Posts Tagged ‘1981’

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.

(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