Having rediscovered recently that VH1 Classic does still broadcast music programming of considerable interest to '80s music fans, I recently caught a rebroadcast of just a few minutes of an old episode of the classic modern rock series 120 Minutes. That was just long enough to witness the creepy majesty of one of early goth rock's most interesting bands, British group Killing Joke. The music video for the compelling "A New Day" is probably not best viewed under the influence of any sort of intoxicant, as lead singer Jaz Coleman strikes an affecting Grand Guignol-esque pose that has a tendency to stay burned on the brain. Still, this is only a small part of the story of this track - and the versatile overall gifts of Killing Joke as well.
Though the band is probably known better for the novelty 1984 tune "Eighties," this track from the same year far better captures the brooding but energetic style of this highly intriguing, always original post-punk outfit. Haunting, arpeggiated guitars work in tandem with Coleman's forceful vocal style to create a bona fide rock sound that clashes wonderfully with punishing, pre-industrial percussive beats. Frequent visitors to this site may be a bit surprised to hear of my affinity for the kind of repetitive, plodding arrangement on display here, but sometimes intensity and a partially anti-melodic approach can accomplish much with minimal aural accoutrements. That's a fancy way of saying I don't really know why I enjoy "A New Day" as much as I do, but I can't deny its power and skin-burrowing appeal.
- Sample or download "A New Day" here.
- Watch the song's 1984 music video here.
- Compare prices on Killing Joke CDs here.
- Top Psychedelic Furs Songs of the '80s
- Post-Punk Genre Profile
Single Cover Image Courtesy of E'G Records
Long-term rock music fans can probably agree that the experience of listening to some music can be optimal only if carried out in a particular track order or collection, often that presented on a seminal album or single release. In the age of digital music, such a traditional approach has frequently flirted with extinction - even if plenty of purists remain to insist on the "proper" way to hear great albums and even just great songs. Remember the whole mix tape concept? Ah well, there may not be that many of us left, but when the tendrils of commerce occasionally extend to allow the preservation of such mementos, it is certainly a time for noting if not outright celebration.
Visitors to this site may not be fully aware that among the many '80s music discoveries I've had the privileged pleasure of making during my seven-year tenure as '80s guide, Canadian new wave, power pop and straight-ahead rock band The Kings is one of the first and most memorable. It's been a few years since I've sung the praises of the original Toronto-based quartet, but there are actually many reasons to revisit the career of one of the best early-'80s should-have-been-huge bands from a musically rich (if sometimes underrated) era. However, I must admit that the catalyst for this week's feature is the recent official digital release of the iconic but criminally seldom-heard "This Beat Goes On/Switchin' to Glide." For the past decade of digital music availability, there had been no easy way to get this essential Kings experience, but now at least that particular injustice has been rectified. It doesn't make up for the many examples of overlooked but highly worthy '80s music that remains languishing in oblivion, but it's something.
I'll close this musing by making an analogy that should serve clearly to compliment The Kings and its central place in '80s music legend. One of my favorite Elton John songs (or combo selections, if you will) has always been the symbiotically linked "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding." Reaching back into John's sprawling, rather hard rock-friendly period, this piece of music has its greatest impact when heard uncut and without interruption, as intended. The same can definitely be said of The Kings' segued classic spotlighted here. Just listen for yourself.
- Sample or download the "original radio segue" version of "This Beat Goes On/Switchin' to Glide" here.
- Top 10 Canadian Artists of the '80s
- The Kings Are Here and More Album Review
- Top Elton John Songs of the '80s
Single Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/Elektra
As lamented last week in this space, recent events continue to force pop music fans into facing the frequently denied mortality of our musical heroes. The April 26 death of country music legend George Jones - while not entirely unexpected given his age, recent health and long-time courtship with hard living - silences a major American music figure. Still, our sadness is tempered by the realization that Jones has left behind a tremendous number of quality recordings that will always (barring a dystopian tragedy of culture-erasing proportions) keep his one-of-a-kind, whiskey-laced lonesome vocals widely available to us all. As it happens, this sweeping statement applies to Jones' activity during the '80s almost as much as any other era in which he worked so tirelessly across six decades. Influential to almost every artist working within genres even marginally related to country (including Americana, roots rock and the modern commercial country Jones himself often disdained), this consummate interpretive singer enjoyed a remarkably consistent career filled with moving performances. And though Jones' absence will be felt deeply by those who appreciate music at its most primal and vulnerably human, his death will likely generate as much celebration and commemoration as outright pain. After all, if anyone lived a full, bursting-at-the-seams life, it was certainly The Possum.
