March 20, 2009

NT's greatest hits, No. 9 (of 34)

I'm changing the numbering scheme of these posts; easier for me to keep track. Nutshell: These are my favorite songs ever, from both genres: rock and roll.

"Suffragette City" by David Bowie
I first heard this song, oh, 1988, 1989, on New York's WNEW-FM, which was the original, and probably all-time best, "classic rock" radio station (I actually interned there for a summer in the 1990s, around the time it was falling apart). More than any other single media entity, this station established my musical taste, providing nearly 100 percent of my daily allowance of rock during my musical-fan formative years (ages 13–15, roughly). It was a great station at the time, playing the unassailable classics of the mainstream rock genre—both hits and deep cuts by the Stones, the Who, the Beatles, etc.—along with a fairly smart assortment of present-day rock; you could always count on it for hearing whatever the new release was by, say, Elvis Costello or XTC.

Now, Elvis Costello and XTC weren't exactly ground zero for "present day" when we're speaking about the late 1980s, but I think that indicates just how unmoored mainstream rock was at the time, and that affected my tastes. I grew to feel that almost anything "new" at the time was sheer crap (hair metal being an iconic genre of that assortment); the classic was inherently better. Apart from making me a snob, this conception blinded me to the excellent rock & roll that was being made, primarily in the underground. If only WNEW hadn't existed and I'd instead discovered WFMU or something, I might have become the teenage punk I often think I was destined to be.

Okay, I'm way off topic here. The point is, limited though my tastes may have been, they were good, and WNEW was a big reason. For example, it gave David Bowie a lot of love, and "Suffragette City" sucked me in the moment I first heard it. It's ridiculously exciting, and the climax of what is his most successful rock album (full title, get ready): The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. A rock "opera" that eschews about 85 percent of coherent plot for sound and style.

"Suffragette City" is a prime example; I didn't even know what the word suffragette meant until several years after I discovered the song, and when you pick the lyrics apart, it's basically a glam-rock version of a frat jock bragging about getting laid. But I feel as if it's a tune whose lyrics were chosen for their sound rather than their meaning. Bowie spins off some great turns of phrase here: this mellow-thighed chick just put my spine out of place, droogie don't crash here, and of course, Wham! Bam! Thank you, ma'am. Combined with positively thrilling music—the false ending is great, the call-and-response Hey, man!s are awesome—these lyrics make this one of the flat-out coolest songs I know. Style in the service of substance; this is what put David Bowie in the rock pantheon, and incidentally what put his music on a radio station like WNEW.

Summer 1990, as a regular at my camp radio station, I unilaterally gave myself a "license to overplay" "Suffragette City." One of the best decisions I ever made.

Earlier editions of NT's greatest hits:
"My Name Is Jonas"
"Mr. Tambourine Man"
"Reelin' in the Years"
"Objects of My Affection" and "Crimson and Clover"
"OK Apartment" and "Just What I Needed"


Aaron Leichter said...

The lyrics are about a girl breaking up the band, actually. The guys try to get the frontman's attention ("Hey man") but he shrugs them off ("leave me alone", "get off the phone", "I can't take you this time, go 'way") for the "mellow-thighed chick". In his world, "there's only room for one, & here she comes". The singer realizes his "work's down the drain" but he doesn't care cuz she's so good in bed ("she said she had to squeeze it, but she... & then she...!"). When the bandmates insist on working, the frontman threatens them ("Don't lean on me, man, cuz you can't afford the ticket!") & describes his love as emancipation ("I'm back from Suffragette City!").

It's pretty abstract, but then so are most rock lyrics. And yeah, this song is one of the best in my book too.

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