Friday, September 30, 2011

Narada Michael Walden - "I Shoulda Loved Ya"

I Shoulda Loved Ya - The Dance of Life

(Debuted February 9, 1980, Peaked #66, 6 Weeks on the Chart)

You may not recognize Narada Michael Walden's name, but if you're a fan of 1980s music you've been exposed to his work. He wrote songs like "Freeway of Love," "How Will I Know" and "I Don't Want to Cry." As a producer, he was at the console for a long list of #1 hits for Whitney Houston, as well as "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" for Starship and "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" for George Michael and Aretha Franklin.

Before that, he was a musician, both as a session performer and as a featured act. In the 1970s, he replaced the legendary Billy Cobham as drummer in Mahavishnu Orchestra and sat in with Jeff Beck and Tommy Bolin. He began recording during the disco era and used his jazz background to make interesting (and danceable) music. Despite a handful of hits on the R&B and dance charts, he only managed two pop hits: 1979's "I Don't Want Nobody Else (To Dance With You)" and "I Shoulda Loved You." Neither of those reached into the Top 40. However, nobody minded that once the material he wrote and produced caught fire later in the decade.

A deep bass line grabs the listener's attention right at the beginning of the song. Those notes were provided by T.M. Stevens, who also co-wrote the song with Walden. The instrumental bridge provides a terrific bass solo, along with turns for an electric piano and saxophone. This may have been called "disco" at the time, but it was a unfair tag.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The B-52s - "Private Idaho"

Private Idaho - Wild Planet

(Debuted October 18, 1980, Peaked #74, 5 Weeks on the Chart)

At the time, the B-52s music came across as fresh and bright because it was so different from what was playing around it at the time. Of course, it wasn't exactly new (the band was influenced by surf music, 1960s dance records and garage rock) but it was given a conduit due to its New Wave label.

It's hard to listen to "Private Idaho" without wanting to move. Its guitar line (a very present but still understated effort by Ricky Wilson) works like a timing chain pulling the entire engine along, Fred Schneider's nonsensical lyrics are fun, and the dual attack of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson punctuating him are sublime.

There may be a message behind the words (an appeal for small-town America to pull the stick out of its collective backside, perhaps?), but the song is just too fun to pay any attention to it. As a song from the band's second LP, it holds up well to "Rock Lobster" and "Dance This Mess Around," which made their debut such a classic.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Utopia - "Set Me Free"

Set Me Free - Adventures In Utopia

(Debuted February 23, 1980, Peaked #27, 12 Weeks on the Chart)

Utopia was a side project for Todd Rundgren. that may seem odd to some, since Rundgren is well-known for being a person who tends to play all the instruments on his solo LPs. Beginning as a progressive rock band in 1973, the group released several albums in that vein but emerged at the turn of the decade with an album called Adventures in Utopia, which was as solidly pop as anything that Rundgren did.

Further underscoring the fact that Utopia was a separate project for Rundren was the fact that "Set Me Free" was sung by bass player Kasim Sulton. Despite the single's success, Rundgren went on to other projects in the meantime and took the group's sound in different directions for its next two albums. After two years, another Utopia record surfaced that went back in a pop direction, but the wider audience had long since moved on. As a result, "Set Me Free" would be the group's only Top 40 entry.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Blondie - "Atomic"

Atomic - Eat to the Beat

(Debuted May 17, 1980, Peaked #39, 9 Weeks on the Chart)

One of the things that made Blondie unique was the way they were able to jump between different styles from single to single. They could do disco ("Heart of Glass") to straight rock ("One Way or Another") to synthesized New Wave ("Call Me") to reggae-lite ("The Tide is High") to rap ("Rapture") and still stay true to their sound. For "Atomic," they used a sound inspired by Spaghetti Western movies.

The song was written by group members Jimmy Destri and Debbie Harry. Destri was originally looking to do something similar to "Heart of Glass" and then decided to go in a very different direction. "Atomic" just barely reached into the U.S. Top 40, but it went right to #1 in the U.K. for two weeks.

