Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Squeeze - "853-5937"

853-5937 - Babylon and On

(Debuted December 19, 1987, Peaked #32, 11 Weeks on the Chart)

The telephone has been a popular device for song lyrics throughout the years. Whether the telephone line itself, the operator, telephone servicemen, numbers and even answering machines have been included in popular songs throughout the years. It's even been used in songs to heighten a sense of anticipation, as well as fear and paranoia.

In the case of "853-5937," the song began as a message for an answering machine, which can be heard in the refrain. That refrain also includes the English colloquialism "she'll give you a ring when she gets home," a term few Americans are ever heard saying. A lady named Angela, it seems, isn't able to answer the phone after several tries (this was before Caller ID was widespresad), but her failure to pick up is only making the narrator worried that she is no longer interested in him.

"853-5937" was the secong single from Squeeze's LP Babylon and On, a pun that could also be applied to a telephone conversation. Following the group's biggest American hit "Hourglass," it reached into the Top 40 briefly. They never made the U.S. pop chart again.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Georgia Satellites - "The Hippy Hippy Shake"

Hippy Hippy Shake - Cocktail (Original Soundtrack)

(Debuted October 22, 1988, Peaked #45, 13 Weeks on the chart)

"Hippy Hippy Shake" was a tune that was originally recorded in 1959 by Chan Romero and had been a hit in 1964 by The Swinging Blue Jeans. In 1988, it was re-recorded by The Georgia Satellites and included in the soundtrack for the Tom Cruise film Cocktail. How that soundtrack saw both "Kokomo" and "Don't Worry, Be Happy" go to #1 while this song and The Fabulous Thunderbirds' "Powerful Stuff" both stiffed is an unfortunate commentary on the music business as it was in 1988.

While the 1988 hit single was performed by Dan Baird, the original lead singer of The Georgia Satellites, the video below is from a performance of the band after they reformed in 1993. Rick Richards handles the vocals here, but it matches up with the original hit quite nicely. As a straightforward rock tune that features the basic instruments, there really isn't a bad way to do the song.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Europe - "Cherokee"

Cherokee - The Final Countdown

(Debuted November 28, 1987, Peaked #72, 10 Weeks on the chart)

One of the benefits of writing a blog is that sometimes you can just toss something out simply because you feel like it. And that's what brings me to the song featured here today. "Cherokee" wasn't Europe's biggest hit, nor was it the best or even the most memorable song they ever recorded.  A historian could rip apart the video below, as the Cherokee tribe didn't live in the high Plains and didn't use tepees as the natives shown.

That said, the video was taped in Spain, not far from where Sergio Leone filmed some of his famous "Spaghetti Westerns" with Clint Eastwood two decades earlier. And Europe was from Sweden anyway, so their exposure to American Indians came through Western movies and TV shows, which weren't exactly noted for their attention to detail.

"Cherokee" was written by Europe's lead singer Joey Tempest as the final song for the band's LP The Final Countdown. It was their fourth charted single from that album in the U.S., fizzling out at #72. At the time it came out, I was living in eastern Tennessee (the original home of the Cherokee tribe), a place where many people -- myself included -- have Cherokee in their bloodline. There, it received more radio airplay than might have been expected.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Robert Cray Band - "Smoking Gun"

Smoking Gun - Strong Persuader

(Debuted February 7, 1987, Peaked #23, 14 Weeks on the chart)

As a blues guitarist, Robert Cray didn't have the same look and feel of what was then considered to be the norm. He was young and his voice didn't carry that world-weary experience. However, "Smoking Gun" was about dealing with a lover's adultery, which is a very common topic in blues songs. Despite the depressing nature of the subject, the music is given an uptempo arrangement.

Among the lauded "new generation" of blues artists, Cray's influences ranged from the old-time bluesmen but also from Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and even The Beatles. Despite his relative youth, he had been performing with his own band for more than a decade before his major-label debut Strong Persuader, and was even part of Otis Day's band in the movie Animal House.

