Archive for the ‘new wave’ 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.

[50/50] Album #14: “The Cars”

Friday, March 28th, 2014

[50/50] Album #14: “The Cars” — The Cars (1978).

The_Cars_-_The_CarsEven when you try and leave the past behind, it has a way of chasing after you. For the last few weeks I’ve been followed around by 1978 and 1979 like a pair of imprinted geese, honking with joy at every rediscovery. Today is the 35th anniversary of Three Mile Island, for instance, and I’ve already seen a half-dozen posts about it from friends on facebook. I heard recently that the boy’s basketball team from my old high school went to the state finals, just like they did in March of ’79. No doubt the school took bus loads of students to see the championship game, just like they did for us 35 years ago, and there’s a good chance a kid like me met a cute girl on the ride out to arena, and got to make out with her on the way back. Considering the finals were held in Pittsburgh, four hours away, that makes it one of the Best. Roadtrips. Ever.

And a short time ago when I was back for a visit to central Pennsylvania, poking around in my parent’s attic looking for something for my brother, I stumbled upon the motherload, the grand prize, The Holy Grail: a box of Super8 movies that has been missing for decades. Most of the reels were animated shorts Brent and I made in 1978 and 1979, and haven’t seen since. I was so excited, I made a detour through Baltimore on my way home to North Carolina to drop off the box at his place, where he planned to inspect and digitalize the aging film.

When I walked in the house, he already had one of our old vinyl records on a restored turntable, and my trip to the past was complete:

While the Cars’ first album peaked on Billboard in March, 1979, it stayed on the charts for the next two years, and spawn numerous singles that are still, no doubt, in heavy rotation somewhere. (It also gets points for having the greatest sampled snippet in a movie soundtrack.)

Anyway, here’s the whole album. “The Cars” by  The Cars:

Song #15: “Heart of Glass” — Blondie (1979)

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014


Song #15: “Heart of Glass” — Blondie (1979)

(This recent photo of Debbie Harry by Annie Leibovitz has jump started my 50/50 countdown of favorites. I mean, how can you say no to a woman with a sword? After the last year my ambitions have been tempered, so I’ll be posting 1-2 entries a week, writing about my favorite books, movies, games  and songs, until we reach #1.)

Blondie’s “Parallel Lines” should have been in my list of top 50 albums. I don’t know why it isn’t. Debbie Harry’s ying and yang of lust and loathing (“One Way or Another,” “Hanging on the Telephone” “Just Go Away”) is still a skewed and hilarious take on modern love. But it’s “Heart of Glass” that beats them all. I could listen to that rolling syncopation and playful synth endlessly. Here it is, coming in at #15:

[50/50] Album #28: “Panorama”

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Album #28: “Panorama” — The Cars (1980)

“With nothing to do/except think about you” — Ric Ocasek

220px-Cars_-_Panorama“Panorama” is always known as The Cars’ ‘dark album.’ After two records full of jangly pop tunes about wanting and longing, “Panorama” spends most of its time venting in frustration over never getting. Often set in minor keys, the songs vacillate between whining and begging, self-pity and adolescent sadomasochism. In other words, until Morrissey came along, it was the perfect album for a mopey teenager.

“Panorma” came out the week I turned 16.

It was only later, when I was much older, that I realized how perfectly this record encapsulated the next two years of high school for me. Between the desperation and depression, it could have been a road map for the bleak terrain I was about to pass through, if only I had listened to the lyrics more carefully. (This goes doubly so for the ironic album cover: it waves the checkered flag, while every song leaves the protagonist stranded as yet another potential lover takes flight in the opposite direction.)

Of course, for all the sympathizing Ocasek and crew do with loserdom, they aren’t above turning on their own fans and reminding them how harsh and unforgiving the world is if you forget your place. As Benjamin Orr cuttingly drives home in “Down Boys”: You were tryin’ to be, hysterical/ And I still ain’t laughin.’ There’s 11th grade, right there.

At no point during the album does anyone get lucky. Even with “Up and Down,” the hard-pounding punch that ends  “Panorama,” Ric Ocasek is reduced to begging:

Do you have to be so hard to get
Especially with those emerald eyes
You might have been a neon lover
But you didn’t have to advertise
Come on, come on, well, come on

It’s okay Ric, I know just how you feel.

[50/50] Song #33: “Hold Me Now”

Friday, May 31st, 2013

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


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] Album #35: “Move Like This”

Monday, May 27th, 2013

Album #35: Move Like This — The Cars (2011)

I’ll say the same thing I said when this record came out:

the cars alt cover“The simple fact that I can write a sentence with the phrase ‘new Cars album’ is reason enough to celebrate. That it’s actually a solid, catchy record is a minor miracle. 24 years after they called it quits, a sudden impulse overtook Ric Ocasek, and he decided to get the band back together one more time. Maybe he was feeling old, or, more likely, Ocasek didn’t want the awful “Door to Door” to be The Cars’ swan song, but whatever the reason,  — OH MY GOD THERE’S A NEW CARS ALBUM.

“Granted, it isn’t perfect: Benjamin Orr, who died of cancer in 2000, is sorely missed. It was Orr’s voice that carried the band’s ballads, and Ocasek isn’t up to the task, straining to match the gossamer tones the songs need. That said, Ocasek’s writing is as beat and whip-smart as ever, and the overall effect is incredible. They somehow managed to pick up their original sound, as if they had stepped out for a smoke instead of taking a quarter century break, with songs that both recall their biggest hits and feel completely new. In it’s review, the AV Club said, ‘considering how many other bands have tried to make modern versions of classic Cars songs, it’s nice to see the original article doing it better than most.’”

“This isn’t just a nostalgic cash grab by a bunch of old dudes playing at new wavers. Ocasek’s lyrics in particular are world worn, a generational coda to the capricious cool of their top 40 hits. As one critic said, ‘Sad Song’ is the bookend to ‘Let’s Go’ and ‘My Best Friend’s Girl,’ as though it’s sung by the same character thinking about how much he’s learned since. And ‘Hits Me’ is clearly penned by a guy who been through it all and just wants to get to next week. It is their darkest album since ‘Panorama.’

“And, still, it’s a joy. My brother saw them perform in Philly (at the Electric Factory no less) and said, while they weren’t a great live act they were never a great live act. Yet, it was absolutely clear these four guys were just plain happy to be on stage and playing together, and that reenergized youthful enthusiasm — along with a fans who felt the same way — made for a great show. While it would have been good to see them one more time, I’m just happy I’ve got one more Cars album to listen to, one that fits perfectly along side their very best stuff.”

[50/50] Song #36: “Cars”

Friday, May 17th, 2013

Song #36: “Cars” — Gary Numan (1979)

Barry: “You wouldn’t know our influences, they’re mostly German.”
Rob: “Try me. Falco? Kraftwerk? Hasselhoff?”— High Fidelity

thepleasureprinciple12I was always more New Wave than Punk. Not that I fit into either camp comfortably at the time, but give me a skinny tie, a DX-7 and too much hair gel any day. Whatever else I was listening to, I kept finding myself drawn back to Devo, Kraftwerk, Flock of Seagulls, The Vapors, The Flying Lizards and — Gary Numan.

Gary Numan arrived on the U.S. charts fully formed as a solo artist with “The Pleasure Principle” and it’s sole hit single, so we Americans completely missed out on the earlier, darker works of his British band Tubeway Army. Then again, “Cars” was designed to be a hit, tailor made to catch the lighter New Wave that had superseded punk, and heralding the arrival of technopop. It certainly didn’t sound like anything else on the radio. As blooger D. C. F. Pegritz put it:

…the Polymoog lead in “Cars” was the first truly alien, truly synthetic sound I ever remember hearing in popular music. It literally sounded like nothing else on Earth. The song was really quite basic, almost minimalistic…but it was built from shiny silver parts of seemingly alien manufacture. ….  “Cars” was indicative of a kind of music that seemed to come from a place much further away in space and time than England. Gary Numan was some kind of time-traveller from a bizarre, machine-dominated future cast adrift in the late 20th Century, but he’d brought back with him instruments from his own millennium.

Leaving a party at a nearby friend’s house one night, buzzed from drinking malt duck (that unfortunate beverage of choice of high schoolers at the time), “Cars” came on the radio just as I started up the Tank, and accompanied me on the short drive home. I blasted it out of my shitty, blown-out speakers with gusto, but I also knew I was listening to it in the wrong vehicle — I should have been driving this. “Cars” was from a universe I knew I’d never be allowed to live in, but could visit while the song was on.

[50/50] Album #38: “…All The Rage”

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Album #38: “…All the Rage” — General Public (1984)

Ska, again.

In the fall of 1984, I was living on the North Side of Pittsburgh with seven other art students. We’d collectively decided to take advantage of an exchange program our university had set up with the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where we could focus on graphic design for a year and still get a degree in fine art. Essentially we swapped IUP for AIP. Still one of the best trades I ever made.

The whole adventure peaked the next spring with our infamous trip to New York City: two busloads of students, ostensibly there to see the MOMA, were unleashed in an old hotel off Times Square with nary an adult in sight. It was as riotously chaotic as it sounds, and qualifies as an epic road trip by sheer dint of the fact that, by the time we got back, I was headed to the hospital for emergency surgery and had a new girlfriend.

150px-I.R.S._Records_logo.svgDuring a party that weekend, I met Cayce, an artist who had rechristened herself with that name after reading the dream theories of Edgar Cayce. Yeah, she was that kind of girl: slightly mystic, slightly crazy, very intense, and a lot of fun. The next day when I saw her on the other bus, I grabbed a flower from a street vendor, raced up the aisle of the bus and gave it to her without another word. We were together for the next six months. Cayce was a quintessential new wave chick, loved Martha and the Muffins and anything from I.R.S.*, most especially General Public. She would play “…All the Rage” over and over as we laid in her bedroom.

Formed from the ashes of The English Beat, The Clash, and one-hit wonder Dexy’s Midnight Runners, General Public was more than the sum of its parts (especially Ranking Roger’s hair). Beyond any nostalgic value it holds for me, “…All the Rage” holds up as simply a great album, alternating between the political and party music, with a couple of great songs about relationships to boot. Go, go.

*Actually, come to think of it, you’re going to find a lot of acts from I.R.S. in this countdown

[50/50] Album #41: “Kings of the Wild Frontier”

Monday, April 1st, 2013

Album #41: Adam & the Ants — “Kings of the Wild Frontier” (1980)

adamandtheantsAs the saying goes, the golden age of science fiction is 12.

Others peg 14 as the ‘magic age‘ when your cultural tastes are formed, many of which will last a lifetime. If this is the case, there are two friends from that time I have to thank, for good or for ill, for providing the two halves of my pop music mold.

Rick Caldwell showed me there was far more to Queen than “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and lent us his many Led Zeppelin albums, as well as Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper and anything else with a Frank Frazetta painting on the cover. On the other side was Monty Link, who covered all things punk and new wave — The Cars, The Clash, The Sex Pistols (it was Monty, the consummate Preacher’s Kid, who would show up at church Youth Fellowship weekends spitting out “I am an antichrist!/I am an anarchist!”) — and eventually the pounding drums of Adam and the Ants. In fact, I found it very hard to return the copy of “Kings of the Wild Frontier” I’d borrowed from Monty, but not before it’s ‘Burundi Beat’ was forever burned into my skull:

While Adam Ant’s glam-pirate shtick and overly-sexed posturing eventually grew thin, there was still something intoxicating about his early theatrics. And those drums! (It would be decades before I was aware of the controversy over the drums of the Burundi Beat, a sound lifted without attribution from tribal recordings in Africa. As pointed out on this segment of Sound Opinions, in an interview with those African tribesman years after their music was cribbed by several bands, they declared they hated what Adam and the Ants had done with the sound — but thought Bow Wow Wow‘s take was great.)

Still, this was then, and back then it was those drums, and songs like “Dog Eat Dog” and “Feed Me to Lions,” that connected with a buffeted and awkward adolescent trying to orient himself and navigate the halls of high school where Foreigner, Styx and Rush ruled.

[50/50] Comedy #12: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Comedy #12: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982)


“That was my skull!”

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” came out the summer I graduated high school. I went to see it with my good friend Lisa Calkin, who had shared most of the same classes as me since 6th grade. It was a week before the both of us left for different colleges. Coming out of the theater afterward, I was stunned. I said something like ‘you know, except for the sex and drugs, that WAS our high school experience.’

Okay, I may have wrecked my car a little differently.

30 years later and this is still one of the best depictions of high school life — albeit now a lovely time capsule of life in the early ’80s —  and still one of the best comedies out there, period: forget prefixes like “teen-” or “sex-” or even “teen-sex-” comedy. (Although, thanks to changing technology, some jokes need to be deconstructed to the youngin’s … like the time we watched it when Bettina was living with us, and we had to explain to her teenage son why it was funny when all the students sniffed the mimeographed tests … trust me kid, that killed in 1982!)

This movie is tight, too — not an ounce of fat on it, and yet it is full of relatable characters moments, cringe-inducing memories of awkward adolescence that are dead on, and an awesome soundtrack (most of which, alas, is not on the official soundtrack album.) It’s the kind of movie that, a quarter century later, compels someone to create this trailer mashup: