Archive for the ‘1980s’ Category

It may seem that, of late, that I’ve been surfing my “essential” albums as if on some sort of erratic spacetime wave, lurching one way before lurching another. I’m not. No, instead I’m replicating the way the mind works, which isn’t as logical as we like to think. As often as Memory X leads to the next stop on the timeline, aka Memory Y, it also leads us back or ahead to a tangentially linked event days, weeks, months or years before or after X occurred.

For instance, when I think of CSN’s Daylight Again, which I picked up in January 1984, my mind doesn’t leap ahead to any of the CSN-and-related albums I splurged on in the weeks and months that followed, or even to when I first saw them in concert eight months later. No, my mind’s eye centers on a spring day in my freshman honors English class. Our assignment: bring in a 45, LP or cassette, play a song from it, and then dissect it.

Yeah, I know: Fun times!

My pick is beside the point – though, given my recent CSN/Stephen Stills obsession, I’d wager fairly predictable. No, my appearance is more important: I had longish hair. A mustache. Unshaven, as it was an off-work day for me. Bedecked in jeans and a flannel or paisley shirt, with a leather jacket draped over the back of my desk chair. And the distinct scent of cloves exuded from me – I smoked clove cigarettes in those days. I looked and smelled far from the clean-cut Young Republicans of the day, in other words, and more like a holdover from Ravi Shankar’s Sunday afternoon set at Monterey Pop.

At the front of the class, a young woman – who looked like a picture postcard for everything preppy and peppy – surprised me by playing “Beneath the Blue Sky,” a song by the Go-Go’s from their recent Talk Show LP. She explained how the lyrics echoed the Cold War concerns of the day – a thematic anomaly not just for the group, she said, but for the pop music of the day.

When she was finished, she took her seat beside me and asked how she’d done. “Good,” I assured her, before telling her how I thought Talk Show was a great album.

Befuddlement swept her face. “You like the Go-Go’s?!”

“Of course,” I said. “What’s not to like?” (As my desk diary shows, I bought it two weeks after its release, on May 31st.) I recommended she give the Call’s Modern Romans a spin, as “When the Walls Came Down” seemed like it might be up her alley.

Like many in those days – and these days, for that matter – she made certain assumptions about me based on my yesteryear fashion sense. (Just as, to be fair, I assumed certain things about her based on her polished looks.) 

Anyway, “Beneath the Blue Sky” – written by Kathy Valentine and Jane Wiedlin – is a cool song. Lyrically, it’s a smart call for peace that goes the person-to-person route. Musically, it’s pop and perky, which was the canvas the Go-Go’s often worked from, yet complements the words.

To back up a moment, the Go-Go’s were a breath of fresh air in the sometimes stale climate of the early ‘80s. Their 1981 debut, Beauty and the Beat, swatted away the ‘70s cliches of the breezy SoCal Sound by blending elements of pop, punk and surf-rock into snappy songs that never went on too long. It’s perfect, just about, and – to my ears – their best work.

As a whole, Talk Show is moodier and, at times, lyrically downbeat, with tracks tackling – in addition to the Cold War – isolation, breakups and depression, as well as the old stand-by of romantic attraction. It’s more rock than pop, with raucous guitars accenting many of the tracks.

“Head Over Heels,” the infectious first single, just missed the Top 10. Written by Charlotte Caffey and Kathy Valentine, it’s a bit of an outlier due to the prominence of the piano.

Written by Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin, “Turn to You” – the second track and single (which topped out at No. 32) – better makes the case for raucous guitars.

(If you didn’t click play on the video, you should. It features a young Rob Lowe as well as four-fifths of the Go-Go’s making like Joyce Hyser in Just One of the Guys a year before that movie was released.)

Another highlight: the Jane Wiedlin-penned “Forget That Day,” a dramatic tour de force that’s also the longest song in their canon.

“I’m the Only One,” written by Kathy Valentine, Danny B. Harvey (of the Rockats) and Carlene Carter, flat-out rocks.

“Capture the Light,” another Wiedlin-penned tune, is my favorite song on the album; it features one of Belinda’s best-ever vocals and lyrics that mean more than most. “Everybody wants/To touch the stars/Take a piece of happiness/Hold on tight/Keep trying hard/To capture the light…”

As most fans know, behind the scenes the band was at loggerheads for a myriad of personal and creative reasons, with the tensions undoubtedly fueled in part by their hard slog to success. (In a sense, the LP’s cover reflects the divisions within the band.) Overnight success is rarely overnight, and the pressure to stay on top takes a toll, including on those who got there with you. As a result, on Talk Show the effervescent fun of a few years earlier is replaced by more serious – aka adult – concerns. While it may not be the equal of Beauty and the Beat, it is a great work.

It was also, despite the retro-hippie mode I was in for much of the year, my favorite album of 1984.

