Saturday, May 31, 2008

1984: Smooth Operator

Sade: Smooth Operator


Songs trigger memories and this one takes me back to Felix Mitchell, Jr. In case you aren't aware of him, Mitchell was Oakland, California's first major heroin kingpin - the movies Juice and New Jack City were based on him. He was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to life in prison. Then he was shipped off to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where he was stabbed to death on August 21st 1986, a few months after his arrival, a few days before his 32nd birthday.

His body was shipped back home for funeral and burial. Television cameras rolled as Felix's body was transported in a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of East Oakland before awestruck local residents, with 17 Rolls Royces following in procession. YouTube has video of the cortege and funeral over here.

The procession began at Mitchell's home and led all the way to Star Bethel Baptist Church in West Oakland. Inside, lavish floral arrangements crowded the altar - one was a five foot dollar sign formed out of silver carnations, another was black and white roses in the shape of a smiling cat. Inside his coffin, he laid on a bed of $1000 bills. After he had been respectfully eulogized and the coffin closed, Sade's Smooth Operator played through the church PA.

Heaven help him, when he falls
Diamond life, lover boy
He move in space with minimum waste and maximum joy
City lights and business nights
When you require streetcar desire for higher heights
No place for beginners or sensitive hearts
When sentiment is left to chance
No place to be ending but somewhere to start
No need to ask
He's a smooth operator

1984: Sucker MCs (Krush Groove 1)

Run-D.M.C: Sucker M.C.s (Krush-Groove 1) [purchase]

Other than Purple Rain, I can definitively say there wasn't another new album I listened to more in 1984 than Run-D.M.C's self-titled debut. It's weird, too, because listening to it now is almost like unearthing a time capsule I'd long since forgotten about. Let me explain.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide compares Run-D.M.C. to The Beatles, but I think that's terribly misguided. If anything, Run-D.M.C. was akin to Elvis on Sun Records, long before RCA got involved, when each side of the 45 was a rhythmic apocalypse like nothing you've ever heard before. Sure, there were antecedents ... there's always antecedents ... but you knew there was something entirely new being brought to the table. You can make this claim about The Beatles, to be sure, but the Fabs were also deceptively sophisticated masters of melody, even in the beginning. Other than maybe Elvis' voice or Scotty Moore desperately aping Chet Atkins on guitar, there wasn't a whole lot of melody or sophistication in Elvis' Sun arrangements. In fact, there wasn't a whole lot of anything. For the most part, those Sun songs were minimalist efforts, carried along by balls-to-the-wall attitude.

That is precisely what hearing Run-D.M.C. was like in 1984. You had a skeletal beat, Jam Master Jay scratching, and Run and D.M.C's voices cutting like electric guitars over the top. That was it. No melody, just a full-on collision of rhythmic elements, and it was totally unique at the time. Erlewine is correct when saying that, "Prior to this, rap felt like a block party -- the beats were funky and elastic, all about the groove." The reason it felt like that is because that's exactly what rap was until Run-D.M.C. blew up the joint. Hip-hop started out as dance music, born at the block party and raised up at the disco ... the Disco Fever, to be precise. But, it entered its adolescence with the arrival of this trio from Hollis, Queens.

And that was that. By their following album, King Of Rock, the stark, minimalist philosophy had changed, or rather, self-consciously evolved. Because of Run-D.M.C.'s massive success, the group, Rick Rubin, and Russell Simmons began to openly embrace the crossover potential of the pop market. Time has proven their savvy in this regard and it was probably inevitable that rap go large at some point. Not that I'm giving in wholly to the forces of historical determinism, but c'mon, there's a reason hip-hop is a global phenomenon. Nevertheless, there is something charmingly naive about Run-D.M.C.'s debut album. Before rap proved it had national appeal, before the genre's pop crossover, long before the gangsta front, The Chronic, complete and utter mainstream co-optation and an entire generation of watered-down, video-centric, bitch/ho-wielding sucker MCs, Run-D.M.C. was one of a kind and for your people's delight. RIP Jam Master Jay.

Friday, May 30, 2008

1984: Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight

Spinal Tap: Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight


This is Spinal Tap is a truly great achievement of film, transcending its own trappings (being both a mockumentary and affiliated with Rob Reiner) to be recognized as not just an all-time great comedy, but an all-time great in and of itself. The songs that comprise the backbone of the fictional band’s celluloid glory (in the meta-world, not on their ill-fated American tour supporting Smell the Glove) deserve substantial credit for the film’s place in the canon of American pop culture.

Yet it seems that the Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest’s in-character sojourns as a real life incarnation have been filed by most of us somewhere between the Monkees (claims to legitimacy, drowned in TV-manufactured hysteria) and Hannah Montana (phenomenally popular with a specific audience, totally irrelevant to the world at large.) The best we were ever willing to offer the men who are the Tap was they wrote some pretty decent songs, for a bunch of actor/comedians. The worst was that, well… they wrote merely jokes.

