Saturday, February 14, 2015

Jukebox: (You Can Still) Rock in America

Night Ranger--(You Can Still) Rock in America 
Purchase: Midnight Madness 

NightRanger—I’m not going to claim I know much about them, save for a little trivia (their guitarist, Brad Gillis, was one of OzzyOsborne’s ever-changing stable of guitar heroes; singer Jack Blades went on to form Damn Yankees with Ted Nugent, which made for a large part of the soundtrack that haunted all the frat parties I went to freshman year down in Carolina—Damn Yankees were huge in NC in the early ‘90s and I don’t have much else to say about that). Most importantly, they wrote Sister Christian, one of the 80s greatest rock epics. It was their most popular song, and Sister Christian went on to reclaim its greatness as the haunting musical stage dressing to one of the greatest scenes in modern cinema (Boogie Nights), and no one who’s seen the film can forget the epic drums that so perfectly suited the spring-coiled violence about to unfold.

I can't overstate this: Sister Christian—it was their greatest song. It has worked it’s earnest way to becoming one of your favorite rock songs. And it was such a strange anthem, sad and yearning, set to a rumbling take off engine thrum, and like the greatest of rock songs, can fuel not only nostalgia, but oddly slide it’s way in as an identifying soundtrack to a lot of ‘moments’, be it a first kiss, a drunken sing along, or a violent shootout/robbery gone terribly awry.You choose, but, you know I'm telling the truth...

NightRanger? Am I really talking about Night Ranger? The name doesn’t even make sense, but on second thought, my original thesis—that Night Ranger is one of those bands that it's better to not know much about—I guess I’m proving that wrong already, and we’re barely out of the introductory paragraph.

As I write this, I’ve got a Night Ranger playlist going on the youtubes…and though I started this piece with one line repeating in my head, I realize, as always, I should let the music speak for itself. If you're so inclined to recall the 80s, and the buzzsaw guitar and strident keyboard marches that made rock music so infectious, Night Ranger isn’t so bad. And trying to assign a scientific or aesthetic principal to what makes music good, what makes a particular band or song worth the cost of nostalgia, well…maybe that doesn’t need a thesis or an explanation. As always, let the music speak for itself and prove its own point.

 When I saw the theme for this month’s theme of jukebox there was one line that came to mind immediately—the opening line of Night Ranger’s “You Can Still Rock in America” from their 1983 breakout album, Midnight Madness: “Little sister by the record machine...” 

“You Can Still Rock in America” satisfies all the check boxes a band would need to achieve an ‘anthem’, especially for the 80s: diddley-do keyboards, cowbell and gong driven drum march,  fuzzed out, metal guitar riffs and acrobatic soloing. And, don’t forget the audience-participation-ready drum and vocal breakdown. This was formula driven rock, arena ready before the tour even hit the road, but it was brilliant right out of the gate. It might have fit into a formula then, but as I sit and listen to it now, there is an earnestness, a driving kind of beauty to the music that, if I can look at it from my 43 year old perspective, reminds me of all that was good—No, divine—in what made me fall in love with rock music, which is a relationship I’ve had in my life that has truly made all the difference.

I remember when I was 7th and 8th grade, discovering good music for the first time, these guys rocked, despite what I was learning in my own, older-brother’s-record-collection-Master-Class (which, of course was the Beatles and the Stones). I had access to good music early, and my parents were very cool about buying me ‘boom boxes’ and ceding over to me their turntable. My bedroom and my pawn store bought-and-borrowed record collection was my original sanctuary, my real classroom. When I think back to my childhood, I am lucky to have an endless amount of great memories, but my best ones are of learning to love music to the LPs playing on my scratchy, one-speaker turntable. And for a long while, there was good music playing. Sadly, Night Ranger, which in my final assessment right now I will say was a great band, gave way to Hair Metal, and the overdone silliness of the LA rock scene—for a while I thought Cinderella, Bon Jovi and Dokken were the pinnacle of rock greatness…What can I say: I followed trends. The late 80s were a bad time for popular music, and my allegiance to great bands, to great music, wouldn’t be that tight until later in life. I was over eager, and perhaps I let slip a few times...bad decisions...what excuse can I plead-I abandoned the turntable for cassettes, and started listening to what everyone else was listening to. I’m not proud of a lot of what I can pull out of my old collection… 

But, hang on a minute: the more I dig into what I was listening to at the time,  the more I think maybe I can give myself a small break: I snatched up the Van Halen catalog in 1984 and it got regular rotation in my concert hall bedroom, as did AC/DC’s Back in Black, so…I have no real excuse for delving into bad music...I just like music. And that's where Night Ranger comes in: a bridge between the silly and the not-so I ask myself now, because back then there was no question: I could definitely rock, but now can you still...?

Maybe,  “You Can Still Rock in America”? 

Give it a shot. It’s cheesy, of course, in the way 80’s ‘metal’ can be, but it’s a jukebox song, and while it might be a lesser entry into the endless and everlasting fuck the rules, break down the walls, go nuts escapism anthem blast creed that tattoos the glorious history of this beautiful thing we call rock ‘n roll, it still works damn well. It’s exuberant the way rock music should be: it drives; it puts a foot to the floor, it has girls and fast cars, it's vaguely rebellious about something vaguely troubling, maybe being young, maybe too many rules. Who cares. Since when has rock ‘n roll needed something specific to rebel against, so long as you’ve got wailing guitars and a good solid beat pushing you into doing your very worst?

It’s rock n roll. It might be a little silly, and sometimes I think we need to feel guilty for loving something that might come across as dated, or too much of an era, or just to silly and earnest in what is—in this case, Night Ranger was a great rock band, full of radio friendly hooks, sugar-sweet anthems and fist in the air, foot to the floor rock. Sometimes you need a little Night Ranger, lest you start taking this whole rock thing a little too seriously. Rock music is supposed to be mindless and it should make you go a little nuts, but it should also remind you of who you used to be, before you got too old to still rock (in America…).

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