Smiths Complete - Available at Rhino.coma-ha "Hunting High & Low" and "Scoundrel Days" Deluxe Editions Rhino Handmade raids the vault!

Monday, January 30, 2006

"pull up your socks, you’re the boy in the box / what did the rebel say?"

Oh, Corey Hart. You’re trying so hard to say something meaningful and deep here, but we’ll be damned if we know what you’re on about. Is it about James Dean, as you claimed in many an interview? Or is it just a bunch of random rhymes that sounded good at the time? ”the wolf cried ‘fox’ to the boy in the box…” Really? You’re gonna go with that one? Y’sure, hun? Okay.

A graduate of the Simon Le Bon School of Lyrics, Corey Hart began his questionably poetic career with the equally bewildering “Sunglasses at Night”. See, he wears ‘em in the dark so he can “weave and breathe your storyline”. Or something. While lyrically lacking, Hart could definitely whip up a hook, evidenced by “Sunglasses”, and his second album’s smash single “Never Surrender” (which kinda takes an Elmer Fudd sheen with his delivery, “nevah suwwendahhhhh!”).

Oh, Canada, so much to answer for...

After “Never Surrender” hit #3, the album’s title track, “Boy In The Box”, was up next, a dancey time capsule that sums up 1985 pretty neatly; obtuse lyrics, fake, compressed drums with a snare that sounds like someone spanking a thawed turkey with a ping pong paddle, and that annoying little orchestral sting that was in every third song released that year. The 12” version takes it to even more ludicrous levels. But ya know what?

I still like it. When the "one, two / you can't get enough" of the chorus hits, I'm right there.

”can you see me from outside? / can you hear me from outside?” Uh, no dude, you’re IN A BOX.

"Boy In The Box" is out of print, but Amazon has an import and used copies for sale.

”Boy In The Box” peaked at #26 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #19 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart.
posted by John, 12:40 PM | link |

Sunday, January 22, 2006

When New Wave Happens to Old Artists - Liza Minnelli

The year: 1989. The artist: Liza with a “z”. The idea: Bring Liza back into the present out of the standards ghetto she’d been reduced to by teaming her with the Pet Shop Boys, who would write, produce and play on her new album. The results: “Results”. The verdict?

Not half bad.

There are two stories floating around about how this project came to be – one has Liza’s then-current recording manager, none other than Kiss’s Gene Simmons, suggesting the collab. Another version has a Sony exec, quite probably Walter Yetnikoff, sparking the idea. In either case, it was one of those wild ideas that smacked of both desperation and inspiration – combine the most camp, gayest sensibilities of the Pet Shop Boys with the most camp, gayest icon short of her mother, Liza Minnelli.

“Results” was a mix of previously recorded Pet Shop Boys tunes like “Rent” and “Tonight Is Forever”, alongside some carefully selected covers (including a bewildering version of Tanita Tikaram’s “Twist In My Sobriety”) and new PSB material. Something in the songs must have breathed some life in ol’ Liza, since she toned down much of the histrionics that had plagued her delivery and actually emoted, giving the songs surprising depth. That didn’t mean the album was without its campy moments.

First single “Losing My Mind,” a Stephen Sondheim composition, seems almost unfair to put Liza through, considering her past. But luckily, Liza was in on the joke and delivered a winking performance like a champ. Dance clubs went nuts for it (imagine that), and Liza had a bona fide hit single – “Losing My Mind” peaked at #6 on the U.K. charts. U.S. radio, predictably, wanted nothing to do with it.

Now imagine Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford as a Disco Diva and you get the idea behind the album’s follow-up single, “Don’t Drop Bombs”. To wit:

I'd rather not have to hear about
Your other girls on your expense account
I know you carry on, behind my back
With your secretary, you'll have a heart attack

What’s not to love?

But as was noted earlier, it wasn’t all wink-wink nudge-nudge campy fun. The album has some honestly earnest moments, most notably “Love Pains,” a disco hit first made famous by Yvonne Elliman. It’s shocking to hear some actual grit in Liza’s voice, especially during the chorus – it’s a side she should have explored more, instead of marrying gay plastic surgery addicts and popping Xanax.

