ASCAP came up with a triple bill Thursday night that managed to marry the best of 2019 with the best of 1979. The performing rights organization’s annual Pop Awards ceremony featured stirring three-song performances from Jeff Lynne and Blondie, who were being given lifetime achievement kudos, as well as Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell, picking up their own special honor for artistic lifetimes that are barely underway. If you like pop music — as anyone attending a Pop Awards dinner probably does — it was a dream bill.
Blondie’s and Lynne’s acceptance speeches were marked by their extreme no-nonsense brevity, in comparison to some of the other talks given by recipients as a succession of ASCAP and BMI dinners earlier this week. “We’ve been around for a while and had the privilege of working with a lot of great people, and it’s great to be here tonight and to accept this and carry on,” said Debbie Harry, in the sum total of her time at the dais accepting the Golden Note Award.
Blondie cofounder Chris Stein took a waggish political turn in his equally brief time at the podium. “It’s really great getting this now because next year we’ll all be in Guantanamo Bay,” he said, to laughter. “But if you go there, bring the extra conditioner, because the humidity is brutal.”
Blondie then performed the vintage “Call Me” and “Heart of Glass” and more recent “Long Time,” with Harry and drummer Clem Burke as the two original members left; Stein appears to have quietly dropped out of the touring lineup some time between the group’s 2017 and 2018 tours. (With or without him in tow, the band will be back on the road this summer as co-headliners with Elvis Costello.)
Lynne was introduced by Joe Walsh, who said, in a typically deadpan tone that at least left open the remote possibility he was serious, “Somehow I thought I was gonna give him an ASPCA award. Because I know Jeff loves animals, so I said, ‘I’m all in on that one.’ And my wife looked over my shoulder and said, ‘It’s ASCAP, you idiot.’” The James Gang founder noted that he and Lynne were both born in 1947 (“But I’m older. That’s why I get to give him the award”) and talked about how they became BFFs later in life after occasionally crossing backstage paths in the ‘70s: “As we got to know each other better, we developed that rare kind of friendship where hours fly by as you share the simple pleasures that really matter, like enjoying a nice dinner, and making lists of people you don’t like.” On a mostly more serious note, Walsh said, “I have never met anybody with the knowledge and talent he has to record music and make music into a song … We may never decipher the full genius of what hides behind those sunglasses, but we’re all beneficiaries of it. He is one of the true masters, a great friend and a great musician — and an old fart.”
“I thought he was talking about somebody else most of the time, but I’m chuffed at what he said, so he’s still me best mate,” said man-of-few-words Lynne, who then proceeded to take a cue from Walsh in feigning forgetfulness about who was honoring him: “I’d like to thank —what do you call it? I forgot what you call it… ASCAP or something? … It’s a wonderful thing. And I’d like to get on now and play for you. A slight difference tonight, which is there’s only two of us playing: me and my pal Benmont Tench. It’s just acoustic guitar and piano, so watch out for low-flying notes.”
Those low notes were a high pleasure for the serious ELO fans on hand, who haven’t had many opportunities over the years to hear Lynne offer different arrangements of his catalog, in the rare instances in recent decades when he’s taken the repertoire on the road at all. The mini-set’s opening “Telephone Line” was all about Lynne’s doo-wop homage on the chorus, but the following two songs, “Evil Woman” and “All Over the World,” seemed to have been chosen at least in part for how piano-dependent they are, allowing Heartbreaker Tench to play Richard Tandy for a day and give Lynne’s uncompressed classics some swing.
Sandwiched between the time-tested encapsulations of Lynne’s and Blondie’s careers was an honor for Eilish and O’Connell that seems woefully premature … if you haven’t heard her record. It’s not too early to start feting the teenaged Eilish or her 21-year-old producer/co-writer/brother, with ASCAP seemingly wanting to beat the Grammys out of the gate, although the latter org may well be quick to catch up in three-quarters of a year’s time.
Julia Roberts was just a girl, standing in front of a PRO, asking them to love a 17-year-old, and not much convincing was required. “It was and is a great mystery to me how an artist, or artists in this case, take a blank page, a mist, a breeze and create something remarkable,” said the actress, introducing siblings who “have said that they have written and created most of their collaborations in a small bedroom in Highland Park. Well, to be a fly on the wall where Finneas and Billie compose indelible words, again and again. It is thrilling to be here tonight to help celebrate these two people who are so uniquely gifted, such inventive wordsmiths, such wondrous musicians. And that they are in fact brother and sister is pretty darned special.”
Eilish, as is her wont, used words stronger than “darn” in co-accepting ASCAP’s Visionary Award. “Um, this is crazy shit,” she said. “When I started this shit, I did not think anyone would give a f—, so thank you for giving a f—.” She expressed gratitude for “being appreciated for not just being a brand (or) just a name and a face, but actually appreciated for creating something and writing it, especially when we wrote it for nobody except us. Especially by Julia Roberts? Geesh! The baddest bitch around.”
And, in the best advertisement the aspirant-oriented ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo is likely to get in the next decade or so, O’Connell — who shows every sign of having the potential to become a writer-producer craftsman someone like Lynne could be proud of — gave a plug for that annual confab. “When I was 16, for Christmas my mom gave me a ticket for the ASCAP Expo, and it changed my life,” he professed.
O’Connell, who tours as well as records with his burgeoning-superstar sis, established that she’s not the only star in the family with a solo piano performance of his latest in a series of non-album singles, “I Lost a Friend,” a breakup anthem for severed BFFs. Eilish joined him and took over the lead for their two remaining songs, arguably the two prettiest and most classic-sounding ballads about love as a too-elusive ideal off her debut album, “I Love You” and “When the Party’s Over.”
It was a bit of Coachella spliced in between two triumphant examples of Oldchella… with ASCAP head Paul Williams making the case afterward that Eilish and O’Connell should be granddaughtered into the ranks of revered elders. “Old souls, Billie and Finneas, they have old souls,” said a guy who knows evergreens when he sees them. “God, I love good music.”
Most of the evening, of course, was given over to non-honorary honors, so to speak — that is, the songs from the last year more scientifically recognized as the most played. BMI, two nights earlier, had given its top such honor for the year to “Meant to Be”; ASCAP’s equivalent turned out to be the equally ubiquitous “The Middle,” with Zedd on hand to claim his trophy. The two PROs did share something: Both named Sony/ATV Music Publishing as the publisher of the year.
Other top winners included Louis Bell for songwriter of the year, “God’s Plan” for most streamed song, and Kobalt Music for independent publisher.