JAIMIE VERNON – 20 Alternate Universe 1980’s Timeless Tracks

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Last week Bob Segarini posted an incredible article
about what can only be described as the crème-de-le-crème of hit songs from the 1980s. It was not your usual worn out parade of crap being played by today’s radio stations who believe that “Maneater” by Hall & Oates was the nadir of musical achievement. Bob focused on the song craft and the sheer hooky-ness of the tracks. In other words, there was no Madonna on the list. I’m much younger than Bob so these tunes were influencing my social life in real time from nightclubbing and dancing (I do a mean Billy Idol on the dance floor, let me tell you!) to the concerts I was going to. F’rinstance, I got to see Split Enz actually perform “I Got You” at Maple Leaf Gardens while the song was still on the charts. I think all but three of the songs on Bob’s list were in my record collection. However, no music list is ever definitive. No music list can cover all the bases. As I read through Bob’s choices I started thinking of the songs that kicked my ass during this same time period that he didn’t mention. And I realized it was because I was living in an alternate universe. Literally. When I abandoned AM Radio at the end of the 1970’s I listened to CHUM-FM briefly as it was the ex-wife’s station of choice, but I was in a punk band at the turn of the decade and we lived on alternative college radio fodder (usually from CIUT, CKLN or our home time frosh station CSCR at Scarborough College) and the self-proclaimed ‘Spirit of Radio’ – CFNY-FM.  These were stations that took the Billboard Top 100 lists, put them in brown paper bags, lit them on fire and tossed them out of dormitory windows. Not only were mainstream radio stations not playing this stuff, but most record labels weren’t signing it. The most you could hope for is that a major label was distributing the releases coming out of cutting edge designer labels from all over the world. It wasn’t unheard of for me to have 95% imported singles and albums in my collection from stuff I heard on College radio or CFNY.

When I say CFNY was unique, I’m not just paying lip service. For a period of time at the end of the 1970s and 1980s you could listen entire days without hearing a single song that was also tracking on Toronto’s Q107 or CHUM-FM. The little yellow house in Brampton, Ontario was channeling the spirit of pirate radio. I always considered them Canada’s equivalent to England’s Radio Caroline – without all that water surrounding the station or the threat of being invaded by France. Eventually the station got into the business of promoting alternative music and launched yearly new talent contests where Southern Ontario artists got a shot at faaaaaabuloous prizes – including regular airplay. We got to hear the growth of such Queen Street acts as Plasterscene Replicas, L’etranger (featuring not one but TWO future NDP members of parliament – Andrew Cash and Chuck Angus), Vital Sines, Martha & The Muffins, Parachute Club and even my old band Swedish Fish – who were nominated for a 1986 CFNY sponsored U-KNOW Award. Most of all, CFNY was the Tesla coil for international underground and alternative music scene (including Reggae and World music acts).  Their playlists were so diverse you’d get aural whiplash. David Marsden was my DJ of choice and when he moved to weekends at 94.9 The Rock in Oshawa six or seven years ago and revived his old CFNY playlists, I’ve been a listener ever since.

I was also hanging around record shops in Toronto during this period and feeding off the new surprises being brought in by guys like Brian Taylor at Record Peddler and following exciting new record labels like Fringe Product and Nettwerk so my tastes continued to widen. I still tended to gravitate toward the melodic and usually avoided the true hipster stuff coming out of the halls of labels like 4AD and Factory in the UK though there was always the occasional exception. Like The Beatles unveiling rare B-sides from records coming into Liverpool by sailors, my own bands were delving into songs by bands that had yet to break in North America. So, here for your listening pleasure is a list of 30 songs/artists that I was listening to while Bob Segarini was gettin’ jiggy with Paula Abdul.  [NOTE: right-hand click the link of the songs to get it to play while you continue to read on]

The Undertones – My Perfect Cousin (1980)
While U2 were only dreaming of becoming the biggest act ever to come out of Ireland, Feargal Sharkey & The Undertones were living the working-class dream – being on the Dole and forming a punk band. Sharkey would go on to fame as the vibrato soaked singer of “A Good Heart” but back in the days of The Undertones it was all frenetic Subbuteo playing fun. Two minutes and thirty seconds of driving, foot stomping pop punk.

