BusBoys – Minimum Wage Rock & Roll

The 1980’s owe a round of thanks to Comedian Eddie Murphy; not just for the laughs, but also for going out of his way to promote the BusBoys. In 1982 Murphy was staring with Nick Nolte in the hit movie “48 Hours”. Around this time, he had heard the BusBoys and seen them play live. They instantly became one of his favorite bands. Murphy made it a point to have the new wave band’s music included in the soundtrack to his new movie and got them a cameo in the film, playing on stage during a bar scene. He also had them open for him on his “Delirious” comedy tour and appear as musical guests on “Saturday Night Live”.

The BusBoys are one of the most overlooked new wave bands from the ’80s. Being one of the only primarily African-American new wave bands (drummer Steve Felix was white) their music was not surprisingly infused with R&B and soul. Still, the BusBoys sound was anything but typical for what was expected from black musicians in the ’80s. Was this because of stereotypes? Yes. Racism? To a degree. And the BusBoys often took this head-on with a satirical spin that slapped it right in rock and roll’s mostly white face. Like any good satire there was as much humor as there was truth in their lyrics.

Maybe this was too much for some people to digest. I don’t know. All I know is the BusBoys’ debut is one of the best new wave albums from the ’80s. It deserved so much more success than it received. At times, the album made you laugh, sometimes it made you think about the unjust reality of stereotypes and racism. But mostly, it made you just want to rock and roll.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Welcome To The Pleasuredome

A hedonistic mix of alternative music and dance club beats, “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” is one of the most amazing and somewhat controversial debut albums from the ’80s.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood really held nothing back on this record, lyrically or musically. The double album had four successful singles, including the lyrically controversial “Relax” (which got banned by the BBC just before hitting #1 on the UK charts). Despite breaking the top 10 spot in numerous countries, “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” only peaked at a modest 33 in the US. It really didn’t get a lot of radio airplay here, but if you went out dancing, you couldn’t help but hear at least a few songs from FGTH in the bars and clubs. What I heard there, was enough for me to own it.

The Police – Synchronicity

When I first heard what would be the final album by The Police I thought it was yet another new direction added to their already distinctive sound. Little did I know it was more of a return to their origins.

Before adopting the punk and new wave style that got them signed to a record deal in the late ’70s, the Police were a band that played jazz/rock fusion. With “Synchronicity”, The Police incorporated all of that along with avant-garde experimentalism into what became one of the greatest masterpieces from the ’80s.

This is an album I will never tire of.

The Jam – Setting Sons

In the late 1970s, punk rock met the British mod revival with The Jam. No album better encompassed their sound than 1979’s “Setting Sons”. Musically, The Jam combined the energy of the Sex Pistols, the urgency of The Clash, and the rock/R&B power and sensibilities of The Who to create a sound that gave them a sound that was all their own.

Setting Sons was originally released in 1979, but because they never reached the popularity in the US that achieved in Great Britain, I didn’t discover them until 5 years later when an Army buddy turned me on to them. “Setting Sons” was the first record I heard by them and is still my favorite from their catalogue.

I remember “Eton Rifles” sounding distantly familiar when I first heard “Setting Sons” in ’84, so I’m guessing the song received at least some airplay on Detroit radio stations in ’79, but it flew under my radar. Fortunately, that wouldn’t be the case the second time around.

R.E.M. – Murmur (Japanese pressing)

Although I loved “Murmur” from the first time I heard it, I always thought the overall recording sounded muddy, with the individual instruments buried among themselves…until I heard the version released in Japan.

When released in other countries, albums can sometimes come out on different record labels. Sometimes, that can mean two versions of the same album. Most of the time, there’s an extra song on one of them or the song order is changed. But sometimes, the albums sounds noticeably different. I think anyone who has heard both, will agree that the sound of the Japanese version of REM’s 1983 debut, “Murmur” is significantly better than its US counterpart.

Athens, Georgia band REM released “Murmur” in 1983. It came out on I.R.S. records in the Unites States; the album’s Japanese release was on the CBS/Sony label. Even though they came out at the same time the Japanese version was mastered with a brighter sound that more clearly defines the individual instruments. Bill Berry’s bass is significantly more noticeable. It gives a more driving sound to the songs. The brighter sound also helps bring Peter Buck’s jangly guitar stylings more up front.

I got rid of my US version of “Murmur” long ago. After hearing the Japanese version, there was no desire to keep it. The Japanese version is far superior.

Robyn Hitchcock And The Egyptians – Globe Of Frogs

When I think of 1980’s alternative rock, one of the first bands to pop in my head is Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians.

Between his early work with the Soft Boys and his solo work, both with and without the Egyptians, Robyn Hitchcock was one of the most influential and legendary artists to shape the sound of college radio stations and the emerging commercial alternative rock stations.

