Sunday, July 5, 2020

80s My Way I

"There's a New Wave Coming, I Warn You (1979 - 1981)"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the series introduction for general background; you may also want to check out the mix introduction for more detailed background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

Well, it’s only been 3 years since I said I was going to start on this mix, and I think I’m pretty happy with volume I.  At this rate, I’ll be done memorializing the 80s in about 2047.  Hopefully I live that long.

This whole mix is trickier than most, for reasons that I outlined—okay, more like belabored—in the intro.  And the first volume is super-tricky, because I’m attempting to epitomize a genre which didn’t really exist yet.  What to include? what to skip?  There’s a lot to consider.

After a lot of agonizing, I decided to include a number of songs which were not really alternative at all, but I consider them (at least in retrospect) as harbingers.  I open the volume with the undeservedly forgotten “My Girl” by Chilliwack, usually considered one-hit wonders here in the US, though less so in their native Canada; I then follow that with Australia’s Little River Band and their guitar-heavy “Night Owls.”  Both came out in 1981; the former reached #3 and the latter peaked at #6.  In many respects, these were perfectly normal, straight-up rock songs, particularly the single by LRB: often known for softer, power ballads like “Reminiscing” and “The Other Guy,” this was one time that they just rocked out.  Chilliwack wasn’t much known for anything, but their song also featured some solid rock guitar work.  So why do they appear here?  Well, in between the almost expected hot licks, these two experiment, just a touch: “My Girl” features some beautiful almost-a-capella harmonies backed only by a drumbeat, while “The Night Owls” plays around with dynamics, creating a hint of lonely echo on some of the background power chords.  Throughout this mix, I will not be afraid to throw in songs that I only discovered much later, on the grounds that they should have been part of my 80s, but these are two songs that I distinctly remember hearing at the beginning of the decade, and they were two of my earliest memories that something ... different ... was on the wind.

Also in this camp are the classic “Jessie’s Girl”—possibly more famous for rhyming the word “moot” and confusing an entire generation who didn’t realize it was a word1and Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” which simultaneously touched on the very edge of the new sound while singing about it, a new level of meta which came to characterize a lot of 80s pop culture.  Joel sang: “Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways, it’s still rock and roll to me,” and he was right ... and yet he was wrong.  It was still rock and roll, but just barely, and it was morphing every day.

What were we to make of “What I Like About You” by the Romantics, for instance?  It certainly wasn’t punk, and it absolutely wasn’t new wave,2 but it somehow was something more than simply rock.  And how about “Kids in America” by British pop star Kim Wilde?3  That ain’t pop—Wikipedia wants us to believe that Wilde was “inspired by the synth-pop stylings of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Gary Numan,” but I’ve got news for you: it ain’t synth-pop either, although that’s closer.  There is a strong synth throughline, and I’m betting that’s clearly a drum machine you’re hearing, at least for part of the song, but it’s also ... more.  It holds on to the standard forms of rock and pop, while going in new directions.  Wilde sings:

Giddyup to East California,
There’s a new wave comin’, I warn ya ...

and any line that prophetic is not to be ignored.4

And there’s even weirder stuff in the mix.  The Easybeats were sometimes called the Beatles of Australia, and they too drifted into the psyschedelic territory that the Beatles trod.  Two of them in particular began a project after the Easybeats were no more that they called Flash and the Pan which went even deeper into psychedelia, and, in 1980, they released an album called Lights in the Night and their first single was a bizarre little track called “Welcome to the Universe,” which combines ambient synth, voice distortion, rock guitar, and a rollicking piano performance that could almost be considered boogie-woogie.  When I first heard this song,5 I had no idea how to categorize it.  Hell, I’m not sure I do even now.

