Posts Tagged ‘1980s’


“At Home He’s a Tourist”
Gang of Four

“Here Come Cowboys”
The Psychedelic Furs

(With thanks to Loyal Reader Barb for suggesting this post.)

I’m lucky. I’ve usually had someone in my life who could explain music to me. In the early 1980s, that someone was my friend David Clements.

David hosted elaborate theme parties. The one I remember was based on junk food, which is probably why I remember it. He ran name-that-tune competitions featuring hundreds of songs he had culled from the backwaters of pop. At one of them I got off one of my best-timed lines: “Yes fans never know the names of the songs,” I said, immediately before the Yeshead playing the game blanked on the opening snippet of “Roundabout.”

David managed the Northgate movie theater in Seattle and was a dj on the University of Washington’s student-run station, KCMU. His handle was “The King of Pop,” and the poppier the better. Listening to his show one night, I became so outraged by the parade of Stings, Boy Georges, and Bangles that I called and requested something from Saturday Night Fever. David recognized my voice and promised he would play it if I would drive over to the station in my leisure suit. You couldn’t top that guy.

When I first heard Gang of Four, probably at somebody’s party, they intimidated me. The guitars are angular. They’re like getting elbowed under the basket or stick-checked behind the net. The singer isn’t singing so much as opening a vein. On “Love Like Anthrax,” which begins with what sounds like a guitar expiring inside bagpipes, the singer competes with someone who simply speaks. Occasionally they sing/speak the same line. When they do, it’s so harmonious it’s startling.

Gang of Four’s lyrics take apart our politics, our consumer culture, even our love lives. They don’t put anything back together again, either. Even on their friendliest cut, “I Love a Man in a Uniform,” they’re not all that friendly:

The good life was so elusive
Handouts, they got me down
I had to regain my self respect
So I got into camouflage

They’re The Clash without the heroin and with a darker worldview. And The Clash weren’t exactly cheery. It was exhausting just looking at the album covers. I didn’t want anything to do with them.

But the King of Pop saw further than I did, and he suggested I try them. I did and over time I became hooked. In fact I even have a Gang of Four listening ritual.

Run-DMSteve’s Gang of Four Listening Ritual
1) Realize that I haven’t played anything by Gang of Four in a long while.
2) Wave away sudden upwelling of dread.
3) Hear first notes of first song. Wince. Consider switching to Madonna’s “Vogue.”
4) Hooked again.
5) Pound face into desk.

I’ve listed the three songs at the top of this post for a reason. They’re superficially similar in their structure and in the way they gallop along. “Barracuda” was a hit for Heart, who had fantastic hair and who made hard rock for people who were cautiously venturing beyond Hall & Oates. “Here Come Cowboys” was a late-period example of New Wave by The Psychedelic Furs. It would’ve made a passable B-side to one of their better songs.

“At Home He’s a Tourist,” however, is fucking unbelievable. When it starts I always think, Oh no, it’s Heart, no wait, Psychedelic Furs, oh right, Gang of Four. The guitar sounds like it wants to throw up. But by the song’s end I can’t wait to click Replay.

I have David to thank for some great musical memories, but David was killed in 1985, at the age of 28, while making a night deposit after closing the theater. Two lives were lost that night – David’s, and that of the 19-year-old boy who shot him and who will wake every day of his life with that knowledge. I think of you often, David, and of that B-52s concert we went to at the Coliseum. I wish we had taken Gang of Four’s suggestion and gotten drunk on cheap wine.

Tommy Tutone

In 1969, Sheraton Hotels forced television viewers to memorize their new toll-free reservation number. The fact that after 40 years I can still recall their campaign of flashing numerals and insanely cheerful female voices singing Eight-oh-oh. Three-two-five. Three-five, three-five proves that advertising works. And the fact that in 40 years I have never called 800-325-3535 proves that advertising doesn’t work.

In 1982, history repeated itself, as Tommy Tutone had a hit with “867-5309/Jenny.” (Tommy was the name of the singer; there was no one in the band named Tutone.) The song rose to #4 on the charts and the phone number imprinted itself on our psyches.

“867-5309/Jenny” is about working up the courage to dial a number you found on a bathroom wall. Let’s not think about that again. In the ’80s, Special D and I danced many times to “867-5309/Jenny,” which we heard in bars, clubs, and the midnight dances at science fiction conventions. It’s 3 minutes and 46 seconds of irresistible. It’s perfect for dancing, drinking, and making out. If you’re an air guitarist like me, you know the instrumental break is easy to mimic and short enough not to wear out its welcome.

