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

Monday, January 26, 2009

"there's not, I think, a single episode of 'Dallas' that I didn't see"

It was tough growing up in the late 70s/early 80s as an ABBA fan in America.

Y’see, while the Swede popsters were next to the Beatles and Elvis in pop chart dominance worldwide, in the States they were relegated to the occasional Top 10 or Top 40 hit, with many, many more singles falling far short of that. “Mamma Mia,” a single that everyone now retroactively adores? Peaked at a wimpy #32. “Money, Money, Money”? #56. “Voulez-Vous”? #80. As a young, ahem, homo I proudly called ABBA my all-time favorite group, much to the puzzled stares of my grade school classmates, most of whom were mocking and/or clueless.

Sure, each new ABBA album would have one or two hits here, but as the group aged, the hits got smaller and smaller – “When All Is Said And Done”, the lead-off single from the group’s final studio album The Visitors, peaked at a paltry #28, hardly the way to introduce the American public to what may be your most mature, cohesive album.

That’s right – The Visitors was a big step for ABBA, as the quartet finished off their first decade as a group and their second album of the 80s. The title track was an immediate declaration that the band was moving in a new, grown-up direction. Gone were the Dancing Queens and Ring Ring campiness, replaced by a dark, synth-driven New Wave number about the terror faced by Russian dissidents of the time. It was a thematic turn for ABBA, which makes the fact that it was chosen as a second single from the album in America baffling and/or encouraging (the rest of the world got “One of Us” as the first single and “Head Over Heels” for the second). I’d like to think Atlantic, the group’s U.S. label, was behind this mature direction. They supplemented “The Visitors” single release by releasing a 12” to the clubs, where it got considerable play. Joe. My. God. was kind enough to forward this ultra-rare, DJ-only Disconet Remix.

The Visitors LP was a relative stiff worldwide, especially coming off the hugely popular Super Trouper. ABBA was feeling creative fatigue as well, so they took a break before working on their tenth studio album. A few tracks in, malaise set in again, so the group stopped recording and culled two of the new tracks for inclusion on a career-spanning greatest hits collection called The First Ten Years. Both songs were released as singles, and the first of those, “The Day Before You Came”, was, despite the group’s feelings about the proceedings, another leap forward into adulthood for the group, both in subject matter and presentation. It was 1982, and ABBA finally entered the MTV age, as the single was accompanied with a full-blown film production, complete with an aerial helicopter shot and artful direction, as opposed to the videotaped “stand in front of this backdrop and mime the lyrics” style of their earlier promo clips:

Perhaps it was the dour tone of the song (which is actually quite upbeat if you listen to it carefully – it’s the day before [he] came, so it has a happy ending, see) or the length (it tops out at just under six minutes), but “The Day Before You Came” fared poorly on the charts worldwide (to be fair, it was a huge hit in some smaller territories) and didn’t even chart in the States. Were people over ABBA, or just not on board with “adult” ABBA? More importantly, was ABBA over ABBA?

The second new single to be pulled from The First Ten Years, “Under Attack”, did even worse. Atlantic didn’t even bother to release it in the States. It wasn’t bad per se, it just wasn’t anything Olivia Newton-John wasn’t doing slightly better at the time. It’s interesting to note the prominence of synthesizers in both new songs – this was truly synthpop. “Huh, wha, huh?” you exclaim? Think about it – synth-based pop = synthpop. Ask the Human League about ABBA’s influence and I rest my case.

I love ABBA’s late videos. Agnetha (the “pretty one”) started to hit the wall and wasn’t so bubbly cute anymore and I swear to God, Frida smelled blood and pounced, cutting her bad perm into a punky, spiked mulletish do, and dear Lord, in the “Under Attack” video sporting pink and purple streaks in her hair:

It was like after ten years of being ignored, the shy, plain, brainy girl who used to draw Hello, Kitty on all her Trapper Keepers in the back of the class went totally goth her sophomore year.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to watch ABBA enter their full-blown adult New Wave phase. Creatively beat and disillusioned by the muted response to their last few releases, the group took a sabbatical, from which it never returned. The remainder of the aborted tenth album's songs have trickled out here and there – “Cassandra” and “Should I Laugh Or Cry” were used as b-sides for the final two singles, the somewhat bizarre “I Am The City” finally surfaced as a track on More Gold and "You Owe Me One" and a snippet of “Just Like That” (which remains unreleased in its full form) appeared as part of the Thank You For The Music box set. Benny and Bjorn went on to fulfill their dream of writing a hit musical (?) by penning Chess with Tim Rice and Agnetha and Frida went on to release solo works which we’ll definitely cover here in the future (guess who was more successful? It’s always the quiet ones…).

