The Big Bang Theory

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A monster drum Phil.

The 1980s were a LOUD decade, at least rhythmically. So let’s all blame Phil Collins. (Actually, let’s NOT blame him, because it’s not ALL his fault.) Phil Collins is credited for inventing the “gated reverb” drum sound (ironically it was first performed by Collins, but on Peter Gabriel’s third solo album), because it was his single “In The Air Tonight” from 1981’s Face Value (revived in 1985 by plays on Miami Vice) that brought it to the mainstream. Due to that success, along with the proliferation of the Linn Drum in the mid-1980s (look for a future post on that instrument), the drums often became the loudest instrument in many of the era’s classic songs.

Loud drums you say? Two early examples were “Modern Love” (1983) by David Bowie and “Some Like It Hot” (1985) by The Power Station, both of which were performed by the late Tony Thompson. By 1985, even veteran guitar-based acts (Heart – Heart, Eric Clapton – Behind The Sun, Cheap Trick – Standing On The Edge) were releasing albums that stepped up the drum effects (and synths) to bring the sound up to date.

So by October 1986, it was commonplace for drums to be brought up high in the mix. Here are three examples of artists who had seen massive success in the past, but now were struggling to stay relevant by injecting steroids into the drums:

Quiet Riot – The Wild And The Young

After years of L.A. area gigs (and no US record deal), the only notoriety Quiet Riot received was that their star guitarist was poached by Ozzy Osbourne for his post-Black Sabbath gig. (If you don’t know that saga, you really shouldn’t be reading my blog!) Finally getting a break in 1983, the band’s Metal Health album topped the charts, fueled by the turbo-charged Slade cover “Cum On Feel The Noize.” Any goodwill the band got for being the underdog quickly evaporated when vocalist Kevin DuBrow started mouthing off about fellow bands, his contract and pretty much everything else, and the band’s followup album (Condition Critical) sounded like the outtakes from Metal Health. (And included a second Slade cover as the lead single.)

QR’s bassist Rudy Sarzo bailed and fans, contemporaries and even the band’s label turned on them; the band was put on double secret probation by its record label. An attempt to regain composure by becoming more “contemporary” backfired; the resulting album QR III (when in doubt, name your album with a number) flopped. DuBrow was canned shortly thereafter; Quiet Riot has lived on, in one form or another, almost continuously since then.

Billy Squier – Love Is The Hero

For his first release after “videogate” (his misguided 1984 “Rock Me Tonight” video not only sank his career, but was often derided as the worst music video EVER), Billy Squier came back two years later with this drum-heavy rocker, featuring the backing vocals of one Freddie Mercury. In a pre-production meeting for the album, his label insisted his sound become “more contemporary.”

A new producer (Peter Collins, known for his work with Rush and Queensryche) was brought in, and listening to the track today, the label’s request was met. Unfortunately, both the single and album stiffed and Squier’s career as a hitmaker, over.

Chicago – 25 or 6 to 4 (1986 Remake)

Like Quiet Riot and Billy Squier, Chicago found itself in a hole by 1986. After a decade plus-long reign at the top, the band was considered dinosaurs by the early 1980s. A musical makeover turned the once-progressive outfit into slick hit makers, courtesy of producer David Foster. Following a string of huge singles between 1982 and 1985, bassist Peter Cetera – the voice (and face) of all those hits – abruptly quit the band after the successful Chicago 17 tour and launched a successful (for a while, anyway) solo career.

Bassist/vocalist Jason Scheff, all of 24 years old – was hired as Cetera’s vocal doppelgänger and Chicago soldiered on with the creatively-titled Chicago 18. However, in an attempt to bridge the old and the new, the first single by the reconstituted band was a drum-heavy remake of its classic “25 or 6 to 4” – originally a hit in 1970. Although the new version stalled at #48, the band was able to continue its winning streak with subsequent singles, at least for a few more years.

 

The Nena Redemption Part 1

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You don’t have to understand her in order to love her.

