Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bob and Doug McKenzie - "Take Off"

Take Off - Great White North

(Debuted January 30, 1982, Peaked #16, 14 Weeks on the Chart)

In commemoration of "Leap Day," which only pops up once every four years, here's a novelty song. And it's a doozy.

When the SCTV show was moved to the CBC network after three seasons, the episodes were two minutes longer than the version that was syndicated in the U.S. As a result, the network requested that the show use up those extra minutes with "Canadian content." This was despite the fact that the show was produced in Canada and featured a mainly Canadian cast and crew. As a result, SCTV regulars Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis decided to create a pair of brothers named Bob & Doug McKenzie who exemplified every stereotype of their home country they could think of. It quickly became the show's most popular segment, leading to an album and the movie Strange Brew.

The album was called The Great White North, which was also the name of their segment on the TV show. "Take Off" was recorded for the album and featured fellow Canadian and Rush singer Geddy Lee lending his voice for the chorus. Ironically, it did better on the U.S. pop chart than anything Lee would record with his own band.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Rick Springfield - "What Kind of Fool Am I"

What Kind of Fool Am I - Success Hasn't Spoiled Me Yet

(Debuted June 5, 1982 Peaked #21, 12 Weeks on the Chart)

Today marks one year since I started rambling about random 1980s pop hits. Somehow, the title of this song is appropriate, as I get to answer that question every time I add comments to this blog.

Actually, "What Kind of Fool Am I" is a song that expresses regret for letting the "big fish" slip away. Of course, the regret fills in only after it's too late to change what's happened. Springfield's narrator knows immediately that it was his fault: "I meant to say I'm tired, Baby, we can work it out...but I never meant to say goodbye." It's another reminder that those who play their own games in love don't always get to set the rules.

It was one of 15 songs that Springfield took into the pop Top 40 from 1981-'85. While the song is definitely infused with musical hooks (like those bells in the chorus) and production values from the 1980s, it's easy to overlook the fact that it's a really well-written tune. Here's a great line from the song: "Were we too busy checking out the left hand that we didn't see the right?" I've always contended that the best songwriters can use double meanings to make a point, and the "right" that indicates that he's been punched is a great example.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Donnie Iris - "My Girl"

My Girl - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Donnie Iris

(Debuted March 27, 1982, Peaked #25, 14 Weeks on the Chart)

While Donnie Iris enjoyed several hits in the early 1980s, he wasn't exactly new to the music scene. Under his birth name of Dominic Ierace, he was a member of the Pittsburgh-based band The Jaggerz and wrote their 1970 #2 hit "The Rapper." He was also a member of the group Wild Cherry, but not until after they did the #1 single "Play That Funky Music." We went solo in time for the 1980s and placed three of his songs into the Top 40. "My Girl" was the third of those hits.

Using a rock foundation but clearly showing a doo-wop influence, "My Girl" (not a remake of The Temptations' hit from 1965), ended up being his highest-charting pop hit, even though 1981's "Ah! Leah" has been better-remembered. It is a great song that really deserves to get more exposure on its own merit.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Electric Light Orchestra - "Twilight"

Twilight - Time (Bonus Track Version)

(Debuted October 24, 1981, Peaked #38, 10 Weeks on the Chart)

After flirting with pop and disco as the decades switched, the Electric Light Orchestra returned to its more progressive roots with its 1981 LP Time. A concept album that had a man from the present (well, 1981) finding himself in the year 2095 and dealing with the changes that have taken place. "Twilight" was the first song after the prologue that began the set, as well as the second single off the album.

