Monday, March 3, 2014

In Defense Of: Standing In The Spotlight, Dee Dee King

You know the scene.

You're in a bar talking music with some friends. Someone cracks wise about whatever musical whipping boy springs into their head: some mediocre or simply unloved musician, or maybe the sort of album that is a universally agreed-upon creative failure that only great musicians get to make, and then only once in their lifetime.

Typically, there's no risk involved in taking that sort of shot, and everyone has an easy laugh. Your friends are your friends for a reason; you share common tastes in cultural matters like music. But this time is different — you hesitate, a line of sweat flashes across your brow, your stomach rises slightly, and you find yourself earnestly defending it. You're not convinced it deserves that sort of easy dismissal.

The reaction from your friends is stunned and immediate. Pretty soon, people outside of your group are being pulled in. Sides are taken; bar stools are scooted out; tables are pulled up; round after round is ordered and put away - and all because you uttered the shocking words, "All I'm saying is, if 'This Love' was written by say, your friend's little brother's band, and not Maroon 5, you wouldn't think it was that bad. You'd say 'Man, little homey's got something there - this is a perfectly solid, inoffensively catchy pop song.' I don't like Adam Levine being People Magazine's 'Sexiest Man Alive,' and you don't like that awful 'She Will Be Loved' song. We're both understandably tired of hearing 'Moves Like Jagger.' But none of that bears on whether 'This Love' is a solid pop song. Which it is. And we should admit it."

Here at In Defense Of, we welcome you, brave and open-minded music defender. It's an old truth that music writers love the underdog, but how often does that risk-taking really extend into music journalism? Alternately, what happens when a terrible, yet popular band creates something with actual artistic merit? In Defense Of is a forum to defend the seemingly indefensible, to take a second listen and form a second opinion.

In our inaugural column, our very own Derek Hawkins descends into the darkest chapter of perhaps his favorite band — The Ramones — to discuss why we need to stop worrying and learn to love Dee Dee King's Standing in the Spotlight.

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There are few if any records that punk rock nerds enjoy beating up on more than Standing In The Spotlight by Dee Dee King. The short-lived rap project by Ramones bassist Dee Dee Ramone got panned as a humiliating failure by music critics on its release in 1989, and people still love to ridicule it as one of rock n roll's most extreme identity crises. The usually even-handed Matt Carlson of AllMusic gives it 1.5 stars, saying the album will "go down in the annals of pop culture as one of the worst recordings of all time." The Wikipedia page describes it, without attribution, as "one of the biggest failures in recording history." Former Village Voice music editor Robert Christgau, a Ramones champion, is a little more equitable, but still scathing: "You're not 'the baddest rapper in Whitestone, Queens' — you're 'the worst rapper in Whitestone, Queens.'"

I first heard Standing In The Spotlight back in high school, and I did my fair share of beating up on it, too. As a teenager who stridently believed in the sanctity of both punk rock and hip hop, I was quick to engage in the same type of hyperbole as Dee Dee King's detractors. How could a guy who wrote some of the greatest rock n roll songs of all time produce something so empirically awful?

Listening to it now, however, I don't think Standing In The Spotlight deserves the condemnation it's received over the years. Spend a few minutes with the deep cuts and consider the context in which Dee Dee wrote it — the record starts to sound less like a disgraceful bomb and more like a charming failed experiment.

New York's punk rock and hip hop scenes emerged parallel to one another, and Dee Dee had long expressed a fascination and respect for rappers. He counted LL Cool J and Schoolly D among his favorite artists, and defended rap music in Ramones interviews at a time when the genre was experiencing particularly virulent attacks from the likes of Tipper Gore and others in the pro-censorship lynch mob. After a dozen-plus years of breakneck touring and recording with The Ramones, Dee Dee, the band's main songwriter, decided to take his appreciation to a new level and make raps of his own. In 1987, while still playing with The Ramones, he cut "Funky Man," a 12-inch single, as the rebranded Dee Dee King. Less than two years later, in summer 1989, he released the Standing In The Spotlight LP and left the band to focus full time on a rap career. Off came the signature black leather jacket, on went the gold Mercedes-Benz chains.

