Friday, July 20, 2007

Flashback: 1980s!!! Part II

Wow... I had originally planned this thread to only include 8 or 10 great bands of the 1980s, but it quickly spiraled out of control. Not because I am particularly opinionated or loquacious (who, moi?), but because the more I thought about the subject, the more great bands came to mind.

So, here is part II... please don't take my word for any of this. Check these bands out and see if you agree in the end... the 1980s were not at all a fallow period for rock music. First, a mea culpa & update to my last post, a band I should not have neglected in the way I did...


I am embarrassed and ashamed that in Part I, I did not include Devo, one of the greatest bands of the late 70s/ early 80s. My only excuse is that the hot weather of late made my brain short-circuit – and that’s not a very good excuse, because Devo was one of the defining bands of the era, as well as one of my favorites.

Devo’s best, and first, album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo was actually released in 1978, so maybe technically they aren’t a 1980s band. But their big hits “Whip It” and “Freedom Of Choice” came with the release of the album Freedom Of Choice in 1980. It’s hard to think of another band that so perfectly captured the 1980s synthesizer sound, so I feel duty-bound to include them on this list.

Though Devo scored quite a few pop hits in their time, they were so far ahead of the era that you get the feeling that most people who bought their records didn’t understand what their songs were really saying. The band’s name came from leader Mark Mothersbaugh’s pet theory that the human race is not evolving, but “de-evolving” backwards as a result of the pressures of technology, consumerism and apathy. It’s hard to think of a more cynical and sarcastic band of the time than Devo. They used synthesizers and electronics to express a robotic, mechanical and frankly depressing vision of society as a homogenous mass of consumers with few individual thoughts among them.

Their videos reflected this too; my favorite video (as well as one of their best songs) is “It’s A Beautiful World”. In case you didn’t guess, Mark Mothersbaugh really thinks the world is anything but beautiful. The video makes this quite clear – and it’s a great example of early music video editing using stock images for ironic effect.

Devo had a unique image too: contrary to the usual image of rock bands as long-haired freaks, the guys of Devo looked like fascists out of a George Orwell novel. This was of course meant to be ironic, as Devo was an intellectual, subversive band whose true beliefs couldn’t be further from fascist ones. But the image stuck.

Depressing? Sure. But their music was groovy, if somewhat mechanical by design… particularly as the years wore on. The title track to Devo's third album, Freedom Of Choice, is a groovy denunciation of mindless consumerism and insulting marketing techniques: “In ancient Rome/There was a poem/About a dog/Who found two bones/He licked the one/And picked the other/He went in circles until he dropped dead/Freedom of choice/Is what you got/ Freedom from choice/ Is what you want” Devo’s synth-pop surface belied its subversive undercurrent.

Devo later went downhill, focusing more and more on synthesizers until they eventually sounded like every other generic synth-pop group of the time. But even pure synth albums like Oh No, It’s Devo! had great songs ridiculing mindless consumer behavior, like “That’s Good” and the sinister “Peek-A-Boo” (chorus: I can see you / I know what you do / Cuz’ I do it too / HA HA HA HA!!!).

But Devo’s debut album is their most guitar-oriented and still my favorite. “Jocko Homo” could serve as Devo’s manifesto, and a spazzed, polyrhythmic and thoroughly reworked version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” still gets the most play of any Devo song on rock radio to this day. It’s still worth a listen to me, because I have never been able to figure out where the 1-count of the beat on “Satisfaction” comes in. Try it sometime – you’ll see what I mean.

Freedom Of Choice is only slightly less good, meaning… it’s pretty dang fantastic by any standard, herky-jerky electro pop music with a bite. Tight!

The Minutemen

No relation to the modern-day anti-illegal-immigrant militia! Another prime example of a first-wave punk rock band that could really play their instruments, the Minutemen lived up to their name – they specialized in short songs, most of which hovered somewhere between a minute or two in length But their music was anything but slight. They were probably the most startlingly original and diverse of any punk band before or since. And as their name also might imply, they were among the most political of American punk bands – just behind the Dead Kennedys though not nearly as sarcastic.

