Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Armed Forces

Sometimes the very first presses of albums get packaged with little extras. Maybe this was to reward those who “got it” and were waiting for the artist’s next album, buying it virtually unheard because they knew they would like it; I don’t know. But it’s cool when they do it.

Elvis Costello’s first three albums helped define what became known as “new wave” music. It was a welcome change in direction of rock and roll that removed many of the corporate influences of the music in the late ’70s. New wave had a DIY attitude – similar to punk – that intentionally cut against the grain of convention while still incorporating more pop hooks. It would itself eventually be commercialized in the ’80s and re-branded as “alternative” rock.

“Armed Forces” followed in the wake of Elvis Costello’s debut “My Aim is True” and his sophomore record, “This Year’s Model”, which helped bring Costello, and New Wave, into the mainstream. Record buyers who rushed out to get “Armed Forces” were rewarded by an unexpected bonus – a promotional three song record slipped inside the cover with album. The songs on the bonus record were recorded live in 1978 at Hollywood High School in California.

All three of Elvis Costello’s first albums are considered ground-breaking classics today. All appear in Rolling Stones list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The magazine also ranked Elvis Costello one of the 100 greatest musical artists of all time. Costello was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

Every now and then, an album comes along that is so different from anything before it, you can’t decide if you really like it, or really don’t.
Forty years later, it still sits in my record collection, so I guess there’s no need to say where I eventually opined.

Since Devo’s debut album was produced by Brian Eno and David Bowie, with both of them saying, in essence, that this was the band of the future, I would have been a fool to not expect something different from the mainstream. I just had no idea how different.

Although their popularity lasted for only a few albums, Devo’s music, and most especially this album, changed popular music forever, ushering in “New Wave” music which, because of how distinctly different it was from mainstream rock, became a musical genre in and of itself – “Alternative”.

Like it or loath it, the influence “Are We Not Men” had on music can’t be denied.

The Alarm – Declaration

The Alarm gained popularity in the ’80s around the same time as U2. Both bands had a distinctly different, yet similar sounds. The two bands also shared a common thread in their politically charged and passionately sung lyrics. Unfortunately, U2 became successful before The Alarm and the band from Wales became destined to stay in the Irish band’s shadow. Some critics even refered to The Alarm as U2 wannabes, which I felt was an unfair assessment.

Personally, I liked The Alarm’s music better than U2’s. It had a little more of a punk edge to it, similar to The Clash. I think their first full length album, “Declaration” was every bit as powerful as U2’s “War”. Sadly, they never attained the level of success they so undeniably deserved.

One of the performers that The Alarm looked up to and took inspiration from was Bob Dylan. His politically charged words have always been present in The Alarm’s songs. I had the pleasure of seeing The Alarm open for Dylan in 1988 at Meadowbrook Music Theater in Michigan. As you would expect, almost all the people there came to see Bob Dylan. The Alarm obviously knew this would be the case and made sure that everyone there would remember them that night as well. A couple of songs into their set, front man Mike Peters charged into the crowd to get them fired up. Everyone jumped to and stayed on their feet until The Alarm left the stage. Their performance that night remains in my memories as one of the most powerfully moving performances I have seen by any opening band. I wish I would have had a chance to see them headlining a show before they broke up in 1991.

Mike Peters reformed The Alarm in 2004, but without original members Dave Sharp, Eddie MacDonald, and Nigel Twist, it just wasn’t the same.

Muse – Drones

Muse has never been a band that has been afraid of trying something new. On “Drones” they showed they’re not worried about returning to familiar territory either. For their seventh studio album, Muse teamed up with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lang, best known for his work with Def Leppard, to make a more straightforward, hard rocking record.

The one thing that has always been consistent with all of Muse’s albums is its combination of hard rock, pop, and progressive rock. As they gained popularity, the band experimented heavily with orchestration on “The Resistance” and electronic music on its follow-up, “The 2nd Law”.  For “Drones”, Muse chose to keep things simple…well, simple in the terms of Muse. Although the music on “Drones” is noticeably stripped back compared to the two albums that came before it, it’s still as complex, innovative, and powerful as anything Muse has done before.

“Drones” has probably the most binding underlying concept of any Muse album, even venturing into rock opera territory. The songs on the album revolve around a story that in many ways parallels Queensrÿche’s “Operation: Mindcrime” – the attempt of a government or organization to brainwash or program someone into becoming a killing machine for them.  The one big difference is “Drones” definitely has a happier ending, with the protagonist defecting.

Howard Jones – Dream Into Action

Synth pop was at the height of its popularity in the mid ’80s. It was a music style that could easily provide addictive hooks and innovative sounds, but it could also be ruined if an artist was overly dependent on the musical technology they used and less confident in their musical ability. Howard Jones knows how to find the perfect balance between composition, musicianship, and innovation. His second album “Dream Into Action” is a perfect example.

Howard Jones had a knack of knowing when to keep the arrangement of song sweet and simple or make it densely complex. That intuition helped him create a trend-setting album tha is complexly powerful and beautifully simple in all the right places.

“Dream Into Action” was the second album by Howard Jones. Other than some background vocals and a few bass lines Jones had his brother lay down, he plays and sings every note on this album.

