Thursday, July 29, 2010

Surfing With Pajama Party (they titled this blog!); and also Amy Grant, sort of

About time!  "Surfing In Babylon" is from Pajama Party's wonderful 1989 freestyle album Up All Night.  It follows the monumental "Yo No Se" and pales in comparison--though really, MOST songs pale in comparison to "Yo No Se."  "Surfing In Babylon" also has the distinction of not really being freestyle, but something closer to "rock."  Not that you hear many "guitars" on the song; there's something like a distorted guitar on the chorus, but it cuts off so abruptly I suspect it's a synth.  (The credits do say there's a rhythm guitar somewhere.)  There's also a wailing electric guitar solo that may or may not be an actual guitar--we have no reason to believe otherwise.  But anyway, even a synth guitar sound signifies Rock Music in the context of a freestyle album, so there you have it--this is PJ Party's rock song!  As such, fans of the group have largely overlooked it.  Listen and love here.


Thankfully, PJ Party fan Chuck Eddy has not overlooked it!  In The Accidental Evolution of Rock 'n' Roll, Eddy interprets the song this way:

"[J]ust because disco lets the party be the main thing doesn't mean the terror's not there...  [T]his is a song about a girl trying to get her friend to try something dangerous--heroin maybe, or lesbian sex.  Or maybe just a cigarette.  Guitars and strings add noisy ornamentation as the singer stands 'on the edge.'  Her pal says 'jump in, the water's fine,' but as soon as the singer dives into iniquity, the friend disappears.  Surfing in Babylon means playing with fire, and getting burned."

It's sort of an abstracted version of Decadent Babylon, a place we've seen before.  Whatever "dangerous" thing the PJ Party girls are doing--we can imagine it's lesbian sex, if you want--it runs counter to the norms of what they perceive to be correct society.  NOT Surfing In Babylon would mean--what?--falling in love and getting married.  Eating dinner at the table with your family, playing a board game together, and going to bed at a reasonable hour.  Filing your taxes correctly.  This straw-society ignores all the intricacies and vagaries that color individual lives, but no doubt there are people who strive for just such a life, and people who strive to get as far away from that life as possible.

People like... rock stars!  Maybe the most interesting thing about "Surfing" is that it posits the Babylon symbol as more a "rock" thing than a "disco" thing.  Jim Klein, who produced the album and co-wrote the song with Peggy Sendars, must've made it sound like rock for SOME reason--he sure didn't make it sound like surf music!  And a symbol like Babylon isn't endemic to the disco or freestyle genre, Boney M notwithstanding.  A PJ fan on Amazon sez, "I know the title of this song sounds a little unusual, but it's a catchy pop song.  It's not too bad at all."  Whew!--I was expecting it to sound like Celtic Frost or Faster Pussycat.  (The latter of whom did wear fabulous animal prints, much like PJ Party.)  I'm guessing that for a lot of freestyle fans in the '80s--or at least in the context of their expectations for a freestyle album--rock music was also sort of a dangerous "other," the same as what Babylon represents in Western culture.  Not that freestyle fans didn't dig rock, and not that freestyle didn't incorporate rock elements--or, indeed, rock harder than a lot of rock music of the time.  But there's no question they were different, and that rock had more of a dangerous stigma.

(This song reminds me of another pop song that incorporates screaming guitar as a rock signifier:  Amy Grant's "Good for Me," from 1991.  In Amy's case, the rock guitar doesn't signify danger, but it still signifies an "other."  It contrasts with the shiny synths that play the main riff, and within the context of the song, Amy is the synths and her husband is the squealing electric guitar.  Or vice versa.  The point is, they're different but good for one another.)  (I wonder if this move, from rock guitar signifying "dangerous other" to rock guitar signifying simply "other," indicates that rock music became totally toothless from '89 to '91.)  (And then Nirvana came along and saved us all.)  (Or something.)



To recap:  Pajama Party sang a song about Decadent Babylon, abstracted; they sort of made it sound like rock music, since that's where Babylon lives; and some yak co-opted the title for his blog.  Two of these were great decisions; jury's still out on that last one.

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