Posts Tagged ‘The Allies’

“Everywhere That I’m Not”
Translator
1982

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

[solo]

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.