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

Monday, December 29, 2008

When New Wave Happens to Old Artists - Don Henley

Fans of the super laid-back, southern California twang of the Eagles must have gone into cardiac arrest upon hearing the first synth-blast chords of Don Henley’s first solo single, “Johnny Can’t Read”. Teamed with new writing partner Danny Kortchmar, Henley seemed eager to leave the Eagles in the dust and update his sound and approach for the 80s. The resulting album, “I Can’t Stand Still,” is awash with synthesizers, mechanical percussion flourishes and hiccupy, New Wave-influenced vocals. As a young eighth-grader, I was familiar with the Eagles thanks to a worn-out copy of “Greatest Hits” my older brother received one Christmas – however, I wasn’t a big fan. So, when I first heard “Johnny Can’t Read” on our local Top 40 station one night, I was surprised to discover it was not in fact the Boomtown Rats, but rather from the same guy who once warbled “Welcome to the Hotel California” over and over until I changed the station.

“Johnny Can’t Read” was less a scathing indictment of the failures of our educational system than more of a catchy Objectivist shrug:
“Is it teacher’s fault?
Oh, no
Is it mommy’s fault?
Oh, no
Is it society’s fault?
Oh, no
Well, is it Johnny’s fault?

Musically, “Johnny” seems to have been influenced by The Nails’ “88 Lines About 44 Women” and the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died”, with its rote, deadpan reading and rapid-fire delivery, especially near the end where Don ends up yelling “WOKKA WOKKA WOKKA!!” in his best Pac Man impersonation. Another nice touch near the end is when Don tosses off the line “There’s a new kid in town” which serves a dual purpose – it reminds the listener of who he is, while announcing who he is now. Alas, it was all a bit too much for Top 40, as the single stalled at a disappointing #42.

Now the follow-up single to “Johnny Can’t Read,” that you’ve heard. “Dirty Laundry” was a huge hit, which eventually climbed to #3 and basically saved Don Henley’s otherwise-stillborn solo career. With one near-hit and one blockbuster to his debut album’s credit, it was time for single number three.

“I Can’t Stand Still” was the choice, an almost Eagles-y ballad but with decidedly New Wave production. It always struck me as some sort of unholy mix of Zeppelin's "D'yer Maker" crossed with the Payolas “Eye Of A Stranger”. The organ/synth riff drives the song, underscoring the increasing desperation and agitation of the lyrics. And where there used to be a squiggly Joe Walsh guitar solo had this been an Eagles tune, here we get a squiggly synth solo that must have driven Eagles fans insane. I loved it.

Unfortunately, not enough people did, so “I Can’t Stand Still” stood still at #48. Luckily, this didn’t deter Henley from mining New Wave to embellish his second solo album, “Building The Perfect Beast” – and he was rewarded with two huge smashes, “Boys of Summer” and “All She Wants To Do Is Dance”.

The drummer for the Eagles using a drum machine – who would imagine?

”Johnny Can’t Read” peaked at #42 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart in 1982.
“I Can’t Stand Still” peaked at #48 on the same chart in 1983.

Buy Don Henley CDs at Amazon or on
Don Henley


posted by John, 8:03 PM | link |

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Quandary...what's a quandary?"

Here's a question that may not have an answer: What should be considered the first New Wave song?

First, we have to decide on a concrete definition of "New Wave", which may be it choppy, poppy, angular guitar-based post-punk? Is it mostly synth-based? Is it fashion-based? Is it the generic term Sire Records' Seymour Stein applied to all of his late-70s CBGBs signings to make them more palatable to radio programmers? The only possible definition of New Wave I can come up with is "I know it when I hear it," and that's far from scientific.

That won't stop me from trying to answer the question, though. And it shouldn't stop you, either. Let's tackle it. What do you think should be considered the first New Wave song?

I'm going with Sparks' "In The Future" from "Indiscreet", released in 1975. One listen and you might agree - all the elements are there. The keyboards, the forward-looking, off-kilter lyrics, the chopping post-punk beat (funny, considering punk was in its most nascent form at the time).

Let's hear your suggestions.


posted by John, 10:32 PM | link |

Monday, December 15, 2008

Depeche Clones Month - Cause & Effect

Note: Okay, I’m stretching it a bit on this one. When I conceived “Depeche Clones Week”, I had three bands in particular in mind and set about writing all three articles before posting the first. Once I had finished the third, I discovered to my horror that the CD was actually released in 1990, thereby making it ineligible to be “Lost in the 80s”. I could have sworn it was released in 1989…argh. So, I was faced with a choice – scrap the entire article and post or just throw it up with the assumption that even though the original release came out in 1990 (not the re-release on Zoo, which came out in 1992), the album must have been recorded in – tah dah! – 1989.

Guess which I chose?

Formed in Sacramento, the duo of Robert Rowe and Sean Rowley known as Cause & Effect started off on Nastymix Records, home to Sir Mix-a-Lot of all people (not entirely surprising – Mix’s later collabs with the Presidents of the United States showed his love for alternative rock). Two years after its initial indie release, Cause & Effect’s first album was re-released by major label Zoo, but not without some re-sequencing, remixing and renaming, the formerly self-titled debut now being called “Another Minute”.

