Bullet The Cement Sky

If you remember my “Twenty Years Ago Today” series from way back when, you may recall that one of the things that drew me to the Twin Cities, 32 years ago this fall, was the music scene.  While I had not the foggiest idea at age 22 what I wanted to do for a career (and happened back into radio by blind luck), I did know I wanted to be a musician.  And so the fact that Minneapolis had a thriving music scene in 1985 played as much into my decision of where to move after college as anything.

I’d been writing music like a madman ever since I moved to the Cities; between December of 1985 and the following Christmas, I probably wrote 60-70 songs, and probably cut demos of 30-40 of them on my Fostex X-15 four-track cassette deck.

A Fostex X-15 tape deck. With it, a cheap drum machine , and a bass and my guitars, I recorded dozens of fairly elaborate demo tapes for the music I was writing like a madman at the time.

Eventually I worked up the nerve to take out an ad in the City Pages, and start an actual band.

That November, I found three guys.  That December – 1986 – we had our debut gig, and the old “McReady’s Pub” in downtown Minneapolis (where the Gateway parking ramp now stands).

And thirty years ago today, the gig that, ever so briefly, made me think like I’d made the right call, and might just be on my way.

The band was “Tenant’s Union” – and we’d gotten booked to play “New Band Night” at the Seventh Street Entry.

The Tuesday night gig was normally a dead end for bands; you got $20, and you played in the reverse order that the band showed up in.  We got there first, so we were the last band up -which ordinariy meant you just played for the dumbest drunks.

But this wasn’t just any night.

For starters, it was the day U2’s The Joshua Tree came out.

Which didn’t really bear on the gig, so much – it was completely unrelated. However, I’d picked it up on my way to work at KSTP that day, and had jacked my brain up into an expanded level of adrenaline-soaked frenzy listening to “Where The Streets Have No Names” and “In God’s Country” and “Bullet The Blue Sky” all day.

So I was pretty jazzed.

Second – and much more important?

It was Saint Patrick’s ‘Day.

Part of that meant that half the band – a couple of brothers from a large family of 100% Irish descent – were on an emotional tear.

And part of it meant that “Boiled in Lead”, the legendary Twin Cities traditional Irish band – would be playing the main room.

Now, Boiled In Lead was a great band.  Indeed, they still are.

But I don’t care who you are, and I don’t care how Hibernian you fancy yourself or how much Guinness you drink or how much you say “ting” instead of “Thing” – people can only stand so much Bodhran drum and uilleann pipe music before they need a break.

And the only place to take that break that night was over to the Seventh Street Entry.

And so by the time we got on stage, the place was packed to its capacity.

High-budget stuff, huh? It’s our poster for our Saint Patrick’s Day 1987 gig at the Entry. From left to right, it’s Matt on bass, Corey on guitar, WIlly on drums, and me over on the right on guitar, harmonica and occasionally keyboards.

I have no idea what that “capacity” was.  I’m sure the number has grown over the years; in my mind, there were a solid 200 people there that night.

It took me a bit, but I remembered the set list from that night:

  1. Tiger Tiger (A song by Willy, the drummer – yes, it was a William Blake reference.  I told you he was Irish).
  2. Five Bucks and a Transfer (My song about having…well, the title says it. It shamelessly stole the beat from The Pretenders’ “Message of Love”, but it was a way better song, if I say so myself.  And I do say so myself).
  3. Switchyard Blues (think The Who covering Mose Allison.  I played a VERY mean harmonica that night)
  4. Espresso Corey (he other guitar player, Corey’s ode to working in a crappy coffee shop back before everyone was doing it)
  5. Ride Shotgun (wherein I pilfed the riff to “Jackson Cage” and the harmony guitar part from Big Country’s “Tall Ships Go” to grand effect)
  6. Blood On The Bricks (the Iron City Houserockers’ classic)
  7. Oh Suzanne (a bald-faced mash note)
  8. Fourth Of July (a song I still play at the occasional open stage night)
  9. Long Gray Wire (a song I’d written in about five minutes in the car on the way to practice one night.  Still one of the coolest experiences of my life.  Great tune, too)
  10. Great Northern Avenue (a song I’ve quoted on this blog before, and still by a long shot the favorite song I’ve ever written)

And we were smokin’ hot.  The sloppiness of our first two gigs had been replaced by a fearsome tightness and confidence…

…although we’d still not gotten over the nerves entirely.  We played very fast that night.  Between the speed, the tightness, and the fact that we were very loud, some thought we were a speed medal or thrash band; some people started moshing out on the floor.

This I didn’t expect.

It was a spectacular success.  Musicians who saw us asked us to open for them.  Other bars started booking us.  People paid a little bit of attention.

It didn’t last – it rarely does.

The band soldiered on in one form or another until 1989 – and did a one-off gig under a different name in 1996, at the Turf Club.  Then came marriage, kids, careers, adult life.

There’s never much point in dwelling on the past.   But taking five to remember one of the highlights can’t be all bad.

Postscript:   One of the songs – our big finale, as it happens.  It’s a different band, here, but it’s basically the same song, all full of country-mouse chip on the shoulder and carpet-bombing “wall of sound” guitars that I put on that four-track cassette back in the summer of 1986.

And you might surmise there’s another musical project underway.  And you’d be right.

More on that later.

Some Say A Man Ain’t Happy, Until A Man Truly Dies

“Prince is like your generation’s version of Elvis dying”.

That’s what my daughter said as I was eating dinner last night.  And she’s got a great point.

We’ll come back to that.

Everyone in the Twin Cities, it seems, has a “when I met Prince” story.  Mine’s pretty mundane; it was a First Avenue, not long after I moved to town.  I probably noticed the people Prince was with long, long before I noticed Prince himself – he was, like, 15 inches shorter than me.

My better “Prince” story was more of a one-degree-of-separation tale:

The other guitar player in my band worked at a coffee shop located by where all the Twin Cities record labels were based, and where groups like Husker Du and the Replacements were based. He did it for the music networking.   One day I was having a cup of coffee, and my guitar player introduced me to a new waitress, a dizzyingly attractive latin-american woman. She was a musician. I started trying to work whatever magic I had at that time of my life.

“I have a demo tape I’m going to give to Prince”, she said.

You and me and every other musician in town I thought; “I’d love to hear it sometime”, I said. She played me something on her Walkman. I resolved to come back and talk more.

A few weeks later, news made the rounds that she was dating Prince; they lived together for a bit, and he produced at least one album for her.

So close, but yet so far.

I Was Working Part-Time At The Five And Dime;   More seriously?

If I had a nickel for every blog post I’ve begun over the years with “They didn’t have much “black” music in North Dakota when I was a kid”, I could skip a year’s worth of pledge drives.