The track listing:

 

 

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

As 1983 slipped into the Orwellian future of 1984, I was 18 and living the suburban commuter-college life. That meant living at home, obviously, and taking a bus to the Willow Grove Park Mall, where I transferred to another bus that then deposited me about a 10-minute walk from the campus. My Walkman clone helped my stay sane during those commutes, which could easily push 75 minutes.

I also worked part time as a movie-theater usher, though the hours frequently pushed into full-time territory – a good thing, as it was minimum-wage pay ($3.35/hour) and I had debts no honest man could pay…

I’ll skip the laundry list of additions to my musical library during that span, but suffice it to that much of the music dated to previous generations. One exception: the Jam’s Snap! collection, a double-LP-dose of enlightenment that I picked up on November 29th. Another: the Pretenders’ Learning to Crawl, which I bought on the day of its release, Tuesday January 17th – the same day that my winter/spring semester began.

Although still fronted by Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders weren’t the same band that first turned my ear in 1979 and ’80 with “Brass in Pocket.” Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who was instrumental in shaping their sound, died at age 25 from a drug overdose in June 1982, a mere two days after bassist Pete Farndon was fired from the band due to his own drug problems. (He died 10 months later from them.)

A month after Honeyman-Scott’s passing, Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers recruited guitarist Billy Bremner (of Rockpile) and bassist Tony Butler (of Big Country) to back them on “Back on the Chain Gang” and “My City Was Gone,” which were released as a 45 in September of ’82. The A-side is a memorable statement of purpose in the face of tragedy. 

The flip side, to borrow from what Suzanne Whately wrote in the December 1982 issue of Record, “proves to be one of Hynde’s more interesting compositions. [T]he autobiographical account of the singer’s return to her native Ohio finds Hynde surveying the overbuilt and now-unfamiliar terrain while weighing her memories with quiet, revealing despair.” It’s a sentiment, I think, everyone can relate to.

Additional sessions saw Andrew Bodnar (of the Rumour) and Paul Carrack help out on a remarkable cover of the Persuasions’ “Thin Love Between Love and Hate”…

… before the Pretenders firmed up their new lineup with guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcom Foster. The older I get, the more I identify with the lyrics of the opener, “Middle of the Road”: “The middle of the road is trying to find me/I’m standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me/Well I got a smile for everyone I meet/As long as you don’t try dragging my bay/Or dropping the bomb on my street.”

In short, Learning to Crawl was not as revolutionary an album as the band’s self-titled debut, and yet it was – in its way – revolutionary all the same. Hynde was within spitting distance of middle age, after all, and dealing with the demands of motherhood, to say nothing of the other hardships that adult life brings. Other rockers stumbled when integrating their changing realities into their art (see Pete Townshend’s All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes for one example), but she navigates the new terrain with aplomb – and even finds a way to turn washing one’s clothes into a working-class lament.

The album is also home to another song inspired by Honeyman-Scott’s death, “2000 Miles,” that has, in the decades since, become a staple of Christmastime playlists:

The track list:

 

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Earlier this week I found myself glued to an episode of CNN’s The Eighties. For those unaware of the historical documentary series about the 1980s, each installment surveys one topic. The first episode, for example, is titled Raised on Television and navigates the decade’s TV shifting landscape; the second episode, The Reagan Revolution, recalls Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The episode I caught, titled Video Killed the Radio Star (after the Buggles song), dove deep into the era’s music.

The hour-long survey, which is probably closer to 40 minutes once the commercials are stripped out, nailed most of the decade’s most important events and artists. MTV. Duran Duran. The Go-Go’s. Thriller. Born in the USA. Madonna. Purple Rain. Live Aid. The Bangles. College rock (though I don’t think they used that term). Hip-hop. U2. Heavy metal. The PMRC. But a few important developments and artists were missed.

The resurgence of folk-flavored music in the latter part of the decade was one.

In retrospect, the Fast Folk anthology/magazine series set the stage and gave a platform to many up-and-coming singer-songwriters, even if most music fans never heard of it. (I did due to spinning folk records on Penn State’s student-run radio station at the time, WPSU.) Of the new artists it featured, perhaps the most important was Suzanne Vega, whose self-titled 1985 solo debut was and remains a landmark album. Although it sold modestly, it demonstrated that there was a market for literate lyrics coupled to stirring melodies.

One highlight: “Marlene on the Wall.” (To quote my wife just now, “I love this song.”)

Vega’s 1987 sophomore set, Solitude Standing, equaled the debut in artistic quality and did even better sales-wise, with the single “Luka” surprisingly making it to No. 2 on the pop charts. A few months later, the folk-rock sounds of 10,000 Maniacs bubbled to the fore: “Peace Train,” “Like the Weather” and “What’s the Matter Here?” from In My Tribe all found a home on MTV and college-rock radio. A year later, Tracy Chapman’s brilliant debut smashed even more barriers. In time, the Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin and dozens of others followed. I’m leaving many artists out of the mix, obviously. The “folkabilly” stylings of Nanci Griffith predated Vega’s urban-centric debut, and are – artistically – as important. Later in the decade, James McMurtry gave a new face to Texas troubadours; and, somewhere in there, the Washington Squares put a delightful ‘80s spin on folk trios.

