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Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Albums That Time Forgot ... Even At The Time !!!

In the late '80's a very slow decay took place at the record stores.  Music would never be as exciting again. The adventure that was the New Wave sound came to a close by the end of '85 and completely by '90/'91 (at the very latest).  The cutting edge of recorded output had become history for most of these artists by the time Live Aid came to pass.  We just didn't know it was all gonna be over at the time.

Too easy to praise the late '70's / early '80's and certainly not my will to praise the somewhat cool, but repetitious '80's indie sounds of bands already a throwback to the '70's underground or new synth bands lacking production prowess and/or great songs, this rant is designed to address the big, commercially successful artists that took a chance at re-birth in the New Wave era only to get their albums thrown right back at them.  If pleasant in sound, a fanbase will listen.  Once the music goes dark and the topics talk about anything other than love (even if only on a few songs)... good luck!  First, the album would hit the $3.99 bin and then drop from there until the world's most famous artists would end up at the $0.99 level.

A few conditions lead to this downfall during the '85/'86 change-over in musical tastes...

First off, kids comin' up gravitated toward a music they could wear that would make them seem tough while not being the typical rock sounds of static radio-play: they would latch onto rap, which now was reaching national prominence in America.  This would be the brand of choice for many.  Also with disco gone, the need to have a four-on-the-floor "for those about to dance" would have techno to hold down that fort.  Heavy metal goes underground, getting faster and harder and cheese-pop continues to hold the casual listener's ear until Nirvana blows it to kingdom come!

Add to the fact that in many cases the production style in the mid 80's overtakes the songs.  Consider too that the songs are not always hummable or understandable.  Now consider this: some of us prefer it that way!  For better or worse, these albums excite those who want adventure.  Especially exciting was to see tried and true artists go out-on-a-limb to bring us their take on the new sounds of a great era in pop perfection.  The following artists achieved both new heights and new lows ... all on the same record, every time out.  Here now are those albums.

Paul McCartney - Press To Play

My favorite of all the failures.  McCartney surprises me for the first time since "Temporary Secretary" and album wise, since Back To The Egg.  Bravo! But, uh oh! What the hell is this?  Disaster strikes!  The horrible single "Press" and the pitiful video for it kill this album dead.  Needless to say, I'd never get any of these songs played live when he toured his play-it-safe "Flowers in the Dirt" album and world tour.  Was it super-producer Hugh Padgham or new co-writer Eric Stewart who made this change in McCartney or was it him?  Regardless, I'll always love this album for its adventure in songs like "Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun," "Pretty Little Head," and "However Absurd."  Then there's the aggressive-tinged "Angry" that sounds like it's channeling help from Denny Laine, but is Eric Stewart (evidently of 10cc fame, not to be confused with Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics). More straight-ahead fun delivered in "Move Over Busker" and subtle power unfolds with "Footprints." A song that takes years to really sink-in as a great tune. The instrumentation alone stands-out from all other McCartney ballads. Even "Talk More Talk" captures interest with its strange Prince-like vocal leading to a sing-a-long chorus.  The album opener, "Stranglehold" compares to "Press" in that it doesn't deliver any useable result, but is fun to hear the band brewing-up to something during the verses ... and again, a video that ruins what little musical interest was in the song to begin with.  And let's make clear that on vinyl and cassette pressings here in the States, there was only ever ten tracks ending with "However Absurd."  A perfect end to the record.  Ending side 1 was the overblown, but actually good, "Only Love Remains."  Nevertheless, this song should be on the yuppie throw-away album Pipes of Peace.  Pipes of Peace and Tug of War could both be combined into a 2-record set and tossed out to sea.  The product of what happens when Paul McCartney and George Martin take no chances pushing the art form.  But let us forgive them since they didn't know what to do after the crushing blow of losing John Lennon.