But doesn’t this reveal a double standard when applied to “real” musicians and their works? The masses didn’t demand the retraction of “genius” as descriptive of the Beatles’ legacy just because of Yellow Submarine. And it’s not like anybody was clamoring for the definitive Smile because those totally killer versions of “Vega-Tables” and “Barnyard” were tearing up the internets. But to consider these pieces of bigger pictures without any respect for their ultimate contexts is unfairly and unrewardingly limiting (seriously, take iTunes off shuffle and start listening to music like a grown-up.)

It’s easy to say that the unappreciated dimension of such “novelties” as the music of Spinal Tap is that good parody reaps amusement from dedicated research and mastery of a form, but this a something of a backhanded compliment. It implies a measure of inorganic artifice, reducing the talented and capable writing and playing of Guest, McKean, Shearer and collaborators. And, hidden in such discussions of the Tap’s 1984 opus, is the suggestion that the music is good for being an imitation of bad music.

In truth, This is Spinal Tap is a fantastically sharp lesson in the history of hard rock, making comic fodder of the twin phenomena of career reinvention and revisionism, and in the process, offering a convincingly earnest homage to hallowed countrymen and the music we all love. The fictional development of Spinal Tap could have ended at Blue Cheer By playing in the periphery of reality, they put a finger to the ever-beating pulse of the genre-developing intersections of pop, rock, folk and blues. That they also managed to blur the lines of satire and tribute while generating a true touchstone of modern music and film is even more a reason for praise. Nearly three decades later, “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” is still blaring- without irony- in countless living rooms worldwide courtesy of the Guitar Hero franchise. To anyone who still thinks the music of Spinal Tap remains a novelty: “mere jokes” aren’t supposed to hold up this well.

1984: Girl Afraid

The Smiths: Girl Afraid


This is my favorite song by The Smiths. Unfortunately it's buried deep in the band’s catalog and has received little acclaim. In 1984, it appeared on the British compilation Hatful Of Hollow, but was never pushed as a single and it’s not a tune you ever hear these days.

The main thing I love about Girl Afraid is Johnny Marr’s jangly guitar. From the twangy introduction right on through the entire song, Marr’s anxiously flitting riff drives the tune like few other guitar-based pop songs. His playing is the perfect compliment to Morrissey’s simple lyrics about two nervous teens afraid to make a connection.

Like BWR said already, the Smith's music epitomizes the sound of 1984.

1984: Stir It Up

Bob Marley and the Wailers: Stir It Up


I have no idea how much, or indeed whether, reggae was a part of the normative american soundscape in the years before 1984. But I do know that after that year, one could definitively say that the sound of reggae music was and would forever be everywhere, from the huge posters above the bed of the barefoot and tie-dyed guy down the dormitory hall to the Top 40 charts.

It was all due to the musical genius of one guy. And in 1984, he had been dead for three years.

Bob Marley's greatest hits release Legend may have been just a posthumous compilation, but it was a perfect, complete set; it caught fire upon its release, bringing the sound of reggae full-bore into mass culture for the first time. Some of this was surely timing -- the album was released in May, and the songs rode up and down the charts like an elevator all summer long, moving virally and fluidly among those of us at summer camp, and catching fire in the schoolyard upon our return.

But the album was also a timely signifier of authenticity for a growing dissatisfied American underclass left out of the Yuppie movement. College students bought the album in droves. The album went platinum ten times, and set what would appear to be an unbreakable benchmark as the highest selling reggae record ever. By the time I hit high school a few years years later the dreadlocked poster was perfectly familiar; so were the chunky beats, the fat bass, and the loose, rough-hewn vocal harmonies of the Wailers coming from a summer boombox.

There are many, many great songs on this album, from love songs to to peace songs to angry calls for social justice, and you probably know all of them from the first chord: No Woman No Cry, Exodus, Three Little Birds, One Love, the original I Shot The Sherrif. But Stir It Up was the sexiest, sultriest call to action that ever graced a turntable. It said hot summer and hotter possibility in a way I'd never experienced before.

It is a joy and a rare privilege to relive this feeling, just by playing music. And it is fitting to play it today, as we turn towards June, and freedom.

1984: Marching On

The Alarm: Marching On


In 1984 there were a lot of bands who were trying to be relevant and even spiritual. Big arena sounds were everywhere, with big voices, and overly dramatic lyrical content. To some degree Big Country fell into this category, Simple Minds did it quite well for a while, but The Alarm probably took it to a level that none of those other bands had even considered. Their lyrics are embarrassingly self-conscious, and their sound is big and lusty.

