Sunday, October 4, 2015

Digital Underground - The Humpty Dance

By mixing old school beats with goofy lyrics, Digital Underground (DU) created a cool and unique sound that led to one big hit, though by all rights they could have been much more successful.  The group was led by Greg Jacobs, who went by Shock G -- though in DU he played a character called Humpty Hump.

Jacobs grew up in Tampa, Florida, but formed Digital Underground after relocating to Oakland, California in 1987.  The group's sound relied heavily on old school samples, especially from Parliament Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone.  (Not coincidentally, both acts were sampled for "The Humpty Dance.")  DU's debut LP, 1990's Sex Packets became a hit, reaching #24 on the charts.  However, this proved to be Digital Underground's biggest success, though the band continued to record and perform through 2008.

Needless to say, "The Humpty Dance" was DU's biggest hit at #11.  The video became a mainstay on MTV for a time in 1989 (the song and video came out prior to the LP).  The crazy lyrics, and Humpty Humps' Groucho Marx glasses and vintage clothes created a visual image completely different from anything else on MTV at the time.  Unfortunately, this momentum proved hard to maintain.

Although Digital Underground soldiered on for years, Jacobs (Shock G) was no one trick pony, as he also has worked as a solo artist and producer.  He remains active in the industry as of this writing.

Cool trivia fact:  None other than Tupac Shakur got his start as a member of Digital Underground, starting in 1991.  In addition, G Shock produced several early Tupac songs.

Cool trivia fact #2:  Digital Underground is not a one hit wonder, as 1991's "Kiss You Back" reached #40 on the charts.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Cult - Rain

"Rain" was the second single off The Cult's 1985 Love album (or perhaps the first, as "She Sells Sanctuary" was actually released prior to the LP).  This is another atmospheric rock song that makes one wonder why The Cult weren't even bigger stars.

The group formed in Yorkshire, England in the early 1980's, and started as a goth rock band called Southern Death Cult.  Lineup, name, and style changes followed with the band really taking shape in 1983 or 1984.  Led by the mystical singer Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy, The Cult crafted a unique hard rock sound with atmospheric and new wave influences.

The video for "Rain" is a cool, slightly freaky clip that alludes to the song's subject matter (in a word: sex).  I don't recall seeing this one back in the day, but it is a strong if somewhat odd effort.  The single did not chart in the U.S., but did pick up a bunch of rock and college radio airplay - similar to "She Sells Sanctuary," which was posted on ERV in August, 2011.  However, the Love album would reach #87 on the charts and go gold.

The Cult would go on to have significant success before breaking up in 1995, though there have been numerous reunions since then.

Cool trivia fact:  The Cult are a no hit wonder in the U.S.; their highest charting single was 1989's Fire Woman (#46).  (They did have #11 top 40 singles in the U.K.)

Cool trivia fact #2:  Prior to joining The Cult, guitarist Billy Duffy played with a pre-Smiths Morrissey in the Nosebleeds.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Daryl Hall & John Oates - How Does It Feel To Be Back

Although they would go on to become the most successful duo of the rock era,  Daryl Hall & John Oates had a choppy career before becoming superstars for most of the first half of the 1980's.

Hall and Oates met in 1967 in Philadelphia, and began working together in 1970.  While their first three albums (for Atlantic) were unsuccessful, 1975's self-titled album (on RCA) made them pop stars.  Between 1975 and 1977, they had three top 10 hits with "Sara Smile," "She's Gone," and "Rich Girl."  This run of success ended with "Rich Girl" and they had no top 10 hits through the end of the 1970's.  In fact, 1979's X-Static was the duo's first non-Gold record on RCA.

Needless to say, this made 1980's Voices album a really important record for the group, and they opted to go with the John Oates track "How Does It Feel To Be Back" as the lead single.   Had the duo not gone on to become hugely successful, this would have become a forgotten track.  Perhaps it still is.  The strong pop song doesn't even really sound like a typical Hall & Oates single, mostly due to Oates' voice (Hall sang most of the big hits of the 1980's).

"How Does It Feel To Be Back" did not become the big hit the the band had hoped for -- it stalled at #30.  However, the next single, a cover of the 1964 Righteous Brothers hit, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" became a surprise success at #12, and "Kiss on My List" became the duo's second #1 hit (after "Rich Girl").  The rest of the story is history, as they say.

Monday, September 7, 2015

They Might Be Giants - Ana Ng

They Might Be Giants (TMBG; named after the 1971 movie) was an odd yet interesting band that started showing up on MTV (mostly on the 120 Minutes program) in the late 1980's.  The group consisted of two Johns (Flansburgh and Linnell) who met as teenagers in Lincoln, Massachusetts and eventually moved to Brooklyn, New York to pursue a career in music.

