Friday Five: September 1989

Thirty years ago, the top song in the country was “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” by Milli Vanilli. Even before the scandal that ended their career––they were lip-syncing to vocals by others––they were kind of an easy joke. Now they’re just a sad tragedy.

The rest of the top of the charts from that month aren’t much better, but there still are some great tunes. I was starting my senior year in high school that fall and I guarantee you, there was a lot of great music at the time. It’s just that the things that were most popular in September 1989 weren’t all the best reflection of the most creative and exciting music of that time.

So here’s five songs from the top five from September 1989, a mix of great, good, and, well, popular.

5. “If I Could Turn Back Time” by Cher
Don’t call it a comeback. Sure, Cher wasn’t the Cher of my early childhood, when hit records and a weekly variety TV show made her into a staple of the world of the famous. But 80’s Cher was making a name for herself as a real-deal actress, with movies like Silkwood, Mask, and Moonstruck, to name but a few. And Cher never stopped being Cher in those years. She was larger than life, sparkly, and a big deal in multiple intersecting cultural worlds––queer, straight, camp, dance, comedy, glam, and then some. I don’t remember liking the song that much in 1989 but sometime in the 90s I realized that I knew all the words to it, so I must have been some kind of fan. The video was popular (the 43-year-old Cher shares a bit more than her voice) but the song was even bigger, hitting #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the “Adult Contemporary” charts in September 1989.

4. “Heaven” by Warrant
It is what it is people. Big hair rock was all kinds of sputtering half-formed masculinity, whether in its guitar-driven rock anthems or its guitar-driven love ballads. Is this the best hard rock ballad? No. Is this the band’s best? Probably. But it is what it is. I liked it at the time because I liked Warrant. Their debut album dropped in ’89 and this was its biggest hit, peaking at #2 on the Hot 100 in September. That said, I don’t listen to much Warrant these days. I might not change the channel when one of their hits comes on the radio, but I’m rarely seeking them out. There’s a warm nostalgia factor for me but, in retrospect, the band rode the wave of MTV and big hair rock at a time when the wave was tsunami huge, but not all that creative.

3. Mixed Emotions by the Rolling Stones
It was #1 on the rock charts for the entire month of September 1989 and peaked at #5 on the Hot 100 at the same time. The greatest band in the world was still making good music throughout the 80s. Even though it wasn’t their best, it was still better than the best of most bands at the time. The album it came from––Steel Wheels––along with their Singles Collection compilation released that fall made the Stones pertinent to my generation. I was in a hard rock/heavy metal social group and we were listening to them by 1989, and not just because our parents were, either.

2. “Freefallin'” by Tom Petty
Tom Petty made a solo album in 1989 called Full Moon Fever. Maybe “solo” is the wrong word because his buddy Jeff Lynne was all over the place as a writer and performer. Still, the album produced a bunch of hit records, some of which became regular features at his live performances for the remaining quarter century of his career. This song is the biggest of those, and arguably “the” song of his career (although I wouldn’t make that argument). I liked it then, I like it now, and my kids like to hear it, too. I suspect this song will be enjoyed for as long as we’re around on this planet. It topped the “Mainstream Rock” charts for the last week of August, and then began its decline the following month. It would peak at #7 on the Hot 100 months later.

1. “Love Shack” by the B52’s
It was #1 on the Alternative charts for four weeks, ending the first week of October. That’s a little bit of an odd place for its biggest success, but it did make it to #3 on the Hot 100. Moreover, it really is the band’s biggest song, and that’s something for a band that made Rock Lobster a decade before, which was kind of a big deal. It’s a unique and catchy song that builds off the band’s strengths and still gets you moving thirty years later.

Friday Five: December 1968

If I had more time to write here, I would have written a lot more about 1968. This year was the 50th anniversary of a so many significant events, whether we’re talking about history (MLK and RFK assassinations, Chicano walkouts, repression at Tlatelolco, Nixon election) or culture (Elvis’ “comeback” special, the release of 2001, the start of “60 Minutes” and the end of “Batman”).

So, in honor of the many anniversaries I didn’t commemorate, let’s give props to my 5 favorite songs from albums released 50 years ago this month.

5. “For Once in My Life” by Stevie Wonder
The title track of Stevie Wonder’s tenth studio album is a pop gem from a period when he seemed to record those on a regular basis. Stevie was only 18, but he was already a veteran of the industry. His legendary greatness was still to come, but his brilliance was still on display in these and other tunes.

4. “Something in the Way She Moves” by James Taylor
The source of inspiration for George Harrison’s “Something” a year later (Harrison actually takes his first line from Taylor), this song was from James Taylor’s debut album, released on Apple Records (the Beatles label). This album version is different than the single track that plays today.  He had better ahead of him, but this flirts with perfect a couple of times.

3. “Anything” by the Mothers of Invention
When we moved to Claremont, there was this old man with a super long beard who just hung around the Village everyday. He’d say hi to folks on most days, but he could keep to himself, too. What stood out most, was that when my infant son would see him, even from a block away, he’d start to freak out like he was staring down a hungry dire wolf. That man was Ray Collins, the Pomona-born, original member of the Mothers of Invention, what would become the band most associated with Frank Zappa’s early career. The album Cruising with Ruben & the Jets is the last Collins participated in (he actually left before everything they recorded became “the album”), and it’s one of their most interesting. An homage to 50s/60s doo-wop, the songs (especially under Collins writing) are little bits of Chicano culture from a non-Chicano guy who grew up in a very Chicano area. The conceit of the album is that they’re a group called Ruben & the Jets. Early pressings had that band listed as the talent on the 45 records.

