Friday Five: 1989

The end of the 1980s was the high point of the reign of hard rock.  After Motley Crue and (especially) Guns N’ Roses, if you had long hair and you were in a guitar band that played L.A. clubs, you just might become a rock star.

The formula was simple: you had to have at least one guitar-driven rock video and one ballad, usually a love song.  Oh, people loved them some big-hair, 80s rock ballads!

So here are five of my favorite rock ballads from 1989…

5. “When I See You Smile” (Bad English)
When Journey broke up, guitarist Neal Schon (who started Journey before Steve Perry and later reformed the band without him) reunited with former Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain and joined forces with vocalist John Waite and bassist Ricky Phillips, two of Cain’s former bandmates from The Babys, one of Cain’s pre-Journey projects. Billed as something of a US-British “super group,” the band had only minimal success, largely due to this hit ballad.

4. “Heaven” (Warrant)
Probably one of the most successful of the second-tier 80s rock bands, Warrant hit it big with their debut album Dirty Filthy Sticking Rich, an endeavor that spawned three MTV hits that crossed over to the radio charts. This ballad was the engine to their album sales. They’d repeat their success with their follow-up album Cherry Pie a year later, and another ballad (“I Saw Red”) before disappearing under the wave that was grunge.

3. “Patience” (Guns N’ Roses)
Guns N’ Roses might have been the most respected of the 80s rock bands.  They were seen as more talented, artistic, and authentic than the MTV manufactured kind. G N’ R Lies––the follow-up to their monumentally successful album Appetite for Destruction––was an acoustic EP (“extended play,” or not quite a full “long play” album) release from the band, a reflection of the way they honed that reputation.  “Patience” was the only release from the album, and so its only hit.  It’s a masterful example of the genre, in some ways because it is so simple.  (It wasn’t the only song to be widely known, however. Among the unreleased tracks was “One In A Million,” a song that featured lead-singer Axl Rose spouting off in a racist and homophobic mini-tirade.)

2. “What It Takes” (Aerosmith)
Aerosmith were kind of the granddads of the 80s rock movement, a 70s rock band that experienced a “second career” starting with the release of their 1986, best-selling album Permanent Vacation. The follow-up, 1988’s Pump, was an even bigger commercial success. “What It Takes” was the album’s final single to be release, barely scrubbing the charts in 1990. As an owner of the album, however, it was on frequent play for me throughout 1989 and 1990. This quickly became my favorite Aerosmith song, mostly for its bluesy rock style, but also for the feeling of playing my cassette and driving with the windows down as I went to meet friends for a night out.  It still sounds like youthful grown-up-ness to me.

1. “Love Song” (Tesla)
Sacramento-based rockers Tesla straddled stardom until their 1989 album The Great Radio Controversy made them into the proverbial “overnight success.” In truth, their love of the blues and Northern California 70s rock really gave them a distinct sound, and secured a reputation of more legitimacy in the hard rock world than if they were “only” a ballad-playing MTV band. That said, they remain forever known by one song––one ballad––one ballad that just might be the king of 80s rock ballads.

For a bonus treat…the song played a memorable role in the band’s acoustic album, Five Man Acoustical Jam. Recorded live in Philadelphia, the song acted as a transition to a short “electric” set. The crowd’s sing-a-long speaks volumes about the song’s popularity.

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.)

Historical Songbook: “Los Hijos de Hernández” (1986)

Los Tigres del Norte are the most famous and accomplished conjunto band in Mexican musical history.

Their own story spans the border between California and Mexico (the group came together in San Jose, CA), and does so while playing norteño music that has a lot of cultural significance for Mexico’s north and the US Southwest (especially Texas). In short, they are emblematic of so much of the transnational character of Mexican American history.

Los Tigres are famous for their style of corridos, a Mexican folk tradition that often communicates the particulars of everyday life of most mexicanos, including their social/political struggles. For Los Tigres, their narco-corridos—songs that detail aspect of the illegal drug industry—are some of their most famous. Hardly confined to the dramas of the drug wars, they are a politically and socially-conscious group for a host of other issues as well.

In 1986, they released a song that demonstrates their both their radical sensibilities and its artistic expression, “Los Hijos de Hernández.” The song tells the story of an encounter at the border between a man and a border agent. Here is a quick translation:

Returning from my land,
and crossing the border,
an officer asks me
to fulfill my duties.
That if I had papers
I have to show to them.

And while he was reviewing them
I heard him murmur
something that made me angry.
That with so many emigrants already
many North Americans
can not work.

I told him very angrily
that which you murmured
has a lot of truth.
Latin Americans,
in the view of many Americans,
have taken away their place.

If we work very hard
and are not “chicken” either,
if life must be risked
in the fields of combat,
they have advanced us
because we know how to fight.

My children were born here,
ignoring the prejudice
and the discrimination
their homeland claimed,
and on the battlefield
they showed heart.