What would an ABBA reunion be like? Awful. I think any momentum would be lost and we’d get a nostalgia show, nothing more. What do you think? Comment away.

”The Visitors” peaked at #63 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart and at #8 on the Club Play Chart in 1982.
Neither “The Day Before You Came” nor “Under Attack” charted.

Buy ABBA music at Amazon or on

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posted by John, 6:19 PM | link |

Monday, January 19, 2009

"hope's dashed to the floor like shattered teenage dreams / boys living next door are never what they seem"

1983. Pop music was in constant, upheaveled flux - American radio = Journey and Foreigner, so British acts looked to music video as an outlet. As a result, the MTV, Night Tracks and Night Flight (God, I miss that show) playlists ended up looking like a Kentucky Beef Stew, made up of anything left over in the fridge from meals before. Michael Jackson snuggled up next to Killing Joke, while Killing Joke took Def Leppard and After the Fire from behind.

Out from this wonderful orgy skipped Bananarama.

Made up of three girly-friends from the outskirts of the punk/new wave/ska scene, Bananarama couldn't sing, couldn't dance, couldn't miss. It took a few tries, but they finally broke the U.S. with "Cruel Summer", a song most consider to be about lost love in the summertime, when in fact, it's about sheer boredom. But that's exactly what Bananarama were clever at - musical misdirection.

Bananarama songs were chirpy, singsongy pop confections which brought sunny days, happy times and slumber parties to mind. The lyrics, however...

...the lyrics...

...that was were they completely snowed over the American public.

Bananarama songs were often lyrically dark, dense, multi-layered affairs that completely contrasted their happy-go-lucky accompianment. Take for example, "A Trick of the Night", one of their minor hits from 1984. On the surface, the chorus sounds like a typical love song:

Whatcha doin'
Hey, whatcha doin'
Walking through danger
Can't see the wrong or the right
Whatcha doing,
Tell me whatcha doing
Can't be a stranger
Must be a trick of the night

...but then you dig deeper and find:

When the day is over
And the work is done
Well it's a different story
As the darkness comes around
I tried to let you know
You're going the wrong way

And the streets you thought
Would all be paved with gold
But when the wind cuts through
You'd even try to sell your soul
Everywhere you go
It's the long way

Now you're no longer
Just the boy next door
When they were falling in love
With that clean cut smile
Change of style
Just for a little while

...and you look at the title of the song again and realize it's about a sad, young male hustler. Brilliant and completely underrated.

My favorite Bananarama misdirection has to be "Robert DeNiro's Waiting." For years and years, I thought the song was basically about a girl with a "Taxi Driver" fetish, nothing more. Until I read an interview with former head Banana Siobahn Fahey who revealed the true nature behind the lyrics:

Hope's dashed to the floor like shattered teenage dreams.
Boys living next door are never what they seem.
A walk in the park can become a bad dream
People are staring and following me.
This is my only escape from it all:
Watching a film or a face on the wall.

Robert de Niro's waiting
talking italian. about a girl who's been raped and now cannot connect with anyone, save her celluloid hero, Robert DeNiro.

Of course, great things that get a taste of mainstream success can never last in their pure form for very long, so Bananarama succumbed to the Stock/Aiken/Waterman hit machine, having huge hits with "Venus" and "I Heard a Rumor," et al.

But for a while there, they had us all fooled.

Download "Robert DeNiro's Waiting"

"Robert DeNiro's Waiting" peaked at #95 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1984.

Buy Bananarama music at Amazon or


posted by John, 10:50 PM | link |

Sunday, January 11, 2009

"i'll take the lead / you take the pain / you see, i engineer this game"

My junior year in high school, a few friends and I decided to form a New Wave band. Our inspiration? R.E.M.? The Smiths? The Replacements? Not exactly…

Try Animotion.

