Abbey Road at 50

Abbey Road turns 50 years old today! The Beatles’s eleventh studio album was released in the UK on September 26, 1969. It dropped in the US on October 1.

Abbey Road was the last studio album recorded by the group (though 1970’s Let it Be–––recorded before Abbey Road–––would be the last studio album of the group ever released). The boys recorded it from February to August of that year, at the same time the group was breaking up. As the story goes, the group was done just before Abbey Road was released. John Lennon had already told the others he was leaving. When Paul made the public announcement in April 1970 that he was done, the world knew The Beatles were over.

Abbey Road is a special album for me and my son. It’s our favorite, and some of the songs–––”Here Comes the Sun,” “Something,” and the ending medley of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End”–––have been a part of his life since he was a newborn. I used to play “Golden Slumbers” to him every night after bath time, while I dried him off and put on his lotion. I still think of those times when I hear it.

But it’s our favorite album for a whole lot of other reasons. It opens with a classic John Lennon song (“Come Together”). Some of the best George Harrison songs are on it (“Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”). It’s got Paul McCartney at his bluesy best (“Oh! Darling”). And not to be out done, Ringo Starr gives us a classic, too (“Octopus’s Garden”). I think the thing that always brings it all together for us is the fact that it’s the band’s last. They know they’re ending their time together and they use the album to say goodbye, not only to their fans but also to each other.

If I were trapped on the proverbial deserted island, and I had only one album of music with me to play, I would hope that album were Abbey Road. That’s not because I think it’s the greatest album ever made. Heck, I’m willing to admit it might not even be the band’s greatest album. But it is my favorite of theirs and, more importantly, it’s something that has marked the relationship of my son and I in big ways. This album has my heart.

So happy 50th birthday to Abbey Road!

Friday Five: September 1989

Thirty years ago, the top song in the country was “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” by Milli Vanilli. Even before the scandal that ended their career––they were lip-syncing to vocals by others––they were kind of an easy joke. Now they’re just a sad tragedy.

The rest of the top of the charts from that month aren’t much better, but there still are some great tunes. I was starting my senior year in high school that fall and I guarantee you, there was a lot of great music at the time. It’s just that the things that were most popular in September 1989 weren’t all the best reflection of the most creative and exciting music of that time.

So here’s five songs from the top five from September 1989, a mix of great, good, and, well, popular.

5. “If I Could Turn Back Time” by Cher
Don’t call it a comeback. Sure, Cher wasn’t the Cher of my early childhood, when hit records and a weekly variety TV show made her into a staple of the world of the famous. But 80’s Cher was making a name for herself as a real-deal actress, with movies like Silkwood, Mask, and Moonstruck, to name but a few. And Cher never stopped being Cher in those years. She was larger than life, sparkly, and a big deal in multiple intersecting cultural worlds––queer, straight, camp, dance, comedy, glam, and then some. I don’t remember liking the song that much in 1989 but sometime in the 90s I realized that I knew all the words to it, so I must have been some kind of fan. The video was popular (the 43-year-old Cher shares a bit more than her voice) but the song was even bigger, hitting #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the “Adult Contemporary” charts in September 1989.

4. “Heaven” by Warrant
It is what it is people. Big hair rock was all kinds of sputtering half-formed masculinity, whether in its guitar-driven rock anthems or its guitar-driven love ballads. Is this the best hard rock ballad? No. Is this the band’s best? Probably. But it is what it is. I liked it at the time because I liked Warrant. Their debut album dropped in ’89 and this was its biggest hit, peaking at #2 on the Hot 100 in September. That said, I don’t listen to much Warrant these days. I might not change the channel when one of their hits comes on the radio, but I’m rarely seeking them out. There’s a warm nostalgia factor for me but, in retrospect, the band rode the wave of MTV and big hair rock at a time when the wave was tsunami huge, but not all that creative.

3. Mixed Emotions by the Rolling Stones
It was #1 on the rock charts for the entire month of September 1989 and peaked at #5 on the Hot 100 at the same time. The greatest band in the world was still making good music throughout the 80s. Even though it wasn’t their best, it was still better than the best of most bands at the time. The album it came from––Steel Wheels––along with their Singles Collection compilation released that fall made the Stones pertinent to my generation. I was in a hard rock/heavy metal social group and we were listening to them by 1989, and not just because our parents were, either.

2. “Freefallin'” by Tom Petty
Tom Petty made a solo album in 1989 called Full Moon Fever. Maybe “solo” is the wrong word because his buddy Jeff Lynne was all over the place as a writer and performer. Still, the album produced a bunch of hit records, some of which became regular features at his live performances for the remaining quarter century of his career. This song is the biggest of those, and arguably “the” song of his career (although I wouldn’t make that argument). I liked it then, I like it now, and my kids like to hear it, too. I suspect this song will be enjoyed for as long as we’re around on this planet. It topped the “Mainstream Rock” charts for the last week of August, and then began its decline the following month. It would peak at #7 on the Hot 100 months later.

