Friday, July 29, 2011

The Carpenters - "Touch Me When We're Dancing"

Touch Me When We're Dancing - Made in America

(Debuted June 20, 1981, Peaked #16, 14 Weeks on the Chart)

I've said it before in my 1970s music blog and I'll say it again here: Karen Carpenter could have sung names from an open phone book and sounded good doing it.

The final hit for The Carpenters before Karen's tragic death was a song that had charted back in 1979 for a group called Bama (not Alabama, read on for more about them). A few members of the band came up with the tune while on the road and took it to #86 in the Fall of that year. In 1981, the Carpenters took the song, gave it their own spin on the LP Made in America and had their biggest hit in years with it. It went into the pop Top 20 and to #1 on the adult contemporary chart.

In 1986, the song would also make it to the #1 spot on the country chart when it was recorded by the group Alabama. Not Bama, who originally recorded it, but Alabama.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Jefferson Starship - "Stranger"

Stranger - Modern Times

(Debuted July 11, 1981, Peaked #48, 11 Weeks on the Chart)

I'm not going to share any stories from childhood about this song, because I never heard this song back then. In fact, I was only made aware of it by a video that showed up on a recording from MTV from the days when they still played videos all day long.

"Stranger" is a nice example of the transition between the Jefferson Starship's late 1970s era and the lead-up to when they became simply Starship. I suspect the difference between liking and not liking this has a lot to do with your own preference about which version of Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship you have.

The song is marked by a decent bass/drum line and Craig Chaquico's spacey guitar work to go along with the vocal interaction between Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick. Watching the video below, I'm beginning to wonder if anybody else saw Slick as similar to the "weird" girl in high school who was a social outcast but you secretly wanted to spend some time with because you knew the ride would be a lot of fun.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Phil Seymour - "Precious to Me"

Precious to Me - Phil Seymour

(Debuted January 24, 1981, Peaked #22, 16 Weeks on the Chart)

Phil Seymour has been largely forgotten as an artist, which is a shame because he's been involved with several hit projects. His first major collaboration was as part of The Dwight Twilley Band, as they recorded "I'm On Fire" and took it to #16 in 1974. He was alos a background singer for Tom Petty's "American Girl" and "Breakdown." As a session musician, he also recorded on many other records. His first solo LP came out in 1981, and included "Precious To Me," a catchy pop tune that fit the new decade's sound well.

Sadly, fate got in the way of Seymour's career. First, Neil Bogart (president of his record label Boardwalk) died from cancer shortly after the song was a hit, which caused the small reocord company to implode. Then, in 1984 Seymour discovered he also had cancer. The diagnosis was lymphoma, and he battled it as he tried to advance his career. Phil Seymour lost that battle in 1993. He was 41 years old.

On this side of that story...the words "Precious To Me" take on an entirely different meaning.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Gary Wright - "Really Wanna Know You"

Really Want To Know You (Remastered Album Version) - The Right Place

(Debuted July 4, 1981, Peaked #16, 17 Weeks on the Chart)

Fans of 1970s music remember Gary Wright from his twin #2 hits from 1976: "Dream Weaver" and "Love is Alive." Before those hits, he was a member of the British band Spooky Tooth (despite being American) and contributed the piano to the 1972 smash hit "Without You." His only other Top 40 single came in 1981 when "Really Wanna Know You" appeared in its own waves of synthesized sound.
While the song isn't going to make fans (or casual listeners, for that matter) forget those two earlier hits songs, the five year period may have helped Wright get past some of the backlash that hurt some artists from the 1970s. In any case, "Really Wanna Know You" can stand on its own merit. While it has a similar ethereal quality as "Dream Weaver," it doesn't sound like a clone of that song, which was probably helpful.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Billy Squier - "In the Dark"

Don't Say No (Remastered) - Billy Squier

(Debuted September 12, 1981, Peaked #35, 12 Weeks on the Chart)

The album Don't Say No helped introduce mainstream America to Billy Squier. "In the Dark" was the very first song on that LP. He had spent several years paying his dues, including a stint with a group named Piper that was signed to A&M but had no hit singles. However, when the 1980s rolled around, his brand of rock tinged with a melody -- along with his posturing -- was a great sound and look for the dawning of the MTV age.