"Smoking Gun" would be Cray's only Top 40 pop single. He managed to get two more songs into the Hot 100 through 1988. Despite having no hit singles in more than 20 years and failing to chart any albums on Billboard's LP charts since 1999, he is still recording and touring and remains a big draw on the concert circuit.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Smokey Robinson - "Just to See Her"

Just to See Her (Single Version) - One Heartbeat

(Debuted March 28, 1987, Peaked #8, 21 Weeks on the chart)

I was born in 1972, which means that Smokey Robinson had already left The Miracles by the time I was around. Similarly, I was way too young to pay any attention to his mid-70s solo material and only remember his early 80s songs "Cruisin'" and "Being With You" as songs that played on the radio but weren't anything I would pay attention to at 8 or 9 years old. However, I would be hooked on oldies radio when I was 13 years old and would get an education on who Smokey was through that. In the spring of 1987, I was 14 and interested in girls...and here comes Smokey with a song that helped me understand that the ladies liked a smooth-talking dude.

"Just to See Her" is another one of those songs that I can easily identify with the late spring and early summer of 1987, because it was played all over the place. In addition to being a Top 10 pop hit, it was a #2 R&B single and topped the adult contemporary survey as well. That multi-format (a word that once was "crossover") success marked one of the final high points of Motown before Berry Gordy sold the label in 1988.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Breakfast Club - "Right on Track"

Right On Track - Breakfast Club

(Debuted March 14, 1987, Peaked #7, 19 Weeks on the chart)

Fans of 1980s culture remember The Breakfast Club as a 1985 John Hughes movie, but it was also the name of a New York City-based band who were using the name long before the film's script was written. Their first national hit was "Right on Track," a Top 10 single that showed a lot of promise, but they weren't able to capitalize on it. No further singles made the Top 40 and their second album wasn't released by their record company. Today, the band is better remembered because Madonna was a drummer during its pre-fame days.

In hindsight, Madonna may have been a big help in getting the band signed to a major label, and the fact that she was once a member was definitely included in the promotional materials that were sent to stations to promote their self-titled debut album. In fact, I remember Rick Dees introducing "Right on Track" in his weekly countdown show by saying it was by a group "who once slept with Madonna."

Today, "Right on Track" is one of those songs that always takes me back to 1987 when I hear it. I can remember details from my life as it was then: the place I was living, the friends I hung out with, even my girlfriend at the time. They're fond memories of a time that is passed, so my thoughts on the song are similarly kind.

Monday, January 23, 2012

World Party - "Ship of Fools"

Ship of Fools - Private Revolution

(Debuted February 14, 1987, Peaked #27, 15 Weeks on the chart)

Although World Party is billed as a group (and is shown as one in the video below), it is essentially Karl Wallinger's solo project since he left The Waterboys in 1986. Despite the use of some studio musicians and backing singers -- including Sinead O'Connor -- Wallinger played most of the instruments on the Private Revolution LP. The first single from the album was "Ship of Fools," which would end up being the only Hot 100 listing World Party ever ended up with.

"Ship of Fools" is a song that strongly identified with the environmental activists who were then a small but vocal group that became much more visible as the next decade began. Normally, activist politics and music rarely mix well but "Ship of Fools" is an exception because its message isn't as blatant as it might have otherwise been. However, lines like the hook "You will pay tomorrow" let the sharp-eared listener clue in on the fact that there is a message in between the pop sheen of the music.

I remember "Ship of Fools" from watching the video on MTV in 1987, but didn't hear it often on the local Top 40 station. In fact, a couple of years later I was asking some friends if they remembered it and they were certain I was talking about Robert Plant's song of the same name (released on his 1988 Now & Zen LP) despite my insistence that it was a totally different song. I eventually found the World Party song for my music collection, and it's a song that is just as fresh today as it was when it was released. That's not something that can be said for a large amount of stuff that was recorded in 1987.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Chicago Bears Shuffling Crew - "Super Bowl Shuffle"

(Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted January 11, 1986, Peaked #41, 9 Weeks on the Chart)

As we go into the weekend, there are many of us who are paying attention to the NFL playoffs and will watch the games as they get underway. If you're an 80s music fan who was also a sports fan growing up in the era, chances are you'll remember today's song.