“Results” is pleasantly surprising. Don’t let the fact that it’s Liza Minnelli scare you off, especially if you’re a Pet Shop Boys fan. The album must have done okay since it’s not only still in print, but there's now a remastered version, complete with bonus remixes and a DVD of all the videos made to promote the album.

Score: Liza – 1, New Wave – 0. Decision, Liza.

Minnelli went on to record more standards, Broadway-ish things, but never returned to the pop charts. She did, however, earn major cool cred points by portraying Lucille 2 on "Arrested Development", the greatest sitcom since "Seinfeld". So for that, she gets major props.

”Losing My Mind” peaked at #11 on the Billboard Hot Dance Music Sales chart in 1989.
“Love Pains” peaked at #40 on the same chart the same year.
posted by John, 8:29 PM | link |

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"High is the risk of striking out, the risk of getting hurt…"

Taking a break from the New Wave casualties of the ’80s (and there are more to come), let’s get something truly decent and sadly Lost in the ‘80s…former Undertones lead singer Feargal Sharkey’s debut solo single, “A Good Heart.”

The Undertones scored a few UK hits from 1978 through their breakup in 1983, most notably “Teenage Kicks,” a song famously championed by the legendary DJ John Peel. After the band’s dissolution, Feargal provided the vocals for The Assembly’s “Never Never,” a one-off collaboration with Depeche Mode/Yaz/Erasure muso Vince Clarke. 1986 saw Feargal’s first proper solo album, a nicely produced affair with Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart. “A Good Heart” was a fine choice for a lead-off single, an excellent tune written by Lone Justice’s Maria McKee which nicely showcased Feargal’s soaring, warbly singing style. While “A Good Heart” topped the charts in the U.K., it sputtered in the States, an audience nearly completely ignorant of the Undertones and Feargal’s overseas chart pedigree. The follow-up single, “You Little Thief,” made even less a splash.

Sharkey went on to release one more album, 1988’s “Wish”. Since then, The Undertones have reformed and re-recorded without him and he’s been relatively quiet. Seems a good band these days is hard to find.

“A Good Heart” peaked at #74 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1986.

Feargal's two solo CDs are out of print, but you can find them used on Amazon(just be ready to pay big for the debut). However, the entire Undertones catalog is more readily available.
posted by John, 5:14 PM | link |

Monday, January 09, 2006

Living On Video

How could I have possibly missed this?

Captain Video breaks down your favorite and not so favorite videos from the '80s in hilarious detail.
posted by John, 2:38 PM | link |

Sunday, January 08, 2006

When New Wave Happens to Old Artists - Steve Miller Band

Okay, this one might sting a bit.

The Steve Miller Band was riding high after the huge success of 1982’s “Abracadabra” LP and single – the single was just about the biggest hit of that year and the album followed suit, peaking at #3. The secret of “Abracadabra’s” success was pretty simple – take a basic, catchy Steve Miller tune (not altogether different from “Swingtown”, really), add some current synth and production touches to keep it fresh and bam!, there’s your smash. Was it telling, though, that the album was unable to produce one Top 40 follow-up single, even with “Abracadabra’s” momentum? Hmmm…

oh dear god

We got our answer in 1984, with the release of “Italian X-Rays”. Now there are plenty of examples in pop history of an artist losing the plot, but boy, this is a prime example of one not only losing it, but intentionally taking it, digging a 12 foot hole in the ground, tossing said plot inside, filling the hole with cement and covering any tell-tale signs of the deed with sod. So, what happened? Only Steve can tell us for sure, but it sounds like someone along the line, whether it was the band or their record label, decided the new wave touches that made “Abracadabra” a smash should be expanded and layered to ridiculous levels. If a little worked a lot, then a lot would work…well, not at all.

The terror began with the album’s first single, “Shangri-La”. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad. Truth be told, I kinda like “Shangri-La”. You have a funky bassline, a catchy call and response vocal melody (even if it is unintentionally hilarious when the backing vocals sing “Celebrate” with absolutely zero enthusiasm), and hey, cowbell! But I can only imagine old school Steve Miller fans standing mortified, mouths agape when they first heard this. It was too radical a sound shift for old fan, too muted and wrapped in that Steve Miller laid-back style for the new wave fan. Just who was supposed to enjoy this?

