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

Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Oh yes I will, oh no you won’t, oh yes I will, oh no I want / what you got"

Does anyone else change their facial expression as they write?

Let me explain. Y'see, I can't hide my feelings when I'm writing. If I'm typing away some angry screed, my brow furrows, my lips downturn and my expression matches what's flowing from my fingers. People walk by my office, peek inside and say things like, "Is everything okay? You look really mad."

"No, just writing!" Let's just say I suck at poker.

I bring this up because right now I have a big goofy grin on my face because I love Swingers and I adore their two singles.

Swingers formed after vocalist Phil Judd left Split Enz in the late '70s. Judd puttered about New Zealand with a punk band called Suburban Reptiles until they broke up. Taking the Reptiles' bassist and drummer, the trio became Swingers and in 1980 recorded their first single, "One Good Reason". Now, before you read any further, take a listen to "One Good Reason". G'head. Trust me here.

Is there a big goofy grin on your face now, too? How great is that song? Sorry I'm all gushy, but that's truly one of the great lost singles of the '80s, crammed with hooks, humor, angular guitars, falsetto backing vox, just a tidy little encapsulation of what New Wave was all about in under three minutes.

"One Good Reason" cracked the New Zealand Top 40, but didn't do much anywhere else. That would change with Swingers' next single, the equally infectious "Counting The Beat". "Beat" took off like a rocket, hitting number one in Australia and helping the band get a gig in the movie "Starstruck", which apparently is some sort of cult hit, though I've never seen it. Here's a clip from the flick of Swingers performing "One Good Reason" - pay attention to the jerky, quirky New Wave choreography:

And while we're at it, here's the video for "Counting the Beat" that got a bit of MTV play in '82:

An American compilation called "Counting the Beat" was released that same year - it consisted of Swingers' sole LP, "Practical Jokers" with "One Good Reason" added. Unfortunately, the band was unable to translate their Australian/NZ success to these shores, or replicate it down under, either, so they split up soon after. Judd went on to score movies and record solo works, while bass player Dwayne "Bones" Hillman joined a little band called Midnight Oil that made a fair amount of noise.

What they left was a decent album with two fantastic singles that sound as immediate and fresh today as they did in '80 and '82. Some smart hipster band with asymmetrical haircuts and a Misshapes pedigree could totally rip them off and hit big today. Please credit Lost in the '80s when doing so, thanks.

"One Good Reason" did not chart.
"Counting The Beat" peaked #45 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart in 1982.

"Counting The Beat" was reissued on CD in 1997, but is a bit pricey on can find it much cheaper on eBay.
posted by John, 9:42 AM | link |

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"what if i forget / and reach for you / will i dream about you?"

Pop's road is littered with the remains of artists who unsuccessfully attempted the transition from "quirky" and "fun" to "mature" - Toni Basil, Altered Images, and sadly, one of the most talented performers of the '80s, Cyndi Lauper.

After two huge albums, a hefty number of Top Ten singles, and countless videos co-starring her manager/boyfriend, her mom and wrestling manager Captain Lou Albano, Lauper tried to jettison most of her image idiosyncrasies with her third album, A Night To Remember. Gone were the Rock & Wrestling connection, the extreme wardrobe and vocal hiccups and yelps, replaced by a sleek, almost 1940's movie queen look and a more traditional, straight-ahead vocal approach that did not suffer any loss in quality.

And it worked - at first. Night's first single, the Steinberg/Kelly composition "I Drove All Night" hit the Top Ten, complete with a stylish video showcasing the new, streamlined Lauper. So, it seemed the follow-up, "My First Night Without You" would be a slam-dunk to continue the streak, seeing as it was also written by Steinberg/Kelly (along with Lauper). It was even melodically familiar, ripping off the beginning of Bruce Springsteen's "Fire" (made famous by the Pointer Sisters) and even recalling "I Drove" in places. But, for whatever reason, "My First Night" stalled in the low 60s, a chart derailing from which Lauper would never recover.

Is that fair? Take another listen to "My First Night"'s a heartrending affair, dancing dangerously close to the shmaltz line until you get to the middle eight and the lines:

Will I be able to sleep?
Will I lie in my bed and weep?
What if i forget
And reach for you
Will i dream about you?

It's a genius lyric that has the protagonist in total dread that the relationship is truly over and then there's the brutal realization that the bed is going to be a lot colder and emptier for the first time in memory. Excuse me, I need a tissue. No, I'm fine, it's just my contacts. Leave me alone.

Lauper would not release another album until 1993's Hat Full of Stars which basically died on arrival. She's made a comeback of sorts as a grand dame of divas, but has yet to regain her rightful chart crown as such. Her sheer talent and likeability keeps people rooting for her, though, myself included.

"My First Night Without You" peaked at #62 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989.

Get Cyndi Lauper music at Amazon or on
Cyndi Lauper

Special thanks to John Beck for the inspiration and materials!
posted by John, 2:17 PM | link |

Friday, December 15, 2006

"stilletto heels and split skirt, you're a dream / but when you lock that bedroom door, I scream"

One of the more out of left field musical directions pop took in the early '80s was, of all things, a rockabilly revival, most notably led by the Stray Cats. As distinctly American as this sound was, the Cats had to go overseas to the U.K. to get noticed, then broke thru in the States a couple of years later. This little sub-genre had a few more players, including the Polecats and my favorite, Roman Holliday (two L's, please).

Roman Holliday set themselves apart from the rest of the rockabilly revivalists by incorporating more swing elements in their music, complete with a horn section, a move later adopted by the Stray Cats' Brian Setzer who would make a boatload of cash. Roman Holliday weren't so lucky - such is the peril of being ahead of the behind times (see, cuz they were a nostalgia-based act and...oh, never mind).

