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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?