The combination of Beatles-inspired pop music with complex progressive rock impulses probably seemed like a good idea to a number of bands over the years. Trouble is, not many teams of musicians can pull off such a feat without embarrassing themselves. So thanks to Canada, then, for the exploratory trio Klaatu, a band not only oddly brilliant enough to name itself after the essentially peaceful if foreboding alien character from The Day the Earth Stood Still but also responsible for a stretch of genre-defying rock music during the late '70s and very early '80s. Like The Beatles, Klaatu proved itself highly versatile and often unpredictable as a creative unit, bouncing between relatively accessible pop melodies and dense, challenging compositions from album to album. Unfortunately, the off-kilter tendencies of Klaatu pretty much guaranteed that the group's career would be short. Luckily, '80s music fans were able to cash in on the wonderment, if only briefly.
Klaatu's final original album, 1981's Magentalane, nearly never came to fruition at all, thanks to the poor performance of its predecessor. But come to be it somehow did, even if the establishment of guitarist Dee Long's recording studio at this point all but guaranteed that further original material would be highly unlikely. Even so, "A Million Miles Away" delivers on a number of levels, combining an introductory burst of hard rock guitars with synthesizers and then ultimately the unique tenor lead vocals of John Woloschuk. The track may be plenty orchestrated at times, but it also retains the excitement of riff-ready rock and roll. Even better, the transcendent lead vocal performance here simultaneously brings to mind disparate, talented rock singers like America's Gerry Beckley, Iain Sutherland of the Sutherland Brothers & Quiver, and even occasionally Nick Lowe. This is fresh and fun music that defies categorization and even placement in any particular era. As such, it attains a sort of rock and roll mortality.
- Sample or download "A Million Miles Away" here.
- Compare prices on Klaatu CDs here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of Daffodil
Waking up on a rainy Monday may not generally be one of the greatest experiences of life, but unsettled weather (and unsettled emotions, for that matter) can certainly be made more tolerable by the presence of music like this. Even before I was awake and alert enough to acknowledge the literal connection between this band's name and today's meteorological conditions, I felt I had stumbled upon an instance of '80s music kismet. So without risking excessive self-congratulation, this is a pretty damn fine choice, if I do say so myself. Which, of course, I just did.
Anyway, The Rain Parade emerged from the Paisley Underground scene of Los Angeles during the early '80s, embracing the chiming, jangly guitars of The Byrds as well as a sedate, delicate devotion to melody and harmony. The group - led by brothers David and Steven Roback - didn't necessarily attract widespread critical acclaim, as some prominent self-appointed purveyors of music quality expressed no shortage of disdain for a sound they felt was nothing if not derivative and uninspired. However, when it comes to thick layers of mood, dreamy melancholy and gentle sonic beauty, a listener could do far worse and could hardly do better than the lovely "You Are My Friend." Music fans appreciative of power pop and particularly revival bands like Teenage Fanclub will find plenty to enjoy here, from the deliberate, ringing chords and psychedelic lead guitars of Matt Piucci to the sad, soft vocal delivery of Steven Roback. Even if brother David had already left the band by the 1984 recording of this track (eventually going on to form similarly dreamy outfits Opal and Mazzy Star), the remaining quartet strikes a confident blow with this tune for staying indoors and simply contemplating, if nothing else, the basic misery of the human condition. OK, I think it's time for me to get up and get dressed now.
- Sample or download "You Are My Friend" here.
- Compare prices on Rain Parade CDs here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of Enigma
Rootsy English rock band The Wonder Stuff presented a genuinely exciting alternative to what was widely considered alternative music during the late '80s. In other words, the band's unique blend of frenetic punk rock energy with well-placed touches of Hammond organ and fiddle sounds immediately fresh and engaging. By this time, bands like The Smiths, The Cure and Psychedelic Furs had certainly made a name for British alternative music in both the U.K. and U.S. However, The Wonder Stuff quietly forged a new path, taking some cues from Ireland's U2 but also drawing from organic, earthy American music for inspiration as well. As a lead singer and frontman, Miles Hunt sounds as much like Material Issue's Jim Ellison as he does any of his contemporary countrymen. This versatility makes it seem even stranger that this great band remains virtually unknown in the U.S. as a key representative of early alternative rock.
