Saturday, January 24, 2015

Superhits 1983, Part 2

Men at Work, “Down Under,” #1, 1/15/83
Second American single for the Australian band, second single from their album Business as Usual, second #1, this time for three weeks.  The song is a celebration (with some sly jabs) of their homeland. (At least they made fans aware of their origins – concurrent Australian bands such as Little River Band and Air Supply barely acknowledge Australia in their music.)  Still gets a lot of airplay today.

Dionne Warwick, “Heartbreaker,” #10, 1/15/83
Speaking of Australians, this single from Warwick’s album of the same name was written by Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb, a.k.a. The Bee Gees, who had spent some of their formative years living in Australia.  Barry also produced with Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson – all of whom had worked on the Bee Gees’ and Andy Gibb’s big hits.  Per Wesley Hyatt’s The Billboard Book of Number One Adult Contemporary Hits, this was not a favorite of hers (somewhat understandable; the Bee Gees’ voices drowned hers out on the choruses), but it’s hard to argue with a top 10 hit.

Fleetwood Mac, “Love in Store,” #22, 1/15/83
Third single from the band’s album Mirage, written and sung by Christine McVie.  Somewhat trifling, but much of Mirage is like that – Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham had released solo albums in the previous year (Nicks’ Bella Donna was phenomenally successful, Buckingham’s Law and Order less so), with the possible result that neither had a backlog of material to contribute.  This song was only released in the US as a single; the third single from the album in the UK, Buckingham’s “Can’t Go Back,” hit #9.

Barry Manilow, “Memory,” #39, 1/15/83
I guess Manilow figured he could beat out Barbra Streisand in turning this ballad from the Broadway show Cats a hit, and he did – not that finishing 13 notches above a #52 song is something to brag about.  (The champ is actually Elaine Paige, from the original West End production of the show, as her version hit #6 in the UK in 1981.)  This was Manilow’s first single from his album Here Comes the Night, and it was also his first leadoff single from an album to not crack the top 30 since “Sweet Water Jones” did nothing from the first release of his first, self-titled album.

Glenn Frey, “All Those Lies,” #41, 1/15/83
Strange when the A-side of your third single was the B-side of your second single, but who am I to say?  Frey used this song as the flip of “The One You Love,” from his first solo album No Fun Aloud, and apparently decided it was worth bumping up.  It wasn’t that the single was flipped (“The One You Love hit #15 in the fall of 1982, and Frey’s discography has the B-side for this song as “Don’t Give Up”), so it’s just a strange occurrence.  Last Frey single to chart until “Sexy Girl” two years later, and the only song from No Fun Aloud he wrote himself – either Jack Tempchin or Bob Seger co-wrote the rest of the originals.

America, “Right Before Your Eyes,” #45, 1/15/83
The followup to America’s “comeback” hit, “You Can Do Magic,” fell a little short, although it did get some radio airplay.  Written by singer-songwriter Ian Thomas (whose brother is Dave Thomas – the guy from SCTV, not the guy from Wendy’s), the song is sometimes mistakenly called “Rudolph Valentino” because of the use of his name at the top of the choruses.

Wolf, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” #55, 1/15/83
Instrumentalist Bill Wolfer – probably best known for co-writing Shalamar’s “Dancing in the Sheets” for 1984’s Footloose soundtrack – charted his only pop hit with this primarily instrumental version of The Temptations’ seminal 1972 hit.  (Wikipedia lists Michael Jackson as being part of the droning vocal chorus, but if he’s there, I can’t hear him.)  Talkbox guitar, which seemed by 1983 to have become passé (remember Peter Frampton’s endless live version of “Do You Feel Like We Do”?) made a mercifully brief comeback here.  Please, do me a favor and stick with the original.

The Steve Miller Band, “Give It Up,” #60, 1/15/83
Third single from Miller’s Abracadabra album, and the second flop (after the equally banal “Cool Magic”).  It almost sounds like Miller got “Abracadabra” in the can, and then decided to make every other song on the album exactly like it – and, based on the songwriting credits for the album, could barely bother to do that (other than this song and “Abracadabra,” all of the songs on the album are by other writers, mostly Gary Mallaber).

Hot Chocolate, “Are You Getting Enough Happiness,” #65, 1/15/83
Eighth and last American chart hit for the multiracial soul band from London, and it’s nothing worth getting excited about.  Considering the band had 37 chart hits in the UK, their American performance had to be somewhat disappointing, but this is nowhere near the level of “You Sexy Thing” or “Every 1’s a Winner,” both of which should be part of any record collection.  They still tour with two of the original members, but lead singer/songwriter Errol Brown ain’t one of them.

