Category Archives: 1980s

The Art of the Cover, Vol. 1: Psychic TV and Califone

Haven’t updated this blog in about nine months, but that’s probably for the best; no one should have to read my drunk, incredibly depressed take on “100 000 Fireflies.” Anyway, I’m going to do a few short, Perfect Pop Sidebars on some of my favourite songs that have inspired equally great covers.

The cover is a tricky thing to master. The masturbatory fantasy of most every rock critic is to form a huge band and then push his favourite obscure artists on the unsuspecting masses, thus creating the stickiest of double whammies: publicly playing the best songs while having the best taste (or being Yo La Tengo, basically).

Course, as many artists over the years have demonstrated, doing a proper cover is a challenging art. How to make it different enough to not be redundant, while retaining what made the original worth covering? Here’s one take:

Psychic TV – “The Orchids” (1983, Some Bizzare/CBS)

Psychic TV’s plinky, delicate original is to psychedelia as microhouse is to house music; tiny-sounding and almost anodyne, but too self-assured to be dismissed as sleepy “quirk” or gimmick. Psychic TV were an offspring of the legendary Throbbing Gristle and continued that band’s uber-arty conceptual bent, albeit in a more digestible format, even venturing into pop territory from time to time. “The Orchids” was recorded using the quack-ish “holophonic” technology best known from a few of Roger Waters’ loopier ’80s ventures; whether or not the holophonic production can be credited (it purported to create an “acoustic hologram” in the listener’s brain), the total effect of the music is immaculate and serene. I remember attending a workshop with the poet John Steffler where he spoke eloquently on what he called deep observation; studying something nonhuman in an attempt to understand it on its own terms, fantasy not as escapism but as an honest attempt to empathize by projecting one’s own mind into another organism and then writing the experience. I feel like Psychic TV’s lyrics achieve something like deep observation in their strange imagery:

“when all the numbers swim together
and all the shadows settle
when doors forced open shut again
a flytrap and a petal

my eyes burn and claws rush in to fill them;
and in the morning after the night
I fall in love with the light
it is so clear I realize
that here at last I have my eyes”

As a flower opening to the sun is consumed entirely by the act, so does “The Orchids” reach a quiet, sweet understanding; it’s an ideal soundtrack to one of those time-lapse videos of a plant growing into bloom (like this, only with better sounds). And I’m a sucker for that breathy, wordless singing at the end.

Califone – “The Orchids” (2006, Thrill Jockey)

If Psychic TV’s greatest trick was to create such a perfectly green space with largely synthesized instruments, Califone’s was to translate it back into a vocabulary of traditional, “rootsy” acoustic instruments while maintaining its distinctive, almost alien atmosphere. Cited by the band as the inspiration for their excellent 2006 LP Roots and Crowns, Califone’s take on “The Orchids” is dimly reminiscent of The Books‘ folktronica sound, or the most abstract moments on Wilco‘s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; gorgeous, spare banjo, guitar and percussion swaddled in a haze of reverb, backwards loops and clipped harmonica. Its form perfectly reflects the lyrics’ repeated references to “the orchid and the metal”, the analog musicians augmented by the buzzing machinery of the studio.


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Filed under 1980s, 2000s, alternative, contemporary folk, covers, indie, psychedelic, synth pop

Vol.33: Twee Singers in a Guitar Cathedral (Fantastic Something’s “If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain)”)

Cover of Fantastic Something If She Doesn't Smile (It'll Rain) single

You mope your way, and I’ll mope mine.

Fantastic Something – If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain) (1984, Cherry Red)

Download the single, courtesy of the Sweeter Moments blog

Why It’s Perfect: Consider the title: If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain). Within the tiny emotional universe the song creates, it reads as a simple statement of fact. It’s a sunny day, and a boy is looking for a girl. It can’t be just any girl; there is only one girl, the girl who makes him happy. He cannot be more specific on this point, because the only thing he knows about her is that when she is not around, he is not happy. Sometimes he is lucky enough to catch a glimpse of her. If she does not smile when they meet, it will rain (precipitation presumably localized to the airspace immediately below his tear ducts). That’s just what happens next.

