Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Zebra - Tell Me What You Want

With their Led Zeppelin inspired licks and batshit crazy videos, Zebra became an MTV success story in 1983.  The trio originally formed in 1975 in New Orleans and was fronted by guitarist/singer Randy Jackson.  Bassist/keyboardist Felix Hanemann and drummer Guy Gelso rounded out the lineup.

The group gained a following on the Long Island (NY) club scene in the early 1980's, starting as a cover band playing ... Zeppelin (and Rush).  Their self-titled debut did surprisingly well, helped by the videos for "Tell Me What You Want" and "Who's Behind the Door." In fact, when the album was released it became one of Atlantic Records' fastest-selling debuts ever and eventually climbed to #29 on the charts.

The singles did not do as well; "Who's Behind the Door" only made it to #61, while "Tell Me What You Want" did not break the top 100.  Zebra's follow up album, 1984's No Tellin' Lies only reached #84, and was the band's last charting record.

 The video for "Tell Me What You Want" is a total WTF crazy clip.  Although it starts with a literal interpretation of the lyrics (head's on the floor/with a slam of the door), it soon devolves into some kind of smoke-filled nightmare, complete with Zebra chick, and a bunch of weird images that had seemingly little to do with the band or the song.  By the by, the rest of the band (non-Randy Jackson division) gets remarkably little screen time in the video.  My favorite moments:  the double neck BC Rich guitar solo (1:36), the plastic spider (2:07) and the Saran Wrap scene that presages Dexter (2:22).  Also, considered yourself warned that any drinking game that requires players to take a drink whenever the phrase "tell me what you want" is sung is likely to prove fatal.

Zebra broke up around 1990, but reformed in 1997 and remains active to the present day.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Fabulous Thunderbirds - Tuff Enuff

While the Fabulous Thunderbirds 1986 album Tuff Enough was a commercial success, many fans and critics were disappointed by the record.  It's not as though Tuff Enough was a bad LP, but it represented a different, more commercial direction for the roadhouse blues band.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds were founded in 1974 and came out of the Austin, Texas blues scene.  Led by singer Kim Wilson and guitarist Jimmy Vaughan (the older brother of Stevie Ray), they released their first album, Girls Go Wild in 1979.  Three additional  strong blues albums followed through 1982, which were generally well reviewed by critics, but they did not become huge commercial successes.

That changed with Tuff Enough.  The album rose to #13 on the album charts and featured the two highest charting hits of the band's long career -- the title cut (which went to #10) and "Wrap It Up," which reached #50.  (Yes, that makes the Fabulous Thunderbirds an official one hit wonder).

Truth be told, the video for "Tuff Enough" is pretty cheesy.  It features stripper/construction workers doing their thing, while the band plays and occasionally interacts with them.  It was not a high point of 1980's videos.  It did, however, generate some airplay, so I suppose that it did its job.

The band saw steadily declining record sales through the 1980's and in 1989 Jimmy left the group to work with his brother.  The band continues to soldier on the the present day, with Kim Wilson as the only constant member.

Cool trivia fact:  Dave Edmunds produced the Tuff Enough album.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

John Cougar Mellencamp - Ain't Even Done With The Night

Mr. Happy Go Lucky, John Mellencamp has built an impressive career through the years.  Mellencamp combined folk, roots rock and 1960's influenced pop into a catchy form of heartland rock that has earned him comparisons with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty.  He has also sold more than 40 million albums and has hit the top 40 twenty two times (seventeen of which were in the 1980's).

Mellencamp got his start in the mid-1970's as Johnny Cougar (a name chosen by a former manager without Mellencamp's knowledge).  His first two albums were not successful, but 1979's John Cougar charted, helped by "I Need a Lover" which hit #28 (and received a further boost when Pat Benatar recorded a cover version on her debut album).

Nothin' Matters and What If It Did solidified Mellencamp's status as an artist in the rise and produced two top 40 hits -- "Ain't Even Done With The Night" (#17) and "This Time" (#27).  The album also became the first of nine consecutive LPs to go platinum.

To my ear, the songs off Nothing Matters are more influenced by 1960's pop and have less of an Americana feel than his later work, which may have been intentional.  Much ink has been spilled on Mellencamp's desire to be taken seriously as an artist; it seems likely that part of his musical shift may have been designed to show him in a more serious light.  However, it is worth pointing out that his early pop songs were extremely well-crafted, with unusually strong lyrics for the genre.  (See our Facebook page for an example.)

