Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

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.

It’s an album many Neil fans dislike, if not despise, due to the clinical rhythms and distorted vocals that accent much of the music. For me and my tastes, however, it’s a great, if eccentric set that’s well worth a few listens. As I wrote in the CSN/Y discography on the original Old Grey Cat (1997-2006) website, “if you listen past the surface, you’ll hear a strong heartbeat – and many treasures. [It] also features the mini-epic ‘Like an Inca,’ which includes this couplet from its last verse that aptly sums up Neil’s ’80s career path: ‘There’s a bridge across the river/that I have to cross alone.’” It’s not my most-played Neil album, but it’s one I’ve returned to, time and again, throughout the years.

After a lifetime with Warner Bros.’ Reprise Records, in 1982 Neil Young signed with Geffen Records in a deal that reportedly guaranteed him $1 million per album. However, when he turned in his first effort, Islands in the Sun, Geffen rejected it. In 1995, Neil explained to Mojo that Islands “was a tropical thing all about sailing, ancient civilizations, islands and water”; a prototypical Neil LP, in other words. But, as he recalled in Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (page 556), “[David Geffen] didn’t think it was good enough. ‘Neil, you can do more with these songs – keep going.’ It was healthy what he was telling me. But instead of going forward, I went back – to all the stuff that had been buried. I really did all the Trans stuff at the end of Warner Bros., not at the beginning of Geffen.”

Those old sessions, also detailed in Shakey (pages 551-552), were essentially an extension of the re*ac*tor jams in 1981: 

Young continued to record with the Horse. Poncho recalls Young – all jacked up after seeing the Rolling Stones play San Francisco – coming in with a song sporting Stones-like riffs entitled ‘Computer Age.’

Around this time, Young also purchased a vocoder, an odd device that enabled him to mask his voice as a variety of characters, none of which sounded too human – imagine robotic voices from fifties science fiction movies. Young then took the mutated vocals and played them through the Synclavier keyboard, which essentially turned it into music.

‘When we got the vocoder, we started listening to Kraftwerk,” said [David] Briggs. All this would eventually become Trans. Even a version of ‘Mr. Soul’ – complete with backward guitar – got the machine treatment. And the further Neil got into the new music, the less company he took with him.

‘Trans started like we do always – two guitars, bass, drums,” said Poncho. “Next thing we knew, Neil stripped all our music off, overdubbed all this stuff – the vocoder, weird sequencing, and put the synth shit on it. Briggs felt no one around Young tried to understand. “Billy and Ralph and Poncho, all the other participants, they dismissed it. They played on the stuff, but didn’t think it was music.”

Thus, the resulting album mixed six tracks from the old sessions with three from the new; and Geffen Records, believing it had a dud on its hands, simply shrugged and dumped the LP in the arid sales stretch that lies between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Radio, at least as I remember it, pretty much ignored it.

The critical consensus was (and remains) decidedly mixed. In the February 3rd, 1983, Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbaugh gave it four (out of five) stars and wrote, “In truth, once you get past its radical sonic veneer, Trans turns out to be a pretty whimsical treatise on the theme of man-meets-machine, with Young wisecracking his way through the high-tech numbers – note the wild coyotes who yowl on the computer cowboy’s range, and the mate-hunting automaton who sings. “I need a unit to sample and hold/But not the angry one, a new design, new design” – and tossing off the treacle of the straight love songs with casual disinterest.”

In the Rolling Stone offshoot magazine Record, however, Stuart Cohn was much less kind. He says “the listener is left like Dorothy in Oz, discovering there’s no wizard behind the curtain”; and sums up with: “Trans…is just a closed circuit: no future, no options. Just a man and his toys, without the songs or ideas that can make the toys so much fun to play with.” 

Neil, for his part, describes it well on the Neil Young Archives: “Trans is one of my best records, from a standpoint of being misunderstood. Trans was made with the idea of supporting it with a series of videos that went with the story. Bots of all kinds, with their digital voices sang the words and melodies of a tale of communication for the disabled, those of us who cannot speak. Here, these folks, especially my son Ben Young, were cared for by robots trying to help them learn how to communicate.” 

Looking back, I can understand why many longtime fans were (and remain) dismayed by the shift to electronica beats – but I didn’t have the same longterm connection. Re*ac*tor was my first Neil LP, which I purchased at age 16 in late 1981; Hawks & Doves was my second, which I picked up a few months later; and, in the final week of 1982 – when I was flush with Christmas cash – I picked up not one, not two, but five Neil Young albums on cassette to play in the Sanyo Mini AM/FM Stereo Cassette Recorder my parents had gifted me with.

A week later, I picked up the tape for Trans (along with Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask). I didn’t know the backstory. I just knew the beats were cool, the distorted vocals even cooler, and that “Like an Inca,” one of those prototypical Neil Young songs, soared.

In many respects, as I noted last week, McCartney II – Paul McCartney’s own eccentric electronica collection from 1980 – helped prepared me for Trans. Such off-kilter excursions, to me, were just something artists did from time to time. Maybe that’s why, from the moment I heard it, Trans just felt right to me; yeah, it’s odd, but it speaks to my heart and soul – perhaps because, as a child, I had a speech impediment that sometimes made it difficult to communicate with others.

Anyway, I enjoyed the set so much that, within a few months, I also bought it on LP – something I did on occasion. In this instance, it was to better appreciate the fascinating (to me, at least) cover art, which shows an old-school Neil and digital-age Neil hitching rides into the future and past. Oh, and though it’s listed on the album jacket and in the lyric sheet, “If You Got Love” was yanked at the last minute; the version of “Sample and Hold” on LP is three minutes shorter that the CD; and the version of “Like an Inca” on LP is a minute-and-change shorter than on CD. (Let’s hope that Islands in the Sun – which, as I write, isn’t listed in the NYA timeline – is one day released as part of Neil’s archival series; my hunch is it will be a sublime set.)

So…give Trans a go, sometime, be it on the LP (or, if you can find it, cassette) or CD. It’s not Neil’s best, by any stretch, but holds within it a lot of intriguing sounds. You may be disappointed, but you may be surprised.