Music

Retro Tuesday And The Definition Of “Smooth”

SOME OF US spent the New Year celebration doing better things than getting plastered and passing out; a chance discussion with an old associate online, at 2am on New Year’s Day, revealed that “smooth” remains cool: and with an exchange of music videos revealing similar tastes in “smooth,” the question very much went begging. What is “smooth?” How do you recognise it when you hear it? And can it be defined, or is it simply a matter of preference?

I wish readers a Happy New Year and, of course, a great year ahead; in the aftermath of the passing of George Michael last week, it seems another Tuesday has come around in record time, but today I’ve got a couple of absolute corkers to share — to say nothing of a question to pose.

Put simply, where music is concerned, what is “smooth?”

There’s a rather excellent fellow who has crossed my path three times now in the past 15 years out in “media land” in Melbourne, and he knows who he is; quite a bit younger than I am and obviously with a different story to tell, for some reason we hit it off — and these days, now different career trajectories (to say nothing of family life) has taken us in divergent directions, catch-ups are usually via social media, rather than random reunions when one of us shows up for a new media job.

In any case, I spent New Year’s Eve (after re-watching The Godfather for the quintillionth time) listening to old music videos on YouTube, which (as readers will have ascertained by now) is something of a late-night pastime I love, hunting out the old and obscure, or the latest thing etched in my mind from the day’s events, or just going on a YouTube cruise (you pick a starting track, and from there, you proceed ONLY by choosing from the “suggested options” to the right of the viewer…and every time one track finishes, you pick from the options to the right again, and so forth).

Anyhow, a random glance at Facebook at about 2am on New Year’s Day revealed a post from this fellow, proclaiming that the track embedded below is, in fact, the smoothest song of all time, and while I don’t know if I agree entirely, it’s a cracker of a hit anyway.

Turn it up…

At the very least, it instantly went without saying that we would be talking about this today.

But it got me thinking: what makes a “smooth” song? Is it the vocal delivery of the artist? The penmanship of the lyrics? The finish and polish on the music track? Or is it an amalgam of all of this and more, as the (musical) planets align to deliver something timeless, tuneful, and memorable?

It certainly isn’t heavy rock, or material based in metal or the classics; it could be jazz (and for that, I recommend this to readers as a pleasant little diversion to boot) or it could be something out of the disco era (like…this…which should be played very loudly) — but is whatever makes smooth “smooth” tangible, quantifiable, and able to be described?

Or is it simply what people, based on their particular characteristics and outlook, like to listen to?

Over the years, there have been those who have almost certainly released material one would suspect was at least in part deliberately fashioned to corner the “smooth” market; this is a prime culprit in terms of what I am talking about — and beyond the confines of the early 1990s (which were an embarrassment in their own right, musical or otherwise) it is safe to say that Kenny G and “smooth” don’t belong in the same sentence.

It probably isn’t most of what is on the playlists of radio stations that have become fashionable these days, billing themselves as “smooth:” to be sure, these media outlets do play some material that passes the test, but most of what they broadcast (like all commercial music radio stations) is crap.

What about those who practically shout from the rooftops to herald the “smoothness” of their work? The ultimate example is Sade Adu, with her intoxicating silken voice, and the song that presented its bona fides upfront.

Even with a little thought, the names of several artists who could be described as “the king of the smoothies” spring to mind: Rod Stewart. Mick Hucknell, a la Simply Red. Neil Finn from Crowded House (or Crowded House, full stop).

And any discussion of “smooth” would be incomplete without at least a mention of this bloke.

But really, is all of this just personal preference?

In my own case, I love most music: “from AC-DC to Mozart,” as I have always answered whenever asked what I like. But I make no bones about being a total 70s and 80s head — perhaps in large part because I’m a child of those times — but thinking forward and backward, the early rock’n’roll hits of the 50s and 60s were, whilst very listenable, more noise than art; and whilst the 90s and later still yield classic hits (which may even fit the bill where being “smooth” is concerned), I find it very hard to go beyond those two decades where music was made to be listened to, rather than noise for its own sake, bubble-gum pop to extract money from screaming teenagers, or drug-fuelled grunge bullshit.

