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This Week's Forgotten Gem of the '80s: Trip Shakespeare
In honor of my discovery today of this wonderfully odd and totally obscure guitar pop band born in the late '80s, I'm not even going to choose a particular song. In a break from tradition, I'm instead simply going to focus on the group itself, in hopes that together we can make a dent in Trip Shakespeare's relentlessly unsung musical reputation.
I happened upon this exciting, utterly unique band completely by accident, while trying to find out more about Dan Wilson, the singer-songwriter who won a Grammy earlier this year for one of the songs he co-wrote for the Dixie Chicks' last album. Maybe it's just me, but despite the relatively strong publicity generated by that link, I had no idea that Wilson was the frontman for '90s alternative poppers Semisonic. Which brings me back to Trip Shakespeare, the band Dan Wilson joined in 1989 that was led quite capably by his younger brother, Matt. This is a great band that should have enjoyed far more listeners as an indie outfit during the late '80s, although its dBs-meets-Tragically-Hip sound certainly was never going to find a place in the Top 40 of that era. But if you're looking for something a bit more challenging and truly independent in your '80s music meanderings, Trip Shakespeare is a mandatory detour.
Tom Petty Documentary Celebrates an Artist for the Ages
Tom Petty may be just the latest rock and roll legend to get the documentary or biopic treatment from a prominent film director, but his career is worthy, without a doubt, of such a close examination. In fact, Peter Bogdanovich's Runnin' Down a Dream just happens to be playing Monday night in prime time on the Sundance Channel and will soon be making the rounds, perhaps, to a theater near you in a limited national release. I wonder if its viewership might be shrunk somewhat by the four-hour playing time of the film, but it's hard to argue that Petty's career trek across four decades lacks the material to fill that time ably.
After all, it's a sweeping path indeed that Petty has cut across the abundant landscape of rock and roll during the past 30 years. Lumped in initially with the punk rock and new wave scenes going on concurrently during the late '70s, Petty would come to epitomize the uniquely American sounds of heartland rock, roots rock and the burgeoning movement of Americana music as the '80s wore on. But that was only the beginning, as Petty now stands among the most respected and consistently productive singer-songwriters in the vast world of pop music. For a brief introduction to this artist's importance during the '80s and beyond, check out my Profile of Tom Petty.
This Week's Forgotten Gem of the '80s: Treat Her Right's "I Think She Likes Me"
By the mid '90s the guitarless wonders Morphine had become a prized commodity among music hipsters, but innovative bassist and frontman Mark Sandman made a significant, highly original contribution to the '80s as well with this tune from his earlier band. It's a one-of-a-kind blend of styles that comes off as beat blues poetry, especially as delivered through the intoxicatingly low signature vocals of Sandman. And although Treat Her Right was certainly a more traditional guitar-centered rock and roll band, the group clearly lay down the quirky foundation for the haunting, mesmerizing sounds of Morphine.
In this sultry tale of an illicit and potentially dangerous bar encounter, Sandman packs in plenty of sneering attitude along with skillful wordplay in the title and chorus. Bolstered by the slide guitar work of David Champagne and Sandman's low-pitched guitar work, this is simply the kind of music listeners were very hard-pressed to find during the '80s (or any decade, for that matter). And though his life and career were cut cruelly short when he died of a heart attack in 1999 at age 46, Sandman continues to inspire posthumously. This song is a great place to start in exploring his unique talents.
Heartland Rock Continues to Shine as One of the Most "Important" Genres of the '80s
John Mellencamp probably knows better than anyone that during the '80s heartland rockers did not automatically earn critical respect just because they attempted to make music about something meaningful. Of course, he must be getting a vindicating chuckle out of the continuing influence of the form both good (the thriving Americana music scene) and not so good (the ever safer, mass-produced universe of commercial country music).
When it comes right down to it, there aren't many genres of the '80s other than hardcore punk and college rock that attempted to make bolder musical statements than the decade's heartland rockers. The music of Mellencamp and Bob Seger continues to resonate across generations for a pretty good reason: both artists are savvy songwriters who appealed equally to listeners in primal as well as cerebral ways. That wide appeal remains the hallmark of this form, achieved without the sacrifice of quality such popularity often mandates. Check out my Heartland Rock Profile for a closer examination of this significant '80s form.
This Week's Forgotten Gem of the '80s: the Del Fuegos' "I Still Want You"
For a multitude of reasons, the '80s artists who were most successful at departing from typical musical trends of the decade (big drums, keyboards, saxophone and slick overproduction, for example) were the same ones who resided, often loosely, in an alternative scene that hadn't really been named yet. Boston's Del Fuegos definitely fit this description as a hypnotic roots-rock band that was simply too unusual and challenging for broad radio airplay. Therefore, the group excelled within the college rock scene, building an avid cult following among music fans looking for something off the beaten path two decades ago. This track, which also happens to be the Del Fuegos' only charting song on the Billboard Hot 100 (earning a dim spotlight at No. 87 in 1986), serves as a solid showcase for the daring and musical precision of this fine band. Unfortunately, many listeners (including me, I must admit) probably spent the '80s unaware of the rich work of this band, waiting until Juliana Hatfield's "My Sister" in 1993 to even become inspired to find out who they were. Luckily, '80s music is always there, waiting for us to enter... waiting to enter us.
