The Art of Moving On

Generally speaking, rock bands really don’t last very long without members leaving (or dying) mostly due to an inability to play nicely with others. (Although ZZ Top and U2 might tell you otherwise.) Living, working and traveling with a bunch of dudes is like being married to several others at the same time. Needless to say, whenever bands are involved, there are going to be issues that lead to breakups, firings and the like.

Sometimes, the people who quit (or are fired from) a band use that event as the inspiration for a new song. Today, we’re going to visit five of these departures, all of which have inspired a song based on the split.

Jack Bruce
“Theme For An Imaginary Western”
From Songs For a Tailor (1969)

Representative lyric:

“Oh the dancing and the singing
Oh the music when they played
Oh the fires that they started
Oh the girls with no regret”

For a couple of years in the pre-Led Zeppelin late 1960s, no touring blues-based rock band was bigger than Cream. Labeled (perhaps unfairly, to their ultimate detriment) as the first “super group,” the trio of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were certainly a volatile combination. Actually, Bruce and Baker were the ones who couldn’t get along with each other, an issue that predated the band by several years, when both were unknowns in the thriving London jazz and blues scene.

So in 1969, with the band now defunct, Bruce released his first solo album, Songs For a Tailor, which included his most famous song (outside of Cream), “Theme For An Imaginary Western.” The melancholy track was the fitting tribute for what happened next; the album peaked at #55 on the charts, while Clapton and Baker’s new band, Blind Faith, released an album (the only one, it turned out) that topped the charts for two weeks that September.

Trivia: “Theme” was covered by Mountain at the original Woodstock festival and was featured on their debut album the following year.

Joe Walsh and Barnstorm
“Rocky Mountain Way”
From The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get (1973)

Representative lyric:

“And we don’t need the ladies
Crying ’cause the story’s sad, uh huh
Rocky Mountain Way
Is better than the way we had”

Joe Walsh got his start with Cleveland-based James Gang, a power trio whose first three albums are considered classics by students of the genre. A few tracks, namely “Funk #49” and “Walk Away” are still classic rock radio staples (not to mention at Eagles concerts years later after Walsh replaced Bernie Leadon). Unhappy about having to shoulder the load of being the vocalist as well as sole guitarist (not to mention primary composer), Walsh quit the Gang and ended up in Colorado to ponder his next move.

Starting fresh with a new band named “Barnstorm,” Walsh wrote “Rocky Mountain Way” about the freedom he felt not being constrained by the limitations of his old band. Unfortunately, he eventually felt victim to the strain of being “on his own,” so when the Eagles offered him a place in the band two years later, he happily accepted.

Trivia: “Rocky Mountain Way” was the first hit featuring the “talk box,” a device later made famous by Peter Frampton and Bon Jovi, among others.

Peter Gabriel
“Solsbury Hill”
From Peter Gabriel (1977)

Representative lyric:

“So I went from day to day
Though my life was in a rut
Till I thought of what I’d say
And which connection I should cut”

Genesis, in its original incarnation, was a cult band. A large one. Toe tappers like “The Return of the Giant Hogweed,” “The Battle of Epping Forrest” and the epic 23-minute “Supper’s Ready” all but guaranteed that they weren’t played with any regularity on rock radio; the band made mark on stage. Which meant life in the band was a Groundhog Day of writing, recording, rehearsing and touring. Vocalist Peter Gabriel was the face (and figurehead) of Genesis for the first half of the 1970s, and midway through the decade when he needed to call time for family health purposes, it looked like it was all over for the prog band.

While no ill will occurred between the members during the transition, when Gabriel stepped away from the band, and in true musical chairs fashion drummer Phil Collins stepped up the microphone and the show went on. Both acts – the Collins-fronted Genesis as well as solo Gabriel quickly eclipsed the success of the original band in terms of sales as well as airplay. Peter Gabriel’s first album, released two years after his exit, contained “Solsbury Hill,” featuring (mostly) an unusual 7/4 time signature, was his musical account of walking away from Genesis. No word came from his former bandmates, at least until Phil Collin’s memoir was released in late 2016.

Trivia: Peter Gabriel’s first three albums were all titled “Peter Gabriel.” Fans have differentiated them by nicknames; “Car,” “Scratch” and “Melt” due to the artwork.

