Posts Tagged ‘Elvis Costello’

In June I set out to review every album Prince ever made. I embarked on this project because I realized that, for me, Prince was embalmed in the ’80s – the guy I heard at clubs and parties. He was that sexy M.F. who could rock, croon, talk to God, talk for God, write weird erotic scenarios, and take goofy chances. I wanted a better idea of who he really was. There had to be more to the man than “Purple Rain” playing to a gang of us nerds in a hotel ballroom at a science fiction convention.

It’s easy to follow, album by album, a band that existed for fewer than 20 years – I’ve done that with The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pixies, The Clash, Creedence, and several others. It’s much harder to do with an artist who’s been playing and recording for 30 years or more. They change too much. They travel down side roads while you stick to the interstate. Or you change too much. It’s been a long time since I was punchin’ a clock and listening wide-eyed to Born to Run.

It’s also hard to follow an artist with a lengthy career because every artist, no matter how talented, eventually skids into the Bad Spot. That’s the rough patch where your Muse runs off with someone younger and prettier and you’re left to grit it out on craftsmanship alone.

In the 1970s, Neil Young dissected his soul on several awe-inspiring albums. Two that’ll slay you: On the Beach (1974) and Tonight’s the Night (1975). When the ’80s dawned, Neil took a long time getting out of bed. For example, Trans (1982), which might as well have been called Tron, and Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983), his fake Fabulous Fifties record. Neil didn’t make a good record until Freedom (1989), which you’ll recall for the stunning “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

Bruce Springsteen did pretty well in the 1980s, at least until Tunnel of Love (1987). Then things went downhill. Or, in Springsteen terms, the mill closed, the state cops shut down all that street racing, and the D.A. couldn’t get no relief. After two subpar efforts, Human Touch and Lucky Town (both 1992), he recorded nothing of consequence until his reaction to 9/11, The Rising (2002), after which he reinvented himself as the Dark Knight of the 21st century.

I need a weatherman to explain to me what Bob Dylan was trying to do on Self Portrait (1970) and Dylan (1973).

David Bowie’s career after Scary Monsters (1980) is not the least bit scary.

Sadly, Michael Jackson’s career after Bad (1987) is not worth talking about.

Back to Prince. I made it through the first 14 albums. I rediscovered his ’70s disco discs. I relived my youth with Dirty Mind, 1999, and Purple Rain. I was struck as if by lightning by Sign O’ the Times.

By the time we got to the 1990s, the road Prince and I were driving developed some serious twists, the safety rails disappeared, and the paving got thinner. Loyal Reader Slave to the Garden warned me that in the ’90s, Prince, in his apocalyptic struggle with Warner Bros., dumped albums on the market that should’ve been dumped in the dump. We were approaching the Bad Spot.

The next one on my list, Come (1994), is what we critics like to call awful. I’d rather listen to a flock of trumpeter swans barking like dogs as they circle for a landing.

Prince’s 1987 bootleg, The Black Album, officially appeared in 1994. It’s not as good as black albums by Spinal Tap (1984), Metallica (1991), and Jay-Z (2003), though it’s probably better than the Marilyn Manson Black Album bootleg, if I could bring myself to listen to that one.

Looking at the rest of the ’90s, I see that Prince was either attacking the Warner Bros. Death Star or playing stuff that belongs in a galaxy far, far away. Well, what did I expect? How long can Prince go on being that sexy M.F.? (I can still pull it off, but only from a distance.) Artists have to change or they might as well be locked in a trophy cabinet. I’m convinced that Prince will emerge from this depressing era into some new and wonderful form, but I’m not going to follow every bread crumb until I catch up with him.

(There are two albums I definitely want to hear: The Girl 6 soundtrack, which is supposed to be a throwback to the ’80s, and the three-record Emancipation, both from 1996.)

What I’ve learned
Here’s what I can tell you about me: It’s hard to grow past the music that filled me with joy when I was young. Some of those artists are still recording, but they no longer speak to me. Or perhaps I can no longer hear them.

Here’s what I can tell you about Prince: Overall, no performer in the history of popular music is as talented as Prince. Some people sing better or write better or dance better, some people see deeper into the human or the national psyche. Some people are more economical (Prince does not know when to end a song).

But no one can do everything that this gentleman does at such a consistently high level. No male performer is as insistently sexy without also being sickeningly misogynistic. Carlos Santana, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Bowie, Young, and Dylan are as prolific, but even those guys never released three discs of original material on the same day.