The video for "Ain't Even Done With The Night" underlines the 1960's pop influences, from the microphone, to the outfits, to the James Brown inspired coat.  It also contains one of the best 'man pretending to be a saxophone' scenes in an early 1980's video.  The whole thing looks like it was shot on the cheap (perhaps in one take), but I still find it enjoyable.

Of course, Mellencamp's career really took off with 1982's America Fool, which went to #1, helped by the ever present (also #1) "Jack and Diane." (As an interesting side note, those were the only #1's of Mellencamp's career.)  And as many readers will know, John Mellencamp remains active in the industry to the present day.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Paul Carrack - Don't Shed A Tear

Paul Carrack has built a long and interesting career, and has sung lead on several memorable hits.  In fact, I dare say that his voice may be more recognizable than his name to many readers.  He has been described as pop's ultimate journeyman (Allmusic) and the man with the golden voice (BBC) and both descriptions ring true.

Carrack first rose to prominence with Ace; he was the lead singer on their one hit, 1974's "How Long."  After Ace broke up, he joined Roxy Music and played keyboard on two albums before replacing Jools Holland in Squeeze (1980) where he sang lead on "Tempted."  After leaving Squeeze he tried his hand at a solo career and worked with Eric Clapton and Nick Lowe before joining Mike + The Mechanics.  With Mike + The Mechanics he shared lead vocals with Paul Young, but sang lead on "Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)" and "The Living Years."

In 1987, again released a solo record with some success.  The One Good Reason album would reach #67 on the charts, and produced two top 40 singles -- the title cut and "Don't Shed a Tear," which would hit #9.  By the by, "Don't Shed a Tear" was written by professional songwriter Eddie Schwartz, perhaps best known for Pat Benatar's "Hit Me with Your Best Shot."

The video for "Don't Shed a Tear" was directed by Peter Care, who would go on to direct a boatload of videos for R.E.M. and Belinda Carlisle.  (He also directed Banarama's "Venus" and  "Rise" by Public Image Ltd.)  The model/actress is Kendal Conrad, who has since left the industry, I believe.

Carrack remains active in the industry to the present day and has seemingly worked with everyone.  (OK, slight exaggeration, but he has worked with a ton of folks).

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

General Public - Tenderness

"Tenderness" started as an English Beat song; when that group broke up in 1983, singers Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger took the tune with them to their new band, General Public.  They added Mickey Billingham (keyboards) and Stoker (drums) from Dexys Midnight Runners and Horace Panter (bass) from The Specials to create the first version of General Public.  Guitarist Mick Jones, who had recently left The Clash, also worked with the band on their first LP, but left during the recording sessions and would go on to form Big Audio Dynamite (although his guitar tracks were used on "Tenderness.")

General Public's first album, All the Rage was released in 1984 and became a hit, reaching #26 on the charts.  "Tenderness" would peak at #27, one of two top 40 hits for the band (more on that in a moment).  Sadly, the band's second LP, 1986's Hand to Mouth did not do well (#151) and the lack of success and disagreements over the music direction of the band led to its dissolution.

In 1994,  Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger were asked to contribute a song to the Threesome movie soundtrack and decided to re-form General Public (though without any of the other original members).  They recorded a cover of The Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There," which became General Public's second top 40 hit (#22) and led to the 1995 Rub It Better album, which did not chart.  The group broke up a second time soon afterwards, though Wakeling and Ranking Roger have continued to perform in various projects since then.

As a cool factoid, it turns out that there were two "Tenderness" videos and we have included both of them (of course).  The first version (below) is the one that I recall seeing on MTV back in the day.

And below is the rarer version, which includes Dave Wakeling's poor taste in (small) bathing suits (consider yourselves warned):

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Rainbow - Can't Happen Here

Make no mistake, Rainbow was Ritchie Blackmore's band.  Founded after Blackmore left Deep Purple in 1975, Rainbow saw a nearly continuous turnover of members until Blackmore broke up the band (to return to a re-formed Deep Purple) in 1984.  Similarly, the band's sound evolved through the years, changing from a classical-influenced hard rock band to a more commercial oriented sound.

