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 in June 1980, Jackson Browne’s Hold Out album is notable for two reasons. Critics disliked it, as evidenced by Rolling Stone‘s Kit Rachlis calling it “probably the weakest record he’s ever made”; and, powered by the singles “Boulevard” and “That Girl Could Sing,” the platter spun its way to the top of the charts, becoming his first (and only) No. 1 LP. 

It’s also notable within my life for another reason: It was the first current Jackson Browne LP that I purchased. As I’ve written before, my journey into music fandom began in earnest in the spring of 1978. Everything was new to me, even the old; I was, literally and figuratively, a kid in a candy store. I picked up the “Doctor My Eyes” 45 at some point that summer and followed it on occasion with a few of his LPs; I had a hierarchy of fallbacks when I went to record stores, and Jackson’s were usually third, fourth or fifth down the rung. By the time I picked up Running on Empty, which was released in late 1977, it was late 1979. (In some respects, in those days, he was singing about things that were beyond my years – but that was part of the appeal.)

In any event, I came home with Hold Out not long after hearing “Boulevard,” the first single, on either WMMR or WYSP.

“Down on the boulevard/they take it hard/they look at life with such disregard/they say it can’t be won/the way the game is run…” Those lyrics echoed life then and echo life now, some 40 years later. “The hearts are hard and the times are tough.” Amen.

“That Girl Could Sing” was another immediate favorite. Written for singer-songwriter/backup vocalist Valerie Carter, it’s an evocative portrait of a free spirit: “She was a friend to me when I needed one/Wasn’t for her I don’t know what i’d done/She gave me back something that was missing in me/She could of turned out to be almost anyone/Almost anyone/With the possible exception/Of who I wanted her to be…”

Those are tracks 3 and 4 on the LP; the opener, “Disco Apocalypse,” sets the stage for them quite nicely, detailing the mindless appeal of the era’s club scene; in some respects, it’s “The Pretender” for the disco age: “In the dawn the city seems to sigh/And the hungry hear their children cry/People watch the time go by/They do their jobs and live and die/And in their dreams they rise above/By strength, or hate, or luck, or love…”

Cowritten with David Lindley, “Call It a Loan,” – about the fear that comes with falling in love – is another highlight.

The remainder of the album is as strong. Lyrically, sure, at times it teeters on the brink, especially on the song for Lowell George, “Of Missing Persons,” but – melodically and sonically speaking – it just sounds great. Warm. It could well have been recorded yesterday.

That said, I’d be lying if I said I wore out the album’s grooves at the time. In truth, I moved on to other albums, other songs. As one does. In the decades that followed, I’ve played Late for the Sky or Running on Empty many, many times – and, until a few months ago, Hold Out not once. A month or so ago, however, I found myself stuck in stop-and-go traffic on the 15/501 during my evening commute. “That Girl Could Sing” began circulating and percolating in my brain, and I remembered lying on the floor of my old bedroom and reading the lyrics on the record sleeve as Jackson sang them. There was and is something magical and mystical about the first listen, of having the music usher you elsewhere. 

I’ve listened to the album quite a bit in the weeks since that ride home. As one does. I’m surprised at how well it’s aged and that, at their best, the lyrics are sage and true in detailing matters of the heart. Hell, I even like the closing “Hold On Hold Out,” which every critic I’ve read lambasts for its schmaltzy declaration of love.

The track list:

Beneath my desk is a box that, for the past 14 months, I’ve used as a footstool. Inside it are some hundred-plus bootleg CDs, including quite a few Springsteen sets that have become moot due to his ongoing archival releases, as well as some Neil Young concerts and assorted other oddities, such as this one on the TMOQ bootleg label. It’s a pristine soundboard recording of the early and late shows at McCabe’s Record Shop in Santa Monica, Cal., on May 24, 1987.

Unlike what the CD cover claims, the night’s participants were L.A.-area bands Downy Mildew and Love Tacos (of whom I can find no information); the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn; Opal; Peter Case; Natalie Merchant; and “Mystery Twins” Michael Stipe and Peter Buck. The single CD doesn’t present either show in its entirety, however. Substantial sections are edited out to fit the proceedings onto one disc. As a result, it’s something akin to a best-of.

