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: 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.