Sunday, November 22, 2015

Songs From the 80s #79: "One Long Pair Of Eyes" [Live with Spoken Intro] by Robyn Hitchcock (1988)

I'm looking forward to seeing Robyn Hitchcock perform live this evening for the first time in nearly twenty years. One of the great things about seeing Robyn live is hearing his long, rambling, surrealistic song intros. This version of "One Long Pair Of Eyes" with intro was recorded at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica on the day I turned 19. I wasn't there for that show, but I will be at tonight's performance at The Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River. I'll be the drunk guy who keeps demanding Robyn play "Free Bird" with increasing belligerence. The first time a few people in the audience will laugh thinking it's a joke, if a tired one. There will be some annoyed muttering the second time. I fully expect to be forcibly removed from the venue by the fourth time. ROCK AND ROLL!

Songs From the 80s #78: "867-5309/Jenny" by Tommy Tutone (1982)

I wasn't really feeling like posting a song today, sometimes the news of the day just saps me of my will to write, or even communicate. Today is one of those days. But it occurred to me that some of you might need your spirits lifted right now as much as I do. With that in mind, I decided it was time to play the Tommy Tutone card.

The narrator of this 1982 top ten hit gets Jenny's phone number, and tries to work up the nerve to dial the number 867-5309 to call the enchanting goddess of love who leaves her number on a bathroom wall. And woe onto anyone whose phone number was 867-5309 in 1982. Suddenly every horny teenager in their area code was calling asking for "Jenny." It was actually a really big problem for years, and to this day people with the number report heavy amounts of crank calls.

If you call 867-5309 in my area code today you'll be connected to Gem Plumbing and Heating. The fact that a business would seek out this number to this day is a testament to how catchy the song is, and the mighty power of stupid pop songs. While the number is certainly memorable, it must be a double edged sword for the company, as I'm sure they get calls asking for Jenny.

It's remarkable really, I heard this song frequently for a very short period of time when I was 12, and now that phone number is never ever going to leave my head. I can barely remember my own cell phone number, but 867-5309 is permanently embedded in my neural pathways.
Have a great day everybody, I'm off to crank call Gem Plumbing and Heating.

Songs From the 80s #77: "Rapture" by Blondie (1980)

Blondie's "Rapture," a number one hit in the U.S. and a top ten hit in many other countries across the globe in 1981, was probably my introduction to rap music (it's possible I heard "Rapper's Delight" before this, but if I did, my memory is blank on it). Maybe it sounds lame to admit I was introduced to rap music by a white group, akin to first hearing rock and roll in the 50s from Pat Boone. But consider the fact that the song was released just a year after The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," and over a year before Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released "The Message," and it makes perfect sense. Blondie introduced a lot of people across the globe, black, white, and otherwise to rap and hip-hop with this song.

Blondie were fucking hip as hell and too artistically restless to stick within well defined generic boundaries. Far from mere bandwagon jumping (as they had done with disco), the group was close to the vanguard of the movement. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were hanging out at communal hip-hop events in the Bronx as early as 1978. There's no getting past the fact that Harry and Stein were white interlopers into a predominantly African American scene, but they ingratiated themselves into the fabric of the movement to such an extent that charges of cultural appropriation seem somewhat beside the point.

As arty and affected as the video is, it also depicts a New York City that is long gone, and it's hard not to feel a bit nostalgic knowing what a gentrified yuppie haven the East Village has become. The video features a variety of cutting edge New York artists from the period including dancer William Barnes (in the top hat and white suit), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lee Quinones, Fab Five Freddy, and Lee Quiñones. I don't know if anyone other than Blondie could have snuck these people into suburban American living rooms in 1981.

