Living In Oz – Rick Springfield (1983)

 

Living In Oz album cover

Living In Oz album cover

During the 1980s, being a self-confessed pop music snob was easy. Only on a few occasions did I break my resolve for the sake of higher art.

The music of Rick Spring was not the highest of art, but it was very much the soundtrack to my high school years, weather I wanted it to be or not. My pop embargo was difficult to maintain with the onslaught of hits that came from Working Class Dog and the equally successful Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet. In addition to being all over the radio and VH-1, Springfield also had a stint as a daytime (soap opera) TV star. High art was about to get a downgrade, or so my snobby teenage self thought.

Despite being around since the early ’70s and even playing in a band that included a future member of the Little River Band, Rick Springfield seemed like one of the ’80s exciting new Australian imports. All the hoopla caused some critics, (no doubt aesthetically challenged or art snobs themselves like me) to discount Springfield as just another pretty face with a guitar.

So to set things right on his ninth album (3rd as a big star in the US), Springfield would release his most personal and musically ambitious album to date. It even included synthesizers, a tool he publicly loathed in the past. It was a guilty pleasure that I could check off on my Columbia House Record club list without anyone knowing I had ever ordered it. It arrived in a brown box like some exotic porn magazine.

1983’s Living In Oz was a reference to Springfield’s status as a transplanted Australian living in Los Angeles. Despite his new environs, Living In Oz was a deeply personal album with songs about childhood memories in Sydney, his father and best friend. Despite the potentially teary eyed subject matter, Living In Oz was brashly modern with synthesizers set to dance pop melodies. The basically cold metallic arrangements were balanced by the warmth of deeply personal subject mater.

There was still the big guitar solos that inspired suburban air guitar fantasies well before Guitar Hero. Songs like the title track and “Alyson” proved that Springfield’s guitar skills were not substuted by plug and play programming in any way. Some of the songs like “Human Touch” even hinted to the alienation by technology, a theme so popular in New Wave and New Romantic music.

Living in Oz was Springfield at his creative peak. It deftly combined the anthem rock sounds of the past with synthesizers for an aggressive (if not dated today) sound. After this album Springfield’s music would go post modern and eventually fall into obscurity (by early ’80s standards).


Fuel for the Fire – Naked Eyes (1984)

Fuel for the Fire album cover

Fuel for the Fire album cover

By the time I was a college freshman, the English band Naked Eyes had already become a household name with the Burt Bacharach song “Always Something there to Remind Me”. That song was so good that it was popular with teens and their parents who may have remembered the version of the song recorded by Dionne Warrick in 1967. Naked Eyes had come out of nowhere and stirred up the hearts of Baby Boomers and the inaugural edge of the Gen X crowd.

The excellent 1983 debut album Naked Eyes (or Burning Bridges in the UK) was peppered in nostalgia from the ’60s, but there was some evidence that the band had a modern rhythmic edge that was trying to get out. Even the smash “Always…” showed evidence of dance music undertones within the confines of Bacharach’s melodies. On the follow-up release a year later Fuel for the Fire, the duo of Rob Fisher and Pete Byrne would leave the nostalgia behind with a more aggressive sounding and danceable album.

While Fuel for the Fire did not sell like its predecessor, there was one U.S. top 40 hit “(What) In the Name of Love” and to a lesser extent “When the Lights Go Out” was played on college radio. There were better tracks for those willing to go deeper that displayed a knack for rhythm like “Eyes of a Child” and “No Flowers Please”. Surprisingly in a time when dance pop was becoming very popular on mainstream radio stations, none of the excellent up tempo tracks save for one were ever on top 40 radio.

The second side tended to be more contemplative and slower, but Fuel for the Fire was Naked Eyes trying to align themselves with the explosion of synth pop that was quickly becoming the mainstream. It didn’t matter because the album did not connect to audiences the same way the first one did. Even with increased MTV exposure, there was noting with the noir suave of “Always Something to Remind Me” to sway the video crowd. In the crowded new paradigm of saturated radio and video playlists (What) In the Name of Love was quickly forgotten or overlooked altogether. There were a few dance remixes, but they did little to boost Fuel for the Fire’s fortunes.

In its original configuration Naked Eyes only had two albums. With the poor sales of Fuel For the Fire, Rob Fisher split and became one half of Climie Fischer. Sadly a decade later, he would die of complications of a medical procedure. As interest in Naked Eyes music grew with the coming waves of ’80s nostalgia, Pete Byrne was left with carrying the torch. Much of the original magic was lost in his cover albums and sporadic recordings of new music.

