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Whitney Houston uncovered

February 12th, 2012 5 comments

It was in a place called The Video Café in London’s West End that I first became aware of Whitney Houston. In 1985 the concept of a restaurant playing video promos of pop music on big screens was still so novel as to present a special gastronomic experience. So I heard, and saw, Whitney singing How Will I Know there. She wouldn’t bother the British charts for another few months when she topped the charts with her cover of Marilyn McCoo’s Saving All My Love.

We know the trajectory her career took, from superstardom to megastardom to megadivadom to trainwreck who couldn’t buy a comeback for love or money. Following her passing yesterday, she’ll have that comeback. The timing of her death, on the eve of the Grammys, guarantees it. What a way for a diva to go out (even if that will be of scant consolation to her grieving mother Cissy, her daughter, her family or friends)! The tributes are flooding in, as they tend to when somebody as famous as Whitney Houston dies. People who should know better declare Whitney Houston the “Queen of Pop”, her lack of success or accomplishment over the past decade or so notwithstanding. And even in her pomp, Madonna and Mariah Carey had more solid claims to that crown.

Simon Cowell, who has done more than most to molest and maim popular music, has proclaimed Houston the most influential artist ever, or hyperbolic words to that effect. He might have a point: Houston was in the vanguard of singers who pushed the ostentatious soul wailings so overcooked by people like Patti LaBelle into the mainstream (she was joined there by the even greater offenders in that unwelcome development, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men), replicated to nauseating effect by many who tried for Cowell’s talent shows. And, of course, many singers say they were inspired by Whitney Houston, and we must take their word for it.

Of course, Houston will be remembered rightly as a singer with a truly great voice, a woman of great beauty (which even in her drug phase was evident beneath the addict exterior), and as an artist who was ready to encourage young talents. She will be remembered as a diva and as a hitmaker. She will be remembered by some with emotions that are less than fond for her ubiquity in 1992/93, when her love-it-or-hate-it version of I Will Always Love You was impossible to bypass. And she will be remembered as a cautionary tale about the very real perils of drugs and marrying men who are known to be major douchebags. Eventually it will be remembered that for all her talent, voice and poise, Whitney Houston’s output didn’t quite justify the acclaim it is getting now.

Her song-choices and much of the production often failed to do her voice justice; for a soul singer, there was a tendency of technique trumping emotion (her song So Emotional is a good example of that). And when the production really let her voice soar, as it did on I Will Always Love You, it annoyed many and turned them conclusively against Whitney. So she leaves us with six albums, a couple of soundtracks, a few singles (such as the 1988 Olympics anthem One Moment In Time), and her spine-chilling performance of the US national anthem that provided the soundtrack to George Bush Sr’s Gulf War.

Her eponymously titled debut album from 1985 remains the stand-out in Houston’s catalogue. The power ballads are already there, as are the pop numbers, like the deliriously catchy How Will I Know. But the LP has a soul feel, especially when Whitney duets with Jermaine Jackson and Teddy Pendergrass (their Hold Me is just beautiful) and on tracks like You Give Good Love.

The sophomore album, titled with a singular lack of imagination Whitney, dispensed with the soul and recycled How Will I Know as I Wanna Dance With Somebody (both co-written by George Merrill, Shannon Rubicam and Michael Narada Walden) and All At Once as Didn’t We Almost Have It All (both co-written by Michael Masser), just with bigger productions, bigger synths or bigger orchestras. It is an album that has not aged well.

The third album, I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990), traded the Masser productions for those by LA Reid and Babyface, with Walden, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross also chipping in. It was a patchy album, but Whitney regained some of the soul cred which she would promptly lose with The Bodyguard (1992), the soundtrack of the movie in which she acted poorly opposite Kevin Costner, the thespian version of Kenny G (who, predictably, features on the soundtrack). Houston contributed about half of the songs to the soundtrack, which is quite awful once her songs are done with. And even those are not great. Run To You is a sweet song and I Have Nothing is a showstopper type of affair which should go down well at drag clubs. But the horror was Whitney going rock on the dreadful Queen Of The Night, one of the very few songs on which she earned a writing credit.

A couple of other movies and associated soundtracks followed. Of those, The Preacher’s Wife (1997) is mediocre, but Houston’s three turns on the Babyface-produced soundtrack for Waiting To Exhale (1995), are good. A creditable fourth album in My Love Is Your Love (1998) followed – and nothing really worth recalling thereafter.