The results were pretty messy. And let me be totally clear about one thing: Dee Dee's rapping is bad. His flow is almost nonexistent and his rhymes only work about half the time (most cringeworthy attempt on the record: "Heineken" and "fun"). Overall, the rap songs on Standing In The Spotlight are so dim-witted they barely even rise to the level of rap caricature. Some tracks are so misguided they transcend the lame "so bad it's good" reaction and just leave you scratching your head. The opener, "Mashed Potato Time," is the best example. It's a bizarre amalgam of tuneless rap, doo-wop and samba that features none other than Blondie's Debbie Harry on backup vocals and a cheesy sax solo in the bridge.

When that's the first cut on your reinvention record — the cover of which is adorned with pictures of you posing in what looks like a Rakim Halloween costume — you're going to draw fire. And that's not the only dud on the album. The tone-deaf verses on "Too Much To Drink," the scatterbrained "German Kid," and the borderline-parody "I Want What I Want When I Want It" are all artistic abominations. But they're all at the very least forgivable if you understand where Dee Dee was coming from. Having grown up poor, Dee Dee felt a deep connection to some of hip hop's pioneers. He identified with rap's use of luxury as a symbol of "rising above oppression" and said he viewed rappers much like he viewed himself: as social and cultural outsiders.

"When Schoolly D came out with that album and he said, 'What time is it? It's Gucci time' — I understood that," Dee Dee says in the Ramones documentary End Of The Century. "It's rising above oppression. A negro being able to buy a Gucci watch — great, you know. I felt that same excitement when I could buy a Gucci watch and spend a lot of money. Like an outlaw."

With that perspective, I think it's easy to view some of the worst cuts on Standing In The Spotlight as innocent and empathetic attempts at autobiography, rather than cultural appropriations or embarrassing mistakes. "Too Much To Drink" becomes a confessional that for whatever reason Dee Dee wasn't comfortable writing about as a Ramone. "German Kid" is memoir. "I Want What I Want When I Want It" is his homage to braggadocio rap.

Standing In The Spotlight typically gets tagged as a rap-rock album, but that's inaccurate. About half the tracks are straightforward punk rock songs. The incongruity contributes to the album's overall sloppiness, but the reality is, Dee Dee King isn't all that bad when he's playing on his strengths. "Baby Doll," an ode to Dee Dee's then wife Vera Boldis, is one of the most vulnerable cuts in his repertoire and the chorus is as catchy and bittersweet as any big, dumb love ballad gets. "Poor Little Rich Girl" is an aggressively groovy number that could have easily fit onto The Ramones' Animal Boy (1986), with the vocal inflection matching a lot of what singer Joey Ramone was working with at the time. "The Crusher," a fast shredder in which Dee Dee finds himself in a boxing match with the Russian Bear, was so much fun that The Ramones ended up covering it on ¡Adios Amigos! several years later, when Dee Dee rejoined the band.

As a whole, Standing In The Spotlight is goofier than it is bad, whether you decide to look at it as a lighthearted punk album inexplicably laced with rap tracks or a terrible rap-rock album interrupted by some fine rock n roll songs. Whatever the case, it makes for an interesting artifact of punk and rap history.

Unsurprisingly, the record almost instantly flopped and Dee Dee King failed to earn a spot among rap's best — or even rap's most mediocre. Recognizing that he wasn't making valuable contributions to the genre, he backed out. And that's admirable.

"I don't think it was worth fighting over — it wasn't so good anyway, the album," he says in End Of The Century. "I couldn't do rap. I was trying. I don't know how — I'm not good enough, I'm not a negro. I don't know what it is. I can't do it. I wanted to."

Dee Dee's attempts to imitate his favorite rappers and blend punk and hip hop, however poorly executed, came out of a respect for the art, not a desire for money or fame. Unfortunately, Dee Dee King's rapping has no staying power as crossover music — 
unlike his rap-rock contemporaries the Beastie Boys, who happened to have released the legendary Paul's Boutique within weeks of Standing In The Spotlight. But the LP was a sincere effort that missed the mark, and I think it deserves a sincere listen. If Dee Dee learned to embrace "It's time to rock / it's time to rap / it's time for the mashed potato attack" as a comically weird experiment, I think we can too.

— DJH


Previous Entries of "In Defense Of":
Brian Larue, In Defense Of: ELO 
Matt Collette, In Defense Of: Starships by Nicki Minaj 

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