Category Archives: Paul Simon

Today’s Top 5: September 20, 1980

We watched Ordinary People last night. It’s a film we’d both seen before, though not in decades. Diane first saw it in a movie theater not long after its Sept. 19, 1980, release and I first saw it on PRISM, a now-defunct regional premium cable channel that was popular in the Philly area at the time, about a year later. An understated and powerful movie, it won a bevy of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Redford, in his directorial debut) and Best Supporting Actor (Hutton).

ordinarypeopleFor those unfamiliar with it, the drama delves into the dynamics of a dysfunctional family following the death of eldest son Buck (Scott Doebler), who perished in a sailing accident that youngest son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) survived. As the story opens, Conrad has recently returned from a stay at a psychiatric hospital after a failed suicide attempt; he’s racked with survivor’s guilt. Mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore, in an Oscar-nominated performance) is emotionally distant, more concerned with appearance than addressing his (or her, for that matter) needs. Father Calvin (Donald Sutherland), on the other hand, just wants everyone to get along. As Roger Ebert put it in his review, he’s “one of those men who wants to do and feel the right things, in his own awkward way.” Enter psychiatrist Tyrone Berger (Judd Hirsch) and the down-to-earth Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), a girl who catches Conrad’s eye. Both, in their ways, help him overcome the guilt – one knowingly, the other not.

In other entertainment events from that September, the Dionne Warwick-hosted Solid Gold syndicated music series debuted on the 13th.

I have no memory of whether I watched it or not; likely not. If I wasn’t out at a movie – at the Hatboro Theater in downtown Hatboro or the Eric Theater in the Village Mall in Horsham – I was likely reading the Sunday newspaper while listening to the oldies on the radio, listening to music in my room and/or watching TV. (How’s that for narrowing it down?) I was 15, a high-school sophomore and serious music fanatic.

Among the album releases for the month: Kate Bush’s Never for Ever; David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps); the Doobie Brothers’ One Step Closer; Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz; Barbra Streisand’s Guilty; Utopia’s Deface the Music; Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July; and Molly Hatchet’s Beatin’ the Odds.

And, with that – onward to today’s Top 5: September 20, 1980, in which I cherry pick my favorite hits from the Weekly Top 40 for the week in question…

1) Diana Ross – “Upside Down.” For the third week in a row, Diana held the top spot with this infectious song. It, like the 1980 diana album as a whole, was written and produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, though the end result was not what they intended. Afraid that the original mix was too disco, which was quickly falling out if favor, Diana and engineer Russ Terrana gave the set a sleek, more pop-oriented makeover.

2) Irene Cara – “Fame.” Holding steady at No. 4 is this classic theme song. If you watched the above Solid Gold clip, you know that Irene sang (or lip-synced) it there; it’s such a great song, though, that I can’t help but share it again (And, yes, I know I’ve shared this same clip before – here, to be precise.)

3) Paul Simon – “Late in the Evening.” Clocking in at No. 7 is this classic from Paul Simon, which is one of my favorite songs by him.

4) Olivia Newton-John & Electric Light Orchestra – “Xanadu.” Just bubbling under the Top 10, at No. 12, is this, the title song to the movie musical, which was released the previous month. I saw the film at the aforementioned Eric Theater and, like most who did, didn’t find it a five-star affair. (An understatement, that.). The soundtrack, however, was darn good; I played it to death.

5) Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – “You’ll Accompany Me.” Here’s a classic song from Michigan’s rock ’n’ roll laureate. Against the Wind, the album that it’s from, was my Album of the Year for 1980; I still think it’s great.

And, for today, a few bonuses…

6) Christopher Cross – “Sailing.” Falling from No. 5 to 15 is this Grammy Award-winning song from Christopher Cross. I imagine that this song, from Cross’ debut, would be lumped into what’s now known as “yacht rock.” Whatever. At the time, I found it a pleasant diversion that I didn’t need to own – it was played fairly often on the radio, after all. Nowadays? I often play Rumer’s version from her 2014 B-Sides & Rarities collection.

7) Olivia Newton-John – “Magic.” This classic ONJ number held the top spot for four weeks in August before beginning its downward drift. This week, it fell from No. 13 to 27. Here she is on The Midnight Special promoting it…

8) Jackson Browne – “That Girl Could Sing.” Debuting on the charts this week, at No. 82, is this classic song from Hold Out, Browne’s only album to reach No. 1.

Today’s Top 5: An Old Grey Cat Retrospective, Part 2

This is my 67th post of 2016. Some missives were good, others not, and most a mix of the two, primarily due – I see now – to my over-reliance on the Top 5 format. In and of itself, that tip of the hat to High Fidelity works well – especially when I’m digging through an old magazine. But week in, week out, it grows tiresome. As a result, in the new year, I plan less Top 5s and more straightforward essays and reviews.