I've never tried to figure out what the lyrics mean, though. Perhaps that's for the best.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Crystal Gayle - "It's Like We Never Said Goodbye"

It's Like We Never Said Goodbye - Crystal Gayle: The Hits

(Debuted February 23, 1980, Peaked #63, 3 Weeks on the Chart)

Once again, this blog returns to 1980 to begin another round of reviews. In that vein, there is hardly a better title to reload the decade with than this one.

Crystal Gayle was a country singer (and as Loretta Lynn's younger sister, she was well-suited for it), but had a versatile voice that let her get several crossover hits as well. In the case of the piano and the smoky-room atmosphere of "Don't it Make My Brown Eyes Blue" (a #2 hit in 1977), she was able to straddle the  line between country and pop; in the case of "It's Like We Never Said Goodbye," the results weren't as solid.

A song about getting over a relationship gone sour, it was a universal topic. Even in a year where crossover success was easy (Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and Eddie Rabbitt would get #1 pop hits and Urban Cowboy sent seven singles into the Top 40), success wasn't guaranteed for everybody. That's too bad, as it is a very good song.

Despite its poor showing on the pop chart, it was one of the eighteen songs she took to #1 on the country chart. In fact, the week "It's Like We Never Said Goodbye" reached the top position on that chart, it was part of a Top 5 that featured female vocalists on all the singles (though one was a duet between George Jones and Tammy Wynette), the first time that had ever happened in the country genre.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Alice Cooper - "Poison"

Poison - Trash

(Debuted September 23, 1989, Peaked #7, 18 Weeks on the Chart)

The 1980s were an interesting decade for Alice Cooper. After making his name through "shock rock" and theatrics in the 1970s, he began descending into a shell caused by years of alcohol abuse. His hit songs got "softer" in the late 70s and then just disappeared after 1980. He was still recording, but he clearly wasn't the performer he once had been. In the late 1980s, Cooper was helped by the fact that a lot of the kids who dug his 1970s material were perched on the charts. By 1989, many of the biggest acts were influenced by his look and stage presence (Guns 'n' Roses, Poison, Bon Jovi), while even some of his former associates (like Kip Winger) were notching hits of their own. By that time, Alice Cooper was remembered fondly by many.

In short, it was time for him to return. With his 1989 LP Trash, he did a big way. After a long time away (seemingly), he was back. He was in heavy rotation on MTV, holding court around the kids who once sat in his shows and listened to his records. While not shocking or controversial, "Poison" was obviously geared to appeal to the "metalheads" that were buying a lot of music at the time. Its guitar-driven sound was formulaic but fun.

And then there were the lyrics. They tell a tale of a relationship that isn't good, but that fact somehow enhances it. I understood that -- I was in one of those relationships about six months earlier -- and picked up the message underneath all that sonic sheen.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Expose - "When I Looked at Him"

When I Looked At Him - What You Don't Know

(Debuted August 19, 1989, Peaked #10, 19 Weeks on the Chart)

In 1987, I remembered Expose for a series of dance hits that charted all through the year. A string of Top 10 hits made an immediate impression, and was definitely an impetus for a number of similar three-piece all-female vocal groups built in a studio (Sweet Sensation, Seduction, The Cover Girls, etc.) that proliferated soon afterwards. However, they followed those hits up with the ballad "Seasons Change," and took it to #1 on the pop chart in 1988.

When the group resurfaced in 1989, they used a familiar formula. The first single off the What You Don't Know LP was the title song, a dance number that didn't stand out as much due to the sound-alike groups they were competing against. So, their record company followed it up with a ballad called "When I Looked at Him," which was very similar in style to that #1 hit. It went into the Top 10, the sixth of seven straight singles to reach that level.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Surface - "Shower Me With Your Love"

Shower Me With Your Love - 2nd Wave

(Debuted July 1, 1989, Peaked #5, 19 Weeks on the Chart)

Homecoming weekend, 1989. I was a high school senior, as well as a lineman on the varsity football team. We won the game and I went to the Homecoming dance afterwards to join in the celebration. I didn't stay very long but took the opportunity to dance with an underclassman who lived up the road from me.

