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

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

When Old Artists Go New Wave - Carly Simon

After years of singer/songwriter musings, several albums and hit singles for Elektra Records, Carly Simon changed paths in the early '80s, signing to Warner Brothers Records. Her first album for the label, Come Upstairs had a faintly New Wave tinge, as Simon flirted with power pop, scoring an old-school Carly hit in the process with the sublime low self-esteem anthem "Jesse". She then worked with Chic on an intriguing single for the Soup For One soundtrack called "Why" that hit big overseas and in dance clubs Stateside. But following that with an album of standards (Torch) and the stylistic retreat of Hello Big Man didn't help her saleswise, so by 1985, Carly was shopping around for a new label.

Signing with Epic, Simon released Spoiled Girl, a jarring artistic shift, one of those musical face lifts that had the potential to end up less Jane Seymour and more Jocelyn Wildenstein. Epic wanted Simon to compete with the Madonnas of the pop world, so they surrounded her with synths, drum machines and producers...eight of them, including New Wave/Electro pioneer Arthur Baker, no less. Baker remixed the album's first single, the unintentionally campy "Tired Of Being Blonde", a strange yet catchy anthem over-produced to the point of a Linn Drum spilling out of the speakers. "Blonde" came in a nice, chart-ready package, complete with the standard "what the hell?" video as was de rigeur for 1985 (directed by Jeremy Irons, no less):

So, um...the protagonist escapes from her rich, controlling lover by jumping on board a spaceship? Huh, wha?

"Tired Of Being Blonde" did little more than perplex people, stuttering in the lower reaches of the charts. Epic didn't give up, and issued the slightly more Carly "My New Boyfriend" as a second single. A fun song, "My New Boyfriend" combined the New Wave elements with a more traditional Carly Simon sound much more successfully, but even with yet another bewildering video featuring Carly as a white jungle goddess hopping around a campfire (...really?), chart action was not meant to be:

Spoiled Girl isn't a bad album at all, really, just a bit dated and misguided. There are flashes of brilliance, particularly on "The Wives Are In Connecticut", probably the most "traditional" Carly Simon song on the set. Tellingly, it's also the song from the album most likely to show up on the countless Simon compilations since. Two years and yet another new label later, Simon regained her Adult Contemporary/Pop throne with Coming Around Again, her biggest album since 1978's Boys In The Trees, effectively shutting the door on her New Wave experimentation for good.

"Tired Of Being Blonde" peaked at #70 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 1985.
"My New Boyfriend" did not chart.

Get Carly Simon music, including the still-in-print Spoiled Girl, at Amazon or on Carly Simon

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posted by John, 4:19 PM | link |

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"Yeah, life goes on around me every day / But it might as well be half a million miles away"

The '80s started off pretty rocky for Rockford, Illinois power-pop combo Cheap Trick. After watching their first chart entry of the decade, "Voices", struggle to #32 on the charts, the band stood by helplessly as single after single faltered just outside the Top 40. Just look at the trail of tears:

• "Everything Works If You Let It" - #44, 1980
• "Stop This Game" - #48, 1980
• "If You Want My Love" - #45, 1982
• "She's Tight" - #65, 1982
• "Tonight It's You" - #44, 1985

Each near-miss had to be frustrating for not only the band, but also for their long-time label, Epic. By 1988, something had to give. Cheap Trick, meet your new songwriters, Bob Mitchell and Nick Graham. They've got a little ditty for you called "The Flame" that just smells like a hit.

No, no, I said it smells like a hit. HIT!

Cheap shots aside, "The Flame" did just what was intended, and that's get Cheap Trick back in the charts and in the public eye. After peaking at #1, its follow-up, the equally dire remake of "Don't Be Cruel", continued the hot streak, topping out at #4. The band proved its hit-making skills with covers, so perhaps it was time to showcase their own writing skills with the next single. Sorta.

