Like, Omigod! Digging Through the ‘80s Pop Culture Box, Part 4
It’s a super-sized extravaganza this week as we wrap up Disc One, and man oh man have we got the Kojak variety pack here. Sit back and enjoy…
#16 Gary Numan, “Cars” (1980)
Numan’s first solo single; #1 UK, #1 Canada, #9 US.
Dan Wiencek – I have an ex who was really into Gary Numan, and so I’m in the unusual position of knowing a lot about an artist who I’m actually not a huge fan of. I actually respect Numan for making a lot of career out of rather modest talents, and I don’t mean that in a snarky way: he admits he’s not much of a composer, and he’s certainly not much of a singer, and yet he put together arguably THE biggest one-hit wonder ever made, a song that’s been a hit in every decade since it was first released. (Obviously the “one-hit” status does not apply in the UK, where Numan continued to rack ‘em up throughout the ’80s.)
Taken in the context of Numan’s work, it’s so much more appealing and radio-friendly than anything he had written before that it qualifies as a genuine breakthrough, or at least would have done, had he been able to follow it up in kind.
I saw Numan perform twice within the last six or seven years; the first time, he included this song in the middle of his set and gave it his all, and it fit perfectly into the harder, more Nine Inch Nails-influenced sound he adopted. The second time, he saved it ’til the encore and sat on his stage monitor until the band finished playing it. Guess I can’t blame him for finally being sick of it.
David Medsker – There is no other way to say it – this song changed my life. I was absolutely fascinated with everything about this song. The near-entire use of synthesizers (though Gary Wright had done the same thing years earlier, he didn’t make it sound as cool as this), that otherworldly vocal, and that supersonic handclap he uses in the chorus… it opened so many doors in my head. You mean music is allowed to do this? Cool! What else is out there? Major gateway song for this Anglophile, that’s for sure.
Jon Cummings – I’ve always preferred that my synths burble rather than drone, which is why I’ve always pitted “Cars” against “Pop Muzik” and “Video Killed the Radio Star” and found it wanting. I never could drum-machine up any enthusiasm for it.
Jack Feerick – [Linn LM-1 setting#00627 = “rimshot”]
Dw. Dunphy – I’ve always like this song because in its time it sounded so alien. Now it sounds primitive and a little on the 8-bit side, but as a kid probably in fifth grade who had come through the soft ’70s pop landscape sporting a Cheap Trick t-shirt (with those plastic-y iron-on transfers, ‘natch) it was a pretty big step. The song is slight but there doesn’t seem to be much interest on Numan’s part to push the “isolation as protective measure” bent of the lyric. The instrumentation does that all by itself.
Java Joel Murphy – First heard this on K-Tel’s legendary Rock 80 compilation — the same one with Pat Benatar, the Ramones, Joe Jackson, “Driver’s Seat” et al.
Feerick – Funny you call this his breakthrough, Dan. In my estimation, Numan’s best work was already behind him with Tubeway Army, and this was the beginning of the end. Or possibly the end of the beginning. Whatever: “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and “Down in the Park” are ten times the song this is.
Rob Smith – I suppose the whole point was to sound like a robot. Score.
Feerick – See, I don’t buy that. Numan got a lot of attention — and some criticism — for seeming “robotic.” But while Numan cultivated a visual sense informed by the likes of Kraftwerk, he kept the human element front and center in the music. There’s the live rhythm section, for one thing — hell, there’s even a tambourine! — but also that yippy, nasal voice, while not as blatantly emotional as your typical rock singer, carried far more emotional affect than that of, say, Florian Schneider. He sounds, not to put too fine a point on it, terrified. The modern world makes him neurotic. He manages the give the impression that he would like to be a robot, safe and impervious from physical or emotional harm, but his human weakness keeps bleeding through.
Dave Lifton – One of the touchstone defining post-punk/New Wave songs, blah, blah, blah. It’s boring. The hook isn’t bad, and appealed to me as an 11-year old, but even then I knew that it was stupid to have the synth play the melody in concert with the vocal. All the great songs Chuck Berry, Brian Wilson and Bruce Springsteen had written about cars were nearly destroyed in one fell swoop. Fuck this guy.
#17 Donnie Iris, “Ah! Leah!” (1980)
Donnie’s first solo single. #29 Hot 100.
Dunphy – Iris never was that big a thing in Central New Jersey —or if he was, it was with an age bracket I had no association with. You’d see his albums in the record racks and wonder who this doofy Buddy Holly-lookin’ dude with the guitar slung on his back was. Iris was part of a sub-section of artists that included Dwight Twilley Band and Michael Stanley Band. Other parts of the country knew them much better so when you admitted you had no idea what these people sounded like you got weird stares. I hear they were big in Ohio.