I really liked her but never had the guts to say it. She was a couple of years younger and I may have been worried that the difference in age was going to be a problem...not between us, but with friends. So I let the matter slide and never really mentioned anything about it to her (in fact, she still may have never caught on...which is why I haven't mentioned her name). We remained very good friends, though, even while I went on to join the Army and go to college before we lost touch.

All we ended up sharing was that one dance at Homecoming. The song we danced to? "Shower Me With Your Love," which was then in the Top 10. Hearing that song ever since has reminded me of her and that moment.

"Shower Me With Your Love" was one of three #1 singles on the R&B chart (and five Top 5 hits on that chart) from Surface's 2nd Wave LP. However, it was the only one of those that made a big impression on the pop chart. The band returned in 1990/'91 with a song called "The First Time" that hit #1 on the pop, adult and R&B charts.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Belinda Carlisle - "Leave a Light On"

Leave a Light On - Runaway Horses

(Debuted September 30, 1989, Peaked #11, 17 Weeks on the Chart)

To be honest, I was never really a big fan of Belinda Carlisle's solo material when her songs "Mad About You" and the hits from her album Heaven on Earth were in constant rotation on the radio. While her work was destined to be compared to what she did with The Go-Gos, that was probably unfortunate since it was a manifestation of a different direction in her life from her admittedly wild days as a Go-Go. Ironically, at the same moment I began to really get into her new material, her audience began to dwindle.

Another person who found her music interesting was ex-Beatle George Harrison. He provided his distinctive slide guitar to the instrumental bridge. That was a real compliment, and Harrison was happy to help because he was a fan of Carlisle's singing. His solo isn't the only interesting non-vocal performance in the song, either...check out that drum fill as Carlisle shifts back into the chorus for the fade-out.

"Leave a Light On" was written by Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley, who had also written Carlisle's earlier hits "Heaven is a Place on Earth" and "Circle in the Sand." The lyrics touch on a subject that most singers are intimately familiar with: leaving home for long stretches of time. The chorus is a reminder that it's only a matter of time before she comes back, and she's definitely coming back.

Monday, September 19, 2011

De La Soul - "Me, Myself & I"

Me, Myself & I - King's Ransom: The Album (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)

(Debuted June 3, 1989, Peaked #34, 17 Weeks on the Chart)

De La Soul was a Long Island-based rap trio that caught attention with its wordplay and jazz-influenced stylings. They were quick to poke fun of the more violent and decadent direction that mainstream hip-hop was taking, but did it with a sense of humor (probably to keep from hiving any caps popped into their collective asses).

Several songs were sampled in "Me, Myself & I," most notably Parliament's "(Not Just) Knee Deep." The thing I most remember about the song was that while one of my friends (a teammate on the varsity football team with me) was a fan of the song, but was good enough to tell me where that sample could be found. As a result, I looked for that and was given quite a lesson about what Funk was.

Any song (or group) that can introduce somebody to Parliament is worth a spotlight.

Friday, September 16, 2011

So - "Are You Sure"

Are You Sure - Lost & Found: Imagination, Vol. 1

(Debuted February 20, 1988, Peaked #41, 11 Weeks on the Chart)

I was living in Tennessee for a short time in 1988. I specifically remember that one of the DJs at a local radio station there was a big fan of "Are You Sure." He talked it up a few times and mentioned how much he liked it. The effort fell short, as "Are You Sure" barely missed the Top 40. Soon afterward, I moved back to upstate New York...where nobody I knew had ever heard the song.

Before you wonder if any member of the band was a relative of that DJ, I don't think so, So was an English duo (Marcus Bell and Mark Long). "Are You Sure" would be their only pop hit in the U.S. In the U.K., the song fared even worse, peaking at #62.

Today, when I hear the song I remember that a local DJ in Tennessee liked the song enough to plug it. I don't even remember the jock's name.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Robert Palmer - "Early in the Morning"

Early In the Morning - Heavy Nova

(Debuted October 22, 1988, Peaked #19, 14 Weeks on the Chart)

Robert Palmer was a very good interpreter of songs. Not only that, but he was able to draw from a wide variety of styles and influences. In the case of "Early in the Morning," he put his mark on a song that had already been a #1 R&B hit for The Gap Band in 1982.

In my case, I never heard the original version when it came out. They weren't played by the station I listened to in 1982, and the band didn't get much exposure on MTV. A song about realizing what you had after she's walked out the door, Palmer's version was smoother, more slickly produced and given a more "modern" treatment.

However, it helped some suburban kids like myself to eventually seek out the original. No matter how much I enjoyed the newer version, it's a different take and the version by The Gap Band definitely deserved to be heard on its own terms. That's the value of having a singer like Robert Palmer, and the value of being able to draw from different styles.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Deele - "Two Occasions"

Two Occasions (LP Version) - Eyes of a Stranger

(Debuted February 27, 1988, Peaked #10, 21 Weeks on the Chart)

For many listeners, "Two Occasions" introduced the world to Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. The smooth "Quiet Storm" ballad was a crossover hit, making the Top 10 on both the pop and R&B charts and placed on the adult contemporary chart as well. It's generally stated that "Two Occasions" was the group's most successful single by virtue of its crossover appeal (and despite the fact that 1984's "Body Talk" peaked higher on the R&B chart and was included in the first episode of Miami Vice).

However, the band was splitting apart just as they were making it big. Reid and Babyface both left in 1988 to pursue their own careers as producers, with Edmonds also enjoying a successful solo career.None of that, however, distracts from the fact that "Two Occasions" was a very good song, infused with soul and well-produced.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chicago - "Look Away"

Look Away - Chicago 19

(Debuted September 24, 1988, Peaked #1, 24 Weeks on the Chart)

I began writing this blog over six months ago, and have actively avoided gravitating to the bigger hits on purpose. In some cases, I've found that there are sometimes more interesting songs when you dig down a lot deeper than the Top 10, while there's also an unwillingness on my part to feature the biggest hits right away because it gives an incentive for readers to return and keep checking out what may be on here. Today, I feature the first #1 single for my review. It's not the best song of the year, and it isn't even my favorite Chicago song by a long shot. However, there's a personal story behind the song.

My high school sweetheart was named Gina. We were that couple that kept splitting up, only to reconcile our differences later. I lost count of the number of times we called it off; it was usually over some small issue but neither of us was willing to change our identity for the other. Anyway, "Look Away" came out during one of our numerous times apart. Immediately thinking of me because the lyrics were about ending a relationship, Gina got back in touch and we were soon a couple again.

She wanted it to be "our song," even though I was opposed (as I am now) to the idea of only one song that can express everything. Actually, in her case it wasn't even the correct Chicago song that summed our relationship up (that would have been "If She Would Have Been Faithful..." but that's a topic for another entry). Whenever I hear "Look Away" today, I immediately remember that short time of my teenage years.

Today, I find it both ironic and appropriate that what she called "our song" was about the aftermath of a breakup. After all, it was something we were both good at doing. While it's a reminder of some dark times, there were lessons that I was able to carry with me as I continued down Life's Highway. Those bad memories are as important as the good ones, which is why "Look Away" would be on my own personal soundtrack of 1988-'89 even though I wasn't exactly fond of it at the time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Paul Carrack - "When You Walk in the Room"

When You Walk In the Room - One Good Reason

(Debuted June 18, 1988, Peaked #90, 3 Weeks on the Chart)

Paul Carrack once more embarked on a solo career after hitting as a lead singer with three different bands. In 1975, he wrote and sang lead on Ace's hit "How Long." In 1981, it was his voice on Squeeze's "Tempted." Then, he once again showed up on Mike + The Mechanics' "Silent Running" in 1986. He also had a minor hit with "I Need You" in 1982.

