Friday Five: After the Beatles

We’ve been listening to a lot of Beatles this week and my son and I got into a conversation about our favorite “post-Beatles” songs by the Fab Four. We discovered that we’re not as big fans of Paul as the others, and that we still gravitate to George more than most fans. Maybe not surprisingly, most of the standouts are in the immediate post-break-up period–probably the release of the “best” songs from the remaining three. But my boy’s favorite is the grand exception.

So with a little help from my son, here are our five top songs by the Beatles made after the band split up. The order is mine but the influence is ours together.

5. “It Don’t Come Easy” (Ringo Starr)
Our favorite Ringo song, this was an early part of our household because of the live performance of it from the Concert for Bangladesh, was one of my son’s favorite DVDs when he was only 2. I think it’s one of the finest percussion performances by the post-Beatles Ringo, and one of his catchiest tunes overall.

4. “My Sweet Lord” (George Harrison)
My boy used to sing this song, maybe one of the first non-kid songs he took to. His favorite version was from the tribute concert for George Harrison after his death, where Billy Preston leads a band that includes Ringo, Eric Clapton, Jeff Lynne, and Dhani Harrison, George’s son. The Concert for Bangladesh version was a close second. Harrison was sued for the song, a challenge he lost. Turns out he was ripping off the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” at least inadvertently. It’s still a classic.

3. “Instant Karma!” (John Lennon, or Lennon/Ono with the Plastic Ono Band)
It’s my sentimental favorite. I love how this song brings together all of John’s strengths, the rougher rock ‘n roll traditions he loved, and some great work by Phil Spector. My vote for his best solo song…

2. “Imagine” (John Lennon)
It’s hard to not include this song on a list like this. John Lennon wrote a pop music hymn, straight from the church of the Sixties, that has become an anthem for peace and love. I’m sure it spoke to the time in which it was created and released (1971) but it’s also timeless (unfortunately). What impresses me most is that it’s some of the typical simple lyrics of Lennon but, as he is at his best, they are profoundly deep.

1. “End of the Line” (Traveling Wilburys)
This is a mostly George Harrison penned song by the late-80s super group featuring Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan (who doesn’t sing on this one song). It’s my son’s favorite George Harrison song after the Beatles, and I love it a lot, too.

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Friday Five: 1988

I was a sophomore/junior in high school in 1988. I guess the obligatory middle-aged guy thing to say about that is that it feels like yesterday. To be honest, it really doesn’t. It mostly feels like a long time ago, although thinking about it as three decades is a kind of head trip.

It feels a little less old when I hear music from those times. Whether they were songs I loved or not, so many of them were so indelibly seared into my brain that they feel ever-present.

Here are five major “pop songs” from 1988. I won’t say these are the best. I will say that each is part of the soundtrack of those times for me, so much so that they fall into that “ever-present” camp described above.

5. “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” (Billy Ocean)
I honestly can’t remember what I thought of Billy Ocean back then. He wasn’t the style of music I was buying (that was more hard rock and heavy metal), but I listened to a lot of Top 40 stuff on the radio and on MTV. I most associate the song with the movie License to Drive, starring a young Heather Graham, which was kind of made for teenage boys, I guess.

4. “Close My Eyes Forever” (Lita Ford and Ozzy Osbourne)
I had no idea who Lita Ford was until “Kiss Me Deadly” (the lead single from her 1988 album Lita) was released. A former member of the “all-girl” hard rock band The Runaways, she was everywhere in the heavy metal/hard rock magazine world after that. This single–one of the best of the hard rock ballad genre–is a duet with the metal man himself, something of an intentional argument against the false representation of Ozzy (and other metal acts) as “pro-suicide.”

3. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince)
Talk about indelibly seared into my brain. There was a time when entertainment didn’t have Will Smith. This song is the start of the era when it did have him. Pre-TV show, pre-movies, he was just a rapper with a kind of clean, pop twist. This was big on MTV, maybe even bigger there than on the radio.

2. “My Prerogative” (Bobby Brown)
The former member of New Edition, an R&B-teenage-boy-band, Bobby Brown broke out on his own in the mid-80s to some minor success. He became huge with his 1988 album Don’t Be Cruel, also the name of the lead off single. This follow up was as big a hit, and a staple at dances in the late 80s.

1. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (Guns N’ Roses)
It’s kind of hard for me not to put this song at the top. Not only was it a favorite of mine from the year, but it kind of solidified the place of GNR at the top of the hard rock heap, too. That says something about the place of metal-ish music at the time. The album came out the summer of 1987, and the first single released on heavy metal stations was “Mr. Brownstone.” Endless touring and “Welcome to the Jungle” took them to the mainstream Top 40. This song made them music legends.

Friday Five: 1991

The early 1990s were an eclectic period in popular music and my tastes were no different. Combined with my (st)age––that powerful period in life when you’re actively discovering who you are and deciding who you want to be––my wide interests make me a fan of so many songs from those years.

