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

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Things That Dreams Are Made Of

Question: You’re the lead singer and lyricist of an up and coming underground synth-based band. You’ve just lost your songwriter and main keyboardist to an ego clash. You’re left with no one but the man who runs the slide projector during your live shows. What do you do?

If you answered “immediately go clubbing and hire two teenaged girls you see dancing as your new band members,” collect your smash platinum album and worldwide number one hit. But perhaps we should start at the beginning…

The Human League began life as an overly-arty, all-synth, anti-rock manifesto, brash in its rejection of all the trappings of “rock and roll”, eschewing the typical four-piece combo of bass, drums and two guitars in exchange for a reel-to-reel tape deck, two wobbly synthesizers and a slide projector. There were fewer more radical notions in 1977 than going onstage and boldly pressing “Play” on a tape deck to cue the drums that began your live show. It was a demonstration of wholesale rejection of what people expected from a concert, probably the most punk move made since “gabba gabba hey” was first uttered.

As word spread and crowds began to come ‘round, the League made some baby steps towards the mainstream. This came in the form of cover songs, the glammier and more popular, the better. A standout from the early League days was a medley of Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll, Part 1” and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing”. Combining these two disparate tunes was a statement in and of itself, the populist football cheer and the jaded heroine-fueled club tune…quite summing up the League itself.

Word spread. Crowds grew bigger. Egos clashed. Martyn and Ian left, taking the songwriting with them, leaving lead singer Phil Oakey with nothing but his talent for melody and provocative, sometimes austere lyrics. Oh yeah, and Philip Adrian Wright, the slide projectionist. The League had a European tour scheduled in two weeks time and pulling out meant financial ruin. Something had to be done, and quickly.

So, Oakey went clubbing, found the girls, recruited new synthkids Ian Burden and Jo Callis, and even taught Wright the famous single-finger keyboard technique. Then together, they made pop history.

The Human League Mark II

Don’t get me started on the resulting album, Dare. I could go on and on about that LP, how it’s nearly the most perfect pop album made, how it broke ground by being the first all-synth LP to hit number one and result in Top 40 hits, how it’s to this day still as fresh and vital as it was in 1981. Like I said, don’t get me started on Dare. And since Dare featured that song, it can’t be quite considered “Lost in the ‘80s”…after all, millions bought and heard it.

The follow-ups, however…

Dare was a hard thing to match. When you hit near-perfection, where do you go? The League Mark II had some luck with their next follow-up singles, “Mirror Man” and “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.” But when it came album time, severe writer’s block set in. This set a pattern that continued through most of their recording career; incredible singles surrounded by sub-par and sometimes even cringe-worthy tracks.

Three years after Dare, the group finally delivered Hysteria. The album is disjointed to say the least, with some real gems like “I’m Coming Back,” “So Hurt,” and “Betrayed” successfully recreating some of the chromeo-pop majesty, alongside things like a remake of James Brown’s “Rock Me Again and Again and Again and Again and Again and Again (Six Times),” which was as truly awful as it sounds. For the lead-off single, they chose “The Lebanon,” a song that instantly betrayed the League’s mission statement – it featured guitar, front and center.


“Hysteria’s” second single, while not making any big noise chart-wise, was noticeably more listenable. “Life On Your Own” is a sparse, desolate sounding track, nicely bringing home the point of the song’s narrative. It also manages to accomplish the neat trick of being Motown-ish while using no acoustic instruments. Try pulling that one off sometime. While “Life” charted a respectable #16 in the UK, it failed to chart at all in the States.

Now, how do you follow-up a flop follow-up? In the League’s case, it involved a lot of hand-wringing, internal squabbling and what may have sounded at the time to be an inspired decision to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who were just leaving The Time for a production career. They needed a crossover pop band to work with and the League needed a hit. Badly. Thanks to Jam & Lewis, they got one. “Human” sailed to Number One worldwide and made the League viable again.

Then came the album.

Crash couldn’t have been more aptly named, to go for the completely obvious joke. It seems as if the League put themselves completely in the hands of Jam & Lewis, who had no idea what to do with them. The magic of the League was that they were perhaps the least funky, whitest band on the planet, and that exact mechanical nature, that very lack of funk, made them in fact quite funky. Kids breakdanced to drum loops pulled from “The Things That Dreams Were Made Of” and “Hard Times”. They did not dance at all to the horrific, forced-funk of “I Need Your Lovin’,” perhaps the worst song the League ever recorded (and it took SIX people, including Jam & Lewis, to write it).

