Saturday, October 03, 2015

Songs From the 80s #36: "Love Goes On!" by The Go-Betweens (1988)

Not confrontational or weird enough to be fully embraced by the alternative music crowd and too literate and sophisticated for mainstream success, all Robert Forster and Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens did was write some of the best pop songs of the 1980s to much critical acclaim and few sales.

"Love Goes On" might seem like an odd song choice. "The Streets of Your Town" also from their 1988 album '16 Lovers Lane' was a minor hit in the UK and Australia, while "Cattle And Cane" is generally recognized as their masterpiece. Maybe I've picked this song because it's the first song I heard by the Go-Betweens. I didn't know who The Go-Betweens were when '16 Lovers Lane' arrived at the college radio station where I was music director. I dropped the album on the turntable to preview it, heard some jangling guitars followed by the lyrics, "There's a cat in my alleyway / Dreaming of birds that are blue / Sometimes girl when I'm lonely / This is how I think about you." Twenty-five seconds into the song and I was a Go-Betweens fan for life.

Bonus track: Acoustic demo of "Love Goes On!"

Friday, October 02, 2015

Songs From the 80s #35: "Happy When It Rains" by The Jesus and Mary Chain (1987)

“Happy When It Rains” from the Jesus & Mary Chain’s second album, ‘Darklands’ came out early in my freshman year of college. I remember listening to it on the boombox I brought with me to college (I did not yet have a proper stereo system). This is a good song, but I’m really posting it as a thin excuse to talk about my nightmare experience with my freshman roommate.

I pretty much knew my freshman roommate and I would have nothing in common as soon as I walked into our dorm room. He had checked in first and had hung a fuzzy Budweiser poster, a Ronald Reagan map of the world, and poster with a bikini clad woman stretched across the hood of a Ferrari. I proceed to hang my Velvet Underground and Husker Du posters to the concrete dorm walls with blu-tack, along with my autographed picture of Sam Jones (RIP) better known as “Crazy Cooter” from ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ (this disappeared later in the year under mysterious circumstances).

Colleges tend to view such mismatches as a good thing, and in many cases they may be. Ideally, by the end of our first semester my new roomie and I would have learned to respect our differences and would be singing “Kumbaya” together on a nightly basis. It didn’t exactly work out that way. The first night there we chatted a bit and learned we had something in common, we both grew up near Washington D.C. He asked me where I liked to hang out and I told him the 9:30 Club. He said, “Only freaks and weirdoes hang out there.” That was the last meaningful conversation we had.

Things went downhill fast from there, but I'm not really comfortable sharing all the details. After spending my first semester crashing on couches or any empty bed I could find, I got a single room second semester and it was all over.

Songs From the 80s #34: "Annette's Got The Hits" by Red Cross (1980)

One of the greatest punk rock songs ever recorded, there is absolutely nothing sophisticated or subtle going on here. It's simple, bratty, punk rock that shows off brothers Jeff and Steven McDonald's obsession with junky pop-culture. The brothers were 16 and 12 respectively when the song was recorded. Red Cross (later Redd Kross) is the absolute fulfillment of the punk rock ideal that anybody can do it. And in some ways Red Cross' total rejection of the idea that rock music should be serious, or taken seriously (King Crimson this ain't), is an even more radical gesture than that made by the Sex Pistols.

And despite (or perhaps because of) its simplicity "Annette's Got the Hits" is pretty catchy. Legendary KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer thought so, and regularly played the song on his Rodney on the ROQ radio show, making it something of a cult hit in LA (if not particularly anywhere else). That's not such a bad thing to have on your resume at 12.

Collaborators came and went over the years, and eventually the brothers McDonald got a lot better at their instruments. They also wrote better songs than this one, but there's something special about this that couldn't be repeated.

Fun fact: Steven McDonald would later marry Anna Waronker, the daughter of Dona Loren, one of the stars of 'Muscle Beach Party,' the film that is referenced in this song.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Songs From the 80s #33: "That's Entertainment" by The Jam (1981)

With "That's Entertainment" Paul Weller created a song that is incredibly rich in connotations. Weller strings together a series of observations that are sometimes quotidian ("a police car and a screaming siren, pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete") and occasionally poetic ("two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight, two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude"). With only the repeated chorus "that's entertainment" connecting them.

