Listen to this track by Queen Street West Toronto scenesters and new wave social commentators Martha & the Muffins. It’s “Women Around The World At Work”, a single as taken from their 1981 album This Is The Ice Age, their third.
This album is one that began something of a new phase for the band. First, they’d taken on a new member in bassist Jocelyn Lanois. And second, they hired her brother, Daniel Lanois, to produce their third album recording it in Toronto and in Hamilton where he was based. It wouldn’t turn out to be as big as Peter Gabriel’s So, or U2’s The Joshua Tree, which Lanois would also produce later on in the decade. But, it would prove that the band had plenty in the tank creatively speaking other than their most widely-known song “Echo Beach”.
One of the things that allowed them to expand on their sound, was a new exploration of politically motivated subject matter. This is one of their finest examples, a discussion of an issue that is still very relevant today, unfortunately. Read more
Listen to this track by Mancunian post-punk trendsetters Joy Division. It’s “Transmission”, a single released in October of 1979 between their two sole albums as a seven inch on the Factory label. By the next year in December, it would be re-released as a twelve inch single, later to be celebrated in cover versions by bands from Low to Smashing Pumpkins, to Hot Chip.
By this time, the band had morphed from what they would describe themselves as an “undistinguished punk band” called Warsaw into one that would write a template for bands up until the present day. This would be a highlight in a small but vital body of work, cut short by the death of lead singer and lyricist Ian Curtis, himself something of an iconic figure for post-punk influenced acts, and certainly for frontmen looking beyond the standard shrill-voiced golden god variety.
Actually, this band would provide an example to succeeding ones in many ways beyond even that. They broke the rules of being a rock band. But more importantly, they wrote their own. Read more
Listen to this track by Barking, Essex-based left-leaning jangle pop maestros McCarthy. It’s their 1986 single “Red Sleeping Beauty”, the harbinger for their first album that would appear the next year, I Am A Wallet.
The band put themselves across as a sort of politicized Smiths, with jangling guitars and lyrics that alluded to the cracks in the facade where mid-to-late ’80s Britain was concerned. They built their sound around the political lyrics of singer/guitarist Malcolm Eden, and the chiming folk-indie lines laid down by lead guitarist Tim Gane.
McCarthy formed in 1984, just before the height of the unemployment rash and miner’s strike in England, as well as the dismantling of the social safety net at the hands of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. Despite their material being very concerned with those particular times, by the time this track came out on the Pink label, they didn’t get much radio play internationally, or even domestically, other than by way of the immortal champion of fringe indie bands John Peel, who hosted several of his famous sessions with McCarthy.
But, they would provide another service to music as a whole beyond their small but vital output by the end of the decade, even if at the time, they appeared not to make much impact. Read more
Listen to this track by synth-pop purveyors and technologically minded quartet from the Wirral in the northwest of England Orchestral Manoeuvers In The Dark, aka OMD. It’s “Tesla Girls”, a single as taken from their 1984 LP Junk Culture.
The album was the follow-up to Dazzle Ships, which had served to be something of a dip in their fortunes chartwise the year previous, a record that’s now celebrated as being ahead of its time, even if it was misunderstood by critics upon release. It could be that their work had drifted into darker political themes and more experimental textures that perhaps didn’t play as well on the radio by 1983.
This song was a definite move in a more pop direction after the more avant garde approach of Dazzle Ships.This single was the third salvo from Junk Culture as a whole after “Locomotion” and “Talking Loud and Clear”. And what a bright and chirpy song this is, although as usual the lyrics of this song make it angular and distant for contrast, and somewhat mysterious too. And to that point, who are the Tesla Girls of this song, anyway? Read more
Listen to this track by former member of pub rockers The Motors and power pop proponent in his own right Bram Tchiakovsky, also the name of the band. It’s “Girl Of My Dreams”, a minor hit as featured on his 1979 solo album Strange Man, Changed Man.
The track scored attention on both sides of the Atlantic, with a sort of stylistic reversal at work. By that I mean that Bram Tchaikovsky was a British musician, playing American-style power pop, a style which had been influenced in turn by British musicians in the ’60s.
Influences in rock music had become pretty permeable by the end of the Seventies in that way, with an incredible and seemingly simultaneous shift back to the musical basics on both sides of the pond that made rock music so vital in the first place; hooks, lyrics that spoke to the experiences of an audience, and a simple is best approach to everything, from solos, to arrangements, to production.
All of that can be found here in this unassuming pop song. So where did it come from? Read more
Listen to this track by New York new wave darlings and CBGB graduates Blondie. It’s “Rapture”, their 1981 hit single as taken from their sixth record, Autoamerican. This song and the album off of which it comes would continue to prove the band to be a supple and versatile musical unit.