But, like all Human League records, there’s at least one hidden gem. Crash’s came in the form of “Love On the Run,” another Motown-inspired song that mirrored “Mirror Man” and is an instance of what the Jam & Lewis/League teaming could have been. On this song, the producers do what was previously impossible…they pull an emotive performance out of Mr. Roboto himself, Oakey. It’s also, unsurprisingly, one of the few tunes on the album actually written by the League (though it should be noted, they didn’t write “Human”). Naturally, when it came time for a follow-up to “Human’s” massive success, the song chosen? “I Need Your Lovin’.” Ugh.

It took mere months for America’s cutout bins to be filled with copies of Crash.

Since then, the League have been fairly consistent…put out an album every five years or so, get one Top 40 hit off it, have the record company pick a horrid follow-up, repeat. In 2001, the League broke this streak by releasing Secrets, an excellent album from front to back, easily their best since Dare 20 years earlier. Reviews were stellar, appetites were whetted, and a killer first single, “All I Ever Wanted,” was chosen.

Weeks after the album’s release, their new record company went bankrupt.

Give them a year or so. They’re due for another hit.

All three singles failed to chart.

Learn more about the Human League at the totally tubular Secrets Online.

Get Human League music at Amazon or on The Human League


posted by John, 8:57 AM | link |

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Frankie Say...No More

It was tough being one of two Frankie Goes to Hollywood fans in my suburban/rural Ohio hometown in 1985.

The popular musical force at Elyria West High School was hair metal. The slicker and hookier, the better. Iron Maiden, Metallica and W.A.S.P. had their fans, but Def Leppard, Dokken and Bon Jovi ruled the Art class airwaves. Whenever I would bring my Walkman cassette player and mini speakers to play Echo & the Bunnymen or R.E.M., there would be a near riot from anyone working at a table near mine. Even though we were all art students, these kids hated this music. They especially hated anything by The Smiths and their most popular target of derision, Frankie. You see, while the favorite insult of choice for this type of music was “That shit’s gay,” in Frankie’s case, it really was.

And that was much scarier to a teenager, including myself, than any Blackie Lawless lyric.


I was insane for Frankie’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink Trevor Horn production, beefy bass, Holly Johnson’s croon, Paul Rutherford’s butt. And the gestating marketing geek in me loved the S&M-tinged, dangerous image, from the single sleeves to the jockstrap-wearing photo sessions.

For a closeted gay teen, Frankie were a godsend. Granted, they weren’t the best of role models, but at least they were honest about who they were…to a point. Much of what they did and said were part of a marketing construct by their label, ZZT, which flooded the market with press releases, oodles of remixes and variants, and yes, “Frankie Say” t-shirts.

I proudly ordered by airmail the “Frankie Say War No More” t-shirt, since the “Relax” one was too obvious. I proudly wore that t-shirt to school at least once a week in late ’84-early ’85, where the reaction was either “What the heck does that mean?” to “Who’s Frankie?”

Imagine my horror months later when “Relax” finally hit the top ten after floundering first, and Spencer’s Gifts helped flood the school hallways with bootleg Frankie shirts. People who just a few short weeks ago mocked my favorite band were now suddenly cool with it all. It was my first taste of indie scorn. I never wore my original Frankie shirt again.

Besides, “Relax” was old news to me. I had already moved on to “Two Tribes” (“Are we living in a land / where sex and horror / are the new gods?” Well, duh.) and the current single “Welcome to the Pleasuredome.” I remember rushing to Midway Mall and Camelot Music every Friday to see the new Billboard Hot 100 posted, tracking the movement of each single, thinking Top 40 status would finally confirm my position as Elyria West High’s musical tastemaker.

“Two Tribes” petered (heh) out at #43, while “Pleasuredome” only got to #48.

