May 27 – Buckingham Palace Was Not Amused

Oh the humanity! It wasn’t punk rock’s start, but it was the start of it being noticed and frightening parents far and wide. After months of notoriety and an astonishing 125 000 pounds (about $700 000 in today’s funds) paid to just “go away” from EMI and A&M Records, the Sex Pistols finally release their first record for the Virgin label. “God Save the Queen”, arrived this day in 1977.

True, the Clash and the Stranglers (and in the U.S., the Ramones) had all put out albums by then, even the Pistols themselves had a prior, minor hit with “Anarchy in the UK” on EMI Records. But it was this 7” single really defined “punk” for the masses and caused a ruckus. Radio stations in the UK banned it, many record stores refused to stock it, the band were beaten up by monarchists (mind you, performing the sneering song saying the queen “ain’t no human being” on a boat near the palace on the day of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee had to be known to be a wee bit provocational!) …but it sold 150 000 copies in the first week, probably hit #1 – the first punk single to do so – and helped the band, in their short career make people ranging from Siouxshie Sioux (enjoying her 64th birthday today) to Peter Hook to Morrissey decide to start bands.

So, why did we say “probably” hit #1? Well, the chart compiled by influential music publication the NME put it at #1 that week. However, the BBC – which banned the song for “gross bad taste” – had it at #2 on their own chart, behind Rod Stewart. If that seems a bit fishy, consider that for that week or two, and those weeks only, the chart refused to count sales from stores which owned record labels… ie, the copies sold at the large Virgin stores in the UK, didn’t count. That particular rule was dropped as soon as Sid Vicious and the boys had fallen out of the limelight.

Years later, Johnny Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) said of the song, “you don’t write a song like that because you hate the English race, you write it because you love ’em and are fed up with them being mistreated.” That said, he wasn’t in favor of a re-release of the single to coincide with the Queen’s golden anniversary in 2002. He called that a “circus” and “totally undermines what the Sex Pistols stood for.” It came back out anyway, and made it back up to #15. Controversy notwithstanding, or perhaps because of it, the song lives on like an anthem for the late-’70s disaffected. Rolling Stone list it among their 200 greatest songs of all-time (curiously enough right behind another hit song from that year, but from an entirely different point of view – Abba’s “Dancing Queen”) while Q magazine once declared it “the most exciting song” ever. What would be quite exciting indeed would be to come across a legitimate A&M Records copy of “God Save the Queen.” They never officially released it, and had the Pistols on their roster for a very short time. But in that short time, they began pressing copies of the single, which they withdrew quickly when they dropped the band. However, a few executives and other types around A&M in England held on to a copy or two, and now the few that do show up regularly fetch over 10 000 British pounds in auction.

September 21 – Not Nothing, But Lots Of Money From It

It was working…it’s way up the charts. And it hit its peak 35 years ago. Dire Straits‘ great “Money for Nothing” hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1985. It was the second single off their groundbreaking Brothers in Arms album that would quickly lift them from the ranks of moderately popular bands to the elite rarified air of the superstars of the music world.

Like the band’s previous big hit, “Sultans of Swing”, “Money for Nothing” came about simply from Mark Knopfler paying attention to his surroundings. The former was a close to real life recounting of him walking into a bar with a second-rate band on a rainy night; this hit was born when he was in the States in a big box store. He recalls that they had a wall of TVs, all tuned to MTV. “A guy (employee) in a baseball cap, plaid shirt and workboots” was unloading boxes, watching the videos and was complaining to his co-worker with phrases like “he’s banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee” and “that’s not working – play the guitar on your MTV!”. Knopfler knew he was onto something and the song began to take shape in his mind. “I borrowed a piece of paper and started to write” before he left the store.

The band was in Monserrat recording the album; Knopfler decided to imitate ZZ Top in the guitar sounds since ZZ Top at the time were at the top of the MTV game and probably one of the bands that store clerk was referring to. Billy Gibbons of the Texas band says of the Dire Straits sound on the song”he didn’t do a half bad job considering I didn’t tell him anything.” The coup de grace of the song happened coincidentally. While they were recording there, Sting was nearby, finishing up his Dream of the Blue Turtles album and relaxing in the waters. He dropped by the studio to visit.

