The Lyrical Themes of Rembetika: A Woman Scorned

I’m a sunny guy who grew up loving melancholy music. Grunge was my bag, Radiohead my sweet love, The Smiths an overwrought delight.

What I never properly noticed, though, was the heavy shit my parents were listening to.

My parents are Greek immigrants to Melbourne. Greeks love Greek music — and all Greek music has rembetika as its basis.

Rembetika is best described as bleak as fuck. Like a good Jewish maternal stereotype, Greeks do love their heavy-handed melodrama. But what makes rembetika more than a caricature is its foundation in the horrible times Greeks lived through during the first half of the twentieth century.

So over the course of a few posts, I plan to highlight some of the lyrics of popular songs that are venerated by pretty much every Greek of my parents’ generation and would make any Australian parent of the current generation blanche.

And in this post, the lyrical theme I present is The Woman Scorned.

In the male-dominated world of Greek society in which these songs were written, life could be especially brutal for women. Women had few rights and barely any recourse that extended beyond singing mournfully about their plight. When a man did a woman wrong, the effects could be catastrophic, and songs of women scorned are a particular source of lyrical power.

Perhaps my favourite is Γεννήθηκα για να Πονώ, or I Was Born To Be Hurt. Combined with Marika Ninou’s fierce singing, the song stings with bitter resentment and a deep wish for vengeance. Here are some of the choice lines:

Γεννήθηκα για να πονώ και για να τυραννιέμαι
I was born to be hurt and to be tyrannised
την ώρα που σε γνώρισα βαριά την καταριέμαι
that moment I met you, I curse it deeply
Με πλήγωσες και δεν ξεχνώ που τόσο έχω κλάψει
You hurt me and I’ll never forget how much I’ve cried
να γίνει η κατάρα μου φωτιά και να σε κάψει
May my curse become fire and burn you

Reminder: this is a classic song that everyone in Greece knows. It’s as well known there as Hound Dog or Tutti Frutti, a song the whole family will sing along to.

Next is a more melancholic song of mistreatment and woe. The song is called Αντιλαλούνε τα Βουνά, or The Echoing Mountains.

Στενάζω απ’ τις λαβωματιές κι απ’ τις δικές σου μαχαιριές
I moan from my wounds and from your stabbings
λαβωματιές με γέμισες και μ’ έφαγαν οι πόνοι
You’ve covered me with wounds and the pains have overtaken me
και στη φωτιά που μ’ έριξες, τίποτα δε με σώνει
And from the fires you’ve thrown me into, nothing will save me

Αντιλαλούνε τα βουνά σαν κλαίω εγώ τα δειλινά
The mountains echo out when I cry at sunset

The mountain echo of your cries at sunset is just a standard Greek song. This is not considered emo.

And my third and final example of a woman’s lament for her man’s treachery:

Κρίμα τους κόπους μου και τις θυσίες μου και όσα τράβηξα τόσο καιρό για σένα
It’s a shame that my efforts, my sacrifices, everything I went through for you
κρίμα τα όνειρα και τις ελπίδες μου τα πήρε ο άνεμος και πήγανε χαμένα
It’s a shame that my hopes were taken by the wind and forsaken

Εσένα δε σου άξιζε αγάπη εσένα δε σου άξιζε στοργή
You weren’t worthy of love, you weren’t worthy of affection
έχεις στο αίμα σου την αμαρτία είσ’ ένα ψέμα χωρίς ψυχή
You have sin in your blood, you are a lie without a soul

Next time someone does you wrong, you go tell them: you are a lie without a soul.

The Fifth Beatle, Plato, and the Rolling Stones of Aristotle

Some would have you think it’s a pointless argument, a debate hardly worth engaging with, the equivalent of bald men fighting over a comb. I tell you otherwise: the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones is yet another chapter in a recurring theme that springs eternal. It’s Plato versus Aristotle; Apollo versus Dionysus; it’s the sky versus the earth, the timeless ideal versus the vital ephemeral: it’s the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones.

The story goes that the Beatles wrote Norwegian Wood in 1965, Eleanor Rigby in 1966, Blackbird in 1968. Now, to get at why the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones is so much more than just a simple rivalry between bands, I will begin by convincing you that those dates are all wrong — and I won’t be resorting to conspiracy theories, time-bending physics or dream sequences to do so. No, all I need is Plato.

A Brief Platonic Interlude

Among other things, Plato sought to explain a particularly curious ability of the human mind: it can pick out objects and effortlessly categorise them. Take dogs, for instance. We can recognise all these disparate objects — the chihuahua, the German shepherd, the dachshund — as dogs without ever confusing them with other four-legged animals such as wolves, foxes or bears. We do this effortlessly, so effortlessly in fact that it took someone like Plato to notice how particularly impressive a skill it is.