Undeterred, I continued to champion Frankie as more than a one-hit wonder. My best gal-pal Tricia and I even lied to our parents to see the band play during their first American club tour, stopping at the grimy old Variety Theater in Lakewood, playing to a crowd of leathermen, drag queens, new wave kids and jaded punks. It was a wild show, much raunchier and more fun than their second pass through after “Relax” hit, this time at the larger Music Hall where Belouis Some opened and Frankie played as teen idols, rather than gay underground renegades. The thrill was gone.

When the second Frankie album Liverpool was finally released after much hand-wringing two years later, it was almost an afterthought. I was excited to see how they could follow up their epic double-LP debut, but when I heard Trevor Horn was only “executive producing,” I feared the worst.

Well, it wasn’t horrible. But it wasn’t all at that great, either. I think the band/producer got a little creatively paralyzed at the prospect of following up such a massive debut, so they played it a little too safe. First single “Rage Hard” merely repeats the “Relax” throb and vibe, complete with double-entendre title, only to become somewhat forgettable. After that flopped, the second single “Warriors of the Wasteland” aped “Two Tribes,” even lyrically. Another flop.

The last stab at a hit, though, ended up being the best song on the album. “Watching the Wildlife” was different than anything Frankie had done. It was almost a straight-ahead pop hit, even reminiscent of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. It had a horn section, a break down, an oddly prescient swing part, verses, a chorus, everything Frankie songs normally lacked. It didn’t even chart.

Soon after, Frankie disintegrated. Holly Johnson had a few solo hits in the UK, and even Paul Rutherford put out an album with a surprisingly pleasing single called “Oh, World” that got some club attention. But until an almost reunion courtesy of VH1’s “Bands Reunited” last year, Frankie has said no more.

I’d kill to have that old shirt now.

”Rage Hard” peaked at #42 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Music/Maxi Singles Sales Chart.
“Watching the Wildlife” did not chart.


posted by John, 10:25 AM | link |

Monday, January 14, 2008

I'll Show You Something Special...or not.

Sometimes you go through your old albums and run across one that leaves you scratching your head, wondering “why did I buy this?” This happened to me the other day when I stumbled upon my vinyl copy of Balaam and the Angel’s “Live Free or Die,” released in 1987.


I can vaguely remember being introduced to Balaam via my metal-loving fellow Wendy’s employee friend Tony, who I talk about in length, here (part two is coming someday, I swear). Tony knew I didn’t care much for metal, but figured with my new wave/goth/alt. leanings, Balaam might be right up my alley.

Admittedly, they did carry some Cult-isms about themselves and wrote some catchy little melodies. I remember shocking Tony when I mentioned that the single, “I Love the Things You Do To Me,” sorta sounded like the Replacements. In fact, in retrospect it sounds like something off of “Don’t Tell A Soul,” a Replacements album that wouldn’t come out for another two years. Tony didn’t see it that way at all…after all, the Replacements “sucked hard” and this “rocked.” Okay, then.

I recall liking this quite a bit at the time, but I’m hard-pressed to explain why now. It’s really not that good, outside of the two singles posted here. Some of it dovetails into completely banal pseudo-pop metal a la Poison, complete with “oh, yeah”s and “uh!”s, but wrapped in a semi-pretentious goth sheen. It was also mastered VERY. LOUDLY. so even if you had the volume fairly low, you had to turn it down even lower to make anything out besides sonic sludge. However…

…Balaam did hit two homers with the singles. Both are more power pop than anything else, goth, metal or otherwise. Lyrically, meh, but your toes’ll tap a bit. This was one of the first albums I ever bought in the CD format, but that CD has been long lost in one of my several moves since 1987, so I grabbed these tunes off my still-virginish vinyl (and yes, they were on Virgin).

Balaam had an album and an EP before this release, and a couple of LPs since, but I’ll be damned if I ever heard ‘em.

Find out more about Balaam & the Angel at Balaam & the

”Live Free or Die” peaked at #174 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart.
Neither single charted.

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posted by John, 8:55 AM | link |

Monday, January 07, 2008

"...even the muggers are off the streets by eight..."

Once upon a time, Bob Geldof was an asshole, and infinitely more interesting.