The Who, “Eminence Front,” #68, 1/15/83
At least Pete Townshend was willing to try something different. Rather than the more typical Who guitar-driven sound, “Eminence Front” includes a slightly irritating keyboard overlay and a danceable beat, with Townshend (rather than Roger Daltrey) himself taking the lead vocal to warn us about phonies.  He would do a better version of this kind of thing with his solo hit “Face the Face” in 1985, but you still hear this on the radio once in a while.  From what was supposed to be their final studio album, It’s Hard (the one with the kid playing a video game on the front cover).

Hughes/Thrall, “Beg, Borrow or Steal,” #79, 1/15/83
Glenn Hughes played bass for Deep Purple and Black Sabbath at one time or another; Pat Thrall was a guitarist for the Pat Travers Band (and later put in some time with Asia and Meat Loaf).  Given the era, the end result of this collaboration (with Hughes on lead vocals) isn’t surprising:  hard rock with a slight new wave tinge.  This was the single; for the band, it was one album and goodbye.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Hometown Boy

I was recently interviewed by an online newspaper from my hometown of New Providence, NJ about "South Street" and the Abandoned and Heartbroke album.

Special thanks to Anne Campisano-Detlet for helping set up the interview.

TAP Into New Providence

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

If You’re Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From… Michael Jackson

I have a theory that Michael Jackson’s solo career started, in part, due to Donny Osmond’s solo career.

The Jackson 5 notched their first number one hit in January 1970 with “I Want You Back,” the Osmonds’ first #1 came thirteen months later with “One Bad Apple.”  Donny didn’t even sing lead on most of that group’s hits (Merrill Osmond was the one who really had the voice; Donny’s contributions to “Apple” and other songs from the era were usually a single line in the chorus), but still, by the end of 1971, MGM Records had released two Donny solo LPs.  This is probably due to two things:  1) label president Mike Curb never missed an opportunity to make a buck, and 2) I suspect somebody realized Donny’s voice would change sooner or later.  (And when it did, sometime around 1973, his record sales dropped accordingly.)  Anyway, Michael’s first solo LP, Got to Be There, didn’t release until January 1972 – by that time, I assume somebody at Motown realized they could crank out lots of material for Michael, who really had the voice of The Jackson Five.  (If you don’t believe me, look on YouTube for the group doing “I Want You Back” on The Ed Sullivan Show – Jermaine is way off key, and poor Marlon isn’t even miked.) Got to Be There was followed quickly by Ben seven months later – and then Michael (and the rest of the group) fell victim to a strange form of corporate neglect; while Michael released a couple more solo albums over the next few years (older brothers Jackie and Jermaine did as well, and the group did issue 10 studio albums during their Motown years, but the material just wasn’t there.
80 percent of the group switched to Epic (part of Columbia Records) in 1976 (Jermaine, who had married Motown owner Berry Gordy’s daughter, stayed put).  The band put out a few albums during the next three years (which included two top 10 hits, “Enjoy Yourself” and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”), but the explosion took place when Michael released Off the Wall in 1979.  After that, it seemed only a matter of time before he would be working only as a solo act – an opinion that was cemented when the follow-up album, Thriller, became the biggest selling album in history and generated seven top 10 singles.  (The weirdness came later.)

By the time of Jackson’s death in 2009, he had released six solo albums for the label.  The problem was, the first three (Off the Wall, Thriller, and 1987’s Bad) were so hit-laden, putting the songs on a greatest hits set almost seemed superfluous.  (I should point out that, after the first three albums generated 17 top 10 hits, his next three – Dangerous, the half-hits, half-new HIStory, and Invincible – had just seven.  And if you can sing “Scream” or “In the Closet,” you’re much more of a fan than I am.)
Of course, getting Motown and Columbia to cooperate on a greatest hits set is a challenge, but Epic has done pretty well.  And there’s always a mix of Jackson 5/Jacksons hits included.

For now, here’s my choice:


The Essential Michael Jackson

Two disks and 38 songs total, six of which are from the Motown era (three J5, three solo – I would have liked to have seen “I Wanna Be Where You Are” added, but that’s a quibble), and four from the Jacksons (strangely chosen; “Blame It on the Boogie” and barely-a-hit “Can You Feel It” are included; top 15 songs “Lovely One” and “State of Shock” are left out).  The rest are all Michael solo songs that were on the six aforementioned Epic albums (so if you were hoping for “Say Say Say” with Paul McCartney, or “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming” with Jermaine, forget it).  Only two songs from HIStory and Invincible are included, but perhaps that’s just as well.  $11.99 for the download and $11.88 for the CDs from Amazon (if you’re a vinyl snob, it’s only $175 for that format).

Here’s the rest:

·                     Number Ones has sold more copies, but it’s one disk with 18 songs, is heavily weighted toward the later years (two songs from Off the Wall and three from Thriller, but six from Bad?), has one new song (“One More Chance”), and only a live version of “Ben” representing the Motown years.  Since it’s only a dollar less for the download than Essential (although the CD itself is seven dollars), it’s simply not as good a deal.

·                     The Definitive Collection is a Motown-only cheapie (five dollars for the download, $8.39 for the disk) that includes 10 J5 songs and nine solos.  That’s actually stretching the catalogue a little in the latter case – “With a Child’s Heart” and “Just a Little Bit of You” weren’t really hits.  Still, it covers the basics, and it’s hard to argue with 19 songs for five bucks.

·                     20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best of Michael Jackson, on the other hand, is $9.49 for the download and $4.99 for the CD (what does Amazon use to establish a price structure on these things, dart-throwing monkeys?).  Just 10 songs, all solo from the Motown years, and includes the non-hits listed above to fill out the set.  Only for a car emergency.

·                     Anthology: The Best of Michael Jackson is yet another Motown-only product, does include J5 songs, but at $18.99 for the download (the CD is out of print), it’s for completists only.  I think it does include some alternate takes and from-the-vaults stuff, however.

·                     Love Songs – Motown-only, J5 songs included, and why, oh why would anyone want to exclude “I Want You Back” or “The Love You Save” from a greatest hits set because they were too fast?  Skip this.

·                     Hello World – The Motown Solo Collection is exactly what it sounds like – everything Michael recorded solo for Motown (well, there may be a few things missing, but I can’t imagine what), including a third disk comprised of flotsam-and-jetsam LPs released by Motown during the Off the Wall/Thriller years.  I actually have this (although I didn’t pay the 33 bucks Amazon is asking for it), and it’s pretty good, although that’s a lot of mediocre Michael to sift through.  Released just after his death, but it was available for preorder a few weeks before, so don’t consider it a cash-in.

·                     Farewell, My Summer Love is a Motown raiding-the-vaults disk from 1984 (which is also on Hello World), not a hits set.

·                     Motown Legends: Michael Jackson has been in the catalogue for 20 years, and doesn’t even include “Ben.”  At $9.49, there’s no reason to download this whole; pick out the occasional oddity if you must.

·                     The Ultimate Collection isn’t available for download and is overloaded with stuff, but if you’re a fan, this would be a great option – four CDs and a DVD, almost all of the good Motown stuff included, a few oddities like “You Can’t Win” from The Wiz soundtrack, and a bunch of unreleased and alternate take stuff – and “Lovely One” and “State of Shock” are represented as well.  (The DVD is a from a 1992 concert in Bucharest.)  At $39, it would seem a good purchase for uberfans.
My car CD has the following (I've got all the Jackson Five stuff on a separate disk):
“Got to Be There” (from Got to Be There)
“Rockin’ Robin” (from Got to Be There)
“I Wanna Be Where You Are” (from Got to Be There)
“Ben” (from Ben)
“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” (from Off the Wall)
“Rock With You” (from Off the Wall)
“Off the Wall” (from Off the Wall)
“Billie Jean” (from Thriller)
“Beat It” (from Thriller)
“Wanna Be Startin’ Something” (from Thriller)
“Thriller” (from Thriller)
“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” (from Bad)
“Bad” (from Bad)
“The Way You Make Me Feel” (from Bad)
“Man in the Mirror” (from Bad)
“Black or White” (from Dangerous)
“Remember the Time” (from Dangerous)
“You Rock My World” (from Invincible)



Sunday, January 4, 2015

Superhits 1983, Part 1

Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney, “The Girl Is Mine,” #2, 1/8/83
First of the two superstar duets between these two guys; this is the slow one that was the first single off Thriller, and it was kind of a surprise it didn’t make it to #1 (especially since the equally sappy “Ebony and Ivory,” by McCartney and Stevie Wonder, had made it less than a year before).  I remember McCartney once saying he wouldn’t use the phrase “the doggone girl is mine” in one of his lyrics, but it worked for Jackson.  (Debateable.)  Surprisingly considering it was the lead single off the album that revolutionized music videos, no video was released for the song.

Don Henley, “Dirty Laundry,” #3, 1/8/83
After his first single off I Can’t Stand Still was a surprising flop, Henley notched a huge hit with this attack on the media.  This may have been a reaction to an incident in November 1980, where he called paramedics to help a 16-year-old girl who was at his home – Henley feared she’d overdosed on Quaaludes and cocaine.  (The fact she was naked when the paramedics got there may have also aroused some curiosity.)  Although it seems somewhat prescient today, it still comes off as bitter.  The song remains his biggest solo hit.

ABC, “The Look of Love (Part One), #18, 1/8/83
First hit for the Martin Fry-led dance/new wave group from Sheffield, England (also the home of Human League, Heaven 17, and… Def Leppard).  Fry didn’t actually start the band, which was first called Vice Versa – he interviewed Stephen Singleton and Mark White for a fanzine, and was invited to join soon after.  This is a super catchy song and still gets airplay today.  

The J. Geils Band, “I Do,” #24, 1/8/83
Live version of the old Marvelows song from 1965, which originally appeared on the band’s last Atlantic album, Monkey Island (at which time they billed themselves, briefly, as just Geils).  The parent album was Showtime!, recorded with the Uptown Horns in September 1982 and released two months later, to capitalize on the momentum of their huge hits “Centerfold” and “Freeze-Frame.”

Kool & the Gang, “Ooh La La La (Let’s Go Dancin’),” #30, 1/8/83
Second single from the band’s 1982 album As One, and probably should have been the lead single – “Big Fun” was nothing memorable; at least this had a catchy chorus.  This was the band’s lowest-selling album since before James “J.T.” Taylor joined the band and the first not to generate at least one top 20 hit during that time; they might have been better off taking a year off rather than jumping back into the studio without much to say.

Kim Carnes, “Does It Make You Remember,” #36, 1/8/83
Second single from her Voyeur album; this is a torchy wish-you-were-here ballad.  I have this album, and it’s hard to say why the songs weren’t hits like “Bette Davis Eyes” was for Carnes in 1981; I can only assume the song was so ubiquitous that people got sick of that sound quickly.  In any case, the song is totally unavailable for download (and, in fact, be careful downloading “Bette Davis Eyes” as well; Carnes has done several rerecordings for low-budget labels).

Air Supply, “Two Less Lonely People in the World,” #38, 1/8/83
Apparently the United States had finally gotten sick of Air Supply; this was their second straight single to barely scratch the top 40 after seven straight top 5 hits.  Another drippy ballad – apparently that’s all Clive Davis would let them release at that point.  Cowritten by Howard Greenfield, who had a songwriting partnership with Neil Sedaka in the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in a bunch of hits – and, trust me, you’d much rather hear “Oh, Carol” or “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” over this.

Janet Jackson, “Young Love”, #64, 1/8/83
Bet you didn’t know Janet Jackson released two albums before 1986’s breakthrough Control.  This was her first chart hit, and it’s while it won’t make anyone forget “Nasty Boys” or “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” it’s not awful.  Jackson was 16 years old at this point and recording probably wasn’t a priority (she also had a recurring role on Diff’rent Strokes at this time), so temper your expectations accordingly.

The Commodores, “Painted Picture,” #70, 1/8/83
I’m not a record company executive, but it would seem a pretty stupid idea to release a Commodores greatest hits set with two new songs within a month of Lionel Richie’s first solo album after leaving the band.  Richie’s album went quintuple platinum and yielded three top 10 singles; this single sank without a trace.  Not a surprise; they tried to match Richie with a gentle ballad and failed.  It’s hard to believe this was once a band made of equal parts; this and subsequent songs leave the impression that Richie was the whole show.

Michael Stanley Band, “Take the Time,” #81, 1/8/83
Fifth Hot 100 hit from the band, and give EMI-America credit for trying to break this group from the Cleveland market (they had been on five other labels, both regional and national, in the past without charting any singles).  Too bad they weren’t particularly successful.  Cowritten by Mott the Hoople and Bad Company guitarist Mick Ralphs, who also appears on the record.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Scene Beyond Dreams: Michael Been's Calling

"There are two types of Catholic: devout, and fallen." - Det. Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), Homicide: Life on the Street 

Michael Been, 1950-2010

I still believe
Through the shame
And through the grief

- The Call, "I Still Believe"

As a duly fallen Catholic, I continue to carry both the blessings and burdens of the doctrine upon which I was raised. Thus, I have always been obsessively drawn to music that is restless and challenging and in its own way spiritual, and the performers I respond to on the deepest levels -- Bruce Springsteen, Chrissie Hynde, Joe Strummer, to name a few -- are at their best arguing about matters of love and faith and moral redemption, subjects to which any Catholic can respond. But moreso than all these artists, the voice that has reached the deepest parts of my spiritually questioning soul belongs to the late Michael Been, leader of the 1980s band The Call.

To lovers of power, turn a blind eye
And to a final hour, turn a blind eye
To the resurrection

- The Call, "Turn a Blind Eye"

Michael Been co-founded The Call in the late 70s, and the band first achieved fame during the early days of MTV, when the single "The Walls Came Down" from their second album Modern Romans became a modest hit. It was a fairly oddball song, somehow finding its way onto the charts in an era of airy synthpop, and of course its moral urgency and gut-level rock caught my attention immediately. 

I wasn't quite sure what to make of the song, with its single-minded melody and chorus ("ya ya ya ya ya ya ya"), but I liked it. The rest of the album treads much of the same ground as the single -- war, poverty, apocalyptic warnings, condemning greed and injustice -- in a way that's rooted in basic, agreeable (if not great) rock 'n' roll. Modern Romans and "The Walls" certainly weren't major events in my musical story, but they stuck with me enough that I made a point from then on of buying albums by the Call without hearing any tracks beforehand (an exception I made for very few bands). When Reconciled was released in 1985, I liked it and listened to it for weeks before it dawned on me that the record's most passionate love songs were directed not at a human partner, as I assumed at first, but in fact were serious hymns to a Christian God.

Raise me up
Keep that promise that you made
Wake me up
Keep that promise that you made

- "Everywhere I Go"

To me, this was both unexpected and deeply radical. Most Christian rock came to my ears as musically lame and unbearably preachy, because it was, and here was a guy singing a tough and tender rock song about The Resurrection in a way that delivered the guts of what it means to have faith, without any cloying or insipid sermonizing. On one chorus, Been cries out "Lord, I need you everywhere I go!" from the gut, as if he might die if he doesn't get his feelings out, in the best tradition of the greatest rock love songs. Biblical imagery is strewn throughout the album -- "I've been in a cave/for forty days" -- but it's presented subtly and poetically, and never as proselytism. Been is clearly uninterested in making converts.

By the way, I have no idea whether Michael Been was  Catholic. The most I could discover in my research is that he openly declared his work and his spirituality to be inseparable, which is pretty obvious. Whatever his formal faith, I was not at all surprised when he appeared as the apostle John in Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ.

The closest Been came to having his musical voice widely heard was with the release of the Call's Let the Day Begin (1989), the title track of which became something of a hit ten years after its release while serving as Al Gore's campaign theme song. Day is probably the band's strongest album, musically as well as lyrically, and shows a maturity of craft that had been lacking on earlier records. (1987's unfocused Into the Woods is the weakest of the band's catalog, with the exception of the extraordinary "I Don't Wanna".) Let the Day Begin is a treasure trove of good, solid rock 'n' roll, and includes the beautiful and (in hindsight, unbearably sad) "Memory". 

By the early 90s, the Call was finished, and Been turned his efforts to film and a solo album, as well as serving as a sideman on records by his close pals Jim Kerr (Simple Minds) and actor Harry Dean Stanton. Later, he worked as the sound engineer for the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, a band fronted by his son Robert. While working the soundboard at a concert in Belgium in 2010, Been suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 60, leaving behind a small smattering of fame but a great number of grieving fans and friends. 

Here's Been's son Robert Levon Been performing "You Run", one of Michael's best songs.

"I try to write about my own life experiences, and I'm a Christian myself, so I write from that point of view. Although it wouldn't be the type of Christianity commonly practiced these days. I believe it's a vain presumption to think that all people in the world should believe what I believe or that it would necessarily be right for them. I only know that it's right for me. I'm not interested in selling religion; Christianity or otherwise."


The Call, 1982
Modern Romans, 1983
Scene Beyond Dreams, 1984
Reconciled, 1986 
Into the Woods, 1987
Let the Day Begin, 1989
Red Moon, 1990
To Heaven and Back, 1997


Light Sleeper, 1994
On the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough, 1994

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Abandoned and Heartbroke and All Blown Away

Another dip into the vault. 1998 live performances by Rob Flowers and myself.

"Blown Away" - the 'single' from our '98 CD and the source of this blog's name.

"Soda Jerk" - our cover of the Buffalo Tom song.