Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wall of Voodoo - Mexican Radio

I have no idea who at MTV liked this quirky number, but somehow "Mexican Radio" went into heavy rotation for a time on the video music channel.  Helped by the exposure, the song reached #58 on the charts (the band's only top 100 hit), while the Call of the West album peaked at #45 (the band's only top 100 album).

Wall of Voodoo was a new wave band from LA., and originally formed in the late 1970's as a soundtrack company.  The band's new wave approach, laid back vocals (almost talk-singing) and unusual music has led some to compare them to Devo, which is not totally unfair.  I.R.S. Records (now who remembers them?) signed the band in 1980, and Wall of Voodoo's first EP had a cover of Johnny Cash's  "Ring of Fire" that generated some buzz.  While the band had some Western influences, their music is a bit tough to categorize; overall they were darker and more complex than one would expect from this song.

At any rate, "Mexican Radio" was the lead single from the band's second LP, Call of the Wild.  The concept for the song came from the Mexican radio stations that the band used to listen to on AM radio in their car.  In fact, the Spanish segments of the song were recorded from these stations.  Similarly, the video was shot on the cheap, in Tijuana (in retrospect, I think that this helped the video).  Overall, the video does a great job of capturing the eccentric song -- and I have to point out the "face in beans" scene (around 3:33) that was an iconic early MTV image.

Unfortunately, frontman Stan Ridgway left Wall of Voodoo in 1983, right after their appearance at the US Festival.  The band continued for a couple of years before calling it quits.  While Ridgeway did not have much success as a solo artist, he carved out a successful career scoring films.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Hilly Michaels - Calling All Girls

Unless you are a big time music aficionado, the name Hilly Michaels probably doesn't mean much to you.  This is a shame, because Hilly had a really interesting, slightly crazy career that includes 2 good hyper-bubblegum albums and a ton of jobs as a session drummer.

Hilly (given name: Michael Hillman) started drumming in the late 1960's with Michael Bolton and went on to work with Sparks, Dan Hartman ("Instant Replay"), Ellen Foley and Ian Hunter ("All of the Good Ones Are Taken"), among others.  In 1980 he released his first solo album, Calling All Girls.  Produced by Roy Thomas Baker (famous for his work with The Cars and Queen), Calling All Girls is critically acclaimed for its uptempo new wave popiness.  The album is filled with well-crafted pop songs and features appearances by Liza Minnelli (really), Elton John, Greg Hawkes (Cars) and G.E. Smith (SNL).

The "Calling All Girls" video was an early classic on MTV and it is not hard to see why.  In addition to the catchy pop song, the vibrant animation really distinguishes this video from other of the era.  In fact, "Calling All Girls" was the 93rd song ever played on MTV (the first day), and it remained an early favorite of the channel for some time.

In spite of the strong material, the album did not connect with listeners and Hilly's second album, 1981's Lumia did not fare any better.  Hilly remained active for years as a session drummer, before leaving the industry to live in the Caribbean and then Florida for a number of years.  He still performs one a somewhat unpredictable basis to the present day.

Cool trivia fact: Hilly's manager was Jake Hooker.  That name doesn't ring a bell?  Well, Hooker was the guitarist of the Arrows, famous for writing and recording the original version of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," later made famous by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.  [The link will magically transport you to the March 2012 ERV blog post featuring the original and the cover.]

Cool trivia fact #2:  Michaels was asked to join KISS twice -- in 1980 and in 1990.  He declined both times.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Keith Richards - Take It So Hard

Man, it is hard to figure out how to start a blog post about Keith Richards.  Aside from the fact the he is seemingly indestructible (from a drug standpoint, at least), we are talking about one of the greatest rock songwriters ever.  [I'm particularly partial to the guitar lines in "Happy," "Brown Sugar," "Satisfaction," and "Gimme Shelter," just for starters.]

However, the mid-1980's were a difficult time for the Rolling Stones.  Mick Jagger wanted to move towards a more updated, poppy sound, and when Richards resisted, Jagger effectively went out on his own.  [Regular ERV readers will recognize that truckloads of lead singers go out on their own, almost always to the detriment of themselves and their band.]  By 1986, the situation came to a head, and Jagger refused to tour or support the Stones Dirty Work LP, instead focusing on his solo record.  I think at that time it was unclear if the Rolling Stones would continue as a band.

This led to Richards deciding to do his own solo record (his first); the result was the 1988 album, Talk Is Cheap.  While the songs do not measure up to the late 1960's / early 1970's masterpieces (what does?), the record produced some of the best Richards material in years.  He co-wrote the album with Steve Jordan, and set up a band (the Xpensive Winos) to record and tour.

"Take It So Hard" was the lead single and does a great job of recapturing some of the Richards magic (man, does he have a feel for great riffs ...)  The video is a shot of the band performing after a nuclear holocaust has presumably destroyed everything except Keith and the band.  (Given Richards apparent invulnerability  this seems like a shockingly plausible scenario, actually ...)

