Monday, October 31, 2011

Bronski Beat - "Smalltown Boy"

Smalltown Boy - The Age of Consent

(Debuted December 22, 1984, Peaked #48, 15 Weeks on the Chart)

I remember watching the video for "Smalltown Boy" on MTV twice during 1985, but never even heard it once on the radio. At the same time, the song was part of a promo featuring "new music" that MTV ran which featured the synthesized opening line. As a result, that melody stayed with me for a long time.

At the time, that was all that I knew about the song. I had guessed the "smalltown boy" in the song was running away from his life because he felt trapped. I was 12 then, and living in a small town myself, and probably projected my own feelings onto the words I heard in a way I could relate. Of course, I turned out to be very wrong about it. Bronski Beat's members were homosexuals and their songs often addressed problems they faced because of their orientation. The video shows that as well (with the protagonist getting the snot beat out of him by a gang because of who he was), but I never would have picked up on it at that age...I still had a lot to learn about the topic of homosexuality.

"Smalltown Boy" would be Bronski Beat's only chart hit in the U.S., but they enjoyed more hits in their native U.K. and across Europe. Lead singer Jimmy Somervile would resurface later in the decade as part of The Communards on a pair of songs that remade 1970s disco classics.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Manfred Mann's Earth Band - "Runner"

(Debuted January 21, 1984, Peaked #22, 15 Weeks on the Chart)

One of the biggest stories of 1984 was the Olympic games in Los Angeles. With that in mind, several recordings took advantage of the coming games, including "Runner," which featured images of a torch bearer in its video and a synthesized intro that might have reminded some listeners of the theme to Chariots of Fire. It was an undeniably radio-ready single and was definitely timely. but received less interest than it eventually deserved.

Manfred Mann's Earth Band was formed in 1971 and is still an active band today. As a group that tended to lean to the progressive side, they were always a better album act than a hit-making one. As it turned out, "Runner" would be their only listing on the Hot 100 for the 1980s. Mick Rogers takes on the vocals; he was returning to the band after leaving in 1976.

"Runner" was added to the American version of the group's Somewhere in Afrika LP, but had not yet been recorded when that album was ready to issue in other countries. The album had been recorded as a celebration of South Africa, the nation where Mann had been born. It was also recorded in the face of Mann being banned from entering the country because of his anti-apartheid work.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Culture Club - "Miss Me Blind"

Miss Me Blind - Colour By Numbers

(Debuted February 3, 1984, Peaked #5, 16 Weeks on the Chart)

By 1984, it was hard to follow music and not at least be aware of Culture Club. For some, the focus was entirely on the group's very flamboyant singer Boy George. For others, the music was seen as an unusual blending of New Wave, reggae and calypso with a healthy dash of Blue-Eyed Soul. As you can see from the video below, they were all over the place stylistically, but that is one of the hallmarks of 1980s fashion.  In my case, I really didn't care for the group on a personal level -- I lived in a small town where Boy George would have been viewed in a very negative light -- but some of their songs really seemed interesting to me. "Miss Me Blind" was one of those.

I distinctly recall hearing the song on a radio station during the Spring of '84 and realizing that it could stand on its own without the accompanying video. Before that song, I largely saw Boy George as something of a cartoon character (this was the follow-up to "Karma Chameleon," after all); afterward, I paid more attention to the fact that he was part of a group. Perhaps that's a result of the video after all, since the three other group members play a larger part in it.

"Miss Me Blind" was a #5 hit in the U.S. and a big hit around the world, but oddly wasn't issued as a single in the band's native U.K.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Peter Schilling - "Major Tom (Coming Home)"

Major Tom (Völlig Losgelöst) - Just Can't Get Enough: Hits of the '80s

(Debuted September 24, 1983, Peaked #14, 21 Weeks on the Chart)

In the early 1970s, there was a David Bowie song called "Space Oddity" that told the story of Major Tom, and astronaut who cuts off his communication with Earth and floats off into space. More than a decade later, Peter Schilling revisited the concept, although it appears this time Major Tom appeared to be the victim of an accident. However, for those of us who were too young to know about the Bowie song, "Major Tom" was an interesting concept for a generation who was enthralled by the original Star Wars trilogy.