And, yes, I see the irony in saying that within a Top 5.

With that said, onward to today’s Top 5: An Old Grey Cat Retrospective, Part 2. In Part 1, of course, I listed the most popular posts of the year along with a clip from each. Here, I’m sharing – in chronological order – the posts I most enjoyed writing.

1) Today’s Top 5: Classics, Old & New (1/9/16): “Whether they come from the pen of Wallace Stevens or piano of Carole King, or the hills of Appalachia, expressions of the heart, soul and psyche have remained constant through the ages. It’s why music, like all art, doesn’t come with an expiration date. We, as a people, live, long, love, lose and love again, and argue amongst ourselves, forever and ever. Amen.”

2) The “Nous” Church of Birch (2/6/16): “We expect life, when young, to unfold much like school: first grade leads to second leads to third, and on down the line until, one late-spring day, we’re tossing our caps in the air at high-school graduation. But life – for most, at any rate – doesn’t unfurl like the step-by-step directions proffered by Google or Apple maps. Detours and wrong turns are inevitable. We stride forward, stumble, tumble backwards and regroup, and head out yet again.”

3) Bruce Springsteen in Philly, 2/12/16: We Have Met the Future and It Is Us (2/14/16): “The young 30-something who released The River and the young fans who first embraced it would likely laugh at the idea that, 35 years on, they’re still spirits in the night, albeit just for the night.”

4) Today’s Top 10: It Was 30 Years Ago Today… (9/5/16): “Looking back, the ‘80s were somewhat like a snow globe: America was shaken at its start, but everything settled into place by decade’s end. That the era is often derided for its fashion miscues, pop music and political retrenchment is a shame; there was much good to be found.”

5) Bruce Springsteen: A Fleeting Meet-and-Greet (10/1/16): “Life can be challenging. We wake, roll out of bed and, often, dread the day to come – maybe it’s the morning commute or pile of work awaiting us at the office; perhaps a dead-end job for dead-end wages; or, at times, something much, much worse. But the music takes us away from whatever it is, albeit for a few minutes, and helps us muster the strength to soldier on.”

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And two bonuses…

6) Today’s Top 5: The Promise of Tomorrow (circa 1970 & Billboard) (11/26/16): “When we strip the gauzy nostalgia from the reality of any time, we’re left with this: What often made the time wonderful was less day-to-day life and more the promise of what had yet to come. It’s why succeeding generations continue to embrace the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I think – despite the tumult of the ‘60s and woes of the ‘70s, the messages that powered much of the music were hopeful. And, by and large, we’re a hopeful lot.”

7) Album(s) of the Year, 2016 (12/4/16): “And so the year comes to a close not with a bang or whimper, but a melody that’s older than my time on Earth: ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love.’”

Today’s Top 10: It Was 30 Years Ago Today…

psu_desk_86001Thirty years ago today I was but a few weeks into my senior year of college. The picture to the left is of my desk in my dorm room, and it tells much about me then – a print of the Gilbert Williams painting “Celestial Visitation,” which is probably known to most as the cover of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1982 Daylight Again album; beside it, the fold-out poster that came with Madonna’s True Blue LP; my Ballad of Sally Rose button, which I purchased the previous year when I saw Emmylou Harris in concert, is beneath it; and, beneath that, a picture of the Beatles, circa 1967, that was taken by Linda Eastman (though I didn’t know it at the time). To the left of that: a postcard from the Wings Fun Club that looked cool to me; and, beneath that, a Marilyn Monroe postcard. I can’t make out the rest, but suffice it to say that I had one foot in the past, another in the present, and an ear for hip country sounds.

According to the Weather Underground, September 5th, 1986, was a rainy day in State College, home of the Penn State mothership, with a high of 75 degrees and a low of 55. Hot movies that summer included She’s Gotta Have It, Stand by Me and The Fly; and Shanghai Surprise, which starred Madonna and Sean Penn, had cratered at the box office the previous weekend. In America at large, the economy was still in the midst of rebounding from the nasty recession of 1981-82; the unemployment rate at the start and end of the month clocked in at seven percent – not a great number, but much better than the double-digit rates of late 1982 and early ’83 – and inflation, at all of 1.8 percent, was a non-factor.

The state of my personal economy was fairly good, too: I had a summer’s worth of savings thanks to full-time shifts at a department store back home. I continued selling my plasma twice a week like clockwork, most weeks, and rented out my student pass for Nittany Lion home games; while I attended every tailgate, I actually only saw one game during my two years at main campus. (And no regrets about that, either.) My expenses consisted primarily of fast-food, alcohol and cigarettes.

