The year was 1967, and the Beatles had just struck it rich with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was an album that pandered mercilessly to a generation of hippies too stoned on acid to realize it was the most globulent, sugar-covered thing the Fabricated Four had ever committed to vinyl.
Even worse than a really absurd Beatles album, though, was that the Rolling Stones thought they needed a Sgt. Pepper of their own. So the Stones played monkey-see, monkey-do, and coughed up a hairball they called Their Satanic Majesties Request. It was full of the same lame psychedelic conceptualisms that made Sgt. Pepper so quease-inducing. In the past several months, two artists, Terence Trent D'Arby and Tears for Fears, thought they could do what the Rolling Stones couldn't-- create a Sgt. Pepper sequel.
The possibility must have been intoxicating. What they released, in fact, were the last two-thirds of Their Satanic Majesties Request: The Trilogy.
A third Sgt. Pepper wanna-be, De La Soul, actually recognized the difference between art and ego. When constructing its "project," the hip-hop group managed to add a major dose of imagination to rap, and crack a smile at the same time. De La Soul took itself just seriously enough, which is to say that De La Soul didn't take itself seriously at all.
THE ROOTS FOR ALL this Satanic Pepper-ing started growing twenty years after the release of the albums. In 1987, Rolling Stone named Sgt. Pepper the best album of the past twenty years, and the compact-disc version of the record appeared.
Sgt. Pepper's canonization inspired Terence Trent D'Arby to hyperbole. He wasted little time in proclaiming his 1987 debut album, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby, to be better than the Pepper--to be, in fact, "the most brilliant debut album from any artist this decade."
His massive ego and his mouth helped Terence Trent sell a lot of copies of his first disc. Graciously, D'Arby granted an interview to Rolling Stone, but only after the mag agreed to put his face on the cover.
But the Yank-turned-Limey did deserve a Rolling Stone cover--as least as much as, say, George Michael. His techno-soul tunes may have pandered to radio in the finest tradition of aural payola, but no one in the Top 40 had a voice like T.T.D.'s. On hits like "Wishing Well" and "Sign Your Name," his royal rasps laid down the law like a Smokey-Marvin conglom and hung in the air so long you could almost see them. D'Arby's hits weren't exactly "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" or "The Tracks of My Tears," but they were the only things happening on radio playlists full of "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" and "Hold On to the Nights."
D'Arby was right about his LP's being superior to Sgt. Pepper in one sense. Bound for platinum-plus glory, the record included cuts already cued up for heavy rotation on oldies stations in the next century. Sgt. Pepper's best single moment turned out to be Elton John's version of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." Sgt. Pepper was one massive sculpture with nothing much worth chipping off.
Maybe D'Arby didn't have a Sgt. Pepper clone, but he still had an album full of pretty good pop songs. Apparently, though, nothing less than an LP of ultra-organic Sgt. Pepper wholeness would suffice for D'Arby. You can follow the logic by listening to his new LP, Terence Trent D'Arby's Neither Fish nor Flesh. It's a Sgt. Pepper replica in the truest sense--a spacy art detour at least as gaudy as the original and full of instantly forgettable songs.
(Like with his first album, D'Arby is careful to include his name in the title, but this time Terence, Trent, and D'Arby are the first three words, not the last.)
If D'Arby had continued to realize his gifts for gritty phrasing and holding the listener's attention for the length of a single, he might've turned out a couple of classics every year until he, like the Stones, was playing stadiums at age fifty. But if Terence Trent D'Arby's Neither Fish nor Flesh is any indication, that isn't likely to happen. Pop radio has ignored the album because D'Arby has changed from punching to boxing. He is no longer exploring how far his devastating one-two combo--that voice and a way with the classic pop hook--will take him. D'Arby's buried his K.O. punch under an assortment of multilayered instrumentation, downright bizarre vocal affectations and meandering arrangements that sound like he's purposely swerving around any melodies likely to appear.
It isn't really fair to call the tunes on Neither Fish nor Flesh songs, nor is it quite proper to label this release an album. D'Arby's setup is like a series of bizarre tableaux in a private art showing. (The artist, by the way, subtitles the package A Soundtrack of Love, Faith, Hope & Destruction.)
Most of the time, the singer prances around like an unrestrained Jackson Pollock, splashing drips of sound all over the canvas. D'Arby and 41 other musicians play a total of 36 instruments, everything from a carboard box to a koto water harp. (At least the conductor apologizes to the masses in the liner notes "for keeping up with my long, odd hours, warped sense of humour, unorthodox methods, as well as my infamous mood swings.")
A good example of this artistic temper tantrum is the exhibit's second piece, "I Have Faith in These Desolate Times." D'Arby mixes gospel shouts with Mandy Patinkin squeals (both of them make the hair stand up on the back of your neck) and the music degenerates into tribal bongo bashing and syncopated guitar plucking. The lyrics also contain what is probably the first use of the word "Plasticine" in a pop song since "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."
Twittering bird sounds show up on the next track, "It Feels So Good to Love Someone Like You," which also features a very necessary wood block-strings duet.
Yes, D'Arby's into some serious eclecticism on Neither Fish nor Flesh. "To Know Someone Deeply Is to Know Someone Softly" relaxes under adult- contemporary lushness, while "I'll Be Alright" places D'Arby in a brassy, uptown, R&B setting. "Roly Poly" and "I Don't Want to Bring Your Gods Down," meanwhile, march out the Sgt. Pepper references--grand orchestral maneuvers, curious recording techniques, you name it--as if to remind you what this show is all about.