The Alarm's initial full-length release, Declaration (1984), was worth owning at the time, and I still enjoy it today in the same way that I enjoy watching old movies or looking through yearbooks. The featured track is sort of like The Alarm's answer to The Times They Are a' Changin', with calls to the adult world to get ready for the inevitable march of the youth that will change their values and hold them accountable for their crimes.

The weirdest thing about this album for me is that I listened to it 20-30 times over the course of a week in 1985 while I was home from school with bronchitis. I ate a lot of string cheese that week for some reason. Now I literally never hear a note from this record without thinking of string cheese. Go figure.

1984: Julian Cope

Julian Cope: Lunatic And Fire Pistol


Before he was St. Julian, Droolian, The Arch Druid, or Julian H. Cope, he was just plain ol' Julian David Cope - bassist, vocalist, and primary songwriter for The Teardrop Explodes. After four years and two albums, that group, er... I don't want to say "exploded"... maybe imploded? Anyhum, Julian embarked solo in 1984, releasing a pair of albums. First up was World Shut Your Mouth:

"What is there to say about this absolutely classic album? Cope's first solo release following the implosion of The Teardrop Explodes, some of these songs had been intended for the Teardrop's third album. A rethink, a relocation back home to Tamworth and a customised Casio lead to this more pop/rock/psychedelic sound and an instant classic... If you haven't already heard this, I really envy you." - From Spinster Rock

Julian Cope: Reynard The Fox


Julian's second release of 1984 was the aptly titled Fried. Again, from Spinster Rock:

"May 1984
FRIED is recorded in Cambridge. Cope finds a turtle shell in a junk shop and tests the acoustics. Producer Steve Lovell develops a Brian Wilson complex. He moves his bed into the studio and tries to gain weight. The LP seems to reflect the state of mind of everyone involved.

October 1984
Cope and Dorian get married in Long Island, NY. They arrive in separate 1959 Cadillacs for a long Greek Orthodox service. FRIED is released to a much warmer reception than WORLD SHUT YOUR MOUTH, but disappears nonetheless.

February 1985
The "Sunspots" 45 is released but Cope finds it hard to be taken seriously by Mercury. The turtle shell is considered far too gauche by the executives. A hit is lost.

March 1985
Cope returns to seclusion in Tamworth. He retires into a closed world. Cope records much of what eventually will become the SKELLINGTON LP with Donald Ross Skinner and brother Joss. His manager hates it; "too fried" he says, so Cope sulks."

For the record, I'd never heard of Julian Cope at the time of these releases. Over about the past decade, though, he's developed into one of my favorites. When I did first heard him was 1987, when the single "World Shut Your Mouth", from the Saint Julian album was released. Here's the video for that.


Julian Cope Presents Head Heritage. Straight from the man, himself.
Spinster Rock - a wonderful blog, with much Julian Cope (and related/ similar) information.

1984: Streams Of Whiskey

"When the world is too dark, and I need the light inside of me, I´ll walk into a bar, and drink fifteen pints of beer..." Now that´s the spirit. 1984 was the year an English/Irish mob called The Pogues unleashed its exciting mix of traditional Irish folk and punk on the world, spawning a lot of mostly second-rate imitators in the process. Their best work was yet to come - take next year´s Rum Sodomy & The Lash for instance - but Red Roses For Me remains a fine debut. Shane McGowan shines on vocals and proves himself a highly original lyricist within a mostly Irish literary tradition. It´s not accidental that he evokes the ghost of the great Brendan Behan, self-proclaimed Irish ´drinker with a writing problem´, in the first verse of Streams Of Whiskey. The Pogues have often been accused of not being ´authentically Irish´, but that´s utter shite of course. From the years I´ve lived on the Emerald Isle, I remember that nearly everybody loved The Pogues there. And hated Bono, but that´s a whole different ballgame.

1984: Half A Boy And Half A Man

Nick Lowe: Half A Boy And Half A Man


I love Half A Boy Half A Man for two reasons: the cheezy vox organ and the especially wry lyrics, Nick's knife is sharper than usual. The rest of Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit isn't that strong, but it features the backing of perhaps Nick's best road band - Martin Belmont and Billy Bremner on guitars with the excellent Paul Carrack on keyboard and backing vocals.

If you dig Nick Lowe, you should check out my three part retrospective of the Basher's career:

lowe profile

nutted by reality

in the nick of time

Half a boy and half a man - I'm still looking for that other half, myself.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

1984: Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?

Lloyd Cole & The Commotions Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken? [purchase]

Camera Obscura: Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken [purchase]

A theme we might do around here someday is Answer Songs (you know, songs that respond to other songs). In which case I’ve jumped the gun with this post. Oh well.

Way back in 1984, Scotsman Englishman Lloyd Cole and his Scottish band, The Commotions, put out a pretty cool record in which they asked the musical question: “Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?” It was one of my favorite records of the year and it still sounds good now. Twenty-Two years later, fellow Scottish band Camera Obscura finally answered the question with their tune “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken.” This might be the longest time ever between the original song and its answer.