For us to categorise objects, Plato argued we must already be aware of the categories that we lump objects into. So before we can categorise dogs as dogs in the effortless and consistent way that we do, Plato thought that the idea of dogs already exists in our minds as a timeless canine form, lying there in wait, ready for use once we stumble across objects recognisable as dogs.

Likewise, if our minds can distinguish disparate objects as dogs and lump them into an abstract canine form that is elemental and timeless, Plato argued that all the other abstract entities we engage with, the good, the great, the beautiful, must be equally essential and timeless. A beautiful flower, a beautiful sunset, a beautiful melody: to Plato, they each reflect beauty’s form just as much as the chihuahua and the dachshund reflect the canine.

Platonic Beauty in Music

And if one were to do now as Plato once did and consider beauty’s form in the musical realm, one would immediately consider My Favourite Things. Julie Andrews and John Coltrane make for strange bedfellows, but My Favourite Things does what few other songs can: it transcends its renditions, so much so that a dragon-chasing musical visionary often overcome by the darkness of this mortal coil could find inspiration among raindrops on roses and kittens with whiskers. Not even the overly saccharine Sound of Music can hide the delicious headiness of the melody, and although John Coltrane might have made My Favourite Things hip, any old schmo who makes a reasonably faithful rendition of the song will never render it unpleasant.  

Sure, you might say, our day and age is replete with top-ten lists of seemingly vast musical differences, so there hardly appears to be any universality possible and this whole Platonic business is bonkers. But although we focus on our subjective differences — I consider Coldplay an abomination, as should the rest of you damn it! — the very discussion we have over subjective differences is possible because of certain musical fundamentals we all hear in the same way. Even without a hint of musical theory, we each hear, for instance, the arrangement of notes in a major key sounding perky and in a minor key sombre; or a C and a C# played together as a grating, unsettling sound; or two notes an octave apart sharing an aural unity that renders them, paradoxically, the same note. So too do we hear My Favourite Things as a delight — because we’ve been made that way, by God, by evolution, by whatever cosmic force that has led to the development of humankind. Rodgers and Hammerstein brought to light properties of the human mind that were theretofore unknown: that the waxing and waning and sashaying of the notes that make up My Favourite Things are the quintessence of musical bewitchment, and in any of its guises, some more hip than others, the song’s core enraptures.

My Favourite Things is the Platonic song par excellence, timelessly and universally beautiful. You could say Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t so much write the song; rather, they were the prophets through which aspects of beauty’s form were revealed. In the same way, the Beatles too were Platonists. They wrote songs akin to My Favourite Things. Unlike we benighted commoners, the Beatles were Prometheus, stealing fire from the Gods and enlightening each and every one of us on beauty’s form via music. While it’s by no means a constant in the Beatles back catalogue, they often revealed beauty’s eternal handiwork in such songs as Blackbird, Eleanor Rigby, Norwegian Wood, Yesterday. Paul McCartney admitted as much himself: he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d already heard Yesterday. What he didn’t know was that he had indeed already heard the song, as had everyone else, because Yesterday was always there, awaiting revelation, awaiting to enrapture, the musical embodiment of beauty’s eternal form. That’s why one could say it’s not entirely accurate to speak of many of the Beatles’ classic compositions as having been written in a particular year: those songs already existed, and our minds had no choice but to be charmed.

An Aristotelian Interlude

If on Plato’s iPod My Favourite Things is on repeat, Louie Louie is banging away in Aristotle’s. In Louie Louie, there exists not a jot that’s musically notable. At its core there lies only dull, harebrained simplicity. Diametrically opposed to My Favourite Things, the only thing interesting in Louie Louie is the rendition, the simplicity allowing the space for inspired performance, for cock-a-hoops and shout outs, for mood and feel, for joyous sloppiness and youthful abandon. The colour, the joy, the fun and the delight in the countless renditions of Louie Louie come from everything that is not the notes. Julie Andrews would murder Louie Louie; John Coltrane wouldn’t even bother with it. They’re not performers who make colourful, vital, gnarled, slapdash and glorious messes out of music. Bands like the Rolling Stones do that. And Aristotle gloried in it.

Contra Plato, Aristotle had no truck with forms or overwrought theories to explain categorisation. For Aristotle, there are no timeless forms — just a bunch of objects of various shapes and sizes that we as humans have munged together into the same category over time. This chihuahua looks like that chihuahua, which sort of shares a bunch of characteristics with that dachsund and looks nothing like that shark over there. Repeat a few times and, bob’s your uncle, we end up with a category of dog.