YOU CAN FIGURE OUT the model for Tears for Fears' new album, The Seeds of Love, by looking at the art inside and outside the jacket. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith keep straight faces on the LP's cover amidst a postmodern interpretation of the Yellow Submarine movie's "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" segment. Not as busy as the Sgt. Pepper cover, but easily as colorful as Their Satanic Majesties Request's jacket.
But you can't say Tears for Fears didn't put in as much time on this album as the Beatles did on their most famous work. Orzabal and Smith spent four years planting The Seeds of Love. The Beatles labored over Sgt. Pepper for four months, an eon in 1967. (Is it any wonder that on the liner notes the group thanks one flunky "for his saint-like patience in coordinating our everyday affairs," another "for making us stick to it," and several more "for strength in a time of crisis"?)
During their creative time, Orzabal and Smith worked with five producers and/or mixers, and like rock 'n' roll Steinbrenners, the Tears fired three of them. Orzabal, Smith and seventeen musicians play a total of twelve instruments on the album (quite economical compared to the D'Arby Big Band).
The Tears twosome, like D'Arby, figured that a previous multi-platinum album licensed them to spend a really long time proving that art, not money, is what they're all about. (It turns out that Orzabal and Smith have both. The Seeds of Love is platinum. Wonder what Columbia Records thought of D'Arby's platter peaking at No. 61 in its third week on Billboard's pop albums chart?)
Perhaps, as with D'Arby, the possibility of being considered a "singles artist" was revolting for Orzabal and Smith. On their 1985 LP Songs From the Big Chair, Tears for Fears impressed radio with unchallenging pop material like "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," "Shout," and "Head Over Heels."
For Seeds, Tears apparently decided cabaret-as-an-artistic-statement would be more interesting. Besides "Sowing the Seeds of Love," an obvious "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"-"I Am the Walrus" hybrid, the songs also include jazz, blues, soul and Up With People-style showstoppers.
Like Sting squared, Orzabal and Smith journey to the Middle East on "Standing on the Corner of the Third World" and get way down low with American singer Oleta Adams on "Badman's Song"--the Englishmen thank her for "authenticating our soul."
How to find room for this important expansion of ideas? Simple. Lengthen the songs. The eight tracks on Seeds average just shy of six minutes. "Badman's Song," which takes forever to get nowhere, demands eight minutes and 43 seconds of your time. "Swords and Knives" is six minutes and forty seconds' worth of mood-swing therapy. It's calm, perky, blustery, melancholy and a whole lot more.
So if you dare add these lush orchestrations to your home library, be sure to get the companion pieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Orzabal has actually compared The Seeds of Love to nothing less than a Tolstoy novel.
IF TEARS FOR FEARS is pop music's long-awaited answer to Tolstoy, De La Soul must be the artistic descendants of Shakespeare. Yeah, keep that in mind when you find out the title for the hip-hop trio's debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, was taken from a line of a Johnny Cash song.
3 Feet High and Rising is like wandering through a great pop-music junk shop filled with kitsch and hidden treasures both. Through the magic of sampling, Cash, James Brown, Run-D.M.C., Steely Dan, the Turtles, Hall and Oates, Public Enemy, and Michael Jackson join De La Soul.
Maybe on its next album, if De La Soul decides rap needs an LP of unsurpassed artistic merit, the Long Island group will assemble the samples in the hip-hop equivalent of a Byzantine mosaic.
On this album, De La Soul's Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove, and Pasemaster Mase are aware that they're working with pop-music sound swatches, not pieces of glass. That's why Cash makes his appearance as the song "The Magic Number" fades out. That's why the Soul gleefully piles together Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, and Michael Jackson in "Cool Breeze on the Rocks." That's why the group slows down part of a Turtles song for "Transmitting Live From Mars" and sticks a hiccupping French language lesson on top.
If you're D'Arby, you call this kind of thing intercontextual experimentation. If you're De La Soul, you call it amusing or obnoxious or psychedelic.
And 3 Feet High and Rising is as psychedelic--or at least as flower- power-oriented--as any rap album gets. It's no wonder the album has been unofficially subtitled "the Sgt. Pepper of Rap." Day-Glo daisies adorn the album cover. So does a peace sign. There's even a song called "Tread Water," on which Posdnuos and Trugoy the Dove (Yo! Peace!) swap advice with and get turned on by a crocodile, a monkey, a squirrel and a fish.
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But unlike the rest of the Sgt. Satanic school, 3 Feet High and Rising manages to find room for another great concept in pop music--the single. You can actually appreciate songs like "Potholes in My Lawn," "Me Myself and I," and "Eye Know" without attending art history class. Pos and Dove rap sly rhymes over simple, funky beats and a friendly guitar or synth hook. Okay, so occasionally a horn or a yodel does wink at you from out of nowhere. Big deal. After all, De La Soul's no Michelangelo, and 3 Feet High and Rising is certainly not the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
What a relief.
The Stones played monkey-see, monkey-do, and coughed up a hairball they called Their Satanic Majesties Request.
D'Arby proclaimed his debut album to be better than the Pepper--to be, in fact, "the most brilliant debut album from any artist this decade."