Archive for the ‘1980s’ Category

When the history of 2020 is written, what will be said? That Rolling Stone released a remastered rendition of its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list? No, of course not – but it is a distraction from the machinations of the tinpot despot, so I’ll run with it. 

For those counting at home, this Top 500 is the magazine’s third stab at an all-encompassing album countdown. It first released a Top 500 in 2003, which was slightly tweaked in 2005 for a book, and then substantially reworked in 2012. The lists received just criticism, however, due to the artists being predominately white, male and rock-oriented. Artists of color, for example, made up a little more than a fifth of the featured acts, while women were less than 10 percent. As a result, this time around, the editors started from scratch. The introduction notes that “tastes change, new genres emerge, the history of music keeps being rewritten” before explaining that Top 50 lists were solicited from “more than 300 artists, producers, critics, and music-industry figures.” The lists were tabulated and weighted, forming the basis for the 500, which was then kept in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls’ porch until September 22nd, when it was posted to the Web.

The main headline, I suppose, is that the list is indeed more diverse. Artists of color account for 33 percent of the 500, while women account for almost a fourth. (Note: my estimates are rough.) Also, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is now No. 1, supplanting the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which trips all the way out of the Top 20 to No. 24; it’s now deemed the third best Beatles album, behind Abbey Road (No. 5) and Revolver (No. 11). To my ears, What’s Going On is a vinyl paradox, forever timeless and timely; it’s never not relevant. I consider it one of the greatest albums of all time, so have no issues with its placement.

I also have no major issues with the overall order. These lists are not of “all time,” but of their time; they reflect the zeitgeist of the moment, and that moment is generally set by those younger than me. That said, the list is an ethnocentric enterprise, with its selections limited to albums that impacted U.S. music fans. For example, unless I missed one or both, the Jam and Paul Weller are MIA despite their success and influence in the U.K.; and the Stone Roses’ stellar debut, which routinely places at or near the top of U.K. best-album lists, ranks No. 319 here. The results also skew heavily towards Baby Boomer favorites, with 46 percent of the 500 hailing from the 1960s and ‘70s (less than in 2003, but still a lot), but that shouldn’t be a surprise – that’s when the album as an art form was at its zenith (now, too often, it’s little more than Spotify fodder). Also, I’d wager many of those polled first heard them (or songs from them) while driving with their parents, so there’s a nostalgia factor involved, too.

I do find the inclusion of recent albums to be annoying. As I explained in my post on NPR’s 150 Greatest Albums by Women list, the main reason for excluding a recent album is that “we don’t know whether it will, as most great albums do, grow stronger through the years or fall from favor.” It’s the difference between infatuation and love.

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Albums AWOL from Rolling Stone’s Top 500. They’re all past “essential” picks of mine; I’m listing them in alphabetical order. I should note that they hail from my personal Top 25 Albums off All Time list, where they share space with several hundred other albums. (As I joke somewhere, there are a lot of ties.) Also, they all hail from the 1980s, as the decade gets short-shrift in the countdown…

1) The Bangles – All Over the Place (1984). The Bangles rose from the ranks of the Paisley Underground to score some big hits by mid-decade, yet they’re routinely overlooked in these sorts of overviews. But, as their full-length debut ably demonstrates, they were nothing short of wondrous.

2) The Jam – Snap! (1983). I find the inclusion of compilations somewhat suspect on a list of all-time greatest albums, but if those are the rules of the road, then Snap! deserves inclusion. Simply put, it’s one of the greatest best-of compilations of all time.

3) Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – I Love Rock ’N Roll (1981). As I say in my recap, “The pages of history textbooks are filled will legions of folks who shaped the world, but – academia being what it is – many important people receive cursory mentions or none at all. Like Joan Jett.” In short, she turned the world on with her guitar.

4) The Long Ryders – State of Our Union (1985). The Long Ryders never got their just due in the U.S., yet are a crucial link in the Americana timeline, one bridge (of several) between Gram and Uncle Tupelo. As I note in my piece, this album “integrates rock ’n’ roll, R&B, country and folk into a tasty whole, contains glorious guitar work and incisive lyrics, and features melodies that burrow into the brain like a groundhog beneath a back deck.”

5) Suzanne Vega – Solitude Standing (1987). Tracy Chapman’s debut is rightfully in the Top 500, though arguably too low at No. 286, but the artists who set the stage for that album’s mega-success during the “hair metal late eighties” (as RS stereotypes it) aren’t included. Suzanne Vega’s first two LPs were integral albums that helped shape the soundscape of the mid- and late ‘80s. This, her sophomore set, reached No. 11 on the album charts; and the single “Luka” reached No. 3. It’s a perfect album.

