Monday, May 29, 2023

Songs of '83: "(Keep Feeling) Fascination"

I was never a big fan of The Human League, whose second American hit, "(Keep Feeling) Fascination," started to climb up the Billboard charts 40 years ago this week, but if I had to choose one of their singles from all of they got to crack American radio during the New Wave era, this would probably be my favorite, maybe just because of Philip Oakey's great vocals. Also, I remember watching the video for this on Friday Night Videos sometime soon after it premiered, and teen-age me thinking to myself: are those toy guitars? Are they even stringed properly? Well, anything to look cool, I guess.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Songs of '83: "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)"

Here it is, folks--the Eurythmics's Annie Lennox, wearing a business suit, leather gloves, and a buzz-cut, swinging a dominatrix's cane and singing "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," their first radio hit and one of probably three or four absolutely defining images of New Wave music in America. It hit the Billboard charts 40 years ago this week, and man, it changed things

Androgynous imagery and stylings are hardly unknown in American pop music, of course--Little Richard is proof of that, and this list has already featured David Bowie, who pioneered his own style of glam androgyny in the UK (and, to a limited extent, the United States) during the 1970s, a style which became a background influence to many Second British Invasion bands I'm highlighting here. But here's the thing: overwhelming--and not just throughout the history of pop music, but up through these very cosmopolitan, very gender-bending bands that I'm highlighting here--it was the men who could be androgynous, not the women. Sure, a woman wearing pants on the screen was as familiar to American audiences as Katherine Hepburn or Mary Tyler Moore. But a woman with Annie Lennox's near-incomparable pop vocals, staring into the camera with a sensual, hypnotic, both enticing and spooky synthesizer beat in the background, slowing slamming her cane into her open hand while singing "Some of them want to use you / Some of them want to get used by you / Some of them want to abuse you / Some of them want to be abused"? That, ladies and gentlemen, was a game-changer.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Songs of '83: "Come Dancing"

There is probably no other song that I'll be featuring in this series this year that has less to do with my overall thesis about 1983 than The Kinks's "Come Dancing," which started its climb up the Billboard charts forty years ago last week. First of all, we're talking about The Kinks, a band that was part of the original British Invasion of the 1960s, not the second one in the 1980s. Second, we're talking about a song that very explicitly--in terms of its lyrics and subject matter, its composition and musical architecture, and really its whole vibe--poses itself against the cosmopolitan, technological, multi-racial, multicultural, sexually ambiguous sounds and styles of the urban club scenes of London or New York City by going back, rather than leaping forward into some kind of angrier, louder sound. Ray Davies here wrote a profoundly English song, a profoundly heterosexual song, really a profoundly traditional 1960s pop song. That doesn't mean that those who weren't young men on the make in the dance halls of north London sixty years ago--or those who weren't the even younger men who, like Davies himself, sadly but also enviously watched their older sister take advantage of such young men--can't relate. Hundreds of millions have been moved by Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane," after all, and "Come Dancing" is, at its heart, a similarly intimate portrait of a place and time...just a little bit heavier, and a little bit more personal, all the same.

Fact is, the song is a damn pop masterpiece. I love all (well, nearly all) of the songs in this series, but probably only a handful of them truly rate as great, lasting songs. This is one of them.

Monday, May 08, 2023

Songs of '83: "Our House"

Ska! I'm sure I didn't know the word when I first heard this delightfully bonkers song by the great two-tone band Madness on the radio sometime in 1983 (it first arrived on the Billboard charts 40 years ago this week), but for a short time around 10 years later, no musical label would mean more to me.

Insofar as my grand thesis regarding the watershed year of 1983 in finally getting American pop radio to wake up to (and perhaps uncomfortably respond to) the multi-racial and sexually fluid character of the club music of urban centers across Europe and the U.S., disco and its aftermath definitely comes first--but ska is a close second. The path which Jamaican ska and reggae made their way to England and infected the post-punk stylings of many mid- to late-70s British bands is hard to ignore; the Police titled their second album, released in 1979, Reggatta de Blanc (essentially, "White Reggae"), and The Pretenders's Chrissie Hynde that same year sang about have "a new skank" in "Brass in Pocket." The two-tone ska revival fused the bass lines of rocksteady with punk and pop guitars, with a lot of horns along the way. Not much of it made it on to American radio--though the reggae band UB40 would, in 1988, find a suprise number 1 American hit on their hands with their cover of Neil Diamond's "Red Red Wine," a track off the album Labour of Love, which as also released in 1983. But in the meantime, the influence of mixed-race bands like Selector, English Beat, the Specials, and of course Madness, became a go-to soundtrack for parties for certain small group of 1980s American hipsters...