Run-DMSteve’s Old Technology Shop
“867-5309/Jenny” has joined a class of songs that have become obsolete as the years have flown by. Tommy plans to contact Jenny on a pay phone. A call costs a dime. The same fate has befallen Jim Croce’s “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels),” in which it’s still possible to receive extended assistance from a human representative of the phone company:

Thank you for your time
Oh you’ve been so much more than kind
You can keep the dime

Gary Brooker’s “Switchboard Susan” is also about customer service. It may seem as old-fashioned as “Operator,” and it’s not as sophisticated, but it’s fun to listen to if only because Gary Brooker was once the leader of pretentious twits Procul Harum:

Now when I look at you girl I get an extension
And I don’t mean on Alexander Graham Bell’s invention
Switchboard Susan can we be friends
After six and at weekends

Kodak has stopped making Paul Simon’s Kodachrome. Life before the invention of Amtrak is a central theme in The Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarkesville” as well as in “The Letter,” in which The Box Tops sing, “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane/Ain’t got time to take a fast train.” R.B. Greaves dictates a letter to his secretary in “Take a Letter, Maria.” Today of course he would’ve texted her. And sent a crotch shot.

Tommy, Tommy, who can I turn to?
Tommy Tutone, you’ve given us something that we can hold on to. Despite its message of empowerment through anonymous hookups and communication through devices that no longer exist, “867-5309/Jenny” is a killer song that will live forever. Just like Eight-oh-oh. Three-two-five. Three-five, three-five. Except you can dance to it.

“Everywhere That I’m Not”

We tend to give decades shortcut images as they recede in our rearview mirror. The ’50s are Happy Days. The ’60s are Woodstock. The ’70s are disco. And the ’80s, my favorite decade, are shoulder pads, polo shirts, big hair, and Valley Girls.

OK, those first three are true. But not so for my favorite decade! Musically, the ’80s were much more than power pop quartets of skinny guys in skinny ties, dark sport coats, and leather jackets jangling away on their guitars.

Punk got angrier (Dead Kennedys, Black Flag). Metal got even more ridiculous (Def Leppard, Queensrÿche). Grunge, rap, electronica, and the mushy category called “alternative” got ready to invade the mainstream. Christopher Cross, Phil Collins, and Sting got 20 to life for crimes against humanity. (If only.) But today, as we launch into ’80s Week here at Run-DMSteve, I want to talk about Translator’s “Everywhere That I’m Not.”

Translator was a power pop quartet of skinny guys in skinny ties, dark sport coats, and leather jackets jangling away on their guitars. (Surprise!) They were from San Francisco. They never broke into the Top 40 like their neighbors, Romeo Void, who had a hit with “A Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing).” They never found themselves in regular rotation on MTV like their skinny guys/skinny ties cousins in Seattle, The Allies (“Emma Peel”). But they made a huge impact on the college circuit with “Everywhere That I’m Not,” a downbeat yet driving song about seeing your lost love everywhere you go:

I thought I saw you, out on the avenue
But I guess it was just someone
Who looked a lot like I remember you do

The relentless guitars suggest The Romantics and R.E.M. while producing an undercurrent of despair that neither of those outfits could muster. But what really makes this record for me is the singer, reminding himself that of course that’s not his old flame and leading us into the best sing-along chorus since the Messiah:

’Cause that’s impossible, that’s im-
That’s impossible, that’s im-poss
That’s impossible, that’s im-poss-ible

’Cause you’re in New York but I’m not
You’re in Tokyo but I’m not
You’re in Nova Scotia but I’m not

[whole band now]

Yeah, you’re everywhere that I’m not
Yeah, you’re everywhere that I’m not


I’m not, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not

As far as I’m concerned, Translator has only one other song in their catalog, “Un-alone.” (The official videos of these songs are now 30 years old. You can find them on YouTube, but you wouldn’t want to.) This may sound like a harsh judgment, but consider the thousands of bands that form around the globe every day. How many produce even one memorable song? Translator has two and I love them both. That’s not bad for four guys with petroleum-based styling products in their hair.

MTV went on the air in 1981 and immediately rewrote the musical map. It’s easy to see how round-the-clock music videos made stars of talented people with outlandish personalities, like Michael Jackson and Madonna. I thought it would be more interesting to see what MTV did for a band with loads of talent but no personality. That band would be Dire Straits.

You probably remember their first album, released in 1978, if only for their Top 10 single “Sultans of Swing.” Guitarist Mark Knopfler wrote offbeat songs in an observational style somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger; he and his bandmates could play pop, jazz, and country. Their follow-up, Communiqué (1979), was less of the same, but it established the Dire Straits pattern:

  • The good songs were on the odd-numbered albums.
  • All of their albums sold well in their native UK.
  • Dire Straits made hard rock for people who liked soft rock. If you wanted something tougher than The Doobie Brothers or more authentic than Steely Dan, Dire Straits was the band for you.

