Archive for the ‘Boomtown Rats’ 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 – even disco. 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.

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.

At the same time, MTV also deserves some credit. It played quite a few artists who didn’t get much (if any) play elsewhere. 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…

IMG_5448June 1979: I was a month shy of my 14th birthday and living a suburban life not that different from what was depicted in The Wonder Years or Freaks & Geeks – that is to say, I woke up, ate breakfast and left for the (school) bus stop; and, after school, hung out with friends. We played variations of baseball, football, basketball and hockey in the street, at the park and in a friend’s driveway, depending on what the sport called for.

A radio was almost always blaring.

Although a decade removed from the hurly-burly upheavals of the ‘60s, the aftereffects of that era hung in the air and on rock radio, where the same-old, same-old acts held a tight grip on the playlists. (In retrospect, it’s not a surprise that the music industry entered a sales slump right about then.) I’d begun tuning into Philly’s rock-oriented WMMR and WYSP, but listened primarily to WIFI-92, a Top 40 FM station that played anything that was a hit. If it made the charts, it played a part in my life that spring and summer simply because WIFI – like every Top 40 station known to man – had a tight playlist. Donna Summer, for instance, was hot stuff, an omnipresent force. Here she is on The Dinah Shore Show

I also bought 45s and the occasional LP, and liked just about every act I heard, though none more so than Paul McCartney & Wings, whose “With a Little Luck” the year before kickstarted my music obsessiveness – as I wrote about here.

The hits of the year can be found on “The Top 25 of 1979” playlist I created on 8Tracks/Handcrafted Internet Radio a few years back. Among the featured acts: Donna Summer, Chic, the Knack, Anita Ward, Olivia Newton-John, Rod Stewart and Blondie. It is, in its way, a good representation of what WIFI-92 was like, minus the deejay patter. They’re all songs I heard there first.

Hit TV shows that year included Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, Mork & Mindy, Eight Is Enough, M*A*S*H and One Day at a Time. I watched them all, and more – I was, am and will always be something of a TV junkie. Among the movies released in the year’s first half: Norma Rae, Hair, The China Syndrome, Manhattan, Apocalypse Now, The In-Laws and Rocky II. I only saw The In-Laws. (“Serpentine, Sal! Serpentine!”) in the theaters, though.

In the wider world: Foreshadowing events in the States, the Conservatives swept to power in England the previous month and installed Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. In April, the presidency of Jimmy Carter – unfair though it may have been – met its caricature when he was attacked by a “killer” rabbit. For the year, unemployment was relatively low, at 5.8 percent, but the wage-killer known as inflation was outrageously high: 11.3 percent.

IMG_5427This issue of Creem is, in its way, a solid reflection of the era. There’s the cover story on Blondie, whose “Heart of Glass” mega-hit broke them through to the big time even as some derided its disco flavoring; and includes articles on Bad Company, Dire Straits, the Police, and punk music. There’s funny advice in “A Rock Star’s Guide to Rock Criticism” for how rockers should field questions from critics; and a funny article about how doomsday is nigh – Name That Tune had gone disco! (Click on the image to the left to read the whole piece.)

Well, enough of the introduction. Here’s today’s Top 5: June 1979 (via Creem).

IMG_54261) Blondie – “Heart of Glass.” As I mentioned a few weeks back, I – like many folks – initially thought Debbie Harry was Blondie. This article is a good reason why: Blondie was a band, but the focus was on the bottle-blonde lead singer, right down to the headline that claims “Blondie Plucks Her Legs!”. The slant is, at the start, somewhat…silly. Here’s one question/comment to Harry from Nick Tosches, who penned the piece: “Your legs. They’re great. Do you shave them or wax them?”

Harry says neither, explaining that instead she plucks them “one hair at a time.…It takes about a week for each leg.” Later, regarding drugs, she offers this insight: “I know it sounds crazy coming from somebody like me, but the most satisfying feeling I have is when I’m completely straight and accomplishing something. The feeling of accomplishment is what I really like, what I really get off on. I think that love is better when you’re straight, no matter what anybody says. Everything is better when you’re straight, except fucking up.”

