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1980s Reviews

Tracy Chapman 1988 Debut

The following 1980s artists have their own dedicated page:

Kate Bush
Marshall Crenshaw
Peter Gabriel
Pixies
Prefab Sprout
R.E.M.
The Smiths
Sting
Talk Talk

This page collects odds and ends from 1980s artists:

Paul’s Boutique – The Beastie Boys

Beastie Boys Paul's Boutique1989, 9/10
Paul’s Boutique was initially a commercial disappointment for hip hop trio the Beastie Boys after the enormous success of their 1986 debut Licensed To Ill, although it’s since been recognised as a landmark. Paul’s Boutique had the good fortune to be released before tighter rules were introduced around sampling, allowing collaborators The Dust Brothers to create a dense wall of sound. Memorable moments like the sampled Johnny Cash cameo in the closing suite, and the guitars from The Beatles’ ‘The End’ on ‘The Sounds of Science’ serve to tie Paul’s Boutique into the grand tradition of pop music – for a full list of what was used, see http://paulsboutique.info/songs.php.

A lot of Paul’s Boutique is simply great pop music, and inflected with pop sensibilities, like the hilariously countrified ‘Hey Ladies’, and the single ‘Shadrach’. There’s also a noteworthy medley at the end – the thirteen minute of ‘B-Boy Bouillabaisse’, which seems like a clearing house for all the album’s undeveloped ideas, but it’s still entertaining in its own right. Some of the more abrasive material, such as ‘Lookin’ Down the Barrel of a Gun’, is not as enjoyable as the pop oriented songs, and personally I’d prefer an album full of light and catchy material like ‘Shake Your Rump’.

Despite their musical refinement, the Beastie Boys are barely less bratty than they were on Licensed To Ill; obnoxious one liners like such as “I’m madder than Mad’s Alfred E. Newman,” and “I’ve got the girlies in the Coupe like the Colonel’s got the chickens” still abound.

There is plenty to admire on Paul’s Boutique; the trio are bursting with ideas, and The Dust Brothers are fantastic collaborators.

 

Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman

Tracy Chapman 1988 Debut1988, 8/10
If you happen to have bought my old car, you’ll find a copy of Tracy Chapman permanently stuck in your cassette deck. Tracy Chapman was born in Ohio, and graduated with a degree in anthropology and African studies before launching her musical career. While contemporary politically focused hip-hop groups such Public Enemy were drawing attention to social issues in their work, Tracy Chapman packaged the same issues for the mainstream.

Tracy Chapman is a singer-songwriter album, with arrangements varying from the a capella ‘Behind The Wall’ to the commercial pop of ‘Baby Can I Hold You’, but the focus is firmly on Chapman’s lyrics and performances. She criticises a soulless America in the social commentary of ‘Fast Car’ and ‘Mountains O’ Things’, and her social conscience songs are accompanied by relatively unsentimental relationship songs. More than fifteen years after Tracy Chapman‘s release, singles ‘Baby Can I Hold You’, ‘Fast Car’ and ‘Talkin’ Bout A Revolution’ have aged gracefully and are Chapman’s best loved work, while album tracks like ‘Why?’ and ‘For My Lover’ are also solid.

Chapman’s never matched the impact of her debut, and it’s likely that it’s what she’ll be remembered for.

 

Money For Nothing – Dire Straits

Dire Straits Money for Nothing1988, 7.5/10
The main problem for Dire Straits was timing; debuting in England in the late 1970s and commercially overshadowing favoured artists such as The Clash and The Sex Pistols isn’t the best way to make critical friends. Dire Straits started as a humble pub-rock band, who grew to stadium-filling concerts and conceptual albums. They’re not a key group whose innovative albums inspire you to track down their entire discography – they’re simply an enjoyable band, whose massive sales perhaps exceeded their worth.

It’s almost erroneous to refer to Dire Straits as a band since Mark Knopfler was clearly the group’s lynch-pin, famously firing his brother David for not practicing enough. Knopfler is an earnest singer and capable guitarist (he extracts his distinctive tones by not using a pick).