Science fiction was an interest to German-born Peter Schilling, who included the topic in many of his songs. Originally sung and recorded in his native language, the song was rewritten with English lyrics for its international chart runs.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Joe Jackson - "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)"

You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want) - Body And Soul

(Debuted April 24, 1984, Peaked #15, 16 Weeks on the Chart)

One of Joe Jackson's hallmarks was his ability to switch between different styles of music and do so seamlessly. Lumped in with New Wave artists after his 1979 hit "Is She Really Going Out With Him," he quickly showed his versatility on his next several LPs. In 1982, he returned to the Top 40 with "Steppin' Out" and later "Breaking Us in Two," both of which showed a more complex songwriting style. By the time his 1984 album Body and Soul arrived, Jackson had moved on to jazz and big band influences, both of which can be heard in "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)."

After that, Joe Jackson continued to explore his own influences, even composing classical compositions. This willingness to chase his own muse and follow the beat of his own drummer (so to speak) is what has always made Joe Jackson unique.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Newcleus - "Jam On It"

Jam On It - Destination: Earth - The Definitive Newcleus Recordings

(Debuted June 2, 1984, Peaked #56, 15 Weeks on the Chart)

Rap music -- for better or worse -- arrived during the 1980s. While the early stuff is great, it really didn't get heard in my neighborhood until much later. For those of us who lived in the suburbs, our first taste of the style came with Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," which we picked up through its video. The first rap tune I ever heard on a friend's boombox was "Jam On It."

Newcleus was a group that came out of Brooklyn in the late 1970s, just as "house parties" were shaping the early development of hip hop music. The core of the group eventually centered around two cousins and their future spouses, and the family connection led to the group's name. While "Jam On it" was their only pop hit, it was actually a sequel to the group's song "Jam-On's Revenge," which also features the sped-up voices and the "wikki wikki" refrain.

While much of the criticism leveled at rap music focuses on its glorification of violence and the "thug life," the fact that many of the early songs were purely fun is overlooked. "Jam On it" has an irresistible rhythm, goofy lyrics about space aliens and is still recognizable to those who heard it when it was still "fresh." Although the style would soon pass the group by, they still need to be remembered for helping bring it to the suburban white kids who helped fuel its phenomenal growth.

Friday, October 21, 2011

B.J. Thomas - "Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Love"

19 Hot Country Requests - Various Artists

(Debuted May 21, 1983, Peaked #93, 2 Weeks on the Chart)

I noticed at some point in the 1980s that there were several "oldies" acts that had moved over to singing country as opposed to simply crossing over. Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers, Billy Joe Royal, Bobby Goldsboro, Brenda Lee and Paul Davis were all hitting on the format after starting out as pop-oriented acts. This is probably a factor of country being a more "adult" genre -- at least it was then -- and more appealing as a singer moves past the wilder says of youth. Paradoxically, the country influence had been there all along for these artists, and the move was also a return to their roots.

That was certainly the case for B.J. Thomas. The Oklahoma native had his first hit in 1966 with a Hank Williams song called "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." He didn't focus on country music for another decade, when his pop hits had begun to dry up. His first country chart single was "(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song" and hit #1 on both formats. After that, he made the transition from being a crossover artist to focusing on both country and gospel. By 1983, when "Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Love" was released, it was a #1 country hit but managed only two weeks at the lower rungs of the pop chart.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Club House - "Do it Again/Billie Jean"

(Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted August 20, 1983, Peaked #75, 5 Weeks on the Chart)

In 1983, there wasn't a star in the world that was bigger than Michael Jackson. It was the year of Thriller, the album that quickly surpassed what any other album had done in the past. It sent seven singles into the Top 40, scored two #1 hits and introduced more R&B artists to MTV's video rotation. For its efforts, Billboard named it the top album for all of 1983 and 1984 as well. At the same time, Jackson introduced the Moonwalk, while the single sequined glove and red jacket became iconic.

At the same time, an Italian studio dance group called Club House took his #1 hit "Billie Jean" and mashed it up with Steely Dan's 1972 hit single "Do it Again." Incredibly, the two songs worked well together as a medley. Though it was not a big hit on the American pop chart, it did manage to get to #11 in the U.K. A different group named Slingshot would also release their own version of the medley, called "Do it Again With Billie Jean." That version didn't chart on the Hot 100 but went to #1 on the dance chart.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Air Supply - "Two Less Lonely People in the World"

Two Less Lonely People In the World - Now and Forever

(Debuted November 13, 1982, Peaked #38, 13 Weeks on the Chart)

Laugh if you want when you see the group name, but Air Supply was a chart machine in the early 1980s. From 1980-'82, they sent seven straight singles into the Top 5 in the U.S. That streak was broken by the single "Young Love," and its followup "Two Less Lonely People in the World" was unable to better the #38 peak of that record.

