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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.