Archive for the ‘MTV’ Tag

[50/50] Song #14: “I Ran”

Friday, April 11th, 2014

Song #14: “I Ran (So Far Away)” — Flock of Seagulls (1982)

DebutSeagullsI’ve really enjoyed the rise of Future Islands, a Baltimore-by-way-of-North Carolina band that recently hit critical mass — if for no other reason than I always feel like I’m back in college when I hear them. The time I first saw them, I jokingly described them as A Flock of Seagulls… if Tom Waits had been the lead singer. While Future Islands’ style has since become distinctively their own, they still sound like a they just came through a wormhole from the 1980s.

Hopefully they will avoid the fate of A Flock of Seagulls, better remembered (and mocked) now for their hair than the droll synthpop of their New Wave hits. “Space Age Love Song” and “Wishing (I had a photograph of you)” ensured they wouldn’t be one-hit wonders, but so what — it is “I Ran” that will be played again and again (as it was just about every hour on MTV in 1982). My freshman year at IUP the local automated radio station played it so religiously you could set your clocks by it, and there wasn’t a dorm you could walk through without hearing it echo down the hallway.

As with Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” I could listen to the bionic reverb that makes up the backbone of the song on an infinite loop. Forget about the hypnotically-bad haircut; “I Ran” is mesmerizing all by itself.

Bonus North Carolina connection: After their last hit in 1984, A Flock of Seagulls went into a slow spiral over the next decade or so. The breakup, when it came, was painful, and created a rift between the two brothers at the core of the group. They reportedly didn’t talk to each other for years. It turned out that Alister Score, the drummer, now lives just north of here, one county over. When lead singer Mike Score formed a new version of the band for an ’80s oldies tour in 2008 with Naked Eyes and Human League (cripes it hurt to type that line), and played at nearby Koka Booth, he invited his brother to sit in and play the drums for “I Ran.” Awwww.

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[50/50] Song #27: “Fools Fall in Love”

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Song #27: “Fools Fall in Love” — Queen Bee & the Blue Hornet Band

Queen_Bee

Pennsylvania isn’t exactly known for being a musical hotbed, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. While the number of local bands that broke thru to national attention can be counted on two hands, let’s not forget Philadelphia was the birthplace of American Bandstand. It was also home for the labels that launched the Philly Soul sound, with such acts as Hall & Oats, MFSB, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and Boys II Men. (Philly also had punk mainstays The Dead Milkmen, so fuck you.) Pittsburgh’s heavy hitters included Tommy James and the Shondels and Rusted Root, and western PA can lay claim to being the birthplace of both Stephen Foster and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor — how’s that for an alpha and omega of pop music?

(In case you were wondering, central PA’s contribution is pretty much Live, songwriter Dan Hartman, and, uh, Poison.)

Among my personal picks are three local favorites that definitely fall in the “almost famous” category. Philly’s Robert Hazard & the Heroes shot for new wave stardom in the early days of MTV and landed as a one-hit wonder:

Harrisburg’s Kix followed Poison to LA in search of superstardom but lost what made them unique and interesting in the first place and became just another hair-metal band. Their power ballad made them technically a one-hit wonder, and they continue to play locally to this day, but nothing ever matched the spazzy verve of their first album:

Finally, there was Pittsburgh’s Donny Iris, the musician who came closest to “making it.” Still a favorite son with a strong local fanbase, Iris’s first band, The Jaggerz, had a ’50s retro hit in 1970 with “The Rapper,” and went on to have a string of songs in heavy rotation on MTV. Alas, whether he was too ugly for pop, or the industry decided they already had one Buddy Holly lookalike with Elvis Costello, Iris was cast back into the pitt of western Pennsylvania to play arts festivals.

* * *

However, if one’s favorite band is determined by how many times you’ve seen that group live, then my all-time favorite band would have to be Queen Bee & the Blue Hornets. I lost track of how often I saw them play over the years, after friends at Penn State introduced me to them at the Rathskeller one weekend in State College. (Question: is there a law somewhere that every college town have a drinking establishment named the Rathskeller?) Queen Bee would play this tiny room in the back of the basement, as sweaty students packed in so close around the stage — actually a rectangle marked off with gaffer’s tape — you would have to duck when the bassist or trombonist would swing their instrument about. For a deposit, the ‘skeller would “rent” cases of 7 oz. Rolling Rock ponies in hard, ancient cardboard boxes so you wouldn’t have to keep returning to the bar. This was perfect for us, as Rusty’s girlfriend at the time was rather short; she would stand on the sturdy box to see the band and distribute drinks whenever we needed beer.

freighttrainA staple in the nightclubs of Pennsylvania in the late ’80s and ’90s, Queen Bee and the Blue Hornet Band were a workaday blues act with an extraordinary lead singer in Tonya Browne. Her voice was mesmerizing, and if we heard Queen Bee was playing anywhere, we’d make the trip. Usually it was to the Chameleon Club in Lancaster, but Maura, Chick DeFebo and I once drove the whole way to Allentown when we heard they were opening for Gilbert Godfrey (yes, you read that correctly). When they finally played the Midtown Tavern for the first time, it was the first time there was ever a line out the door. (It was also at the Midtown that lead guitarist and band founder Mark Ross interrupted a set to announce his wife had gone into labor. “My wife’s havin’ our first baby!” he shouted, and ran out of the bar to cheers from the crowd. Tonya and the rest of the band finished up the evening.)

They were always best as a live act, and Queen Bee’s three records don’t do the band or Browne’s voice justice. As one reporter said, “You kinda had to be there.” I don’t remember the last time we saw them, but the Blue Hornet Band broke up in 1999 when Tonya Browne moved to New York City to launch a solo career. Her untimely death two years later ended that dream and silenced a stellar voice. She was 36.

[50/50] Song #33: “Hold Me Now”

Friday, May 31st, 2013

Song #33: “Hold Me Now” — Thompson Twins (1984)

220px-Thompsons_into_the_gap

Um, yeah. I did have hair like that. Rat tail, guilty as charged.

The ’80s are easy to make fun of, especially the fashion. Often deservedly so. You can blame MTV but they were really just enablers. Still, you could find artists at that time whose hairstyles and earclips met their overly-earnest songwriting skills at least halfway:

If you want to find a quintessential ’80s band, however, look no further than the Thompson Twins. Originally, ironically enough, a seven-piece from England, Thompson Twins were a look in search of a sound, which they eventually found after paring down to a trio. Dismissed as mere hairstyles and lightweights by the British music press (pretty damn funny when you think about it), they still went on to considerable, albeit short-lived success, thanks to their huge hit “Hold Me Now.” The song benefited from particularly lush production values and the trilling reverb of a bank of percussion instruments (including the xylophone) not usually heard on a pop hit, and it holds up exceptionally well, even today. Certainly better than the haircuts.

It’s also rather sweet and pathetic, in that puppy-dog way that only sad 20somethings can convey. It doesn’t help that “Hold Me Now” was everywhere the semester after my college girlfriend dumped me. However, she’s not my go-to thought whenever I hear it; we were long done by the time Thompson Twins showed up on tour at IUP late that spring — coincidentally around the time their song peaked in the Top 40, meaning we saw them at the very apex of their career — and they put on one of the funnest live shows I ever saw. They were on top of the world and knew it. It also didn’t hurt I had a great date that night. Unfortunately, like their opening act, the trivia question Re-Flex, Thompson Twins never escaped the 1980s.

[50/50] Songs #40 & #41: Guilty Pleasure

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Song #40: “Total Eclipse of the Heart” — Bonnie Tyler (1984)
Song #41: “Closer” — Nine Inch Nails (1994)

“We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks!”

Ahhhh, the Guilty Pleasure. A song so bad it comes back around to something — sublime. Well okay, maybe not sublime, but awe inspiring for sure, as in your jaw will drop for sure. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is just such a song, one so bombastic and ridiculous it achieves something akin to greatness. Or, something.

The Bonnie Tyler hit came out the semester my girlfriend at IUP broke up with me, and my rampant self-pity initially gave me little defense against its purple prose. And then I saw — the video. One night at a house party I was forced to take refuge from my ex and her new boyfriend, and hid out in a room where someone had left MTV on. “WHAT the HELL was THAT?” was all I could muster after it was done. The… it… uh… oh just watch it:

There is no possible response to this other than bafflement and derision.

The thing is, you make fun of something long enough, you begin to appreciate it in a way. For years, whenever we popped our ‘guilty pleasure’ quiz on friends, this was my pick. It’s awful, in that overly-earnest way so many Meatloaf songs are rendered, but, like Mr. Loaf’s operatic delivery, it can also be quite a bit of fun. And of course, it was eminently entertaining to mock, as so many people have done so well since the arrival of youtube:

Strangely enough, TEOTH developed a cult following among musicians, even if it was mostly ironic, and there are now dozens — dozens! — of cover versions available for sale on iTunes. After a while I realized “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was popular enough I could no longer claim it as a guilty pleasure on my tax return. (It has since been replaced by “anything from The Alan Parson’s Project.”)

If the angsty Judy Blume-stylings of “Total Eclipse” represent one end of the pop culture spectrum of what love is ‘supposed’ to be, then Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” is at the other. Pure. Animal. Sex. Nothing hidden, nothing held back. Passion so naked and raw it leaves scratch marks on your back. Then there’s the video, which also held nothing back. (VNSFW, as if you didn’t know). I rather like this artsy take on the unrated director’s cut though:

Unapologetic, “Closer” is a master’s degree in carnal knowledge. And, for as disturbing as some of the imagery is in the video, it is far more honest about love and relationships and the pain they bring than the cheese sandwich that is “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

[50/50] Album #16: Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Album #16: “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” — Eurythmics (1983)

annielennoxThe orange hair. Oh god the orange hair.

I’m skipping ahead in the countdown this week, because today is the 30th anniversary of the release of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” — the second album from the duo of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, and the one that put them on the map in every way imaginable.

Thanks to that shock of orange hair and the music video — which seemed to run every hour on MTV that summer — the title single went to number one. While Lennox’s androgynous style and edgy beauty helped sell their videos, it was her powerful voice and Stewart’s soulful synth pop that made them so much more. Over the next few years they would go on to have ten top 40 hits.

“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the album, has aged much better than the dadaesque video of the same name — although it’s still a lot of fun, in that goofy early MTV style.

The second hit off the record and its subsequent video, “Love is a Stranger,” continued to push the krautrock/cyberpunk/S&M vibe of early Eurythmics (which would eventually reach its pinnacle the next year with the infamous “1984” soundtrack.) Whatever you think about the music or the pair’s style however, it is impossible to take your eyes off Annie Lennox’s eyes.

The rest of the album is just as moody and evocative, full of Stewart’s driving basslines and Lennox’s primitive yelps and bitten-off snarls. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” still has such an immediacy, it’s hard to believe it’s already 30 years old.

Bonus round: Eurythmics’ music was so deeply entwined with Annie Lennox’s voice, there have been few good covers of their material … however, I am partial to Emily Browning’s take on “Sweet Dreams” for the Sucker Punch soundtrack. Here’s a fan mashup of the single with the scene from the movie where the dragon fights the B-24 bomber.