Monthly Archives: May 2014

Screamer of the Week: Pretty Persuasion by R.E.M. This Week in 1984.

What type of blessed musical alchemy was being conjured in late May of 1984? During the third week of the month I heard Prince’s When Doves Cry for the first time and almost imploded with joy. And then, the very next week, I heard the song that would begin a 30 year relationship with what would become my favorite band of all time.

rem2Although R.E.M. released their debut album, Murmur, a year earlier – they were not at all on my radar. I think I had heard of the band and thought their name was clever, I knew they were from the South and I had possibly heard “Radio Free Europe,” but didn’t think much of it (I know – BLASPHEMY! It actually hurt me to write that last sentence. But have no fear – I have since come to my senses). I was happy listening to a steady diet of 30% Rap, 20% R&B, 35% British New Wave, and 15% American pop. I believed R.E.M. was a country band and I didn’t need any country music on my radio or in my cassette player.

I’m pretty sure that was my first thought when I heard the first few bars of “Pretty Persuasion”. The radio station WLIR was holding its weekly Screamer of the Week competition and one of the DJ’s entered “Pretty Persuasion,” from R.E.M.’s just released second album, Reckoning.

First the jangly guitar, followed by a harmonica, and then that twangy, sad vocal harmony.  Yep – this is country music. Country music, but . . . .

Country music, but . . . one of the prettiest harmonies I’ve heard all year. Country music, but . . . also rock n roll – and also pop. Country music, but . . . something else I can’t put my finger on – but I know it’s making a connection.

rem3Michael Stipe has recently shared the fact that Pretty Persuasion is about growing up queer. I’d love to be able to re-write history and talk about how I connected to the very subtle gay/queer narrative Stipe was telegraphing. But that wasn’t the case. Stipe wasn’t ready to directly speak or write or sing about being gay and I didn’t feel the particular need to seek out and enjoy gay overtones in my music (Bronski Beat and Frankie Goes to Hollywood would change that in a couple of months).

But I did connect to the song’s evocation of vulnerability. And although I didn’t understand all of the lyrics I knew it felt cathartic and empowering to sing along to lines like  “Goddamn your confusion,” and “It’s all wrong/it’s all wrong!”. Those lyrics seemed perfectly designed for this 16-year-old to sing along to while sitting alone in his bedroom. And the perfection of that song inspired this 16-year-old to put down his reservations about liking country music and pick up his phone to cast his vote for “Pretty Persuasion” to be Screamer of the Week.

rem1When I turned 40 I created a mix of my top 40 songs of all time. The list started changing almost as soon as I burned the CD (life before Spotify) but R.E.M.’s “Pretty Persuasion” has remained a constant. It’s a great song. A perfect song. And it’s a marker. It reminds me of a time when I cautiously (very cautiously) began to open up, receptive to the notion that I could be a slightly different person today, than I had been the day before.

 

Additional Screamer of the Week posts:

The Psychedelic Furs – Heaven

The Thompson Twins – You Take Me Up

Prince and the Revolution – When Doves Cry

Thompson Twins – Sister of Mercy

Screamer of the Week: When Doves Cry by Prince and the Revolution. This Week in 1984.

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I clearly remember the very first time I heard ‘When Dove Cry.’ It was May 1984 and I was in my bedroom listening to WLIR. The station mainly played New Wave so when I heard the DJ announce he was about to play a new song by Prince I assumed it was another ‘Prince’, possibly some Brit paying an ironic homage to the royal family. But as soon as the song began I stopped caring who was singing. I needed to focus on the music. The following is a completely factual moment by moment account of my first time listening to this song.

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0:00 Little do I know my musical world is about to change.

0:00 – :20 Beginning a song with an electric guitar solo? That’s odd. And wait a second, guitar solos belong on rock records – so why am I now hearing a dance beat?  And why has the guitar morphed into something that sounds like an asthmatic robot saying ‘nyah nyah nyah’? This has got to be the strangest opening of any song I’ve ever heard. And . . . I think I love it!

:30 – 1:30  I don’t know what else is about to happen, but right now, in this moment, I think this is the best song I’ve ever heard. Period. Everything I’m hearing is different and amazing. I love the singer’s voice (it sounds both atonal and melodic). The lyrics are surreal and sexy ( ‘Animals strike curious poses’? I’m going to put some energy into figuring out what that means). And that drum beat.  I don’t think I’ve ever really paid attention to the way drums sound until now but there’s something so different and distinctive about the way these drums sound. They crunch and echo. I need to turn this song up! WDCVinyl

1:45 – It’s official – this is definitely the best song I’ve ever heard!

