Category Archives: John Mellencamp

Today’s Top 5: February 1984 (via Record Magazine)

record284008Thirty-three years ago, in February 1984, America was stumbling out of back-to-back recessions that almost hammered the American Dream flat. The unemployment rate for January was 7.9 percent, which is high – but better than the 10.3 percent of January 1983. In fact, the unemployment rate for 1983 as a whole was, according to the St. Louis Fed, 9.5 percent – the same as it was in 1982. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics has slightly different numbers – 9.6 and 9.7 percent, respectively.) The trend was headed in the right direction, however.

(This Pew Research Center essay delves in-depth into the “Reagan recession.”)

Stories in the news included Michael Jackson’s hair catching fire while he filmed a Pepsi commercial on Jan. 27th; the cable networks A&E and Lifetime debuting on Feb. 1st; the first successful embryo transfer from one woman to another being announced on Feb. 3rd; the movie Footloose premiering on Feb. 17th; and Michael Jackson winning eight Grammy Awards (seven for Thriller and one for the E.T. audiobook) on Feb. 28th.

record284009New music releases for the month included the Footloose soundtrack; Thompson Twins’ Into the Gap; The Smiths’ eponymous debut; Queen’s The Works; The Alarm’s Declarations; and Van Morrison’s Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast.

Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which had been released in November 1982, still ruled the album charts, as Record’s Top 100 list shows. At the time, I owned – on vinyl or cassette – four of the top 10 and seven of the top 20; and, by year’s end, 20 of the top 100. As February dawned, the top single was – according to Weekly Top 40 – Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon.” John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” had just cracked the Top 10. By month’s end, the top slot was held by one of the more infectious songs of the year, Van Halen’s “Jump.”

hatborotheaterAt the time, I was 18 and living the commuter-college life. I lived at home, attended Penn State’s Ogontz campus and worked, worked and worked as an usher at the single-screen Budco Hatboro Theater – a fun job that I’d held since the previous summer. (That’s me in the doors in the picture on the left.) This month, however, the employees learned that it was destined to close at some point over the summer, as Budco saw the writing on the wall for single-screen palaces. The building was sold, torn down and a Wendy’s was built on its spot.

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My purchases for the month show where my head was at, beginning with Neil Young’s masterful On the Beach, which I picked up on Feb. 1st.

I also bought Stephen Stills – Stills (6th); CSNY – So Far (6th); Stephen Stills/Manassas – Down the Road (12th); Joni Mitchell – For the Roses (12th); and Stephen Stills double-LP Manassas set (17th), which quickly became (and remains) one of my all-time favorites. This song, featuring former Byrd and Burrito Brother Chris Hillman on co-lead vocals, is a a minor gem:

And, with that, onward to today’s Top 5: February 1984 (via Record Magazine)…

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First, though: This issue isn’t one of the magazine’s best. I wasn’t a fan of David Byrne at the time (I’m still not), and never read the interview with him. I also never read the articles about Huey Lewis, Spandau Ballet, Juluka, Philip Bailey and DeBarge. So why choose this month? Because of On the Beach and Manassas. When I saw both in my old desk calendar, well, how could I not go with this month?!

1) The Rolling Stones – “Undercover of the Night.” I won Undercover, a sad-sack Stones album, from WYSP on November 19th of the previous year by calling in on a trivia contest and saying “John Drake” (the real name of Number Six in The Prisoner TV series). I think I played the album once, maybe twice, and never went back. In other words, Anthony DeCurtis – who penned this review – is more generous to it than I obviously am. Of this song, he writes that it “opens the first side with a machine-gun run of synthesized drumming that crashes into a barrage of percussive disco bottom and patented Stones guitar chords.”

record2840122) Paul McCartney – “Pipes of Peace.” This, the second review, goes to show the delay that once existed between release and review. The February issue of Record would have been on newsstands by early or mid-January, I’m sure, but Pipes of Peace had already been out for at least two months by then, as it was released in October 1983 (as I write about here).

In the review, the (apparently tone-deaf) critic Craig Zoller doesn’t mince words: “The only McCartney LP worth holding onto, by any stretch of the imagination, is Wings Greatest because it collects most of his good hits (along with some silly ones). And seeing sluggish hodgepodge efforts like Band on the Run and Tug of War garner critical raves is as bad a joke as hearing the Beatles described as Paul’s old back-up band.” Lest one have any doubts about where he’s headed, he then states of Pipes of Peace: “I’m here to tell you in no uncertain terms that it’s just another lousy McCartney album with a couple of halfway decent cuts, a load of hummable pablum and the usual no-risk coasting.”