She had hits, and she even had some fine records, but this is not the strike rate of a legend. Her status as a legend is guaranteed by three other things: her voice, which touched and, yes, influenced many people; her poise, which never suggested, even in her drug-addled days, that she was anything less than a star (the Norma Desmond effect, if you will); and her death at a relatively young age, before her beauty went and before her voice disappeared entirely. She clearly was a troubled soul, far from the seemingly carefree young woman whom I saw in on the screen in The Video Café 27 years ago. May she rest in peace.

Over the next few days we will hear enough Whitney Houston material, and people singing Whitney Houston material in ways that may or may not be classifiable as tributes. So here are the originals of some of the songs Whitney Houston covered. The one non-original is All The Man That I Need, which Sister Sledge covered in 1982 from Linda Clifford’s 1981 original, with guest vocals by David Simmons, before Whitney recorded it in 1990. Their version is superior to Whitney’s. As are, in my view all the other originals, with the exception of Marilyn McCoo’s excellent Saving All My Love For You, which Whitney not only eclipsed but hit out of the park. Singing backing vocals on I’m Every Woman is a 15-year-old Whitney Houston…

Marilyn McCoo – Saving All My Love For You (1978).mp3
George Benson – The Greatest Love Of All (1977).mp3
Isley Brothers – For The Love Of You (1975).mp3
Sister Sledge – All The Man I Need (1982).mp3
Dolly Parton – I Will Always Love You (1974).mp3
Chaka Khan – I’m Every Woman (1978).mp3

 

Any Major Funk Vol. 6

August 18th, 2011 3 comments

It has been two and a half years since I last posted a Any Major Funk mix. Most of the tracks contained in this, the sixth volume, have been languishing in the shortlist folder since then. So here are 16 more songs from the great era of dance music, stretching from 1977 to 1983.

While I’m at it, I have updated the expired links for the first five volumes.

Michael Henderson has played with the greats. Having moved to Detroit as a child, he was only 13-14 years old when he played the bass with various Motown acts as well as The Fantastic Four, The Detroit Emeralds and Billy Preston. Later he toured with Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Miles Davis. Later he debuted as a vocalist for Norman Connors, the great drummer and producer.

It may be by subliminal decision that I sequenced a track by Norman Connors’ after Henderson’s 1983 effort. Connors has produced, played or arranged for some great acts in soul and jazz, including Billy Paul, Jack McDuff, Charles Earland and Herbie Hancock. As a juvenile he once stood in at a gig for John Coltrane’s usual drummer. He discovered Phyllis Hyman, who in 1981 recorded a duet with Henderson. The vocals on the featured track by Connors, the title track from his 1980 album, are by Adaritha, who still performs, now as Ada Dyer, and who recorded the original of Anita Baker’s You Bring Me Joy.

Rainbow Brown (singers Fonda Rae, Luci Martin, Yvonne Lewis) only ever released one LP, a self-titled effort on New York’s Vanguard label produced by Patrick Adams, a prolific songwriter for a number of soul and hip hop acts, ranging from The Main Ingredient to Keith Sweat and the Notorious B.I.G.. Adams wrote Musique’s enthusiastically banned In the Bush, a song that had little relationship with horticulture, but was a top 20 hit in gardening paradise Britain.

The bush-loving nation gave us Hi-Tension, a 12-member ensemble that is regarded as a pioneer of Brit-Funk. They were led by David Joseph, who went on to record several UK hits, including You Can’t Hide Your Love (1982) and Let’s Live It Up (1983).

Also representing Britain are Delegation, who came from Birmingham and had a UK Top 30 hit in 1977 with the excellent Where Is The Love (We Used To Know). I tend to associate them with Sunfire, for no better reason than sometimes sequencing their 1977 hit with Young And Free And Single. Sunfire were a New York outfit whose best-known member was Bruce Fisher, whose At The End Of A Love Affair should be well known to fans of Northern Soul, and who wrote the title track of Quincy Jones’ 1973 album Body Heat.

As always, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R. Homebaked covers are included.

