Archive for the ‘1981’ Category

As I’ve noted before in these pages, I’m a big believer in the George Santayana aphorism that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Hand in hand with that: Those who don’t know the past are also missing out on a lot of good music.

Which leads to this: In late summer 1981, I purchased Dan Fogelberg’s The Innocent Age. I was 16. I don’t remember the whys or wherefores that led me to plunk down the money for what was a pricey double-LP set. I didn’t own anything by him and wasn’t familiar with his work beyond, I think, “Same Old Lang Syne,” a single he released in late 1980 that got airplay on Top 40-oriented WIFI-92 and “adult rock”-minded WIOQ, both of which I listened to on occasion. I may have heard “Hard to Say,” the single he released the previous month, as well, but can’t say for sure. Regardless, singles alone didn’t cause me to part ways with my cash – I was a kid on a budget, after all. Fogelberg also wasn’t a hip figure within my circle, so I’m sure the recommendation didn’t come from a friend. No, it was more likely due to a review – perhaps the one that leads off this no-bylined roundup of new albums that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 13th…

In any event, I listened to it. Liked parts of it, Side 2 especially, but as a whole found it overlong and – dare I say it? – boring. As I said, however, I was just 16. Joan Jett, among others, beckoned. MTV, too. Which is to say, The Innocent Age soon gathered dust in my LP collection. I doubt I thought of Fogelberg again until 1985, when I read a review of High Country Snows in (I think) Rolling Stone. I picked up that LP not long thereafter and…well, it’s a thoroughly delightful album, one I’ve returned to many times in the years since. I even played its bluegrass-flavored songs on the Folk Show on Penn State’s (at the time) student-run radio station, WPSU, from late ’85 through early ’87, side by side with favorites from New Grass Revival and the Seldom Scene. It didn’t spur me to further investigate his oeuvre, however, or even go back and give The Innocent Age another go.

Flash forward to August 2020, when – for reasons I will explain at a later date – I gave The Innocent Age a spin via Apple Music. I liked what I heard far more than I did way back when; the songs and sides I originally found bleh resonated with me in a way they didn’t then. (Sixteen-year-old me is no doubt scoffing at my adult tastes.) A few weeks later, I listened to the 2017 Live at Carnegie Hall release, which captures a 1979 performance, and…wow. I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times in the months since. I then gave a listen to his 1972 debut, Home Free, and was pleasantly surprised by what I heard.

At first, I considered spotlighting some or all of those albums in my occasional Essentials series once my Remember December navel-gazing exercise was done. In the weeks between then and now, however, I came up with something that I hope will be more fun: a slalom through his discography, most of which – obvious from the above – I simply don’t know. Beginning tomorrow, and going in order of release, l’ll spotlight one of his albums each month, offering critical insight alongside historical context, plus whatever else I can dig up.

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.

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…