Tommy Shaw
“Lonely School”
From Girls With Guns (1984)

Representative lyric:

“I’ve changed so many of my ways
I left the band, steadied my hand, learned a trade”

In the late 1970s, it was hard to find a band larger (or more popular) than Styx. After slugging it out for over a decade, the Chicago-based outfit finally hit the big time with The Grand Illusion in 1977. Illusion and the three albums that followed (Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone and Paradise Theatre) each sold more than three million albums, being the first band to achieve this sales figure consistently. But in 1983, leader Dennis DeYoung’s dramatic concept album conceit, Kilroy Was Here alienated the fans and created resentment from other members, notably guitarist Tommy Shaw.

At one point during the Kilroy tour cycle, Shaw was said to have “hurt his hand on a hotel room window, resulting in the postponement or cancellation of several shows. (Note to any budding publicists reading this: No rock star has EVER hurt his hand on a hotel room window. Just tell the truth – he was increasingly unhappy and drowned his sorrows with copious amounts of booze and blow, and locked himself in his hotel room, only allowing in his pusher, room service and selected groupies to enter.) Anyway – on his second solo single after leaving Styx, Shaw told the musical story of his frame of mind after his departure. Although Girls With Guns with a moderate success, all of Shaw’s subsequent solo releases went nowhere.

Trivia: After the failure of his third solo album, Shaw bounced back with the 1990 super group Damn Yankees, featuring Ted Nugent, Jack Blades and Michael Cartellone.

Steve Perry
“Running Alone”
From Street Talk (1984)

Representative lyric:

“Everyone’s a hero, if you want to be
Everyone’s a prisoner, holding their own key
Every step I take, every move I make
Always one step closer, I don’t mind running alone”

Like Styx, Journey was a hugely popular act in the late 1970s into the mid 1980s, with hit singles, platinum albums and huge concert tours. Despite outward appearances, by the end of 1983’s Frontiers tour, the core of Journey was rotten. How much of that was due to vocalist Steve Perry – a singer with the reputation of being difficult to deal with (to put it mildly) – is unclear, but for all intents and purposes the band had splintered by that time. So Perry, unsure whether to continue on with Journey or go solo, asked his mother, Mary Perry for council. (She’s “Mary” who is referenced in the song.)

So, Perry went ahead and released his hugely successful Street Talk album (remember “Oh Sherrie?”), and mom, not wanting to steer her darling boy wrong, advised him to return to the band that made him famous. Perry did so, but took dictator-like control of the next album, Raised on Radio, and kicked out long-time drummer Steve Smith and founding member, bassist Ross Valory in the process. Radio proved to the swan song for the band; Perry walked away at the end of the tour in early 1987. He released a second solo album in 1994 and even reformed Journey in 1996 for a new album, but in a déjà vu moment, he walked away, leaving the group in limbo once again. Little has been heard from him in subsequent years; he has truly become the Howard Hughes of the classic rock era.

Trivia: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Belivin’” is the largest-selling digital single from the pre-digital music era.

Music From The Great White North!

Eh, hoser, you think you know a thing or three about Canadian rock?

Those neighbors upstairs sure know how to party!

If you’re only familiar with the platinum artists like Rush, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Triumph and Loverboy, then you’re for sure missing out on scores of B-level (and C, D and E- level, all the way down to Zed-level) artists from the Great White North. Canada has been a fertile ground for delivering classic artists since the 1960s. Early pioneers include the critic’s darlings Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Robbie Robertson and Gordon Lightfoot, among many others.

One thing about Canadian rock is that there is a great musical variety. (But technically isn’t that the case everywhere?) OK, so the music scene is no better or worse in Canada than anywhere else. (It’s just colder up there and they drink more beer.) That said, the artists that broke through at some level and filtered south were a diverse bunch: There were pop/rock one-hit wonders (Glass Tiger)*, hard rock posers (Aldo Nova), sensitive singer/songwriters (Sarah McLachlan), early MTV synth-pop favorites (Men Without Hats), bands with names that mean nothing except to the most geographically-sophisticated Americans (Chilliwack), singers who never surrender the right to wear their sunglasses at night (Corey Hart) as well as dreadful artists you’re sorry you ever heard of because psycho ex-girlfriends found life-altering meaning in the lyrics and ended up stalking you (Alanis Morissette).

77% of the world’s maple syrup supply is sourced from Canada.

Wow. So today, let’s talk about three songs that made some noise in the lower 48. Unfortunately, these acts weren’t able to deke it out with their American and British counterparts and become household names. Funny thing about radio airplay (at least back then); many stations didn’t play these types of bands during daylight hours, but slotted them in later, after 9 pm or so. I have memories listening to these musical Canuks on my local radio station (WRKI I-95, Brookfield, CT – the home of rock and roll!), late at night with headphones, all while dreading the math test I had to take the next morning, no doubt.