For a few weeks in early 1984, Nena was the hottest woman on MTV. Nena (the German band, led by Überbabe Gabriele “Nena” Kerner and rounded out by four pretty-boy German dudes) was riding high on the charts with the doomsday-themed “99 Luftballoons” (a.k.a. “99 Red Balloons,” the English version), which was stuck at #2 behind Van Halen’s “Jump.” In March of that year, the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart in the U.S. was chock full of 1980s heavyweights; Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson, Culture Club, The Police, Huey Lewis & The News as well as the aforementioned Van Halen had era-defining hits in the top ten. All at the same time. (Life was good, wasn’t it?) And so did an unknown band from Germany. No matter how grainy and low budget its video was, “99 Luftballoons” featured the Eurobabe crush de jour. Everybody loved her, cheesy video, armpit hair and all. (My ex-wife is convinced that being born abroad is something I find extremely attractive in women. No comment from here…)

That infatuation lasted about as long as the video played in heavy rotation on MTV. For whatever reason, the band wasn’t able to place another single into the Hot 100 chart. (Scholars have debated this issue for years and still haven’t reached a consensus. The most popular theories: There simply wasn’t enough gas in the tank for another hit; perhaps the band suffered from record company indifference; or maybe the fact that Nena never bothered to shave her armpits before sporting a tank top in the second version of the video – the one with English lyrics – had something to do with it.)

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Today, Nena’s armpits are clean-shaven!

Once her moment (nearly) at the top had faded, and it became apparent that no follow-up hit was forthcoming, Nena became a member of the club that included Toni Basil, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Kajagoogoo – one huge hit and then nothing. (Geez – even the Escape Club was able to place a follow-up single to “Wild Wild West” into the Top 40.) A barely released follow-up album was dead upon arrival in late 1985, so aside from appearing on “New Wave Hits of 1980s” compilation CDs, Nena was a memory of a simpler time, at least here in America. (For the record, Nena has maintained a stellar career in Germany for decades. Hit records – like women with armpit hair – are a completely different story in Europe than they are over here.)

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The email that inspired this entire mess.

Fast forward over 32 years; in July 2016, a concert email promoting Nena’s tour (Nena the singer – the eponymous band broke up in 1987) “99 Luftbaloons Over America” at New York’s PlayStation Theater lands in my inbox. Other than “Luftballoons” surfacing occasionally in iTunes shuffle (imported from the aforementioned 1980s hits CD), few thoughts of Nena have entered my head since Ronald Reagan’s first term. But it was intriguing especially when I heard there were only three North American dates and this is the first time EVER Nena played in America. (Really? Not even on an 1980s nostalgia tour with Tommy Tutone and Katrina & The Waves?) Over the summer, I was in the process of launching this site, buying domains, screen sharing with a WordPress expert in Oklahoma and so forth, so this seemed like a good chance to review the concert as well as the opportunity to write about yet another obscure 1980s album. (Which will be the subject of a future post.)

$46.50 is equal to €43.85.

So I went ahead and bought a ticket. (An interview request was politely declined by Nena’s publicist.) I also downloaded the 99 Luftballoons album and bought the vinyl LP on eBay for autograph purposes. Since the record sleeve is mostly black, I stopped at Staples to pick up two markers that can handle a black background – one silver, one gold. Unfortunately, security checked my bag at the theater and confiscated the markers, claiming they could be used for graffiti purposes. Ugh, that’s eight bucks and change I’ll never get back. (Note to self: Next time, remember to hide all markers in boots.)

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Selfies are the new autographs!

So I entered the theatre and checked out the scene. Despite having one hit almost 33 years ago, there was a decent-sized crowd in the venue. Shortly after arriving, I was walking in the lobby and almost ran into Nena herself! (I have been to hundreds of shows, and never once did I ever see the headliner in the lobby before the show.) Seeing her up close, there was no mistaking who it was, and looked to be average height – 5′ 6″ or so (but was wearing boots that made her look taller). Her handlers were preparing to move her backstage (show time was an hour away), but I managed to get a quick selfie before she was whisked out of sight.

 

 

Nena – 99 Luftballoons Over America Tour 2016
Tuesday October 4, 2016
PlayStation Theatre, New York