There’s much more to Prince than “Purple Rain.” I just don’t need it.

[Editor’s note: It’s at least twice as difficult for a female singer/songwriter to survive in a decades-long career as it is for a male. It’s much easier to find male counterparts to Prince, so I stuck with the men.]

I started out liking Prince, but after listening to the first 14 albums I really like Prince. I want to keep liking Prince. So I’ll stop here. Thanks as always for reading along.

A couple of days ago I spent an afternoon listening to Pink Floyd and Justin Timberlake. I got nothing out of that. This afternoon I’m listening to Chuck Berry. Until next time, enjoy this insane video from the Neil Young of the Everybody’s Rockin’ era.

 

Normally, when I take a particular band as my subject I listen to their music while I write. This installment of “Sins of the ’70s Week” is an exception. Our guest band this evening is Chicago, but after listening to a few tracks from Chicago Transit Authority (1969) and skipping desperately to Chicago II (1970) I felt that I was about to lose molecular containment.

Right now I’m listening to a disc from 1979: Jackrabbit Slim by the singer-songwriter Steve Forbert. Forbert sings a mash-up of folk, country, and Americana. (He’s Canadian, so I should call that North Americana.) I hear him as a happier version of Gram Parsons, who was glum, or of Elvis Costello, who started out angry and still strikes me as grumpy. I would also rate him approximately 1,000 times more literate than anyone in Chicago, the band that gave us the following thoughts, from “(I’ve Been) Searching So Long”:

I’ve been searching
So long
To find an answer
Now I know my life has meaning
Whoah whoah

When I was in high school I loved Chicago (the two albums I mentioned above). To try to understand why I did, I must first consider the case against them.

1) When Terry Kath, James Pankow, Robert Lamm, and the other Chicagoans formed their group, they called themselves The Big Thing. Great name! What compelled them to adopt Chicago Transit Authority? Did it sound more grown-up? Shortening it to Chicago when the real grown-ups at the CTA threatened to sue didn’t help. There is no personality involved in calling your group Chicago (or Boston, or Kansas). You’re just borrowing a label with its own emotional shadings, not venturing any of yours.

2) Almost all of Chicago’s hundreds of albums are double-record sets with the word “Chicago” on the cover with artsy things involving the letters and then a number. I guess this makes it easy for their fans to find their records. You might as well print covers with “Music Product” in black letters on a white background and then add the number.

3) OK, let’s get to the music. That’s what really counts. Chicago has an unsurpassed ability to write songs that are too sweet for Muppets. Exhibits A through D are “If You Leave Me Now,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Wishing You Were Here,” and “Colour My World.” Why were they using British spellings in the Midwest in 1970? Did the Brits win the War of 1812?

4) OK, let’s stay with the music. Much has been made of Chicago’s horn section, but what I often hear are a lot of held notes as in The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life.” I have much more respect for their first guitarist, the late Terry Kath, and their keyboard player, Robert Lamm. They could take a pop song and floor it.

That fourth point helps explain why at the ages of 14 and 15 I so enjoyed this band. “Beginnings,” for example, impacts like a meteor. The lyrics are easy to learn and sing and the emotions are imaginable, if not tangible, for any teenage male geek:

When I’m with you, it doesn’t matter where we are
Or what we’re doing. I’m with you, that’s all that matters

“Beginnings,” which is just short of 8 minutes, ends with 2 minutes of congas, cowbells, and guys shouting like they’re living la dolce vida. The ending didn’t mean much to me then because this self-indulgent stretch was usually cut off on the radio. Also, if you owned the LP you could turn the volume way up on your console stereo and hear an extra 30 seconds of congas and etc. that the engineers had faded out. It was like spinning Beatles records backwards to find out what happened to Paul.

Chicago sometimes broke songs into prologues, movements, and “ballets”; this seemed significant to me. The adults in my life considered my music juvenile; I could counterattack with Chicago, because they had brass instruments just like jazz players and their songs had movements so shut up. You can see how this perception would change as I got a little older.

But the final reason why I liked Chicago was because of, yes, “Colour My World.” (The formal title is “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon: Colour My World”). When they played it at a school dance in 1970 it was the signal for girls and boys to pair off on the dance floor and crush themselves into each other while circling very slowly so as not to get dizzy and topple into the crushed couples nearby.