To make matters worse Fuel for the Fire is no longer in print and is difficult to find without some cyber digging. Fortunately, many of its best tracks are included in the easy to find Best of Naked Eyes, an album which basically covers the best of Naked Eyes/Burning Bridges and Fuel for the Fire.
While there can never be a proper reunion of Naked Eyes anymore, its nice to know that you can still hear the bands short discography thanks to the democratisation of the internet.


Three of a Perfect Pair – King Crimson (1984)

Three of a Perfect Pair album cover (2001 re-issue)

Three of a Perfect Pair album cover (2001 re-issue)

My first exposure to King Crimson came in 1982 via the song “Neal Jack and Me”. That song with it’s driving bass line and syncopated guitar melodies set against Adrian Belew’s voice made me a instant fan. While Beat was one of my first CDs, my interest in King Crimson would prompt me to seek out the follow up to Beat called Three of A Perfect Pair released a bout two years later.

Three of a Perfect Pair was the tenth album and third in a series of recordings that started with Discipline in 1981. More importantly, it was the beginning of the classic line up featuring Adrian Belew’s vocals. It’s my favorite configuration of the band and with Three of a Perfect Pair I was hoping for more of what I liked about Beat.

While not at all disappointing the album turned out to be an interesting compromise of forward and backward thinking. Unable to reach a compromise on a direction, the band decided to split the album into a “right side” and “left side” as if to suggest brain hemispheres that favored popular (left) and experimental (right).
The sides theme fit with the general concept of the album of perfect opposites. The opposing forces of commercialism and the band’s native tendency towards experimentation created an uneasy tension in and out of the studio.

Aside from the more accessible Andrian Belew led songs on the “left side” of the album, the other half proved that the band was not going mainstream anytime soon. This was unique in that this configuration of King Crimson with Robert Fripp, Tony Levin and Bill Bruford would reach back to the band’s past with ’70s era-like experimentation but with Belews voice on occasion. This was the side of King Crimson that was new to me and took some time to adjust to, even with Belew’s voice to make it more palatable.

In that regard the album was less a satisfying sequel to Beat and more a what could have been had Belew been part of the line up from the Red or Starless and Bible Black era. The striking duality was not expected as songs like “Industry”or Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 3″ were jarring returns to the King Crimson of old. I have to admit that at the time I was not ready quite ready for such unplugged trip in a time when I was just starting to dig into electronic music. Over time I would learn to appreciate the last half of the album to the point of exploring its inspiration.

Those tracks that feature Belew’s vocals against songs very much like those on Beat were my favorites. The title song, “Model Man” and “Man With An Open Heart” are tightly constructed around Levin’s bass playing and Fripp’s guitar. The song “Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds)” was one of the albums more accessible instrumentals. Due to it being on the “right side”, I always wondered if it might have been the only track without Belew’s vocals that the band truly worked together on.

Three of a Perfect Pair marks the end of an era in many ways. It was as if the band decided at some point that they would withdraw from any progress they made towards mainstream acceptance gained with Beat with this conflicted release. Shortly after the release of Three of a Perfect Pair, the band went into a hiatus and re emerged a few years later with a new line up and sound (once again). A re-issue in 2001 added a third side to the album, living up to its namesake. Despite having two and then three sides, it’s really the first one that made this album special to me.


Closer – Joy Division (1980)

Closer album cover

Closer album cover

If you were like me, when you first heard New Order, you might have been compelled to go backwards in their catalog to see how their sound evolved with time. For  New Order, tragic circumstances (the suicide of Ian Curtis) prompted new beginnings as Joy Division. Despite the name, Joy Division was about as far from joy conceptually as you could get musically.
The dire sound of the band was one of the important elements in defining goth and darkworld culture in rock. The gateway to that style of music for me was Closer, the third and final Joy Division album.

Closer has the kind of post punk bleakness that would launch 1,000 black trench coats. In my freshman year at the Columbus College of Art and Design, it seemed that all the upper classmen were already hip to the dark sounds of Joy Division – especially the fine art majors. Everyone seemed to have trench coats because Columbus could get so freaking cold from November to April!
Although the artist types with their big coats would hate to admit it, Closer was by far the most accessible of all the Joy Division albums. It was also the most varied and as such the most enjoyable. Ian Curtis’ drone of a voice could be a bitter pill to swallow in the mostly grey days of Columbus, Ohio, but the variety of songs on Closer gave it a dimension missing on earlier more had core Joy Division albums.

