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 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 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
Listen to this track by New York-based art rock and new wave quartet Talking Heads. It’s “Psycho Killer”, an early composition that would eventually appear on the band’s appropriately titled 1977 debut album Talking Heads 77 and become its second single.
The song was released in the winter 1977, months after New York City was menaced by The Son Of Sam, a serial killer later revealed to be one David Berkowitz, who claimed that he was driven to kill six young women at the behest of his neighbor’s dog Harvey, who according to Berkowitz, was actually a demon in dog form. Despite this song seeming to be a direct reference to this series of events, the song actually pre-dates them, written in 1974 around the time the band was formed. Maybe it was chosen as a single because of its relevance during a time when psycho killers were on everyone’s mind.
Singer, guitarist, and co-writer David Byrne has been quoted as saying that this song is about the Alice Cooper meets Randy Newman interior monologue of a single, and very pretentious killer. Yet, I think this suggests something beyond that that has more to do with us listeners than it does with any one bad guy. Read more
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
Listen to this track by former Fab Five New Romantic chart toppers from Birmingham Duran Duran. It’s “Ordinary World”, a single as taken from their self-titled 1993 album, often known as The Wedding Album due to its cover. The song was looked upon as a comeback single, helping the band reclaim their place in the top ten all over the world after a period in the desert, commercially and artistically speaking.
By the time this song was written and recorded, Duran Duran were pulling themselves out of a loss of pop chart mojo. Disappointing sales returns from the late-eighties and early into the nineties was one sign of their descent. Another was the loss of their classic line-up that brought them their best artistic and commercial returns. Guitarist Andy Taylor went solo. Drummer Roger Taylor left the music business entirely. Their bedroom wall pin-up status was getting pretty old, too. Their “duranie” fans had grown up, ready for a new decade and with newer bands to appeal to their new levels of maturity. Duran Duran had scored a number of memorable hit singles in the eighties, but by the nineties even these were looked upon as guilty pleasures by many instead of as building blocks to a lasting career. Even the video age that helped birth them into the world-beating hit machine they were was on the wane by the early nineties. Times had changed.
Yet, Duran Duran still had gas in the tank. This song met those new levels of maturity their older fan base demanded, and even enabled the band to re-invent themselves for newer fans. Because all the while, Duran Duran had grown up, too. Read more
Listen to this track by London-born, Deepcut Surrey raised singer-songwriter and original angry young man Graham Parker, along with his crack team of pub rock compatriots, The Rumour. It’s a hot should-have-been-huge single “Local Girls”, featured on Rolling Stone’s retroactively appreciative top 500 albums of all time record Squeezing Out Sparks, produced by none other than Jack Nitzsche, arranger and one-time co-orchestrator to Phil Spectre in the 1960s.
Before his career as a musician with an unbeatable backing band on the pub rock scene in London, Graham Parker was a wanderer, travelling to various places, and working different jobs while his ambitions as a full-time songwriter and touring musician were percolating.
That’s why I think “Local Girls” is less about a disdain for women at bus stops, and more about finding a personal sense of location for a songwriter from a small town.
Listen to this track by Australian post-new wave ambassadors Hunters And Collectors. It’s “Throw Your Arms Around Me”, a hit single off of their high-profile 1986 record Human Frailty, and released earlier as a stand-alone two years earlier.
This song is considered to be a national treasure, being highly regarded as one of the best singles recorded by any band in Australia. It has scored top ten placements in poles for decades after it was re-recorded on the album and put out again as a single. Maybe a part of its appeal is that it’s a love song, although one that adds some lyrical angles that isn’t typical in love songs. Another aspect is that it’s nothing short of an anthem, designed to be sung for and with a live crowd. Listening to it, you can hear the space set apart in the arrangement for the heaving throngs singing along while swaying out in front of stages.
It also hints at something that is certainly resonant to human experience; our ephemeral existence and our call to seize the day. Read more
Listen to this track by mercurial singer-songwriter who likes a good jam as much as the next guy, Bob Dylan. It’s “Jokerman” a cut that is featured on his 1983 record Infidels. On that album, the song is presented in a tasteful reggae-seasoned arrangement. But, Bob being Bob, when it came time to play it on David Letterman in March of 1984, he had other ideas.
Bob was living in Malibu around this time, and still very interested in exploring some musical alchemy with local musicians. I imagine the ride he’d been trying to get off since his early days as a would-be folk-rock messiah had a lot to do with that, trying to stretch himself as a player and a performer as the times were beginning to do some a-changin’ as the eighties began in earnest. Among some of the attendees at Bob’s house jams during this period was bassist Tony Marsico and drummer Charlie Quintana of the L.A punk band The Plugz, the first recognized Latino punk band active in a field of mostly white groups on that scene, and who in fact had gone indie during a time when that wasn’t really a thing yet, forming their own record label. The alchemy Bob sought must have become adequately manifest by their gumption, but also their playing.
In short order along with punkily-monikered guitarist Justin Jesting (aka J.J Holiday) , they were to be Dylan’s backing group on the Letterman appearance. The performance would be both a triumph and a tragedy in equal measure. Read more
Listen to this track by urbanely detached duo and superlative synthpop vectors Pet Shop Boys. It’s “West End Girls”, a smash for them in 1984 as a US club single, and then again in late 1985 as a single released internationally, later to appear on their debut record, 1986’s Please. From there, it would be re-mixed many times, ready for the clubs once again.
This song had made inroads into a musical area that really hadn’t been explored; a synthpop and rap hybrid. Somehow, I’d be hard-pressed to call this a rap tune in the strictest sense. But, one might see why someone might argue that it is, I suppose. It certainly takes its cues from early hip hop records like Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”. To me, it’s more of a spoken word piece, with a big groove behind it, which somehow isn’t the same thing as a flat out hip hop record. It’s actually much closer to Isaac Hayes’ “(The Theme From) Shaft”, with the extended, tension-building instrumental intro, and with the rest of the song buoyed up by a narrator’s voice (the original definition of a “rap”, kids), this time with a cut-glass English accent.
However like rap at the time, “West End Girls” certainly does evoke a distinctly urban feel. This is a song about the city, and the culture around cities. And despite it being a hit all over the world, it touches on something that is very much associated with the culture of those who created it, which is class structure and socially encoded roles. Yet, it was originally born outside of that culture, and in a place where the roots of the song were firmly established. Read more