Patience and Money

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[In the spirit of others such as JB, WM & KB, who have done this before better and are more entertaining, I am taking a crack at analyzing an American Top 40 countdown.] 

If you had Sirius XM in the late 2000s you might have caught an airing of an old 80s American Top 40 countdown with Casey Kasem on the 80s on 8 channel. At some point, they were discontinued and only the 70s channel aired AT40s. The 80s channel instead rebranded the AT40 as the Big 40 countdown referencing the same Billboard Pop charts that Casey used. It was and still is hosted by MTV’s former original DJs Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood & Alan Hunter [Martha Quinn was involved early on but dropped out.].

In some ways, this newer countdown is superior to Casey’s. For example, since they are not pressed for time the way Casey was nor do they have to stop for commercials, they will use the full single or sometimes the album versions of songs. They will also add in some interesting stories about the artists and/or songs that I have never heard before.

And just like AT40 they will also make an occasional mistake, like the name-checking the wrong album and listing incorrect facts among other slipups. But in this day and age of simple fact-checking as opposed to the endless research the AT40 staff had to perform, I find these errors are sloppy and ridiculous. Nevertheless, the show is entertaining and I will listen to it multiple times to my families delight, horror and the delight again.

This week they played the Top 40 hits from February 20, 1988. Let’s dig into the first six:

40. Live My Life-Boy George

From a movie no one saw (Hiding Out) comes George’s first solo Top 40 single. It never climbs any higher. He’d hit the Top 40 again in 1993 with another soundtrack song, The Crying Game. Produced by the Pet Shop Boys, it reached #15 in the Spring of 1993.

39. Tell It To My Heart-Taylor Dayne

We were entering a new phase of very very white people trying to sound very very black. To me, this is interesting programmed synth pop, dance music that no one danced to. Taylor and this sound were ubiquitous on the radio during the late 80s. Lucky us.

38. I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man-Prince

The 3rd Top 10 from Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times LP is sliding down the charts. I honestly was amazed this pop rocker was a hit. Not one of my favorites, but I love Prince and can’t say anything bad about the dude. And if this song kept Poison out of the Top 40, then it’s all good to me. Oh, and Hot Thang was the B-side. BTW he was still in his 20’s when he recorded this album. Unbelievable.

37. The Way You Make Me Feel-Michael Jackson

This is the 3rd of 5 straight #1s from this album. I was so let down by the Bad album. It sounded overproduced and watered down til there was hardly any soul left in it. People say Thriller killed Michael but it was really Bad. I often wonder what the world would be like if Michael retired after that Victory tour.

36. Got My Mind Set On You-George Harrison

A former #1 from George’s last LP. While it was good to see George get the spotlight again in 1987/1988, I always thought this song was a hokey piece of crap. Time has led me to soften my stance a bit to a silly piece of fluff. In a countdown with Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, this is by far the whitest thing on it.

35. Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car-Billy Ocean

Speaking of former Beatles, Alan Hunter talks about Ringo Starr and how creepy You’re Sixteen sounds in 2019 [True, among others…]. And that Billy Ocean stole his title from that song. [Actually, the lines in You’re Sixteen are “You walked out of my dreams and into my arms.” which is close.] He does steal “Your non-stop miracle. I’m your man.” from the Roman Holiday song One Foot In Your Back Door.

I prefer Ocean Billy.

 

 

Take a Ride Down Astral Drive

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As a big fan of Todd Rundgren I great every new project of his with much anticipation. So when someone unrelated comes along and put out an album that sounds like a lost Rundgren LP from 1973, it catches me by surprise. Astral Drive is the band and album that has sent me in a giddy tailspin since its late Summer 2018 release, which inspired my latest article at Culture Sonar.

 

Give It To Someone Special

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It’s hard not to think of George Michael at the holidays for two reasons: the ubiquitous appearance of Last Christmas by Wham! from every speaker as well as other covers versions and the fact that 2 years ago he passed away on December 25th. Since 1984, this Christmas classic, in name and release timing only, has been a part of our Western traditions with a variety of emotional reactions. Some run out of a department store screaming. Some spend an extra four minutes browsing and shopping.

My 5-year old son has taken a strong liking to it this year, singing it to himself as well as frequently requesting it on Spotify. There’s something so adorable about a little kid, innocently singing the chorus with a slight lisp, years before they have the faintest idea about what heartbreak means or feels like. In fact, he asked his older sister, “what does ‘gave you my heart’ mean”? She replied, “It’s like you have a favorite ring and you give it to someone and they decide to give it to someone else…” Oh, if it were that simple…

I hear folks mention how ironic it was that George Michael passed on Christmas day. Why? Because he wrote a song called Last Christmas? It wouldn’t be any more ironic dying on July 4th because he wrote a song called Freedom and he actually wrote two of those. I do find it sad though and every time I hear one of his songs now, I can clearly hear the melancholy behind those pop hooks.

