late 1950s, and how they scored a big hit in 1967 with a record called “(I Wanna) Testify,” which was released on Revilot Records.

The success of “Testify” meant that Clinton could expand the Parliaments vocal group to include five musicians and five backup singers. But there was trouble with Revilot, and the label enjoined Clinton from using the name Parliaments. In response, Clinton took the personnel he had and created a funk rock band called Funkadelic.

Revilot went out of business, which allowed to use the name Parliaments again, and he relaunched the group (with the same members as Funkadelic) and called it, simply, Parliament. The two bands were signed to different labels and played slightly different styles, but it was all funky. The first Parliament album, Osmium, was released in 1970. “Breakdown” managed to hit the Top 30 on the R&B singles chart the following year, but contractual problems continued and Clinton retired the Parliament name again.

New members continued to join the family during this period including keyboard player Bernie Worrell, guitarist Gary Shider, and bass player Bootsy Collins, who had been playing with James Brown. In 1974, Clinton brought Parliament back and signed the group to Casablanca Records. At that point, there was a definite stylistic difference between Parliament and Funkadelic. While the former found an R&B funk style that featured horns and complex vocal arrangements, the latter was pure guitar-driven funk. For touring purposes, the two groups became a juggernaut known as Parliament-Funkadelic.

Parliament

Parliament found chart success with the albums Up for the Down Stroke in 1974, and Chocolate City the following year. The group’s most successful era in 1975 with the release of Mothership Connection. It was that album that began the lyric mythology that continued through Clones of Dr. Funkenstein (1976), Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome (1977), and Motor Booty Affair (1978). All of the albums found lofty positions on both the R&B and Pop charts and “Flash Light,” a song from the Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome, became a #1 R&B hit for the group in 1978.

“Flash Light” was written by Clinton, Worrell, and Collins, and found crossover success in the Top 20 on the Pop chart. In addition to being the first #1 hit for any group in the Clinton stable, it was the second million-seller for Parliament, following “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” Bernie Worrell was the star of the “Flash Light” show, crafting the song’s distinctive bass line on a set of synthesizers, and playing all of the keyboard parts. Collins, who ceded the bass parts to Worrell for the song, played drums instead, and his brother Catfish was the rhythm guitarist. Clinton sang lead and recorded something like 50 vocal tracks for the song’s distinctive “Da da da dee da da da” refrain. And by featuring Sir Nose D’VoidofFunk, “Flash Light” continued the lyric mythology that began on Bootsy’s “The Pinocchio Theory.” “Flash Light” was and is one of the most influential records in the history of funk and hip-hop music.

The empire kept growing but Clinton’s management style was somewhat questionable and by the end of the ’70s original members of the Parliaments were jumping ship. Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, and Grady Thomas, all of whom had been with Clinton in that barbershop in Plainfield, left in 1977, and it wasn’t a pleasant parting of the ways. Glenn Goins (guitar) and Jerome Brailey (drums) left around this time too. Gloryhallastoopid (1979) and Trombipulation (1980) failed to achieve the kind of success that Parliament had in their prime period. In the early part of the 1980s, Casablanca Records was having problems, and legal difficulties were looming as Clinton opted to disband both Parliament and Funkadelic as touring and recording acts.

Clinton didn’t quit, however, recording solo albums with a number of the musicians who had played in later versions of the two bands. The P-Funk All-Stars continue to tour with Clinton to this day, performing Parliament and Funkadelic songs.

The Cult Of Dylan

What America wanted most was a charismatic leader, someone who said outrageous things to and at the system who, through the cult of personality, mobilized those who were seldom heard and often disregarded. He came in and altered the landscape merely with his presence. Occasionally he spoke with clarity and defiance, but most often, he spoke in riddles, crashing words into each other because they sounded better that way, not because the verbal juxtaposition revealed meaning. The crowds derived their own meanings, and because they were the unwitting architects of definitions, the conclusions sounded right to them. They filled in their own blanks, did the heavy lifting for him, and summarily called him a genius.

I’m not talking about who you think I’m talking about.

Bob Dylan is a costume, not only worn by Minnesota native Robert Allen Zimmerman, but by hundreds — maybe thousands — of musicians who saw him as a counter-cultural firebrand, come to lead the new protest movements of the 1960s to some other promised land. Does calling the persona of Dylan a costume sound harsh, or worse, heretical? Maybe you’re still in his thrall.