Aristotle revelled in particulars: he loved this or that dog and their glorious variations. He got so good at this, at cataloguing the varieties of species in the animal world, that he’s considered the first biologist. Plato, on the other hand, didn’t much care for individual dogs running around in the world. Plato considered the sensory life an illusion, a cosmic joke played on those who waste their time with the ephemeral shadows emanating from the higher abstract forms. If we transfer this line of thinking to music, Plato couldn’t have cared less for all the existing G notes and would ponder the one true G note. Conversely, Aristotle loved every variety of G: the G from a muted trumpet, the G from a distorted guitar, the G from a harpsichord, a violin or a glockenspiel. Plato revered the idealised G, Aristotle the realised. Even if My Favourite Things were played on a $10 Casio keyboard, Plato would hear the idealised tune in his head and be lost to its delights as a composition, barely noticing the primitive electronic sound. Aristotle, on the other hand, he’d be disgusted that such a classic song was being debased by cheap musical geegaws and demand to hear Coltrane’s reinvention of the song through noise-cancelling headphones plugged into a turntable.

The Rolling Stones of Aristotle

No doubt, too, Aristotle would have been a Rolling Stones man. Like Aristotle, the Rolling Stones were never interested in anything formal; instead, they were always about the thrill of performance and the buzzing warmth of music enveloping the skin. The Beatles stopped playing live well before they released their finest work while the Rolling Stones are still playing live long well after they released their finest work. In some happy, perfect world, do the Rolling Stones write the Beatles compositions and perform them?

Yet despite their hallowed career, the Rolling Stones don’t really make sense: there’s barely a melody in most Rolling Stones material; Keith Richards plays the same Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed chords over and over again; the rhythm section is basically straight up and down four-four rock. The Rolling Stones should be as ordinary as the band that plays round the corner. Instead, the Rolling Stones took rock and roll further than it had gone before, showcasing along the way what an emphasis on everything that isn’t the notes can do.

Gimme Shelter sounds like the apocalypse; Stray Cat Blues is positively filthy. Jumpin’ Jack Flash is the musical incarnation of excitement, of danger, of style. Coltrane at times could be all those things, but he can’t play Jumpin’ Jack Flash:  it’s all riff, no real harmony, the melody basically percussive. There’s nothing substantial for Coltrane to rearrange into a jazz ensemble. The song wouldn’t work on a trumpet, a glockenspiel, an oboe. No, the song is all performance and only works in that particular sonic configuration, tailored specifically for those instruments, with Keith’s fuzzed-out tone and many layers of wickedly weaving guitars, with Jagger’s rhythmic vocal snarl. In Jumpin’ Jack Flash and so much else, the Rolling Stones were musical alchemists, managing to transmute the stock-standard elements of rock and roll into glorious representations of attitude, rebelliousness and rambunctiousness that became sonic badges of identity. The Beatles can be enjoyed purely by the head, seduced as it is by their sumptuous melodies. The Rolling Stones: they head straight for the hips, right where carefree libidinousness and youthful abandon can be shaken free.


Take Blackbird and Sweet Black Angel as cases in point, both of which were about civil rights in the USA and featured on sprawling double albums. Like My Favourite Things, Blackbird is a song of incredible beauty and compositional delight. Its intricate harmonic and rhythmic pattern, inspired by a Bach piece for the lute, is an enthralling joy. Its rendition, though, is cloying, a little twee and very, well, Paul McCartney. Sweet Black Angel is by far Blackbird’s inferior compositionally. But if one is so inclined as to wear a grin of glee through an energetic performance of Louie Louie, Sweet Black Angel’s feel casts aside its compositional shortcomings and renders the song celebratory. Blackbird sounds like a toff earnestly extolling the virtues of the civil rights movement while enjoying his round of golf; Sweet Black Angel sounds like the thrill of cross pollination, of everyday white and black people getting on together and getting it on together. You bop to Sweet Black Angel with your hips;  you hum Blackbird while daydreaming in your head.

The Rolling Stones were the better rock-and-roll band while the Beatles were the better musicians who happened to be in a rock-and-roll band. Throughout the world of music, the universal appeal of the Beatles serves as inspiration. Yet despite being modern-day icons, the Rolling Stones have never had the same broad-based appeal that the Beatles enjoyed. To be a Rolling Stone, you have to understand their music to be rebellious and to rejoice in it, all of which requires appreciating the social meaning of their sound. The Rolling Stones are one of the best examples of the coupling of music and identity, of how performance can lend itself to appreciation just as fundamentally as does composition. In the visceral thrill of punk and metal, in the textural experiments of indie bands, in music as a sonic badge of identity, we hear the Rolling Stones.

But we do not solely exist within subcultures. There must be a universal basis to our appreciation of music: how else could we conduct our conversations and debates if not for some shared language, some shared core? That does not mean the universal need have any sway over the particular or that the debate need find resolution. The Beatles versus the Rolling Stones is a debate that shall continue to spring eternal because each of us is partly Platonic, partly Aristotelian, one side playing off the other as we age in feedback loops DJ’d by nature and nurture. We all want to revel in Aristotelian actualisation and Platonic patterns of formal brilliance; the mind need not reject the body, nor the body the mind. Inclinations, however, are inclinations. You might tend Platonic, you might tend Aristotelian; just know there’s something to be enjoyed on either side and the ear is no passive listener. Appreciate music shorn of its sonic texture, purely as composition; appreciate music steeped in its time, place and sonic language. Be a Beatle, be a Stone — and maybe get to glory in all sides.

The Cunnilingus Suite: When Prince Goes Down South

Ah Prince. You’ve given us Wendy and Lisa, and you’ve given us Vanity 6 and Apollonia purifying herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. Are you about female empowerment, or are you about female objectification? Whichever is the case, there is no doubt that in the boudoir Prince is a thoroughgoing egalitarian who revels in mutual sexual gratification. He gets off when she gets off, and what becomes clear to any Prince fan is that he loves to go down south and sing its praises. So much so, in fact, that I make the following claim: no other musician has written as many songs featuring cunnilingus, and no one has written as many songs describing how joyously good it is.

And so here I present Prince’s Cunnilingus Suite, the evidence I submit to prove the claim that Prince is indeed the musical world’s greatest panegyrist of the pudenda. In all, it’s eleven songs featuring cunnilingus from the wet pen of the purple one. There are probably more I’ve missed, and there are plenty more that suggest more, and then there are the songs that are from the point of view of the pussy, but for now, here are fifteen songs that require no cunning to figure out that cunnilingus is indeed what they’re about.

Come from the album Come
Come is a sweltering 11-minute paean to pleasuring one’s partner. It’s immense and intense and full of cunnilingus. A funky, sexual standout in Prince’s oeuvre.

Lickin’ you inside, outside
All sides, up and down
With my tongue in the crease, baby I go ’round
When I go down, down, down

If I Was Your Girlfriend from Sign O’ The Times
A stone-cold Prince classic about physical and emotional intimacy.

And would you, would you let me kiss you there
You know, down there where it counts
I’ll do it so good, I swear I’ll drink every ounce
And then I’ll hold you tight and hold you long
And together we’ll stare into silence

Automatic from 1999
Written, produced and arranged by Prince. He’s a control freak, except in the boudoir, where he relishes relinquishing control.

I’ll go down on you all night long, it’s automatic
Yes I will, babe

Head from Dirty Mind
When Prince’s tongue is not down south, it’s lodged firmly in his cheek: Head is hilarious, morning, noon and night.

And you said, “I must confess,
I wanna get undressed and go to bed.”
With that I jammed, you fool,
You married me instead
Now morning, noon, and night
I give u
Til you’re burnin’ up

Lovesexy from the album Lovesexy
Might this be the only case of back-to-back songs featuring cunnilingus on any album? This and the following song can be lapped up on the Lovesexy album, which was released after a religious awakening that didn’t seem to staunch any of Prince’s libidinousness.

U want (Lovesexy) me to s…suck around your living room
Ha Ha
Yeah, U…U want me to walk right down your halls
mmm hmmm
U want me to swivel in your love seat
Don’t U baby’
U want me to write my name on your walls
U want me to write my name

When 2 R In Love from The Black Album and Lovesexy
Prince’s version of high romance and loving devotion.

When 2 R in love
The thought of his tongue in the V of her love
In his mind, this thought it leads the pack

On The Couch from Musicology
Cunnilingus pops into Prince’s mind while watching the TV. Just like that.

Love Jones is on the TV again, baby
Ooh, I wanna go down south, yeah

Insatiable from Diamonds and Pearls
Insatiable is filthy. I’m actually a little frightened of the song. Cunnilingus is the least of it.

Even if I wasn’t thirsty,
I would drink every drop

The Other Side of the Pillow from The Truth and One Night Alone… Live
He’s staunchly a Jehovah’s Witness at this stage and has disavowed his cussing past. Praise be to cunnilingus, though. Praise be indeed.

