Saturday, August 2, 2008

Call The Police (and Elvis Costello, too)

You want me to stay sane, right? That’s why you didn’t get a mondegreen from me last week. I have many lyrics that I have misheard over the years, and it seems useless to run them into the ground when nobody wants to read them. Although there is one that seems fitting. Again, I’d misheard this for years. I found out through Wikipedia that the line from Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio” in the second verse is:

Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry ‘bout the times they had
While everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed

And I heard this for 30 years as:

Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry ‘bout the times ahead
While everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early death

I think they’re both pretty good. So, hey, that makes me a songwriting genius right up there with Mr. Declan Patrick Alouysius McManus himself. OK, maybe not.

On that note, my wife and I saw Elvis open for The Police last week. It was a great concert. While Elvis’ set was far too short and designed, I think, not to overshadow the headliners, he plowed through a stripped-down set of his oldest and newest. There were several tracks from his latest album—and, yes, it did start out life as an album—Momofuku, as well as tracks from the days when he was poised to be the Next Big Thing, before he described Ray Charles to Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett. Yes, there was “Radio Radio,” and “Alison” (a duet with Sting!), and “Watching The Detectives” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” While Costello has never been known for hit singles, these have become signature songs that he can’t get away from playing.

Then came The Police. I should note that I have not been as familiar with The Police’s oeuvre (every rock critic has to use “oeuvre” at least once in a career) as with Elvis Costello’s. I know all about the hits, of course, as they were part of the soundtrack of my high school years, but there were just other artists whose records I wanted to spend my allowance on.

Cynics will say that The Police’s current tour is just more money-grubbing from a has-been band with no new material. Nobody who saw Monday night’s show would say that. Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers were not going through the motions as many aging rockers do. They played as if they had something to prove. And I was impressed with the chops they had.

As I get older, I have come to appreciate technical skill in music more. In the ‘90s, I was more of the alternative rock mindset, which held that passion is EVERYTHING, even if you have no talent. It did not occur to me that you can see excellent displays of passion in preschools across America, but they’re not worthy of a record contract. Maybe it’s my wife’s influence, maybe it’s gray hair, or maybe it’s my karaoke hobby, but I now have greater appreciation for how hard it is to make really good music.

I already knew that The Police have made some great hit singles, with a unique mix of punk and reggae and hooks that stay in the brain forever. Who can forget “Every Breath You Take” or “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”? But what I didn’t realize is that they can also flat-out play.

The Police and Elvis Costello came to prominence as part of the ‘70s punk movement because they happened to be in the same neighborhood, but they were never really punks. Their music was always more sophisticated. It is telling that Copeland and Summers were veterans of prog-rock outfits (Curved Air and Soft Machine, respectively), which was exactly the thing that punk was meant to overthrow. This sophistication may have made punk purists sneer at them, but maybe it’s why they’re still rocking while Johnny Rotten is selling houses in L.A.

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