The ’60s were, by all accounts, turbulent times. Identity was a concept people began playing with, and what constituted one’s role in society was shifting as well. There were bound to be protests, but these soon became more than the act of voicing one’s displeasure or outrage with the world around them. For some, this became the thing to do, not just the means to an end but the purpose-built end for itself. Protests were social events, and even though many had legitimate intentions, several used the scene to be seen.

By his occasional accounts, the former Zimmerman wanted to be seen. He wanted to be famous. And in the earliest days of his career, he put on several outfits to figure out who he was to be. We are exposed to some of them even today, canonized as they are in the fabric of pop culture. Roger McGuinn and The Byrds should be as grateful to Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers as they are to Bob Dylan for giving them as big a hit as “Mr. Tambourine Man” was.

But the acolytes he picked up along the way used his words maybe, shall we say, a bit too reverentially.

Think about this: aside from The Byrds, The Turtles, Joan Baez and scores of other figures from the 1960s, many, many people were singing Dylan songs. A cursory scan of the music of the times would reveal him to be one of the most covered artists of the era, if not of all time. It seemed plenty of people wanted to wear the Dylan costume too.

And why not? The quality of protest chants has barely improved over the course of 50-plus years. They still trot out “Hey hey, ho ho, Insert Noun has got to go,” with the satisfaction that it is at least a little more clever than another “Got Milk?” parody. Therefore, Dylan’s first run at folk music, informed with the spirit and genuine reverence for his hero Woody Guthrie, carried real weight and sincerity. “The Times They Are A’Changin’” was likely created with a modicum of sincerity. Those who adopted it were likewise sincere, much to their own detriment. The folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary lifted the song to the same lofty heights as spirituals and “We Shall Overcome.”

That might have been, in hindsight, a mistake. As the trio’s own Peter Yarrow once noted during a documentary about Dylan, “Everyone wanted to be near Bobby, to be with Bobby…to get high with Bobby. To sleep with Bobby.” As a means of inflation of one’s ego, you couldn’t do better than crowning an individual the sole voice of a generation. The adornments both suited and chafed the musician. Known for his penchant for tweaking the establishment, once he had himself become the establishment for the protest-minded, Dylan had to tweak himself. His lyrics became more abstract, but his adherents insisted there were layers of meaning and righteousness in them. He went electric, and a few more were up in arms over that. His electric appearance at the Newport Folk Festival found him clashing with another folk luminary (although one from a different generation), Pete Seeger.

In a famed and sometimes disputed tale, Seeger was either so incensed, angered, or both that he hoisted an actual chopping axe and threatened to cut the power, or an amplifier…you can see how this legend has become more than muddy. The folk fans felt betrayed, and in some circles it is said that Dylan was treated as a pariah. That’s might be the case, but few pariahs enjoy such a level of parallel adoration.

I don’t want the reader to come away thinking that Dylan is not deserving of most of his accolades for music. Someone who has survived and sustained such a career must be doing more than collecting groupies and hangers-on. But I want to get at the psychology of those groupies and hangers-on, the people who saw Dylan as something of a prophet or mystic, and were so willing to suspend their own voices and opinions to adopt his. In an era that was so much about individual expression, such as we’ve all been told, why was it that so many chose to let him be their leader? Why did so many want to wear his costume? And for a generation that spoke so fervently about changing the world, when given the individual mandate to contribute, why did they so easily abdicate that power?

Musicians were still keen to ride the wake of Dylan’s rolling thunder, long after Newport, long after the U.K. tour with what became The Band, after the motorcycle crash, after “Lay, Lady, Lay.” Even fans who claimed publicly that they now reviled their idol never fully broke away from him. He remained a charismatic leader, someone who said outrageous things to and at the system who, through the cult of personality, mobilized those who were seldom heard and often disregarded. He came in and altered the landscape merely with his presence. And maybe, because they were so malleable, this led others to believe and act upon a fatal flaw in the human mindset: Power is its own ecosystem. It fuels itself. It sustains itself. It attracts like nothing else. It grows and it controls.

In the end, did Dylan’s fans love his ideas, his music, his wordplay, his rebel status, or did Dylan’s fans love him because he had a hell of a lot of fans?

