Friday Five: 1985

As with any time period, there is popular music of the 1980s that stands the test of time, and music that really doesn’t. I often find myself fascinated by the music of my youth that doesn’t, not because I want to make an argument that it’s really good, but because I’m more interested in why it wasn’t.

That doesn’t mean that all music that fades away is bad, not at all. But there is a commercial reality to popular music where companies can “manufacture” music and then saturate the market with that certain sound until we’re sick of it. Any artistry of these musicians is taken over by that manufactured quality to their sound, their look, and the way they’re everywhere one minute, and nowhere the next.

My hunch is that the 80s was the dawn of a new day in the corporate music world. Lessons of the past coalesced into some sort of new global corporate structures and strategies, aided by music videos, that made the whole thing a little “more” than it was before. Add to that a sound that often incorporated the synthetic and technical, and I think the 80s becomes something of a low point, in a lot of people’s minds, of “good” music and a high point in corporate control.

There’s a lot of things about popular music in 1985 that make me feel like that, too. I don’t begrudge Phil Collins (“Sussudio” and “One More Night”) any of his success (the man was HUGE), but I also don’t respect his music much. In retrospect, he feels like a skilled navigator of the industry more often than he sounded like a “musical artist” (whatever that is). Tear for Fears (“Shout!” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”) and Huey Lewis and the News (“Power of Love”) or even a Paul Young (“Everytime You Go Away”) can take me back, in a good way, but there’s not a lot of love for me in that music when I hear it. It’s kind of like the Energizer bunny to me–it’s alive but not really.

I don’t mean to say these people are not skilled. I’m sure they took their music seriously, too. I know bands like Huey Lewis and the News busted their asses to get to where they were. I also know they brought a lot of joy to millions of people. Millions. And that means something.

At the same time, it’s no coincidence that “college radio” music like REM and U2 had such loyal, young fans in this era. “Alternative” music was an alternative, in part, to manufactured, commercial pop. “Weird Al” Yankovic had a career in the 80s because of the ironic way he could play with that.

So let me try to walk the line and make a list of “popular” songs from the year that are also good, despite being popular, in both the best and worst ways. Indicative of commercial aspect to this, 3 of these 5 songs were featured in major motion pictures that year and part of those movies’ soundtracks. Another was from an artist who benefitted from a choreographed corporate push. One is ironic as it confronts that world of corporatized music.

It goes without saying that this is TOTALLY subjective. In the end it really says more about me than about the music, of course, but here it goes anyway…

5. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (Simple Minds)
There might not be more 80’s song tied to a more 80’s movie than this, the musical meat to John Hughe’s Breakfast Club. For people like me, who weren’t old enough to see the R-rated movie until years later, the song was still familiar territory.

4. “Crazy for You” (Madonna)
There is talent in Madonna, and talent in the production of her music. But you can’t talk about her without considering the commercial atmosphere within which she became such a cultural icon. She was already riding the wave of her 1984 album Like a Virgin when this song, featured in the movie Vision Quest–yet another 80s movie mostly about a teen age boy and sex–topped the charts.

3. “Dead Man’s Party” (Oingo Boingo)
Oingo Boingo is probably the least commercial of this week’s offerings. They were a well-known band in LA by this time, and their mix of new wave, ska, and rock made them known among the college radio crowd, too. This song–from the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School–certainly made them bigger than before. Lead mad Danny Elfman would, of course, go on to healthy career in movie music.

2. “Saving All My Love for You” (Whitney Houston)
Whitney Houston’s debut album was critically-praised and a phenomenal commercial hit. This, the second single from the album and her first #1 single overall (Houston remains the only artist in history to have 7 consecutive #1 singles, beginning with “Saving”), is a solid showcase of her talent, as well as the effective way she was marketed. In September 1985 she sang it on the Ricky Schroeder TV sitcom “Silver Spoons,” where she guest starred as an emerging singer (of course). It was one of those tie-ins that was so common in the earlier days of TV.

1. “Money for Nothing” (Dire Straits)
This song and its video are indelibly part of the MTV, 1980s generation. What I don’t think people “got” at the time (at least not widely, in the US), was the ironic way the band was commenting on the MTV generation. That they should also come to rule that station’s airtime with the same song is, in itself, so Gen X. (Dire Strait’s 1985 album Brothers in Arms also gave us another legendary 80s cultural moment worth watching.)