1984: In The Ghetto

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: In The Ghetto

In 1984 Nick Cave started his post-Birthday Party career. Surrounding himself with some Bad Seeds, he released the From Her To Eternity album, followed soon by the In The Ghetto single. I liked both a lot when they came out, but when I played the album recently after a years long hiatus I found it hadn´t aged really well. Blixa Bargeld´s original guitarwork still rings a bell, but Cave´s lyrical and vocal mannerisms simply don´t do it for me anymore. In The Ghetto remains one of my fave Cave performances however. Saint Nick is in great voice and - surprisingly - doesn´t stray that far from the Elvis original.

1984: Trail Of Tears

Guadalcanal Diary: Trail Of Tears


1984 was the year I first heard Jangle Pop. According to AMG, "Jangle Pop was an American post-punk movement of the mid-'80s that marked a return to the chiming guitars and pop melodies of the '60s." That was a perfect recipe for me at the time and I still like it.

One of the best examples of Jangle Pop was Guadalcanal Diary from Marietta, Georgia. This song was one of their bigger "hits." Unfortunately, they faded into obscurity.

1984: Once In A Lifetime

Talking Heads: Once In A Lifetime


I was not a Talking Heads fan in 1984. I saw the Burning Down The House video on MTV at some point and immediately concluded that they sucked. It was in about 1990 that my then-girlfriend, now-wife, re-introduced me to them. I'm glad she did. They really have some cool albums, and overall they were a great band (although I still don't care for Burning Down The House).

This song, Once In A Lifetime (from the 1984 live album, Stop Making Sense), is especially good. I like the quirky vocal cadence and the mid-life suburban existential angst represented in the lyrics. As midlife has crept up on me, I have often looked around at my life and said, "Well... How did I get here?" and "This is not my beautiful house!".

As the years have passed, I have become increasingly anti-music-video, to the point that I refuse to watch them nowadays. However, for this song I make an exception. This is one of the very few songs that is almost incomplete without the video. Byrne seems to be churned through a production line of some sort, controlled like a puppet, and reproduced over and over. He seems to be a widget in the suburban industrial machine.  But there's something human there too. Check it out here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

1984: A Sort of Homecoming

U2: A Sort Of Homecoming


To my knowledge no one has broached the topic of U2 yet on this blog, and I'm a little hesitant to be the one to do it.

Here's the deal: To appreciate any art, music included, it's important to remember the time-context in which the piece was produced. Sgt. Pepper released in 2008 might be a pretty cool album, but the same album released in 1967 was landscape-changing. The Ramones' initial release would sound simple and over-done now, but in 1976 it was an oasis in a desert (or so I'm told -- I was only nine).

With that in mind, I think it's very difficult at this point in history to see U2, the band, the way they were in 1984 when we are so accustomed to seeing U2 the band, the ego, and the political/media machine as they are now.

I know all too well what they have become. I have watched them as their musical chops have diminished even as their egos and their popularity have, paradoxically, exploded. They are not a great band anymore, at least not in my opinion. They are really not even a good band any more. But, c'mon -- to talk about 1984 without talking about U2 would be ridiculous. They were definitely a great band back then.

I think you have to be at least my age, or close to it, to remember U2 before they had "greatest band in the world" status. They were never a punk band, as they laughably claim now, but they were incredibly unique, powerful, and at times even moving. I saw them on their Unforgettable Fire tour in San Francisco in 1985. They played on a small stage that was completely devoid of giant lemons and shopping carts. They all wore t-shirts and jeans. If I remember correctly the tickets were $9. And they played to the crowd more than any band I had ever seen.

So, close your eyes and see if you can block out all of the images (and sounds) of the last 10-20 years and hear the music of U2 when the music was good, and when the music was still what it was about.

1984: If I Had A Rocket Launcher

Bruce Cockburn: If I Had A Rocket Launcher


Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn had been around for a few years, but he made the musical "map" in 1984 after a fact-finding trip to Central America with OXFAM left him reeling with the horror of the death and destruction the Reagan Administration's leadership in the area had brought upon the people. Being a musician steeped in the political folk tradition, instead of coming back and picketing or merely hanging his head in despair, Cockburn turned his anger to social justice through song, heading into the studio in a storm.

The resulting album, Stealing Fire, was both an expression of frustration and a call to action. Taken as a set, the songs of Stealing Fire were so antithetical to the values of the Reagan administration that the album put Bruce Cockburn under suspicion as a sympathiser to the Nicaraguan Contras, and his visa was taken away. Nonetheless, Cockburn's music traveled where he could not. And the fire he fueled made him a star.

