It’s been awhile, I know. After a hectic academic year, I’ve been spent most of my summer reading, playing video games, and just enjoying my time with the family. We’ve had some amazing trips, so good I should post some pictures here. This past month I’ve also been getting back into work, which is currently all about researching and writing my next book. All this is to say, life has left little time for the blog.
But it’s time to get back to business, even the business of waxing nostalgic about the music of my life. After a couple of months making memories with my kids, it’s an easy mental place to visit.
So let’s talk about 1983.
Michael Jackson’s album Thriller came out on November 30, 1982. I don’t know when we bought our copy but it couldn’t have been too long after. Once we had it, we could listen to whatever song we wanted, whenever we wanted. (If memory serves, we listened to it a side at a time more than anything.) We could also memorize the songs that hadn’t yet made it to the radio.
And so we did. When I remember 1983, I remember it as a time of Michael Jackson and Thriller. It wasn’t just the album, of course. For most of the year he was on every magazine, on the news, on TV specials, and on the radio. He was what we talked about at school. Everybody tried to perfect the Moondance, people hid glittered gloves in their desks (such accessories were not part of the Catholic school dress code). Everybody I knew loved Michael Jackson. Everybody.
For me, and for millions of others, Michael Jackson eclipses just about every other thing in the U.S. popular culture of 1983. But he was hardly the only cultural phenomenon, and he was hardly the only good thing happening in music.
To make up for lost time, here’s a Friday Five with a few more selections from 1983, arranged a little differently:
5. The Dance Hits: “Rockit” (Herbie Hancock) and “Let the Music Play” (Shannon)
From the disco era to the early 80s, dancing was a big part of U.S. popular culture again. By 1983, music was inspiring very specific, 80s ways of dancing, too. For example, breakdancing went mainstream in 1983. Perhaps no other song more than Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” helped make that so. My best friend and I once got into a breaking fight, where we danced off to this song and to Taco’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Ah, the 80s! Shannon’s legendary hit of ’83 was the start of something unique, too. It was the first big song of a different kind of “disco,” the kind that lit up the dance and pop charts of the mid to late 80s. This song could still drive folks wild when I was in high school at the end of the decade, something of a dance-floor standard for young kids of color in the suburbs.
4. The One Hit Wonders: “Flashdance… What a Feeling” (Irene Cara) and “She Blinded Me with Science” (Thomas Dolby)
Every generation has its own “one hit wonders.” And every “one hit wonder” has at least one person out there who would contradict the use of the title for each case. Irene Cara had lots of hits, just not lots of musical ones. She rose to fame as part of the 1980 movie Fame, where she played Coco Hernandez. (Cara herself is half Cuban and half Puerto Rican.) She had an acting career that kept her on TV and in the movies for much of the decade. She also had a hit record, for which she won an Academy Award. The musical theme to the 1983 film Flashdance was a monster hit, but even it paled in comparison to the scope of the movie’s success. We were just kids, not allowed to watch (and probably not old enough to understand) the R-rated film. But that did nothing to curb it’s cultural impact on my youth. The song–reminiscent of Donna Summer’s best–lends itself to lip synching dance routines of pre-teens.
Tom Dolby was anything but a one hit wonder. The Brit had a a fairly successful career outside the U.S., and was a favorite of the KROQ crew (alternative, college, emo kind of stuff) for much of the 80s stateside. I didn’t know that then, however. His big hit of ’83 was a standout single for me, as provocative musically as the video was visually. It shares some musical generational markers with Cara’s song, synthesizers and beats familiar to the 80s. As much as Cara’s hit brought up the past, however, Dolby’s presages the synthetic future that was to come.
3. The Headbangers: “Rock of Ages” (Def Leppard) and “Cum on Feel the Noize” (Quiet Riot)
There’s a passionate sub-culture out there for 80s, big-hair rock. There’s a breed of the music that isn’t quite heavy enough to be heavy metal and which comes before the MTV onslaught of crappy glam that did nothing but capitalize on the genre. Some of that is about timing. Some of it is about artistry. Yes, that’s what I said.
Def Leppard doesn’t get a lot of respect outside the world of hard rock but their 1983 album Pyromania is one of the standards of the genre. A lot of that is about the skills of the band, even Joe Elliott’s ability to scream in key, but most of it is due to the legendary producer of rock, “Mutt” Lange. He is the Phil Spector of hard rock, assembling an assortment of sounds and beats to make little masterpieces of excess, beautifully displayed in this radio standard:
Quiet Riot was an unknown rock band in the 1970s that happened to include a skilled bassist (Rudy Sarzo–a cubano!) and one of the greatest metal guitarists in history, Randy Rhoads. In 1980, both Rhoads and Sarzo left to play with Ozzy Osbourne, thereby effectively killing the band. When Rhoads died tragically in 1982, Sarzo and lead singer Kevin Dubrow joined with drummer Frankie Banali and guitarist Carlos Cavazzo (mexicano!) to reform the band. With “Cum on Feel the Noize”–their cover of a 1973 song by the band Slade–they became the first “heavy metal” band to top the U.S. album charts, pop charts, and video charts.
2. The Anthems: “Love Is a Battlefield” (Pat Benatar) and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (Bonnie Tyler)
Not a lot to say here except I still think these two songs are f-in fantastic. Pat Benatar is an under-appreciated artist. Culturally, this song not only became something of an anthem (it is the fight song of the pseudo-feminist film The Legend of Billie Jean) but the video was a trailblazer, too. I’d freak out when the entire mini-movie version would play, a dance production worthy of a Michael Jackson video. As for Bonnie Tyler…her anthem–written and produced by Jim Steinman, the man behind Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell album (for better or worse one of the biggest selling albums in musical history)–stands the test of time. It even hit the charts again as a dance hit in 1995 with a singer that tried to sound so much like Tyler (minus the raspy goodness) that many thought it was a remix with a sample of the original.
1. The Classics: “Texas Flood” (Stevie Ray Vaughan) and “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson)
Stevie Ray Vaughan is a blues god. His 1983 album (with his band Double Trouble) was his debut. It generated two bonafide hits–Pride and Joy” and “Love Struck Baby”–but neither is as good as “Texas Flood,” Vaughan’s cover of a 1958 song by Larry Davis. Here it is from a 1985 live performance, the way Stevie should be seen.
And Michael, doing the song that made him “Michael” in the performance that changed the 80s.