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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.

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Don Henley


posted by John, 8:03 PM