August 1984 began on a high note: I saw Crosby, Stills & Nash at the Mann Music Center on the 4th. The Woodstock survivors opened with “Love the One You’re With” and “Chicago”; and performed most of the songs I wanted to hear as well as a few surprises – Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird” and the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” I vividly remember “To the Last Whale” (aka “Critical Mass” and “Wind on the Water”); the stage went dark, Crosby & Nash’s wordless vocals flooded the open-air venue, and – wow. Just wow. The wows kept coming, too, and included “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Cathedral,” “Wooden Ships,” “Carry On” and “Teach Your Children.”
I also saw Huey Lewis & the News at the Mann this month. My memory of that isn’t sharp, likely because I wasn’t a fan and knew few of the songs; I tagged along with some friends from high school – the last time I saw them, I think. About the only thing I do recall: a juggler (!) opened; and we were as far back on the lawn as possible due to arriving late.
Among the LPs I purchased this month: Stephen Stills’ Right by You, The Best of Otis Redding, The Best of the Byrds: Greatest Hits, Volume II, John David Souther’s Home by Dawn and Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers. One might surmise that I was out-of-step, musically speaking, with the times – and, to an extent. I was. But I also liked the Go-Go’s – their Talk Show album came out in March, and would go on to become my Album of the Year. I also owned, by year’s end, 15 of the other LPs listed in this issue’s Top 100 Albums chart.
Anyway, the cover story features a band I could care less about, the Cars. They annoyed me then, and annoy me now. Other articles focus on the Thompson Twins, Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits, and Womack & Womack – all less annoying than the Cars.
Onward to today’s Top 5:
1) Tracey Ullman – “They Don’t Know.” There’s a brief article by Mark Mehler on Ms. Ullman, who released her You Broke My Heart in 17 Places album in late 1983: “Though she’s a hit recording artist in the United States, the folks in Tracey Ullman’s native England prefer her as a dippy but earthy storyteller, wisecracker and bon vivant – in other words, the sort of 24-year-old who’d admit on national TV to forgetting to put on underwear before going dancing. ‘The man I was dancing with didn’t know it and spun me around and I’m whispering in his ear, ‘I have no knickers on,’ but he doesn’t hear me and the entire audience is in tears at this terrible sight.’”
The piece also explains how she came to score a recording contract: “A chance meeting at the hairdressers with the wife of Stiff Records founder Dave Robinson led to Ullman’s being signed by the label, even though her previous vocal excursions had been confined to the London stage in shows such as Grease.”
One note about this song: Kirsty MacColl, who wrote and recorded it in 1979, sings backup.
2) Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “No Surrender.” Born in the U.S.A., released in June, is the first review. Penned by Anthony DeCurtis, it opens with: “An original product of counterculture aspiration and a boom economy that proffered better times for workers, Bruce Springsteen has watched two hopes wither and die in the last decade. Since Greetings From Asbury Park he has chronicled the translation of a dream into a memory; the ‘glory days’ that once seemed to glisten before us are now a dimly recollected image of unfulfilled desire. Born in the U.S.A. finds the Springsteen pantheon of virtues – work, strive, endure, remember – still revered. What has disappeared is the promised land he once believed those virtues could earn.”
He concludes with: “[D]espite its musical heart and studio-craft, Born in the U.S.A.’s ultimate power resides in Springsteen’s tough, cramped social vision. If Woody Guthrie was the Dust Bowl laureate, Springsteen has emerged as the brave voice of workers in modern America’s sunset industries. Many rock performers have spoken for one subculture or another, but none has ever defined the works and days of an entire class as their subject. Until now.”
In between, DeCurtis raves about the album. Of this song, a tribute to former E Streeter Steven Van Zandt: “Two young groovers swear a rock-based bond of blood-brotherhood in ‘No Surrender,’ but ‘young faces grow sad and old/And hearts of fire grow cold.’ The song ends with Springsteen echoing Dylan and offering a complementary vision to Van Zandt’s new-found political fervor: ‘There’s a war outside still raging/You say it’s not ours anymore to win/I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover’s bed/With a wide open country in my head.’”
3) Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul – “I Am a Patriot.” The issue’s second review, coincidentally, is for Steven Van Zandt’s debut, Voice of America. It’s a politically charged outing that Christopher Hill sums up as thus: “Because of Van Zandt’s inspirational approach, and because he’s chosen to unify his diverse styles with a crash, echoey sort of mix, comparisons inevitably pop up to ‘anthem’ bands like U2, the Alarm, and Big Country. But if these bands are the Cecil B. DeMilles of the trade, striking heroic poses and invoking Biblical images of millennial strife, Steven Van Zandt and his cohorts are the Frank Capras, finding epic themes in the hearts of ordinary people. Where the others show us the golden, hazy horizon, Little Steven and his Disciples show us real faces.”
“I Am a Patriot,” which was later covered by Jackson Browne, is a message that still resonates.
4) Roger Waters – “The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.” The title track to Waters’ solo debut, which is reviewed in tandem with David Gilmour’s About Face is, Ira Robbins explains, “a lot like The Wall without the children’s chorus, except that its dumb conceptual framework rivals only Frank Zappa for wretched, ungainly excess.”
That’s an accurate summary, I should mention. I owned this album, and – on July 24th of the preceding month – saw Waters, backed by a crack band that included Eric Clapton, play it from start to finish. Really, if he’d ended the concert at the first intermission, I don’t think anyone would have minded, as the first set was all Floyd; the second half, which featured the Pros and Cons album in full, was tedious – and that’s being generous. (That show is earmarked for a future Of Concerts Past post.)
However, despite disliking the album, I did and do like the title song –
5) The Jones Girls – “Won’t Let You Take It Back.” James Hunter writes of Keep It Comin’, the LP this song is from: “[T]he three Jones Girls’ singing is terribly seductive stuff – when they harmonize they can, seemingly at will, energize your heart or take bits of it apart.” He sums up with: “People prone to nostalgic reminisces about the Golden Age of Girl Groups should check this out, because both the record and the Jones Girls are just too good to be discovered twenty years down the line.”
Honestly, I’d forgotten about them until seeing this review. I owned the cassette back in the day, but it went the way of most cassettes once CDs came into vogue. They still sound good.
And one bonus: Spinal Tap – “(Listen to the) Flower People.” The issue’s closing essay is by Anthony DeCurtis, who ruminates on what happens when music and movies (or video) mix. He cites This Is Spinal Tap, The Rutles and A Hard Day’s Night, along with a litany of documentaries, as being successes, and points out the dark side of rock videos. The mention of Spinal Tap, however, reminds me of earlier in ’84, when I worked as an usher at a movie theater. This Is Spinal Tap was booked for a week; and, for those seven days, I think it attracted no more than 100 people. Yet, I laughed every time I watched it – it’s a classic.