Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Songs of '83 Special: "Puttin' on the Ritz"

Before I call this year to an end, just one more hit. My obvious and unstated foundation throughout this whole year is that I love the popular music of 1983. Maybe not as much as the swampy mix of hard rock and country and punk and more that to this day kick around in my memories of 1978...but still, the stuff that came over the airwaves the year I turned 15-years-old, the stuff which carried with it (as I only slowly learned later) the results of years of club experimentation and technological change and urban evolution? I think it was mostly brilliant, and I'm entirely happy to defend it all. Or, well, nearly all of it. Some of it wasn't that good. And some of it, though clever enough in its time, in retrospect is kind of creepy. And thus we come, on this last day of the year, to the long-promised, skipped-over, third German-language artist who hit it big on American radio in 1983: Taco, with his funky, synth-pop version of the Irving Berlin composition and the Fred Astaire classic, "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Why'd I skip over this song, which was cut in 1982 and become a one-hit wonder on American radio 40 years ago back in June? Because, as anyone who remembers knows, and as anyone who is patient enough to search through the internet can easily find out, the makers of the original video thought that a clever way to connect with a musical world that was, at the time, more than 50 years in the past (and today is nearly a century gone), was to feature tap dancers in blackface. It's not racist; it's ironic! It's a snappy, winking, faux-controversial homage! It's "European"! Yeah, no thanks. I suppose one could argue that, in his way, Taco's recording and video unintentionally serves as a synecdoche for the huge mess of multi-racial, gender-bending, cosmopolitan, and technological trends and controversies which 1983 pop radio encapsulated...but I'm not going to attempt that myself. Instead, I will sign off from this wonderful year-long exercise by thanking all 14 of you for following along, and share with you Taco performing his hit (appropriately lip-synched!) on a German New Year's Eve television special, 40 years ago tonight, complete with immensely bored showgirls. Enjoy everyone, and keep on listening!

Friday, December 29, 2023

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2023

Andrew Bacevich and Daniel Sjursen, eds., Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America's Misguided Wars. This is a fine and often (though not always) insightful collection of personal essays, all of which describe how the authors came to their criticisms of America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past twenty years. All of the authors are veterans of these wars to one degree or another, and their range of experiences in and interactions with America's military establishment was probably the most informative part of the book to me. There are essays by deeply committed soldiers who fully embraced the bureaucratic realities of managing a global military presence, and came to oppose America's "forever wars" for strictly strategic reasons, their own positive experiences leading them spend a great deal of time explaining the how American generals failed to understand intricacies of counter-insurgency strategy, failed to appreciate and account for the logistics and costs of military technologies, and much more. But there are also essays by soldiers who were never on board with the rationales given for invading Iraq, or even Afghanistan for that matter; included in these essays are stories of the drug abuse, racism, incompetence, sexism, random violence, and massive waste and fraud on the part of their fellow soldiers--and sometimes themselves--while supposedly serving America's security interests and spreading democracy in the Middle East. Some of these authors look back on their time in these conflicts with pride but also deep regrets about all that went wrong; others look back with shame and horror; and others look back just grateful they escaped with their lives and limbs, when so many others did not. Ultimately, the largest point I take from these various multifaceted, but always militarily informed criticisms was simply: George W. Bush's time as president was a moral, a political, and a strategic catastrophe. By ordering the invasion of Afghanistan, and then keeping troops there beyond the immediate collapse of the Taliban, and much worse by ordering the invasion of Iraq, Bush's administration not only led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, but ruined millions of lives, and unleashed pathological regrets and resentments, in the USA and abroad, that may never be put to rest.

Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity. Hauerwas definitely isn't everyone's cup of tea. A born essayist--in the most fundamental sense of the term, constantly "essaying" new ideas, rarely completing the one he had before the new one--his radical Christianity isn't developed carefully and consistently, thus leaving any remotely suspicious reader capable of dismissing his arguments as incomplete and unpersuasive. But for any of the tens of millions who can't help but recognize the radical, even absolutist, character of Christian teachings and expectations when it comes to matters of violence and peace, the many kernels of truth spread throughout Hauerwas's explication and explorations of theses basic doctrines are enormously valuable. His points about how we are addicted to violence and war in part because we don't want to cast impurity and guilt upon heroes of the past; about how violence and war is tied up in the very structures of state sovereignty and thus politics as we know of it today; about how American history can't help but associate war with idealistic causes which having been mythologized into the proper, "pure" understanding of our own identity...all of it is first rate. Hauerwas's reflections are, ultimately, an inspiration to Christians who want to understand a way to find in themselves a true conviction of peace, and that's a beautiful thing.

