Entry for September 12, 2006

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1983: THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT SQUEAKED

 

1983 wasn’t exactly the greatest year for new records. Lots of good ones, lots more bad ones, and very few great ones.

Preparing to review the year in vinyl, I searched the stacks, the stores, and every Billboard I could get my hands on, intending to add it all up and see where the year stood, record-wise. My conclusion? It didn’t stand, it sat. It may have even had its head between its knees.

Let’s ignore the sociobullshit and get down to the bottom, anal-retentive line: WAS IT A GREAT YEAR FOR NEW RECORDS? Answer: No, it wasn’t. It was an OK year; if you don’t care about the sociobullshit, it was better than OK. But it wasn’t GRAND, and I don’t see it getting any grander in ’84 or ’85.

What makes a year grand? Hard to say. The recent Mike Bloomfield compilation, for instance, brought me back a few years–back to his Butterfield and Electric Flag stuff–not to mention Super Session, the album that everyone denounced but bought anyway. Forget Bloomfield; what about Blood, Sweat & Tears’ Child Is Father To The Man? 1968–that was the year of White Light/White Heat, Beggars Banquet, Cheap Thrills, Astral Weeks, and if all that sounds like sanctimonious hoohah written by a guy who wished it was still 1968: IT ISN’T and HE DOESN’T. But the proverbial bottom line yet again: most of those albums have not only defined actual genres of pop, but are still, in 1983, in-print, viable rock “classics” that sell because they still sound good and no one’s done anything similar but better.

I mention all this not to be insipid, but as an introduction to the cold-hearted facts: by my admittedly skewed count, there are at most 15 or so really GREAT albums this year. There are lots more “good” ones, but there always are those good ones which would’ve been great if only…blah, blah, blah. There’s lots of “if-only,” too much.

What scares me, though, is that if I had to take my 15-or-so ’83 faves and stack ’em up against the first Moby Grape or Stooges albums and tell someone how they compare–will they be as monumental, earth-shaking or just plain listenable in 15 years–I would have to say, very quietly: “Ummm.”

How to judge a record year? Many ways. First: are the “greats” still great? Yes? No? What ratio, please? Second: are there lots of new bands, exploring areas of music heretofore unexplored? Yes? No? Third: are the records that are good–but not great–good because they sound like other, great ones? Fourth: are the new avenues being explored just dead-ends that don’t really merit much exploration in the first place?

To start things off properly, let’s examine 1983 the way it begs to be:

MAJOR DISAPPOINTMENTS

Neil Young‘s Everybody’s Rockin’ was a massive rockabilly jerk-off, another case of a talented guy treading water until something really terrible happens to him so he can write some songs about it. Hope he read that story in PeoplePaul McCartney‘s Pipes Of Peace was pleasant but too sugary again. Best songs were written with Michael Jackson; maybe Paul should buy him…Lou Reed‘s Legendary Hearts was bad news all around–it sounds like it was mixed in a dumptruck. Great to have Bob Quine on an album; too bad he’s inaudible. Lou’s songs don’t sound heartfelt–he’s playing at writing songs, like Transformer all over again without the giggles. After The Blue Mask, a major downer…Both John Hiatt and Marshall Crenshaw produced sludge. Hiatt, who I usually like a lot more, sounds like he’s been singing the same song too long on Riding With The King, and the Durocs/Nick Lowe production split looks a little fishy as well. Crenshaw, nice guy but tremendously overrated, had the right idea on Field Day, going with a new producer to get a “new” sound rather than the Buddy Holly/early ’60s croon displayed on his debut. Bottom line, though, is that he hasn’t displayed an original sound or idea on vinyl yet. Buy the Beatlemania soundtrack instead…The Hollies reunion should’ve never happened. Most exciting part were the pictures of the drummer; maybe Spirit will get together next year…Nils Lofgren‘s boring new album Wonderland was “highlighted” by “It’s All Over Now.” Sure love his sense of irony…Graham Parker once mattered, though if you only heard The Real Macaw, you’d certainly want to know why…Ian Hunter, ditto. If you took one song from each of his post-Mott albums, maybe you could put together an LP as good as, say, Brain Capers–but when Barry Manilow covered “Ships” it was all over…The Motels had such promise, but as an interview I read with Martha Davis makes clear, her producer Val Garay has an ear for one thing and, one thing only. Hint: you can stick it in a piggy bank. Martha said she wrote songs she thought were great, but Val couldn’t “hear them.” This from the guy who ruined Marty Balin, among others…Nick Lowe and why he ever seemed more than a nice guy who played pub rock continues to baffle.  Don’t know about his mom, but his pop’s been dead three albums now…Jackson Browne decided that singing sensitive songs was for the birds, so now he’s singing “Lawyers In Love,” which is just senseless…Talking Heads ruined Adrian Belew, and vice-versa. David Byrne has become utterly repellent, and Adrian‘s Twang Bar King has all the melody of that rhinoceros he so earnestly attempts to emulate. I’ll take “Apricot Brandy” any day…Speaking of unlistenable sludge, Pink Floyd‘s The Final Cut must’ve boosted Gillette stock oodles. You needed two razors after you heard it–one for your wrist and one for the actual record, so no one else would have hear it again…And the B-52’s, whose finest moment was “Give MeBack My Man,” set record stores buzzing with the continual chanting of customers who picked up Whammy!: “Give Us Back Our Money.”