And this brings me to the second track in my “double shot” today — notwithstanding the fact I’ve included bonus tracks everywhere once again this week.

I don’t know if this out-smoothes “the smoothest song of all time,” but you would have to think it comes close…

…but whether it does or doesn’t, there are similarly hundreds of songs that would vie for the title in their own right, but for that I leave readers to their own choices. What do you think?

Retro Tuesday: George Michael And The Last Christmas

BACK IN JANUARY — just 19 days into what has evolved into a wretched year for celebrity deaths — this segment pondered whether 2016 would be the year celebrity died; at that time, the names lost to the entertainment world and its audiences included David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Alan Rickman: now, dozens of deaths later and still with four days left in 2016, we add 1980s pop superstar and creative genius George Michael to a horribly burgeoning list.

If there is one thing I am thankful for, at least, in being so time-challenged as to prevent me posting in this column for most of 2016, it is that with the benefit of hindsight, I have been spared the need to turn Retro Tuesday into a perennial virtual obituary page; so many entertainment identities loved by millions have been lost this year, and here we are — again — lamenting the loss of another in the aftermath of Christmas.

News yesterday (Melbourne time; late Christmas Day elsewhere) that 1980s pop sensation, creative genius and troubled enigma George Michael had succumbed to heart failure in his sleep aged 53 came as a shock; his passing continues a long, long list of celebrity passings this year — most of them from the Baby Boomer generation born between 1946 and 1964 — that reads like a kind of macabre Who’s Who of the music, box office and wider entertainment industries: and at the risk of being grotesque, it seems appropriate to note that 2016 still has four days left to run.

With Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher critically ill, and rumours swirling about just how ill Queen Elizabeth II really is, it goes without saying that nobody wants to add any more names to the sinister roll call of global icons 2016 has presented to date.

But as one of the millions who spent the bulk of their teenage years in the 1980s, I must note that George Michael’s music made a big contribution to the soundtrack of my generation; and just like some of the giants who have preceded his passing this year — David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, among others — Michael’s presence in our lives was more permanent than just the 1980s, and evolved with us beyond the bubble-gum tunes he pumped out with Wham! as we grew with him, and he grew with us.

It is fair to say, of Generation X, that a lot of us grew up with George Michael.

For some reason, the first track that popped into my mind yesterday (when I realised the retro set for today’s column could only come from one place) was the ultra-commercial, ├╝ber-chic dance track from the early 1990s, Too Funky: it brought back not-unpleasant memories of well-misspent nights in riverside clubs in Brisbane like Friday’s and City Rowers, that in the latter case at least no longer exist: and, ridiculously, I have one very specific memory of bopping away at City Rowers, close to the 5am closing time one December Sunday morning, with that track blaring as the sun began rising over the Brisbane River and bathing the “night” club in unwelcome natural light.

But the track that first brought George Michael to our collective conscience was the early smash hit he scored with Andrew Ridgeley back in the Wham! days.

It was fun, its was infectious, and — being about 12 or 13 when it was released — it was early evidence to this body at least that music could really make you move: not that I could (or can) dance, mind; any attempt by Yours Truly to do such a thing is a hideous mishmash of left feet and that awful pedestrian, half-marching, awkward shifting shuffle whose practitioners are (rightly) pilloried and laughed at for their ineptitude. My excuse was that, just like John Lennon’s story in Helter Skelter, I “might be a singer but I ain’t no dancer.”

Happily these days, that is another story.

But Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go was one of those songs that etched itself in your brain and stayed there; and Wham! itself provided so many of those mental snapshots for a generation that spring readily to mind many years after the duo’s dissolution: cruising around in the jeep and chilling out by the pool in Club Tropicana. The tale of adolescent rebellion that was Bad Boys. The melancholy, wistful reflections of Careless Whisper. Even before Michael parted company with Ridgeley, it seemed he had it all.