TRACKLISTING
1. War – Galaxy
2. Brothers Johnson – Ain’t We Funkin’ Now
3. Jimmy ‘Bo’ Horne – Get Happy
4. Sunfire - Young, Free And Single
5. George Benson – Turn Your Love Around
6. B.B.R.A. – Do What Make You Feel Good
7. Michael Henderson – You Wouldn’t Have To Work At All
8. Norman Connors – Take It To The Limit
9. Rainbow Brown – I’m The One
10. Shalamar - Full Of Fire
11. George Duke – Brazilian Love Affair
12. Delegation - Put A Little Love On Me
13. Hi-Tension – Hi-Tension
14. One Way – Music
15. The Players Association – Turn The Music Up
16. Parliament - Flashlight

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The Originals Vol. 33

October 16th, 2009 8 comments

In Volume 33 of The Originals, we’ll look at the first recordings of Glen Campbell’s Gentle On My Mind, The Drifters’ On Broadway, Millie’s My Boy Lollipop, George Harrison’s Got My Mind Set On You and Lutricia McNeal’s Ain’t that Just The Way. The two versions of On Broadway that preceded The Drifters’ version are of particular interest because they were recorded as originally written; the song was reworked for the version that became a hit. As always, thanks to Walter and RH who helped me out with songs.

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John Hartford – Gentle On My Mind (1967).mp3
Glen Campbell – Gentle On My Mind (1967).mp3
Leonard Nimoy – Gentle On My Mind (1968).mp3
Boots Randolph – Gentle On My Mind (1968).mp3
Elvis Presley – Gentle On My Mind (1969).mp3

HARTFORDEven without a chorus, Gentle On My Mind made a great impact when it first appeared in the late 1960s. John Hartford, who wrote the song, picked up two Grammys for best folk performance and best country song, but that was eclipsed by Glen Campbell, for whom it became a signature tune (literally; it was the theme of his 1969-72 TV show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, on which Hartford frequently appeared). Campbell, who discovered the song when he heard Hartford’s record on the radio, also won two Grammy for his version, for best country recording and solo performance). His version was a hit twice, in 1967 and again in 1968. The song also bothered the charts in versions by Patti Page (1968) and Aretha Franklin (1969), and featured on Elvis Presley’s excellent comeback album, From Elvis In Memphis (1969). In Britain, its only chart appearance was a #2 hit for, of all people, Dean Martin in1969.

Gentle On My Mind was not a typical John Hartford number. The singer is better known for his bluegrass roots which found expression in his accomplished use of the banjo and fiddle (shortly before his death at 63 in 2001, Hartford won another Grammy for his contributions to the bluegrass soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Hartford — the son of a New York doctor who grew up in St Louis and later acquired a steamboat pilot licence — said that he wrote Gentle On My Mind after watching the film Dr Zhivago. “While I was writing it, if I had any idea that was going to be a hit, it probably would have come out differently and it wouldn’t have been a hit. That just came real fast, a blaze, a blur.” See Hartford’s scribbled lyrics on the website dedicated to the singer.

The song is said to have spawned some 300 cover versions. Elvis’ remake is from the great Memphis sessions which also yielded Suspicious Minds (another cover, dealt with HERE); saxophonist Boots Randolph delivers a very likable easy listening instrumental; and Leonard Nimoy’s version…well, it needs to be heard.

Also recorded by: Tammy Wynette (1967), Trini Lopez (1968), The Lettermen (1968), Burl Ives (1968), Eddy Arnold (1968), Nancy Wilson (1968), Jim Ed Brown (1968), David Houston (1968), Johnny Darrell (1968), Wally Whyton (1968), Patti Page (1968), Billy Eckstine (1968), Dean Martin (1968), Frank Sinatra (1968), Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell (1968), Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs (1968), Wolfgang Sauer (as Die schönen Zeiten der Erinnerung , 1968), Andy Williams (1969), Lenny Dee (1969), Nat Stuckey (1969), Aretha Franklin (1969), Elvis Presley (1969), Lawrence Welk (1969), Wayne Versage (1969), Claude François (as Si douce à mon souvenir, 1970), The New Seekers (1970), Albert West (1975), Bucky Dee James & The Nashville Explosion (1977), Howard Carpendale (1980), Mark Eitzel (2002), Johnny Cash with Glen Campbell (released in 2003), Lucinda Williams (2006) a.o.

