Thursday, August 29, 2013

Big Country - Look Away

Long time reader Krista recommended this one, and it is a perfect fit for the blog.  (I have to say, having well-informed readers makes my job even easier ...)

Big Country was a one hit wonder in the U.S., with only "In a Big Country" (#17 in 1983) breaking the top 40.  However, in the U.K., the band had significant success with 15 top 40 songs between 1982 and 1993.  Even more surprising (to me, at least), "In a Big Country" was not their highest charting single in the U.K. (at #17, same as the U.S.).  Instead, "Look Away" was, as it reached #7 in 1986.  In the U.S., the song is not nearly as well known as it did not chart.

Although Big Country formed in mid-1981, it took a few months to solidify the classic line up of Stuart Adamson (guitars, vocals), Bruce Watson (guitars), Tony Butler (Bass) and Mark Brzezicki (drums).  Interestingly, Tony Butler was not the first choice on bass, but Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen declined to join the group.  In 1982, the band signed with Mercury-Phonogram and released their first LP in 1983.

The band was known for their strong Scottish folk influences, driven by guitars that often had a bagpipe-like sound.  This stylized sound eventually hurt the band as critics argued that their songs sounded too much alike.  However, the band did produce a bunch of solid Celtic-rock songs (and that is not a sentence that one writes very often).

For the blog, we went with the previously mentioned "Look Away," from the 1986 LP The Seer.  The video uses period costumes, horses and dogs to capture the feel of the song, and does a nice job, in my opinion.

Big Country remained together and continued to record and perform until Stuart Adamson's suicide in 2001.  The band broke up at that point, but has re-formed twice in the intervening years, most recently with Mike Peters (former lead singer of The Alarm). [Note: Mike Peters left the group in November 2013 and was replaced by Simon Hough.]

The group's first charting single, "Fields of Fire (400 Miles)" was posted on ERV in January 2015.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Billy Joel - Sometimes a Fantasy

By 1980, Billy Joel was a big big star, but the lack of critical acclaim bothered him.  So, he did what any good artist would and poured these frustrations into his seventh solo album.  The resulting effort (Glass Houses) combined Joel's skillful pop melodies with a stronger rock sound and edgier lyrics.  It is my favorite Billy Joel album, and the last of four tremendous LPs (Turnstiles, The Stranger, 52nd Street and Glass Houses) that he made between 1976 and 1980.

The really impressive thing about Glass Houses (and the three other albums) is the strength of the material.  There is nary a bad song on any of these records, and they are quite stylistically diverse, to boot.  They are also impeccably produced by Phil Ramone, which, ironically, may have added fuel to the fire for some critics who viewed it as too polished for rock and roll.

As many readers will know, Joel was anything but an overnight success.  He started playing keyboards with The Echoes in 1965, then quit to join The Hassles in 1967.  In 1969, Joel formed Atilla with The Hassles drummer Jon Small, but the group disbanded after Joel had an affair with Small's wife (Joel would eventually go on to marry her).  Billy Joel's solo career started with the release of Cold Spring Harbor in 1971, and he gradually build a following until the huge success of The Stranger in 1977.

"Sometimes a Fantasy" was the last of five singles released from Glass Houses.  The song reached #36 on the charts, but given Joel's huge success at the time, it is almost a lost classic.  The video (which I don't recall ever seeing back in the day) is the only 'story' video shot from Glass Houses, as the other videos are simply Joel performing on a sound stage (remember, Glass Houses came out a year before MTV launched).  I am particularly partial to the "bad" Billy Joel (the one with the beard) in the video.

Billy Joel would go on to have continued success throughout the 1980's and early 1990's, albeit with mostly weaker material in your humble author's view.  His last rock studio album was 1993's River of Dreams, although he still performs to the present day.  And over time, the critics have warmed up to him -- Allmusic rates the four albums above as 4 stars (on a 5 point scale; actually, all but 52nd Street are 4 1/2 stars).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Echo & The Bunnymen - Lips Like Sugar

Although they had a string of hits in the U.K (including 13 top 40 singles)., Echo & the Bunnymen never charted in the U.S.  However, they were popular on college radio and did develop something of a cult following in the 1980's.

The band came out of the late 1970's Liverpool scene.  In fact, lead singer Ian McCulloch had previously been in Crucial Three with Julian Cope (who went on to form The Teardrop Explodes before his solo career) and Pete Wylie (Wah! Heat).  After Crucial Three broke up, McCulloch began working with guitarist Will Sergeant and bass player Les Pattinson and Echo & the Bunnymen was formed.  Some sources believe that the drum machine used by the band was named Echo, but this seems to be in dispute.  There is little doubt that the name was essentially random and meant to be ridiculous.

I have to admit that I was surprised that "Lips Like Sugar" never charted, as it has generated a fair bit of airplay through the years.  The song did chart in the U.K., where it reached #36, while the album was Echo's highest charting U.S. LP, where it reached #51.

McCullouch left the band in 1988, effectively ending Echo & the Bunnymen (although one album without him was released).  The group then re-formed in 1997 and remains together as of this writing.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

De La Soul - Me Myself and I

When De La Soul's debut album came out in 1989, it created quite a stir in the music industry.  At a time when old school rap had started to feel stale, De La Soul's funky, jazzy and quirky take on hip hop was a breath of fresh air.  That album, 3 Feet High and Rising, was both critically and commercially successful and was hailed by many critics as a sign of things to come.