Their early albums hewed close to the traditional punk rock template of bar chords, shouted lyrics and speed, but by the time the double album Double Nickels On The Dime came out in 1984, their sound had expanded to include tangents of jazz, funk and neck-snapping instrumental prowess. On that masterpiece, D. Boon’s Telecaster guitar throws out minimalist but unbelievably complex funk chops, stabs and rhythms, bassist Mike Watt beats and snaps his bass into submission with some of the most complex lines ever laid on tape, and drummer George Hurley keeps it all down with great funkitude when he’s not propelling everybody to greater heights of creative frenzy.

In spite of their virtuosic sound, they never sounded long-winded or tired – true to form, Double Nickels On The Dime contains a whopping 44 songs, all of them clocking in at under 3 minutes each – and most are significantly shorter than that.

The Minutemenwere overtly leftist politically, but their often strident lyrics denouncing big business, the Reagan era (“Jesus & Tequila), war and imperialism (“Vietnam”), and working dead-end jobs (“This Ain’t No Picnic”) were tempered with a sense of humor and a sort of punk sentimentalism on songs like “History Lesson Parts 1 & 2”, in which singer/guitarist D. Boon explains the story of how “Punk rock changed our lives.” It’s all set to music of great diversity, creativity, virtuosity and tightly controlled experimentation. The Minutemen, particularly on Double Nickels On The Dime sounded like a band that could play anything, and often did.

This band ended tragically in 1986 when Boon was killed in a car accident. Watt and Hurley considered quitting music altogether for a while (I have heard Watt describe Boon as his best friend), but ended up soldiering on as fIREHOSE with superfan Ed Crawford (who reportedly showed up on Watt’s doorstep unannounced, guitar in hand) and recorded a number of awesome albums under that name for the next 7 or 8 years.

Watt, in particular, has become somewhat of a grandpa/father figure to the whole underground scene in the past 20 years. Though he’s never been showered with filthy lucre, he’s released a number of solo albums in addition to his work with fIREHOSE, and played/recorded/toured with plenty of indie music luminaries such as avant/jazz guitarist Nels Cline, the reformed mega-band Jane’s Addiction, and in J Mascis’s (of Dinosaur Jr.) band The Fog a couple years back.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Watt live twice some years back – never have I seen anybody play bass like that. He smacks the snot out of his “thunderstick” (his term for it) seemingly randomly, fingers flailing, arms pumping – but then you listen to what he’s actually playing. He’s astoundingly precise and musical. He’s melodic and complex, but never overplays.

Picture a graying, average-looking guy with facial hair (he sported a long, bushy beard both times I saw him), wearing a flannel and jeans, playing bass like nobody else can. If you were to meet him on the street you might think he wanted some spare change. That’s Mike Watt, but don’t worry, he won’t ask for change -- and doesn’t need your money anyway. Long may he live!

Oingo Boingo

The began their career as The Mystic Knights Of Oingo Boingo, in the 1970s, and as the 80s went on they became one of the premier, so-called New Wave bands along with Devo and Talking Heads.

They gained the reputation of a party band, mainly because of their biggest hit, the title track to their 1985 album Dead Man’s Party. But their eclectic style had a darker side as evidenced by the early MTV hit “Nothing Bad Ever Happens”, as well as their swan song, 1993’s album Boingo.

That final album is a writhing mass of tension that includes denunciations of the first Gulf War, an energetic cover of “I Am The Walrus”, and the epic 16-minute closer “Changes”, a reflection on the ups and downs of life that is a fitting end to an under-appreciated band of the 1980s.

Oingo Boingo’s leader, Danny Elfman, has since the mid-1980s become an accomplished composer of film and television scores, to this day. He has contributed to a number of Tim Burton movies, and composed the theme song to The Simpsons. Didn’t you know that?

The Pogues

Shane MacGowan, lead singer of the Pogues, has about three teeth in his head, all of them crooked. It’s the logical end-result of decades of alcohol abuse and bar brawls. Which is fitting, because that’s what the Pogues music sounds like. This “Irish” band (MacGowan was Irish but the band was based in London) became known for its perfect melding of traditional Irish bar music and punk rock, all vomited forth with plenty of working-class attitude. Their 1985 album Rum, Sodomy And The Lash drips with attitude, beer and knuckles. The song “Dirty Old Town” pretty much encapsulates their appeal: “I kissed my love / by the factory wall / dirty old town /dirty old town”. Music to kiss your girl or start a fight to, take your pick.