Often overlooked and underrated by music critics, Howard Jones’ music often didn’t receive the radio airplay his contemporaries, but that never deterred him and he continues to write, record, and perform his music today.

“Dream Into Action” remains one of my favorite albums from the ’80s. It includes the hits “Things Can Only Get Better” and “No One is To Blame”. But like with many great albums, it’s the collection of songs that weren’t hits that truly define it. That’s where “Dream Into Action” is at its best.

Missing Persons – Spring Session M

I picked up “Spring Session M” by Missing Persons when it came out in 1981 because they had a really cool New Wave sound that I had started to get into. I had no idea they were also an offshoot from Frank Zappa’s band.

The name of their drummer, Terry Bozzio, rang a bell, but I couldn’t place where I had heard it before. The same went for guitarist Warren Cuccurullo and bassist Patrick O’Hearn. It wasn’t until I was listening to it with some Army buddies in the barracks at Fort Campbell when one of them said “this is so different from their stuff with Zappa, but I love it.”

I have to admit, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to who played with Frank Zappa through the years. I just paid attention to Zappa – but I guess not entirely. I recognized the names, so obviously something in my cranial gray matter had held onto them from a magazine article or album liner notes I had read at some point. After some digging, I found out that Missing Persons’ lead singer, the enigmatic Dale Bozzio (Terry’s wife at the time) had also sang vocals on Zappa’s album “Joe’s Garage”.

So, yeah, all but one of the members of Missing Persons (keyboardist Chuck Wild being the exception) had been a part of Frank Zappa’s band in the late ’70s. It’s no wonder I liked this album so much when I first heard it.

And I thought it was just because of the singles “Walking in L.A.”, “Destination Unknown”, and “Words”.

Laurie Anderson – Mister Heartbreak

Perhaps one of the most unusual artists to gain popular success in the eighties was Laurie Anderson. “Mr. Heartbreak” is her second album. Like its predecessor, “Mister Heartbreak” is a combination of musical experimentation spun together with a combination of spoken word and sung lyrics.

It may take some people a couple listens to fully appreciate “Mister Heartbreak”, or any of Laurie Anderson’s music for that matter. The interplay of the words and sounds is unlike any album that had come before it.

With as different as “Mister Heartbreak” is, I am actually surprised the album did as well as it did, hitting number 60 on the Billboard top 200 album chart in 1984. Certainly, Adrian Belew (King Crimson) on guitar and Peter Gabriel (Genesis) appearing on a couple of songs didn’t hurt it having a broader appeal to some people, making them want to give it a listen. I am glad I was one of them.

The Cure – The Head On The Door

The Cure is a band known for its gothic, gloom and doom sound. That’s really an unfair statement about the band’s music especially when you consider their material from their sixth album and beyond. While “The Head on the Door” still sounded very much like The Cure, it marked a significant shift in style for the eighties alternative band. The songs on it, all written by lead singer Robert Smith, were more upbeat than on previous Cure albums and the production was brighter.

The shift in sound alienated some of The Cure’s older fans but it gained them many new ones. The album became a 1985 landmark crossover between alternative and pop music. The Cure followed up “The Head on the Door” with a string of other albums that were successful on both the alternative and pop charts all the way into the ’90s. “The Head on the Door” however, still remains their most successful album.

Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

Going into the 1980s, synthesizers started to become more and more prevalent in popular music. At first, synths were used primarily to supplement songs or for an occasional solo. But moving into the new decade, a handful of bands, like the Eurythmics, began to use them as the primary, sometimes exclusive instrument in their songs.

Although the Eurythmics didn’t officially abandoned guitar in their music the way some other bands did at thee time, Annie Lenox and Dave Stewart did make minimal use of it – especially on their second album, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”.

The Eurythmics, and especially this album, were very influential for the rising popularity of alternative, or new wave music in the eighties. The title track became one of the biggest hits for the Eurythmics and is the most immediately recognizable songs by the band. It is a song that is immediately associated with pop culture of the ’80s.

The Look – We’re Gonna Rock

There once was a time when radio stations weren’t interested in a homogenized sound, and even promoted local bands by playing them during prime listening times. That was how I discovered The Look.

After the release of their debut album, “We’re Gonna Rock” in 1981, The Look seemed poised for national, even worldwide fame. They had a national hit single with the title track from their debut album. The video for that same song was getting regular airplay on MTV, making them the first Detroit area band to be played regularly on the fledgling cable TV station. They were getting lots of local radio air time at Detroit radio stations WRIF, WABX, and WWWW (W4). And they were opening concerts for the likes of Cheap Trick, The Kinks, John Cougar Mellencamp, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Cocker, and the J. Geils Band. It looked like they were going to be the next big thing from Detroit.

Unfortunately, that never happened. Because of the shifting focus of local radio stations to have a more nationally familiar sound as they were bought up by large broadcasting conglomerates, their playlists started catering to national hits, with very little emphasis on local talent, and The Look faded away nationally after only a couple incredible albums that never achieved the recognition they were worthy of.

The Look was inducted into The Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2016. It was an honor they well deserved.

But they also deserved so much more.