When I played “Colour My World” today, after not hearing it for almost 40 years, I was immediately up to my neck in that hormonal melting pot. I still didn’t make it to end of the song, though, and it takes up a mere 2 minutes and 39 seconds.

Chicago (the current highest-numbered album is Chicago XXXII, but there are also a few unnumbered albums) is one of those bands that are popular for reasons I don’t understand. But there’s plenty in this life I’m trying to understand. “Does anybody really know what time it is?” Chicago asked on their very first record, “time” meaning life in general. Their best metaphor.

Tomorrow, “Sins of the ’70s Week” continues with: Grand Funk Railroad! I’m your captain, yeah yeah yeah yeah.

Random Pick of the Day
Steve Forbert, Jackrabbit Slim (1979)
This gentleman is pretty good. I haven’t listened to him since forever. The individual songs don’t stand out for me yet but I’ll listen again and try some of his other releases.

Random Pan of the Day
Chicago, Chicago 25: The Christmas Album (1998)
Panning this one is totally unfair because I refuse to listen to it, but I get paid to be unfair. Well, no, I don’t get paid, I just like to be unfair. I have an uneasy relationship with Christmas music, as I demonstrated here and here. The thought of Chicago muscling in on Mannheim Steamroller territory makes me wish for a silent night. Produced by Springsteen pianist Roy Bittan.

 

When I took up the challenge of reviewing every band with a number in its name, I thought it would be something mindless I could do while doing some other, more serious, thing. Well, it was often mindless (to cite one example, One Direction), but overall this project has proven to be more interesting than it had any right to be.

Why are there so few band names with numbers?
You loyal readers came up with 110 suggestions. I thought that was a lot – but how many bands have had major-label releases in the past 60 years? Surely there have been thousands, and that’s just in the English-speaking countries. Why are so few numbered?

Don’t expect an answer to that one, but I can tell you that approximately half the names on our list are variations on two, three, four, and five. That makes sense, since most bands have two, three, four, or five members. 101 Strings actually has more than 101 musicians plucking strings. I don’t know why they’re so modest when they’ve done so much to destroy our way of life.

Threat level: Not exactly off the scale
The rest of this lot falls into no discernible pattern, though you could make a small category of names that seem to threaten: World War III, World War Four, Five for Fighting, Nine Inch Nails (Trent Reznor), 10cc, 50 Foot Wave, The B-52s, MX80, 101 Strings (I always thought that one was a threat), 1000 Homo DJs (we’re here, we’re queer, we refuse to play “YMCA”), and 10,000 Maniacs. Frankly, none of these bands seem particularly threatening, unless you fear Reznor’s brand of relentless self-pity.

Get right out of town!
I decided to disqualify any act that wasn’t listed at Allmusic.com, or, failing that, in Wikipedia. Also, the act had to have at least one album from a major label – something you could find for sale at eBay or Half.com. This led to surprisingly few disqualifications of your suggestions.

  • Less Than Zero: It’s an Elvis Costello song, it’s a Bret Easton Ellis novel, it’s an early Robert Downey Jr. movie, it’s the name of several albums, but it’s not a band.
  • 2 Tribes: This is a song by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and some electro outfits. It’s not a band.
  • Devo 2.0: Mark Mothersbaugh cooperated with Disney to make disneyfied versions of his original songs. O the humanity!
  • The Five Jones Boys: George Jones played with four other boys, but they didn’t use a number. Also, they’re country. That reminds me: No country.

Much as I love jazz, I disqualified the entire genre. If I hadn’t, I would’ve been overrun by trios, quartets, and quintets.

Welcome to By the Numbers Week. Tomorrow night: One is the the loneliest number!

Rebel Soul
Kid Rock
2012

I first encountered Kid Rock when Devil Without a Cause (1998) served up two mega-hits, “Bawitdaba” and “Cowboy,” both of which are totally awesome if you’re a teenager and clueless. I thought of him again in 2004, when my boss at the time and his wife went to a Kid Rock concert. After the show they were invited backstage, where they persuaded Mr. Rock to autograph Mrs. Boss’ ass. The next day at work, Mr. Boss proudly shared photos of this historic event. His wife had a nice ass.

I’d rather contemplate derrière marketing than Kid Rock, one of an octet of prominent male musicians who enjoy wearing stupid hats. The other seven are:

santana
Santana

costello
Elvis Costello

dylan
Bob Dylan

jack and edge
Jack White (left) and The Edge (right)

buckethead
Buckethead

deadmau5
and Deadmau5.