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The Cookies – On Broadway (1962).mp3
The Cystals – On Broadway (1962).mp3
The Drifters – On Broadway (1963).mp3
(reuploaded)
George Benson – On Broadway (single version) (1978).mp3

CRYSTALSBarry Mann and Cynthia Weil were among the giants of the Brill Building songwriting collective, although they were based at Aldon Music on 1650 Broadway, not in the actual Brill Building at 1619 Broadway (Aldon Music was co-founded by Al Nevins, one of the Three Suns who recorded the original of Twilight Time). According to Cynthia Weil, her future husband Mann had wanted to write a “Gershwinesque” pop song, and she, being a Broadway fan, was delighted to put appropriate lyrics to the melody. They first had the song recorded by The Cookies (who featured in The Originals HERE), who ordinarily recorded songs, mostly demos, by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Their demo was not released, but that by fellow girl-group the Crystals recorded soon after was, opening side 2 of their 1962 Twist Uptown album.

DRIFTERSIn February 1963, Brill bosses Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber were in need of a song for the Drifters. At their request, Mann & Weil offered their On Broadway. Leiber & Stoller didn’t quite like their arrangement, and revised it overnight with the original composers. Next day the Drifters recorded the song, with Leiber & Stoller protégé Phil Spector on guitar and Rudy Lewis (successor of Ben E. King as the group’s lead singer) making one of his final appearances as a Drifter before his sudden death of a heart attack in 1964. Released in March ’63, the Drifters’ version became a hit, reaching #9 in the Billboard charts.

George Benson’s jazzed-up 1978 live recording did even better, reaching #7 in the US. Recorded in L.A., the crowd clearly agrees with the statement that Benson “can play this here guitar”.

Also recorded by: The Challengers (1963), Bobby Darin (1963), Nancy Wilson (1964), Dave Clark Five (1964), Frank Alamo (1964), Freddie Scott (1964), Lou Rawls (1966), King Curtis (1966), Nancy Sinatra (1966), Willis Jackson (1966), Blossom Dearie (1966), Mongo Santamaría (1970), Livingston Taylor (1971), Tony Christie (1972), Eric Carmen (1975), Disco Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes feat. Sir Monti Rock III (1977), George Benson (1978), Bogart (1979), Gary Numan (1981), Jeff Beck & Paul Rodgers (1983), Neil Young (1989), Jeff Beck & Paul Rodgers (1994), George Benson & Clifford and the Rhythm Rats (1995), Stacy Sullivan (1997), Johnny Mathis (2000), Barbie Anaka with David Loy (2003), Frankie Valli & Jersey Boys (2007), James Taylor (2008), Daniele Magro (2009) a.o.

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Barbie Gaye – My Boy Lollypop (1956).mp3
Millie Small – My Boy Lollipop (1964).mp3

How often does a cover version change the course of music history? Elvis’ remakes of country, blues and rockabilly numbers. The standards sung by Sinatra and Crosby. And Millie’s My Boy Lollipop, widely regarded as the first crossover ska hit which helped give reggae a mainstream audience. In its original version, My Boy Lollypop (note the original spelling) was a song recorded in 1956 by the white R&B singer Barbie Gaye, at 15 two years younger than Millie Small was when she had a hit with the cover in 1964.

barbie_gayeAs so often in pop history, the story of the song’s authorship is cloaked in controversy. By most accounts, it was written by Bobby Spencer of the doo wop band the Cadillacs, with the group’s manager, Johnny Roberts, getting co-writer credit. Barbie Gaye’s single became a very minor hit, championed by the legendary rock ’n roll DJ Alan Freed (the late songwriter Ellie Greenwich styled herself Ellie Gaye in tribute to Barbie on her first single, 1958’s Silly Isn’t It). It was Spencer’s misfortune to come into contact with the notorious record executive and music publisher Morris Levy, who implausibly claimed that he had in fact written My Boy Lollypop, using the moniker R Spencer as a pseudonym. The Cadillacs’ Spencer was later reinstated on the credits which nonetheless still list Levy as a co-writer. Levy’s name is attached to other classics which he had no hand in writing, such as Lee Dorsey’s Ya Ya, Frankie Lymon’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love, and later the Rivieras’ California Sun.

Millie_My_Boy_LollipopMy Boy Lollipop was resurrected in 1964 by Chris Blackwell, boss of the nascent Island Records in England label which had recorded no big hit yet. He chose young Millicent Small, who as the duo Roy and Millie had enjoyed a hit with We’ll Meet in Jamaica, to record it. Her version changed that: the song became a worldwide hit, reaching #2 in both US and UK. Island, of course, went on to become the label of Bob Marley, Roxy Music, Robert Palmer and U2. Millie’s German version of the song featured HERE.