Peter Levine, What Shall We Do? A Theory of Civic Life. This is a top-notch work of analytical and practical political and social theory, one that I've been meaning to read for a year. Through a sharp analysis of Elinor Ostrom, Jurgen Habermas, and the civil rights activism of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Levine sketches out and concrete and deeply thoughtful set of insights and suggestions for people looking to engage in civic life, and make some democratic difference in their localities. He identifies key elements of each of the three above-listed traditions of participatory democracy and civic action, but also recognizes and explores the theoretical limitations of each, and from their provides a synthesis of recommendations. This is a book that, as a citizen and a teacher, I'm going to be pondering a while, considering how best to set boundaries, engage in deliberation, and model just behavior as I try to get local action to matter.

Warren Magnusson, Local Self-Government and the Right to the City. I finally got around to finishing this collection of essays by the political theorist Warren Magnusson, and I loved it. His insights are scattered, sometimes repetitive and not always well connected, but they remain brilliant all the same. His reconceptualization of "local self-government" in light of the "locality" of states in the international order, and the "locality" of individuals within a sovereign, contractarian state, is profoundly radical, opening up, to my mind anyway, all sorts of new ways of understanding the traditional definition of local government--specifically, its municipal form in towns and cities. Magnusson in these essays is a profound critic of sovereignty and subsidarity, seeing both of them as theoretical forms that define and delimit the kind of democratic mutualism and variability and practice that characterizes that huge, undefinable range of what I'll call "governmenting" (I'm definitely being influenced by David Harvey's use of the term "commoning" here) which takes place in cities. Magnusson wants us to think hard about a democracy, and right to self-government, that is not dependent upon territorialization, not dependent upon constitutional definitions. This puts him very much in the camp of left-libertarian or anarchist thinkers, but while he's familiar with the philosophical ideas behind those theories, he approaches their conclusions with a language all his own, and one that I find kind of brilliant. This man's thinking is a small treasure.

Paul McCartney, 1964: Eyes of the Storm. I found 1964: Eyes of the Storm outside my front door this morning: a gift from a friend. I tore through the whole thing in a single day—of course, it's mostly photographs, so no big accomplishment, but still, it was a delight. I loved Macca's introductory essays; I felt as though I could see him sliding back and forth between repeating old stories automatically and being derailed by old memories he hadn't articulated in decades, if ever, obliging him to put words for the first time to the thoughts he remembers having had decades before. There's a good amount of unreflective, unimproved emotionality throughout the book, I think, in the short essays but also in the labels to his wonderful, candid photographs: the way he writes about his picture of George with the girl in the yellow bikini in Miami, for example, or a shot of a pensive Ringo leads him to write movingly about him as still the "new guy" in the band. And there's a two-page spread with photos of John and George where it's not hard to imagine the look of their faces weighing on Paul with all the weight of 60 years. The historical essay on 1964 by Jill Lepore is fine, but nothing special; just your standard coffee-table stuff, I suppose. But the photographs? An incredible treasure, and a delight.

Bernie Sanders, It's Okay to Be Angry About Capitalism. This is a politician's memoir, and so I expected, and forgave, the many moments in the book, especially in the first few chapters, in which Sanders tells the stories of his own presidential campaigns both uncritically and somewhat simplistically. What I didn't expect, and greatly enjoyed, was seeing Sanders elaborate upon the things that he is truly passionate about--most particularly, the fact that contemporary capitalism makes it impossible for so many working people to not only get by on what they earn, but to also feel any kind of attachment to or gain any kind of dignity from their work. For all Sanders's talk about health care and education and billionaires, it is in regards to work, and the communities of labor and mutual recognition and respect for effort which ideally make the world of work something other than just tragedy which we must endure to survive, where he comes closest to genuinely and consistently articulating a democratic socialist vision. There are elements of a true visionary in his otherwise often boiler-plate left-liberal positions, and that's something that I am certain that, whether they could articulate it or not, millions of voters were captured by: that Sanders was presenting not merely a list of preferences, and not merely a roll-call of enemies, but also a vision of a better society. It comes through in this book, and that makes it great.

Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. A brilliant update and expansion of an important book. He's really like a left-leaning Charles Marohn, someone able to concisely cut through the complicated institutional realities which have pushed our cities in directions that are not only unsustainable, but central players in all sorts of economic, racial, and environmental harms. All of his new material is wonderful, but because of the genuinely inventive way he ties terrible road design to invasive policing to basic questions of freedom, I have to say I liked "More Engineering Confessions" the best. 



