Thursday, October 25, 2007

Street smarts

While her ex-husband Phil (seen on the left--and isn't that new Genesis P- Orridge* look that he's rocking really quite fetching?) has been facing murder charges, Ronnie Spector's four-part documentary on doo-wop (Street Corner Soul) is currently airing on Radio 2, and is highly recommended. Tracing the history of the genre from The Orioles onwards, it gives an insight into why aficionados like Brian Eno and Martin Rev of Suicide fell for this "Martian music" when it crackled through the airwaves at the birth of the fifties.

To my mind, one of the high points of Western art (let alone of doo-wop), and right up there with Fallingwater, or Duchamp's Fountain, is The Flamingos cover of I Only Have Eyes For You, written in the 1930s and popularised by Peggy Lee, among others. The song is deceptively simple, infinitely complex, and is only connected to the songwriting tradition in the same way that a Wright building is connected to traditional architecture. It sounds like nothing else on earth. It is sui generis. The first three guitar chords lull you into a false sense of security, and then four seconds in, you're hit with an incredible wall of sound. That insistent piano note. Voices that sound like they were recorded in a submarine. At the bottom of a sea. On Mars. Forget street corner soul: The Flamingos are street corner Satie; spare, minimal, sepulchral.

Martin Rev, one half of Suicide, took this template and updated it in the seventies and eighties, and similarly married technology with New York street corner soul. His sparring partner and lyrical foil in Suicide (Alan Vega), however, eschewed the saccharine subject matter of doo-wop and instead told harrowing tales of dystopia in the songs they did together as Suicide, even if their insistent, repetitive melodies owed as much to the Orioles, the Flamingos and the Coasters as they did to Suicide's CBGBs contemporaries. It was only in his solo albums (especially Clouds of Glory and See Me Ridin') that Rev was able to pay explicit homages to the music that he'd have heard in his youth. Whisper, from his aforementioned album Clouds of Glory, doesn't actually have any lyrics, but if it did you can imagine that they'd be sing-songy paeans of everlasting love, and its arpeggiating harmonies could easily be replicated by four voices standing on a Brooklyn corner.

Download the Flamingos' I Only Have Eyes For You (MP3) (deleted May 2008)

Download Martin Rev's Whisper (MP3) (deleted May 2008)

* For those that want to compare and contrast, Genesis is pictured below...


Anonymous said...

To hear those glorious days of group harmony tune in every Tuesday at from 6pm to 8pm (east coast time USA) for the Rockin' Richard (Phillips) show. Over 30 years of transmitting the vocal tones of the past. Yes, including the Flamingos.

irkthepurists said...

Good call, sir! Many thanks!