Diane and I watched the cinéma vérité documentary Seventeen last night. I ordered the DVD two weeks ago based on the Amazon description, which describes it as “the unvarnished story of a group of seniors in their ultimate year at Muncie’s Southside High School, hurtling toward maturity with a combination of joy, despair, and an aggravated sense of urgency.” It also notes that it won “the first Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival” and was deemed too controversial to air on PBS. 

The Muncie in question, I should explain, is Muncie, Ind., a small Midwestern city that gained a semblance of notoriety in 1929 when it was the focus of Robert and Helen Lynd’s sociological study of a typical American community, Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture, and again in 1937 for their Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. 

Scheduled to air on PBS during the spring of 1982 as part of the Middletown series, a follow-up of sorts to the long-ago Lynd studies, it was yanked from the schedule due to a controversy concerning its content and claims that at least some minors may not have fully appreciated the ramifications they could face from appearing in it. Also, if this contemporaneous New York Times report is accurate, there were questions about whether filmmakers Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines influenced at least some of what they document. At one point, for instance, pie-eyed Lynn – the film’s central protagonist – is in bed and talking to Joel, who’s behind the camera, as if she were a good friend, which raises doubts about the veracity of the fly-on-the-wall experience; and at a house party full of underage revelers, Kreines is heard offering to contribute a few bucks to a beer run when the keg runs dry.

Anyway, after being nixed by PBS, Seventeen took the theatrical route, where it won praise from critics and snared that Sundance award. But I never heard anything about it, then or in the decades since, until searching for documentaries about the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were an odd time, when last-wave baby boomers and first-wave baby busters (aka Gen Xers) came together as the unique FM subculture known as Generation Jones. 

In any event, the early 1980s turns out to be the 1980-81 school year; and the film opens with an interminable Home Ec class that sets the tone for what’s to follow. The first half focuses primarily on Lynn, who’s white, and her troubled relationship with a black classmate, John. The troubles aren’t just between the two of them, however. At one point, Lynn’s mom mentions that a cross was burned in their front yard the night before, but seemingly shrugs it off as a nothing event. She is perturbed, however, by harassing phone calls from John’s friends, who dislike the idea of him seeing a white girl, and soon enough both she and Lynn are talking about how they’ll defend themselves with a gun, if necessary. In the second half, after breaking up with John, Lynn begins dating a white kid, Keith, and hanging with a crowd that drops the N word with malice – likely the children of those who burned the cross in her yard.

The kids, in essence, are adrift; what they contemplate about the future is anyone’s guess – and for a documentary about high-school seniors, that means it’s rudderless, too. Just about every high-school senior I’ve known or met is looking ahead – some with hope, others with dread, but all dream of what’s to come. Aside from the unlikeable subjects, however, the only constants are the drinking, drugging and racy/sexual talk, much of which is braggadocio that, at least to me, seems spoken in hopes of shocking the cameraperson. 

With graduation closing in, a social studies teacher – in the only class beyond Home Ec that’s shown – observes that success in life is “nothing more than a combination of hard work and luck.” The same is true, to an extent, for these sorts of documentaries. Hard work is much in evidence, but luck is not – the cameras capture the dregs of high-school life. The only scene that came close to moving me was towards the end of the film, after Keith learns that his good friend Church Mouse succumbed to injuries sustained in an auto accident; he calls into a radio station and requests a song in his pal’s memory – Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.” Grief is not an experience readily captured on camera, but it’s here and it’s real.

Seger’s music – “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the second side of the Night Moves album, plus “Horizontal Bop” – plays prominently in the background of several scenes, either via the radio or someone’s turntable, which speaks much to his popularity at the time. Tom Petty’s also heard, plus Wings, Motown and assorted other known songs. It is somewhat cool hearing the music as it was often heard at the time.

Over all, though, I’d hoped Seventeen would or could serve as a metaphor for its era, but instead it’s a look at the lives of outliers. I doubt these kids – at least as they’re presented on camera – reflected their school or Muncie, and they definitely don’t represent the world I knew in suburban Philadelphia. As such, it’s a disappointment – more Real World than real life.

British singer, songwriter and musician Joe Jackson began life on August 11, 1954, as David Ian Jackson, and it was as Dave that he began his musical journey. He first picked up a violin, but switched to piano and, in time, began playing in bars. He eventually earned a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music; from what I gather, his goal in life at that stage was to become the next Stravinsky or Sibelius.

Around the same time, he began gigging with a pub band from Portsmouth called Edward Bear that eventually rechristened itself Arms and Legs and released three singles that went nowhere fast. Those sides are an odd mix of the old and the new; the Mark Andrews-penned tunes are somewhat ripped from the charts, while Jackson’s combine a new wave sensibility with Steely Dan. 

