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Monday, September 25, 2023

Songs of '83: "Love is a Battlefield"

Pat Benatar was, in retrospect, one of those driven talents that probably would have found a way to achieve success on the radio no matter what her stylistic environment. As it was, she came to the clubs of New York City in the late 1970s with the rock of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones on her mind--not exactly the style of the time. But her vocal chops--especially once backed up by the guitar work and the producing talent of Neil Giraldo, her musical partner (and husband) for more than four decades--were not to be denied. "Love is a Battlefield," which first landed on the Billboard charts 40 years ago this week, was her single biggest radio hit, and a huge MTV smash--turning a three-minute single into a five-minute television drama, complete with a dance break, was still a relatively new thing in those early, post-Michael Jackson years. It's not my favorite Benatar song (that would be "Shadows of the Night," probably), but you can't deny: it rocks.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Songs of '83: "Cum On Feel the Noiz"

Journey, Sammy Hagar, Def Leppard, ZZ Top, Loverboy: as this list has always insisted, it's not as though the breakthrough into mainstream radio by the European clubs' multi-racial, gender-bending, drum-machine-and-synthesizers, post-disco and post-punk pop music somehow completely drove from the Billboard charts the sort of guitar-driven rock music which was performed and consumed almost entirely by young straight white men (and their female companions). In that spirit, I give you Quiet Riot's cover of the English glam-rock hit from the 1970s,"Cum On Feel the Noiz." Released 40 years ago this week, it is arguably the most influential American heavy metal single of all time, basically because it was the first that really mattered, commercially speaking: the first American hard rock band to have a Top Ten single (beating Van Halen, beating Mötley Crüe, beating Metallica, all of which were better bands, it goes without saying), and the first heavy metal album to go to number one. Was I a head-banger? No, not particularly. But did I crank this sucker up to 11 when it came on the radio while I was learning to drive that old white pick-up truck my family had? I did indeed.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Songs of '83: "All Night Long (All Night)"

Of all the Black artists I've highlighted so far in this review of what I see as the year when all the new technological and stylistic and sexual possibilities of post-punk, post-disco pop music finally broke through to mainstream American radio, Lionel Richie has to be the one with the smoothest career arc, the one for whom these transformations seemed the most natural and effortless. Michael Jackson was the one who burst down the door to a new kind of pop musical (and video) stardom; Prince blew a hole in the wall to make his own way to the charts; Eddy Grant slipped in through a side door no one had noticed; Al Jarreau was following his own smooth jazz path and couldn't care less what pop radio thought of him; and Donna Summer, the Queen of Disco, simply ramped up her songs' vocal and guitar power and kept on pushing on those pop barricades. But Richie, a lead singer and primary song-writer for the Commodores, the smoothest of all of Motown's 1970s acts? The now-independent balladeer (he officially left the Commodores in late 1982, after the success of his first solo album) just sailed on through (pun intended). 

I don't mean to suggest that Richie didn't have a lot of talent and didn't work hard; both of those things are true. But an artist determined to sweat it out in order to achieve musical and lyrical perfection he wasn't. The Afro-Caribbean rhythms and sonic backgrounds to "All Night Long," like several other hits off his second album, are solid additions to the final mix; the lyrics which accompany them are also--as Richie himself later admitted--complete gibberish. (He apparently wanted to hire a translator, but ran out of time and/or money, and so went ahead anyway.) But maybe Richie's music simply embodied exactly his ethos? Music is supposed to be fun, everyone; so quit trying to make art, and just dance. "All Night Long" hit the radio in mid-September, 40 years ago, and nothing was going to stop it from making it all the way to number one.