Looking back, the ‘80s were somewhat like a snow globe: America was shaken at its start, but everything settled into place by decade’s end. That the era is often derided for its fashion miscues, pop music and political retrenchment is a shame; there was much good to be found. As for 1986? It’s likely remembered most for the tragedy that begat the year, the Challenger disaster –

– but the year was far more than that sad day.

Anyway, inspired both by Herc’s Hideaway’s recent countdown of the Top 100 Albums of 1984 (the link takes you to the Top 10; navigate to older posts and you’ll find his 11-90 entries), here’s my Top 10 from ’86. Why that year? Well, “It Was 30 Years Ago Today” has a nice ring to it…

1) Paul Simon – Graceland. Selected track: “The Boy in the Bubble.” Rolling Stone recently ran down 10 Things You Didn’t Know about the album, which was released on Aug. 25, 1986. To my ears, it sounds as fresh today as it did then. The title track is sheer genius, and I almost spotlighted it, but this song contains what may well be the one line I quote more than any other (by any artist): “Every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.”

2) The Bangles – Different Light. Selected track: “If She Knew What She Wants.” Yeah, some folks may not rank this album quite as high as me, but – I loved it then, and I love it now. Back when it was released, in early ’86, much of my music purchases was on cassette – they took up less room and, too, I had a cassette deck in my car. I actually played my original tape so much that you could hear the music on the flip side bleeding through.

A quick side-note: Those top two picks are easy enough for me to recall, as I noted them at the time; and have kept them on one list or another every year since. Numbers 3 on – I’m guesstimating to an extent, as they’re albums that I loved then and still enjoy today. Where, exactly, they fall…that’s up for (internal) debate.

3) Dwight Yoakam – Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. Selected track: “Honky Tonk Man,” the lead single to Dwight’s debut album, is a remake of a classic Johnny Horton song. It’s just plain intoxicating; and, at the time, it sent out a signal that Yoakam was pursuing a more purist sound than the era’s Urban Cowboy-flavored norm.

4) Steve Earle – Guitar Town. Selected track: “Guitar Town.” Another country-music outsider, another great debut. It was considered too country for rock audiences and too rock for country folk, but it found its niche with those of us who liked both.

5) Belinda Carlisle – Belinda. Selected track: “Mad About You.” The former (and future) lead singer of the Go-Go’s released her solo debut during the early summer, and it’s a gem. As with the four preceding entries, it’s an album I still listen to on a regular basis. And here’s some trivia: Andy Taylor (of Duran Duran) plays the guitar solo on this song; and the album also features former Wings guitarist Laurence Juber and non-Rolling Stone Nicky Hopkins in addition to fellow Go-Go Charlotte Caffey, who wrote one of the songs and co-wrote four others.

6) Robert Cray – Strong Persuader. Selected track: “Smoking Gun.” As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, part of my time at Penn State included spinning discs on the weekend Folk Show on WPSU. I first learned of Cray in late ’85 or early ’86 from a fellow deejay, and – as a result – already owned one of his other albums, Bad Influence, which was a good, not great, affair. This release was simply phenomenal, and this song… well, you kinda know something’s an instant classic when a bar band in the boondocks, aka Bellefonte, Pa., plays it – and that’s exactly what happened sometime in… egads. Late ’86? Early ’87? God only knows…

7) Madonna – True Blue. Selected track: “Papa Don’t Preach.” Yeah, yeah, some people will undoubtedly smirk upon seeing Madonna’s name in this list, but I have no shame. I loved it then, as evidenced by the poster above my dorm-room desk, and still find it enjoyable today. It was also the last of her albums that I liked from start-to-finish.

8) Van Morrison – No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Selected track: “In the Garden.” One of my favorite Van albums, and one of his all-time best. Words really don’t do it justice.

9) Nanci Griffith – Lone Star State of Mind. Selected track: “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret).” I discovered Nanci through the Folk Show the year before; one of her songs was on a Fast Folk Musical Magazine sampler (this one, in fact) that I found in WPSU’s record library; and this song, which was originally recorded for her 1978 debut, was another that I showcased on occasion.

10) Lone Justice – Shelter. Selected track: “Wheels.” Lone Justice Mach II wasn’t on a par with the original lineup, and this sophomore set wasn’t as strong as the original lineup’s 1985 debut. Yet, even with that, it contains some of Maria McKee’s greatest songs, including “I Found Love,” the title cut, “Dixie Storms” and this.

In retrospect, there are other albums I’d rank higher than a few of these – Janet Jackson’s Control, for instance, deserves mention – but I didn’t become familiar with them until the late ’80s, when I worked in a new-fangled CD store. But that’s a post for another day…