At its core, "Twilight" evokes the group's mid-1970s period musically, with the noticeable addition of the synthesizer in addition to the orchestration. Fans would hear more of the electronic stuff in the future and less of the orchestration, so the song was a last hurrah in a way. It barely scraped into the Top 40 before being relegated to the jukebox that rarely gets looked at.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Balance - "Breaking Away"

Breaking Away - Balance

(Debuted July 11, 1981, Peaked #22, 17 Weeks on the Chart)

Balance was a New York City-based pop-rock group that consisted of Peppy Castro (who was part of the 1960s group The Blues Magoos), guitarist Bob Kulick and keyboardist Doug Katsaros, with bass player Dennis Feldman and drummer Chuck Burgi joining after their self-titled first LP was recorded. Though they only managed one Top 40 hit and two chart singles, the members have contributed to a lot of music as touring performers and session players over the years.

"Breaking Away" was their biggest hit, a very tasty slice of early 1980s pop that was both radio friendly and appealed to the record buyers of the era. Despite Peppy Castro's psychedelic roots, the rest of the band was solidly grounded in the rock style and that showed in their performance of the song.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Styx - "Too Much Time on My Hands"

Too Much Time On My Hands - Paradise Theatre

(Debuted March 21, 1981, Peaked #9, 19 Weeks on the Chart)

Styx is one of those bands who have very rabid fans and detractors who are just as rabid. They were a study in contrasts: too theatrical to be a hard rock band, too rock-influenced for a progressive band, able to knock out the ballads as well as the straight-ahead rockers. There was a lot that could be loved or hated about the group.

The concept album Paradise Theater was one of their finest moments. Using a defunct theater in the city's hometown of Chicago as a corollary for America between the Roaring 20s and the recent past, it had its share of theatrics as well as a healthy dose of guitar-driven rock. "Too Much Time on My Hands" was squarely in the latter group, though it was infused with a synthesizer that was integral to the overall sound and a great performance on the drums by John Panozzo. The song was written by Tommy Shaw, who also sings lead and lends a memorable guitar solo in the instrumental bridge.

There's a story in the lyrics as well, as Shaw sings about hanging out at a bar all day long and trying to seem like the most popular guy around. And he believes it, too...that is, as long as he's picking up the tab. That is something that can be extrapolated to represent many members of the "Me" generation, as well as the politicians who try to be all things to all people. For a band whose critics claimed was all pomp and theatrics, there's actually some depth to "Too Much Time On My Hands."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sheena Easton - "Modern Girl"

Modern Girl - Take My Time

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

"Modern Girl" had two different chart histories. In the U.K., it was Sheena Easton's first single and was issued as she was set to appear on the BBC program The Big Time. The show eventually helped push the single (as well as her followup single "9 to 5") into the Top 5. In the U.S., it was the followup single, as "9 to 5" -- retitled "Morning Train (9 to 5)" in the states to avoid confusion with Dolly Parton's hit -- was Easton's first Stateside hit.

"Modern Girl" is something of an updated version of a feminist anthem like "I Am Woman." This time, however, she's not saying she's as good or can do anything better; instead, she's living life on her own terms and doing her own thing. If she wants to just sit around her house after a long day at work and watching TV, that's okay. It's exactly what men have been doing for years.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Devo - "Working in the Coal Mine"

Working In the Coal Mine - Heavy Metal (Music from the Motion Picture)

(Debuted September 5, 1981, Peaked #43, 12 Weeks on the Chart)

"Working in the Coal Mine" has been recorded several times since 1966, when it was first performed by Lee Dorsey. That version went to #8 on the pop chart and is undoubtedly the best-known version of the song. When Devo recorded it in 1981, it was kept off the LP New Traditionalists by their record label, so leader Mark Mothersbaugh let it be included on the soundtrack of the animated film Heavy Metal, where it was part of the final segment "Taarna." Interestingly, it would be the only charting single from the soundtrack, despite the presence of several big-name artists.

The song was written by Allen Toussaint, a New Orleans native who'd been writing, recording and producing since the 1950s. His influence has long been felt in the music business, even if it hadn't been overt. "Working in the Coal Mine" appeared shortly after he had done a two-year hitch in the Army, which might have helped inspire the song. There weren't that many coal mines to be found in the Mississippi delta area where he grew up.