1:50 Oh wait – why am I not taping this?! (As I head to press the play + record buttons on my boom box – a revelation!) … hold up – I can’t start the recording half way through. That seems wrong. Blasphemous. This song deserved to be recorded from start to finish. I owe that to the song. I owe it to myself!!

2:05 Ok – here comes the chorus again – let me try to figure out what he’s singing about:

How Can U Just Live Me Standing

Alone in a World So Cold

Maybe I’m Just 2 Demanding

Maybe I’m Just Like My Father – 2 Bold

Maybe You’re Just Like My Mother

She’s Never Satisfied

Why Do we Scream at Each Other

This is what is sounds like

When Doves Cry

princewdc1Hmmmm –  could this be the same Prince who sings 1999 and Little Red Corvette? Is this song about his family? His girlfriend?

3:00 ( Note – The one memory of this experience that isn’t crystal clear is whether I started dancing. Trust me, there would be many times I would dance along to “When Doves Cry” in my bedroom (many times in ’84 and as recently as two weeks ago) but I can’t recall whether this happened during this first listen. Let’s just say that IF I danced – I would have probably started right about now).

4:15 – I don’t want the song to end. The song doesn’t sound like it wants to end. More guitar solos.  High pitched shrieks. A synthesizer that sounds like an electronic chorus of violins. Now the singer is harmonizing with himself in some high-pitched falsetto. Now he’s just singing “don’t cry’ over and over again and it sounds weird and brilliant.

And finally that synthesizer is back and wraps it all up. The song ended and some other song started and I was floored. Before I knew it was performed by Prince and before I knew it was the single from what would be one of the greatest soundtracks of all time I fell in love with that song. revolution

When Doves Cry went on to win WLIR’s Screamer of the Week competition and I had many opportunities to record it. It remains one of my favorite songs of all time. Over 30 years I’ve listened to this song on cassette, vinyl, CD, and MP3 – and every time it feels like a gift.

Additional Screamer of the Week posts:

The Psychedelic Furs – Heaven

The Thompson Twins – You Take Me Up

R.E.M. – Pretty Persuasion

Thompson Twins – Sister of Mercy

Under the Influence: 92.7 WLIR

radiodial2In 1984 I had two favorite radio stations that each had a very different, but equally profound affect on my musical taste. There was 107.5 WBLS, which featured my favorite DJ – the ‘Chief Rocker’ Frankie Crocker. Every weekday from 4p-8p he’d spin R&B hits but also play everything from the Tom Tom Club to James Moody. On the opposite end of the dial, and the musical spectrum, was WLIR.

wlir292.7 WLIR played New Wave (also known as Alternative, New Music and Modern Rock – why so many names?). I don’t remember why I started listening or how I found out about it but I know for a fact I didn’t stumbled across the station. WLIR was located near Hempstead, Long Island  – just about 25 miles from my home in Brooklyn. But the station’s signal wasn’t very strong so I’d have to perform all sorts of high-tech feats to get a clear signal (my most effective method was to interlace the antenna of my boom box through the Venetian blind slats in my bedroom window).

daretobedifferentThe station’s tag line was “Dare to Be Different’ – which worked for me (and probably every other teen listening). One of the ways I decided to explore my feelings of otherness and oddness was through music. A young Black kid listening to R&B and Hip Hop was expected. But what if that kid started listening to Euyrthmics or The Smiths? Then that kid was different. He was a bit of freak.  I wasn’t ready to ‘freak out’ in other ways –  so I bought Culture Club records and hung U2 posters on my bedroom wall (I hedged my bets by hanging a Tina Turner Private Dancer poster right next to U2).

Plus – the music was great.

When the radio waves cooperated WLIR introduced me to great artists like Duran Duran, R.E.M., INXS, Thompson Twins, and Psychedelic Furs. And best of all – every week the station would allow viewers to vote and choose the best new song of the week.  The station’s DJ’s (Donna Donna, Malibu Sue, Larry the Duck) would each rally behind one song and attempt to convince listeners to pick their ‘Screamer of the Week’. The DJ’s were passionate and knowledgable and they helped shape the musical taste of countless teens in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. So much of this blog is a testament to that station’s influence. The right music at the right time.

