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

Monday, October 27, 2008

"she's carryin' a burnin' torch inside / she holds it firm & tight"

1982 was a big year for the J. Geils Band – after 13 albums, hundreds and hundreds of live shows and a few scattered Top 40 hits, they became overnight sensations with “Centerfold” spending six weeks at Number One and “Freeze Frame” following in the Top Ten.

The “Freeze Frame” album is a certified 80s classic, no doubt, showcasing a band honed by years on the road firing on all cylinders. Front to back, there’s not a dud in the bunch – even “Flamethrower”, an album track consigned to the b-side of the “Freeze Frame” single caught fire (heh) on the Black Singles chart, and it’s easy to see why. “Flamethrower” is arguably the hottest (heh) song on the album, a scorching (I’ll stop now) funk number that should have been single number three, not just a b-side. I’ll say that “Flamethrower” best represented all sides of the J. Geils Band – the Stones-ish blues swagger, the chunky funk, the accessible pop sensibility, all wrapped up in five glorious minutes.

Then it all went to hell.

A power struggle between chief songwriters Peter Wolf and Seth Justman fractured the group the next year. Wolf took his voice and embarked on a solo career, while Justman kept the band and the powerful brand name. 1984 promised a showdown between the two projects.

Peter Wolf struck first with “Lights Out” and its title track single. “Lights Out” was a fair success, making the Top 40, but while the voice was unmistakable, there was something bland and studio musician-ish about the whole affair. The spark was missing. I preferred the follow-up, “I Need You Tonight”, because it seemed quite contemporary, glossy production and all, and it’s just a better song, really. It scraped the Top 40 as well. Now it was the J. Geils Band’s turn.

Many people don’t want to remember “You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd”, including presumably the band itself, since it’s mentioned nowhere on their official website. I am here today to say it’s not that horrible. Really. The problem is just that you listen and think, “Gee this isn’t too bad, but if Peter Wolf was singing it, it’d be so much better.” That thought only occurs about twice per song, though. Once you get past that it’s a hooky, kooky little affair that seems a bit “Freeze Frame 2: Electric Boogaloo”. In fact lead-off single “Concealed Weapons” is almost an exact Xerox of “Freeze Frame”, with a guitar lick stolen from either “Day Tripper” or Killing Joke’s “Eighties” (take your pick – Nirvana would later steal it yet again for “Come As You Are”), another lick lifted from the “Peter Gunn Theme”, and a melody line so familiar you almost want to sing “I could see it was a rough-cut Tuesday, Slow motion weekdays stare me down…”

The album and single tanked. I remember seeing the album in cut-out bins everywhere soon after its release, where of course I picked it up and kind of enjoyed it. Peter Wolf went on to have a few more hits and sell some more albums while the J. Geils Band went on to record the theme for “Fright Night” (AWFUL), then call it a day. The band reunited in 1999 for a tour, but when tickets didn’t move, they split again.

We’ll always have “Flamethrower”, though.

“Flamethrower” peaked at #25 on the Billboard Black Singles Chart and at #30 on the Mainstream Rock Chart in 1982.
“I Need You Tonight” peaked at #36 on the Billboard Hot 10 and at #22 on the Mainstream Rock Chart in 1984.
“Concealed Weapons” peaked at #63 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at #26 on the Mainstream Rock Chart in 1984.

Go nuts for J. Geils Band tracks on iTunes.

Ditto for Peter Wolf.

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posted by John, 9:17 AM | link |

Monday, October 20, 2008

"I'm holding on to my sanity / I feel the beginning of emergency"

When they both hit the Top 40 in 1983, it was a common debate: Who was better, Madonna or Cyndi Lauper?

While Madonna had the sex appeal, looks and dance moves down, it was the general consensus that Cyndi had True Talent. After all, she helped co-write some of her own songs and she had that voice – that wonderful, squeaky, cutesy-poo, then suddenly dead serious belting voice. Lauper had control and nuance Madonna could only dream of. Unfortunately, as Madonna’s image matured, Cyndi seemed to become even more infantile, getting involved with wrestling, contributing the theme song for “The Goonies” and filming video after madcap, wacky video. And when Madonna went into films, someone decided Cyndi had to follow.

And we were presented with “Vibes,” co-starring Jeff Goldblum. I’m not going to pretend I’ve ever seen this flick or can comment knowledgeably about it, because I haven’t and I can’t. But judging solely on the clips featured in the video for the theme song, boy, did it look stinky.

“Hole In My Heart (All The Way To China)”, wasn’t bad by any stretch, it was perhaps just a little too familiar. It has the corporate stink of someone at the movie studio ordering up “a Cyndi Lauper-type song”, only this time they got the real thing. The single didn’t do well at all, especially in comparison to her string of hits previous. It's never shown up on any domestic Lauper compilation - I happen to have an old 3" CD single from when Sony was trying that format out.