Dire Straits’ third album, Making Movies (1980), was easily the band’s best and one of the best albums of the decade. And I say this as someone who doesn’t like soft rock or Knopfler’s voice. “Skateway” and “Romeo and Juliet” are lovely and haunting, and as for “Les Boys,” how often do you stumble across a song about German transvestites?

That ain’t workin’…that’s the way you do it
Because Dire Straits had a profitable history, their label, Warner Bros., was willing to bankroll a venture into the New World of music videos. And they didn’t just slap something together to fill the sudden demand for content, either. The videos for “Skateway” and “Romeo and Juliet,” particularly the former, remain stylish and interesting 30 years later.

Dire Straits was still selling records and MTV was still running their videos in 1985 when they released Brothers in Arms. This was the band’s commercial blockbuster (though the album runs out of gas well before it’s over), and I’m convinced they had MTV to thank. Their big hit, “Money For Nothing,” was perfect for MTV. It had a killer guitar line, you could pick up all the words on the first listen, it was an anti-MTV song for the snobs in the audience, and the insanely popular Sting sang the falsetto “I want my MTV” to the tune of The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” (In my mind, attaching Sting to a project means burn before listening, but in 1985 he was a god.)

The “Money for Nothing” video is as fun as it ever was; the computer animation looks like the distant past’s vision of the far future. You just have to overlook the matching 20 Minute Workout sweat bands the boys are wearing.

Success isn’t just being in the right place at the right time. Even if the planets line up for you, you have to recognize that they’ve done so. And you must possess the skill and the desire to produce a positive outcome. Even though the Dire Straits express ran right off the rails after Brothers in Arms, let’s give them credit. When opportunity knocked, they gave her a big old smooch.

Now look at them yo-yo’s: A few of Dire Straits’ contemporaries
Elvis Costello debuted about the same time as Dire Straits, with My Aim Is True (1977). But Costello was unable to use MTV the way Dire Straits did. (Whether he wanted to is another question.) By 1981 he’d released five albums on four labels and the four of them together didn’t have the resources of Warner Bros. His biggest hit, “Veronica” (in collaboration with Paul McCartney), was six years off. His early albums had a smallish following and he had an undeserved punk reputation.

Costello is far more talented than Knopfler, which is saying a lot. Lots of people are better than Coldplay. Not many are better than Mark Knopfler. Costello’s songs were too angry and angular to fit in the sanitized environment of the early MTV. Plus you can’t categorize Elvis Costello. That to me is a virtue but I don’t run my own network.

The B-52s
Regular readers and people who put up with me socially know that I love this band. They produced two dance-club faves in 1979 and ’80: The B-52s and Wild Planet. Like Costello, their only Top 10 hits, “Love Shack” and “Roam,” were years away.

In 1981 The B-52s were too weird for MTV, which is a weird concept now. When Special D and I saw them in 2007, people brought their grandchildren. Warner Bros. was behind The B-52s but apparently they saw no need to pay for fancy videos early on, even though this is the band that gave us “Rock Lobster,” the greatest song ever recorded.

The Talking Heads
The Talking Heads had four albums in play by 1981, but like The B-52s they were viewed as weird. (Here’s how to tell the difference between the two bands: Talking Heads are Rene Magritte. The B-52s are an inebriated Norman Rockwell.)

Talking Heads’ sole foray into the top of the charts, “Burning Down the House,” appeared in 1983. That song had an elaborate – and boring – video. The most interesting artists sometimes made the least-interesting videos. Talking Heads were one example; David Bowie was another.

The Pretenders
A tough woman singing about sex? Not in 1981!

The Allies
The Allies were a Seattle band that made their own video and won MTV’s “Basement Tapes” competition in 1982. “Emma Peel” is a little creaky now but was amazing then, given its backwoods origins. Also, I was almost in it. Unfortunately, the band lacked the material to follow up on this success, even though they sound very similar to our next contestants, The Romantics.

The Romantics
The Romantics are a rare example of a band that succeeded despite MTV. These power poppers had a hit in 1980 with “That’s What I Like About You.” The video was the laziest kind, a performance, and frankly, these guys are not visually appetizing. The Romantics had another hit in 1983, “Talking In Your Sleep,” but the video, in true MTV tradition, is too stupid to be believed. (If you don’t believe anything could be that stupid, watch the first 25 seconds.)

That’s my idiosyncratic tour of the protoplasmic MTV. Money for nothin’…chicks for free.

Goodbye: Gil Scott-Heron, 1949-2011
I wish MTV had existed in an earlier time. They wouldn’t have touched Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” with a barge pole, but what a video that song would’ve made! Rest in peace.

