Unpopular Opinion: 80’s Homogeneity Killed the Radio Star

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There are multiple reasons why the 80’s were my least favorite decade for pop music. I grew up mostly on organic and not sampled sounds. Warm, carefully crafted arrangements rather than sterile synths. Heartfelt vocal performances that gave you the feels rather than the flat and robotic delivery typical of New Wave.

Most of all I like diversity in music. And the 80’s seemed to swallow diversity and spit it out all one color and one flavor–that is, no flavor.

The 70’s were a decade when Carly Simon, Led Zeppelin, the Average White Band and Tom Jones could play consecutively on the radio.

The 80’s, conversely, were the decade when drum sounds, keyboard sounds, vocal performances and even (thanks in part to MTV) fashion and hairdos became more regimented. It’s like all the sudden there was a uniform you had to wear to qualify for the top 40.

Take a listen to this sample of three of the decade’s more ubiquitous hits–by Heart, Cher and Starship respectively:

 

And now a bit of a medley of some of the diverse sounds created by the same artists in the decades prior:

 

The first clip illustrates the sound of 80’s pop radio, typified by its uniformity of style and arrangement.

The second is all over the place musically, from riff-driven rock to folk pop to orchestrated adult contemporary to fusion to psychedelia. And yet it’s the same three artists.

The second clip is culled from the years when these artists each forged an identity. And the first is from the decade when they apparently had to forego that identity to stay on the radio.

How many of the 70’s greatest artists became hollowed-out versions of themselves creatively in the decade of the 80’s?

Chicago, Aerosmith, Heart, Jefferson Starship, ZZ Top, Kansas, Neil Diamond, Rod Stewart, and on and on.

I’m not saying these artists didn’t sell loads of records in the 80’s. But I will say their 80’s output a) typically lacked the imagination and diversity of their earlier work, b) was more often written by outside writers than the work that made them famous and c) kind of sucked.

As a teenager Steven Tyler wrote:

Every time when I look in the mirror
All these lines on my face getting clearer
The past is gone
It went by, like dusk to dawn…

Sing with me, sing for the years
Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears
Sing with me, just for today
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away

As a 40-year-old he wrote:

Love in an elevator
Livin’ it up when I’m goin’ down
Love in an elevator
Lovin’ it up ’til I hit the ground

And as for Chicago’s steady decline into Easy Listening post-Terry Kath well…Look Away indeed.

As for 80’s pop radio’s slavish devotion to the new, processed, synthy sound, I think it precipitated interesting shifts in radio formats. Plenty of artists who had success on pop radio in the 70’s had to redefine themselves as Country artists in the 80’s.

Exile (“Kiss You All Over”), The Bellamy Brothers (“Let Your Love Flow”), Michael Murphy (“Wildfire”), Michael Johnson (“Bluer than Blue”) and others made music too distinctly traditional-sounding and too organic for New Wave-dominated 80’s radio. After tweaking their sound and their songwriting just a bit they were welcomed by country radio, which experienced a shift toward a more pop-friendly crossover sound in the same decade.

Video of the Week: The Lost Gaucho–Steely Dan’s Alternate Album

On a Lighter Note…

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Unpopular Opinion: Prince Lowered the Bar for Sexual Innuendo in Music

While I can appreciate a titillating suggestive lyric in a pop song, I believe even the low-minded can be artfully rendered. And I’d argue that the man most associated with lyrical sexual innuendo was hardly its most literate or proficient practitioner.

Prolific? I’ll give him that. It’s almost be simpler to name the Prince songs that don’t feature bawdy double entendre than it is to give examples of his, uh…dirty mind. I won’t bother.

Popular? A hundred million sold, as McDonald’s used to say.

I’m just here to say he sucked at it.

So if you think

Cream
Get on top
Cream
You will cop
Cream
Don’t you stop
Cream
Sh-boogie bop

…is as high-minded as lowbrow gets, I’ll see your Purple One and raise you one Ian Anderson, front man of English art rockers Jethro Tull.

Singer-songwriter-flutist-guitarist and all around mischief maker Anderson rose to the occasion when it came to penning innuendo-laced lyrics, then set them in some of the most ambitiously ornate musical arrangements you’ll hear.