David Bowie – Cat People (Putting Out Fire)  (1982)
Somewhere between David Bowie’s last true artistic album, ‘Scary Monsters’, and the commercially overt ‘Let’s Dance’ – where he sold out everything he stood for artistically for what was behind Door #1, Bowie became an ‘actore!’ and barely puttered around the musical desert.  His only two musical contributions from 1980 to 1983 were the Queen duet “Under Pressure” and the theme song from director Paul Shrader’s movie ‘Cat People’ which was released in March 1982 in advance of the film. Most people know it as “Putting Out Fire”. The tune exudes the last of Bowie’s moodiness, soul and rock faces all in one tune. It became a surprise Top 30 hit in the UK. Every station in North America ignored it…except CFNY. Director Quentin Tarantino most recently used the track to dramatic effect in the Nazi hunter movie ‘Inglourious Basterds’. The link attached is the short edit from that 2009 film.

Pete Shelley – Homosapien (1982)
When the original punk scene collapsed around 1980 the members of some of the biggest acts from that scene struggled to find a place in the new world of New Wave. Generation X frontman led the charge – you may know him as Billy Idol and Buzzcocks front man Pete Shelley responded with his only hit “Homosapien”…the cleverly worded danceable synth-pop ditty that publicly addressed homosexuality, homophobia and his own coming out. A daring song for 1982 and one that sticks like an earworm.

Violent Femmes – Blister In the Sun (1983)
Like The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles” which became a hit for the second time when it was used in the movie “Benny & Joon”, the Violent Femmes’ “Blister In the Sun” is a lot older than the movie in which it appeared – 2000’s “Grosse Pointe Blank” starring John Cusack. In fact, the song was released in 1983. By 1984 my own band already had it in our set – it was a regular show stopper because, well, let’s face it, you can do the Seinfeld ‘Elaine Dance’ to it…and the song’s about masturbation. It’s any wonder it’s played on the retro-radio stations now. When the 2000s hipster crowd got a hold of it they thought it was new. Well, it sort of was. The master tapes for the song had long disappeared so The Violent Femmes cut a new version of the song for the movie. The video-clip is the tie-in to the film. If you want the original version you can find it on the band’s 1983 self-titled debut.

Bauhaus – Bela Lagosi’s Dead (1979/1983)
“Bela Lagosi’s Dead” was originally released in 1979 and promptly ignored except by Goths dancing in batcaves. But, while David Bowie was subverting his actual music skills and exorcising his theatrical demons in the vampire flick ‘The Hunger’ with Catherine Deneuve, ironically, he was out-cooled in the film by an act that was most likely influenced by him: Bauhaus. The opening credits to the movie are considered one of the greatest cinematic moments on film by critics and part of what makes it resonate is the truly creepy, truly atmospheric and haunting song by Bauhaus called “Bela Lagosi’s Dead”. The band achieved cult-like status most notably from the song’s inclusion. It became the Bauhaus’s raison d’etre…and with good reason.

Big Country – In A Big Country (1983)
The biggest complaint about the New Wave era was the alleged death of the guitar. Other than Duran Duran, no one was really dispelling the myth…until Big Country came along. Take a rock band from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, give them some 1980s production and a customized bagpipe guitar pedal and presto: you’ve got a hook, a chorus and a truly cool modern interpretation of a Scottish war anthem.

Style Council – You’re the Best Thing (1984)
Following Paul Weller’s indulgence in all things Mod during his salad days with The Jam, he took a detour after the band’s demise, formed The Style Council and proceeded to indulge in all things soul and Motown. The band’s ‘Café Bleu’ was a slick, white-soul showcase for Weller’s understanding of the genre. “You’re The Best Thing” might be the best Smokey Robinson song he never wrote. Even Hall & Oates would be hard pressed to match the sexy beauty of this one.