George Michael was, of course, a complicated, enigmatic and to some extent tortured character; never far away from trouble with the constabulary, he led a double life of denial for decades where the question of his homosexuality was concerned, eventually “coming out” after being busted doing something “lewd” in a public toilet block late one night in London.

Busted at one point for possession of drugs, what had been an open secret for years in the form of a marijuana habit took on more sinister — and worrying — overtones when Michael was arrested with a quantity of crack cocaine on his person, raising questions of a more serious problem with drug use that threatened to spiral out of control.

It was, regrettably, an all-too-familiar storyline where entertainers of his generation were concerned. Amy Winehouse’s name comes to mind. Robert Palmer’s, too. Again, the list is as endless as it is tragic.

And Michael had a well-publicised brush with death a few years back, narrowly surviving a bout of pneumonia that might have seen his papers stamped far sooner; 2017 was slated, according to reports, as the year he was set to roar back onto the global stage with a new album and a tour — perhaps remaking himself, and his music, as he had done multiple times already.

For all the catchy, glitzy, showy pop tunes Wham! yielded, it’s hard to argue with the idea that Michael’s music matured — and came into its own — when he set forth as a solo artist: a journey that was marked with the arrival of his Faith album in 1987.

In an age when having music videos banned by the BBC was almost a rite of passage for the pop artists of the day, Michael obliged with the release of the video for I Want Your Sex, and came close to scoring a trifecta on that dubious measure with Father Figure: it was a time when the censorious Beeb, and its sanctimonious, don’t-say-shit-for-a-shilling morality crusades, seem as ludicrous and as laughable now than they did even at the time; other victims of this silly charade included Samantha Fox (Touch Me!) and even our own Wa Wa Nee (So Good), and it seems a badge of honour in hindsight that these relatively innocuous film clips were treated with such a heavy hand.

But Michael’s solo career proved, more than anything, that there was so much more to him than mere schmaltzy popcorn and infectious jingles; his was a talent that stood on its own merits as serious entertainment, and it is another track from Faith! that brings up the double shot in our Retro Tuesday set today: a showcase of the vocal purity and musical genius that proved that when it came to the finest entertainers of his generation, George Michael stood head and shoulders with the best.

There are lots of bonus links today; this piece in no way attempts to serve as an obituary — plenty of those have appeared, and will appear, in other places — but as a celebration of one of those entities that I, and so many around me, grew up with.

None of us were bothered (or surprised) when Michael came out as gay; just like the Pet Shop Boys and others, he was simply a vessel through which great and enduring music filled our lives and frankly, what he did in his own time was nobody’s business.

But this troubled and complex character, like so many of his contemporaries, met with an untimely end on Christmas Day, dying peacefully in his sleep from heart failure, according to official releases from his inner sanctum: a reminder, perhaps, that the rumoured drug use with which he had struggled for decades came at a terrible eventual cost.

Next week, hopefully, we can return this segment to a simple celebration of great music that simply intersects with some aspect of daily life — free from headlines of untimely deaths and the outpouring of grief that accompanies them.

But in closing today, I leave readers with a bonus video, even beyond all the extra links and the clips I have embedded here: and in furtherance of the connection I had with Michael’s music over the years, I should note that about 15 years ago — before screaming at football matches wrecked my voice — I won a hefty prize at Crown Casino in Melbourne singing this song at one of its ubiquitous karaoke pageants.

I include it now not to be jingoistic about the fact Michael’s passing came on Christmas day, but simply to include yet another of his timeless classics in today’s trip down music’s Memory Lane.

After all, there are literally dozens of others we could have included here, but haven’t: and for that, I point people to YouTube if their CD collections, unlike mine, are devoid of George Michael’s excellent releases over the years.