Some of that is about the memories songs incite. When I hear “3 Strange Days” by School of Fish, for example, I am instantly transported to the job I worked each break from school, processing checks at two in the morning. Some of it is the ironic fanaticism of my generation, a way of seeing and judging that could make things as stupid as this both enjoyable and, somehow, meaningful.

There are a lot of songs from 1991 that I want to people to know about, songs I wish they played more often on the radio, songs that deserve to be played more often. But there’s no way I could get that list down to only five.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t hard at all to come up with the five songs that meant the most to me that year, songs that I obsessively played on repeat, again and again.

5. “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” (Boyz II Men)
A song of change and of transitions, a song of memories and love. I never stood a chance.

4. “Why Should I Cry for You” (Sting)
Sting made his 1991 album Soul Cages to process his father’s death. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. I used to put on my head phones and push play, then just sail away…

3. “Lithium” (Nirvana)
It was an album that made me feel alive, confused, angry, powerful, and peaceful, all at the same time. This was the one I played the most, the one that made me feel his genius.

2. “Nothing Else Matters” (Metallica)
I bought Metallica’s “Black Album” the day of its release. I remember being surprised by the melodies. I thought it was the end of Metallica, and one of the best albums I had ever heard. This was my Gen X anthem.

1. “Black” (Pearl Jam)
I loved Pearl Jam’s Ten for the way it made me feel. It was like these guys were playing the soundtrack of my guts, in sound and words.

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.

Friday Five: 1983

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.

Friday Five: 1982

I bought my first radio/cassette player sometime around 1981, using my own money “earned” by recycling newspapers. (Since my dad was the one who subscribed to, read, and neatly stacked our copy of the LA Times, and since he or my mom were the ones who drove me to the recycling plant across town, it didn’t really do much to get that money.) Around the same time, I joined my first music club, Columbia House, using one of their ads inside of the TV Guide. I got my dozen cassette tapes for 1¢–including albums like Journey’s Captured and Escape; Pac Man Fever by Buckner and Garcia; and The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat–and then would buy a handful of albums (at full price) over the next year (things like John Cougar’s American Fool.

It was a time of a lot of music exploration for me. I started to hear a lot of stuff I would have never heard if not for the music club and I started to listen to the radio all the time, exploring the diversity of LA radio and, more often, trying to record my favorite songs on blank cassette tapes (my first of which, I still have).

All this is a long-winded introduction to my own personal 1982, but it’s an important part of my musical context. Vital even. When I look at the list of Billboard’s weekly number 1 singles for 1982 I not only know each of those songs, I can remember really liking them at the time. (Only 15 songs reached #1 that year, at the time the smallest number since 1956.) When you’re listening to radio all the time, of course, you’re bound to hear the hits more than anything else. With that box in my hand, those ear phones on my head, I felt like it was my music.

Here’s five songs from that year…

5. “Eye of the Tiger” (Survivor)
The story of this song is interesting enough that it might make any list for this year purely for the pop-cultural-kitsch factor. It’s relationship to the movie Rocky III is also a big part of what made an impression of me. The movie was a big hit (two words–Mr. T!!) but also a big slice of the kind of 80s encapsulated in this song. “Eye of the Tiger” is derivative, indulgent, and intentionally commercial above all else. It should be nothing more than “common” in the final tally. But one of the decade’s best guitar riffs, combined with a group who knew what they were and what they were supposed to do, makes for a rock classic.

4. “Rosanna” (Toto)
Toto doesn’t get a whole lot of respect from mainstream pop culture. If you hear them or their music its usually as some ironic joke. I can understand that. The mainstream sounds of 80s pop were so distinct they can seem a little more dated (and less artistic) than other eras of music. This hit single, which also won the Grammy for Record of the Year, is filled with a lot of those musical markers. But if you dismissed it for all those reasons, you’d be missing out on a song that also has some greatness in it. Drummer Jeff Porcaro’s playing is, perhaps, the best proof of that. His “half-time shuffle” is well-respected in musical circles. Porcaro died really young but recorded with Steely Dan and had a prolific career as a studio musician, in addition to his work as part of Toto.

3. “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” (Culture Club)
Boy George the singer would not enter my consciousness until 1983, when I saw the premiere of Culture Club’s video for “Karma Chameleon” on NBC’s “Friday Night Videos.” My friend and I spent much of the rest of the weekend arguing over whether or not Boy George was a boy or a girl. Ah, the sheltered life of Catholic school boys! I first heard Boy George the voice the year before, with the release of this single from their first album. Without the video, there was nothing but the power, smoothness, and irresistible soul of his voice.

2. “Vacation” (The Go-Go’s)
From the band’s second album of the same name, this single was a huge hit in the summer of 1982. I had a thing for Belinda Carlisle starting around this time. How could you not? The band’s all-female line-up was the main sell in the press and, truth be told, in an era of video it didn’t hurt that they were all so good-looking. But they were also so much more than looks. The Go-Go’s made some excellent music. They’re the epitome of LA music in many ways. Post-punk, New Wave, beach and garage, they remain worth a listen.