There is a fine line between coming off as childlike and appearing to be, well, retarded, but Fantastic Something manage it well Continue reading

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Filed under 1980s, alternative, indie, jangle pop

Vol.32: Joey Ramone Wanted to be in a ’50s Girl Group (Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio?”)

ramones do you remember rock 'n' roll radio sire single cover punk phil spector

The Ramones holding the actual instruments they played on the track.

Ramones – Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio? (1980, Sire)

Why It’s Perfect: Recalling the recording of the Ramones’ legendary Sheena is a Punk Rocker single in Greg Milner’s book Perfecting Sound Forever, popular ‘70s record producer Tony Bongiovi was adamant that the faint timpani he insisted be included in the chorus was some sort of watershed for the band. Now, it’s easy enough to dismiss the word of Jon Bon fucking Jovi’s cousin, even if you’re among the infinitesimal fraction of listeners whose first takeaway from Sheena was “Hey, nice timpani,” but maybe he had a point. We’re used to reckoning the Ramones’ musical evolution in geologic time, but by the end of the seventies/century, band leader Joey Ramone had become much more interested in the recording studio, even hooking up with mad Wall of Sound genius Phil Spector for 1980’s divisive End of the Century.

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Filed under 1980s, punk, rock n' roll, Wall of Sound

Vol.28: Vienna

ultravox, synth pop, vienna, 1981

Ultravox cordially invite you to misery.

Ultravox – Vienna (1981, Chrysalis)

Why It’s Perfect: When I was younger, I somehow got it into my head that Vienna was actually Austria’s national anthem. Can you imagine if there were a country whose anthem sounded like this? What a strange place it would have to be. The thoroughly processed majesty of its chorus sounds like a kitsch Also Sprach Zarathustra, the climax of an old commercial for high-end consumer electronics: BEHOLD the new Phillips Magnavox CD player! The most pristine digital audio device on Earth, now no larger than a toaster oven!


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Filed under 1980s, new wave, synth pop

Vol.20: Super Freak

The place behind him looks way too boring for Rick James. Hell, EARTH was too boring for Rick James.

Rick James – Super Freak (1981, Motown Records)

Why It’s Perfect: The two biggest novelty pop-rap singles of the ‘90s were (with apologies to Rico Suave) undoubtedly MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This and Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby, both of which cribbed their melodies from dusty hits of the early ‘80s. While Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure has remained at least on par with Ice’s appropriation in terms of general recognition, glittermeister Rick James’ bizarrely captivating funkster Super Freak has been a bit less lucky. This is a crying shame, because as enjoyable as Hammer’s dorktastic rhymes and parachute pants remain, it pales next to the utterly unique shuffle and squirm of James’ signature hit.

Like Under Pressure, Super Freak is built around a repetitive, idiosyncratic bass figure, but where Queen’s John Deacon’s lines have a certain melodic elegance, James’ completely disregard such sophistication. The lurching riff has a little pocket in the middle that stutters a dance step, and its rhythm might best be described as “bouncing.” Rather than downplay the awkwardness of the riff, James chooses to emphasize it with a grab-bag of geekoid synth vamps and scuttling zithers (or possibly marimbas?). As much as Super Freak obviously owes to George Clinton and Bootsy Collins’ space-time continuum funk, it also nabs plenty from glib contemporary New Wavers Devo and Gary Numan. The resulting fusion sounds at least as strange as it looks on paper, but even if it did nothing else, Super Freak would deserve kudos for injecting a little blackness into the almost painfully white complexion of the New Wave movement.

Fortunately, the thing is a veritable smorgasbord of fun, from the hurry-up disco pre-chorus to Danny Lemalle’s flashy sax solo. Add hilarious backing vocals from the legendary Temptations (!) and James’ own incorrigibly outsized boasts, and Super Freak becomes one of the great oddities of perhaps pop’s strangest decade.