...which, weirdly enough, by the very early 1990s, suddenly because almost mainstream in Provo, Utah, where I arrived back to continue my schooling at Brigham Young University after a couple of years as a missionary in South Korea. Perhaps the local ska obsession had been building through the late 1980s, but I was either stuck on campus or gone during those years, and so can't speak to that. But it didn't take me long to discover upon returning to Happy Valley that ska was what all the honors kids and underground newspaper writers and troublemakers at BYU were listening to: two-tone stuff, but also reaching back to the Skatalites, and searching out the latest ska-punk stuff from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt, The Pietasters, and others as well. I'd go to see local bands like Stretch Armstrong or Swim Herschel Swim, or later Special Beat (a combined tour of English Beat and The Specials jamming together that came to Utah) or the late, great Crazy 8s, and they'd play plenty of original stuff--but in my head, echoes of a ska sound that I'd been introduced to close to a decade before, and had never had a name for, was all I heard.

Monday, May 01, 2023

Songs of '83: "Mornin'"

What better song from my memories and the Billboard charts of 1983 could I pull out for today, May 1, May Day, Beltane, etc., than this one? I can't imagine. "Mornin'" isn't Al Jarreau's biggest or most enduring pop hit, but it stood out like a glorious flower in the midst of the raucous garden of radio noise of the spring of 1983 (it hit its chart peak in the month of May that year), and thus has always been a bit of of favorite of mine.

By 1983, and certainly in the wake of Michael Jackson, the music of Black artists that wanted to record a pop hit was almost entirely to confined to them working, and reworking, traditional R&B and soul forms in line with the post-disco dance and club beats and riffs that Jackson had proved to be a gold mine. You had some Black rockers that didn't quite fit that mold (Prince most obviously), and some which defined whole genres just through their pop genius (Stevie Wonder) but if you start running through the rest of the list--El DeBarge, Donna Summer, Luther Vandross, Lionel Richie, etc.--you can certainly see a pattern. Which makes the fact that Al Jarreau's smooth jazz vocal stylings could find a home on the radio that much more impressive. His was a different kind of sophistication, a bit of easy-going, romantic, multicultural cosmopolitanism that didn't have a drop of post-punk in it; it was it's own thing. So listen up, and do your own thing as well. As the rhyme goes, first of May, first of May, outdoor...etc.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Songs of '83 Special: "I Melt With You"

This series is based on the Top 40 Billbord charts of 1983, and my memories of what I heard on the radio that year, and not much else. But for "I Melt With You," I need to bring in a little bit more.

I don't know when I first heard Modern English's sole American radio hit, a single from their 1982 album After the Snow. I don't think it was in 1983. But I do know that by sometime in 1987 or 1988, when I was a freshman at Brigham Young University and experiencing a semblance of independent adult life for the first time, I went out one night to see a friend play in a local band, and in a set that included perfectly adequate covers of Echo & the Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs, and other staples of what everyone was referring to as "college rock," they played this song. And I suddenly realized that I'd heard it for years--I couldn't remember when I first did, but by that time it was part of the background of my mind, one of the essential Second British Invasion tunes. This fine example of what one reviewer called Vaguely Apocalyptic Pop, with its acoustic guitars, keyboard synth-effects, and ruminations about a love that will stop the world--it was, I realized that night 36 or 37 years ago, perhaps the greatest New Wave rock song of them all. Where did it come from, I wondered?

The answer is a movie, which I also don't remember seeing when it was first released, but is of course one of the essential texts of the early 1980s, the first visual codification of the Valley Girl stereotype that Frank Zappa had invented the year before, and which we all somehow knew we were supposed to mock (but also, of course, be vaguely jealous of). "I Melt With You" didn't have much impact on the UK, but somehow certain American radio stations picked it up as an import, one of which was surely Pasadena's KROQ, from which the leap to appearing on the soundtrack of Valley Girl, which was released in American theaters 40 years ago today, was easily made. And from there, the song began to seep into the broader pop consciousness, if not the pop charts--while popular on some rock stations, "I Melt With You" never was close to being a Billboard hit, not in 1983 nor when Modern English re-recorded and re-released it in 1990. Which I guess is just evidence that, as useful a heuristic it is for this list, I can't rely upon the Billboard charts, much less my memories, for everything.