There no one noticed
that the Hernández’s they signed up
were cannon fodder.
Maybe my sons took
the places not filled
by the sons of some Saxon.

If on the payroll
look you in disgust
at my name in Spanish,
you will see on another list,
that upon reviewing, are missing in action.

While this he shouted,
the migrant wept,
and he said with emotion:
you can cross the border
anytime you want.
You have more valor than me.

Though the song is from the 1980s, and about the 1980s, it is also all about the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s. It testifies to the widely-held belief that Chicanos and mexicanos were disproportionately sacrificing their lives for a nation that denied them substantive equality in most other sectors. In this way it is a reflection of the ways the Vietnam War remained such an unsettled event, both for the wider US society as well marginalized communities within that larger whole (like that of Mexican immigrants).

Or maybe its a tale that reflects the hidden ways the US did grapple with the lessons of Vietnam. After Vietnam, the US armed forces were all-volunteer, with the hugely unpopular draft coming to a formal end just before the conclusion of US military involvement in Southeast Asia. Among the many strategies the military would come to employ to assure a ready supply of able-bodied, trained soliders, would be to create new targeting strategies to attract more young men of color.

“Los Hijos de Hernández” reflects the contradictions of this increasingly “brown” army. Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans alike would often be coveted and welcome into the US military while still forbidden entry or effectively marginalized within the US.

“Los Hijos” is a fantastic song in so many ways. Among its more powerful qualities is its desire to voice an experience that is so true, often (and tragically) unifying within the ethnic Mexican community, and yet almost completely absent from the mainstream US imagination. As a snapshot of the mid/late 1980s, the song also unifies the narratives of (im)migration, labor, war, and memory in a very powerful way.

Miami Vice (25 years ago today)

Miami Vice premiered on NBC 25 years ago today, on September 16, 1984.  The show that became synonymous with the decade of the 80s both reflected the visual and emotional aesthetic of its times as it simultaneously shaped them.

It was a seemingly superficial concept, encapsulated by Brandon Tartikoff’s two-word vision of “MTV cops.” But the end result was much more than that.  While music and stylized cinematography provided high-profile features of the show, its stories helped reshaped what adult TV looked and felt like.  Michael Mann, executive producer of the series, chose to set the show in Miami, giving it ample opportunity to showcase women in bikinis, neon lights, and nightclubs.  It also provided a dark, gritty, urban backdrop and the specter of drugs.

And Latinos.  Latinos (as actors or characters or both) figured prominently in the show from day one.  Lead actor Philip Michael Thomas was not Latino, but he played “Ricardo Tubbs,” a former NYC cop who has Latin roots of some kind.  In the first four episodes, Lieutenant Lou Rodriguez was played by Gregory Sierra.  He was replaced with Edward James Olmos in the role of Lieutenant Martin Castillo.  Saundra Santiago played Detective Gina Calabrese; while bit player Martin Ferrero appeared frequently as Izzy Moreno.  Taking place in Miami, and frequently revolving around the business of drug smuggling, Latinos appeared in most episodes as shady, dark figures and other kinds of criminal-looking types.

Surprisingly, the show never finished a season higher than the ninth spot in the overall ratings, achieving that feat in its 2nd season.  It tapered off big time in the ratings after that, finishing 23rd, 36th, and 53rd in the final three seasons, respectively.  But the ratings don’t reflect the show’s impact on the culture.  Don Johnson became a household name after 1984.  The theme song by Jan Hammer went to number 1 on the charts.  The show spawned original hit singles from Glen Frey, and made bigger hits out of songs by Phil Collins and Dire Straits.

And the stories!  My favorite episode just might be “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” the third episode of the second season.  From beginning to end it suggests what made the show great–the style, the music, the actors.  And the plot is just about as dark a story as I had ever seen on TV.  The complexity it represented stuck with me, but not half as much as the final scene.  I can still remember watching it.

If you want to spend the time, the entire 48 minute episode can be viewed below from Hulu.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

For an analysis of Jackson’s iconic status, see my more recent review of his memorial service.

At his height, he was the biggest thing in the world. For a generation of young people–my generation–there will never be another.

Michael Jackson will be remembered for many things–his time with the Jackson 5, Thriller, the worldwide phenomenon he was, as well as the controversies of his molestation trial, financial troubles, and appearance–but to me and millions of others he will always be the “King of Pop.”

michael_jackson

It’s not that I excuse the man’s failings and shortcomings, whatever those were. But he was always more than a person, more than what can be contained within the limitations of a human being.

Michael Jackson was music.  He was dance.  He was, for a time, the biggest thing in popular culture.  He was girls and boys screaming, sweaty crowds reaching, flashes of light and human ecstasy.  In the U.S., in Europe, in Latin America, in the so-called Third World, wherever he went, it was the same spectacle.