The Replacements

This band was a preeminent American underground rock band of the 1980s. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Paul Westerberg wrote some of the most memorable and unapologetic rock songs of the era. They never became more than a mid-level band but are remembered to this day for their spirited songs and notoriously drunken performances – their unprofessionalism was probably a big reason they never broke really big.

But then, they never took themselves too seriously anyway, near as I can tell. They changed their name to Replacements from the Impediments after being banned from a club for disorderly behavior in their hometown of Mineapolis. The band’s early sound was brash punk rock, but later on they became just a damn good rock n’ roll band without apologies. Their defining work is their third album Let It Be, a record whose sound is nothing like the Beatles album of the same name. It’s a howling blast of pure rock n’ roll adrenaline with enough diversity to keep it from being monotonous.

They really didn’t care – I remember that one of their videos consisted entirely of a single shot: a guy putting a record on the turntable, then kicking back and smoking a cigarette as the camera focused on the twitching speaker. Such attitude admirably forced the viewer to focus on the music rather than the visuals. But their reputation as drunken curmudgeons doomed them – they were never able to shake their image as unreliable hooligans. Bythe time they cleaned up their act in the late 1980s it was too late – their chance had passed and the band broke up. Westerberg has put out sporadic solo albums every few years since.


Oh yeah, and speaking of preeminent American underground rock bands – except REM went from the underground to being superstars in a few short years at the end of the 1980s. Their last six or seven albums haven’t been very good; the album Monster from 1994 was their last decent record I think. However their 1980s work (basically, their first five or six albums) still sounds as good today as it did then, and they deserve a mention on my list.

REM is too well known now for me to spend much time remarking on them here, but I will mention a few things. Michael Stipe’s obtuse and poetic lyrics always appealed to me, and Peter Buck’s guitar sound launched a thousand jangle-pop ships. I think their best album is their fifth, Document, even if “The One I Love” and “The End Of The World As We Know It” are way, way, way overplayed on classic rock radio these days. But Life’s Rich Pageant is a melodic, fuzzed out masterpiece too, and their least popular album, Fables Of The Reconstruction, contains some of the band’s most creative work.

I’m sorry to report that this band became too big for its britches in the 1990s. I saw them live in 1995 and was disappointed – they were lifeless on stage, played the songs at flaccid tempos, and bassist Mike Mills wore a ridiculous suit of mirrored sequins. The no-frills passion of their early days was long gone by then. None of this prevented Stipe from preening and constantly mumbling witless banter into the microphone, that day at Fiddler’s Green amphitheater in Denver. A travesty!

I pretty much wrote them off as a disappointment after that, but in their 1980s heyday, REM was a fantastic band with an arty mystique. What a shame.

The Specials

Another British ska band of the early 1980s, their eponymous first album actually came out in 1979, but hey… close enough. With a slightly more traditional ska sound and more biting lyrics than fellow scenesters, Madness, the Specials’ first album is a classic from beginning to end. Their most famous song is a cover, the ska standard “A Message To You Rudy”, which takes the form of a sobering lecture to Rudy (this the short form of the slang term “rude boy” – which in Jamaican street terms means gangster): “Stop ya messin’ around / better think of your future / time you straighten right out / or you’ll wind up in jail”.

Their originals were just as good, and it’s hard to pick a favorite, though “Stupid Marriage” (with the immortal line “naked woman / naked man / where did you get that nice suntan?”) and “Nite Klub” (a disdainful view of night club life) both rank highly.

I admit: The Specials/ is the only album that I’m really familiar with, but it’s so good! The Specials are also notable for being one of the few racially integrated second-wave ska bands, with both black and white members. Though ska was originally a Jamaican style, most second-wave ska bands were white as a generation of working-class British youths adopted the sound as their own. The Specials appropriated the Two-Tone graphic pattern of a black and white checkerboard on their albums to reflect their belief in racial integration.

Once again, I must stop for now... if anybody else is a fan of any of these bands, or even if you absolutely can't stand them, I would love to hear about your opinion. I live for this stuff. So many bands, so little time and space...

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Flashback: 1980s!!!!