Now, quite a few people are under the impression that super-ballad writer Diane Warren was responsible for "The Flame", but she actually co-wrote, along with Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, Lap of Luxury's third single. "Ghost Town" was a much more acceptable artistic compromise than the overwrought "Flame", nicely showcasing Robin Zander's throaty delivery while keeping the schmaltz at a minimum.

Sadly, "Ghost Town" didn't wow 'em the way the last two singles did, just making the Top 40. Epic worked a couple more singles off Luxury, but neither made an impact. Two albums later, the band parted ways with Epic, skipping around a few labels before starting their own. But if you think that meant artistic freedom without compromise, let me remind you that 2006's Rockford featured a lead-off single co-written by another songwriting machine, Linda Perry. Gotta pay those bills.

"Ghost Town" peaked at #33 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at #32 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks Chart in 1988.

Get Cheap Trick music at Amazon or on Cheap Trick

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posted by John, 4:22 PM | link |

Friday, October 12, 2007

"well, I was born in a house with the television always on"

Speaking of Talking Heads...

The band reconvened in 1986 to record a sort of soundtrack for David Byrne's directorial debut, True Stories. I say "sort of", since the album mostly consisted of the Heads covering versions of songs from the film, but in the movie they were actually performed by the actors. Only three songs from the soundtrack were performed by the band in the movie - "City of Dreams", the album's big hit, "Wild Wild Life" and the opener, "Love For Sale".

A recitation of commercial catchphrases set to a driving beat, "Love For Sale" was also the album's second single, showcasing a more rocking Heads than we'd heard in quite a few years. The song is built around a stinging guitar hook, not exactly what the group was best known for, which may be way it fared so poorly. Also, the commercial taglines as romantic come-on may seem clever at first until one asks, what exactly is Byrne's point? Is it an indictment of commercial culture? No, he never gets there. Is it just a random idea that is funny at first but doesn't hold up under closer scrutiny, like the last five seasons of Friends? Probably. To be fair, the song works in the context of the movie, as it's immediately followed by a commercial where John Goodman's character advertises for a wife.

The video is a hoot, though, successfully marrying clips from real commercials with footage of the band inserted. As far as the movie goes, the promo was featured in a sequence where Swoozie Kurtz's bed-bound TV addict watches it while flipping aimlessly through channels as an automated machine feeds her.

While True Stories the film is a little too Big City Art Types Look At the Country Bumpkins For Amusement, the "Love For Sale" sequence is worth seeing just to hear the Edith Massey-like non-sequiturs Kurtz's character mutters as she watches the video, such as "kissin' cookie!" and my favorite as the band is drenched in melted chocolate, "...LOVE chocolate!"

"Love For Sale" did not chart.

Get Talking Heads music on Amazon or on Talking Heads

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posted by John, 2:52 PM | link |

Thursday, October 04, 2007

"'How are you' says I / 'Just cool' says he"

25 years ago, no one expected a little side project from the bassist and drummer of art-rock/New Wave combo Talking Heads to be much of a hit, much less become a touchstone in dance music, or be sampled over and over. But that's exactly what happened to Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth's debut Tom Tom Club album and its immortal party single, "Genius of Love". It may seem strange now but keep in mind, when the first Tom Tom Club album was released in 1982 Talking Heads had one minor mainstream hit under their belts and were still considered avant garde. Tom Tom Club's success was significant since they topped the dance charts, crossed over to Top 40 and watched their disc go gold. A year later, the Heads would release Speaking In Tongues, go platinum and lose the cult band tag - I think the mainstream success Tom Tom Club enjoyed had a lot to do with that.

Of course that same year, Tom Tom Club had to follow up that breakthrough, which they did with Close To The Bone and its leadoff single, "The Man With The 4-Way Hips". A huge dance hit, "Hips" was very similar to what the Heads were doing at that time, but with shinier synths and more fun. Unfortunately, it didn't translate into another Top 40 hit. And is it me, or does New Order's "Perfect Kiss" begin the same exact way ("Kiss" was released in 1985)?