Sting remembers listening to the demo of the song and telling Mark “you’ve done it this time, you bastard!”. They both laughed but Sting felt it could use a little something extra. He suggested the “I want my MTV” catchphrase, and sang it in a falsetto, eventually becoming one of the song’s most distinctive features and getting a co-writing credit for it!

The song was a long one the way the band meant it to be heard, 8:22 in fact. That’s the full-length version that appears on the CD (Brothers in Arms was recorded digitally and among the first albums actually designed to be a CD ), but to manage to fit the album onto an LP, it was shortened, as were a couple more songs. Vinyl purchasers got a seven minute version, while it was edited down more for the 7” single (4:38”) and video.

Speaking of the video…what a video! While perhaps looking a little kitschy or primitive by today’s standards, at the time it was a ground-breaking one using pixelated computer-animation of the little workmen installing microwaves and so forth. It won the Video of the Year at the MTV Awards, but almost didn’t happen. Knopfler wasn’t a fan of the concept of music videos and found it a bit hypocritical perhaps to have a song which lampoons the people staring at them publicized by one. However, Warner Bros. were rather adamant that it needed one and eventually Knopfler’s girlfriend won him over to the idea.

The song would go on to spend three weeks at #1 in the U.S., dethroning another of the decade’s biggies “St. Elmo’s Fire” from the top. It became the band’s biggest hit, also rising to the top in Britain, Canada, Australia and most other “Western” markets, helped along not only by the video but by a stellar performance on the biggest stage of the year, Live Aid, just a few weeks earlier. And along with songs like “So Far Away” and the title track, it helped Brothers in Arms top 30 million in sales and become the biggest record of the ’80s in their UK. Of course, that success didn’t come without a little controversy.

Among the lyrics, Knopfler twice refers to “that little faggot” (“with the earring and the makeup…he’s a millionaire.”) This of course was pretty much another direct quote of what he’d heard the store employee saying. “The guy is a real ignoramus. Hard-hat mentality,” the singer explained, noting the worker “has a grudging respect for the rock stars…he sees it in terms of ‘well he’s not working and yet the guy’s rich. That’s a good scam.” But rather than seeing it as a knock on such closed-minded thinking or a simple representation of a common way of thinking back then, critics piled on. First, they objected strenuously to the word itself, thinking it taboo and insulting. Secondly, they didn’t detect the fact that the singer was talking about guys who “install microwave ovens” and “move these refrigerators” and rather was describing his own feelings towards other musicians, and gays as well. Letters of complaint started pouring in to the band, the record label and radio stations almost as soon as it came out.

The problem was somewhat nullified by the edits; the 7” and most radio edits simply cut out the offending phrase (as well as many other things) to shorten it to a more “radio-friendly” length. However, some rock stations played the full version, and in 2011, the division of the Canadian government which regulates broadcasters banned the album version saying “faggot is one word even if entirely or marginally acceptible in earlier days is no longer so.” Most stations began playing the 7” version or digitizing the offending word out, but at least two stations played the full, unedited version for an hour straight to protest. Later in the year, the agency reversed itself, still saying it was inappropriate and should be avoided but leaving it up to the individual broadcasters to decide.

Being a little bit controversial didn’t seem to offput the oft-Conservative Grammy Awards; they gave the song the award for Best Rock Performance by a Group or Duo the next year.

January 16 – Wings High Over Japan

Not one of Paul McCartney‘s finer hours 40 years ago.

Arriving with his band Wings in Tokyo this day in 1980 to kick off what would have been an 11-show tour of Japan culminating with 4 concerts at the famous Budokan Hall, he was arrested at the airport with almost half a pound of marijuana. He recalls that the security officer “looked more embarrassed than me” and says in retrospect he had no idea how stern Japanese laws regarding drugs were. He was whisked away to jail and spent over nine days in a small cell before being released and deported.