"Can't Happen Here" came when the band was firmly seeking commercial success.  The song was off the 1981 Difficult to Cure album, which received mixed reviews (to put it kindly).  Ironically, this more mainstream sound did not generate the huge success that Blackmore had hoped for; the album peaked at #50, while the single did not chart on the main charts in the U.S. (It did hit #13 on the Mainstream Rock charts).

The video is a pretty standard performance piece with some nice additional footage thrown in.  The video features Blackmore and new lead singer Joe Lynn Turner (who replaced the awesomely named Graham Bonnet during the recording sessions for the LP).  Turner would remain with the band until their 1984 breakup.

Rainbow would continue to focus on commercial success in the early 1980's, and would even score their one top 40 single, "Stone Cold" (which reached #40) in 1982.  Readers may also remember "Street of Dreams," which hit #60 on the charts the following year.

Blackmore remains with the reunified Deep Purple until 1994, at which point he re-formed Rainbow.  This version of the band released one album in 1995, which did not chart.  Since the late 1990's Blackmore has been performing as Blackmore's Night with his wife (Candice Night); they are a folk-rock act.

Cool trivia fact:  "Can't Happen Here" was the 52nd video played on MTV.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Biz Markie - Just A Friend

By mixing comedy, fresh rhymes and cheesy singing, Biz Markie created some solid and fun rap during the late 1980's and early 1990's.  Biz (given name: Marcel Hall) came out of the Cold Chillin' Records scene in New York, where he became known for beat boxing and rapping.  He released his first album in 1988, but broke through with his sophomore (pun intended) effort, 1989's The Biz Never Sleeps.  That album features his one hit, "Just a Friend," which would go on to reach #9 on the main charts.  (To be fair, Markie did have 4 songs that broke the top 100 on the R&B charts, although none would climb higher than #80, except for "Just a Friend.")

The video for "Just a Friend" is pure rap comic genius, highlighted by Markie in full Mozart get up at the piano.  The visuals were unlike anything in rap at the time and helped the video move into heavy rotation on MTV for a while.

Unfortunately, Markie's success came back to bite him when he used Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" as the basis for a song on his next album (1991's I Need a Haircut).  O'Sullivan sued Markie and won in a landmark ruling that helped create the precedent that samples had to be cleared by the original artist before they could be used.  I Need a Haircut was pulled from store shelves, and Markie's rap career never recovered.  I did love that Markie's 1993 album was titled All Samples Cleared, showing that the man never lost his sense of humor.

With his recording career on the outs, Markie transitioned to become a TV personality and commercial spokesman.  He continues to work in the industry to the present day.

As many readers will know (or suspect), the chorus for "Just a Friend" samples the 1968 Freddie Scott song, "(You) Got What I Need," included below.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Motels - Take the L

While the Motels may have seemed like an overnight success in the early 1980's, the original version of the band actually formed in 1971.  Led by the beautiful and charismatic Martha Davis, the Motels kicked around the California rock scene for years before finding a niche as a new wave act.  In fact, this version of the Motels was essentially the second iteration of the band, with only Martha Davis as the common member.

"Take the L" was off the group's breakthrough album, 1982's All Four One.  It was the Motel's third LP, and nearly turned into a total fiasco.  All Four One was a reworked version of the group's Apocalypso album, which Capitol Records rejected.  [The darker and less radio-friendly Apocalypso was finally released in 2011.]  In fact, "Take the L" was not on Apocalypso, although "Only the Lonely" was.

The video for "Take the L" was directed by Russell Mulcahy, who directed "Video Killed the Radio Star," "Bette Davis Eyes," "Total Eclipse of the Heart," and most of the early Duran Duran videos including "Rio" and "Hungry Like the Wolf."  Shot like a magazine, "Take the L" is an excellent example of an early music video.  In spite of heavy airplay on MTV, the song only reached #52 on the charts, though the All Four One album did better (#16), led by "Only the Lonely" (a #9 hit).

The Motels next LP (1983's Little Robbers) also did well, and the group enjoyed another big hit in "Suddenly Last Summer."  From there the band's popularity gradually waned, and Martha Davis broke up the band to officially go solo in 1987.  Davis re-formed the Motels with new members in 1998 and they remain active as of this writing.

Martha Davis' solo effort "Dont Tell Me the Time" was posted on ERV in June 2014.