Category Archives: 1981

Today’s Top 5: April 30, 1981 (via Rolling Stone)

Thursday night, I stumbled upon The Jam – About the Young Idea on Showtime OnDemand. It’s an excellent documentary about the English mod rock band that rose from the London suburbs in the late 1970s to become one of the biggest acts of that era in their home country. Wikipedia reports that they scored 18 consecutive Top 40 hits in the U.K., including four No. 1s; and also charted four Top 10 albums, including one – their last, The Gift – that hit the top spot in 1982.

They never broke through in the States for a variety of reasons. One reason: They tackled topical British concerns that just didn’t translate all that well to this side of the pond. Another: They sported thick British accents that made it a bit difficult to decipher the lyrics.

ringo_rsThat’s neither here nor there, however, for today’s Top 5. In April 1981, I was 15 years of age, a high-school sophomore and, thanks to my folks, a new subscriber to Rolling Stone. To say that it was appropriate that Ringo Starr, whose 40th birthday was the raison d’être for the article, graced the cover of the first issue I received is an understatement – I was (and remain) a huge Beatles fan.

1) Ringo Starr – “You Can’t Fight Lightning.” At the time of the interview, Ringo was in the midst of recording an album he called Can’t Fight Lightning. It eventually morphed into Stop and Smell the Roses, released at the end of the year; and the planned title track wouldn’t be released until 1994.

Ringo_JohnThis was a pre-sober Starr: “Ringo sits cross-legged on the floor, elbow propped on a coffee table. He takes long sips of brandy and chain-smokes Marlboros. Dark glasses mask bloodshot eyes—souvenirs from an all-night session in the recording studio.”

He also offers this bon mot during the chat: “I asked all my friends to help on Can’t Fight Lightning. George did a couple of tracks, Paul’s done a couple of tracks. But the real drag is that there were tracks made for me by John. I won’t use them now, though. Well, I might. You never can tell. But they won’t be on the album. The fun was going to be that we’d play together, you know?”

jam_sound_affects2) The Jam – “Start!” From a Beatle to a Beatles homage… does it get any better? This three-and-a-half star review of Sound Affects from John Piccarella is the first reference to the Jam that I remember reading. I’m sure that I read about them before, possibly even in Rolling Stone, but they were among dozens of acts that I skipped past at the time – call it (youthful) ignorance at work.jam_snark

The reason I say I’m sure I saw their names in music magazines prior to this date: They’d made a few forays to the U.S. during the previous few years, appearing on American Bandstand and the SNL clone Fridays, and possibly other shows, but that utter Britishness of theirs kept them from catching on. They also weren’t played on the radio around here – that I know of, at any rate. So it’s this snarky review that introduced me to them. (See the clip the right.) The line that stood out to me, though, was: “In 1980, the Jam placed more singles in the English Top Fifty than anyone since the Beatles, whose record they tied.”

I’d love to say that, inspired by the review, I ran to the Hatboro Music Shop and bought the LP. I can’t. I was intrigued by what I read, true, but also budget-conscious. It wasn’t until the next year, after I saw the video for “A Town Called Malice” on MTV, that I picked up anything by the group. That was The Gift.

who_face3) The Who – “You Better You Bet.” It’s odd what we remember. For instance, I recall listening to WYSP-FM or WMMR-FM one day in early 1981 when the disc jockey announced with great fanfare a new song from the Who – and, with that, “You Better You Bet” kicked in. On the other side, he took an audible deep breath and sighed, somewhat beleaguered.

In the Jam documentary I mentioned in the intro, Paul Weller talks about how listening to the Who’s 1965 debut LP, My Generation, helped cement his vision of the Jam as a three-piece band. Understandable, given the album’s brute power. By 1981, however, the Who were not the same band; Keith Moon was dead, and Townshend – as he explains in his memoir, Who I Am, was over-extended. Face Dances, which “You Better You Bet” hails from, was the first post-Moon Who effort; and, while far from bad, was nowhere near as good as Townshend’s solo Empty Glass from the previous year.

joan_badrep4) Joan Jett – “Bad Reputation.” On the same page as the Jam review is this, my introduction to the former Runaway. The reviewer, one Tom Carson, says: “…though the LP works better as gesture than as music, the music’s still the best this artist has ever made.” Later, he sums things up with: “Unfortunately, Bad Reputation is flawed by its literal-mindedness – the arrangements pump along gamely yet rarely swing or soar – and by some unresourceful material. But in its mood and feel, Joan Jett’s first solo album is a determined retelling of what sometimes seems like the truest rock story there is.”

By the end of the year, both it and the epoch-shattering I Love Rock ’n Roll album – the pre-Christmas version with “Little Drummer Boy” – weren’t just in my vinyl collection, but among the most-played albums in my collection. (They aren’t that, anymore, but I still listen to them a few dozen times a year.) And “Bad Reputation,” the title tune, is one of the best rock anthems ever.

rosie_75) Rosanne Cash – “Seven Year Ache.” As I’ve written elsewhere, I didn’t get into Rosanne’s music until 1985 and “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me.” Yet, four years earlier, I obviously flipped past this short article, which features a nice Q&A with her about the success of her second album and its title track, “Seven Year Ache,” as well as other matters. One question: Which performers do you like to see? Her answer: “Springsteen. And there are some acts around L.A. that I go to see—the Carl Gant Band, they’re really good. I think the last act I paid to see was Rockpile.”

She also confesses (if that’s the right word): “I’d pay to see Judy Garland right now if she were alive. I love her. She’s my hero. She was an absolute clear channel of emotion through her singing.”