 

In Memoriam: Chris Cornell (1964-2017)

What will I write about today?

One of the very few benefits of having a sleep disorder is that I have plenty of time to write, so it is never a question of “will I write today,” but, “what will I write today?” I have many outlets into which I can broadcast, so there never is a lack of subject matter. And sometimes you click on your social media feeds and see something that will get the gears moving and the fingers typing.

Headline: “Chris Cornell, Soundgarden and Audioslave singer, has died aged 52.”

Well, that can’t be right. This must be one of those death hoaxes that have become so prevalent. Hit Google, look for corroboration. Find the article that says something like, “Chris Cornell latest celebrity to endure death hoax on Facebook, Twitter.”

“Chris Cornell, Soundgarden and Audioslave singer, has died aged 52.”

Last year, the music world seemed to face a high-profile funeral every week, but in a lot of those cases, the artist(s) were typically older and/or well-known for his or her excesses. No one knows yet why Cornell has passed and so no one can speculate fairly. While I don’t doubt that Chris Cornell had excesses of his own, at least at the very start of the alternative rock revolution of the 1990s, he survived the decade relatively well. That’s more than one could say about Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Layne Staley (Alice In Chains), Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon), and swathes of other musicians. And 52 is incredibly young when seen in the big picture. And he was out on the road, doing solo gigs, doing Soundgarden gigs. Not so long ago, the Temple of the Dog anniversary shows took place.  

That last bit is particularly significant. Temple of the Dog (1991) came together as a celebration of the life of Andrew Wood, from the band Mother Love Bone, who died of a heroin overdose in 1990. After his death, members of Mother Love Bone — Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament — went on to form Pearl Jam. Soundgarden released some songs on a Sub Pop e.p. All these individuals orbited the same social circles in Seattle, and so it was not surprising that Cornell, Gossard, Ament and Eddie Vedder would be part of that memorial collaboration. Last year’s 25th-anniversary tour was a sort of reckoning for those that survived, and a remembrance of those that didn’t survive, the so-called Alt Rock Nation. Who would have guessed what would come only a year later?     

With the solo work and credits with Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog, Cornell sang for the band Audioslave which was, staff-wise, Cornell with Rage Against The Machine minus Zach De La Rocha. Cornell was the singer of “You Know My Name,” the James Bond theme song that kicked off the Daniel Craig era of the series. With Cornell’s much tougher approach, a signal was heard clearly at the start of Casino Royale. This is not your grand-dad’s Bond.  

All of this is meant to illustrate that Cornell hadn’t quit. He was still making music, still pushing forward and, up until a couple weeks ago, was still on the road, exacerbating the confusion now experienced by this news. It still feels very hoax-like.

I recall that my first consistent job was at a retail clothing store. In the same parking lot was an electronics store, a chain long gone now called Nobody Beats The Wiz, or The Wiz for short. I was not, at that time, a big Soundgarden fan but I don’t think anyone was. Not yet. Badmotorfinger made a lot of positive moves and got much attention for renewed attitude and a reversal of the juvenalia of the “Big Dumb Sex” era, but the big breakthrough hadn’t arrived. What had arrived was the promotional artwork for their next album, hung on the wall of The Wiz’s music department. It was an enigmatic image of what appeared as flame floating above a desolate, high-contrast landscape of Washington State woodland. This new record was to be called Superunknown. I bought the cassette the very first day, previously unheard, no video seen.      

That wouldn’t last long. Rock radio latched onto “Fell On Black Days” hard and “Black Hole Sun” even harder. In this last era of deep cuts radio, you could hear “The Day I Tried To Live,” “Spoonman,” and “My Wave” just as readily. The band had moved from the fringe to the center and comprised part of the core of the early-’90s rock nucleus, inseparable from the scene and, in many ways, from each other. That A&M Records cassette tape stayed in my Walkman that year as if I’d superglued the unit together.

As grotesque and as morbid as it sounds, I hope that when the truth is revealed that we find out the cause of death was, if not natural, then not self-perpetuated. I don’t think that’s an unfair hope.

What will I write about today?

5 Songs That Shaped Shawna Virago’s Music Consciousness

In these turbulent times, you may often wonder, “Where’s our Bob Dylan? Where’s the bard of the 2010s translating the dicey political and social climate into musical stanzas?” When the next flash-in-the-pan single is prized over substantial songs, it can seem like all hope is lost.