To kick off the '80s, Jones scored a top U.S. country hit with what many observers still see as the greatest country song ever recorded, the immortal "He Stopped Loving Her Today." And while that tune's focus on mortality, heartbreak and the inseparable relationship between those two concepts will continue to receive justified attention for as long as these issues continue to grip our emotions, I'll choose a slightly different way of remembering the majesty of Jones. 1981's "Still Doin' Time" may be another one of Jones' three No. 1 country hits of the '80s, but outside of country music circles it remains a relatively little-known commodity. That's a shame - if not a surprise - and probably results from the fiercely honky-tonk sound and themes found here, which Jones made a career of exploring. Without resorting to cliches on any level, Jones takes a song co-written by a Nashville songwriter in his twenties at the time (Michael Heeney) and imbues it with grizzled life experience, all the while directly treating archetypal country music topics like drinking, prison, cheating and (last but probably least recognized) self-loathing. It's a classic, just like Jones' immortal voice and his enduringly towering impact on American pop culture.
- Sample or download "Still Doin' Time" here.
- Compare prices on George Jones CDs here.
- Top Authentic Country Music Artists of the '80s
- Top Country Pop Songs of the '80s
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic
About this time last year, it was starting to seem like the flood of rock and roll deaths in 2012 was simply never going to end. After all, stretching roughly from the untimely death of Whitney Houston in February to the end of July, the pop/rock music world lost at least a dozen giants from within its ranks. Thankfully, there had been a bit of a lull in that department in the months since - until somewhat recently, when the fates seem to be attempting a catch-up. Even just this week, in fact, music fans have had to deal with the loss of folk legend Richie Havens and Divinyls frontwoman Chrissy Amphlett. Perhaps deeper under the radar but no less significant was the passing April 15 of Scott Miller, the creative and unsung mastermind of influential American college rock band Game Theory.
As is the case with a bevy of fantastic '80s music finds waiting to be discovered, I'd like to be able to say the genius of Scott Miller has long been wildly apparent to me as a semi-professional musicologist. But I'd be lying with abandon if I claimed to have had anything but a passing appreciation up until now for the Paisley Underground-tinged, cerebral power pop of Game Theory. It's unfortunate that premature death serves as such a reliable catalyst for the re-evaluation of an artist's life's work, but this sudden loss will certainly serve as an opportunity for me to catch up on what I've been missing, that's for certain. "Crash Into June," a standout track from the band's 1986 LP Big Shot Chronicles, is nothing short of three-minute pop perfection, filled with unique melodic turns and a positively infectious synth/organ hook during its driving bridge. Visiting Miller's official website this week has certainly delivered its share of devastating revelations, as the sad news of this fine artist's death was accompanied by the bittersweet disclosure that Miller was in the process of working up a new Game Theory album. The welcome availability of the band's out-of-print catalogue in MP3 format on that same website may be small solace, but it is a generous and appreciated one.
- Listen to "Crash Into June" in its entirety here.
- Top '80s Songs of The Bangles
- Top Melodic Pop Songs from '80s College Rock Artists
- Official Scott Miller Website
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Enigma
Blessed (or cursed, in some ways) by an ongoing association with music royalty through collaboration, marriage and direct family ties, country and roots rock artist Carlene Carter produced three interesting albums during the early '80s that proved she was a bona fide talent even when such links were put aside. The daughter of June Carter Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, Carter's entire coming of age must have been riddled with the expectations of a massive legacy. Nevertheless, she had established a legitimate solo career in her early twenties that included a romantic as well as professional partnership with English pub rock and roots rock legend Nick Lowe, with whom she established an entertaining, throwback sound that blended country, rockabilly and pop music elements in creative ways. Over the years, perhaps Carter has been overshadowed by the career of stepsister Rosanne Cash and the many musical accomplishments of her family lineage. But this is a singular artist who has maintained a fiercely independent approach to her own particular craft.
"Madness" is an album track from 1980's Musical Shapes that certainly bears the mark of new husband Lowe, but it's important to note that composing duties for that record fell almost exclusively to Carter herself and occasionally some unique co-writers such as Dave Edmunds and Doobie Brothers member John McFee. Vocally, Carter definitely represented a breath of fresh air during the period's general focus on country pop and new wave. Aided by Lowe's lean production and her own brash, renegade spirit, this tune could have easily made Carter a genuine star a full decade before she finally broke through, briefly, as a commercial if somewhat neo-traditionalist country artist. Sadly, it did no such thing, instead remaining a bit of a relic - fully apart from the '80s music zeitgeist.