Beyond all of that, "Rapture" cuts a groove as deep as anything released during the 80s, and it makes perfect sense that Grandmaster Flash would later prominently sample "Rapture" in his epic "Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel." Maybe it's just a sign of my age, but it's almost impossible for me to imagine any pop music, let alone a number one chart topper, being as exciting and vibrant as this today. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Songs From the 80s #76: "Awakening" by The Last (1989)

The Last are a really great band that (for a variety of reasons) never got the recognition they deserved. Their music was equal parts punk, power-pop, and garage-rock. Along with The Minutemen, Redd Kross, Black Flag, The Descendents, and X, The Last helped define the powerful L.A. underground scene of the late seventies and early eighties. Like Arthur Lee's Love before them, The Last might have experienced more commercial success if they had toured outside of L.A. more often.

The original incarnation of The Last broke up sometime around 1985 after releasing two albums, an EP, and a number of singles on a variety of independent labels. Then in 1988, brothers Joe and Mike Nolte reformed the band with a largely different lineup that briefly included Robbie "Cousin Oliver" Rist on drums, and released three excellent albums on SST with the help of Descendents/Black Flag drummer Bill Stevenson.

"Awakening" is a stunning track from their second SST album. Joe Nolte says of it, "I always put this first on tapes I give to people who've never heard our music." I can understand why. Although it's hardly typical of the power-pop tinged flavor of much of their work, it's a good indication of Nolte's range as a songwriter. The poetic lyrics, heartfelt delivery, and effective use of space and atmosphere deliver that tingling feeling up the spine that all true music junkies crave. A fantastic song. Perfect.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Songs From the 80s #75: "Bury Manilow" by Trotsky Icepick (1988)

Trotsky Icepick was a Los Angeles underground supergroup of sorts, formed by songwriters Vitus Mataré (formerly of The Last) and Kjehl Johansen (100 Flowers, Urinals). Originally, the band planned to change their name with every album, but keep the same album title. This resulted in two albums entitled 'Poison Summer,' the first released by Danny and the Doorknobs in 1985, the second by Trotsky Icepick in 1986. After that, the name Trotsky Icepick stuck because changing the band's name every year or so was just too big of a logistical nightmare. But give the group credit for outside the box thinking. I always respect artists who can look at the unspoken assumptions that define their craft and question whether they're necessary.

"Bury Manilow" is a track off 'Baby,' the band's second or third album (depending on how you count it). If whoever put this up on youtube is to be believed, Mataré originally wrote this song in 1979 for The Last. I don't know if that's true or not, but references in the song (Barry Manilow and disco) would have been more topical in 1979 than 1988.

I interviewed Mataré by phone shortly after 'Baby's' release. I specifically asked him about "Bury Manilow," which was getting a lot of airplay on my college's radio station at the time. An attack on the shallowness of pop music (and I guess specifically Barry Manilow), Mataré told me he considered the song a failure. I remember him telling me regretfully, "I picked too easy of a target." That may be true, but I don't think that's where the song fails. "Bury Manilow" actually succeeds too brilliantly as pop music in its own right to function as a credible critique of the form. Okay, the song is a cheap shot at Barry Manilow, and he probably doesn't deserve it (the world needs schlock, if for no other reason than to give punk rockers something to define themselves in opposition to), but the song has simple words and a melody, and it doesn't bug you driving your car, so I'll give it pass.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Songs From the 80s #74: "The #14 Blues" by Roger Manning (1988)

Roger Manning was part of the same "anti-folk" scene as Kirk Kelly, and he also released his debut album on SST. Manning cut a striking figure in the late 80s with his half shaved head and acoustic guitar festooned with punk rock stickers (including an SST one). He looked more like a skate punk than a folkie, and image wise at least his presence on SST made sense. He was also charismatic and handsome as hell, and I had him pegged for stardom. Sure in retrospect I should have recognized his uncompromising brand of leftist politics would make him a tough sell to the American mainstream, but if you saw the way he was able to capture and hold an audience's attention, you'd understand why I thought so.

