Wednesday, July 20

Come Upstairs (1980)

If Boys in the Trees and Spy were Carly Simon's New York albums, their sound belonged to one of the city's smarter, tonier, uptown neighbourhoods. Come Upstairs, by contrast, was a downtown album: a little raw, a little punky, and much more energetic. This was an album of beginnings: a new decade, a new label (Warner Brothers), a new producer (Michael Manieri), and 'new wave' music.  On the cover, these new beginnings are signalled in the writing - the lyrics to the song "Come Upstairs" - and its promise that, after all these years, Now it's all changed/And all of my feelings have been rearranged. The new beginnings are signalled too by the cover's sense of motion and tempo. The writing itself is just this side of a scrawl, hastily scribbled with no time for decorum (compare the wide, langorous script on the cover of Another Passenger). And everything else in the frame is moving: a rush of air lifts her hair, her fingers appear to be snapping with the beat, her smile is flashed with a genuine immediacy. Even the lapels of her jacket seem to point up and out with punky dynamism, and her t-shirt ripples with taut energy. Best of all, her expression and demeanour suggest a combination of pride and bashfulness, as though she is listening to the album and is almost embarrassed by the pleasure she takes in it.           


Come Upstairs certainly doesn't sound like her earlier albums. The title track starts the album off at a pace hitherto unknown. A driving base line, pounding electronic keyboards, and multi-layered synthesizers combine to form a sound that can be situated somewhere between The Police (circa 1980) and Devo. The lyrics are unmistakeably Carly, although her allusions to lust have become a little franker. Where once there were references to rubbing limes all over her body, or holding it back and letting it smoulder, on "Come Upstairs" she sings the lines I'll give you some wood/I'll give you some fire/I'll give you myself/ And I will show you my desire with real urgency.  "Them" is even more mod, and its space-age synthesizers fit perfectly with the science fiction theme to the lyrics, in which invading alien monsters turn out to be men: They want you all body and soul/ Then it's just your body/Then they go. In the chorus, when she sings What do they want?/What shall we do about them?, she strikes just the right tone; a combination of angry desperation and self-aware humour. She lets herself wail and growl a bit too, and throughout the album there is a welcome sense that her vocals are freer, more immediate and less studied. The most extreme example of this is "In Pain" a six-minute, searing, hard-rock melodrama that shows what her voice can do when pushed to the limits of volume, intensity, strength and control; it is more than a match for the song's wild electric guitars and crashing drums. The moods swiftly change, though, as the album moves on to the mysterious "The Three of Us in the Dark" and the anthemic "Take Me As I Am". The latter sounds like an upbeat sequel to the marital drama heard on Spy's "We're So Close". In the earlier song she admitted Sometimes I go out to the car, turn on the headlights, intending to leave/Sometimes I need to hear the words, my imagination's not as strong as you believe, and the implication was that she was caught, motionless and despondent. But in the energetic "Take Me As I Am" her car has left the driveway. She has found some other dreaming driver and she is able to imagine herself Speeding through his dreams/While I'm driving in my car.
The new sound required a new image, and Mick Rock was just the man for the job. A veteran rock photographer, who documented the rise of glam rock in England, he had a succession of landmark albums to his credit, including David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) and Lou Reed's Transformer (1972). More recently, he had worked with Talking Heads, Debbie Harry and the Ramones. There is no doubting his rock and roll credentials, and yet he found Carly a surprisingly vigourous subject. 'She rolled on the floor', he recalled approvingly, 'she spat champagne at the camera and trashed a red backdrop.' The unused photographs (on the left) show her not only pulling the red backdrop down, but also dropping to her knees and wrestling with it. Indeed, in the second photograph she has the backdrop between her teeth as well.

Both photographer and subject agreed that the shot of Carly pulling the backdrop down around her was just right for the cover of Come Upstairs. It would convey the new, edgy and energetic sound, and also the idea that the album itself was a revelation, requiring a dramatic unveiling. But the record company wasn't having it. Mick Rock remembers that Warner Brothers thought the image was "too extreme, too rock and roll". Hence, for the actual cover the alternative, less dramatic shot of Carly was chosen, the flaming red was toned down to brown, and the script was used to highlight the album's new directions. The end result was an album cover that resembled one of Patti Smith's tasteful covers - Horses (1975) or Easter (1978)- and so it seemed as though these two very different musicians might be meeting on center ground: Smith, the high priestess of punk, appearing poised, and Carly, the smoothest of singer-songwriters, showing off her harder edges.

The album's back cover revealed some of her playful, new wave energy, and another shot from the same session was used on the cover of that very downtown magazine, After Dark (both on the right). Is it possible, in the latter, that Carly has just spat her champagne at the camera? We'll probably never know, but her laughter suggests she is enjoying playing up to her new image.

Of course, not everything on Come Upstairs was new. The song-suite that closes side one, "Jesse" and "James", would not have been out of place on most of her earlier albums. The acoustic ballad "Jesse" uses its catchy melody to tell a story of trying - and failing - to resist the charms of an irresistable lover. It is a perfect pop song, and it makes a disarmingly lighthearted lead-in to the quiet pleading of the beautifully melancholy "James". When Warner Brothers decided to release "Jesse" as the album's first single, the company took another step back from the edgier side of Come Upstairs.

As convincing a rock-and-roller as Carly can be, and as capably as she struck her new wave pose, this image did not last long and the album did not fare particularly well. "Jesse" became a huge hit, but the album made less impact and, after a few years, it became her first to fall out of print. For many years it was only available on CD as an import from Japan. The problem was not this album in particular, but that the musical style was short-lived. The new wave was new back when Jimmy Carter was president and some foolish people thought that The Knack might be the new Beatles. It was old not so long after that. The image was also shortlived because, as it soon became clear, Carly could not sit still, musically speaking, in this period. The album that followed Come Upstairs did not build on the pop success of "Jesse" or try to rock harder than "In Pain". Instead, Torch would delve back in time and into the great American songbook. Thus, the energy that is so apparent on the cover of Come Upstairs, and in the desire to pull down the backdrops and see what might lay behind them, was not specific to any one musical genre. In this phase of her career, Carly would travel in many different musical directions, and Come Upstairs was just one lively step along the way.

3 comments:

  1. this was the album i listened to constantly as a freshman in college. thanks so much for these posts.

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  2. thanks for these beautifully written pieces

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  3. I always group this album with Linda Rondstadt - "Mad Love" and Joni Mitchell's "Wild Things Run Fast" -- the 1970s girls try out the new wave of the 80s.

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