THE BEST OF THE REST OF THE EIGHTIES
Joan Jett. I Love Rock 'n' Roll. Boardwalk. 1982.
Joan Jett followed the artistic success of her first album with a fine commercial success. This album made it clear that the title did more than inspire: it told the truth. So did the rest of the record. There were the by-now obligatory cover versions, notably of the Halos' "Nag," redone with Jett's butch vulnerability, and Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover," made far more psychedelic druggy than the original. But as Blackhearts Gary Ryan, Lee Crystal and Ricky Bird cranked out their recycled Seventies riffs ala Chuck Berry, the slightest hint of tedium crept within earshot. So did a marketing gaff. The earliest versions of the album included a killer version of "Little Drummer Boy" while later issues substituted "Oh Woe is Me."
Bob Seger. "Makin' Thunderbirds." Capitol. 1982.
Prince. 1999. Warner Bros. 1982.
Sometimes even more than Madonna, Prince reintroduced the public to sex. Two things kept him protected from the level of scrutiny that served Madonna so well. First, the man appeared to have no use for his fans. Second, he made such dense and yet accessible recordings that it was easy to dig the music without getting too concerned about him personally. 1999 took the more musically cosmic aspects of Sly Stone and George Clinton, stripped off whatever subtlety may have remained, and jammed up the wattage with code words, peculiar spelling, and layers of sound that more than twenty-five years later it is still impossible to sort out.
Bruce Springsteen. Nebraska. Columbia. 1982.
This album speaks of what happens to people in America whose faith in what they are taught comes from a dire need that those lessons be absolutely true. More precisely, Nebraska speaks to the emotional and physical violence that erupts when that faith is shattered. This is spooky stuff, songs about lives stripped of all hope and reason. Like a beaten, somnambulant wolf, Springsteen unemotionally welcomes us: "I saw her standing on her front lawn," he begins, "Just a-twirling her baton. Me and her went for a ride, sir, and ten innocent people died." Whether it's the last writings of mass murderer Charles Starkweather or Johnny 99 begging the judge to execute him, the patrolman watching the fading taillights of his incorrigible brother or the brother himself hoping not to be stopped for fear of what he'll have to do about it, or even the milder frustrations of a guy just getting off the nightshift on his way across Jersey to see his girl--everything here is raw, bitter and frightening. It is the equivalent of watching yourself being eaten alive by a lie you once told in the interest of helping mankind.
Stevie Nicks. "Edge of Seventeen." Modern. 1982.
What's best about this solo recording from Fleetwood Mac's premiere chanteuse is that Stevie Nicks drops the mystical good-witch persona and belts out the song of her life about nothing more or less complex than a female on the brink of womanhood. And while I have no idea who her musical accompaniment were, I'm sure these folks rocked too hard and well to have been Mac alumni.
Dolly Parton. "I Will Always Love You." RCA. 1982.
Dolly Parton wrote this song more than a decade before she recorded it. What makes her own version of the song not only superior to others but a genuine classic track is its utter lack of show business feel. When Linda Ronstadt sings it, we can be impressed with the strength of the vocal while recognizing that once again she hasn't the slightest idea about what the song is saying. Whitney Houston's version is all gloss and sickly sentimental histrionics that couldn't stir a vampire in a room of redheaded virgins. Dolly lets the blind faith testament of the lyric sail out like the Space Shuttle, her voice laced with timber and vibrato, the only country residue the song possesses. Any statement worthy of the conviction expressed in the words would have to be masking fear that nothing of the sort would be returned. That sense of terror quivers in every note.
Richard and Linda Thompson. Shoot Out the Lights. Hannibal. 1982.
If there's anything duller than a rock star's personal life, I don't want to know from it. That said, some people have found it fascinating that this album came out just as the twilight deserted the marriage of the two principals who recorded it. I say, ho-hum. I also say that the songs on this album are spooky, intricate, and in a couple cases downright frightening. The title track, for instance, tells about a psychopathic homicide in process, while "Did She Jump" reveals a murder mystery in action. None of this would bare mentioning were it not for the slow gallop of Richard's multi-dimensional guitar and Linda's reedy, bravely fragile voice, two highlights that encourage the listener to look closer.
Toni Basil. "Mickey." Chrysalis. 1982.
The first time I ever heard of Toni Basil was during the credits for the film Five Easy Pieces. Twelve years later this actress, choreographer and singer came out with "Mickey." You should have heard people talk. Oh, that song is so dirty, they said, knuckles at their lips. I still fail to find even a hint of the scatological in this song, blow my mind notwithstanding. What I do still find is the only cheerleader stomp set to music that works. It lacks sophistication, it reeks of youthful jubilation, and it has a snappy beat. That's good enough for me.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. "The Message." Sugar Hill. 1982.
Just like that, scratchers and rappers Grandmaster Flash, Duke Bootee, Melle Mel and producer Sylvia Robinson conveyed what it's like to walk around full of so much pressure that even one minor affront could send the singer off into a murderous rage. By the early 1980s, the injustice of the black experience was reduced to passe satire--until "The Message" made satire unthinkable. Rattling off his kid's disaffection, his mother's phosphor-dot tranquility, and the prison hanging that awaited anyone unlucky enough to try to escape this life, Flash and company put on a bit of theatre reminiscent of Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City." Sugar Hill Records specialized in synths and beats that left it for the mind to fill in the rest. This was polished rawness, sparkling overdose, and glimmering doom, all of which united for the sole purpose of yanking listeners out on the dance floor to think while they partied.
Wall of Voodoo. "Mexican Radio." IRS. 1983.
I have nothing to say about this song.
The Bangles. "Going Down to Liverpool." Capitol. 1983.
Katrina and the Waves gave the bangles their best moment and one of their most popular non-hits. The irony is that the Waves were every bit as American as the Bangles were British. So it was odd hearing Katrina Leskanich singing about UB40s, but it made perfect sense for the Bangles to sing it. The Bangles went on to wet dream stardom and became one of the great girl bands.