- Listen to "Madness" in its entirety here.
- Compare prices on Carlene Carter CDs here.
- Top Nick Lowe Songs of the 80s
- Top Genuine Country Music Artists of the '80s
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.
I'll go ahead and get this (literally) shameless plug out of the way, but it does need to be said. Mike Marrone, music director of Sirius XM's brilliant channel, The Loft, is one of the world's foremost champions of great music across all genres and eras. Now, the reason I begin with such a seemingly left-field introduction is because - without Mike's professional recommendation the other day - I would still be completely unaware of O-Positive, the sophisticated late-'80s Boston guitar pop band that should have become and should yet remain one of the era's well-established legends. But we all know that's not always - or even often - the way the world shakes out, especially when it comes to that thing we call entertainment.
As is often the case with a discovery like this, the particular track selected may not be of the utmost importance. O-Positive, as it turns out, is one of those near-miss bands that doesn't bother recording duds. On that fateful day last week, Marrone happened to spin the lovely "Holding On to You" from the band's 1990 major-label debut, so because of the decade-oriented parameters of this site I shift here to an earlier track, released independently in EP format a couple of years prior. Lead singer and primary songwriter Dave Herlihy possesses a magnetic, haunting voice that fits perfectly within the romantic, intertwining instrumentation laid out by the rest of the band. Music lovers looking for aesthetically pleasing, distinctive and moving pop/rock can set up quite a happy home melting into this band's catalogue. "up, Up, UP" has a tendency to guide the listener in exactly the direction referenced in the title, and I don't think I'll lead you wrong to say that's a typical response to any number of tracks you can unearth while browsing online. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem particularly easy to purchase this music through the usual channels, but I certainly encourage you to keep trying.
- Listen to "up, Up, UP" in its entirety here.
- Top '80s U.S. Music Scenes
- Top Songs from '80s New Wave Band The Cars
- 'Til Tuesday Artist Profile
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Link Records
As a relatively longtime power pop enthusiast, I was less than pleased recently when I realized - upon hearing this absolutely indispensable guitar rock gem of the early new wave era - that I had been so long unaware of the fine British pub rock band that conceived and recorded it. Led by cerebral, slightly nerdy frontman Clive Gregson, this group produced some genuinely superior music at a time when it probably seemed to some music observers that such bands were a dime (or even a nickel) a dozen. However, one listen to the exemplary "Girls Are Always Right" - as well as the entire 1980 LP (Where Are All the Nice Girls) on which it appears - confirms instantly the melodic singularity and compelling lovelorn perspective of Gregson's nimble compositions. For me, this is one of those songs whose specifications I needed immediately to write down or save in a text file in order to procure right away when time or opportunity allowed. The joy through pain and self-analysis espoused on this tune certainly invites similarities to the best contemporary work of Elvis Costello or Graham Parker, but Any Trouble is far from just another imitator of the skinny tie singer-songwriter tradition.
Although the band didn't make it through the first half of the '80s, Gregson has remained a steady guitar pop presence over the years as both a solo artist and collaborator with such accomplished musicians as Richard Thompson and singer-songwriter Boo Hewerdine. All the while, Any Trouble has remained on the periphery of early college rock discussions - particularly in the U.S. - and that's clearly a significant oversight. As a single, this song boasts everything needed to make a mellow power pop classic: emotive, soulful lead vocals, chiming guitars and inexhaustible hooks. Even if you - just as I - have had trouble getting this band onto your active playlists, you won't find it the least bit difficult to return to the well once you've tasted the aural refreshment.
- Sample or download "Girls Are Always Right" here.
- Top Elvis Costello Songs of the '80s
- Graham Parker Artist Profile
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Stiff Records
Back in the late '70s, when my early childhood pop music listening tastes pretty much followed the middle of the road (MOR), country pop and soft rock leanings of my 40-something parents, one of my first concerts naturally included Mac Davis, one of the wry, widely appealing kings of these genres. Hey, all music enthusiasts have to start somewhere, and as starting points go, the eclectic, easygoing stylings of Mr. Davis are far from the worst place to begin. Aside from the fact that this artist's top-selling 1980 album, It's Hard to Be Humble, possesses a cover photo that seems to have been taken during the latter, tipsy portion of a Playgirl photo shoot, Davis is a genuinely accomplished songwriter whose compositions often tend to fare best when they're relatively serious. That record's title track, for example, doesn't extend much beyond silly and half-heartedly self-deprecating. But Davis is capable of much more.
As a matter of fact, that same year's "Let's Keep It That Way," the album's second Top 10 single on the country charts, deftly handles a variation on an age-old country music theme: the cheatin' song. However, by zeroing in on the moments just before romantic betrayal is to take place, Davis captures a specificity that helps this track stretch beyond its pleasant but perhaps too-relaxed melodic gifts. A few country artists of the period attempted, with spotty results, to treat this same theme (Earl Thomas Conley and Keith Whitley coming to mind most readily), but Davis manages to bring some heft to his gentle, proactive warning to would-be adulterers everywhere: "So before we forget/We're not cheaters yet/Let's keep it that way." There are far more fiery love songs out there to be discovered in practically every genre, but there is something deeply refreshing about the grounded, modest and yet still urgent manner of this one.
- Sample or download "Let's Keep It That Way" here.
- Compare prices on Mac Davis CDs here.
- Top Country Pop Songs of the '80s
- Top Authentic Country Music Artists of the '80s
Album Cover Image Courtesy of MCA
In light of singer/actor Tim Curry's history of hamming it up on stage and screen as the main Rocky Horror pop culture icon, it could be easy to dismiss his brief period of solo work as yet another chapter in the same story. In fact, it's not unreasonable to imagine that the lyrical focus of this song could be the proper way to serve up a Frank-N-Furter to the ravenous cult at a midnight screening. However, ultimately Curry's string of three solo albums released during the late '70s and early '80s have a bit more to offer than mere novelty. Not always much more, frankly (apologies for that), but certainly Curry has little to prove in terms of his versatility as a performer. Therefore, when he's having fun with a track like 1979's "I Do the Rock," Curry earns enough good will to allow him a few indulgences.
Luckily, in the case of "On a Roll," a straight-ahead guitar rock track from Curry's final solo release, 1981's Simplicity, the singer generally stays true to the aesthetic promised within his one-word LP title. This isn't life-changing music, to be sure, but the tune's guitar riffs avoid new wave and arena rock cliches nimbly enough to establish a better than decent mainstream rock performance. In fact, at its best, Curry's rock vocal style recalls fellow Englishman Tom Robinson more than it retreads the former's most famous role. Plus, coming in at just under three minutes, the track never wears out its welcome or aspires to anything more than an easy rock and roll spirit. When this record came out, Curry was still a few years away from scarring generations of TV viewers with his creepy take on clown from hell Pennywise in the mini-series adaptation of Stephen King's It. So although we may not be able to recapture fully the innocence of the Rocky Horror salad days, this harmless musical romp does come pretty damn close.
- Listen to "On a Roll" in its entirety here.
- Top 10 Arena Rock Artists of the '80s
- Top 10 Novelty Songs of All Time
Album Cover Image Courtesy of A&M
I have previously considered The Comsat Angels, one of the most nimble British post-punk bands of the '80s at combining keyboards and guitars in a lyrical way, for a feature in this space. I can't precisely say why it's taken so long for me to spotlight this band, other than vaguely blaming the centrally flighty nature of nonlinear brain functions. Nevertheless, now is the time to give this fine quartet its due - or at least a portion of that abstract notion.
Unfortunately, one remains highly unlikely to hear The Comsat Angels on a typical '80s flashback radio station, as the too-familiar tracks and biggest hits continue to dominate such limited playlists. On the other hand, it took me just a couple of minutes to hear the excellent 1984 single "You Move Me" while doing a random tour of the wonderful expanse of Internet radio. As this track demonstrates, The Comsat Angels' brand of post-punk is undoubtedly a muscular, full-bodied one, dependent as much on creative guitar riffs as the synthesizer strains that somehow earned the band a less than accurate label as a synth pop group. But this particular song - and perhaps even more the band's earliest work during the new wave era - clearly proves that this band immediately offers a far richer palette than categorization could hope to capture. In turns brooding and atmospheric, this tune also spends plenty of its running time projecting a uniquely soulful approach to early alternative music and the burgeoning movement known as modern rock. Of course, it doesn't hurt either that the band happens to feature a bass player called Kevin Bacon and a keyboard player, Andy Peake, who sports a pretty damn stylish surname. But those details, though compelling, are beside the point when it comes to ongoing '80s music appreciation.
- Sample or download a demo version of "You Move Me" here.
- Listen to the extended version of "You Move Me" here.
- Compare prices on Comsat Angels CDs here.
- Robyn Hitchcock Artist Profile
- Top 10 English Artists of the '80s
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Jive