Archive for the ‘1986’ 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.)

The 1980s are given short shrift in the annals of pop music for many reasons, few of which have to do with the sounds that actually bounded from the speakers in one’s car or home, or boombox, or via the headphones of one’s WalkMan or WalkMan clone. There’s good, bad and mediocre music released every decade, after all, but as most folks who came of age during the decade will tell you, we had the hooks. The look? Aside from Sheena Easton, perhaps not – though, as the cool RetroWaste website details, the stereotypical shoulder pads and feathered hair didn’t really come into play until the middle part of the decade.

Fashion fads come and go, of course. Think of the bouffant and beehive hairstyles favored by many women from the ‘50s through the ‘60s, the collarless suits that bedecked the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, or the Day-Glo threads worn by the hippies at Monterey Pop and Woodstock just a few years later. They look out of place in today’s world, just as the flapper fashions of the 1920s did by the time the boys came marching home from World War II. Some may roll their eyes and snicker, if not laugh, but that’s the way of the world.

Likewise, music styles come and go, with some songs, albums and artists forever relegated to the eras in which they first made their mark. But unlike skinny ties and overblown locks, or A Flock of Seagulls, great songs, albums and artists both reflect and transcend their time. We may sometimes turn to the music to reminisce, but as often we turn to it to accent the present. Love, lust, and life’s ups and downs, even silly dance crazes, aren’t the domain of any one generation, but all generations.

I thought of that Wednesday evening, when I stumbled upon a YouTube video of the Bangles on the May 10th, 1986, edition of American Bandstand. Here, in two performances split by an interview with Dick Clark, they convey not just the spirit of ‘80s music, but of good music of every era.

They’re songs most folks of a certain age, whether or not they were fans, know like the back of their hands, of course. “Manic Monday” topped out at No. 2, kept from No. 1 only by the legend who penned it, Prince, whose “Kiss” proved infectious. “If She Knew What She Wants” didn’t do quite as well – it peaked at No. 29 – but has gone onto become one of their signature tunes. You can’t listen to either without being put into an instant good mood.

I hasten to add that they’re on Bandstand not just promoting the two singles, but their second album, Different Light, which was released on January 2, 1986. I bought it that same week from a Listening Booth in the Willow Grove Mall, though it could well have been City Lights Records in State College, depending on when winter break ended. (How’s that for narrowing it down?) I was a college junior attending the Penn State mothership, and either home – and working, working, working as much as I could at one of the mall’s department stores – or already back at University Park. I’ve written about that time before, and even chronicled my top albums of the year here – but to save you the click, here it is in a nutshell: I was (and still am) a fan of new wave, old rock, heady pop, country, bluegrass and urban folk, and plenty of additional genres, including R&B, soul and what would come to be known as Americana. I thought nothing of playing the Three O’Clock and Hank Jr. back-to-back, though I’m sure fans of each would have objected to the other’s presence on my turntable or cassette deck.

At school, I didn’t watch MTV. Hell, I didn’t watch much TV, period, and the only time I generally heard Top 40 radio was when I was selling my plasma for pocket money. And when not with a needle in my arm, or out having a good time with that pocket money, I was in my dorm room doing school work – and since my pre-law roommate preferred studying at the library, I listened to what I wanted – and, as now, often listened to things again and again and again. The result: By semester’s end, my Different Light cassette became so worn that the songs from the flip side bled through whenever I played it. (Yes, I bought it again.)

To be precise: Different Light glimmers and glistens. The production is polished, but not too polished. The melodies captivate; the beats are sure and precise; the guitars echo those of the British Invasion, and are always in service to the song; and the harmonies flow through the soul like few others.

One highlight: The album’s third single, the delightfully goofy “Walk Like an Egyptian,” which closed out 1986 at No. 1.

Another: “Return Post,” which ruminates about a long-distance relationship. One thing I love about it: The harmonies pay homage to Revolver-era Beatles. Another thing I love: whether intentional or not, the nod toward Them’s “Gloria” in the coda. 

And another highlight: “Following,” a tale of obsessive love, which was penned by bassist Michael Steele.

And, finally, what turned to be the final U.S. single from the album: “Walking Down Your Street,” which reached No. 11 on the pop charts in April 1987. As I mentioned above, I rarely watched MTV in those days – so it was news to me when, a year or two ago, I discovered the video. It’s cute.

