Posts Tagged ‘Pretenders’

Typically, ‘round here, this time of year becomes a bacchanal of music and memories I’ve come to dub “Remember December.” There’s rhyme, reason, Christmas music and good cheer, plus best-of lists, recaps, frankincense and myrrh, not to mention a countdown of my most popular posts of the past 12 months. I jumpstarted the best-of fun in late November, of course, so there’ll be a little less of that – and no Concerts of the Year countdown – but there are plenty of other knick-knacks to stuff in the stocking. That fun begins next week. Today, however, it’s my stream-of-conscious musings about matters large and small, while tomorrow I plan to share my thoughts on the Neil Young Archives website and Neil’s mammoth Archives II set.

Anyway, this morning – as most Saturdays – I found myself in a line of cars waiting for curbside pickup at a grocery store while soaking my soul in the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. No, not his Letter to You album, though it could well have been, but an archival delight I downloaded from his Live Downloads store last year: Their 1988 concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. I began listening to it again a few weeks back – and, wow. Just wow. It’s an excellent show that features many songs from the Tunnel of Love LP, though only a handful of pre-River classics. There’s no “Badlands,” no “Promised Land,” no “Thunder Road.” “Backstreets” is present. “Born to Run” is, too, though in a slowed-down acoustic arrangement. There’s also this:

Depending upon one’s age and musical inclinations, you may or may not enjoy it. Me? I can’t get enough. Which leads to this: When the history of these times are written, what will be said? That I momentarily unfollowed someone on Twitter because she described Springsteen’s songs as “either boring or bellowing” and followed that with “I don’t care for his music”? Of course not. But, no doubt, scholars will note an uptick in such petty reactions (as mine was) to what, pre-pandemic, were minor annoyances generally ignored. Daily stresses cause that.

Joss Stone’s new single, “Walk With Me,” is a good way to relieve that tension. It’s quickly become one of my favorite songs of the year.

Of course, one reason for the overreaction to little things is that the big things, by and large, are beyond our control – the pandemic and politics. On the latter front, despite his Supreme Court loss, the tinpot despot’s nefarious plot to upend the U.S. election isn’t over yet. Now he’ll be pushing a slew of congressional prostitutes to screw the U.S. Constitution on January 6th, when Congress is scheduled to accept the Electoral College results. Their fealty to democracy is less than their fealty to cash – or, in this case, most likely the promise of cash from his new Save America PAC. (FYI: As the contractors who helped build his Atlantic City casinos discovered, he rarely pays out.)

Breath deep. Exhale. That’s what I tell myself, at any rate. And lose yourself in such cool performances as this one from Jillette Johnson. It builds and builds, but never explodes – a Mazzy Star-like rendition, if that makes sense. It’s hypnotic.

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 Wee Three. 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. 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 that played out on most of the other Warner Cable-owned channels: I Want My MTV!

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. But in the beginning, “have video, get played” may as well have been its mantra. 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…

Thirty-five years ago today was a Friday and, although a winter’s day, calm and not too frigid in the Delaware Valley. The daytime high soared to 55 degrees (Fahrenheit) before dipping to 26 at night.

The New York Time’s summary of that day’s edition can be found here. A big pop-culture story unfolded after the issue was put to bed, however: While filming a Pepsi commercial that afternoon in L.A., Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire. What else? I recapped February ’84 (via Record Magazine) a few years back, so won’t go too in depth into the economic concerns of the era beyond to say that the early ’80s/Reagan Recession was beginning to ebb.

Beyond that: Cold War worries also kept some folks up at night – as did bad TV. And NBC, in a masterful stroke of programming, married the two in the wretched World War III miniseries, which aired on January 31st and February 1st:

A more major media milestone occurred on Jan. 22, 1984 during Super Bowl XVIII, which saw the L.A. Raiders trounce the Washington squad 38-9. No, not the game, but the debut of Apple’s famous “1984” commercial for the Macintosh personal computer.

The following day, Jan 23rd, another historic event occurred: the Iron Sheik, who’d thumped Bob Backlund for the WWF championship the previous month, lost the coveted title to Hulk Hogan at Madison Square Garden. It was the first step in Vince McMahon’s masterful plan to take the WWF national.

On the personal front: I was 18, attending Penn State’s Ogontz campus in Abington, and working part-time as an usher at the Hatboro Theater, a single-screen movie house that was destined to be demolished by summer’s end. Early in the month, I scored a temporary gig working inventory at the A&S department store in the Willow Grove Park Mall, and that extra cash helped fuel a month-long shopping spree – according to my Doonesbury-themed desk calendar, I picked up 15 albums and one single over the course of those 31 days. Most were purchased at Memory Lane Records, a used-record store in Horsham where the platters were plentiful and prices cheap, but two relatively new releases came either from the Hatboro Music Shop or the Listening Booth at the mall: the Pretenders’ Learning to Crawl and Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man.

