Like, Omigod! Digging Through the ’80s Pop Culture Box, Part 21
We’re on to Disc Six of this seven-disc set this week, and man oh man do these silly pop songs elicit some strong opinions. Put your helmets on, kids, cos we’ve got a passel of fightstarters this go-round…
#1 Animotion, “Obsession” (1984)
A Top Ten around the English-speaking world, peaking at #7 US.
Feerick – Another cast-off from the 1983 flop movie A Night in Heaven, sort of; Michael DesBarres and Holly Knight wrote and sang this for the soundtrack. Their version went nowhere, til they gave it to Animotion, who blew it up huge. Poor Michael DesBarres; relegated to footnote status again.
Medsker – It’s all about the 12″ mix to me for this one. The album version is flat and airy, but the remix has some serious balls.
Cummings – Certainly a candidate for Worst Music Video Ever Attached To A Top-10 Hit. Yet “Obsession,” for all the ickiness of its general theme and lyrical specifics, is somehow awesome — a classic that doesn’t seem to age. In its era it found a sweet spot between pop and synth-driven “modern rock” like few other radio singles had, or would. The fact that it was co-written by Des Barres — a fact I didn’t know until now — just adds to the wonder of the whole thing.
BTW, when I read Jack’s comment that DesBarres was “relegated to footnote status again,” I couldn’t help but think of the legends about the guy’s enormous member. (DesBarres’s, that is, not Jack’s, about which I have no knowledge nor wish to.)
Feerick – “All about the 12-inch mix.” Mmmm-hmm.
Anywho: Turns out everything I thought I knew about Animotion’s backstory was wrong. I seemed to remember that they were promoted as a madey-uppy “supergroup,” but no — they were just another bunch of El Lay showbiz lifers who figured their odds were better if they banded together.
That being said, “Obsession” is a pretty solid piece of dance-pop production — relentless pulse with intermittent eruptions of slap-funk bass and crunchy rock guitars, the nervous flutter of the rhythm offset by serene, floating keyboards.
It’s probably a better song than the singers — both of whom have ridiculous, fake-porn-star sounding names — deserve, anyway. “Astrid Plane” sounds like what a Quaalude high must feel like — blank, affectless, disconnected. This isn’t the performance of a singer; it’s the performance of a singer-model-actress-jewelery designer. The point of the gambit was probably to make her foil “Bill Wadhams” (I refuse to believe that’s his real name) sound charismatic by comparison, but it only emphasizes his polite phrasing, his careful diction, his professionalism — all his least rock ‘n’ roll attributes, in other words.
It’s not terrible, though. It reminds me of a Mr. Mister album cut — but remember, I liked Mr. Mister, mostly. And mad props to Knight and DesBarres for dropping an honest-to-God poetic allusion into the middle of a funkstorm. Elizabeth Barrett Browning fans REPRAZINT!
Lifton – Proof that unambiguously sexual lyrics with no melody set to a monotonous electronic beat didn’t originate with modern EDM. Move along, nothing to see here.
Dunphy – I cannot stress how popular this was in my school at that time. However, then as now, there is nothing there. No hooks, nothing. This is about as anti-song as a pop song can get. But this was a huge hit, and it is retrospectively creepy that the girls in my school knew these lyrics inside and out. If I look back on them, from my ancient chair of dinosaur bones and the tears of the troglodytes, it is almost like they were ten-year-olds (though that was never the case). Would you be shocked if your ten-year-old daughter was walking around singing “You’re my obsession… and I must have you?”
Is this why Lindsey Lohan and Amanda Bynes turned out that way?
Feerick – I dunno. Did those ten-year old girls grow up to be papparazzi?
#2 Tears For Fears, “Shout” (1985)
A Number One just about everywhere, except France. Bastards!
Dunphy – This was probably the first best indication that “college radio” was about to invade Top 40 in a big way. Aside from the thought-y lyrics, the sound combines the synth aesthetics of the day with a cold brutality that leans more toward post-punk than pop charts. It is in most respects an unfriendly song, and in comparison to today’s pop music where everyone’s just dying to be loved and accepted, individualism be damned, “Shout” is unthinkable.
Lifton – I’m almost positive I was indifferent to Tears For Fears at the time, but, dated synths or not, their hits have aged very well. I heard “Head Over Heels” the other day and was surprised at how strong it was. Really great production, and Roland was a deceptively great singer.
Medsker – I love these guys, but I never liked the chorus to this. I like everything else though, especially the percussion, the arrangement and the verses. And yes, Roland has always been an underrated singer.
Feerick –This is the single edit, and it’s not really working for me — I always preferred the longer version. The whole essence of the arrangement is the slow burn, the continual build from a few ticks and clanks to an all-out barn-burner. You still get a sense of it from this edit, but in its full form, “Shout” is a masterpiece of construction, a series of climaces and breakdowns, all leading inexorably to the big guitar solo.
