Posts Tagged ‘Marlene on the Wall’

Earlier this week I found myself glued to an episode of CNN’s The Eighties. For those unaware of the historical documentary series about the 1980s, each installment surveys one topic. The first episode, for example, is titled Raised on Television and navigates the decade’s TV landscape; the second episode, The Reagan Revolution, recalls Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The episode I caught, titled Video Killed the Radio Star (after the Buggles song), dove deep into the era’s music.

The hour-long survey, which is probably closer to 40 minutes once the commercials are stripped out, nailed most of the decade’s most important events and artists. MTV. Duran Duran. The Go-Go’s. Thriller. Born in the USA. Madonna. Purple Rain. Live Aid. The Bangles. College rock (though I don’t think they used that term). Hip-hop. U2. Heavy metal. The PMRC. But a few important developments and artists were missed.

The resurgence of folk-flavored music in the latter part of the decade was one.

In retrospect, the Fast Folk anthology/magazine series set the stage and gave a platform to many up-and-coming singer-songwriters, even if most music fans never heard of it. (I did due to spinning folk records on Penn State’s student-run radio station at the time, WPSU.) Of the new artists it featured, perhaps the most important was Suzanne Vega, whose self-titled 1985 solo debut was and remains a landmark album. Although it sold modestly, it demonstrated that there was a market for literate lyrics coupled to stirring melodies.

One highlight: “Marlene on the Wall.” (To quote my wife just now, “I love this song.”)

Vega’s 1987 sophomore set, Solitude Standing, equaled the debut in artistic quality and did even better sales-wise, with the single “Luka” surprisingly making it to No. 2 on the pop charts. A few months later, the folk-rock sounds of 10,000 Maniacs bubbled to the fore: “Peace Train,” “Like the Weather” and “What’s the Matter Here?” from In My Tribe all found a home on MTV and college-rock radio. A year later, Tracy Chapman’s brilliant debut smashed even more barriers. In time, the Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin and dozens of others followed. I’m leaving many artists out of the mix, obviously. The “folkabilly” stylings of Nanci Griffith predated Vega’s urban-centric debut, and are – artistically – as important. Later in the decade, James McMurtry gave a new face to Texas troubadours; and, somewhere in there, the Washington Squares put a delightful ‘80s spin on folk trios.

But Vega’s 1985 debut was the foot-in-the-door for all of the folk-flavored artists who followed. In a better world, it would be as celebrated as, say, Madonna’s Borderline or U2’s Boy, as – like those albums – it helped shift the established musical paradigm. Her lyrics are true poems set to song, forever eschewing generalities for specifics, and her melodies mesmerize.

Going back to my radio days: I often played two back-to-back tracks on this album for no other reason than they were among my favorites of the time: “Some Journey” and “The Queen and the Soldier.” Like many of her songs, they are simultaneously passionate and dispassionate. They’re true works of art. 

Another highlight hints at the rhythmic wonders Vega would more fully explore in 99.9F°: “Neighborhood Girls.”

Few works of art, in and of themselves, upend the established order of things. They are part and parcel of a larger scene, and it’s that totality that overthrows the status quo and ushers in a new age. So, rather than share a hyperbolic claim about its importance, I’ll say that Suzanne Vega’s solo debut helped re-focus the landscape away from synth-driven dirges and ponderous power ballads and to the power inherent in quiet tunes. It, along with Solitude Standing, In My Tribe and Tracy Chapman’s debut, paved the way for the generations of folk-flavored singer-songwriters since. 

If you’ve never heard it, seek it out. And if you have? Play it again.

IMG_5179This is the last issue that I have of Record magazine. Whether this was the last issue, I do not know, though that’s my hunch – the mailing slip lists my subscription’s end date as June 1986, and I can’t imagine I would’ve tossed those issues out. (I was something of a packrat when it came to anything music-related. I still am, though less so.) Anything is possible, though.

Anyway, by the time I received this issue in the mail, I was 20; and starting my second semester at the Penn State mothership. An English major with an emphasis in Creative Writing: that was me. I was also a deejay, though I was not all that I played; as I’ve written elsewhere, I was one of the rotating hosts on the Folk Show, which aired on the student-run WPSU-FM. “Folk,” on my twice-monthly stints, had a rather broad definition, especially when in my preferred 6am-10am Saturday- or Sunday-morning slot; I played everything from stereotypical folk music (Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Holly Near) to the Fugs and even Elvis Costello circa Almost Blue. “A Good Year for the Roses,” which I discovered via a listener request, became a semi-staple for the rest of my days on the air.

Another semi-staple: Neil Young’s haunting rendition of “Home on the Range” from the Where the Buffalo Roam soundtrack.