Paul Thompson and Patricia Norris, Sustainability: What Everyone Needs to Know. A superb introductory book, which defines and lays out the broad usages of the ecological language of stocks, flows, feedback, and all the rest when talking about the environment, business, the economy, governance, and much more. Not a polemical book, and in fact one that probably bends too far over backwards to avoid taking a strongly anti-capitalist stance, but overall, one I can't believe I haven't been using in my Simplicity and Sustainability classes all along. 



J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion. At the beginning of this year, before the school year started up again, I decided to read The Silmarillion, mostly because I was uncertain if I'd ever read the whole thing all the way through before. I still had on my shelf an old, taped with masking tape, paperback Ballantine edition of the book, which I remember being on my shelves when I was in high school, or earlier. I still have battered, paperback copies of LOTR too, but there's no mystery there; they're beat up because I read them to death. But The Silmarillion? Had I ever truly gotten through it? I honestly couldn't remember. Well, I've gotten through it now, and it's a masterpiece of romance and religion and myth. Tolkien's cosmology and legendarium includes echoes of all the great stories, whether humble or cosmic: Atlantis is here, and Rapunzel, and Oedipus. The rhythm of the writing sweeps you along; there's no way anyone who isn't an autistic savant can possibly keep track in their head all the names and places and dates through this multilayered imagined genealogy of thousands and thousands of years, but that's honestly not the point: the point is to be carried into an epic world, a world of a profound and tragic and romantic and heroic saga of elves and humans, monsters and gods, women and men. Tolkien carried me along, that's for certain, and I loved the journey.

Thad Williamson, Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of LifeA terrific dissertation-turned-book, stuffed full of good information an arguments, pointing towards the value (but also the limitations) of a civic republican perspective on addressing the problems of sprawl and its unjust, undemocratic effects on our civic life. The conversation about our built environment and how best to frame the ideological arguments about it have changed much in the nearly 15 years since this book was written, but as a primer to the basic theoretical arguments which surround the general topic of city life and transportation patterns and everything that flows from them, its value remains.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

The 10 Best Movies I Watched in 2023

As always, this is a list of the best ten movies I watched for the first time this year, whether they came out in 2023 or not.

First Cow. A decidedly unconventional Western story (welcome to the multicultural 19th-century Oregon Territory!), an anti-capitalist story, a story of simple survival and small pleasures. I would have liked the film to have slightly more momentum, but the score and the scenery, as the the movie's quiet and small--but for all that, emotionally enormous--tragedy unfolds, was frequently captivating nonetheless. I love that so much was left to the viewer, and not just in the ending; even without having read the book, you can tell this is a deeply literate adaption, not allowing the story-telling tricks of the cinema to tell more of a story than is on the page.


Godzilla: Minus One. Is it an apology for World War II? A revisionist history? A what-if fantasy? Whatever it was, the way this superb, hammy, utterly melodramatic movie leaned hard into updating and re-imagining the trauma and guilt and horror of WWII for the Japanese people, with token narrative throw-aways to somehow contextualize the whole thing as taking place in the midst of MacArthur's occupation of Japan and the beginnings of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, was simply marvelous. Put yourself in mind of the 1954 original, with its sadness and earnestness, and the desperate, romantic hopefulness of this version will seem well-earned. Godzilla always was, and always will be, best when considered incomprehensible enormity, something that makes no sense on its own terms but something that human science and human sacrifice can succeed against, so long as all the usual bastards don't get in the way. 

He Got Game. Another near-brilliant Spike Lee movie, with deeply persuasive performances and an Aaron Copland + Chuck D score than goes from sweepingly pastoral to intensely personal to back again. Denzel is simply a marvel, with so many great scenes that communicate the struggles and choices of a confused, angry, caring, limited, gifted, haunted man. Practically everyone else in the movie is a stereotype or a mixture of stereotypes of one sort or another, and as usual with Lee movies, some of that borderline racist/sexist/classist stuff edges right up to being discomforting outrageous or overripe. But all together? A wild cinematic ride, from one of the great directors of the past 30 years.


In the Mood for Love. Just brilliant, emotionally and stylistically. If I've seen a better, more captivating film about marriage and pain and desire and love and loss than this one, I can't remember it right now. Tightly contained throughout most of its running time, but I never felt that movie was claustrophobic; also, a succinct, briskly cut movie, and yet I never felt rushed through the story. Simply the best constructed, most emotionally powerful film I watched in all of 2023, hands down.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi. A beautiful and intimidating portrait of a serene and enormously talented monster of a human being. This film needs to stand as a text alongside every other study of virtue: we talk about practice making perfect, we talk about dedication to one's craft, we talk about the deep humility and wisdom that comes from embracing the constraints of a particular art and submitting oneself entirely to them, but in the end, what does any of that look like? This documentary of sushi master Jiro Ono is one answer. I love in particular the fact that his tremendous achievement is partly dependent upon many other people--fish and rice merchants, in particular--who in their own, presumably less monstrously dedicated, but nonetheless impressive ways, reflect that same devotion to their vocation. A lovely, haunting film.


