U2 – Under A Blood Red Sky

From the first time I listened to “Under a Blood Red Sky” I always felt I should thank U2 for the Special Low Price of the full-length live album they marketed as a “Mini LP”.

You don’t get paid a lot when you’re in the U.S. military, so you have to choose wisely how to spend your money. To me, back then as now, buying music was always a wise choice. But some choices are wiser than others. I had discovered U2 a year or so earlier, on their third album, “War”. It blew me away. When I saw this specially priced mini LP in the PX that fine day, something inside me knew it was a wise choice to buy it. It turned out wiser than I thought.

“Under a Blood Red Sky” is labeled as a “mini LP”. That’s a lie. Sure, it’s on the short side of some albums, but I have some full length LPs that are shorter than this record. The only reason I can think of for the album being labeled the way it was, was that U2 hoped the “special low price” would help its sales. Maybe it did initially, but the only reason “Under a Blood Red Sky” went on to sell over 2 million copies was because it captured a young and hungry Irish rock band out to prove themselves, wanting to make a difference in the world through their music. In short, it kicked ass.

“Under a Blood Red Sky” opened the doors of rock and roll stardom unto U2. From thence forward, it was up to them to decide what to do with it.

They chose wisely.

Alice Cooper – The Last Temptation

Alice Cooper’s music has gone through several phases. Although never afraid to try new styles, he has always been at his best when he returns to his hard rock origins, which is exactly the place he goes on 1994’s “The Last Temptation”.

Following a new wave / experimental period that left a lot of his fans shaking their head in confusion in the early ’80s, he found returned success in the latter part of the decade with albums that fit in perfectly with the hair metal of that time. But hair metal’s popularity was waning going into the ’90s.

I don’t know if Alice saw the writing on the wall or just felt like making a change, but his decision to abandon metal and make a concept album that had its music rooted in the hard rock from the ’70s produced one of his best albums ever. At times, I even refer to it as my favorite Alice Cooper album, but it’s neck and neck with a few others so that can change depending on the day of the week.

Through its ten songs, “The Last Temptation” tells a story that revolves around Steven, a character first introduced in Alice Cooper’s earlier masterpiece “Welcome to My Nightmare”. Bored with his dull life, Steven finds adventure and the promise of eternal youth when he meets the Showman, who runs a bizarre dark carnival. For a while, Steven travels down a dark path with the Showman and his entourage. But after realizing that in reality he is making a deal with the devil, Steven repents and redeems himself.

One of the things that makes this album really cool beyond the music, is that it was originally released simultaneously with 3 Marvel comic books that told the whole story in detail. Some of the original releases of “The Last Temptation” came with the first comic in the series. The others had to be bought separately. Now I’m not a comic book collector, but for these, you know I had to make an exception.

The Kings – Are Here

“Nothing matters but the weekend
From a Tuesday point of view”

The Kings are a Canadian one-hit-wonder band from near Toronto. Well, kind of one-hit-wonder. Thry really had two hit songs. “This Beat Goes On” and “Switchin’ To Glide” flowed together so flawlessly that even though there is a well-defined break between the two songs, it is impossible to imagine them not being joined at the hip. Radio station never played one without the other.

“This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide” went platinum in Canada and was a mainstay on U.S. radio stations. The Kings toured in support of the album; the success of the album earning them opening slots for acts like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, the Beach Boys, and Bob Seger. Unfortunately, The Kings’ second album failed to spark any interest to radio stations or record buyers and the band all but faded into oblivion, although they did continue to tour heavily into the ’90s. They still play occasional live shows in the U.S. and Canada and “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide” can still be heard on classic rock radio stations today.

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.

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”.

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 the 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.

The Cars

The Cars released some good albums in the late ’70s into the ’80s. And they released one great album – their eponymous debut. It was such a good album that during an interview, the band jokingly referred to it as their “true greatest hits album.” 

This album was so unique at the time of its release in 1978 that, in all honesty, I really didn’t know what to do with it. But in the end, the solid hooks throughout, and quite simply the great songs on it, won me over. I guess I wasn’t alone.  It remained on the Billboard charts  438 weeks  after its release. To this day it remains one of my favorite albums.

The Cars, along with bands like the Talking Heads and Blondie, hailed from the east coast of the U.S. and helped usher in the New Wave era in rock music.

Although it has one of the most immediately recognizable album covers of all time, ironically the band did not like it or really want it. The picture on the inside sleeve, which contained a black and white photo mosaic is what the band actually wanted. In the end the record company chose the artwork for the cover. The band designed all their subsequent album covers.

The B52’s – Wild Planet

I’ve been told by my friends and family that sometimes I take life too seriously. Sometimes I even say that to myself. It’s times like those that the B-52’s are the perfect band for me to listen to. I don’t care what album it is by them. They’re all good. But “Wild Planet” is probably my favorite, but only because it’s the album I first heard by them. 

If ever there was a band that didn’t take itself too seriously it’s the B-52’s. They border on being a novelty band, but unlike most novelty bands, their songs are timeless and even have a decent level of musicianship. But most importantly, they are a band that reminds you to stop taking life too seriously and just have some fun.