The 1985 Chicago Bears were arguably the best football team of the decade. With a 15-1 record, they went on to roll over the teams in their way through the playoffs and on to a Super Bowl where they demolished the New England Patriots. They featured an explosive offense that included the eccentric quarterback Jim McMahon and one of the game's best all-time runners in Walter Payton, but it was their defense that was truly dominant. Head coach Mike Ditka became a legend that year and rookie defensive lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry was a short-lived superstar, selling the McDLT for McDonald's on television commercials and was available through the mail as a GI Joe figure.

As they rolled through that magical season, several members of the team recorded a rap song called "The Super Bowl Shuffle" that had been written by Richard Meyer, a fan of the team. Rather than bragging about their on-field dominance, the players were doing the song for charity: the record raised more than $300 thousand  for the Chicago Community Trust, an organization that helped needy families. That generous spirit makes up for the fact that the music behind the lyrics is generic 1980s synthesized stuff.

Good intentions aside, it was a big risk to record the song before the team had secured its spot in the Super Bowl. However, it proves the old saying (sometimes attributed to Julius Caesar) that there's no such thing as hubris unless you lose.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Nu Shooz - "Point of No Return"

(Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted July 5, 1986, Peaked #28, 22 Weeks on the Chart)

Nu Shooz was a Portland, Oregon-based duo made up of the husband-and-wife team of John Smith and Valerie Day. Their brand of electronic dance music caught quickly, with a #3 pop hit in their first major-label single "I Can't Wait." Their follow-up was called "Point of No Return," which returned them to the Top 40 and went to #1 on the Billboard dance chart.

A catchy single, "Point of No Return" was one of those songs that stood out even at a time where radio was becoming inundated with synthesized pop-dance tunes. Its video (shown below) featured a stop-motion film where hundreds of pairs of shoes "crawled" out of a closet and stampeded over Day. The video (like the song itself) is a relic today, but had its charm at the time.

Fads and trends being what they are, the duo lost favor when the casual fans turned their attention elsewhere. Their third single just missed the Top 40 in 1988, and they were soon cut free from their obligations with their label. Despite the long time away from the charts, Smith and Day are still performing today.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Timex Social Club - "Rumors"

(Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted June 14, 1986, Peaked #8, 19 Weeks on the Chart)

When the song "Rumors" came out, there were several rumors that seemed to pop up about the song. One was the identity of the people mentioned by name in the lyrics -- Michael, Tina, Susan -- and whether they were directed at celebrities like Michael Jackson, Tina Turner or Susan Anton. On the other hand, I read somewhere that the names were people from high school. Another rumor about the song was that there was a problem with the group's name that prevented royalties from being paid to them because the Timex watch company hit them with an injunction. Though that fact seems to be missing from any "official" biographies about the band, it might have some truth to it, as the group disbanded shortly afterward and a new group made up of different members called Club Nouveau popped up to take their place.

In any case, the word of mouth generated about the song was helpful enough to push it into the pop Top 10. The song was an early example of the R&B form that would soon become known as New Jack Swing. The group was formed during the members' high school days in Berkeley, California in 1982, with some rotation before "Rumors" was a hit. It ended up being their only hit, but it sure was memorable.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Clarence Clemons and Jackson Browne - "You're a Friend of Mine"

You're a Friend of Mine - Hero

(Debuted October 26, 1985, Peaked #18. 18 Weeks on the Chart)

The music world was saddened last year when it was announced that Clarence Clemons passed away after suffering a stroke. While "The Big Man" was best remembered as Bruce Springsteen's right-hand man in the E Street Band, he was also a solo artist who fronted his own band called the Red Bank Rockers. One solo project came to him after he contributed the memorable saxophone part to Aretha Franklin's hit "Freeway of Love." Called Hero, the album contained a duet with Jackson Browne (and his then-girlfriend Darryl Hannah in an uncredited role) called "You're a Friend of Mine." It was produced by Franklin's producer Narada Michael Walden (who is shown in the video playing drums), who also co-wrote the song.