[For bonus fun, check out the 12” single version, which jams out to seven minutes and features some delicious guitar work outs and kicking percussion.]

Defining Moment: “That girl is pretty wild now / She’s a super freak! / I’d really like to taste her (*SLURP*) / Every time we meet!” (2:00 – 2:10)

I don’t know how James’ lascivious (and to be honest, pretty gross) ad-lib slipped past me the first forty or fifty times I listened to the song, but when I did, it was like realizing that the bushes in Super Mario Bros. are just the cloud sprites painted green; I can’t not notice it.

Other Great Songs by Rick James: Rick James was pretty much the Commodores with a complete disregard for good taste or restraint (i.e. the Commodores if they were interesting). After playing in the Mynah Birds with Neil Young (!!!) and some of the dudes from Steppenwolf during the late ‘60s, he helped save the venerable Motown Records from bankruptcy with a dependable string of hit singles on the black/R&B charts, and even managed a few minor crossover hits before his career was derailed by substance abuse issues and other crack pipe-related catastrophes. In his prime, though, James was the most lovably lewd rock star prior to Prince, and songs like Cold Blooded, Mary Janes, Ghetto Life, Bustin’ Out and the immortal Give it to Me Baby are as good as funk gets.

[Hey look, no Chappelle’s Show jokes!]

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Filed under 1980s, funk, new wave, what the fuck?

Vol.14: Rainbow in the Dark (R.I.P. Ronnie James Dio)

The Koolaid Demon!

Dio – Rainbow in the Dark (1983, Warner Bros.)

Why It’s Perfect: Ah, to be adolescent again. I’m convinced that the reason traditional heavy metal so appealed to me at this age wasn’t because it spoke of power and confidence I’d never have, or because it made me different from my peers or any of that other rot. Sure, it’s loud and aggressive, but loudness and aggressiveness are qualities expressed in the performance. It’s texture, like biting into a crunchy cookie. The songs themselves are often quite tasty, with a geeky-gothic slant to their melodies well known to fantasy nerds and videogamers. The much missed Ronnie James Dio’s Rainbow in the Dark is about the best example I know of moat metal with this confectionary blend down pat. First, take the goofiest patch on your keyboard and (badly) play a ridiculous lilting renaissance lick. Double it with huge driving guitars (abusing pinch harmonics), add caveman percussion, sprinkle sub-Tolkien fantasy lyrics and mix at a reasonably brisk tempo. It’s a generic recipe, and one much inclined toward tedium, but Ronnie had a way of elevating this stuff with cheerful alacrity. Yes, he’s got that majestic growl and a dreamy-eyed croon to match it, but any number of (mostly Italian) singers can capably imitate it these days. Ronnie was different because his genuine pleasure to be making fantastic metal came through in the passion and craftsmanship he always brought to his work.

Rainbow in the Dark is one of those times his effort was rewarded with a stellar product. His lyrics are his usual potpourri of clichés, rhymes for rhyme’s sake and oblique references, and they become downright hilarious when you consider that they’re about Ronnie leaving Black Sabbath, but AAAANNNNYWAY he delivers them with awesome spirit, ringing high and clear as often as he does low and testicular (by the way, you knew Ronnie was phoning it in a bit whenever he just roared through a track instead of using his entire vocal repertoire intelligently) . Perennially disgruntled guitarist Vivian Campbell responded with some of his best ever axework, hitting every baroque angle of the riff and then sending out showers of sparks throughout his flashy solo. And that freakin’ keyboard lick, bashed out by Ronnie himself, is the very definition of metal’s camp appeal. There isn’t a moment of intentional irony in Rainbow in the Dark, much as was the case with Ronnie himself as a musician. He was always sincere about making powerful, encouraging and above all fun music for his beloved fans. And ‘fun’ is what Rainbow in the Dark is, fun like Dr. Feelgood or even The Girls Just Wanna Have Fun is for people who think slaying goblins and casting spells would be more fun than getting drunk in a nightclub. It’s perfect pop for unpop people. Thanks for it, Ronnie.

