Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” – Favorite Songs of the 80s

The 80s truly began on January 5, 1981, when the Drum Break to End All Drum Breaks, in Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” hit the airwaves. Okay, that’s really not true, but the single, released ahead of his debut solo album, Face Value, saw a good run on the singles charts and set up Collins for a run of hits throughout the “Decade of Greed.” Of course, critics and the general population struck back, constructing Collins as the annoying pop Regular Joe ex-prog rocker whose braying ballads and insipid pop tunes represented the worst of the 80s charts.

I don’t remember being aware of the song until a couple of years later when, at age 12 or 13, I watched Risky Business when I stayed the night at a friend’s house. It wasn’t so much the song that caught my attention; instead, it was the train scene itself in which Tom Cruise and Rebecca DeMornay get up to some, er, risky sexy business on a train. I wasn’t supposed to be watching a rated-R movie, and that scene left a big impression, so much so that when I just rewatched it a few minutes ago, I was surprised by how tame it really is. (Yes, I actually watched  Tom Cruise for 4 minutes in order to write this blog – it’s a sacrifice, trust me).

“In the Air Tonight” is a nebulous kiss-off song that starts off quiet, brooding, with a feeling of anger just under the surface, until the second verse. It starts off with the other delightful moment in the song – “Well I re.mem.BAH” and then at the end, that drum break expresses and releases that anger. Although Phil never says what he’s so mad about, other than someone’s been lying, the vague lyrics allow the listener to imagine the song to fit her own scenario.

Those of us who grew up in the 80s are waxing nostalgic, and there’s been a reconsideration of Phil Collins’ work. I had absolutely no opinion about him – he was a small part of the music fabric for me, but none of it grabbed me by my oversized t-shirt back then. Now, yes – because he was part of the fabric of the 80s pop landscape, his music does elicit a smile from me, and hell – I’ve grown to really dig “A Groovy Kind of Love” despite myself.

Last year, Collins appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and when the performance hit social media the next day, I couldn’t hit that link fast enough to watch it. With his thick glasses and 80s-tastic popped collar, preppy grandpa Phil delivers an impressive performance. The tension in the song is heightened by watching most of the members of the Roots waiting to join in, standing still, letting the moment build. And of course, Ahmir “Questlove”/”?uestlove” Thompson also bides his time, adding only a bit of playing as he waits for the drum break, and you know he’s going to nail it – and then HELL YES – he nails it all the way through the floor. It’s one of the best musical payoffs I’ve seen in a long time. (Watch him smile just after it :-).

Signal Boost: Wilco, “All Lives, You Say?” Download to Benefit the Southern Poverty Law Center

Today, alt-country band Wilco released a great new track, “All Lives, You Say?” on their Bandcamp site. The song is available for download for $1 (or more), and Wilco will donate the proceeds to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that focuses on civil rights litigation and monitors hate groups in the United States. The SPLC is located in (nearby to me) Montgomery, Alabama, and I am familiar with the wonderful and unfortunately necessary work they do.

From Wilco’s Bandcamp site:

A new Wilco song called “All Lives, You Say?” is available for immediate download with a charitable contribution. Proceeds will go to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the memory of Jeff Tweedy’s father, Robert L. Tweedy (1933-2017).

“My dad was named after a Civil War general, and he voted for Barack Obama twice. He used to say ‘If you know better, you can do better.’ America – we know better. We can do better.” – Jeff Tweedy

I agree with Robert L. Tweedy and Jeff Tweedy.
Here’s the link to the download: https://wilcohq.bandcamp.com 

One Piece at a Time: My Stereo Acquisition Plan

I do not have a great record player. My parents were kind enough to give me theirs, but the sound isn’t the best, and I know I need to get a better system. Although I bristle when I see people slagging terrible low-end record players, such as in comments to an article about them. According to everyone who is a “real” aficionado, no one should ever play vinyl on a turntable that costs less than $300. According to a few comments I’ve seen, I might as well rip up all my vinyl and light it on fire if I’m going to play it on my shite player. Add “good enough” speakers and a “quality” receiver, and I’m looking at, well, more than is in my budget. I either need to stop buying vinyl for several months or keep on playing on my free player.

But I thought of a solution.