Despite the big hits, the duo was definitely cooling down. The LP Now & Forever would be their last platinum album (not including the Greatest Hits compilation that contained their next hit single  "Making Love Out of Nothing at All") and it was similar to their other early 80s albums in that the most interesting songs were also the singles. But "Two Less Lonely People in the World" may have been negatively impacted by the material that hit earlier. It's a shame it's been forgotten under the psychological weight of "Lost in Love," "All Out of Love" and "Even the Nights Are Better."

If you're not familiar with it and don't immediately have to reach for the radio dial whenever one of their big hits starts playing, check it out. You may be surprised.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Liquid Gold - "What's She Got"

What's She Got (Radio Mix) - What's She Got? / Coming Down

(Debuted September 3, 1983, Peaked #86, 4 Weeks on the Chart)

Liquid Gold had been a One-Hit Wonder in the disco era when they took the song "My Baby's Baby" to # 45 on the Hot 100 in 1979. When disco fell from grace that year, most acts associated with the genre were barely heard from again, especially those that were merely made up of studio musicians working under a producer's direction (as Adrian Baker did for Liquid Gold). "Disco," on the other hand, didn't really die out as much as it went "underground" and evolved into the dance/club music of the 1980s. While Liquid Gold remained on the charts in their native Great Britain, they wouldn't return to the U.S. pop chart until four years later.

"What's She Got" was a great 1980s dance song that should have been given a better chance than it did. After four short weeks, the song was gone from the pop chart. Soon after that, so was Liquid Gold. The group splintered apart and never got a chance to return.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Gary Portnoy - "Where Everybody Knows Your Name"

Where Everybody Knows Your Name (Cheers Theme) - Keeper

(Debuted April 30, 1983, Peaked #83, 4 Weeks on the Chart)

Most casual music fans may not recognize the singer, but TV fans know the song very well. Yes, this is the theme song to the 1982-'93 TV show Cheers, which many may not have realized had other verses, or even was released as a single. "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" was released during the show's first season, when it was not yet a hit series. Many fans have forgotten that the show was nearly cancelled due to poor ratings during that first year (it ranked #71 among the 74 shows), and the theme song had not yet become iconic.

The song began life due to a Broadway play called Preppies. Glen & Les Charles thought that one of the songs would be perfect for the TV show they were beginning and asked Gary Portnoy if they could use it. Unfortunately, that song was legally tied to the show and unavailable so Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo worked on some other ideas for songs and eventually came up with "Where Everybody Knows Your Name." The Charles brothers loved it and a very familiar opening was set.

Gary Portnoy wasn't content to make his mark on a single American TV show in the 1980s, either. He also recorded the theme to the show Punky Brewster, and wrote the theme to Mr. Belvedere (which Leon Redbone sang). Neither of those was released as a single, however.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Cheri - "Murphy's Law"

(Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted April 10, 1982, Peaked #39, 12 Weeks on the Chart)

Murphy's Law is the old belief that anything that can possibly go wrong will. I've said at several points of my life that I'm a devout student of Murphy's Law, despite my usual optimistic viewpoint. "Murphy's Law" was also the name of a song from 1982 that scraped into the Top 40. The lyrics are basically telling a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend that his luck had totally run out. It's remembered for its synth line, its sped-up "special effect" chorus and periods of laughter throughout.

Cheri wasn't a person; rather, it was the name of a dance duo based in Montreal. It consisted of Canadian Lynn Cullerier and American Rosalind Hunt. Rosalind was the daughter of singer Geraldine Hunt, who co-wrote and co-produced "Murphy's Law." It would be the duo's only entry on the Hot 100.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Michael McDonald - "I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near)"

I Keep Forgettin (Every Time You're Near) - If That's What It Takes

(Debuted August 7, 1982, Peaked #4, 19 Weeks on the Chart)

By 1982, Michael McDonald was appearing on what seemed like half the hit records coming out of L.A. in addition to his duties as a member of The Doobie Brothers. It seems logical that he would get around to putting out his own LP eventually, and that album came out in 1982. His first solo hit was a song about dealing with a breakup.

"I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near)" was co-written by McDonald along with Ed Sanford of The Sanford Townsend Band. While a different song from a 1962 Chuck Jackson hit called "I Keep Forgettin'," it was similar enough to earn a songwriting credit for Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. In return, this song has been sampled several times over the years, most notably on Warren G's 1994 hit "Regulate."