Of course, the Stones were able to get it together and have continued to periodically record and tour as of this writing.  Richards released one additional solo album, 1992's Main Offender, before re-focusing his efforts on the Stones.

The Stones dark and cool video for "Undercover of the Night" was posted on ERV in June, 2015.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Public Image Ltd - Rise

It's nearly impossible to talk about John Lydon without mentioning the Sex Pistols.  While the Sex Pistols were only together for a few years (and one studio album), they helped define the punk movement.  As the frontman for the band, Lydon (then going by Johnny Rotten) became of the most visible punk rockers in the world during the movement's heyday, making him an important and influential artist.

To his credit, Lydon did not attempt to form the Sex Pistols part 2 after the band fell apart.  Instead, he created a new band, Public Image Ltd (PiL) who have recorded using various interesting and eclectic styles.  Some critics have taken to calling this "post-punk," but that feels like a lazy way to characterize the music.  It seems to me that what Lydon did was take a punk attitude and try to translate it to other genres of music.  I don't think that it was always successful, but it was always interesting.

"Rise" was a 1986 single off the PiL LP called Album.  Stylistically, it is almost a punk folk song, if there is such a thing.  The lyrics were influenced by the apartheid system in South Africa (not unlike the "Sun City"  previously featured on ERV).  Hence the references to skin and torture.  The song ended up becoming one of PiL's biggest hits, and reached #11 in the UK.  It didn't chart in the U.S.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Def Leppard - Let It Go

Although Def Leppard is one of the bands that defined music in the 1980's, there are some rare and semi-rare videos of them.  In this way they are a lot like Bon Jovi, who went up on the blog last September.  And like Bon Jovi, the Leppards were not an overnight success; it took a few years to find their sound.

The band formed in Sheffield, England in 1977 and emerged as part of the new wave of British heavy metal in the early 1980's, alongside such bands as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.  Def Leppard's first album came out in 1980, and it was immediately apparent that they were different from most other metal groups in terms of their melodic, pop-influenced melodies.  In a stroke of good fortune, their sound caught the ear of producer extraordinaire Mutt Lange, who agreed to work on the band's second album, 1981's High and Dry.  [Lange would continue to work with the band on the Pyromania and Hysteria albums, as well.]

High and Dry was a modest success, reaching #38 on the U.S. charts, although "Let It Go" did not break the top 100.  I have to say, High and Dry is my favorite Def Leppard album -- it was a bit rougher than the band's later stuff, but it is really good.

The video was a straight up performance filmed at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool, England.  In fact, Def Leppard shot "Let It Go," "High and Dry" and the original version of "Bringin' On the Heartbreak" all at the same time ... ah, the innocence of those pre-MTV days.

Of course, Def Leppard would crack the code of pop-metal with their 1983 Pyromania album (the catchy videos on MTV didn't hurt) and become huge stars -- Pyromania and Hysteria (1987) each sold in excess of 10 million units in the U.S.  Unfortunately, the band was also know for their tragedies as well, especially drummer Rick Allen's 1984 car accident (and loss of an arm) and guitarist Steve Clark's death in 1991.

Cool trivia fact:  The working title of "Let It Go" was "When The Rain Falls."

Cool trivia fact #2:  The dark-haired guitarist (with the Gibson Explorer) is Pete Willis, who was fired from the band in 1982 for alcoholism.  He was replaced by Phil Collen (not the one from Genesis), who remains in the band to the present day.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Pebbles - Mercedes Boy

Pebbles (born as Perri McKissack; Pebbles was a childhood nickname) had a brief but successful career as a solo artist before transitioning to management.  She is one of few artists who was probably more successful as a manager than a performer ... but more on that in a moment.

Pebbles got her start as a backup singer for Bill Summers and Con Funk Shun in the early 1980's.  In addition to singing, she began writing songs and eventually secured a recording contract with MCA.  Her self-titled first album, released in 1987, peaked at #14 and produced two top 5 hits -- Girlfriend (#5) and Mercedes Boy (#2).  Her second album, 1990's Always also did well and produced two more top 40 singles.

In 1989, Pebbles married her second husband (she has been married 4 times as of this writing), record producer L.A. Reid.  This led to the formation of Pebbitone (her management company) and Savvy Records (her record label).  More importantly, Pebbles became the manager of a new female R&B group called TLC.  While TLC became superstars, Pebbles relationship with the band deteriorated over time, and eventually TLC left Pebbitone, around the same time that Pebbles marriage to Reid ended.  Pebbles then became more religious and left the secular music industry.

"Mercedes Boy" was written by Pebbles about a high school boyfriend, and co-produced by Charlie Wilson (of Gap Band fame).  It is notable for having a strong guitar solo, which is something of a rarity for R&B (and may be one factor that helped the song cross over).

