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

Monday, November 24, 2008

"there's no point in us making any more dates / why don't you play football with some of your mates"

This post is sort of about Tracey Ullman, but is more about Kirsty MacColl and the Boomtown Rats.

At first I thought Tracey Ullman was a little too well-known for a “Lost in the 80s” post. After all, her first single, “They Don’t Know”, peaked at #8 on the charts in 1984, hardly obscure by any stretch. But I found when talking to people about Tracey’s music career just about all of them said the same thing: “Tracy Ullman used to make records?”

Sure. But not only did our Tracey make records, she made damn good ones that evoked the 60s girl group sound while sounding surprisingly contemporary. The backing tracks had a beefier sound and almost punkish urgency that made her records more than just mere nostalgia mining. And like any good girl group singer, Tracey was more than happy to blend into the musical wallpaper and surrender to the song and whatever producer she happened to be working with.

Tracey’s only hit in the States, “They Don’t Know”, was originally recorded by the incredible and dearly missed Kirsty MacColl, who had quite the storied recording career herself. Kirsty also became the backing singer du jour in the late 80s, appearing on albums from the Smiths, Talking Heads and, um, Frida.

Tracey and her label Stiff liked what Kirsty was doing, so after “They Don’t Know” hit, Kirsty contributed a few more songs and backing vocals to the following full-length Ullman album, “You Broke My Heart in 17 Places”. The title track was a MacColl composition and featured her typically genius wordplay – ”…cuz you broke my heart in 17 places / Shepherd’s Bush was only one”. Probably lost on the majority of people here in the States, but hey…you can’t beat the tune.

That album did well enough in the UK (and here, actually – it peaked at #34 on the charts), that a quick follow-up was in order. Not one to mess with a winning formula, “You Caught Me Out” was another pastiche of the 60s and new wave, featuring more Kirsty-written songs, including, yes, the title track. “You Caught Me Out” was, again, originally recorded by Kirsty and was co-written with members of the Boomtown Rats, who also played on the track, giving it a driving, punky feel. Unfortunately, contractual snags prevented Kirsty’s version from ever being released until years after her untimely death. Meanwhile, Tracey’s version was even more hyper, the organ higher in the mix, the beat more insistent, the vocals more histrionic. Is it blasphemy as a Kirsty fan to say I prefer Tracey’s version?

“You Caught Me Out” the LP also featured a cover of “I Know What Boys Like” by The Waitresses. That Butler guy gets around lately.

While “You Caught Me Out” was never released stateside, Rhino has put out a compilation CD that features Tracey’s first LP in its entirety, along with some b-sides and a healthy portion of the second LP, as well. Get it at Amazon .

The cute video for "They Don't Know" features a surprise cameo at the end:

Neither song was released as a single.

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posted by John, 8:30 AM | link |

Monday, November 17, 2008

"cold beer will cure a cold / cold beer and pretzels takes care of cancer!"

Quiz – complete the following statement:

Sparks’ heyday was/is –

(A.) In the mid-70s when, as part of the glam movement that included Bowie and T. Rex, they scored several Top 20 hits,
(B.) In the early 80s, when they broke thru into the American market with massive MTV airplay for “Cool Places”, their duet with the Go-Go’s Jane Weidlin,
(C.) In the mid-90s, when they had dance club hits with “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’”, “When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing)” and “The Number One Song in Heaven” (featuring Jimmy Sommerville) or,
(D.) Currently happening with the release of their critically acclaimed “Lil’ Beethoven” in 2002 and “Hello Young Lovers” just last month.

If you’re from the UK, you probably answered (A). If you’re from the U.S., you probably answered (B). If you’re a fading club kid, you may have answered (C), and if you’re a twenty-something hipster and part-time Pitchfork writer, you surely answered (D). After 35 years and 20 albums touching upon just about every era and sub-genre of pop music, any answer is really acceptable.

