Today’s embarrassing confession is by Mr. Chris Palagy
I stand by the first album I ever bought with my own money, Pearl Jam’s 1994 release, Vitalogy. Despite the mixed success of its avant-garde flourishes, it has memorable singles, is Pearl Jam at its rawest (Eddie Vedder never sounded more like a madman) and is probably the last album they made that has majority popular support. I remember what I did on the day of the purchase and at which K-Mart I forked over $25 of Christmas money, a lot for a fourteen-year-old with no job. Without my own CD player, I had to use the family stereo in the lounge room and, as a result, my mother came to know it as intimately as I did, whether she wanted to or not. If the latter, then I’m sorry, Mum.
But I’m not here to write about that album.
Instead, the first album I owned and loved was a gift my father gave to me (I later realised it was because he wanted to build a CD collection—a novelty at the time—for the newly acquired family stereo). The artist was familiar to us because of his contribution to 1991’s blockbuster smash, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, already a family favourite on movie night. I was overjoyed, and why would I not be? The sticker on the case of Bryan Adam’s seventy-five-minute opus, Waking up the Neighbours, boasted “15 KILLER TRACKS!”
The effect of this album on my ten-year-old self was akin to Kevin Costner shooting a flaming arrow at a barrel full of gunpowder. I wanted to be Robin Hood that year, and now I had a soundtrack. “(Everything I do) I do it for you” played in the background while I fantasised about rescuing my primary school crush from whichever villain had kidnapped her in my imagination. However, the analogue onto which I projected my youthful heroism was not Costner (nor even Christian Slater), but the clean-cut blonde Canadian belting it out in a forest in the music video (interspersed with clips from the movie, as was the style at the time). Adams was unknown to me then, though I later found out he was already a success (his 1984 album, Reckless, reached 2 on the Australian charts). It shames me to admit that he elbowed Icehouse’s Iva Davies out of the role of Man I Wanted to Be, which, if you’ve seen Davies rock a mullet and trench coat in the video for “Electric Blue”, was kind of a big deal.
While I continued to love the sandpaper-voiced one’s output for a couple of years (fun fact: “Please Forgive Me” is the only song I’ve ever called a radio station to request), it only took a few years to move on to my first real musical loves, courtesy of the later grunge era. I listened to WutN again recently and it doesn’t entirely suck. Songs like “Can’t Stop this Thing We Started”, “Thought I’d Died and Gone to Heaven” (fun fact: this song, possibly the album’s best track, was used to promote women’s netball games on the ABC) and, yes, that Robin Hood song are acceptable examples of commercial rock, and they’re not alone on the album (it does have fifteen killer tracks, remember). The disc has two main settings: party anthem and power ballad, and there are good and bad examples of each.
“(Everything I do) …” has both extremes of quality in one song. If you’ve never heard the album version, you may be surprised it’s almost seven minutes long. It’s just a shame that the extra two-and-a-half minutes don’t meaningfully build on the song but instead consist of a limp, largely instrumental coda that wouldn’t be out of place on a relaxation tape. “November Rain” it ain’t. And yes, that was me saying that the rest of the song is a good power ballad. You want to throw down? Okay, I confess: I used to be able to play it on the piano (fun fact!).
“House Arrest”, meanwhile, is one of the better party anthems—literally, because it details the shenanigans at what one assumes is the typical Adams shindig: making a lot of noise, dancing in unorthodox places and … actually, that’s it. No brawls, no drug busts and no cocaine-fuelled orgies, and yet the police still come and put everyone in cuffs. Disappointing, really. It suggests where WutN’s real weakness lies: its lyrics.
You might say that lyrics are low-hanging fruit for this kind of recording but Adams takes the silliness beyond the norm. Take the album’s final track, “Don’t Drop that Bomb on Me”, ostensibly the kind of plea for world peace/environmental preservation (the song can’t decide) that Bono would write if he had a lobotomy. With a completely straight face, Adams declares that “If we want a little peace/Then we’ve got to fight”. Some choice samples are the opening verse:
“We sailed our ships upon the shores
That once were out of reach
Turned the silence into war
And bloodied up the beach
Trashed the forests and the trees
Til there’s nothing left to cut
We raped the rivers and the seas
And turned the land to dust”
… and the first lines of the chorus:
“Don’t drop that bomb on me
Save that little tree
Don’t drop that bomb on me
Save our seven seas”
Yes, it’s confused, as if Adams had used a warm-and-fuzzy-issue dartboard and crammed it all in there. It’s primary-school poetry designed to win a district prize and get printed in the monthly newsletter for all the parents to read. One can live with that; what’s harder to live with is WutN’s misogyny. The more palatable of the two examples is “Hey Honey—I’m Packin’ You in”, a send-off to a girlfriend who has just broken the last straw. On the surface, it’s reasonably harmless but there’s a subtext to a lot of the lines:
“Had enough of your faddy diet/I can’t wait for a real good fry-up” = I expect you to cook for me and cannot make meals for my own damn self
“Don’t wanna hear how you gotta be thin” = Your body issues are trivial
“Don’t wanna hear you waggin’ your chin” = Are you talking again, woman?
“Had enough of your hand in the till” = Have you spent your allowance already? We rock stars aren’t made of money
“Sick and tired of this and that and askin’ for favours/And usin’ up my brand new razors” = I wasn’t prepared for the “giving” part of being with a partner and those toiletries were clearly labelled
“Had enough of your leavin’ for days” = I am annoyed that you have a life outside this relationship and have left me to fend for myself
“Had enough of you hangin’ ’round bars/And crashin’ up my favourite car” = You’re a floozy and women can’t drive
And so on. To sum up, this song was written when Adams was a frat boy. Am I reading too much into it? Not when it appears on the same album as the bigger offender, “Touch the Hand”. I could do the same as above and break down some select lines, but you know what? Every single line of the song contributes to its offensiveness. I can barely read the lyrics without reeling with flabbergastedness (totally a word). Don’t believe me? Look at them. Look at them.
In case you couldn’t bring yourself to do it for whatever reason, there is a clear message: “Hey, ladies! You want equal rights and representation? Well, being a man is hard! I’ll gladly do all your lady stuff for you if you want to see what it’s like to be a male in this world.” There is no subtext here. That is what this song is clearly about.
Perspective can be a bitch, but my love affair with Adams (during which he treated me with decency and respect because I’m not a woman) wasn’t long for this world. It was gone well before “The Only Thing that Looks Good on Me (is You)” came out in 1996. The first sign that all was not well was as early as 1992. I was in my final year of primary school and one of my classmates, at the age of twelve, derided my lack of hipness, mocking my love for the fifteen killer tracks. “What do you like, then?” I asked. The answer was the Violent Femmes, a band I’d only heard of by seeing their tour posters plastered around Sydney. They sounded cool. This made me worried that I was not cool.
But the death knell came with my father’s changed attitude towards the album. In the early days of my relationship with it, he hated the thing. A family friend visited one day and wanted to know what I was listening to. “It sounds like a bloody swarm of bees!” Dad spat out. Cut to a few years later and my parents were playing WutN at their dinner parties while I was furtively using headphones in the family stereo to listen to obscenity-laden releases from Soundgarden, Tool and Faith No More, bands I still listen to twenty years later. This is not the case with Bryan Adams, though I hear he has a new album out. Maybe I should tell my folks.
I’ll leave you with one more fun fact, something that says volumes about Waking up the Neighbours’ place and time in musical history. Want to know what Adams’ band was named, and still is? Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: Bryan Adams and the Dudes of Leisure!