“Globe of Frogs” was the album that really should have broken Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians out. It was their first on a major record label and it was incredible from start to finish. The thing was that while most college stations seemed to put Hitchcock’s stuff in a heavy rotation, the emerging commercial alt-rock stations never jumped on board. They played scads of bands that were heavily influenced by, and even imitated Hitchcock, but not the innovator himself. That, plus the fact that by 1988 the emerging alternative rock stations in the US started gravitating towards the heavier sounding bands that resulted in the grunge rock movement in the ’90s.

Yeah, Robyn Hitchcock deserved more success, but anyone who listened to his albums in the ’80s remember songs by a groundbreaking, highly influential artist that went beyond commercial success. They remember a musical legend.

Spandau Ballet – True

I know this much is true…

Of the bands from the UK’s new romantic musical movement, Spandau Ballet recorded the most romantic sounding song…so long as you don’t listen to the lyrics. “True” is actually a very sad song about loss and loneliness.

With its clean production with influences of soul, jazz, and R&B, “True” was Spandau Ballet’s most successful album. The title track was also their biggest hit single. Spandau Ballet, more especially this album, embodied what Britain’s new romantic era was all about. They had the look and set the standard musically for other bands to follow.

Berlin – Pleasure Victim

Berlin was an alternative synth-pop band that played heavily on sexual innuendos. Okay, with songs like “Sex (I’m a…)” and Terry Nunn’s role in the band being listed as vocals and BJs, I suppose it went a little beyond innuendo…. Anyway, because of this, Berlin was quite often dogged by some critics as being lackluster in talent, focusing more on sexuality than substance to sell their music. I never thought so.

Berlin made some of the most exciting synth-pop music in the 1980s. Sure, some of that had to do with the suggestive lyrics and Terry Nunn’s sexual overtness, but it had a lot more to do with great hooks that made their songs as easy to dance to as they were enticing to listen to. It also had a lot to do with Bassist John Crawford, who penned most of Berlin’s stuff. He had a mastery of writing catchy tracks with seductive lyrics; just as Terry Nunn had the exceptional vocal talents to exhume the seductive qualities from those words and melodies.

As for Terry Nunn’s other talents noted in the album’s credits…well, one can only wonder.

Alice Cooper – Zipper Catches Skin

The early 80s were kind of a rough time for Alice Cooper. Even though flashy hair metal had become a popular sound, so had new wave music. The former would have been the path of least resistance for the theatrical shock rocker, but Cooper chose the more drastic transition. “Zipper Catches Skin” was the third album of four in Alice Cooper’s new wave era. Unfortunately, long time fans weren’t buying into his new sound and image and he didn’t gain many new ones from the new wave crowd. Consequently, Alice Cooper’s popularity took a big hit during the early and mid ’80s.

Alice Cooper was also battling a very personal issue during the early 1980s – addiction. Cooper had spent time in a sanitarium in the mid ’70s for treatment of alcoholism. The experience became the inspiration for his 1978 album, “From the Inside“. Tragically, he fell off the wagon a few years after recording that album. In the new decade, his addiction took over with a vengeance as he dove into heavy cocaine use combined with alcohol. He went into treatment a second time after the disease nearly killed him. Today, the long-time sober Alice refers to “Zipper Catches Skin” and his other records from the early ’80s as his “blackout” albums because he has little to no memory of writing or recording them.

Like many, I totally wrote off Alice Cooper’s new wave era; at least at first. I actually didn’t realize how good his music was from this era until I happened to hear a couple of songs from it a decade or so later. Today, these albums are some of my favorites by Alice, partly because they are so different from anything he did before or since, yet they are still, unquestionably Alice.

“Zipper Catches Skin” is the sound of Alice Cooper trying to find a creative outlet in a rapidly changing musical landscape. It may have been a commercial misstep, but it was also an adventurous musical expression of a true artist. I just wish he could remember doing it.

The Psychedelic Furs – Forever Now

You really can feel the influence of producer Todd Rundgren on the Psychedelic Furs third album, “Forever Now”. Still, I wonder what David Bowie had done with it.

Adding just a little polish to their post-punk sound and expanding their music with the occasional cello or horns, Rundgren helped give The Psychedelic Furs their first big hit album in the US. They already had two in the UK, with producer Steve Lillywhite in the control room.

But Todd Rundgren wasn’t The Furs first choice to sit at the helm of “Forever Now”. David Bowie was a big proponent of the Psychedelic Furs, speaking highly of them on numerous occasions. The Furs had also considered Bowie a big influence and approached him first. Unfortunately, Bowie was tied up with work on his own album, “Let’s Dance”.

Although Steve Lillywhite was responsible for opening American audiences to The Psychedelic Furs, giving them their first taste of success across the Atlantic with their second album, “Talk Talk Talk” it was “Forever Now” that opened the band up to a broader base and gave them their first album to break into Billboard’s Hot 100. The song “Love My Way” also received significant airplay on MTV. Along with “Talk Talk Talk”, “Forever Now” is the Psychedelic Furs at their creative best.

Still, I wonder what David Bowie had done with it.