But the confluence of MTV, Top40 radio making it to Fargo, and kids from out of state moving to North Dakota when I got to college, introduced me to the radical notion of someone who was:

  1. A black guy
  2. From Minneapolis
  3. Who played funk that rocked,
  4. and rock that was intensely funky
  5. that was completely marinated in S
  6. E
  7. X

And so I listened.

And as I got into my early twenties, and started to ponder where it was that I wanted to start my adult life, and thought “a music scene that can spawn the likes of not only the Replacements, the Hüskers, but this…:

(Unfortunately, not the version shot at First Avenue – the idea that there was a club like that place looked in the movie was a part of the draw, too)

…and I was sold.   If that was a city that could keep that kind of a polyglot scene happening, it was the place for me.

So while my “when I met Prince” stories may be among the Twin Cities’ most underwhelming, I can at least say that he affected my life that much.

Has Anybody Heard About The Quake?:  First things first – Prince was an astounding musician.

Let’s start with the fact that he was the most criminally underrated guitar player of all time.

No, really:

Prince was scandalously underrated as a guitarist.

And as a bassist.

And drummer.

And keyboardist.

And…well, he was generally recognized as an excellent singer. Although in fact he was really several singers; a crooner, a Little-Richard-style rocker, a James Brown-style R&B raver.

He was, in fact, not just a one-man band (he recorded all the instruments and vocals on his first several albums, up through 1999, and many of his recent albums, and many more of the thousands of songs reputed to be “in the can” out at Paisley Park), but a one-man-band composed of some of the best musicians in the business on their respective instruments.

And he played over 20 of them.  In addition to writing all his own music, producing something like 60 studio albums (and, legend has it, enough backlog to release an album a year for several decades – as of the early 90s)

White, Black, Puerto Rican, Everybody Just a-Freakin’:  Back to my daughter’s remark that started the whole thing; the idea that Prince was my generation’s Elvis.

In his prime, Elvis (and the rest of the Sun Records lineup) did something that the best genres in American music before – folk, jazz – did; wantonly mix “black” and “white” music into an all-new form.  Ditto the Beatles, at least early on.

And after the Beatles drifted into psychedelia and Hendrix died,  black and white music seceded from each other in the early seventies.   They stayed in their neutral corners…

…until Prince, touring with a band that was two black guys, two white guys and two white women, became simultaneously the best R&B band on the planet and, pound for pound, one of the best rock and roll bands, too.

In a half-decade that saw some of the most glorious genre-bending that we’d seen since the Rascals were passing for “black” on the radio, Prince and the Revolution were the bleeding edge of the fashion curve.

No, really; check out his halftime performance at the 2007 Super Bowl; he invoke and mixes and eventually purees Queen, James Brown, Hendrix, Ike and Tina, Creedence Clearwater, Clapton, the Foo Fighters, and his own catalog into an explosion that had to have had James Brown dancing in his grave:

Forget the building in Cleveland; this is what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should be.

Purple Reign:  I made it downtown for some of the party yesterday (it’s where most of this post’s photography comes from).  For all I know, the block party may still be going on in Minneapolis.  Part of me wishes I could have been there.

In a sense, I was – from 1985 through the late eighties.  It was an amazing time. Ask anyone who was there; we’ll tell you about it ’til your ears bleed.

But in a way, the party came to everyone;  it was a big night for purple around the world:

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome

San Francisco City Hall

The Melbourne, Australia Arts Center (or Centre)

The Prince George’s County (Maryland) Hospital


The Mississippi River in Minneapolis

As my friend Erik “The Transit Geek” Hare put it, he’s so huge, he owns an entire color.


The Summer Of 1985

Years ago, I was working in an “oldies” station.  Still being in the middle of a radio career, and trying to keep my options open (I’d always wanted to do news and talk, and was chafing with life as a disc jockey – but “when in Rome…”, as they say), I asked the station’s program director what it was that made a song an “oldie”.

He replied that music directors operated on two key bits of psychology:

  • People are intensely emotionally attached to music that connected with them during puberty; music mixes with raging hormones to create a powerful, almost chemical bond.
  • People are also mentally and emotionally attached to the music that was in their lives when they were in their late teens and early twenties – but for slightly different reasons.  It was the music that was current, and on their minds, and affecting their emotions, about the time their brains were finally, belatedly getting formed and becoming adult.

I was sitting in a Culver’s the other day.  They were playing Sirius FM’s “Original MTV Veejay” station – the station where Martha Quinn and the rest of the original MTV VJs (no, I can’t remember anyone but Martha Quinn) voicetrack the songs that were in vogue from 1981-86ish.

And for some reason, they played a 4-5 song sweep of nothing but music that was on the radio and MTV when I moved to the Twin Cities, 30 years ago next month.

And, just like my old program director said, it was incredibly evocative.  I remembered how it felt driving across the prairie for the last time as a North Dakota resident, listening to Rain on the Scarecrow.  Driving down 494 and turning onto the Southtown Strip for the first time as “Money for Nothing” played on the radio.  My first rush hour on 494 at Cedar, racing to my first job interview in the Cities to the tune of “Shout”, in WLOL.  Watching MTV after a long day of cold calling and seeing “Take On Me” for the first time.

And I started writing this post on my phone.

(Warning:  immense number of embedded videos below the jump.  You’ve been warned).

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I’ve Seen All Good Bassists

Music geeks over the weekend noted the passing of Chris Squire, longtime bassist for prog-rock icons Yes.

Now, as I’ve written innumerable times, I really listen to music on two levels; is the music technically adept in some way – singing, instrumental chops, production – and does it grab me in the liver and say “this song is something important to you”.

Much Noise, Signifying…:  Speaking for me?  Yes – of whom Squire was the only constant member from 1968 through his passing, as the band went through 18 other members over the years – was always plenty of the former, and only rarely any of the latter.

As to the former, the musical talent?  It was always the band’s long suit.  I, like a lot of guitar players of a certain age, grew up very pleased with myself for nailing the first part of “Roundabout”, and bobbing my head in awe at the rest of the song:

Admit it; if it weren’t for “I’ve Seen Good People” and “Roundabout”, you don’t know the words to the chorus of a single “Yes” song before 1984.   It’s not the most ornate Yes song of their first 16 years as a band – they frequently had songs that filled entire 20 minute album sides – and far from their least accessible.

But there’s no doubting the technical chops; Rick Wakeman’s virtuosic but gaseous keyboards, Jon Anderson’s fluid lead singing, and Steve Howe’s technically-impeccable and occasionally-brilliant guitar (why does he always look like he’s getting a prostate exam when he’s playing?).

But Squire’s bass is the most notable thing about the song; from the blazingly ornate yet reliable sixteenth-note runs during the verses, to the off-kilter pulse of the chorus, it’s really brilliant stuff.

Which, of course, made me nod my head and go “yeah, pretty brilliant – now where’s some music I actually feel?

Worse, Yes committed some terrible crimes against music.   Their trite, mawkish cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” deserves a tribunal, somewhere:

It was the first time I had actually felt some emotion besides admiration for their technical chops when listening to a Yes song.  In this case, it was unbridled hatred for murdering a great song.

