Going Above Ground

I like to think in eras, categories, or some type of association block when listening to music. Lately I've been making cassette compilations of what one might call the aboveground music of the early 1980's. The tapes I've made (three so far) cover the years 1980 to 1982. Prominently featured are bands (and solo acts) like the Police, the Ramones, Blondie, AC/DC, The Clash, David Bowie, Queen, Cheap Trick, the Go-Go's, Devo, Talking Heads, the Pretenders, the Specials, Elvis Costello, Van Halen, John Lennon, and Prince, as well as songs from the last good albums by dinosaurs like the Stones, the Who and the Kinks (Tattoo You, Face Dances and Give the People What They Want all released around 1981). Also thrown in for good measure are some one off hits of the era like the Waitresses' 'I Know What Boys Like', Kim Carnes' 'Bette Davis Eyes' Jim Carroll's 'People Who Died' and the Specials' 'Ghost Town' (a sort of hit here in the states, I guess the closest they got, as it received a fair amount of MTV play).

There was a final gasp of good commercial pop rock between 1980 and 1982 before the advent of hair metal and completely bland rock/pop balladry. In America this was the period where some of the bands that had been influenced or freed up a little by the punk/new wave explosion were able to make interesting music with some radio play and commercial success. The strange and eclectic world music (for lack of a better but as inclusive word) influence happening on records like Combat Rock, Ghost in the Machine, and Remain in Light was one of the most interesting trends of the period. Elsewhere the great Giorgio Moroder was crafting soundtrack music, almost as innovative as his work with Donna Summer, for 80's defining movies like American Gigolo; collaborating with Blondie on the still fresh 'Call Me' and David Bowie on the silly but fun 'Putting out Fire with Gasoline' from the regrettable Cat People movie.

David Bowie released his last consistently interesting album Scary Monsters in 1980 containing the great 'Ashes to Ashes' one of the few Bowie songs that I find emotionally moving ('Heroes' is on that short list as well) particularly the way he sings the lines "I've never done good things, I've never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue, want an axe to break the ice, want to come down right now". His collaboration with Queen on 'Under Pressure' still sounds hot despite its potentially fatal sampling by Vanilla Ice, no small feat and a testament to the song's strength. On their great 1980 pop album The Game, Queen foreshadowed the rockabilly revival with 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love', anticipated the movie Heathers by almost a decade with 'Don't Try Suicide' and gave the Clash the groove for 'This is Radio Clash' with 'Another One Bites the Dust'. Not to mention the campy Flash Gordon soundtrack, which has a charm all its own. (Alistair it's time you got right with Freddie and the boys, there's no future in your frontin').

Meanwhile the Police, never a critics' favorite yet always popular with the people, released their two strongest records Zenyatta Mondatta and Ghost in the Machine in 1980 and 1981. Sting might have already in the back of his mind been pondering the Russian's love of their children but it matters little when he was still up to inserting deft references to Nabokov and "James Brown on the TAMI Show" (if you don't know search it out - it was re-released on video in the 80's under the title "That Was Rock") in great pop songs like 'Don't Stand So Close to Me' and 'When the World is Running Down'. Zenyatta Mondatta also crossed over to radio play on Urban (read Black) radio, which might explain the X-ecutioners throwing the stone groove of 'Voices in my Head' into one of their mix c.d.'s, this is the stuff that the records predominately white critics would dismiss as filler.
Speaking of cross over Prince recorded one of his best records in the early 1980's. Dirty Mind is more consistent and funky than either of the two albums that followed; Controversy and 1999. Around the same period The Time and Vanity Six both released records produced and largely written by that same consummate overachiever, and they're funky and funny too, and definitely worth a listen. Coincidentally, Prince was tapped by the Stones to open for them on their Tattoo You tour. A show of impeccable taste on the Stones part, unfortunately their audience wasn't nearly as hip, as they ended up booing Minnesota's finest off the stage. I guess sexually and racially ambiguous soul boys don't play to Middle America. Regardless, the Stones were touring behind their strongest album since the early 1970's. Not that surprising as it was largely made up of material that had been laying around since that time. Tattoo You also features three amazing and uncredited (by his own request) performances by the late great Sonny Rollins. And the memorable 'Waiting on a Friend' video had Mick and Keith chilling on the front steps of a brownstone with a couple of Rastas. Their point was, I dunno, maybe that they still dug spades.

Pete Townsend came up with his last memorable moments on his solo record Empty Glass and the Who's first post Keith Moon record Face Dances. Both contain Pete at his flakiest lyrically and his poppiest musically, which equals Pete at his most endearing, if not best. 'Let My Love Open the Door', 'Another Tricky Day' and 'Don't Let Go the Coat' are all great goofy songs. Face Dances also contains Entwistle's rocking anthem for introverts everywhere, 'Quiet One' with the classic line "I ain't quiet, everyone else is too loud". The rest of the record is suitably and enjoyably weird. And it's got a nice pop art cover with portraits of the Who by David Hockney among others (all anybody seems to manage in the way of album covers these days is rips from old blue note albums)