Cool (weird) trivia fact:  The male dancer is Rudy Houston, a former Solid Gold dancer who also appeared in Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" video.  In the 1990's, he apparently underwent a sex change operation (and appeared on the Sally Jessy Raphael Show to discuss it).

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Artists United Against Apartheid - Sun City

The political music and concert trend of the 1980's was somewhat weird.  The whole thing started with Bob Geldof's Band Aid project "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in late 1984.  In 1985, seemingly every musician on the planet was recording an all star song or appearing at a concert.  USA for Africa, Live Aid, Farm Aid, Hear 'n Aid (yes, I kid you not, there was a heavy metal charity project) all took place within 12 months of Band Aid.

Still, Artists United Against Apartheid seemed to be a bit different.  First, it was much more blatantly political (younger readers can look up apartheid here). and second, it seemed to be more genuine.  The project was organized by Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band and included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Bono, Pete Townshend, Peter Gabriel, Pat Benatar, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, Run-D.M.C., Clarence Clemons, Hall and Oates, and Jackson Browne among others.

The point of the video was twofold:  to raise awareness of apartheid, and to pressure artists who were considering performing at Sun City, thus pressuring the South African regime.  This was not a totally trivial issue, as performers such as Frank Sinatra, Queen, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, Julio Iglesias, The O'Jays, Linda Ronstadt, Cliff Richard, Johnny Mathis, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick and Laura Branigan had performed at the casino.

While an early version of the song named names, it was decided to take a more subtle route in the end.  In spite of this, "Sun City" was not a huge success -- the single hit #38, while the album peaked at #31.  It is likely that the blatant political message of the song, combined with the rap elements made this a little bit of a tough sell.  Still, the project did generate a fair amount of publicity, and it also raised money for anti-apartheid causes.  Overall, I think it was a solid success for Little Steven.  And this story has a happy ending, as South Africa is now a free and democratic country in the community of nations.

Cool trivia fact:  Rolling Stone ranked the Sun City album as the 100th greatest LP of the 1980's.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bonnie Raitt - Thing Called Love

Let's face it:  not all of the stories on ERV are happy.  The blog is littered with talented artists who did not break though; in fact that is something of the point of ERV -- to highlight these musicians and their videos.  Still, there are some cool success stories here as well, including a lot of the covers posted on ERV (which is kind of the point of the covers category).

Bonnie Raitt actually fits into both categories.  For the first fifteen years of her career, she was an under-appreciated artist who then had a late career renaissance.  Raitt released 9 albums between 1971 and 1986 with some commercial success, but she did not have a top 40 single or a top 20 album.  However, her bluesy sound and slide guitar made her a trailblazer and a critical darling.

Everything changed when Raitt released Nick of Time in 1989.  Her 10th album was produced by Don Was (previously featured on the blog in Was Not Was) and contained the song that really broke her career wide open -- her cover of John Hiatt's "Thing Called Love."  (Hiatt's "Slow Turning" was posted on ERV in March 2012.)  The stars aligned and Raitt had a #1 album, one that would go on to sell some 5 million units in the U.S.  Incredibly, "Thing Called Love" did not break the top 100 on the U.S. charts, but Raitt had multiple charting singles after it, including 5 top 40 songs.

The video of "Thing Called Love" features Dennis Quaid, (a friend of Raitts') who is basically there to flirt with her.  In subsequent interviews, Raitt recounts that she was somewhat uncomfortable shooting videos, and thought that having an actor friend there would help the process.

And of course, the rougher but still excellent John Hiatt original:

Cool trivia fact:  Rolling Stone ranked John Hiatt's Bring the Family album (with his version of "Thing Called Love") as the 53rd greatest album of the 1980's.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Face to Face - 10-9-8

Face to Face (no relation to the 1990's punk band) was a Boston-based new wave band fronted by lead singer Laurie Sargent.  In their heyday, they were often compared to 'Til Tuesday for obvious reasons (Both were Boston-based new wave bands with a female lead singer).

Face to Face's big break came in 1984, and for a brief period it looked like they were on their way to stardom.  Their self-titled first album broke into the charts, as did the single "10-9-8."  The band's music was also featured in the movie Streets of Fire, which was heavily marketed over the summer of 1984.  However, sales of their single and album stalled, and Street of Fire bombed at the box office.  Face to Face soldiered on for a few more years, but eventually broke up in 1988.

"10-9-8" peaked at #38, while Face to Face's debut LP reached #127.  For those keeping score at home, that does make Face to Face an official one hit wonder.  By the way, the video for "10-9-8" is not half bad -- it is something of an artistic performance piece.  And for our younger readers, that thing shown around 1:20 is called a payphone, and was used in days of yore (before cell phones).

After the band broke up, Laurie Sargent remained active in the industry, while guitarist Angelo Petraglia became a successful songwriter (mostly roots and country rock).