"That's Entertainment" offers a vivid slice of life in early 80s Britain, but the images are fragmentary and disconnected. Taken at face value the lyrics say almost nothing. Instead, Weller relies heavily on the feelings his words and music evoke, and the related ideas they inevitably bring to mind. As such, it has no fixed meaning, and instead the meaning is created in a dialog with the listener.

The first thing that came to my mind on hearing the song was the 1974 film 'That's Entertainment!,' a nostalgic look back at the heyday of MGM musicals hosted by Gene Kelly. It's a complex allusion. The film is a compilation of musical numbers that have been shorn of meaning by having been removed from the narrative structure of the films they were created for. This is not entirely dissimilar to the way Weller strings together random observations to construct the song. The film is also a nostalgic look back at a past that is imagined to be superior to the present. Posters for the film read: "That's Entertainment! Boy Do We Need It Now!" The film promises entertainment as a form of escape, but not enlightenment.

The allusion gives the song a nostalgic, but also bitter tone. Like the film, Weller's observations seem to come from a place of decay ("feeding the ducks in the park, and wishing you where far away"). MGM was near bankruptcy when they released 'That's Entertainment!,' selling off their assets and cashing in on past glories. I can imagine life at the heart of a dying British empire felt very much the same in 1981.

For me, the song also always implied an underlying critique of the notion of entertainment itself. I mean, should we really be entertained by a "kick in the balls," "a baby wailing," and "a screaming siren"? This is underlined by the bitter way Weller rips into the words "that's entertainment" in the chorus, the MGM film was a celebration of entertainment as escape, the song sounds like an indictment of it.

Weller reportedly wrote this song in ten minutes after returning from a pub one evening. I took longer than that to write a blog post about it. That's why he's Paul Weller and I'm not. Genius. One of the best songs of the decade in my opinion.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Songs From the 80s #32: "Captain Lou" by NRBQ (1983)

For reasons known only to themselves, the pencil-necked geeks who compiled Pitchfork's so-called "200 Best Songs of the 80s" list neglected to include a single song by NRBQ. Worse still, out of these 200 songs, WWF legend Captain Lou Albano is the subject of exactly zero of them (I triple checked this). Neither is Captain Lou a featured performer on a single one of these 200 songs (although he did appear in the music video to "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" which rightfully appeared on the list). All three of these egregious oversights could easily have been rectified by the simple inclusion of this one catchy little ditty from NRBQ. Beware ye who click play, you will find yourself singing along to this before the song is over.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Songs From the 80s #31: "He Stopped Loving Her Today" by George Jones (1980)

"Nobody'll buy that morbid son of a bitch," said George Jones after recording his first number one single in six years. The Country Music Association named "He Stopped Loving Her Today" Song of the Year in both 1980 and 1981, and it became Jones' signature song throughout the rest of his career. Eventually he warmed up to it.

It's easy to see why Jones initially dismissed the song, it's maudlin as hell. It tells the story of a friend who never gave up hope his love would return to him, and return she does, for his funeral. I generally despise over-the-top sentimentality. I don't trust it. By all rights I should hate this song. But I don't. I love it. It's one of the best cry in your beer Country songs ever recorded. No doubt this is largely because of Jones' voice, the man was in terrible shape physically and emotionally in 1980, but his voice was still as subtle an instrument as ever. Maybe it's so over-the-top I can't help but forgive it. Maybe I shouldn't give it too much thought.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Songs From the 80s #30: "Our Lips Are Sealed" by The Go-Go's (1981)

"When I was about seven, I discovered the Go-Go's. I went out and bought their album Beauty and the Beat and, as the vinyl twirled, my whole world changed. I stared at the girls on the cover like they were a gateway to cool. The fact that they were girls made me feel not only invited but more important – like I could be a badass too. I looked over to my Pippi Longstocking poster on the wall and thought, Yes! I like girls who rock!" - Drew Barrymore

"Our Lips Are Sealed" was co-written by Go-Go's guitarist Jane Wiedlin and Fun Boy Three's Terry Hall. Fun Boy Three also recorded a version for their second album. Both versions were hits, the Go-Go's version was the bigger hit in the U.S. while Fun Boy Three's was the bigger hit in the U.K. Wiedlin and Hall were secretly having an affair at the time, so presumably the song in part refers to that. But whatever it's genesis, it's a potent anthem to the power of keeping secrets. It's absolutely true that knowledge is power, and withholding information can certainly be empowering, as can deciding you're not going to worry about what others say about you. This was the "Shake It Off" of its day, and it's not hard to hear why girls hearing it in 1981 would find it empowering.