Honorable Mention, Bandana Division:

Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band Perform On "Today"
Miami Steve.

(The hatless gentlemen are Jimmy Page and guess who.)

But when The New Yorker profiled Kid Rock, I knew it was time to turn my attention his way again. From the pages of my favorite magazine (Model Railroader is the runner-up) I learned that KR is a white boy who started with rap but transformed himself into a rocker who loves Motown, Mitch Ryder, ’70s arena rock, Hank Williams, and outlaw country. His new album, Rebel Soul, was available for a free listen on Rhapsody, and as the operative word here was “free,” I took it out for a spin.

The results: Mixed!

You can’t charge Kid Rock with not knowing his history – the man vacuums up music like Beck or Prince. “Detroit, Michigan” appropriates the guitar line from Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and threatens at times to burst into Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ’n Roll.” The foot-tapping “Celebrate” has the same drive as “Ballroom Blitz” without the dopey speaking parts and with a big ’70s guitar hook I can’t identify. The jaunty “Redneck Paradise” could almost be “Werewolves of London,” a song KR digs – he mashes it up with “Sweet Home Alabama” on “All Summer Long” (Rock n Roll Jesus, 2007).

Let’s be thankful that Kid Rock never imprinted on Chicago or Men Without Hats. It’s bad enough that for one frightening moment on “Cocaine and Gin” I thought I was about to hear Don Henley sing “The Last Resort.”

The album’s highlight was “Cucci Galore.” Ladies and gentlemen, this is the song Kid Rock was born to write. It’s a no-holds-barred study of the Playboy Mansion, in which KR deftly rhymes “edible bikinis” with “chocolate martinis.” “Cucci Galore” is by far the most interesting song on Rebel Soul. Musically, it’s an exciting blend of hip hop and hard rock. Also, KR genuinely cares about Playmates in their natural habitat, more than he does about any of his Dukes of Hazzard preoccupations. I give him points for his sincerity and his musical eclecticism, but I’m taking them all away for the dumbass lyrics.

Consumer report
You can dance to some of Rebel Soul, you can skip the country tracks, and it rocks in several places, though you’ve heard rockers like these a million times, often from the band that played your employer’s holiday party. Kid Rock surprised me – he can do a lot of what AC/DC, Bad Company, Humble Pie, The Cult, Bob Seger, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Black Crowes, Stone Temple Pilots, Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club can do, not as well but sometimes not far off. While that’s an impressive entry on anyone’s résumé, I’m not giving him the green light to autograph Special D.

I’m not going to replay Rebel Soul. Nor will I kill time with lengthy celebrity profiles in The New Yorker when I should be writing my novel. But no way am I skipping this:

MR The Sex Issue

 

In our last, very exciting episode, I watched The Doors, listened to The Doors, and was floored. I then set out on a quest to find the Best Debut Albums of the 20th Century By Newcomers Who Aren’t Somebody Stupid Like Foreigner. I restricted the contestants to albums named for the band (as in The Doors by The Doors). This squeezed out some worthy discs. Here are my favorites.

The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963)
There are two amazing things about this record. One, The Beatles recorded Please Please Me in, like, a day, even though Paul was dead, John was a walrus, and Yoko had already broken them up. Two, rock ’n’ roll went from holding your hand to sleeping in your soul kitchen in about three years. Shake it up baby now.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967)
I have two connections with Jimi Hendrix. According to Wikipedia, “Hendrix’s first gig was with an unnamed band in the basement of a synagogue, Seattle’s Temple De Hirsch. After too much wild playing and showing off, he was fired between sets.” In 1981, I played in Seattle’s Jewish softball league for Congregation Beth Shalom. Playing Temple De Hirsch was like playing the New York Yankees. They had the money and the manpower – their congregation was five times the size of ours. One of their rabbis searched their roster until he found half a dozen men who had played minor-league ball and then persuaded them to join the temple’s team. You could not hit anything past that infield. And all of those guys had visited that basement.

My other connection comes from the 1997 marriage of my friends Liz and Mitch. While speaking to the bandleader between sets, he confided in me that he had known Hendrix as a kid and had taught him “everything he knew.” I wanted to ask him why the man who taught Hendrix everything he knew was playing weddings 30 years later, but then the bride and groom handed out bubble blowers and I got distracted. Anyway, I shook the hand of the man who taught Hendrix everything he knew.

If Jimi Hendrix were alive today, he’d be cutting discs with Wynton Marsalis, Danny Elfman, and Yo-Yo Ma, but not, I hope, with Coldplay.

Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True (1977)
This jet-propelled collection of songs gives you absolutely no clue to the musical continents Costello would explore over his career. Even so, he’d still be remembered today even if he had just recorded this disc and his follow-up, This Year’s Model.

The Cure, Three Imaginary Boys (1979)
The normally dour Robert Smith must’ve been on antidepressants when he made this zippy little record. The cover of “Foxey Lady,” once it finally gets going, is hilarious.

Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle (1979)
When I was 24 I wanted to be an android and I’m sure you did too. Numan isn’t as frightening as he used to be – he’s on The Muppets’ soundtrack. (If you’re curious, The Muppets is Prairie Home Companion with better jokes.)

Echo & The Bunnymen, Crocodiles (1980)
Crocodiles is haunting and dreamlike, which makes it the closest thing on this list to The Doors, emotionally. Echo and all those bunnies don’t rock as hard as The Doors, but they do pretty well with “Read It in Books” and “All That Jazz.” Their lyrics are fun to sing but mean just about nothing. The first few notes of “Rescue” somehow tell the story of my life.

The Dream Syndicate, The Days of Wine and Roses (1982)
In the 1960s, the Philadelphia Phillies had a double-play combination of Bobby Wine and Cookie Rojas. No headline writer of that era could resist the headline “Days of Wine and Rojas.”

The Dream Syndicate was a major influence on what is today called “alternative.” Don’t ask me to tell you what “alternative” means. But I can tell you that this is a terrific rock record, especially the title track. Steve Wynne sounds just like Lou Reed, who initially tried to sound just like Bob Dylan. No one wants to meet the guy Dylan has been imitating.

Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
One of the best records of the ’80s, with a title that will always describe my first dog, Emma. Trent Reznor, who recorded almost everything on this album by himself and then formed a band, is not a happy man:

Hey God
Why are you doing this to me?
Am I not living up to what I’m supposed to be?
Why am I seething with this animosity?
Hey God
I think you owe me a great big apology.
(“Terrible Lie”)

If you’re feeling euphoric and you want to tone that down a little, Pretty Hate Machine is the album for you.

Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993)
Ms. Phair can’t sing, and when she tries she’s consistently flat, maybe because her mouth is shaped funny. But she has an interesting voice, and she writes piercing songs in the manner of Chrissie Hynde, though she’s more vulnerable:

And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead
But if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am
(“Divorce Song”)

Liz Phair emerged from the lo-fi indie world. (“Lo-fi” and “indie” are code for “We are so not Steely Dan.”) Exile in Guyville reflects her origins – it sounds as if it had been put together in her living room. It’s one of the landmarks of the ’90s, even though it doesn’t include her big hit, “Supernova,” which is about me. Many of these songs throw structural tricks at you, such as “Johnny Sunshine” – the first minute of that song is the best minute on the album. Like The Doors, Phair has never hit this personal standard again.

Beck, Mellow Gold (1994)
Jim Morrison may have acted like he was a shaman, but Beck actually is. The ubiquitous “Loser” leads off this monster, but it’s nowhere near the best song – just listen to “Beercan.”

Veruca Salt, American Thighs (1994)
You read it here first: Veruca Salt and Soundgarden are actually the same band. Chris Cornell was the voice of Soundgarden; Louise Post and Nina Gordon were the voices of Veruca Salt. You could swap them and the music would be almost the same. I’d love to hear Louis and Nina sing “Fell on Black Days,” with Chris singing “Seether.” Soundgarden released Superunknown, their fourth album, in the same year, which just proves that these are people who get a lot done in a day.

Postscript: No way am I choosing two obvious debuts, R.E.M.’s Murmur (1983) and Pearl Jam’s Ten (1990). These bands are way overrated, plus look how boring the album titles are. And now Eddie Vedder is giving ukulele concerts! The B-52s warned us about what could happen if parties got out of hand. R.E.M. and Pearl Jam are Exhibits A and B. Puny humans.

’70s Week at Run-DMSteve concludes with some of my favorite songs of the decade. I’m not saying these are the best songs of the decade, and they’re not all of my favorites. I just stopped at 25. To keep things manageable, I limited myself to one song per artist (except in one instance), but to make them less manageable, I included some runners-up.

A few words about women, of whom my list has only one, Joan Armatrading, recording on her own. (I do have Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of The B-52s and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads.)