Devo's version of the song is a radical reworking that strips the New Orleans-flavored rhythm and reworks it to fit the group's brand of post-modern electronic wizardry. They were able to bring what had been a familiar song into a new decade and put their own unique stamp on a relatively "old" standard.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Extra - Whitney Houston - "All At Once"

All At Once - Whitney Houston

This really isn't news now, but Whitney Houston passed away last weekend. As one of the biggest acts of the 1980s, she scored seven #1 pop singles (consecutively) and a pair of #1 LPs before the decade was over. She also scored three #1 R&B hits, seven #1 adult contemporary singles and three #1 dance hits on the Billboard charts.
Just like what happened when Michael Jackson died, the news tilted pretty heavily towards the negative aspects of her life. Here at 80s Music Mayhem, we prefer to simply focus on the music and let an artist's body of work speak to their life. Whitney leaves behind a family who misses her dearly, and fans who debate her place in music history. She was already featured in this blog last summer, in a post that spotlighted her debut single, a duet with Teddy Pendergrass that is much more poignant now that both of them have left us far too soon.

While Whitney was running her string of seven straight #1 singles, today's featured song showed up on MOR-leaning and R&B radio stations during the Summer of 1986 but was never officially released as a single and didn't make the Billboard chart as a result. I never understood why, as "All At Once" is probably one of her best performances on an album that features many of them. It was written by Jeffrey Osbourne, with producer Michael Masser handling the arrangement; however, Whitney takes the words and makes them her own. And now that her voice has been silenced, the performance has taken on an entirely different (and bittersweet) meaning.

For more on Whitney's career that doesn't focus on the negative aspects, check out JB's post from The Hits Keep On Coming or this post from Any Major Dude With Half a Heart that has a number of tunes by other artists that were later performed by Whitney (reverse "covers," if you will).

Friday, February 17, 2012

Tom Johnston - "Savannah Nights"

(Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted November 17, 1979, Peaked #34, 11 Weeks on the Chart)

After being sidelined from The Doobie Brothers due to some medical issues, Tom Johnston was ready to get out and record again. He had become very ill in 1975 and was only able to contribute sporadically to the group's albums before leaving in 1977. He recorded his first solo album Everything You've Heard is True in 1979, and "Savannah Nights" was his first single.

While it came out late in 1979, it was shortly after the disco backlash. Yet here was one of the Doobie Brothers -- one who wasn't part of "What a Fool Believes," for Pete's sake -- doing a record that may not have been totally disco but certainly had a dance groove in it. There may have been a guitar solo in the record, but the clavinet laying down a funky groove wasn't fooling anybody.

Despite having a dance beat, the video was part of the rotation that played on MTV during its first day of programming in 1981. It's not exactly what the channel would be remembered for playing; they used anything they had during those first few months on the air.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Boz Scaggs - "Look What You've Done to Me"

Look What You've Done to Me - Urban Cowboy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

(Debuted August 23, 1980, Peaked #14, 17 Weeks on the Chart)

The film Urban Cowboy is one of my guilty pleasures. It's one of those movies where I'll watch it if I find it on TV no matter how deep into the story it's gotten. The soundtrack was a runaway success on the pop charts as well, sending six hit singles and helping to kick-start a country music trend that brought some of Nashville's hitmakers onto the pop charts for a few years. That said, the "Countrypolitan" style was well in effect by 1980 and two of those hits aren't really what would have been counted as "country" music by any stretch of the imagination at the time. One of those hits was Joe Walsh's "All Night Long" and the other was Box Scaggs' "Look What You've Done to Me."

According to legend, the song was written and hastily recorded in one night to provide a musical backdrop to a scene that was going to be filmed the next day. The scene featured Bud (John Travolta's character) taking up with another woman for the evening to get back at his on-again/off-again wife Sissy (played by Debra Winger).

