Listen to this track by former Royal Academy of Music student and jazz/pop/Latin mixologist Joe Jackson. It’s “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)”, a smash hit single as taken from the 1984 album Body and Soul.
That album was the follow up to 1982’s Night & Day, a record on which Joe Jackson scored a number of hits along with critical acclaim as he was getting himself off of the new wave merry-go-round. But if that previous record was a cellar club date played by a small group of pop-oriented jazzheads with Latin percussion leanings, then Body and Soul is the Broadway show of the same kind of sound.
The crucial thing that made this song notable is just how up and positive it is, even if Jackson was known up until this point for his sardonic tone. That theme of empowerment runs right through the record, almost like it’s a soundtrack to a musical that was never produced. As the years have gone by and with all of that sparkly optimism found in this tune even now, I’ve wondered about who this song was really directed towards; us the audience, or Jackson himself? Read more
Listen to this track by glam-pop new wave dandies and top ten selling merry-makers Adam & The Ants. It’s “Antmusic”, a smash hit single as taken from their second LP Kings Of The Wild Frontier.
This iteration of the band is actually the second of its life. The first version that was formed in 1977 had Adam Ant (nee Stuart Leslie Goddard) backed by a group who would later back away from him entirely at the behest of then-manager Malcolm McLaren. They would go on to form Bow Wow Wow without Adam, with many of the same musical textures guiding their approach. And what was that approach? Well, it was a classic move in post-punk strategy, which was to skip the blues and go right back to Africa. For Adam’s part, and Bow Wow Wow notwithstanding, it worked out very well for him indeed. He formed another version of Adam & The Ants around himself, including guitarist Marco Pirroni who would serve as his co-writer. They would craft a catalogue of hits that became staples on the pop charts in Britain in the early eighties.
This was one of them, and one that crossed the ocean as a herald of their arrival. “Antmusic” is an anthem to their sound, with a streak of rock star arrogance running through it that made it pretty compelling as pure pop music. Besides its echoey guitar, call-to-arms vocals, and insistant two-kit beat, another of the things that gave it such impact was an important understanding of a particular aspect when it came to pop music by the early eighties; tribalism. Read more
Normally, I’d start out a post like this here on the ‘Bin with “listen to this track”. But, my subject wasn’t much of a fan of the Internet. And which track would sum him up? As such, it’s hard to know how to start this. Maybe just a fact will do.
Prince is dead.
At the time of this writing, the details of how it happened remain to be sketchy. It doesn’t really matter. He’s gone, and gone too soon. Twenty-sixteen. What gives? And yet too, the fact that the public all across the cultural divide are in mourning shows just how impactful his time on this planet actually was, even if 57 is no age to die.
The eighties, the decade in which he primarily made his name, is much maligned. Prince made it better. He made it better because there was no one on the scene quite like him and he knew it. Part of the reason that the eighties was a troublesome time for music is because it was during this decade that the walls between genres, between audiences, between black and white and in between, male and female, masculine and feminine, seemed so insurmountable. Rock music had become corporatized, close-minded, and cheesily macho. R&B was banished from MTV. We were all locked up as audiences, at a time when genres of music were like islands, never touching each other, and sometimes even at war. This is another way Prince made those times better. His music cut right through all of that bullshit. Read more
Listen to this track by beloved Canadian blues-rock-art-rock quintet seemingly unknown to the rest of the world, The Tragically Hip. It’s “New Orleans Is Sinking”, an early single off of their second album, 1989’s Up To Here. The song remains to be among their most popular tunes, and a staple on Canadian rock radio even today.
I always remember the story a friend’s sister told me. She was driving with her friends in upstate New York somewhere in the early nineties. In passing a marquee outside a low-rent roadside club that said Tonight: The Tragically Hip, they u-turned with squealing tires, and pulled up to the place in a cloud of dust. At the time in Canada, these guys were filling out stadiums. That to me has always been a telling indication of their success outside of Canada’s borders, which is to say not very widespread comparatively speaking. It certainly couldn’t have had much to do with the music.
This is song that touches on existential ideas, while avoiding being too earnest about it thanks to crunchy and interlocked rhythm and lead guitars, a loping Peter Gunn bassline, and singer Gord Downie’s weird, slightly disturbing delivery. What is the core ingredient to this song, and to the Hip’s early sound? I think it’s the way it straddles at least two approaches to delivering rock music to audiences. Read more
Listen to this song by international citizen and crossover R&B/Hip Hop/dance-pop maven Neneh Cherry. It’s “Buffalo Stance”, her biggest hit and featured on her landmark 1989 album Raw Like Sushi. The song was a smash success all over the world, scoring big numbers on the pop and R&B charts in the US, the UK, and even here in the Great White North.
The song itself is an almalgam of musical styles, and isn’t really affliliated with any one of them. There are some pretty broad strands of musical traditions that can be plucked out of this song. Soul, electro, and hip hop are certainly among them, with those strains of music growing more and more in stature as it was imported from the United States to scenes in the UK where it was also developing domestically by the end of the eighties. I think a lot of post punk textures can be found pretty prominently in here as well, with lots of light and dark textures weaving in and out of each other. Along with all of these ingredients, “Buffalo Stance” proved to be pretty adaptable to all kinds of musical channels, popular as a video, a single on the radio, and certainly in the clubs.
But, what is this song actually about, and what is its real relationship with its singer? It is certainly rooted in ideas about finding common ground, and finding likeminded people with whom to surround oneself. But, it also has an aspect to it that is often missing in pop music that is made to dance to; a political edge.
