Sunday, February 07, 2016

Songs From the 80s #121: "Let's Groove" by Earth, Wind & Fire (1981)

Earth, Wind & Fire managed to survive the backlash against disco and their appearance in the disastrous 'Sgt. Pepper' movie (the soundtrack of which was the first album to ever to "return platinum") into the 80s by embracing electro-funk. Heavy on vocoders and synths, the appropriately named "Let's Groove" hits hard and is the equal of any of the band's 70s hits. Unfortunately, that success would prove difficult to maintain, and "Let's Groove" would be the band's final top ten hit, and the hits would dry up altogether by the end of the decade.

I just love the video for this song with it's over-the-top use of Scanimate video animation. It was the first video played on BET's 'Video Soul' program, an important milestone given MTV's refusal to play videos by most African American artists at the time.

As was the case with many of the group's biggest hits "Let's Groove" was co-written and produced by Maurice White whose long struggle with Parkinson's disease ended this week. That's the way of the world, Rest In Peace brother Maurice. Thank you for all the joy you brought to the world.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Songs From the 80s #120: "TV Set" by The Cramps (1980)

It's been seven years to the day that Lux Interior left us to dwell in a world without Lux Interior. I'm going to plagiarize from myself and quote something I wrote not long after Lux's passing:

"Part of what makes The Cramps' music so powerful is the way in which Lux and Ivy were able to create a kind of alternate universe that their fans could inhabit. And the world they created is more tangible, more real, in part because it has been stitched together--like some beautiful Frankenstein monster--from things that are real (twisted rockabilly, garage punk, budget horror films, etc.).
...Lux and Ivy [pointed] us toward a secret history of rock 'n' roll. It was a history in which the music never became homogenized and corporatized, a history where rock 'n' roll remained the music of outsiders, freaks, and deviants. The Cramps were not alone in this attempt to reclaim rock'n'roll from the normals ("Gabba gabba we accept you, we accept you, one of us"), but they brought a powerful sense of history to the project.
It's a fight Lux kept up till his last breath, and for that I salute him. Rock on."

Songs From the 80s #119: "Funkytown" by Lipps Inc. (1980)

I'm not sure if Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown" was the last big disco hit or the first post-disco dance smash. The song has one foot in the '70s and the other in the '80s. The album the song appeared on was released in November of 1979, while the song itself wasn't released as a single until March of 1980. Stylistically, the strings say "'70s disco" while the vocoder and synths say "'80s dance music."

It's also possible there isn't really a strong distinction to be made between the two, and the shift to "dance music" in the '80s was just an industry P.R. move sparked by "death to disco" backlash. Dave Marsh, writing in Rolling Stone late in 1979, captured the mood of the time well: "White males, eighteen to thirty-four, are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks and Latins, and therefore they're most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security." White American heterosexual males really don't like to have their cultural and political hegemony threatened, and anytime that happens there tends to be an ugly backlash.

Disco or not, "Funkytown" was a huge hit in 1980 topping the charts in 28 countries, including the U.S. For me the song brings back not entirely pleasant memories of days spent at the local roller rink, but I find it nevertheless impossible not to love. Enjoy this video from the Dutch television show TopPop, which likewise appears to have one foot in the '70s and the other in the 80s.

And here's Robyn Hitchcock doing a solo acoustic cover to remind us that the song, with its yearning for a place that doesn't exist, is actually as poignant as it is ridiculous (well maybe not quite).


Songs From the 80s #118: "Damn, Wish I Was A Man" by Cindy Lee Berryhill (1987)

I'm seeing lots of chatter lately about the double standard that is applied to women, especially as it relates to Hillary Clinton's campaign for president. Cindy Lee Berryhill captured this perfectly back in 1987. "Damn, Wish I Was A Man," lists all the things she could get away with and be celebrated for if she were a man. My favorite couplet: "Damn, I wish I was a man / I'd be sexy with a belly like Jack Nicholson."