So put on your toque, grab a Tim Horton’s donut and a double/double, put a two-four of Molson in the snow and head’r to the Great White North!

*I don’t want to instigate a kerfuffle, but, I know Glass Tiger had more than one hit. But I defy you to name any of their songs besides “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)!”

Red Rider –“ Lunatic Fringe”
From As Far As Siam

Led by guitarist/vocalist Tom Cochrane, Red Rider achieved considerable fame in Canada, but never made it beyond cult status down here. Between 1979 and 1984, the original band released four albums, each of which spawned at least one tune that had some success south of the border. Red Rider’s enduring song, “Lunatic Fringe” which is included on the 1981 release, As Far As Siam, is a cautionary tale about the rise of anti-Semitism.

After the initial success following its release, “Lunatic Fringe” showed it still had some life left in it, judging from its inclusion in the television series “Miami Vice” as well as the 1985 film “Vision Quest.” “Lunatic Fringe” remains a staple of classic rock radio to this day.

Trivia: Red Rider bassist Jeff Jones was a member of a pre-Geddy Lee version of Rush in 1968, playing alongside guitarist Alex Lifeson and original Rush drummer John Rutsey.

(Self serving) trivia: I saw Red Rider open for The Kinks at Madison Square Garden in the early 1980s.

Prism – “Don’t Let Him Know”
From Small Change

Prism started life as an obscure band in the mid-1970s, and pretty much spent its entire career in that zone, in America, at least. The band had several albums to their credit, but never broke through. They brushed the top 100 on a few occasions, most notably with “Don’t Let Him Know” (co-written by a then-unknown Bryan Adams), which just made it into the Top 40, peaking at #39 in early 1982.

Tragically, lead singer Ron Tabak died in late 1984, putting an end to the band’s career. One of the founding members, Bruce Fairbairn, made a name for himself as the producer for many of the era’s best-selling albums, working with artists including Loverboy (Loverboy, Get Lucky, Keep It Up), Bon Jovi (Slippery When Wet, New Jersey), Aerosmith (Permanent Vacation, Pump, Get A Grip), AC/DC (The Razor’s Edge, AC/DC Live), Scorpions (Face The Heat), Van Halen (Balance) and many, many more. Another Prism alum, Jim Vallance, became Bryan Adam’s songwriting partner, penning most of Adam’s best-known songs. Vallance also co-authored a few later-day Aerosmith classics (isn’t “later-day Aerosmith classic” an oxymoron?), most notably “Rag Doll.”

Trivia: “Don’t Let Him Know” was fellow Canadian Bryan Adam’s first involvement with a record that made the Billboard Top 40 Singles chart.

(Art major) trivia: The artwork for both the Small Change album and the single featured Norman Rockwell’s 1954 painting, Girl at Mirror. Rockwell didn’t live to see this appropriation of his work; he died five years before its release.

April Wine – “Sign Of The Gypsy Queen”
From Nature Of The Beast

April Wine was Canada’s version of Boston, a quintet that delivered hook-filled melodic hard rock music with plenty of guitars and vocal harmonies. Like so many of their fellow Canadians, they were huge in their native land, but only had minimal success in the States. Best known for the power ballad “Just Between You And Me,” the Miles Goodwyn-fronted unit also scored an FM radio hit with “Sign Of The Gypsy Queen,” which, like “Between,” was taken from 1981’s Nature Of The Beast.

The band slugged it out for a few more years before Goodwyn called time and ended up in the Bahamas. After spending a few years sipping tropical drinks on the beach and missing the business, he traded the sun-soaked island for the tundra life once again and now divides his time between performing with a reformed April Wine and his solo career, along with his side hustle of composing film scores.

Trivia: “Sign Of The Gypsy Queen” was one of the few April Wine songs not composed by Goodwyn. It was written by Lorence Hud. (Who?)

(Naming) trivia: The two words that comprise the band’s name don’t have any special meaning; the band simply felt they “sounded good together.”  For sure!

Three Unlikely 1980s #1 Hits That I Really Like

Sure, I’m more of a hard rock and metal guy, but do possess the ability to appreciate a classic pop song when I hear it. It’s all about the hook, melody and performance, and in some cases, the music video. Today, I discuss three hits that contain all of the above elements. And in two cases here (NOT Chicago, however), the videos are state-of-the-art.

So here are three #1 pop hits of the 1980s I’ve always liked. All of them have staying power, as aptly demonstrated by continued airplay on adult contemporary radio and/or successful cover versions.