Urban Cowboy's music was coordinated by Irving Azoff, who had been managing The Eagles. For "Look What You've Done to Me," his superstar clients were put to use as backup musicians. For the version used below, the members of The Eagles provide the backing music as well as the backing vocals; in the movie and on the soundtrack, the song features female backup singers instead.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Kenny Rogers - "Coward of the County"

Coward of the County - Number Ones

(Debuted November 17, 1979, Peaked #3, 18 Weeks on the Chart)

Some critics like to ridicule country music because of its sometimes predicable subject matter: songs about the simple life, "God and mama" songs, even songs about getting drunk and committing adultery. Well, here's a song that had a prison death, a triple rape and three guys getting the stuffing beat out of them in a barroom. Somehow, a song with such implicit sex and gratuitous violence in it still managed to hit #3 and become a crossover hit without corrupting the impressionable youth of America, nor was it even brought up a few years later when the PMRC took their crusade about what they deemed "filthy" song lyrics to Capitol Hill.

Perhaps I oversimplify the song. The triple rape is implied (though it's hard to think of much else, given the lyrics), the barroom beatdown is casually mentioned, and Kenny Rogers really doesn't say what made Tommy's father die in prison but it was likely an execution. However, even though he rambles his way through the song, the story has some rather dark elements in it. And none of that could stop it from becoming a huge hit, thanks to Rogers being at his peak of popularity at the time.

In addition to reaching #3 on the pop chart, "Coward of the County" was the first new #1 single of the new decade on Billboard's country chart. It also hit #1 in the U.K. in February '80, which makes the last U.S. country single to date to reach the top there.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rupert Holmes - "Answering Machine"

Answering Machine - Partners In Crime

(Debuted May 3, 1980, Peaked #32, 10 Weeks on the Chart)

Today is Valentine's Day, so here's a song that is twist on the usual love song using a conversation that played out over a pair of answering machines. Since there was a 30-second recording time on the tapes used in those days, that limitation was incorporated into the lyrics for a comical effect.

It's odd that Rupert Holmes is sometimes pegged as a One-Hit wonder for the #1 single "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)," because that ignores the fact that he scored two more Top 40 hits after that from the same LP, Partners in Crime.  All three singles were noted for their humorous take on life and love (though the #1 hit was a little too much for some listeners). In a perfect world, he'd have gathered more hits after "Answering Machine," but it would be his last appearance as a singer in the Top 40.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pat Benatar - "You Better Run"

You Better Run - Crimes of Passion

(Debuted July 26, 1980, Peaked #42, 11 Weeks on the Chart)

When MTV began life on August 1, 1981, the first video they played was The Buggles' prophetic "Video Killed the Radio Star." Since that was a hit in 1979, it falls outside of the time frame to be included in this blog. The second video shown by the fledgling network was Pat Benatar's "You Better Run," a song that had peaked outside the Top 40 the previous summer.

"You Better Run" was a track from Benatar's best-selling LP Crimes of Passion. Although her next album Precious Time would become her only #1 album, it's worth pointing out that Crimes of Passion was kept at #2 behind John Lennon's Double Fantasy; were it not for the actions of Mark David Chapman, it would have likely topped the LP chart. While the songs on the set had an odd flow (for instance, "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" was followed by the anti-child abuse "Hell is For Children"), it was a great guitar-driven album in a sea of synthesized pop.

While many of us who grew up in the 1980s associate the song with Benatar, "You Better Run" was an early song by The Young Rascals that had been originally released in 1966. It was written by group members Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigatti and ironically featured keyboards, which didn't fit with Benatar's image at the time she recorded it. However, her rendition helped establish her as a sassy, hard-edged performer and the video's inclusion in MTV's early days cemented her image even without getting the song into the Top 40.

