Tom Petty Sings “Free Fallin'”

Listen to this track by Heartbreaker honcho and first-time solo artist Tom Petty. It’s “Free Fallin'”, a smash hit song as taken from his first solo record, 1989’s Full Moon Fever. The song was the first single from that album, and remains today as his most enduring hit song.

The album was recorded around the same time as Petty’s involvement with the Travelling Wilburys, a “supergroup” that was more of an happily accidental situation that brought Petty together with some of his musical heroes, and by association revealing just what many people knew all along; that Petty himself had achieved hero status himself. Besides impressive results on the charts and with heavy rotation on the radio, one of the many things that came out of that situation was his relationship with Jeff Lynne, former ELO creative head and a producer with a signature style. The two began writing together. “Free Fallin'” is arguably their best result.

In some ways, this gambit in creating a solo album was a tough move for Petty, who’s backing band The Heartbreakers had been his comrades in arms for such a long time by then. Purportedly, others in the band were disdainful of the project, possibly fearing that their association with Petty was nearing its end. Still, a few Heartbreakers appear on the album including lead guitarist Mike Campbell (who plays on this song), bassist Howie Epstein, and keyboardist Benmont Tench. Ironically, instead of being a dramatic departure from his life fronting his old band, there’s something about this song that hearkens back to Petty’s earliest days with the Heartbreakers. Read more

Pat Benatar Sings “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”

patbenatar-crimesofpassionListen to this track by rock n’ roll and pop powerhouse Pat Benatar. It’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, a gargantuan hit single as taken from her breakthrough 1980 record Crimes Of Passion, her second and biggest selling album to date.

The song was a top ten hit in on the US charts, and scored similar success around the world, being a hard rock song with a pop aftertaste while never sounding corporatized or manufactured a la the profusion of corporate rock at the time. The album was huge, scoring a number two placement on the charts, only bettered chartwise by John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. She even got a Grammy for best female rock vocal performance of the year in 1981 .

One thing that stands out to me past the lyrical surface of the song, and past the mainstream success the song had, there is an important subtext to be found here that goes well beyond the material as it was written. Read more

Adam & The Ants Play “Antmusic”

Adam&theAntsKingsoftheWildFrontierListen 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

The Rolling Stones Play “Waiting On A Friend”

Rolling Stones Tattoo YouListen to this song by early ’60s London blues-boom quintet turned ’80s stadium-filling champeens The Rolling Stones. It’s “Waiting On a Friend”, a smash single from 1981’s equally smash-success full length record, Tattoo You. This new record would be their last (to date) to hit the top chart positions internationally. The album would also make several “best records of the 1980s” lists by the end of the decade. This would be pretty ironic, considering the album’s origins.

By the end of 1980, and after something of a hiatus period as a live act, the Stones were eager to tour again, and to do so behind a new record. Of course, the timing was a bit tricky. It takes time to make an album, and to write new songs. So, with the help of Chris Kimsey who served as co-producer on their previously successful album Some Girls, and their not-as-successful predecessor to this new one Emotional Rescue, they raided their own vaults for some bits and pieces to turn into new tracks. From here, lead singer Mick Jagger wrote a few new melodies and lyrics to shore up that earlier material as well as lay down some new vocal tracks. This song came out of that process, with the original backing track dating back to the late 1972 Goats Head Soup sessions, complete with parts from former Stone Mick Taylor on guitar, and stalwart sideman at the time Nicky Hopkins on piano.

This cobbling together of old material from a previous decade rushed out in time for a tour doesn’t sound like a likely recipe for a landmark album, does it? Well, it was anyway, with this song being a high point. So, what is the secret to its success? Read more

Queen and David Bowie Play “Under Pressure”

Queen and David Bowie - Under PressureListen to this track by operatic rock band with an R&B slant Queen, alongside musical firestarter and conceptual rock template setter David Bowie. It’s “Under Pressure”, a huge number one single from late 1981, eventually to appear Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space.

