Friday, August 5, 2011

Masterpieces of Pop: "Warm Leatherette" and "Cars"

For this installment of Masterpieces of Pop, we have a two-fer... two songs from the same time period in the same genre that belong together in this essay.

In the late 70s and early 80s, there was a revolution going on in music. It sprung from many different sources and many different places, from the southern United States to New York City, to London. It was expressed in different ways as well, but what it all had in common was that it really sounded nothing like anything that came before it. Punk was vicious, snarling, ferocious but there was also another alternative sound at the time, one that combined electronic elements with rock. Unfortunately, the music industry, and especially music journalists of the time were confused about what it all was. Music journalists are always eager to group things together into some kind of category in order to simplify their writing, and if it wasn't straight-forward rock, and if it wasn't disco (which all but disappeared by the early 80s anyhow), and if it wasn’t “punk," it (whether it was experimental rock, Ska, art-rock, rockabilly, 60s garage band rock, power pop, or most commonly, synthpop) became “New Wave.” Which is a shame because a lot of interesting music got lost by being lumped into a category that many felt to be vapid or too odd (by the early 80s, even some punk bands that were previously called punk were being called New Wave!).

Thankfully, “Warm Leatherette” did not get washed away with the tide. Written and recorded by Daniel Miller in 1978, this Masterpiece of Pop is based on the novel CRASH by English author J.G. Ballard which fetishizes car accidents. Miller takes the ideas in Ballard's book such as alienation, a perverse love of machines, and body modification through injuries in automobile crashes and boils them down to a frighteningly succinct and detached narration. (In 1996, Ballard's book was turned into a brilliant and disturbing film of the same name by David Cronenberg.) Musically, "Warm Leatherette" was influenced by German electronic music like Kraftwerk and Can. But what makes this a Masterpiece of Pop is Miller's interpretation of what is known as "Krautrock:" incredibly minimalist, pared down, stripped of anything that would give a hint of "rock" or even of music produced by humans. This "inhuman" sound is propelled by a very simple series of saw waves played on a $150 Korg 700S synthesizer. Working under the do-it-yourself ethic of punk, Miller recorded it on a four-track in his apartment and released it (under the nom-de-band The Normal) through Rough Trade Records in Portobello Road, London, as a B-side to another song called "T.V.O.D."...but of course "Warm Leatherette" became the hit.

Miller doesn't sing or even speak the horrifying lyrics as much as he "issues" them with a coldness that matches the frigid, industrial machine sound of the music, which speeds along like pistons firing in an engine. But listen closely: under the emotionless exterior is a restrained disdain, a subtle and perverse schadenfreude, a disguised and dark thrill.

"See the breaking glass
In the underpass
See the breaking glass
In the underpass

Warm leatherette

Hear the crushing steel
Feel the steering wheel
Hear the crushing steel
Feel the steering wheel

Warm leatherette

Warm leatherette
Melts on your burning flesh
You can see your reflection
In the luminescent dash

Warm leatherette

A tear of petrol
Is in your eye
The hand brake
Penetrates your thigh
Quick - Let's make love
Before you die

On warm leatherette
Warm leatherette

Join the car crash set"

"Warm Leatherette" is quite a cult classic song and has been covered by many different artists and bands like Grace Jones and Duran Duran, but please allow me to steer you toward a version that equals and quite possibly surpasses the original: in 2006 Trent Reznor, the father of "Goth" Peter Murphy, Jeordie White and Atticus Ross performed a mind-blowing live version here.

It is entirely worth noting that because of his single "Warm Leatherette," Daniel Miller went on to form Mute Records which released recordings by artists as varied as Depeche Mode, Yaz, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Diamanda Galas, and more recently, Goldfrapp.

The 70s/ 80s music revolution featured a passion for 1950s iconography--not to be confused with 1950s pop culture. Witness the cut-and-paste 50s images featured on Paper Moon Graphics cards that were so popular during the 70s/80s, or the 50s high school hygiene films, public service announcements, B-movie monster films, and footage of atomic bombs testings that were edited together and shown at dance clubs or concerts and made into music videos (see "Beautiful World" by DEVO). This interest mixed a sort of post-modern mocking with a genuine sense of identification. In the 50s, the enemies were the Russians in the Cold War or the atomic bomb which manifested as a fear of monsters (or deformed humans) created by radiation. But times always change and social ideas change with them. Although there was still some residual--and very real--fear from the Russians (take a look back in history at Ronald Reagan "joking" that Congress has outlawed Russia and that we begin bombing in five minutes, and at the Frankie Goes To Hollywood song and video, "Two Tribes," both of which I wrote of in a post here), in the 80s the fear took the form of the modern world and ourselves. This time the enemy was within.

With that in mind, another Masterpiece of Pop from this time period is also a song relating to cars, but instead of car crashes or technology being a threat, technology is embraced as a sanctuary from the storm of contemporary culture. Gary Numan wrote and recorded his classic hit "Cars" in 1979 and it quickly rose to number one on the UK charts.

A chilly Moog synthesizer hovers over the more traditional bass and drums in this song about alienation, modern anxiety, and paranoia. Gary Numan's vocal style was and still is robotic, cold, and devoid of emotion which is a perfect expression of the themes in the song.

Numan has always sung about technology and machines--much of his lyrics are comprised of allegories between machines and people, and a diffuse frustration with and disappointment in people, who are generally shown to be inferior to technology. But in a 2001 interview with KAOS2000 magazine, Numan recounts the very real inspiration for the lyrics: "I was in traffic in London once and had a problem with some people in front. They tried to beat me up and get me out of the car. I locked the doors and eventually drove up on the pavement and got away from them. It's kind of to do with that. It explains how you can feel safe inside a car in the modern world... When you're in it, your whole mentality is different... It's like your own little personal empire with four wheels on it."

Although his voice may be devoid of emotion, inside the anxiety and paranoia of the lyrics for “Cars” is a yearning to connect to other human beings despite a seeming inability to do so. It is more than significant that Numan was diagnosed, as an adult, with Asperger's Syndrome, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, a mild form of autism that makes relating to and communicating with other people extremely difficult. His syndrome directly contributed to the evolution of his music and the recurring motifs in his lyrics.

Notice the structure of the lyrics. The song has no chorus.

"Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It's the only way to live
In cars

Here in my car
I can only receive
I can listen to you
It keeps me stable for days
In cars

Here in my car
Where the image breaks down
Will you visit me please?
If I open my door
In cars

Here in my car
I know I've started to think
About leaving tonight
Although nothing seems right
In cars"

Mute Records:

Gary Numan:

This is the fifth installment of my original, ongoing "Masterpieces of Pop" series. You can read the other essays here:

Masterpieces of Pop: "Ode To Billie Joe"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
Masterpieces of Pop: "I Only Have Eyes For You"
Masterpieces of Pop: "I'm Not In Love"

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