Monday, September 04, 2023

Songs of '83: "Suddenly Last Summer"

Exactly 40 years ago, during the Labor Day weekend of 1983, a slight, synth-heavy tune by The Motels, with undercurrents both sinister and sweet, appeared on American radio. It would eventually crack the Billboard Top Ten, but far beyond that particular accomplishment, did any artist or band, throughout all of the 1980s, ever give us a better song for the end of summer, especially that summer, the summer when we were 15 or thereabouts, listening to the radio, and daydreaming, excitedly but also fearfully, about romance and sex and growing up and the future? I'm doubtful. 

Monday, August 28, 2023

Songs of '83: "True"

My sister had a huge poster of Spandau Ballet, with the word "True" in dark letters printed across the bottom, up on her bedroom wall sometimes in 1983-1984. I wouldn't be surprised at all if at least one other heterosexual female and/or gay male person out there reading this had one as well. I don't recall when I first heard the term "New Romantic"--I'm not sure it really had any currency in the U.S., even in those few cities which had the sort of clubs or college radio stations that paid attention to the multi-racial, gender-bending, post-disco and post-punk New Wave coming from the UK--but when I finally did learn it, there were exactly two faces that came to mind: Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry, and that singer from Spandau Ballet, which Wikipedia informs me is Tony Hadley (who is also, apparently, a big fan of Margaret Thatcher, so hey, I guess it takes all kinds). Using their synths to produce a lush, sweeping sound, "True" debuted on the Billboard charts and American radio 40 years ago this month, beginning a slow climb over the months to come towards a comfortable Top Ten showing, a featured place in John Hughes's Sixteen Candles, and of course, my sister's (and probably many others') bedroom walls. Enjoy the slow dance, everyone.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Songs of '83: "Everyday I Write the Book"

Elvis Costello looms large in my musical memories entirely due to the college radio I listened to during my years at BYU (and the friends I made who directed me towards it). In terms of the history of the musical transformations I've been talking about here in association with the trends which came together in 1983, Costello was a pioneer. One of the most original songwriters and rock performers to come out of the immediate post-punk pop stew which was bubbling across the UK and in certain big cities in North America, every album and single he released from 1977 to 1980 were major radio and critical hits--outside the U.S., that is. In the U.S., his music and its critical acclaim was known, but not by radio-listening kids outside of the college towns and the metropolitan clubs like me. With one exception, that is: this song, his first to make it on the Billboard charts. Deputing 40 years ago today, it was a modest hit: it cracked the Top 40, but not much more than that. Still, it was enough that when friends introduced me to "Beyond Belief" or "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding?" or "Radio Radio" (one of my 1978 songs, by the way) I was able to say--oh yeah, that guy!

Costello is one of six artists whose music got my attention and got stuck in my memory in both my reconstruction of 1978 and of 1983: Journey, Jackson Brown, Talking Heads, and The Police are others (with one more yet to come). Of all of them, Costello had the least successful time navigating the Billboard charts. Why did this song make it? Maybe Americans, even by 1983, still couldn't get enough Charles and Diana.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Songs of '83: "Total Eclipse of the Heart"

The unstoppable pop masterpiece/monstrosity known as "Total Eclipse of the Heart," sung by the Welsh troubadour Bonnie Tyler and written by that genius of post-disco overproduction, Jim Steinman (who also gave us "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" and "Making Love Out of Nothing At All"), began its irresistible climb up the Billboard charts this week 40 years ago, eventually making it to #1 and staying there for the entire month of October. What can you say? It's...a lot. In fact it's so much that, as some forgotten genius in the early years of YouTube realized, you really have to take it literally to take it all in. Nominally just a love ballad, it actually does have stuff to say--not coherently, to be sure, but still, it's there--about all the sexual and stylistic transformations changing American radio that year. Too bad we had to wait a few decades before someone figured out to show us that inner truth.