Friday, February 10, 2012

10,000 Maniacs - "Trouble Me"

Trouble Me - Blind Man's Zoo

(Debuted June 17, 1989, Peaked #44, 12 Weeks on the chart)

By 1989, I had stopped listening to Top 40 radio for the most part. That summer I was 16 and about to start my senior year of high school, and found the constant dance beat and the repetition of the same 15-20 songs to be too grating. So, I played around with my radio dial and watched shows like 120 Minutes and Post Modern when I watched MTV. As a result, there are several songs from that era of my life that are very familiar to me that weren't Top 40 hits, including this one from 10,000 Maniacs.

I featured another song by 10,000 Maniacs in this blog back in July, but "Trouble Me" was a little different from their previous hit because it wasn't trying to expose some type of social problem. Instead, Natalie Merchant's vocal was saying, "talk to me." Whether the subject is good or bad, there's nothing that can't be discussed. It's a piece of advice that I should have listened to a little more closely, since there are people from that time who are no longer around that I would love to get the chance to speak with today.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Soul II Soul - "Back To Life"

Back to Life - Keep On Movin'

(Debuted September 23, 1989, Peaked #4, 27 Weeks on the chart)

As the 1980s came to a close, R&B acts from England were often able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the home-grown acts from the United States. Many fans might not think of British artists as big R&B acts, but it should be pointed out that much of the excitement that marked the British Invasion of the 1960s was the fact that the music was heavily influenced by R&B music. Even after that, the Northern Soul movement was big during the 1960s and '70s and remained ingrained in the minds of fans for years afterward. By the late 1980s, there were British R&B fans who were much more knowledgeable about the style than many American fans.

Soul II Soul was a London-based combo that consisted of the DJ Jazzie B and a revolving roster of musicians (notably Caron Wheeler, whose vocals grace "Back To Life" as well as the earlier hit "Keep On Movin'"). Their biggest American pop hit was "Back To Life," which went to #4 on the pop chart and topped the R&B chart. It was also #1 for four weeks in their native U.K. It was a new twist on the R&B style, as well as a tip of the hat to the past.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Young MC - "Bust a Move"

Bust a Move - Stone Cold Rhymin'

(Debuted July 29, 1989, Peaked #7, 38 Weeks on the chart)

"Bust a Move" is a song that is definitely a product of its time. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The late 1980s were a "Golden Age" of  Hip-hop because it was allowed room to grow and expand in its own directions. In effect, there were few rules so experimentation was rampant. Occasionally, something showed up that was able to cross over to the pop chart.

With "Bust a Move," its rhythm is catchy, Young MC's rhymes are humorous and a deep bass line (provided by Flea of The Red Hot Chili Peppers) sticks in the listener's head after the song has ended. Not only that, but the song is simply about getting out on the dance floor, an element that has been part of music for long before there was rock & roll. Proof that its message was universal can be seen by the way it hasn't grown stale over the years or become the object of jokes (like "U Can't Touch This" or "Ice Ice Baby" from the following year).

Not only was "Bust a Move" the first hit Young MC managed to get, it was the biggest. He had previously written two monster hits for Tone Loc ("Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Medina"), which made 1989 a very good year for him.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Stevie Nicks - "Rooms On Fire"

Rooms On Fire - The Other Side of the Mirror

(Debuted May 6, 1989, Peaked #16, 14 Weeks on the chart)

During the Summer of 1989, I was dating a girl named Valerie. It was a short relationship, though; she was a free spirit that couldn't be contained and it was silly for me at that age to try. She looked a little like a red-headed version of Stevie Nicks (in fact, she looked an awful lot like the shot of Nicks on the back cover of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours LP), and since "Rooms on Fire" was the current Nicks hit during our time together, I immediately think of her when I hear it.

"Rooms On Fire" was the only single from Nicks' The Other Side of the Mirror LP to hit the pop charts. It peaked at #16 and was #1 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart as well. With lyrics that seem to be purposely opaque and partially biographical, it was comparable to much of Nicks' material, both solo and with Fleetwood Mac. However, the album was panned by critics. Nicks was fighting a tranquilizer addiction at the time (in fact, she has said in interviews that she has no memory of the tour she took to support this album), so that might account for the seeming decline in her musical output.