While "The Stroke" was much more of an attention-grabber, the more understated "In the Dark" followed it into the Top 40. Where the first hit was something that Led Zeppelin could have claimed, "In the Dark" was a little slower (some may say more sensual) and featured more layered sounds in the backing track.

If you aren't familiar with this gem, give it a listen and see if you don't agree that it may have been underappreciated.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The J. Geils Band - "Love Stinks"

Love Stinks - Love Stinks

(Debuted April 12, 1980, Peaked #38, 12 Weeks on the Chart)

Although it was barely a Top 40 hit during its original single release, "Love Stinks" is still remembered today thanks to a great scene in The Wedding Singer, where Adam Sandler decides to use it to serenade a happy couple after getting jilted by his own fiancee. In a sense, the song was much different than the soul and blues-based material they released in the 1970s, but at the same time pointed to new directions they would later explore with Freeze Frame a year and a half later.

As you can guess by its title, "Love Stinks" isn't exactly a love song. Its main guitar riff was really simple and direct, its lyrics rife with sarcasm and delivered with all of the subtlety of a sledge hammer. It's really an infectious piece of pop, even if it's an ode to love gone horribly wrong.

I absolutely love the video for the song (which appears below). Despite being filmed in the immediate pre-MTV era, it suited the burgeoning genre well with its sense of humor. I was showing this to my young daughter recently and even she got a kick out of the way Steven Jo Bladd played drums with a fish, as well as the part where the bride and groom are wearing gas masks.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Invisible Man's Band - "All Night Thing"

(Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted May 17, 1980, Peaked #45, 10 Weeks on the Chart)

Fans of 1970s music and R&B likely remember a song called "O-o-h Child," which was a #8 hit in the Spring of 1970. The song was performed by a group called The Five Stairsteps, a group made up of several Chicago-based siblings. Four of those brothers -- Keni, Clarence, James and Dennis Burke -- began The Invisible Man's Band in 1979 and soon produced the infectious track "All Night Thing," which brought them back into the R&B Top 10 for the first time since The Five Staristeps broke up.

For those who think that disco music was dead after 1979, this song is proof that the sound wasn't as dead as it was reported to be. In fact, the music went underground for several years, with some tracks like "Funkytown" getting substantial airplay. In some cases, the music was more electronic (disco relied heavily os live string sections) but in the case of "All Night Thing," it sounds very much like a song that would have been a solid hit during the post-Saturday Night Fever heyday of disco. The lyrics don't even try to coyly attempt to suggest it's anything else, either.

Despite what you might think about disco music, "All Night Thing" is worth a listen. it's a great upbeat tune that is easy to get you moving.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hall and Oates - "Wait For Me"

Wait for Me - X-Static

(Debuted October 27, 1979, Peaked #18, 18 Weeks on the Chart)

After getting some attention in the mid 1970s with tunes such as "Sara Smile," "She's Gone" and "Rich Girl,"  Daryl Hall and John Oates went through a "down" period that seemed like a waning before their early 1980s resurgence that eclipsed everything they had done before it. In essence, the period was marked by the duo trying to find its sound, rather than simply coming up with more variations of their hits. In the end, it worked; but the years between 1977 and 1980 were rather lean hit-wise.

One other factor that helped their success was two "missing" pieces: guitarist G.E. Smith and bass player Tom "T-Bone" Wolk. I find it to be little coincidence that the duo's biggest hits came with those two musicians supporting them. Smith was already on board beginning with X-Static (the LP that includes "Wait For Me"), and Wolk was still a couple of years away.

"Wait For Me" was written by Daryl Hall, and while it brought them their first Top 40 hit of the new decade, their breakthrough would come much later in the year in the form of their next LP Voices.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Cars - "Touch and Go"

Touch and Go - Panorama

(Debuted September 6, 1980, Peaked #37, 11 Weeks on the Chart)

"Touch and Go" was the only hit single the group managed to get from its third LP Panorama. The album pointed the group's change from the harder-edged pop/rock from its first two records and showed a glimpse into the material that later brought them more hits in the 1980s. Though less commercially successful than many of its other albums (it "only" went single platinum), the darker tone actually lends the record a quality that makes it more interesting.