It wasn’t the first time “Mac” had troubles from his love of pot; he’d been fined in Sweden in 1972 for it and in Scotland in 1973 for growing it and his wife Linda was charged at L.A. airport in 1975 for trying to bring some into the country.

Although the Japanese didn’t press charges in the long run, they did briefly ban all of his music from their radio and TV and the Wings tour was canceled, resulting in a costly refund for over 100 000 tickets. Coupled with bad reviews for the 1979 Back to the Egg album (Rolling Stone called it “the sorriest grab bag of dreck in recent memory”) it was supposed to promote, the band got their noses out of “joint” and soon after broke up. Denny Laine, ex of the Moody Blues and Wings’ guitarist (and sometimes additional bassist to Paul as well) had put out a solo record by year’s end and soon McCartney would be doing the same.

November 25 – Girl, You Know It’s (Not) True

The ’80s were the decade when image sometimes trumped the sound when it came to music. Never was that “MTV effect” more true than 30 years ago when one of the hottest acts in the world would end up causing one of pop music’s biggest scandals. Milli Vanilli were at #1 – yet again – on this day in 1989 with “Blame it on the Rain”. It was their third chart-topper of the year in the U.S., good going for a relatively unknown newcomer! Of course, the problem was they were more unknown than we knew…

Milli Vanilli was a German act put together by Frank Farian, who’d been the main man in Boney M earlier on. We saw the videos to their lightweight Europop dance tunes and saw the singing duo of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, who “were” Milli Vanilli. They’d been introduced to Europe in 1988, with the album All or Nothing which had gone gold in their native Germany. Clive Davis’ Arista Records picked it up for North American release and put it out early in ’89 with a slightly different song configuration as Girl You Know It’s True. Davis spends about six pages of his autobiography explaining how despite being such a “hands-on” record exec, he never dreamed anything was amiss with these guys he barely even was aware of…

The album quickly put out two #1’s in the States, “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” and “Baby Don’t Forget My Number”, and then this third one got there as well. “Blame it on the Rain” was written by up-and-coming writer Diane Warren who’d written Laura Branigan’s hit “Solitaire” and would later write Aerosmith’s “Don’t Want to Miss A Thing” and win Golden Globes for movie music work in over 60 films. It might be the best of the singles on the album allmusic describe as being “hardly far removed from…peers (like) Paula Abdul, Debbie Gibson or even the more substantive Janet Jackson.” They also “raved” about Farian’s synthesizer-playing, suggesting “it’s hard not to listen to (the album) and not marvel at the level of Farian’s studiocraft…it sounds like the machine wrote it on its own accord.”

All would have been well and good, if that and the Grammy they won as Best New Artist the next year was the end of the story. But of course it wasn’t. Somehow, someone figured out that the presumably ordinary-looking John Davis, Brad Howell and Charles Shaw (“backing vocals” according to the liner notes) sounded a lot more like Milli Vanilli than Morvan and Pilatus, whom no one even recalled showing up in the studio. The handsome pair were both professional models and dancers… but had no experience singing. Farian didn’t think they needed to as long as they could lip-synch for the videos. Soon the truth came out – the pair the public had been led to believe “were” Milli Vanilli were just actors who looked good and the real group were more or less anonymous types not seen in videos or credited much by the record company.

When it turned out that they weren’t the real singers, all hell broke loose. The Grammys revoked their award and asked for the trophy back. Despite the album being 6X platinum in the U.S., Arista retired it from their catalog and offered anyone who’d bought it a refund! (Which makes you wonder — really? It was an audio album not a video… does listening to it now suffer because the guys on the cover aren’t singing?) It was a scandal that lives on to this day with cheaters at times being referred to as “Milli Vanillis”.

Sadly, the pair actually recorded a record, Rob and Fab in 1998. It sold in the range of 2000 copies worldwide. Weeks later, Pilatus was dead from a probable intentional OD. He’d spent time in jail for robbery and assault before that, never quite recovering from having his name forever tied to “phony” . Blame it on the brain… of Frank Farian.