Also recorded by: Joan Baxter (1964), Heidi Bachert (German version, 1964), Plum Run (as part of a medley with Lollipop, 1969), Maggie Mae (1974), James Last (1975), Lea Laven (1976), Flesh (1979), Bad Manners (as My Girl Lollipop [My Boy Lollipop], 1982), Lulu (1986), Isabelle A & The Dinky Toys (1996), Die Mädels (2003), Élodie Frégé (2003), Steven Seagal (as Lollipop, 2005), The King Blues (2008), Amy Winehouse (2009) a.o.

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James Ray – Got My Mind Set On You (1962).mp3
George Harrison – Got My Mind Set On You (1987).mp3

Produced by Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra, it was a cover version that gave George Harrison his first big hit since his nostalgic All Those Years Ago six years earlier. With Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, Harrison and Lynne went on to form the Traveling Wilburys. It is no accident that Harrison’s US#1 and UK#2 hit sounds a lot like a Wilburys song.

james_rayGot My Mind Set On you was originally recorded at roughly the same time as the Beatles began their ascent. Indeed, Harrison discovered the song at that time when he bought James Ray’s LP during a holiday to visit his sister in the US in September 1963. It was written by Rudy Cark, who also wrote The Shoop Shoop Song (featured HERE), Good Lovin’ (which will still feature in this series) and Barbara Mason’s Everybody’s Got to Make A Fool Out Of Somebody. He also co-wrote the Main Ingredient’s Everybody Plays The Fool. R&B Singer Ray James was remembered mostly for only one song, and it wasn’t the song Harrison resurrected 25 years later, but If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody, which reached #22 in the Billboard charts. It might have become a Beatles cover (they did perform it), but in Britain Freddie & the Dreamers had a hit with it.

The diminutive Ray began recording in 1959, as Little Jimmy Ray, releasing one single which flopped. He soon became destitute until he was rediscovered in 1962, while busking in the streets and living on a rooftop in Washington, by Gerry Granahan of Caprice Records. Soon after, If You’ve Got To Make A Fool became a hit, and Ray’s star seemed to be rising. Alas, he struggled to have more hits. James Ray died in 1964, reportedly of a drug overdose. Featured here is the longer album version of I’ve Got My Mind Set On You, on which Ray was backed by the Hutch Davie Orchestra, which Harrison would have heard on the LP he bought (and which is a lot better than his cover). The single version apparently was brutally truncated.

Also recorded by: ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (parody as This Song’s Just Six Words Long, 1988), Shakin’ Stevens (2007)

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Barbi Benton – Ain’t That Just The Way (1976).mp3
Lutricia McNeal – Ain’t That Just The Way (1997).mp3

benton_playboy_72Twenty years before the unusually named Lutricia McNeal had a European hit with Ain’t That Just The Way, it was recorded by the girlfriend of Playboy honcho Hugh Hefner. Hefner and Benton became a couple, for seven years, after the then 18-year-old pretended to be his girlfriend in episodes of the Playboy After Dark TV series in 1968. Born Barbara Klein (the more Playboy-friendly name was suggested by Hefner, of course) in New York and growing up in California, Benton was primarily an actress, appearing in a few unsuccessful movies as well as in the TV show Hee Haw. Between 1978 and ’81, she had three cameos playing three different characters on the Love Boat. In the meantime, she recorded six albums (including a live set) between 1974 and 1988, scoring a country chart top 5 hit in 1975 with Brass Buckles. She also appeared several times in Playboy, making it to the cover in July 1969, March 1970, May 1972 and October 1985 — but never as a Playmate.

barbi_bentonBenton first released Ain’t That Just The Way, which she co-wrote with film composer Stu Philips, as a single in 1976, possibly for the TV series McCloud, which Philips scored. It Appears in an episode of which the song played (the “Park Avenue Pirates” one, fact fans). Benton re-recorded a slowed-down version of the song, produced by Deep Purple’s Roger Glover, for her 1978 album of the same title (the cover of which is pictured here). The version featured here is the 1976 single. Benton today is married to a millionaire real estate developer and apparently works as an interior designer in L.A.

The song was covered in 1977 by Dutch singer Patricia Paay, retitled Poor Jeremy. Two decades later, American R&B singer McNeal had a big hit throughout Europe with her version, restored to its original title, reaching #5 in Britain and the top 10 in every European chart, as well as topping the Billboard Dance charts. In a bit of a twist, McNeal posed in the German edition of Hefner’s Playboy magazine in 2004.

