Listen to this track by Americana and alt-country rock outliers The Long Ryders. It’s “Looking For Lewis And Clark”, a high point in their 1985 album The State Of Our Union. That album had the band on a major label and seeking a wider audience for their unique brand of punked-up Americana tinged with the brown-sound Woodstock vibe of their influences.
In this, they were ahead of their time, anticipating the alt-country movement that would gain in popularity by the mid-nineties and a full decade after they’d laid this record down. Despite the musical wells they were drawing from that tied them to the songwriting traditions of the past and the sound they foresaw that we’d see as a movement by the next decade, The Long Ryders had a lot to say about the political trajectory of America in the present. They weren’t kidding around with that album title.
There’s a real sense of betrayal to be found on this album and certainly on this song, with the direction of the American narrative taking a turn for the worst. We can all relate to that by now. But this was a particularly heinous thing to this particular band of musicians and songwriters given how important mythic visions of America were to them.
Listen to this track by Akron Ohio-bred cult heroes Devo. It’s “Beautiful World”, a single as taken from their 1981 album New Traditionalists. That release followed up what many consider to be their breakthrough in 1980’s Freedom of Choice which featured their ginormous hit “Whip It”.
This song follows the template set by that release in that it’s full of synthesizer and vocoder textures matched with twangy surf-guitar. Along with that, this song reflects a more pop-oriented approach and a much toned-down experimental side. The lyrics don’t reflect the high-mindedness of some of their earlier work either, full as it was of theories about the devolution of society from which the band get their name.
Even if this is true, this song is no ball of pop cotton candy. As accessible as this song is, and as in line as it is with the new wave sound that was very marketable by 1981, it still has an edge to it that works against its cheery title. Read more
Listen to this track by jangly Wolverhampton post-punk guitar pop representatives The Mighty Lemon Drops. It’s “Inside Out”, a bona fide alternative pop hit as taken from their 1988 album World Without End. The song scored placements on UK and North American charts, mostly championed on this side of the Atlantic by college radio.
The words “Bunnymen” and “Echo and the” were commonly used to describe this band in any given write up about them, now including this one. There are many sonic similarities to help justify their use, maybe. But that’s not the whole story with this band as you listen, particularly with this song which share some of the same musical ties to sixties influences as matched with post-punk ones melodically speaking. Yet they seem to escape the dourness (and Doors references) that I personally associate with Ian McCullouch and his lagomorphic fellows.
These guys made an impact outside of that comparison anyway. After forming in Wolverhampton in 1985, The Mighty Lemon Drops managed to make their mark early on with their inclusion on the C86 compilation, an important document of the era for indie-pop in Britain by the mid-eighties. They had another advantage that carried them past all that, of course; a way with an empathetic anthem. Read more
Listen to this track by low-key new wave Specials splinter group Fun Boy Three. It’s “Our Lips Are Sealed”, a single as taken from their 1983 David Byrne-produced album Waiting, their second and (to date) last. The band consisted of singer Terry Hall, guitarist/vocalist Lynval Goulding, and percussionist and singer Neville Staple, all former members of The Specials who left the ska sound of that band behind in favour of a more spare and post-punk oriented approach.
This song is more recognized in North America by the version recorded by The Go-Go’s in 1981. On the US version of the Waiting album, this song was the lead track perhaps because it was such a recognizable song. But Fun Boy Three came by it pretty honestly, seeing as it’s the product of a writing collaboration between Terry Hall and Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin. In Britain, this version was a bigger hit than the Go-Go’s’ cut, scoring Fun Boy Three a top ten placement on the singles chart in 1983, in part thanks to an appearance on Top Of The Pops on which they performed the song.
“Our Lips Are Sealed” is more than just a writing collaboration between two musicians of course. It’s also a document of something far more personal, with decided contrasts between the two versions of the song that may reveal a thing or two about the points of view of its writers. Read more
Listen to this track by British folk-pop outfit The Lilac Time. It’s “Return To Yesterday”, a single as taken from their 1988 debut The Lilac Time. The band was led by singer-songwriter Stephen Duffy, AKA Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy, one time synthpop solo artist (“Kiss Me”), and (as not everyone knows) a founding member of Duran Duran in their pre-fab five incarnation. He left in 1979.
The Lilac Time owes less to either project than it does to British chamber folk and American-style roots music, both of which are inextricably related of course. The band was formed by Duffy with his brother Nick in 1986, leaving the new wave sounds he once traded in well behind and taking the name of his new band from Nick Drake’s “River Man” (going to tell him all I can/About the plan/Lilac time …”). Musically, the band’s material is very Anglocentric in an age that preceded Britpop by the better part of a decade. The Lilac Time would even release an album on Alan McGee’s Creation label in 1991, although in a trend that would mark this band’s lack of good timing, that would be before Britpop reached its zenith.
One thing that Duffy kept as far as his early career in new wave was a high tension between melody and lyrical themes using a stark contrast between the two as artistic fuel. For instance, this song presents a bouncy, country-ish feel while simultaneously touching on a pretty weighty theme; the future and the loss of innocence where the future is concerned. Read more
Listen to this track by genre-blending post-disco merry-makers Kid Creole & The Coconuts. It’s “My Male Curiosity”, a single that appeared on the 1984 soundtrack album for the Jeff Bridges, James Woods, Rachel Ward film Against All Odds.