In 1987, Carrack's solo career really got off the ground with the hits "Don't Shed a Tear" and "One Good Reason." He followed those up with "When You Walk in the Room," a remake of a 1964 Jackie DeShannon song. Carrack had issued the song as a single in the U.K. in 1987, but his record company held it back until the next year for American release. It wasn't a big hit despite being much better than several songs of teh era that were.

There were two videos for "When You Walk in the Room." The one sent to British video outlets was a humorous bit, where Carrack played a smitten schoolboy who was constantly getting beaten up due to his infatuation with a girl. The video below shows the American video. It's not as funny, but it does appear the editor had some fun with the concept. The (uncredited) female singer who keeps appearing as if in a dream is Jackie Rawe.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Crowded House - "Something So Strong"

Something So Strong - Crowded House

(Debuted May 2, 1987, Peaked #7, 21 Weeks on the Chart)

Let's go for the hat trick here...For the third day in a row, we'll feature a song that followed a #2 pop hit in 1987. However, this time I'm not going to say that this single should have been given more consideration than the hit it followed. That's not to say that "Something So Strong" isn't good (because it is), but it's hard to have improved on "Don't Dream it's Over."

Crowded House was an Australian band led by New Zealander Neil Finn. The group rose from the ashes of Finn's previous group Split Enz. Originally calling themselves The Mullanes but having that name rejected by their record label, they settled on Crowded House after living in a cramped apartment while recording their first album.

With its positive delivery, "Something So Strong" was the group's second American Top 10 pop hit. Surprisingly, it failed to get far up the charts in the U.K. or the band's native Australia. It's definitely worth listening to if you've never heard it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Robbie Nevil - "Dominoes"

Dominoes - The Best of Robbie Neville

(Debuted February 14, 1987, Peaked #14, 16 Weeks on the Chart)

For the second straight day, I'm featuring a followup single to a #2 smash that I actually found more interesting. In the case of "Dominoes," it followed the smash hit "C'est La Vie" (not the Chuck Berry song). In this case, the preference is little more than a personal one, since the first hit was really good on its own.

In 1987, songs with a beat were really common, but "Dominoes" was different. The rhythm was influenced by a Caribbean beat, and the lyrics seemed to have a lot more imagery with their account of a woman who can make men fall over (themselves, I assume) due to her beauty. At least I hope it's due to her beauty; this doesn't appear to be a Medusa story.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wang Chung - "Let's Go!"

Let's Go - Everybody Wang Chung Tonight - Wang Chung's Greatest Hits

(Debuted January 24, 1987, Peaked #9, 18 Weeks on the Chart)

Fresh off the success of their #2 hit "Everybody Have Fun Tonight," Wang Chung followed up with another upbeat tune that I personally preferred. While the earlier hit seemed goofy and cartoonish (perhaps the use of the band's name in the chorus turned me off), "Let's Go!" seemed to be about just going out and having fun. There's a very fine distinction, but it's there. Even at 14 years old, I saw that when it came out.

While I definitely think "Let's Go!" deserved its final spot in the pop Top 10, it's a shame that it has been largely forgotten in favor of "Everybody Have Fun Tonight." Mainly, I see it as a vindication, a way of reminding listeners that there was more to the band than the first hit offered. Anyway, it's worth listening to if you've never heard it...especially if you've never known any other Wang Chung hits besides the one major hit they enjoyed.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Bourgeois Tagg - "I Don't Mind at All"

(Not Available on iTunes)

Debuted October 10, 1987, Peaked #38, 17 Weeks on the Chart

Here's a song I heard often when it was a hit (in fact, much more often than its #38 peak would indicate), and to say I wasn't a fan would probably be a gross understatement. It was a slow-moving song -- despite its two and-a-half minute length -- that appeared at a time where a lot of the hits featured sped-up rhythms. But then again, I was almost fifteen years old and my life experience really didn't give me a lot to find anything appealing about the song.