For those interested, here’s a playlist that features those songs:

It was during those years that Dave exited stage left. As Jackson explained to Minnesota Public Radio‘s Jim McGuinn in early 2019, he became Joe because of “a British children’s TV character called Joe 90, who was a puppet character, and he was a teenage genius. Well, I don’t know what age he was supposed to be, but he wore these big glasses and he was kind of geeky and he knew how to make anti-gravity or whatever it was. Someone or other named me after him as a nickname, and it just kind of stuck.” There was also a Peanuts connection: “[T]here was a character called Joe Piano. So that got thrown at me too, and I just ended up being Joe. I thought it was better than Dave because there’s enough Daves.” In time, he said, he legally changed his name to Joe.

Something was happening in the world beyond the Royal Academy and pub rock: punk. He explained to McGuinn that “[w]hen you’re 22 years old and you’re in London and it’s the late ’70s and this stuff is happening and it’s exciting, then of course you’re going to be influenced by it, I think.”

Although Arms and Legs went the way of most bands, one important connection was made: bassist Graham Maby, who’s been a mainstay in Jackson’s world since. After a stint playing piano at the Portsmouth Playboy Club, where he accompanied cabaret singers, Jackson – with Maby, guitarist Gary Sanford and drummer David Haughton –  entered a studio and recorded a bunch of demos that scored him a deal with A&M.

Look Sharp! was the result. Released in the U.S. on January 5th, 1979, it was home to such classic songs as the title track, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “Sunday Papers.” This Washington Post article previewing a concert that September at University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum is well worth the read; he relates his love of reggae and respect for Graham Parker, Bruce Springsteen, the Jam and “Class” (actually the Clash). “Rock ‘n’ roll in its very nature is about the joining of the races,” he says. “There would be no rock ‘n’ roll if there hadn’t been black music. I don’t see how you could be in a rock band and not be against racism. Every white person in a rock band is going to have two or three heroes who are black.”

Like most folks my age, the first song I heard by Jackson was “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” The starkness of the music, the bass line and Jackson’s sneering delivery sounded fresh and unique in 1979 (and maybe it’s my age speaking, but it still sounds fresh and unique to me now). From there, Jackson’s career unfolded in an unlikely manner: new wave, reggae, swing and then the sophisticated, Cole Porter-styled pop of Night and Day, which was a surprise hit. Then came the off-kilter soundtrack for Mike’s Murder, which – due to the demands of the movie studio – was mostly replaced by a John Barry score. It doesn’t always jell, but when it does – such as on “Zemeo” and “Moonlight Theme” – it’s quite cool.

I share that backstory for no other reason than this: Body and Soul, which was released on March 14, 1984, is the culmination of everything that came before, integrating elements of new wave, pop, jazz and Latin. It features moody songs accented by sax solos that briefly brighten the dimly lit scenes, somewhat akin to a lone street lamp lighting an otherwise dark road. In that sense, the cover – which pays homage to Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2, a classic jazz album on the famed Blue Note label, is something of a misdirection. This ain’t hard bop, but jazz-pop with a dash of noir.

Some people live so fast
They’re so scared of getting old
Some people keep on working 
All they do is line their graves with gold
We don”t know what happens when we die
We only know we die too soon
But we have to try or else our world becomes a waiting room

Those lines are from the opening track, “The Verdict,” which finds Jackson waiting for a phone call, quavering over critics and musing on life itself.

“Cha Cha Loco,” which follows, detours into salsa, while “Not Here, Not Now” finds him sifting through the embers of a relationship on its last legs. “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want),” which hit No. 15 on the U.S. pop charts as the album’s first single, condenses every self-help book into a swinging tune…

…and is followed by more apt advice in the upbeat “Go For It.”

As good as the first side is, however, it’s the second that, back in the day, I played more often than not. The instrumental “Loisaida” shimmers like moonlight reflecting off waves at night, with the brass soaring into the foreground only to recede like the tide, washing away everything but the piano’s lone notes. It’s hypnotic.

“Happy Ending,” a duet with Elaine Caswell, updates the boy-meets-girl love stories of yore to an ‘80s sensibility. (“It’s not so easy/It’s 84 now…”) Here they are on Top of the Pops:

Although many songs place the protagonist in a movie, or at least makes allusions to such, nothing plays out as Hollywood confections would lead us to believe. The bittersweet “Be My Number Two,” which follows the upbeat “Happy Ending,” is a great case in point: He’s settling not for love, but companionship – and assumes the gal is, too. “And every time I look at you/You’ll be who I want you to/And I’ll do what I can do/To make a dream or two come true.”