I know a lot of my friends are excited about Bernie Sanders, and I understand why, but let's face the truth: Bernie can get away with a lot of things Hillary can't because he's a man. Bernie can show up to a debate in a rumpled suit with unkempt hair and he gets praised for being "authentic." Do you know what would happen to Hillary Clinton if she did that? She'd get evicerated by the press and public. Within minutes there would be thousands of snarky memes going around Facebook and Twitter. And can you imagine the ridicule she'd be subjected to if she so much as uttered the word "revolution"? And then I hear people slam Hillary for being robotic and pre-programed and too cautious. Of course she is! If she says one fucking thing wrong she'll get crucified. Hillary has to walk a tightrope over a pool of alligators every day and smile while she is doing it (but not too much), and it is literally just because she is a woman.

I often see well-meaning Bernie supporting men chime in to criticize female Hillary supporters on Facebook, claiming they support her just because she's a woman. They can't understand how they could support Hillary. Guess what? Every one of these women feels the same double standard that is applied to Hillary every single day of her life, whether it's at work, volunteering in school, walking down the street, or even in her own home. It can be absolutely soul crushing.

None of which is to say Hillary or anyone else should be above criticism, but anyone who claims to care about women's issues should at least recognize the double standard to which she is subjected because every single word Cindy Lee Berryhill sang back in 1987 is still true today.

I played the heck out of this song on my college radio show. I even booked Cindy to play a show at my college, but unfortunately it fell through because of some scheduling conflict. Damn! I did meet Cindy when she opened a show for Sarah McLachlan at the old 9:30 Club in D.C. She was warm and wonderful, and just as smart and funny as her music would lead you to expect. I only wish she experienced half the commercial success of Sarah McLachlan, but telling the truth frankly comes at a price, that is unless you're a man, in which case you'll be celebrated for it.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Songs From the 80s #117: "Driver 8" by R.E.M. (1985)

R.E.M. only landed one song, "Radio Free Europe," on Pitchfork's "Best Songs Of the 80s" list. There was a time when I would have considered that a shocking and unjust result. R.E.M. after all was one of the most critically praised bands of the 80s, and I loved them at the time, awaiting each new album and what mysteries it would reveal with baited breath.

But today, as I go back through their catalog, I don't actually see a lot of great songs. Maybe I soured on them by because of the long string of bad albums they released after the 80s. Maybe they just stuck around too long. Maybe they made really good albums filled with good, but not great, songs. Maybe I'm just a cranky pants. I don't know, but R.E.M. looks a lot less impressive in retrospect than they seemed at the time. Sometimes objects in the rear view mirror are smaller than they appear.

R.E.M.'s third album, 'Fables Of the Reconstruction' (or 'Reconstruction of the Fables' if you prefer) stands out as a kind of oddball album in their discography. Produced by the legendary Joe Boyd in London, the album is steeped in Americana, but about as bright as an overcast London morning. As with most of their songs from this period, I don't really know precisely what "Driver 8" is about, it's oblique enough to be open to all kinds of interpretations. But I've always dug its dark Southern Gothic feel and Byrdsian jangly guitars. I still do.

Whatever I think of R.E.M. now (and honestly, I'm not sure what I think), I am forever grateful to them for the music being a fan of theirs introduced me to. Throughout the 80s and beyond the band consistently used their fame to promote other artists they loved, whether it was through guest appearances, production, or just generally talking other bands up in the press. A partial list of artists I discovered at least in part because of some connection to R.E.M. includes: The Replacements, The Feelies, Game Theory, Robyn Hitchcock...(actually I think I'll just stop there as those are four of my favorite artists from the decade).

Songs From the 80s #116: "Furniture" by Fugazi (1988)

When Fugazi first came together in 1988 Ian MacKaye, Joe Lally, Brendan Canty, and latecomer Guy Picciotto were willing to throw out every rule of rock and roll music making. The idea was to tear everything down and start from scratch. Keep what works and discard what doesn't. Despite the fact that MacKaye was co-owner of Dischord Records, they considered the possibility of not releasing proper albums but instead distributing a limited amount of free cassettes that others would dub for distribution. The idea was thrown around that rather than being a traditional guitarist/vocalist Picciotto would serve as a "foil" a kind of Flavor Flav to MacKaye's Chuck D. Live shows were augmented by go-go dancing accountant in drag Charlie, audience participation was encouraged. In the recording studio they would embrace techniques employed in dub and hip-hop.