She also dispels the notion that Blondie is a new wave group. “We’re a pop group. We feel that we’re part of the new wave, but when it comes down to musical definitions, we’re definitely a pop group. We always tried to be a pop group.”

IMG_54462) Bad Company – “Rock & Roll Fantasy.” There’s both an article on the band and a review of their latest album, Desolation Angels. In the article, Paul Rodgers lays out his vision of rock ’n’ roll: “I don’t think you should ever, like, bring politics and stuff that surrounds you every day—all that depressing stuff—into music. People want to go and see groups to get away from all that. I know I do. The lights, the atmosphere…they can forget everything else.”

The review by Kevin Doyle is, in a word, forgettable. It takes Rogers & Co. to task, in a roundabout way, for what he hears as their generic sound without singling out any song from the new album to use an example. True, their sound was somewhat cookie-cutter; I’m not arguing that. But snideness without context serves no one but the author. Not that I care, that much, in this instance; I’ve never been a Bad Company fan, though I admit to enjoying some of their songs on the radio. One of those songs is “Rock & Roll Fantasy.” Every time I hear it, I’m thrust back to the morning when I walked into my middle school’s pre-homeroom holding pen, i.e. the cafeteria, and heard it blasting from someone’s boombox.

IMG_54333) Rickie Lee Jones – “Danny’s All-Star Joint.” I love early Rickie – and latter-day Rickie, too. Her 2015 Other Side of Desire album is among the year’s best. “Chuck E.’s in Love” was her first hit, of course, and I remember hearing it on the radio, where it was deliriously out of place no matter the station, but I didn’t buy her debut album until after hearing “Danny’s All-Star Joint” on a double-LP Warners compilation called Monsters, which sold via mail-order for an obscenely low price – two bucks, I think. This short-take review of her debut by one Michael Davis notes that “she’s nyro to Laura when she goes for them high aches and she’s closer to bratty Patti when she goes for them gutter giggles.”

IMG_54304) Joe Jackson – “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” Michael Davis also pens this take on Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp LP: “1979 started out drenched in disco but as the months bumble by, it’s looking better and better. True, there’s lotsa new groups styxing to proven formulas but there’ve also been plenty of major record company by artists intent on being themselves.” (Styxing instead of sticking?! Good pun, sir!)

Next paragraph: “Like this guy, Joe Jackson. You could put him next to the Police, the Jam and early Elvis the Caustic and he’d feel right at home—in other words, he doesn’t. You could tag him as English, out front and, yeah, sharp—but after a couple of listens, the labels come off and not because of shoddy workmanship.”

Third paragraph: “Mainly, you’ll just listen to his songs—sparse farces about real life hassles, half of which stem from those thorny opposite sexers. His voice is always way up in the mix, pretty risky unless you’ve got the tunes and the ability to put ‘em across. Joe does.”

IMG_54215) The Boomtown Rats – “Rat Trap.” Before “I Don’t Like Mondays” broke them in the States, the Rats tried to make a go of it with the release of A Tonic for the Troops, their second U.K. album but first in the U.S. The record label swapped out a handful of songs for select numbers from their first U.K. LP, which met the same fate as the Jam‘s maiden efforts, though for different reasons. If the Jam were too English, the Rats were too eclectic. “Rat Trap” sounds like a Dublin spin on classic Springsteen; and other songs, such as “She’s So Modern,” echoed Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello and other new-wave acts. I was one of a few folks – and the only person amongst my friends – to buy the LP, which hit the record stores in February of that year. Until “Monday,” I never heard them on the radio; my memory says I learned of them from the Kenny Everett Video Show, which was syndicated in the U.S., but my timeline may be confused. It could well have been from a record review.

Anyway, the tongue-in-cheek Creem profile says: “After scurrying out of Dublin’s crumbling pubs to play their first gigs as the Nightlife Thugs, these rodents decided to show their true bubonic colors: much to their surprise, their furry brand of rabid rock crept across the continent like vermin on a sailor’s scalp, leaving thousands breathless and itching for more.”