For me personally, hearing this song (along with "We Got The Beat" and "Vacation") on the radio in the early 80s was totally refreshing. They were simple, fun songs, and yeah they had a great beat. Even though The Go-Go's sound obviously referred back the the girl group sound of the 60s, it sounded totally fresh and contemporary. I loved it then and still do.

Bonus Track: Fun Boy Three's version. I thought this version sounded totally morose and depressing compared to the Go-Go's peppy version. It's also prettier with a greater emphasis on melody. Not sure which version I prefer. Love them both.

Songs From the 80s #29: "From Her To Eternity" by Nick Cave (1984)

By the time the 80s had rolled around rock music had largely lost its power to sound scary. We'd already had Iggy and the Stooges and punk rock. The cartoon satanism of heavy metal bands like Mötley Crüe just sounded silly in comparison.

And then there was Nick Cave. The first time I heard "From Her To Eternity" it terrified me. It still sounds scary today, even after multiple listens. Everything about the song is suggestive of doom and madness: the sparse atmosphere, the relentless pounding drums, the blasts of feedback and dissonance, and most of all Cave's dramatic, desperate sounding, baritone growl. Cave could make the lyrics to the Sesame Street theme song sound scary without even trying. But these aren't sunshine happy lyrics. He's gonna tell you about a girl. She lives in Apartment 29. He can hear her walking above him. He puts his ear to the ceiling and the fixtures turn to serpent snakes. It's all suggestive of desire turned to desperation and madness, and Cave sucks you right inside his mind to experience it with him. Who the hell needs Satan? This is the truly frightening stuff in life.

Songs From the 80s #28: "The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)" by Fun Boy Three (1982)

I never know what song I'm going to post until I do it. After hearing the news that John Boehner was stepping down as Speaker of the House, this song popped into my head immediately.
In 1982, "The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)" captured the sense of dread on the left upon watching the ascendence of Thatcher and Reagan. A nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union looked possible, maybe inevitable. But Reagan looks downright reasonable compared to today's Republican House caucus. I'm no fan of the Gipper, but he was willing to give ground and compromise. Boehner has been holding his finger in the dike of the Republican crazy for years, and the dam is about to burst.

With Boehner stepping down the U.S. is headed for a long government shut down. The Republican caucus is hellbent on defunding Planned Parenthood, and if they have to drive the country off a cliff to do it, they will.

Anyway, this is terrific song that I probably would have posted at some point anyway, but the time just felt right today.

Songs From the 80s #27: "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)" by The Beastie Boys (1986)

I absolutely hated "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)" when I first heard it in 1986. I thought it was stupid and sophomoric. I thought the Beastie Boys' affected white boy b-boyisms were obnoxious. I thought they were sexist. I thought they were ripping off Run-DMC in a fashion not dissimilar to the way Pat Boone had ripped off and sanitized Little Richard decades earlier. In other words, I was a pretty goddamn serious 16 year old.

I didn't come to appreciate the Beastie Boys until their second LP, 'Paul's Boutique' was released in 1989. In 1986 I totally missed their ironic sense of humor, and read everything they did only on the surface. In my defense, I'm pretty sure many of the bro' types who chanted along to this song between chugging brewskies back in 1986 were missing all the same things.

In retrospect this collision of hip-hop and heavy metal, engineered in conjunction with Rick Rubin strikes me as pure genius. "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)" did not make the Pitchfork 200, but "Paul Revere" and "Shake Your Rump" did. This is yet another way in which it's obvious to me that the list was compiled mostly by people who did not live through the 80s. Maybe evaluated from a detached perspective, using some rock critic approved aesthetic criteria those are better songs. I don't know. But for nearly anyone who was there, "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)" is the song that comes to mind first when you think "80s/Beastie Boys." For better or worse, this is a song to be reckoned with: it's stupid, sophomoric, it blatantly rips off Run-DMC, and it's also brilliant and hilarious.