Killers of the Flower Moon. A tremendous movie, one that, in my opinion, makes entirely justified use of its massive running time; with only one partial exception (the long burn scene at the Hale ranch), I don't think I was aware of the passage of time all the way through. Scorsese's direction of the film is brilliant; completely aside from visually arresting costuming, set design, and cinematography, he oversaw the creation of a film that is not structured like, and doesn't play out like, a horror film, and yet for a good two hours of its running time, between its musical cues and staging, it absolutely felt like a horror film, even while also being captivating Western and tragic study of evil, endurance, and plain gross capitalist stupidity. A friend and I spent 40 minutes talking about the movie afterwards in an empty, post-midnight parking lot, deconstructing it all (including the audacious, but in retrospect I think defensible, ending), and we could have stayed longer. I was a big fan of The Irishman, Scorsese's other recent 3+ hour movie, but this is an even greater accomplishment in almost every way.


Mother. A brilliant, creepy, surprisingly mix of horror, police procedural, and family drama. Compelling acted all the way through, and narratively tight as a drum; no loose ends whatsoeever. Like he did in Memories of Murder--which this movie really made me want to rewatch--Bong Joon-ho just triggers me endlessly with his visuals of the quotidian details of the poorer side of South Korean life: the tiny shops, the make-shift apartments, the trash collectors, the sleazy drinking parties, the slovenly yet somehow orderly routines of the police, the ridiculous bus tours, etc. It's not like I knew any of this intimately, but I lived in the midst of it for long enough that Bong sends me back to Seoul or Suwon, scene after scene.


RRR. 110% CINEMA!!! Singing, dancing, ultra-violence, chaste hand-holding--what more could anyone want?! ("Can I see a man punch a tiger in the face?" Yes, you definitely can. "Can I see a phantasamogorical alternate-history critique of British colonialism and also a man punching a tiger in the face?" Yes, you can get that too.)





Sound of Metal. An engrossing, fascinating, completely believable story of a musician losing his hearing. The final sequence of the movie, after our main character leaves the home for the deaf and attempts to reunite with his girlfriend, seemed slightly less organic, slightly more rushed to hit all the required story-telling beats than everything that came before, in which every step both logically followed what came before and yet was a surprise--kind of like life! But overall, the whole thing was quite wonderful, deeply honest and, as a matter of sound editing, brilliantly creative in its depiction of the world of the deaf. A must see. 

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Tremendous comic-book story-telling, and simply peerless comic-book animation. But I have to say: Mayday Parker is cute and hilarious and all, but making her directly part of the adventure--and lying to Mary Jane about it!--is just bad parenting, and I think more highly of Peter B. Parker, redeemed hero, the Spider-Man all us middle-aged White guys with a paunch should aspire to grow up to be, to accept that he would actually do such a thing. Boo!

Monday, December 25, 2023

Songs of '83: "Jingle Bell Rock"

Merry Christmas, everyone! Guess who released a special single for the Christmas season 40 years ago? Daryl Hall and John Oates! And guess what radio juggernaut, simply because they didn't quite fit into my narrative and didn't release an album in 1983 (though a couple of singles off 1982's H2O, their single biggest selling album of all time, were released during the year), have I not mentioned thus far in this year-long series? The same! So today, as a gift to you, I make up for that elision, twice over: enjoy the Daryl-on-vocals version of their cover of the Christmas classic, and the John-on-vocals version as well.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Songs of '83: "Joanna"

It would be a lie to claim that, as a White teen-age Mormon in Spokane, Washington in 1983, my ear glued to the radio, I was somehow also deeply familiar with R&B and soul. I wasn't. But American radio in 1983 wasn't yet quite as programmed and balkanized as it would later become; racial divides were many and, in retrospect, pretty obvious, but nonetheless, for every radio programmer concerned about how the Blackness of post-disco artists would play outside of the big cities, there was a Michael Jackson, a Prince, a Donna Summer, or a Lionel Richie to prove them wrong. So the fact is, I did know a little--enough to have insisted on monopolizing the television set for three hours one evening to watch the entirety of Motown Returns to the Apollo, among other things. One of those other things being Kool & the Gang, a great R&B group who were, by the early 1980s, coming to the end of the second wave of radio popularity in their, by then, 20-year-old history. "Joanna" wasn't their biggest hit ever--the ubiquitous "Celebration" holds that title--but it just might be their finest ballad, and I loved it.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Songs of '83: "99 Luftballons"

