Listen to this track by Los Angeles new wave Europhiles and future Top Gun soundtrack fixtures Berlin. It’s “The Metro”, a single that was featured on their 1983 album Pleasure Victim. A hair’s breadth just before Madonna, and in the years just after the type of synth-based music that was pioneered by Kraftwerk in the late 1970s, Berlin hit the middle ground with a sort of Americanized version of European new wave, which may explain their band name.
This song was one of their bigger hits, just after their initial international hit subtly titled “Sex (I’m A …)” that had scored a chart placing on the Billboard top 100, but hadn’t cracked the top twenty. This one was always my favourite, their first on a major label (Geffen), and with a sound that captured the essence of the classic synthpop era that would soon disappear in the years that followed.
Yet, even after this song enjoyed its initial success, it would continue to be a signature for a band well beyond the era out of which it came. And it would offer a tale that captures a classic post-punk approach, too – ambiguity.
Listen to this track by blues-rock supergroup and proto-metal progenitors Humble Pie. It’s “Black Coffee” a track as taken from their 1973 double album bluntly entitled Eat It, and presented in this clip from the British music program The Old Grey Whistle Test. This song was a part of a section on the record that featured the band’s interest in R&B covers. This one is from Ike & Tina Turner no less, written and recorded a year previous to this one on their Feel Good album, although Humble Pie’s take features modified lyrics to suit lead singer Steve Marriott’s point of view.
Besides Marriott, the earliest version of the group also included singer and guitarist Peter Frampton, who served as a co-lead singer, also sharing vocal leads with bassist Greg Ridley, late of Spooky Tooth. All three were backed up by drummer Jerry Shirley. But, by the early ’70s, Frampton had left, and Marriott was secured in the role of frontman, with new guitarist Clem Clempson as a lead to Marriott’s rhythm playing.
Marriott would also introduce a new dynamic to the band by encouraging a group within the group who would provide a much-needed counterweight to his searing vocal skills; backing singers! But who were they, and how did they fit in and then change the sound of the band? (more…)
Listen to this track by post-Brit pop quintet from Wigan, The Verve. It’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, the first single from their high watermark 1997 album Urban Hymns. This was a landmark record that helped define an era.
This band formed at the end of the 1980s, building up steam into one of the most critically acclaimed bands in Britain by the end of ’90s. Vocalist and head writer Richard Ashcroft demonstrated his ability to come up with the goods on a songwriting level, while the rest of the band were able to fill out a big sound that brought that writing to life. Guitarist Nick McCabe in particular was instrumental in making the band what it was, returning after a period of estrangement after the completion of their previous record A Northern Soul.
This particular song was a top ten hit in the UK, top 20 in the United States, and with chart showings of similar caliber all over the world. By any measure, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is a singular achievement. But, there was some controversy surrounding its creation and release. (more…)
Bonnie Raitt in the early ’70s (via Bonnie Raitt official site)
Listen to this track by redheaded guitar slinger and roots and blues ingenue turned American music matriarch Bonnie Raitt. It’s “Love Me Like a Man” as taken from her second album Give It Up, released to the world in the summer of 1972, when she was a fresh-faced 22 year old.
Bonnie Riatt is known today particularly for the work she created in the late ’80s and into the ’90s. Albums like Nick Of Time and Luck of the Draw, plus songs like “Something To Talk About”, and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” led to armfuls of Grammies. They also reveal Raitt’s superior command of emotional tone, arrangement, and great chops, even if they were created with a polished, adult contemporary sound in mind. But, her career began well before that work was created, upon a sturdy foundation of the blues.
The idea of “contemporary blues” is off-putting to some. It’s a bit of a red flag for me, if I’m honest. But, this song is certainly one that can be called contemporary although maybe in a different way then one might expect.
Listen to this track by long-standing four-cornered Irish arena fillers U2. It’s “Red Hill Mining Town”, a high point song as taken from their epic-scale 1987 album The Joshua Tree. This song stands in the shadow of some bigger hits on that record, a part of an album that would put them into the stratosphere before the end of the decade.
Among the songs on the record that evoked lofty spiritual quests (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”), the all-consuming turmoil of love as it intersects with pain (“With Or Without You”), and apocalyptic visions that sound like the end of the world (“Bullet The Blue Sky”), this one is a down to earth portrait of a town full of hard-working people in trouble.
And yet, this song by known politically motivated U2 turns out to be not your standard political song at all.
Listen to this track by former Johnny Cash son-in-law and seasoned singer-songwriter Nick Lowe. It’s “The Beast In Me”, a highlight from his career-shifting 1994 record The Impossible Bird.
This record would represent something of a comeback for Lowe, at a time when he’d cut any hope of being a “pop star” loose, and embraced those influences that had inspired him to become a songwriter and musician in the first place instead. One such influence was Johnny Cash, who by the late 1970s had also become his father-in-law, since Nick had married Carlene Carter, Cash’s stepdaughter.
This song was written after the spark of an idea spurred its author to work on a new song well into the night, with the help of three bottles (or so) of wine. The results took a while to gestate, and not without a modicum of pain and embarassment first. (more…)
Listen to this track by college radio darlings and grunge-era forebears The Pixies. It’s “Monkey Gone To Heaven” , a single as taken from their seminal 1989 record Doolittle.
The song made impact on the alternative rock charts with a top ten showing. It scored well in the UK as well, with the NME praising it for, among other things, it’s integrated use of strings with rock instruments. It’s not as if this is the first time this arrangement was employed. But, it was a first for the Pixies, who’d otherwise traded on hard-edged instrumentation; guitar-bass-drums-shouting . Here, those elements are taken to another level in one of their best statements as a band.
The song seems to hold an apocalyptic vision, with oceans, skies, and burning planets right out of the book of revelation. Of course, the numerology section of man as five, the devil as six, and GOD AS SEVEN! helps to create that effect pretty handily all by itself.
But, I think this song is less about lofty cosmology, and more about issues that are far more down to earth. (more…)