The person behind this cultural phenomenon is dead, but that amazingly rare commercial beast that he embodied will never die.  It’s time has passed, but we all did bear witness to it.  We, too, will pass, but future generations will still know the name Michael Jackson.

michaeljackson

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

Gen X Nostalgia for January (200th post)

Sometime in the 2011-2012 academic year, I’ll come up for tenure.  Until then, if  you should ever see me posting more than once in a day (or writing any single post of more than 750 words), please feel free to comment and tell me to get back to work.

Aside from a break on inauguration day, I’ve been busy working the past few weeks, primarily finishing an article and continuing revisions on my book-in-progress.  So-called “scholarly work” takes a buttload of time, what with all the footnoting and substantiation of my claims.  Both will someday be published and, if I’m lucky, be read by about the same amount of people who visit this blog in a month.  (In case you are not following, I ain’t bragging about my blog’s traffic.)

Long story longer, that’s why the posts have been a little slim of late.  So to catch up, here’s a “three-fer,” as they say in the world of classic rock radio.  These are three anniversaries I would have written about more substantively had I had the time (is that write?).

Oooo, double grammar joke.


“Happy Days” premieres on television (January 15, 1974)
This month marked the 35th anniversary of the premiere of “Happy Days.”  I’m not sure the show makes many critic’s top ten lists, but it surely stands as one of the more popular shows of the 1970s.  For us genX types, it just might be one of those culturally binding artifacts.  (Who doesn’t remember Fonzie water skiing in his leather jacket and jumping over a shark?)  Growing up, the syndicated reruns were far more significant than the first-run shows, at least for me.  Like “I Love Lucy” and “Gilligan’s Island,” it required no great effort to watch them on Los Angeles pre-cable TV.  More importantly, as a kid I remember thinking “Happy Days” was my window into what white people were like.  Here’s a clip from the first episode (notice the diner is called “Arthur’s” in the pilot).


Hulkamania is born (January 23, 1984)
Last week was the 25th anniversary of Hulk Hogan’s victory over the Iron Shiek, making him WWF heavy-weight champion.  I didn’t start watching wrestling until a few months after this match, so I don’t have any memory of seeing it.  Still, this budding historian had done his research and took notes when dates were mentioned on the weekly WWF telecast or in the monthly WWF magazine (of which I was a subscriber–still have all my issues, too).  Every year, when the calendar showed January 23, it ws the first thing my young mind thought of.  Here’s the match, thanks to the beauty of YouTube, with full color commentary by the great Gorilla Monsoon (“it’s pandemonium”) and Bruno Sammartino.

If you hadn’t seen a Hulk Hogan match before, the above is the script used in almost all of them: HH comes out like a tornado of power; he gets caught by his opponent who tries to end him with a “submission hold” of some kind; HH is miraculously “recharged” by his adoring fans; HH regains, gets the upper hand, goes to the ropes, and with a big leg to the face and some sort of follow-up, gets the pin.  Pure magic.


Freddie Prinze shoots himself (January 28, 1977)
It’s not a particularly momentous anniversary, but 32 years ago the Latino star of the hit television show “Chico and the Man”–Freddie Prinze–shot himself.  He died two days later.  At the time of his death, Prinze was a big deal in Chicano LA.  Though he was half Puerto-Rican and half Hungarian (one of his jokes was that he was a “Hungarican”), the former stand-up phenom endeared himself to many Chicanos via his role as Chico Rodriguez.  While the show enraged Chicano activists (for its lack of Mexican American involvement), it shot up to #1 in the ratings by its second week (beating out “Rhoda”).  It never left the top ten.

prinze

Prinze died at 22.  While he may not have been Chicano, the show  took place in East LA and made “politically correct” attempts to represent barrio life and concerns.  While problematic in so many ways, it was the first Latino-themed show in TV history.  It is may also be the first time the word “Chicano” was used in a primetime series.

However trite and superficial, the show brought brown faces into American homes on a weekly basis.  Check out the pilot episode here.

[NOTE: Reflecting the base of its viewership, a week after Prinze died a 13-year-old girl committed suicide out of unconsolable grief.]

Where, indeed, is that beef?

25 years ago today, this commercial first aired on television.

I don’t remember the first time I saw it, or the first time I heard somebody use the phrase outside of talking about the commercial, but I know EVERYBODY said it. You could not get away from the phrase or that little Clara Pellar (the 81 year-old lady who uttered the words). For goodness sakes, there was even a “Where’s the Beef?” record! I can remember being a senior in high school (like 1989 or 1990) and having a teacher use the phrase in class and thinking “Jesus! Let it die already!!” Every once in awhile, I’ll still hear it, either as kind of a retro form of humor or by somebody who think Victor Borge was funny.

I will say this: I had never been to Wendy’s before in my young 12 year-old life when this commercial aired. But after all the hoopla, me and the family went down to one in West Covina somewhere. I didn’t go back for another 15 years.