Their achievements up to and including this song certainly rested on a few very important factors. First, they wrote great songs, reflected by their success in the charts during a time when great writing equaled lots of records sold. Second, in frontwoman Debbie Harry they had a presence defined by undeniable charisma and visual appeal. Of course, this made their ironic name based on a common catcall (“Hey! Blondie!”) even more ironic, given that the press and fans alike often referred overtly to Harry’s (admittedly considerable) sex appeal first, often making the music she helped to create to be a secondary consideration.
But, third; despite all of the attention Debbie Harry was getting as a new wave pin-up, Blondie was still a risk-taking band that had no problem reaching outside of their comfort zone even at the height of their powers when they had the most to lose. They were musically curious, and very aware of their surroundings when it came to the music being made by their contemporaries at other points along the pop music spectrum. And that’s where this song comes in as perhaps their greatest leap outside of their musical wheelhouse. Read more
Listen to this track by Swindon new wave representatives and documented America-admirers, XTC. It’s “Statue Of Liberty”, a single as taken from their 1978 debut album White Music.
The line-up to be heard here is the earliest incarnation of the band, with stalwarts Andy Partridge (vocals and guitar) and Colin Moulding (vocals and bass) being joined by drummer Terry Chambers and keyboardist Barry Andrews. Chambers would depart by the time the sessions for 1983’s Mummer were in process. Barry Andrews would leave soon after this record, and go on to form Shriekback.
Starting out, XTC was very much in the vein of their post-punk peers. And this was among their earliest singles, a tune about the iconic lady statue that adorns the New York City skyline, symbolizing the ideals of freedom and liberty for immigrants to a land of opportunity.
But, this song takes a bit more from that equation, with a more erotic attachment to the lady herself, so much so that the line about “sailing beneath your skirt” raised eyebrows at the BBC. But, I think this song says a lot more than just being provocative for its own sake. Read more
Listen to this track by bespectacled angry young man and original hipster singer-songwriter Elvis Costello. It’s “Miracle Man”, a deep cut as taken from his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True.
This song is in very good company with those that Costello worked up while he was an early signee to the nascent Stiff Records label. This was after seven years of graft, taking the then twenty-two year old songwriter from his teenage years as a member of pub rockers Flip City to when he was christened with his Kingly moniker upon hooking up with Jake Riviera at Stiff.
And maybe it’s because Costello had spent so many years making demos, and having them sent back to him by record companies, that his debut is a compendium of tales of frustration and insecurity marked by a fierce intelligence and the swagger of youthful ambition. With this song, that theme carries through pretty well. And on the surface, it comes off as a guy who’s attached to someone who doesn’t really appreciate his efforts in the love department. But, that really is just on the surface of things.
Listen to this track by Montreal new wavers and safety-dancing pop music purveyors Men Without Hats. It’s “Pop Goes The World”, the title track to their 1987 record of the same name. The record was a hit in Canada, even if everywhere else in the world they would remain to be known as one-hit wonders with 1982’s “Safety Dance”.
Even if their fame was only defined by a certain range by 1987, principles Ivan and Stefan Doroschuk still had something to say about the nature of fame , particularly when it came to the music industry. After all, as most musicians do, they spent their energy pursuing it.
What this song does is make a comment on it once removed, and through the persons of Jenny (playing bass), and Johnny (playing guitar), who form a band to pursue worldwide success. Those names even appear in the album credits, along with “a little baby” on keyboards (the one featured on the cover, maybe?), and “J. Bonhomme” on drums, referencing the traditional snowman-styled mascot of the Quebec City winter carnival, and making a pun on Led Zeppelin’s departed stickman at the same time.
But besides the non-traditional band line-up, they throw something else into the mix too with this song, which perhaps aligns it with Cold War 1980s yet remains to be universal here in the 21st century; the end of the world! Read more
Listen to this track by Deptford, London quintet and three-minute pop song master architects Squeeze. It’s “Another Nail In My Heart” as taken from their 1980 record Argybargy. The song would score them considerable success internationally, in particular amping up the reputations of head writers Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook.
The scene set in the song is one of a broken relationship and a bereft man left with nothing, found in the bar – or at least what’s left of him. This would be subject matter pretty common to the Squeeze canon up until this point. But, this was their biggest hit to date outside of Britain, soon to grace set lists for the decades to follow, both as a band and in Tilbrook solo sets too.
The reasons for success of this song may be because it contains elements that are both expected, as well as unexpected. Read more