But Vega’s 1985 debut was the foot-in-the-door for all of the folk-flavored artists who followed. In a better world, it would be as celebrated as, say, Madonna’s Borderline or U2’s Boy, as – like those albums – it helped shift the established musical paradigm. Her lyrics are true poems set to song, forever eschewing generalities for specifics, and her melodies mesmerize.

Going back to my radio days: I often played two back-to-back tracks on this album for no other reason than they were among my favorites of the time: “Some Journey” and “The Queen and the Soldier.” Like many of her songs, they are simultaneously passionate and dispassionate. They’re true works of art. 

Another highlight hints at the rhythmic wonders Vega would more fully explore in 99.9F°: “Neighborhood Girls.”

Few works of art, in and of themselves, upend the established order of things. They are part and parcel of a larger scene, and it’s that totality that overthrows the status quo and ushers in a new age. So, rather than share a hyperbolic claim about its importance, I’ll say that Suzanne Vega’s solo debut helped re-focus the landscape away from synth-driven dirges and ponderous power ballads and to the power inherent in quiet tunes. It, along with Solitude Standing, In My Tribe and Tracy Chapman’s debut, paved the way for the generations of folk-flavored singer-songwriters since. 

If you’ve never heard it, seek it out. And if you have? Play it again.

August 4th, 1982, a Wednesday, was a good summer’s day, weather-wise, in the Delaware Valley. The high topped out at 89, while the overnight low was 69. In the headlines: Israeli tanks rolled into Beirut in an ongoing attempt to expel the PLO from southern Lebanon. The incursion began two months earlier, and had already caused many PLO fighters – including leader Yassir Arafat – to flee to such locales as Tunisia.

In less incendiary news, young Prince William was christened.

Closer to home, in Philadelphia: Two men suspected of murdering alleged mobster hitman Salvatore Testa failed to show for a hearing.

Even closer to home: Fifth Avenue was coming to Willow Grove! Legendary Fifth Avenue retailer B. Altman & Co. was opening a branch at the brand-new Willow Grove Park Mall, which wasn’t scheduled to open for another week. (B. Altman is perhaps best known, these days, as the one-time employer of Midge Maisel.) Here’s the ad from this day’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

Back then, the Willow Grove Park Mall was a planned high-end retail locale, with its anchors consisting of B. Altman & Co., Bloomingdale’s and Abraham & Straus department stores. It was shiny, bright, large and pricy, and out-of-step with the economic times. Unemployment for the year averaged 9.7 percent across the nation, and August was a notch above that. (See this entry on December 1982 for more.) In Pennsylvania, however, it was even higher: 11.4 percent.

Entertainment-wise, the summer’s movie scene was somewhat…eh. The Pirate Movie was scheduled to be released on Friday – and, yes, I saw it in the coming month. It was, in two words, not good. Don’t believe me? Check out the trailer:

And here’s the Inky’s TV schedule for the night:

Even closer to home: I was 17, and soon to start my senior year of high school. More to the point for this post: I purchased four albums during August’s 31 days.

Tracking such things was a haphazard thing I did up until this very month, when I began listing every addition to my collection in a month-in-review notation. By year’s end, however, I was jotting down every purchase on the day itself.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: August 1982 (via my Desk Diary).

1) Blondie – The Best of Blondie was almost a year old by the time I picked it up, but that’s neither here nor there. It was, and remains, a great best-of – as the cliche goes, it’s all killer, no filler. “Dreaming,” which hails from their 1979 Eat to the Beat album (which I owned), remains my favorite song of theirs. I’ve showcased it before, of course… but so what? Here it is again:

2) Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – I Love Rock & Roll is one of my “essential” albums – an LP, CD, or download that belongs in everyone’s collection. I already owned it, as I picked it up the previous November, but needed this for completist reasons. As most fans know (or should know), it originally included her cover of “Little Drummer Boy,” which was then replaced with “Oh Woe Is Me” after the holiday season. Although that was the b-side on the “Crimson & Clover” 45, I wanted it on LP, too. So I basically spent $7.41 (the equivalent of $25.87 today) for one song that I already owned! Anyway, that the original “I Love Rock & Roll” video isn’t on YouTube is one of life’s oddities, so here’s a clip from Top of the Pops:

3) Big Brother and the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills is a raw, ragged and sloppy, and great. Here’s one of its key tracks, “Ball and Chain.” 

4) Don Henley – I Can’t Stand Still. Henley’s solo debut was released on August 16th of this month. “Talking to the Moon” is a gem that would’ve been at home on any Eagles album.

5) Kim Wilde – “Kids in America.” Although Kim’s self-titled debut was released in the U.K. in June 1981, it didn’t land on these shores until April of ’82; and I wouldn’t buy it until September ’82 – I’m including it here because of the month’s limited purchases. It’s a good-great album, and the title tune remains as relevant as ever.

(FYI: The newspaper clippings are from the day’s Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer.)