Which in itself seemed like an uncharacteristically RAWK! gesture, from a band like Tears For Fears. Who was still building a song towards an epic solo in 1984? What kind of “Freebird” bullshit was this? But the classicism of it, in a way, helped make ity easier to absorb the song’s knotty emotional content. It was certainly more listener-friendly than, say, “Pale Shelter.”
Big props to Manny Elias on this. The drums really keep the drama building. There’s a characteristic production and arrangement strategy of the decade, of using machines to establish and maintain the rhythm, then bringing the piece to catharsis with the entry of huge live drums. Phil Collins pioneered it, maybe even perfected it, but Elias employs the technique brilliantly here.
I’m not as crazy about the keyboards, though The tones haven’t aged well, and they gum up the arrangement in places where it would be better if it were leaner, as on the (here abbreviated) bass break.
Cummings – American non-obsessives probably are not aware that “Shout” was the lead single off Big Chair across Europe, but that “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” was considered by Mercury execs to be the more likely track to break TfF in the U.S. Of course, The Hurting had been massive in the UK and Europe, and “Shout” was a perfect (if more than slightly bludgeon-ish) distillation of that album’s Primal Scream Therapy-inspired themes. As a huge fan of The Hurting, and an only-slightly-less-huge fan of Big Chair, I’ve always preferred the way Roland & Curt teased those themes out over the length of the debut album, rather than the way they cracked our heads open with them on “Shout.” But I still crank up the car stereo every time I hear it.
Feerick – What’s funny, of course, is that Roland Orzabal swears that “Shout” is not about the primal scream — rather, it’s his version of a protest song. Like, make your voice heard, get out in the street with signs, write a sternly-worded letter to your elected representative. Which makes sense, I guess — but it strikes me funny all the same. Here you spend the better part of two albums examining the contents of your own head, and when you do finally take notice of the outside world and talk about the need for effecting change in the broader society, you’re using the same language and imagery.
And yeah, you can make the argument that social justice is therapy writ large. But to me it’s as if Prince decided one day that he wanted to write a song about one of his favorite foods, or something, and no one would believe that it wasn’t a double entendre:
“Hey, Prince, I’m really digging this new tune, ‘Banana Cream Pie.’ That’s one sexy jam, man. Just filthy, dude.”
what do U mean sexy ???
“Like, the whole image with the pie thing… like this line, ‘Give me yo big sweet glistening wedge, baby’ — damn, Prince!”
pie is delicious Eye love to eat pie
“Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about, man!”
no no Eye mean everybody loves pie right ??? thats all just tasty pie like Ur mama used to make
“Oh, yeah. Just like mama made you. Mm-hmm.”
Eye think Ur reading 2 much in 2 it and U R making me uncomfortable
“This line about licking all that sweet cream out of your mustache — oh, man, I can’t believe they let you get away with a line like that!”
what R U talking about just cut it out Eye just really love banana cream pie
“I bet you do, man! I bet you do!”
so wait what U think that Eye ohhhhhhh thats NASTY Eye didn’t mean THAT thats gross U guys R disgusting
“Suuuuuure you didn’t, dude.”
#3 A-Ha, “Take On Me” (1985)
US #1, UK #2, huge everywhere else. Apparently there’s a video, too!
Feerick – Probably impossible to discuss without talking about the video — but holy smokes, what a good video. Not just the technical innovations, but the wonderful, goofy storyline, and the unexpected emotional punch of the ending.
Even on its own, the song is nearly perfect — tight, uncluttered, without a wasted note, and with a sunny, cheerful vibe. Morten Harket’s vocal is charming — the verses are so sweet and low-key, the explosion into falsetto so gloriously goofy. The whole thing is as adorable as a basket of puppies.
Medsker – Far from my favorite a-ha song, but I think the song itself holds up rather well. The keyboard riff is waaaaaay overdone, but that’s what they did at the time.
Dunphy – This is the main example of crowdpleasing, “just wanna be loved” synth pop at its apex. But I will defend the rest of A-ha’s existence. Although it would appear few cared about the rest of the Hunting High and Low album (even “The Sun Always Shines On TV”), there’s a lot of nice, moody work on there. I’m thinking “Living A Boy’s Adventure Tale” and the title track in this regard. And even though they seemed to have disappeared after Scoundrel Days, they had a long run in Europe. I am compelled to make a Popdose “Get To Know A-ha” Mixtape with songs from Linelines, Analogue, etc.
Oh, and it does have one of the greatest examples of music video becoming an artform of its own.