Anyway, some fans aren’t keen on Different Light, and usually cite All Over the Place as the band’s definitive work. I think the world of both, myself, and hear Different Light as an evolution of their sound. As Vicki Peterson says to Dick Clark of their music, “I think it’s always changing. It’s always growing and changing, and we’re happy with what we’re doing.” 

I’ll conclude with this: At the end of ’86, I jotted down my top picks for the year. Paul Simon’s Graceland was my No. 1; Different Light was my No. 2. But through the decades that have followed, the album I’ve listened to more often isn’t Graceland, but Different Light. It makes me think. Makes me smile. And puts me into a good mood.

It’s be in my theoretical Top 10 Albums of All Time list (sharing space with about 99 other entries), easy.

Side 1:

  1. Manic Monday
  2. In a Different Light
  3. Walking Down Your Street
  4. Walk Like an Egyptian
  5. Standing in the Hallway
  6. Return Post

Side 2:

  1. If She Knew What She Wants
  2. Let It Go
  3. September Gurls
  4. Angels Don’t Fall in Love
  5. Following
  6. Not Like You

 

When was it? Fall of ’85? Spring of ’86? Difficult to say, but I suspect it was sometime in the spring that I first heard 10,000 Maniacs. They were one of several of the era’s new folk-flavored acts that I discovered while deejaying the weekend Folk Show on Penn State’s studio-run radio station at the time, WPSU. (It’s now a professionally-run station, with WKPS filling the void for students.)

I’ve written about those times before, but for those who haven’t seen those posts: It was a two- or sometimes three-times a month gig, depending on the schedule laid out by Folk Show overlord (and friendly grad student) Jerry, and – aside from the occasional 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. slot – usually meant I had to be in studio by 6 a.m. On a Saturday. Or Sunday. After a night of…well,  I won’t say debauchery, but it was college…and State College, the home of the Penn State mothership, is nicknamed “Happy Valley” for a reason. But me waking at 5:30 a.m. and hiking across campus while bleary-eyed was a rarity. I (usually) got a good night’s sleep beforehand.

I also prepared. During the week prior to a shift, I stopped in the station and flipped through the LPs in the massive library, mapping out my playlist. I generally focused the first hours on folk-rock old (Byrds) and new (Long Ryders) before, around 8 a.m., trading in that palette for one that mixed more stereotypical fare (Joan Baez, Holly Near, Pete Seeger) with up-and-comers (Nanci Griffith, Suzanne Vega).

At some point, too, I began bringing in treasures from my own collection; and also became adept at tossing aside my planned platters and programming on the fly. I’d queue up Side 1 of a Fast Folk Musical Magazine sampler, introduce the first track and then slip out of the booth and into the library for 5 or 10 minutes in search of something, though I usually didn’t know what that something was. That was how I stumbled upon The Wishing Chair, the major-label debut of 10,000 Maniacs, in fact. Someone may have mentioned it at a staff meeting, which was how I discovered Suzanne Vega, or I may have recognized it from this review in Record magazine. I decided to give it a whirl. I can’t say for sure, but I likely went with the first song on Side 1, “Can’t Ignore the Train.”

In some ways, Natalie Merchant’s years with 10,000 Maniacs equate to a somewhat lengthy college career – though those of us who became fans at the time didn’t recognize it as such. As this Rolling Stone article (which I spotlight here) recounts, she joined the group as a shy 16-year-old girl, often singing with her back to the audience, and left as a confident woman.

The 10-CD Natalie Merchant Collection skips all of it. Which is fair.

Looking back, however, I think it’s obvious that many of us started a journey together during that pre-history era. Whether we date our fandom to the early-‘80s indie days, rocked in The Wishing Chair, hopped aboard the “Peace Train” or traveled to “Eden,” and traded tapes on the pre-Internet boards of Prodigy or AOL, doesn’t much matter, anymore. We were young.

We graduated to adulthood and, now, middle-age together. That, in essence, is what the collection charts. It features her seven studio albums, beginning with Tigerlily and ending with Paradise Is There (bookends, in a way); a disc of new songs alongside older ones redone with a string quartet; and another disc of rare and previously unreleased tracks. There’s also a CD-sized booklet that contains lyrics, song personnel and plenty of pictures, though no laudatory essay chronicling her artistic journey – the latter is somewhat customary for such box sets, but isn’t missed.