All of which leads to Today’s Top 5: January/February 1986 via Record magazine. It’s really more of a 1985 overview…

1) Don Henley – “The Boys of Summer.” Henley, who’s back on top of the charts with his Cass County album, graces the cover of the issue, as the above picture shows; and inside is an interview conducted by Bud Scoppa, who calls him a “seasoned 38-year-old artist” in the introduction. Henley was two albums into a successful solo career after a decade-long stint with the Eagles, and flying high on the strength of the hit “Boys of Summer” from Building the Perfect Beast, which had been released the previous fall. “I’m not ashamed of having been in the Eagles,” he says in the interview. “I think we accomplished a great deal and added some pretty good music to the annals of rock ’n’ roll. Some of it was crap, and I hated some of it, but when you’re in a group, you can’t get everything you want.”

I liked the Eagles; and I liked Henley’s first solo effort, I Can’t Stand Still. Building the Perfect Beast, I thought (and still think), was slightly better – not a four- or five-star release, mind you, but enjoyable nonetheless. “Sunset Grill” and “A Month of Sundays,” for instance, are excellent. But no song of his, not even with the Eagles, is as good as the one he crafted with Mike Campbell from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: “The Boys of Summer.”

“I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head said don’t look back, you can never look back…”

IMG_51852) Bruce Springsteen – “My Hometown.” This issue includes a Critic’s Poll of the best of everything for the preceding year. Thirty-two of the magazine’s contributors put forth their picks, and the results were tallied: Henley’s “Boys of Summer” was voted the top Single of the Year; and Springsteen was voted Artist of the Year. Since releasing Born in the U.S.A. in 1984, he’d embarked on a mega-successful tour that played arenas and stadiums; to paraphrase the piece, he won over a legion of new fans while retaining the longtime faithful, who didn’t hold his newfound popularity against him. “[P]eople still believe they can expect something from Springsteen—and, in the age of diminished expectations, that’s saying something.”

A few months back, thanks to a gift certificate our friend Luanne gave me to HDTracks, I picked up (i.e., downloaded) the high-res reissue of Born in the U.S.A. Not a five-star album, but one that – like Building the Perfect Beast – has its moments, many of which were released as singles. (In fact, seven of its 12 songs became Top 10 hits.) “My Hometown,” especially, resonates with me now in a way it didn’t back then.

IMG_51893) Suzanne Vega – “Marlene on the Wall.” “A walk for New York’s updated folkie Suzanne Vega, on the strength of her melodic, poetic Suzanne Vega LP,” says the Best Debuts paragraph in the Critics Poll. I first heard Vega when I played this song on the air early one morning; a fellow Folk Show deejay recommended her at a staff meeting, I think.

The other artists singled out: Lone Justice, Guadalcanal Diary, Sade, Whitney Houston, Zeitgeist, Dwight Yoakam, Katrina and the Waves, Fishbone and Freddie jackson.

IMG_51954) Neil Young – “After Berlin.” There, on page 40, is a full-page ad for Neil Young in Berlin, an 11-song strong representation of a 1982 West Berlin concert that was due out on VHS on January 13, 1986. There’s also a review of the video, which basically laments its brevity: “[W]hat lingers is the hunger for a show with the scope Young’s career demands. Still, Young’s phenomenal guitar work (the man’s improvisation rides an arc between convulsion and exorcism) ignites incendiary versions of ‘Cinnamon Girl,’ ‘Like a Hurricane’ and ‘Hey Hey, My My,” and these, plus the side-splitting techno-ballet performed by Neil and fellow space cadet Nils Lofgren on ‘Transformer Man,’ make Berlin, at the very least, worth a rental.”

The review doesn’t mention “After Berlin.” It’s a great lost song – and, by that, I mean part of its greatness is that it was left behind, forever etched in a specific place and time. He wrote it in the afternoon, played it that night and never looked back. “Can’t go back to where I started from/the road goes on and on….”

IMG_51985) Richard Thompson – “When the Spell Is Broken.” Another Folk Show staple. Thompson, of course, came from Fairport Convention, the English folk-rock band that also introduced the world to Sandy Denny; and his work with wife Linda was widely heralded. This song leads off his 1985 Across a Crowded Room LP, which the Critics Poll lists as No. 9 on the Albums of the Year list; the album is also named “Most Overlooked.” As a whole, it’s said, it was inspired by his divorce from Linda.  This song, my favorite from the set, features barbed guitar and lyrics: “Don’t swear your heart/from the very start/love letters you wrote/get pushed back down your throat/and leave you choking/when the spell is broken.”