Ron and Russell Mael recorded the first Sparks album back in 1971to a largely indifferent public. It wasn’t until three years and two albums later that the UK got into the witty wordplay and unconventional song structures (and subjects) to make Sparks unlikely teen idols. It took America a few more years to catch on, but by 1982, Sparks finally broke into the Hot 100 with “I Predict”, a single inspired by the National Enquirer:

You’re gonna take
A walk in the rain
And you’re gonna get wet
I predict

You’re gonna eat
A bowl of chow mein
And be hungry real soon
I predict

Sparks were flying high after having adopted another band called Bates Motel to back them up. “Angst In My Pants” was the second album to come from this lineup, and lead-off single “I Predict” was a fairly big hit along the west coast. It even nabbed the boys a spot on “American Bandstand”. This was probably Sparks’ most successful period in the States – they finally charted on the Hot 100, they were featured on the soundtrack to the movie “Valley Girl”, they were one of the most played artists on the nation’s most influential new wave radio station, KROQ, and here they were trading quips with Dick Clark.

I firmly believe you must have a specific type of brain wiring to be a Sparks fan. I’ve played Sparks songs for friends of mine that have nearly similar tastes in music and have been rewarded with blank stares. Some people just don’t get it and that’s okay. While the early 80s were probably Sparks’ most accessible period for America, it seems most of the nation just wasn’t quite ready for songs about instant weight loss, living female cigarettes who die a fiery, ashy death, and the dangers of being “Eaten By The Monster Of Love”.

“Angst In My Pants” laid the groundwork for Sparks in the States that they built upon a year later with…well, that’s another Lost in the 80s post. Trust me, Sparks gave me a lot to work with here – as one of my all-time favorite bands from the 80s(...and 70s, and 90s, and 00s...), you’ll be reading about them here again soon.

”I Predict” peaked at #60 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart.
“Angst In My Pants” peaked at #173 on the Pop Albums Chart.

Buy Sparks CDs at or on

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posted by John, 7:17 PM | link |

Monday, November 10, 2008

"then you hit me with the hard facts / and everything cracks that's Bruiseology"

Growing up in northeast Ohio, it was easy to hate the constant grey skies, suburban boredom and West Virginia/Kentucky hick mentality that migrated northward. But when it came to music in the late 70s/early 80s…well…there was a lot to love.

Devo, Pere Ubu, Chrissie Hynde, the Dead Boys, the Numbers Band, etc. etc. Trust me, we pretty much held our own.

I went to high school in Lorain County, which was aggressively backwards and country-bumpkin. My only oases from the constant barrage of Journey, Boston and the Michael Stanley Band (echh) were Oberlin, (home of one of the most progressive liberal arts schools in the nation, nestled smack-dab in the middle of hicksville), Coventry, (another progressive arty urban area east of Cleveland), and another progressive college town a bit further southeast, Kent.

All three were homes to college radio stations, the only stations at the time who dared play “college rock” like R.E.M., the Lucy Show, Pylon, et al. As a teen, I clung onto these stations like a life preserver, my knuckles white yet grateful for salvation, no matter how small. I, and others like me, had one simple goal – escape.

I suppose that’s why I have such an affinity for the quirkier bands that came from Ohio – the pressure to conform and their wholesale rejection of it inspired me and kept me from settling for a life at the Ford factory. They pushed me to create my own art, see things from a different perspective and always ask “why do it that way?” Alongside Devo, a big favorite was the Waitresses.

The Waitresses formed sort of by accident, as the legend goes, when Tin Huey guitarist Chris Butler recorded a song he wrote and played all the instruments on called, “I Know What Boys Like” and invited his friend Patty Donahue to sing the lead. Some time later, the track scored Butler and his fictitious band a label deal – he told the label the band was “back in Ohio.” One hastily assembled band later and the Waitresses were signed and gigging around New York City. While recording their full-length debut, “Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?”, the band contributed a track to a label Christmas EP. The resulting song, “Christmas Wrapping”, went on to become a holiday staple on college and alternative rock radio, and can even be heard on your local “Classic 80s” station each December (who could have imagined such a thing in 1981?). Later, “…Boys” became an MTV and cult hit, which led to the band recording the theme for the “new wave” sitcom “Square Pegs”, found on an EP, “I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts”. Which in turn leads us to album #2…

“Bruiseology” didn’t have quite the buzz or sales of the band’s first album, but there’s some great stuff in there. Nothing quite beats Patty’s semi-bored statement that kicks off side two – “Uh oh, there I go – thinkin’ about sex again!” While Butler wrote all the songs, Patty’s offhanded delivery brought the point home brilliantly. Although they made a good team, tensions surfaced during the recording of “Bruiseology” which caused Donahue to leave and be temporarily replaced by Holly Vincent (of Holly & The Italians). Donahue returned to the group before the album’s release, but the band would soon fall apart again, this time for good.