Some of these ideas were eventually discarded, but the ambition and willingness to break rules that inspired them were part of what made Fugazi one of the greatest bands ever.

"Furniture" was an early live favorite of the band, and appeared on the 1988 demo cassette that was distributed by fans. But the song didn't get a "proper" release until it appeared on an EP released around the same time as their final album 'The Argument' in 2001. The originally recorded version appeared in 2014 on the band's 'first demo' album (an official release of the demo cassette).

Comparing the two versions is instructive. The 2001 version was recorded in a very "plain jane" no fuss style. It features a very dry studio sound with no added affects that was consistent with the recording style Fugazi employed on their albums. The demo is another matter altogether, it utilizes all kinds of spacey dub effects, and is perhaps the best recorded evidence of Picciotto serving as MacKaye's foil. Both versions are great, but the early one crackles with the energy of a band who was willing to totally re-write the rule book, while the later version is the tight work of band that had honed its skills diamond hard through years of touring.

Songs From the 80s #115: "The Puppet" by Echo & the Bunnymen (1980)

Another great performance from 'Urgh! A Music War,' Echo and the Bunnymen became one of the most commercially successful post-punk acts, but their urgent live performance of "The Puppet" fits in just fine among selections from Au Pairs, Dead Kennedys, and The Cramps.

I loved these guys when I was in Junior High, and caught a lot of crap from classic rocker types for listening to them (I think it was the name). Which is ironic because more than any other post-punk / new wave act I can think of Echo & the Bunnymen drew on a deep well of classic rock influences: The Doors (Ian McCulloch's voice resembles Jim Morrison's more than a little), The Byrds, David Bowie, along with some more obscure 60s rock acts like Love, The 13th Floor Elevators, and The Velvet Underground. Yes, one can hear the influence of PiL and Joy Division as well, but at heart Echo & the Bunnymen's approach is classicist. From the very beginning they wanted to craft great songs with big hooks, not deconstruct rock music.

I had kind of moved on to other artists by the time I got to college, and I didn't listen to these guys at all for years. I pulled out their records again several years ago, and I have to say I had great taste in music in Junior High (that is if I choose to only selectively remember bands like Echo & the Bunnymen and ignore some of the dreadful garbage that caught my fancy back then as well).

Songs From the 80s #114: "Dare To Be Stupid" by "Weird Al" Yankovic (1985)

Weird Al had bigger hits during the 80s, but I think "Dare To Be Stupid" is his finest moment. "Dare To Be Stupid" is a Devo parody, but it doesn't sound like any particular Devo song. Instead it's a brilliant pastiche that sounds like every Devo song all at once. This is less an indictment of Devo's lack of musical diversity as it is praise for Yankovic's astonishing skill at synthesis.

This wasn't a hit when released in 1985, probably in part because by mid-decade Devo was not viewed as particularly relevant anymore. But listening to it today and watching the video it's clear that its a work of genius. As he did with the Queen parody "Another One Rides The Bus" Yankovic gently mocks Devo's pretentiousness. He takes Devo's calls for nonconformity and tweaks them just slightly. Every suggestion on how to "dare to be stupid" is about rejecting the conventional wisdom. But it's the largely the kind of conventional wisdom that even the most hardcore non-conformist would not suggest you reject (e.g. letting the bed bugs bite), or completely trivial (squeezing the Charmin).

But as is always the case with Weird Al's humor there is nothing mean spirited about the song. A lot of comedians (brilliant, genuinely funny ones) come across as misanthropes at their core. Not Weird Al. No one could possibly walk away from this song and video without recognizing he absolutely loves Devo. And I don't know why, but I find it absolutely hilarious when he and his band put ice cream cones on their foreheads.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Songs From the 80s #113: "Gotta Serve Somebody" by Dove, the Band of Love (1980)

One of the weirdest things to happen during the 80s was the "satanic panic," or the widespread belief (mostly among Fundamentalist Christians) that there was a vast network of Satan worshipers who controlled secular society, and were using popular culture (especially rock music) to recruit converts to Satanism.