Of the three pop hits by German-language artists that American radio-listeners heard in 1983, Nena's "99 Luftballons" is, without doubt, the greatest, both in terms of chart success and overall musicality. Peter Schilling's "Major Tom" was clever and the source of a decent amount of nostalgia, and the one German-language hit yet to be revealed has its own--more controversial--nostalgic whimsy about it as well. But "99 Luftballons"? That's a solid (if synth-heavy) rock and roll tune, one of the essential tracks of Neue Deutsche Welle, the label created by Dutch and German music promoters in the late 1970s and early 1980s to talk about--well, pretty much what I've been talking about all year: namely, the post-punk and post-disco club sounds that knocked around Europe and slowly made their way on to pop radio, only in this case, the West German Cold War zeitgeist was pretty essential as well.

"99 Luftballons" is unusual for a European song picked up by American markets, in that it by-passed the UK entirely; Nena--which is the stage name of their lead singer as well as the name of the band--didn't release the song there until 1984, after it had gotten huge airplay across Europe and Japan. American and English promoters wanted an English version of the song, and that was released as part of whole album built around the hit song, but different band members (including Nena herself) never liked the not-especially-clever translation which they sang. Far better was the original German version from March 1983, which by December had been grabbed and played by enough big-city radio stations across the USA that Epic picked it up and officially released it stateside, 40 years ago this week. It shot up the charts, eventually reading #2 on the Billboard charts by early 1984--around the time British radio listeners heard the English-language version for the first time. A strange journey for a savagely bitter--but also weirdly romantic--song about American military generals accidentally destroying the world in a nuclear war after being freaked out by some balloons floating over the Berlin Wall (the line "Hielten sich für Captain Kirk"--"They all thought they were Captain Kirk" is, of course, the best bit of the whole song). But regardless: it rocks.

 And thirty-five years on, at least, back in 2018, it still did:

Monday, December 04, 2023

Songs of '83: "Karma Chameleon"

Culture Club, with their lead singer Boy George, were already a thoroughly familiar presence on American radio by this point of 1983. Their debut album, 1982's Kissing to Be Clever, managed to land four Top Ten hit on the Billboard charts during 1983 ("Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," "Time," "I'll Tumble 4 Ya," and "Church of the Poison Mind"). Boy George's ostentatious--and for the time, comparatively outrageous--androgyny made Culture Club the poster children, and a target, for every parent and pundit who insisted upon Making Their Views Known about this dangerous "new wave" of music escaping the clubs and poisoning American middle and high schools everywhere. (Years later, in his book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom negatively compared George's androgynous impact on popular culture to Mick Jagger's, suggesting that the former wouldn't last; given that the down-to-three-permanent-members Rolling Stones just released a new album, I suppose you could argue he was right?) 

One of the weird things about all this, in retrospect, is that Culture Club were a pretty conventional pop band, all things considered. Their reliance upon synths and other technological club beats was fairly minimal, and while they soaked up the New Romantic and post-glam rock vibe of acts like late 1970s David Bowie, they also loved American R&B and country music--they even had guitars, for heaven's sake (take that, Human League)! "Karma Chameleon," the lead single of their second album, Colour by Numbers, a goofy little tune about--appropriately enough--changeableness and adaptation, ended up being their single biggest hit in both the UK and America. 40 years ago today, it premiered on the Billboard charts--and this time, there was no Michael Jackson or The Police standing in its way, preventing from going all the way to Number One.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Songs of '83: "The Politics of Dancing"

I'm so happy this song made my list; it's one my favorite, perhaps my very favorite, ridiculous and awesome New Wave tune. The London band Re-Flex didn't have a very long life; they had some intriguing interactions early on with Thomas Dolby, Level 42, and other artists and bands that navigated the new world of 1980s pop better than they did, but hey, not every musical outfit is destined for greatness. One-hit-wonderness, though, which they achieved with this single that entered the Billboard charts 40 years ago today and went on to be a Top Twenty hit? And, of course, had a wonderful video that mixes roller-skating with a Cold War spy thriller? That's not a bad fate at all, says I.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Songs of '83 Special: "Sunday Bloody Sunday"

Forget Michael Jackson, forget Prince, forget David Bowie, forget Duran Duran, forget The Eurythmics, forget The Police--for many, many, many of my Gen X peers, there is only song of 1983--and only one performance of that song--that can really tell the pop music story of that year. That's this one, right here. It's not part of my memories of that year though, except perhaps retroactively. So, like with Modern English's "I Melt With You," a little off-Billboard charts explanation is necessary.