The band's first single, "Stand By", got a little chart action and a lot of MTV play, thanks to a cute on the outside video that I didn't really get at my younger age, until an older sister explained to me that our hero, lead singer Steve Lambert, was losing his virginity to a HO-WAHR (say it in a Gina Gershon in "Showgirls" voice):

Roman Holliday's second single kept up the swingin' sound - "Don't Try To Stop It" was a fun little number with another cute video to match, but didn't cause much of a stir:

Faced with a middling reaction to their debut, someone in the Roman Holliday camp lost their goddamn mind, since their second full-length album had the group dump their single unique selling point, the swing throwback sound, and instead embraced the most generic '80s pop/rock schlock possible. The lead-off single was even written by "Mutt" Lange, aka Mr. Shania Twain, for goodness sakes. Gaze upon the horror that is "One Foot Back In Your Door" and weep for Roman Holliday:

Yeah, they broke up after that. Sad, really. But somewhere the JoBoxers, Polecats and Stray Cats of the world secretly smiled. BONUS TRIVIA! Roman Holliday's original lead singer was actually Peter Noone, formerly of Herman's Hermits, but he left before they recorded anything. See? Not every decision the band made was bad!

"Stand By" peaked at #54 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart in 1983.
"Don't Try To Stop It" peaked at #68 on the same chart that same year.
"One Foot Back In Your Door" peaked at #76 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985. Yeah, seriously.

Roman Holliday's debut album is in print as a pricey Japanese import at Amazon.
posted by John, 3:09 PM | link |

Monday, December 11, 2006

Even My Face Is Lost In The '80s

Check out result #2:

Can someone please explain the reason for this strange behavior?
posted by John, 7:58 PM | link |

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Lost Cars Week - The Cars Door To Door

The Cars were in a peculiar position in 1987. After the huge success of Heartbeat City and some lesser success with various solo outlets, the band regrouped to work on a new album. Judging from the results, one could assume the band was torn between going back to basics or just throwing in the towel to give the people what they wanted, or assumed, from a Cars album. Door To Door is a strange beast - the first single, "You Are The Girl", was a shameless rewrite of "Tonight She Comes", a big hit from the Greatest Hits album that had some out a year prior, just slowed down a tad with some new lyrics slapped on. Not exactly a creative pinnacle.

In a complete turnaround, the second single, "Strap Me In", was a breath of fresh air, as the group shook off all the slick Mutt Lange/Roy Thomas Baker sheen they'd been shellacked in for years and delivered one of their rawer, rockier tracks, reminiscent of the Panorama era. The lyrical theme has changed somewhat - instead of Ric Wanting What He Can't Have, we now have songs about not only having it, but possibly regretting it, or settling in for the ride. Naturally, something as less slick and intriguing as "Strap Me In" tanked. After all, who wants to hear someone complain about being married to a supermodel?

Elektra wasn't about to give up on one of their biggest cash cows, however, picking the most Soft Rock/Adult Contemporary song in the entire Cars oveure as Door's third single. "Coming Up You" is almost sickly sweet, full of tinkly keyboards, shmoopy lyrics and, since he sang on their biggest ballad "Drive", Ben Orr vocals. Having said all that, I actually kinda like it and feel it should have been a much bigger hit than its paltry chart ranking reflects. I'm sure Elektra felt the same way.

But contrast it with "Strap Me In" or the album's title track, which is absolutely the thrashiest, punkiest song The Cars ever put to vinyl, and it's obvious Ric was having a serious identity crisis. Which Cars did he want to give us? The new, super-shiny plastic pop hits Cars or the New Wave/Suicide-influenced Cars of old? And what direction could The Cars go next?

Sadly, we'll never know. The Cars broke up just as "Coming Up You" was struggling up the charts, creating sort of a nice bookend for the New Wave era of the '80s.

"Strap Me In" peaked at #85 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at #4 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks Charts in 1987.
"Coming Up You" peaked at #74 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988.
"Door To Door" was not a single.
posted by John, 9:42 AM | link |

Friday, December 01, 2006

Lost Cars Week - Benjamin Orr The Lace

So of all the Cars solo projects (I haven't forgotten Greg Hawkes' 1983 effort - but it's mostly instrumental), whose do you think was the most successful? You'd think the main vocalist and songwriter, Ric Ocasek's, right?

Wellllll...yeah. While Ric's first stab at non-Cars success stumbled out of the gate, his second solo release, 1986's This Side of Paradise scored a #15 hit with "Emotion In Motion". But that same year, Benjamin Orr, Cars bassist and other vocalist (he sang "Drive" and "Just What I Needed" among others, 'membz?) released his first solo album, The Lace, and scored a sizeable ballad-y hit of his own with "Stay The Night".

Surprisingly, The Lace isn't half bad - it's very much a product of its time, a showcase of mid-80s radio-friendly rock in the vein of your Mister Misters, et al. I'm a particular fan of the second single, the very Cars-like "Too Hot To Stop", complete with appearances in the video from Hawkes and Cars drummer David Robinson. While not in the video, Cars guitarist Elliot Easton played on the album. There's just one thing missing...

That's right, no Ric. But hey, plenty of hot chicks with extremely feathered hair in flowing robes! And Ben's "dancing" shows why The Cars tended to stand still in place during live shows. Yikes.

Sadly, Orr died of pancreatic cancer in late 2000, effectively ending any chance for a full-fledged Cars reunion. But the band did come together once more after this solo effort to record their final album...which we'll look at next time.

"Too Hot To Stop" peaked at #25 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks Chart in 1987.

The Lace has recently been re-released - you can pick it up at Amazon.
posted by John, 3:26 PM | link |