Before they got picked up by Zoo, Cause & Effect broke thru the dance charts with “What Do You See” and my favorite, “You Think You Know Her”. Later, with major label muscle behind them, “You Think…” actually became a Top 40 hit and “Another Minute” hit the Hot 100. I’m sort of partial to the original indie versions myself, so that’s what I’ve posted.

Things looked bright for Cause & Effect, until tragedy stuck during a 1992 tour. Just before a show, Rowley died from heart failure brought on by an asthma attack. After some time and retooling, Rowe, along with a couple new band mates carried on, releasing “Trip” in 1994 and scoring another Hot 100 hit with “It’s Over Now.” A couple of releases have trickled out since.

…and so ends Depeche Clones Month. I hope fans of the bands featured take it in the lighthearted nature it was intended. And if anyone doubts the Mode-like similarities of the bands featured, allow me to present this unaltered screen shot from Amazon taken earlier this week:

I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin' is all.

”You Think You Know Her” peaked at #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at #8 on the Dance Club Play Charts.
“Another Minute” peaked at #75 on the Hot 100 and at #31 on the Dance Club Play Charts.

Get Cause & Effect music at Amazon or on
Cause and Effect

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posted by John, 6:55 PM | link |

Monday, December 08, 2008

Depeche Clones Week - Red Flag

I have a special place in my heart for Red Flag – you see, they were the first “real” rock band I ever interviewed, back when I was a Broadcast Journalist in the U.S. Army.

It’s okay, I’ll give you a few minutes to wrap your head around everything in that first sentence.

Brothers Chris and Mark Reynolds were born in Liverpool, England, but formed Red Flag many years later in the late 80s in San Diego. By the time they signed to Synthecide/Enigma and released their debut, “Naïve Art,” I was stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey, California, working as a DJ and reporter for the base cable radio station and newspaper (heady stuff, I know). I was addicted to San Francisco alternative radio station KITS, particularly the Steve Masters show since he played the best shit and seemed very passionate about the music. It was on Masters’ show that I first heard “Russian Radio” and thought, “Didn’t Depeche Mode just release a new single last month?”

Eventually, I found out it was actually by a band called Red Flag. Bought the CD, liked it quite a bit and discovered the duo was touring through San Francisco in a few weeks. In a display of youthful fearlessness combined with enthusiastic naivety, I phoned up their label, Enigma, and requested an interview for my radio show. They agreed and soon I was driving up to a small club in SF to interview the brothers backstage before the show.

The Reynolds Brothers could not have been nicer to a nervous, fumbling, slightly mis-informed music fan/interviewer. They answered each eager question in detail, coloring each response with funny anecdotes, giving me plenty to work with. In fact, they put me at ease so much that I felt the misguided need to give them some advice – in my zeal, I suggested that “Broken Heart” would make a great single. After all, everyone I played it for loved it! It would be a sure-fire hit.

Months later, I found out “Broken Heart” was in fact the album’s FIRST single and had done poorly. Whoops. God bless ‘em for not pointing this out and making me feel like a moron. I've posted the superior U.K. remix by Jon St. James and Stacey Q (yes, "Two of Hearts" Stacey Q) of SSQ, who we'll get to someday soon.

Just as Red Flag were about to break thru (“Russian Radio” had been added to MTV’s “120 Minutes” and nearly hit the top ten of the Billboard Dance Charts), Enigma went under. The boys signed to IRS Records for one single, but were dropped soon after. Still plugging away, Red Flag continued releasing music under their own label (and moving further away from the Mode-isms into their own sound), until Mark Reynolds’ unfortunate passing in 2003.

I consider myself lucky to have met them at the start and will always remember how gracious they were to a glasses-wearing, crewcut-having music geek like myself.

"Russian Radio" peaked at #11 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart in 1988.
"Broken Heart" peaked at #24 on the same chart the same year.

Get Red Flag music at Amazon or on
Red Flag


posted by John, 6:37 PM | link |

Monday, December 01, 2008

Depeche Clones Month - Camouflage

That’s right -- all this month, Lost in the 80s will focus on artists who, in leiu of marching to the beat of a different drummer, chose rather to program their drums to imitate highly influential synth-pop pioneers Depeche Mode. There’s more of these Depeche Clones than you think, as we’ll see.

But before we begin, let me preface this week by saying I’m not hating on these bands. Honest. In fact, I was inspired enough to shell out for their CDs back in the day, so they must have had some appeal. And they did – while shamelessly aping DM’s sound, each of the bands featured this week brought something to the table, whether it was a catchy riff, a memorable lyric or just plain funny hair.

Camouflage formed in the mid-80s and had a huge hit in their native Germany and a minor hit in the States with “The Great Commandment”, possibly because people thought it was a new Depeche Mode single. If they thought that of their debut single, the follow-up, “That Smiling Face”, must have really thrown them for a loop. If you close your eyes while listening, you can almost see Martin Gore in a leather mini singing the background “Ahhhhs”.

Camouflage diversified their sound on a couple of follow-up albums to become less Depeche-y (Depeche-ish?), but there weren’t many takers and the band dissolved in the early 90s.

More Depeche Clones later this week!

“That Smiling Face” peaked at #26 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks Chart and at #37 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play Chart in 1989.


posted by John, 9:49 PM | link |