We loved “Obsession”, we loved their clothes, loved the campy video, loved the less than glamorous looks of the two lead singers – basically, Animotion were relatable. And there were six of us, including one male lead singer (ahem, me) and one female lead (ahem, not me), so why not? We called ourselves “Fax & Frixion” – keep in mind, this was a few years before fax machines became ubiquitous, so we were very forward thinking.

In a classic illustration of Eighties thinking, we put image before substance and immediately took some press shots, imagining our album cover and lyric sleeve photos…

Yes, I’m the dork sitting on the roof of that old, rusting vehicle staring off at something REALLY MEANINGFULLY. Where’re the other 3 in the band? In class – we shot these during a study hall in the woods behind our high school. True!

And there I am on the far left dangling like a stray butt nugget. The two lovely girls were also in the band and I hope they don’t mind me sharing this embarrassing moment with the whole Interwebnet. (Hi, girls!)

Fax & Frixion had a few unproductive meetings/practices where we sorta learned “Obsession” and A Flock of Seagulls “Space Age Love” song. We then began bickering over who was responsible for what and what songs to do, blah, blah, etc. You can’t run a band as a democracy, sorry, and there is only room for one diva and it was NOT one of the biological girls. Ahem. Somewhere, an old 90-minute cassette tape exists of us butchering these songs. I pray it is never found.

Ah, moving on to the long, strange, incestuous story that was (is?) Animotion…

Animotion emerged from the mid-80s Los Angeles New Wave scene and were welcomed to the Top 10 with a tight, hooky Holly Knight/Michael Des Barres composition called “Obsession”, which we all know and love. “Obsession” was actually a remake, originally recorded by Knight and Des Barres in 1983. But as any regular reader of this here blog can tell ya, it’s the follow-ups that count.

Animotion’s second single, “Let Him Go”, wasn’t bad at all. It’s more of a showcase for Astrid Plane, the female half of Animotion’s dual lead singers, but the bewildering lyrics betray the fact that it was written by the male half, Bill Wadhams:

You're holding him so tight that he can't move
If you never give him room you're gonna lose.
He's feeling like he's tied up in a knot
Ev'ry time he comes home late he's on the spot.

Trust him to be the kind of man he wants to be
You aren't gonna keep him long if you give him the third degree.

Let him go
Let him go
Do the things he's got to do
Give him the freedom that he needs even though it worries you.
Let him go
Let him go
Have the faith that he'll be true
It's the only way you can be sure he'll come back to you.

That’s right, ladies! Let your man go off and do any old thing he wants – if he really loves you, he’ll stumble home eventually. I kid the “Let Him Go”, but I like it quite a bit…it may have been a bit too propulsive to go much higher in the charts than it did, but it made for a great dance mix.

Animotion’s next step was the dreaded second album, and in a classic case of the sophomore jinx, “Strange Behavior” made little noise. That may be the fault of lead-off single, “I Engineer” (dance mix), a moody slice of electro-pop that had “Obsession’s” feel, but less of a hook. I do love the very Abba-esque harmonies that accent “this game!” in the chorus. And “I Engineer’s” pedigree! Written by Holly Knight (why mess with success?), super-producer Mike Chapman and Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin! Yikes!

Songwriter Holly Knight went on to form Device in 1986, a New Wave-y pop band produced by Mike Chapman which featured lead vocals by Paul Engemann. Three years later, Animotion rose from the dead, but in an overhauled line-up that featured, tah dah, former Device vocalist Paul Engemann and Mrs. Richard Marx, aka Cynthia Rhodes. Gone were our funky, normal looking singers, so we went from this:

…to this:

This bland, focus-group approved version of Animotion had an equally bland, focus-group approved hit called “Room To Move” that was done much better a year earlier by its songwriters, Climie/Fisher. The personality and magic were gone, but there must not have been too many hard feelings, since former singer Astrid Plane married Animotion’s bassist. The original line-up resurfaced last summer on (again!) NBC’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and continue to tour - check out some of those show line-ups! With Missing Persons and Bow Wow Wow? Wow.