SIGNIFICANTLY GOOD RECORDS

Southside Johnny‘s Trash It Up, produced by Nile Rodgers, was good news, but he’s yet to top Hearts Of Stone…The Local BoysMoments Of Madness marks the return of Andy Fairweather-Low, and while it’s good to have him back, he somehow lacks that characteristic oomph he had back on A&M…Good major market entries by both Green On Red and the Suburbs, the latter band a little too reminiscent of their influences…Good showings also from Pylon, Chris Stamey and Love Tractor on Atlanta’s DB Records. Whoever put that roster together is no dummy…Related here is Let’s Active, the band of North Carolina-boy wonder Mitch Easter, who also produced Barone & Mastro‘s Nuts And Bolts in his spare time. Only problem with ’em all is they’ve yet to put together anything approaching the three Big Star albums they so obviously admire–though Stamey, with the dB’s, came very close…The Police‘s Synchronicity may be their best album yet, but despite their democratic wishes, it all falls apart when the Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland tunes break the mood. Always good, occasionally great…ZZ Top continue to whip out the best Texas metal boogie around, but the material on Eliminator just isn’t up to the standard of their classic, Tres Hombres.  They’ll get there one year…Spandau Ballet‘s True was a real surprise; though they managed a hit ripping off ABC, ol’ Marty Fry himself rips off Bowie regularly, so who cares? Two or three classic tunes here…Speaking of surprised, U2‘s War was a shock after the generally tuneless October. Calling ’em “the Led Zeppelin of the ’80s” may not be farfetched after all, God forbid…Pete Townshend‘s first listenable material in many years came from Scoop. Unfortunately the best of it was recorded in the late ’60s. Sort of like Odds And Sods’ “Little Willie”–too little, too late…Was (Not Was)‘s Born To Laugh At Tornadoes was clever, tuneful and maybe even great.  But–a crucial problem here–it lacked any sort of focal center, Was Bros. notwithstanding. An album filled with great singles…but not really an album…Robert Plant‘s Principle Of Moments was a respectable set bv anyone’s count, especially after his dull first LP. Can’t help thinking of 1973 or so when I hear it, though…David Thomas & the Pedestrians‘ second set, Variations On A Theme, is almost one of the year’s best–Richard Thompson’s guitar playing alone makes it superb–but former Ubu-ite Thomas’s continual whimsy has finally worn me down totally. This from the guy behind The Modern Dance?…Good but not great product from people who can do much better: the Comsat (C.S. in America) Angels, Altered Images and Howard Devoto. All listenable, but blander, the Comsats most distressingly so…Entirely serviceable Noo Wave from Bow Wow Wow, Heaven 17 and yes, A Flock Of Seagulls, but hummable though it was, it lacked a certain vitality which rendered much of it forgettable…The same goes for Colour By Numbers by Culture Club, who are as Wavey a band as the Oak Ridge Boys, both who I’m sure my mother would love could she get Engelbert H. off her turntable…Both 20/20 (now on an independent label) and the Blasters did Los Angeles proud in ’83; 20/20’s production a little rougher than was necessary, and the Blasters still so damn-we-try-hard I could’ve used a cover of “Amphetamine Annie,” but no luck…Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Alan Vega did fine this year as well, though OMD should cut out the Pink Floydisms and Vega should just do…something…Likeable stuff from Peter Godwin, who was once was in Metro and performed “Criminal World,” which David Bowie needlessly covered on his Let’s Dance LP–a major disappointment itself, a tired pop rehashing he felt necessary for renewing his wondrous career. Though “Modern Love” and the title track weren’t exactly chickenfeed…Speaking of chickens, the Animals’ reunion set, Ark, wasn’t as great as we’d all hoped, but sounds just as good as the Burdon post-War stuff, which is A-OK. They were incredible live…Good-but-not great: the latest from NRBQ, Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones, Echo & The Bunnymen, Richard Thompson (he’s too happy now that he’s single), Eno and Translator. The latter sound like the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band just like Television’s “Days” did, always a good sign. Bring ’em back…the DoorsAlive, She Cried sounds as good as they always were (especially if you’re drunk), so let’s hear it for Elektra: good idea…. Marc & The MambasTorment And Toreros is potentially incredible, but pretty hard to listen to, especially after the “scum-sucking fucks” part. Check back next year…As for the three Artists Who Can Be Great But Weren’t This Year, let’s hear it for Bob Dylan, whose Infidels is his best in years. He’s crankier than ever…And Elvis Costello just couldn’t follow up the too-true Imperial Bedroom, so he stuck great material like “Every Day I Write The Book” together with some pretty lame stuff on Punch The Clock and produced his most so-so album since Trust. Another minor setback… Jonathan Richman is back into our lives with the uneven Jonathan Sings!, though two songs–“Summer Feeling” and “Neighbors”–are maybe his best to date. Almost there, but he blew it.