The performance in the YouTube video below is from the TV show Fridays, a show that introduced Michael Richards and Larry David (both were part of the hit show Seinfeld, which would get started in 1989). It was evidently taped from a Tampa/St. Petersburg station (not mine...we lived in a different state and didn't even have a VCR then. Besides, I was too young at the time to stay up long enough to watch the show).

Monday, July 18, 2011

Billy Preston & Syreeta - "With You I'm Born Again"

With You I'm Born Again - Ultimate Collection: Billy Preston

(Debuted December 8, 1979, Peaked #4, 28 Weeks on the Chart)

Just as this blog resets to 1980 once again, it's a good time for a song about a rebirth.

"With You I'm Born Again" was a soft ballad from famed keyboardist Billy Preston and Stevie Wonder's ex-wife Syreeta Wright. Both were behind the scenes with some big hits in the 1960s: Preston was given credit with The Beatles for his part in "Get Back" and Wright was a demo singer and occasional backing performer with Motown even before her association with Wonder.

The song was written as the theme to the basketball-themed film Fast Break, a starring vehicle for Gabe Kaplan after he put down the chalk as Mr. Kotter. Let's just say the song was a lot better received than the film was.

The video below is from a live performance on the Top of the Pops TV show in the U.K., which features some additional piano magic from Preston that wasn't on the single and showcases Wright's vocal range. Both singers did a superb job singing, which makes it hard to realize that neither of them are around anymore to perform an encore. Wright passed away in 2004 and Preston followed in 2006.

However, thanks to the magic of recording devices, they'll always be able to entertain us.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bonus: "David Bowie: Starman"

One of music's most influential artists -- and frequently misunderstood characters -- is David Bowie. His influence may run deeper than many realize as a result of all the changes that got him dubbed the "Chameleon" of rock. His influence on glam rock in the 1970s influenced a lot of those kids who ended up putting on glitter and makeup and being hitmakers during the 1980s. Likewise, his 1980s hits like "Let's Dance" influenced a new generation to explore the concept of "dance" music.

A new book arrives this week called David Bowie: Starman that covers his life and times. Culling together interviews over a period of years by those who knew Bowie the best, Paul Trynka tries to help explain the Bowie phenomenon. For 1980s music fans, it includes details behind the making of the Let's Dance LP (including Stevie Ray Vaughan's contribution to it), as well as his movie career, Band Aid, the day of the Live Aid concert, the duet with Mick Jagger on "Dancing in the Street" and the Tin Machine project that rose out of the disappointing results of his Glass Spider tour.

If you'd like to check out the book for yourself, here's a link to it on Amazon:

I'll use this as an excuse to feature a David Bowie song that didn't make it into the Hot 100. From 1980, here's "Ashes to Ashes":

Friday, July 15, 2011

Patti LaBelle - "If You Asked Me To"

If You Asked Me To (Single) - Patti LaBelle: Greatest Hits

(Debuted October 7, 1989, Peaked #79, 5 Weeks on the Chart)

"If You Asked Me To" was the song that ran along with the closing credits for the 1989 James Bond film License to Kill,  as well as the first single from Patti LaBelle's upcoming album Be Yourself. It had been written by Diane Warren and was a perfect fit for LaBelle's vocal style.

The video (shown below) took on a much difference significance, however. It was filmed the day after LaBelle's sister died from lung cancer (which is why she's wearing black), and the sadness she expresses isn't acting at all. While the song itself is about holding out hope for a failed relationship, the loss of a family member definitely gave it a different twist.