“Let Him Go” peaked at #39 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985.
“I Engineer” peaked at #76 on the Hot 100 in 1986.

Buy Animotion music on Amazon.


posted by John, 9:08 PM | link |

Monday, January 05, 2009

"and on the platform / I saw your hat form / a sort of halo as the crowd rushed home"

I come not to bury Wang Chung, but to praise them.

Not the “wacky”, “party” Wang Chung that crapped “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”, “Let’s Go” and “Hypnotize Me” upon the world, but rather the real Wang Chung, who made darkly catchy pop with a more serious undercurrent. The Wang Chung that was pretty much Lost in the 80s.

Starting life as Huang Chung, the band recorded one album for Arista Records in 1982. Two years, one new label and a simplified name change later, the trio released one of the most essential albums of the New Wave era, “Points on the Curve”. Am I over-praising “Points”? Not really – it’s excellent, front to back, and gave the band a Top 20 hit with “Dance Hall Days”, a quirky a dance hit as you can get (by the way, it was “we were cool on craze”, not “Christ” as my sister thought). But “Dance Hall Days” was not Wang Chung’s first hit. That honor goes to the far superior “Don’t Let Go”.

Desperate and bouncy all at once (try pulling that one off sometime), “Don’t Let Go” is an atmospheric New Wave classic that doesn’t get enough respect. You never hear it on Eighties Flashback radio shows or see the video on VH1 Classic and that’s too bad. It kicked off “Side Two” of the album back in the day, but should have been the first song on Side One, since it really set the true tone of the album better than “Dance Hall Days”, which actually kicked things off. Luckily, “Don’t Let Go” was completely ignored, since it scraped the bottom of the Top 40, paving the way for “Dance Hall Days’” success (I still haven’t forgiven the band/Geffen for picking “Don’t Be My Enemy” for the [flop] third single instead of “Even If You Dream”, perhaps the best song on the set).

This led to the band (now reduced to the more-familiar duo we all remember from the videos) being asked to provide a track for “The Breakfast Club”. Wang Chung’s contribution, “Fire In The Twilight” would have fit just fine on “Points on the Curve”. While released as the soundtrack’s follow-up to Simple Minds’ massive “Don’t You Forget About Me,” “Fire” failed to spark any chart action. That doesn’t stop it from being an entertaining rock stomper, very 1985 in its sound. I've included the superior single mix with a slightly different chorus that's never been on CD. And fine, since no one else is gonna do it, here's the super-rare video for the single, complete with Molly Ringwald cameo:

The duo’s next full-length project was a soundtrack for the film “To Live and Die In L.A.” The duo’s evocative atmospherics served them well here and the title track very nearly made the Top 40. But as with any other soundtrack, there are some sludgy instrumental parts to tromp thru. If you like the whole “Miami Vice” vibe, here’s where it started.

The lackluster reception of the band’s last few singles must have spooked someone, since their next album, “Mosaic”, was Pop City. You know the hits, you know the bombast, you know how sick you are of them now, so let’s move on. Congrats on your retirement fund, boys!

With their final album, “The Warmer Side of Cool”, it appears the duo got their pop jones out of their systems, since it’s a welcome return to the darker mood of their earlier works. As a result though, it was far less successful. Lead single “Praying To A New God” was a notable attempt to fuse the more commercial production and hooks of the “Mosaic” era with the more aggressive ambience of their past work, and it wasn’t half bad.


Alas, the single and album as a whole fared poorly and Wang Chung went their separate ways until recording a new track for a greatest hits effort in 1997, then resurfacing on the NBC “where are they now” summer series, “Hit Me Baby One More Time”, where they performed a surprisingly rousing and entertaining version of Nelly’s “Hot In Herrre”.

The response the duo got on that show has inspired them to reform and record a new album, including a song called “Abducted By The ‘80s” and, in keeping with the times, a MySpace page.

”Don’t Let Go” peaked at #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1984.
“Fire In The Twilight” did not chart.
“To Live And Die In L.A.” peaked at #41 on the same chart in 1985.
“Praying To A New God” peaked at #63 on the same chart in 1989.

Buy Wang Chung CDs at Amazon or on
Wang Chung


posted by John, 7:18 PM | link |