I have to wonder if any of that tension resulted in some of the album’s lyrical content, especially the title track. Over a hyperactive sax riff and bouncy beat, Patty sings (Chris’s words):

OK, it’s over
That’s it, I’m quitting
Yes, I’ll deny it
Never wanted this anyway

…only to immediately contradict her(his)self:

No, it’s not over
I’m never stopping
I can’t deny it
I’ve been wanting this all my life

…and later:

Pretends this never
Happened I better
Practice my crawling
Back with a tail ‘tween my legs

It may have been coincidental, but that’s a helluva happenstance. Things were deceptively cheerier on the album’s first single, “Make The Weather”, until you paid attention to the lyrics:

Now it’s black and white
Now my golden and green’s turning grayer

“Make The Weather” didn’t storm (sorry) up the charts, but the video did get a bit of light rotation MTV play and shows up on VH1 Classic every now and then. See?

Can I just say I love that squiggly guitar solo Chris rips and how the guitar, bass, keys and sax all come together at the end? Okay, thanks.

After the band split, Butler went on to become a producer, as well as a more experimental solo artist – check out his blog. Patty moved into the A&R side of things for a few years, but sadly died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 40. It’s unfortunate that the band’s history will always be summed up with that downer of an ending, but like a lot of the Waitresses’ songs, and life itself, you get the sad with the glad.

”Make The Weather” did not chart.

Get Waitresses CDs at Amazon or
The Waitresses


posted by John, 9:00 AM | link |

Monday, November 03, 2008

"then we wound up at HoJo's for hamburgers to go"

Hey, Blondie! Congrats on making it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! What are you gonna do now?


So, anyhoo...questionable lapses in acceptance speech taste aside, Debbie Harry (along with long-time partner Chris Stein) continued making music after Blondie's initial split in 1982 - well, actually, before.

"Koo Koo" was released in 1981, between Blondie's "Autoamerican" and "The Hunter". Basically driven by Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, Harry's first solo shot was expected to be huge, coming off the massive success of "Autoamerican". They must have printed millions upon millions of these suckers, 'cuz boy, they filled cut out bins for years after. First single "Backfired" was probably a safe bet - "Hey, let's do 'Rapture' again!" - but radio rejected its retread vibe. I don't mind "Koo Koo", but it's not something I go out of my way to walk across the living room to my CD shelves to pick up and put on. I mean, not since I bought it and thought of posting it here, anyway.

After this stiff, Blondie returned to do the Contractual Obligation Shuffle with "The Hunter", which bombed, too (although, my love for "Island of Lost Souls" has grown over the years). That then freed Debbie and Chris to continue putting out "solo" Debbie stuff through the '80s, with fair to middling success ("French Kissin' in the U.S.A." anyone?). Her solo single output had one thing in common: None of it ever hit the Top 40, despite from fun stuff, including a collab with the Thompson Twins ("I Want That Man").

However, Debbie (later Deborah, please), did quite well on the Dance Charts, where "Sweet and Low" made a bit of a mark near the end of the decade, complete with an excellent video that, if not directed by, was certainly influenced by Stephen Sprouse. With the exception of a Nagel print, it don't get much more '80s than that, kids.

Get Debbie Harry songs on iTunes.

"Koo Koo" is available on Amazon, but prepare for sticker shock.

"Backfired" peaked at #43 on the Billboard Hot 100, #71 on the Black Singles and #29 on the Club Play Singles Charts.
"Sweet and Low" peaked at #17 on the Billboard Hot Dance Music/Club Play Chart.

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posted by John, 11:39 AM | link |