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Wednesday, March 09, 2005
I didn't want to lay any bummers the last few days, but I had one helluva case of the flu going on. My strength is returning at last. You get 1 1/2 playlists today!
I was thinking about making a worst-of playlist tonight, reflective of my flu-mood, setting the ole Media Center to randomize a playlist of songs that only got * (out of a possible *****) in the rating tag itself (which is usually, but not always, the same rating as a "Jam Tag"). In other words, a crap playlist. Just for shits 'n' giggles.
I'm going to hold off on it for awhile, mainly because I don't have a lot of * tagged songs; I like to think I'm a man of taste and only acquire good stuff. Usually, my * songs are bum tracks by artists I like, and collect with an eye towards completism. Picking on them would give the wrong impression of the artists. Some are songs I own simply because I liked them when I heard them on AM radio when I was 9. A lot truly suck, but, well, they're memories, like photographs. I also haven't given any tags at all yet to about 8,000 songs in my library; I'm sure there's some frightshows in there somewhere. For the truly curious, I'll provide a mini-teaser today:
(randomplay, first 5 titles chosen, Jam Tag (1-5 stars follows, and my rationale for having it clutter my HD follows that):
1. AC/DC: Big Balls * (rationale: usually, I like AC/DC)
2. George Harrison: Bye Bye Love * (rationale: completism)
3. Sister Janet Mead: The Lord's Prayer * (rationale: I thought it was catchy when I was 9)
4. Paper Lace: The Night Chicago Died * (ditto)
5. Olivia Newton-John: Long Live Love (Eurovision Song Contest) * (rationale: the first singer I ever had a crush on, also when I was 9)
You'll get the real deal playlist eventually, I just need to collect a bigger pool of lousy songs and pithy things to say about them. I give you a teaser now, like I said, for shits 'n' giggles. And also to see if any Sister Janet Mead fans wind up Googling Freeway Jam.
On to the real playlist:
My second thought for a playlist tonight was to plug the hole I noticed in the "era playlists" archive; we have yet to do one for the 1980's. We have covered the 80's to a degree in a number of genre playlists, especially the college rock playlist/essay. But we haven't given the entire decade a spin yet, like we have the 60's, 90's, 00's. I was going to do it tonight, but then I had a third idea.
I'm going to take the "worst-of" idea and the "80's" idea and meld them into a new one: the worst days of the 80's, at least for American rock fans.
Okay, maybe that's just some fever residue talking, but hear me out.
As witness to the era, I can attest that there were fewer more miserable creatures alive than rock fans in the years 1981-1983. With considerable justification.
First off, the big rock movements of the day, the ones that had knocked heavy metal and progressive rock off their pedestals, were dying themselves. By these, I'm referring to punk, power-pop, new wave, disco, ska, and rock radio itself. All had seen their glory days in the late 70's, from about 1976 to 1980; by 1983 every single one was considered "over", but nothing new had yet appeared.
The stuff that passed for new rock was remarkably homogenized; Pat Benatar, Asia, Quarterflash, Stevie Nicks, Journey, Phil Collins-led Genesis. Nothing that smelled like a movement, nothing that seemed to be going anywhere interesting.
On top of that, some old favorites were lost. The Who broke up. Led Zeppelin broke up. Two of the Pretenders died, the best two. The Ramones lost their idiot-genius and were sounding like idiots. John Lennon was murdered. Rock radio stations were changing formats to hot-100. Rock lit maverick Lester Bangs died, right when we needed him most.
Other old had-beens cranked out crummy subpar hits; some were betrayals of their own legacies, others were just talent running dry after a good run. Dull or worse records by Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, The Kinks, Aerosmith, Neil Young, Jefferson Starship, Paul Simon, and other old standbys seemed to be just more nails in the coffin, one right after another.
The biggest sensation of the era was none other than Michael Jackson and Thriller; while it was an applaudable effort, one even Eddie Van Halen deigned to play on, it didn't really speak to the hearts of many rock fans.
MTV would not debut until late '82, and wouldn't get many viewers until '84. And its effects on rock were more profound than they seemed at the time, and they seemed profound then. All ugly old guys were suddenly erased; it was all Boy George and Duran Duran and Madonna and the beautiful new people. It wasn't rock, and once again, it left many listeners in a lurch; some simply couldn't embrace the synthetic eye candy sold as 'music'. Others were too old for that stuff. Still others, like me, simply didn't have cable.
Where could we turn? Nowhere! The indie scene was still on its very fragile first legs; records weren't well distributed or even publicized. College radio had not quite become its own entity yet. Post-punk and paisley underground and neo-metal were only just becoming known, they were still local phenomena. The square and (by that point) supremely stupid Rolling Stone was the only rock lit widely available; all the seminal 70's rock lit was gone, out of business.
It was a sad thing for a late teen like me to think that everything cool was dead, everything new was cheesy and cheap, the world was a crass and tasteless place.
Still, there were faint glimmers of hope. An X or Dead Kennedys here (they were important to more than just punks), a Nebraska or Sandanista! there. But they were very lean years, more lean than the younger visitors here may realize. 2005 is a cornocopia of sounds, in comparison.