There were plenty of remarkable women in rock in the ’70s. Minnie Ripperton could reach all of the known octaves and a few that she must’ve invented. But I can’t digest her music. Ditto Cher, Blondie, The Runaways, and Susie Quatro. I’ll see you in hell before I listen to Heart. If I added another 25 songs, I’d include Patti Smith (“So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star”), Donna Summer (“I Feel Love”), Joni Mitchell (tough one, but probably “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”), and The Slits (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”). How I wish The Slits could’ve opened for Hole. I’ll try to field a more balanced squad during ’80s Week.

My heartfelt thanks to Brother Bob Lingard, who started me on this week’s theme when he kindly loaned me a CD with hundreds of songs from the ’70s and ’80s. Though listening to this collection often seemed like an endurance test, especially when I collided with Christopher Cross –

“I’m on the runnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn/no time to sleep”

– Phil Collins, and the REO Styxjourneywagon dud machine, I learned a lot. I’d forgotten how much I like Roxy Music and Squeeze, how overrated REM is and how undeservedly obscure Steve Winwood is. Party on, Brother Bob!

Here’s the list:

Aerosmith, “Sweet Emotion”
It pains me to type “Aerosmith,” but at least they’re not Foghat.

Joan Armatrading, “Love and Affection”
This is the female “Bolero”!

The B-52s, “Rock Lobster”
How amazing that “Rock Lobster,” the greatest song ever recorded by anyone in any language on any planet, was produced in the same decade that gave us “Kung Fu Fighting” and “You’re Having My Baby.”

David Bowie, “Moonage Daydream”
My favorite Bowie album is Station to Station, but this is my favorite song.

The Clash, “Complete Control”
Runner-up: “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”

Elvis Costello, “You Belong to Me”
Could easily have gone with “Mystery Dance,” “Watching the Detectives,” or “This Year’s Model.”

The Dickies, “Nights in White Satin”
One of the best covers in the history of covers. You get every note of the original but all of them played five times as fast. The single was released in 1979 on white vinyl.

Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On” and “What’s Going On
If this had been ’60s Week, I would’ve picked “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Al Green, “Love and Happiness”
I can listen to this over and over. In fact, I have.

The Guess Who, “No Time”
What this song means is anybody’s guess. The live version, recorded in Seattle on the same stage where Special D and I saw The Roches and Guys and Dolls, rocks harder.

George Harrison, “Isn’t It a Pity”
Harrison’s talent seems so very different from Lennon’s and McCartney’s. George’s work floats on a slow-moving undercurrent of grief.

Isaac Hayes, “Theme From Shaft”
Shaft. Any questions?

Michael Jackson, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”
The video of Jackson dancing to this song was the first thing I ever saw played back on a VCR.

K.C. & The Sunshine Band, “Get Down Tonight”
By your command!

Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”
I’ve tried for years to dismiss Led Zeppelin as AC/DC with a library card, but songs like this rebuke me.

Paul McCartney, “Maybe I’m Amazed”
The best thing Sir Paul did on his own, and good enough to compare to his work with John.

Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”
Thelma Houston’s version is more disco. I had to flip a coin to pick one.

Pink Floyd, “Fearless”
Dark Side of the Moon is my favorite Pink Floyd, but this is my favorite song. Always brings tears to my eyes.

Lou Reed, “Walk on the Wild Side”
To save space, the term “Lou Reed” includes the term “The Velvet Underground.”

The Rolling Stones, “Wild Horses”
If I hadn’t limited myself to one song apiece, The Stones would’ve dominated this list. For ’60s Week I would’ve picked “Street Fighting Man.”

Tom Rush, “Urge for Going”
Joni Mitchell wrote this one. Tom Rush is not in her league, except here. Not what you’d call a bouncy number.

Bruce Springsteen, “Backstreets”
One of the few times Bruce surpassed “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”

Steely Dan, “Bodhisattva”
Steely Dan is not the most annoying band of the decade, though they’re right behind Chicago, Fleetwood Mac, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Bee-Gees in that department. “Bodhisattva,” however, is too ridiculous to resist. Plus it packs more swing than anything else in the Steely Dan catalog.

Talking Heads, “Heaven”
As I wrote here, I never appreciated this song until I heard them perform it during the Stop Making Sense concert tour.

Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”
Almost every one of his songs bursts with joy. Runner-up: “As.”

Your suggestions, comments, and suggestive comments are welcome. Thanks as always for reading. See you for ’80s Week!

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.