Roxette – Listen To Your Heart
Look Sharp! (1988)
#1 for one week – 10/29/1989 through 11/4/1989

Roxette – no turntable required!

Sometimes the Swedes can do what others can’t. For one thing, they (like Switzerland) were able to stay the hell out of the way of World War II (for the most part). And if they didn’t invent the affordable-chic Euro assemble-it-yourself furniture superstore that also serves meatballs in gravy, they sure did a fine job of stealing and running with the idea. And finally, they produce the only fish that American children will eat.

But as far as music is concerned, it’s entirely another story. Apart from ABBA and Europe (that’s Europe the band, as in “The Final Countdown”), Swedish music has been avoided like husmanskost by those of us in America. But apparently in the underside of Scandinavia, there has always been a thriving music scene. Problem is, most of what happens in Sweden stays in Sweden. (When was the last time you heard E-Type on the American airwaves? Me neither.) Predictably, Roxette, a male/female duo that consisted of songwriter/guitarist/sometimes vocalist Per Gessle and vocalist Marie Fredriksson (and their great hair) were having trouble getting noticed outside of the polar region.

As the story goes, Look Sharp!, Roxette’s second album was brought home by an expat college student, he gave it to a friend at a Midwest radio station and the rest is history. Four hit singles (two #1s, a #2 and a #14) were issued from a platinum-selling disc that the American division of the record company initially declined to release over here, declaring the material “unsuitable” for consumption in the States. So much for the experts being experts.

The third single, a power ballad called “Listen To Your Heart” was a tour de force in both hooks and by the powerhouse vocal performance by Fredriksson. Equally stunning was the Doug Freel-directed video, shot in Sweden’s Borgholm Castle, featuring a barefooted Fredriksson belting it out in a skintight dress. Fortunately, Roxette was able to capitalize on this success, releasing several more high-charting singles over the next couple of years, including two more North American #1 hits.

(Slightly) interesting fact: “Listen To Your Heart” was the first Billboard #1 single NOT released on a 7” vinyl record in America. (Remember the “cassette single?”)

(Slightly less) interesting fact: There are three distinct versions of “Listen” – the original album version, the European single and the remixed American single. And that’s not counting live versions released through the years.

Chicago – Hard To Say I’m Sorry
Chicago 16 (1982)
#1 for two weeks – 9/5/1982 through 9/18/1982

Chicago hits #1 in an era of Men At Work and The Human League. Impressive.

Chicago was one of the biggest rock acts of the 1970s. Between 1967-1977, the original septet released eleven albums (nine studio, one live, one hits), all of which reached the top six (top six?) except for the first one. As far as huge albums and singles go, Chicago was right up there with Paul McCartney, Elton John and the Moody Blues, delivering one of the more impressive winning streaks of the era.

Then things went terribly wrong very quickly. In early 1978, guitarist Terry Kath died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot, and even though the band carried with a replacement (albeit an ill-fitting replacement), sales dried up. By the time Chicago XIV was released in 1980, it peaked at #71, spawned zero hit singles and was their first album that failed to go gold. Adding injury to insult, the record company then dumped the band. (But it issued Chicago XV – a second hits package – shortly thereafter.) The 1970s were history – it was a great run, but life goes on. Maybe it’s still not too late to go back to school.

So in 1982, a Chicago comeback looked as improbable as a Cubs World Series win. Yet, under the tutelage of star maker David Foster, the predictably-titled Chicago 16 (apparently a new decade meant ditching the roman numerals) charted in the top ten and the first single, “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” climbed to the top of the single charts.

For better or worse, the song changed the course of the band. Chicago went on to a successful second act starting with “Sorry;” The next three years saw five more singles peak in the top 20, until bassist/vocalist Peter Cetera bolted for a solo career in 1985. His absence did nothing to slow down the gravy train; the band continued to release hit singles until the end of the decade before becoming a legacy band for once and for all. History does not record whether “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” benefited from placement in the long-forgotten 1982 film “Summer Lovers.”

Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse Of The Heart
Faster Than The Speed Of Night (1983)
#1 for four weeks – 9/25/1983 through 10/22/1983

A 6:59 epic filed down to a manageable 4:30

Prior to 1983, Bonnie Tyler, a Welsh singer with a Rod Stewart-style rasp, was considered a one-hit wonder, based on the country-tinged #3 hit “It’s A Heartache” from 1978. Once the single faded from the airwaves, Tyler seemed to be consigned to the club that included contemporaries Nick Gilder, Debbie Boone and Alicia Bridges.