Remember that Johnny Cash song “One Piece at a Time”? It’s about a guy who works in an automobile factory, and he smuggles out parts, one at a time, to build himself a car. When I opened my mind enough to listen to Johnny Cash, I stumbled upon this song, and I found it to be glorious. He ends up with a “59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66” automobile.

So here’s the plan: I find a stereo factory, get a part-time job there, and smuggle out some tubes, connectors, and switches and such until I have a complete system. Of course the problem is I doubt there’s such a factory in the US, but it’s a nice thought. It’s a shame, because that would exactly fit my budget.

Sick and Tired and Angry as Hell

Have a look at the music I’ve listened to in the past 24 hours, since I came home from running errands yesterday and saw that the WHITE SUPREMACIST NAZI SCUM DEMONSTRATION had ended in tragedy and the commentary out there revealed yet again the depths of stupidity and hatred among us.

Step 1: Yesterday afternoon. Trying not to descend into blind raging anger. Some peppy synth tunes to calm me down.

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Step 2: First thing this morning after catching up on the news again. Anger continues to manifest, with sorrow at the hatred and bigotry embedded into US culture being emboldened and inflamed. Noted tracks: “Where’s the Revolution?”, “Scum,” “Going Backwards,” “The Worst Crime,” “Poison Heart.”  “So Much Love” is calming, though.

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Step 3: Still pissed. Distracted from teaching prep. American version, 1979. I’m not “. . . Bored with the USA,” but the tone and punk thrashing suit my mood.

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That’s it for now. This can go one of two ways from here: full on Joy Division, or Nine Inch Nails or something. Hell, it may get so bad I’ll need some ABBA to pull me out of this.

“Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads: Favorite 80s Songs

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Talking Heads: David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison.

I’m not sure when it started happening, really, but I believe it was at some point in my 20s that I found myself thinking I was living a life I never would have recognized as my own had my earlier self had a bird’s eye view of me in the 90s. After journalism school, I considered law school and worked as a paralegal, but the profession never really suited me. I went to graduate school and now teach English at a university, and it’s a good fit. Still, I’m amused that I had an existential crisis as early as my 20s. On the other hand, when I learned about existentialism in high school, I recognized myself in the philosophy, so maybe it’s a personality thing; perhaps I ponder my existence, my purpose, and the absurdity of the world due to neuroticism. If I had a third hand, I’d say I’ve had a few existential/premature midlife crises already.

“Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads ruminates on this predicament: the realization or acknowledgment of having made a life for oneself that has no inherent meaning, that seems not quite right. The man is bewildered – which makes me wonder if lead singer David Byrne wrote it because he can pull off bewilderment in performance like none other. The single, released in February, 1981 from their fourth album, Remain in Light, combines off-kilter, shifting rhythms with sparkling chime effects and a deep, funky groove. Brian Eno, who co-produced the album with the band, helped them create a song in which the parts almost don’t go together, like the man and his life, and the song didn’t quite “belong” to one genre or radio format. Although it’s become one of my favorites, I don’t remember specifically being aware of this song in 1981, and today while reading Byrne’s How Music Works, I found out why:

“Despite the heavy play that the ‘Once in a Lifetime’ video got on MTV, regular rock radio wouldn’t play it, or much else from the album. They said it was too funky; not really rock. And the R&B stations wouldn’t play the song either. Needless to say, the song got heard; the racism of US radio didn’t hold it back all that much. Interesting how times have changed, and how they haven’t.”

The song struck a chord with listeners, however, in the man’s examination of his existence. He makes declarations that reveal his perplexed state, even if he has, on the surface, nothing to complain about. He protests, “This is not my beautiful house,” and “This is not my beautiful wife” and asks “Where does that highway go to?”, implying he’s itching to get out and leave it all behind, before saying “My god! What have I done?” His feeling of not belonging to the life he’s living is undercut by the chorus, which references water, the archetypal symbol for renewal, yet significantly, he’s “letting the days go by, [lets] the water hold [him] down.” He’s seemingly surrendering to the natural immersion, and therefore his life.