But it wasn’t the last.

So – wanna start an argument with a “Yes” fan?  Tell him you didn’t hear a “Yes” song that you actually enjoyed until “Owner of a Lonely Heart”:

The band shed Howe (who went to join the dull as dry toast “GTR” for a few years) and added South African guitar whiz Trevor Rabin.  They also did three albums in a row produced by Trevor Rabin, the former lead singer of “Buggles” (“Video Killed the Radio Star”), who’d sung lead for Yes for a year before becoming one of the defining producers of the 1980s.

And again – underneath Rabin’s guitar and Wakeman’s un-Wakeman-y keyboards, Squire’s bass is absolutely subtle and ingenious.

The best way to get an old-school “Yes” fan to try to assassinate you is to say you prefer the song to their earlier work. But I do.  Far and away.  Assassinate me?  Bring it.

No Respect: I  wasn’t the only one who didn’t much care for Yes.  The Rock and Roll hall of fame has been cool to them:

In February 2013, Rolling Stone spoke to Squire about Yes’ legacy and the fact that Rush, but not Yes, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Logistically, it’s probably difficult for whoever the committee is to bring in Yes,” Squire said. “Rush is fairly simple. It’s the same three guys and always has been. They deserve to be there, no doubt about that. But there still seems to be a certain bias towards early-Seventies prog rock bands like Yes and King Crimson… In our case, we’re on our 18th member. If we ever do get inducted, it would be only fair to have all the members, old and new. So that may be a problem for the committee. I don’t know.”

Of course, the Hall of Fame – for whatever it’s worth, which is really not much – is dominated by critics.  And critics have always savaged the band, except for their brief flirtation with New Wave during the Rabin years.  Dave Marsh wrote in the 1983 Rolling Stone Record Buyer’s Guide:

Classical rockers with hearts of cold, Yes entered the Seventies as a creative example of post-Pepper‘s artistic aspirations, a musicianly alternative to the growing metal monster rock was becoming. It left the decade as perhaps the epitome of uninvolved, pretentious and decidedly nonprogressive music, so flaccid and conservative that it became the symbol of uncaring platinum success, spawning more stylistic opponents than adherents. … On Tales from Topographic Oceans, the bottom fell out …

Now, I had that particular Record Buyer’s Guide.  And I was as “rockist” as Marsh, who is most famous as the definitive biographer of The Who and Springsteen, and who has always compared all rock and roll to the MC5, and always will.

At it was via watching rock critics’ treatment of Yes during its various stylistic gyrations in the eighties – especially Marsh, my favorite as a teenager, and the single most promiscuous mixer of art and politics in the English language – that I finally realized something; that the real gaseous, bloated, self-important, pretentious, overblown, in-love-with-the-sounds-of-their-precious-creativity ones…

…are the rock critics.

RIP Chris Squire,

You Have No Thought Of Answers, Only Questions To Be Filled

It was thirty years ago today that Steeltown by Big Country was released. 

Of course, people who were of music-listening age in 1984 might, might, remember Big Country for its single real American hit, “In A Big Country”, from their debut album The Crossing.   The follow-up passed with nary a whisper, but for maybe a few days’ worth of airplay for the one US single. 

On the other side of the pond, it was another story, of course; Big Country was a major headliner in Europe, especially Scotland, for the rest of the decade; they were one of the Rolling Stones go to opening acts for most of the decade, which ain’t haggis.

But except for a brief flash of FM airplay, Steeltown came and went, and marked Big Country’s demise in the US market (except for a brief return to college and album radio in the early nineties with The Buffalo Skinners, which, again, was mostly for the big fans).

It’s a shame – because if anything, Steeltownwas a better record than the hit The Crossing; harder-edged, it started somewhere and went somewhere. 

Of course, being a Scottish pop-culture production from the middle Thatcher era, it started on the political left and stayed there.  It should be unsurprising that Steeltown was a stridently anti-Thatcher/Reagan/conservatism record.  The opening cut, “Flame of the West”, was a pretty by-the-numbers swat at Reagan; the title cut, a burly poison pen note about the decline of the (newly-privatized) British steel industry; the medley “Where the Rose is Sown/Come Back to Me”, a post-Falklands war broadside at militarism and jingoism and, in the second half, the lot of the discarded disabled veteran (both presented and reduced, of course, through First World War-vintage imagery) . 

I’ve wondered over the years; maybe I latched onto the album as hard as I did because I was clinging to the idealistic, overheated post-adolescent liberalism I’d always believed in. 

Or maybe because the music was just so damn good.

In retrospect, it was mostly the music. 

Here’s the title cut – a live version from the height of the band’s era. 

The video’s got the inevitable hagiographic imagery of classical British labor – lots of jump cuts to footage of Brit steel mills from the golden age of British industry. 

But the part to focus on?  The music – Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson’s interleaving guitars over bassist Tony Butler and Mark Brzezicki’s pounding martial beat – interacting with the crowd of pogoing Scots with mad and drunken abandon, all piles up into a musical attack that makes Metallica sound and feel like Hannah Montana.

Of course, I love “Tall Ships Go”…

…as a showcase what the band had done with their flavor of celtic-flavored guitar technique since The Crossing. 

But the album’s real highlights are “Where The Rose Is Sown” /”Come Back To Me”…

…which are both wonderful examples of songwriting and production, even in the live performances above; nuanced-yet-bombastic, powerfully evocative backgrounds with heart-stopping highlights.

But all those are just words. I’ll explain it like this; the first time I heard the little guitar figure at the end of each choruses in “Rose”, I just stood there, jaw dropping, heart palpitating, one of those musical moments that stays with you a lifetime, if you’re lucky.

The other? “Just a Shadow” :

…which for my money is one of the best ballad of the decade – not only for the guitar work (people thought Adamson and Watson were playing synths, like most every other Brit band of the era) and, as always, Adamson and Butler’s vocal interplay (they were perhaps the best vocal duo of the decade)…

…but for the song itself. 

The highs may not be quite as high as that first blast of discovery on The Crossing , with its “In A Big Country” and “Harvest Home” and Close Action”, but the effect is more consistent, less shrill, more complete. 

In a just world, it would have been a hit.

I Will Carry You Home While The Westerlies Sigh

This is an update of a piece I wrote five years ago. 

It was 30 years ago today that Big Country’s The Crossing was released.

In America, Big Country has that “one-hit wonder” patina about them, which only goes to show that when it comes to music, too many Americans are ignorant clods.

While The Crossing‘s “In A Big Country” was, indeed, their only real entry into the Top40 in America, it’d be hard to overestimate what a blast of fresh air the album was in 1983.