Cool as the other side of the pillow
(You’re my baby)
Smooth, I wanna drink you all out

Love 2 the 9s the Love Symbol album
This song seems so innocent musically…

Could u lie down on a bed of thorns
While I drink your ocean dry

The Continental from the Love Symbol album
Tell Me How You Wanna Be Done from Crystal Ball

Conjecture is rife that Alphabet Street is actually about Prince writing out the alphabet with his tongue, and the G that’s missing in the alphabet’s recitation is a reference to the G-spot. Whatever might actually be the case on Alphabet Street, the following lyrics are most definitely about the alphabetical application of the tongue, and Prince thought them to be so good that they’re featured on two songs.

Tell me how u wanna be done (how u wanna be done)
Shall I write the alphabet, (A-B-C-D-E-F-G)
Or shall I just write my name
U tell me, u’re the ruler in this telephone game

Superfunkycalifragisexy from the Black Album
Perhaps the only time Prince is not unequivocally in favour of cunnilingus is while a woman is menstruating. That’s not to say he doesn’t see some clear benefits.

The blood is real good if you drink it real fast
But the aftertaste just lasts and lasts

Love Machine from Graffiti Bridge
Love Machine combines Prince’s love of prime numbers and cunnilingus in the one stanza.

Don’t lie, u want some love that will make u cry
17 tongues licking from the neck down moving in a quickspeed circular motion
round and round, I said it round and round,
like u like it, I can lick it like u like it.

One Kiss At A Time from Emancipation
He’s well and truly married at this stage. Sounds like Mayte Garcia, his then wife, was a lucky woman.

And every nervous twitch that happens when my tongue is there
Your lips, up and down your back and every single hair

Top Ten Prince Songs You Might Not Have Heard

Prince is coming to Melbourne, and on Monday night I’ll be five rows from the stage with a iridescent smile on my face and the funk in my hips.

The last time Prince was in town, his jam on All The Critics Love You In New York during the encore was the highlight, even if only diehards such as myself would have known of the song. And that’s generally the problem for diehards attending the big shows of the big names: they will have already heard the hits done to death and could do with their own personal favourites getting a run rather than the same-old same-old.

So here’s my personal top ten selection of B-sides and album tracks that I very much doubt I’ll hear Monday night, but like All The Critics Love You In New York managed to do the last time around, perhaps one of them will sneak into the show.

1. Erotic City

Perhaps the greatest B-side ever put down on vinyl.

Erotic City was literally and figuratively on the flip side to Let’s Go Crazy. No doubt Prince delighted in the thought of unsuspecting kids turning over their newly purchased single of good time funking rock to discover a sinuous, spare, almost mechanical dance song that would revolutionise club music and shock the bejesus out of people who say “bejesus”.

Ridiculously good.

2. PFUnk
The best that Prince can do at this stage of his career is a killer song on a mediocre album. But like so much of Prince’s best work, PFUnk didn’t even appear on an album.

PFUnk is Prince’s rather ungracious response to the rebuke he suffered after issuing legal notices to the relevant parties ordering any product or image of his to be taken down from the internet. Ironically enough, the song was an internet-only release. Happily enough, it was the best thing he’d done in years.

PFUnk is a huge, one-man Funkadelic jam — over seven minutes long; a hard rock chorus, skeletal space-age funk verses; multiple voices, multiple beats; killer solos, killer horn fills; false ending, latin-jazz outro. All that and it features a series of the hardest ones in the business throughout the chorus (the four is silenced every second bar so the one hits harder than a bomb).

3. The Ballad of Dorothy Parker
The Ballad of Dorothy Parker is Prince’s paean to Joni Mitchell, a feminine folk funk classic that’s the equivalent of a fresh summer kiss. And like When Doves Cry, Prince renders a full rhythmic symphony out of programmed drums that make the sparseness of the instrumentation noticeable only in retrospect.

4. Tamborine
Not content with too-fast corvettes as code for sexual frustration (is Little Red Corvette the only smash hit to have been about premature ejaculation?), Prince turned to tambourines that he dreamed being inside of.

One can only assume those dreams were heady stuff — they’re accompanied by manic drums, eastern melodies evoking harems and yet another demonstration of how well Prince can scream.

5. Lady Cab Driver
Prince usually celebrates sex. On Lady Cab Driver, not at all.

Prince brings the funk, but it’s a cold funk, mechanical, emotionless, like the sex he’s seeking. And when he finds it, the frustrations pour out with the climax.

6. New Position
It’s a throwaway song, probably something Prince laid down in an inspired hour or two of fun, and its infectious, slinky and sexy joy should have anyone heading to the boudoir to try out a new position.

7. Irresistible Bitch
Another ridiculously good and ridiculously explicit B-side. So spare that every little line is a memorable hook.