1. “Love Shack” by the B52’s
It was #1 on the Alternative charts for four weeks, ending the first week of October. That’s a little bit of an odd place for its biggest success, but it did make it to #3 on the Hot 100. Moreover, it really is the band’s biggest song, and that’s something for a band that made Rock Lobster a decade before, which was kind of a big deal. It’s a unique and catchy song that builds off the band’s strengths and still gets you moving thirty years later.

Friday Five: September 1988

It’s not that 1988 didn’t produce any memorable pop, rock, or R&B hits–it’s the year of George Michael’s “Faith,” for example–it’s just that many of the more successful songs from the year aren’t as enduring as songs from other years.

Maybe it’s a product of where music was at the time. Big hair rock, pop ballads, and dance pop seemed all equally popular, and college (or alternative) radio was climbing towards the mainstream. This musical polyglot is kind of characteristic of the charts for most of the rock n’ roll era, so maybe it’s not unusual. The dearth of really ensuring, standout hits that have survived the ages is the more interesting thing.

Apparently, September 1988 is a good reflection of the year as a whole. You’ll know the songs, or you won’t, but only one of them has stood the test of time to achieve the iconic status I’m talking about. And even that only sat atop the Hot 100 for two weeks.

5. “Peek-A-Boo” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
I don’t know this song and I really don’t know much at all about the music of Siouxsie and her banshees. I know they had fans–passionate fans if my world were any indicator–and I know they had a lot of success. I bet this song is not indicative of their best, either artistically or in terms of sales, but it’s a historic song for this month of 1988. In the second week of September, Billboard debuted their “Alternative” charts, meant to capture music that was big but not as “commercial.” This was the first #1 song on those charts.

4. “Finish What Ya Started” by Van Halen
Van Halen had become “Van Hagar” in 1985 and still managed to continue their success of the David Lee Roth era. They had a hit album in 1986 (5150, which topped the level of success they had with their monumentally successful album 1984) and followed it up with 1988’s OU812. This was a decline for the band in terms of sales, but it produced a set of hit singles including this late addition to the album. It peaked at #2 on the “Mainstream Rock” charts in early September and then began its quick decline. It’s a catchy song, yes, but it’s also a great microcosm of the kinds of simple masculinity that built big hair rock in the era.

3. “Another Part of Me” by Michael Jackson
Michael was a factory churning out musical success in the 1980s and early 1990s. At his best and most successful, those songs entered the popular cannon of music in ways most artists only dream of. Not all were songs that get a lot of play today, but they were still hits for the time. His album Bad was the first in history to produce five consecutive #1 songs. This was the sixth, which hit the #1 spot on the R&B charts in September 1988 even though it only made it to #11 on the Hot 100, ending his record-setting streak. It was a known song already, having been written and recorded for his 1986 3D Disney movie “Captain EO.” The video gives us none of that (after all, it was still playing at Disney’s parks) but instead goes live to show what Michael loved to show–just how big a cultural phenomenon he was.

2. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin
I was a teenager in my sophomore and then junior year in 1988 and, like most teenagers, my friends and I had strong opinions about music. This was one of those songs that you either liked or hated, at least in my little world. At the time, I probably said stuff about it that suggested I was in the “hate” camp. I mean, it was kind of easy pickings for hard rock fans. But I didn’t really hate the song. First, it was catchy–like the kind of catchy that when you hear it it sticks with you for most of the day. Second, lots of people–friends and family–loved the song. But the most important reason was Bobby McFerrin himself. The man was everywhere on TV and he was a really nice guy. Plus, he played all the “instruments” on this song because all of them were just him and the sounds he made with his voice and body. It hit #1 on the Hot 100 in the last week of the month where it stayed for two weeks. And trivia note: it was from the movie Cocktail, starring Tom Cruise.

1. “Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns N’ Roses
Out of all the songs on this week’s list, this is arguably the only one to have achieved that iconic status. Funny thing is, it only hit #1 on the Hot 100 for two weeks before fading away! Of course, it was a hit on the rock charts, too, but it only peaked at #7 there. Fans were fickle in 1988. That said, the song grew to be the biggest song for a hard rock band that had lots of big songs and, in many ways, it is the 80s hard rock ballad song of the era. It’s a contender for that title because of its “legs” in our culture. Its cultural endurance owes a lot to the video (equally iconic) but also to the blend of ballad tendencies, with pop and hard rock. It’s as solid song as the band ever produced, and it still deserves listening to, 31 years later.

Friday Five: September 1987

It’s a busy week, so let’s cut to the chase. Here are five top five songs from the first week of September 1987.