Byrne’s concept for the video captures the sad, absurd humor of the man’s situation. In How Music Works, Byrne also describes how the video for the song came about, as the chapter focuses on aspects of performance. Influenced by dance and theater performances in Bali and Japan, Byrne came up with choreography that Toni Basil shaped into a jerky, hypnotic routine that is vintage Byrne. He also explains that he had the clips of those global dance performances interspersed into the video because he “wanted to show my sources, not claim I invented everything, though my jerky improv versions weren’t much like the originals in any case.” One might say Dave can’t dance, but really, he’s dancing his personality in this video and in every performance. He’s wearing his staple suit with a bowtie, but I find that the glasses are the perfect touch, as they nod back to the 1950s to early 1960s, back to that notion of an idealized hegemonic culture of suburbia and propriety that the song’s narrator finds perplexing even as he lives it.

“Atmosphere,” Joy Division – Favorite 80s Songs

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I’ve been stalling on this one, to be honest, because it’s just too damn sad. From the first foreboding notes, to the opening line, “Oh, in silence, don’t walk away,” through the tension between the bass and the light synth tones and tambourines, “Atmosphere” is a beautiful, somber song that is the sound of a heart breaking.

The single was originally released in March, 1980 by a French label and then in May, 1980 by the Factory label. Although it charted three times in New Zealand, it didn’t chart in the UK until 1988 when it was reissued.

Anton Corbijn shot the video for “Atmosphere” in 1988, in his trademark black and white style. Hindsight presumably dictated the visuals; figures cloaked in black and white walk across a desert, at times carrying a photo of the band, with photos of Ian Curtis and Joy Division cutting between scenes.

Corbijn also directed Control, the Ian Curtis biopic (2007), and this song featured heavily in the movie, which was gut-wrenching to say the least. I hadn’t seen this video until I was gearing up to write this post, and my mind immediately went to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, an appropriate allusion, as the film focuses on a medieval knight who plays chess with Death:

This one is a favorite 80s song for me, but it’s difficult to really, really listen to it, given Ian Curtis’s suicide at such a young age. It’s mournful, but those twinkling synth notes and the tambourine almost sound like an uplifting warm embrace for the one who’s passed. Songs of dark beauty serve a purpose, even if we fear plunging into that darkness. I try not to linger there, but a song like this makes it a more bearable stay.

 

Queen, “Another One Bites the Dust”: Favorite 80s Songs

Dada-Dun-dun-dun. . . “Another one bites the dust.” An iconic bassline followed by the chorus starts of this big hit by Queen, released in the year 1980. I can’t hear this one without thinking about roller skating, as it was a popular one at the roller rinks when I was eight years old. The song takes me back to spinning around the rink, in the reddish glow of dimmed lights, with a disco ball throwing scattered reflections around the room, the smell of popcorn wafting from the concession stand. I spent a lot of time at roller rinks, those nightclubs for kids, from ages 6 to 13 or so. This is the only Queen song I remember hearing while getting my roller boogie on, and I’m not sure why the association is so strong.

I’m not a big Queen fan. I like some of their songs enough to have an MP3 version of their greatest hits. Freddie Mercury had a voice for the ages, and he was a great showman if you happen to be in the mood for it. The band were good songwriters. I just never got into their whole thing. Although “Another One Bites the Dust” hit number one on three US charts and in Canada, I put this on the Favorite 80s Songs list only because of the roller skating association. If “Bohemian Rhapsody” were an 80s song, I’d include it because of the Wayne’s World movie scene. Sometimes a good memory is enough to make you smile a little when you hear a song, and that has value.

About that bassline, though – it was “inspired” by the bassline in Chic’s “Good Times.” It’s as close to Chic’s as the bassline in Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” was to the one in “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie. Payback?

Here’s a mashup of “Good Times” and “Another One Bites the Dust”:

You know you want to watch that Wayne’s World clip. Watching it almost thirty years later, my main thought is that Garth’s glasses were terribly uncool then, but they are now.

Blondie, “The Tide Is High”: Favorite 80s Songs

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37 years later, my copy of the single plays like a dream.

One of my first record-buying memories is just a flash: I stood in the Musicland store in our local mall, at age eight, holding Blondie’s single, “The Tide is High,” deciding whether I was going to purchase it on that day in 1980. My mom probably bought it for me, actually, but it’s the first record I remember picking out myself. I had one of those plastic portable record players, white on the outside, blue on the inside, and many of my childhood years were spent sitting in front of it, next to my closet door, listening to my little record collection. I loved loading up a handful of 45s on the multi-stack spindle, choosing a good order, and watching that marvel of technology drop a record, play it, drop another, play it, again and maybe again.

