Archive for the ‘1981’ Category

Once upon a long ago, aka the late ‘70s, children searched for treasure. We pedaled banana-seat bikes to discount department stores – a K-Mart or Montgomery Ward, say – in hopes of striking gold in the record bins. Everything was cheaper there, but the titles were sparse, so in time we rode instead to a nearby music shop whose proprietor let us browse for what seemed like hours on end. And when we settled on a simple single, he thanked us for our purchase and wished us a good day. Later, we set out up a long and steep hill for a rinky-dink mall that housed a Sam Goody’s. The worker-clerks were more gruff and dismissive, and never thanked us for our cash, but it stocked a wider selection. 

In short, we sought the sounds we heard on the radio. Some stations were formatted Top 40, others rock, disco and R&B/soul. It never mattered. We turned the radio dial and were enthralled by almost everything we heard. We were lost in music. Caught in a trap…

“We” is me, of course, just as I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. Everything I heard, even the old, was new or new-to-me. But children grow into teens, 10-speeds replace banana seats, and the appetite for more (on the cheap, as we had limited budgets) led us to used-record stores.

But my record buying notwithstanding, in the late ‘70s and early ’80s the music industry suffered a major slump. Hand in hand with the downward spiral, radio retrenched. Few new artists were featured, and those who were – Dire Straits, for example – often sounded like the old. For the most part, punk and new wave could only be read about, not heard via the airwaves, on this shore. And though I liked much of the old, as this blog attests, I also wanted to hear a lot of the new.

That’s when the days of buying albums from reviews alone began.

About the same time, in the late ‘70s, I stumbled upon ITV’s The Kenny Everett Video Show. A British program, it aired throughout the U.S. thanks to the magic of syndication – in the Philly area, it was Saturday or Sunday afternoon. In addition to his outlandish (and not always funny) comedy, Everett – a British deejay by trade – featured a who’s who of established and rising British musicians. Paul McCartney & Wings were in the same episode as the Boomtown Rats, for example.

Yeah, listening to that song now, it sounds more Springsteen-esque than new wave, but that’s not the point. It was new. Everett’s show ran the gamut of cool to kitsch, mind you, but at least most of what he featured was different. Kate Bush, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Rachel Sweet and the Pretenders were among the showcased acts

That clip of the Pretenders, by the way, hails from March 15, 1979 – nine months prior to their self-titled debut album being released in the U.K. and 10 months before it was issued in the U.S.

The Midnight Special and Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert were among the other outlets for music on TV, though – like rock radio – they focused primarily on the tried and true, not the new and untested. Solid Gold was for the hits. America’s Top 10, too. Slump or not, the music industry had become a Big Business, and Big Business is often short-sighted when it comes to seeding future growth. 

Unless they’re an upstart. Like MTV. 

The channel began life on August 1, 1981, but at first was only available in a handful of markets (aka the swamps of Jersey). Many viewers, including myself, didn’t actually experience it until the following spring or summer, thanks in part to a smart public relations campaign that played out on most of the other Warner Cable-owned channels: I Want My MTV!

My aunt visited us that summer of ‘82, and I remember her commenting about how the TV – thanks to 16-year-old me – was usually tuned to MTV.

Now, MTV received its share of criticism at the time  – and some of it was deserved. The biggest issue: The lack of artists of color, which its programmers claimed was due to its AOR-like format. (AOR, of course, is album-oriented rock; and about the only artist of color featured in that format at the time was Jimi Hendrix.) 

The reality, however, was that MTV’s approach to AOR wasn’t in keeping with AOR radio. Far from it. Duran Duran, for example, broke big in the U.S. because MTV played – and played, and played, and played – the videos for “Hungry Like a Wolf” and “Rio” in late ’82. Here’s the former:

I never heard that song on Philly’s twin pillars of rock radio, WMMR and WYSP. Only MTV. As the years progressed, however, they cast their net wider and began to reflect music fans like me, who enjoyed pretty much everything. But in the beginning, “have video, get played” may as well have been its mantra. Here’s one example: Romeo Void, whose “Never Say Never” was a staple of its early days.

Joan Jett, the Go-Go’s, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Van Halen, and the Bangles are just a handful of the artists and acts whose success (or mega-success, in some cases) can be traced to their videos being placed in heavy rotation. John Cougar’s another.

Spicing the non-AOR AOR format: the “veejays” who introduced the clips.