If long-time Steve Miller fans were simply appalled at “Shangri-La”, I’d love to have an old Beta tape of their reactions to the follow-up single, “Bongo Bongo”. Oh, “Bongo, Bongo”…where to begin? This song was notorious in my little group in high school because it was just so god-awful and gimmicky, and yet you simply could not get it out of your head after you heard it. I’m warning you now, if you download and listen to it (get past the annoying and unnecessary 30-second keyboard intro), you will spend the rest of your day walking around singing “ba-ba-ba-bongo bongo” and looking like a moron. File this one under “What Were They Thinking/Snorting?”.

“Italian X-Rays” did some damage. The Steve Miller Band never returned to the Top 40 and it took a few albums and a highly publicized “return to blues roots” album before Steve regained a fraction of his old fans. New Wave is a bitter mistress. She can bring you joy and equal amounts of pain.

Ba-ba-ba-Bongo Bongo.

”Shangri-La” peaked at #57 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1984.
“Bongo Bongo” peaked at #84 on the Hot 100 that same year.

A label called Eagle Records had the courage to re-master and re-release this in 2005.
posted by John, 3:32 PM | link |

Monday, January 02, 2006

When New Wave Happens to Older Artists – Donna Summer

Things weren’t really happening for Donna Summer in 1980. The Queen of Disco and the sound she and producer Giorgio Morodor ushered in had fallen out of favor, replaced by New Wave, which was basically disco (four on the floor beat, off-beat open high-hat, lyrics about sex) with a dumbed-down punk aesthetic and major label approved moniker. Donna had also left her longtime label, Casablanca Records, to become one of the flagship artists (along with John Lennon) for a new start-up helmed by a guy named David Geffen.

So to say it was a considerable gamble for Summer to embrace New Wave and release “The Wanderer” on a new label isn’t entirely true. “Considerable gamble” implies there’s a lot to lose, and let’s be honest, at this point, Donna had enough riches and chart showings to keep her set for a while. It was a pleasant surprise when the title track became a Top 3 hit – it looked like Donna just might shake off the disco tag and move along with the times. All it would take is a couple more strong singles off the album…

“Cold Love” was the follow-up to “The Wanderer,” a straight-ahead rock track with a little bubbling synthline underneath to give it that New Wave sheen. “Cold Love” had a lot going for it – a strong, riffy start, a hooky verse, an always-terrific vocal (one thing that was a slam-dunk for any Summer song, no matter how weak) – all it was missing was a chorus.

Okay, so it had a chorus: ”Cold love / cold love / another shot of rock & roll love”. Fine. I guess the rest of the song was so strong, this chorus just came off a little weak and “Cold Love’s” chart showing ultimately reflected this. On to single #3, then.

“Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’” is okay, not as strong as “Cold Love” and certainly nowhere near as catchy as “The Wanderer”, yet it was still able to struggle into the lower reaches of the Top 40 (#40, to be exact – hey, it’s Top 40!). Lyrically, it treads the same ‘ol, same ‘ol, how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, the only true riches are found within yourself, blah blah. I’m actually surprised this single did as well as it did – it’s nothing too special.

Summer continued to notch chart hits thru the rest of the 80s, hitting the Top Ten with “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)”, “She Works Hard For The Money”, and her return to straight-ahead disco (err, sorry, “dance music”), “This Time I Know It’s For Real”. She continues to tour and record, scoring dance hits, including her recent Top 5 dance hit, “I Got Your Love”, so her dalliance in New Wave didn’t do any lasting damage, and was probably the first step in showing her range and versatility.

Not every older artist who dabbled in New Wave could say the same, however…stay tuned…

”Cold Love” peaked at #33 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart in 1981.
“Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’” peaked at #40 on the same chart in 1981.

"The Wanderer" is currently out of print, but you can find used copies on Amazon.
posted by John, 3:49 PM | link |