Additional Screamer of the Week posts:

The Psychedelic Furs – Heaven

The Thompson Twins – You Take Me Up

Prince and the Revolution – When Doves Cry

R.E.M. – Pretty Persuasion

Thompson Twins – Sister of Mercy

The Fat Boys are Back (and You Know They Can Never Be Wack)

Fat Boys Cover1984 was a year of amazing firsts in rap music. Those 12 months were filled with debuts that would forever change the game. Highlights include:

Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons launch Def Jam Records.

LL Cool J releases his first single, “I Need a Beat.”

The Beastie Boys release their first single, “Rock Hard.”

Run-D.M.C. release their debut self-titled album.

The Fat Boys release their first album.

Now you might look at this list and think, ‘one of these things is not like the other…’ – but (on the 30th anniversary of the release of their debut album) I want to give a little love and respect to The Fat Boys. Herewith:
5 Reasons You Should Remember The Fat Boys as More Than Just a Novelty Act.

5. The Fun. Once upon a time there was a moment in music history when rap was fun. Rappers took their music seriously but still managed to have a sense of humor. The Fat Boys excelled at the art of being goof balls while displaying skills that demanded respect. In other words – they had confidence. You don’t change your group’s name from The Disco 3 to The Fat Boys without a sense of humor and self-possession.

4. The Beatbox. Big Buff Love, the Human Beatbox (along with Doug E. Fresh) elevated beatboxing to an art form. I hear that sound and I’m immediately transported back in time to 1984. I admit I attempted to beatbox in my bedroom (who didn’t?) but, 30 years later, I have yet to go public with my skills.

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3. The Rhymes. The Fat Boys are responsible for what is, in my opinion, one of the greatest rhymes in rap history (from “The Fat Boys are Back”):

I’m starving, I’m in the mood

plain and simple I need food!

Hemingway and Carver would envy this spare, yet powerful verse. This has been my mantra on many occasions.

2. The Borough. ‘Brooklyn Keeps On Takin It’

With proper respect to Queens (for giving us  RUN-D.M.C. and my favorite hip hop group, A Tribe Called Quest) The Fat Boys are part of a select  group of legendary rappers to hail from New York’s greatest borough (yes, I did). Hip Hop would not be the same without the contributions of Brooklyn rappers Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, Mos Def, Notorious B.I.G., Talib Kweli, MC Lyte,  AND The Fat Boys. Before Brooklyn churned out artisanal cheeses and craft beers, it gave us hip hop artists who would sell millions of records and elevate the art form of rap.

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Michael Jackson: Now & Then

MJ2Trepidation and suspicion.

Those were my initial feelings when I heard of the plans to release a new posthumous Michael Jackson album composed of songs ‘from his archive’. It didn’t surprise me that a record label had found yet another way to generate money utilizing Michael Jackson’s name and image (and songs which Jackson never intended to share with the public). What has surprised me is the excitement this new album has stirred among tried and true Jackson fans. Are they the victims of a marketing and publicity blitz – or – are they open to the fact that, although the circumstances aren’t ideal, this is an opportunity to hear ‘new’ music from one of the greatest performers in music history?

xscapeMy plan was to ignore this new album – this Frankenstein creation. In my opinion, unearthing older Jackson songs that were never meant to see the light of day; splicing Michael’s vocals with the voices of current pop stars while giving producers the goal to make the music sound ‘contemporary’ and ‘radio friendly’ seems more horrific than anything portrayed in the “Thriller” video.

I was planning to hold my own personal protest. Instead of buying and listening to this new album – I would listen to Thriller (yet again) from start to finish (that’ll show them!). And then maybe move on to Bad – and then back to Off the Wall.

But I have to admit I’m curious. I’m curious to hear what these songs sound like. Will any of them come close to being as good as “The Lady in My Life” or “Beat It” or “Human Nature”? And I’m curious to see how I’ll react.  Is there anyway I can listen objectively? Well, there’s only one way to find out.

So – I’m going to listen to this new album – and I’ll share my reaction with you. But I’m also interested in hearing your thoughts on the subject. How do you feel about posthumous releases? Crass record label money-making technique  – or a gift to fans? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Now – I’m going to prepare to listen to this new album. But first . . . maybe I’ll listen to Thriller, one more time.

Previous Michael Jackson posts can be found here and here

Eurythmics’ Lasting Embrace

eurythmics 2Touch is the album responsible for my 30 year love affair with Eurythmics. Like most of the western world I discovered the duo via their hit “Sweet Dreams,” in 1983. It’s undeniably one of the great pop songs of the 80’s. But Touch is the album that grabbed me and turned me into a fan, but also something more than a fan.