***

Then there’s those albums you play once, twice, eight times or so–and admit, yeah, I do like these albums, but there’s just…

SOMETHING WRONG

For example, I do like Billy Joel‘s An Innocent Man, but only because he’s so obnoxious…Ditto Malcolm McLaren, whose Duck Rock I liked because he’s an asshole and he’s getting royalties for songs he didn’t write…Other guilty pleasures include Stevie Nicks’ The Wild Heart–“Stand Back” is one of the year’s best singles–and Joan Jett, who still can’t sing and whose mother dresses her funny…Pointless excursions also provided by the Fleshtones, who have everything but that spark down pat; Dave Edmunds, whose lack of originality isn’t as tolerable as it once was; the Three O’Clock, who are really adept at sounding almost-good-but-not-quite, sort of like an Electric Prunes’ B-side, if you catch my drift. Who cares?…One might well ask that of Dave Davies, whose third solo album, Chosen People, had a few good moments but reeked of an era long gone; Eric Clapton produced his liveliest album in years; Money And Cigarettes was actually played more than once in my household. You’d be better off buying Fresh Cream, though…Simple Minds sounds like somebody else, and Icehouse sounds so much like current-day Roxy Music you’ll barf but probably like ’em anyway…X and their continued popularity continue to amaze, as Exene’s lyrics are…um…dumbPete Shelley better stop playing with himself in the studio and get a band together; XL I sounds like a metronome.  One track sounds like the Honeycombs, though…The Stray Cats continue to display all the right moves on Rant ‘N’ Rave With The Stray Cats–unfortunately, none of the moves are their own. Likewise their music…Peter Gabriel‘s live album was useless, Todd Rundgren can do much better than Tortured Artist Effect, and the Tom Tom Club are, still more fun than Talking Heads or taking out the garbage, you decide.

***

On to the more deeply spiritual plane of artists who are usually ho-hum but managed–at least in ’83–to surprise, provoke, and occasionally astound with their unlikely sucess at producing…

SURPRISES

Linda Ronstadt‘s What’s New, in which she’s accompanied by Nelson Riddle’s arrangements, is her best LP in years, unfortunately most of ’em being 30 years back or so. She deserves credit…As do Depeche Mode, who have melodically grown at an eerie rate: Construction Time Again is 10 times better than anything Yaz has put forward. Never thought I’d say it…Speaking of guys who wear pink suits, the Romantics’ In Heat is their best set ever…Bonnie Tyler, of all people, had a great time singing tunes by the charismatic Jim Steinman, who no doubt learned to play “rock keyboards” listening to Ford Theatre’s great Trilogy For The Masses album–because that’s exactly what the bridge from “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” sounds like. Fess up, moe!…Atomic Rooster sound as relevant on their ’83 reunion LP as they did when they still existed; if Arthur Brown was singing the tunes we’d all be back in biz…Alex Call, ex of Clover, put together a great overlooked set for Arista which puts Huey Lewis back in the bargain bin where he belongs. Look for it…Ditto Robin Gibb, who’ll never top Robin’s Reign but does OK years later with actual synth-pop backing. Bee Gee fans beware…As an incidental, the Moving Hearts, Irish band of increasing renown, have a stateside LP featuring the greatest cover of the year, Quicksilver’s “What About Me”: “Eef ya donnn’t stannd up ferr what yoo b’leev, be perrrrpared to he shot down.” It goes great with potatoes…

***

Let us check out the year for oldies; specifically, what kind of good stuffs available now that wasn’t last year…