'80s Music Band Names Often of the Questionable Variety
This may be relatively true for rock music of all eras, but the '80s certainly made a case for producing some of the most ridiculous band names of the last 50 years. In the case of the rash of surname bands (from Nelson to Slaughter to Winger), band names of the '80s definitely had the ability to be tremendously boring, but more often than that they simply made no sense or made it impossible to ignore the band in question's tackiness. My list of the Top 8 Worst Band Names of the '80s really only scratches the proverbial surface of possibility. But let me tell ya; the effort needed to consider this subject with great intensity was considerable.
This Week's Forgotten Gem of the '80s: INXS' "This Time"
Back when this Australian former bar band was still a guitar rock outfit instead of the dance-inflected showcase for Michael Hutchence that it became, this excellent mid-tempo track represented the group at its best. Boasting a potent mixture of guitars and a light layer of post-new wave keyboards, the arrangement allows plenty of room for Hutchence's deliberate but sultry style to dominate tastefully. I was never a big fan of INXS' smash 1987 release Kick, as I felt the album's slickness and shameless appeal for pop music airplay cheapened the blue-collar appeal of the band's early years. And although 1985's Listen Like Thieves was far from a cutting-edge rock record, it certainly sounded far more organic than its grossly popular follow-up, which somehow racked up four Top 10 hits. Meanwhile, classic INXS tunes like this one and "Don't Change" languished on the pop charts, neither able to crack the Top 80, believe it or not. I know this weekly feature is not the only place for this group's best songs to get their due, but it's a good opportunity to create exposure for some fine, underrated '80s music.
A Spotlight on '80s Artists Who Usually Recede Into the Shadows
In an earlier blog entry on this site, I focused on one of the most important elements of '80s music fashion, the wonderfully gaudy accessories of yesteryear. I thought it would be interesting now to focus on the other end of the spectrum, the artists who were brave or styleless enough to ignore fashion trends in a highly image-centered era. I must profess considerable admiration for these hardy souls, enough to inspire me to compile my list of the Top 5 Fashion Anti-Heroes of the '80s. In most cases, these artists actually prized art over commerce, which usually explained their willingness to forgo image and appearance and the dollars often connected to them. So how about a refreshing change of pace, '80s artists who had better things to do than quibble over makeup and wardrobe.
This Week's Forgotten Gem of the '80s: Lone Justice's "Shelter"
Well, first of all, this nearly flawless song is not so much the work of Lone Justice the groundbreaking cowpunk/roots rock band as it is an early solo effort from the group's frontwoman, eclectic singer-songwriter Maria McKee. Secondly, and more importantly, it's one of the finest mid-tempo love songs of the rock era not to become a substantial hit on the pop charts. It's a beautiful melody and arrangement, one that comes off very well despite some seriously slick production. But more than that, the precision and conciseness of the songwriting here (McKee co-wrote the tune with Sopranos star and longtime E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt) speaks volumes about the impressive and rare achievement of writing lyrics to an earnest love song without resorting to cliches and sappy sentiment. Consider a line like "Your struggle with darkness has left you blind/I'll light the fire in your eyes" and the way it simply works with a directness and honesty that feels totally earned. McKee has since built a solid if under-the-radar two-decade solo career doing whatever she wants when she wants to do it, and the music world has benefited much from her graceful journey. But I still think it's a crime that this tune never enjoyed Top 10 exposure as it should have, stalling at a depressing No. 47 in 1987.
Album Cover Photo Courtesy of Geffen Records
Heart Made the Best of '80s Comeback by Churning Out Quality Pop Hits
Well, if it had to happen the way it did, legendary rock and roll sisters Ann & Nancy Wilson certainly handled a transformation from original rockers to commercial pop stars in the best possible way. As you'll notice in my profile of the band as well as my top songs list, I just can't seem to get over the fact that the Wilsons' veteran songwriting skills were pretty much put into a deep freeze for Heart's '80s revival. Imagine how these influential female artists might have engineered their own comeback had they been able to maintain full artistic control.
Then again, the '80s music landscape would have suffered considerably without the group's memorable mainstream pop/rock hits like "Never" and "Alone," which still stand up as solid songs expertly delivered. Such is the conflict I have when considering the '80s work of one of classic rock's most memorable bands of the '70s, but I suppose I can reconcile my reservations in light of Heart's generally classy evolution in one of rock's trickiest, most chaotic eras.
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