So, a special era playlist I'd like to subtitle "The Dark Ages 1981-1983"
I had Media Center randomize all titles in my library dated 1981-1983, all genres included. From a pool of 964 titles, first 10 titles randomly selected by Media Center are profiled, Jam Tags, 1-5 stars, follow:
1. Tommy Tutone: 867-5309/Jenny **
Okay, I know some of you maybe loved this tune when it was new. I liked it too, it was as catchy as a roach motel. I applauded Tommy Tutone (What were they? A group? Some dude? I could look them up in Allmusic, but why even bother?) for not using a phone number beginning in 555 (note to Hollywood: if he/they can do it, so can you) But listen to it again. It's fake power pop, with banal lyrics, cheesy by-the-numbers arrangement, and faceless vocals. If you loved it then, and still do now, I won't sway you. But this one has lost a lot of "luster".
2. Grateful Dead: "Monkey and the Engineer" ****
Utterly irrelevant from a mainstream point of view at this stage in their career, the Dead actually turned in a series of splendid acoustic shows in '81, captured here on Reckoning. The Monkey and the Engineer (by Bay Area folkster Jesse Fuller) is one of Bob Weir's offbeat covers (he had a talent for those), and is a charming little slice of Americana. This ain't no "Dark Star" but it is real music. Garcia's guitar picking is in-tune and on the money.
3. Yes: It Can Happen ***
From the same album that yielded the surprise-of-the-century comeback hit "Owner of a Lonely Heart". This one has the same progressive-lite approach, but lacks the exciting new-rock sound the hit pointed at (and Yes never followed up on). Featuring a sitar, and quasi-mystical lyrics, Yes detractors could easily call this campy and corny. Yes fans will take it for what it is, a mildly interesting tune from the early 80's Yes, and little more.
4. Ringo Starr: Alibi **
Poor Ringo. At this point, he had lost his record deal due to a string of lousy records that didn't sell, he was a drunk, and no longer had films to fall back on. Fellow drunk Joe Walsh rode in to the rescue, producing Old Wave, and co-writing many of the songs. To his credit, he helped Ringo cobble together a fairly decent collection of songs, of which this standard-issue country-flavored rocker is typical. Ringo still couldn't get it released in America; the best he could get was a Canadian deal. Ringo supermaniacs would like the album. I assume nobody here is one of those.
5. Talking Heads: Take Me To The River (live) ****
Thank God for the Talking Heads, I mean, really. They helped keep me sane through those crazy dark years. Real, innovative rock 'n' roll that was fresh, challenging, new, and you didn't have to go to a dusty basement collectors' store to find them. Unfortunately, 1981-1983 was a dry period for them; one live album in '82 was all we got until "Burning Down the House" in late 1983. This version is not quite as good as the studio version, which had better wailing from David Byrne on it, nor does it match the Stop Making Sense version, which was over the top in orgasmic revelry. Still, the band is tight, the gospel chicks do their thing, and well, god bless 'em.
6. Simon and Garfunkel: The Sound of Silence (Live, Central Park '81) ***
It was a great show, a real Woodstock vibe for those who were there (I was). Among concert attendees, this album remains a cherished one (despite the fact that portions were re-done in the studio). For everyone else, this really isn't the best version of the song out there, nor is this one of their best songs (indeed, some of the bad rhymes and overearnest lyrics are grimace-worthy now). For diehards, concert goers, and New York hometown rooters.
7. Badfinger: I Got You **
From the sad swan-song of the once great Badfinger. Joey Molland and Tom Evans are the only original members present on this fairly limp 50's flavored rocker. Two years later, Evans would emulate former band leader Pete Ham by hanging himself. This album, Say No More, did have some poignant moments, like the desperate "Rock N Roll Contract" and the prophetic "No More". But much of it was rock 'n' roll filler like this one, with little to sink your teeth into.
8. Pink Floyd: Not Now John ***
The Final Cut was met with a lot of disappointment when it came out. History judges it a little more kindly now, but it still isn't one of Pink Floyd's better moments. Relentlessly dreary, weepy, angry, and ranty. "Not Now John" was the closest it came to a The Wall style rocker, but it lacks the freshness and band cohesion that album's best tracks had. David Gilmour has repeatedly disowned this album in the years since; Roger Waters left the band shortly after its release. One more sad early 80's sign of decline and ruin.
9. The Rolling Stones: It Must Be Hell ***
Undercover, which had the stated goal of being the Stones' return to political lyricism (return? When were the Stones ever political?) is a fascinating album, if not an especially good one. Somewhere along the line, their mission got lost, and instead the resulting album was a murky, dense affair, dripping with sleaze, slime, perversion, advanced decadence, with some interesting playing and arrangements in places. This tune was the album closer, with a bold Keith Richard riff, muddled (but possibly 'political' lyrics), and uncharacteristically airy sounding production. Not bad, for 80's Stones, kinda good in fact. But it ain't "Street Fighting Man" which it vaguely recalls.
10. Christian Death: Spiritual Cramp ***
Spooky Goth godfathers who sing of all things vile and blasphemous. If only they had the chops to match their ambition. It isn't bad if you like this kind of stuff, but the punky playing sounds tentative, and lost in the murk. Roz' Williams vocals are creepy as they're meant to be, but mixed out too far for his own good. This is another band with some fiercely loyal fans, and I'm willing to keep an open mind. But there's not a whole lot to recommend on this one. Williams commited suicide in 1998.
Whew. that was perhaps the dreariest playlist ever at Freeway Jam. Well, it goes to prove a point; life wasn't always as full of choices as it is now. Thank your lucky stars, young people. And hooray for the college-rock/indie movement of '84-'85 that got us out of the doldrums once again.
There; now that I've shared my misery, I do believe my cold has disappeared. Thanks for listening.