Defining Moment: “LIKE A RAINBOW” [pause] *dinky keyboard riff* “LIKE A RAINBOW IN THE DARK” [pause] *dinky keyboard riff* “YEEEEEEEEEAAAAHHHHHH”

I agree with that sentiment.

Other Great Songs by Dio: Ronnie had, arguably, the longest apex period of any single metal musician. From 1976, when his band Rainbow released Rising to 1983’s solo Holy Diver, he was unstoppable. Much of what came to define metal was created in part by Dio’s various ventures. Singles like Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll (Rainbow), Die Young (Black Sabbath) and The Last in Line (solo) solidified his credentials, while album tracks like Rainbow’s magnificent Kill the King and Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell became FM radio staples. If you want some traditional metal, there’s much to gorge on here.


Filed under 1980s, heavy metal, rainbows, written by or for elves

Perfect Pop Singles Vol.10: Come on Eileen

Dungarees by OshKosh B'Gosh

Dungarees by OshKosh B'Gosh

Dexys Midnight Runners – Come on Eileen (1982, Mercury Records)

Why It’s Perfect: In the great history of pop songs pleading for pussy, and it is a great history, few can match the sheer delight that is Come on Eileen (and what a loaded title…). This track conforms to how I imagine your average Irishman picks up a tourist:

1. He opens by playing on the womanly wooziness which is the usual result of exposure to his adorable accent, here represented by that irresistibly Celtic fiddling (though the actual fiddlin’ comes later in this narrative).
2. He behaves affably with a side of light hell-raising rakishness, which makes fucking him seem like it will be both an unmissably amusing experience and one which will prove a great way of sticking it to her father, who is probably of British ancestry and will therefore be horrified. In the song, this is represented by the goofy-grin banjo riff, “us against those boring squares” lyric and that redheaded accordion wheeze.
3. Finally, he begs for it (chorus).

Now, while most Irish blokes are at best probably about 50% successful, Come on Eileen is an absolute sure-shot. Maybe that’s because lead Runner Kevin Rowland is actually from Wolverhampton, but probably it’s because this group combine a Pogues-y feel for poppy Celtic folk with sublime melodic arrangements owing to the best ‘60s American soul. The Irish and American blacks, perhaps due to their turbulent histories, have spawned some of the most joyous and energetic musical forms of the 20th century, and the way the Dexys mix them is impressive; this song is strong enough to be a Motown hit, but its instrumentation instantly recalls every mug-emptying memory you’ve ever had of jigging (even if you’ve only ever seen a jig on TV). Far better than the novelty albatross hung round its neck would suggest, Come on Eileen is one of those tunes that just inspires you to have a good time making bad decisions. Oh Eileen please, indeed.

Defining Moment: Tough. On one hand, you’ve got some of the best call-and-response vocals of the ‘80s, particularly during the chorus: “Ah, come on Eileen, oh I swear, (what he means is), ah come on let’s take off everything / That pretty red dress Eileen… (tell him yes!)” It’s like making out in a back room with someone you met at a party, and then having a bunch of your dopey friends stick their heads out from the window/door/closet to shout encouragement. But it’s hard to get away from the pinpoint precision of the deceptively loose arrangement, the way it speeds up during the bridge and you start to wonder how in the hell this Eileen chick hasn’t been won over yet. I mean, you know she will be. What girl could resist a faux Irishman in dungarees?

Other Great Songs by Dexys Midnight Runners: In spite of their one-hit wonder reputation Stateside, DMR had a run of fetchingly competent records in the early ‘80s, of which Searching for the Young Soul Rebels and Too-Rye-Ay are generally considered the best. The band’s other #1 UK single, Geno, is an amusing, brass-led New Wave staple, and they do a smashing cover of Van Morrison’s Jackie Wilson Said.

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Filed under 1980s, dungarees, folk rock, new wave, soul