Robert Plant - Shaken 'n' Stirred

Appropriately titled, this album is all-over-the-map!  Coming off the heels of his two great solo albums, Pictures At Eleven (smooth Zep) and The Principle of Moments (more smooth Zep and some legitimate New Wave), but before the mega hit Now and Zen comes this amazingly bad, yet exciting record from the master of mood and power!  Everyone I know really likes the lead single "Little By Little" and no ill words were ever spoken to me about this record from anyone who loves Led Zeppelin or Plant's solo albums, but wowie-zowie if this record doesn't shock the system.  (Much like Neil Young making robot music on Trans from '82.)  Reasons to buy it are "Pink and Black," "Sixes and Sevens," "Little By Little," and "Trouble Your Money."  Reasons to run from it are ... well, all the rest of it, except for the cutting edge force of "Too Loud."  Great for clubs that will never play such a song from a man connected to Zeppelin, but a song I play at top volume while driving to this day.  (I found out later that Plant also feels he achieved something with this tune.  Glad to hear it!)

Men At Work - Two Hearts

How sad.  A good, but confusing record comes from a band that could do no wrong and gets forgotten by time.  Thank the record company for deleting this one from its printing presses year after year.  Even after the first two albums were re-released with bonus tracks it was forgotten again!  I think if not for the hit collections Contraband and Super Hits the public at large wouldn't know that the band had written anything worth listening to after 1983!  And maybe, blame the fans for not demanding a reprint. Of course, with Beatle mania fans that's what happens.  Just ask The Knack, Cheap Trick, and Duran Duran about teeny bopper backlash and it becomes painfully apparent why some good albums don't get re-released or re-mastered after an A-list band dare change its hit making formula.

The album begins with a masterpiece by any band's
standard:  "Man With Two Hearts."  Musically and lyrically this song goes for the throat.  No wonder their fans weren't ready for this, but then again, the band never wrote dumb lyrics anyway.  The Police were accepted with the darkness of Ghost In The Machine, but Men At Work just had too squeaky an image to survive their journey (and not the sex appeal of Sting either).  Maybe if they had not disbanded this album would not be on this list, but more akin to talking about Midnight Oil, a band that touched upon a new wave production path without losing their fanbase or company support.

Next, is a straight-up melancholy pop tune, but a great one: "Giving Up."  A song that could have fit nicely on a playlist featuring albums like Avalon from Roxy Music or Keep Moving and Mad Not Mad by Madness or a million other smooth popsters of the era making hits from the same template.

Third up is the promoted song "Everything I Need."  This shockingly plain organic acoustic rock would have been a perfect '90's hit, but again, not what a Men At Work fan or CBS records would want from this white reggae pop band.  Fourth is the keyboard-wacky "Sail To You."  Hard to play this aloud without running to turn the volume down before someone might ask you what the hell you're playing!  "Children On Parade" comes next to smooth-out the craziness; subtle and smart, but still one might wish for the day when production wasn't front and center...meaning the synth is featured in this era, not the guitar.  And now for something extra organic!  The excellent, but I'm-gonna-skip-it-every-time "Maria."  If not for Colin Hay's voice you wouldn't know it was even Men At Work.  "Stay At Home" is good fun for the album, but sometimes the voice is too far back in the mix to make us love the tune.  "Hard Luck Story" is both hard hitting and annoying, thanks to those whole notes drawn-out in the chorus; same problem with "Upstairs In My House" from Cargo.  Another go-getter, "Snakes And Ladders" is the kind of song I love best, both great musically and lyrically. This song demands you understand the business that brings you the music.  Artists should be allowed praise for telling the truth about the music biz, certainly after delivering plenty of happy fluff for you over the years.  So hats-off to the band (or was it just Colin Hay) for this song.  (If so inclined to delve deeper into the subject, seek out the masterpieces Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround by The Kinks and The Last DJ by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.)  The album finishes with "Still Life."  A great (sad sounding) song, but with more of that wacky synth playing that makes ya run for the volume again!

Colin Hay's first solo album, Looking For Jack ('87) had some good songs on it, but like "Fortress Around Your Heart" from Sting's Dream Of The Blue Turtles ('85), Colin's "These Are Our Finest Days" would make the mistake of hiding the rock guitar stylings down in the mix.