 

I was pretty music-obsessed early on and with my older sister watched all the music-related shows: The Donny and Marie Show, American Bandstand, Soul Train, and Solid Gold. (Meanwhile, my dad tortured us with Hee Haw. If you’re not familiar, look it up and feel my pain). It’s not that remarkable, then, that this particular eight-year-old girl bought this single, but the fact that I remember the actual purchase tells me that I was intrigued beyond liking it as a good tune, or that it meant something to me beyond the song.

Down deep, I believe that part of my interest in the band was the cool, striking, glamorous, and  tough image of Debbie Harry. The only other record I had before this featuring a female vocalist was an album by The Captain & Tennille (ahem). Plenty of female musicians came before Blondie, but for me, she was the first who exuded that tough glamour that seemed inspirational to my generation of young women. Around the time of Debbie Harry’s peak with Blondie, and just after, came Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde, Pat Benatar, Annie Lennox, Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper, to name a few, and I loved them all.  Debbie Harry sang lead vocals in the band whose lineup at the time consisted of Chris Stein, Frank Infante, Nigel Harrison, Clem Burke, and Kevin Patrick.

Blondie1977Blondie released “The Tide Is High” in October, 1980, from their fifth studio album, Autoamerican, which hit the shelves the following month. Their third album, Parallel Lines (1978), had peaked at number one in the UK and number 6 in the US and included the successful singles “Hanging on the Telephone,” “One Way or Another,” “Sunday Girl,” and “Heart of Glass.” The band followed up with Eat to the Beat, which was somewhat less successful than its predecessor but produced notable singles “Dreaming” and “Atomic.” Autoamerican, however, followed on the heels of their smash hit “Call Me” on the American Gigolo soundtrack, which peaked at number one in the US, the UK, and Canada. The years 1978-1981 were full of Blondie, and they’ve remained a favorite of mine since then.

I didn’t know at the time that “The Tide Is High” was a rock steady song written by Jamaican musician John Holt and recorded by his band, The Paragons, with Holt on lead vocals, which means that both singles from this album appropriated Black music, as “Rapture” was the first record featuring rap to hit number one. Of course, this has occurred throughout the history of rock music, as I noted in my post on Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it still goes on. Blondie wasn’t the first and won’t be the last, and although this doesn’t mean the death of my childhood, it saddens me a little.

While critical opinion has become kinder, and the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, early on, critics weren’t necessarily so generous. In 1981, Rolling Stone writer Ken Tucker described Blondie’s music as “Sixties pop interlarded with trendy nihilism” and opined that Debbie Harry was the “possessor of a bombshell zombie’s voice that can sound dreamily seductive and woodenly Mansonite within the same song.” Additionally, British music journalist Charles Shaar Murray wrote a review of a set by The Ramones at The Performance Studio in New York while covering the city’s music scene for the New Musical Express. Blondie also played that night, and Murray describes the band as “quite the cruddiest garage-type garage band I’ve ever seen since the last band I was in.” His description of Debbie Harry would surely rank as a premier example of Rock Sexism, stating that she was a “cute little bundle of platinum hair with a voice like a squeaky bath toy” and that “her charm lies in the fact that she’s a kid who’s pretending desperately hard to be a star and who’s aware of it. Which is why it works at all (apart from on account of she’s so gosh-darned cute, gold-ding it.” Granted, I wasn’t at the gig, but –

Let me pause here to add that when Murray wrote this piece, he was 24 years old. Debbie Harry was 30 years old. Murray was calling a woman some six years his senior “cute” and “a kid.” I’ll definitely be picking up on this theme in a future post and will try to refrain from burning my copy of Murray’s Shots from the Hip, the anthology in which this article appears. Or maybe I should rip him to shreds.

Female musicians and female fans have long shared being disregarded, dismissed, infantilized, and trivialized.  One of the worst insults a critic can hurl at a band or musician is that their work appeals to little girls or teenyboppers. Girls like just about any music, however, even if they don’t fully understand it, or intellectualize it, or know why they respond to it. I know musicians want to be appreciated for their art by adults who have refined tastes, but I’d hate to think that any musicians I liked when I was a kid would be ashamed to have me as a fan. I’ll leave it at that for the moment, but critics and musicians should keep in mind that young women aren’t the least common denominator of fans. I don’t think Debbie Harry would have thought so, and I’m proud as hell of my eight-year-old self for buying this single.

