Friday, June 13, 2008
Listening Post: Return to the 80s Edition (Part 1: MTV B-Sides)
The last time I set the Way-back machine for the 1980s, I got a pretty good amount of reaction -- most of it tinged with the kind of bittersweet nostalgia that can only come from folks who miss the days when they didn't have bills to pay and families to support but did have new wave mullet cuts and closets full of trenchcoats with punk buttons all over the lapels. So, once again, we delve into the vault to pull out some of the best music from the new wave/MTV era (of course, I'm talking about when MTV played music as opposed to running noxious crap like The Hills and The Real World), beginning with some lesser-known songs from bands that managed to break through to the mainstream.
Each of these groups had a few hit singles that have since come to define them but which true fans of the genre are now sick to death of hearing. In other words -- and I've mentioned this once before -- for God's sake, put down that 12" of Modern English's Melt with You and give, oh say, Ink and Paper a try sometime.
These aren't B-sides exactly -- just songs that have been criminally underplayed since the days of their release.
Okay, so everyone knows Don't You Forget About Me. I can honestly say that although it brings back some very fond memories, I'm not sure I ever need to hear the song again. Now contrast the lightweight fluff of that with the sweeping grandeur of the band's 1984 album Sparkle in the Rain, which was, from damn near start to finish, a masterpiece. If you don't own it and haven't heard songs like Waterfront, Up on the Catwalk or East at Easter, drop whatever you're doing and download it immediately.
Here's Speed Your Love to Me.
Tears for Fears
In 1985, Tears for Fears released Songs from the Big Chair and broke wide open here in the states. However, critically at least, the band just couldn't win: Their debut album, The Hurting was roundly knocked for being too dour, while Songs was pummeled for being too poppy. Thankfully, fans didn't care and got fully behind the band's preternatural knack for writing material that was as thoughtful as it was catchy. Although Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Shout and Head Over Heels remain on a lot of people's radar to this day, their earlier stuff has largely vanished from the public consciousness. That's unfortunate, because it holds up surprisingly well.
This is one of my favorite songs not only from Tears for Fears but from the 80s in general: Pale Shelter.
If you came of age during the 1980s, a-ha was inescapable. They were MTV -- and with good reason, as the video for Take on Me is admittedly somewhat jaw-dropping even by today's standards. The song itself has become a staple, a modern pop classic. It's one of the first melodies that comes to mind when someone mentions the music of the 80s. But what a lot of Americans don't realize is that a-ha has continued to make damn good music and rack up tidy sales figures since the 1985 release of their mega-hit album Hunting High and Low (a record which Coldplay's Chris Martin says stands as one of his favorites, incidentally). Their follow up to Hunting, 1986's Scoundrel Days, was one of those albums my friends and I almost hated to admit we liked so much, but if you haven't heard anything from it, I highly suggest giving it a listen sometime.
For this list though, we're sticking with their debut. This was the second single from Hunting High and Low -- one that showed a more powerful side of the band.
Here's The Sun Always Shines on TV.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Alright, imagine this: All you've ever known of Frankie Goes to Hollywood -- the only thing that's been shoved down your throat for the past two years -- is Relax and Two Tribes. Those damn "Frankie Say" t-shirts are everywhere and their first album, although not bad all-in-all, remains pretty much a triumph of style over substance.
Then, they take the stage at the Montreux Rock Festival in 1986 to debut the first single from their new album, Liverpool, and they hit you with this.
This remains one of the only new wave pop songs to truly thunder with insurrectionist punk fury. Even lip synced, it works. Here's Warriors of the Wasteland.
Let me just go ahead and get this out of the way: Nik Kershaw's Wouldn't It Be Good is one of the best pop songs ever recorded. Period. It's as good today as it was when it was released back in 1984, a point proven by the number of times it's been covered in the past quarter-century (because the mark of great songwriting is the ability for a piece of music to endure). What a lot of people here in the states don't know, however, is that like a-ha, Kershaw's been putting out exceptional albums since his heyday. Although iTunes unfortunately carries none of the material he cranked out during the late 80s, it'd be worth anyone's while to try to hunt down albums like Radio Musicola and The Works.
But going all the way back to his debut album, here's the rarely seen original video for Dancing Girls.
You can judge a person almost entirely by whether he or she likes The Cure's brighter more upbeat material or their darker, more brooding stuff. (I would advise having nothing to do with anyone who has no use for The Cure either way.) It will likely surprise no one to learn that I prefer the latter as opposed to the former. My all-time favorite Cure song, actually, is Burn from the soundtrack to the movie The Crow. Beyond that though, 1989's Disintegration really might be, as Kyle once claimed on South Park, the best album ever. I admit that this is a bit of a cheat, since this song was actually big hit for the band and is still remembered fondly by fans -- but I'm including it because the average child of the 80s still goes batshit at the first strains of the God-awful Just Like Heaven or Friday I'm in Love.
Here's a fantastic live version of the song with the greatest bass line in rock history: Fascination Street.
If I never hear We Got the Beat or Our Lips are Sealed again, I won't complain. The truth is that the follow-up to the Go-Go's hugely successful debut album was not only a vast improvement, the damn thing holds up shockingly well to this day.
From 1984's Talk Show album, here's Turn to You.
Hall & Oates
Yes, I know -- this is seriously cheating. Hall & Oates have never really qualified as new wave, whether in their first, second or third career go-rounds. Still, I'd be remiss if I didn't pull one of their most underappreciated songs out of relative obscurity and give it a place here. At the risk of sounding like Patrick Bateman, 1984's Big Bam Boom wasn't half bad all the way around. It produced a few big singles, all of which took their place alongside the music the duo is now most remembered for -- songs like Maneater, Private Eyes and I Can't Go for That. But the album had one song on it that always stood out for me -- a song I still listen to quite a bit these days, because it's just that good.
Here's Some Things are Better Left Unsaid.
I've never adjusted the site based on the suggestions of a commenter, but I have to make an exception this time. This is a last minute addition, one that I'm really kicking myself in the ass for initially overlooking because it's a perfect example of a band whose one hit became absolutely definitive of the 80s while by no means being the best song the group recorded. Sure, everyone remembers Big Country's 1983 hit In a Big Country, but almost no one in the states remembers their 1984 follow-up single.
This is, once again, one of my favorite songs of the 1980s: Wonderland.
Next: Return to the 80s, Part 2: Boys Don't Cry