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

Monday, March 30, 2009

"when i first saw you / i had a feeling right from the start / in love i was falling"

I'm sorry, where were we? Oh, that's right, we were talking about xylophones.

The Romantics were a power pop group that had a brief flirtation with the Top 50 in 1980 with a song called "What I Like About You". Drummer/singer Jimmy Marinos handled the vocal duties, belting out a rave-up that had its finger on the pulse of guitar-based New Wave of the time. Unfortunately, the song stalled at #49 and was never heard again.

You wish. Unless you're in a frat or a sorority.

So yeah, you know the deal - song flops upon initial release only to find new life years later via commercials and licensing blah blah.

However, The Romantics had another big (actual charted) hit with their fourth(!) album, "In Heat". The vocal duties for the Top 3 hit "Talking In Your Sleep" were handled by guitarist/singer Wally Palmar, no big deal, right? I mean, a band with a drummer as a frontman never gets very far (shut up, Genesis fans. I'm looking at you, Jellyfish!). The problem is that dear Wally had a bit of a - how to put this politely? - faggy lisp (I'm allowed to say that). So, the chorus ended up sounding like:

I hear the thecreths that you keep
When you're talkin' in your thleep

Why not just let Jimmy sing everything? What's that? You kicked him out of the band? Oh, dear.

That's right, management squabbles led to Jimmy's exit from the band shortly after "In Heat's" breakthrough to the charts. Nothing ruins a band like success, no? Luckily, The Romanticths had already filmed the video for "Talking In Your Thleep's" follow-up thingle, "One In A Million". While not setting the charts on fire like the first single, "Million" is a great little pop tune, the kind you really don't hear anymore. And what's that in the instrumental break? A xylophone solo? Nah, steel drums. But close!

The band tholdiered on for a fifth album, 1985's "Rhythm Romance", and I'll be darned if its first thingle wasn't a complete rewrite of "One In A Million" with a bit of the '60s classic "Black Is Black" thrown in for good measure. "Test of Time" had a saving grace, guessed it, xylophone! Xylophone is the new cowbell, y'all. And yes, poor Wally ends up thinging "Tetht of Time".

Look, it didn't do well, okay? Lesson learned - your drummer may be a rooster-haired, skin-pounding meathead lacking any vocal subtlety, but geez, let the wookie sing.

(And not for nothing, but The Romantics Greatest Hits album has the WORST cover art imaginable. I'd sue.)

"One In A Million" peaked at #37 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1984.
"Test of Time" peaked at #71 on the same chart in 1985.

Buy Romantics music at Amazon or on
The Romantics


posted by John, 9:15 PM | link |

Monday, March 23, 2009

"it's spinning me round & round & round / high frequency pulses of electronic sound"

One of the more (only?) popular New Wave acts from the Home of Rock & Roll in the early 80s (I'm excluding Akron) was Exotic Birds, formed by three students at the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1983. The line up evolved over the years, but one constant was singer/songwriter/percussionist Andrew Kubiszewski. The Birds’ music was right in touch with the times, very much in the early Depeche Mode/Erasure style, with one unique difference – Kubiszewski’s ever-present xylophone.

Thaaaaat’s right, Andy could shred the xylophone. I’m not being glib here. During the Birds’ live shows, Kubiszewski would stand behind a xylophone, playing his intricate, lightning fast melody lines while singing, never hitting a bum note. For most bands, this would cross over into pure gimmickry, but Exotic Birds had strong songs so the xylophone was never the musical focus, just another layer.

After a single, an EP and a reshuffled line up later, Exotic Birds released a second EP, “L’Oiseau”, in 1986. Joining the band for this EP was a local keyboardist and part-time music store employee who had been bouncing around several minor cover bands and original projects in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. His name? Trent Reznor. Here's Trent and the Birds talking about being part of this newfangled wave of "computer musicians" along with Thomas Dolby on Live on 5 in 1985. Clevelanders will note the cameo by über-Stepford anchor Wilma Smith, whose chemically and surgically preserved face has not changed one iota in the passing 21 years:

”Dancing On The Airwaves” was “L’Oiseau’s” leadoff single, continuing a tradition of Birds’ songs with “dance” or “dancing” in the title (I can name three off the top of my head – hey, it was a theme). “Airwaves” was the first Birds single to cross over onto Cleveland Top 40 and AOR radio, getting some minor airplay. But it seemed that whenever the Birds seemed ready to break through on a national level (MTV had briefly added a video for “No Communication” off the first EP), the band would retreat, take a few years off, retool, then return. That was the case here as well, as “L’Oiseau” would be the band’s last release until 1989.

Reznor had left the band at this point to concentrate on his own project, a little thing that a short year later would become Nine Inch Nails, but he still contributed some keyboards and programming to the Birds’ actual first full-length album, “Equilibrium”. Some of the Reznor sound comes thru when listening to the album’s single, “Imagination”. The off-kilter beat and a bit of the synth guitar squall effects would resurface soon after on NIN’s debut single, “Down In It”, and boy, doesn't that little spoken-word bridge sound familiar?

The Birds were a little derided by the then-hipster groupthink around Cleveland because of their accessible dance sound and fearlessly mainstream ambitions. Well, poo on them. I loved the Birds and spent quite a few bucks going to see them play at the Phantasy Theater and Spanky's in happening North Ridgeville, Ohio. Besides, the band's alumni went on to become one of the most influencial alternative/industrial bands of the '90s (Trent and NIN) and drum for bands like Prick and Stabbing Westward (Andy - he even wrote Stabbing Westward's big alterna-hit "What Do I Have To Do"). Everything's incremental.

Here's a link to an Exotic Birds website that hasn't been updated in a while, and as a bonus, here's the first Exotic Birds video, "No Communication", from 1983. This is the one that got added to MTV's playlist and earned the Birds some local bragging rights:

"Equilibrium" is long out of print, but you can find used copies on Amazon.

"Dancing On The Airwaves" and "Imagination" did not chart.


posted by John, 6:53 PM | link |

Monday, March 16, 2009

"did you ever wake up in the middle of a dream / and scream out loud?"

I shouldn't have to tell you Pete Shelley was in one of the most important punk bands ever, The Buzzcocks, should I? Of course not, you knew that. You also knew that as the Buzzcocks soldiered on, they evolved into a more "post-punk" sound, combining their claustrophobic noise with pure pop hooks. I'm sure you're also aware that when Pete left the Buzzcocks, he went into full-tilt synth-pop, creating classic, historically important singles such as "Homosapien" and "Telephone Operator".

But did you know about his third solo album, an even more mature and synth-melded piece of work created with über-synth producer Stephen Hague called "Heaven and the Sea"? And that it spawned his one and only charting single in America, the tense and desolate "On Your Own"? And did you know that this CD is extremely hard to find and goes for big bucks when you can find it?

Of course you did. You're so smart.

"On Your Own" peaked at #10 on the Billboard Hot Dance Music/Club Play Chart in 1986.

Get Pete Shelley music at Amazon or on
Pete Shelley

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posted by John, 6:32 PM | link |

Monday, March 09, 2009

"past money and colours / make believe / good cheap values / for a thrifty clown"

While it was INXS’s third album, “Shabooh Shoobah” was the first to be released in the States, and their worldwide breakthrough, thanks to the single “The One Thing”. But it was the album’s third single that was my favorite – “To Look At You”.

Hutchence is in full Bryan Ferry mode here, slinking around the verses, crooning and mumbling lines like:

What is the name to call
For a different kind of girl
Who knows the feelings
But never the words

I’ve listened to this song for more than two decades, but until I typed that out just now, I never realized this girl who can’t describe her feelings (“Happy? Sad? Bloated?”) might be borderline slow. But then you get to the final chorus:

What is the name to call
For a different kind of girl
Who knows the feelings
But never the words
To this . . . real life documentary

“Real life documentary”?? As opposed to a fake mockumentary? Oh, Michael. Maybe she’s not the slow one. Good song, though.

From there, some territories got “Spy Of Love” as a fourth single, which I never understood. Not a bad song, just the very definition of “album track” to me. Me, I was more about “Jan’s Song” – I love the faux reggae beat, the overall bouncy nature of the song and the weird lyrics about…what? A hot political activist? A socialist fashionista (“she puts her hat on / looks in the mirror / says to herself / ‘nothing to fear’”)? Here’s the band performing the song live on what’s billed as their “U.S. television debut” (I have no supporting documentation for that, so we’ll have to trust the person who uploaded it):

"Shabooh Shoobah" is a strong album, an early 80s classic that needs re-issuing, along with "The Swing" and "Listen Like Thieves" while you're at it, Rhino, thankyouveddymuch. And hey, throw on that U.S. promo only extended version of "To Look At You" that I can't find anywhere, cool? (Ask and ye shall receive.) And a poster-sized foldout of the original inner sleeve?


Of course, you know the INXS story ended in tragedy. That’s right, they went on a reality show to choose their new lead singer. Oh yeah, and Hutchence hung himself. Buuuuut seriously folks, this ain’t the last time we’ll see INXS around these parts. Stay tuned.

"To Look At You" did not chart.
"Jan's Song" was not a single.

Get INXS music at Amazon or on INXS


posted by John, 8:45 PM | link |

Monday, March 02, 2009

"supersonic motivating rhymes are creating / and everybody knows that J.J. Fad is devasting"

Why? Because I can.

Besides, how can you hate on J.J. Fad (Just Jammin' Fresh And Def)? They're aDORable. The first female rap group to be nominated for a Grammy, even. And can you believe they were produced by N.W.A.'s Dr. Dre (yes, that Dre - forgot about him, did you?), Eazy E and DJ Yella? Dre had a soft spot for fluff, also producing Michel'le ("No More Lies!" - your nose is growin', Pinnocho!) during this period.

"Supersonic" is total fun, a pioneering single in what I call "big booty bass babygirl rap", a tradition carried on today by groups like Fannypack and the über-raunchy Gravy Train!!!!("four exclamation points, hooker").

The follow-up, "Way Out", is more of the same, and isn't the hook stolen from an old Jetsons' cartoon?

I want to hear this pumpin' from every car and iPod earbud this weekend, people. And can anyone do the really fast part from memory besides my buddy Roy?

"Supersonic" peaked at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100, #22 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart and at #10 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play Chart in 1988.
"Way Out" peaked at #61 on the Hot 100 and at #51 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart in 1988.

Get J.J. Fad music at Amazon or on
J.J. Fad


posted by John, 8:56 AM | link |