8. Feel U Up
As above, a signature B-side.

9. D.M.S.R.
Some of the slinkiest synthesisers on record — a party starter.

10. 17 Days
Erotic City eclipses its A-side, Let’s Go Crazy. 17 Days can’t do the same against When Doves Cry, but it’s killer nonetheless.

Also continues Prince’s fine fascination with prime numbers: 1999, 7, “17-year-old boys and they’re idea of fun” in Sign O’ The Times, 3121, 1+1+1 is 3, “23 positions in a one-night stand” in Gett Off, 3 Chains Of Gold, 17 Days, “it’s been 7 hours and 13 days” in Nothing Compares to U, and 5 Women.

And for bonus joy, here’s Living Colour’s rendition:

And the honourable mentions: Housequake, Let’s Work, Adore, Sister, Forever in My Life, Girls and Boys, Hot Thing, I Love U in Me, Do U Lie?, Vibrator, G-Spot, 5 Women, Joy in Repetition, Crystal Ball, Eye No, Damn U, Feel U Up, Girl, La, La, La, He, He, He, A Love Bizarre, Scarlet Pussy, Crystal Ball, It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night, Sexy Dancer, Bambi, She’s Always in My Hair, Scarlet Pussy, Hello, 1+1+1 is 3, Party Up, How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?, Starfish and Coffee.

Sade @ Rod Laver Arena, 2nd December, 2011

Countless people would have looked twice at Sade’s name and assume it a prank when she first came to prominence in the mid-eighties. No one need look twice these days: Sade is pronounced her way first, the marquis be damned.

Thirty years since the heady days of Smooth Operator and Sade still pulls a sizeable crowd, and a much cherished one at that: the kind that still pays full-price for music. Although Sade is an understated performer and her between-song patter is mostly rehearsed, the theatrical elements of her show — video projections, choreography, costume changes, stage effects — combined with an overlong absence from these antipodean shores make for an entertaining evening.

The night begins with Soldier of Love. The song incorporates a mechanised, industrial feel that is a slight departure from her usual fare, and the whole production plays on it: the performers emerge from the depths of the stage on the beat; the band synchronise their movements in lock step; Sade coolly hams it up; the lights accent the snare drum pounding on the two and four.

These theatrical elements are generally a clever touch the whole night through; a nonsensical video providing the back story to Smooth Operator while affording time for an obligatory costume change, however, is not. Regrettably, neither is the song’s rendition a great success — Smooth Operator feels limp and rushed. But no matter: soon after, an atmospheric rendition of Is It A Crime elicits the greatest response of the night, the slow burn of the verses that build to the chorus that goes somewhere close to emotional a welcome change from the general restraint of Sade’s material.

The relaxed funk of Paradise has a handful of the audience on their feet, and when the song breaks down into a sanitised, adult-oriented hip hop section, everyone gets on up. Sade wisely leaves the stage to her two back-up singers who have the crowd responding to their cliched calls. It’s lightweight and ridiculous; nonetheless, it’s fun.

We’ve been told we’re loved, we’ve heard the hits; while she never commands the stage, Sade is a gracious performer, and, smartly, she doesn’t rely on her intimate, understated music alone to entertain in a venue as vast as Rod Laver Arena. Her urbane exotica and the show’s production are all well done and — dare I say it — a smooth operation indeed.

Gomez and Whatever’s On Your Mind

3 out of 10: Moments of typical Gomez blues marred by treacly, sentimental schlock

Gomez are a blues band who don’t have much to be blue about. Like many bands who aren’t much chop at evoking emotion with their music, Gomez are at their best when they’re inventive, playful, quirky. Whatever’s On Your Mind continues in that inventive vein, but they’ve overreached: instead of quirky and fun, they’ve tried for quirky and emotional — and come off as vapid and maudlin.

The joys of Love Is Better Than A Warm Trombone and Get Myself Arrested are over ten years old now, and they still stand as deft, light-hearted reinterpretations of the blues for this more comfortable modern age. Options, the first track from Whatever’s On Your Mind, begins with those same hallmarks, but deft soon turns to daft with a deathly detour into Coldplay strings and twee electronics that is sadly indicative of the entire album.

Lines as execrable as “I’m just as lost as you are”, “please hold on to your heart of gold” and “you’re the song in my heart” are but three examples of Gomez’s primary mistake: sentimentality substituting for fun. There’s not a jot of emotional weight to any of their songs, not a scintilla of old-school soul to their sound, and the canned strings over cliched lyrics that is alarmingly common throughout will render sickly the sweetest of musical tooths.