Fast forward to 1982: Tyler, looking to increase her rock cred (or maybe just to try to make a few bucks), hooked up with songwriter Jim Steinman, who was looking for a new voice to replace the no-longer-relevant Meat Loaf. Plotting for her next album, Steinman dictated that several rock covers be included (Blue Oyster Cult, CCR, Ian Hunter) along with some contemporary offerings and two Steinman originals. The most famous one, “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” clocked in at a lengthy seven minutes (although an edit was released as a single.)

Despite topping the chart, subsequent efforts to continue the momentum proved fleeting. Tyler was only able to graze the top 40 one more time with 1984’s “Holding Out For A Hero” from the “Footloose” soundtrack. But her legacy will always be “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” Truth of the matter is that I could do without the “turn around, bright eyes” part, but that’s an integral part of the song. Sure, there are plenty of better singers out there than Bonnie Tyler, but when she gets to “I really need you tonight, forever’s gonna start tonight” at the end of the song, she’s singing like her life depends on it. Something that very few can do. An admirable trait.

Duets: Twice As Nice?

duets
Another November in the 1980s, another #1 duet.

For some bizarre reason, in the mid/late 1980s, a series of one-off male/female duets topped the singles charts in America right around Thanksgiving. Three years in a row; 1985 -1987, no less. What does that say about the 1980s? What does it all mean? Probably nothing.

Duets are a funny thing. In most cases, it’s a one-off attempt to pair two stars hoping for a hit song bigger than either artist could attain on his/her own. (“Enough is Enough,” anybody?) It usually ends up being a terrible song that brings out the worst in both artists (if that’s entirely possible). It also usually has a sum of less than all the parts. And if it’s successful, it ultimately ends up on “Time Life presents hits of the 1980s” box set infomercials hosted by Air Supply.

d2
Does anybody REALLY like duets?

So carve the turkey, pass the mashed potatoes and cue up some duets!

“Separate Lives” (1985)
Phil Collins & Marilyn Martin
From The Movie “White Nights”

In 1985, it was hard to find a star bigger than Phil Collins He had a hell of a year: It started out with a duet with Phillip Bailey (“Easy Lover”) that peaked at #2 on the charts. (Damn that Foreigner band and “I Want To Know What Love Is”), followed by his No Jacket Required monster album, three more top ten singles. (Two of which hit #1.) He also guested on “Miami Vice,” performed at Live Aid (both the London and Philadelphia concerts) and produced and played on Eric Clapton’s Behind The Sun. (OK, the guy was a workaholic and no wonder he’s thrice divorced, so read his memoir Not Dead Yet to find out all the sordid details.)

After the third No Jacket Required single (“Billy Don’t Lose My Number”), he released a non-Jacket song – a duet with Marilyn Martin (who?) from the overly-long Taylor Hackford film, “White Nights.” (Actually, the phrase “overly-long Taylor Hackford film” is redundant.) I did see the movie in college; the only thing I remember about the film was Baryshnikov attempting to flush his passport down the airplane toilet when he realized the plane was going to make an emergency landing in the Soviet Union. (Ah, the Reagan years.)

“Lives” became of the first of two #1 hits from “White Nights” – “Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Richie occupied the top slot a few weeks later. But things just got bigger and better for Phil: His No Jacket Required album lobbed off another hit (“Take Me Home”) and by the time “Lives” topped the chart, he was busy working on Genesis’ Invisible Touch album, which would have hit after hit released from it. (Not to mention two more #1 hits from “Buster,” another solo success, another Genesis album…)

As for Marilyn Martin, she got the “John Parr” treatment in the music world – both artists had a huge soundtrack song and one lesser hit and all future attempts never went anywhere commercially. She released a solo album the following year and had a minor hit with “Night Moves” (not the Bob Seger song), coincidentally co-written by the aforementioned John Parr. Today, she’s a full-time realtor in Nashville and pursues music on the side.

Fun fact: “Separate Lives” was not a Phil Collins original; it was written by Stephen Bishop. Bishop, a songwriter and performer, had a few minor hits in the 1970s; however he best remembered for being the “Charming Guy With Guitar” in 1978’s “National Lampoon’s Animal House” who drew the ire of John Belushi’s Bluto character.

“Next Time I Fall” (1986)
Peter Cetera & Amy Grant
From The Album Solitude/Solitaire

Traveling further down this awful road, you’ll find 1986’s contribution to the duet process. Freshly departed from the high-flying Chicago (and newly-minted solo artist) Peter Cetera followed up his #1 hit “The Glory of Love” (from “The Karate Kid II”) with another #1, “The Next Time I Fall.” His duet partner was Christian pop vocalist Amy Grant, who was attempting to break into the (far more lucrative) secular music market.