5. “Casanova” by LeVert
LeVert was an R&B vocal trio founded and led by Sean and Gerald Levert, two brothers who were the sons of Eddie Levert, leader singer and founder of the O’Jays. They sat atop the R&B charts in the first week of September 1987 with this song, which also made it to the top ten of the Hot 100. It wasn’t the mot unique song but it was catchy and had some hop to it. You don’t need much more than that.

4. “Dude Looks Like a Lady” by Aerosmith
I suppose this felt like a clever concept song to this legendary hard rock band from Boston, but it felt a little problematic to me, kind of like the anti-“Lola” by the Kinks. Still, this song––which was the first released from their album Permanent Vacation––was popular enough. When combined with the album’s other hit records (“Angel” and “Rag Doll”) it helped to usher in the band’s “comeback.” The song was co-written by Desmond Child, who was hitting the top of the rock charts pretty regularly back then with other groups like Bon Jovi.

3. “Learning to Fly” by Pink Floyd
I knew who Pink Floyd were in 1987, but I wasn’t all that interested in their music. This song––which was released in September 1987 and debuted at #5 on the rock charts––was the first of theirs that I liked. The present-day me thinks it’s not much when compared to their best, but it’s something. It would hit the top spot on the rock charts by the end of the month. I’m not sure about this but it might be the band’s last “hit” record. although since this was the first album without Roger Waters, some purist might say it didn’t really count anyway.

2. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” by Michael Jackson and Siedah Garrett
There was no one bigger in the musical world of my universe than Michael Jackson. By 1987, however, it was five years since Thriller and all its accompanying mayhem. But at the end of August that year, Jackson released a new album––Bad––and this was its first single. A love song was an unexpected first release for a new album by the “King of Pop” (although he hadn’t seized that moniker yet) and a duet was even more of a surprise. At the end of this first week of September, it was #2 on the Hot 100 and the R&B charts, on its way to top spot on both in two more weeks.

1. “La Bamba” by Los Lobos
The greatest band from East L.A. covering the iconic song of the most famous Chicano rock ‘n roll singer in history. It almost can’t go wrong, but the brilliance of Los Lobos makes this cover of Ritchie Valens’ 1958 song even better than just good. I remember thinking how they made it more Mexican (no surprise considering their depth of knowledge of traditional Mexican music and they skills with Mexican strings) and more Chicano (it’s got that East L.A. groove they do so well) all at the same time. It didn’t hurt that the song came from the soundtrack of the film of the same name, a biopic of the late, great rock star. Directed and written by famed playwright Luis Valdez, the film was the biggest thing in “Chicano America” since Fernandomania. I still think of it as a kind of “holy” thing. The best part of the cover, however, isn’t in the movie. It’s the little bit of something extra that comes at the end of the song.

A new year for me

Today is the start of a new academic year at the Claremont Colleges. I’ll teach the first meeting of my “Intro to Chicanx-Latinx History” class and then I’ll attend our college’s opening convocation ceremony. That makes it a great day to me, but it’s a pretty momentous day in other ways, too.

First off, for those of you who read this blog or follow me on social media, you know this has been anything but a typical summer. Having the brain tumor and surviving the surgery has been a life-changing event for me and for my family. I wish it was something we didn’t have to go through, but we survived it and that’s something to celebrate. I’m happy to be alive and happy to be able to head back to the classroom to the job that I love.

The other noteworthy thing is that this year marks my 30th in higher education. My first 4 years were as an undergrad at Claremont McKenna College. The next 8 were as a grad student at UC Berkeley. And that means this is the start of my 18th year as a tenure-track/tenured professor. That’s kind of crazy to me, not just in a “time flies” kind of way but also because 18 years is a long time!

I’m so lucky to have been a professor of Chicana/o/x Studies at two incredible institutions in that time. And I’m lucky for all the relationships I’ve made in those years. The past few months——as I received cards, letters, emails, and messages from a lot of the people I worked with and taught in those 18 years——I’ve been lifted up by the love and friendship that’s come from that work. I’m here, right now, in part because of the people that have made those 18 years as good as they were.

So thank you! And happy new academic year to me and to you!

Friday Five: August 1986

I started high school in August 1986.  I’m not one of those people who sits around wishing I could be back in the “glory days” of my youth, but it’s not hard to be nostalgic about that time in your life.

The sounds of those days are etched in my mind in a big way. Here are five songs from the top of the charts in the last week of August 1986.

5. Take Me Home Tonight by Eddie Money
The lead single on Eddie Money’s 1986 album Can’t Hold Back, this single was also the album’s first release. It dropped in August. I bought a Walkman that summer and for some reason this is the song I remember listening to on it. I didn’t know who Eddie Money was at that point but I liked how he sounded. More importantly, I did know who Ronnie Spector was and I loved how she sounded. It was #4 on the rock charts in the last week of August, a harbinger of where it would later peak on the pop charts. (I have no idea why the “official” video is so hard to find in the US.)