The song was a Top 20 hit, probably due in part to Springsteen's popularity (he was still charting singles from the Born in the U.S.A. album at the time). However, it had its own charm upon the first few listens. Unfortunately, that charm wore thin on repeated airings and the song began sounding a lot like much of the other material that was being played around it. The song boasts a great saxophone -- as it should -- but it gets dragged down by the rest of the material.

Today, hearing that line "you can count on me until the day you die" is a sobering reminder that the Big Man is now gone. He's still missed.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Twisted Sister - "Leader of the Pack"

Leader of the Pack - Come Out and Play

(Debuted November 30, 1985, Peaked #53, 9 Weeks on the Chart)

In 1984, Twisted Sister was given a great opportunity when MTV placed the videos for two of their songs -- "We're Not Gonna Take it" and "I Wanna Rock" -- into heavy rotation. Both songs were silly hard-rock anthems and their videos had a sense of humor about teen angst and rebellion, which made them immensely popular. However, their image was seen as troubling among the critics in the PMRC and frontman Dee Snider was called to testify on Capitol Hill in 1985. His remarks there (included in video form on Snider's Wikipedia page) came as a surprise to those who didn't know him as an outspoken person.

Later in 1985, Twisted Sister released their followup LP Come Out and Play, which saw the group torn between their MTV fame and the allegiance of their old fans. They tried to appeal to both sides, and their remake of the 1963 Angels hit "Leader of the Pack" was one of the bones they threw to their long-time fans. The song had originally appeared on the group's 1982 EP Ruff Cuts but was included on the new LP as well. The video was another one that kept a sense of humor, but it failed to help the album sell.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Whodini - "Five Minutes of Funk"

Five Minutes of Funk - Funky Beat: The Best of Whodini

(Debuted January 5, 1985, Peaked #83, 3 Weeks on the Chart)

They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but you don't need to be psychic to know what a song called "Five Minutes of Funk" might sound like. All you need to know is what year it was recorded. Actually, the song clocks in at five minutes and twenty-five seconds, but complaining about getting more than you're promised on the label is just silly.

The song was the opening cut to the group's Escape LP and a B-side to their single "Friends." The album was on of the first to use a synclavier in the rap genre, which helped artists take a leap toward sampling as a digital medium, rather than needing records or tape loops to achieve the effect. Not surprisingly, much of their music ended up getting sampled for other songs later on.

Whodini was a Brooklyn-based group that is considered a pioneering force among hip-hop groups. However, as the rap movement they helped push forward began to get really hot, the group was beginning a hiatus due to record company problems as well as the members settling down with families. Although they are given their due as trailblazers, they were surpassed during their downtime.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Commodores - "Nightshift"

Nightshift - Nightshift

(Debuted January 26, 1985, Peaked #3, 22 Weeks on the Chart)

Yesterday, this blog featured a Top 10 song that was a tribute to Marvin Gaye on his passing. Today, here's another song that was a Top 10 hit at the same time and recalled Gaye as well as Jackie Wilson, who also died in 1984. The two parts addressed the fallen singers by name and included the titles of some of their songs in its lyrics.

"Nightshift" was the biggest hit The Commodores enjoyed after the departure of Lionel Richie for a solo career and James Michael Carmichael (who co-produced "Missing You" for Diana Ross). Not only did it hit #3 on the pop chart, it was a four-week #1 on the R&B chart as well. Rather than a new beginning, it was nearing the end of the line for the group, as Thomas McClary would soon leave the group as well. They left Motown the next year.

A new version of the song was recorded in 2010 and dedicated to another fellow Motown artist: Michael Jackson.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Diana Ross - "Missing You"

Missing You - More Today Than Yesterday

(Debuted December 1, 1984, Peaked #10, 26 Weeks on the Chart)

On April 1, 1984, Marvin Gaye was involved in an argument with his father and was tragically shot to death. He was a day short of his 45th birthday. Gaye's loss was sudden and affected the extended "family" he was a part of at Motown. Not surprisingly, the tribute songs to his memory arrived soon, and one of the biggest ones was performed by his former labelmate and 1970s duet partner Diana Ross.

