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.