The song wasn't a hit, and I am at a loss to explain why. Other songs that sounded a lot like it in style and with similar production were big hits that year, and the song was eventually made into a breakthrough hit for Celine Dion in 1992. Dion's version was done in the same style and with a nearly identical backing, which might indicate that LaBelle was simply the victim of bad timing.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Edie Brickell & the New Bohenians - "Circle"

Circle - Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars

(Debuted April 8, 1989, Peaked #48, 10 Weeks on the Chart)

I really paid attention to "Circle" the first time I heard it. I don't know why, though. At the time, I did have a friend who decided to hang out with a different group of guys, so perhaps the lyrics about a friend who doesn't come around anymore stuck with me, but I really don't remember. I do remember I was really impressed with the song in a way that "What I Am" hadn't managed to do.

Or...let me say it this way...while "What I Am" was the big hit, "Circle" was the song that actually made me want to buy Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars on cassette.

Between that and "Little Miss S." (which played on my local album-oriented rock station but missed the Hot 100), I was looking forward to more material from the band. However, despite performing one of Bob Dylan's songs in Born On the Fourth of July and one more album, they never returned to the Hot 100 after "Circle." Edie Brickell eventually became Mrs. Paul Simon. The band is still together and occasionally tour and record, but it appears their hitmaking potential has passed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Michelle Shocked - "Anchorage"

Anchorage - Short Sharp Shocked

(Debuted December 10, 1988, Peaked #66, 7 Weeks on the Chart)

I likely heard this song only about a half-dozen times when it came out. But I've always remembered it for some reason.

I first read about Michelle Shocked in Rolling Stone.The article mentioned how the cover of her album was a picture of her being subdued by police after protesting outside of a political convention and how she described herself as a "reformed Mormon" ("reformed" meaning she had gotten past what she had learned from the faith).

At the time, I was coming close to being out of high school and anxious about getting able to leave the small town I called home. Perhaps the song -- essentially a letter from an old friend -- spoke to that yearning that felt that I really wanted to be anywhere else that where I was standing. However, looking a little more deeply into the lyrics indicates that there was more to the song than what was on the surface. Her unnamed friend has given up her dreams in exchange for life as a wife and mother. She's now living in Alaska, which is about as far from her childhood home of Texas as you can get. The line "anchored down in Anchorage" seems to amplify that.

That part wouldn't have resonated with me at 16. Like many other things, it went right over my head.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Vixen - "Cryin'"

Cryin' - Vixen

(Debuted January 28, 1989, Peaked #22, 13 Weeks on the Chart)

I'll preface this entire entry by pointing out that I was 16 years old when this song was a hit. And yes, at that time I thought the ladies in this band rocked. With the passage of time, my moods and tastes have changed and I've often found that what I really liked back then hasn't aged well. In the case of "Cryin'," it's well-crafted pop and the video is shot to appeal to viewers like the teenage version of myself. I still like the song, despite the fact that it's an obvious relic of its era.

After forming in Minnesota, Vixen eventually moved out to California to join the rock scene there. An early version of the group played a band called Diaper Rash in the movie Hardbodies. Now, if you've never seen that movie, find it and try to watch it. It'll likely change a lot of the perceptions you may have about the 1980s.

The lineup that appears in the video was in place by 1987, and lasted for two albums before disbanding in 1991 due to internal friction. It's likely the group was seen as a Glam rock answer to The Bangles by its record company, which is odd because the two groups had little in common despite having photogenic front ladies.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Soulsister - "The Way to Your Heart"

The Way to Your Heart - Original Hits: Soulsister

(Debuted September 3, 1989, Peaked #41, 10 Weeks on the Chart)

I was surprised to see this song missed the Billboard Top 40 since I remember hearing it on the radio when it was a hit. That said, I stopped listening to the American Top 40 program around the time Casey Kasem left in 1988 and Shadoe Stevens took over. That isn't meant to be a dig at Shadoe Stevens; rather, I was usually busy when my local affiliate aired his show so I opted instead for Rick Dees' Weekly Top 40. I know for certain that "The Way to Your Heart" made that show's Top 40, so it was a surprise it didn't do better in Billboard.

In some of my circles of record collectors, I have seen "The Way to Your Heart" called the first single that wasn't available on a vinyl single, which would make it a significant single showing the way the music business was phasing out the seven-inch record in the wake of  the cassette and CD. However, Wikipedia's entry on the song (yes, I know that site is often wrong) claims it was available in a vinyl record. If somebody has any corroborating evidence one way or the other, I'd love to see a comment pointing me in a better direction.