If his mind was in the gutter, his oldfangled English was strictly front parlor. His command of the language turned innuendo into high art. Check out “Hunting Girl” from 1977’s Songs from the Wood:

Recommended Albums #78

The Cowsills: The Billy Cowsill Benefit Concert (2004)

Family pop band (and inspiration behind the Partridge Family TV series) the Cowsills staged a benefit concert in September of 2004 at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles to benefit oldest brother Billy, whose health was in decline (Billy would pass away in February of 2006, on the same day the Cowsills were memorializing brother Barry, who died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina).

The 2004 concert recording, enhanced by a little studio polish, is a document to be treasured by fans of the group, whose brief top 40 chart run lasted only from 1967-69. Treasured because there is precious little in the way of widely available audio documentation of the Cowsills in a live setting during the years when all performing siblings were still living. Treasured also because they delivered a visceral energy in a live setting that their more sterile studio recordings couldn’t match.

A prime example is the show’s curtain raiser, and their most enduring hit “The Rain, the Park and Other Things”, which perhaps sums up 1967 as well as anything from Sgt. Pepper–given a goosing here by a more prominent bass line and some sweet drum fills. The complexity of the Cowsills’ vocal arrangements may call to mind chart contemporaries like the Beach Boys. Or perhaps a better comparison would be the Mamas and the Papas.

Or “You’re Not the Same Girl”, previously released by Vancouver band Blue Northern, of which Bill Cowsill was a member. The Cowsill family harmonies make one wonder whether the Canadian top 40 hit could have been more than a footnote in America.

Sister Susan Cowsill takes the lead on “Nanny’s Song”, which she’d recorded on a solo album. The lyric–and her delivery–are simply heartrending:

And when I asked here’s what he told
I want to see my son grow old

Oh, Oh, I don’t want to leave this earth
Oh, Oh, I don’t want to let it go

With all the endless summer days
Watching winter while it fades
Autumn’s sunlight through the trees
The scent of springtime on the breeze
It’s real life that sets you free
Can I take it all with me?
Watching babies while they sleep
Chasing fireflies through the streets
Sleeping under star-filled skies
That moment real love arrives
It’s not as if I didn’t know
That I’d have to let it go

“All I Really Want to Be is Me” is the group’s first-ever release, written by brothers Bill and Bob in ’66 when they were 15 and 13 years old respectively. For this performance they hand over vocal duties to the one sibling who’d never sung in the band, brother Richard. Although his singing is uh…somewhat below the band’s–or perhaps any professional band’s–standard, the song itself is a burner, with more great drum fills from John.

It has one of those elemental choruses that might make you think of a Basement Tapes-era demo Dylan would toss aside and another band would resurrect. Basic and brilliant.

Richard, for reasons not entirely clear, was kept out of the band by his father, and served in Vietnam while his brothers and sister shared the limelight. While the concert is a benefit for Bill, the family carves out a space for Richard too. You can hear a lot of love in the room.

And a lot of talent too.

 

Listen to: “The Rain, the Park and Other Things”

 

Listen to: “You’re Not the Same Girl”

 

Listen to: “Nanny’s Song”

 

Listen to: “All I Really Want to Be is Me”

 

Video of the Week: Sonny & Cher Reunite on Letterman, November 13, 1987

Recommended Albums #77

The Essex Green: The Long Goodbye (2003)

The difficult-to-categorize Essex Green swirl elements of psychedelia, chamber pop, 70’s-style folk rock and country into an intoxicating blend. They somehow evoke the feel of late 60’s psych pop more than they duplicate its actual sound–if that makes any sense.

From a band bio you’ll learn they hail from Brooklyn. But their music is like a passport stamped with sounds from jangly British invasion 60’s to sunny California, with diverse stops between.

At any rate, if they can be described as “psych pop”, the emphasis is on the pop.

Sasha Bell’s flute and vocals front a dreamy, sunlit mix on “By the Sea”. The harmonies in the bridge have Beach Boy ambitions. But equally enthralling is Bell’s lone and unadorned voice–for my money one of pop’s most beautiful.

“The Late Great Cassiopia” drives at a more uptempo speed, with handclaps and layered harmonies keeping it catchy, and “Lazy May” sees Bell in a supporting role vocally, bringing to mind the textures Neko Case brings to the New Pornographers when she isn’t singing lead.

For those who remember the era of the Seekers and Donovan, or for younger pop fans wanting to get off the beaten path a little, there’s a lot to love about the Essex Green.

 

Listen to: “By the Sea”

 

Listen to: “The Late Great Cassiopia”

 

Listen to: “Lazy May”

 

Listen to: “Southern States”

 

See also: https://edcyphers.com/2012/03/24/songs-you-may-have-missed-62/

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