Today, a line like "several years ago I said goodbye to my own sanity" definitely sticks with me. Because I can definitely relate in a way I just couldn't at a young age. I also find it interesting that I felt the instrumentation to be boring, as it's similar to what The Beatles used in "Yesterday" and "I Am the Walrus," both of which I liked at the time. Todd Rungren produced the track, which may account for the complexity of the background arrangement.

Bourgeois Tagg's name came from the last names of its two main members: Brent Bourgeios and Larry Tagg. They had been working together since 1984 and "I Don't Mind at All" came from their second LP Yoyo. They would break up a short time later, after further singles failed to get any notice. Bourgeois would later resurface as a Contemporary Christian artist during the 1990s.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Noel - "Silent Morning"

Silent Morning - Best of Legends of Freestyle

(Debuted August 22, 1987, Peaked #47, 22 Weeks on the Chart)

Noel was a Bronx-born singer of Puerto Rican heritage who recorded in what was known as Freestyle, one of the many different paths what was once called disco took after going "underground" as the decade turned. Although he later had a pair of #1 dance hits in 1988, "Silent Morning" was his highest-charting pop hit.

Several descriptions of the song explain how the lines "I'm on fire..." as well as the concept of waking up alone and thinking back on a love that is lost mirrored what was then going on due to the AIDS epidemic. Given the popularity of Freestyle and dance music in general among the gay crowd, that is possible. However, those same words can also be implied to be about young love (the "I'm on fire" could just mean he's horny) and a more figurative type of "leaving" than one that is so permanent. In either case, the words speak to a wide range of people, like a good song should.

In that case, the beat is truly unifying.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Fabulous Thunderbirds - "Wrap it Up"

Wrap It Up - Tuff Enuff

(Debuted August 9, 1986, Peaked #50, 10 Weeks on the Chart)

The Fabulous Thunderbirds  were formed in Austin in 1974 and were led by vocalist/harmonica player Kim Wilson and guitarist Jimmie Vaughan. Influenced by the blues, they built their sound into a powerful roadhouse blues sound that helped them become the house band at Antone's in Austin, where they became a big part of that city's burgeoning music scene.

"Wrap it Up" was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, remake of a 1968 Sam & Dave song.It was the followup to the group's hit single "Tuff Enuff," a song I really didn't like that much and grew increasingly tired of as it was played on heavy rotation on my local radio station. When "Wrap it Up" came out, I realized the band was a lot better than I'd assumed...but the song didn't stay around long. The same thing happened to another Fabulous Thunderbirds song that caught my ear in 1988 ("Powerful Stuff").

In 1989, Jimmie Vaughan left the band to play along with his brother, Stevie Ray. The band needed two guitarists to replace him, but they've soldiered on ever since, with Wilson remaining the only constant member.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Wham! - "The Edge of Heaven"

The Edge of Heaven - Music from the Edge of Heaven

(Debuted July 5, 1986, Peaked #10, 13 Weeks on the Chart)

In the Spring of 1986, George Michael and Andrew Ridgely announced that they would be ending their partnership as Wham! and milked the news by staging a farewell concert, recording a final album and issuing a farewell single. In the U.S., that last single appeared as "The Edge of Heaven," a four-and-a-half minute shot of pop-fueled sweetness. Let's call it the aural equivalent of Pez: it's satisfying in a small dose, gives a quick rush but is soon forgotten.

To anybody who was paying attention, it was pretty obvious that the duo were diverging musically. While always billed as a duo, George Michael was definitely the focal point of the act. He handled most of the lyrics, took up most of the screen time in the videos and was even getting credit in the songs ("Careless Whisper" was credited to Wham! featuring George Michael). As for Andrew Ridgely, he seemed to hop in to the video shots from time to time to show that, yes, he was still hanging around. It really shouldn't have come as a surprise that after the split, George Michael went on to become a big star for the next several years, and Ridgely focused on activities such as race car driving, surfing and other non-musical pursuits. When he did come up with a solo record, it sank from view quickly.

In fact, the group's bass player Deon Estus managed to enjoy a bigger solo hit (1989's "Heaven Help Me") than Andrew Ridgely ever did.