I heard all kinds of conspiratorial stories from other kids: The biggest was that rock music contained "backmasked" satanic messages encoded in it. How the heck someone was going to get converted to Satanism by hearing messages played backwards was never clear to me. I do remember someone earnestly telling me that Satan wanted people to sing his praises backwards, and so when kids sang along with rock music they were engaging in Satan worship.

These beliefs might have been fringe, but they were widespread during the 80s, as was the belief that teenagers across the country were engaging in abusive ritual satanic practices, despite there being little to no affirmative evidence of such activities. It was quite common to hear rock and roll referred to as "the devil's music." This hysteria ran concurrent with the rise of "Christian Rock," rock music intended to present a wholesome alternative to the devil's music, and to promote Evangelical Christianity.

A widely distributed 1984 Chick Tract, 'Spellbound,' claimed the music industry was controlled by witches who cast spells over master tapes causing demonic possession among teenagers. Much of the "evidence" for these claims came from a guy named John Todd, an Evangelical Christian who claimed to have been born into a family of witches who had been grooming him for the Illuminati. Todd even claimed that Christian Rock was part of a satanic conspiracy to bring the devil's music into churches. (In 1987 Todd was arrested and convicted of child molestation, which, depending on your point of view, either proves he was a fraud or confirms the expansive reach of the Illuminati.)

Needless to say, all of this was ripe for parody, and the guys from Devo were on it like white on rice. They created Dove, the Band of Love as an alter-ego that would open for Devo. As Dove they claimed to have sworn off the devil's music, and been born again as Christian rockers. Here for your listening pleasure is their savagely sarcastic cover of Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody." By changing a few lyrics, "You might like to drink yoo-hoo / You might like to drink bread," Devo (or Dove if you prefer) drive home the fact that Dylan's born again lyrics are already faintly ridiculous.

While much of this hysteria has faded into the background of history, it still retains a powerful grip within certain segments of the Evangelical Christian community. To this day Bob Jones University bans "any music which, in whole or in part, derives from the following broadly-defined genres or their sub-genres: Rock, Pop, Country, Jazz, Electronic/Techno, Rap/Hip Hop, or the fusion of any of these genres." This includes Christian Rock, so presumably Dove, the Band of Love, would not be welcome at Bob Jones University.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Songs From the 80s #112: "Freedom Of Choice" by Devo (1980)

Whip It" from Devo's 1980 album 'Freedom Of Choice' was one of the more unexpected hits of the decade, and started the 80s off with a sense that there would be a lot of great, forward-thinking popular coming our way over the next ten years. That promise was never fully fulfilled, and by the end of the decade the pop charts were dominated by painfully uninteresting music from the likes of Bon Jovi, Milli Vanilli, Poison, Warrent, New Kids On The Block, etc. Even formerly promising new wave acts like The Bangles, The B-52s, and R.E.M. were turning out dreck. (Just my opinion, but go ahead and look at the top 100 hits of 1989 and tell me it wasn't a pretty sad period on the pop charts).

Devo didn't live up to their promise either, releasing increasingly unfocused and bland material over the course of the decade. But at the start of the 80s the band was a force to be reckoned with, and their sharp sense of irony was genuinely subversive in the non-conformist world view it promoted. Devo gave us every reason to expect the 80s would in fact be awesome.

"Whip It" might be the obvious choice (although not to Pitchfork, that didn't make their list either), but I chose "Freedom Of Choice" because of how prescient it seems in today's Apple/Google/Facebook/Amazon/Netflix dominated media landscape. We've nearly totally abandoned any pretense of free choice, instead letting these corporations collect huge amounts of information about us and deliver exactly what they think we want to the screens we live in front of. And no wonder we've embraced it. Choice is hard. We arguably have too much of it in our current digital mediascape. We're more than happy to give it up for the sake of convenience. "Freedom of choice is what you got / Freedom from choice is what you want." These guys called it exactly right back in 1980. Our devolution is complete.

Video can be seen on youtube here (embedding has been disabled by request).