Featured Post


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

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.