Archive for the ‘1980s’ Category

(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.)

Released on April 1st, 1987, Suzanne Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing, is a near-perfect gem that time has yet to – and will likely never – tarnish. Its poetic power is matched by mesmerizing melodies with perfect arrangements. 

The opener, “Tom’s Diner,” is one highlight.

The first time I heard the song wasn’t on the album, however, but via a Fast Folk LP a year or two earlier while deejaying the Folk Show on WPSU. It’s a different recording, but still a cappella, and still a richly detailed portrait of an everyday occurrence – catching coffee inside a diner before heading to work. “There’s a woman/on the outside/looking inside/does she see me?/No she does not/really see me/cause she sees her own refection.” It captures humanity at its essence.

The song became an unlikely hit a few years later after two British deejays added a Soul II Soul beat to an unauthorized remix that Vega’s record company then embraced and officially released.

The remix isn’t on the original album, however. Instead, the LP continues in the vein of the original “Tom’s Diner,” featuring a succession of vivid pictures of life internal and external. One of the most memorable is “Luka,” which reached No. 3 on the pop charts – a true surprise given its subject matter. She based it, she’s said, on a real little boy she knew, though she doubts he was abused. (And here’s some trivia: Shawn Colvin provides backing vocals on the song.)

The title tune is another brilliant turn, with Vega’s poetic lyrics equaled by the deft backing of her band, who – as with many of the album’s other songs – are credited as co-writers. (Side note: I never knew there was a video for the song until this morning. It’s quite cool.)

Along with offerings by Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs, the album helped spur the folk-rock/urban folk/singer-songwriter resurgence of the late ‘80s and early ’90s.

“Night Vision” is another favorite:

The track listing:

 

Thirty-eight years ago tomorrow, as I write, the No. 1 song on the Billboard pop charts was “Coming Up” – but not the catchy tune by one-man-band Paul McCartney from his madcap McCartney II endeavor, but the slightly less catchy live version by Paul McCartney & Wings (Mach III), taken from a December 1979 concert in Glasgow on what turned out to be the final Wings flight. 

Columbia Records, his label home, apparently didn’t think the American public would appreciate his sped-up vocals, so – although the live version is clearly the B-side on the 45, where it’s paired with the eccentric “Lunchbox/Odd Sox” – they promoted the Wings rendition as the A.

And lest fans who bought McCartney II be upset that the song they heard on the radio wasn’t on the LP, Columbia included a special one-sided single of the live version. It even came with a helpful “play other side” instruction on the flip side.

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Let me back up, albeit for a moment: I was 14 on this day, soon to be 15; and having a good time – it was summer, after all. No school. That meant late nights and late mornings, hanging with friends, and – yep, you guessed it – listening to plenty of music. In my neck of the woods, that meant tuning in WIFI-92, WMMR, WYSP and WIOQ.

In the wider world, Ronald Reagan was gearing up to accept the Republican presidential nomination in Detroit in a mere 11 days. President Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was in the midst of stamping out an insurgency within his Democratic Party, as he was being challenged by Ted Kennedy, and wouldn’t secure his second shot at the Oval Office until the following month, at the Democratic National Convention in New York.

The reason for the tepid enthusiasm for Carter: the economy. Unemployment was rising – it crested at 7.8 percent this month, its highest mark since he took office in 1977, and inflation was at obscene levels – 13-plus percent for the month, and 13-plus for the year. There was also the matter of the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis.

The big movies of the day included Fame, The Empire Strikes Back, Urban Cowboy, Bronco Billy, The Blues Brothers, Airplane!, and, released on this very day in 1980, The Blue Lagoon. I don’t remember seeing any of them in the theaters, though I did eventually see all of them on PRISM, the local premium cable channel that also carried the home games of the Philadelphia Flyers.

As far as TV – it was summer, and summer meant reruns.

And when it comes to music – well, that’s what today’s Top 5: July 5, 1980 (via Billboard, which I occasionally bought), is about. Here are a few selected highlights…

1) Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet – “Against the Wind.” Dropping out of the Top 5 to No. 6 is this classic Seger song, which I rate not just with his best, but with the best of all time. It’s the title track to one of my “essential” albums.