Not surprisingly, the music industry had absolutely no idea what to make of the band, so TMBG promoted themselves through Dial-A-Song.  The group posted ads in local newspapers (such as The Village Voice) with a phone number, which led to an answering machine with a taped song.  The band maintained the service even after they were signed; some listeners estimate that more than 500 songs were recorded over the years.

Helped by Dial-A-Song, TMBG generated enough interest to be signed in 1985 and their self-titled debut LP came out the following year.  The album even picked up some college radio airplay.  1988's Lincoln actually charted (#89) and "Ana Ng" picked up some mainstream radio airplay as well.

Of course, the band's big break came in 1990 with the Flood album ( "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" may both be familiar to readers.  TMBG's period of major success was relatively brief, but they maintained a loyal following, and expanded their audience in the mid-2000's with a series of children's albums.  The band remains active in the industry as of this writing.

Cool trivia fact:  At their first concert, They Might Be Giants used the name, El Grupo de Rock and Roll.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Jam - Town Called Malice

The Jam were a popular, influential, and interesting band in Britain, but couldn't get arrested in America.  Between 1977 and 1982, the group had 18 top 40 U.K. singles and 6 top 25 LPs without any real success in the U.S.

The band formed in Woking (England) in the early 1970's, and burst onto the scene in 1977.  While their early work fit into the punk scene, they had a stronger melodic sense and more obvious 1960's soul influences than many of their contemporaries.  Over time, this soul sound became more pronounced, though they remained popular throughout this transition.

At peak of their popularity, singer/guitarist/songwriter Paul Weller decided to disband The Jam in order to form a full-on soul band, which led to the creation The Style Council in 1983.  When The Style Council's popularity faded, Weller ended that group in 1989 and has remained a solo artist to the present day.

"Town Called Malice" was off The Jam's last studio LP, 1982's The Gift.  The title was inspired by Nevil Shute's 1950 novel A Town Like Alice, though the content was not.  The contrast between an upbeat melody and more downbeat lyrics (reflecting the mood in Britain at the time) made the song a huge hit; it reached #1 on the British charts.

The video is all 1982 goodness, and shows the cool, mod-revival style that led to Weller's nickname "The Modfather."  We're particularly partial to the soft ultra-white lighting.

Cool trivia fact:  Not only did every Jam single break the top 40 in the U.K., but two import singles also charted (1981's "That's Entertainment" at #21 and 1982's "Just Who Is the 5 O'Clock Hero?" at #8).

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Bruce Cockburn - If I Had a Rocket Launcher

"If I Had a Rocket Launcher" was one of the more political songs to hit the charts during the 1980's.  The song was written by Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn, who built a successful career in his home country, but saw little mainstream success south of the Canadian border.

Cockburn was born in Ottawa and entered the music business in the late 1960's.  His big breakthrough was 1979's "Wondering Where the Lions Are" which led to an extended period of chart success in Canada.  Between 1979 and 1997, Cockburn had 8 top 40 singles (and another 12 songs that charted but did not break the top 40).  In contrast, only  "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" and "Wondering Where the Lions Are"  broke the top 100 in the U.S.

Interestingly, prior to 1984's Stealing Fire, Cockburn was not considered an unusually political songwriter, though his humanist and pacifist leanings were known to his fans.  However, an Oxfam sponsored trip to Central America underscored the troubles there, and led to much of the material on his album.  "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" was inspired by an actual event, where Cockburn saw Guatemalan refugees fired on by helicopters.

Although there was some controversy around the song -- particularly the last lyric, Cockburn has said that it is not a call for violence, but a cry for help.

"If I Had a Rocket Launcher" peaked at #88 in the U.S., while the Stealing Fire LP would reach #74.

Cool trivia fact:  Bruce Cockburn is a one hit wonder in the U.S.; only 1979's "Wondering Where the Lions Are" (#21) broke the top 40.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Tora Tora - Walkin' Shoes

Tora Tora (named after the Van Halen song, not the movie) was a Memphis blues rock band that came close to a major breakout at the end of the 1980's.  The group consisted of Anthony Corder (vocals), Keith Douglas (guitar), Patrick Francis (bass), and John Patterson (drums).

After recording an independent EP, Tora Tora generated some local buzz, which led to a recording contract with A&M.  The band's debut LP, 1989's Surprise Attack reached #47 on the charts, while the single "Walkin' Shoes" hit #86, thanks in part to some airplay on MTV.  The band also landed a song ("Dancing With a Gypsy") on the soundtrack to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

However, Tora Tora's second album did not come out until 1992, right as grunge was changing the rock scene.  That album (Wild America) did not break the top 100, turning Tora Tora into more of a working band.  They were subsequently dropped by their label in 1994, after recording their third album (which was not released until 2011).  After losing their recording contract, the band broke up.