I can remember memorizing and analyzing the lyrics to each and every song; staring at the album cover as the record spun on my turntable; and, in non-cable-ready 1980’s Brooklyn, staying up until 12:30 AM at the end of the week hoping Friday Night Videos would play one of their songs. Although I practiced the same level of near religious devotion with many other bands at the time – there was something about Eurythmics’ music that had meaning for me, connected with me on a personal level, perhaps, more than any other. Somehow this new wave group from the UK perfectly synced with the sensibilities of a 16-year old African-American kid from Crown Heights – and that relationship has endured for 30 years. It feels almost impossible for me to sum up how and why I feel the way I do about this band in a single post – – so let’s do this in stages. Let’s start off by talking about Annie Lennox’s voice.

A voice that simultaneously sends chills down your spine and warms your heart. At one moment you feel like the singer is turning her back on you and the next, running towards you for an embrace. Within one song she conjures a myriad of emotions – love, anger, fear, hope.  The voice is vulnerable. It’s brittle. It soothes and it twists the knife.

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Read the lyrics of the first four lines of “Who’s That Girl,” the first song on Side B.

The language of love

slips from my lover’s tongue

Cooler than Ice cream

and warmer than the sun

This person she sings about sounds pretty great. You’d want to wake up next to him every morning, right? But listen to her sing these lines and immediately it’s a completely different story.

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Even without hearing the rest of the song you’re suspicious of this lover – his motives, his actions, his words. What Is Lennox conveying – is it nostalgia tinged with cynicism? A mixture of joy shadowed by fear? Continue listening and you know it’s all of the above. Yes, love is a stranger, but it’s also a minefield –  and an unfaithful lover is just one of the dangers leading to a broken heart.

As a teenager you begin to take steps into adulthood without realizing it. If you’re lucky, you fall in love for the first time and begin to understand how surprisingly complex relationships can be. Sometimes you have moments of pure, easy joy. And then eruptions of jealousy and fear. For me, the music of Eurythmics and other pop bands were like a little pocket manual. “Oh – I’ve never felt this specific feeling before – but it does remind me of what Annie/Michael//Tina/Daryl/Paul are singing about.”

Now, pop music is less of a manual and more of a beacon – a way for me to remember and reconnect with some of the feelings and experiences I had 30 years ago. And Annie Lennox guides me back like no one else.

Number One this Week in 1984: Lionel Richie’s Hello

lionel-richie-hello-1984Every time a Lionel Richie song went to the top of the charts in 1984 it was a victory for the Average Joe. Now don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing average about Richie’s talent. He’s a brilliant song writer who has created some of the most indelible pop songs of our generation, both with the Commodores and as a solo artist. But place Richie alongside Boy George, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Cameo or David Lee Roth and it’s remarkable that the relatively mild mannered pop star didn’t get lost amidst the flash of his fellow music artists.

Ok – so Richie may not have had the moves of Prince, the mystique of Cameo, the quirky affability of Cyndi Lauper, the cool of Hall & Oates, or the sex appeal of Duran Duran. But he did have an album full of perfect pop songs –  including “Hello,” – which went to number one on both the R&B and Pop charts in May 1984. “Hello” also produced one of greatest music videos of the 1980s.

Following the video check out the 6 greatest things about Lionel Richie’s “Hello”.

This post is in response to the Daily Posts’s – Writing Challenge.

6. Lionel Richie’s Acting. Before the song starts Richie busts out some serious acting chops. He is quite convincing as an obsessed drama teacher. James Lipton eat your heart out!

Hello Hallway

5. Sweet Song, Creepy Plot: Lionel plays a drama coach who is also stalking one of his students. Ballet class? He’s there. Lunch break? He’s there! Drama Class? Well, sure he’s there because he’s the drama teacher – but still! Does this community college of the visual and performing arts perform background checks on their teachers?

4. Michael Peters Cameo! The great choreographer appears as Lionel Richie’s love interest’s dance instructor. Peters was the absolute best. In addition to Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” he also choreographed the dance numbers in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” and “Thriller” videos (discussed here). These are pop culture gifts! All hail Michael Peters!

Laura Carrington

 

3. The Blind Student. Was there anyone prettier than Laura Carrington? Oh man, why wasn’t she a bigger star?

 

 

2. The Call is coming from inside the house! Int, Night, Dark House: “A Blind woman steps out of shower, she’s alone in the the house and then . . . the phone rings!!!” Is this a horror movie or a music video? OR BOTH?!?!

And the number one greatest thing about Lionel Richie’s “Hello” . . .

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