What I find interesting: in back-to-back reviews, a subpar Stones album is saluted while an admittedly mediocre McCartney album is thoroughly trashed. Says much about the mindsets of rock critics at the time…

record2840133) Bob Dylan – “Sweetheart Like You.” I’ve been in something of a Dylan mood of late, having listened to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changing, Bringing It Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and the Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos 1962-1964 this week, with Freewheelin’ and BIBH both receiving twin spins. But, though I know his ‘60s output as well as most, and bought Slow Train Coming in 1979, by the time the decades turn to the ‘80s… I’m admittedly ignorant. There are a few albums I’ve bought and liked, and a few I’ve bought and disliked. Which is likely why I turn to his ’60s oeuvre whenever I have a hankering to hear him.

Anyway, of Infidels, reviewer John Swenson opens by saying that Dylan “is the most consistently misunderstood figure in pop music history” and closes with “Dylan hasn’t sung this well in some time, a fact which indicates his ultimate commitment to his material.” In between, there’s a lot that makes me want to check out the album, which I may well do in the coming week.

4) John Cougar Mellencamp – “Pink Houses.” Christopher Hill accurately describes the one-time Johnny Cougar’s seventh album: “Uh-Huh, Mellencamp’s first record under his real name, is also his first conscious effort to speak collectively for the people of his state and his state of mind. Though not always successful, the rough grain and savor of parched Midwestern earth that comes through makes this a bracing, provocative antidote to the bleak romancers of the ‘Badlands.’” He doesn’t single out the album’s tour de force, however, which is this song:

record2840145) Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers – “A Woman’s Got the Power.” Anyone from the Delaware Valley circa the late ‘70s and early ‘80s likely remembers the A’s – at least, anyone of a certain age who, regardless of whether you were old enough to get into the clubs, listened to Philadelphia’s two main rock stations at the time, 93.3 FM WMMR and 94.1 WYSP. The homegrown rockers were routinely plugged and played on both, as they should have been – they were damn good.

And this song, which was the title track of their 1981 album of the same name (their second and last on Arista), was played to death – as I remember it, at any rate.

Anyway, of the Big Man and his side band: Barry Alfonso, who reviews Rescue, notes that “the feel captured is right on the mark—such tracks as ‘A Man in Love,’ ‘A Woman’s Got the Power’ and ‘Savin’ Up’ (the last-named a Springsteen composition) have the funky nobility that big-band R&B has always traded in.” He also raves about lead singer John “J.T.” Bowen: “He lends to Clemons the same sort of urban bravura that Clemons brings Springsteen. It may not be new, but it still packs a wallop.”

AND, if two clips of the same song aren’t enough, here’s a third: the A’s performing it live…

 

 

Today’s Top 5: 1991

dodgecolt002Twenty-five years ago today as I write, on Wednesday Sept. 25, 1991, Diane and I were brand-new to married life, having gotten hitched the previous Friday in Philly’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. It was, suffice it to say, a great day – up until we walked out of the French restaurant where we held the wedding: my brother and a friend had decked out my car, a Dodge Colt, in festive wedding gear, and tied empty cans to the back. That centuries-old tradition sounds charming, I suppose, but try driving with said cans clanging on Chestnut Hill’s cobblestone streets… as Bill the Cat might say, “Ack!” At the first opportunity, I cut ’em loose. Anyway, we waited until the following spring for our actual honeymoon, a wondrous California odyssey, and spent the weekend down the shore. We already lived together, so the adjustment was minimal – changing our W-4s was it, I think.

Here’s our living room from January 1991:

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Yes, that’s a lot of CDs; and the number only increased, as they spawned often. By decade’s end, they took over that end of the living room.

smokey_ogc001Although I don’t remember the specifics of this particular Wednesday, I can still lay out a large chunk of what happened based on routine: I woke around 6:30, left at 7:35am, arrived at work 10-15 minutes later, and then sat at a desk for a spell. Those were the days of hour-long paid lunches (what a concept!), and I made use of the time by heading home most middays. Without morning traffic, it took 10 minutes each way. I brought in the mail, likely indulged the original old grey cat, Smokey, with a few treats, and worked on the Great American Novel, which I spent much of the ‘90s writing, re-writing and never completing.

That’s to say, in addition to a cat, we had a computer – a second-hand x286 IBM clone. It came with an eight-gig hard drive, 256MBs of memory and a modem, which meant we could, and did, connect to the sandboxed universe of Prodigy. My dad, God bless him, dumbed down the DOS operating system for us and installed a simple menu, so accessing a program was never more than one or two keystrokes away – as in, A, B, C, D or E. For me, at lunchtime, that meant firing up the word processor and tap-tap-tapping away.

The top movie of 1991 was The Silence of the Lambs, which Diane and I saw while down the shore for a week in the spring. (We read the book and Red Dragon, the novel that preceded it, in the same week. Yes, we were eyeing everyone with suspicion.) Other popular films included Beauty and the Beast, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Point Break and Hook, none of which interested me then or now; and Thelma & Louise.