I grew up in Spokane, Washington--though future NCAA powerhouse Gonzaga University is located there, it's not a college town, and the radio that I listened to growing up was mainstream pop and rock. By 1983, for all the reasons I've laid out in previous posts, the cosmopolitan and technological and stylistic post-punk and post-disco and multi-racial changes that had been building for years in the clubs of UK and in a few select big cities in North America were finally overwhelming institutional resistance (such as on MTV) and getting onto Top 40 American radio--but that still left a huge artistic ferment that wasn't being heard or seen by your average teen-age radio-listener across America. 1983 also was the year that "underground" or "alternative" or "college" radio really began to be a major profit-making market in the U.S., with R.E.M. and Violent Femmes and more all releasing their first albums that year. And then there was U2's breakthrough album War. Their classic song, "Sunday Bloody Sunday," was released in the UK and elsewhere earlier during that same year, but all that was unknown to me.

I have friends from Spokane around my age who insisted they knew about and were serious fans of U2 and this album, at the same time I was still listening to Thriller and Synchronicity. I grant that they must be telling the truth, but it's hard for me to know exactly how, since there's no way "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was getting much airplay in Spokane in 1983, given that it initially wasn't even released as a single in the U.S. (and War's lead single, "New Years Day," released in the UK and elsewhere in Europe earlier in the year, never even broken the top 50 on the American Billboard charts). But somehow or another, the power of this song--and specifically, the performance of the song which U2 gave at the Red Rocks Ampitheatre near Denver, Colorado on June 5, 1983--could not be contained. That absolutely electric performance--which reflected as well as any other recorded performance of theirs the crazy mix of messy messianic intensity and brilliantly clean sounds which characterized the first stage of U2's fame--was filmed and edited and released to the world, officially, on the concert film U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky in 1984. Unofficially though, on November 21, 1983, 40 years ago today, the band released an 8-track live recording of their 1983 tour, using the same title. And to promote that album, the video from Red Rocks of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was made available (even though the audio of the song synced to that video was actually one recorded in Germany in August of that year). And that video just blew up. I remember seeing it on Friday Night Videos, perhaps sometime late in 1983, but more likely early 1984. Anyway, I had no idea who U2 were, though I think I may have identified them with a band named on some pins that a friend of my older sister (a high school junior at the time--practically a real grown-up!) wore. But that may be just a reconstruction; in all likelihood, I probably just thought I was watching some crazy experimental live recording from some cool but totally marginal indie band. And I guess, in a sense, I was right. It was years before I put it all together with my other pop memories, and realized what I'd missed (or rather, misunderstood).

Oh well. As for the song itself, I don't know when "Sunday Bloody Sunday" finally got airplay on Top 40 radio stations. Maybe it never did! Maybe, instead, it went straight from being a college radio favorite to a classic rock station standard. A strange journey one of U2's most famous songs. But regardless, even though it really doesn't fit into what I remember coming out of my radio during 1983, I had to put it somewhere. So here it is everyone. Enjoy your Thanksgiving, and your own U2 memories; mine are, however retroactive, very good indeed.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Song's of '83: "That's All"

Early 1980s Phil Collins and Genesis receive far more critical crap than they deserve, at least if one takes into consideration what they were going through at the time. They were a fine--maybe not Yes-level, but still, a major--progressive rock bank all through the 1970s, never having much impact on the American radio market but selling tons of records and tickets all across the UK and parts of Europe. Then came the departure of lead vocalist and resident weirdo-genius Peter Gabriel, followed by the departure of lead guitarist Steve Hackett. And then Phil Collins, emerging as lead vocalist while continuing on as drummer for the remaining threesome, discovers both drum machines and his own immense--if very pop-oriented--melodic sensibility, and over a period of a few years becomes both a massive radio sensation (thanks to his first solo album, Face Value) and nearly omnipresent as a studio musician in both the UK and America (he played the drums on last week's "In the Mood"). My favorite Genesis work is what they produced when they were right in the midst of working through all those transformations: And Then There Were Three is wonderful, for example, and looms large in my reconstructed memories of rock radio from 1978. But after five more years of adjustments passed, Genesis had become a straightforward, and efficient, pop machine, for better or worse. Collins was determined to kick off their 1983 album, titled simply Genesis, with a Beatlesesque pop song, complete with him purposefully imitating Ringo Starr's fills on the album's lead single, "That's All." Premiering on American radio 40 years ago this week, this song became their first Top Ten hit in America, to be followed by many, many more. The fact that, as far as pop songs go, it's nice but pretty much entirely disposable is, perhaps, sadly, part of the point.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Songs of '83: "In the Mood"