So I didn’t hear “Ah! Leah!” until at least two decades after it was a hit. It gets by on the chorus hook as the majority of the song feels logy and dragging.
Medsker – The chorus to this song serves as another gateway. It didn’t matter that all they were saying was ‘Ah, Leah': the sound of those stacked harmonies gave me goosebumps. I liked the verses just fine, but if I’m being honest, I couldn’t wait until it got back to the chorus. Ahhhhhh, Leeeeeeaaaaaaahhhh…
Lifton – I had never heard this either, until I started hanging out with you people. If it was only #29, it’s possible it was only a regional hit, because I probably would have remembered it. It’s solid, but unspectacular power pop. Dan brought it up back in Part 68 of AM Gold when he pointed out that Iris had ripped off the “looking better than a body has a right to” from Dolly Parton, which I’m bringing up mostly because of my banter with Giles in there.
Wiencek – I really like this one. I had pretty much forgotten it until I came across it in a different ’80s comp a few years ago, but for me it’s one of the great “sleeper” songs of the early part of the decade; I don’t think I’ve heard it on the radio since the time it originally came out. Not to say it’s a masterpiece exactly: the guy’s overdoing it a bit on the verses — and especially at the end, when he gets all Nazareth on our asses. But that wall-of-vocals chorus is a hook worth waiting for. I wish this set had more forgotten gems like this; hell, I wish there were more forgotten gems like this.
Cummings – Loved this song in its era, and can still picture the shade of blue on the 45 label. But Donnie’s lucky he got his hit records in before MTV really broke, because he had a great face for radio.
Smith – I prefer “Love Is Like a Rock,” but this one is pretty damned cool, too. But yeah, I gotta think his look held him back; had he been a longhaired, leather-pants-wearin’, big-willied, freaky-dancin’ arena rock god (but more about Billy Squier in a minute), he’da had Top Five albums and five or six years of raping and pillaging hockey arenas before making the career-ending, tearing-off-his-t-shirt-on-satin-sheets video. This is fine AOR at a time when some of the best AOR ever was being made.
Murphy – I don’t recall hearing this song in 1981. Heard it later in the mid-90s (what-up TK-99 in Syracuse!!). Weird since I totally remember 1982’s “Love Is Like A Rock” (loved it) & “My Girl” (his biggest chart hit). 1981 was a really underrated year for power pop- this peaked around March right around the same time as Phil Seymour’s “Precious To Me”.
Feerick – This is probably going to sound fatuous, but what the hell: Remember when Enya first came around, and there was such a huge critical deal about how she created that intoxicating sound with the dozens of vocal overdubs? “Ah! Leah!” represents the same level of production technique, albeit with a lower budget, and applied to a rock ‘n’ roll framework — the cascading ricochet of the bridge, the swelling chorale at the refrain. And the lead vocal, which seems genuinely crazed with lust; behind that that ever-spiraling verse melody, Donnie stammers and gasps, his voice breaking and choking before exploding into the chorus. Just fantastic.
But yeah, the very definition of a regional hit. You don’t really get those anymore, and that’s kind of a shame. Goddam Internet, homogenizing the culture.
#18 Franke and the Knockouts, “Sweetheart” (1981)
The band’s only Top Ten single, peaking #10 on the US Hot 100. .
Dunphy – Well, now, take everything I said about regionality and throw it right out the window. Franke Previte and band started out in New Brunswick, NJ, which is pretty darn Central NJ — and I never heard them, either. If I had heard this song, it wouldn’t have made an impact anyway. This is late ’70s masquerading as early ’80s, and not terribly inspiring, even on that diminished level.
But you have to give points for that music video though, as it is a collection of really bad ideas all gathered in one convenient package. Oof!
Medsker – My memory tells me these guys were another bar band like Donnie Iris and the Cruisers, but hearing it now, it sounds like a late entry to the Mellow Gold parade. You think these guys ever toured with Ambrosia? And how often was Franke mistaken for Mickey Thomas?