1988’s compilation Money For Nothing has been superseded by 1998’s Sultans of Swing but the two compilations appear vaguely equivalent; Money For Nothing has a cooler cover, but less (the lovely ‘So Far Away’ is inexplicably omitted) and different (Money For Nothing features nice live versions of ‘Telegraph Road’ and ‘Portobello Road’) songs. The best songs feature guests; Sting earned half the royalties from the sardonic ‘Money For Nothing’ simply for singing ‘I want my MTV’ to the chorus of The Police’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’, while Springsteen pianist Roy Bittan adds lovely arpeggios over ‘Tunnel of Love’.

The two most ubiquitous songs both earn their keep; ‘Walk of Life’ has an irresistible organ riff, while ‘Sultans of Swing’ encapsulates the quintessential Knopfler guitar sound. On the counter-side ‘Where Do You Think You’re Going’ is predictable blues, and the fun ‘Twisting By The Pool’ has tossed-off non-album single written all over it.

I don’t find Dire Straits exciting enough to want them to explore them further, but I’m happy to have this pleasant collection of 12 Dire Straits song in my collection.

 

The Best Of (The Millennium Collection) – Glenn Frey

The Best of Glenn Frey2000, 3/10
I always held the impression that Glenn Frey supplied the Eagles’ tunefulness and the bulk of their limited country authenticity, but it turns out that his solo career is 1980s’ corporate mush. Frey liberally throws in drum machines, saxophones, female backing vocals, and percussionists to perfectly meet the specifications for 1980s’ soft-rock. The live ‘The One You Love’ features three guitarists, two keyboardists, two percussionists and a horn section, while ‘Love in the 21st Century’ blatantly steals the riff from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’. The only time that Frey ventures near country rock, on ‘Part Of Me, Part Of You’, is tolerable, even though that song spoiled the end of Thelma and Louise.

The music’s bad, but so are the lyrics; brain-dead efforts like ‘True Love’ and ‘The One You Love’, are respectable next to ‘Sexy Girl’ and ‘The Allnighter’. If lyrics like “I know you’re just a woman, I’m just a man/Let’s be true to each other, do the best we can” are below the intellectual level of a boy band, “She needs a love from a real exciter/she needs the allnighter” are off the scale. The Best Of is saved from total worthlessness with some nice vocals (‘The One You Love’), and the occasional passable song (the relatively compelling ‘You Belong to the City’ from Miami Vice, or ‘Part Of Me, Part Of You’). But The Best Of is a compelling case for Don Henley possessing most of the intelligence behind the Eagles. In his solo spotlight Frey merely displays occasional melodic flair.

Apparently this compilation is actually successful at collecting the best material from Frey’s solo albums, so I wouldn’t be touching them with a barge-pole.

 

Actual Miles: Henley’s Greatest Hits – Don Henley

actual-miles-henley1995, 8/10
Against the science of probability, one of the Eagles actually managed a perfectly respectable solo career. Don Henley’s solo work is adult contemporary, but it’s underpinned by a greater intelligence. Most of Henley’s material is actually purposeful and thoughtful, whether he’s continuing the attack on celebrity indulgence of the later period Eagles or writing personal and heartfelt relationship songs. He’s also adept at harnessing guest cameos to add personality, and Axl Rose, Sheryl Crow and Bruce Hornsby all make important contributions, while Heartbreaker Mike Campbell is a frequent musical collaborator. In fact, I’d take this compilation over any Eagles’ studio recording; drawn from three eighties studio albums and three new tracks, it’s more consistent, and although most of these tracks could do with a trim, few of these songs are completely disposable.

Top tier songs include the 1984 hit ‘The Boys of Summer’, with a haunting Mike Campbell guitar figure, and the Bruce Hornsby collaboration ‘The End of the Innocence’, which is an extremely eloquent social critique (“They’re beating plowshares into swords/For this tired old man that we elected king”) underpinned by Hornsby’s gorgeous piano work. New song ‘The Garden of Allah’ is a little awkward, but interesting; based around the scenario of the devil visiting a city and finding that modern life and materialism has made him redundant. ‘Dirty Laundry’ is an effective indictment of celebrity muck-raking, although admittedly it’s dated less gracefully than everything else here, while ‘The Last Worthless Evening’ and ‘Heart of the Matter’ are sappy but effective ballads. The other two new songs, the vitriolic ‘You Don’t Know Me At All’ and the Leonard Cohen cover ‘Everybody Knows’, are among the lesser songs but they still fit in fine.