"Cartoon Boyfriend" deserves attention as a standout track from 1989's Hup if for no other reason than its priceless one-line lyric in the chorus: "Cartoon boyfriend, when you gonna rub yourself out?" However, there are a multitude of other reasons to recommend this track, not to mention several other highly distinct tunes from this highly underrated record. In the specific case of "Cartoon Boyfriend," jaunty fiddle parts bounce exuberantly against chiming guitars to create an exhilarating listening experience. Still, the delivery and urgent style of Hunt's lead vocals ultimately command the greatest attention, even if violinist Martin Bell serves as a significant secret weapon. Quite simply, this is wonderful stuff, if you'll excuse the inevitable double pun.
- Sample or download "Cartoon Boyfriend" here.
- Compare prices on The Wonder Stuff CDs here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of Polydor
Early-'80s American arena rock band Spider quietly boasted three underrated but highly influential '80s music figures. The band itself never really went anywhere beyond a couple of minor hits, but two of its primary creative linchpins - just in time for Women's History Month - are undoubtedly female '80s music icons. Let me explain why you should take me at my word despite a general lack of obvious evidence.
Lead vocalist Amanda Blue injects a sweeping, ABBA-tinged majesty to AOR on "What's Going On," which just so happens to be co-written by bandmates Holly Knight and Anton Fig. Knight is none other than the writer or co-writer of such '80s rock classics as Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield," Tina Turner's "Better Be Good to Me" and Heart's "Never" and "There's the Girl." And if that's not enough to recommend this band, Fig - for those unaware - is the longtime drummer for David Letterman's late-night house band. Those tidbits certainly fail to tell the whole story of this interesting band that could never quite turn its brand of new wave/hard rock fusion into the stuff of early MTV-era mass consumption. That's one reason why, as always, it's a good idea to turn directly to the music for lasting evidence. The graceful blend of this tune's central guitar riff, haunting synth lines and Blue's expressive, aching vocal style deserves more than just passing attention from those interested in more than merely exhuming '80s music relics. Shades of Knight's eventual hitmaking prowess can certainly be heard in the song's sturdy verse melody and its appropriately placed soaring harmonies, but there's also a toughness here that should have allowed Spider to cash in on at least a sliver of the Benatar mania just around the corner.
- Sample or download "What's Going On" here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of Dreamland
This Week's Forgotten Gem of the '80s - R.I.P. Buren Fowler - Drivin' N' Cryin' - "Honeysuckle Blue"
While attending university in North Carolina during the early '90s, I had the privilege of seeing a handful of live shows headlined by the eclectic, rootsy college rock band Drivin' N' Cryin'. A few of those performances rank among some of the finest rock music concerts I've ever experienced, while a couple of others seemed a touch disinterested if not completely phoned in. Nevertheless, the Atlanta band has remained a constant personal favorite of mine through the years, the sum of which (sad to say) has now reached a full quarter-century since a few friends of mine introduced me to the joys of the band's late-'80s records Scarred but Smarter, Whisper Tames the Lion, and 1989's Mystery Road. I've always enjoyed the latter record, arguably, a bit more than its predecessors, mainly because of the wistful blends of riff-happy rock guitar with folk rock and country rock-inflected impulses.