We can hear the trek for ourselves – and relive our life’s journey, for that matter – in the grooves. Those albums include two of my Albums of the Year in Tigerily and Motherland; runners-up in Leave Your Sleep and Natalie Merchant; and others that I enjoyed, though thought flawed. (Live in Concert, my top pick for 1999, is curiously absent; one hopes that plans are afoot to release an expanded edition in the future.)

The one album that I most misjudged was Ophelia. On my old website, I wrote that “while an admirable concept, the album’s overarching theme (the many facets of womanhood) weighs on the individual songs to the point that, save for a few, one can’t tell them apart.” I singled out “Break My Heart” as its best track and dubbed “Kind and Generous,” which I now thoroughly love (especially in a live setting), “simple-minded mishmash.”

And “Life Is Sweet,” which I now rank with her best songs? I only mentioned it in a months-later addendum, and then just to say that, while I’d come to like it, it paled in comparison to Maria McKee’s similarly themed song of the same name.

I’d call them equals, now.

Of course, a collection that features so much of the old – all things most longtime fans will (or should) already have – does make one question the necessity of it. But the two discs of new and new-to-us material are well worth the price of admission.

The ninth disc, titled Butterfly, includes three new-to-us songs set beside seven older ones, and features Natalie accompanied by a string quartet. The title track wafts like a breeze on a late-spring day while, lyrically, a smart metaphor about fate and chance flutters like a spider’s web billowing in the wind. There’s a foreboding in many of the lyrics, such as “Baby Mine”: “There’re so many things you’ve got to fear/It’s making me ache to see so clear/So many things you’ve got to know/It’s making me ache/You’ve got to grow.”

The redone older songs are Paradise Is There, Part Two, in a sense, but come off somewhat better due to their dispersed sources – three from Ophelia; two from Leave Your Sleep; and one from Motherland. Though it may be new to some, to my knowledge the Ophelia outtake “She Devil” first appeared on the two-CD edition of 2005’s Retrospective.

The 10th disc, Rarities, is a sheer delight. True, some of the tracks have been available on various compilations, such as her cover of Buddy Holly’s “Learning the Game”…

…and “The Gulf of Araby” is from the aforementioned Live in Concert album, but – all in all – the disc is a five-star alternate history.

Among the nuggets: her takes on the Kinks’ “The Village Green Preservation Society” and the spiritual “Sit Down, Sister.” (She needs to release an album of spirituals. Just sayin’.)

My only other observation: I wish that an additional disc of rarities had been included, if only to have everything in one place. And, too, I’d hate to think that her many Tigerlily-era bonus tracks, such as Joni’s “All I Want,” the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Irma Thomas’ “Take a Look” and the Aretha-Dusty medley of “Baby I Love You”-“Son of a Preacher Man,” have been lost to time…

…or copyright issues, given the way videos come and go from YouTube.

Anyway, the set is inexpensive – $50 for 10 discs. For young fans, honestly, it’s a no-brainer. Order it and the 10,000 Maniacs’ 2-CD Campfire Songs compilation. For longtime fans hesitant to re-purchase much, if not all, of what they already own, I’d say that…hey, it’s $50. A cool package. Nice booklet. Great music. The songs you know will take you back; Butterfly will make you think; and Rarities will make you smile.

I have no idea as to where I was, or what I was doing, on this day in 1986. I can say, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, that it was a Tuesday and a fine, fine day and great night, given that we enjoyed a high of 72 and low of 48. I can also say, based on the basic timeframe: I’d recently finished my junior year at the Penn State mothership, and was back home for the summer. I was working, working and working at a department store while also taking (or about to take) a summer class at Penn State’s Ogontz campus: physical education.

The photos are from a few months earlier. The one at the top is my dorm room, minus my messy bed; the second is me, at my desk in said dorm room. (I’d be in a different dorm and room, and have a different roommate, when I returned to the mothership in the fall.) You may not be able to tell from the second picture, but those are paisley patterns dotting my shirt – a nod to the Paisley Underground. As I’ve written before, I was an English/Creative Writing major, deejayed a folk show on the student-run radio station and enjoyed a boatload of fun despite being a year too young for the bars.