If 1980s’ adult contemporary doesn’t send you straight to the sick bay, most of Actual Miles is worthwhile.

 

Glass Houses – Billy Joel

Billy Joel Glass Houses1980, 8/10
From D. Geller and T. Hibbert, Billy Joel: An Illustrated Biography, London, 1985, p 88: “Billy’s intentions in making Glass Houses were clear. He was sick of people thinking he was MOR and wanted to “throw a rock at the image people have of me as a mellow balladeer.”…Billy said: “we’ve been playing rock and roll for years and years and years. This album is hard rock heavy. No balance between the ballads and the harder stuff.” Billy was excited about making rock, nothing but rock.”

Glass Houses is not hard rock by any stretch of the imagination, but it does sound like Joel had been taking notice of new wave bands like The Cars, and he moves away from the expansive urban suites of his late seventies albums into delivering straightforward pop songs.

Joel takes on the persona of a hormone crazed adolescent, such as on the forgotten ‘All For Leyna’, which is one of his best singles, while the ridiculous ‘Close to the Borderline’ entertains with the promise that “We’re gonna all go to hell/With the next big meltdown.” ‘Sometimes a Fantasy’ and the sublime ‘Sleeping With the Television On’ are fun hooky slices of pop, while the closer ‘Through the Long Night’ is a subtle charmer. There’s one corny French ballad, which undermines his efforts to position himself as hard rock, and the two best known singles (‘You May Be Right’, ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me’) are among his weaker radio hits from his prime years.

But there are lots of fun, hook filled tunes on Glass Houses nonetheless, as it has a lighter touch than most of Joel’s work.

 

The Nylon Curtain – Billy Joel

Billy Joel The Nylon Curtain1982, 8.5/10
After the fun but lyrically light pop of Glass Houses, The Nylon Curtain is an ambitious album, addressing the themes of Billy Joel’s generation, such as Vietnam, unemployment and divorce, using Beatles-inspired music. The centrepiece ‘Goodnight Saigon’ addresses Vietnam, and while it has some forced and awkward rhymes (“they heard the sound of the motors/they counted the rotors/and waited for us to arrive”), it’s still effective. There’s also the psychedelic ‘Scandinavian Skies’, with an engrossing and creepy aura, and the social protest of ‘Allentown’ which earned Joel a key to the city for drawing attention to the closure of America’s industries.

‘Allentown’ is arguably Joel’s best ever song, with its magical piano riff; he even gets away with making train noises. There are plenty of solid album tracks; ‘She’s Right on Time’, ‘Laura’, about Joel’s difficult relationship with his mother, and ‘Surprises’ are all well constructed slices of pop with just enough edge to make them interesting. Like every Billy Joel album, there’s a clanger with the tuneless and out of step ‘A Room Of Our Own’.

Joel intended The Nylon Curtain to be his major statement; he does at least succeed in creating a near-great pop album.

Billy Joel in the 1980s and 1990s:
Glass Houses (1980), 8/10
The Nylon Curtain (1982), 8.5/10
An Innocent Man (1983), 7/10. This is Joel’s pop/doo wop album. I like the Beethoven lift in ‘This Night’, and the title track.
The Bridge (1986), 5/10. The decline set in here, although I really like the big band showcase ‘Big Man on Mulberry Street’.
Storm Front (1989), 4.5/10. Spawned ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’.
River of Dreams (1993), 4.5/10. The title track, with its dance beats and gospel is actually pretty good, but there’s not much else apart from big memorable choruses on a few songs.

 

Run-D.M.C. – Run-D.M.C.

Run D.M.C. Debut Album1983, 5/10
Often heralded as one of the greatest and most influential hip hop albums ever made, Run-D.M.C. was notable as the first hip hop album to be released on CD and the first hip hop album to feature live guitars. It’s often acclaimed as one of the seminal albums of its genre, spawning hits ‘Sucker M.C.’s’ and ‘It’s Like That’, and launching the careers of Run, D.M.C. and the late Jam-Master Jay.

But decades later, this material from the first wave of hip hop sounds painfully dated; while Run and D.M.C.’s MC skills are without question, often they’re restricted to rapping over paper thin backing. It’s regarded as important, as it’s the first album to capture the sound of street hip hop, with just a drum machine and a DJ to support our two Adidas wearing heroes. It’s dominated by simple drum machines and the occasional tinny keyboard; it might have sounded revolutionary in 1983, but in the time that’s elapsed, hip hop’s textures sound collages have become more sophisticated, all for the better.

Even if the thinness of the sound is ignored, the quality of the compositions is uneven. ‘Rock Box’ sounds less dated than anything on the disc, because it features a live guitarist, Eddie Martinez. ‘Sucker M.C.’s’ is also decent, a boast of Run-D.M.C.’s origins and credentials. But the rest of these songs are hard to take. The lyrics are often clever, and often positive and affirmative, but they’re hard to listen to with such bare bones backing. Some of this material would also sound better if they picked up the tempo; the duo’s skill at trading lines becomes more impressive at breakneck speed, while ’30 Days’ and ‘Hard Times’ both drag.

Run-D.M.C. may be an excellent document of the hip hop school of 1983, but 20 years later it doesn’t impress. If you’re interested in checking out this talented and influential group, a compilation is the way to go.

Raising Hell – Run-D.M.C.

Run D.M.C. Raising Hell1986, 6/10
I’ve never heard Run D.M.C.’s second album, 1985’s King of Rock, but their third album, Raising Hell was their breakout effort. The group blended hip hop rhythms and rhymes with rock guitars to create cross-genre appeal, years before Rage Against The Machine or Limp Bizkit. The transcending song from Raising Hell is the fantastic cover of Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’, while ‘It’s Tricky’ acquires the guitar riff from The Knack’s ‘My Cherona’. The video of ‘Walk This Way’ had Steve Tyler symbolically smashing down a wall between the two bands, and the song resuscitated Aerosmith’s career.

Raising Hell gets off to a very strong start with the superb sequence of ‘Peter Piper’, ‘It’s Tricky’, ‘My Adidas’, and ‘Walk This Way’, before it loses momentum almost entirely. Most of the remaining tracks feel like after thoughts, performed over sparse backings, rendering the irritating vocal hooks of ‘Dumb Girl’ and ‘Perfection’ even more irritating.

Raising Hell is a landmark album, opening more doors for hip hop, but the steep drop-off in quality after the first four tracks disqualifies it as a great album.

 

 

Tougher Than Leather – Run-D.M.C.

Run DMC Tougher Than Leather1988, 6.5/10
Tougher Than Leather is the soundtrack to a reportedly hideous film, in which Run-D.M.C. attempted to revive the blaxploitation genre. Despite the lack of progress from Raising Hell, an imprudent inertia in the quickly evolving hip-hop scene of the late 1980s, it’s by no means their worst album. In fact, it’s an improvement from the previous album; there’s nothing on the level of ‘It’s Tricky’ or ‘My Adidas’, but on the whole Tougher Than Leather is more substantial than its predecessor.

Released just four years after their debut and the progression in hip hop is staggering; Run-D.M.C. was released on the cutting edge of hip hop in 1983 and sounded like it was made using a drum machine and a cheap casio, while Tougher Than Leather, in the vanguard of the genre just four years later, sounds positively futuristic in comparison. Compared to an emerging social conscience in hip hop; everything’s either bragging or party fare, apart from some social commentary in ‘Papa Crazy’.

Key tracks include the opener ‘Run’s House’, which sets up an uncharacteristically intense sound collage, and ‘Beats To The Rhyme’. The title track and ‘Miss Elaine’ follow the successful guitar formula of previous albums, while ‘Ragtime’ provides the diversity. There’s just enough good material spread through the three Run-D.M.C. albums reviewed on this site to make one really good album.

 

Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures Rush1981, 8/10
Canadian progressive power trio Rush released their debut in 1974, but unlike most of their contemporaries they adapted very well to the 1980s; the group’s emotionless, clinical style is well suited to the more synthetic sound of the era. 1981’s Moving Pictures marks the closest Rush came to the mainstream, with their newly synth heavy sound and three piece setup not unlike contemporary work from The Police. Drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics are similar in tone to Rush’s earlier work, but feel less awkward here, while Geddy Lee’s voice is also lower and less irritating.

The opening ‘Tom Sawyer’ is accessible, and remains Rush’s signature song with its belching synthesizer and anti-establishment lyric. In fact, despite only a superficial acquaintance with their discography, I’d be willing to wager that the first half is the best album side that Rush ever produced – ‘Tom Sawyer’ is followed by the impressively epic ‘Red Barchetta’, a memorable instrumental ‘YYZ’, and album highlight ‘Limelight’, which constantly and seamlessly shifts tempo under a sweet pop melody.

The second side isn’t quite as impressive – ‘The Camera Eye’ is pretty, but doesn’t justify an eleven minute running time, while the final two songs are relatively forgettable. I’m never going to be a huge fan of Rush, but Moving Pictures is a very strong entry into their catalogue.

 

Retrospective II: 1981 to 1987

Rush Retrospective 21997, 8.5/10
While conventional wisdom is that Rush’s 1980’s albums decreased in quality through the decade, as Geddy Lee’s synthesisers became louder and Alex Lifeson’s guitar was turned down, their 1980’s Retrospective is  much stronger than its 1970’s counterpart. It collects material from their albums from 1981’s Moving Pictures to 1987’s Hold Your Fire. While the 1970’s saw the group trying different styles to establish their career, their 1980’s highlights are more consistent, both in quality and in tone, and more than most compilations, Retrospective II flows like a studio album.

The three songs from 1981’s Moving Pictures are all highlights – ‘Tom Sawyer’, ‘Limelight’, and ‘Red Barchetta’ – as is ‘Subdivisions’ from the followup Signals. The group purposefully turned up the guitars for 1984’s Grace Under Pressure, and ‘Distant Early Warning’ and ‘Red Sector A’ both rock. 1985’s ‘Marathon’ is also large sounding and excellent, but my favourite Rush song is 1987’s ‘Time Stand Still’, an uncharacteristically  tender lyric from Neil Peart, with backing lyrics from Aimee Mann.

While I’m lukewarm about Rush’s 1970’s work, their 1980s work represented on Retrospective II is much more palatable, and often excellent.

 

Toto IV

Toto IV - Toto1982, 7.5/10
It aroused horror among critics worldwide when it won the Grammy for album of the year, but Toto IV stands up well as an album of jazz inflected pop/rock, demonstrating the difference between being a critic’s favourite (the group peddle vapid love songs) and being a muso’s favourite (the group’s playing is fluid and sophisticated). Formed by a bunch of studio musicians who figured they’d played on so many hit songs that they’d be capable of creating their own, Toto surfaced with their 1977 breakthrough hit ‘Hold The Line’ before languishing in obscurity until this record broke them into the big time. Toto followed up IV with a soundtrack for Dune and a subsequent nosedive back into obscurity.

Yet Toto IV holds up well, and even the double synthesiser attack is mostly restrained and tasteful. Book-ended by the ubiquitous ‘Rosanna’, a lovelorn plea to actress Rosanna Arquette, and the even more ubiquitous ‘Africa’ with nonsensical lyrics, and the middle is mostly filled by competent pop songs that could have been hits if necessary. ‘I Won’t Hold You Back’ is delivered well by guitarist Steve Lukather, whose more vulnerable tones contrast well with Bobby Kimball’s manly bravado. The group also ride funky grooves like ‘Make Believe’, ‘Good For You’ and ‘Waiting For Your Love’, all with memorable choruses and inventive chord sequences. Toto IV only ever loses momentum with the ‘It’s A Feeling’, which turns into a mushy synth-fest, and ‘We Made It’ which dispenses with the melodies that make the rest of the album so great.

Toto IV is soulless and meaningless, but it sure sounds great while it’s on.

 

 

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