2. “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat & Tears
The bands eponymous second album, released December 11, was their biggest hit. It won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1970 (it was released to late in ’68 for the ’69 awards) and generated three hit singles, this one included.  This is my favorite of their songs, an audio panoply of 1968.

1. “Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones
Beggar’s Banquet was released in December 1968, the latest album in a string of albums where the Rolling Stones top themselves each time. Upon listening you’d easily say this band is at the top of their game. You’d be right, too, until you’d hear their next. While some of the best was still to come, there’s a 1968 sound here that feels pretty special.

Friday Five: Happy

5. “Happy Idiot” by TV on the Radio (2014)

4. “Happy Together” by the The Turtles (1967)

3. “Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage (1995)

2. “Happy” by The Rolling Stones (1972)

2. “Happy Everafter in Your Eyes” by Ben Harper (2006)

Friday Five: 1978

I remember a few things really vividly from 1978. I remember going to the movies in East L.A. to see Grease for the second time. I remember going to what was then called Mann’s Chinese Theater to see Superman for the first time. I remember watching “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Incredible Hulk” on TV. I remember first grade, and I remember playing at the house of the family who took care of us after school.

There’s a lot of good music that came out in 1978 that I would grow to appreciate much later. I don’t have any memories of Elvis Costello and the Attractions album This Year’s Model, for example, but I’ve really grown to love it in my adulthood. The same is true for The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls and Who Are You by The Who. Steve Miller’s second greatest hits album–an album that would be a big part of my college years–came out that year, too.

And then there’s all the music that came out in 1978 that I do remember from that time. “Macho Man” from the Village People, “Le Freak” by Chic, and nearly every song on the soundtrack to Grease are songs that can take me back to those times, or the fragmentary memories of those times that I’ve recycled in my minds millions of times since then.

Here’s 5 songs from 1978 that respect both my nostalgic tendencies while also being worthy of a listen.

5. “Summer Nights” (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John)
Grease was the big hit of 1978, so big that me and my sister saw it more than once. I remember buying the video in the early 90s and watching it for the first time as an adult. I was shocked at how much of the plot revolved around sex. Mostly, I was shocked that I had been allowed to see it when I was so young. I know most of the plot went right over my the head but I totally understood that Rizzo thought she was pregnant. This song–a favorite sing-a-long for me and my sister–is a great example of the innuendo as well as the quality of the songs that help make John Travolta into an even bigger star just one year after Saturday Night Fever.

4. “Copacabana” (Barry Manilow)
Barry Manilow was big stuff in 1978, too. His album–Even Now–was a small hit factory for him, going triple platinum and spawning four radio hits. I’m not going to make the argument that it’s a great album but I can say the album was one of the favorites of my sister and me. I have flashes of memories of some kind of dance routine she would make us do in dress up to this song. Hey, even small kids weren’t immune from the disco era. The song’s main appeal for me, I think, was the story that Manilow tells through it. I’m not sure it has survived the ages like other disco hits but the kitsch of it alone makes it worth a listen.

3. “September” (Earth, Wind & Fire)
Earth, Wind & Fire are one of the pillars of the disco era, an embodiment of the parts of the genre that were more than commercial pop. Maurice White was the real deal in his day, and the music he and his brother and the whole army of band members made survives the decades on its artistry, skill, and groove. The group was also one of the favorites of my parents. I have so many memories of listening to their albums during my youth. This song is without a doubt my favorite of theirs. It’s also one the best disco songs ever recorded. It’s such a remarkably simple song, but it sounds like happiness to me. There are only a few songs of this genre that I can listen to forever, without ever getting tired of them. This is at the top of that list.

2. “Hot Blooded” (Foreigner)
I find this song–the first single from Foreigner’s Double Vision–to be one of the funniest songs in rock history. It’s crass. It’s simple-minded and blunt. It’s also surprising how sexually problematic the song is. If you just read the lyrics you’d probably be offended, if not in 1978 then certainly now. I mean, it’s kind of aggressive in an almost borderline illegal, all the way inappropriate way. All that said, it’s not on this week’s list to highlight either of those qualities. No, I can honestly say that “Hot Blooded” is one of my favorite rock songs–ever. The driving guitar and Lou Gramm’s vocals are a mighty combo. His range is on display in full force here. Try singing this one during your next karaoke night and you’ll feel the skill involved in making this overly-produced piece of lyrical stupidity. Despite itself, the song rocks.

1. “Beast of Burden” (The Rolling Stones)
I don’t remember “Beast of Burden” as a late 70s song. I can’t remember when I first heard it at all. I think it says something about the quality of the song that it feels like it’s an earlier Stones song to me. In general, I find it difficult to make a top 5 list of my favorite Rolling Stones’ songs. It’s a rotating list of about a dozen songs because I like so much of their music and because they are the greatest rock and roll band of all time. This song makes it in there more often than not. Knowing what I know now about when it came out, I can also say its my favorite post-Sticky Fingers song.