Another 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.
2) 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.
3) 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.
4) 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.
5) 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.