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

Friday, June 30, 2006

"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, 3:50 PM | link |

Monday, June 26, 2006

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

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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, 9:42 AM | link |

Monday, June 19, 2006

When New Wave Happens to Old Artists - Don Henley

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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, 10:06 AM | link |

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

"ya played it for her / you can play it for me! / play it!"

While we’re tackling the question of who “invented” New Wave, let’s ponder another query: Who pioneered Turntablism?

Possible answer: One of the most bootlegged early turntablism records – a three-part opus by Double Dee and Steinski that drove hip-hop fans into a frenzy and copyright lawyers into a frenzy of a more litigious nature.

Steve Stein was an advertising copywriter and weekend warrior DJ when he teamed up with studio engineer Douglas “Double Dee” DiFranco to enter a contest sponsored by Tommy Boy Records to remix G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid’s “Play That Beat, Mr. DJ”. Their remix was less a beefing up of an existing song and more of a total gutting and reconstruction. Humphrey Bogart, Herbie Hancock, the Supremes and even Culture Club all became part of the stew, a collage of sounds, samples and cuts from so many different sources, it’d be tough to name all of them (but you’re welcome to try).

Needless to say, Double Dee & Steinski won the contest.

“Lesson 1: The Payoff” made it to the promo-only white label stage and got quite a bit of radio play, but when it came time for a commercial release, the suits & ties stepped in and stopped it cold. “Lesson 1” then made the bootleg rounds, its legend increasing in the process.

Two sequels followed, the creatively named “Lesson 2: The James Brown Mix” and “Lesson 3: A History of Hip-Hop”. There was a recent effort by a UK-based label to put together a compilation of all the “Lessons” – they went as far as to begin licensing all the different sound sources, until bootleggers beat them to the punch once again by releasing “Ultimate Lessons” on CD. At that point the label correctly thought, “Why bother?”

None of songs charted.
posted by John, 2:04 PM | link |

Thursday, June 01, 2006

"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, 3:58 PM | link |