The energetic "The #14 Blues" led off his debut album, the politics aren't quite as evident here as in some of his other songs, but the embrace of bohemianism and joi de vivre expressed make a political statement all their own. The world is a serious and often brutal place, but that wasn't going to stop Roger from talking to all those "gone pretty girls on the East Side scene."

Like Kelly, Manning performed at Dickinson College twice while I was there. The first time he opened a new alternative performance and social space called "The Lumberyard," a structure that would later collapse under the weight of a snowy winter. The second time he opened for King Missile, and I'm certain that as much of the huge crowd were there to see Manning as the marquee act.

Years later I ran into Roger at a Barbara Manning (no relation) show at CBGBs. He mordantly joked that while he may not have hit the big time, he was once "big in Carlisle." He certainly was. Manning is still making music, and you can check out his recordings on bandcamp.

Bonus track: "The #16 Blues" with vintage video shot in the NYC subway, Sophies, and the Williamsburg bridge.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Songs From the 80s #73: "Go Man Go" by Kirk Kelly (1988)

Kirk Kelly's debut album was an odd release for SST. Kelly hailed from New York City, and SST was better known as a label for West Coast artists. But more importantly 'Go Man Go' was a folk album, and SST was definitely not known for folk music. But then Kelly was not your typical mellow folkie. He was very much a part of New York City's agro "anti-folk" movement. Anti-folk was not so much "against folk music" as it was "against the folk music establishment." Kelly's music shared a sense of aggressiveness, speed, and crudeness, as well as an in-your-face political awareness with punk that did not fit in with the staid, uptight, music that filled New York City's folk clubs in the late 1980s.

"Go Man Go" is a peon to restlessness and living in the moment, and I was taken with it the moment the needle hit the groove of the promo copy SST sent to my college radio station. So were a lot of other DJ's at the station, and Kelly got a lot of airplay in Carlisle, PA, if not anywhere else. He played Dickinson College twice during my time there, and the shows were very well received, even by those who I could not drag kicking and screaming to our punk rock shows.

Unfortunately, Kelly never made a follow up to 'Go Man Go' even though to my ears he had grown tremendously as an artist between this release and the second time he played Dickinson in 1990. I heard rumors he was going to put out a second album on New Age label Windham Hill, which struck me as an even odder match than SST. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, no second album ever materialized.

Bonus track: Kelly performing "New City" live on the air at WDCV 88.3 FM, Carlisle, PA in 1990 (not quite the 80s). The song is a powerful rant against the gentrification of New York City that was underway at the time, and despite it's reference to the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988 it is as topical as ever today.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Songs From the 80s #72: "Middle Of The Night" by Divine Horsemen (1987)

Chris D. (Desjardins) formed the Divine Horsemen after breaking up his pioneering L.A. punk band The Flesh Eaters. With the Divine Horsemen Desjardins embraced a roots rock sound that was less evident in The Flesh Eaters' music, prominently incorporating country and folk influences. The 'Middle Of The Night' LP featured a chilling cover of David Allan Coe's "Field Of Stone," along with a bracing cover of The Rolling Stones' "Gimmie Shelter," and The Cramps' "Voodoo Idol." Put those influences together and you have a very good idea of where Chris D. was coming from musically at this time. 

"Middle Of The Night" establishes a strong Stones vibe from the first bluesy chords. It's a mid tempo rocker, but just as intense in its own way as the more punk oriented Flesh Eaters. Julie Christensen (Desjardins then wife) provides co-lead vocals on the track which brings to mind the inevitable comparisons to X. The Divine Horsemen lasted as long as the marriage and within a couple years Chris D. put together a new Flesh Eaters lineup leaving behind a handful of excellent, if somewhat uncharacteristic, albums.

Much as was the case with Angst, I can't help feeling this music would have reached a wider audience a couple years later when the whole alt-country thing was getting started. But astute readers might notice that all three of the tracks from overlooked SST bands I've posted so far were released in 1987. That's not entirely due to chance because the label released over 60 records that year.