One of my most memorable Drivin' N' Cryin' shows took place at a now-defunct club in Charlotte back in the fall of 1991, on a night when I ran into a female acquaintance from my college who had also traveled east for the show. I was convinced (and probably correct) that I didn't really have a chance of making a romantic connection with her, and yet somehow I ended up standing right next to her during the show - against the stage in a sea of bodies. This welcome, surprising development was soon interrupted by a drunken altercation with a bouncer that I instigated and for which I narrowly avoided physical comeuppance by melting smoothly into the crowd. But just before that bonehead moment, Drivin' N' Cryin' guitarist Buren Fowler plucked my temporary swaying partner from the front row and encouraged her to dance on stage during a crowd favorite, probably "Straight to Hell." I didn't really resent this move even then, and I remember it particularly fondly now given the sad news last weekend that Fowler died in his sleep at age 54 in his Athens home. After all, this impromptu stage invite (a la Springsteen's famous "Dancing in the Dark" Courteney Cox music video) was a moment of pure rock and roll joy. The image of Fowler rocking out on stage in a smoky club (when clubs were still allowed to be smoky) with his blond locks hanging down is probably always the way I'll remember him. Certainly not as the guy who ruined a college hook-up that resided only in my imagination anyway.
So which Drivin' N' Cryin' song serves as the best musical epitaph for Fowler upon his untimely death? That's a pretty excellent question, actually, as probably a half-dozen tracks from Mystery Road come to mind immediately as fitting remembrances. Ultimately, though, I find myself wavering between "House for Sale" and "Honeysuckle Blue," both of which boast some fine, contemplative lyrics about the passing of time and the unavoidable nature of constant change. Just because I must make a decision at some point, I'll go with the latter track, an inspiring blend of power guitars and gentle, meandering melody. I don't know if Fowler has located the "promised land" referenced in Kevn Kinney's lyrics here, but I have a feeling that most souls would be doing pretty well if they could ever find themselves "lost and found and lost again to the honeysuckle blue." Rest peacefully, Mr. Fowler; you are being remembered well this week, I'm sure, by more than just this particular wandering former college student with an authority issue.
- Sample or download "Honeysuckle Blue" here.
- Compare prices on Drivin' N' Cryin' CDs here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of Island
My first thought when I encountered the music of The Silencers recently is that this is exactly the kind of jittery, jangly, guitar-centered music I should have been listening to back in 1987, but damned if my ears weren't too often otherwise engaged at the time. Of course, that was basically at the same moment I was discovering classic rock music - back when that term did not yet entirely refer to a dusty dinosaur dominated by stagnant, predictable playlists. Of course, it would have been nice to hear this particular Scottish band on my local classic rock radio station of choice a quarter century ago - and, truthfully, I can't entirely rule out the possibility that this unsung band might have been spun on occasion there. Nevertheless, I have to admit I don't remember hearing the band (or this song) then, or even in the years immediately following, when similarly styled bands like U2 and The Alarm became highly familiar to my cassette players.
Even so, such a confession does not stop me in the least from celebrating the excellent track "Painted Moon" right this very moment. Unlike '80s-era U2, The Silencers demonstrate more of a concerted devotion to injecting a strong groove into their music than an insistence on political posturing and abject seriousness. Therefore, the simple but commanding rhythm of this track - combined with the alluring, breathy vocals of frontman Jimmie O'Neill - casts an intoxicating spell over the listener that is not reliant on excessive didacticism or preachiness. As such, a song like this featuring a compelling central guitar riff plants itself into the listening consciousness as an easygoing, friendly and utterly respectable earworm. The Silencers never need to beat their listeners over the head with meaning or context. Instead, the band unleashes a relentless, haunting mid-tempo attack that dances on through, never overstaying its welcome. Unfortunately, that casual brilliance may be part of the reason we don't hear about this band all the time (or ever, for that matter). But that makes for a lovely find any day of the week, that much is certain.
- Sample or download "Painted Moon" here.
- Compare prices on The Silencers CDs here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of RCA
By the late '80s, it should have no longer been a novelty to find African Americans actively involved in the making of heavy guitar rock music. Unfortunately, though, it was. Even worse, it pretty much still is today. That truth deeply puzzles me given that the most groundbreaking, explosive guitarist of all time (Jimi Hendrix, anyone?) was a black American and more than a few of the most influential artists of early rock and roll also had such a heritage. Somehow, though, hard rock music has continued to remain painfully and disproportionately white for going on a half century. Nevertheless, soulful progressive metal band King's X has done its best over the years to change this embarrassing demographic fact, spending its three decades of existence brashly blending disparate genres and employing the inspiring, gravelly, blues-tinged howl of lead vocalist Doug Pinnick to lead the way into, perhaps, a colorblind brave new world. Oh, we're not there yet, to be sure, and I'm as much to blame as anyone, I suppose, for bringing up race in lieu of an exclusive focus on just the music. But these are sometimes the things we think about, I guess, for better and for worse.
