Monday, June 18, 2012

Your Opinion Is Wrong: Great Moments in 'Phoning It In'

Posted by on Mon, Jun 18, 2012 at 12:04 PM

Editor's Note: See also: Spurgeon's General Warning on "phoning it in."

When I took on the task of writing a weekly column, I greatly underestimated the amount of effort involved in writing a weekly column. Already at my fifth installment, I’m digging through a folder full of half-baked ramblings concerning a lot of bests, worsts and Top 10 lists of which I can only seem to fulfill seven slots — and I'm afraid of posting any of them yet for fear of “phoning it in.”

This is the part where I phone in a clever segue about some of the world’s greatest musicians don’t always give it their all either — but also, sometimes that’s kind of awesome.

Nirvana’s 1991 Top of the Pops performance

Top of the Pops has for many decades televised the best and brightest of the pop charts lip syncing their own songs, giving rebellious rock 'n' rollers all kinds of opportunities to mock the very money-go-round that was putting blow up their noses. For a short period, they had artists sing live over an instrumental version of the song. This was all kinds of fail in many ways, but the best example came when Nirvana came on to “perform” “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Dropping his voice an octave to sound more like Morrissey, Kurt changed the lyrics to the song to be slightly more offensive as the band collectively went out of their way to ensure the audience they were in no way performing a single note of music.

Van Morrison’s contractual obligation album

It was a fairly common scenario at one time, long before labels were far too savvy for such loopholes, wherein a band was required to deliver a record or series of records to fulfill contractual obligations or legal necessities. Most bands would just hand over a live recording and part ways. Others saw it as a chance to be a spiteful dick.

While signed to Bang Records — who released his biggest single, “Brown-Eyed Girl” — Morrison had words with label owner Bob Burns’ Bert Berns' widow Ilene shortly after Berns’ death. While Warner Brothers bought out his contract, he still owed 36 songs to the Widow Berns’ publishing company. Morrison wrote and recorded all 36 in one night — or probably more accurately, a couple of hours. The end result is both terrible and amazing. Morrison strums an acoustic guitar haplessly while mumbling about wanting a danish, the pros and cons of getting ringworm, blowing your nose and putting your nose in blow. This must have gotten all the “fuck this shit” out of his system, given he followed it up with his magnum opus Astral Weeks.

Bruce Springsteen, “57 Channels and Nothin’ On”

How the man who wrote “Born To Run” came to writing a song about watching TV, much less how it got released as a single and music video, is a story certainly worth of telling. Add to that the fact the minuscule amount of channels that even The Boss could afford back then is essentially basic cable these days, and this thing holds up even less against the times. That said, it's still a better song than most current TV shows are shows.

Rhw Replacements’ “Bastards of Young,” “Left of the Dial” and “Hold My Life” videos

For the longest time I regarded “Bastards of Young” as one of my all-time favorite music videos. Shot in a single take, it’s just a speaker blaring the song while the camera zooms out to reveal a dude is listening to it on the couch. It ends with the guy kicking the speaker in. Minimal? Innovative? I thought so. What I found out later is all the videos from Tim are nearly identical — the difference being “Left of the Dial” lacks the speaker destruction, and “Hold My Life” is in color. 

Todd Rundgren, “Bang on the Drum All Day”

Like I said before, almost all the most classic cases of “phoning it in” come from contractual obligation albums. Todd Rundgren effortlessly hammered out a handful of pop songs in record time on 1983’s The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect. Rundgren has since disowned the work, but “Bang on the Drum” refuses to die, finding a life of its own on shitty radio stations, sports arenas, and TV commercials for the past 30 years.

Supplement this phoned-in column with examples of your own!

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