On the economic front, America was teetering: unemployment averaged 6.8 percent for the year and inflation, at 4.2 percent, was a source of concern as January dawned, though it (thankfully) fell over the next 12 months. Still, there was reason to rejoice: the USSR officially disbanded on December 26th and, with it, the Cold War came to an end – at least, it came to an end for a time. We’ve recently seen the rich man’s Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, upping Russia’s nationalistic ante as a way to distract everyday Russians from their own economic woes; and those dupes who’d play cards with him, such as Donald Trump, apparently have no clue that he’s dealing from a stacked deck.

Back on point: In the music-history books, 1991 is heralded for the breakthrough of the paradigm-shifting Nirvana, whose influential Nevermind was released 25 years ago yesterday. I’d love to say that I was among the first to buy it and take the music to heart. I wasn’t. I was in a different mind-space, as my list below shows. That’s not to say I didn’t and don’t appreciate the immediate impact and lingering influence of Nevermind; if I was creating an objective list for the year, I’d rank it No. 1. I’m not, however, so I won’t.

Before I get to the list: My main music-related memory from 1991 isn’t of an album, but of two sterling shows that we saw in the span of a few weeks, both at the TLA in Philly: Rosanne Cash on her Interiors tour; and the Irish singer Mary Black on her Babes in the Woods tour. Rosie’s was, as Dan DeLuca phrases it in his review, “an ‘I can’t remember the last time I saw anything this good’ show’; and Mary Black’s was as magical. (I reference it in this Of Concerts Past post about her 1994 show at the Chestnut Cabaret.) Other shows we saw in 1991: Elvis Costello with the Replacements; Emmylou Harris with Chet Atkins; Kathy Mattea with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; Roger McGuinn; Bonnie Raitt with Chris Isaak; and K.T. Oslin with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman’s group, the Desert Rose Band. There were plenty of others.

For today’s Top 5: 1991.

1) Mary Black – Babes in the Wood. Selected track: “Still Believing.” I mentioned that memorable show of hers above because, looking back, I’m sure that live experience played a major part in my picking this as my favorite of the year. To this day, whenever I play the CD – or, now, stream it – I’m transported to the TLA, seated about halfway back, with Diane by my side.

2) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Weld. Selected track: “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Now, this is my idea of grunge. Neil Young returned from the wilderness in 1989 with the stellar Freedom; followed it the next year with the raucous, Crazy Horse-infused Ragged Glory; and put a cap on his comeback with the electric tour captured on Weld, which could well be summed up in two words: brutal grace.

3) Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend. Selected track: “Divine Intervention.” One of my most-played albums of ’91, which is saying something as it was released in October of that year. This track, like the album as a whole, is delightfully trippy – and very Beatlesque.

4) John Mellencamp – Whenever We Wanted. Selected track: “Whenever We Wanted.” This, Mellencamp’s first release of the ‘90s, bypasses much of his late ‘80s Americana stylings in favor of the crunchy rock of Uh-Huh; and often substitutes sloganeering for the incisive short stories that accent Scarecrow, Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy. That said, a handful of songs – including this cut – stand with his greatest work.

5) Soundtrack – Falling From Grace. Selected track: Nanci Griffith’s “Cradle of the Interstate.” So John Mellencamp made a movie. I have no idea if it was good, bad or mediocre, as I’ve never seen it., but I can say without equivocation that the soundtrack – which preceded the film by a few months – was uniformly excellent, featuring tunes from Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, Larry Crane, Lisa Germano and Nanci Griffith.

And a few bonuses:

6) Nanci Griffith – Late Night Grande Hotel. Selected track: “It’s Just Another Morning Here.” A solid, if slightly overproduced, outing from the folkabilly singer-songwriter, who was one of our favorites. The songs played better live, as recall. I do wonder what’s become of her…

7) Lisa Germano – On the Way Down From Moon Palace. Selected track: “Riding My Bike.” Germano, of course, came to the fore as the fiddler in Mellencamp’s band – and is a phenomenal fiddler. This jazzy solo effort is likely not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy it.

8) Blake Babies – Rosy Jack World. Selected track: “Temptation Eyes,” Juliana. John. Freda. What else need be be said?