Gomez should have known better. Misplaced sentimentality is the young man’s goof, not the old hand’s. What’s most disappointing is that Whatever’s On Your Mind features many moments of musical canniness, but moments they remain overwhelmed as they are by missteps into the maudlin mundane.

Dereb The Ambassador @ The Corner, 17th June, 2011

9 out of 10: Dereb the Ambassador bring the Ethiopian funk.

Souvlaki, laksa and tempura are but three examples of the welcome impact multiculturalism has made on the Australian palette; musically, though, it’s still the same meat and three veg of rock and roll that keeps the masses satisfied. Tonight, however, is different. Tonight Dereb Desalegn showcases the band he has put together over the course of the last decade since his arrival in Australia from his native Ethiopia, a band that serves up the slinky sounds from his homeland’s musical golden period.

Mulatu Astatke is the one-man Motown of Ethiopia, a veritable genius who created the classic Latin jazz, funk and traditional Ethiopian infusion that came to be known as ethio-jazz and which had Addis Ababa swinging in the 60s and 70s. Dereb the Ambassador mine that sound, and they fittingly begin with a driving cover of the instrumental Astatqe standard, Yelage Tizeta. The original is sexier, more lounge, the aural equivalent of a martini sipped among belly dancers in a Saharan oasis bar; but Dereb the Ambassador are bringing the funk tonight, and they conjure up a sweaty dancefloor in an overheated, overpopulated North African city, a single fan blowing ineffectually from the ceiling.

Dereb sings in his native Amharic, which, without words recognisable to this Australian’s ears, makes his voice sound like a bellowing clarinet of deep, evocative hues, both resonant and rich. And it’s that voice along with the two saxophones on stage that trace the thrillingly exotic Ethiopian melodies. Their lines slink, slither and slide, the saxophones at times sounding like two hissing snakes intertwining in desert sands. All this is on top of a crack rhythm section, the congas and the drums polyrhythmically combining to produce an outstanding underlay of intermeshed percussion for the rest of the instruments to sit on.

Dereb the Ambassador, however, are not mere revivalists: they also introduce Jamaican elements into their Ethiopian melange to good effect. The ska-like bounce to many of their numbers add a unifying element to the funky bodies on the dancefloor that are otherwise dancing to any one of the various interlocking parts of the funky, elegant whole.

Dereb the Ambassador are the real deal, a band of tight professionals that, thousands of miles away from Ethiopia, nonetheless manage to evoke the steaming clubs of Addis Ababa with their sexy flights of jazzy, North-African funk. Twiddly, trebly, whiney rock need not be the sole musical diet of a Melbournite looking for something live, and happily Australia’s multiculturalism now has something musical to hang its hat on.

Toots and the Maytals @ the Palace, 24th April, 2011

3 out of 10: Toots surrounded by mediocrity

It must be a political statement against nepotism: the show begins with Toots’ daughter singing an execrable reggae-muzak version of John Waite’s middle-of-the-road Missing You. After the song is done, she quietly takes up her spot behind a backing singer’s mic, a spot that should really be for a Maytal, and Toots, her legendary father, enters stage right.

Toots is looking ridiculously fine. Toots’ bright red outfit, a stunning throwback to Eddie Murphy’s finer days, sits snugly over his bulbous, middle-aged paunch, while his swagger and black-as-night sunglasses make for a kitschy-cool combination perhaps no other 65 year old could pull off. From the outset, it’s clear that Toots’ voice and its soulful, gospel inflections have only improved with age and his very own funky dance steps remain timeless. But right from the outset, it’s also clear that even though tonight has been billed as Toots and the Maytals, it’s not the Maytals that the world has grown up with that are on stage and the backing band is not a patch on the Skatalites.

The backing band is practically invisible. They’re hardly better than a covers band and there is little cohesion or energy Toots can work with. Although the classic Pressure Drop is the first song Toots sings, the band’s inability to nail the rhythm has the audience raising its collective eyebrow. No member of the band will end up being introduced to the audience and the show might have been better off if they weren’t there at all.

A night of Toots singing Funky Kingston, Sweet and Dandy, Louie Louie and Monkey Man should be a delight, but everything meanders. The only saving grace is Toots’ rambunctious stage presence and booming voice, especially on the songs whose gospel influences are more apparent. But even these vocal moments of joy are hamstrung by microphones dropping in and out, all of which left Toots bemoaning to his sound crew at one point, “I have a big voice — why you try and make it small?”

The punchy 54-46 Was My Number is the last song, the kind of upbeat classic that is capable of turning the memory of an ordinary night of barely middling rocksteady and reggae into a happy one. Midway through a bizarre four-on-the-floor disco interlude, no one can say for sure whether the first or last song of the night is the most bemusing.

