Was (Not Was) – Born To Laugh At Tornadoes

What would you say if I told you that in the ’80s, metal legend Ozzy Osbourne did the rap vocals to a synth-pop dance song?

Well, if you demanded proof, I’d just throw “Born to Laugh at Tornadoes” on the turntable. Then I’d have you listen to “Shake Your Head (Let’s Go To Bed)”.

Strange bedfellows for sure, but it works.

Was (Not Was) never really had an official singer on their first two albums, so their second album, “Born to Laugh at Tornadoes”, like their debut, is loaded with guest vocalists. Others who appear on this album include Detroit natives Doug Fieger (The Knack) and Mitch Ryder as well as Marshall Crenshaw and jazz legend Mel Tormé.

Even though “Born to Laugh at Tornadoes” received high accolades from Rolling Stone magazine, it failed to sell well outside of the Detroit area. Their follow-up album, “What’s Up Dog” would end up being their national breakthrough with the help of “Walk the Dinosaur” and a few other hit singles. By that time, founding members David Was (David Jay Weiss) and Don Was (Don Fagenson) had added a couple of official singers to the group’s lineup, so Ozzy was off the hook.

Stray Cats – Built For Speed

In the US, the Stray Cats pretty much single-handedly revitalized the popularity of rockabilly music in the 1980s. As much as anything, the success of that revival was due to the guitar talents of Brian Setzer.

Rockabilly is rock and roll in one of its earliest forms. Combining old-school country music along with rhythm and blues and a lot of attitude, rockabilly first became popular in the early 1950s. Somewhat limited in the core of its scope, other influences quickly merged with rockabilly, morphing away from the earliest style of rock and roll. This left rockabilly regarded as nothing more than an oldies piece of musical nostalgia.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s some bands tried to revitalize rockabilly by infusing a little punk rock attitude into it. None were more successful than Stray Cats. Brian Setzer was the lead guitarist for the Stray Cats and not only did he have the persona to bring attention to the band, his guitar playing demanded you to listen. Setzer could keep pace with, and even outplay any of the hard rock and metal shredders around then…and now. It just wasn’t as noticable because his solos were played on a hollow bodied Gretsch guitar with a semi-twangy tone instead of an overdriven solid body electric. It was that guitar virtuosity helped the Stray Cats stand out and turn rockabilly into something new in the 1980s, making it more than just nostalgic oldies. It also helped their US debut sell over a million copies.

The Rockets – Rocket Roll

The Rockets threw everything they had into “Rocket Roll” in a final attempt to become something beyond just local Detroit favorites. The band led by three local legends, Jim McCarty (guitar), John “Bee” Badanjek (drums) and Dave Gilbert (lead vocals) had experienced just a taste of that fame with their eponymous major label debut. But when its follow-up, “No Ballads” failed to do as well nationally followed by their record label, RSO Records going defunct, they never regained the national traction they had in the beginning, even after signing a major label deal with Electra Records.

Although “Rocket Roll” failed to gain the national success of The Rockets’ debut, it became one of the band’s most popular records around the Motor City. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, I think it is their best of their six studio albums.

Even though they were trying to break onto the national scene, The Rockets alway believed in holding on to their Detroit roots. Had they hit it big nationally, like Bob Seger, they would not have abandoned their hometown, but would have tried to bring attention to it. The Rockets were putting everything they had into Rocket Roll in one last effort to become, like Seger, a headlining national act. At the same time they chose to open up side two of their make or break album with “Born in Detroit” an homage to their hometown and their fans.

“Born in the city
The city where they make the cars
Born in Detroit
You know I’m gonna be a star
Hey Motor City
Love me for what you are”

Japan – Exorcising Ghosts

Japan was a band from London, England that disintegrated at the height of their popularity and on the cusp of greater fame.

Starting out as a glam rock group in the late 1970s, with a sound influenced by the likes of David Bowie and Roxy Music, they eventually became part of the New Romantic movement in Britain, which in the ’80s included the bands Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls, Spandau Ballet, and Ultravox, among others. Gaining a solid following in Europe and Japan as well as on their native turf, where they earned nine gold records, their popularity was just starting to take hold in Canada and the US, when personal conflicts drove the band apart.