The result was another hit for Cetera and the introduction of Amy Grant to mainstream pop America. This cumulated (five years later) in Grant’s “Baby Baby,” perhaps the worst #1 of the era. (And that includes hits by Paula Abdul and MC Hammer.) The less said about Amy Grant, the better!

“(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” (1987)
Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes
From The Movie “Dirty Dancing”

Worse of all was “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” from 1987’s “Dirty Dancing.” Performed by Bill Medley (50% of The Righteous Brothers) and Jennifer Warnes (who had a 1982 duet hit with Joe Cocker), the song (along with the move and its soundtrack) became a huge hit in the Fall of 1987.

For some strange reason, the entire “Dirty Dancing” phenomenon (remember that?) had staying power and became a bigger deal than anybody could’ve anticipated. Fortunately, I never saw it in its prime. (Reminds me that I never saw the Broadway play “Cats” either. A girl I was dating in college in the 1980s wanted to take me to see it – now and forever – on my birthday, but mercifully we had a fight and we ended up not going. There IS a God!!)

But one unfortunate night the following year or so, I was doing nothing on a Saturday night and noticed that “Dirty Dancing” was on one of the cable channels (Showtime or Cinemax, I imagine) at my parent’s house (where I was living at the time), so I opted to watch the movie.  The only reason was because it had such an impact on popular culture that I felt I should see it to understand what everybody was talking about, but also because there was nothing else going on that particular Saturday night.

Unfortunately, the movie was so “lowest common denominator” and totally dumbed down by piling on cliché upon cliché that I never forgave myself for watching it. Ugh, that was 100 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back. Worse – there were a few more hits (“Hungry Eyes” and a second act of “Do You Love Me?)” from the film. The torture took a long time to go away.

The Famous Final Scene

ffsGreat music and movies go together like, well, great music and movies. More than a few of the most iconic songs of the rock era began life as soundtrack music, including “Rock Around the Clock,” “Help!” and “Eye Of The Tiger,” among many, many others.

Of course, there are some bad movies with great music (“Maximum Overdrive”), great movies with bad music (“Dirty Harry”) as well as great movies with great music (“Rocky”). There are plenty of bad movies with bad music – I’m sure the 1991 version of “Robin Hood” starring Kevin Costner, the stiffest actor this side of Terry Kiser in “Weekend At Bernie’s” was just as dismal as the Bryan Adams hit it spawned. (Unless you happened to be in a coma in most of 1991, you know what I mean.)

One of the most effective places to put a centerpiece song is at the outset of the film, right before the credits roll, or perhaps during. (Sorry kids, but Celine Dion didn’t invent that trick in “Titanic.”) You figure people have just sat through the entire film, so why not give them the hit song they’ve all been waiting for? So, without having to sit through a two-hour move, here are three effective film-closing tracks:

The Graduate (1967)
The Sound of Silence (Simon & Garfunkel)

The Graduate is one of those movies either you love or you don’t get it. It stars a not-so-young Dustin Hoffman (aged 30!) as the confused and naïve college graduate who has an affair with the much older Mrs. Robinson. The entire Robinson affair (mainly the hotel room picture) has become an iconic part of American 1960s culture.

The song “The Sound of Silence” has an unusual history. Originally recorded and released in 1964, it was a dismal failure. With no input from Simon & Garfunkel (who had ceased working together after the “lack of success” – a mere 3000 copies sold- of their first album), the song was “beefed up” with additional musicians and rereleased in late 1965, and it become the first #1 hit of 1966.

In the 1960s, it wasn’t common practice to use a “catalog” song in a movie. Further oddities abound here; the same song also serves as the intro music in the movie. And to mess with our heads some more, in some instances it is referred to as “The Sounds of Silence” while in others as “The Sound of Silence.” And just to be further annoyed, the closing track is a heavily-edited version of the song.

Long after “The Graduate,” “Sound” (or is it “Sounds?”)  still had some life left in it; in 2016, heavy metal band Disturbed had a surprise hit with a cover of “The Sound of Silence.” It was 49 years after “The Graduate” and 52 years after it was first recorded.

Repo Man (1984)
Reel Ten (The Plugz)

One of the greatest movies of the 1980s, certainly an all-time cult classic. “Repo Man” starred a pre-Brat Pack Emilio Estevez as a directionless punk rocker turned ace repo man. Like “The Graduate,” you tended ether to love it or not understand it at all. Life of a repo man is ALWAYS intense!