The album's second single, "Pleasure Of Love" was much better, mining a lot of the same ground as "Genius of Love", but I actually like "Pleasure's" melody and verse structure a bit more. It didn't hurt that it came accompanied with a brilliantly animated video, much like the clip for "Genius of Love" - the famous "oopsza mamma" dog even returns:

MTV played the hell out of that clip, but again, Top 40 wasn't interested. Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club both continued to release albums, the Heads to more and more success, but Tom Tom Club would never reach the heights of their debut again. Close To The Bone has yet to be released on CD. Meanwhile, Chris & Tina continue to bring out Club projects every few years, even touring in the early '90s and around 2001. I'd love to see David Byrne remove the stick from his ass, reunite with the Heads for a massive tour with Tom Tom Club as openers. How hot would that be?

"The Man With The 4-Way Hips" peaked at #106 on the Billboard Bubbling Under Chart and at #4 on the Billboard Club Play Singles Chart in 1983.
"Pleasure of Love" peaked at #23 on the Club Play Chart that same year.

And I can't let this post go without sharing this performance of "Wordy Rappinghood" from an Italian Top of Pops-like show - check out Tina just sitting at the back of the stage, just chillin':

Get Tom Tom Club music at Amazon or on Tom Tom Club

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posted by John, 3:25 PM | link |

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"Time to hit the highway / nothing left to do / but it feels like my shoes have been Krazy Glued"

A funny thing happened to Todd Rundgren in the '80s - his commercial solo work get progressively more experimental and inaccessible, while Utopia, formerly his outlet for his more prog-rock, spacey forays, became more and more mainstream.

In 1982, Utopia jumped the New Wave train and released a self-titled three-sided (!) album, complete with a snazzy 1982 wardrobe and an MTV video hit with "Feet Don't Fail Me Now", which presented the Rundrgren-led quartet as cuddly insects:

MTV embraced the clip, playing it death, but the music channel was still too young to fully break a single yet (that would change very soon and very quickly), and "Feet" failed to step up the charts. No? Trying too hard? Sorry. Anyway, the single is a catchy one, almost a sea shanty, and should have charted at least higher than a wimpy #82.

Two years later, Utopia stormed MTV again with the video for "Crybaby", and a new album, Oblivion, on a new independent label, Passport. Again, a great, post-apocalyptic video saw near-constant play and with a strong song behind it, it looked like Todd's side project might have a big hit on its hands:

But again, mainstream chart success eluded Utopia.

Meanwhile, Todd continued his solo work, but in more experimental areas, with the exception of a then-minor chart hit in 1983 (The Best Year for Music Ever!) called "Bang the Drum All Day". While "Bang" peaked at #63, you've probably heard it at least once this week, most likely Friday at 5 p.m. Rundgren continued to experiment with synths, drum machines and sampling, to the point that in 1985, he released A Capella, a strange little album featuring absolutely no instruments, save Todd's electronically enhanced voice. Every sound - drums, keys, bass - was actually made from Rundgren's vocals. Again, MTV responded by playing the single, "Something To Fall Back On", a neat little ode to being a back-up boyfriend. Look quickly at the beginning for a glimpse of some vintage Martha Quinn!

Once more, despite MTV support and an early use of computer graphics, the video wasn't enough to interest radio in the single and Todd missed a hit again. Don't cry for Todd Rundgren, though...not only did he have huge hits such as "Hello, It's Me" in the early '70s, he moved into production, helming XTC's Skylarking and the Psychedelic Furs' Forever Now. He also produced Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell LP, so he can never work and spend a gajillion dollars a day for the next 50 years if he wants.

"Feet Don't Fail Me Now" peaked at #82 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 1983.
"Crybaby" and "Something To Fall Back On" did not chart.

Get Todd Rundgren music at Amazon or on Todd Rundgren

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posted by John, 12:30 PM | link |