My sense is that SST had spread themselves way too thin by 1987, and bands that didn't have a sound one would readily associate with the label were at a bit of a disadvantage. Sixty albums in one calendar year is a lot to promote for even for a well run major label, and SST was a small label with limited resources run by pot-heads. For some of these bands being on SST was a double edged sword. There was a certain cache associated with the label that could help get a band noticed, but their promotional resources were limited and it was easy to get lost in the shuffle.

SST released 'Sister' by Sonic Youth, 'You're Living All Over Me' by Dinosaur Jr, 'if'n' by fIREHOSE, two Meat Puppets albums, and 'ALL' by The Descendents, in 1987, not to mention records by Saint Vitus, Slovenly, SWA, Das Damen, Painted Willie, Zoogz Rift, Tar Babies, Opal, Blind Idiot God, Henry Kaiser, H.R., Lawndale, Bl'ast, Elliot Sharp, Negativeland, Always August, Brian Richie, Glenn Phillips, Pell Mell, Steve Fisk, Semantics, Screaming Trees, and others. That's a very diverse lot of artists. Some of them made music that was by its very nature non-commercial and not likely to find anything more than a small audience. But others like Angst, Divine Horsemen, and The Leaving Trains made accessible music that failed to reach the broader audience they deserved.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Songs From the 80s #71: "Outside My Window" by Angst (1987)

One of the great unheralded SST acts, Angst hailed from Northern California, and like many American independent bands began as a hardcore act. You can hear one of their early songs, "Worker Bee," on the Alternative Tentacles 'Not So Quiet on the Western Front' compilation.
But by the time the band signed to SST in 1985 they had developed a very different sound that drew heavily on country and pop music while still retaining the energy and passion of punk rock. Despite releasing four excellent albums on SST, the band never generated much of following and broke up in 1989 just as the Alt-Country movement was getting started. Talk about bad timing.
"Outside My Window" is the lead off track on their fourth album, 'Mystery Spot.' I don't really have a whole lot to say about the song other than that I was hooked the moment the snare drum kicks in at the start of the song.

I understand Frank Black has publicly praised Angst and cited them as a crucial influence on The Pixies. I'm not sure I hear that, but if it causes a couple more people to click "play" out of curiosity, so much the better.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Songs From the 80s #70: "What Cissy Said" by The Leaving Trains (1987)

The Leaving Trains released nine albums on the SST label, but never became nearly as well known as label mates Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, The Minutemen, or The Meat Puppets. Singer, songwriter, and only consistent member Falling James (Moreland) is probably better known today for being Courtney Love's first husband than for his work with The Leaving Trains, which is a real pity, because much of that work was fantastic.

"What Cissy Said" from the band's second SST album, the provocatively titled 'FUCK,' captures much of what was great about the band. Falling James appropriates the primitive roar of the New York Dolls and The Stooges, and combines it with the thrashing energy of the L.A. punk scene as a backdrop for his dark confessional punk rock poetry. There's a bit of a nod to the Velvet Underground in the title, and like Lou Reed, it seems likely that James is singing about himself as much as the named female protagonist of the song.

And what is he singing about? I'm not entirely sure, the lyrics are oblique and suggestive (and frankly, sometimes hard to make out). It seems to be, in part, about the way that childhood trauma shapes the decisions made by a broken adult. The lo-fi production suits the song perfectly. James was not one to fuss over his songs in the studio, he seemed more interested in capturing the reckless, slightly sloppy, but relentlessly intense live sound of the band. And the band's chaotic live shows were legendary in their hometown of L.A., where James would often perform in drag (a trick Courtney's next husband may have picked up from her former one).

Everything The Leaving Trains recorded for SST is out-of-print now, but their catalog is ripe for rediscovery. Look for this album, 'Kill Tunes,' 'transportational d. vices,' and their debut, 'Well Down Blue Highway' (not on SST) in the used bins of your local record emporium.