"Missing You" was written by another former labelmate, Lionel Richie. The song was inspired by conversations Richie had with Ross about Gaye. Released at the height of Richie's creative period, it would become Diana Ross's last Top 10 pop hit and final #1 R&B song.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Menudo - "Hold Me"

Hold Me - Lo Mejor de Lo Mejor: Menudo

(Debuted May 11, 1985, Peaked #62, 11 Weeks on the Chart)

Menudo was a Latin group that was formed in Puerto Rico during the late 1970s who were specifically targeted towards the youth market. In order to keep the group "young," their members were rotated out as they grew older. The most famous alumnus of the group was Ricky Martin, who arrived in 1984 and replaced the last original member. He would go on to become a major star in the 1990s.

"Hold Me" would be Menudo's only appearance on the Billboard Hot 100. It appeared on the group's second English-language LP. Even though Martin was a member of the band, the lead vocals were performed by Robby Rosa. Rosa was born in New York and was the one member who could best handle most of the English lyrics.

In retrospect, "Hold Me" is a decent pop song. Done over a synthesized groove that is definitely a relic of its era, it was aimed at an audience of teenage girls (and not necessarily those who spoke Spanish as a first or second language). It doesn't sound much different than what New Kids on the Block offered just four years later. In that sense, perhaps Menudo's timing was just a few years off.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Robey - "One Night in Bangkok"

One Night In Bangkok - One Night In Bangkok

(Debuted January 5, 1985, Peaked #77, 3 Weeks on the Chart)

American listeners probably know "One Night in Bangkok" from its version by Murray Head. While that version was the original recording and the bigger pop hit, Louise Robey (then billed simply by her last name) actually had a hit on the dance charts before Head's version went up the Hot 100. In fact, Robey's rendition debuted on the pop chart one week after Head; however, it lasted all of three weeks before falling off as Head would ride the song to #3.

The song was written for the play Chess, and included on a concept album recorded before the show was ever staged. It was written by Tim Rice, with the music coming from the two men of ABBA, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Robey's version was aimed squarely at the dance clubs, reaching #5 on that survey.

Though it was Louise Robey's only song to reach the Hot 100, she was able to find work as an actress. She appeared in the TV show Friday the 13th: The Series.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Pretenders - "Show Me"

Show Me - Learning to Crawl (Remastered)

(Debuted March 17, 1984, Peaked #28, 13 Weeks on the Chart)

The title of the album Learning to Crawl was inspired by Chrissie Hynde's young daughter, but it ended up being a fitting description of the band she played with. In the two years since the group's last LP, it had been altered due to tragic circumstances. Both guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon would overdose on drugs. The group would continue, but fate made it more like a backup unit for Hynde than the cohesive lineup it originally was.

With new members Robbie McIntosh and Malcolm Foster aboard, the group laid down the tracks for Learning to Crawl in 1983. While not as well-regarded as the group's previous two LPs, the album was still a great listen. Including the two sides of a single from late 1982 ("Back on the Chain Gang" and "My City Was Gone," both of which are great songs), there were four songs from the album that charted on the Hot 100. "Show Me" was the third of those hits, making the Top 40 in the Spring of 1984.

The video below shows the band performing the song live in Germany during the same era it was a hit.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Peabo Bryson - "If Ever You're in My Arms Again"

If Ever You're In My Arms Again - Straight from the Heart

(Debuted May 12, 1984, Peaked #10, 25 Weeks on the Chart)

To pop fans, Peabo Bryson was best known for his duet with Roberta Flack called "Tonight, I Celebrate My Love," which had hit #16 in 1983. However, he'd been singing -- as part of several groups as well as a solo act -- since he was a teenager in the 1960s. He was part of Michael Zager's Moon Band in the 1970s and sang on their minor hit "Do it With Feeling." Despite a handful of pop singles that either "bubbled under" or missed the Top 40 altogether, he had greater success on the R&B charts, where he cultivated a more sophisticated-sounding "urban contemporary" sound that sprung up after the decline of Disco.

Besides his penchant for duets, perhaps Bryson's ultimate ballad was "If Ever You're in My Arms Again," a song written by Michael Masser, Cynthia Weil and Tom Snow. A song about realizing what you once had after it's slipped away, it was crafted to suit Bryson's style well, with emotional bridges before the choruses that allowed him to use his vocal range, and became his first Top 10 pop hit (and his only one that wasn't a duet). It also went to #5 on the R&B chart and topped the adult contemporary chart. It was one of his finest moments on record.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tracey Ullman - "They Don't Know"

They Don't Know - You Broke My Heart In Seventeen Places

(Debuted February 25, 1984, Peaked #8, 17 Weeks on the Chart)

No blog that covers the 1980s would be complete without a mention of Tracey Ullman's influence. Her TV show on Fox during the early days of that network was highly-acclaimed and introduced us to The Simpsons, a cartoon that is still with us over 20 years later. But prior to her American acting breaktrough, Ullman managed to get a Top 10 pop hit that certainly sounded like it came out of the bubblegum era of the 1960s.

That said, it would be remiss to mention "They Don't Know" without mentioning that it was written and originally sung by Kirsty MacColl in 1979. MacColl sings backup on this version as well, even belting out the high-pitched "bay-ay-bee" at the end of the instrumental bridge. The video is notable because Paul McCartney makes a cameo appearance at the end. Ullman was appearing in McCartney's film Give My Regards to Broad Street at the time and he was glad to help her out.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

REO Speedwagon - "I Do' Wanna Know"

I Do' Wanna Know - Wheels Are Turnin'

(Debuted Ocober 27, 1984, Peaked #29, 12 Weeks on the Chart)

After two years, REO Speedwagon came out with a new LP called Wheels Are Turnin' in 1984. The first single (and leadoff track) of that album was a guitar and piano-driven adrenaline shot that was quite memorable to me as a 12 year-old. Not only did the guitar catch my ear, but the words "I don't wanna do what I'm supposed to do, I don't want to wear what I'm supposed to wear" definitely appealed to the budding nonconformist in me.

And then, just as quickly as the song arrived, it disappeared. Other (bigger) REO Speedwagon hits -- "Can't Fight This Feeling," "One Lonely Night" -- replaced it and caused it to be unfairly forgotten. In that sense, "I Do' Wanna Know" is the perfect type of song to feature in this blog: something that should have been better remembered than it was. It's something I fondly remember, seemingly out of place on the radio with "I Just Called to Say I Love You," "Missing You" and "Caribbean Queen" yet still great to hear when its turn came.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Dazz Band - "Joystick"

Joystick - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Dazz Band

(Debuted February 11, 1984, Peaked #61, 11 Weeks on the Chart)

One of the biggest icons of the 1980s was the video game system. Whether it was an Atari (which my family had), Intellivision, Colecovision or a Nintendo (which came out much later), it gave people a method of enjoying video games from their homes without having to get their fix one quarter at a time in the arcade. Early in 1984, I was also a sixth grader, and the term "joystick" had a double connotation: not only was it the device we used when we moved Pac-Man around the maze, but it was also a slang term given to very different device altogether. A more biological one we carried around with us.

The Dazz Band also used that double entendre in their song "Joystick," using sound effects in the song and explicitly mentioning the video game in the lyrics, yet still slipping in "take control of the stick...turn me on" in there as well. Anybody who paid attention to the words was going to know that these guys weren't necessarily singing about any Atari.

The Dazz Band was a Cleveland-based funk group that had formed during the late 1970s. Originally, they had the horn section that accompanied many funk units, but realized as the early 80s started that the "sound" was becoming more electronic and moved toward incorporating a drum machine and synthesizer into their act. "Joystick" was the band's first Hot 100 single since the #5 "Let it Whip" from 1982 but never managed to get it or any other song into the pop Top 40. On the other hand, they kept scoring hits on the R&B survey and to a lesser extent on the dance chart through 1988.