I like many of the songs on Stealing Fire; Lovers in a Dangerous Time, especially, is a perfect ode to nervous love amidst the ruins. But if Stealing Fire is folk rock at its political best, If I Had A Rocket Launcher is its angriest outlet, a direct response to Cockburn's visit to a refugee camp which had been recently attacked by the US-backed Guatemalan Army. It was a pretty big hit on MTV, and, though I was only eleven, I remember the song leaving me with a sense that maybe, just maybe, all was not right with the world after all.

Afterthought, and bonus version: I put Cockburn away for a long time after the late eighties; his more recent preference for moody plugged-in soundscapes is great stuff, but it is often too pop-produced for my taste. But a few years ago I discovered this bittersweet live acoustic version, from a 1990 radio session, and it renewed my interest in the song.

Without the crashing eighties production of the original, the stripped down Rocket Launcher delivers such an incredible pain, such a potent cry of impotence, it stands as ageless. And that's good, because we still need such a cry, I think. For if anything, in a world where torture still happens in our name, we are even less empowered to do anything about it than we were when Cockburn wrote this magnum opus.

Bruce Cockburn: If I Had A Rocket Launcher (live acoustic version)

1984: Thumbelina

The Pretenders: Thumbelina


If you remove the incredibly lame track "Watching The Clothes", The Pretenders' third album, Learning To Crawl, is just about perfect. Rush Limbaugh theme songs notwithstanding, the album has really stood the test of time.

The featured track is Thumbelina, which is one of my favorites. Chrissy and her little daughter are flying west, down the highway.

"The Oklahoma sunrise becomes the Amarillo dawn."

1984: Magic Toy Missing


The Meat Puppets: Magic Toy Missing

By 1984, the Kirkwood brothers had grown tired of screams and white noise. Experimenting with country licks and psychedelic sounds, their 2nd album was a serious departure, but instrumental in the foundation of cowpunk. Nine years later, Nirvana granted Meat Puppets II legendary status, covering THREE of these great numbers.

Every time this album pops up, I can't get enough of it. The instrumentals really tear.

1984: I Had A Dream


The Long Ryders: I Had A Dream

The Long Ryders proudly wore their influences on their sleeve. 1984's Native Sons LP helped bridge the gap between The Byrds/Burritos and Uncle Tupelo and the cover photograph is actually an homage to Buffalo Springfield's unissued Stampede album (jpg). Includes a great cover track on Mel Tillis' Sweet Mental Revenge, an early cowpunk number in its own right. Also, Gene Clark sings on Ivory Tower, and that's saying a lot.

I've always thought the Ryders were conspicuously absent from fellow Starmaker Paul's Jangly Eighties series (highly recommended for further investigation of this genre). When queried, Paul had this to say about them:

"I vaguely recall that they did a beer commercial or something that turned me off...I was militantly anti-sellout back in those days!"
Awesome! But, unfortunately for the Long Ryders, Paul wasn't alone in that sentiment. The Miller beer commercial was the beginning of the end.

1984: Harborcoat

R.E.M.: Harborcoat


Really it’s amazing that it took so long for REM to break through and become the super-group that they are now. They were an amazing young band, they were played on college radio constantly, they received breathless critical acclaim from everyone who counted, and MTV (which was only loosely mainstream at the time) gave them considerable screen time. However, as hard as it is to imagine now, REM really was an “underground” band all the way until the release of Document in 1987.

Reckoning, released in 1984, has always been one of my favorite, if not my very favorite, REM albums. There’s still so much youth and energy here. There isn’t a hint of glossy production or pop-sensibility. With Reckoning you’re still listening to a hungry young band, with a very unique sound for their time, unapologetically bucking the New Wave and the Metal conventions that were ubiquitous on mainstream radio.

What does this album sound like? It sounds like REM!

The whole album is great, so I’m just posting track one, Harborcoat.  And as a bonus, here’s a really cool Live version of track two, 7 Chinese Brothers, where Micheal Stipe dedicates the song to a man who broke his leg at the concert, went to the hospital, then came back to the concert! Now that's fan devotion!

1984: 1984-Big Brother

David Bowie: 1984-Big Brother


I'm having a bit of trouble with this weeks theme, to give the Bob's Honest Truth.

Aside from my general antipathy towards revisiting a so-called 'formative' musical decade, which I believe to be - with exceptions, of course - one of the most vaccuous and disposable, there is a second reason for having trouble: Most the stuff I do have preserved from then is on cassette tapes. I don't have any stereo hooked up for inputting that stuff to hard-drive right now. There's this giant box of relevant music just a few feet away from me... frozen, as if decades away...

So I'm going a decade back from the theme-year for this post.

David Bowie released Diamond Dogs (a loose take on the Orwell story) in 1974. The song I've posted, though, is the Sound+Vision box set version. It runs tracks #9 and #10 (#3 & #4 from side two, if you are listening to vinyl) of Diamond Dogs into one.

C'mon, you know I bought that box set over and over and over and over. You know I'm going to post from it when I can!