I don’t remember this video at all. I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered Darth Vader making an appearance.

“London Calling,” The Clash: Favorite 80s Song (This is Not Really a Date Error)

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My copy of the album, complete with “Track 5 is ‘Train in Vain'” etched in the deadwax.

I know, I know. The Clash’s third and most revered album, London Calling was released on December 14, 1979 – in the UK. The album was, however, released in the US on January 10, 1980, so technically it’s an 80s album. I really wanted to sneak this one in, so I chose the title track as a Favorite 80s Song. To support my decision, I’ll cite Rolling Stone magazine’s 1989 “Best Album of the 1980s” list that puts the album as #1. When Joe Strummer got the call about this accolade, he was confused because the album came out in 1979. The release dates have meant that the album has appeared on numerous 70s and 80s lists, and it appears near the top of many lists of greatest albums of all time.

Choosing a favorite track from London Calling is tough. Although there are a couple of tracks that I don’t absolutely love, the album works as a whole so that you can’t imagine the track listing and sequencing being any other way. For many reasons, the song “London Calling” stands out – it opens the album, discordant, emphatic, and with lyrics that put the listener at attention. Strummer invokes the famous BBC phrase “London calling” to warn about a post-apocalyptic vision of London, referencing police brutality, climate change, the 1970s oil shortage, drug use (ahem), nuclear accidents, and he implores those of the underworld and those who are apathetic, conformist zombies to take action. In short, Strummer mentions concerns about problems in 1970s London and in the world at large. (The “nuclear error” reference is likely about the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown accident in Pennsylvania in March, 1979). The song sounds like no other – it starts with a marching beat, with funky bassline coming in, and then Topper Headon blasts in with a rolling drum sequence that starts off the vocals, with dirge-like chords throughout.

londonLast Fall I was reading Marcus Gray’s book, Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling, which more than thoroughly traces every note, lyric, and reference in the album, while I was preparing to teach some poems by Romantic poet William Blake in my world literature course. One of Blake’s poems from his 1794 volume Songs of Experience is “London,” a short poem that calls to task the effects of the Industrial Revolution, thirty or so years after its onset. In sixteen lines, Blake criticizes (burgeoning) capitalism, the church, the military, the monarchy, prostitution, and marriage. The Romantics valued nature as the source of psychological renewal and spirituality and as representative of spontaneity, while celebrating the individual and creative expression. They developed these themes in reaction to the Industrial Revolution, as workers who were exploited (including child workers) crowded into cities for factory jobs, and rapid urbanization resulted in terrible living conditions.

William Blake and Joe Strummer, separated by 200 years, voiced similar concerns about social ills of London, stemming, really, from the onset of capitalism ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. I had my students listen to the song and read the lyrics, and we talked about the commonalities in their historical contexts. The bottom line for the lesson is that both the poem and the song serve as warnings for change. Will that change happen? Stay tuned, I guess.

Notes:

  1. I bought an original UK pressing of London Calling, so technically my copy is from the 1970s. If you ever get a chance, listen to the vinyl version, and you’ll see how the groupings of songs on the four sides of the album work together. This effect has been lost in the CD and digital streaming eras, and hearing albums this way changes how you perceive an album.
  2. Joe Strummer has been described as a Romantic idealist, despite being a punk (i.e., stereotypically cynical or nihilistic) musician.
  3. The Marcus Gray book is great if you’re really, really into this album. Most interesting to me were the histories of Stagger Lee and the Rudie/Rude Boy figure.
  4. Yes, I subjected my students to one of my personal favorites, but hopefully it was a way to show them that Blake’s anxieties are similar to more current ones (although 1979/1980 is way before they were born, but… anyway). I see connections all the time between songs and the literature I teach, and in this case, I couldn’t help myself.
  5. U2 titled their 2014 album Songs of Innocence, and the album tour was called the Innocence + Experience Tour. This album was the one that Apple and U2 infamously automatically added to all users’ iTunes collections. There’s all sorts of capitalism-related irony there.