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.

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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: 1987

Popular music and teenagers have gone together for the better part of the last century of U.S. culture.  There’s a lot I could say about this as a historian, and as a lover of music, but the only thing that really matters is this: for most of us, the music of our teen years makes an indelible mark in our life story.

I don’t want to make the case about this music being “the best.”  Intellectually, I know that some of the music I loved in this period of my life really wasn’t even all that good.  No matter. All that is external to the power of music in our lives.  When a song comes along that means something to us, that’s all we care about, not whether or not we should like it.

This list of 5 songs from 1987 contains songs that meant something to me in 1987.  Some are better than others, yes, but all match up in a visceral way to my (memory of my) life at the time.  They might seem like an eclectic bunch.  That’s as much as function of me as it is the culture at the time.

5.  “Where the Streets Have No Name” (U2)
It’s one of the biggest albums of the decade from one of the biggest bands in popular music.  I wasn’t a U2 fan before Joshua Tree made them more pop than “college radio.” I really wasn’t too much of a fan even after that, but there are songs, and this might be my favorite of the bunch. I remember the day in spring 1987 when they announced on the radio that U2 was going to be filming a video in downtown LA and gave an address to go to if you wanted to be a part of it. I’m pretty sure at least a few people skipped school that day. That made the video and song even more meaningful to me, somehow. The Edge’s guitar, the way it builds and explodes, and the period of it release kind of make it like my generation’s “Born to Run.”

4. “I Think We’re Alone Now” (Tiffany)
I had a mad crush Tiffany. In 1987, Tiffany zoomed to the top of the MTV charts with “I Think We’re Alone Now,” a remake of an old 60’s song by Tommy James & the Shondells. I fell in love with it, and with the video. I think it says a lot that I didn’t go around expressing my love of her music to my friends. But I did love it. I bought the 45 and, later, the cassette. Tiffany was the first “star” I remember knowing about whose rise to fame came as a result of performing in shopping malls, hence the video (which is also another reflection of the “video/reality” genre of the time).

3. “La Bamba” (Los Lobos)
I don’t know when I first heard of Los Lobos. They were just always there, always known, the Chicano band from East LA. When the movie La Bamba came out they became bigger than that. I can’t say enough about the movie and its importance to Chicanos in Southern California. There were (and still are) so few reflections of our culture in popular media. The movie filled a void and provided a release, all while celebrating a music legend. Los Lobos covered the title track in a masterful way, reuniting it with its root in traditional music of Mexico. They made it a tribute and made it their own all at once. The flurry of mexicanidad at the end didn’t often make the radio. I remember sitting in my room with my radio on my lap every time I heard the song play, just hoping it would play all the way through. It remains the band’s only #1 song.

2. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” (Whitney Houston)
Whitney Houston was about as vocally talented as a person can be. She was so good, that it almost never really mattered what she sang. She had a voice that could make just about any song better than it was. I think this song is an example of that. It’s not bad, not at all. It has what it needs to be catchy enough. But I don’t think it would have been what it was in the slightest without Houston’s performance. The video is beautifully 80s, too.

1. “Welcome to the Jungle” (Guns N’ Roses)
Guns N’ Roses was my band. I’m hardly unique in that sense, of course. They were probably the most “authentic” of the hard rock bands of the time, able to occupy a space that drew in big hair glam lovers with metal heads. I first heard of them in 1987 before their album Appetite for Destruction came out. They were making such a name for themselves in the LA club scene and a version of the song “Mr. Brownstone” was getting play on non-mainstream radio in the city. When this song was released later in the year, it made them household names. My favorite part of it, aside from the song, is the way Axl Rose looks. It’s a style from before they made it big, a look that was probably replaced as soon as the record company hired a stylist for him. But it’s so LA metal at the time.