Arcadia - So Red The Rose

Welp, not exactly an album that fails on any level, but added to this list because of its greatest sin.....that's it's not officially a Duran Duran record!  I like the Arcadia name for style and understand it was their way of not offending contracts, but look at the result!  You'll never get "Election Day" or "Goodbye Is Forever" on a Duran greatest hits compilation.  This is especially sad when, looking back to the '80's, one recognizes that this was the album that truly finalized Duran's sound to its most mature point before never sounding like that particular kind of pop band ever again.  Even songs like "Keep Me In The Dark" and "The Flame" could have been contenders on a hits collection.  And the seamless switch to side 2 with the south-of-the-border flair of "The Promise" and "El Diablo" that are so smooth that even Sting's presence seems like a warm bath with scented soaps.  Not even as obvious as his appearance on Dire Strait's "Money For Nothing." At least people remember "Election Day" and know it's Duran.  This is the record that everyone should know as the final statement of early era Duran, not Seven and the Ragged Tiger with its out of control production and (occasional) weaker songs. The Power Station record featuring Chic, Palmer, and the two Taylors can be found in many stores (especially in a new 2-disc edition featuring a 'making of'), but good luck finding this one!

Yes - Big Generator

Ahh!  Big album, big tour, end of the triumphant return for the band that could or should have called themselves Cinema.  But, then we wouldn't all know a 'lil ditty called "Owner of a Lonely Heart," would we?  Though surprising at the time, one can see how a brilliant hack like Trevor Rabin could infuse the "dinosaur act" back to greatness and then destroy them soon after by just being himself!  There's something great and something average about the input of Rabin on the band called Yes.  But, when it comes to 1987, the excitement ends with the beautiful blah which is "Love Will Find A Way."  He should've left that song for a solo record.  They should have made a single of "Shoot High, Aim Low."  "Rhythm of Love" was a solid production, but how long would a new musical audience accept the voice of Jon Anderson as the leader of a hard rockin' band?  It's anyone's guess because the body of work is there to support the greatness of the group and who knew when we first heard "City of Love" that it was actually Yes?  Hats-off to Yes and Trevor Horn for creating the coolest production for "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and the entire 90125 album.  Great or not, I'll always want a copy of Big Generator on the shelf next to 90125 and the half-baked Union.

Jethro Tull - Under Wraps

"Jethro Tull, you say?"  "Yes, Jethro Tull!"  I know, I know... but just like Neil Young and Steve Miller, Tull improved on a borderline crappy attempt to modernize at the beginning of the decade.  Though very "out there" as far as glittering synth production, Under Wraps is a very exciting album that I missed at the time.  Unlike the retro bore of Crest of a Knave that won the award later.  Under Wraps has my favorite songs outside of their '70's heyday.  As usual for this period in history though, poor choice of a single would cement this album's demise.  But, let's mention the reason to buy: "Paparazzi."  Once again great music meets great lyrics.  Even the band has snuck this gem into live shows without the vocal, just jamming away on the great guitar movement.  I'm sure few knew it was even this song.  I'm also a fan of a bonus track "General Crossing" from the compact disc.  I'm a big fan of aggressive vocal stylings.  And, who's to say that the vocals on this album aren't as exciting and as purposeful as anything done by XTC, Oingo Boingo, Gary Numan, Adam Ant, The Fixx, or anyone else?  Is it fair to smile at Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio," but get pissed at Ian Anderson for wanting to accentuate smart lyrics with jagged vocals?  Just stay away from "Lap of Luxury" and "Under Wraps 1."  (The acoustic "Under Wraps 2" is very out of place on this record and very good.  It should have been on a 'best of' collection.)

Cheap Trick - The Doctor

If not for a co-worker from my first job, (everyone say 'hello' to David Lynn, Cheap Trick and KISS fan forever), I would definitely not have heard of this album or have ever delved back into this band's catalog.  Though horrified by the record at the time (as David was by Rush's Hold Your Fire), I quickly found value in individual parts.  The cover art was eye-catching enough for me as well as an odd title, but please don't listen to the song of the same name or you might be tempted to sail this record out the window at top speed!  Let's dwell on the nice parts and, as always, worthy melodies.  "Are You Lonely Tonight?" is such a melody.  And what seems like dated synth accents on the verses is also the very touch to suck you in.  (Craigie like!)  What is terribly dated is the repetitious "ro-ro-ro-ro" of "Romance in the Rearview Mirror."  A technique from the time, which used in a visual form was very new and fun, but was icky when used audibly.  They almost killed "Little Sister" from '85's Standing On The Edge the same way.  This album starts right, though, with the New Wave power of "It's Up To You" with it's thrilling deep/dark vocal line before it becomes a more typical tune.  Still, it has more melodic movement before it gets to the ok-I-guess title line.  But, even that is saved by a high Beatle bend ... "Take each and every day as if it was your last..."  The majority of songs on this album are not noteworthy for their verses, but for singable choruses.  I especially like "Man-u-lip-u-later" with the dirty sounding chorus, just the right touch of background singers too.  Also, I'm a sucker for what sounds like a Denny Laine style lead on "It's Only Love."  I'd prefer it ending Wings' Back To The Egg instead of "Baby's Request," that's for sure!  More singalong fun is found in the chorus for "Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)."  So, just stay away from "The Doctor," "Name of the Game," and "Kiss Me Red."