There’s another Christmas song that George wrote called December Song (I Dreamed Of Christmas) that he put out in 2010. It is hauntingly beautiful and I would rather hear this one more often.

The Hunt for Chris Rea’s Fool (If You Think It’s Over)

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When people say that the digital age has given us everything we want at our fingertips, I laugh and shake my head. The digital age has given us everything that they offer, but there’s still so much missing. Case in point – Chris Rea’s Fool (If You Think It’s Over)

Fool was a #12 hit on the Pop charts in the Fall of 1978. It also hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart and helped push his debut album, the Gus Dudgeon-produced Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? to Gold status, also earning himself a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Although Chris went on to have a long successful career in the UK, he was a one hit wonder here in the States. This was the only song that most Americans recognized of his. So why did it become so hard to find?

Well for some reason, Chris did not like the final mix on his debut, but rather than go back and remix it, he decided to re-record it for his New Light Through Old Windows. The song gets moved up a key and to my ears, it sounds cheesier and does not retain the warmth and charm of the original. But this was the version that Chris would put on all his Greatest Hits collections. He recorded another version 20 years that still didn’t sound any better than the original and it was only when Warner Bros reissued some of his CDs a few years ago in 2014 that the public could buy a digital copy of the original, almost 40 years after the public made it a hit.

My issue is not with Chris re-recording it. It’s the fact that the re-recording was a replacement for the superior original, which was also kept off of radio for decades and denied those who loved it another listen. So if you dig that song like I do, go buy the CD before some fool decides it’s over.

You Can’t Control An Independent Heart

Corporate Blunders

My mom & I were on a constant search for Classic Coke. Even though we hardly ever had soda in the house, my mom was obsessed with finding 6-packs that we could store in the garage if they ever stopped making it.

That’s right. The Coca-Cola Company dove into a disaster by creating a new Coke formula that was even sweeter than Pepsi. In retrospect, it looks like the biggest public marketing scam ever. When the ensuing backlash came that Spring, they announced on July 11th, 1985, that they would start making the old formula again if anyone wanted (not preferred) that. Obviously, everyone did because supermarkets could barely keep Coca-Cola Classic in stock. I’m sure people were selling it on the street like crack dealers, enticing suckers to pay for some of that old school (de)sweetness, not realizing that the New Coke would end up being the collectible [After a change to Coke II in 1992, they stopped making it in 2002.]. Meanwhile, they quietly released Cherry Coke simultaneously, and hell yeah, that was totally my jam.

When we found some Classic Coke on the bottom shelf of a King Kullen, Lord almighty, it was like finding the holy grail, but of course, one that would lead to weight gain and diabetes rather than everlasting life. I can still hear Sting from the tinny ceiling speakers singing behind my mom’s glee at pleasing my dad, which I find pretty ironic.

Keep It Down Now

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The end of 8th grade couldn’t come fast enough. Unfortunately, it did not end on a very good note. The girls were maturing far quicker than I was. I was one of two kids who couldn’t go on the end-of-year school trip for reasons I have still yet to know from my mom. I was a good student, taking advanced classes, staying out of trouble, but constantly being disallowed things going to concerts, sleepovers, and spending 4 days with my friends away from my parents under chaperoned care. That June, I needed to fall into the Summer and forget my feelings of loserdom. I just wanted to hang out on the couch and watch MTV all day long, to only move when the ice cream man drove into our cul-de-sac. Those were days that Supertramp’s Cannonball seemed to be on every morning, and I’d watch it feeling like that caveman searching for new life.

Then at the last minute, my mom decided that I needed to do something structured that Summer. So she offered to enroll me for a 3rd time in USDAN summer camp, an arts camp I had gone to in 82 & 83 (84 was spent helping my parents move their business and then visit family in Europe for 3 weeks).  USDAN was a creative and performing arts center started by operatic singer Andrew McKinley in the late 60s. It was an outdoor camp with bungalows nestled in the woods of Long Island, and you could learn any type of music, art, theatre, and creative writing. It was only a ten-minute drive from my house, although it attracted folks from all over the Island, New York, North Jersey even from Eastern Connecticut. Some famous alumni include Natalie Portman, Taylor Dayne, and Mariah Carey, who easily could have been there when I was.

Unfortunately, the enrollment period was over, so my only chance of getting in was to audition for a scholarship. All I remember was that I played something on the viola and sang something classical acapella. They let me in, and I’m sure it’s because they felt sorry for me, and I only say that because there was no way I practiced at all before that audition. And I was marginal on the viola. Still, there I was, starting another year of non-responsible fun. It would turn out to be my last.

