After pleasant trips through the ’60s and ’70s, I worried a bit about the ’80s. Yes, this was the era of my musical awakening. In 1983, I got MTV and a boom box. I discovered music beyond the AM Top 40 station my parents had on. I strained to pick up the classic rock station 70 miles away in Atlanta, and I watched a lot of videos. We had a university-run cable channel that subscribed to a funky syndicated feed that played The Cure and a bunch of college-rock bands that couldn’t quite get on MTV. I watched more alt-rock on MTV’s 120 Minutes and even flirted with New Age music on the late-night VH1 show New Visions. I read Rolling Stone and Musician and saved up to buy cassettes of the musicians they liked best, from Husker Du to Branford Marsalis.
But the actual pop music they’re likely to play on the ’80s channel is decidedly hit or miss. No Rush, Yes or Husker Du in this mix, most likely.
I wasn’t reassured when I first tried to do this, only to find that they were doing some Friday night dance medley. The best song in the mix was Murray Head’s One Night in Bangkok. (What happens in Thailand, stays in Thailand.) I liked this song in high school for purely personal reasons — I played chess, and that’s not exactly a popular subject for pop songs. (OK, there’s always the Your Move section of Yes’ I’ve Seen All Good People.) But I often find Broadway tunes a little too cutesy for my tastes, and this is no exception. The dance beat and grating synthesizers didn’t help.
Then they finally started playing music.
Van Halen, When It’s Love: I don’t mind Van Hagar. Seriously. But I like the ones that rock a little more than than the power ballads. Poundcake more than holds its own against anything they did in the Diamond Dave days, and it was a whole lot better than anything Mr. Roth managed around that time.
(In other words, I’m not that big a fan of this song, but my wife is, so I ain’t saying much.)
Journey, Girl Can’t Help It: Not bad, but I wish it had a bit more Neil Schon and a bit less Jonathan Cain. It’s funny — I didn’t mind synthesizers in the ’80s. I even had one. But now that the whole notion of a big-haired guy behind a bank of Korgs is totally passe, it’s hard to listen to some of these songs without thinking, “Wow, what a horribly artificial sound.” Journey did better songs than this, but I’d love to hear them tackle this today with more modern keyboard sounds.
Police, King of Pain: One of Sting’s most memorable lyrics. Just hear the first chord or two, and your brain immediately kicks in — “There’s a little black spot on the sun today.” I’d quibble with the arrangement a bit. Imagine if Andy Summers had just let the guitar ring a little more in the verses instead of clipping every note shorter than the nails on a declawed cat. (Hey, if I could do simile and metaphor, I’d be … Sting, who wrote one of the most poetic lines in rock a few years later in The Wild Wild Sea — “the gray sky, she angered to black.” You could put me in front of a typewriter for 50 years, and it would never occur to me to use the word “angered” in that sense. That’s why Sting is a brilliant lyricist, and I’m a … journalism guy.)
Tears for Fears, Sowing the Seeds of Love: One of the most unlikely successful comeback efforts of the current decade — check it out if you haven’t heard it. This song fits the trend so far — not my favorite by this band, but not enough to make me throw off the headphones. Tears for Fears were at their best when they put a lot of thought into the orchestration, building up layers of sound and taking them apart to add drama. Just listen to their two masterpieces, Shout and Woman in Chains. They didn’t do as well with Sowing, but it’s another memorable Beatlesque melody sung with some admirable neo-hippie conviction.
The Jets, You Got It All: What’s worse than synthesizers? Lazy electric piano. Nothing wrong with the vocal, and they spice things up with some good sax breaks and guitar fills. But the verses lull me to sleep.
Jermaine and Michael Jackson, Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming: It’s fashionable to make fun of the Jackson siblings who were many, many times less successful than Michael. But they kinda deserve it, don’t you think?
Whitney Houston, Love Will Save The Day: OK, by this time, I was hoping for a power outage. (My battery power is weak.) I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that the most grating vocal performance ever recorded — yes, worse than anything by Michael Bolton’s — is Whitney’s I Will Always Love You. The verses barely exist, and then she breaks into what I call a “vowel movement” — “IIIIIIII-e-III IIIHHHH-AAAAA-AYYYYY UUUUHHHHH-OOOOOO, OOOO*&*^#@*IIIII!” You know, folks, R&B and punk both peaked in the ’70s. The only difference is that punkers, for the most part, realized it.
Mike + The Mechanics, The Living Years: Take away the cloying chorus chiming in with “Say it loud …,” and perhaps this would be a decent song. Sure, the lyrics are a little clumsy, the synth sounds are tinny, the guitar line is one of the worst Mike Rutherford ever played, but … what was my point?
And then they went into another goofy mix of unidentified songs. Somewhere along the way, it included the likable Haircut 100 song Love Plus One.
Pretenders, Middle of the Road: Trivia that had to verify to make sure I wasn’t getting confused — when Chrissie Hynde finally decided that she was going to be the only original Pretender still in the band, she replaced drummer Martin Chambers with Blair Cunningham, who had previously played in … Haircut 100. Anyway, this song is the opening salvo from their masterpiece, Learning to Crawl, recorded after the deaths of two original Pretenders but with Chambers still in the fold. Some time ago, I wrote about the sentimentality of the John Mellencamp song Cherry Bomb, which is the anthem of 30-something maturity for so many people. This song is my Cherry Bomb. I even had a kid at 33.
Def Leppard, Animal: “An-I-whah! An-I-nee! An-i-whuh! An-I-muh!” Good harmless semi-metal fun.
New Edition, Cool It Now: Good idea. Off goes the radio.
Could’ve been worse.