1. “Love Plus One” (Haircut 100)
This song never fails to make me both happy and nostalgic. I don’t have specific memories of it, to be honest. It was one of a handful of new Wave hits from the time as well as one of the many one-hit-wonders for the decade. I liked it, but it probably meant less to me than “Pac Man Fever.” But I was a kid. The grown-up me likes it more and more. It does a whole lot of things right, and is catchy as all hell.  I love the soprano sax, too. A nice change from the typical 80’s horns.

 

 

 

Friday Five: 1980

We give a lot of attention to the “decade” when it comes to our popular culture. Decades are defining, encompassing, even self-containing. We use them as markers of our times, of our influences, even of our loves. We use them as substitutes for expressing the things we share with others. “I’m a child of the 60s.” “I’m a child of the 80s.”

There’s no inherent reason why one ten-year period should be any more singular than another sequential ten years. Just like there’s no reason why the change from one year to another should be any more significant that another year change. The transition from 1979 to 1980 didn’t end one era abruptly and begin another that was all that different. Like most things cultural, if you know where and how to look, you can see the evolution of things over time. Some things evolve more quickly than others, some take a less straight line, but the process is always there.

But there is something about 1980.

A lot of what makes this year so special and so unique is the nostalgic hindsight of knowing the other nine years that followed it. When nostalgia and identity mix with that cultural tendency we have to build decades into something bigger, 1980 suddenly becomes some big turning point.

A bunch of groups who would be huge for the decade had albums released that year. Rush, The Police, Journey, Scorpions, Air Supply, John Cougar, Whitesnake, and even the Human League released albums. Most of the groups had previous releases in the 70s, but most also had bigger albums to come in the 80s.

Disco was in serious decline, but it was also in transformation in the music of people like Donna Summer, Michael Jackson, and Prince. Rock was transitioning, finding the middle ground between metal and glam, all wrapped in excess. And people like Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, and Olivia Newton-John had pop hits, too.

These 5 songs are all special to me in some way, but they’re emblematic of the things to come in the decade. (One special mention goes out to Prince and his album Dirty Mind. It’s my second favorite Prince album of all-time, and it contains what just might be my favorite Prince song of all-time, “When You Were Mine.” But Prince doesn’t let his stuff stay up for very long on YouTube so all he gets is a shout-out.)

5. “Another One Bites the Dust” (Queen)
Queen is talent. Queen is skill. Queen is glorious. Queen is a band that made a career out of producing songs that drew from everywhere and often sounded like no one else ever could. This single–one of their most enduring and biggest-selling–is another example of their ability to do something unique. The bass-driven song is accompanied by a host of sounds that almost seem misplaced. The song was also my introduction to backmasking. Sometime in ’81 or ’82, one of my next door neighbors played a cassette tape of the song for me but it was playing backwards. It sounded like Freddy Mercury was singing “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.” This must have been controversial, whether or not it was true. I remember thinking at the time how that was a stupid thing to be singing. Ah, Catholic school…

4. “You Make My Dreams Come True” (Hall and Oates)
I am a defender of Hall and Oates. They’re amazingly talented, and they’re better than their reputation. A lot of the negative vibe that goes their way is due to the fact that they were so influential in creating the 80’s sound. This song, from their 1980 album Visions, is a perfect example of their pop skills and the tendencies that would define so much of the decade. The guitar, the background vocals, the quick stops, it’s all there. (The song is also the king of movie montages.)

3. “Boys Don’t Cry” (The Cure)
Talk about influential. I wasn’t a big fan of the Cure in my youth. They’re one of the big bands for my wife, though, and that’s nurtured a real appreciation for them on my part, but one that came much later. That said, it’s amazing to me that this song is from this early. It’s actually a 1979 song from their debut album Three Imaginary Boys that was re-packaged and re-released again in 1980 in the US as part of the album Boys Don’t Cry. The amazing thing to me is that it sounds so much like the music of mid-decade. It’s a great song, definitely one of those that stands the test of time.

2. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (Billy Joel)
This song is the first 45 I ever bought. We went to our local record store–a chain called Licorice Pizza–and my folks let me and my sister buy our own record. She chose “Funkytown” by Lipps, Inc. I chose this. Songs like this make the switch from the 70s to the 80s seem more severe than it was. The saxophone, the weird backtrack, the production quality–even the clothes he wears in the video–all of it make it seem like Billy Joel knew what he was doing.

1. “Off the Wall” (Michael Jackson)
This is a little bit of a cheat. Michael Jackson’s fifth solo album Off the Wall was released in 1979. The single, however, was released in 1980. If it is a cheat, it’s an appropriate one, though. The song, much like the album, is the epitome of the transition between the 70s and the 80s. Michael’s version of late-disco R&B contains all the brilliance he and producer Quincy Jones can muster. The grooves are so tight they still get people moving on the dance floor today. The melodies are rich, after all, the man is singing with himself as backup. Michael’s next outing would be the biggest-selling album in history. Even if that one never happened, we’d still be talking about him because of songs like this. (Hell, we’d be talking about him still even is he’d never made another record after the Jackson 5!)