And then we have the real new wave.  There are two songs that will always exemplify the sound of new wave to me: “Pop Muzik,” by M, and “Cars,” by Gary Numan.  Now, “Pop Muzik” is a bit to the left of europop, and it’s got a lot of disco influence as well, but the synth layers, and the way the guitar is used—not licks or power chords, but just individuated notes that seem to vibrate in your head—that’s new wave, baby.  But if I had to describe new wave in one word, that word would absolutely have to be “Cars.”  It’s nothing but synth and drum machine, and whatever buzz there is is not provided by guitars at all: it’s just more synth, made jagged-edged and discordant.  “Cars” is the first time I can remember hearing sounds that were essentially sci-fi sound effects used as actual music ... and it works.  A healthy chunk of the entire genre of electronica can be traced back to Gary Numan, as far as I’m concerned, and while I’m not a hardcode Numan fan, there’s no denying the absolute majesty of this song.

Of course, the other two classic new wave bands of the 80s are DEVO and the B-52’s, and both are here, because they were both putting out amazing songs right from the start of the decade.  Sure, including “Whip It” means I can’t6 include “Working in the Coal Mine” or “Girl U Want,” but come on ... “Whip It”?  That was a harbinger of the decade if ever there was one.  Likewise, “Rock Lobster” is here bumping out “Private Idaho” and “Channel Z,” but I decided to include it for a couple of important reasons.  First of all, while the B-52’s are undeniably a new wave band, they’re not synth purists the way some of the others are.  “Rock Lobster” includes some great guitar work that almost sounds like it’s played on a bass guitar (but it’s not).  Again, this echoey, almost ringing guitar sound would become very prevalent in much of the alternative to come.  But one of the most interesting things about “Rock Lobster” is that it was originally released in 1978—and then appeared on 1979’s The B-52’s, when it entered the charts, and finally peaked in 1980.  So I feel fully justified in including it here, but it’s fair to note that this is the earliest song to appear on the mix.  That kind of ahead-of-its-time phenomenon is too important not to celebrate.

But the real reason this retrospective on the 80s actually starts in 1979 is “My Sharona.”  Unlike the B-52’s, there was no other option for the Knack, but there was also never any question not to include this iconic track.  If “Cars” single-handedly defines new wave, “My Sharona” does the same for post-punk.7  This track isn’t quite the punk that the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were delivering, but it owes so much to it: you can clearly hear the punk in both guitars and drums.  The harder edges of alternative stem mostly, in my opinion, from this one song.

Of course, another band that is often the recipient of the “post-punk” moniker is Joy Division.  I’m not sure I can entirely see it, though.  Let’s take “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” for instance—their highest-charting single, which, sadly, peaked well after lead singer Ian Curtis was already gone.8  It’s an almost goth tune, with all the sense of melodrama that the word implies, but also containing a fair amount of synth.  Compared to “My Sharona,” this is an entirely different sound, but a no less important one.

Of course, the heavy synth makes sense, as the post-Ian-Curtis remnants of Joy Division would go on to become New Order, one of the most important synth bands of the decade.9  Synth pop, in fact, is one of the most crucial musical components of my 80s, because it’s where most of my all-time favorite albums of the decade truly fall.  And synth pop really starts, in my opinion, with Soft Cell, and 1981’s “Tainted Love.”  It may not have been the first,10 but it was the one which exploded onto the scene and changed the landscape in a pretty fundamental way.  The song itself explodes into being too, using sounds which we previously had thought were only useful for laser blasters in Star Wars.  It’s a cover, although most people have never heard the original,11 a rockin’ Motown number.  Soft Cell remakes the song so fundamentally that people will forever think of their version as the way it should be sung (similar to what the Marcels did to “Blue Moon”).  It stayed on the charts for a record-making 43 weeks: nearly a year, all told.12  To my mind, it ushered in a new era that would eventually bring some of the greatest bands of the 80s: Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Tears for Fears, New Order, a-ha, Naked Eyes, my all-time favories Yazoo—all of whom we absolutely will be hearing from on future volumes.  On this volume, though, the only other synth pop classic from the start of the decade, in my opinion anyhow, is “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League.  I don’t know that the Human League lives up to the standards of some of those other bands, but at least Dare was a pretty good listen all the way through, whereas Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is pretty awful apart from “Tainted Love.”  Still, while a few other tracks on Dare are pretty cool (I particularly like “The Things that Dreams Are Made Of,” and I have a soft spot for “I Am the Law,” goofy as it is), there’s no doubt that “Don’t You Want Me” is a powerhouse pinnacle that the League would never reach again.