Music of my flaming youth -- in the 1980s, I was force-fed a steady diet of early MTV and hair-metal bands infused with a terrible mix of pop artists that exemplify all that went wrong with popular music in the 1980s. Examples, of which there are unfortunately many: Belinda Carlisle, Lionel Richie, Motley Crue, Chicago, Billy Ocean, Debbie Gibson, Deff Leppard, Hall & Oates, Whitesnake, the Footloose and Flashdance soundtracks, as well as any number of formerly vital artists who lost their way in that time -- such as David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton... you get the idea. C.R.A.P!! The sort of stuff you can hear in any supermarket these days, modern-day Muzak, only more annoying.

Wendi and I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. We were talking one day and realized that, though most music fans consider the 1980s to be a lost decade in terms of musical quality, there were actually quite a few artists/bands that we still love, whose music has withstood the test of time. Which, when you get to be our ages, is really the only test that matters.

So, for the music geek in you, I submit the following for your consideration: a few bands/artists, from the 1980s that not only didn’t suck, but made a lasting impression on your humble author. My list is not exhaustive and consists of artists commonly considered to be in the category of rock music; for instance, I excluded heavy metal and rap music (which I happen to love, but space and time precludes their inclusion -- they're subjects in and of themselves). The list is in alphabetical order, as I really don’t care for “best-of” or “top pick-a-number” lists.

Unfortunately, as often happens when I get to writing, this list rapidly spiraled out of control; not only is it not exhaustive or complete, but I have to go to bed and only got to the letter M. Oh well, here we go!!

Camper Van Beethoven

Good ol’ Camper Van, the band that virtually defined the term “college rock” in the 1980s. They had a melodic, rather folksy sound augmented by a fiddle player, which was a great contrast to their sarcastic, goofy and often surreal lyrics on songs like “Take The Skinheads Bowling” from their first album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, and the spoken narrative “Peace & Love” from their eponymous third album. They scored a minor MTV hit in 1988 with “Eye Of Fatima”, a song about a burned-out hippie drug dealer, but they are probably best remembered for a violin-flecked cover of Status Quo’s psychedelic 1960s anthem “Pictures Of Matchstick Men.”

The band disintegrated acrimoniously in 1989, and singer David Lowry went on to form Cracker, which became one of the biggest (and most overrated) bands of the early 1990s that never approached the wry Camper Van Beethoven in wry creativity and cleverness. I mean, this is a band that recorded a version of the ENTIRETY of Fleetwood Mac’s album Tusk on a whim!

A lot of longtime fans were surprised and pleased when they reunited in 2004 for a tour and new album, New Roman Times.

The Cure

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Cure, but their contribution to the 1980’s canon of good music cannot be overlooked. Wendi is a massive Cure fan and no doubt could write a lot more than I can about their merits. Gloomy, yet surprisingly pretty songs on albums like Pornography and Disintegration cemented their reputation as torch carriers for the goth and alternative scenes.

Personally, my favorite song of theirs is the fever dream nightmare of “Lullaby”, in which Robert Smith whisper-sings over a minor key, yet surprisingly gentle accompaniment, about being eaten alive in bed by a giant spider. The video is a little lost gem from that long-ago time when MTV didn’t completely suck.

Echo And The Bunnymen

Often overlooked, EATB were always much more popular overseas, especially in their native Britain. In the USA, they are mostly known for their dreamy, yet propulsively danceable single “Lips Like Sugar” which is from their self-titled 5th album from 1987. It’s a great song, with an immortal, simple and perfect guitar riff, but this band was much deeper than their rather silly name and single-hit status in the States might imply.

For me, their song “Rescue” from EATB's first album, Crocodiles epitomizes what made them great – the lyrics “things are going wrong / won’t you come on down to my rescue?” are belted out in a strangled moan by Ian McCulloch – it’s so arresting because it’s so simple and universal… anybody who has ever felt trapped and helpless can immediately relate.

Another melodic gem, and probably their second most famous song, is “Killing Moon” which was later covered by Pavement, among others.

Gang Of Four

Progenitors of what later would become known as the genre of post-punk, Gang Of Four meshed angular, throbbing, often atonal guitar riffs with scathing, anti-capitalist lyrics. Their minimalist approach and pervasive influence can be heard in countless later bands such as Fugazi & Shellac. Unlike the bands I’ve described so far, there was very little pop music in Gang Of Four, except for the occasional disco-esque beat such as in an otherwise virulently anti-military song “I Love A Man In A Uniform”.