2) Olivia Newton-John – “Magic.” In its seventh week, the Xanadu single inches up two spots to No. 14. Here she is lip-syncing to the song on The Midnight Special

3) Carole King – “One Fine Day.” “One Fine Day” is a song with a rich history – written by King and Gerry Goffin, it was first a hit for the Chiffons in 1963, when it reached No. 5 on the pop charts. Seventeen years later, King recorded it for her Pearls: Songs of Goffin & King album, and released it as a single. It reaches No. 16 this week (on its way to No. 12).

4) The Blues Brothers – “Gimme Some Lovin’.” Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd turned a love for the blues into a side project with legs. They released a hit album in 1978, and a hit movie and hit soundtrack in 1980. This week, the lead single from that soundtrack bounces (like a rubber biscuit) up seven spots to No. 22.

5) Pete Townshend – “Let My Love Open the Door.” Townshend had an unlikely Top 10 hit with this uptempo ditty, the lead single from his classic Empty Glass LP. This week, it’s No. 35 (on its way to No. 9).

And two bonuses…

6) Irene Cara – “Fame.” Cara sounds so much like Donna Summer on this, the joyous title track to the hit movie, that it almost seems unfair to say so. That said, I love the song and performance. 

7) Linda Ronstadt – “Hurt So Bad.” Falling from No. 26 to 80 in its 13th week on the charts is Linda’s spine-tingling rendition of the Little Anthony & the Imperials hit from 1965. (It hails from her 1980 Mad Love album, of course.) 

Who doesn’t want to review records?

Growing up, I certainly did. I devoured Rolling Stone, Record, Creem, Musician and other music periodicals less for the articles and more for the reviews, which I usually read first. Due to the lag between a record’s release and the review, on occasion I already owned an LP (or cassette) before I read the critic’s take. One thing that fascinated me: Why I sometimes liked something the reviewer didn’t. Another thing that fascinated me: the reverse. 

The former irked me, the latter made me feel smug. But neither changed my opinion on the necessity of reviews. I was always on the lookout for something new (or new-to-me), and the magazines covered things that never made the playlists of my local radio stations, MTV or VH1. As a result, I often bought things based on a review, with new releases discovered via the magazines and catalog items from the Dave Marsh-edited Rolling Stone Record Guide. Few were four- or five-star reviews.

Over time, I came to recognize the names of said reviewers. Some found folk sanctimonious and others thought prog-rock priggish, and even more treated pop like a dirty word. (I generally subscribe to the second myself.) But the only bad reviews were those that didn’t delve beyond the rudimentary yea or nay to explain or defend the assessment, and also didn’t detail the artist’s journey. Everyone has their own criteria for what is and isn’t good music, after all, and it’s easy to be dismissive of what one dislikes. (I’ve been that in the past, though not often in these pages.) Some fans want technical precision. Others seek emotional resonance, a melody they can hum along to, and/or lyrics that shed light on the human condition. And yet others are happy with just about anything that has a good beat that they can dance to…

As I’ve matured, I’ve come to the realization that there is no right or wrong. Not really. There’s preference and personal peccadilloes – aka so-called “guilty pleasures.” That’s about it.

Anyway, I still lean on reviews – both online and in print. Whenever my wife and I visit a B&N, I pick up the British music magazines Uncut and Mojo, buy a high-octane coffee drink in the cafe, and read the reviews of the new releases and archival reissues. What I look for is tailor-made to my tastes: Is it dreamy, upbeat, reflective, melody-centric, reminiscent of the Beatles, Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers or the Velvet Underground? Joni, Linda or Neil?

Unlike yesteryear, of course, it doesn’t cost me more than my Apple Music subscription to check out whatever I’ve just read about. (Though, since I rarely use headphones, I have to wait ’til we’re in the car going home.) That happened last week with Melody’s Echo Chamber’s latest release, Bon Voyage. It’s the brainchild of Melody Prochet, who’s akin to a French Hope Sandoval with an airier vibe.

(Sometimes, of course, I stumble upon cool artists through other means – Erin O’Dowd, who I discovered on Kickstarter, springs to mind. Nichole Wagner, who I found via a Nanci Griffith fan group on Facebook, is another. Both are worth checking out.)