Since McDonald was a stalwart session player, his friends were happy to help with his album. Louis Johnson of The Brothers Johnson provides the distinctive bass line, while several members of Toto are also among the musicians. A future Toto member, Greg Phillinganes, handled the notable clavinet line. The female voice in the chorus belongs to his sister Maureen.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dan Fogelberg - "Leader of the Band"

Leader of the Band - The Very Best of Dan Fogelberg

(Debuted November 28, 1981, Peaked #9, 19 Weeks on the Chart)

There have been a lot more songs devoted to Mom than there are to Dad. I never really paid attention to that little detail until I became a father. While both parents have an influence -- even if it's by their traits rather than their guidance -- mothers tend to be more hands-on and get more of the credit later on. That's a generalization, I realize (for many, one of the parents just isn't around), but it still leads to more credit to Mom when it comes to songs.

"Leader of the Band" is one of the songs that recognizes the father's influence on how a person turns out. It's a tribute to Lawrence Fogelberg, who really had been a bandleader. Although he states in the song that his two brothers went down different paths in life, he understands that the music that comes to him and his profession was the result of a gift handed down to him from a man who did the same thing. He realizes this, and he managed to get that sentiment on a record while his father was still alive to hear it.

That must have made the elder Fogelberg proud.

"Leader of the Band" was the last Top 10 pop hit for Fogelberg, who churned out four of them in the early 1980s. It did better on the Adult Contemporary chart, hitting #1 (his second of three). As Fogelberg's sound faded from the pop charts, he would continue hitting the AC Top 10 into 1990.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lindsay Buckingham - "Trouble"

Trouble - Law and Order

(Debuted October 24, 1981, Peaked #9, 18 Weeks on the Chart)

If you just spent two years recording an ambitious double LP and embarking on a long world tour, what do you do when you're done? If you're Lindsay Buckingham, you go back into the studio and get another record in the can. Even if you have to do it by yourself.

Buckingham was one of the more creative members of Fleetwood Mac as a writer and artist, as well as getting involved in the studio craftwork involved in the music. Still feeling he had something to say, he started work on his solo LP Law and Order in 1981, playing most of the instruments himself. He enlisted some help from Buckingham's bandmates, however. Mick Fleetwood played the drums on "Trouble" and Christine McVie contributed backing vocals to another song on the LP.

While the album as a whole reflected Buckingham's interest in New Wave and lo-fi noise, "Trouble" sounds like it would have fit right in with the material on his band's Tusk or Mirage LPs. Its layered harmonies and ethereal vocal over the soft guitar line helped it become the only single from the album to reach the Hot 100 before it was time to head into the studio again, this time with his group.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Larry Carlton - "Sleepwalk"

Sleepwalk - Sleepwalk

(Debuted February 27, 1982, Peaked #74, 8 Weeks on the Chart)

Larry Carlton is a well-respected guitarist who has contributed his fretwork to hundreds of hits throughout the years. He's been fluent in rock, jazz fusion, smooth jazz and pop and has excelled at all. His solo at the end of Steely Dan's song "Kid Charlemagne" has been called one of the greatest on record during the 1970s. He was the featured performer on the hit single versions of the TV themes for Hill Street Blues and Magnum, P.I. His work showed up in Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, as well as LPs by Barbra Sreisand, Quincy Jones, Christopher Cross, Billy Joel and Joni Mitchell. He was also a member of The Crusaders from 1971-'76.

He was also a solo artist with six LPs under his name. Despite all the hits he helped shape in the studio, Carlton only had one solo hit on the Hot 100. "Sleepwalk" was a remake of the 1959 #1 hit by Santo & Johnny and was accompanied by a light jazz arrangement.

Tragedy visited Carlton later in the decade, when he was shot in the throat by youths outside his studio. He made a full recovery, but the experience led him to form a charity that worked to aid other victims of random gun violence.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Loverboy - "The Kid is Hot Tonite"

The Kid Is Hot Tonite - Loverboy

(Debuted June 20, 1981, Peaked #55, 7 Weeks on the Chart)

As the very first song on their debut LP, "The Kid is Hot Tonite" was something of an introduction to the Canadian band Loverboy. Interestingly, Columbia refused to release the album in the U.S. in 1980 despite its solid production from Bruce Fairbairn, who had also run the studio for Prism's albums. But when it sold well in Canada, they relented and unleashed it on the American public in 1981.

The band's second American chart single after "Turn Me Loose," it failed to get into the Top 40. However, by the end of 1981 the group was back with "Working For the Weekend" and that was the song that propelled them into Arena Rock fandom for good.