Also recorded by: Patricia Paay (as Poor Jeremy, 1977)

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More Originals

More '80s Soul

November 14th, 2008 7 comments

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Following on from last month’s post of ’80s soul, here’s a mix – as always timed to fit on a standard CD-R – of 18 of my favourite songs from the genre. I’ve tried to make it more or less representative: the old style soul singers getting their ’80s groove on (Mayfield, Womack), the soul funksters (Mtume, Tashan), the smooth stuff (Wilde, Osborne), the fusion influence (Flack, Benson, Upchurch), Jam & Lewis productions (Windjammer, Atlantic Starr), adult-oriented soul (Jackson & Moore, Womack & Womack)… There will be at least one more ’80s soul mix, so glaring omissions – Luther! – will be corrected. Read more…

Albums of the Year: 1980

July 29th, 2008 8 comments

In my notebook, I have shortlists for my albums of the year for 1979 and 1980 side-by-side. The list for 1979 is shorter, but infinitely better; 1980’s list includes 24 albums, but fewer which I’m particularly enthusiastic about. While I’m deciding which albums to bump from ’79, here’s the 1980 lot, with decent albums by David Bowie, Paul Simon, Kate Bush, Motörhead, Ideal and Roxy Music not making the cut for various reasons. It’s a rather predictable list, provided one knows that I never liked ska, got into New Wave only a year later, and mostly bought singles that year. And, it seems, I never really caught up with 1980. So no Specials, no Joy Division, no Talking Heads, no Jam, no The Beat, and (you’ll be surprised) no Gaucho…It is, in fact, a year to piss off the Taste Police (with the Police) with a pick of not the best albums of the year, but those I know and still enjoy.

Dexys Midnight Runners – Searching For The Young Soul Rebel
I had never heard anything like this before. Of course, West Germany was not a hotbed of soul music, at least not the soul music which inspired Kevin Rowland and his mates. Geno might well be my favourite single of all time; it certainly was my song of 1980. The album did not quite stand up to the pop sensibilities of Geno – the brass hook, the chanting, the idiosyncratic vocals – and at times seemed downright weird. Especially Rowland’s style of singing, even when he lurched into a falsetto in the song about Leeds, lost some of the novelty over two sides (minus an instrumental). It took the release of Too-Rye-Ay two years later to rediscover Soul Rebel. And what a fine album it is, with its jubilant sounds dressing the often cynical lyrics. There should be an NGO founded which would send a copy of it to every American who has the nerve to call Dexys a “one-hit wonder”. And a copy of Too-Rye-Ay, just to remind them that one Eileen not a group define.
Dexys Midnight Runners – Tell Me When My Light Turns Green.mp3
Dexys Midnight Runners – Geno.mp3

Bruce Springsteen – The River
A good writer will know that sometimes a great paragraph, a sparkling aside or a riotous gag will need to be sacrificed to maintain the flow, the rhythm of the whole piece. It’s what makes them good writers. Recording artists, even good ones, do not always exercise such disciplined judgment. Rock history is oversupplied with double albums which were rather good, but might have been bona fide classics had the artists limited themselves to two sides of an LP. The Beatles’ White Album provided a template for excess and the problem with that excess. Which leads us to Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 offering. Cut the thing by half, and you’d have an album every bit as good as his artistic peak, Darkness At The Edge Of Town. Having said that, one of the more popular tracks on The River is Cadillac Ranch, which I wholeheartedly despise. I love the cover, on which Bruce channels Pacino and De Niro. It’s a very popular cover, as thousands of contributors to Sleeveface prove. This song, to me, defines the Springsteen sound of the era.
Bruce Springsteen – The Ties That Bind.mp3
Bruce Springsteen – The River.mp3

Warren Zevon – Stand In The Fire
Sometime in 1983 I discovered Warren Zevon. At the time, South Africa (where I has moved in 1982) had very well-stocked record libraries, where you could hire LPs for a day. Somehow the record companies didn’t like that, and by 1989 these great shops were forced to close. But when I was introduced to Warren Zevon, by my boss, I took out his entire back catalogue. Two albums stood out: Excitable Boy (naturally) and this live set. It is a rather poorly recorded live album, as these things go, but the cooking atmosphere of LA’s Roxy Club that night is steaming through the LP’s groove. The title is apt, the gig is incendiary. Zevon is often called the missing link between Randy Newman and Bruce Springsteen; Standing In The Fire proves the point.
Warren Zevon-Bo Diddley’s A Gunslinger + Bo Diddley.mp3