REISSUES OF NOTE

There’s lots more, but the following are the reissues I paid any attention to…All three Nazz albums have been reissued by Rhino. Nazz Nazz is classic pop; check ‘er out…Come to think of it, Rhino also released the best of Tim Buckley (somebody had to do it!), vital music in any decade, and separate Chocolate Watch Band/Standells cornpilations. Their three-record Flo & Eddie best-of, all you’ll ever need by the zany “duo,” also includes radio interviews with Lou Reed, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, & more!…The Buddy Holly on MCA was neat…Speaking of Quicksilver–I was a minute ago–some German company released Maiden Of The Cancer Moon, a two-LP set of live QMS taken from the Happy Trails-era. Mandatory psychedelia!…

***

Let’s take a moment to ponder how bad things have really become in 1983:

TERRIBLE RECORDS

First of all, does anybody in world like the Lords Of The New Church? Bad enough they cover the Grassroots–they get the words wrong, too! Yeah, I know who wrote it…Asia “wisely” kicked out John Wetton–the guy who only wrote all their material–and replaced him with Greg Lake. Now they’re gonna play “serious” music. Pass the plunger…Berlin, in case you didn’t notice, were utterly terrible and probably still are…Cheap Trick’s best songs on Next Position, Please are written by Robin Zander and the Motors.  Maybe Rick Nielsen should take a few years off–like maybe a few hundred…Crosby, Stills & Nash managed to scrape enough Ho-Ho’s together to produce yet another album, Allies–and what David Crosby has to do with it is beyond me. Sad stuff…Speaking of stuff, Paul Kantner might want to do that with his “sequel” to Blow s Against The Empire. Paul used to take drugs ‘n’ things…Styx are, of course, terrible, but I’d like to commend them for Kilroy Was Here and just being themDuran Duran stuck to their guns with “The Union Of The Snake” and have at last beaten Peter, Paul & Mary at their own game. Shave ’emKiss let us know they were ugly. Needlessly…The Waitresses did a bad job of sharing the inner secrets of true femaleness, perhaps due to lyricist Chris Butler unfortunately being a male.  So his friends say…Greg Lake put out an album, I think…Elliot Murphy finally released a new album to convince all of us that yes, it was just our imagination.  He stinks…

***

This was a year of new bands, new bands doing their darnedest to rise above the fluff of the above and more. There were actually many…

DECENT NEW BANDS

Probably number one on the hype parade was Big Country, whose new LP is neat, but be aware that the best three tunes on it were prior singles by the band (“In A Big Country,” “Fields Of Fire” & “Harvest Home”), so their future contributions may conceivably remain sludge-like and include the word “CHA!” at every turn…Style Council is more Paul Weller’s speed than the Jam’s The Gift was.  Good new EP Out…Horizontal Brian sounds just like Squeeze, which doesn’t mean they stink…Hunters And Collectors took their name from a Can song; too bad they don’t sound as good. For Aussies, they’re OK… Ditto for the Rads, whose EP sounds like AC/DC eating the Only Ones…Ignatius Jones covers the groovy Church tune “Like A Ghost,” on his Sire EP Those zany Australians!…The Bluebells sound wimpy but are potentially respectable…Kissing The Pink are the sort of band that grows on you; Naked’s choral effects show a healthy respect for Magma as well. Neat…Haysi Fantayzee have something Bolanesque about ’em that’s unique. Good LP…Respectable debuts also emerged from Paul Young, JoBoxers (Where’s Vic Goddard? They used to be Subway Sect.), Tears For Fears, Blancmange, Violent Femmes (too derivative for me, must confess), Golden Palominos and Eurythmics. Latter band really debuted stateside with their second LP–the first includes pal Holger Czukay from Can and is more interesting…The Alarm dress up like morons, which must explain why Clash fans like ’em…Stevie Ray Vaughan‘s Texas Flood was a great debut, filled with hotshot Texan guitarisms–but I think I’d rather hear him accompanying David Bowie or somebody. The songs, Stevie…Mari Wilson had a cosmic debut LP; those who gawk at her hair ignore her charms. Absolutely hot!…Modern Fnglish‘s first U.S. album provided “I Melt With You,” the nominal theme to the great Valley Girl flick…Shriekback could be stupendous; their debut, Care, is a little too open-ended, but it’s neat…Mission Of Burma fans probably know about Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic–their mainmen’s attempt at Glass/Reich-stuff…Good nonetheless…Check out these new bands without U.S. record labels: Waterboys, Icicle Works, Care, Opposition, Strawberry Switchblade and any of the two Orange Juice albums–they’re old, but you should hear ’em anyway…