Anyway, here's Modern English's original video, and the montage where the song was played from the movie (which isn't bad, but isn't any kind of masterpiece of its genre either). Sing along, everyone.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Songs of '83: "Too Shy"

Another classic one-hit wonder of the 1980s, at least insofar as American radio is concerned. I've already featured four so far, and there are many more to come, including a special non-tied-to-the-Billboard-charts hit later this week (I reserve the right to break my own rules every once in a while). 1983 had a lot of them, that's for certain. This was Kajagoogoo's lead single off their very first album, and exploded, first in the UK and then, later, on American radio, starting 40 years ago this week. It doesn't quite reach the level, in my opinion, of the dreamy, synth-drenched, pop ballad their lead singer Limahl would record for Neverending Story the following year (after being kicked out of the band, for whatever that's worth), but the bass line in this echoing tune definitely earns its keep.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Songs of '83: "Electric Avenue"

Eddy Grant actually encapsulates so much of what my whole thesis regarding 1983 is all about, except that what he encapsulates--the racially mixed bands and dance beats of British and European clubs--happened decades before New Wave finally woke up American radio to it all. In the mid- to late-1960s, Grant played lead guitar and wrote songs for The Equals, a mixed-race English R&B, pop, ska, and soul band that had major hits across the UK and western Europe--though not America (their label didn't want to risk the safety of the band whose hits included "Black Skin Blue-Eyed Boys" by sending them to tour there). If it hadn't been for a traffic accident followed by a health scare that sent Grant in the direction of producing rather than recording for most of the 1970s, who knows what his history might have been. 

As it was, by the early 1980s the Guyana-born Grant had relocated to Barbados, established Blue Wave Studios, and was cutting politically conscious solo records--the most famous in America being, of course, "Electric Avenue," a song partly about a street in Brixton, London, partly about the poverty and frustration that led to the race riots which broke out along that street in 1981, but also about the way technology was changing the meaning of funk in the UK elsewhere. It might have remained a British and European hit if it hadn't been for Michael Jackson's massive success (and, of course, David Bowie's criticism) forcing MTV to start playing more videos by Black artists--and Grant just happened to have a banger, as the kids say today, waiting and ready to throw into rotation. Premiering on the Billboard charts 40 years ago this week, the song bangs still.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Songs of '83: "She's a Beauty"

I wrote earlier that I have a fondness for every song in this series. Well, let me qualify that a little bit, because "She's a Beauty"--the biggest radio hit in the entire history of the San Francisco-based art-rock band The Tubes, which cracked Billboard charts 40 years ago this week--actually kind of creeps me out. It's mostly the video, I suppose, which may be unfair. Then again, they actually had to cut back on all the weird sexuality and imagery they'd originally planned for the video, so for a song about a peep show, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by the end result. Anyway, the logic of the radio marketplace--for all the ways I'm arguing it was changing, or finally responding to musical changes, in 1983--couldn't say no to this kind of slick, commercial pop-rock; as much as it may turn me off today, I can't ignore a Top Ten earworm like this if I'm going to be honest. Anyway, enjoy.

Monday, April 03, 2023

Songs of '83: "Rio"

Ah, Duran Duran. A hugely successful New Wave band that I can remember somehow not taking fully seriously even back when I was cranking up the radio to listen whenever one of their hits came on. Why? Hard to say. All I know is that something about them made even 14-going-on-15-year-old me think of posers. But they did know how to pose, that's for sure.

MTV made Duran Duran in America, perhaps more than any other member of the Second British Invasion. While their danceable synth-pop had made them huge in the UK over the previous couple of years, the singles from their first album never got on with the DJs of American pop radio stations, and their second album, Rio, was looking to be a similar flop. But then MTV put the video for their first single from Rio, "Hungry Like the Wolf," into heavy rotation in late 1982, and everything exploded. That re-released single went #1 on the Billboard charts, and its video won the very first Grammy for Best Music Video in 1984. "Rio" got its re-release in March 1983, entering the American Billboard charts 40 years ago this week. It's the better song, I think; I mean, it's got that ridiculously awesome 80s sax solo going for it. Mostly though, it's just a solid urban pop song, and those singing it do indeed look really good; what more can you ask for?