To hit the third of our dinosaur triumvirate, the Kinks came up trumps for the last time with Give the People What They Want. This record has a couple of essential Kinks songs littered amongst some average or above material. 'Art Lover' and 'Better Things' are as good as anything Ray had written since his mid '60s run. One of Ray's strengths and endearing traits was his rarely matched ability to create satire suffused with empathy for who or whatever was being satirized. 'Predictable', 'A Little Bit of Abuse', 'Killer Eyes' and the aforementioned 'Art Lover' all display this quality in spades. Interestingly the cover of this one features a pre-mullet Ray on the run with a wad of bills looking a lot like Richard Gere circa American Gigolo. Meanwhile in 1980 Elvis Costello still in his angry nerd period (which is the only period of E.C. I'm willing to fuck with) unleashed the streamlined mo-town pop of Get Happy. Favorite moment, on a record chock full of em, is the slide into falsetto on the line "now my whole world goes from blue to blue" in 'Secondary Modern'. His reworking of Sam and Dave's 'I can't stand up for falling down' is ace too. Ah, there are too many good tunes to mention, it's a masterful record the kind for which the word tour de force was coined. Pop music wouldn't be in such a deplorable state these days if more of these so-called indie bands worked at craftsmanship as hard as they do at their bullshit image and packaging (I don't care how many French film stills you use and pop culture figures you name check, if you can't write a song you can't write a song).
Now the Clash was a band that had both style and substance (The Jam too but they don't fit here cause they never broke in the States) which is part of the reason why they seem so mythic and archetypal today. In 1980 they released the sprawling and brilliant Sandinista. It received mixed reviews at the time of its release, but has since been reevaluated as the amazing piece of work it most certainly is. In 1982 they boiled down all those styles that overflowed onto Sandinista's three records into the potent concentrated blend found on Combat Rock. Forget the two hit singles (which aren't really bad just overplayed) and listen to the rest of the album. The band had really perfected a sound that touched on all their influences but was uniquely their own. It's a groove that nobody has gotten close to since, though hopefully the recent nods in that direction by Blur will lead more to explore this record and its sonics. Combat Rock is way overdue for rediscovery and reevaluation. It would benefit immeasurably from a two-disc reissue that includes the B-sides from the singles and Mick Jones raw and ultimately rejected mixes for the album. Many of the fantastic sounding instrumental mixes of these songs can now be heard on the Hell W. 10 short film included on the Essential Clash DVD.

To segue, sometime around 1982 or 83 The Clash caused a bit of a ruckus at the US Festival. And while sounding off in a confused and contradictory manner about the exploitation and greed of the festival, among other topics, they dismissed co-headliners Van Halen as "hamburger music". They meant it as an insult of course, but its not and they're right. Van Halen, in their first four albums at least, were perfect American pop culture cartoon characters. It's the early Beach Boys, girls, cars, and drive ins for the late 70's early 80's (listen to the harmonies my man). Moronic in all the right ways, like the Ramones with whom they toured. Beyond that its just great pop songwriting, check 'Dance the Night Away' for instance. And then there's David Lee Roth, a Jewish boy exploiting and parodying the blond Aryan sex idol clichés for all its worth. It's funny stuff, intentionally so but for some reason many miss the humor. Now don't get your post-modern panties in a bunch but I guess some people need cats like Momus with their voice dripping with sarcasm in order to pick up on satire. To appropriate and adapt a line from Lester Bangs that might be clever if you couldn't hear him thinking about how clever he thought he was. But I digress. In any case David Lee Roth's famous and incredibly perceptive quote "the reason why most rock critics like Elvis Costello is cause most rock critics look like Elvis Costello" is enough to endear him to me forever. If you want/need more testimony in favor of VH and Lee Roth, that unfortunately but predictably drags shamans, Celtics and elves into the mix check Julian Cope's recent piece.

For anybody still with me, let me finish with a few movie recommendations that fit right into the time period and aesthetic I've been discussing. First off, the best teen film of all time and great for a game of spot the future star, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (opening credits to the go-go's 'we got the beat'!) Look for, among others, Nick Cage making the most of his way brief fan in the stands shot and the more prominent roles of a very young Jennifer Jason Leigh and Forest Whitaker. The only thing that's come close to touching Fast Times hilariously accurate, sympathetic and humane treatment of adolescence is Linklater's Dazed and Confused (he got Texas right at least). The Ramones' Rock n' Roll High School, although released in 79, fits nicely into this period and stars the great Mary Woronov of Warhol/Factory fame (check for a split second cameo by writers Richard Meltzer and Billy Altman goofing in the ticket line). The movie Class, a kind of 80's version of the Graduate with Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy, stands up surprisingly well as an early example of the brat pack film. It too features many soon to be stars in small roles (look for John and Joan Cusack) and plenty of the Izod Lacoste polo shirts that fashion wise defined the period. Cut from the same cloth but a little later, more new wave and a lot goofier is 1983's Valley Girl, This was Nicholas Cage's first leading role and its just been released on DVD. Lastly there's Paul Schrader's (screenwriter of Taxi Driver) flawed but interesting American Gigolo (1980) that set the tone for the whole decade in too many ways. This of course isn't an exhaustive list but it will give you a good start in the right direction. Remember what Philip K. Dick said: the divine often first makes its appearance in the trash stratum. Enjoy!

© 2003 William Crain