***

Last but not least, we arrive at…

1983’s GREAT RECORDS

Predictably, one of the year’s best albums was Van Morrison‘s; he hasn’t made a bad move since Into The Music, and on Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart he’s successfully paired his movie-soundtrack persona with his “intimate truths” side. It’s gorgeous, his best record since Veedon Fleece… Another rock grandpa, Ray Davies, put together the best Kinks album since Sleepwalker, back when his crew first signed up with Arista. Can’t give State Of Confusion a total thumbs up–a wee bit too much mindless metal on side one. But at least five songs make up for it: “Property,” “Come Dancing,” “Heart Of Gold,” “Don’t Forget To Dance” and the cassette-only “Long Distance.” Hope he can keep it up…T-Bone Burnett, who’s been tantalizing us for years, finally came through with the superb Proof Through The Night…One might say the same of Jules Shear, whose first LP without the Polar Bears, Watch Dog, has at least three incredible tracks on it, including the best Beach Boys tribute since Dean Torrence & Mike Love’s album for Radio Shack, “The Longest Drink.” Have you heard it?…I don’t think I can quite call With Sympathy, Ministry‘s debut album, great, but it does likewise bear at least three magnificent tracks, especially “I Wanted To Tell Her.” Hard to believe they’re from ChicagoR.E.M.’s debut, Murmur, is astounding–the best of that whole North Carolina/Georgia franchise to my ears. Sometimes they sound uncannily like the Beau Brummels. Only long-term problem: if they’re so melodic, can you hum one of their tunes?…In this year of the “Australian Invasion,” wouldn’t it be typical if every band from down under stunk? But no: the greatest Aussie LP this year is Seance, the latest Church album; almost as good is the Go-Betweens’ Before Hollywood. You can hear a lot of other bands in both those groups–the Byrds, Television and the Velvets, maybe–but it’s all fiercely original, great rock ‘n’ roll. On import only…A surprise from Jo Jo Zep: Cha, produced sans the Falcons, is a veritable mindblower. Horn arrangements are over the top, and incorporation of strange rhythms a fiery female vocalist are unforgettable. A real surprise…Last but not least is the American debut of Goanna, the Aussies who apparently live together down there in an actual commune. Spirit Of Place sounds like the first Fairport Convention album with Ian Matthews & Judy Dyble and no Sandy Denny. Harks back, but never too much…That out of the way, it looks like the Limeys had us by the tail in ’83: Soft Cell’s The Art Of Falling Apart went as underrated as their first, which people took as the “Tainted Love”-plus-filler set it plainly wasn’t. If this band breaks up, as they’re planning, it’ll be our loss…Aztec Camera have had so much critical hoopla dumped on ’em this year I don’t have to help; just buy their album; it’s terrific…An unfair great album: Snap!, the best-of-the-Jam compilation…Warners made a “mini LP” of the last few things by the Cure, and as these things go, it’s a “great” mini-LP. Too bad they didn’t hold out for the “Love Cats” Brit 45. …New Order‘s second album has a lot more shape & a lot less suicide than their first. It’s called Power, Corruption & Lies, and it’s better than “Blue Monday”…Another band accused of selling out that hasn’t is Gang Of Four. When I first heard Hard, I laughed out loud–this band used to have balls!  Twenty listenings down the road I realized that 1) they still do and 2) their new material proves it. If I were them, I’d be very proud…Likewise for the now-defunct Fun Boy Three, whose second album was a startling progression from their annoyingly ordinary debut. Waiting may be the album of the year, the one Elvis Costello should’ve made but didn’t. Nicky Holland‘s arrangements are varied and always gorgeous, and the songs speak volumes…And finally, two little-known gems: Ben Watt‘s debut, North Marine Drive, is my personal fave this year. Watt’s earlier EP with Robert Wyatt was magnificent, and though he’s become a little less stark and a little more open, he still sounds like a modern-day Nick Drake to me. The album’s a Cherry Red import and is spectacular…Related here is the second album by the just-disbanded Marine Girls, Lazy Ways. Tracey Thorne, who put out last year’s wonderful Distant Shore, was a Marine Girl and remains one-half of Everything But The Girl (whose “Night And Day” was also reissued this year) with Ben Watt. If Watt is this decade’s Nick Drake, she’s its Beverley Marlyn. Can’t recommend all of these enough…

***

STILL HAVEN’T HEARD

…The latest from Paul Simon, ABC, John & Yoko, and the Stones.

And at this point–surely you agree–who cares?

(CREEM Close-Up: ROCK CHRONICLES, Jan. 1984)

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