Listen to this track by three-man “hippie” hip hop crew from Long Island New York, De La Soul. It’s “The Magic Number”, a single as taken from their 1989 landmark album 3 Feet High and Rising. That record would stand as one of the signs that hip hop and rap were branching off in different directions by the end of the eighties, not only in the way that it was musically structured and textured, but also in terms of presentation and persona.
As the gangsta rap of NWA, and the politicized “CNN for black people” approach of Public Enemy began to make headway by that same era of the late eighties, this record was full of bounce and whimsy, referencing source material outside of hip hop’s traditional wheelhouse, including a sample from a song by Johnny Cash (“5 Feet High And Rising”) found on this track that also suggested a title to the album. Despite the off the beaten track musical choices it represents, 3 Feet High And Rising is commonly cited as a record that served as a bridge from the 1980s into the next decade of the 1990s, and a leap further into the mainstream for hip hop in general. Not bad for a debut record.
As innovative as the record is, De La Soul adhered to many of the tenets of the genre that still can be found in hip hop today; self-reference, self-awareness, and breaking down the fourth wall to remind listeners that that are listening to a record made by artists. The innovation part of the equation on this song is connected those ideas to some things that is found in music of all kinds; mystery and wonder! Read more
Listen to this track by British sophisti-pop architects from County Durham, Prefab Sprout. It’s “When Love Breaks Down”, a single released in 1984 and later to be included on the landmark 1985 album Steve McQueen.
As has been well documented by now, the mid-eighties was a transitional period for bands who traded in synthesizers and post-punk guitar earlier in the decade. Along with The Style Council, Aztec Camera, Sade, and others, Prefab Sprout was one of the vanguard in England to adapt that earlier and increasingly dated (at the time, anyway!) sound with more textural and thematic sophistication. They did so by infusing the dynamics of post punk and new wave with warmer and more soulful atmospheres in instrumentation, arrangement, and production values. It even had a name as christened by the music press; sophisti-pop.
This song is one of the greatest examples of that musical movement. This was not just about the elements of jazz pop and soft rock that can be found here. It’s also about the song’s subject matter and how communicating it to an audience stood in contrast to the less emotionally direct styles of songwriting found at the height of the new wave and post punk era. This is a long way from Joy Division. In this new paradigm, it was time for songwriters to face the music when it came to matters of the heart. Read more
Listen to this track by Brisbanite post-punk jangle-poppers The Go-Betweens. It’s “The Streets Of Your Town”, a single as taken from their much-lauded 1988 album 16 Lovers Lane, their sixth album, and their most high-profile and commercially successful, too.
By the time they’d recorded this song, they had made the move back to Australia from London where they had been based for many years, having followed contemporaries The Birthday Party to seek their fortunes in the UK. Ironically, it was their return to their homeland that yielded their best results of the decade, with this song making modest waves on the British charts as well as on the Australian ones, even if those results were respectable rather than the breakthrough success they hoped for.
Despite the lack of commercial traction, the return to Australia had an effect on how the writing came out. From the grey melancholy of London and into the 10-minutes-from-the-beach lifestyle presented by relocating to Sydney, the atmosphere of the album took on a decidedly summery feel. As such, songwriters Grant McLennan and Robert Forster experienced a burst of energy, which can certainly be felt in this song and is the core reason why this album would make such a long-lasting impact. Yet some of the dark clouds that had been so pervasive in London had followed them, mingling with the Australian sunshine, reminding them that time had moved on and perhaps so had they. Read more
One month ago, David Bowie turned 69. At the same time, he released a great album, arguably to be compared to his best ever works.
But, two days later, he died.
I am not over it. Maybe the Internet has moved on. But, I haven’t.
David Bowie helped to shape the world I grew up in. So many musical movements I enjoyed were touched by him. Every weird haircut that I admired was indirectly inspired by him. The very definition of what a man was supposed to be was redefined for me by him. For our generation, manhood (and womanhood too!) became a spectrum of identity along which we became free to move. With that in place, we could decide on the details of what our identities meant for ourselves dynamically instead of holding to some spurious one size fits all ideal. Turn and face the strange, he said! These days, these dynamics are just a given, of course. But, I believe that we have Bowie to thank for a lot of that just because of the impact he had on popular culture with the various masks and personas he wore.
That’s just the thing. David Bowie was as much about redefining how we perceive identity as he was about musically inspiring his peers and followers. In fact, Bowie’s innovation with identity and artifice is entwined with his musical output in such a way that makes either one a facet of the other. What’s come out of that dichotomy between persona and sound simply makes him immortal.
Here are 16 personas that Bowie projected through out his career either by his design or made manifest through our perception as his audience. Which one do you identify with the most? I imagine the answer to that is as varied as there are the number of personas Bowie took on. But, take a look, and tell me what you think.
Listen to this track from former philosophy student turned singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole along with his cadre of musical enablers The Commotions. It’s “Perfect Skin”, their first single and a hit as taken from 1984’s Rattlesnakes. Upon it’s North American release the song would be re-mixed by Ric Ocasek of the Cars.
The song references basements and pavements in a very familiar way, written by Cole in an actual basement while living with his parents who ran a golf club in Glasgow, the same city in which Cole was going to university. The basement mentioned multiple times in this song was an allusion to the one that had appeared in another song, that being Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Maybe by the mid-eighties, source material from Dylan wasn’t exactly in the mainstream spotlight as the embers of new wave were still faintly a-glow. But, the idea of using densely arranged imagery to project the confusion of love and the uncertainty that very often goes along with it has yet to go out of style.
There’s another stream that comes out of all that in this song which is also pretty widely relatable, and taken on by songwriters of all stripes and eras; pursuit of the unattainable. Read more