Monthly Archives: June 2014

Screamer of the Week: Thompson Twins: Sister of Mercy: This Week in 1984

Unless you are/were a die-hard album buying, b-side listening, concert attending Thompson Twins fan you may not know or remember the song, “Sister of Mercy”. Thompson Twins’ 1984 album, Into the Gap, produced three international hit singles, “Doctor Doctor,” “You Take Me Up“, and of course,  “Hold Me Now.”

Thompson-Twins-Sister-Of-Mercy-358260But it seems my favorite radio station, WLIR wasn’t content playing only those three songs from the album. Each of those singles were nominated for, and won, the station’s Screamer of the Week competition (each week listeners voted for the best new song of the week) in the winter of 1984. In the first week of March, “The Gap” became the fourth song from the album to win Screamer of the Week. And finally, “Sister of Mercy” won the competition in the second week of June. I’ll need verification from a Screamer of the Week scholar – but I’m pretty sure 5 Screamers from one album has to be some type of record. i don’t think R.E.M. or Depeche Mode or OMD or U2 ever came close to that achievement.

So what caused Thompson Twins to dominate the modern rock and pop airwaves in 1984 ? I think my answer may come in one word – their songs were incredibly, “CATCHY”.  I fear some may think that calling a song a catchy is a back handed compliment – but I use the phrase as major praise. “Yellow Submarine” is catchy. “Beat It” is catchy. “Ode to Joy” is catchy. So when I say that Into the Gap is filled with some of the catchiest tunes of the year, maybe I’m coming close to calling it a perfect album. Maybe.

I always interpreted “Sister of Mercy” as the band’s attempt at gravitas. It falls within what is a surprisingly large category of pop songs written about domestic violence. 10,000 Maniacs’ “What’s the Matter Here,” Janet Jackson’s “This Time”, The Pretenders and Annie Lennox’s respective covers of “Thin Line Between Love & Hate” are some of my favorites in that genre.

Thompson Twins were such a positive band – I always thought they might record a sequel to the song in which the female character is released from prison and goes on to counsel other women who have suffered a similar fate. Or maybe she sees the Thompson Twins video for “You Take Me Up” and, inspired, engineers a prison break.

I like a happy ending.

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

 

STOP MAKING SENSE REVISITED

sms albumAbout one month ago I saw David Byrne perform an inspired show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in tribute to the Nigerian musician William Onyeabor. Byrne was lithe and charismatic and he was in great voice. I raved about that performance and described how it reminded me of the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense. You can read that post here.

Last night I returned to BAM to see a screening of Stop Making Sense. The screening was hosted by the great radio journalist Brian Lehrer who decided to honor the 30th anniversary of the film with the screening and a Q&A with the film’s director Jonathan Demme. Seems like I’m not the only person who has decided to celebrate the musical accomplishments of the great (greatest) year of pop music.

The screening was much more powerful and much more emotional than I could have imagined. In fact I welled up with emotions three times during the screening. I was actually caught off guard by a lump in my throat and additional moisture in my eyes. Three times. Trust me – it’s a rare experience for this to happen once – but it happened.

The first time: The audience broke into sincere, enthusiastic applause after the 5th song in the film (“Slippery People”). Usually I’d be very judgmental and accuse the audience of forcing a display of emotion they wanted others to believe they were feeling. But I was caught up in the brilliance of the film as well and found myself tapping my foot, bobbing my head and applauding after every song. And in the dimmed theater I could hear and feel 100’s of others joining me. It was Pauline Kael’s description of the film as, “an austere orgy,” come to fruition.

tmbtp2The Second Time: During every single second of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”. This might be the most beautiful love song ( it is a love song, isn’t it?) written by a rock band. And the song is elevated by the performance in the film. The image of the male/female, black/white band on stage, in literal harmony, brought on a surprising burst of joy. And who doesn’t love a lamp dance?

Third Time: Somewhere in the middle of “Girlfriend is Better”.  At some point I just thought how lucky everyone in that theater was. This ecstatic performance of an amazing song played by a great band at their peak was captured on film. And here we were 3 decades later, sharing the experience with friends and strangers.

If you’ve never seen this film or haven’t seen it in a while – check to see if any theaters in your area are playing it. And if not – rent the DVD and invite some friends over and have a party. Have a disco. Fool around!

Interesting facts shared by Demme and his producing partner during the Q&A:

80% of the film comes from one night’s performance. Pick-ups and coverage were pulled from two other nights of performance.

Contrary to other stories, Demme says that he observed all members of The Talking Heads getting along.

The film premiered at the Castro theater in San Francisco. An earthquake occurred earlier that day. When the film played audience members got up and started dancing and caused the theater to literally shake for the second time that day.

Let’s Hear it for the Boy by Deniece Williams: Number One this Week in 1984

DW - LHIFTBDeniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” was number one on the Pop, R&B and Dance charts in June 1984. It was certified platinum and nominated for the Oscar for Best Song. I hadn’t thought of this song in years and had forgotten that it was such a monster hit. As I considered writing about it for this blog I wondered if its success was solely due to the fact that it was on the Footloose soundtrack. I also wondered if this 1980’s bubble gum pop song was on par with some of the other songs I’ve written about on this blog (songs by Michael Jackson, R.E.M., Cyndi Lauper, Duran DuranTalking Heads, and Cameo). Recently, I sat down to watch the video for the first time in at least a decade.  I immediately began tapping my foot, singing along and feeling happy and at ease (I’m now pretty sure the FDA has designated LHIFTB as a mild anti-depressant). But does this mean it’s a GREAT pop song? Let’s try to figure it out. Watch the video and then read my 4 favorite things about the song aka “Let’s hear it for ‘Let’s Hear it For the Boy.’ Let’s see if we reach a conclusion by the end of this post.

deneice-williams-flashback.img4. The Voice. Deniece Williams has a four-octave range. In addition to being able to shatter glass with her voice (people can do that, right?) she’s able to imbue some pretty simple lyrics with a great sense of emotion and meaning. Towards the end of the song (around 3:07) she does something pretty special with the word ‘baby’. Before Whitney and before Mariah; Deniece Williams was adding extra syllables to words and performing feats of Olympian vocal gymnastics. But you never get the feeling she’s showing off. Instead – you just get the sense she’s feeling the emotions described in the song and helping the listener to feel them as well. In this case – she’s asking us, “So you want to know how my man makes me feel? You want me to convey it in one word? Ok – he’s my “Babeeeeeeeeeeeeeyeeeeeheeeeyeeheeee!”

3.  The Boy. So tell me . . . why does she love this guy? He’s inarticulate, he’s a poor dress, he’s not romantic, he sings off-key, etc, etc, etc. This boy has set the bar pretty low but still, he’s inspired someone to sing (in 4 different octaves) about their love for him someone . Have no fear underachievers – love. is. possible.    

2. Football Half Shirts. Please refer to the music video ( 2:21 – 2:36).

Footloose1. Good Company. 1984 was a great year for pop music soundtracks. In addition to Williams’ hit single, the Footloose soundtrack also contained Kenny Loggins’ title track and the Shalamar hit, “Dancing in the Sheets.” Other great pop soundtracks from 1984 included Ghostbusters, Against All Odds, and of course, Purple Rain. Deniece was at the beginning of a big, big trend.

So – what do you think? Is “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” a great song in a great (the greatest) year of pop music? Tell me what you think in the comments.