Today’s review is going in an unexpected direction. We are going to talk about cocaine, folks. You didn’t anticipate that, did you? The Fashion Focus is the continental divide of the sf59 catalog. People tend to see it as the point when sf59 finally became something or the point when it all started going off the rails. I do not intend to argue the merits of the album. I want to pull the lid off this thing to figure out what changed and why the change happened. Cocaine will be my metaphorical crowbar for this task (at least on the first song).
The drum intro of “I Drive A Lot” tells us right away that the pace is different than anything we’ve heard before from sf59. Then those synths burst in like sunlight hitting a dusty room when you’ve opened the curtains. We’ve got that four on the floor beat. The vocals are slightly off tune. There’s no way around it, y’all. This is a New Wave song.
I had always suspected that JM was influenced by New Wave, even when distorted guitars were the order of the day. JM revealed his cards a bit with “You’re Mean”. There were other signs too. All those songs that sounded like a reinterpretation of ’50s music? That is a standard New Wave trope. The utilitarian drums? Check. The preoccupation with sadness and aloneness? Check. New Wave was always there hiding behind all those guitar tracks in the first three albums.
I grew up on New Wave. It is as natural to me as breathing. One of my earliest memories is going on a road trip and hearing the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” constantly on the radio on the whole trip because it was the #1 song at the time (Side note: is it any wonder that I became a person who constantly questions the motivations of people? “Sweet Dreams” taught me this). I cannot imagine music without New Wave. It was not even something that I realized consciously until it was called into question once.
Once my ex and I went to my best friend’s house. As often happens with my best friend, we started watching music videos on YouTube which led to us to a captivating performance by Berlin at some outdoor festival in 1983 where Terri Nunn was just blown out of her head. I looked over at my ex and she’s bored out of her mind. I asked her later what she thought of Berlin and she said she didn’t like them. I started listing off other New Wave bands and she responded each time saying that she doesn’t like them (she didn’t like sf59 either). The best description I could get from her for why she didn’t like New Wave was “It’s too frantic.” I started connecting the dots in my brain. All the bands she didn’t like were known cocaine users. Her brain couldn’t work at the speed of cocaine and mine could. Where she just heard noise and frenzy, I heard home and long road trips with my family.
I started thinking about why cocaine was such a major feature of New Wave music and how it impacted the sound of the songs and the lyrical content. My favorite New Wave bands are from the UK, NYC or the American South. I started thinking about what happened in those locations that would lead a generation of musicians to write the way that they did and snort cocaine like there was no tomorrow. The New Wave generation grew up in extraordinary times. In the UK, there was the vast destruction brought by World War II and the Troubles in Ireland. In the US, we had the civil rights movement and the threat of the Cold War. This generation was the first that grew up with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. No wonder they snorted cocaine. This generation knew what horrors humanity was capable of. They needed something to make their brains move faster than the ever-present existential dread of living life.
You can hear the existential dread in the music if you pay attention. But these kids weren’t going to be all morose about it like the baby boomers of the ’60s. No, they are going to write songs about isolation and fear and you are going to dance to it, dammit. They will sing about the difficulty of life but do it in such a way that it sounds like they are one step ahead of it. I suppose cocaine helps you run just out of reach of those cultural boogeymen. If you listen to the pace of the music, you can hear how they are driven to outrun the past or run toward some unattainable future.
And if you need it a lot
I’m talking just to waste my day
I drive a lot
I drive a lot
There has to be something for those of us who abstain from drugs for personal/religious reasons or who don’t have enough money to feed a cocaine habit. For me, it has always been driving and listening to music. I suspect it is the same for JM too. My propensity to find solace in driving was formed on those road trips with my family. I would sit in the back seat with my headphones and relax into a steady beat as trees, road signs and gas stations zoomed by. At the time The Fashion Focus was released, I was commuting to college and delivering pizza. Except for the hours when I was in class or sleeping, I was always on the move, always pushing the gas pedal down so my anxieties could not catch up.
Think of things I’d be
With time to kill and just had lots of money
Time to kill and just had lots of money
Yeah, I thought about these things too back in those days. There is this sense in these lines that the lack of time and money is preventing the singer from being who he wants to be. It’s that unattainable future that he’s driving towards.
When I’m all worked up I think of
Friends of mine now 35
35 seemed like such a long way off when The Fashion Focus came out. Now I wonder where all time time went. The singer says he’s “talking just to waste [his] day” but at the same time, he is conscious that time will run out. He will get old.
This song sounds happier than anything on the first three albums but it is filled with just as much existential dread. I can’t be who I would want to be now because I don’t have the money or the time, but time will eventually run out. What can I do about this? I keep driving. And I drive a lot.