Monday, August 07, 2023

Songs of '83: "Hot Girls in Love"

Not every 1983 hit partook of the racially, technologically, sexually, stylistically cosmopolitan revolutions which broke out of the major cities of Europe and the East Coast and into the mainstream of American radio that year. Some were just bar bands that managed to connect with the right producer and come up with something that lots of people enjoyed playing really loud. In the spirit, welcome Loverboy, the artists responsible for some of the, in my opinion, least interesting videos that ever achieved heavy rotation on MTV and Friday Night Videos. I will say one thing, though, for "Hot Girls in Love," Loverboy's biggest hit up until that point, which hit its Billboard peak this week 40 years ago: it's the only video I can remember seeing broadcast during a church dance being shut down in the middle of its being played. The crotch shots? The cleavage? Nope, it's the fact that the actress clearly (if silently) voices "Shit!" when she realizes her car is out of gas. Standards: they must be maintained.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Songs of '83: "Burning Down the House"

Talking Head's greatest radio hit, which debuted on the Billboard charts 40 years ago this week, both is and isn't a creature of 1983. The review in Rolling Stone called it a song that "obliterates the thin line separating arty white pop music and deep black funk," and there's so much truth to that. Talking Heads--thanks primarily to the weirdly misanthropic musical genius of David Byrne, but it's not like the other great musicians in that band (Chris Frantz, Jerry Frantz, and most of all Tina Weymouth) didn't contribute a lot as well--is one of those relatively few American bands that have become almost mythological. A bunch of upper-middle-class art students enraptured by New York City's punk scene, who began to transcend punk with a cosmopolitan, racially and psychologically and technologically disparate mix of influences, styles, beats, and lyrical pretensions almost from the moment they began playing in punk clubs in the mid- to late 1970s. (Arguably they were post-punk before anyone else even realized the scene was over.) 

Central to their musical accomplishment, as I wrote in my first entry about the radio revolution--or realization--of 1983 in the United States, was a kind of multiracial futurism, what Byrne called an "'American cool-African-futuristic-trash-aesthetic." No wonder the sounds and rhythms of the multiracial and sexually diverse discos appealed to them. The story of "Burning Down the House" is well known, beginning with drummer Frantz's attendance at a Parliament-Funkadelic show which got him shouting "burn down the house!" during a later rehearsal jam with the other Talking Heads. But honestly, if it wasn't P-Funk's awesome energy, it probably just would have been something else that eventually inspired them to come up with a bit of pop alchemy that Top Ten American radio couldn't contain. Their attraction to mixing arty, partly-synthesized beats with funky, sexy, spiritual Black tunes wasn't a new thing; they'd had a minor hit with their cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" back in 1978, a pop concoction which in retrospect shows that the Heads were going to be as important to defining where post-punk and post-disco radio would eventually go as anything David Bowie, the Police, Prince, or any other major artist of 1983 did. That line which Rolling Stone mentioned was bound to be broken by the band, and with this masterpiece 40 years ago they did.

You can enjoy the art-house video to the song, of course, but much better is the live rendition captured by Jonathan Demme in Stop Making Sense, easily the greatest concert video over made. 1983's shadow is a long one indeed.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Songs of '83: "Sharp Dressed Man"

This fast and smooth driving bit of accelerated Texas blues guitar rock, which entered the Billboard charts 40 years ago this coming week, was the greatest of ZZ Top's Eliminator hits. It didn't chart the highest, nor have the best video; "Legs" takes that honor, which bizarrely wasn't released as a single until 1984, after the album had been out more than a year. But with "Sharp Dressed Man," front man Billy Gibbons's fascination with the technological innovations that he'd heard coming out of European clubs--he was apparently particularly taken with Depeche Mode and OMD, both of which were still a couple of years away from making an impact on American radio-- was undeniable. He sped up the drum machines, used synthesizers to create a floor of sound beneath the bass, and the result is an album--and especially this single--of super-charged boogie rock. That Gibbons was an open-minded musician is well known (his fascination with Prince's guitar playing makes a great story), but the fact that these long-bearded Texas bluesmen knew a good thing when the 1980s and MTV delivered it to them deserves special applause.