Today’s Top 5: 1985

The year 1985 is likely best remembered for the simultaneous Live Aid concerts that occurred in London and Philadelphia on Saturday, July 13th. There were many performances that day and night – some good, some not, and many somewhere in-between – but the one that probably had the biggest impact, at least in the U.S., was U2’s. Their 18-minute set epitomized, and still epitomizes, everything good about this crazy little thing called rock ’n’ roll:

In every other respect, the year – like 1986 – was a transitional time. I wrote about it in my Top 5 for April 1985, so hopefully won’t repeat too much of myself here. In short: America was still rebounding from back-to-back recessions that occurred earlier in the decade. Unemployment stood at 7.3 percent at year’s start and fell to 6.7 by year’s end. Inflation was, thankfully, almost a non-entity, averaging 3.6 percent; and since the average wage increased by 4.26 percent from 1984, that meant most employed folks came out .66 percent ahead.

me_chevette_85As I’ve mentioned before, in ’85 I worked part-time as a department-store sales associate and, during the summer, worked full-time hours. I had no complaints. I had a car – a 1979 Chevette, dubbed the “Hankmobile” by my folks because I plastered an “I’m a Fan of Hank Jr.” bumper sticker on the back. (Yes, I was – and remain, to an extent – a fan of Hank’s, though that’s grist for another post somewhere down the road.) The Hankmobile got the job done – perhaps not in style, but so what? I bought a tape player, installed it and was good to go. (That’s me, sometime that summer, beside the car.)

Among the year’s top films: Back to the Future, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, St. Elmo’s Fire, The Color Purple, Witness, Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club rank among my most-watched films of all time – just as my wife can watch Remember the Titans ad infinitum, I can watch those over and over and over again.

The year’s top songs included “Careless Whisper” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!; “Like a Virgin and “Crazy for You” by Madonna; “I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner; “I Feel for You” by Chaka Khan; “Out of Touch” by Hall & Oates; “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears; “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits; “We Are the World” by USA for Africa; and, yep, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds.

The year’s top news stories included President Reagan’s controversial visit to a Bitburg, Germany, military cemetery; and the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists. Closer to home: the Philadelphia Flyers’ phenomenal goalie, Pelle Lindbergh, died in a car accident; and Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode dropped a bomb on the city – literally – that caused 65 homes to go up in flames.

For me, the year is noteworthy for other reasons, too: After two years of commuter-college life at Penn State’s Ogontz campus (now known as Penn State Abington), I headed to the mothership, University Park, in State College, Pa., in late August. It was, indeed, a “Happy Valley.” I had a good roommate that first year, made good friends (one of whom became my roommate my second year), and – like most everyone else I knew – partied way too much. I joined the Folk Show staff on WPSU, contributed to a quarterly student magazine, and discovered the joy of selling plasma twice a week.

That same fall, an independent record store opened in town: City Lights Records, where I often whiled away time and money. Here’s a student film from 2008 that tells its story:

img_2094Anyway, enough of the introduction; it’s time for today’s Top 5: 1985. As in, my Top 5 albums from that storied year… (all of which, small surprise, I’ve previously featured in these pages.)

1) Lone Justice – Lone Justice. Two words – and one name – as to why this tops my list: Maria McKee. The Little Diva, as she was nicknamed at some point in her career, is absolutely riveting throughout. Truth be told, to my ears, when she sings – whether with Lone Justice or on any of her stellar solo albums (and they’re all stellar), there’s no one better. Ever. That’s how I feel in the moment, at least. True, the delirium passes when the music ends, but man! I never want it to end.

2) The Long Ryders – State of Our Union. I wrote in my Top 5: Summer 1985 list that the Ryders “basically laid down the blueprint of the alt.country/Americana movement a decade before it became popular”; and this LP, to my ears, is their tour de force. As with Lone Justice’s debut, it’s an album – originally vinyl, then CD and now that CD digitalized as FLAC files – that I’ve returned to time and again through the decades. It never gets old. “State of My Union,” a Chuck Berry-infused, tongue-in-cheek tour of the South, is one of my favorite tracks, but they’re all great.

3) John Cougar Mellencamp – Scarecrow. A damn good album. “Minutes to Memories,” which I featured in my Top 5 for October 1985, is one highlight; “Small Town” is another. On this album, and the one (Lonesome Jubilee) that followed, Mellencamp tackled subjects and themes – the rural reality of the Reagan Age and small-town life, primarily – too often avoided by his rock ’n’ roll peers, no doubt because they hadn’t lived it. He had, and it shows.

4) Emmylou Harris – Ballad of Sally Rose. I’m sure I rank this higher than most would, but it’s the album that made this boy a fan. As I wrote in my remembrance of her 1985 concert at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, I bought it on vinyl on February 17th; picked up a double-album cassette of Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel on March 2nd; and saw her play Sally Rose from start to finish on March 29th. Perhaps it was that condensed introduction – some might say, instant obsession – with her music, but…wow. This set still packs an emotional punch. (For those not aware, it’s a fictionalized account of her relationship with Gram Parsons.)

5) Rosanne Cash – Rhythm & Romance. And, finally… Rosie! As I explained in that Summer 1985 piece, I discovered Rosie and this album via VH1.

And a few runners-up…

The Three O’Clock – Arrive Without Traveling

10,000 Maniacs – The Wishing Chair

Jane Wiedlin – Jane Wieldin

Pete Townshend – White City: A Novel