Soulsister was a Belgian duo made up of Jan Leyers and Paul Michiels. "The Way to your Heart" is an upbeat tune that sounds like it's trying to recall the music of the 1960s. Since there was a very strong "retro" movement at that time that fed off of 1960s nostalgia as the kids from the era were beginning to crash headlong into the realities of being all grown up. It's a good song, and I'm still surprised it couldn't get a few more places higher on the chart.

Friday, July 8, 2011

10,000 Maniacs - "What's the Matter Here?"

What's the Matter Here - In My Tribe

(Debuted September 3, 1988, Peaked #80, 8 Weeks on the Chart)

At the time "What's the Matter Here?" was unleashed on college radio (where it was really popular) and on MTV, 10,000 Maniacs was still a virtually unknown band from Upstate New York. However, their record company was priming them for a larger-scale audience, bringing in Peter Asher to produce their 1987 LP In My Tribe. The album had four singles, with two reaching the Hot 100.

In an era where "message" songs managed to get some press and publicity, it was noted that "What's the Matter Here?" was tackling the subject of child abuse. That's never a happy subject, and the band did performed in a straightforward manner, without any dramatics or hysteria. However, what was often overlooked in the lyrics is that the narrator is struggling with whether to say anything about it ("But I don't dare say..."), which gives the song some of its realism, since few really want to be seen as sticking their nose in other people's business.

Written by band members Natalie Merchant and Rob Buck, "What's the Matter Here" stalled at #80. Perhaps it wasn't time for the band yet in the same era as George Michael and Whitney Houston...perhaps it was too soon after Suzanne Vega actually had a hit -- no pun intended -- with the subject the previous year in her song "Luka." It would be more than five years before 10,000 Maniacs would eventually reach the Top 40.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

L.L. Cool J - "Going Back to Cali"

Going Back to Cali - Walking with a Panther

(Debuted  February 20, 1988, Peaked #31, 14 Weeks on the Chart)

After several years of being relegated to "underground" status, rap was making inroads into the Top 40 by 1988. However, "Going Back to Cali" doesn't seem to start off as a rap song per se, not with its brassy opening that seems to have been influenced by Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. Then the lyrics start tossing out brand names and describing the details of a tricked-out Cadillac while looking for the ladies, and yes, it fits the format. That said, it's a good example of what rap was at the time, with a great saxophone solo at the end.

"Going Back to Cali" first appeared on the soundtrack of Less Than Zero, where it was during its run up the charts. It also showed up on LL Cool J's 1989 LP Walking With a Panther.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

New Order - "Blue Monday 1988"

Blue Monday '88 - Singles

(Debuted April 30, 1988, Peaked #68, 10 Weeks on the Chart)

"Blue Monday" was a single New Order originally released in 1983. At the time, it was a U.K. hit but failed to reach the Hot 100 in the U.S. At seven minutes, it was a little bit longer than most hit singles of its day. However, its success in America was limited to the clubs.

In 1988, after New Order had reached the Top 40 with "True Faith," the band (or, more succinctly, the band's record company) released a remixed version of the hit in hopes it would find a bigger audience. This time, it made the pop charts but missed the Top 40. However, it was a big hit among the club scene once again. It was used again years later during a club scene in the film The Wedding Singer.

New Order rose out of the ashes of the group Joy Division after that band's lead singer Ian Curtis killed himself in 1980. Rather than continue the post-punk sound of the old lineup, they established themselves as an electronic band that used a blend of New Wave and dance music by bringing in Gillian Gilbert to play synthesizers and sequencers. The resulting sound made them quite influential during the 1980s even if they didn't have the list of hit records to show for it.