Far more than last week's fun rock tune from Yes, and far more than next week's entry from yet another 70s outfit that went pop in the 1980s, this week's song--the, in my opinion, endlessly captivating pop-funk-via-hard-rock-via-synth-and-drum-machine song "In the Mood," by Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant--is one that truly stands the test of time. It wasn't the first cut off his second solo album, nor his biggest solo hit ("Big Log" takes the title for both of those, a song that I've always found somewhat pretentious and only middling at best), but I say it's his best solo work--and this is my list of my memories, so what I say goes. The strange fantasia video for the song, mixing pastoral images with hammy 1983 beat-boxing, just captures how inventive, how creative, Plant could be as an artist, sometimes. (The fact that a country version of song subsequently became a stable of his late career concerts provides even more evidence, as if any were necessary.) Anyway, enjoy.

Monday, November 06, 2023

Songs of '83: "Owner of a Lonely Heart"

This week, and for the next two weeks to come, the songs which cracked into the American radio mainstream 40 years ago represented something that has only appeared a few times so far on this list: majors bands and performers that had achieved commercial success by producing the sort of songs which got airplay under the pop rules which obtained in the 1960s and the 1970s, now playing by a newly evolving set of expectations, ones much more technology-dependent and much more cosmopolitan in outlook. Journey and The Kinks nonetheless pushed ahead into the 1980s by doing what had always worked for them before; Styx, by contrast, attempted a synth-pop rock opera; David Bowie kind of crystalized all the transformations of 1983 even while perhaps not fully embracing them. 

And Yes, the first of our three 1970s dinosaurs, and arguably the most influential progressive rock band of them all? They came back together, after having disbanded in 1981 (having decided, reasonably enough, that their artistic moment had passed), and brought with them into the studio the two Trevors: Trevor Rabin, a rock guitarist whose musical sensibilities fit in well with the way post-disco develops were encouraging rock music to change, and Trevor Horn, a singer-turned-producer who had worked briefly with Yes before, while at the same time making the new electronic sound essential to British popular music, through such bands as The Buggles, ABC, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and later the Art of Noise. The re-integration of the significantly changed band--though at the last minute, Jon Anderson, Yes's founder and former lead vocalist was convinced to come back on board--was hardly without tension, but it produced a sleek, sharp, utterly of-the-moment Cold War rock album, whose lead single, "Owner of a Lonely Heart" entered the American Billboard charts this week in 1983, and by January of the following year was a #1 hit. Was it the Kafkaesque video that did it? Perhaps. In Reagan's America, in a year of nuclear false alarms and talk of lasers in space, the visual expression of Yes's pop-rock alchemy was on the nose.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Songs of '83: "Holiday"

I was never a huge Madonna fan, especially not at first. That was almost certainly at least partly due to my teenage Mormon suspicion of her: that she was one of those "bad girls" that are to be avoided. Madonna herself surely would have entirely endorsed my response, circa late 1983, when she finally--after years of studying dance and networking at clubs and pitching herself (with more and more success as the 1970s turned to the 1980s) as a backup singer all around New York City--made it on to mainstream American pop radio. Whether it was her own Catholic background or the socially conservative religious or cultural hang-ups of literally anyone else, she delightedly (and, of course, strategically; she's always been a savvy self-marketer) figured how to flaunt her disregard for us squares, stylistically, sexually, or otherwise. In that sense, "Holiday," the first cut from her debut album to make it onto the Billboard pop charts (debuting 40 years ago this week), was entirely appropriate: her whole oeuvre has always been about selling an image of getting away and taking a break, "just one day out of life."

"Holiday" is a pretty lame song, all things considered, just as the original video shot for it was (really it was more a dance audition than a video). Later cuts from her first album were better ("Borderline," for example, is simply a terrific pop song), and I enjoyed Madonna' stuff on the radio well enough. But it probably wasn't until I watched the tremendous documentary Paris is Burning, focused on "voguing" and the underground LGBTQ ballroom scene in New York City in general, that I started to view Madonna's choreographic skill, her cosmopolitan vision, and dedication to what came to be called "dance-pop" with some respect. Yes, she's an operator, no doubt about that. But in her own way, she's an artist too, one who was for years was determined to master, to lift up--or to rip off--whatever added to the liberatory power and delirious fun of cutting loose on the dance floor and in front of the mic. In that spirit, here's Madonna at the height of her powers, during the (regularly protested and condemned as "satanic" by Pope John Paul II!) Blonde Ambition tour. Put your troubles down, everyone; it's time to celebrate.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Songs of '83: "In a Big Country"