Due to that, the participants featured on the CD aren’t one and the same with the night’s acts. Steve Wynn, Natalie Merchant, Downy Mildew’s Jenny Homer (misidentified as Jenny Holmer) and Charlie Baldonado are on it, as are Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, and Opal’s Kendra Smith. Wynn is afforded a large portion of the spotlight, but Natalie Merchant and the Twins get their due, too.

Cross-collaboration occurs quite often. For instance, Natalie is joined by Homer and Stipe for a cool rendition of “Hello Stranger” – you can hear the intro to it at the end of the “Don’t Talk” clip above; and Stipe and Buck are joined by Natalie, Homer and others for a fun mashup of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Sunday Morning.” 

Kendra Smith and Natalie Merchant join forces on Opal’s “Hear the Wind Blow”…

And here’s Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant on the “Wheel of Fortune/The Counting Song,” which I often ended compilation tapes with back in the day:

Unfortunately, those are the only clips I can find on YouTube from the night’s two sets.

For those curious, here’s the night’s lineup in full:

Early Show:
Downy Mildew: The Big Surprise; Floorboard; Your Blue Eye; Hollow Girl
Love Tacos: Border Patrol; Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White; Torn Away; Pleasure
Steve Wynn: Merritville; Drinking Problem; One More Cup of Coffee (with Bob Forres)
Steve Wynn and Russ Tolman: Galveston Mud; Solitary Man
Opal: Rocket Machine; She Moves Ahead; Magick Power
Natalie Merchant: Don’t Talk (with Downy Mildew’s Charlie Baldonado); Hello Stranger (with Michael Stipe, Jenny Homer and Baldonado); The Wind, the Wind (a cappella); Verdi Cries
Michael Stipe and Geoff Gans: The One I Love
Michael Stipe and Peter Buck: Welcome to the Occupation; Disturbance at the Heron House; Finest Worksong; Maps and Legends
Michael Stipe: Harpers; Damaged Goods (with Buck and Merchant)
Michael Stipe and Peter Buck: Leaving on a Jet Plane-Sunday Morning (with Wynn, Merchant, Homer and others)

Late Show:
Downey Mildew: The Kitchen; Floorboard; The Big Surprise; Hollow Girl; Your Blue Eye
Love Tacos: Border Patrol; Torn Away; Pleasure; Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White (with Peter Buck)
Peter Case and Peter Buck: Walk, Don’t Run; Baby Please Don’t Go; A Million Miles Away; Blue Eyes
Steve Wynn: 50 in a 25 Zone; How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?; Killing Time; See That My Grave Is Kept Clean (with Buck)
Steve Wynn and Russ Tolman: Galveston Mud; Solitary Man; Stage Fright; Too Little, Too Late (with Kendra Smith)
Opal: A Falling Star; Rocket Machine; Supernova; Magick Power
Natalie Merchant: The Fat Lady of Limbourg (a cappella); Don’t Talk (with Charlie Baldonado); More Than a Paycheck (with Homer and Smith); Hear the Wind Blow (with Baldonado and Smith); Hello Stranger (with Stipe, Baldonado and Homer); Verdi Cries
Natalie Merchant & Michael Stipe: A Campfire Song; Wheel of Fortune/The Counting Song
Michael Stipe and Peter Buck: Stretch My Hand; The One I Love
Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills: Spooky; Disturbance at the Heron House; King of Birds/Finest Worksong; Fever; So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry); Red Rain

I should add that the shows have been bootlegged beyond my early TMOQ release, which is stamped No. 189; as evidenced by the artwork, the clips above come from bootlegs of the original bootleg. (From what I’ve read, the complete shows made their way into the collector’s world in 2006 – long past my bootleg-collecting days.)

Be that as it may, the single disc – regardless of how or where you find it – is a delight. The sound is perfect; and the performances are a lot of fun. Fans of any of the featured performers are sure to enjoy it. 

The track list:

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: