Basement Songs: K-Tel’s “High Voltage”

During the summer of 1981, I picked up my first K-Tel album. I’m not sure where I got the money. Either I saved up — and by saving up I mean swiping nickels, dimes and quarters from my father’s dresser, a stealthy operation that took weeks to accomplish — or I actually convinced my mom to drive me to Gold Circle, our most frequent department store, and buy me High Voltage. It was the latest K-Tel compilation to be heavily advertised on television during commercial breaks for WKRP in Cincinnati reruns.  In the commercial, a bolt of lightning flashed across the screen, cutting then to quick clips from early music videos of the songs. As snippets played, all 13 (!) song titles from the album scrolled up the screen, while an announcer read them in a fast, booming DJ voice:

“You get… STYX! ‘Too Much Time on My Hands!’ Heart! Pat Benatar. Ed-DIE RABBITT ‘I Love a Rainy Night.’ KOOOL and the Gang. HALL. AND. OATES! And many more!”

Each time the announcer spat out the album title his voice would rise in excitement. HiGH VOLTAGE! That’s the way I remember it, anyway.

Look at that track list. It kicked a-yass! Besides the song from that open-shirted, hairy-chested  crooner, Gino Vanelli, every song on HiGH VOLTAGE! was a winner.

Okay, I admit it: there were times that even I, who thought he was the smoothest kid going from fifth into sixth grade, stood eyes closed, fists clenched, and lip-synced the words to Vanelli’s cheesy “Living Inside Myself.” But these were rare occasions when I hid down in the basement to mask the anguish of being rejected time after time by the girls I really liked. Didn’t they understand? Behind those honkin’ big glasses I had a big heart and a sense of humor.  More importantly, I had freakin’ HiGH VOL-TAGE!

It was the rockers and the upbeat pop songs on this K-Tel masterpiece that earned the seven or eight bucks I scrounged up (or convinced my folks to spend) in the summer of ’81. “Sweetheart,” a bouncy heartbreaker from Franke and the Knockouts. The longing that singer Franke Previte emoted is his vocals made this song one of my favorites from that era. I still love it, dated synth solo and all. The aforementioned “Two Much Time on My Hands,” an awesome Styx song with funky keyboards and some of singer Tommy Shaw’s most insipid lyrics. And what about that, oh, so cool, whispered part at the end? The Alan Parsons Project wondered, “Where do we go from here, now that all of the children are grown up?” How the hell did I know? Jeez, I was 11.  But that song really moved and had a killer guitar solo thrown in the middle.

Then there was “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” the Police classic, with its dark, moody textures; it almost felt out of place with the other hits on HiGH VOLTAGE! You have to give credit to Sting for making me wonder who that Nabokov guy was and what the hell was in that book he wrote? It also made me shiver at the thought of getting in on with one of my teachers. Guuuuuuuhhhhhhhh….

Side one closed out with “Kiss On My List,” which was the very first song I ever recorded using my portable cassette recorder. When Hall and Oates appeared on Solid Gold, I set the tape player next to our television, hushed my younger sister, and stood by silently as I recorded their “performance.” Man, I must have listened to that song five or six hundred times. I vividly recall the Solid Gold dancers in their tight spandex, gyrating and thrusting their groins into the TV cameras for all of America to enjoy. Is it me, or did the height of K-Tel compilations coincide with the popularity of Solid Gold?

What I liked about K-Tel compilations was their all-inclusive mix of music genres, including some minor/obscure songs. HiGH VOLTAGE! had two. The first is Phil Seymour’s fantastic power pop tune, “Precious to Me.” I absolutely adore “Precious to Me,” and I never would have heard it if it had not been for HiGH VOLTAGE! Listen to how Seymour shredded his vocal chords, wailing, “That you’re precious to me! And I can’t let you go!” That still gets me. The other great obscurity was sandwiched between Kool & the Gang (the overplayed “Celebration”) and Heart: Delbert McClinton.

Delbert McClinton?  Delbert McClinton?! Who the hell is Delbert McClinton? I didn’t know; but I dug his bluesy, soul sound. Just like Seymour’s short little ditty, McClinton’s “Giving It Up for Your Love” quickly became one of my favorites.

Speaking of Heart, they seemed to be on the album because Ann and Nancy Wilson were two of the few female rockers back in the day. “Tell It Like It Is” is a strong performance. I didn’t even know it was an Aaron Neville song until I was in high school. Following Heart is Pat Benatar, a K-Tel staple. Benatar was a goddess in northeast Ohio, partly because of her connection to the area (Benatar’s lead guitarist/musical partner/husband Neil Geraldo is from Parma). I’ve always felt that Benatar has been unjustly overlooked as an influential female in rock, but that’s another story. Her song “Treat Me Right” is a prime example of her gusto and power as an artist and performer.

HiGH VOLTAGE! wrapped up with three decent (and varied) songs. “Turn Me Loose,” by Loverboy: their first hit. Never has a song sounded so generic, yet seemed so cool. After that was Cliff Richard’s great “Dreaming.” It seems that whenever I was pining for yet another one of the prepubescent girls in my class, Sir Cliff’s song was that I dropped the needle on and… okay, I probably clenched my fists, closed my eyes and mouthed the words to that one, too; I’m not ashamed to admit it. The last song on the album was Eddie Rabbitt’s “I Love A Rainy Night,” that country crossover notable for its complicated hand clap / finger snapping combo. Eddie may have loved a rainy night, but I loved that cheesy effect. Go ahead, try it right now. No seriously, try it; try alternating between clapping your hands and snapping your finger. You know you want to!

Long after it wasn’t cool to brag about the K-Tel record you owned, I’d still slap that vinyl on the record player to give it a spin. Sometimes I would accompany the songs on my drums; if anything, HiGH VOLTAGE! was a good tool for budding percussionists wanting to learn the various beats and style of rock music. After my parents left Ohio and moved west, I lost track of my copy of HiGH VOLTAGE! It’s certainly not in my possession anymore. Maybe it’s in my brother’s garage; it could be in my parent’s new house collecting dust. I think I’ll look the next time I’m there.

In this age of iPod shuffles, NOW compilations, bloated movie soundtracks and torrent downloads, and LP like this one seems quaint. However, this album inspired me to begin making my own compilation tapes, first from songs off the radio, and then from the stacks of LP’s and cassettes I amassed throughout high school and college. There was a lot of creativity that went into those tapes: finding the right songs to follow each other; coming up with themes; designing the tape covers. Creating those tapes allowed me to grow creatively and helped free my mind when feeling pressured or stress. It all began when in the summer of ’81; it all began when I was struck by HiGH VOL-TAGE!

Side One:

Living Inside Myself – Gino Vanelli

Sweetheart – Franke and The Knockouts

Too Much Time On My Hands – Styx

Don’t Stand So Close To Me – The Police

Precious To Me – Phil Seymour

Games People Play – The Alan Parsons Project

Kiss On My List – Daryl Hall & John Oates

Side Two:

Celebration – Kool & The Gang

Giving It Up For Your Love – Delbert McClinton

Tell It Like It Is – Heart

Treat Me Right – Pat Benatar

Turn Me Loose – Loverboy

Dreaming – Cliff Richard

I Love A Rainy Night – Eddie Rabbitt

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Scott Malchus
Scott Malchus is a writer, filmmaker and die hard Cleveland Indians fan. His memoir, “Basement Songs,” is available in paperback and Kindle. He wrote and directed the film “King's Highway." His family is heavily involved in fund raising to find a cure for cystic fibrosis. Scott Malchus is an employee of Cartoon Network and Turner Broadcasting. The opinions expressed on Popdose are his own and do not reflect those of his employer. Email: Malchus@popdose.com. Follow him @MrMalchus