The original five consisted of the always cool J.J. Jackson, formerly of WCBN in Boston and KLOS in L.A.; hip Mark Goodman, formerly of WMMR in Philadelphia and WPLJ in New York; struggling actor Alan Hunter, who appeared in David Bowie’s “Fashion” video; actor-model Nina Blackwood; and my favorite of the bunch, Martha Quinn, who once appeared in a McDonald’s commercial and later was cast as Bobby Brady’s wife in the short-lived The Bradys comedy-drama. (Fun fact: Like me, Martha spun folk records on college radio.)

All of which leads to this: In March or April 1983, I sent a letter to Martha. Maybe it was to share a piece of trivia. Or maybe it was to ask that one of my many favorites get more play. In turn, she wrote back…

Do kids still write fan letters? Do they get autographed keepsakes – for free – in return? So much has changed since 1983 – some for the better, some for the worse. The digitalization of memories, for instance, has its pluses, as everything is in the cloud just waiting to be browsed. But here’s a downside: Young folks today will never know the pleasure of coming across a long-forgotten autographed picture inside a manila envelope…

(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.)

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.

Don’t get me wrong – there were important women rockers before her, and any music fan worth his or her salt should be able to list them – and she shared space in the record racks and ink in the rock magazines with a number of equally important contemporaries, albeit ones who were blazing trails in different genres. But few, male or female, rocked as consistently hard and steady as Joan Jett during the ’80s. Beginning with the I Love Rock ’n Roll album, which was released on November 18th, 1981, she taught a generation of gals and guys that either gender could make like Chuck Berry.

It was a long time coming, of course. She first dented the door to the men’s room that was rock ’n’ roll in the mid-1970s with the Runaways, though – success in Japan aside – they never transcended to popular acclaim. Her first solo album in 1980, originally a self-titled release before being rechristened Bad Reputation in January 1981, did achieve greatness – but few heard it. She finally kicked down the door in early 1982 with help from MTV, and the video for the chart-topping title track to her second LP. (Rock radio, at least in my neck of the woods, ignored her until then.)

The song, as the album as a whole, mixes elements of new wave, punk, glam rock and old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll into a delectable whole. It’s hot, heavy, loud and gritty or, as my mother-in-law might say, “it’s rough, it’s tough, and it’s got the stuff.”

The cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson & Clover,” which peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard charts, is equally audacious.

It’s also the album’s slowest song.

What makes an album great – and essential – isn’t any one song, of course, though some may be better than others. It’s the album in total. And in the case of I Love Rock n’ Roll, that means the other eight tracks on the LP – and they’re as solid as the two singles. What teenager (or adult, for that matter) couldn’t identify with “Victim of Circumstance”?

And who hasn’t known a “Nag”?

Like the title track, “Crimson & Clover” and several others on the LP, it’s a cover song, in this case one by a doo-wop group called the Haloes, who had a No. 25 hit with it in 1961. One of the other covers is one of Joan’s own, the Runaways’ “You’re Too Possessive” (from that band’s overlooked 1977 Waitin’ for the Night album):

There’s also the original “(I’m Gonna) Run Away”…

…and “Love Is Pain”:

On the original pressing of the LP (which I had), there was this Christmas treat –

After the holidays, Boardwalk replaced it with Joan’s own “Oh Woe Is Me,” which had been the b-side to “Crimson & Clover.”

The success of the album, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, led to a resurgence of interest for Bad Reputation, and paved the way for her strong third and fourth albums, Album (1983) and Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth (1984). True, they followed a similar pattern – a mix of killer new songs and choice covers – but it’s a pattern that didn’t grow old then, and doesn’t sound old now when or if you listen to them.

Side 1:

  1. I Love Rock ’n Roll
  2. (I’m Gonna) Run Away
  3. Love Is Pain
  4. Nag
  5. Crimson & Clover

Side 2:

  1. Victim of Circumstance
  2. Bits and Pieces
  3. Be Straight
  4. You’re Too Possessive
  5. Little Drummer Boy

Thursday night, I stumbled upon The Jam – About the Young Idea on Showtime OnDemand. It’s an excellent documentary about the English mod rock band that rose from the London suburbs in the late 1970s to become one of the biggest acts of that era in their home country. Wikipedia reports that they scored 18 consecutive Top 40 hits in the U.K., including four No. 1s; and also charted four Top 10 albums, including one – their last, The Gift – that hit the top spot in 1982.

They never broke through in the States for a variety of reasons. One reason: They tackled topical British concerns that just didn’t translate all that well to this side of the pond. Another: They sported thick British accents that made it a bit difficult to decipher the lyrics.

ringo_rsThat’s neither here nor there, however, for today’s Top 5. In April 1981, I was 15 years of age, a high-school sophomore and, thanks to my folks, a new subscriber to Rolling Stone. To say that it was appropriate that Ringo Starr, whose 40th birthday was the raison d’être for the article, graced the cover of the first issue I received is an understatement – I was (and remain) a huge Beatles fan.

1) Ringo Starr – “You Can’t Fight Lightning.” At the time of the interview, Ringo was in the midst of recording an album he called Can’t Fight Lightning. It eventually morphed into Stop and Smell the Roses, released at the end of the year; and the planned title track wouldn’t be released until 1994.

Ringo_JohnThis was a pre-sober Starr: “Ringo sits cross-legged on the floor, elbow propped on a coffee table. He takes long sips of brandy and chain-smokes Marlboros. Dark glasses mask bloodshot eyes—souvenirs from an all-night session in the recording studio.”

He also offers this bon mot during the chat: “I asked all my friends to help on Can’t Fight Lightning. George did a couple of tracks, Paul’s done a couple of tracks. But the real drag is that there were tracks made for me by John. I won’t use them now, though. Well, I might. You never can tell. But they won’t be on the album. The fun was going to be that we’d play together, you know?”

jam_sound_affects2) The Jam – “Start!” From a Beatle to a Beatles homage… does it get any better? This three-and-a-half star review of Sound Affects from John Piccarella is the first reference to the Jam that I remember reading. I’m sure that I read about them before, possibly even in Rolling Stone, but they were among dozens of acts that I skipped past at the time – call it (youthful) ignorance at work.jam_snark

The reason I say I’m sure I saw their names in music magazines prior to this date: They’d made a few forays to the U.S. during the previous few years, appearing on American Bandstand and the SNL clone Fridays, and possibly other shows, but that utter Britishness of theirs kept them from catching on. They also weren’t played on the radio around here – that I know of, at any rate. So it’s this snarky review that introduced me to them. (See the clip the right.) The line that stood out to me, though, was: “In 1980, the Jam placed more singles in the English Top Fifty than anyone since the Beatles, whose record they tied.”

I’d love to say that, inspired by the review, I ran to the Hatboro Music Shop and bought the LP. I can’t. I was intrigued by what I read, true, but also budget-conscious. It wasn’t until the next year, after I saw the video for “A Town Called Malice” on MTV, that I picked up anything by the group. That was The Gift.

who_face3) The Who – “You Better You Bet.” It’s odd what we remember. For instance, I recall listening to WYSP-FM or WMMR-FM one day in early 1981 when the disc jockey announced with great fanfare a new song from the Who – and, with that, “You Better You Bet” kicked in. On the other side, he took an audible deep breath and sighed, somewhat beleaguered.

In the Jam documentary I mentioned in the intro, Paul Weller talks about how listening to the Who’s 1965 debut LP, My Generation, helped cement his vision of the Jam as a three-piece band. Understandable, given the album’s brute power. By 1981, however, the Who were not the same band; Keith Moon was dead, and Townshend – as he explains in his memoir, Who I Am, was over-extended. Face Dances, which “You Better You Bet” hails from, was the first post-Moon Who effort; and, while far from bad, was nowhere near as good as Townshend’s solo Empty Glass from the previous year.

joan_badrep4) Joan Jett – “Bad Reputation.” On the same page as the Jam review is this, my introduction to the former Runaway. The reviewer, one Tom Carson, says: “…though the LP works better as gesture than as music, the music’s still the best this artist has ever made.” Later, he sums things up with: “Unfortunately, Bad Reputation is flawed by its literal-mindedness – the arrangements pump along gamely yet rarely swing or soar – and by some unresourceful material. But in its mood and feel, Joan Jett’s first solo album is a determined retelling of what sometimes seems like the truest rock story there is.”

By the end of the year, both it and the epoch-shattering I Love Rock ’n Roll album – the pre-Christmas version with “Little Drummer Boy” – weren’t just in my vinyl collection, but among the most-played albums in my collection. (They aren’t that, anymore, but I still listen to them a few dozen times a year.) And “Bad Reputation,” the title tune, is one of the best rock anthems ever.

rosie_75) Rosanne Cash – “Seven Year Ache.” As I’ve written elsewhere, I didn’t get into Rosanne’s music until 1985 and “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me.” Yet, four years earlier, I obviously flipped past this short article, which features a nice Q&A with her about the success of her second album and its title track, “Seven Year Ache,” as well as other matters. One question: Which performers do you like to see? Her answer: “Springsteen. And there are some acts around L.A. that I go to see—the Carl Gant Band, they’re really good. I think the last act I paid to see was Rockpile.”

She also confesses (if that’s the right word): “I’d pay to see Judy Garland right now if she were alive. I love her. She’s my hero. She was an absolute clear channel of emotion through her singing.”