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.)

“The Chronic” turns 20

On December 15, 1992, Dr. Dre released his solo debut album “The Chronic.” Dre was already a well-known figure in rap and hip-hop from his days as part of the LA group N.W.A. The success of his 1992 solo endeavor (which featured multiple other rappers, including Dre protégé Snoop Dog) made him a legend.

I don’t have much to say about the significance of the album or the creative impact it had on the future of hip hop. That’s been done for the last twenty years by critics far more skilled than me. For me, as a Gen X Chicano living in southern California at the time, the album held some personal significance.

the-chronic-4ea687eb81068

I’ve never been a huge rap fan. (At least I’ve never put the music first on my list of musical loves.) But it’s always been a part of my musical life. As a young person of color coming of age in the 80s, a person who felt like he came from a world that was not recognized (or even known) by the mainstream, early hip hop represented that “subjectivity” authentically. Songs by N.W.A. (and everybody from Grandmaster Flash to L.L. Cool J to Doug E. Fresh to Run DMC) and others connected my Chicano-dominated, multiracial cultural world to the Black American cultural world. As it did, it also kind of legitimated it.  The music became the soundtrack of  large part of my social life.

But for me, “The Chronic” wasn’t just another album that provided background to life, it also exists in my mind as something more. The album felt like it ended the specific comfort that genre of music gave me. I remember it as an album that moved the entire world of hip hop firmly into the mainstream. I’m sure this is an overstatement that has a lot to do where I was in my life at the time (in a “white” college struggling to find my place in the world). But I remember feeling that “The Chronic” made rap part of “American music.”

Maybe it was me that was changing more than hip hop. “The Chronic” was the soundtrack to a particular time in my life, a time of transition, a time of crossing into a mainstream and hybrid world.

Twenty years ago I was 20 years old. I send and received my first emails. I had long hair, and wore a leather jacket. I spent countless precious evenings with dear friends, all of us growing up in a cloud of Camel cigarettes and a mix of Bud Light and Henry Weinhard’s. And I remember this like it was yesterday:

Elvis at 34

Elvis Presley died 34 years ago today. What better way to remember the King than to look back at his 34th year of life?

Elvis turned 34 in January of 1969. The once reigning King of popular music had become something of a pop cliche by the 60s, known best for his string of simple but pleasing feature films. In 1968, his now legendary “comeback special” (which aired in December on NBC) reminded the world that not only was the man an amazing talent, but that he still “had it.”

On the heels of his resurgence in popularity, Elvis took to the stage again for his first live performances in almost 8 years. In July, he opened at the International Hotel in Las Vegas for an extended stay, playing his first show to 2000 adoring fans who couldn’t have imagined the historic scope of the event they attended.

In that audience was a young baby named Tomás.

No! Just kidding. I wasn’t born yet. But when I entered this world three years later, the Elvis stage performances which began in those weeks of the summer 1969 had been honed and perfected. In terms of his stage presence, he was never better in his post-50s period than he was from 1969 to 1972. By that time, however, the excesses (food, drugs, and production design) regularly overcame the talent, as the King became little more than a cardboard cut-out of his once great image.

But we’ll always have 1969! Here’s the King in sound and (often) un-synched video from some of those 1969 shows.

Monday Blues (04.18.11)

Chavela Vargas turned 92 yesterday. Born in Costa Rica, she migrated to Mexico at the age of 15 and, in time, became a well-regarded singer in small bars and cantinas. At the age of 32 she began her professional recording career, a career that has now spanned sixty years.

She is a powerful figure in the world of Mexican ranchera music but in many ways inhabits a symbolism far greater than just that. As transgressor of gender norms who often took to dressing like a man; to her connections to other legendary figures like José Alfredo Jiménez and Frida Khalo (she was one of the artist’s lovers); to her struggles and recoveries through bouts with alcohol; to her sexuality (she publicly confirmed her lesbianism in her 80s); and her ups and downs in her own professional career, accented with a late-in-life resurgence, she is Mexico.

She is the most fitting person to perform the first ranchera selection on “Monday Blues,” here singing “Un Mundo Raro”

Monday Blues (04.04.11)

I don’t have the words to say what needs to be said about Son House (c. 1902-1988, Mississippi). Fortunate for us, he does just fine on his own.

Here is the master performing “Downhearted Blues,” sometime near the end of his performance career in the early 1970s.

Monday Blues (03.14.11)

Welcome to “Monday Blues”–the Spring Break Edition!

Here’s a little love song for you from Stevie Ray Vaughan (Texas, 1954-1990).  It’s his own tune, “Life Without You.”

Monday Blues (03.07.11)

Ike Turner (Mississippi, 1931-2007), “Rocket 88” (1951). (Listen to the song here.)

Born in the delta region of Clarksdale, Mississippi, the Kings of Rhythm included Raymond Hill and Jackie Brenston on sax, Willie Kizart on guitar, Willie Sims on drums, Jonny O’Neal on vocals, and Ike Turner on piano. In 1951 they headed up to Memphis to record some of their songs, including a group of tunes by Turner. They recorded the boogie woogie meets jump blues “Rocket 88” at the Memphis Recording Service, a small studio where owner and producer Sam Phillips recorded local talent and then licensed them to independent labels. In 1952, Phillips renamed the studio Sun Records when he started putting out records on his own label.

As the story goes, Kizart’s amp was damaged in the groups trip up the delta, creating the distortion on top of what was already a pretty jagged guitar line written by Turner. After hearing Turner sing on a couple of other recordings, Phillips recommended somebody else sing vocals on “Rocket 88.” Saxophonist Brenston was chosen. When Phillips sold the single to Chess, he credited it to “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats.” The single went to #1 on the R&B charts later that year.

Some consider it to be “the” first Rock ‘n Roll sing ever recorded.