1983 was a great year in music; it was also the year that provided many of the decade’s musical punch lines; “Putting On The Ritz” by Taco, “Mr. Roboto” by Styx, “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats, Kajagoogoo and Culture Club and Asia and Naked Eyes and Laura Branigan and not one but two Jim Steinman bombast-fests (Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All”) duked it out with some of the great pop music of all time; “Little Red Corvette”, Michael Jackson’s entire Thriller album back before he turned into a walking freak show, and a long list of other classics.

Amid all the good and all the bad, there was a definite trend; it was the era of the synthesizer.  The battle between analog instruments like the guitar, bass, physical drums and mechanical and electromechanical keyboards like the piano and organ on the one hand and purely-electronic ones like the synth and the sequencer had just begun. 

(And if you’ve listened to pop radio lately, you know that the electronics won.  But we’re getting fifteen years ahead of ourselves). 

Some declared the guitar dead.  Articles in Rolling Stone said that the new wave (heh heh) of cheap electronic technology would finally euthanize the venerable analog stringed instrument.  It was the year Yamaha’s revolutionary DX7 synthesizer hit the market, bringing digital Frequency Modulation technology down to around $1,000 for the first time, making it possible for pretty much anyone (with $1,000) to create any sound they wanted, save it onto cassettes (or, for a few bucks more, floppy disks!), play it onto the first inexpensive digital sequencers and MIDI processors and “drum machines” and essentially run a “band” from ones’ keyboard. The future of music, said the wonks, was pasty-faced geeks with hundred dollar haircuts in flamboyant suits, pecking away at keyboards as masses of lobotomized droogs bobbed away in the audience.

Straight into the face of those predictions charged Big Country – a band from Dunfermline, Scotland that mixed technical “wow” with actual fun (the Scottish football-hooligan atmosphere that accompanied their shows and appearances), they blew the knobs and faders off of the synth-wankers that glorious autumn.

The band wrapped itself in “Scotland” – but ironically, none of the band’s members were native Scots.  Bassist Tony Butler and drummer Mark Brzezicki were from London, guitarist Bruce Watson was Canadian, and guitarist and singer Stuart Adamson was from Manchester (although he grew up in Dunfermline.  His impenetrable brogue was the real thing).

The “wow” came partly from technology (really cheap technology, like the MXR Pitch Transposer and the e-bow, basically a hand-held electromagnet that acts like an electronic violin bow, giving a guitar infinite sustain), great guitars (the lads favoredYamaha SG2000s and Fender Strats) clever engineering and pure guitar technique to wrench amazing impersonations from their instruments; they loosely modeled bagpipes, Irish fiddles, and all manner of supercharged traditional instruments which, combined with the Gaelic-y arrangements and playing technique, roused talk of a “Celtic revival” in that year that also brought U2, the Alarm and Simple Minds to the charts.

And of course, there was great musicianship; Butler and Brzezicki were superb session musicians before Big Country; Adamson and Watson were excellent in a more restrained, controlled way.

Adamson and Watson rarely played power chords, sticking to carefully-orchestrated one-and-two-note patterns over their carefully-built sound-setups to create a distinctive, loud, joyful noise.

Nearly every song on the album was a keeper:

  1. “In a Big Country” – hardly needs explaining, right?
  2. Inwards” – like German techno, played on guitars. By humans.  Who are having fun and not praying for imminent nuclear war.
  3. Chance” – A hit single in the UK, unknown here, but a gorgeous song; spare, evocative guitars and vocal harmonies that, in Tony Butler’s career as a spectacular backup singer, are among his best. Actually one of my two favorite songs on the album.
  4. 1000 Stars” – An infectiously danceable bit of Cold War paranoia.
  5. The Storm” – As Scots-Gaelic as the flat side of a claymore.
  6. Harvest Home” – An irresistably danceable song (in the “Sword Dance” vein, rather than “Dancing With The Stars”, or even “Dance Fever with Denny Terrio”), drawn from that bottomless well of Rock and Roll inspiration, the Jacobite Rebellion and the diaspora of Scots afterwards.
  7. Lost Patrol” – Never liked this one all that much; another one of those “Gaelo-Teutonic techno on guitars” things.
  8. Close Action” – My other favorite.
  9. Fields of Fire” – The other single in the US, and one of many great bagpipe impressions…
  10. Porrohman” – A fun bit of guitar-effect wizardry to try to pick apart, but it did in fact get tiresome and shrill after a while. Hey, one out of ten ain’t bad…

The album was a huge splash in 1983.

But the band never really had much impact in the US after their debut; they only charted with one more single (“Wonderland“, from the next year, one of my favorites) which peaked at #86, while Steeltown, my favorite Big Country album, barely dented the album charts in the US (it debuted at #1 in the UK).  Steeltown’s marquee single, the spectacular “Where The Rose Is Sown“, a Falklands War protest of sorts, didn’t show up at all.

I think I spent sixty hours over my “interim” period in 2004 (my college was on a 4-1-4 system – January was spent on one, all-day class for the whole month) learning how to play and imitate every single song on the album. I had the bagpipe thing figured out, anyway…

Adamson, after years of fighting alcoholism,  committed suicide in December of 2001.  The band knocked around in limbo for most of the last decade, held up with legal wrangling among the surviving members and the Adamson estate. They re-united last year, with former Alarm frontman Mike Peters singing lead, and Watson’s son Jamie sitting in on guitar.

I’m gonna down a Newcastle and break out the SG in honor of the anniversary.


To Claim The Victory Jesus Won

Mention Irish rock megastars U2 to people, and the reactions you get will span the gamut.

To kids today, a generation after they first came out, it’s probably all about Bono – the peripatetic, bombastic lead singer who’s parlayed a magnificent singing voice and a global pop following into a second career as a global charity leader (and, it needs to be said, arch-capitalist).

To someone who came of age in the nineties?  I’d imagine U2 was to them what the Rolling Stones were to me growing up in the late seventies and early eighties; dissipated celebrities noodling with making sense of their megastardom, albeit with less drugs and model-banging, but with a lot more artistic pretension ladled on top.

To hipsters of all eras?  Once they left Dublin, they were trayf.

And U2 has been all of that to me, too (except maybe the hipster bit).

But mostly, U2 is the band that tied together two big strands in my own life.  And the main catalyst for this, their breakthrough album War, was released thirty years ago today.

And the strands it tied together for me, and with style, were faith and rock and roll.

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The Real Eighties: Girls Wanna Rock

“Music journalism” is, by and large, about as useful as road treadmills:

And one of its biggest, oldest, hoariest memes – nearly every “music journalist” trundles it out every four or five years or so – is to trot out a couple of female musicians and write glowingly about “women breaking into the testosterone-laced world of rock and roll!”.

They all need to take a pill.  It was all done, usually better, by 1984 or so.

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The Real Eighties: Anything Goes

In 1978, the Swedish pop band ABBA – one of the biggest artists of the seventies – built “Polar Studios” – a top-of-the-line recording studio..  It was exquisitely expensive, even by the standards of the day, what with the acoustics and top of the line mixing console and peripherals and all.

And, a few years later, in 1981, got even moreso; the group spent over half a million dollars, reportedly, just for a new 3M digital recorders, making Polar the world’s first commercial digital recording studio. All for a recording studio that had about as much recording power as your cell phone today.

And in 1981, ABBA released The Visitors, the first commercial record recorded purely using digital technology.

It was the only notable thing about the record.

We’ll come back to that.


One of the eighties’ biggest artists was Bruce Springsteen.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you know I’m a big Springsteen fan – starting in the late seventies.  The eighties were hog heaven for a Bruce fan, of course; The River was a classic, Born In The USA was an inescapable hit, and Tunnel of Love was a wonderful, if very downbeat, record.

But today we’re going to focus two other albums from the era.

Nebraska came out in 1982.  After the rock and roll thrill ride of The River, Nebraska was unsettlingly bleak; a downbeat homage to Woody Guthrie chock full of songs about murderous drifters and regular schmucks driven over the edge.

I mean, this was the “single”…

…or as close to it as they got. Nobody mistook it for Madonna or the Culture Club – or for1984’s Born in the USA, which was right behind Thriller among the top sellers of the big-selling decade.

(Seriously – bleak):

It was a jarring shift, after the rock and roll thrill ride of The River.

And yet in some ways, Nebraska may have had a greater effect on popular music today – at least, the business of popular music – than any of his others.

Because it was, in its entirety, recorded on one of these little numbers:

It’s a TEAC Tascam four-track cassette deck.  It allowed a musician – or anyone, really – to record four tracks of music onto a conventional audio cassette (and I’ll let everyone in the house over the age of 32 or so explain what a “conventional audio cassette” was.  Thanks).  It was the same basic sort of technology that the Beatles used to record all of their albums (albeit there was a certain amount of engineering technique involved with that).  And it ran for under $1,000 – well within the range of many hopeful musicians, to say nothing of platinum-sellers.

And with a little creative use of the monitor circuit, you could easily mix three tracks down to one, and leave yourself room for a couple more instruments, allowing a single musician to record a full-band demo with all the instruments and vocals.  Just like I did from 1984 through 1990 with its even cheaper competitor, the Fostex X15:..

…which listed for $399 at Marguerite’s Music in Moorhead in the summer of ’84, and allowed me to do demo tapes where I’d record…

  1. a guide guitar and metronome on to track 1,
  2. Drums and bass onto 2-3, and a new rhythm guitar onto 1,
  3. Bounce drums and bass down to 4,
  4. Organ (a Farfisa combo that I found in a pump room in my college chapel, actually) onto 2
  5. Bounce the rhythm guitar and organ onto 3,
  6. Do vocals and a lead guitar part onto 1 and 2, respectively,
  7. Mix the whole thing down onto another cassette deck.

Nebraska sold a few million.

I did not.

The point, though, was that not only was the cost of recording technology dropping, but the idea of being able to record an album in your kitchen or basement and put it out and sell copies was…

…well, still far-fetched.  Springsteen could do it because he’s well, Springsteen.  And he wrote great music.  And had a record label that wanted to put his stuff out there.  And back then, the record label was the gatekeeper.

It would take the Internet to change that – as well  as a jump back to ABBA and The Visitors and Polar Studios.

Their digital recording suite cost a solid half a million back in 1980.

Ten years later, when I was at KDWB, a suite perhaps an order or two of magintude more powerful cost the station about $50K.

Ten years later, the first round of home digital recorders – including the Korg D8…

….put a home digital recording console with eight tracks of digital recording power – every bit as much power as KDWB’s sysem if not more (albeit a little less flexibility – it was a home studio, after all) into a handy carry-along package similar to the Tascam, for under $1000 – where the Tascam had been twenty years earlier.

And today, Apple gives away “GarageBand”, a piece of home recording software combining the recording power of Polar Studios (albeit not the acoustics and peripherals) with a recording GUI that was sci-fi material in 1990, and digital sound modeling technology that was pretty thrilling stuff ten years ago.

Don't look now, but somebody's trying to imitate Jimi Hendrix, circa 1966.

…allowing a home musician to record dozens of tracks, process them using digital modeling that was the province of the pro ten years ago, and put it out via the Internet and start the process of marketing it via the Intenet, all on a home PC that…

…I did say Apple “gives it away” (provided you drop at least $700 on a Macintosh product), right?

And that was one of the big legacies of eighties music; two of the currents that would lead to the rise of the Do It Yourself musician, and, some say, the downfall of the major record labels – the idea of do-it-yourself music and the growing ubiquity of technology – really teed up in the early eighties.

The Real Eighties: Play Guitar

This week in “The Real Eighties” is dedicated to the impact of new technology on popular music.

Earlier this week, we talked about how the tumbling price of synthesizers – almost invariabely keyboard instruments – affected the entry point to creating some form of music.

It wasn’t just keyboards.  In a sense, the eighties was the golden age of the guitar hero.  We talked about that a bit last week – the golden age of the guitar pyrotechnicist which started in the late seventies, but really took hold in the eightes.

The change in technology sparked a trend in the music press – articles predicting that the revolution in technology would make the guitar obsolete, as people flocked to new, cheap keyboards.

Of course, technology had exactly the same effect on guitarists.  As the price of sound-processing technology kept dropping, it became possible for guitarists to create entirely new approaches to the instrument.

More below the jump (so the rest of the page can actually load…)

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The Real Eighties: Fascination

This week’s episodes in my “Real Eighties” series are about the influence of technology on the decade – and by “decade” I mean “from about 1980 to 1986 or so”.

The biggest influence?  Traditionally, becoming a working, performing, record-selling musician was the culmination of a process that took as long as becoming a doctor; a musician in any genre, from classical through pop, would spend years, even decades, learning the craft, whether it was playing guitar or piano or singing or whatever, well enough to make it in the bigs.  The rock and roll era changed that, somewhat – musicians could get contracts, airplay and sales with less experience and polish.  But the musicians that became known as musicians, even in the rock and roll era, were the ones that either paid their dues in years of working on the craft – artists and craftsmen as diverse as James Burton, Pete Johnson, Steve Cropper and Reg “Elton John” Dwight – and the occasional prodigy (think Eric Clapton and Richard Thompson and, for that matter, Jimi Hendrix).

Punk rock forwarded the idea that amateurism – inspired or, usually, not – could be music, and that music was as much about attitude as craft.

And when that attitude was combined with newly-relatively-cheap technology – frequency-modulated digital synthesizers and sequencers – it became possible for someone who had not spent his/her entire adult life learning how to play an instrument to not only sound good, but impressive.  It’s a trend that’s accelerated over the past thirty years, with Auto-Tune obviating the need to learn to sing and programs like GarageBand putting technology that, in 1981, was found in half-million dollar studio setups on peoples’ laptops for free.

Anyway – the trend led to an awful lot of dreck, naturally – Men Without Hats, anyone?

But it had its upside.  One of the uppiest was Human League, who, along with Thomas Dolby (see yesterday) were famous for being able to make all this new technology sound…well, musical.  And beyond that, human.

And at their best, they were very, very good…

…using the synthesizer to walk the line between familiar and new sounds, and as an expressive medium in a way that’d largely eluded earlier (and, I’ll speak editorially here, a lot of later) efforts at electronic music.

So to the extent the stereotype was right; the revolution in technology brought forth a wave of electronic pop, much of it dreadful. Just as every advance in technology always has, and still does.

The Real Eighties: Beep Oink Squawk

All this month as we go through eighties music, I’ve been trying to establish that the one great stereotype of eighties music – that synth-pop was the dominant genre of the decade – is, at thirty years remove, overrated.

Still, it is a fact that the ubuiquity of inexpensive new technology took a genre that was a pseudoacademic curiosity in the late sixties…

A 1970 Moog synthesizer

…and an expensive art project in the seventies, became a mass-market musical commodity in the eighties.

A 1983 Yamaha DX7. Digital, light, reliable, and $2,000, it was the basis for much of the sound of the1980s.

It got to the point, with instruments like the Yamaha DX and Roland Juno-series synths, that synths became replacements for conventional instruments like pianos, basses,organs, and (more or less) horn and sections.

And in and among the “Men Without Hats” and “EBN-OZNs” and other assembly-line synth-pop detritus, there were a few artists that stood out, to others, and to me.

There was Thomas Dolby, most famous for the iconic synth-pop top-forty hit “Blinded Me With Science”. Here’s a recent performance of “One Of Our Submarines”, another early ’80s tune…

Pete Townshend once called Dolby the first synth-pop artist he encountered who made the synthesizer sound like there were actual humans involved.

I remember having endless arguments about the Pet Shop Boys back in 1986. I didn’t get ’em back then.

Gotta confess: I dug A-Ha. Partly the fact that they were Norwegian, partly the cool/iconic rotoscope video…

…and partly because I just plain liked a good chunk of their supernaturally-accessible brit-via-Oslo pop. So sue me.

Of course, not all technological development involved new, or entirely new, technology. Germany’s Einsturzende Neubauten, for example,which may have been the inspiration for Mike Meyers’ “Sprockets mit Dieter” bit on SNL, mixed industrial noise, with…

…well, more industrial noise and synths, among other things.

More tomorrow.

The Real Eighties: It’s Guys With New Toys Week!

One of the great stereotypes of eighties music, at almost thirty years’ remove, is that of the band with big mutant chemical hair playing synthesizers.

One of the goals of this series is to show that there was a lot more to the era than that.

But the fact remains that the decade did have plenty of artists whose hair was an engineering marvel, who benefitted from one of the greatest democratizations in artistic technology the world saw (until the Internet, of course).

So that’s the subject this week!

The Real Eighties: Guitars, Cadillacs and Hillbilly Music

In this – the “American” week of my “The Real Eighties” series – I’m focusing on American bands.

Of course, the first day was the return to roots-y music (and yes, I missed a slew of bands), which meant a lot of references to sixties R&B-based rock and roll.  Yesterday, of course, was Latin day, with Los Lobos.

But the eighties were a bit of a renaissance for that other singularly American genre, country-western.

Country-Western had spent most of the seventies mired in an attempt to “cross over” with the pop charts.  The C&W charts were dominated by the bilious, pop-ified likes of Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrell, Eddie Rabbitt, Alabama and a slew of other more forgettable product.

There was a backlash, of course; the “Outlaw Movement” – Waylon Jennings, Willy Nelson, Hank Williams Junior, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash studiously avoided crossing over, and did about the only memorable C&W of the decade, at least to this rock and roller.

Now, in the nineties Country made a huge roaring comeback, with artists like Garth Brooks, the Judds and a slew of others twanging it up old-school style (with a healthy dose of bleeding-edge technology and pop hooks thrown in for good measure).

But it was the country, and alternative-country, of the eighties that tied those two together, and breathed a bit of life into country’s somnolent hulk.

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The Real Eighties: Banging Drums And Old Guitars

As I noted (briefly) yesterday, once you get past the hairdos and the synth-pop and the hair-metal, the eighties were a time when American rock and roll went way way back to its roots.

And hardly anyone dug into those roots harder and further than four Latinos and a Jewish writer from Los Angeles who’d spent years as a bar band before an ever-so-brief flash of top-40 success, followed by three decades of fanatic cult fandom, Los Lobos.

Los Lobos is most famous for “La Bamba”, a mega-hit in 1988.  But before that they’d had minor hits, both English (the glorious “Will The Wolf Survive?”)…

…and Spanish:

And they tied ’em both together into one of the best live and and studio bands of the last thirty years, to say nothing of the past thirty years.

So I like to throw them at my daughter when she starts yapping about the “Safety Dance” …

The Real Eighties: The Valley Of The Thundering Hearts

This week in “The Real Eighties”, we’re going to look at American music.

The post-punk era had very different effects on both sides of the pond – if you go by stereotype at least.  Still – the stereotype was that British post-punk pop was largely technological, while in American it went back to the future.

John Mellencamp took a break from a fairly lackluster career to dive into sixties R’nB and garage rock records, and came back with a couple of the best American albums of the era.

Bruce Springsteen swerved abruptly away from the top forty into Woody Guthrie territory with Nebraska:

And it was just the beginning of one of the best ten year stretches that American popular music had had.

More as we proceed through the week.

The Real Eighties: Going Down To Alice Springs

I did say this week in “The Real Eighties” was about Britain.  I oversimplified:  it’s about the Commonwealth.  Most of the really good music of the decade – yep, as I define it – came from the parts of Britain that weren’t  England; from Ireland, Scotland, Wales…

…and Australian and New Zealand.

Split Enz kicked off the decade


And of course, Midnight Oil.

For all of you who thought U2 was too modest and unambitious, or that The Alarm were too subtle, or Big Country were too musically baroque, the Australian band – led by six-foot-seven-inch-tall socialist activist Peter Garrett – fit the bill.

Relentlessly preachy, as earnest as a fourteen year old animal rights activist….

….but musically, both maddeningly baroque and classically ambitious. I mean, if you’re a campfire guitar player, just try to follow the changes in Kosciosko…:

…to say nothing of the interplay between the vocals. This is not “Louie Louie”.

Or “Safety Dance” for that matter.

In  fact, the dancing was very unsafe:

Preachy enough to make an “Occupy Minnesota” glitter-flinging fop blanche in embarassment?  Absolutely!

But the point of this series isn’t “was it cool and detached enough for hipsters today”.

It’s “there’s a lot of stuff to remember that wasn’t focused on hair”.  Peter Garret’s ‘do should be proof…

Better hair – and less preachy – was the band I always wanted to actually have, back in the eighties; INXS, which brought an R’nB-ish danceability and hooks you could hang sides of beef from throughout the decade.

The Real Eighties: Hold The Shamrocks

One of the glorious things about the Eighties – mostly the first half of the decade, but it reverberated through the last half as well – was the notion that almost anything went; from the last shrapnel of the punks, to the synth-pop weenies who’ go on to create “Techno”, to the infancy of hip-hop…

…to a series of reframings of traditional folk forms into something really genuinely fun and exciting.

Folk music underwent a bit of a neutered, callow revival in the nineties – but in the eighties, a slew of groups tretched the basic forms of folk music until they met rock and roll.

One of the most gloriously underrated of the entire bunch was the Irish band “In Tua Nua, a band that answers the trivia question “name a top-forty band that includes a bagpiper”…

…and the lovely Leslie Dowdall, one of the niftiest singers never to make it really really big.

In Tua Nua broke up in 1990, amid a trail of sniffing that they were “ersatz folk”…

…prompting me to give at least one unnamed “rock critics” a swirlie in the rest room of a local bar.

From Scotland – or was it Ireland?  Wales?  England?  I dunno – but I used to love the Waterboys:

And the biggest and best of all – the Pogues:

…who managed to make it almost thirty years before ending up in car ads.

Shh.  Don’t tell.  Just crank the tunes.

This idea that “anything went” was one of the things I miss about the entire decade.  For 5-10 glorious years, almost anything went.

Sort of like today, I suppose.  Today, though, “anything goes” because nothing stands in “anything’s” way.  Thirty years ago, it was pretty much an upset win.

What? You thought I was going to write about U2?

The Real Eighties: Blaze Of Glory

Punk was one of those things that made music critics tingly.  And it made people wanted to be music critics tinglier.  And among whiny adolescents and post-adolescents – like I was, in 1982 or thereabouts – that accounted for a lot of us.

At the roots of Brit punk were…

  • manic energy, and…
  • …an exaggeraged, theatrical nihilism.

And after the first wave of the punks splintered and washed away, they were replaced in Britain by a new wave of kids; they replaced the pretentious nihilism of the Sid and Nancy set with a sense of…

…purpose?  A sense of mission that veered into stridency and bombast that could get just as pretentious as the worst of Malcolm MacLaren’s arty nihilism?

Sure.  But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves.

In the wake of the collapse of punk in the early eighties came a wave of musicians that were marinaded in punk rock – but also had missions.  Sometimes very different missions.  And they were British – but not English.

From Wales came The Alarm – who married manic energy and relentless hyperromanticized post-adolescent socialist “revolutionary” rhetoric into a mix that fearlessly walked the tightwire between thrilling…

…and mawkish…

…in that kind of way that still tickles that thrilled, mawkish post-adolescent thirty years later.

And from Scotland, Big Country.  They’re a one hit wonder in the US, and virtually a punch line because of it here…

…but they were a solid mid-level band for nearly 20 years in Europe.  They dialed back some of the bombast, added in some ethnic musical overtones and blazingly sharp musicianship…

…with some more oblique politics than The Alarm…

…although to be fair it’d be hard to be less oblique than The Alarm. But Big Country could turn the amps, if not the rhetoric, to 11 and let it rock too…

And from Ireland?

Well, U2 was all the above and then some.

But we’ll hit that later this week.

The Real Eighties: The Filth And The Fury And The Froth

I used to think that the world was an awful place for music in the seventies – and Britain was worse than most.

Thirty-odd years later, I realize that statement was at least party something that came from the myopia that comes from being a kid and a bit of a zealot.

Still – the biggest selling British artists of the seventies were Elton John (the Bee Gees were technically Australian, and based out of the US for most of the decade).

Brits didn’t miss disco, per se – but go ahead, name a British disco group.  You thought of the Bee Gees, right?  See above.

So what does anyone remember from British rock and roll? Glam bands;if you can name one other than Queen, you’re pretty good.  Bubblepop bands like Sweet?  Down-the-middle pop like Leo Sayer?   Ponderous, dozey “heavy metal” like Black Sabbath?

Loathsome, plodding, ponderous art-rock like Emerson Lake and Palmer and (seventies-era) Genesis?  Sixties holdovers – including great ones that peaked in the decade, like Zeppelin, the Stones, the Who and the Kinks?

Punk changed that – but British punk in the seventies, looked at thirty-odd years later, was as much music made by screecny post-adolescent art-school fops, aimed at (let’s be honest) screechy adolescent art-school fops (like I more or less was, although not in the sense of actually going to art school).

But punk had a lot of fun slopover throughout Brit music in the eighties.

There was Motörhead…

…which blew away Brit metal’s seventies stodge in a booze-soaked blast of punk-influenced energy.  How big were they?  One of my enduring memories of being in Europe at the time was how much Motörhead there was, all over the place, from the UK to Germany and everywhere in between.

In fact, Brit “metal” (i use the scare quotes to ward off the inevitable argument about the history and taxonomy of metal leading up to the inevitable “________ is really hard rock, not metal”) went through a resurgence – getting energy and noise from punk, while keeping the chops.

Iron Maiden…

…and Judas Priest…

…were all “metal” (yeah, yeah, blah blah blah) that punk could listen to with a clear conscience.

And it had a much bigger effect on Brit music – much of it it in “Britain”, rather than “England”.  More on that as we continue through the week.

The Real Eighties: Like You Just Don’t Care

Some of my audience can take rap or leave it. Some of you just plain detest hip-hop (and some others just don’t care for pop music in general).

I’d say “this isn’t the post for you”.  But what fun would that be?


In the seventies, “black” and “white” music, at least in the mainstream, stayed firmly in its respective ghettoes – except for the fairly brief “disco” fad (which started out as a black/gay counterculture thing), R&B and white pop music were no closer than East and West Berlin.

And that’s the way it is today, too.

But in the late seventies, in and among the burgeoning rap culture in the boroughs of New York, there was a cross-pollination – more of convenience than from any artistic initiative.  The disc jockeys who played behind the rappers, looking for backup tracks, would spin anything they could find that had a good beat.

And among white artists, the rock and rollers who’d started out worshipping R&B music – the Stones, J Geils, and the like – had a beat you could hang a side of beef from.  (I mean, come on; try finding a beat in “Candle In The Wind”) and, of course, Aerosmith, who were in the seventies known as “the American Rolling Stones”.

And it was in 1986, looking for a crossover hit, that Run DMC paid homage to that extemporization, riffing on Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”.

And that was closely followed by rap’s first #1 hit, “Fight For Your Right To Party” by the Beastie Boys – three white schlemiels from Brooklyn, backed by “Anthrax”, who represented the “whitest” genre of music there is, “Speed Metal”:

And this mash-up of white and black styles, and established white genres with what was at the time a fringe-y black style – just one of many mash-ups of styles and genres that happened in the first half of the decade – that was what made the eighties fun.

Whether you like rap’hip-hop or not.

And while middle-aged white guys are frequently the ones who didn’t care for the mix of rap and rock (or rap and much of anything), there was also backlash on the “black” side.  Old-school rapper “Schooly D” – most famous to the kids today as the guy who does the intro for “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” – built a career out of back-lashing against mixing the genres (“No More F***ing Rock And Roll”) and tryiing to cross over to the pop charts (“F*** Crossover”).  Which, in turn, also made the eighties interesting.

More genre-bending tomorrow.

The Real Eighties: Michael Jackson And The Bending Genre

I’m going to kick off this month of writing about the music of the eighties by getting the biggest-selling artist of the decade – maybe of all time – out of the way right away.

And I’m doing it to kick off the “theme” of this, the first week of my observance of eighties music; Genre-bending.


One of the great tragedies – maybe “Tragedy” isn’t the right word, but work with me, here – of the nineties and 2000s is the caricature that Michael Jackson became.

You probably know where this is going; the bit every music writer mentions about Michael Jackson in the eighties; he had Eddie Van Halen play the guitar solo on “Beat It”.

You’ve heard it – the statement and, natch, the song – many many many times before.

So why does it matter?

Let’s look at the biggest-selling artists in pop music, by decade:

  • Fifties:  Frank Sinatra (followed by Elvis, Pat Boone and Perry Como)
  • Sixties:  The Beatles (no surprise) followed by Elvis and the Rolling Stones)
  • Seventies:  Elton John (followed by David Bowie and the Stones).
  • Eighties:  We’ll come back to that below.
  • Nineties: Madonna
  • Oughties: Eminem.
  • Teens: We don’t know that yet, now, do we?

So what do we see, here?

Look at Frank Sinatra and Elton John.  They had very defined styles.  They both did them – whatever you think of the styles’ respective merits – very well.  And both presided as the most successful artists over decades – or, as I keep saying, parts of decades – where music really didn’t change a whole lot; where people stayed in their genres and did their thing, not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that.

Eminem?  Yeah, he’s a white rapper – and the closest he’s ever gotten to musical cross-cultural pollination was his hip-hop version of “Sweet Home Alabama”, from Eight Mile.  Which was funny, and pointed, and really really good, but hardly a cultural milestone.  He’s collaborated with…Dr. Dre.  Interesting, but hardly a stylistic reach.

The Beatles got on the charts by covering the Isley Brothers.  Elvis got famous by covering R&B music from back when R&B was “black peoples’ music”.  And Michael Jackson, after more than a decade as an R&B star with some crossover success, suddenly went beyond bending the genres to downright twisting them.

Which opened the way – commercially, if not creatively – for the mass of cross-pollinating creativity that was to follow.

Which we’ll be talking about more through the rest of this week.

The Real Eighties: One Of My Obsessions

I hear people – both around and about and, of course, in the media, criticizing music in terms of “decades” – comparing “the sixties” with “the eighties”, for example, as if musical styles begin and end in years with zeroes at the end.

And the contention – among some, anyway, was “the eighties sucked”.

It’s nonsense, of course.  For starters, I spelled out the real history of popular music, at least since World War 2, a few years ago – in a post that’s gotten a bit of traction around the musical blogosphere.   There was no “eighties”.  There was a period from about 1980 to 1986 – a period where pop music went through an incredibly dynamic period, where genres bent and blended and mutated, and where music that’d been subversive an alternative in the late seventies became the mainstream.  It was an exhilarating thrill ride, one of the few times in music history when the “alternative” largely was the mainstream.

It was also a time very like today, in a number of ways – technology, for better or worse, was making it easy – or easier – for almost anyone to make incredibly sophisticated music.  Long before the Internet went mainstream, there was no way to break the stranglehold of the big record and media companies on the market – but the dawn of inexpensive electronics, the very birth of “ubiquitous media” and the ragged beginnings of the democratization of technology started the slide toward the near-complete disintegration of the traditional record company as a hindrance (or help) to musicians in reaching an audience.

But if you grab 1000 people off the street and ask them to describe “the eighties”, culturally and musically, you will likely get a pretty drearily predictable bunch of answers.

The first?  Hair:

It was the putative era of big hair.  Which, when combined with newly-affordable technology in the hands of people who understood style much better than they grasped technique, led to…

A Flock Of Seagulls.  (Or, on this side of the pond, and even worse, Men Without Hats)

Had we actually had a nuclear war in 1985, it’s possible the only things to survive might have been cockroaches, Twinkies, and A Flock Of Seagaulls – or at least their ‘dos.

But “the eighties” – or the first six years or so of the decade, which I christened “The Alternative Era” – were distinguished by a number of factors that have, throughout pop music history (and I mean throughout – including well before the rock and roll era) made for  better-than-average popular music.

Ebony And Ivory:  For the first time since the mid-sixties, “black” and “white” became, for a moment, largely irrelevant in popular music.  And this is important, not for the sake of sappy PC bromides, but because music always benefits when styles intermingle.

Technology: Every time there’s a revolution in the technology used to produce art, there’s a revolution, or at least enhanced evolution, in how art is produced and in how many people produce how much of it.  For example, it was in the 1840’s that Steinway brought mass-production techniques to the building of pianos.  Soon, the piano was the dominant instrument in American music – and keyboard-based music was the dominant style, until Elvis Presley.

There was a similar revolution in the eighties; thanks to ubiquitous production of solid state and integrated circuitry for the consumer market, suddenly – as in, between 1979 and 1983 – it became possible for people to own technology for under $2,000 that would have cost 5-10 times as much five years earlier.

The marquee innovations?  The Yamaha DX7 and DX9 synthesizers…

…which brought digital synthesizer technology down into the reach of the regular working musician.  And the Ensoniq Mirage…

…which did the same for digital sampling, making it possible for anyone to reproduce almost any recorded sound – from an orchestra or horn section to dogs barking – in a keyboard that weighed under 30 pounds and cost under $2K.

And the TASCAM four-track cassette deck…

…which didn’t, itself, revolutionize the recording industry, but did in fact plant the flag on the beach for the idea of the inexpensive, usable home recording studio for everyone, bringing the level of technology that’d been common in a 1960’s studio to anyone’s basement for under $1,000 (in the same way that “Garage Band” does with digital recording techniques and technology today for Macintosh users).


I’ve been writing for the past two years about the raft of great albums that made their debuts about thirty years ago.  But I’m going to step it up.  For the next month, every weekday will feature a different reason music in “the eighties” – largely, but not entirely, the first half of the decade – was every bit as good as anything in the pop music era.

I’ll be dividing the month up by weeks; one week for the boom in “black” music – although not always among “black” artists – one for the return of rock and roll, one for a case for Britain, one for the highs, lows and highs of technology in music, and one for “the fringe” that took root in the decade.

This should be interesting.