In a bit of trivia that only a musician may recognize, it seems that when New Order was recording the original version of "Blue Monday," Gilbert brought in the sequencer at the wrong time, which gave it a delayed start after the electric drums began. However, the band felt the error gave some charm to the single and kept it that way.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Brenda Russell - "Piano in the Dark"

Piano in the Dark - Ultimate Collection: Brenda Russell

(Debuted February 20, 1988, Peaked #6, 25 Weeks on the Chart)

In the spring of 1988, I remember hearing this song being played on the Top 40 radio station I used to listen to. While I didn't think it was that bad, I also really didn't care for it, either. However, at 15 years old, my musical tastes were such that songs like "Piano in the Dark" really didn't speak to me. And that's exactly what I thought about it at the time: it was an adult song.

As time has gone by, I have really warmed up to the song. It really stands out among the other songs of its era.

The label on the record (but not in the video) credits Russell as the artist, but also gives a credit to Joe Esposito was the male vocalist. "Piano in the Dark" was a return for both artists into the Top 40 since 1979, when Russell had her first hit "So Good, So Right" and Esposito -- as a member of the group Brooklyn Dreams -- dueted with Donna Summer on "Heaven Knows."

Monday, July 4, 2011

Sting - "Englishman in New York"

Englishman in New York - Nothing Like the Sun

(Debuted April 16, 1988, Peaked # 84, 4 Weeks on the Chart)

Today is July 4th, which is a day we in the United States celebrate the day a group of English subjects decided they no longer wanted to be associated with the Crown. In that vein, here's a song that plays on the essence, most New York natives on the morning of July 4, 1776 were Englishmen.

First of all, the fact that this song didn't get any higher than #84 or spend more than four week on the Hot 100 is a mystery to me. Sting was a big enough star, and the song was definitely given some airplay in its day. At the time, I was listening to a couple of radio stations regularly; one was a Top 40 station, while the other leaned more towards the adult contemporary side. Seeing the chart performance, I can only guess that "An Englishman in New York" was played on the second station.
Sting wrote the song for his friend, an eccentric named Quentin Crisp who had emigrated to New York in 1981. Crisp had famously quipped that he looked forward to receiving his naturalization papers, so he could perform a crime without fear of being deported.

The song was included on Sting's ...Nothing Like the Sun LP, one of the first fully digital albums (noted as "DDD" on the CD sleeve) to go multi-platinum. Reflecting Sting's interest in jazz that often shows up in his solo work, Branford Marsalis is featured on the saxophone throughout the song.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Ron & The D.C. Crew - "Rappin' Ron"

(Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted January 24, 1987, Peaked #93, 4 Weeks on the Chart)

Leading into the extended July 4th weekend, this song is perfect. This makes sense to most of us who lived in the U.S. during the 1980s. For those who weren't there, "well""...

One of the things about political humor is that it doesn't tend to age well. As time goes on and new people take the national stage, things that were funny to one generation make no sense at all to the next. A prime example of this is the comic Bloom County. I loved it when I was a kid, but when I was showing a book of the comics to my young daughter a few years back, a lot topics that were specific to the strip's 1980-'89 lifetime didn't register with her because she didn't have the same frame of reference. Instead, I introduced her to Calvin & Hobbes. Since that comic strip generally stayed away from political issues, she fell in love with the concept of a kid who imagines his stuffed tiger is real.

But while political humor rarely ages well, the same goes for novelty records. Usually, they can only be played a few times before they get stale. And that's exactly what happened with my local radio station's morning program. Since I grew up in a small town, many of us listened to the same station as we got ready for school, and most buses played it on the way there. One morning, they played "Rappin' Ron" and we thought it was great. The next morning, we still thought it was great, and I even got a recording on a Certron tape of one of the times it was played.

But before the week was out, it wasn't so funny anymore. And the station went on to the next novelty.

For those of us who lived through the era and remember the Reagan years, a cheesy "rap" imitation might make us chuckle to hear again. Because it is so 1987 (except for the line "Push, the George Bush," which was straight out of 1979). In fact, it's hard now to tell whether the song was intended to lampoon the President or merely cash in on his persona.

In previous entries, I've mentioned that it's a shame that some songs aren't available as digital downloads. I've even called it "criminal" to keep them unavailable. In this case, I'm going to say that I'm not surprised in the case of "Rappin' Ron."