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.

Friday Five: Favorites

I’m participating in the “impact albums” meme on Facebook and I struggled while selecting my ten albums (that’s the number in the version I was tagged in).

From the top, I decided to eliminate “greatest hits” or compilations of any sort (including soundtracks). That took away quite a bit, because in my twenties my musical explorations often happened through those kinds of albums. They might not have been the best compilations for those artists either, but they meant a lot to me because they’re the ones I bought.

Then there were the albums that had a few songs that were big in my rotation at a certain point in my life, but had a lot of other songs I didn’t listen to all that much. These were the hard eliminations because while the albums might have been super important to me, not enough of it was in terms of total percentage of content when compared to others. Even if the songs they carried meant more to me than most, I eliminated them based on that percentage, rather than the degree of love I had for them.

That means there are many songs that didn’t make the final cut for me. So here’s a list of five of those:

5. “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” by Colin Hay (1998)
I first heard this song on the soundtrack to the movie Garden State (2004). Colin Hay is the former front man for the 80s Australian band Men at Work.

4. “The Joker” by The Steve Miller Band (1973)
In all honesty, I doubt there’s an album I know better than the second volume of Steve Miller’s hits collection, “Greatest Hits 1974-78.” In the 80s and 90s it was not uncommon for the album to pop into the top 100 in terms of sales, probably based solely on college kids buying it through their Columbia House or BMG memberships. In short, he was the drinking music of many a college keg party.

3. “That Feel” by Tom Waits (1992)
This song (a duet with Keith Richards) is the last song on Waits’ 1992 album Bone Machine. The only reason that the album didn’t make my cut was because one of his other albums was more revolutionary for me. Bone Machine was a close second. This was the stand out for me, a song that sounds like two drunk alley cats singing late at night.

2. “What It Takes” by Aerosmith (1989)
My cassette tape of Aerosmith’s 1989 blockbuster album was as well played as any I ever owned, but almost entirely for side 1. Songs like “Janie’s Got a Gun” and “Love in an Elevator” were the hits that made it such a solid seller. My favorite song, however, was the last on side 2. I nearly wore the cassette out just to play it again and again…

1. “Sweet Thing” by Van Morrison (1968)
My first Van Morrison album was his The Best of Van Morrison. I bought it in college and a good chunk of the songs (except for the Christian ones, late in the 21 song collection) were in heavy rotation with me and friends during college. I have a fondness for so many, but “Sweet Thing” (originally from the legendary Astral Weeks) moved me like no other. The slow build up and gradual orchestral feel were among my favorite aspects.

Friday Five: Eighteen

Happy New Year! We’re 18 years into the 21st century. I guess that means we’re all grown up.

5. “I’ve Lived My Life” (Dolly Parton, 1967)
“I’ve lived my life and I’m only eighteen / Only eighteen but its all over / I ruined my life to please my lover / I made him happy, he made me cry / Then said goodbye”

4. “School Days” (The Runaways, 1977)
“Used to be the trouble maker / Hated homework, was a sweet heart breaker / But now I have my dream / I’m so rowdy for eighteen”

3. “Like a Rock” (Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, 1986)
“I was eighteen / Didn’t have a care / Working for peanuts / Not a dime to spare / But I was lean / And solid everywhere / Like a rock”

2. “Mama Kin” (Aerosmith, 1973)
“Said you’re as bald as an egg at eighteen / And workin’ for you dad is just a drag / He still stuffs your mouth with your dreams / You better check it out / Or someday soon you’ll have to climb back on the wagon”

1. “I’m Eighteen” (Alice Cooper, 1970)
“Eighteen / I get confused every day / Eighteen / I just don’t know what to say”

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: 1986

I graduated the 8th grade in 1986 and started high school. Need I say more?

If that pivotal year of my life were made into a movie, here are five–hell, I’ve been gone for so long let’s make it ten!–ten songs that would make the soundtrack:

10. “Tuff Enuff” (The Fabulous Thunderbirds)
Even in 1986, these guys looked like a bunch of oldies hanging out in young person land. But Tommy loves the bluesy rock…

9. “If You Leave” (OMD)
I had never heard of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) before this hit song, and I’m not sure I could name another song of theirs if my life depended on it. This was their big hit, featured on the soundtrack to Pretty in Pink, a movie I didn’t see until much, much later.

8. “The Way It Is” (Bruce Hornsby and the Range)
There’s a lot in 80s music that doesn’t stand the test of time. Songs like this have a lot of the production elements that make it feel dated (synthetic beats, for example).  The difference here is that when there’s great stuff at the heart of a song it can still rise above those “flaws.”  The melody always sucked me in, and the lyrics kept the 13-year-old me thinking.

7. “Mad About You” (Belinda Carlisle)
I loved the Go-Gos and when Belinda Carlisle released her solo album it was almost destined I would fall for it. I remember buying it about the same time I bought my clothes for high school.

6. “Final Countdown” (Europe)
Confession time. I liked the Swedish, big-hair rock group Europe. I liked them a lot. Too much, really. I know the words to every song on this album. I’d pick my favorite song for this list but there wasn’t ever a real video for it. And who can resist the song that has become a theme song at nearly every NBA arena in the country.

5. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (Crowded House)
One of my favorite things about my musical tastes is that I could love a group like Europe and Crowded House at the same time. In my book, this is still one of the best songs ever.  When I later saw Crowded House in concert (they were part of the festival line-up Peter Gabriel put together for WOMAD) I was a long-haired grunge and metal fan.  I sang at the top of my voice.

4. “Back in the High Life” (Steve Winwood)
I hadn’t heard of Steve Winwood before his 1986 album Back in the High Life. Traffic and Blind Faith were discoveries I had yet to make, and wouldn’t make until college. The first hit from the album–“Higher Love”–was one of those things you couldn’t get out of your head (with backing vocals by Chaka Khan who would want to). But I remember being really moved by the musical changes and mood of this song, a bittersweet feeling I appreciate more now.

3. “Sledgehammer” (Peter Gabriel)
After all these years and all this education I really don’t know what this song is about. I still don’t know what the video is supposed to mean. I do know that I had never heard of Peter Gabriel before this song and, because of it, I made an effort to discover more of his music when I could. (My favorite song on his hit album So, from whence comes this song, is his duet with Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up.” Actually, it’s one of my favorites of all-time. But I don’t remember hearing the song until the early 90s.)

2. “Walk This Way” (Run-D.M.C. with Aerosmith)
Again with the “I had never heard of…” I knew (and loved) Run-D.M.C. in 1986. I remember seeing this video for the first time and MTV’s Martha Quinn explained who Aerosmith were. I loved the video, loved the song, and I quickly grew to love Aerosmith. I was one of the tens of millions who helped give them their “second career” beginning with 1987’s Permanent Vacation. And this song–a piece of musical history in its own right, with its blending of two genres that were seemingly un-joinable at this point–had everything to do with it.

1. “You Give Love a Bad Name” (Bon Jovi)
As I confessed before, I was a big fan of the big hair, rock 80s. The band that was the top of that for me was Bon Jovi. I remember this all very vividly. It was August 1, 1986 and MTV was celebrating it’s 5th birthday. We got cable the year before but little stood out for me on MTV until this day of celebration and the next thing you know I’m watching everyday. Earlier that year they had started a daily countdown show based on call-in votes. “Dial MTV” became my daily ritual and the first video I remember being number 1 was this hit from Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. Here’s where the memory is shaky, but if I remember right, it went up to the top spot in a day’s time and stayed there until they kicked it off. The album didn’t come out until August 18th. I bought it that very day.