Wiencek – When I was a kid, I thought there was this one big, generic late-70s band, and that this band was responsible for all the AOR tunes my parents liked. This is the band that created “Love Will Find a Way,” “Steal Away,” “Baby Come Back” and all the other stuff that just seemed to be extruded in one great, homogenized mass and then cut up and sold in individual bits, like Tootsie Rolls. “Sweetheart” sounds like one of the last efforts of that hypothetical ur-70s band. It’s well-done but forgettable; in fact the only thing that raises my eyebrow is these jokers’ ’50s-throwback name. “Shake It Up” or “Ah! Leah!” I can see coming from a band called Frankie and the Knockouts; this slice of AOR toffee should have come from a band called, I don’t know, Seahorse or something.
Lifton – I’m with Dan on this. It’s very much of its time and never needed to be brought into the present.
Murphy – My Mom was 34 in 1981 and loved this song so much she got the 45. I liked it too. One of 1981’s most 1981-sounding keyboard/synth showcases. Right up there with “While You See A Chance,” “Really Wanna Know You,” or “Everlasting Love” by Rex Smith and Rachel Sweet (what-up Akron!!).
(By the way, 1981’s most 1981-sounding moment? The electric flute outro in Neil Diamond’s “America.”But that’s just me.)
Smith – I interviewed Franke Previte last year, and he seemed like a really nice guy. Having written “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” has kept him out of the projects, but I love the Knockouts stuff. Yeah, it’s very much of its time, but that time was my formative years of listening, falling in love with the sounds I heard on the radio, the stuff I taped off the radio, the things I lipsynched to in my bedroom. That studio gloss sounded great coming out of a Yorx all-in-one stereo system.
Best moment: second verse, the way his voice hits the line “And it won’t be ’round no more.” It’s all about moments.
Oh, here’s a not-very-interesting fact: the first time I heard “Rosanna” by Toto, I thought it was a Franke and the Knockouts song. Previte and Bobby Kimball sorta resemble each other. Must be the ‘stache.
Cummings – Rob and I both have history with Franke on Popdose: I wrote about this track and its follow-up, “You’re My Girl,” during the site’s salad days in 2008. I was a sucker for crap like this in high school. I still am, apparently, because I don’t hate everything Lifehouse has ever done.
Feerick – So they’re basically a poor man’s Hall and Oates, but — what a twist! — the one with the ‘stache sings lead! Pass.
Murphy – You guys are being rough on poor Franke and the Knockouts. Dude could sing his balls off. Nice li’l ditty he wrote for his daughter. Yeah, the video was low-budget — but what video in 1981 wasn’t? Better than the majority of 2012’s biggest hits, that’s for dang sure.
Feerick – This course doesn’t grade on a curve, Joel. And if you’re gonna make bold statements like that, you’re going to have to show your work. See me after class.
#19 The Cars, “Shake It Up” (1982)
#4 US Hot 100, #14 on the dance chart!
Wiencek – I’ve had Cars fans tell me this is the point where it started to go downhill for those guys, the point where an interesting and edgy New Wave band became a purveyor of formula singles. True or not, I doubt the band themselves were complaining about scoring their first Top Ten hit. Anyway, I liked it then and I liked it now; it’s got a simple groove, fun words, and a very catchy solo.
Cummings – Monkeys with typewriters, at least compared with “It’s All I Can Do” or “Let’s Go” or 20 other early-Cars tracks you might care to name.
Feerick – Well, as mentioned above, one man’s decline is another man’s artistic breakthrough. There’s pop, and then there’s hyper-pop, and then there’s this. All elements machine-tooled for maximum catchiness; a singable, lightly syncopated bassline, a catchphrase chorus (with woo-hoos!), twinkly synth lines, punchy, propulsive rhythm guitar. It was more than a formula, it was a fucking science. And for a while, nobody practiced it better than these guys.
Medsker – As much as I love the Cars, this song always bugged me. It’s too slick, like Ocasek was trying to write a style parody of his own band. Elliot Easton, though…damn. His solos are so compact, melodic, and rip-roaringly awesome. This might be the best one of all, or at least neck and neck with “Just What I Needed.”
Smith – The Cars were the musical equivalent of the inside of a refrigerator: cold, plastic, holding nothing that could be considered alive. They probably even smelled like Arm & Hammer. And aside from their debut (which is a front-to-back great record), each of their albums had its fair share of suckage. And their front man was a mannequin! A fucking mannequin!
But they were so cool — how could they possibly be cool? How could this song be so cool? The guitar solo — how did Elliott Easton sneak that on there? It sounds so alive.
And I’m sorry, Lyricsfreak might say he’s singing “Dance all night and get real loose,” but I’ve heard “get real goose” for 30 years. I’m sticking with “goose.” Because that’s what the mannequin said.