The setup of USDAN is such that you take a major and a minor, sort of like college. One year I majored in Orchestra, which meant private viola lessons with a few kids and then an entire orchestra session. Then I could minor in Recreation, which meant that I could just play tons of games for an hour or so a day. Because of this scholarship, I had to Double Major in Chorus & Orchestra. There was also a session of pool time in their outdoor lap & diving pool. If you tested out of lessons, you could just hang out and play card games, where I learned War and Bullshit.

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In the middle of the day, you had a lunch session and an amphitheater session with different scheduled performers each day. I almost always skipped that and regret I never took that more seriously, as I probably missed many good shows. Then when the final session of the day wrapped, there would be boxes of ice cream to hand to everyone. So I made it my mission to figure out new ways to swipe a box of Good Humor strawberry shortcakes off of those golf carts as they rolled by.

To my surprise, a friend of mine from school, Edwin, was going to camp as well. So each morning, I’d wait for his bus to pull up, and we’d walk along with his cousin, Jimmy, to our first session. Most days, we’d meet up for lunch and then skip assembly by getting lost in the woods. And we talked about videos – how funny David Lee Roth was, was it cool to like Wham!?, and how weird and sad was that 19 song? [In retrospect, he wasn’t, it was, and yes, it still is.]

There was also was a new band from Boston called Til Tuesday, with a female lead singer (back then, still rare) who looked and sounded way cooler than Edwin & I would ever know. Listening to their debut album takes me back to those early days of camp, as the air begins heating up,  the sun dappling through those high treetops. To this day, I am still an Aimee Mann fan, but as I think about Voices Carry today, I’m amazed that a song that seemed catchy and mysterious now sounds prescient and disturbing.

 

Minimum Waste, Maximum Joy

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As the year moves into Fall, I’m reminded of the powerful hold that Summer memories have on me. Summer is like a rollercoaster – you stand in line eagerly awaiting the ride thinking about how awesome it will be. Then you get on and it’s more thrilling that you imagined, slowly taking you up, dropping you down twice as fact spinning you upside down, jerking you left then right. And when it’s over all you are thinking about is what just happened, wanting to do it again.

So let’s suppose that May is the wait in line and June, July & August are the ride. September is always the bittersweet month, the one we spend looking back on the Summer while some of that sweet music lingers in the air. The warmth now has a cooler breeze at night. Leaves are beginning to yellow. And those summer memories, permanently stored in the back of our mind, will be accessed occasionally by the songs that define them.

I’m going to open my vaults and talk about my Summer in 1985. I’m not sure if I regard it as my most special one, but I can remember a lot about it, mostly because of the music that was playing back then.

And so while I was counting down the last days of school, here was a song that I fascinated with along with the video. I brought this cool vibe with me that Summer to try and sand down or at least hide those awkward young teenage edges.

 

 

 

 

Finding A Way Out Of The Darkness

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In the wake of the Queen of Soul’s passing, I’ve read lots of articles praising Aretha’s talents, but so many them reference her mid-60s pop breakthrough into the early 70s. As much as that needs to be talked about, it’s only part of her story.

When I saw her in The Blues Brothers movie and asked my parents who she was, they told me she was a singer who used to be popular in the 60s. Yes, in the 1980, she was  a ‘used to be’, a reminder of what was, a singer whose career seemed to be done. That same year Donald Fagen sang about a nineteen year old who didn’t even ‘remember the Queen of Soul”. None of this was lost on Aretha, who changed record labels that year from Atlantic to Arista and began the long climb back into the pop mainstream, finally breaking into the Top 10 twice with Freeway Of Love & Who’s Zoomin’ Who in 1985, peaking with her 2nd #1 hit in 1987, I Knew You Were Waiting For Me, a duet with George Michael.

Now it may seem in a retrospect a calculated move to have an easy hit and sing with George, but it was a lot riskier than you would think. The song was recorded in early 1986 just as George was finishing up his obligations in Wham!. This was before he released Faith and there was no guarantee that he would become a superstar on his own. He wasn’t even on the Arista label, so Aretha would have needed to make an extra effort to seek him out, though I’m sure this was a dream come true for George. His first duet opportunity shows not only how well his voice complimented Aretha’s, it’s a great example of how less is more, and in singing what’s needed and works for the song is more important than showboating.

I’m not sure if the label even knew what they had in this classic pairing as this was the 3rd single released from that album. When it shot to the top in April 1987 for  two weeeks, it also provided Aretha with her only UK #1, her biggest hit on the AC charts and won a Grammy for best R&B vocal, duo or group. George would go on to have 6 more #1 pop hits. Aretha would never hit the Top 10 again. Both are now gone and sorely missed.

Aretha’s last pop hit was 1998’s A Rose Is Still A Rose which reached #26, but more importantly her resurgence in the 80s fully revitalized her career keeping her in the public eye right up until her passing as she will forever be remembered as the Queen of Soul.