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Today’s Top 5: November 1981 (via Creem Magazine)

IMG_5067Another day, another music magazine: That, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, was part of my life. I subscribed to Rolling Stone and, as a few past Top 5s show, Record – the latter came at a discount for RS subscribers, if I remember correctly, so it was a no-brainer. I also read Creem, Circus and Trouser Press. (There are others that I should name, and would if I remembered them.) Some months I bought one or two, others none; $1 or $1.50 may not seem like much in today’s world, but back then it put a dent in one’s wallet.

Anyway, this specific issue of Creem, dated November 1981, came into my life because of the cover story on Pat Benatar. I was 16 and quite the fan – In the Heat of the Night and Crimes of Passion, her first two LPs, were part of my collection. She had a big voice and the music rocked and/or smoldered.

And, sometimes, she and her band sounded a lot like Blondie – especially on her debut. “We Live for Love,” for example, or “Rated X.” What wasn’t to like, right? Oh, I know, I can hear the choir of rock snobs chortling at my mainstream taste. The hipster mentality on what and what not to like annoyed me then and annoys me now, though back then I just didn’t know it. But, yes, to the point: Pat Benatar was mainstream. Her music was at once combustible and contained, and accented by her operatic vocals and tough-gal persona.

And, not only could she sing and strut, but – as the (mostly positive) Creem feature explains – she did housework! “When I get back home from a tour,” she says, “I like to vacuum as a form of therapy.” She even cleaned her hotel rooms before the maids could get to them.

All of which leads to today’s Top 5: November 1981 (via Creem). It’s more a snapshot of the previous few months, however, since Creem – like the other magazines – often reviewed items months after their release.

1) Pat Benatar – “Fire and Ice.” The lead single to her third album, Precious Time, was basically a pastiche of her previous hits, bringing together the moody dramatics of “In the Heat of the Night” with the punchy “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” while adding a pinch of “Treat Me Right” for good measure. The album was her third in three years, and recorded during near-constant touring, so it’s safe to say she and the band were running on fumes. I liked it, but not as much as Crimes of Passion, and still like some of its tracks all these years later. Was it flawed? Yes. Even my 16-year-old ears thought the “Helter Skelter” remake was ill-advised. Yet, it had its charms – Side 1, especially.

IMG_50692) The Pretenders – “Message of Love.” This issue also has an in-depth article on the Pretenders that’s interesting. “There’s nothing wrong with being commercial. What’s wrong is to change your sound to try and be commercial. But if you have a commercial sound, don’t be ashamed of it.” So says Chrissie. There’s also a negative review of their second album, Pretenders II, by one Jim Farber: “Welcome to the Pretenders’ nightmare—an entire second LP to fill, hopefully living up to a big box-office debut, and just about all Chrissie and company can come up with are a bunch of industrial waste Def Zeppelin riffs.”

At the time that I read that review, I had their first album – which I loved – on a cassette that a friend had made for me the year before; their March ’81 EP, Extended Play, on vinyl; and, due to the distance between release and review, The Pretenders II. The EP had two of II’s songs – the brilliant “Message of Love” and sublime “Talk of the Town” – plus a live (and incendiary) “Precious,” as well as two other cool tracks (“Porcelain” and “Cuban Slide”). I played it to death; and when II came out, I was thrilled…until I listened to it. “The Adultress” and “Bad Boys Get Spanked” are supposed to be (I think) sexy and saucy, but are just embarrassingly second-rate. And the other new songs aren’t much better. Still – it was a second album. Those can be a bear.

kookoo3) Debbie Harry – “Backfired.” I admit it: I was one of those “Heart of Glass” Blondie fans who initially confused Debbie Harry for Blondie. She was blonde – from a bottle, perhaps, but blonde nonetheless – and the focal point of the band. I was wrong, of course, and no point drove it home better than KooKoo, her solo debut. At the time, I found the collaboration between Debbie & Chris Stein and Nile Rogers & Bernard Edwards just…odd. In fact, the most memorable thing about the album, I thought, was the acupuncture cover. I played it twice, maybe three times, and moved on. So imagine my surprise when I read, months later, a positive spin on it in Creem, which called KooKoo “very good” and “the kind of pop record that will sell by the truckload and deserve to.” I wondered if we’d listened to the same music.

But, the thing is, listening to this track – the first single – for the first time in 30+ years? I like it.

IMG_50704) Hall & Oates – “Private Eyes.” There’s a full-page ad for the duo’s Private Eyes LP, which was released in September of ’81, and by the time I bought the magazine – in October – the title tune was shooting up the charts. Seeing it now, however, makes me think back to the first Hall & Oates song that I was familiar with: “Kiss on My List,” which was a hit the year before. I wasn’t a fan of the duo, but wasn’t a hater – they just weren’t my cup of tea. Don’t get me wrong: I eventually bought their Rock & Soul, Vol. 1 best-of on cassette and later upgraded to CD. Certain songs of theirs were (and are) brilliant; others, such as this No. 1 smash, less so. It sounded like “Kiss on My List” with different lyrics.

IMG_50725) Kim Carnes – “Bette Davis Eyes.” Here’s the thing: certain songs – whether or not you like them – become part of one’s generational fabric. “She Loves You” is one example; “Billie Jean” another; “Smells Like Teen Spirit” yet another; and “We Belong Together” one more. And for anyone between the ages of 13 and 30 in 1981, or even 8 and 35, this is likely one of those songs. I never owned it (or anything by Carnes, for that matter); and why would I? I can hear it in my head at just about anytime because it’s been seared into my memory banks. It was a massive hit, riding the No. 1 slot for not one, not two, but nine weeks. WIFI-92 played it non-stop.