Cummings – For 10 years, every time I passed a Casio in an electronics store, a couple dozen people got to hear the synth hook. Now, thanks to the sadly departed (for Seattle) Michael Morse, it’s he Washington Nationals’ theme song, and it’s actually quite extraordinary how the crowd lands the high notes on “I’ll be gone” every night. (Go, Nats!) There are few (if any) songs that better exemplify everything I loved, and still love, about music in the ’80s. And yet, as I’ve noted elsewhere on Popdose over the years, I have no use whatsoever for anything else A-ha ever did.
Lifton – This became my “line in the sand” with regard to synths. I remember hearing it three times on a two-hour bus trip with my synagogue youth group and going crazy. I abandoned Top 40 radio not too long after that. How stupidly serious I was back then. Now I can see the quality of the songcraft, even if the clipped vocals in the verse still bug me.
Feerick – Oh, I think that’s a necessary part of the overall effect — going staccato on the verses so that when he opens up with the long notes on the chorus, you really get the contrast. To each his own, I guess (or, as they say in Norway, Til hver sin egen.)
#4 Simple Minds, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (1985)
Topped the charts in the US, Canada, and Holland; UK #7, Top Five across Europe.
Lifton – Put this in the same category as “Hungry Like The Wolf” — a song that’s so tied up in nostalgia and ambivalence that I don’t know if I like it or not.
Feerick – This one is still a point of contention amongst longtime Simple Minds fans — even those like me who got into them retroactively but prefer the earlier work. No, they didn’t write it; and yes, they were everybody’s second choice to perform it — I’ve heard stories that it was originally offered to Bryan Ferry, or to Billy Idol, or both. But they played the hell out of it, and made it utterly their own.
The Minds could play with immense power, but there’s magnificent restraint here. They give these glimpses of raw force — the blast of the intro — in order to remind you of how much they’re holding back, letting the vocals dominate the verses, simmering along, guitar and keys so subtle and ghostly that it’s hard to tell who’s playing what. “Ghostly” is a good way to describe the overall effect, actually. It’s a song about abandonment and memory that sounds like a memory. Like an echo. Like an absence.
Best bit: the breakdown, where the instruments all fall away to practically nothing, then that series of warning BOOM!s on the drums, into that rapidly-accelerating break on the snare and the whole things comes crashing back in, Mel Gaynor playing up on the bell of the cymbal… I’ve heard this song a thousand times or more, but I still get off on that moment.
Medsker – I think I was so happy to finally see Simple Minds score a hit in the States, after playing their two previous albums to death, that I overlooked the fact that the song is the weakest single they released in that era.
Dunphy – This was that definitive moment the extremely angular Simple Minds “sold out” but far be it for me to complain. If I recall correctly this was a nugget that fell out of the Keith Forsey pop machine and had no bearing on Jim Kerr and band until the release. After that though, the Simple Minds sound would be completely undone. If that sounds like a complaint, it isn’t. From that changeover we got the Once Upon A Time album, and while almost every track of that record is desperately trying to be the natural follow-up to “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” it still is one of the better examples of eighties pop-rock.
Cummings – This song got me in trouble at Northwestern, when my weekly column in the school paper used its success on pop radio (and Simple Minds’ simultaneous disappearance from college radio, which previously had been pretty much the only place their music got heard in the US) to exemplify why I considered college radio’s fascist anti-commercialism so annoying. My editor ran a dark, grainy photo of a DJ in his booth, with a caption quoted from my column: “Get those pop losers off my station!” That column got me into a shitfight with the program director at WNUR, who labeled me the worst thing you can call a hip collegiate columnist: “a high school music critic.” I gave as good as I got, but I kinda deserved it — I wasn’t properly acknowledging college radio’s place in the ’80s-music food chain. Still, 30 years later I can’t figure out why the success of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” meant that the non-commercial shit off New Gold Dream had to lose the only airplay it was ever going to get.
To get away from the me-me-me stuff for a minute, my favorite story about this song is the fact that Jim Kerr has always claimed that he had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into “selling out’ by recording a song written by (horrors!) pop songwriters for a (stop it!) John Hughes soundtrack. And then, after it proved to offer such a better sound for the band than anything they had done before, Kerr allowed it to become the sonic template for most of what they would do afterward — beginning with a virtual rewrite for their follow-up hit, the wonderful “Alive and Kicking.”
Feerick – I’m going to have to play the (semi-) dissenting voice here. What your assessment misses, Jon (and yours, Dw.), is that Simple Minds were already huge stars, and making huge commercial records, even before this one — just not in the US. I think it’s an act of selective memory to call New Gold Dream “non-commercial shit”: it was a UK #3 album, for cryin’ out loud! And the follow-up, Sparkle In the Rain, was a UK Number One! And they’d had a string of Top Five hit singles across Europe.