That said, I like the song. I liked it then, and it brings back memories that are good ones from my teen years, which weren't always a bowl of cherries. I haven't seen Valerie in over 20 years, so the song is a little like running into an old friend after a long time apart. That is always a good thing.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Tommy Conwell & the Young Rumblers - "If We Never Meet Again"

If We Never Meet Again (Single Version) - Rumble

(Debuted December 17, 1988, Peaked #48, 10 Weeks on the chart)

I featured a song by Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers in this blog last April, during my first trip around the 1980s. The link above will give some background about Conwell and his group, but where "I'm Not Your Man" was a very unsubtle, in-your-face massage, the follow-up was surprisingly philosophical by comparison.

Thought it wasn't a #1 Rock Tracks hit like its predecessor (it stopped at #9 there), it reached #48 on the pop chart, which was a better showing than "I'm Not Your Man" managed. While sounding like a mix between the more introspective material that Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp had already been putting out, there's a story going on between the lines that is whatever the listener determines it to be.

Where "I'm Not Your Man" was a preemptive reminder that the narrator wasn't ready to settle down, in "If We Never Meet Again," he's finding that he's leaving part of himself behind as he travels farther down "life's highway." The lyrics (co-written by Jules Shear) don't say whether this was the result of a breakup or was simply the result of a missed connection, only that he's moving on alone and is carrying only good thoughts with him about what happened. it's an interesting counterpoint to the attitude expressed in the earlier single.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Cher - "Skin Deep"

Skin Deep - Cher

(Debuted July 30, 1988, Peaked #79, 4 Weeks on the chart)

Cher was already an icon long before the 1980s, but spent much of the decade focusing on other pursuits beyond singing. Her main priority revolved around acting in films, and she was about to get her Oscar when she returned to the recording studio and released Cher, her first album in more than five years. Using a revolving door of producers including Michael Bolton, Desmond Child, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, the record represented her comeback and showed that -- given the right material -- she was as capable as ever of doing what earned her fame in the first place.

The album's first two singles ("I Found Someone" and "We All Sleep Alone") were Top 40 hits, but the third -- "Skin Deep" -- missed the Top 40 entirely. That may have been a surprise, given how popular dance-related music was in 1988. It was quickly forgotten in the wake of her future hits like "If I Could Turn Back Time," "Just Like Jesse James" and her Peter Cetera duet "After All."

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Taylor Dayne - "Tell it to My Heart"

Tell It to My Heart - Tell It to My Heart

(Debuted October 10, 1987, Peaked #7, 24 Weeks on the chart)

"Tell it To My Heart" pretty much exemplifies the brand of dance-pop that ruled the pop charts during the late 1980s. Although her big voice is front and center in the performance, there is also a wall of synthesizer sound, drum machines and sequenced rhythms.

"Tell it To My Heart" was the first single and lead track of Dayne's major label debut LP, also called Tell it To My Heart. Straddling the line between pop and R&B, it was quite a first impression. It was also the first of the four Top 10 pop singles Dayne racked up on the album.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Heart - "There's the Girl"

There's the Girl - Bad Animals

(Debuted November 7, 1987, Peaked #12,18 Weeks on the chart)

When the group Heart gets brought up, most of the focus is given to the Wilson sisters: Ann on vocals and Nancy on the guitar. However, that totally discounts the fact that Nancy is also a very good singer in her own right. She handled the vocals on Heart's first #1 single "These Dreams" and does them again on "There's the Girl."

Nancy Wilson also co-wrote "There's the Girl" with Holly Knight, who had previously penned the songs "Love is a Battlefield," "Better Be Good to Me" and others. It was the only single released from the Bad Animals LP that one of the Wilson sisters had written, which was unusual for them.

While infused with the sythesizer lines that seemed to be de riguer by 1987 and the hard-edged guitar that found its way into a lot of that era's music, "There's the Girl" is a song that seems to have aged really well regardless.