Dunphy – The previous effort from the band, Panorama, found The Cars going in a chilly, slightly more aggressive direction. The rhythms were brittle and the lyrics eye-crossingly nonsensical (example: “I wanna float like Euripides”) and the record did not do much to hold gains made from the debut and Candy-O. So it is clear that their next effort would be more friendly, and that is exactly what the whole of the Shake It Up record is. The synths are right out front with Elliot Easton’s guitars taking a back seat until bridges and such. On this song there is no effort to be anything but what it is: a fun and unpretentious dance track.
As big a fan of the band as I am, I don’t feel this album or Heartbeat City have held up nearly as well as those first two records, but there’s still a lot to enjoy about all of them (even the 30/70 ratio of Door To Door is preferable to some other bands’ output).
Lifton – The Cars were never a major band of my youth. They were always around, making great hit singles, but I never went further than that with them. “Shake It Up” hasn’t aged as well, because it’s a little too simplistic, but it moves well enough and did the trick at junior high school dances and stuff.
Murphy – I first heard this song on WPDM Radio in Potsdam NY New Year’s Eve afternoon 1981. I loved it instantly. Later that night I called another radio’s station’s all night all-request NYE show (what-up Dave Moore!!). They didn’t play it. They also didn’t play my other request — “Emotional Rescue.” Instead, they played the over-played (at the time) “Start Me Up.” That was the New Year’s I tried spray cheese in a can for the first time. That was a pretty good New Year’s. True story. Ask my sister.
Matt Wardlaw – Joel, you might be the first person to put spray cheese and the Cars into the same story. Unless of course Ric Ocasek has a bizarre fetish; There would probably be a few stories connected to that one.
Let’s pause this discussion for a moment. I need spray cheese and Triscuits.
Feerick – While we’re paused: Can we talk for a moment about Elliot Easton? To me, he’s the model of what a lead guitarist should be, in the finest George Harrison tradition — a monster kept on a short chain, deployed like a secret weapon. He’ll hold his fire for the whole song, then unleash a staggering display of technique, blowing the hat off the gaddam house for no more than eight bars. Every time, song in and song out, a perfectly-sculpted eight bars, painstakingly crafted to deliver an ideal balance of melody and flash.
#20 The Afternoon Delights, “General Hospi-Tale” (1981)
R & B #33, #29 on the Hot 100
(There’s no official video, alas — but we do have this fan video with show clips!)
Smith – Jesus crimony fucknuts. I coulda lived the rest of my days just fine without hearing this again.
Wiencek – Um, there’s not going to be a test on this, is there? ‘Cause my brain refuses to take these words in. I can’t decide if this is a better or worse choice for inclusion than Garry Burbank’s “Who Shot J.R.?” At least I had some inkling of who J.R. was and why it was a big deal that he got shot; I never got the Luke and Laura thing.
Brian Boone – This is “88 Lines About 44 Women” for housewives and little girls. Seriously though, I prefer the Afternoon Delights’ earlier, Latin jazz/rock fusion albums. Wait, no. I always get the Afternoon Delights and Santana mixed up.
Dunphy – I love this track. It is so awful. It is a product of its time and nobody involved with its creation knew or cared we’d be talking about it 32 years later. God bless you, you shameless people. That is all.
Murphy – An American Top 40 classic. Didn’t find it particularly catchy or funny (my Mom was more of an NBC soaps gal). I also didn’t realize I was hearing rap for (probably) the first time.
Cummings – When I “Think of Laura,” I don’t think of this. I don’t think she’d want it this way. I remember this as a rare moment when I would turn off AT40 because I just couldn’t deal with it — and didn’t mind if I missed the next song, if it meant I didn’t have to listen to this.
Medsker – A little voice is telling me I’ve heard this before, but damned it I can remember any of it. I got nothin’. It’s the kind of track that can be carbon dated within a week of its creation. No need to make room for this one in the time capsule.
Feerick – This is competent — the rapping is streets ahead of Blondie, anyway — but the finest song about daytime drama remains “Days of Our Lives,” by French, Frith, Kaiser, and Thompson.
I went through my General Hospital phase, like everybody else, for about six weeks, but you really had to be there, I think.
Lifton – Come back, Buckner & Garcia. All is forgiven.
Feerick – Oh, Dave, you may live to regret those words…
#21 Billy Squier, “The Stroke” (1981)
Squier’s first single. US Hot 100 #17; peaked at #3 on the Billboard Rock Tracks chart
Smith – The late, great Bobby Chouinard’s big moment. Boom-SLAP, boom-SLAP, boom-SLAP, boom-SLAP. How many other drum intros are so distinctive? “We Will Rock You.” Zep’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” “I Love It Loud.” “We Got the Beat.” Don’t Say No is solid, solid, solid, from start to end, a real AOR monster, and this is the song that introduced it to the masses.