So while I agree that “Don’t You” gave their US career a gigantic kickstart, I do think you’re both overstating the degree to which it changed their sound or their career path. I’m confident that (a) Simple Minds would have had their US breakthrough eventually even without The Breakfast Club, albeit perhaps on a smaller scale, and (b) the follow-up to Sparkle probably would have sounded pretty similar to what eventually became Once Upon a Time.
Check it: NGD was already pretty straight-up New Romantic dance pop, while Sparkle was more of a rock album — and the sound of “Don’t You,” rather than signaling an abrupt shift in direction, fits cleanly into the progression; it squares the circle while pointing to something a little more soulful, with the vocals more upfront in the mix. Later singles like “All the Things She Said” are recognizably in the same songwriting mode as NGD, blended with some of the sound of Sparkle, especially the prominence of the piano. In that context, “Don’t You” sounds more like a bridging document than a game-changer.
Like I said, though: It’s still a point of contention. To each his own (or, as they say in Scotland, Dh’ith an cat a’ chàise agus dh’ith an cù a’ chriomag ime — “The cat eats his cheese, and the dog his bit of butter”).
#5 Katrina and the Waves, “Walking On Sunshine” (1985)
A Top Ten across the Anglosphere, peaking at #9 US.
Feerick – Remember when everyone was comparing Katrina and the Waves to the Pretenders? Remember? Because both were ‘60s-influenced Brit-garage rockers, fronted by expats from the American midwest? Except that Katrina and the Waves had no danger, edge, or darkness, and were therefore a little boring. Remember how Chrissy Hynde is a snarky troubled genius, while Katrina Leskanich is the girl next door? Did you ever go out with the girl next door? Remember how fun and friendly she was? Remember how she showed you a good time? But you didn’t stick with her, did you? No, you didn’t. Because that troubled genius girl is the one who will forever fascinate you. “Walking On Sunshine” is a fizzy pop delight, and like pop (as they call it in the Midwest) it goes down smooth, but the pleasure dissipates with the first belch.
Dunphy – Which ups the oddness because “Walking On Sunshine” was co-written by Mr. Kimberley Rew, himself a former snarky, troubled punk who (with Robyn Hitchcock) made up part of The Soft Boys. So funny how things mutate in popville.
Medsker – It makes sense that I loved this song at the time and then would go head first down the power pop rabbit hole years later. My wife, on the other hand, would like to send this song on a rocket to the sun so it will die a horrible, fiery death.
Dunphy – I’m a curmudgeon and so I am genetically predisposed to turn up my nose and complain about Katrina and her alleged Waves. I’d never really considered the Pretenders parallel, especially since I think Chrissy Hynde had the majority rule in her band, while Katrina… not so much. But if you listen to “Walking On Sunshine” right up against “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” sure, I’ll buy that for a dollar.
This is a case where I won’t turn it off if I am listening to the radio…well, let me rephrase that. If radio ever played these songs anymore — which they don’t — I wouldn’t turn it off. However I would make faces at the tiny speakers. She’s so damned perky in the song. Too damned perky. Just what is chemical composition of the “sunshine” she’s “walking on” anyhow?
Having said all of that, I feel entirely no reason to purchase this song for my personal consumption. It is, to me, just like The Rembrandts’ theme to Friends: proficient to a fault, made to make you tap your feet, but boy, I just wanna slap ‘em and tell them to snap out of it.
Lifton – It’s so deliciously upbeat that even Dolly Parton couldn’t make it sound happier. This is as perfect a post-punk, power pop song as you’ll hear,and produced by Scott Litt, who would soon go on to do a bunch of awesome R.E.M. albums.
Cummings – Look, Jack. I will grant you everything you wrote about this song — everything up to the last sentence. Speaking for myself, no matter how cliched it has become, no matter how many times it’s been used in films and on TV, I have never — from the first time I heard it — gotten over the sheer, unadulterated joy I get from it. I still bounce around the room every time I hear it — even if that requires an out-of-body experience while I’m buckled into a car seat. I even think about it frequently when I’m not listening to it, but need a pick-me-up. The pleasure does not dissipate. Indeed, the entire first K&tW album (which, of course, was a mashup of their two Canadian records) was in heavy rotation on my stereo and Walkman for at least six or seven years. “Do You Want Crying” should have been as ubiquitous as “Walking” was, and “Red Wine and Whiskey” is particularly glorious as well. I’ll agree that the Pretenders were far more nutritious, if we’re going to lump these two groups together (a trope I had never experienced before, despite their similar backgrounds) — but there’s a reason people reach for the Ben & Jerry’s after they’ve finished their salads. It’s damn tasty.
Feerick – To each his own, Jon. Or, as they say in the Midwest, “Well, that’s different, then.”