“Don’t You (Forget About Me)”
Simple Minds

Today I want to have a word with you about guilty pleasures, which, for the purpose of this disquisition, we shall define as enjoying things that you might be too embarrassed to enjoy if anyone found out you were enjoying them. I’m thinking here, just to get the ball rolling, of people who go roller skating because they like the way “You Made Me Love You” sounds on the Wurlitzer. Then there are the folks who eat Pop-Tarts without toasting them first. As for me, I listen to Simple Minds.

On page 160 of my copy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, the dysfunctional wolverines who work at Championship Vinyl have compiled a list of the top five bands they want to put in front of a firing squad. Simple Minds leads their list, ahead of even Genesis, which seems harsh to me. Genesis spawned Phil Collins. Can you name even one simpleton in Simple Minds? How about the chap who was married to Chryssie Hynde? Of course you can’t. And if you can you probably work at Championship Vinyl.

Sanctify Yourself
Simple Minds supposedly took their name from David Bowie’s “Jean Genie.” The relevant line in that song, “He’s so simple-minded he can’t drive his capsule,” is meaningless out of context and is uninspiring even if you know what Bowie was talking about, which I don’t. Simple Minds was part of the 1970s-’80s movement loosely known as New Wave, which tried to mesh art and post-punk. In fact Simple Minds started out in life as a punk outfit called Johnny & The Self-Abusers, which immediately leads me to inquire why they thought they needed a new name.

Like many New Wave bands, most of Simple Minds’ songs are hopelessly airy and artsy. This is probably why I like them. I even like the singer, Jim Kerr (Ms. Hynde’s former husband), who is Scottish but who always sounds vaguely German.

Life in a Day
Objectively, I would have to rank Simple Minds far below expert practitioners of the New Wave form, such as Echo & The Bunnymen and The Psychedelic Furs, but way above Spandau Ballet, Human League, and Haircut 100, three bands that together couldn’t make a snake out of Play-Doh. This leaves Simple Minds with the same artistic command of their material as A Flock of Haircuts, who were best known for their haircuts.

But that’s my objectivity speaking. Every time I play one of my favorite Simple Minds cuts, I melt into a puddle. Like The Tubes, I can’t clean up/but I know I should.

Promised You a Miracle
In 1985, when Simple Minds were making a good living in the UK but were still unknown in the US, the band was hired to perform a song for an upcoming film: The Breakfast Club. The boys were handed the words and music to something called “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” did some rearranging, and recorded a 4-minute and a 6-minute version, both on the same afternoon.

I’ll bet Simple Minds didn’t think about this song again until the movie came out and “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” went to #1 on the US charts and became an anthem. Suddenly, Simple Minds were famous in the world’s biggest music market for a song they didn’t write. They didn’t even include it on an album until 1992.

I understand why it took them seven years to finally claim this song. Have you ever read the lyrics?

Tell me your troubles and doubts
Giving me everything inside and out and
Love’s strange so real in the dark
Think of the tender things that we were working on

That’s quite enough. And if you own the original 45, I suggest you not play the B side, “A Brass Band in Africa.” Simple Minds wrote this one, but listening to it is like eating a Pop-Tart before it’s toasted or even unwrapped.

Up on the Catwalk
Though the words to “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” are, well, awful (and the 6-minute version has even more of them), and though the thing is too slow to dance to, the music wields a crowd-pleasing power. Like all immortal songs, it begins with a musical flourish you instantly recognize and lyrics anyone can handle:

Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!

The song’s helium-filled synthesizer musings are ballasted by a steady beat and a chorus that would break the heart of any teenager or immature adult:

Don’t you, forget about me
Don’t don’t don’t don’t
Don’t you, forget about me

And then comes the moment of genius, when Simple Minds rose above themselves and created matter out of energy with their bare hands. At 3:13 most of the music falls away, leaving only the synth, which is playing somewhere in low Earth orbit, the muted drums, and Jim Kerr muttering on behalf of the lovelorn:

Will you walk away?
Will you walk on by?
Come on – call my name
Will you call my name?

For 30 seconds we’re suspended in time and space, anticipating that delicious moment when the triumphant drum roll crashes in. After that it’s a walk in the park. Anyone can sing along, because from here to the finish line it’s just La. La la la la. La la la la. La la la LA la la la la la etc. Audience participation; that’s the ticket!

I’ve run out of Simple Minds song titles
But I’ll never run out of opinions. I’m declaring “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” as the iconic song of the 1980s, the one song that can represent the entire decade. I think the only serious competition comes from Special D’s pick, Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and I have to admit this would’ve been an even closer race if Ms. Lauper had been backed by a genre-defining movie.

Will we ever see the likes of Simple Minds again? Unfortunately, yes. They’re still recording. They’ve even inspired a band to carry on their work, and that band is called Coldplay. We’ll talk about them the next time we tackle guilty pleasures.

Wouldn’t you love to hear “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” on a Wurlizter?