All of which leads to this, one of my first reviews to make it to print – on September 18, 1984, in the Ogontz Campus News, the newspaper for what’s now known as Penn State Abington. I doubt if anyone beyond the newspaper staff and contributors read it. (And I was just a contributor; I’d pop into the office, find the editor of the entertainment section, and turn something in. On spec. Sometimes it made it into the paper; sometimes not.) Reading it now makes me laugh and cringe at the same time – but it was the first step in the journey to me launching the original Old Grey Cat website and, then, this blog. (I post-corrected a few glaring errors that slipped through the newspaper’s crack proofreading squad…)

Here’s an unlikely opening: On May 24, 1984, President Ronald Reagan introduced the Navy’s first female ensign, Kristine Holderied, during a press event at the White House.

That clip, I should mention, is well worth watching in full. It features all of President Reagan’s public events on this specific day. In addition to Holderied, he meets with National Wildlife Federation president Jay Hair; the Multiple Sclerosis Society’s mother and father of the year; AMVETS’ commander; and Chiu Luu, who arrived in this country from Vietnam in 1979. Luu, I should mention, taught himself English after arriving on these shores and, by the time of this meeting with America’s 40th’s president, was graduating as valedictorian from City College of New York. 

The clips are interesting for several reasons. First and foremost: Reagan’s affection for those he meets. He doesn’t seem to think of these greetings as a chore, in other words, or as something to be endured, but as events to be cherished. When you see him reading the notes on Luu prior to meeting with the young man, one sees admiration sink into his face and demeanor.

I share that, along with this: I wasn’t a fan of Ronald Reagan or many of his policies. But I did agree with him when it came to his unbridled optimism in America, and his belief in the “shining city on the hill.” He articulated it throughout his time in the public spotlight, but summarized it best in his January 1989 farewell address:

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

Note that he didn’t say the doors were closed.

But back to May 24, 1984, which was a Thursday. Light rain fell in the Delaware Valley, which saw a high of 75 and low of 54. I’d just wrapped my first year at Penn State Ogontz, one of Penn State’s satellite campuses; worked as an usher at the now-defunct Hatboro Theater; and had purchased a slew of albums over the past few weeks, including the Flying Burrito Brothers’ self-titled third album on the 1st; the Buffalo Springfield’s Last Time Around on the 3rd; Gram Parsons’ G.P. and Return of the Grievous Angel, also on the 3rd; Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual on the 11th; Todd Rundgren’s Healing on the 14th; Rogers Waters’ The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking on the 18th; and, on the 24th, Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Yet to come: Spinal Tap’s This Is Spinal Tap and Van Halen’s 1984, both on May 29th.

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: May 24, 1984 (via Weekly Top 40; the chart is for the week ending May 26th). Unlike other looks back, I’m going to hop, skip and jump down its rungs…

1) Deniece Williams – “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” This effusive song, which is ingrained in my brain due to its inclusion in the Footloose movie, landed at No. 1 this week. As I said above, I worked as an usher at a movie theater – and the film flickered across our fraying screen for at least two weeks, and I worked more nights than not. Unlike the other Footloose songs, it’s one I never grew tired of.

2) Cyndi Lauper – “Time After Time.” Rising from No. 6 to No. 3 is this classic Cyndi Lauper song, which she co-wrote with Rob Hyman of the Hooters.

3) The Go-Go’s – “Head Over Heels.” In its 11th week on the charts, this infectious single reaches No. 11. Here they are performing it at the Greek Theater in August ’84…

4) John Mellencamp – “Authority Song.” Mellencamp’s “I Fought the Law” rewrite rises a notch, from No. 16 to 15…

5) The Style Council – “My Ever Changing Moods.” Further down the charts, at No. 34 (up from No. 36), is this classic tune from Paul Weller’s second band. It was the lead single from the Style Council’s debut album, which was titled Café Bleu in the U.K. and My Ever Changing Moods in the U.S. 

And three bonuses…

6) Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “Dancing in the Dark.” Entering the charts this week, at No. 36, is this lead single from Springsteen’s now-classic Born in the USA album, which would be released on June 5th. Brian De Palma directed the video, which features a young Courteney Cox as the fan the Boss picks to dance with him on stage.

7) Joe Jackson – “You Can’t Always Get What You Want (’Til You Know What You Want).” Jackson’s Body and Soul, from which this song is drawn from, is a true overlooked gem. That this song would eventually hit No. 15 was a surprise to me then and now, given how out of step it was with the times. This week, it’s still on its slow upwards climb, landing at No. 29.

8) Wang Chung – “Dance Hall Days.” One of the week’s power plays, at No. 45, is this nostalgic New Wave pop tune from the U.K. band. In a sense, their “Come Dancing” or “Ballroom Dancing”…