Tellingly, this was the last “wacky” Lauper song – her next album showcased a new, more mature look and sound and it was rewarded with a return to the Top 10 with “I Drove All Night”.

And that Madonna? She did okay.

”Hole In My Heart (All The Way To China)” peaked at #54 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988.

Click the iTunes logo to buy Cyndi Lauper songs:
Cyndi Lauper

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posted by John, 1:16 PM | link |

Monday, October 13, 2008

“ink and paper / the broken heart in black and white”

Allow me to get something off my chest first, if I may: Modern English’s “I Melt With You” was not a hit back in the day. No matter how many former cheerleaders at your high school reunion squeal when it comes on, I am here to tell you those people not only did not like that song when it was released, they never even heard of it. The popular kids were not digging Modern English in 1983 – they were more about Loverboy, Def Leppard and Michael Jackson. It wasn’t until years and years later that revisionist history kicked in and suddenly everyone loved that song, even the jocks whom regularly beat up the “fags” in Duran Duran t-shirts back when the single was struggling to its peak of #78 on the Hot 100.

Not that I’m bitter or anything.

I bring this up because of conversations I have with people I went to high school with when I go back to small town Elyria, Ohio. Oh, I’ll be at the local mall with my nieces and nephews and someone will invariably stop me at the food court, “Hey John, is that you??” (and I’m always amazed they recognize me, since I’m nearly 70 lbs. larger and have zero hair). I’ll give a weak smile and that I-totally-don’t-know-you “Heyyyy!” and my sister will jump in and work the stranger’s name into the convo. Invariably, the conversation will veer to music and this person, who I barely remember save only for being on student council or some other A-list high school activity will say something to the effect of “Do you still listen to all that ‘punk rock?’”

Now, I did like some true punk rock, but I rarely listened to it around people in my high school – I knew better. But back in 1983, Modern English were easy to lump into “punk rock” if you were Sally McTreasurer who dated Trent Von Linebacker. It was “fag music”, but you were trying to be nice. So it became “punk!” Tee hee! So yeah, I still harbor some residual anger that “my” music has been co-opted by the cool kids and say, Burger King, over the decades. Oh, well. They’re all still fatter and older looking (possibly due to said Burger King).


“Ink and Paper” was even more obscure than Modern English’s first two American “hits” (“Melt” and 1984’s exquisite “Hands Across the Sea”, which we’ll get to another day). It didn’t even chart, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The band seemed so desperate for another hit, they even ripped off the “ohh, ohh, ohh” refrain from Springsteen’s “Born to Run”, for God’s sake. A grab for green doesn’t get much more red, white and blue than that. Yet, “Ink and Paper” is still a fondly remembered song for me – 1986 was a pretty big year for me (graduation and all), and the “Stop Start” LP this came from what was a fairly solid effort I wore out quite a bit that year.

Modern English limped along to re-record “I Melt With You” in 1990 (that version didn’t chart much higher, either) on an otherwise new album called “Pillow Lips”, then one final gasp in 1996 with “Everything Is Mad”. But massive airplay of the hit that wasn’t has probably led to a quite comfortable life for the lads.

Just don’t stop me in the mall and tell me how much you loved it back then, liar.

”Ink and Paper” did not chart.

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posted by John, 9:41 AM | link |

Monday, October 06, 2008

"wearing the fame / like a loaded gun..."

Shona Laing was fairly well known in her native New Zealand for years before finally scoring an American record deal in the late 80s with fledgling indie label TVT Records (who, a year later, would sign Clevelander Trent Reznor). Laing’s first U.S. album, 1987’s “South”, generated two light rotation MTV hits, “(Glad I’m) Not a Kennedy” and “Soviet Snow”.

“(Glad I’m) Not a Kennedy” is a strange little thing, all violins and, er, JFK samples looped around a nice little melody about being glad one is not a member of the seemingly cursed family. Words not mentioned in the song include, “assassination”, “Compound” and “Chappaquiddick”.

Follow-up single, “Soviet Snow” is a bit less metaphoric, focusing on the then-recent Chernobyl disaster. Not quite pop music subject matter, yet this song crossed over into the Dance Charts – I remember hearing it quite a bit at the Nine of Clubs, Cleveland’s premiere alternative music dance club back in the day. Ah, the Nine of Clubs…there’s a series of entries in and of itself…

”(Glad I’m) Not a Kennedy” peaked at #14 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks Chart in 1988.
“Soviet Snow” peaked at #32 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play Chart that same year.

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posted by John, 10:10 AM | link |