The Police – Zenyatta Mondatta
In 1980, the Police were still cool. Sting had not yet revealed himself to be the pretentious, tantric twat we know and hate now. He had edge, as did the other two blond chaps. I really liked the raw debut, Outlandos d’Amour, but found the follow-up patchy, besides its three big single hits. Zenyatta Mondatta (whatever that means), the final album before mega-stardom, was more cohesive than its predecessors. Where the previous two albums required the occasional song-skipping, all of the first side of Zenyatta Mondatta is quite excellent, in particular Driven To Tears. And, well, for the tune we ought to forgive the lyrics of De Do Do Do De Da Da Da. Much of my affection for this album is nostalgic: it transports me back to the day in November 1980 when my step-father and I wallpapered and painted my room. I had taken all my posters off, and threw them away. Of course, since I was a teenager, new posters would soon go up again, but that day marked a rite of passage, to the soundtrack of Zenyatta Mondatta.
The Police – Driven To Tears.mp3

ABBA – Super Trouper
By the time this was released, I had come to hate ABBA, much as I still loved the glam-pop of the mid-70s. By 1980, ABBA had grown up; I was still growing up and yet had outgrown them. I had bought Voulez-Vous, and despised the album. On the cover, our four friends looked like Mom and Dad going to the disco (and my mom and step-dad were middle-aged contemporaries of ABBA). On the sleeve of Super Trouper they were glowing at the sort of extravaganza no 14-year-old would be invited to. ABBA had entered a strange middle-age world. It was only when I had caught up with adulthood (in as far as I ever have) that I came to discover what a fine album Super Trouper is. The title track, which I had despised, is actually very lovely. The Winner Takes It All, a melancholy ballad set to a quasi-disco beat, is a high water mark in the ABBA canon, Lay All Your Love On Me is luscious and gorgeous, and Happy New Year is at once sad, bitter and hopeful. No surprises here, really. Those reside in the album tracks. If the synth-pop number Me And I sounds familiar, it does so because it would be ripped off throughout the 1980s. The Piper recalls Benny and Bjorn’s roots in northern European folk music. Andante Andante (one of those infuriating non-English titles) is a lovely ballad which, with a different title, might have been a hit. And the final track, The Way Old Friends Do, is a gloriously sentimental masterpiece. It possibly was initially conceived as a simple folk song, but here becomes an orchestral anthem, recorded live. It is a pity that the CD re-release came with three bonus tracks, because The Way Old Friends Do closes the album perfectly. Instead, it’s followed by the (admittedly very good) Gimme Gimme Gimme, the throw-away Elaine, and the absolutely awful Put On A White Sombrero, which is as bad as the title would suggest and recalls the turgid genre of the German Schlager.
Abba – The Way Old Friends Do.mp3
Abba – The Winner Takes It All.mp3
Abba – Happy New Year.mp3

Joan Armatrading – Me, Myself, I
Shortly before she passed away in October 1980, my grandmother lived with us. One day she gave me money to buy myself a new pair of trainers. Fashion be damned, I first bought myself two LPs with the unexpected moolah, and invested the remaining funds in the cheapest pair of adidas available. And I had change for some sweets still. The albums I bought were this one and Cornerstone by Styx (the one with Babe, though I bought it for Boat On The River). The latter I never played in full; Armatrading’s would get many spins over the years. The title track is excellent: great guitar riff and solo, and Armatrading in great lyrical and vocal form. All The Way From America and Turn Out The Lights are other highlights. Looking over the list it seems that I was rather too much into AOR (which beats being rather too much into S&M).
Joan Armatrading – All The Way From America.mp3
Joan Armatrading – Me Myself I.mp3

