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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.)