The Plugz were a Latino punk band from Los Angeles, whose biggest claim to fame is for the Repo Man soundtrack. (Their Spanish language version of “Secret Agent Man” – “Hombre Secreto” – is featured earlier in the film.) Unfortunately, the band wasn’t able to capitalize on any notoriety from “Repo Man:” The band broke up right around the time the movie was released.

I remember sitting around with my friends having a few beers and watching this movie every couple of months. The movie never gets old. And I’m STILL fining new stuff I’ve never noticed before!

Less Than Zero (1987)
Life Fades Away (Roy Orbison)

One of the bleakest movies of the 1980s had one of the most slamming soundtracks. Where else could Slayer, Aerosmith, Poison, Joan Jett and The Bangles, among others, peacefully coexist? “Less Than Zero” was a slice of life of the extremely rich and decedent post-high school crowd.

There are several highlights on the soundtrack, but the best is the film’s closing number, “Life Fades Away.” Written by the odd couple of Roy Orbison and Glenn Danzig, the haunting song provided the perfect sonic thrills for the end of “Less Than Zero.”

Tragically, Orbison died on December 6, 1988, exactly 13 months to the day after “Zero” hit the big screen. Eerily enough, the song’s opening lyrics proved to be chillingly prophetic:

My time has come, the clouds are calling
December wind has come my way
And now I feel the will falling
All at once it’s too late
Life fades away

Honorable mention:

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966)
The Ecstasy of Gold (Ennio Morricone)

Although it wasn’t played in the final scene or over the credits, Ennio Morricone soundtrack for “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” must, by law, be mentioned here. In the “Ecstasy of Gold” scene, disparate audio and visual merged into something greater to the sum of the parts. Cinema at its finest! (That sounds pretentious and overly serious, doesn’t it?)

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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Finally allowed to play in America: Today, Nena’s armpits are clean-shaven! Photo by yours truly.

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

The Dreaded “Follow-Up To a Classic Album”

Even the best selling and most beloved rock bands are often unable to maintain the same artistic and commercial standards when it comes to following up a classic album. Gone are the days when this sort of behavior was routine (think The Stones’ hat trick of Let It Bleed/Sticky Fingers/Exile On Main Street). While some less-successful follow-ups have a certain charm of their own (e.g. Led Zeppelin III), others not only fail, but irreversibly damage careers. Here we revisit five follow-ups to classics of the 70s and 80s.

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Roger McGuinn – Back From Rio

backfromrio1991 was a very, very good year for Roger McGuinn. In January of that year, the ex-Byrd guitarist and vocalist was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the other members of the influential 1960s/1970s band. In addition, a four-CD career retrospective box set The Byrds, issued the previous October, was the band’s first charting album in 17 years. And this perfect storm was the opportune time to release his first solo album of new material since 1977.

Known for the mid-1960s pop/rock/folk hits including “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” The Byrds soon embraced a number of styles, including psychedelic rock (“Eight Miles High”) as well as country rock (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”). A dizzying number of lineup changes occurred throughout the band’s nearly decade-long career, which ended (ironically with a full “original band” reunion) in 1973.

In the ensuing years, The Byrds have been cited as an influence on a large array of rock acts, including the Eagles, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, R.E.M., The Bangles and many, many more. Band members occasionally paired up (McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, The Flying Burrito Brothers) and McGuinn released five albums on his own between 1973 and 1977. The McGuinn-Hillman album of 1981 was his last recorded appearance prior to Back From Rio.

Back From Rio was released in January 1991 – timed to benefit from the renewed interest in The Byrds. It relied on the classic sound of McGuinn’s 12-string electric guitar and featured contributions from heavyweights Elvis Costello, Dave Stewart, two ex-Byrds (Chris Hillman and David Crosby), Timothy B. Schmidt, and three of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. The centerpiece of the album, “King Of The Hill,” was a duet with Tom Petty, a long-time admirer of McGuinn. (In fact, their voices are so similar that it’s often difficult to tell which vocalist is singing which verse.) Oddly enough, an “official” video was not produced for “King Of The Hill.”

Peaking at #44, Back From Rio was McGuinn’s highest charting album outside of The Byrds. While the album received wide-spread acclaim critically and was a commercial success, it didn’t provide any career traction and any chance for a hit follow-up was squandered; the next two releases under his name were a late-1991 compilation collection from his 1970s solo career and a live album released in 1996. The next album of new music didn’t occur until 2004; his only notoriety during that period was his Capitol Hill testimony (next to Metallica’s Lars Ulrich!) at 2000’s “Downloading Music From The Internet” hearings. He has, however, performed live fairly consistently throughout his career.