I’m using the term “asshole” in the most complimentary, and admittedly, inflammatory fashion here. Geldof, alongside the sadly neglected Johnnie Fingers (keys), Garry Roberts (guitar), Gerry Cott (more guitar), Pete Briquette (bass), and Simon Crowe (drums) formed the Boomtown Rats, spitting out Springsteenish observations with just enough wit and bile to tag them as “post-punk” or “new wave,” although those genres limited what they were actually doing. Geldof and the band were not afraid to hold a sardonic, snappish and sometimes sad mirror up to what was going down in Ireland as well as the world, and as a result, came off as brash, bratty, good ol’ assholes.

At first.


After scoring quite a few hits in the UK, including a number one with “Rat Trap” (a song I can’t take because it’s so Springsteen-by-the-numbers, right down to the faux Clarence Clemons sax solo), the Rats set their sights on America. While on a U.S. radio tour promoting their second LP “A Tonic for the Troops”, the news came over the wire about a school shooting in suburban San Diego. When asked why she did it, the teenaged female shooter simply shrugged, “I don’t like Mondays.”

The Rats had their first taste of American airplay and chart success with the resulting single. Make that “some” airplay and chart success, since a boycott over the tastefulness or lack thereof of said single impeded the song’s chances. Since then, it’s become one of those songs, like Modern English’s “I Melt With You,” whose legend has grown over the years in comparison to its actual chart standing and popularity during its release. A retroactive classic.

After that, things were pretty quiet stateside, save for some college radio heat and a few videos on light rotation on MTV, including one that most Americans associate with the Boomtown Rats, “Up All Night.”

“Up All Night” had a strange, circuitous route of release. It was left off non-U.S. and Canadian versions of “Mondo Bongo”, the Rat’s fourth album. Besides getting this track on its version of that album, North America also got it via the “Rat Trax” EP, plus a 7” single. Everyone else had to wait for the Rats’ next album, “V Deep” to hear it, and even then it via a radically different version than what we in the states got to hear. “Up All Night” was not chosen as a single for the UK, that distinction going to the epic “Never In a Million Years.” This explains why it’s left off the recent “Best of the Boomtown Rats” compilation…everywhere else but here, it was merely an album track.

The U.S. album and single version of “Up All Night” is stripped down to drums and bass, with some guitar and keys thrown in, almost a dub version, tailor-made for 1983 dancefloors, where it scored quite well. If this is the version you’re used to hearing (and seeing, via the video), the UK version, which is much more of a straight-ahead new wave rock song, is quite startling but still excellent. This ability to change gears musically carried over to all their mostly excellent albums, where you'd find a rock song going into a deep dub reggae song, then a dancey tune, genres be damned.

A similar thing happened with the lead single off the Rats’ final album “In the Long Grass”. A poignant song about helping a grieving friend through depression, “Dave” got completely misunderstood by some coward at the Rats’ American record company and as a result, had the lyrics completely rewritten and re-titled “Rain.” Again, this is the version most of North America is familiar with, since it also had a video that got some MTV play, to no avail. “In the Long Grass” was dead on arrival, even after the record company left it on the shelf until after Band Aid and Live Aid, and then released it, hoping to capitalize on Geldof’s higher profile.

Oh, yes. Live Aid. Band Aid. Saint Bob. Bono. Ethopia. Good deeds. Rats breakup. Horrible solo albums. Affairs. Tabloids. Boring.

But today is a great time to be a Boomtown Rats fan. Their entire catalog has been reissued, and it sounds spectacular. There’s also a live DVD of a vintage 1982 concert out now. Now’s the time to rediscover this music, so criminally out of print for nearly 15 years.

I mean, not to dismiss all the good you’ve done man, but we liked you more as an asshole, Bob.

"I Don't Like Mondays" peaked at #73 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
"Up All Night/Elephant's Graveyard" peaked at #54 as a double A-side 12" on the Billboard Club Play chart.
"Rain" did not chart.

Buy the re-issues from The Boomtown Rats.

Find out more about the Boomtown Rats at Boomtown


posted by John, 11:53 AM | link |

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

LIT80s Classic - Kim Wilde

Originally presented on February 18, 2005.

Welcome to Lost in the ‘80s. Here’s where you’ll find the other side of all the big hits you remember…the failed follow-ups to the one-hit wonders, the album tracks that got significant airplay in some parts of the country/world but ignored in others, and the songs MTV may have played to death but never translated into sales or chart action…songs that didn’t deserve to be forgotten…songs that got Lost in the ‘80s.