Enter Shawna Virago, a contemporary singer/songwriter who is also a transgender activist. Drawing upon her own experiences as a transgender woman, she explores the plight of marginalized peoples and keeps it real on her new album, Heaven Sent Delinquent. A collection of acoustic tracks, the album dives into the lives of a cast of outcasts.

“These are the stories of my generation,” Virago says, “a generation of transgender people who came out long before the internet, before transgender celebrities and reality TV stars…before anybody gave a shit about us.”

Because her story and song inspired us, we wanted to learn more about what inspired her as a musician. Here are five tracks that informed Virago’s musical point of view.

1. “The World’s a Mess” by X

“From the opening rockabilly blast of Billy Zoom’s mighty guitar to the nocturnal-inspired poetry of the lyrics, this song stands the test of time. Every line paints a vision of urban nihilism inviting the listener to ‘act as if’ life has meaning. There is no better of example of punk meets country meets rockabilly, all with John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s intoxicating lyrics.”

2. “Broken English” by Marianne Faithfull

“On this song, Marianne Faithfull’s cracked, gravelly, chanteuse voice transports to a punk Weimar Republic. No one has sounded more world-weary and beautiful singing about a world of violence, sadness, and the anarchic collapse of neo-liberal culture. This song made me a decade-long smoker of Gauloise Bleus.”

3. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron

“No one ever sounded like Gil Scott-Heron; like Miles Davis, he is his own genre. A skilled wordsmith, his fierce song opened me up to look the importance of educating my mind, especially regarding the white-washing lies of my country’s history. This song is not for the faint of heart, and it stays with you long after you take the needle off.”

4. “Public Image” by PIL

“I have been a huge John Lydon fan since Never Mind the Bollocks. Sorry Richard Hell, but Johnny is the proto-punk and the proto-post-punk. This song is even more relevant now with its brutal one-two punch against the vacuousness of celebrity. If you ever find yourself surrounded by self-important dullards, put this song on and scream along with Johnny. Better than therapy.”

5. “Nobody’s Hero” by Stiff Little Fingers

“I discovered Stiff Little Fingers through the live Hanx! album and turned my suburban bedroom into a mosh pit. Although I love the Clash, SLF were probably the true ‘only band that mattered,’ and in this song, they prove it with Jake Burn’s chainsaw vocals — a rebuff to any and all rock-star posturing, while also suggesting the pointlessness of heroism itself in the post-modern age. I recommend it with a hearty pint of O’Hara’s Irish Red.”

REVIEW: Chicken & The Chick Flicks – “Too Bad About The Sun”

Chicken and The Chick Flicks’ Too Bad About The Sun, out now on Shinkoyo, is exhilarating for reasons that most records simply aren’t. A microtonal-poetry reading for a demented albeit low-key dream, the record pairs Thax Douglas – he of the live concert reading; check the resume here – with Skeletons b(r)and leader Matt Mehlan, and the results are pretty thrilling, though a little unbalanced.

If press materials are to be believed, Douglas and Mehlan, way back in 2006, just jammed on the material contained herein at the Silent Barn in NYC until it jelled and one can hear the ambiguity of each piece kind of wrap its fingers around the grooves of your brain. (Mehlan recently discovered the recordings and prepared them for release.)

Mehlan’s noodling, drummer-less, vaguely post-rockish instrumentals are the perfect background for Douglas’ sometimes-raspy, often-emotion-parched microtonal readings and, though sometimes the music is more a thorn than a bud (“Frozing”), the subtle variations on scales and measures add a kind of emphasized break to Douglas’ readings, a way of turning stanzas into verses and choruses, if you will. Much of the record recalls the lo-fi vocal mannerisms of a Daniel Johnston or Jad Fair, but its title track and parts of the fretless guitar-scraping “Welcome To My World” elicit more parallels with Partch’s invented ensembles. The closing “Food For The Restless” and the space-cadet-armed “Goodbye To Candy” are mind-benders. And, for a record this bizarre, that’s saying a lot.

Let it be read into the record: this is not a record for most. Too Bad About The Sun seems to almost go out of its way to be confrontational in presentation and vaguely amusical, if I can coin such a term. But, for a person looking for a unique spoken word recording, or a Mehlan enthusiast seeking his work outside of Skeletons and Uumans, Too Bad About The Sun isn’t too bad at all.