Closer had bits of techno dance (“Isolation” and “Decades”), gothic rock (“Passover”), and industrial rock (“Colony”). Most striking is that Ian Curtis’ mono tonal vocal style could blend into new wave, punk or shoegauzer rock. This may have been why the album influenced so many diverse sub genes that blossomed during the ’80s.

The Factory label that Joy Division releases were distributed on was the cool underground label of the early ’80s with elaborate cover art used for its acts. Closer was no different as it cover featured a vaguely neo classical still life designed by Peter Saville. Like 4AD, Factory was careful to evoke the feeling of Joy Division’s music with etherial cover art.

Some of Closer’s gloom would spill over into the first few New Order EPs with some of the songs pre-dating Curtis death. The dark melodic path New Order took was a natural progression of the Joy Division sound. When New Order chose Quincy Jones’ Quest label for US distribution, it was clear that they band was moving even further from the gloom of Joy Division and more into the realm of what we know as modern techno dance music.

My old trench coat no longer fits like it once did, but there will always be a dark spot in my heart for gloom of Joy Division’s Closer.


Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – The Sundays (1990)

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic album cover

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic album cover

There was a time shortly after college where I worked a dead-end part-time job in a mailroom for a major credit card processing center. It was boring and monotonous work, but allowed me a chance to listen to music as machines hummed in the background – spitting out Sears and Discover card bills.

The work was far from where I saw myself in school as a designer for some downtown agency and for anyone else it might have created real gloom. I simply used it as an excuse to dwell in melancholy. During such moments. the simulated sad soundtrack that was my mix tapes would inevitably land on the occasional song by the Sundays.

By 1991 the London via Reading, England based quartet was the darling of the indie rock scene. Produced by the band with Ray Shulman, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, named for the band’s hometown was an impressive debut. Their somewhat light breezy hooks and delicate rhythms connected with fans of The Smiths, while not offering any of the sarcasm or perverse wit.

Despite a rather sad overall tone, Harriet Wheeler’s voice was always light and floaty (if not always cheery), in much the way the dreamy sounds of the Innocence Mission defined a whole scene of unplugged melancholy. Many of the songs were mid tempo and contemplative as dream pop usually is. Nearly all of them were written by the band’s guitarist David Gavurin.

The Sundays scored hits with The Smiths-like jangle of “Here’s Where the Story Ends”, “You’re Not the Only One” and “My Finest Hour” . In their native England Reading, Writing and Arithmetic reached #4 on the album charts. Over here it cracked the top 40 and was featured often on the growing Modern Rock format in America. My favorite track “Joy” featured an interesting rhythm against a syncopated guitar. It was the kind of song that broke the casual mid tempo vibe of an almost sleepy record.

With a sound nestled somewhere between the Cocteau Twins and The Cranberries, The Sundays were the perfect sound for the time. For me, the optimistic gloom of their classic drums, bass and guitar sound was just the thing to get me through another day in the mail room. Fortunately the mail room job would not last too long beyond the band’s second release Blind that came a few years later.


Homosapien – Pete Shelley (1981)

Homosapien album cover

Homosapien album cover

As children we can be influenced by a great number of things. Growing up in the 80s, I was fascinated by all the new consumer electronic gadgets. So when I saw the cover of Pete Shelley’s Homosapien, I was intrigued.
The photo featuring the former Buzzcock leader in a white suit in a room with a Commodore Pet computer and the requisite pyramid certainly fit in with the 80s view of what the future would look like. The video for the title song featured Shelley in his white suite with all these future things. This may have been one of the first music videos that featured the now cliche vertical blind shot. The ’80s seemed obsessed with them. With the exception of making Levelor mini-blinds a hot item, the album’s impact was small enough in America to land it in the discount bin only a year or so after its release.

I considered it a lucky break that an album featuring a current hit could still be in the cut out bins of my local mall record store. It was 1982 and the song “Homosapien” undergoing a second life thanks to waves of new subscribers to MTV like my household. In some ways I look back on Pete Shelley as a product of an alternate musical universe. A universe where someone like Mitch Easter had gone electronic instead of jangle pop. That’s what Pete Shelly’s Homosapien of 1981 sounded like to me in retrospect.