The song was the result of a loose studio-bound jam session, working up ideas for a completely different song called “Feel Like”. David Bowie was at the sessions to lay down a backing vocal track for another song that would appear on the album, “Cool Cat”. That backing vocal part wouldn’t appear on the completed album. Instead, this one would; a duet between Bowie and lead singer Freddie Mercury, marked by a bassline that would be something of a third lead voice in the song as conceived and laid down by bassist John Deacon.

This song represents something of the zeitgeist from the early ’80s, which was a time of great fear, political pendulum swings, and a slowly thawing Cold War. It certainly performed well on the charts, with a number one showing in Britain and with significant impact in Canada, and the United States. But, on paper, I wouldn’t have bet on it being so successful, personally. And there are several reasons why I think that.  Here they are. Read more

Modern English Play “I Melt With You”

Listen to this track by British new wave concern Modern English. It’s their 1982 smash-hit “I Melt With You”, an effervescent tune that lit up the charts, several movie soundtracks of that era, and ones to come.

The song appeared initially on their After The Snow album, their second on the now legendary and still-active 4AD label, released in May of 1982. But, from the label that would champion artists that existed initially on the fringes, this song scored a placement on Billboard’s Hot 100 that year. It would be the theme of the movie Valley Girl (starring a very young Nicolas Cage), where it gained its audience, and would appear in many other films besides, and with a number of cover versions from artists from Bowling For Soup to Jason Mraz.

It would certainly ensure Modern English’s place in pop history, being one of the most tuneful pop songs of the decade.

But, apart from the clear roots in post-punk that this band had when they formed in 1979, what cultural nerve did this song hit to make it so popular? Read more

Donald Fagen Sings “I.G.Y”

Listen to this track by Steely Dan piano man and pop sophisticate Donald Fagen. It’s “I.G.Y”, a hit for him outside of the Steely Dan catalog, featured on his first solo LP, The Nightfly  in 1982.

The album isn’t too far afield from what Fagen had done with The Dan; a jazzy kind of soft-rock with a lot of lyrical irony. But, Fagen’s album was something of a concept record, the concept in question being the optimism of growing up in the 1950s and early 60s. And the key tune on the album which illustrates this best is this radio hit; ‘I.G.Y’.

Donald Fagen the Nightfly

To me, what makes the themes in the tune interesting is that the kind of optimism Fagen is talking about in the song was not too far off from the attitudes in the early ’80s when the song was released. Specifically, the idea that technology can save us by helping us to create a golden age is prominent – “what a beautiful world this will be/what a glorious time to be free”.

Yet both eras shared the spectre of a third world war, beneath a veneer of universal contentment. This puts a bit of a darker spin on things, and underscores a kind of cultural self-delusion that puts our destiny in the hands of autonomous technology; a just machine to make big decisions/programmed by fellows with compassion and vision. Beneath this happy go-lucky exterior lies a sort of technological fascism that seems like an ideal means of eradicating social ills, but is ultimately dehumanizing. Pretty heady stuff for a radio single, huh?

The title I.G.Y is a reference to the International Geophysical Year (aka 1957-58) which was a scientific collective organized to observe geophysical phenomena around the globe. A faith in science as a means to shape our collective destiny was a characteristic that would mark the time. The science fiction of the pulp magazines and the beginnings of the Mercury space program around this time helped to fuel the fires of imagination and vision, and it’s that which Fagen is exploring here.

By 1982 he had the benefit of hindsight. And so the lyrics of the tune which paint a bright, worry-free future as envisioned from the mind of someone in the ’50s give the song a sort of melancholic, nostalgic air. This ultimately becomes a song about false hopes.

For more information about Donald Fagen, be sure to check out Donald Fagen’s Facebook page, where announcements of all kinds are made about his artistic movements.


[UPDATE December 2013: also, check out Donald Fagen’s new book Eminent Hipsters, a musical biography that traces his influences in the 1950s and early ’60s, beyond the optimism found in this song.]