-30-

Film Review: “The Lovers”

Debra Winger — hugely popular in the ‘80s — kind of throttled back working as a film actress around 1995. And while she’s worked in the industry on and off since then, it was kind of a surprise to see her name attached to a new movie in 2017.  But let me be frank and say that I don’t think I’m the only person to think: “Debra Winger is still acting?”  However, she is and she does a fantastic job of it in “The Lovers” — written and directed by Azazel Jacobs.

Unfortunately for Winger and co-star Tracy Letts, the script of “The Lovers” languishes in laconic pacing for the first half. That’s a shame because great acting can only do so much to elevate a film that is trying to say something about long a term marriage where the relationship has fizzled into inertia. The fact that so few films examine these kinds of things (mostly because the subject is kind of depressing) means that Jacobs has the advantage of not having to compete with films that center on the early parts of falling in love and keeping a relationship going. And while “The Lovers” doesn’t completely fail in telling its tale, it does take a certain amount of patience from the audience for the story to really kick in.

Winger and Letts play Mary and Michael, a couple who just kind of sleepwalk through life at home and work. Both are are having affairs in an attempt to feel something again, but it seems that spark isn’t quite there with their lovers Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Lucy (Melora Walters). Robert is madly in love with Mary, and Lucy clearly loves Michael. But late middle age does something to the soul of a relationship. Michael and Mary have been married for a long time, and while the passion for each other is but a distant memory, they can’t quite commit to their lovers because…well, because their son is coming home from college and it’s just not a good time. However, even that excuse masks deeper reasons they stall in ending their marriage. This is where the movie gets interesting. After watching these rather dead souls for half the movie, the story takes a bit of a twist as Mary and Michael rediscover their desire for each other. Lest you think it’s all a ruse just to spice up their marriage, you’d only be half right. Read one way, Michael and Mary’s motives are purely carnal. They like the excitement of rediscovering sex with each other. Read another way, Michael and Mary’s motives are about the joy of not living with a ghost anymore; about finding that spark of attraction that led to a long life together.

However, all that changes when their son Joel (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula) come home for a visit. Joel already has a lot of emotional baggage regarding his father. He knows he’s a lying, cheating, asshole, and he’s prepared Erin not to fall for Michael’s bullshit. But Erin is not a judgemental person, so she’s gives Michael the benefit of the doubt and teases out bits and pieces of Michael’s past and finds him rather interesting. Joel, on the other hand, is very judgemental, and doesn’t trust his dad and wonders why his mom is still with him. As the film enters its denouement, we see that Joel’s visit was a catalyst for the life changes the characters were ready to make. They just needed a push from their son.

While “The Lovers” is not a great film, it does tackle long term marriage, affairs, and what people want to make them happy life — and does so in ways that isn’t didactic, but neither is it entirely well executed. Yes, Debra Winger and Tracy Letts save the film from sinking in the first half, and their skilled acting elevates the second half with better writing and story. However, things like Mandy Hoffman’s violin based score and Azazel Jacobs screenplay tend to mute or bury some of the more compelling elements of the story that reveal themselves later in the film. Overall, you may walk away from “The Lovers” perplexed by the motives of the central characters, but also understanding that their quirks and flaws are what make them so wholly suited to each other.

What’s THAT Supposed to Mean?: Psychedelic Furs, “Pretty in Pink”

She turns herself round and she smiles and she says, “This is it, that’s the end of the joke.” What’s THAT supposed to mean?

Some songs are ambiguous. Some songs go a step farther. They can present contrasting ideas, not in conflict with each other but both equally valid.

That’s the case with this pugnacious yet delicate Psychedelic Furs classic. It’s rough but pretty. Caustic but compassionate. Snide but sympathetic.

Peruse the usual sites dissecting lyrics, and you’ll get a few fanciful interpretations. Maybe Caroline is transgender. Maybe it’s about a woman who died in a car accident, and all her past lovers wore pink in tribute.

That’s overthinking it and failing to see how brilliantly this song tells a simpler story. Caroline sleeps around. Period. Singer/lyricist Richard Butler, typically conveying his thoughts in a world-weary voice that’s simultaneously pleasing and abrasive, sees the good and bad in her situation, presenting a complex portrait of a simple situation.