The performance in the YouTube video was taken from an American Bandstand show, with a terrible audio tracking job. And yes, frontman Mike Reno is wearing his signature headband.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Frankie Smith - "Double Dutch Bus"

Double Dutch Bus - Double Dutch Bus

(Debuted May 16, 1981, Peaked #30, 19 Weeks on the Chart)

One of the tired slang phrases that's been done to death over the past ten years is the practice of putting an "iz" in the middle of a word or replacing the end of a word with "izzle." So a term like "For sure" ends up being said as "Fo' shizzle." While rappers like Snoop Dog and Eminem get credited for popularizing the embellishments, they're used in "Double Dutch Bus," which is more than 30 years old.

Frankie Smith was an artist from Philadelphia and "Double Dutch Bus" was his biggest hit. A celebration of both the double jump-rope activity and the Philly-based SEPTA bus system (which issued the Transpass mentioned in the lyrics), it's still fondly remembered more than three decades after its release. Despite reaching #30 on the pop chart, "Double Dutch Bus" was #1 for four weeks on the R&B chart, which made it one of the year's biggest singles on that chart.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Don McLean - "Castles in the Air"

The Best of Don McLean (Remastered) - Don McLean

(Debuted October 31, 1981, Peaked #36, 13 Weeks on the Chart)

"Castles in the Air" has a history of resilience. It was the first song on Don McLean's debut LP Tapestry in 1970 and a single, but both were ignored despite critical acclaim. After McLean took "American Pie" to #1 in 1972, the debut album was brought out again and "Castles in the Air" was given a second chance as the B-side of McLean's followup single "Vincent." Both sides were listed during that single's chart run. In 1981, McLean rerecorded the song as the first cut on his Believers LP and enjoyed his biggest hit in years.

While the original featured a rather sparse acoustic arrangement, this version is given strings, a backing chorus and a larger, more functional band. Somehow, the song's lyrics still stand out among the added accompaniment: a country boy man grows tired of pretending to be something he isn't for a woman's affection and heads on down the road. As he leaves, he doesn't even tell her he's going. He just asks someone else to take care of an explanation.

It's a great song, though, no matter which version is playing.

(Edited to add: thanks to Hale over at this Don McLean message board for reminding me that the words "I'm city born" effectively negates what I originally wrote.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Blue Oyster Cult - "Burnin' For You"

Burnin' for You - Fire of Unknown Origin

(Debuted August 15, 1981, Peaked #40, 14 Weeks on the Chart)

Fire is a frequently-used element in music, both as a way of expressing a heightened spirit as well as a heightened desire. In the case of Blue Oyster Cult's "Burnin' For You," it was the latter. In fact, the album that contained the song -- Fire of Unknown Origin -- continued the theme. Of course, the fire symbolism mixed with the use of the word "cult" in the band name didn't exactly play well to the parents of their teenaged fans...but the group wasn't targeting the parents with their music.

Blue Oyster Cult was a Long Island, New York band that was seen in its early days as an American version of Black Sabbath. "Burnin' For You" was as catchy a single as the band's other Top 40 hit, 1976's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," but the two songs are quite different thematically. Where one song claims that death is inevitable no matter how long you live, "Burnin' For You" is a song about being alive.

In any case, it's hard to deny that guitar attack. It's hard to turn off a radio when this song is playing.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dan Hartman - "It Hurts to Be in Love"

(Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted June 27, 1981, Peaked #72, 5 Weeks on the Chart)

Nostalgia from the 1960s was quite popular in the summer of '81. The week before this song debuted, the "Stars on 45" medley of Beatles songs was the #1 song. A medley of Beach Boys songs was coming out, and even Elvis was back on the chart with his 1968 song "Guitar Man." It makes sense, considering that many of the era's musicians were kids during the early to mid 1960s and likely held fond memories of the music. One of those kids was Dan Hartman, who was 13 when "It Hurts To Be in Love" was running up the chart.

"It Hurts to Be in Love" was a remake of a 1964 Gene Pitney song, and Hartman stays true to Pitney's rendition. The song was originally written for Neil Sedaka (whose style is defintely evident in the performance), but Sedaka was unable to record it by the terms of his record contract. While Hartman's version seems to have the drums and bass mixed louder and keeping his vocals from standing out as well as Pitney did, it's worth mentioning that the rhythm instruments were given lesser stature in the early 1960s pop music. So this version is a 1960s tune with 1980s production.