“Heart of Ice” caps the set in perfect noir fashion; in essence, he’s killing us softy with his song – and pleading to be released from the cynicism that’s taken root in his soul: “Take a knife/Cut out this heart of ice/Hold it high/Walk into the sun…”

Given the nature of the ‘80s pop world, the album did surprisingly well, reaching No. 20 in the U.S. and No. 14 in the U.K. I picked it up on cassette a few months after its release, on June 11th, after reading Rolling Stone’s fairly positive review as well as a so-so overview (“MTV for the ears”) in Record magazine that coupled it with the Mike’s Murder soundtrack. While the cinematic allusions in the music are obvious, there’s much more to be heard in the grooves than that.

This is music of the body and soul, wearied and rundown by life. It’s my most-played Joe Jackson album by far. Go figure.

Last evening, Diane and I watched a film we’d never seen before: St. Elmo’s Fire.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, which was released in June 1985, it’s a so-called “brat pack” picture about the trials and tribulations of seven friends in the year following college graduation. The main cast consists of three-fourths of The Breakfast Club (Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy) plus four other talented young actors (Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore and Mare Winningham). Joel Schumacher directed it and co-wrote the script with Carl Kurlander, whose initial screenplay, a semi-autographical tale, centered around a bellhop’s unrequited love for a waitress. 

The original storyline remains, but is spread out amongst several characters. Rookie reporter Kevin (McCarthy) has always pined for aspiring architect Leslie (Sheedy), who’s with political aide and philanderer Alec (Judd Nelson); Kevin’s roommate Kirby (Estevez), a law student and waiter, has it bad for hospital intern Dale (Andie MacDowell), who was a few years ahead of him at Georgetown; and social worker Wendy (Winningham) has a longstanding crush on bad-boy Billy (Lowe). At the same time, Billy is finding it hard to shed his frat-boy ways; and banker Jules (Moore), a party girl, basically lives on credit cards and cocaine.

Here’s the trailer:

Back in ’85, it did okay at the box-office – $37.8 million (90 million in today’s dollars), which translated into a tidy profit for Columbia Pictures, as the studio spent about $10 million to make it. Although it was not well-received by critics then nor now, every so often some writer will pen a piece that claims it “defined a generation” – like this Entertainment Weekly oral history.

Trust me when I say that the only thing it defines is bad cinema. (If Diane said “this is bad” once, she said it a hundred times during the course of its one hour and 50 minutes.) In short, it’s a shallow spin on a subject with much potential, primarily marred by thoroughly unlikeable characters, especially stalker-in-the-making Kirby and out-and-out jerks Alec and Billy. You find yourself rooting that each will get hit by a car. The most interesting stories don’t get their proper due, such as Wendy’s decision to move out from her family home and make her own way in life or Kevin’s landing a bylined piece in the Post. Jules’ descent into drugs and debt is also interesting, if predictable, though I found her character intriguing for another reason: She reminds me of the manager I worked for right about the time of the film’s release, though that manager – to my knowledge – didn’t have a drug habit, just the same hairstyle.

I’ve revisited 1985 many times in the past (click here for those posts), so won’t recount too much beyond the basics: I’d just finished my sophomore year at Penn State’s Ogontz campus, was working full-time in a department store and saving most of my cash for the fall, when I was due to beam up to the Penn State mothership in University Park. But I still found time for music. Among my music purchases for the month: Bryan Ferry’s Boys & Girls, Hank Jr.’s Major Moves and 5-0, and The Highwaymen by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.  

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: June 7th, 1985, courtesy of the charts (for the week of the 8th) over at Top 40 Weekly.

1) Tears for Fears – “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” One of singer-songwriter Diane Birch‘s favorite songs, this tune enjoys its first week (of two) at No. 1. 

 2) Katrina & the Waves – “Walking on Sunshine.” Sneaking into the Top 10 this week is this blast of pure happiness. 

3) Prince & the Revolution – “Raspberry Beret.” Following up Purple Rain with the soft-hued psychedelia of Around the World in a Day may have confounded some fans, but so what? This was an instant-classic song, which leaps to No. 17 from 25.

4) ’Til Tuesday – “Voices Carry.” Aimee Mann has carved out an acclaimed solo career, yet this song is the first thing I think of when I hear her name. It takes the 25th slot, up from 28.

5) Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “Glory Days.” A year after the release of the Born in the USA album, “Glory Days” saw light as the album’s fifth single. It would eventually top off at No. 5, but this week – in its second week – it cracks the Top 40 at No. 37.