1984: Pretty Persuasion

R.E.M.: Pretty Persuasion


There's a theory that your favorite album by an artist is usually the first one you bought. The first album is the one that, by default, defines the band for you and sets the standard for their sound in your mind. For the most part that has been true for me. The first R.E.M. album I ever bought was 1984’s Reckoning, and it remains my go to R.E.M. album today. All these years later I still love Buck’s layered Rickenbacker guitar sound and Stipe’s mumbly singing (which stuck out in 1984 a lot more than it does now).

I suspect, however, that what I like best about Reckoning is the feeling that it evokes in my mind of Autumn in Ann Arbor during my first semester away from home at college, chasing after beers and girls (but mostly ending up with great new music like this).

1984: The Reflex

Duran Duran: The Reflex


I'm not really a fan of Duran Duran. First off, a cheesy name taken from a character from an even more cheesy film. I always got the impression they were David Bowie fans before they were musicians, which explained the weak chops in the first few albums. While giving an interview about how important a musician's performance in the recording studio was to the end product, Nick Lowe said, "I always say that the first rule is that there are no rules, and I wish more people would be aware of that. But if there was a rule it would be this - you can’t shine shit." He went on to say that nowadays, with an Eventide Harmonizer, you can. But even all the pitch correctors in the world couldn't get poor ol' Simon Le Bon on-key during Rio's, "I tell you something, I know what you're thinking... ". To this day, it truly causes me to cringe, it's just ever-so off-key to confound my ears.

Now, it sounds like I hate Duran Duran, but au contraire, dear reader. Girl's On Film is a nifty dance tune, it actually gets my toes tappin'. The same goes for Hungry Like The Wolf, white-boys-get-funky. And being the visually orientated/fashion-savvy act that they were, they had totally groovy videos - way hot nakid gurl-on-gurl action, even! Back in 1984, you took your porn whenever you could get it.

After that, they pretty much fell off the map for me, though they had much product out, they blended-in with the rest of MTV's rotation. But of late, I see I hadn't applied the "but the little girls understand" principle to the band. A few years ago, some female friends of mine were all agog over their latest ticket score - front row for Duran Duran! I reminded them it wasn't even near the classic version of the band and they couldn't care less. For a few hours, they would be transported back to high school, when the pressing need of the day was wondering if the lyrics of The Reflex were about erections or drug abuse. The bad thing about this - it's causing me to reassess Kajagoogoo. Something is so very wrong about that.

1984: Radio Ga Ga

Queen: Radio Ga Ga


Though not one of their best known songs, Radio Ga Ga was still one of the most often played on my first Queen collection. Released on their album The Works, it's kind of the sequel to "Video Killed the Radio Star," but has more staying power. Speaking of videos, this was always one of Queen's best elements and the music video for this, incorporating scenes from Metropolis, is worth watching. Check it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

1984: Broken Home, Broken Heart

Hüsker Dü: Broken Home, Broken Heart

To me the musical year of 1984 means three great albums, and not a whole lot more. Double Nickels On The Dime, Let It Be (both already covered here) and of course that incredible aural trip called Zen Arcade. A revolutionary double concept album, filled with experimental hardcore popsongs? You´ve got it. Some astonishing figures: Zen Arcade was recorded with SST Records home producer Spot at the controls for $3,200. From the 25 tracks taped by the Minneapolis trio (23 of them made it to the eventual album), 21 were first takes. Total recording time: 45 hours in all, with an added 40 hours of mixing. I recall feeling totally bowled over and nearly out of breath when I heard Zen Arcade for the first time back then, and when I listen to it today the result is still more or less the same. Hats of for the Hüskers, three young punks bravely sailing into uncharted waters in that Orwellian year of 1984.

1984: Favorite Thing

The Replacements: Favorite Thing


In '84, I had just finished the eigth grade and was looking forward to high school... As with every summer between 1982 and 1988, I spent a week in Minneapolis, staying with my brother. I'd get to see what living in a cool place was like (as opposed to the hick-ville town I was growing up in.) Each summer he'd choose a week for me to visit when there was a good concert to go see. The summer of 1984 was a two-fer, seeing Rush on the Grace Under Pressure tour and the opening show of the Born In The USA tour by The Boss.

Actually, I'd seen Bruce Springsteen one other time before the opening date... the day before! The close-ups for the "Dancing In The Dark" video (featuring Courtney Cox; directed by Brian DiPalma) were filmed at the St. Paul Civic Center that day. Seventeen takes. The next night, during the show, they filmed it an additional two times. And if you know when to look, and don't blink, you can see me all blurry for about 1/2 a second a couple of times. Whoo!
After the filming was done, Bruce and the band played a mini-set for about an hour. There were only about 150 of us extras there, and it was (do I even need to say it?) amazing!