Such nuances apparently did not make it to the John Hughes film that took its name from the song, as Butler explains in an interview that clearly states what was on his mind:

The idea of the song was, ‘Pretty In Pink’ as a metaphor for being naked. The song, to me, was actually about a girl who sleeps around a lot and thinks that she’s wanted and in demand and clever and beautiful, but people are talking about her behind her back. That was the idea of the song. And John Hughes, bless his late heart, took it completely literally and completely overrode the metaphor altogether! I still like the song.

That interview also shows a few reasons why, intentionally or accidentally, Butler and the Furs crafted a song that captures Caroline’s duality.

Let’s start by dismissing the idea that this is simply a laundry list of slut-shaming insults. Here’s Butler on the criticism that this album, Talk Talk Talk, was sexist:

That was a little surprising. I didn’t find there were any attitudes on there written as a male that couldn’t also be felt as a female. If I were to posit the idea that I didn’t want to have a romance with somebody, I just wanted to sleep with them, I was accused of sexism? I think that’s a fairly commonplace way of thinking for males and females. Not every time a girl has sex does she want to get married and have babies with the person – you know? It seemed a curiously old-fashioned way of looking at it all, and in a way, reverse sexism.

And Butler sees a bit of sadness in Caroline’s life choices. The second verse is all about the guys who pass through her life so quickly:

All of her lovers all
Talk of her notes and the
Flowers that they never sent
And wasn’t she easy, and
Isn’t she pretty in pink?

The one who insists he was the
First in the line is the
Last to remember her name

There’s also a hint that Caroline has been sucked into a conformist world, simply going along with what she thinks a woman is supposed to be. “Caroline laughs, and it’s raining all day / She loves to be one of the girls.”

But the third verse puts Caroline in control. One interpretation at SongMeanings even suggests that Caroline finally decides to say goodbye to this lifestyle.

Beyond the lyrics on the printed page, the song is riddled with duality — which the re-recorded version for the John Hughes film destroys. Here’s Tim Butler, Richard’s brother and the Furs’ bass player, from the same interview linked above: “It was a popular song before the movie, and I think it is a classic song. We re-recorded it for the film because they said there was some slightly out of tune guitar work on the original. I could never figure it out, but that was the reasoning.”

I also don’t hear anything out of tune. But the original has two clashing guitar lines. In the background, we hear jangly chords, as if Michael Stipe is about to lay down one of his more upbeat portraits of Southern life circa 1983. The lead guitar is distorted. Rougher. There’s something pretty about Caroline, but there’s also something raw and primal.

And Richard Butler had a seat-of-the-pants approach to writing lyrics, as the brothers explain:

RB: Yeah, I’ve always been a really bad procrastinator in everything, and pressure of that kind works to my benefit.

TB: Richard always used to be writing stuff down on pieces of paper – whether he was in a bar or a dressing room or sitting at home. He’d suddenly pick up a piece of paper and write something down. He’d have notebooks with bits of napkins in it, etc. Sometimes he’d just be hit by a lyric.

So parts of Pretty In Pink feel unfinished. In the second verse, Butler stretches out the word “eaaaaaaaasy” over 10 beats, then simply restates “Isn’t she pretty in pink?” We don’t know if Butler simply decided that was the best approach — emphasizing the point that Caroline isn’t particularly picky — or just ran out of words. In the context of the recording, that second verse gives the impression that Butler is actually struggling to come up with the right words.

Accidentally or not, it’s a brilliant narrative device. Too much polish would have ruined this song — the re-recorded version for the film is a pale imitation. Butler’s portrait is conflicted, with scattered bits of eloquence that don’t lend themselves to a coherent judgment of the protagonist — because there IS no coherent judgment of that protagonist.

The most memorable line of the song — “She lives in the place in the side of our lives / Where nothing is ever put straight” — says more about Caroline’s lovers than it does about Caroline. Her lovers treat her the same way they treat old memorabilia tucked in a drawer — perhaps one day earning a prominent place in the household, perhaps not.

Caroline’s lovers may treat her as a joke. Butler doesn’t. He sees that she’s letting herself be a disposable part of these men’s lives. Some interpretations suggest she has a bit of delusion that this is more meaningful, saying “I love you” and “too much.” But Butler sees beauty here as well.

Caroline’s going to be all right. At least this all happened before Craigslist and Tinder.