Category Archives: Screamer of the Week

SCREAMER OF THE WEEK: BRONSKI BEAT’S SMALLTOWN BOY. THIS WEEK IN 1984.

small town boyJimmy Sommerville and his band Bronski Beat are the most significant LGBT figures in the history of pop music. Although they haven’t sold nearly as many records as Elton John, or won as many Grammys as k.d. lang, or sold out stadiums like Queen; they are the first band I can think of who were openly gay from the very beginning of their career. Not only were they OUT, but they wore their sexuality like a badge of honor and made it an integral part of their persona and their music.

In 1984 there were a number of pop stars who were challenging hetero-normative standards in different ways. Boy George was unapologetic about his appearance, but coy about his sexuality. Other artists challenged gender norms – either for fashion (Nick Rhodes, Larry Blackmon) or for artistic expression ( Annie Lennox). But in June of 1984, Bronski Beat was the only band I knew of that wrote songs explicitly dealing with gay issues. In their second single “Why,” Sommerville sings the line,

. . . I turn to kiss his lips.

Did you hear that citizens/subjects of Reagan and Thatcher? “HIS. LIPS!” That simple lyric, sung by a man about another man, seemed almost revolutionary!

bronski beatDuring the third week of June in 1984 , WLIR’s listeners chose Bronski Beat’s first single, “Small Town Boy” as the best new song of the week. The song tells the story of a young,  ostensibly gay, man who is bullied and misunderstood. In an act of self-preservation he flees the confines of his hometown. Where is he going?  Far away. Somewhere to be himself, somewhere to find himself.

It’s heartening to think that thousands of teens in NYC and Long Island listened to this record and decided to embrace it as their favorite song of the week. Did the majority of listeners truly hear the lyrics and understand the message? I’d like to think so.

Of course the message doesn’t mean anything if the music isn’t great. Like many bands of the 80’s, Bronski Beat placed drum machines and synthesizers at the forefront of their sound. But more than other bands they seemed to be saying, “Sure – we’ll dabble in New Wave but we’re not done with Disco yet.”

And of course you can’t discuss Bronski Beat’s music without talking about Sommerville’s voice. That soulful, ethereal soprano floats on top of the dance beat and reaches heights that don’t seem physically possible. He is the ‘son and heir’ to the great disco singer Sylvester. Can someone please invent a time machine in order to allow Sommerville and Sylvester to perform a duet together? At very least I need to hear a mash-up dance mix of “Small Town Boy” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).”

age of consentIf Sommerville is Sylvester’s direct offspring on the openly gay pop singer family tree – then think of the branches that sprout from Bronski Beat: Antony and the Johnsons, Frank Ocean, Scissor Sisters, Ed Droste (Grizzly Bear) Adam Lambert, Tyler Glenn (Neon Trees). Here’s an idea – each of these artists should cover a song from Age of Consent and release the collection as a Bronski Beat tribute album.

Bronski Beat deserves that tribute. They should be honored for being pioneers. They should also be honored for making some really great pop music.

Check out Jimmy Sommerville: Now & Then to see him deliver a beautiful performance of this great song 30 years after its debut. He still NAILS those high notes.

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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

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

 

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.

WDCCover
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

Screamer of the Week: You Take Me Up by Thompson Twins. This Week in 1984

During the third week of April, 1984, Thompson Twins won the Screamer of the Week with “You Take Me Up,” the third single from Into the Gap.  This song is the band at its most earnest – and its best. They seem to be taking a stab at something close to Blue Grass – and it works. The harmonica, the call and response, the lack of synthesizers (are those real cowbell I hear?).  And most importantly, the song answers the musical question: ‘what’s the solution to being caught up in an oppressive post-industrial economic system that depends on forced labor?’ The answer? Love, of course!

The video takes that idea even further. ‘What do you do when you are wrongly convicted of a crime and placed on a chain gang?’ Why, you sing about love and magically free yourself (even more effective than DNA testing)!

My favorite moment comes 2:00 in when Tom Bailey belts out the lyric

I believe in TODAY!

(believe boy, believe boy)

It’s better that way when you work through the night.

That’s a pretty good lyric, isn’t it. I’ll admit that when I worked in news and found myself on the night shift I’d sing that line to myself every once in awhile. I may have secretly hoped Tom, Joe, and Allanah would bust me out of my corporate media chain gang and allow me to bounce off into the sunset with them. I’ll also admit I may still be waiting.

Additional Screamer of the Week posts:

The Psychedelic Furs – Heaven

Prince and the Revolution – When Doves Cry

R.E.M. – Pretty Persuasion

Screamer of the Week: Heaven by The Psychedelic Furs. This week in 1984.

Every week the Long Island radio station WLIR 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.

This week In 1984 The Psychedelic Furs’ Heaven was the Screamer of the Week. The single came from the band’s fourth studio album Mirror Moves which also contained Here Come Cowboys and my favorite – The Ghost in You. This is a case where the song is much better than the video. Heaven, the song, is haunting, sad and poetic. The video – well – there’s lots of spinning. And lots of rain.

Ah, but what a gorgeous song. Annie Lennox covered it 1995 (of course her version is equally haunting).

While conducting research for this post I discovered the band is on tour right now on the east coast. If anyone sees them please send a review in the comments. Also – SCREAM when they play Heaven to remind them of what they accomplished 30 years ago.

Additional Screamer of the Week posts:

The Thompson Twins – You Take Me Up

Prince and the Revolution – When Doves Cry

R.E.M. – Pretty Persuasion