“Exorcising Ghosts” was released two years after Japan broke up. It’s an excellent compilation that combines Japan’s British hits along with b-sides and some deeper cuts from their earlier albums. The 1984 album showcases how Japan’s music stood out from many of their contemporaries because of the rolling baritone voice of David Sylvan melding perfectly with the fretless bass of Mick Karn, the experimental keyboard extravagance of Richard Barbieri and precise yet intricate drumming by Steve Jansen. Those who bought the double album on vinyl were treated to five songs omitted from the single CD release.

I would later rediscover Richard Barbieri when he added his talents to Porcupine Tree in the ’90s right up until Steven Wilson went solo in 2008. Barbieri remains one of my all time favorite keyboardists today; just as “Exorcising Ghosts” remains one of my all time favorite albums.

Kate Bush – The Kick Inside

Kate Bush’s debut album came out in 1978, and I am dumbfounded that I never heard of her until three years later.

Flashback to Fort Campbell, 1981. There was a group of us soldiers that would take turns jamming in the barracks to songs we dug, in part, trying to wow each other with music the others hadn’t heard before. When one of the guys cued up “The Kick Inside”, I was beyond WOWed! I was mesmerised by the totally unique qualities and vocal range of Kate Bush’s voice. On top of that, her songs were intoxicating and amazing.

Now, no matter how much you listen to music, there will always be great out of the mainstream music that will slip past you. So that I missed noticing Kate Bush until 1981 didn’t surprise me. What did, was that she was discovered and highly supported at this early point of her career by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour who was, and still is today, my all-time favorite guitarists in my all-time favorite band. Not only that but “The Kick inside” was produced and arranged by Andrew Powell, from the Alan Parsons Project, another of my favorite bands. I’m usually good at following side projects and other doings of artists I really like, but I really felt I had dropped the ball here.

Three years. How had I not heard of Kate Bush? How had I never heard her amazing voice? How had I been totally oblivious to her incredible music?

But then I realized, the important thing was, now I had.

Box Of Frogs

What would the Yardbirds have been without either Clapton, Beck, or Page on lead guitar? Well, in 1984, they were known as “Box of Frogs”.

In the 1960’s, the Yardbirds were at their core, Jim McCarty on drums, Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, and Paul Samwell-Smith on bass – and they had a knack for picking awesome lead guitarists. Unforfortunately those lead guitarists had a knack for pursuing solo careers. First Eric Clapton, then Jeff Beck. By the time Jimmy Page joined for their third go-round, the founding members decided to call it quits. In the wake, Jimi Page went on to form Led Zeppelin, which he nearly called “The New Yardbirds” (but that’s another story).

Perhaps realizing that great music is not created by lead guitarists alone, McCarty, Dreja, and Samwell-Smith regrouped in the ’80s along with guitarist and vocallist John Fiddler, rebranding themselves on their self titled album as “Box of Frogs”.

Perhaps realizing that this was magic in the re-making, they were joined on some songs by Beck and Page. Sure, Clapton didn’t participate in the reunion, but Rory Gallagher jumped in on a couple; even better, in my humble opinion.

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.

Pat Benatar – In The Heat Of The Night

Pat Benatar struck gold on her debut album in November 1979. Actually, she struck platinum.

In the heat of the night was an immediate success for Benatar, selling over a million copies worldwide and giving her two hit singles in the U.S. and two others around the globe.

Although the two U.S. singles were original songs, more than half the tracks on “In The Heat of the Night” are cover songs. The covers were all lesser known tracks by the original artists and are perfect matches for Benatar’s incredibly versatile voice. The songs are all short power pop rockers that Guitarist (and Benatar’s future husband) Neil Giraldo, plays with so much zeal, it’s no wonder “In The Heat of the Night” was one of the best-selling albums of 1980.

I honestly don’t know why this album doesn’t end up on my turntable more often. Its one of my all-time favorites.

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.