“Kid Creole” is a persona of lead singer, bandleader, and creative head August Darnell, borrowing a look from 1930s zoot-suited jazz singers particularly Cab Calloway, pencil moustache and all. The band made a name for themselves as a live act in New York, a city that has a continuing tradition of jazz and Latin scenes that have endured since the 1920s onward. The sound of Kid Creole & The Coconuts is directly inspired by those older traditions, all the while utilizing the rhythms and the attitudes of the newer ones like art rock, disco, and punk. That’s what made them unique, along with Darnell’s theatrical stage presence as backed by a larger scale band and three colourful women backup singers which captured a visual dynamic as well as a musical one.
Otherwise, there’s more to their music than just a lead singer backed up by women singers. There’s a real musical dialogue going on here, particularly on this song. And I think too that it would be a mistake to take what’s being said in this song by its central character at face value. This tune has something to say about relationships, too. Read more
Listen to this track by fiery Torontonian guitarist, singer, and all around blues-rock titan Jeff Healey along with his two compatriots Joe Rockman on bass and Tom Stephen on drums; The Jeff Healey Band. It’s “See The Light”, the title cut and closing track on their 1988 debut record See The Light.
The notable point that critics and fans made about Healey on his debut beyond his blindness was his re-definition on how to play guitar. Playing the instrument more like a piano, he held the chords in an inverted manner, playing the instrument in his lap. That he was able to do this and still completely wail while doing so was akin to trying to figure out how bumblebees fly; that he shouldn’t be able to do it the way he did, but he somehow managed it anyway. This caused something of a sensation, and by the next year Healey and his bandmates would appear as a version of themselves in the 1989 movie Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze, in which Healey’s every line seemed to start with the expositionary phrase “well, word on the street is …”. Otherwise, who but Healey could have played a blind white blues guitarist with such credibility?
Healey would of course carry that credibility over into his music career, during a period when the blues in the mainstream was just coming into its own after a period in the wilderness. This was not simply down to gimmickry, but rather down to something more vital; a consuming interest from the artist as to where the music he played originally came from. Read more
Listen to this track by traditional song enthusiast, singer, and guitarist Nic Jones. It’s “Canadee – I – O”, the lead track as taken from his acclaimed 1980 album Penguin Eggs, a work that is commonly cited as a touchstone that would inspire a whole new generation of traditional folk singers, particularly in Britain. This is to be expected considering how emotionally connected the performances are to the traditional material found on it, rendered not as a scholarly exercise but rather as a labour of love. This is not even mentioning the sound of Jones’ guitar work, which is delicately virtuosic and vital, but also warmly rendered as a recorded element to match his authoritative vocals.
With all of that behind it, this song in particular is lent quite a backdrop for the tale of a maiden at sea with her wayward sailor lover, kept in the hold of a ship so that she can sail away with him. As it may be assumed of an English folk song that takes place at sea, all does not go according to plan, at least not in the way the poor maiden initially hoped.
As it happened, this very same sense of things not going according to plan would run in parallel to the career path of Nic Jones only a few years after this song was recorded. Read more
Listen to this track by top-charting London folk-pop purveyors The Dream Academy. It’s “Life In A Northern Town”, a top ten hit in the US and top twenty in the UK that scored placement on the international pop charts. It’s taken from their 1985 album The Dream Academy, co-produced by singer and guitarist Nick Laird-Clowes and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
The band released three albums. But this song is the one by which they are most widely known, with a gauzy and nostalgic atmosphere that is supported by an undeniable wordless vocal hook that makes it instantly recognizable. They were noted at the time through that song of bucking the pop music system somewhat in terms of arrangements, eschewing the standard synth and drum machine approach popular during the time, and relying on acoustic guitars, tympanies, and Cor Anglais instead. That’s a far cry from the DX7.
Another notable thing about this song was how contrary it seemed to the times in terms of its themes, providing a narrative that stretched wistfully into an idealized past during a period when the world was embroiled in some very present problems. Read more
Listen to this track by Swindonian pop perfectionists and Little England observers XTC. It’s “No Thugs In Our House”, a single as taken from their 1982 double album English Settlement. On that record, writers Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding explore the English identity as could, and perhaps still can, be found in small towns all over the country.
“No Thugs In Our House” appeared in an historic context, with racially motivated violence and the rise of British national parties characterizing the social landscape in Britain in the early 1980s. The National Front in particular was a high profile group that ignited racially motivated incidents and hate speech at the time that began to seep into the public consciousness, poisoning the political viewpoints of many including the young. They framed incoming immigrants as scapegoats. These “foreigners” were supposedly taking all the good jobs, somehow soaking up a disproportionate percentage of social benefits at the same time, and generally encroaching upon traditional (read: white) British culture. In 2016, this brand of propaganda as it covers up austerity measures of sitting governments, and as it provides traction for fringe single-issue groups still sounds pretty familiar.
But, having said all that, I don’t think that white supremacist groups are the target in this song at all. In many ways, the criticism here in this song has more sinister and wider-reaching implications. Read more