In a purely musical sense, King's X is an inventive power trio that rose up during the mid '80s out of the American heartland, stubbornly searching for new ways to deliver distorted guitar riffs, explore spiritual themes, and generally make joyful rock and roll noise. 1989's Gretchen Goes to Nebraska remains one of the band's most seminal album releases, functioning certainly as a provocative concept album as well as a simple display of the group's substantial chops. Along with guitarist Ty Tabor and drummer Jerry Gaskill, bass player and lead vocalist Pinnick eschewed typical musical boundaries in favor of a somewhat improvisational, soulfully visceral take on heavy metal and hard rock. As such, it's little surprise that the band was never quite able to reach mass audiences, and in many ways that remains a positive thing. Ultimately, King's X has been able to carve out a serviceable niche into which music lovers seeking an atypical music experience will happily travel. In some ways, "Over My Head" can be seen as one of the most conventional of King's X tracks, if only because the song rests on fairly simple, minimalistic lyrics and an ongoing central guitar riff. However, Pinnick's positively transcendent vocals - punctuated by occasional screams that must make Little Richard beam with pride - take the performance to an entirely unexplored level of gospel-tinged intensity that should nonetheless capture the imaginations of even the fiercely irreligious among us. King's X has typically bristled when observers insist on labeling the group a Christian rock band, and it's easy to see why. This is a band of the people, most interested in what music can do for us all - regardless of individual worldview.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Atlantic
Regular visitors to this site may have noticed a recent influx of content about African-American artists of the '80s. While part of this trend can certainly be attributed to the fact that February is Black History Month, I generally wouldn't want to skew didactic enough to spotlight black '80s music stars constantly for an entire month. On the contrary, I actually just keep finding myself compelled - after admittedly seeking out more than a few soul, funk and urban contemporary artists lately - to continue sampling and singing the praises of musicians who just happen to be black. The truth is, every time I think I have the '80s Quiet Storm or post-disco landscape covered to an appropriate level, I stumble upon another standout that deserves additional spotlight. Of course, I also ought to at least mention the fact that the proportion of non-white '80s musicians covered on this site could use a boost, even if it does smack slightly of an all-at-once sort of approach. But that's enough of my yakkin': let's boogie!
Mississippi native Alexander O'Neal is certainly a lesser-known contemporary of Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson and Ray Parker, Jr., but that's not necessarily reflective of the immense power and majesty of his voice. Specializing in highly romantic, slow-burn ballads full of longing and tenderness, O'Neal generated a number of singles during the latter half of the '80s that deserved a fair shake at becoming '80s pop classics. The reality that he never placed a single higher than No. 25 on Billboard's Hot 100 doesn't take away from the tremendous appeal of this precise, emotive singer. 1985's "If You Were Here Tonight" makes liberal use of electric piano that threatens to sound dated at any moment, but somehow the slick production remains restrained enough to allow O'Neal's sultry, nuanced vocal style to retain top billing. Production, of course, held significant importance for all Quiet Storm recordings of the era, but in this case songwriter and producer Monte Moir carefully maintains a fervent, welcome balance between instrumental heft and one of the era's great soul voices. A significant number of young adults are probably walking around today in no small part thanks to this track, perhaps played late at night by their parents, with the lights down low. I'll go ahead and stop right there before things get uncomfortable.
- Sample or download "If You Were Here Tonight" here.
