Billy Joel Was Right!

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 12.14.15 PM.pngI’m not sure how old I was when I heard Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer” for the first time, but I distinctly remember taking note of the part where he sings that it took him years to write his latest song and that although they were the best years of his life, the song ran too long, so they cut the running time down to three minutes and five seconds. At the time, my instinct was to call BS on the idea that it took the guy “years” to write a three-minute pop song, but I was probably only about ten or eleven years old at the time, so what did I know? Not much, it turns out.

My latest recording, “Never Talk Back,” actually took me almost a quarter of a century to write and record. I probably wrote the earliest version somewhere around 1996, tried recording it a few different ways on my Tascam Porta 03 multitrack cassette recorder and then decided to go to graduate school for English. Though I’d play the song on my acoustic guitar once in a while, it mainly lay dormant in the back of my mind for the next decade or so until I started getting back into playing and recording music again.

But even then, I kept experimenting with different ways of arranging and recording the song — different styles, different keys, different melodies — without ever hitting on a version that I liked. Back when I was recording under the Android Invasion name some time ago, I think I may have put out a jazzy instrumental version of the song called “Hotrod,” but I’d have to look into that. I also played a hip-hop-flavored electronic version in a show with my robot friends at Old Haverford Friends Meeting House a couple of years back. And I tried to record a Burt Bacharach-esque version on Thank You for Holding last year, but it just wasn’t working.

This time around, I tried to keep the song as simple as possible. I started with a basic piano riff (that I eventually dropped) and asked my friend Tim Simmons to play drums along with the piano part that I’d written. Then I added a bass and two guitar parts, and that was pretty much it for the backing track, though I did also edit the song down from something like six-and-a-half minutes to just over four, so props to Billy Joel for calling that aspect of the song-writing process, too.

It took me a little while to get a vocal take that I liked, and I decided to sing the song in a fairly low register so I could avoid having to tweak the track to make it sound like I can hit high notes. Also, I’ve been playing out a little more lately, and I realized that it’s a whole lot easier on my voice to sing like Leonard Cohen than John Lennon or even Tom Petty. Not that I ever sounded like either of them, but you get the picture.

All of this is to say that Billy Joel was not bullshitting me when I was ten or eleven years old — that a song can, in fact, take many years to write, and that sometimes it’s in the best interest of a song to cut it down to three-oh-five (or, in my case, four-oh-one). But I’m still kind of mad at him for writing a song about Bethlehem, PA, and calling it “Allentown.” Now that, my friends, is BS.

 

Track-by-Track: “Spooky Spongecake”

Like other tracks on Thank You for Holding, “Spooky Spongecake” has a longer history than one might expect. I originally released a different version of this track as simply “Spongecake” about a year ago (and have since made it unavailable for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.) Here’s what I had to say about the track at the time:

I was sitting on the beach, and every iPod was playing Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” but they were all out of sync with each other. The song would be fading on one speaker and just starting on another. Or two would be playing almost simultaneously but not quite in sync with each other. The line that kept jumping out at me was “living on spongecake,” which I later learned was actually “nibblin’ on spongecake.” But when I thought it was “living,” the line really stuck with me because I thought, yeah, isn’t that pretty much what we’re all doing? Living on a media diet of spongecake and margaritas? Pretentious, I know, but a few days later, I went back to work, and the Xerox machine (which is actually a Canon) was grinding away, and that line was still in my head. This track is an attempt at capturing what it sounded like.

The original version of the track actually included a brief snippet of the Jimmy Buffett song that I looped and ran through various effects and filters so as to make it unrecognizable. All the same, I didn’t love the idea of having someone else’s voice from a hugely popular pop song on the track. My concerns weren’t just artistic. I also didn’t want to violate copyright law, so I took the track down from BandCamp and recorded a new version in which I’ve replaced Buffett’s voice (as well as his melody) with my own. I also changed the words a bit: “Groovin’ on spongecake.” That version was twice as long as this one and included synthesizers, guitar, and drums. It had a distinctly Depeche Mode feel.

I’ll also admit that this is one of the strangest tracks on the album. In a way, it’s in line with one of my larger projects as far as being a recording artist is concerned. While appreciate the form of the traditional three-minute pop song (as exemplified by “Margaritaville” and countless other songs that have graced the pop charts over the decades), I also like to explore other forms that recorded music can take.

Perhaps the best known version of this view of recording artistry is John Lennon’s “Revolution 9” from The Beatles (aka The White Album). In this track, Lennon spliced together sound effects and recordings to create a sound collage that left many fans scratching their heads in wonder. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” it wasn’t.

With “Spooky Spongecake,” I was trying to paint a creepy picture of an deserted workplace where only the copy machine and a malfunctioning music player are getting anything done. It’s essentially in line with some of the other songs in the “mini album” that begins with “Mellow Pleasant Spongecake” and ends with this track.

The “Mellow Pleasant” version of this song represents the robot from “Thank You for Holding” drifting into a reverie about the world outside. “Best Worst of Times” is a meditation on what the world was like before it ended. “Sweet Chocolate Jesus” gives us another answering machine repeating a meaningless message to no one. “66th and City” depicts an abandoned home in a world populated only by ghosts. And “Spooky Spongecake” returns us to the dreaming robot, only now the dream has turned sour.

Track-by-Track: “Sweet Chocolate Jesus”

I was a little worried that some listeners might find this track offensive, much as fans found John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comment offensive in 1966.

Burning-01

Fortunately for me, my fan base isn’t quite as large as that of the Beatles, so the backlash against this song, should there be any, won’t be that bad.

In truth, though, the song is more about the commodification of religion in general — and Christianity in particular — than anything else. Isn’t it odd that when it comes to Christmas and Easter, gifts and candy eclipse the more sacred aspects of those holidays? Hence the repeated “The more you spend, the more you’re saved!” line that repeats throughout the track.*

About that line: My sister-in-law sent the recording to me when someone at a local department store left the message on her phone. And since this is an album about machines and messages and miscommunication, how could I not include it?

The “Sweet Chocolate Jesus” lines are actually slowed-down samples of my own voice. I rigged up an electronic drum kit so that instead of the usual snare and tom sounds, striking the drum heads would produce the sound of my slowed-down voice shouting “Sweet,” “Chocolate,” and “Jesus” respectively. Kind of an odd way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but what can I say? I’m easily amused.

Sweet Chocolate Jesus

The more you spend, the more you’re saved.

Sweet. Sweet. Sweet chocolate.
Sweet sweet chocolate.
Sweet chocolate Jesus.

Sweet chocolate.
Sweet, sweet chocolate.
Sweet Jesus.
Sweet, sweet Jesus.

Give me some of that
Sweet chocolate.
Give me some of that
Sweet Jesus.
Give me some of that
Sweet chocolate Jesus.

Sweet chocolate Jesus.
The more you spend, the more you’re saved.

Sweet chocolate Jesus.
The more you spend, the more you’re saved.
Sweet chocolate Jesus.
The more you spend, the more you’re saved.
Sweet chocolate Jesus.
The more you spend, the more you’re saved.
Bye-bye. Have a great day.

*Technically, the line is actually “The more you spend, the more you save,” but if you squint your ears, you can hear what I’m hearing.