Echo & The Bunnymen – The Killing Moon (1984)
The Beatles ensured that no one ever spoke of Liverpool except in reverence to them for the better part of two decades. Two bands changed that in the 1980s – Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Echo & The Bunnymen. The Bunnymen portrayed themselves as the snooty art student hipsters of the 1980s. They were a hard sell in North America when you had Madonna selling her metaphorical virginity up the charts. E&TBM were Goth-lite for those shy college kids who wanted to where trench-coats and mascara but not pierce their genitalia or embed razorblades under their skin. The Bunnymen were quirky, arty and pretty safe (especially when they became a favourite of teen angst film maker John Hughes). And then they released one of the greatest Doors impersonations ever. “The Killing Moon” was a near perfect evocation of mood and danger with orchestrated melody – and probably why it appeared in the movie ‘Johnny Darko’. Jim Morrison would have been proud.

Nena – 99 Red Balloons/99 Luftaballons (1984)
Yep. The little German girl with the hairy arm-pits who sings phonetically in English about the apocalypse must be included on any list where the 1980s zeitgeist is being scrutinized. North American radio was finally realizing what CFNY already knew – the Europeans were making some incredible dance and pop music. A-ha and Falco were driving the invasion and labels were scrambling looking for the next Euro-flavoured hit. Nena became the one-hit wonder du jour. While CFNY played the song in its original German, the commercial radio world chose the English translation – provided by none other than Canada’s Dalbello. Atomic annihilation never sounded so catchy and so bouncy.

Spoons – Romantic Traffic (1984)
Canadian act The Spoons make a name for themselves as teenaged pop stars in 1982 with meteoric success of their hit “Nova Heart” from their sophomore effort ‘Arias & Symphonies’. They then upped the ante by having producer Nile Rogers produce 1983’ ‘Talk Back’ which had several monster synth-pop ditties of its own. But it was a throw-away track from the soundtrack to an indie film called ‘Listen to the City’ called “Romantic Traffic” that made me sit up and take them seriously. The tune is deceiving as it starts with a jazzy introspective verse that plays on the idea that traffic is a metaphor for love, and dating, before slamming you with the most infectious “Doot doot doot doot dooty dee doot” chorus – complete with mutated trumpets to emphasize the melody line. Listen to this. Then try to get it out of your brain.

The Waterboys – Church Not Made With Hands (1984)
The Waterboys hailed from Scotland and were a lose amalgam of musicians surrounding frontman Mike Scott who was known to go off on strange musical side-trips. You might even call them an early jam band. “Church Not Made With Hands” came from Scott’s spiritually driven ‘A Pagan Place’ album and was a catchy, exhausting, horn and acoustic guitar driven tune. The band, and song, also featured then band member Karl Wallinger who would go on to lead the more commercially successful act World Party.

The Smiths – How Soon Is Now? (1985)
Originally released in 1984 as the b-side to The Smiths’ “William, It Was Really Nothing” single in the UK, the song popped up on a compilation album entitled ‘Hatful of Hollow’ in other territories before being added to the band’s second album ‘Meat Is Murder’ in 1985. It has become iconic and used in films and TV shows (including 8 seasons of ‘Charmed’). It’s the song no one knows the title of. Listen to it. That tremolo intro followed by the plaintive howling guitar line by Johnny Marr is all you need to hear to be taken back to 1985 and singer Morrissey’s muling angst. It’s the song that everyone loves to hate. But its effect on the ‘80s generation, youth culture and MTV is undeniable.

Mike & The Mechanics – Silent Running (1985)
While Phil Collins was slowly assassinating his credibility with Genesis fans by doing Motown songs for movie soundtracks, Mike Rutherford decided to take advantage of the downtime and created Mike & The Mechanics – another trio that featured the best voice talent England could by. In the case of the band’s first charting hit, “Silent Running” (taken from the Bruce Dern sci-fi flick of the same name), Ace/Squeeze frontman Paul Carrack got the task of delivering a serious, but groove filled cautionary tale about atomic annihilation at the hands of a politically locked red-button pushing world. Fortunately for all of us, the apocalypse never came and we can view the song for what it still is – a beautifully crafted pop song.