Big Country's "In a Big Country" debuted on the Billboard charts and American pop radio 40 years ago this week. The story of Big Country's origin was, like so many other post-punk UK outfits which emerged far from London's clubs, one of desperate experimentation--in this case, Stuart Adamson playing around on an effects pedal and an electronic bow and discovering a way to make guitars sound like bagpipes. Leaving behind the punk scene entirely, and connecting with a couple of studio musicians skilled in creating a 1970s classic rock sound (Big Country's drummer and bassist had both played with the Who's Pete Townshend on his terrific solo album Empty Glass), Adamson brought Big County together in 1981. Their first album got some decent airplay around the UK--but it was this goofy, utterly delightful video, featuring Adamson and his bandmates treasure hunting (and being hunted in turn) across Scotland, that gave the band their one hit in the U.S. The subsequent story of Big Country is not an entirely pleasant one--but for American radio-listeneres like me, they made 1983 a lot more fun.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Songs of '83: "Rockit"

I'm pretty certain I never heard Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" on the radio in 1983. Its presence in my memory, and its presence on this list (it was actually a released single, but it never even made it to the Top Fifty, cresting at #71 on the Billboard chart this week in October, 40 years ago), is entirely a result of Friday Night Videos, which played it constantly. I can only presume that in the months following Michael Jackson and other Black artists breaking MTV's informal racial line, the push was strong for other platforms to make up for lost time--and this crazy, artsy, funky video certainly qualifies. I have no idea how Hancock himself regards this recording today, but for a White kid starting high school far away from any college scenes or jazz clubs, it got stuck in my mind as a bit of a revelation.

Monday, October 09, 2023

Songs of '83: "Heart and Soul"

There are multiple major radio stars from 1983 that, for a variety of reasons, I haven't highlighted, and won't highlight, on this list. Toto's biggest selling and most famous single, "Africa," hit #1 on the Billboard charts in February, and was unavoidable for much of the year--but it had been released months earlier, and I count it as a 1982 song. Billy Joel's An Innocent Man was released in August of 1983, and had four Top Twenty hits--but ultimately, the vibe of the Piano Man just doesn't fit with what I think 1983 really meant in terms of pop music trends. And so forth: Elton John, The Fixx, Bryan Adams, Bob Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band: all very much in the radio mix during this year, but they're not making my personal cut. But how could I, how could anyone, ignore the biggest, slickest, hardest-working White guy pop bar band of the era? No one could, and I'm sure not.

"Heart and Soul," the first single from Sports, hit the Top 40 four decades ago this week, and with it Huey Lewis and The News began a streak that lasted for nearly five years; with only one exception (1984's "Walking on a Thin Line"), every single they released until late 1988 became a Top Ten Billboard hit. Looking back over the decades, Huey Lewis has commented that the band, by the time they came to the end of their run, had become better musicians than they'd been back in their heyday, when the goal--their only goal, really--was to orchestrate in the studio whatever radio-friendly hooks their blusey-but-not-really mix of guitars and keyboards and drums and harmonica allowed. I never saw them live (one of my major musical regrets, to be honest), but I've heard from multiple friends who did that their shows were loose and loud and awesome--and also perhaps never quite as kick-butt as their recordings. It's interesting that once they hit their peak and the years passed, they started playing around more, releasing albums of doo-wop and soul music--but never letting their formula go entirely. It worked for them for years, and it was certainly working for them here.

Monday, October 02, 2023

Songs of '83: "Major Tom (Coming Home)"

There were three German-speaking pop artists who had major hits on American radio in 1983. The 40th anniversary for one of them has already past; I'm going to come back to it later this year, for reasons that I'll explain at the time. Another, the biggest splash by a German-language pop song on the Billboard chart all year, won't have its turn in the spotlight for a couple more months. So this week we have the third entry: a witty bit of synthpop from Peter Schilling, a musician whose love of electronica always shaded into science-fiction--and in David Bowie's 1969 "Space Oddity," with its story of the eponymous astronaut stranded alone in his tin can far above the world, Schilling found his muse. He recorded the song in German--"Major Tom (völlig losgelöst)," meaning "completely detached"--and released it in January of 1983; it became a huge club hit throughout Western Europe, and the pressure was on to record and release and English-language version. When he finally finished and released the English translation, it climbed to the Top Twenty in the U.S. (and Number 1 in Canada), guaranteeing his place as one of the great one-hit wonders of the era. (Major Tom himself, of course, kept coming back again and again.)

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.