Many of the other choices here are fairly predictable.  Picking only one Police song is particularly painful, especially since Synchronicity was such a major part of the soundtrack of my senior year in high school.  But “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” was the first Police track I ever heard, and it really did have quite a big impact on me.  Picking only one Men at Work song is a bit easier, but there were still several other good choices (“It’s a Mistake,” “Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive,” or even the contemporary hit, “Who Can It Be Now?”, which I almost certainly heard prior to “Down Under”).  But, in the end, this is such a great tune, with some impressive flute work from Greg Ham (more typically their sax player).  Likewise, the Go-Go’s present a number of excellent candidates, including “Vacation,” “Head Over Heels,” and, once again, a contemporary song that technically preceded my choice here: “Our Lips are Sealed.”  This was a much tougher choice, as I like both songs equally, and I changed my mind several times before settling on “We’ve Got the Beat.”  It’s a great example of the dancier side of alternative, and I think it presages stuff as diverse as Animotion and Bananarama.  Finally, the Vapors certainly didn’t give me anything to work with even remotely as well-known as “Turning Japanese,” which, despite its racist overtones, is still such an intrinsic part of my 80s memories that I couldn’t exclude it.

80's My Way I
[ There's a New Wave Coming, I Warn You (1979 - 1981) ]

“My Girl (Gone Gone Gone)” by Chilliwack [Single]
“The Night Owls” by Little River Band, off Greatest Hits [Compilation]
“Welcome to the Universe [single mix]” by Flash and the Pan [Single]13
“My Sharona” by The Knack, off Reality Bites [Soundtrack]
“Jessie's Girl” by Rick Springfield, off Working Class Dog
“It Must Be Love” by Madness, off Complete Madness [Compilation]
“Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash, off Quarterflash
“It's Still Rock and Roll to Me” by Billy Joel, off Glass Houses
“Pop Muzik” by M [Single]
“Cars” by Gary Numan [Single]
“Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, off Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret
“Turning Japanese” by The Vapors, off New Clear Days
“Kids in America” by Kim Wilde, off Kim Wilde
“We Got the Beat” by The Go-Go's, off Beauty and the Beat
“Down Under” by Men at Work, off Business as Usual
“Call Me” by Blondie [Single]
“What I Like about You” by The Romantics, off The Romantics
“Don't Stand So Close to Me” by The Police, off Zenyattà Mondatta
“Generals and Majors” by XTC, off Black Sea
“Don't You Want Me” by The Human League, off Dare!
“Rock Lobster” by The B-52's [Single]
“Whip It” by DEVO, off Freedom of Choice
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division, off Substance [Compilation]
Total:  23 tracks,  84:38

I’m not sure there can be any real “unexpected” or “non-obvious” tracks on a mix like this, but I will address a few of the songs that exist at the edges of alternative.  Let’s start with Madness, who are 100% pure ska.  And yet, they pepper it with just enough pop that a track like “It Must Be Love” can break into the ostensibly rock charts; while it only reached #33 in the US, it got all the way to #4 in the UK and #6 in Australia.  Strangely, this is another cover that I (like, I suspect, most of you) never knew was a cover: the original was a more folksy affair by a British guitarist and poet named Labi Siffre.  I would say the Madness version is better, but perhaps it’s more fair to say it’s just different.14  This track, along with Madness’ other contemporary hit “Our House,” was a big part of what led me to discover and then treasure retro-swing, which of course leads inevitably to Salsatic Vibrato.15

But I would have to say my love of saxophone in particular was engendered by hearing Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart.”  Quarterflash is one of those bands that’s hard to pigeonhole into a style: Wikipedia just calls them a rock band, but that’s so generic as to be useless.  They remind me slightly of Romeo Void16, but also of Scandal,17 which is a bit of a feat, considering how different those two bands are.  Scandal is solidly female-fronted post-punk, while Romeo Void leans hard into the new wave side.  Quarterflash is neither, really, though guitarist Marv Ross has some chops that certainly feel punk-inspired.  But the revelation of Quarterflash is of course Rindy Ross, whose velvet vocals are filled with a longing quality that her gorgeous sax playing only echoes and accentuates.18  Saxophone as part of rock music was nothing new of course; we’d been hearing it since way back on “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes in ‘57, if not long before that.  But the sax in alternative music is different, somehow: less punctuation and more emotional backdrop.  Rindy Ross prepared me for Andy Hamilton’s break in “Rio,” and Kirk Pengilly’s amazing scales in “What You Need.”