Talk Talk – Life’s What You Make It (1985)
One of the few New Romantic acts who made the transition to serious music stylists. The band managed a few toe tappers like “Such a Shame” and “It’s My Life” (recreated for Top40 radio a few years ago by No Doubt), but the piece-du-resistance was the pulsing, piano driven haunting “Life’s What You Make It”. The song is one of those rare examples of where less is more. Every beat, lyric and guitar fill is perfectly placed. Sheer perfection.

Smithereens – Blood & Roses (1986)
In 1986 the term power pop wasn’t quite a twinkle in Material Issue’s eyes, but bands were already playing the type of music that would inform the 1990s underground movement. The Smithereens, led by melody man Pat DiNizio, was on the front lines fueling their garage rock with pop melodies. “Blood & Roses” is a dark Peter Gunn-like pop rock tune. It’s not typical of their later work but always reminded me of a more chiseled, more refined Elvis Costello tune.

Dalbello – Black on Black (1987)
Lisa Dal Bello was a late ‘70s Canadian dance artist who did a complete talent make-over in the early ‘80s – writing more introspective songs with non-traditional instrumentation and arrangements. She found an audience in Europe, helped many artists in those countries translate their songs in to English (such as Nena) and came back to Canada transformed. No longer concerned with traditional female roles in the music biz she called all her own shots – including how, when and where her records would be presented. The decision paid off in spades when her 1987 album ‘Tango’ spawned several radio hits including “Black on Black” which would find its audience in the pseudo-sexual film ‘9 ½ Weeks’. The song gets under your skin and might very well be the only synth-pop song you can pump your fast and chant along to. The video pre-dates the hit by two years. Check out Heart’s 1990s remake – Anne Wilson follows the original arrangement note-for-note.

World Party – Ship of Fools (1987)
Following Karl Wallinger’s stint with The Waterboys he formed his own act called World Party and found himself the new poster boy for alternative cool. The Jaggerish vocals and jazzy piano driven production make this one of the catchiest tunes of 1987.

The Church – Under the Milky Way (1988)
I was already digging Australian act The Church back in 1981 when their self-titled debut floated in as an import with the post-punk anthem “Unguarded Moment” driving it (a song I would cover on my second solo album). But frontman/leader/songwriter Steve Kilbey was a difficult peg to place in a musical hole and only the College Campus crowd seemed to gravitate to the band. Then the credibility destroying unthinkable happened: Kilby and his then girlfriend Karin Jansson wrote the perfect pop ditty for radio. An antidote to the moody Echo & The Bunnyman track “The Killing Moon”, The Church brought home a dreamy, airy, atmospheric desert driving car tune – complete with a bagpipe solo in it.

The Alarm – Sold Me Down the River (1989)
Mike Peters and The Alarm from Northern Wales were pounding away in the same trenches as U2 back in their early years attempting to evolve out of their punk beginnings – adding acoustic guitars and pop melodies. Clash-like anthems “68 Guns”, “Declaration” and “Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke” gave them post-punk credibility. It took nearly a decade for The Alarm to find their groove, the blues and some soul. “Devolution Working Man Blues” and the searing, dirty dancing “Sold Me Down the River” (produced by Tony Visconti) made the Billboard Top50 in 1989.

Alannah Myles – Black Velvet  (1989)
You’ve heard this song a million times. You might even be sick to death of it. But at the time of its release, “Black Velvet” went on to score No. 1 status around the world. It won ‘Song of the Year’ at the 1990 Grammys. This was pre-Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain AND Celine Dion fame. Alannah was the first Canadian female artist to sell a million copies of her debut album. No matter what your eventual perception of the song, the David Tyson and Christoper Ward written track was the perfect bump and grind simmering blues number to compliment Myles’ smoke filled cum-hither delivery. The combination makes “Black Velvet” the last great corporate rock song of the 1980s.

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com

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