originally published November 17, 2013
I have, in the past, been accused of acute music snobbery, mostly by people whose names I never bothered to commit to memory. Yes, as an employee of Music World for the summer of 1993 I would regularly look down on customers who purchased music that I deemed to be weak and unworthy of sharing the New Release rack with the 20th anniversary re-issue of Dark Side of the Moon. But I’d only do so in my head and to co-workers after those customers had left the premises. Usually.
And while I hold my own artistic opinion as a more accurate barometer of objective quality than that of the Billboard chart-driven display of ludicrous public embracement, I would be the last to declare my tastes to be definitively correct. I am a child of the 1980’s, an era when music didn’t have to be musicologically intricate – or even necessarily good – to be a terrific record. I’m okay with this – if someone whose sense of auditory aesthetics tells me that Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days” is a crap single, I will quietly acknowledge a perfectly valid crevice of opinion, even if I feel they are wrong.
But there are some songs that seem to be objectively inarguable – purely and unavoidably great pieces of music. These are tracks that even the neo-hipsters of that decade will tap their feet to, the ones that truly warrant the moniker of ‘classic’. I’ve written about 80’s music before, but with these songs I can’t imagine any dissent. Or, you could comment below and prove me wrong.
But you won’t.
In 1984 there was no under-bed hidey-hole so remote it could not be penetrated by some portion of Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA album. It still holds the record (along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller) for having spawned seven top-10 hit singles; that’s seven massive hits off a twelve-track LP. And while perhaps you could uncover some twisted soul who’ll stick up their noses at “Dancing In The Dark” or “Glory Days”, I simply cannot fathom not cranking up the volume to “Cover Me.”
“Cover Me” was the second single, after “Dancing In The Dark”. Its B-side was an outstanding reworked live performance of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl”. Bruce wasn’t sure how to perform “Cover Me” live, but he wound up building his arrangement around the 6-minute club remix produced by Arthur Baker. His blue-collar fans may not have appreciated this dalliance with 80’s dance-club culture, but it helped launch the single into the #7 position on the charts without an accompanying music video – pretty impressive for 1984.
I don’t care if you’re a rock ‘n roll purist or an aging baby-boomer who still sports a tie-dye headband to pick up organic vegan cheese from the supermarket, I’m pretty sure it’s clinically impossible not to tap your feet to A-ha’s “Take On Me”. This piece of Norwegian synth-pop is everything a music single should be: catchy, danceable, and accompanied by one of the most innovative music videos of the decade.
A-ha paid their dues in the music business, moving three times from Norway to London in hopes of landing a contract. They finally cut a version of “Take On Me”, ensconced in synthesizer and destined to be a complete flop. It caught the ear of Warner Brothers in the US though, and they encouraged the band to re-record it with producer Alan Tarney. Again, as a UK release, it tanked; the label didn’t support it. Warner Brothers USA knew how to market music in this era though – they commissioned a brilliant rotoscoping pencil-animation video and allowed the video to provide the fertile mulch for the band’s success. The video was released a full month before the single was on store shelves in America. The result? A #1 hit.
As beloved as the aforementioned Thriller and Born In The USA albums may have been, no single album in the 1980’s blended ethno-musical exploration with commercial success like Paul Simon’s Graceland. This is one disc that still warrants repeated listenings from beginning to end. And the title track – which was also released without a music video – remains one of the highlights.
The story of the song is inspired by a trip to Elvis’s tourist vortex of Graceland shortly after the failure of Paul’s marriage to Carrie Fisher. The weight of the lyrics in the second verse still gives me a spinal chill: “She comes back to tell me she’s gone / As if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed / As if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead…” Sweet Jesus, that man knows how to write a song.
Oh, and the Everly Brothers sing on it. I’d never even noticed.
The song won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year – the lowest-charting single to do so until Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’s non-charting (in the US) 2009 single “Please Read The Letter.” “Graceland” cracked the top 40 in only three countries (Belgium, Ireland and New Zealand), and broke the top 20 in none. In the US, it didn’t climb past #81. But still… can anyone out there find a reason not to love it?
This song doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page, and I doubt it even touched the Billboard Hot-100. But Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Life By The Drop” was the song that inspired me to write this article today. It crawled into my headphones and asked me if anyone could dare to criticize it. Put aside the fact that it was the final track on the album that was released roughly a year after Vaughan’s death, no doubt giving it an extra pang of sadness – this is just a magnificent 2:28 of music.
It was written by Doyle Bramhall, Stevie Ray’s good friend. It’s simply the story of their bromance, as seen from Doyle’s perspective. The recording is Stevie Ray on a 12-string acoustic guitar, recorded in Los Angeles in the spring of 1989 (which is why I’ll call it an 80’s track, despite its 1991 commercial release). It may not have received the attention of “Little Wing” or “The Sky Is Crying” from that first posthumous album, but for me it is a slice of absolute perfection.
If you were to sit down and plot out a “Hits O’ The 80’s” compilation album, quite possibly the first song on your list would be “Walking On Sunshine” by Katrina & The Waves. In fact, I think it’s mandatory for any such collection. It has been the totemic flag of the decade’s music scene to the point where it’s almost inconceivable that songwriter Kimberley Rew, the band’s guitarist, originally planned it to be a ballad.
Fortunately, Katrina knew better. She belted the crap out of it, and created the most marketable 80’s pop hit ever made. The band kept the publishing rights, so every time you hear that tune in a commercial, it’s more money in their pockets. It’s estimated the song generated about a million dollars per year during the past decade on commercial royalties alone.
And for today, good luck getting it out of your head.