The reason Blondie is such an amazing icon of the alternative movement is their refusal to stick with one style.  They’re playing rock, mostly, but each song delivers a different sub-style: “The Tide Is High” gives a little reggae, “Sunday Girl” leans towards an almost loungy jazz, and “Rapture” was the first proper rap that some of us white kids ever heard.19  But “Call Me” is the one I went with here: with its strong disco influences, this track is just a poster child for the transition from 70s to 80s.  I never liked disco, but I love this song.  The fact that Blondie can make me like things I never did before is a testament to their genius, and their influence on the 80s alternative movement.

Finally, I threw in “Generals and Majors” by XTC.  While XTC is a band that not as many folks are familiar with, for me they provided just as many options as the Police: all the way from “Making Plans for Nigel” in 1979 through “Mayor of Simpleton” in 1989.  I suspect that 1982’s “Senses Working Overtime” was the first track of theirs I ever heard, while 1986’s Skylarking is one of my all-time favorite albums, including classics like “Earn Enough for Us” and “Dear God.”  But, while I never heard “Generals and Majors” until close to the end of the decade, it’s such a classic XTC tune that I felt like it had to be the one I chose.  It’s poppy, satirical (“generals and majors always seem so unhappy, ‘less they got a war ...”), and most of all layered.  Layers of guitars, layers of percussion, layers of synths, I’m sure, although never too obvious, there’s whistling, and soft vocals, and jangle-pop guitars, and just a touch of post-punk.  There is never any question that XTC should be considered “alternative,” but that’s only because you have no idea where else you could possibly put them.

Next time, we’ll see the first second volume of a pre-modern mix.

80s My Way II


1 If you have an older friend who tends to say “the point is prob’ly mute,” it’s entirely Rick Springfield’s fault.
2 Fuck you Wikipedia.  You don’t know squat.
3 We talked about the weird dichotomy of Wilde back on Salsatic Vibrato V: in the US, she’s thought of as a one-hit wonder, while in the UK she’s a mega-star.
4 So much so that I made it the volume title.  Natch.
5 The fact that I ever did, and how that came about, probably deserves its own blog post.
6 According to the rules I set out in the intro, that is.
7 I typically despise terms like “post-punk” or “post-grunge,” as “post-X” just means “the music that comes chronologically after X,” which could describe most anything.  But, then again, the term “alternative” is already pretty generic and meaningless—especially after alternative music became mainstream in the 90s!—so I’ve pretty much given up.
8 I also confess that “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was not a part of my 80s experience at the time: I had to go back and learn about them a bit later in the decade.
9 I predict we’ll see them show up around volume VII or so.
10 Wikipedia wants to credit first Giorgio Moroder, who was of course busily inventing Italo disco, and then Gary Numan, who we’ve already pointed out was the progenitor of new wave.  Then they throw in “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, which is harder to argue with ... I suppose that’s synth pop, sort of, but I just never really thought it was that good of a song.  Which is why you don’t see here on this volume.
11 I certainly hadn’t, before writing this post.
12 Admittedly, nowadays the record is closer to nearly two years.
13 As always, I hate linking to YouTube.  If you want the 9-minute version of the song, you can find it on Amazon ... but you don’t.  It’s not that good of a song.
14 If you want to hear the original to compare for yourself, as always YouTube is your friend.
15 On which mix Madness have made two appearances: once on volume III and once on volume V.
16 Who we will absolutely hear from when we reach 1984.
17 Ditto.
18 For the ultimate Quarterflash experience, though, you must listen to “Find Another Fool,” where Rindy not only channels Pat Benatar, but also provides us with what has to be the world’s only saxophone-electric-fiddle duet.  Yeah, that video is ultimate 80s cheese; maybe try just closing your eyes and listening.
19 I’m not claiming it was a good introduction, of course.