Advertisements

The King is Dead; Long Live the King!

Thirty-eight years ago today, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died.

The more time that passes, I think the less people remember what an amazingly talented performer he was. But strip away the commercial superficialities, and all of the tragedy of drugs and excess, and you do have an amazing voice. Just amazing.

The “Mark in the Morning” radio show, here in L.A., offered a nice reminder of that talent this past Friday (it should be in the “Audio Clips” feature here). They played audio from Elvis’ recording session at American Sound Studio, in Memphis, likely on January 23, 1969. On that day he was about a week into recording the album that would become From Elvis in Memphis, his post-“’68 Comeback Special” release, that stands as his best studio album (although Elvis is not really known for his albums as much as his singles).

Below is the King’s sixth take of the song “Suspicious Minds,” the take that became the single released later that fall. This “raw” track is awfully complete compared to how hit singles are made today.  It lacks the full instrumentation and background vocals that are part of the final release but it is one complete take of a song, the singer and the band playing together, with the singer’s amazing (non-computer-enhanced) voice on display.

“Suspicious Minds” would be Elvis’ last #1 single before his death.

elvis

 

Friday Five: 1984

Rolling Stone once called 1984 “pop’s greatest year” and, in many ways, it was.

It was a big year for Cyndi Lauper and for Prince. Madonna, who had already become a star, now became a cultural phenomenon. Bruce Springsteen re-emerged to be rediscovered by a whole new generation. And the continuing stardom of Michael Jackson made him into even more of an unreachable star.

The year 1984 was a memorable cultural moment in other ways, too. It was the year of a presidential election, one where Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to be the VP nominee on a major party’s ticket. The Olympics were in Los Angeles (I got to go to the shooting preliminaries). “The Cosby Show,” “Murder She Wrote,” and “Miami Vice” all premiered on TV. And the movies! The Terminator, Footloose, Splash, The Natural, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Gremlins, Red Dawn, The Karate Kid, This Is Spinal Tap, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and, of course, Purple Rain, all came out in 1984.

I could make a list of just Prince, Madonna, and Michael for 1984 (or just 5 songs from each) but, instead, here’s 5 songs that snuck in around them to help make the soundtrack of the times.

5. “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” (Dead or Alive)
Few songs are more memorable in the decade than this dance hit. For that matter, few videos more reflective of the times. As much as the synthetic, rapid beat marked the times, the group was a bunch of New Wave, glammed up, baggy shirt wearing British guys. So 80s.

4. “Wake Me Up (Before You Go-Go)” (Wham!)
I can remember the first few times I heard this breakthrough single from Wham!, the duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. There was this peppy beat, harkening back to the 50s and 60s tunes that were the basis of a lot of 80s pop. But what were they saying? We kept listening to the song trying to figure out what they hell they were saying. And then we saw the video, and the next thing you know everybody seemed to be wearing one of those shirts. At some point I stopped caring about figuring out the song. It just was. Everywhere. And we liked it.

3. “People Are People” (Depeche Mode)
I had never heard of Depeche Mode until this song climbed the charts, but it felt like I was the last person to have heard of them when it did. I never really became much of a fan but this song takes me back to my youth like few others. I used to shower every day at 7:00, in my parent’s bathroom, and listen to the Top 40 station’s “7 at 7” countdown of top requests of the day. This song seemed to be there every day, and it seemed to stick around longer than any other.

2. “You Might Think” (The Cars)
Without a doubt, this is one of the most memorable videos of all-time. There’s nothing particularly good about it, at least not to our 21st century eyes, but at the time it seemed to be new, modern, and funny in a techno kind of way. The graphics, in particular, made it stand out, as did the movement of those graphics. It won the “Video of the Year” award at the very first MTV Video Music Awards. Oh yeah, the song was a hit, too, and not without justification.

1. “Take On Me” (A-ha)
Here’s how good 1984 was: this song–by a Swedish group who were an international hit–it simultaneously indicative of the 80s and yet, strangely, timeless. It still feels like a fresh hit to me, after all these years. It’s a beautiful song, hitting vocal notes most people can’t touch, and most of the lyrics are completely unintelligible to the US ear. On top of that, it just might be the best video ever made.