And it’s filthy. I love filthy.
Boone – There are some people that do what they do so well, that they become universally synonymous with that discipline. Pele and soccer. Frank Lloyd Wright and architecture. Billy Squier and songs about hand jobs.
Feerick – INCORRECT! Thanks for playing, though.
Wiencek – So I guess the drum intro isn’t a complete steal from “Love Stinks” (“The Stroke” is more of a heavy shuffle), though I noticed the similarity even way back when. Notwithstanding a bit of slight near-copying, this is, of course, a great song, and I love the tight, economical guitar phrases.
Growing up I always assumed it was about something dirty (tee hee) and it was a while before I listened closely enough to notice the song is more about ego gratification than sexual gratification. How often do you get to come back to a headbangin’ rock song and discover it’s actually deeper (somewhat) than you thought?
In conclusion, I will share the following anecdote. When my elementary school gym class was playing volleyball, and we would have to rotate positions for a new server, we would chant “ro-tate, RO-tate!” in time to this song. Weren’t we clever? Or did everybody do that?
Murphy – During the summer of 1981, me (six years-old) and my sister (10?) would do chores around the house — dishes, dusting, cleaning the toilet. Got $5 a week. I bought a TON of records that summer. “Breakup Song”, “Greatest American Hero”, “Elvira”. This was one of ‘em. Loved it. Didn’t hear it enough on the radio. Honestly, this whole album is a pretty solid rock rekkid.
Medsker – This is actually my least-favorite single from Don’t Say No. Mack did come up with that killer effect on the snare drum (the song is dead in the water without it), and I liked watching the drummer spin his sticks like that (I could only get them to go backwards, not forwards). All in all, though, I think it’s just fine.
Lifton – I wasn’t never a fan of this song. The guitar parts are cool because, as Dan pointed out, they’re just short phrases that burst out of that dumb backwards drum loop. But I guess Def Leppard really stole Squier’s thunder for over-produced hard rock a couple of years later when Pyromania hit big, didn’t they?
Feerick – Growing up in Massachusetts, I was so immersed in the provincial, parochial narrative of Billy Squier as a local boy made good that I guess I always conceived of his success as a regional thing. It wasn’t ‘til years later that I realized just how big a deal he was, nationwide and even internationally.
There’s a lot of like, of course, especially for fans who wept when Led Zeppelin broke up — not just the obvious vocal debt to Robert Plant, or even the massive “Kashmir”-style drums, but the way the guitars kind of lurch and stagger from riff to riff, and the way that (as with Zep) amusing little details emerge in the spaces between the crushing chords: the “Volga Boatman” melody, the goofy found-sound backing vocals, that pinched little lick high up the neck.
Smart and stupid, hard-rock and pretty-boy, all at once. And for the moment, all the elements are in proper balance. That would change, of course, as things would fall too far to one side, and Billy’s career would pay the price. But for the first couple of records the guy was an absolute monster, give him his due.
Cummings – This song, beloved at the time for its hint of raunch, served as an excellent gateway drug into the Billy Squier oeuvre. But these days I’m always much more excited to hear “My Kinda Lover” or “Everybody Wants You” or even that pastel-shirt-ripping tune.
Feerick – Ah, “Rock Me Tonite.” What a career-killer that thing was.
Dunphy – Squier takes a lot of crap, and some of it is deserved. He sometimes brought to his career all the carelessness of someone smoking under the oxygen tent but his second and third albums In The Dark and Emotions In Motion still hold up well for album-oriented rock. It helps that he had the production services of Mack (Queen, ELO) in his corner as well as a solid backing band. I’ll go out on a limb to say that “The Stroke” isn’t even one of the best tracks on Don’t Say No.
Now, I won’t go so far to say it is an overly-maligned lost classic that somehow changed everything about pop music. It’s a record you put on the turntable, listen to, and feel really good while doing so. It does provoke awkwardness (much like the scene in Billy Madison as Adam Sandler is blasting it out of his car, an expression of his out-of-touch concept of “coolness”). It brings out the rockist prejudices of others who snicker at you as you enjoy it. It signifies you as being old.
But there are plenty of times when playing this record, pulling out the Atari 2600 and the Space Invaders cartridge, and digging into a box of Cap’n Crunch is the only therapy that gets me out of a serious mid-life funk, so to heck with it. I like it.