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
Among the many musical mash-ups offered up during Sunday night's marathon 2014 Grammy Awards broadcast, perhaps the final one - featuring an odd, cacophonous and strangely satisfying collaboration between Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and Lindsey Buckingham - was the most interesting. It also happened to be the one most gracelessly cut short by the tidal pull of mass advertising and a sudden, inexplicable Grammys nod to brevity to close the broadcast. Nevertheless, Buckingham's underrated, astonishingly nimble finger-picking guitar alacrity enjoyed at least a moment or two to shine, reminding all fans of pop music that this is a musician who still harbors plenty of untapped dimensions.
Even as Buckingham's longtime band, Fleetwood Mac, prepares to forge ahead with the recent boost of Christine McVie's unexpected return, it falls to guardians of all things '80s music like us to wind the clock back 30 years, to a time when Buckingham enjoyed a brief flash of solo stardom. I recently heard 1984's sparkling "Go Insane" on satellite radio, and that joyful experience served as a stern reminder that Buckingham has always reserved plenty of fine material for his frequent breaks between recording and performing with his most famous ensemble. This fine single - which failed somehow to reach the Billboard Top 20 in 1984 - employs some of Buckingham's signature, playful rhythms along with ample use of synthesizers. The artist's trademark electric guitar wildness ends up disappointingly downplayed here, but the song's memorable melodies and emphasis on Buckingham's expressive vocal range make for engaging, challenging listening. The new wave age wasn't always kind to classic rock artists looking to stay afloat within the MTV revolution, but Buckingham's passionately personal songwriting helps cut through the production quite well. At a tidy three minutes, this is a song that could have perhaps used a little fleshing out, but Buckingham's choice to embrace brevity certainly holds up better than the Grammys' insistence last night on ending the show with a commerce-happy whimper.
- Sample or download "Go Insane" here.
- Compare prices on Lindsey Buckingham solo CDs here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of Reprise/Warner
It may be somewhat easy for music lovers to get caught up in the majesty of New York City rock and roll poets from time to time. After all, there is always an ongoing multitude of such figures, even if far too many of them receive obituaries a bit prematurely. This week I've gravitated toward the late great Jim Carroll, a multi-dimensional hardscrabble artist who chronicled street life not only as a musician but also a legitimate literary figure. Unfortunately, Carroll remains best known for his seminal punk rock death anthem "People Who Died," which is undeniably an indelible tune with a distinctive blend of grisly slice-of-life imagery (sometimes literally involving slicing) and heartfelt tribute. Still, there's much more to this artist than just that one song, especially one that sometimes inspires listeners to view it as a humorous piece rather than an earnest one.
Musically speaking, Carroll's legacy probably does hinge largely on the Jim Carroll Band's 1980 LP from which his most famous track is taken, the driving, memorable Catholic Boy. That's far from a slight to make that statement, as Carroll remained quite busy during his four-decade career alternating between poetry, memoir, fiction, rock and roll, and spoken-word recordings. Still, Catholic Boy contains a handful of straight-ahead punk rock classics, including a sly, powerful lead-off track in "Wicked Gravity." Vocally, Carroll often resembles another unsung New York legend, one of punk rock's other accomplished Renaissance men, Richard Hell. However, there's always room for another singer-songwriter who is more than capable of capturing desperation on various levels of musical artistry. "I want a world without gravity, it could be just what I need," Carroll sings, creating yet another unforgettable clarion call espousing the beauty of breaking rules.
- Sample or download "Wicked Gravity" here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of Atco/Atlantic/Rhino
At a certain point of the '80s - round about 1984, come to think of it - the only place to hear music that didn't sound like Madonna, Def Leppard or Huey Lewis & the News was college radio. I mean, it's really just that simple. One didn't stand a chance as a resident of almost any locale throughout small-town and suburban America of hearing R.E.M. or The Replacements at that point unless someone in a nearby social circle was in college or somehow otherwise linked to independent, underground music. It probably won't surprise you if you're a longtime or even occasional visitor to this site that I didn't happen to be lucky enough to be in that small, fortunate category at that time. Sadly, I'm not even certain I heard the term college rock until sometime during the latter half of the '80s, and I'd imagine it took me a couple of years after that to even listen to any music from that evolving genre. I shake my head even as I type such an embarrassing, cringe-worthy admission, but I do try to be honest and humble about my status as a pretty damn slow learner about certain things.
Anyway, I'll dispense with the lamentations now to focus on a piece of music I encountered this week (thanks, SiriusXM's The Loft) that I would have given anything to have known about in 1984 - or even 1989, for that matter. Connecticut jangle pop band Miracle Legion even received some modest MTV airplay, I hear (hey, my folks didn't even have cable until 1987 - take a moment to weep for me if you must), of its brilliant early alternative single "The Backyard." I actually have a literal if small burning pit in my stomach thinking about all the years I've missed out on hearing this masterpiece, which not only presents one of the greatest examinations of childhood nostalgia in rock music history ("The world was so big and I was so small, and your voice was always the loudest of all") but also perfects the chiming guitars of jangle pop years before these great things were even officially acknowledged. Even if you only occasionally partake of guitar pop in your daily listening activities, please do the universe a favor and make room in your life for this song, this band and the many others you may not even know about yet.
- Sample or download "The Backyard" here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rough Trade Records
Country music singer-songwriter and seasoned guitarist Steve Wariner delivered an easy-going, melodic sound during his successful '80s run as a major chart-topping artist. Even so, his popular songs during that period always remained strongly tied to traditional country in terms of instrumentation, tone and melancholy lyrical focus. Never quite a member of the early-'80s country-pop, Urban Cowboy movement and neither clearly labeled as a New Traditionalist, Wariner simply produced sharply written, beautifully arranged songs that deserved their country chart success. Although plenty of his songs were eclectic and broadly appealing enough to attract pop music listeners, Wariner's devotion to mentors like Dottie West and Chet Atkins perhaps kept him from seeming like a prime candidate for crossover success.
Nevertheless, fans of both pop and rock music should find plenty to like in Wariner's lean and passionate sense of songcraft. "Some Fools Never Learn" - a 1985 No. 1 North American country single from the LP One Good Night Deserves Another - clearly merits mention as a standout track but is by no means Wariner's only example of genre transcendence. As a solo artist, Wariner's gifts announce him more than anything else as a skilled singer-songwriter, regardless of categorization. But perhaps better than any of his laudable qualities as a musician, Wariner's classic tenor communicates longing, disappointment and hope more deeply than the army of current contemporary country artists who seem more concerned with wearing stylish hats and making sure their voice sounds "country" enough than writing and singing high-quality music. It's already too late, I guess, to keep me from sounding like an old fogey here, but I'm fairly confident it's more than nostalgia that sends me running for '80s country like this when I feel the urge to partake in the mainstream strain of that musical style.
- Sample or download "Some Fools Never Learn" here.
- Compare prices on Steve Wariner CDs here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of MCA Records
To hear the remaining original members of KISS tell it, the title adjective of this week's selection applies quite aptly to the song's composer. However, Ace Frehley himself would probably retort that his no-rules, freewheeling approach to guitar playing contributed highly to making KISS the "biggest and best rock band in the world" way back when. Now that KISS has been announced as an official inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 2014, a renewed interest in all things KISS has certainly created an opening for further examination of the '80s career (as solo artist and bandleader) for that band's famed original lead guitarist. The jury remains out on whether (and how) the members of KISS may come together in live performance for this spring's induction ceremony, but there's no arguing that Frehley's loud, frenetic and nimble style helped birth and define the KISS sound for close to a decade during the band's peak era.
During the mid '80s, Frehley put together a hard rock band to advance the solo career he began in 1978 (along with all three KISS bandmates at the time) with a much-hyped, self-titled solo record. That band, cleverly christened Frehley's Comet in time for the group's 1987 release of the same name, featured longtime Frehley collaborators John Regan and Tod Howarth. And although the bombastic, self-important "Rock Soldiers" from that record deftly reflects Frehley's personality as frontman, I look to 1988's Second Sighting for today's feature presentation. "Insane" is built firmly on Frehley's signature guitar pyrotechnics, but it also happens to work exceedingly well as a straightforward statement of its composer's instinctive musical aesthetic. Though never exactly an accomplished rock vocalist, Frehley here delivers an energetic performance of a song that celebrates the flashy, good-time elements of rock and roll. It doesn't pretend to be anything more than a light-hearted, fun romp - and because Frehley has long been a better-than-average song craftsman, it doesn't need to be anything else, either. Lest anyone forget Frehley's importance to the classic KISS sound and approach to theatrical rock, the no-frills output of Frehley's Comet serves as a solid reminder.
- Sample or download "Insane" here.
- Compare prices on Ace Frehley and Frehley's Comet CDs here.
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Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino Atlantic