The Stroke

“If that forecast for severe thunderstorms comes through, I’m gonna look like Billy Squier by 2:00.”

“Billy Squier…?”

“He sang for Foreigner for a while*, but also he did ‘The Stroke,’ a song I have wanted to cover for a long time. I tried, but that song is nothing without the backward snare.” (*Wikipedia has informed me that Squier did not actually sing for Foreigner. Instead, he employed Foreigner as his backup band on arena tours in the early 80s.)

(Puzzled look, wondering how this relates to a severe thunderstorm)

“Also he had curly, layered hair that was the embodiment of the 80s. Think cocker spaniel.”

Mother nature ended up only mustering serious wind, rather than severe thunderstorms, but the conversation did prompt me to look up “The Stroke” on YouTube.

The video features Squier in a white tank top and jeans tight enough to make me feel violated, wagging his curly bob passionately on stage to a non-existent audience. This was 1981: MTV barely existed and people were only starting to grasp the concept of the music video. As some artists began to experiment with what videos could be (narratives, motion editorials, mini-movies), some artists just seemed puzzled. Seemingly having no idea what to do and deciding to lead with their strengths, they went with what they knew and just filmed themselves performing. Some artists filmed actual concerts, and some awkwardly set up concert stages in empty soundstages. The result of the latter always came off feeling a little bit sad and delusional, like a teenager performing an elaborate air guitar solo before a toothpaste-spattered bathroom mirror. Squier’s video for “The Stroke,” not unlike Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” is one such video.

If this song is looking to avoid ridiculousness, the song’s lyrics don’t help, either. They are filled with the kind of not-so-subtle innuendo that 70s rock seemed to love (see also: “Love Gun”). Squier is, in effect, comparing a life in the music business to an awkward hand job. Classy!

Still, I maintain that this song is a classic.

Squier delivers those cringe-worthy lyrics with a pronounced sneer, straddling the line between sassy bad ass and petulant child. His delivery sells the lyrics. “When you find you bled me, skip on by” is delivered with a sub-textual middle finger so huge that it almost blocks the view of Squier’s repeated use of duck face.

The guitar is strategically placed and filthy, serving as punctuation for Squier’s delivery. It’s a sort of call and answer: Squier delivers a line, and the guitar jumps in with “damn straight.”

But, readers. Readers! The most noteworthy part of the song, the reason why I may never successfully cover the song, the instrument that gives the song an instantly-recognizable signature…is a backward snare. Snares had probably been run backward before and they’ve definitely been run backward since but this, for me, is the textbook example. The use that all other uses aspire to be. That backward snare gives the lyrics one more dimension: rowing crew. Toward the end, when the chants of “stroke! stroke!” start, we can picture the crew of an early 80s viking ship, propelled by dudes with curly layered bobs and jeans leaving nothing to the imagination. Those magnificent, feather-haired bastards are rowing in time to the beat of a drum, but on this viking ship, the drum is backward.

Ass backward, plodding along to a steady rhythm and on a journey to who-knows-where. Like the music business. Or, if you will, an awkward hand job.

Freedom: A Love Letter

This morning, I looked up George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” video with the intent of just letting a semi-forgotten song play as I started to work. I had never noticed the pointed nature of the title of the song: it bears an exclamation point, a nod to his former band, Wham!, which also had a song called “Freedom,” hence the year number in the title of “Freedom! ’90.” Michael is snarkily differentiating the “now” from the “then.”

As the song played, I found that I couldn’t take my eyes off the video, and I realized that the “now” isn’t what it used to be.

The video was made in the days before Tyra Banks demystified the “supermodel.” Here, we are treated to images of Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington, with all those angular cheekbones playing in some wonderfully dramatic lighting.

The video itself is one of those things you look at as a former art student and think, “damn, I need to take more pictures.” The lighting is amazing: warm and golden one minute, cold and blue the next. Any movement in the shot appears to play in a shower of light, causing a delicious array of light and shadow. Everything is about steam, sensual lip-syncing and jukeboxes exploding exactly on-beat. It is everything that music video was meant to be: dramatic, inspiring, beautiful. It is not simply a marketing tool, hoping to sell us music by selling us tits and ass: it is a series of well-crafted images that cause us to wish that our own lives could be that cool.

When this video came out, there was a big to-do about how Michael, still hot and riding the sex symbol wave started with “Faith,” did not appear in the video. It didn’t matter. Director David Fincher had delivered a gorgeous love letter to light. It was then and still is one of my favorite videos of all time, from an era when music videos were still art…and models could still be “super.”