Vital Stats: 

  • Artist: Roger McGuinn (stylized as “McGuinn” on the album cover)
  • Album: Back From Rio
  • Label: Arista
  • Producer: David Cole, Roger McGuinn
  • Released: January 1991
  • Billboard Peak Chart Position: #44

Ceremony – The Cult

the_cult_ceremonyReleased in September 1991, Ceremony, the fifth album by The Cult was the first time in the band’s career that an album wasn’t more successful than its previous one. A perfect storm of factors contributed to this: Band in-fighting, bad timing and a quickly-changing music scene all led to an album that peaked at #25 and quickly was forgotten.

The Cult started life as part of Europe’s alternative wave of the early/mid 1980s. Core members Ian Astbury (vocals), Billy Duffy (guitar) and Jamie Stewart (bass) were joined by a revolving door of drummers. The band quickly became a fan favorite in both America and Britain with “She Sells Sanctuary” off its second album, Love. The follow-up, the Rick Rubin-helmed Electric moved the band away from its alt roots and into the hard rock/heavy metal mainstream. It reached #38 and effectively bridged the gap between the alternative and commercial hard rock worlds.

Electric was followed by 1989’s Sonic Temple, produced by Bob Rock (whose engineering/producing resume included many successful mainstream artists including Survivor, Loverboy, Bon Jovi, Kingdom Come, Krokus and Aerosmith, among many others), Sonic Temple was a top-ten, platinum smash that moved the band into bona fide arena headliner status. It seemed that The Cult had finally made the big time.

The band’s reign at the top was short lived: The first crack in the facade was the sudden departure of Jamie Stewart in 1990. Citing that he was fed up with the constant stress between Astbury and Duffy, he quit the band and was not replaced. Around the same time, touring drummer Matt Sorum jumped ship to join Guns ‘n’ Roses, replacing drug-addled drummer Steven Adler.

The Cult, now reduced to the duo, were faced with these challenges in creating the follow-up to Sonic Temple. In addition, Bob Rock, whose production was an integral part of Sonic Temple’s success, went on to produce two heavy metal classics, both of which peaked at #1 and sold millions of units, Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood and Metallica’s Metallica (a.k.a the Black Album).

Both the Crue and Metallica albums were hits commercially (both peaked at #1) and produced hit singles and hit videos; both bands toured successfully on the strength of the albums. Metallica’s album featured particularly grueling recording sessions, stretching from October 1990 through June 1991, putting Rock out of contention for producing the follow-up to Sonic Temple.

The band elected to use Richie Zito, producer of hits such as Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight,” Cheap Trick’s “The Flame” and Bad English’s “When I See You Smile,” a move that no doubt alienated their fan base. Released on September 24, 1991 (the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind), the band found the marketplace had changed since their last release – it was not very receptive to bands from the 1980s. Instead of a top-ten and platinum success, it settled for a gold album (500,000 units sold) and a peak of #25 in Billboard.

The music on Ceremony? For one thing it lacked the Bob Rock vibe that Sonic Temple benefited from. (Listen to Dr. Feelgood and Metallica a.k.a. The Black Album to hear what Rock brought to these bands.) Instead of going for Rock’s high-gloss sheen, it clearly went for the radio-friendly sound that Zito was famous for.

After Ceremony’s release, things only got worse for The Cult. The band was playing much smaller venues in support of the album; the lack of album sales and concert tickets only furthered the problems between Astbury and Duffy; finally, the family of the Native American boy on the cover of the album (and in the “Wild Hearted Son” video) sued the band and its record companies (Sire in Europe; WB in North America) for $61 million. (The case was eventually thrown out of court.)

The Cult never recovered from the downward slide that Ceremony started. Although the music isn’t a huge departure from the sound that the band was known for, the sterile, commercial production and band in-fighting, burnout and a changing musical landscape all took their toll and led to the band’s dissolutions after the next album. Although the band has since reformed, no albums released since have charted higher than #37 – 12 positions lower than Ceremony’s peak chart position in America. (Note: A UK only compilation, Pure Cult, released in 1993, peaked at #1 in the UK charts.)

Vital Stats: 

  • Artist: The Cult
  • Album: Ceremony
  • Label: Beggars Banquet
  • Producer: Richie Zito
  • Released: September 1991
  • Billboard Peak Chart Position: #25