The lead single from the LP was "Me Myself and I" which would go on to become De La Soul's only top 40 hit (at #34), while the album would reach #24 and go platinum.  At the time, the group's positive message and broad use of samples seemed to be pushing hip hop in an upbeat, artistic direction; it was easy to believe that this was the beginning of a new era.  This sense of a movement was reinforced by the Native Tongues collective, which was a grouping of artists (led by De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers) who shared a musical vision that was positive, laid-back and somewhat Afrocentric.

Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan for De La Soul.  First, The Turtles sued the band for not obtaining permission to use their song "You Showed Me" as a sample (in "Transmitting Live from Mars").  The Turtles eventually won the case, which had a huge impact on the rap industry, as samples now had to be cleared (and paid for) prior to work being released.  This delayed the group's second album, and made it more difficult to produce the layered songs that they favored.

In addition, the group had a difficult time artistically as their recordings varied in style but did not resonate as well with critics and listeners.  To my ear, it almost sounds as if they were trying to find their sound, something that became more difficult after the industry's shift to gangster rap in the early 1990's.  While the band continued to record, their audience seemed to shrink with every record.  To their credit, De La Soul has stayed together and continues to record to the present day.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Eurogliders - Heaven (Must Be There)

Eurogliders were an Australian band that had one minor international hit, although they had much greater success in their homeland.  The group formed in Perth in 1980 and were originally called Living Single.  By 1981 they had changed their name and secured a recording contract.  It is unclear why they chose the name Eurogliders as they were neither (to be fair, lead singer Grace Knight was born in the U.K., but had relocated to Australia by 1977).

The band's big hit was their 1984 single "Heaven (Must Be There)," off their second LP, This Island.  I'm not sure how much airplay the song had on radio, but the video was in rotation on MTV for a time.  In any event, "Heaven" peaked at #65 in the U.S., while the album stalled at #140.  In contrast, our Australian reader(s) may recall that the song reached #2 on the charts there (the album hit #4), one of seven top 40 hits in their homeland.

Eurogliders broke up in 1989.  Lead singer Grace Knight went on to have a successful career as a jazz singer and several of the other members remained in the music industry.  The band has sporadically re-formed since 2005.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ramones - Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?

Often viewed by critics as the first punk band, the Ramones are an incredibly important act in the history of rock and roll.  By stripping rock down to its basic elements, they created something new, brash and exciting, and breathed new life into the music industry.

The roots of the Ramones go back to early 1960's rock and roll, and the band's style (jeans, leather jackets) showed these influences.  This was probably one of the factors that made them so influential -- they were doing something new, but it was connected to rock's past.

The Ramones got their start in New York City, and they quickly became part of the punk/new wave scene at CBGB's that included Blondie, Talking Heads, and Television among others.  Their early sets (often featuring 10 songs in 20 minutes) soon gathered a following, and they were signed by Sire in 1975.   Their debut album came out the following year, and the band then began a relentless touring schedule for the next 20 or so years.

In spite of the band's importance, they had only modest commercial success, and in 1980 they decided to work with Phil Spector on their fifth album, End of the Century.  While the combination was a bit weird, it also made some sense, as the band's 1960's influences and desire for more commercial success fit well with Spector's strengths.  The resulting album was surprisingly good, though the recording sessions were tumultuous (at one point, Spector apparently pulled a gun on the band).

While End of the Century was the band's highest charting LP, it only reached #44, and none of the singles charted.  The band would go on to tour and release records up until their breakup in 1996.  Sadly, Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee would all pass away within eight years of the breakup.

Cool trivia facts:  "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?" was the 103rd video played on MTV (on the first day).

The Ramones never had a top 40 hit; 1977's "Rockaway Beach" was their highest charting single at #66.

In 2002, Spin Magazine ranked the Ramones as the second greatest band ever, trailing only the Beatles.

The Ramones video for "Pet Sematary" was posted on the blog in October 2013 as part of our annual All Hallows Even celebration.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Jason and the Scorchers - Absolutely Sweet Marie

This is the second appearance on the blog for Jason and the Scorchers (JATS), as "White Lies" showed up on ERV in April 2012.  As we pointed out then, Jason and the Scorchers is one of the great unknown country rock bands of the 1980's.  The band produced a catalog of stellar cow punk (country rock), but never found their audience.  In my view, they were just a bit ahead of their time, and as has been mentioned several times on ERV, country rock bands had a particularly difficult time breaking through in the eighties.

For the second JATS video, we went with "Absolutely Sweet Marie" from the band's 1983 EP Fervor.  This was the record that really placed them on the map, and it was a critical darling to boot.  The New York Times rated it the EP of the year, the Village Voice placed it third on the critics poll, and Rolling Stone gave it a four star review. How's that for impressive?

The lead single was a re-worked cover of Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" this is truly marvelous.  As an aside, Dylan remains a wonderful artist to cover, as he wrote a truckload of great songs, many of which were not huge commercial successes.  The video did show up on MTV for a time, but the single did not chart, and the EP only reached #116 on the charts.

Jason and the Scorchers would go on to release three LPs during the 1980's before breaking up in 1990.  The band periodically re-formed several times since then, most recently in 2010-11 when they recorded a new album (Halcyon Times) and toured to support it.  It is not clear what the current status of the band is, as drummer/songwriter Perry Baggs died of complications from diabetes in 2012.

Here is the JATS version of "Absolutely Sweet Marie:"

And the Bob Dylan original ...