The Bamboos @ the Prince Bandroom, 14th of January, 2011

7 out of 10: An up-and-down night of historic funk.

The Bamboos are Melbourne’s own funk institution, and it’s a testament to the band that in a music scene more attuned to the rumble of power chords, the humble, scratchy slinkiness of a funky guitar’s ninth-chord rhythms can still garner an audience.

Tonight The Bamboos are celebrating ten years of funky good times by packing out the Prince Bandroom. As tradition demands, the show begins instrumentally. Resplendent in dapper suits, The Bamboos evoke the laid-back party groove of a New Orleans night spot and sound as if The Meters had dropped by Melbourne town.

The instrumental Bamboos are a subdued lot who prefer to lock into the groove meditatively, without commotion. Although Lance Ferguson is the band’s leader on guitar, he seems almost awkward being the foremost member of the band. So when Kylie Auldist, the band’s singer, enters the stage, eyes naturally shift to her effervescent exuberance.

It’s not, however, Auldist’s finest night. She’s a little too exuberant, perhaps even drunk, and at times she garbles words and misses notes. When she alludes to some tensions within the band after having mocked The Bamboos’ early days without her, Auldist rivals Parliament’s Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk in her ability to sap away the sweetness of the groove.

A second instrumental section brings out the band’s original drummer, Scott Lambie. He emerges on stage and installs his own snare drum as part of the kit. It’s an audacious statement, supremely self-confident, the kind of thing only seasoned professionals do who consider their instruments extensions of their own selves. And when Lambie begins with an elaborate drum pattern on snare and hi-hat that barely seems possible, we each bear witness to the funk in its purest form. The song is a vehicle for those drums, those exquisitely funky drums, and when the break comes, Lambie deftly, tastefully, expertly varies the original pattern before the crowd gives the funky drummer some.

Danny Farrugia, the band’s current drummer, is no shirk, though. His breaks are manic scattershots of Keith Moon mayhem, and in combination with the tasty James Jamerson stylings of bass player Yuri Pavlinov, The Bamboos rhythm section remains a treat.

The Bamboos are, however, caught in a curious catch-22. When playing instrumentally, their funk is a delight, but the lack of any stage presence harms how the performance is received. Yet when it’s time for the bubbly Auldist to sing and there is a focal point, the funk gets scaled back for the vocals, which unfortunately don’t make up for the loss of groove. An historic night, an entertaining night, but ultimately not the night of nights.

Public Enemy @ The Corner on the 29th December, 2010

4 out of 10: A murky let down from a band that can no longer muster up the rage that drived them

The classic Public Enemy T-shirts are on sale at the front of the room and Chuck D enters from stage right with a boombox across his shoulder. Twenty years ago Public Enemy delivered their second groundbreaking work of sonic rage and righteousness, Fear of a Black Planet, and at the Corner tonight, Public Enemy are celebrating that achievement by turning Flavor Flav’s clock back and playing a show devoted to that era and that album.

The double punch of Contract on a World Love Jam and Brothers Gonna Work It Out kick off proceedings, just as they did on vinyl all that time ago. Chuck D and Flavor Flav are still their sprightly selves and two of the original S1Ws are patrolling the stage in military lockstep. But although the most visible elements of Public Enemy are still in full effect in 2010, aurally there’s something very wrong.

The screaming Prince sample on Brothers Gonna Work It Out is unheard. Chuck D’s deep, resonant voice is muffled. The live guitar, bass and drums — what seems like a great idea — sound like they’re competing rather than melding with the production. The mix is a wash of indistinctness, the muck clearing only when the sound is pared back considerably. For a band whose success was founded on its huge wall of interlocking sampled sound, the murky mush is criminal.

Be that as it may, Public Enemy have a back catalogue that kills. She Watch Channel Zero and Bring the Noise are but two classics they mine from It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the latter song ending with an a capella reprise of the exquisite rhymes of its first verse that has the exultant crowd roaring happily that “once again back is the incredible” Public Enemy. Flavor Flav’s hijinx are as effervescent as they’ve ever been, Cold Lampin’ With Flavor and 911 is a Joke highlights of the night. Nevertheless, while Flav’s ebullience are pitch perfect for those signature tunes of his, Chuck D’s equally high spirited if not quite as humorous approach to the show renders anaemic much of Public Enemy’s more aggressive material. Public Enemy are too friendly, too jovial, too comfortable. Chuck D once was hip hop’s finest fire-and-brimstone preacher, but the rage has dissipated, and with it too has much of Public Enemy’s righteous, furious edge.