Not since the robotic excitement of "High Priest of Rhythmic Noise" and "I Want Be Man" (and the unexciting "Saturday At Midnight" and "Dancing The Night Away") had Cheap Trick dared to jeopardize their reputation as a straight-ahead rock band.  Surprising, as well, to do it after the arena rockin' Standing On The Edge and just before their commercial comeback with Lap Of Luxury featuring the return of original bassist Tom Petersson for exiting Jon Brant.

Neil Young - Landing On Water

Like Jethro Tull's Under Wraps, it'd be years before I became aware of this album since I never really thought of what Neil released after his Decade collection.  Everyone knows his famous solo years and earlier Buffalo Springfield tracks, but don't be shocked that diehard fans know nothing of, and want nothing to do with his New Wave era stuff.

All sorts of projects were moving under the radar for Neil in the 80's.  The most extreme being his association with Devo for the movie Human Highway and his Trans album of '82, (which is almost exclusively robot-rock with vocals so warped by effects that one can barely make-out the words.)  Until his wit got him noticed again in "This Note's For You," his only offering to the world that I knew of was the retro-50's "Cry, Cry, Cry" video.  But, unlike Trans from '82 and Life from '87 which one could buy only as pricey import CDs, Landing On Water (from '86) seemed to be available domestically.   Was this record a good seller?  I can't imagine who would have bought it.  It certainly wasn't as hard to take as Trans for the average listener.  But it definitely was still heavy on pop production.  '87's Life would be almost entirely organic, but still have a few moments to irk the typical Neil Young fan.  And, unlike the purposefully futuristic cover for Trans or the boring cover for Life, Landing On Water would have a very deceptively normal, but stark image of a plane on the ocean with life rafts deployed and featuring a close-up insert of one of the rafts with its occupants.  Easy to understand or puzzling?  Maybe both?  (By-the-way, the cover I'm describing is what would be both the front and back images on the vinyl album, but in the world of cassettes during the late-'80's, companies would make the cassette artwork become the combined image of both sides to help the buyers see what the idea was since they couldn't just flip the tape over to expect more imagery.)

Now, for those of you with no prejudice to 80's production, you will find a great song with powerful accents in rhythm leading this album off.  "Weight Of The World" is simple in message, but sets the tone right and in a big way.  I think "Weight.." was the single for the record and I've seen white label promo pressings too.  I sure didn't hear it on radio though.  I would love for this to be an '80's staple for him the way "Sleeping Bag" is for ZZ Top or "The Big Money" is for Rush.

Next up is "Violent Side."  A solid, but choir backed offering that makes you take notice when it gets to the break-down section coming back with a more impressive choral hit coupled with intensity from Neil's vocal.

Third is "Hippie Dream."  A great song that you hope will be about the pros and cons of what the title implies.  It is.  Great words and a nice, light touch of production to make a great track.

"Bad News Beat" is a bit of a cringer until the second section sucks you in.  Then you cool-out and enjoy the study time knowing there's enough there to make for interesting listening.

"Touch The Night" is like a classic heavy-70's Neil, but with choir again to pack some extra punch.  Would have made a good radio staple.

"People On The Street" doesn't deliver for me musically and "Hard Luck Stories" is a bit cute for such a topic.  Good luck surviving that chimey bell keyboard sound too!  Haven't heard such an intrusion upon a classic rocker since similar keyboard cheese killed George Harrison's Somewhere in England and Gone Troppo albums.