As evidenced by the picture, I was knee-deep into all things Crosby, Stills & Nash this month. In other words, I was out of step with the mainstream pop world – and not for the first or last time.

Here’s the Top 10 for the week ending on the 28th via Weekly Top 40:

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: January 27th, 1984 (via Weekly Top 40)…Further Down the Charts. 

1) John Mellencamp – “Pink Houses.” At No. 12 is this classic populist ode from the Heartland rocker – still one of the greatest such songs.

2) Van Halen – “Jump.” There’s no denying the utter joy of this single and its synth-driven riff, even if it was inspired by a man who was threatening to leap from the ledge of a downtown L.A. building. (“Go ahead and jump” was what Roth imagined people were yelling at him.) The group’s first and only No. 1 single was on its way to the top of the pop chart, rising in one fell swoop from No. 34 to No. 20.

3) The Pretenders – “Middle of the Road.” It’s no surprise that Learning to Crawl was one of the two new LPs I picked up this month. I’d argue that it encapsulates rock’s past, present and future in its four minutes and 15 seconds, but I’m sure others would disagree. Anyway, this week it edges up to No. 21 from No. 25. 

4) Nena – “99 Luftbalons.” The success of this song in both its German- and English-language incarnations speaks as much to the Cold War concerns of the era as to its catchy beat. On its way to No. 2, this week it floats to No. 22.

5) The Motels – “Remember the Nights.” Martha Davis & Co. never quite caught on as much as it seemed they might, but they did release a handful of classic tracks. This, the third single from their 1983 album Little Robbers, clocks in at No. 36. 

And two bonuses…

6) Irene Cara – “The Dream.” The theme song from D.C. Cab inches up to No. 39 from No. 41. It follows the “Flashdance…What a Feeling” blueprint – though it doesn’t capture the same euphoria, it’s still a fun listen.

7) John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band – “Tender Years.” So the Eddie & the Cruisers movie was based on a best-selling book, and Cafferty & Co. were tapped to provide the soundtrack. The classic E Street Band sound rankled the critics… but also scored them some hits. This week, “Tender Years” debuts at No. 94. It would eventually stall at No. 78 before being re-issued in the fall, when it made its way to No. 31. Here they are on Solid Gold 

In the late 1990s, just like every other driver, I was dependent on CDs or the radio for my in-car entertainment; and, given that my daily commute to and from the office was a mere 10-15 minutes, that meant the radio more often than not. In no specific order save for the last, stations in my rotation at the time included KYW-1060, Philly’s all-news station, which I listened to for the weather; WIP, a sports-talk station; WXPN, which featured (and still features) the “adult album alternative” music format; WMGK, a “classic hits” station that leaned heavily on the ‘70s; and WOGL, which programmed more traditional oldies.

In those days, I should mention, my company gave us an hour paid lunch. That meant that I zoomed home at noon and, fifty minutes later, zoomed back. It was great. And while the specific year of the sun-soaked spring day that I’m remembering has been lost in my memory banks, in a sense it doesn’t matter. What does is this: On the way back to work from lunch, I tuned to WOGL only to hear the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” saunter from the speakers like a wisecracking diner waitress.

“Brass in Pocket” was an oldie?! If not for the fact that I was stopped at a red light, I would’ve driven off the road. The oldies in my mind then and now basically equate to the songs Michael St. John played on his Saturday night oldies show on WPEN-AM in the late 1970s – a musical milieu of pop, rock and doo-wop from the 1950s and early/mid-1960s. They weren’t the songs of my youth.

But, of course, by the late ‘90s they were becoming just that.

So, for today’s Top 5: Oldies, but Goodies (aka, Singles I Purchased in 1977, ’78 & ’79)… in the order that I bought them. I think. (Not all were “oldies” at the time, but those that weren’t definitely are now.)

1)  Jan & Dean – “Sidewalk Surfin’.”

2) Dion – “The Wanderer.”

3) The Zombies – “She’s Not There”

4) Carly Simon – “You’re So Vain.”

5) Al Stewart – “Song on the Radio.”

And one bonus:

6) Eddie Cochran – “Twenty Flight Rock.”

Okay, a second bonus…this one from 1981.

7) The Go-Go’s – “Our Lips Are Sealed.”