Better Eat Your 80s

You are currently browsing the archive for the Better Eat Your 80s category.

I was recently listening to a mix CD that I worked on a while ago, and which I remembered being unhappy with but, on re-listening, reminded me of a number of good songs that I’d forgotten.

One of those, hardly unknown, is “Better Be Good To Me” by Tina Turner. It suffers a bit from the very 80s production (though other songs have suffered more), but I think her vocals are spectacular.

She is able to move nicely from being brash on a line like, “I don’t have the time / for your overloaded lies” to seeming genuinely pained in the verse:

I think it’s also right that we don’t need to fight
We stand face to face and you present your case
Yes, I know, you keep telling me that you love me
And I really do wanna believe
But did you think I’d just accept you in blind faith
Oh, sure baby, anything to please you

It really is a pop gem — great performance with more emotion and smarter lyrics than you would expect from a typical pop song. Again it has a little too much sheen in the production, but it holds up well.

Speaking of making mixes: when I was working on the second mix I ever did, an 80s mix that, with minor changes, I am still quite happy with, I was faced with a choice. I wanted to use something off the Billy Bragg reissue Back To Basics. I’d gotten it a while back, I didn’t know much about Billy Bragg and he wasn’t somebody that any of my friends were listening to. I hadn’t particularly liked the album, but I was starting to realize that there were some real gems.

I was ultimately trying to decide between, “A New England” and From a Vauxhall Velux.” I picked “A New England” and it was a success — that was one of the songs that people to whom I gave the mix tended to single out as one of their favorites. I later found out that it’s one of Billy Bragg’s more anthologized song, showing up on a variety of “80s independent music” or “80 alternative” collections, and with good reason. It’s smart, sharp, and directly emotional in an affecting way.

I wanted to speak up for “From a Vauxhall Velux,” however, which has always struck me as an extremely funny song. I can’t quite tell you why I think it’s so clever, but it has a couple of lines that strike me as just sarcastic perfection.

Start with the title of the song, it’s about a large family car from the 60s and the song is about awkwardly having sex in said car. From the opening lines, you know that this is not going to be a great romance, “She said, ‘Do these seats fold down?’ / I said, ‘If you pull that handle.'” That isn’t necessarily funny, but it’s already apparent that the song will be about logistics rather than emotion. And there are more logistical problems to overcome, “Her mother read her mail / And her Dad was a Policeman / Which I must say worried me / But some things have just got to be.” Which sets up my favorite line from the song, “So we passed very fast like ships in the night / Or cars in a contraflow system.”

What makes this so good? First off the internal rhyme of “passed/fast” gives a burst of speed and syncopation to the line which propels you past the familiar metaphor of ships into the night and into the modern equivalent. The entire thing seems to suggest that it would be overly romantic to suggest that they “passed like two ships in the night.” Ships may not communicate at all but, at least, they tend to not pass each other “very fast” and they aren’t part of an anonymous crowd like cars on a freeway. It becomes just about the least romantic metaphor possible. It calls to mind the cliched shot from movies of endless stream of headlights signaling urban alienation. But it manages to be supremely sarcastic without being cruel. It doesn’t say anything about the woman that he’s involved with, just that neither of them were interested in anything more than a little excitement.

Looking on youtube I see a video of a performance around the time that the song was released. You can see that Billy Bragg clearly had a lot of experience playing pubs and knowing how to keep the attention of an audience. He also presents a familiar image of the young artist who is creative, producing and performing good work and still not quite sure where it will lead. I get the feeling from the video that he’s in the position of getting positive reaction to his music but not knowing what of it will actually make an impact. He looks great, handsome, smart, and really personally present in the performance. Seeing that gives me a different sense than the album of why his fans would be so committed to him. I will also note that the performance of Which Side Are You On from the same concert is vastly better than the album version which never felt very strong to me.

I was walking around yesterday and had a line from a long-forgotten pop song pop into my head which I thought would be worth posting.

Prince has written many odd songs, but one of the strangest may be, “Hello” written in response to a pair of public relations problems — criticism for not participating in “We Are The World’ and an incident involving his bodyguards.

The line from that song that catches in my head is, “You call ’em bodyguards but I call ’em my friends /
I guess I’m used 2 havin’ them around.” That line, like the entire song, has elements of Prince rock-star awesomeness and also self-parody. On one hand, it is absolutely cool, on the other hand, is he listening to what he’s saying? What sort of alternate reality does somebody have to be in, to say that they’re “just used to” having their bodyguards around?

The other thing that I noticed is that, for some reason, the .mp3 conversion sounds notably bad. So I’ve also uploaded a copy as a .wav file which sounds noticeably better to my ears (albeit at 8 times the file size). It’s an interesting opportunity to do an A/B comparison. I think the .wav file sounds cleaner with might tighter bass. I may take the .wav file down after a couple of weeks (depending on how many downloads it gets), but I encourage you to do the comparison.

Here’s another track that I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time.

A while back I picked up this Toni Childs collection knowing nothing about her*. It’s ended up working very well as a CD to listen to at work. It’s got a strong personality, she has an amazing voice, and it flows well.

I want to highlight on distinctly atypical but very good track, the (modest) hit single off her debut album, “Don’t Walk Away” which I think is a good example of 80s music done right.

It has the complete 80s production package and yet, she’s strong enough as a singer that it doesn’t bury her. She sounds young and like she doesn’t completely feel comfortable knowing how to assert herself and yet there’s an impressive intensity to her performance.

It also got me thinking about how there is something distinctly 80s about that style of having the vocals completely separated, not just from the music, but from the listener as well. The vocals are produced in a way that is neither intimate nor inflated. She isn’t close miked, but there’s almost know reverb on the vocals either. She isn’t singing in your ear, and she isn’t singing in a physical space either. It’s a vocal tone that’s powerful but suspended in space somewhere. It reminds me the production that they Eurythmics used so effectively.

I will post one of her later recordings at some point, but I need to decide which one.

I was listening to Cameras In Paris by the Fixx and was surprised to hear something that sounded an awful lot like the “Who Can It Be Now” riff (and, in other parts of the song, I think the vocalist sounds a little bit like the vocalist from Men At Work, but I wouldn’t push that claim too strongly)

Now I’m curious who stole from whom. According to AMG, the album that song is taken from was recorded before the Men At Work album came out, but the concert that this performance comes from was after the release, and I haven’t heard the original.

Anyone have any theories or want to tell me that I’m making up the similarity?

[I almost titled this post, “Guilty Pleasures” but this title is both more accurate, and more fun].

I recently read and enjoyed Rip It Up And Start Again (by Simon Reynolds. It’s a very good book, and worth discussing but, for now, I wanted to mention one line which caught my attention. This comment about Depeche Mode’s, Everything Counts:

The first sign of this newly committed Depeche came with the 1983 single “Everything Counts,” which combined hard electro beats, wisps of bleak melody, and clumsy if heartfelt anti-Thather sentiments: “The grabbing hands grab all they can . . . It’s a competitive world.”

I’m sure that caught my attention primarily because that was one of the few songs mentioned in the book that I was familiar with, and I thought that was a little unfair. Not inaccurate, mind you, I can’t deny that the song is clumsy, in some ways, and that Depeche Mode clearly lacked the interest in theory that bands like Scritti Politti and Gang of Four had, but I think it misses the strength of that song, which I’ve always had an affection for.

I think it’s a good example of a political pop song that has a phrase that resonates for reasons independent of its analytical powers. In this case the sentence, “Everything counts in large amounts” evokes in me a sense of double meaning between “count” as “matters” and “count” as “mathematical.” That line, independent of anything else in the song, brings to mind quite strongly the idea that when you get to large enough numbers of anything (dollars, people, trees, etc . . .) they both matter more than individuals do, but they also are appropriately analyzed by statistics and become depersonalized because of that. A million dollars is worth fighting over, and gets anybody’s attention, but it’s just in a different category than five dollars borrowed from a friend.

I was listening again, to an occasional pleasure, tracks from the Grace Jones Compass Point recordings. They’re just strange enough, that I wouldn’t listen to them all the time, but from the right perspective they’re awfully fun. I have a collection of recordings from the sessions in which she recorded her (consensus) two best albums Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing. Island records sent her to the Compass Point studio in Jamaica, along with prducers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and a crack studio band of sessions musicians.

From that you got songs like Private Life with Grace Jones singing over what is just a great reggae track. Part of the pleasure is that it’s unusual to hear a non reggae singer working with a band of that caliber, in this case the Island records studio band.

Or, my favorite track from the collection, Love Is The Drug which, appropriately to the Roxy Music original, has less of an explicit reggae feel (though there is still a clearly reggae-influenced sinuousness to the music), but the band is still as much of a star of the song as Grace Jones.

It got me thinking about the role of a record label in doing A&R (Artists and Repertoire).
Read the rest of this entry »

I may have a new favorite synth-pop song.

After 80s week, I was listening to more of the Heaven 17 collection and I really like “And Thats No Lie”.

It’s surprisingly successful at deploying the Soul / R&B influences within the synth-pop framework. It goes much farther in that direction than “Fascist Groove Thang.” The back-up singers are great, Glenn Gregory singing is the perfect mix of heartfelt and abstract.

I like it.

“But when the fire goes out / The dark starts moving in.”

For the end of the (extended) 80s week, I have to thematically related songs, that I think make a good pair and are good examples of pure synthesizer pop:

They are (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang and the extended (single) version of The Politics Of Dancing.
Read the rest of this entry »

I have been planning on posting a Thomas Dolby song for 80s week. I have thought for a while that the Thomas Dolby is an underrated songwriter, partially through process of elimination. He’s written several songs that are sold to very good pop songs, and it’s a little bit tricky to figure out what makes them work. He’s a reasonably charismatic performer, but not sufficiently so to carry a bad song. He’s a solid musician but, again, his musicianship doesn’t explain his success.

I’m not that fond of “She Blinded Me With Science” which I think is a noveobut there are several of his songs that I like, such as Europa And The Pirate Twins.

I was thinking about this as I just read reading Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be by Jen Trynin (via)*. About her successes and failures in the music industry.
Read the rest of this entry »

« Older entries

Bad Behavior has blocked 148 access attempts in the last 7 days.