So why am I not featuring a track from Born In The USA? Well, I only have a cassette copy (an autographed cassette copy, mind you), with no easy way to get it to my hard drive right now. So I'm going with a tune from another great album from that year. Let It Be may not have sold a bazillion copies, and launched The Replacements into the Stratosphere, but dammit! it should have.

1984: The Paris Match

The Style Council: The Paris Match


Earlier I wrote that anyone familiar with The Jam was shocked, but mostly pleased, to hear Paul Weller's new sound when he formed The Style Council. Well the featured track is the best illustration of this point that I'm aware of. With vocals by Tracey Thorn, of Everything But The Girl fame, The Paris Match is a slow, jazzy, torch song. Gone were the days of angry punk posturing, and a new era had begun.

The protagonist in the featured track is literally searching the streets and bars for her lost love, but in the end resigns herself to the loss.

I'm only sad in a natural way
And I enjoy sometimes feeling this way
The gift you gave is desire
The match that started my fire

Monday, May 26, 2008

1984: Texas Blues

Bill Morrissey: Texas Blues


The NYC folk revival was an underground hothouse of confessional acoustic music in 1984; many artists felt ready for major label attention, but recording equipment was prohibitively expensive, and demos were hard to come by. In support of this phenomenon, The Songwriter Collective, a long-standing Greenwich Village coffeehouse and songwriter's performing space, started recording and releasing compilation albums of their singer-songwriters once a month as an audio magazine. They called it Fast Folk, and it quickly became the breeding ground and first recording source for a whole new generation of singer-songwriters.

In its fifteen year run, Fast Folk spawned and sustained a comprehensive revival of folk music in America. Some star players who first recorded for Fast Folk -- Tracy Chapman, Lyle Lovett, Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin among them -- would go on to win broad recognition in a folkpop world to come. Others became staples of the coffeehouse and folk festival scene, revitalizing the folk scene for a new community of fans, and providing new blood to replace or replenish the aging folkstars of the sixties and seventies.

One of the first artists from this group to press their own wax, Bill Morrissey was an elder statesman of sorts, his sound a throwback to something older and wiser. Equal parts Mississippi John Hurt, early Hank Williams country, and pure New York/New England folk, he never rose as far as some of his peers. But he remains a respected coffeehouse performer and songwriter whose songs still get covered by new generations of folk musicians.

In his signature strangled tenor, this song is just the most lonesome thing ever. Here's a bonus cover of the same song, done a decade later by another Fast Folk alumni and one of my absolute favorite sweet-voiced women of folk, which comes pretty close.

Lucy Kaplansky: Texas Blues [purchase]

Bonus: Here's a closer look at Bill Morrissey's connection with Mississippi John Hurt, with a few more cover tracks to boot -- including a second cover from Cover Lay Down favorite Lucy Kaplansky.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

1984: What Difference Does It Make

The Smiths: What Difference Does It Make


At some point in the winter of 1984 I was at a friend's house listening to KFSR, the Fresno, California independent radio station, when all of a sudden I heard something that I had never heard before. It was an alienated, angst-ridden, almost-moaning, complaint of a croon. I hadn't paid enough attention to catch who it was that I was listening to so I called the DJ and asked. "It's The Smiths", he said. "We just got it a few weeks ago".

The next day, a different friend and I ditched school (which is something I do not condone, for all of you young readers out there) to stop by Tower Records and pick up The Smiths' eponymous debut album.

This band, with only a handful of others, epitomizes the sound of 1984 for me.

1984: Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?

(Minutemen playing in my hometown - Huntington Beach, CA)

Minutemen: Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth? [purchase]

I wasn't gonna come back to The Minutemen so soon ... really, I promise ... but 1984 just happens to be the year they released their magnum punkrockus opus, Double Nickels On The Dime. So, as you can see, my hands were tied. The one provision I placed on my post was that it somehow pertain to the events in and around 1984. "West Germany" was in the running, but thematically speaking, it was a little too similar to the just-posted "Viet Nam." Thus, "New Wave," a D. Boon/Mike Watt beat-jazz spiel about as far away from new wave as one could get in 1984 and not be a Run-DMC song. "New Wave," of course, was the music industry's attempt to make "punk" music more marketable ... i.e. turn it into pop music ... which Watt's lyrics scornfully address. Spike and/or tease hair, add skinny tie, replace guitar with synthesizer (or better yet, get a synth shaped like a guitar!), lather, rinse, repeat.