With the blog’s mission statement out of the way, I must admit a fair amount of hand-wringing went into picking what song with which to debut the new blog. The song had to represent all aspects of the mission statement in a big way. After stewing it over, I narrowed it down to two songs – two songs that represented completely different musical eras that belonged to the ‘80s, New Wave and Hi-NRG, two songs that were failed follow-ups to a major hit, yet didn’t deserve to be Lost in the ‘80s.

It was by chance that both songs happened to be by the same artist – Kim Wilde.


Long before Joseph Simpson creeped everyone out by pimping out his daughters Jessica and Ashlee, father Marty and brother Ricki brought Kim Wilde into the pop world, writing and masterminding her material, while Mom Wilde played manager. They hit paydirt right out of the gate, unleashing the imminently catchy “Kids in America,” which climbed the charts worldwide. “Kids in America” remains a classic pop song, one of my top ten picks for single of the ‘80s, still vital and energizing to today’s ears. Don’t believe me? Put it on in a club…any club…and watch the crowd react.

When it came time for a follow-up, the Wildes had plenty of hummable tunes to choose from, since Kim’s debut disc was packed with them. “Chequered Love” was the pick, a hyperkinetic, very much of its time new wave stomper, perfect for the 1982 airwaves. “Chequered Love” was a hit everywhere “Kids in America” hit, peaking in the mid-teens and top tens of pop charts worldwide…

…except for the kids in America.

In the U.S. “Chequered Love” stalled immediately upon release. A third attempt at a U.S. single, “Water on Glass” fared a little better, scraping the bottom of Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. But save for a campy, fun-to-look-at video which MTV played a few times, the hooked-filled “Chequered Love” got Lost in the ‘80s, and Kim Wilde became a one-hit wonder.

Two years later, after a few more worldwide hit singles, the Wildes and MCA, Kim’s new American label, tried to break the U.S. again, this time jettisoning Kim’s appealing new wave sound and image and replacing it with a sound that positively dripped with every sad excess that permeated Top 40 radio in 1984. “The Second Time” (renamed “Go For It” for its U.S. release, for reasons that are self-evident at first listen) was Big ‘80s all the way, from its Trevor Horn/Frankie Goes to Hollywood deep bass-popping sound, to the blasting synth horns, booming drums and bombastic background singers screaming along the chorus with Kim. And good golly, just exactly what did Kim want her man to do for a second time…? Let’s check the lyrics:

I’m never letting go - baby don’t expect me to
How can you stop when my whole world’s exploding
Look in the mirrors - and see the heat of something new
Why don’t we do it - just do it once again

There’s such an urgency in everything I need from you
Stop giving up - you know you can’t refuse me
I’ve every reason to believe there’s still a man in you
You done it once so come on go again

Just go for it
Just go for the second time

Oh, that. That’s all well and good, I suppose. Women need more time, foreplay, and WAITAMINUTE! Wasn’t this song written for her by her FATHER AND BROTHER?!?


It’s all so ridiculously over the top that you can’t help but smile and nod along while you turn it down before anyone else catches you listening to it. “The Second Time” peaked at number 29 on the U.K. charts.

Except for some club play, again, America ignored it.

Did these songs deserve to be Lost in the ‘80s? Both sound dated by today’s standards, but curiously enough, the new wave sound that MCA thought was dated by 1984, sounds more vital in 2005 than the “sound of today” that the label forced upon Kim with “The Second Time”. Both songs are well-crafted slices of pop, with strong, well-structured melodies and choruses, and they both follow my rules for a classic pop song – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus and no longer than four minutes.

Oh, and don’t feel bad for Kim’s American chart career. In 1987, the Wildes jumped yet another pop train and hijacked the Stock/Aiken/Waterman sound to produce a remake of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”. Of course, it was shlockey and familiar enough to U.S. ears to hit number one.

”Kids in America” peaked at #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
“Chequered Love” did not chart.
“Water on Glass” peaked at #53 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart.
“The Second Time” peaked at #65 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart as "Go For It" in 1985.
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

For more about Kim Wilde, visit

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posted by John, 1:29 PM | link |