Electronic pop rock was still in it’s infancy, so former punks like Pete Shelley were converting to the new sound. Disco people were already rocking electronic music thanks to Giorgio Moroder’s long list of Donna Summer collaborations. The process of taking the next step required early pioneers to jerry rigg their own instruments, like Shelley’s custom-made oscillator.  Produced by Martin Rushent, who would go in to fame with the Human League’s Dare, Homosapien happened because Shelley wanted new musical direction and the punk baggage of The Buzzcocks got in the way.

Shelley’s shrill voice and hyper tempo was certainly more punk than new wave, but his mix of new fangled drum machines, synthesizers and sequencers was fresh, yet familiar thanks to the heavy use of guitars. The albums only US hit, the title song was banned in England due to it’s reference to homosexual sex.
As a child, I had just assumed that all English artist were something close to gay, but not in a bad homophobic way. Shelley’s revelation of bi-sexuality likely did not help in mainstream America, but may have been instrumental in his success on the underground dance charts.
The video for “Homosapien” was popular on the then young MTV, mostly I suspect because so few conceptual music video existed in 1981. It would be years later that I learned to appreciate Homosapien beyond its one hit wonder status.

While obvious nods to electronic music were evident, it’s the surprising wall of noise guitar arrangements heard in “Witness the Change” and “It’s Hard Enough Knowing” that would foreshadow the Cocteau Twins or Echo and the Bunnymen. These songs like the second single “I Don’t Know What It Is” were pretty much lost on American audiences.

And to think that “Homosapien” almost became part of another Buzzcocks album. Shelley’s lust for pop fame may have been that of a one hit wonder, but he may have laid the foundations (unknowingly) for the distinctive twin guitar sounds for future shoegazers.


From Langley Park to Memphis – Prefab Sprout (1988)

From Langley Park to Memphis cover

From Langley Park to Memphis cover

I had pretty much worn out my LP of Prefab Sprout’s Two Wheels Good (my first LP ever to be damaged by too much use!), so when “From Langley Park to Memphis” was released just a few years later, I was ready for the next evolution of their unique sound.

During this period of the band’s career they were transitioning from the scruffy folk pop of the past to more lush pop and were on the verge of becoming pop stars. In sharp contrast to the folk pop rock of their masterpiece Two Wheels Good, their third album would point to Americana with all the musical styles that make Yankee music so intriguing to the rest of the world. With production team that included Thomas Dolby and band leader Paddy McAloon and others, “From Langley Park to Memphis” would try to make an appeal to everyone with rock, soul and even gospel wrapped up in Paddy McAloon’s emotive vocals. It also marked the beginning of lush orchestral arrangements that would underline the production of future albums.

While the approach may have diluted Prefab Sprout’s initial trademark style, it ironically produced the band’s biggest hit, the Dolby produced “The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll”. That song was huge in England (#7) while other singles like”Cars and Girls” did modestly well in America. There were five singles in all (all released in England). For the first time in the band’s career they were being played on American top 40 radio stations and it looked like they just might become proper pop stars.

Of course were’s talking Prefab Sprout, a band whose lyrical tendencies tend to be high brow thanks to McAloon’s English Literature degree. Clever song writing and challenging arrangements seldom sore big in America where radio programmers prefer what sounds familiar. But with “From Langley Park to Memphis” warm familiar musical styles ranging from show tunes, gospel to an Micheal Jackson beat reminded old fans that Prefab Sprout could mask any clever songwriting in infectious pop.

This is an album that should have been all over the radio, but wasn’t. “Enchanted” featured a Billy jean like beat while “I Remember That”, one of the album’s highlights featured Andrae and Sandra Crouch in a rousing gospel finale. The track “Nightingales” was capped off by a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. Pete Townshend appears on the album also, but its contribution acoustic guitar on to “Hey Manhattan” is buried in the mix. The song recalls the wonder of NY to first time visitors with the vigor of a show tune. Even the slow songs like “Nancy” and “The Venus of the Soup Kitchen”had a kind of happy and familiar warmth to them.

By Prefab Sprout’s own high standards, From Langley Park to Memphis wasn’t the album they may have wanted to make as a follow-up to Two Wheels Good. The band actually recorded Protest Songs right after Two Wheels Good, but did not release it until 1989, a year after From Langley Park to Memphis. That album sounded hallow by comparison, mostly because it sounded like it was recorded on the fly and Thomas Dolby was not involved.

The follow-up Jordan: The Comeback, would be Prefab Sprout’s mid-period masterpiece. By refining the formula of From Langley Park.. the band returned to critical acclaim while making a small dent on the pop charts at the same time.


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