The band was named after the four Chinese politicos who were blamed by the Communists for the worst excesses of China’s Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, tried and convicted in a face-saving attempt by the state. The band was not Communist, but lyrics like “the problem of leisure / what to do for pleasure / ideal of a new purchase / a market of the senses … this heaven gives me migraine” from the song “Natural’s Not In It” leave little doubt that they didn’t care to conceal their contempt for capitalism, materialism, consumerist society and the corrupt structures of contemporary power.

Their overt politics would seem didactic and pretentious if it weren’t for their inventive instrumental prowess – spiky guitars and beats propelled by a relentless, almost danceable groove that perfectly complemented their biting lyrics on songs like “A Hole In The Wallet.” Heady stuff.

Hüsker Dü

Ok let’s get this out of the way first -- Hüsker Dü was named after a Danish board game (don’t ask me why) and means “do you remember”. They were one of the most beloved American punk bands of the 1980s, and in my opinion one of the best. Their early albums are a bit unfocused, but the in-your-face angst and breakneck speed of albums like Zen Arcade (a double album recorded in just three days) are among the purest examples of indie gold.

And, unlike many punk bands, Hüsker Dü were excellent musicians – singer/shouter Bob Mould has a ringing, slashing guitar attack that is instantly recognizable, drummer/singer Grant Hart was one of the best underground drummers of his time – have one listen to Zen Arcade's epic, 14-minute closing instrumental “Reoccurring Dreams” to see what I mean.

Their final album, Warehouse: Songs & Stories, suffers from overproduction (a victim, like so many bands, of that reverbed-out 80s production) and a thin drum sound, but is their most melodic and heart-wrenchingly personal.

Sadly, this band also suffered a bitter breakup – to this day, Bob Mould and Grant Hart have barely spoken, and then mostly by slamming each other in the press. Mould found quite a bit of commercial success both with his subsequent solo albums and with Sugar, a band that recorded a few albums in the early 1990s and sounded much like the direction Hüsker Dü was going when they broke up.


A band at the forefront of the so-called 2nd wave of ska that took Britain by storm in the late 70s and early 80s, their biggest hit, “Our House” was ironically nearly free of ska influence except for the horn charts – but nevertheless a great song. These guys had a sense of humor with musical chops and respect for ska music to match.


A lot of bands begin with a high degree of musical inventiveness. As commercial success beckons, they just can’t sustain the juice as they try to appeal to broader audiences with watered-down music that doesn’t have the same edge that made them worth listening to in the first place. Not so with Ministry – with Ministry, the conventional narrative is almost completely inverted.

Their first album, 1983’s With Sympathy, was a danceable, electro-poppy, if slightly dark affair that gave no hint that by the 21st century they would be known as the elder statesman of industrial-strength heavy metal. Quite a journey – but mid-period Ministry set the standard not for heavy metal as it is known today, but for industrial music of a particularly influential kind.

Ministry's 1988 album, The Land Of Rape & Honey, , is widely considered their best and is an ingenious fusion of the sequenced, pounding rhythms of industrial music with squalling guitars. It’s also infectious as hell – the grating but precisely processed guitar riffs and sequenced drums of “Stigmata” and “The Diety” will burn into your brain and scar you for twenty years (they did for me, anyway!). There are also all-electronic, heavy but danceable electro-industrial workouts like “Golden Dawn” and “The Abortive”.

In later years, Ministry had a long creative dry spell, particularly in the late 1990s when I pretty much wrote them off as washed up, later to recover (in fine form, although with much greater focus on heavy metal) with blistering speed metal albums like last year’s Rio Grande Blood. But they never topped The Land Of Rape & Honey, one of the definitive recordings in industrial music – a musical genre that can be surprisingly conservative and boring. Not in this case.

Whew!! And you thought the 1980s consisted entirely of disposable pop and cheesy synthesizers. I love this was just the 1st half of the alphabet! Check back again for Part II… this was 1st just the 1st half (?) of my personal, beloved alphabet of great music from the 80s. If anyone has anything to add, I would love to hear it… no matter how cheesy it is. Just don’t get mad when I roll my eyes ;-)

Stay tuned. If you dare ;-P