Speaking of the beats, Minutemen fans should check out this essay written by Charles Plymell, 1950s beat poet, one-time housemate of Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, and apparently, a bigtime Minutemen fan. Good stuff.

a word war
i set off the keg
my words are war!
should a word have two meanings?
what the fuck for?
should words serve the truth?
i stand for language
i speak for truth
i shout for history
i am a cesspool
for all the shit
to run down in

D. Boon is dead. Long live D. Boon.

1984: Baby I'm A Star

Prince: Baby I'm A Star


1984 was the year Prince broke it open and assured himself icon status in American Pop culture. From the vantage point of 2008, it's hard to believe there was a time when Prince was considered verboten by mainstream audiences, so much so that in 1981, he was booed offstage while opening for the Rolling Stones. It was a much different Pop landscape in those days. Arena Rock was flourishing, fueled by a rotisserie of the same twenty songs shoved down a dulled-down public's ears by AOR Radio. That meant hearing a non-stop drone of Toto, Boston, REO Speedwagon, Kansas, Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Van Halen, etc. for ad infinitum. In 1981, Prince was touring to promote Controversy, an album that had songs like Jack U Off and the title cut, where Prince ponders whether he's "straight or gay". That didn't go over well with the suburban, testosterone-driven, lighter-waving, twenty-something crowd that made up the audience. On October 11th of that year, he opened for The Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Coliseum. While onstage, wearing his underwear and a trench coat, he was pelted with garbage and booed off to an early ending.

"Don’t say that was because of me, that was the audience doing that. I’m sure wearing underwear and a trench coat didn't help matters - but if you throw trash at anybody, it’s because you weren't trained right at home." - Prince

"It was Mark Brown's second show with us. Here's this 18-year-old kid who looks like a deer in the headlights, in front of 110,000 people at the L.A. Coliseum. Prince was in his full 'Dirty Mind' regalia with the bikini and trench coat. Halfway through the set, those natives got restless. They started taking their Coke cups and throwing them onstage. I look around, and Prince is gone. So I signaled to the rest of the guys: Let's do likewise. Then more stuff got thrown. That audience brought stuff to throw. Someone threw a fifth of Jack Daniels that barely missed Prince's head during the first measure of the first song. A gallon jug of orange juice exploded on Mark's bass. I'd point at people and smile and wave. When all was said and done, we got through the set. Going through that added to Prince's bravado." - Dez Dickerson

"I talked to Prince on the phone once after he got two cans thrown at him in L.A. He said he didn't want to do any more shows. God, I got thousands of bottles and cans thrown at me. Every kind of debris. I told him, if you get to be a really big headliner, you have to be prepared for people to throw bottles at you in the night. Prepared to die!"- Mick Jagger

He was booed right after Jack U Off, you can hear it for yourself. Here's the five-song October 11th show in a zip file.

Then came 1982, the year Michael Jackson released the landmark Thriller, which had the single Beat It. In an attempt to crossover into AOR playlists, Eddie Van Halen was brought in to play one of his patented edgy tapping guitar solos. Jackson's people were going public with charges of racism, so AOR stations added Beat It to their playlists and the song rose up Billboard's Rock Tracks chart. The other big event of that year - Prince came back with a vengeance and released the masterful 1999, his breakthrough album. But he wasn't done and in 1984, topped himself with Purple Rain, which was also tied-in with a film that nearly earned $100 million USD at the box office. He ran the stylistic floor, melding genres such as Funk, R&B, Pop, Rock and Heavy Metal.

1984 marked the time Prince went from barrier-busting artist to the Pop icon status he still claims to this day. Find a copy of Purple Rain, sit down for a good listen and be transported back to a much simpler time when Yakov Smirnoff was considered funny and cable only had 32 channels. It was also the year when Charlie Murphy was schooled by His Royal Badness in B-Ball.

1984: Somebody's Watching Me

Rockwell: Somebody's Watching Me

[purchase if you dare]

On the surface, this song is a total earworm, a "wonder why it hit" by a one hit wonder, a tongue in cheek analysis of paranoia in a Big Brother society - it is 1984, after all - set to the machinebeat crash of early MTV-style R&B.

It's the backstory that makes it worth posting.

See, Kennedy Gordy's daddy is Berry Gordy, Jr., the CEO of Motown Records; Ken wants to make records for his daddy's company, but he doesn't want daddy to know, so he renames himself Rockwell, signs on to Motown, and makes...Somebody's Watching Me, a record focused around an inane title-cut single that for some reason my eleven year old self thought worthy of owning on vinyl. Hard to believe that this was what hit records sounded like, once upon a time.

The song made #1 on the R&B charts, in part because of its visual companion piece: a cheesy "dorky guy meets ghostbusters" video which seemed to have been filmed on the set of a Halloween episode of some suburban sitcom. But in the end, it's all we have to remember: once Daddy found out, Rockwell charted low with one other novelty record (Obscene Phone Caller), recorded a second album that fell like a lead balloon, washed out of the industry. I'd say that's all she wrote, but there appear to be some fans out there, if the Amazon ratings for the album are any judge.

Bonus points because that's Michael and Jermaine Jackson on backup vocals, though. And bonus BONUS points: Somebody's Watching Me was featured in the pilot episode of Miami Vice. This may be as eighties as it gets.