The group re-formed in 2008 and have been performing and releasing material since that time.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Commodores - Lady (You Bring Me Up)

A nearly perfect 1981 time capsule (right down to the short shorts and high socks), "Lady (You Bring Me Up)" captures the Commodores at the end of the Lionel Richie era, when they were still one of the biggest acts in pop/funk.

The group formed while at the Tuskegee Institute in the late 1960's, and signed with Motown Records in 1972.  They quickly rose to become one of the most popular acts in 1970's and early 1980's pop/funk; between 1975 and 1981 they had 10 top 30 LPs and 15 top 40 singles.  As many reader will know, the Commodores sound evolved over time, becoming more pop and less funk.  This migration to pop was driven by singer/songwriter Lionel Richie, which created tension in the band and ultimately led to Richie leaving in 1982.

In the aftermath of Richie's departure, the Commodores soldiered on as a working band, but without a ton of major commercial success.  Lionel Richie would of course go on to become a major pop star, before going into semi-retirement in 1987.

"Lady (You Bring Me Up)" became a #8 hit in 1981, while the In the Pocket LP would peak at #13.

Cool trivia fact:  The Commodores had great difficulty picking their name, and ultimately chose it by picking a name out of the dictionary.  This led the band to joke that they almost became known as the Commodes.

Cool trivia fact #2:  The group is looking at a Billboard magazine at the start of the video, and eagle eyed readers may notice the back page advertisement for Van Halen's Fair Warning album (our favorite Van Halen LP), which was released in April, 1981.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Housemartins - Happy Hour

The Housemartins were the rock band equivalent of a shooting star.  In Britain, they enjoyed some mainstream success, with 7 top 40 singles between 1986 - 1988.  However, the band barely made a ripple in the U.S., though they did pick up a modicum of airplay on college radio in the mid 1980's.

The group formed in Hull (U.K.) in 1983 and jokingly referred to themselves as the fourth best band in town (after Red Guitars, Everything but the Girl, and the Gargoyles).  However, their seductive combination of upbeat guitar hooks and cutting lyrics endeared them to critics and fans alike.  John Peel (the influential DJ) became an early supporter, and the Housemartins' first album, 1986's London 0 Hull 4 became a surprise hit, reaching #3 on the U.K. album charts and going platinum.  Our pick for the blog, "Happy Hour" was the big hit off this album, and reached #3 on the U.K. singles chart.

While 1987's The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death (yes, that's really what they called their sophomore effort) did not do quite as well, it still reached #9 on the charts, and their non album single "Caravan of Love" (a cover of the Isley-Jasper-Isley song) became a #1 smash in the U.K.  However, inside the band, things were not going well at all.  Singer Paul Heaton was interested in sophistipop, while bassist Norman Cook was more interested in club and dance music.  As a result, the band amicably called it a day in 1988.

For most of the acts on ERV, that would be the end of the story (except for the reunions).  However ... Paul Heaton along with drummer Dave Hemingway and roadie/bassist Sean Welch formed The Beautiful South, who would go on to have massive success in the U.K. through 2007.  Not to be outdone, Norman Cook also became a big success; you may know him by his pseudonym, Fatboy Slim.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Joe Satriani - Satch Boogie

How prevalent were rock guitarists in the 1980's?  So much so that even Michael Jackson inserted a blistering solo into "Beat It" (with Eddie Van Halen, no less).

However, even among guitar heroes Joe Satriani stood out as a king among kings.  His effortless technical prowess, use of multiple styles and abilities as a teacher made him a living legend in the hard rock scene of the 1980's.  Surprisingly, a combination of great musicianship, good timing, and a bit of good luck led to some commercial success, in spite of the fact that his work was entirely instrumental.

Satriani was born on Long Island and gained local notoriety as a player and teacher.  In the late 1970's he moved to California to pursue a career in music, which eventually led to a gig in the Greg Kihn Band (seriously!)  After former student Steve Vai joined David Lee Roth's solo band, Satriani became better-known, and he eventually released his second solo LP in 1987.

Surfing With the Alien became a surprise hit that same year, reaching #29 on the charts, and the title cut and "Satch Boogie" both hit the Mainstream Rock Charts, due to FM radio play.  The video for "Satch Boogie" is relatively basic, but this is definitely a 'let the music do the talking' sort of song.

 Joe Satriani's  commercial success faded somewhat in the 1990's, be he remains a working musician, and seems to enjoy performing with other guitarists.  (For example, G3, a working group that originally comprised Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson has continued in various version to the present day).

Cool trivia fact:  Satch is Joe Satriani's nickname.