George Benson – Give Me The Night
After Zevon’s LP, this is the other album on this list which I can’t connect to 1980. I discovered it two years later. Benson has acquired an unfortunate reputation has über-smooth, glitter-jacketed soulster of 1980s lurve ballads. While elements of that are true, this image suppresses the respect the man merits for his pre-crooning days (just listen to his version of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit). Give Me The Night, produced by Quincy Jones, finds our friend at a crossroad: part jazz guitarmeister, part proto-Vandross. Here the combination pays off: lite-funk disco numbers such as the title track and the exuberant Love X Love cohabit with fusion instrumentals such as Off Broadway (a play on his 1977 hit with the Drifters’ On Broadway) and Dinorah Dinorah, and with a couple of nice but unremarkable ballads. The highpoint is Moody’s Mood, more recently sloppily covered by Amy Winehouse. The song was based on a sax solo on James Moody’s I’m In The Mood For Love, turned into a song by King Pleasure in 1952. On his version, Benson, usually an average singer, goes all Al Jarreau on us, with the help of Patti Austin.
George Benson – Moody’s Mood.mp3

Dire Straits – Making Movies
One day I might feature Dire Straits in the Pissing Off The Thought Police series. The credibility problem with Dire Straits was threefold: firstly, when CDs became popular, all the quasi-yuppies bought Brothers In Arms, which was seen (like Coldplay today) as “music for people who hate music”; secondly, Mark Knopfler and his red headband and C&W shirt; thirdly, Dire Straits negated punk by creating 9-minute songs. Of course, only the latter element applied in 1980. I had bought the first two albums, on strength of the excellent Sultans Of Swing. Apart from that, they were fucking boring to me. Not so Making Movies. Amid a few dodgy Knopflerifications which anticipated the hateful Money For Nothing, there were four magnificent songs: Romeo And Juliet, Tunnel Of Love, Espresso Love and the title track. When this album came out, one could buy miniature sleeves of albums containing pink chewing gum shaped like an LP, grooves and everything. I remember buying two: Billy Joel’s Glasshouse (the one Billiam album of the era I have no time for), and Making Movies. When I listen to the Dire Straits album, I can still taste the gum.
Dire Straits – Romeo And Juliet.mp3
AC/DC – Back In Black
This was the last AC/DC album I bought. When my friend Mike and I, both AC/DC fans at the time, first played it and Johnson’s voice burst forth, we burst out laughing. He sounded like a Warner Bros cartoon character doing an exaggerated imitation of the late Bon Scott. I still cannot abide by Brian Johnson’s voice. And for evidence to support my dislike, take Give The Dog A Bone from his first album with AC/DC. Bon Scott, who died just half a year before this album was released, would have invested his vodka-drenched soul into this schoolboy prank of a song to make you believe he was indeed looking to, er, feed a canine. In Johnson’s larynx, the song evokes a sleazy drunk about to get nasty with a blow-up doll while his virgin friends watch. So, I think it is fair to observe, I prefer my AC/DC with Bon Scott at the wheel. Johnson actually did OK on tracks like You Shook Me All Night Long (which is really Highway To Hell Redux), Hell’s Bells, Back In Black or Rock ‘n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution. But he was not Bon Scott.
AC/DC – You Shook Me All Night Long.mp3

John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy
John’s love for Yoko was exemplary, a real fairy tale story. This slavish devotion created his foolish impression that the sound of his wife singing was in some way attractive, so much so that the world had to be treated to it. To the world, of course, Yoko’s singing was akin to a recording of a parrot being violated and the sound of his sad squawks being played on 78rpm. Or perhaps I am being unduly harsh. Yoko’s Hard Times Are Over is a fine song, and Kiss Kiss Kiss is a good disco number. John’s tracks were great though. Even Woman, which was overplayed so much after Lennon’s murder that few people alive in 1981 should wish to ever hear it again. I will always love (Just Like) Starting Over, and defy anyone who claims it is cheesy (other than the bit about the Ono-Lennon’s taking out a loan for a trip far, far away. I imagine that Lennon had so much possession as to make the notion of him taking a trip to the bank manager obsolete [Edit: oops, misheard lyric rendering my gratuitous dig at the hypocrite Lennon obsolete. Damn]). As a father, I can identify with the sentimentality of Beautiful Boy. I’m Losing You is potent. And Watching The Wheels is among the very best things Lennon ever did out of McCartney’s earshot. Back in the day, I taped all of John’s songs, and added Hard Times Are Over and Yoko’s Walking On Thin Ice single which came out a few months after the murder (don’t let it be said that Yoko spurned great cash-in opportunities in her 28 years of grief). These days, a playlist employing the same selection technique will do the trick.
John Lennon – (Just Like) Starting Over.mp3
John Lennon – Watching The Wheels.mp3

And what are your favourite albums of 1980?

Previously featured:
1950s
1960-65
1972
1987

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