4. “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood
Here’s another song by a 70s rock star who, in 1986, I had yet to hear about. It’s also a single that includes vocals by a singer I had heard of, Chaka Khan. “Higher Love” was the #1 song in the country 33 years ago this week, the first chart topper for the veteran rocker from bands like Traffic and Blind Faith, among others. I liked the song in 1986 but not in an obsessive way, it just sounded nice and you didn’t have to work hard to hear it.

3. “Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna
Every Catholic boy and girl I knew in 1986 (which was kind of the only people I knew) loved Madonna. I didn’t matter what kind of music you were into either. It’s no mystery why, she was a big deal. In a way she was one part of the “holy trinity” that included Michael Jackson and Prince. Though she wasn’t as big as either the other two, those guys could never do what she did. Of course, the pubescent Catholic boys that we were, we loved Madonna for the simple and obvious reason. Her Catholicism and use of Catholic imagery (she often wore a rosary) added to that. It contrasted with her sexual style and lyrics in ways we fell for, though we were oblivious to the obviousness of that attraction. This song (it was #1 on the pop charts earlier in the summer but was at #3 this week) was her most controversial at the time, which is saying something. From what I remember it kind of felt less controversial in the Catholic way, though, but who knows. Side note: the video introduced me to Danny Aiello.

2. “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel
Another rock star who I hadn’t heard of until 1986, Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album So made him a household name for my generation. This was only a minor hit from the album——it was at #3 on the rock charts this week but never got higher than the 20’s on the Hot 100——but it was helped by songs like “Sledgehammer,” whose video was a game changer. The song would grow in popularity over the span of my high school years, aided by its inclusion in the iconic scene from the 1989 movie Say Anything.

1. “Rumors” by Timex Social Club
It was #8 on the Hot 100 this week, its peak position. But for me, it’s the song I most associate with the summer of 1986 and the start of my high school years. It’s not because of the topic. I wasn’t worried about “rumors” at the start of my high school years and those years never gave me a reason to change that. It was just “the” song a the time. One of my most enduring memories of the song was when one of my friend’s dad was driving us home and he was singing along like a pro——”In a camisole, she’s six feet tall, she’ll knock you to your knees!” This song is a time machine for me and it never fails to put me back to another time.

Querida Familia Latina

Below is a letter signed by more than 200 Latinx artists, writers, and leaders——people like Salma Hayek, Rita Moreno, Edward James Olmos, Eva Longoria, Lin Manuel-Miranda, Sandra Cisneros, José Andrés, and Dolores Huerta.  Printed in the New York Times and major Spanish-language newspapers like La Opinión, El Diario, and El Nuevo Herald, the group writes to all members of la familia Latina and all people of conscience as we collectively face the racial violence and fear of our present moment.

This is moving. This is necessary. This is leadership.

____________________________

Querida Familia Letter
August 16, 2019

https://queridafamilialetter.org/

Querida Familia Latina,

If you are feeling terrified, heartbroken and defeated by the barrage of attacks on our community, you are not alone.

We have been smeared by political rhetoric and murdered in violent hate crimes.

We have been separated from our families and have watched our children caged.

We have been targeted with mass shootings and mass ICE raids meant to terrify us, squash our hope, and break our spirits.

But, we will not be broken. We will not be silenced. We will continue to denounce any hateful and inhumane treatment of our community. We will demand dignity and justice.

Though real pain and fear are sweeping through our communities, we remain powerful. The indignities and cruelty we have endured will never change the truth that the contributions we make to this country are invaluable. Our humanity must be respected. And, we won’t stop organizing for ourselves, our children, and for the soul of this nation.

To our allies who feel our community’s pain, we need you. We cannot make change without your voices and action. We call on you to speak out loudly against hate, to contribute your resources to organizations that support our community, and to hold our leaders accountable.

We ask you to join us in building a better country where we are all safe and valued.

May we turn this time of despair into a time of action. May our love for one another be the guiding light in these dark times.

With our deepest love,

(Signed by over 200 actors, musicians, artists, activists, and labor and civil rights leaders, including José Andrés, Gloria Calderón Kellett, María Teresa Kumar, Sandra Cisneros, Dolores Huerta, Edward James Olmos, Rosario Dawson, Salma Hayek Pinault, Jennifer Lopez, Diego Luna, Ricky Martin, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nathalie Molina Niño, Janet Murguía, Rosie Perez, Teresa Romero, Gina Rodriguez, Zoe Saldana, Roselyn Sánchez, Tanya Saracho, Bamby Salcedo, Carmen Perez, Tony Plana, Wilmer Valderrama, more)