- Compare prices on Alexander O'Neal CDs here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of Tabu/Epic
Though he surely wouldn't know it, veteran blues and soul singer Clarence Carter ingratiated himself significantly during the mid '80s with an unlikely audience of teenage boys in North Carolina. Such a story probably could come out of quite a few other Southern locales as well, but what really distinguishes Carter's 1986 track "Strokin'" is not necessarily its moderately raunchy but refreshingly frank sexual content. Instead, I find myself still amazed that my friends and I hadn't uncovered some relic of the '70s but instead a contemporary tune by an African-American performer who had seemingly been locked in some sort of pop culture time capsule. We may have been introduced to this artist from a random soul compilation album's TV commercial and been drawn to him at first on a novelty basis, but ultimately Carter deserves note simply for persevering in his attempt to continue making genre-bending, renegade music regardless of commercial trends.
Carter had actually enjoyed a couple of Top 10 pop hits during the late '60s and early '70s, and throughout the latter decade he was somewhat of a fixture for a fairly wide soul audience. However, by the mid '80s, his career had seemingly run out of steam, at least from any remotely commercial perspective. Nevertheless, "Strokin'" gradually became a signature song, playfully filling a mid-'80s void for bawdy soul-blues showmanship. The song's lyrics would probably qualify as the painfully juvenile musings of a middle-aged man if not for the down-home, disarmingly earnest delivery of Carter. Aside from the tune's catchy, laid-back groove - which features some sneaky-good guitar playing - highlights include a lengthy spoken-word section in which Carter asks his listeners rather specific questions about their sex lives. Then, unabashed, he relates some tales from his own sexual romps, coining a new word for abject pleasure with "sassified" and also flirting with the need for outright censorship when his lyrics playfully dance around what could at any second turn into highly explicit rhymes. Beyond the chuckles the song still induces, "Strokin'" ultimately holds up far better than a contemporary rock track that covers similar ground, Billy Squier's "The Stroke." After all, instead of trying so hard to attain some kind of clever double entendre, Carter just comes right out and says what he means, including details about how such a straight-up approach makes him and his sexual partner feel. This directness refreshes even as it surprises the listener with unexpectedly blue content, and that's why Carter's achievement here clearly transcends the somewhat dismissive label of novelty.
- Sample or download "Strokin'" here.
- Watch the music video for "Strokin'" here.
- Compare prices on Clarence Carter CDs here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of Ichiban
The concept of playful, even bubblegum pop punk was relatively new back in 1988, having only been hinted at previously by a handful of artists inspired by the first wave of punk rock on both sides of the Atlantic. Therefore, it's possible that this sparkling 1988 track from England's The Primitives represents one of the earliest and most seminal examples of punk pop done well. Admittedly, the rest of the band's output from 1988's Lovely and 1989's Pure tended to hew more closely to the general style of British indie guitar pop with which the band was often aligned. Nevertheless, "Crash," The Primitives' biggest hit of all (which peaked at No. 5 on the pop charts in the band's native U.K. and No. 3 on the newly formed modern rock charts in the U.S.), sets aside some of the more ethereal elements of the group's sound for a memorably melodic, straightforward attack.
Frontwoman Tracy Tracy channeled important punk rock predecessors (certainly Blondie's Debbie Harry and X's Exene Cervenka spring to mind) to produce her sweet, distinctively British vocal approach. However, this is only one facet of the band's powerfully notable sound, as this track's lovely, arpeggiated guitar opening clearly demonstrates. Guitarist and primary songwriter Paul Court helped craft the shimmering, infectious guitar sound that defined The Primitives from their debut 1986 singles all the way through their torrid late-'80s and early-'90s album output. Ultimately, this is a criminally overrated British guitar rock band from the early alternative rock era that harbors not only one of the great rock frontwomen of all time but also an inspired, relatively unmatched niche sound that fills in significant gaps in the era's musical annals. This track is fun and boppy, to be sure, but it's also sophisticated and artful. The kind of delicate musical balance on display here is something the current practitioners of punk pop and indie guitar pop would do well to remember going forward.
- Sample or download "Crash" here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of RCA