The last three songs remind you that Neil knows how to make his guitar a strong character in his audio assault.  "I Got A Problem" is oddly catchy.  A good one to sing when angry at the world.  "Drifter," a heavy-sounding song ends the album.  Between these two songs lies "Pressure," a great example of musical drive, lyrical purpose, and interesting vocal parts that are jarring, but singable, even if only in one's head.  I'm sure no one would pick it to sing on karaoke night, but it deserves the same interest as the mentally similar Billy Joel song of the same name.  Quite a little masterpiece of a song to me.  Also, nice to hear the line, "That's why you need Max Headroom."  A document to the t.v. show that tried to shake people up a bit in the right direction during 1986.

An odd choice of album to create overall, but between classic rock construction and a 'lil touch of the groundbreaking (and cheezy '80's), comes a welcome addition to my ever thirsting collection for '80's adventure from the last point in history that we actually had a new twist of pop-rock.

The Steve Miller Band - Italian X Rays

Ok, I'm not gonna tell you to go out and buy this record, but then again, I guess I'm asking you to check out all these records.  Not because they're masterpieces, but because they're unpredictable and interesting.  I think because of the abrupt end of the New Wave movement, I'd never again feel like I was being taken on a wonderful ride of sonic imagination.  But, this flawed record of '84 excites me to this day just knowing that, like Neil Young and Robert Plant, Steve Miller was gonna take a chance and put his neck on the chopping-block for a new direction.  An album so far removed from what a Steve Miller fan would expect that even Abracadabra seems a safe record by comparison.

As with all these albums of the mid '80's, the vibe is one of UK & Euro influences both in artwork and musical direction.  So, as soon as I saw the cover artwork, I was interested in a big way.  Great title and album art.  I was never one to feel involved in a record for seeing a guitar hero image on an album cover.  Case-in-point, Fly Like An Eagle.  Great record, uninspired cover.  But, who's to say a dated drawing of an eagle would have been a better choice.  Probably not.  Thankfully, Book Of Dreams didn't get saddled with such a cover.  Abracadabra also has a very cool cover, even if the songs don't match the imagery.

When I hear songs that I really like, I can forgive a lot.  I'm sure you're the same.  'Cause we're not gonna stop buying Rush because of "Mission" or not buy Paul McCartney because of "Ebony And Ivory," right?  Right!  So, let's see what this record has for us.

"Bongo Bongo" is the lead-off track and the single.  Believe it or not, this song got a lot of airplay at the time and also had video in heavy rotation too.  Somehow I knew this song would be forgotten over time, but I'm surprised that the video isn't showing up on any video collections.  Using the same cutting-edge techniques that we saw in Dire Straits "Money For Nothing" and Mick Jagger's "Hard Woman," this video has those computer graphics, but also live-action tastefully used in balance.  The song is bouncy and light, but edgy in its editing style and a bit twisted.  Cartoon twisted though, nothing to be afraid of.  And, although not deep in lyrical meaning, the song is infinitely more interesting than Don Henley's "All She Wants To Do Is Dance."  The problem is, as usual, an older generation artist gets too "out there" for his audience and his fate is sealed.  Actually, it's a wonder it got any radioplay at all, so I'll just enjoy the memory of a time when wacky became the norm for radio.

Having said all this, it's time to knock-the-rock.  The instrumental interludes are dead-time, but not useless, just very cartoony.  I actually only like five tracks on the album, but I like them more than most of his greatest hits.  "Bongo Bongo" being the first and the next two being the nice smooth-groove productions, "Italian X Rays" and "Out Of The Night."  The last two are very organic and could fit nicely on any of his albums.  "One In A Million", acoustic and sweet.  Perfect for any mellow occasion. And, lastly, "Golden Opportunity."  A very nice little pop song that could have made Abracadabra a better album.  Nice parts and good production.  This would have made a nice radio staple.  And, though I'm a lover of bitting lyrics, but there's no way I'm gonna knock an artist for wanting to make a statement the likes of greeting card positivity when the song has so much heart.  All the parts are there to delicately send the message to you.  Beautiful melody and singing.  Sharp, but caressing guitar and a classic guitar solo to end during the fade.  Having said all that, this song has never blown anyone away that I've played it for, so I guess it's just for me.  No problem, but my thanks to the band.

For one more dip into similar pop territory, check out his next offering, Living In The 20th Century ('86).  It has the standouts: "I Want To Make The World Turn Around", "Living In The 20th Century", and "Maelstrom".  The rest is back to blues, so I'm out.  But, if you just love, love, love white boys doin' the blues until their fingers forget how to do anything else, enjoy!  

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