Among the day’s headlines: Secretary of State George Shultz took a hard line against South Africa’s apartheid policies; the Supreme Court ruled that cable-TV operators were protected by the First Amendment; and the U.S. Senate broadcast its floor debate on TV for the first time. Also: former (and future) Go-Go released her debut album, Belinda, which included “Mad About You.” According to Weekly Top 40’s charts for the week ending June 7th, that catchy song was one of the week’s “power plays,” having jumped from No. 59 to 49.

Other recent releases that caught my ear: Steve Earle’s Guitar Town, Lou Reed’s Mistrial and Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Like a Rock. Also receiving frequent play: the Bangles’ Different Light, which had been released in January; Emmylou Harris’ Thirteen, which was released in February; and others that I’ve long-since forgotten. Other, older albums in frequent rotation included Lone Justice’s debut, the Long Ryders’ State of Our Union, Jane Wiedlin’s solo debut and the Three O’Clock’s Arrive Without Traveling, plus whatever else I singled out in my 1985 roundup. (Many of my favorites for 1986 are here, but most had yet to be released by this point in the year.) Of course, there were my mainstays, too, including the Beatles, Neil Young, Janis Joplin and Hank Jr.

Anyway, onward to today’s Top 5: June 3, 1986 (based on the charts ending the 7th).

1) Madonna – “Live to Tell.” Most of my friends were not Madonna fans. They were into prog-rock, rock and/or folk music, and save for one dismissed her without listening to her music. I did not. To my ears, her first two albums were good, not great, affairs; True Blue, for me, was (and remains) her best work. This, its lead single was, and remains, a thing of wonder; and was No. 1 this week.

2) Simply Red – “Holding Back the Years.” Jumping from No. 22 to 16 is this soulful gem from the Manchester band’s 1985 debut.

3) John Cougar Mellencamp – “Rain on the Scarecrow.” The title tune to Mellencamp’s classic 1985 album Scarecrow, rises from No. 26 to 22. (I’ve featured the album before, of course.)

4) Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – “Like a Rock.” Jumping 10 notches to No. 28 this week is this tune from the album of the same name. On the one hand, the song is yet another variation of Seger’s patented nostalgia-soaked formula, which dates (at least) to Brand New Morning’s “Railroad Days” in 1971. On the other hand, formulaic or not, it’s a damn good song – and just gets better the older I get.

5) Janet Jackson – “Nasty.” Looking back, one thing (among many) that I can definitely fault myself for is missing Janet Jackson’s third album, Control. (By decade’s end, when I was working in a CD store, I’d realize what I missed; and, in fact, saw her on her Rhythm Nation tour – a future Of Concerts Past entry, no question.) In its fourth week on the charts this, one of her iconic songs, clocked in at No. 33. (“What Have You Done for Me Lately” was No. 19, for what that’s worth.)

And one bonus…

6) The Bangles – “If She Knew What She Wants.” Another “power play” track, this gem from Different Light climbs to No. 42; and here they are on the Letterman show performing it with the house band:

(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.)

There are a handful of artists and acts that can claim credit for the laying the foundation for the alt. country/Americana scene that went mainstream during the early ‘90s, beginning with the most obvious: Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

Steve Earle is another.

Guitar Town, his 1986 debut, digs deep into the day-to-day life experienced by denizens of the forgotten America. By the mid-‘80s, factories were shutting down, farms going belly-up, and the dream of a better future seemed out of reach for many – as Earle articulates with journalistic precision on such songs as “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough),” “Someday” and “Hillbilly Highway.”

At the time, the music was deemed too country for rock and too rock for country; yet, despite that, the album made its way to No. 1 on the country charts. The title track made it to No. 7 and “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left” made it to No. 8.

In the years since its release, the album has been deemed one of the best of its time. Rolling Stone, for example, ranks it (too low) at No. 79 on its “Best Albums of the Eighties” list and at No. 482 on its Greatest Albums of All Time list.

Younger listeners may be shocked by the album’s relative brevity – it clocks in at just under 35 minutes. Make no mistake, however: There are no throwaways here.

The songs:

  1. Guitar Town
  2. Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left
  3. Hillbilly Highway
  4. Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)
  5. My Old Friend The Blues
  6. Someday
  7. Think It Over
  8. Fearless Heart
  9. Little Rock ‘N’ Roller
  10. Down The Road