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.

The Human League – Dare

The Human League’s third album, “Dare”,
was for the most part, my introduction to synth-pop and electronic music. Up to that time, I had listened to a lot of bands that used synthesizers and loved the versatility and expanded sound they brought to rock and roll. But I don’t think I had ever heard a band that used synths exclusively; no guitars and no real drums. If I had, The Human League was the first to make an impression on me.

“Dont You Want Me” was the first song I heard off of “Dare”; it was all over the radio in 1981. But it wasn’t the airwave saturation that grabbed me; it was the switch-hitting baritone and alto vocals of Philip Oakey and Susan Ann Sulley. It was the lyrics. It was the catchy hook of the song. And of course, it was the synthesizers. Only synthesizers.

Scritti Politti – Cupid & Psyche 85

The 1980s saw a huge rise in the popularity of synth-pop bands. Scritti Politti was one of many that had success with only a couple of albums and then faded away. “Cupid & Psyche 85” was their most successful album, finding its biggest popularity in the UK where it hit the #5 spot on the charts and spun off three top 20 singles. In the US, the album peaked the charts at 50 and had only one hit single, “Perfect Way” which went up to #11.

The first song I heard off “Cupid & Psyche 85” was “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)”. I remember being immediately grabbed by the song’s funky groove. What made me want to listen to the whole album though was its crisp, production and innovative use of synthesizers and electronic keys. That same production and innovation resonates through every song on “Cupid & Psyche 85”. It is a synth-pop album that showcased what the genre was capable of.

Billy Joel – The Bridge

Billy Joel was such a versatile artist, he never needed to change his style to keep having hit records. They were always universally appealing.

Like Billy Joel’s previous records, “The Bridge” was filled with a huge array of musical styles and influences. A few of those musical influences appear with Joel on this, his tenth studio album. Ray Charles adds his unmistakable bluesy piano and voice to the song “Baby Grand” and Steve Winwood’s Hammond B3 helps Joel cut loose on “Getting Closer”, the rocking closer on the album.

Surprisingly, neither of those two songs were hits off of “The Bridge”, although “Baby Grand” was released as the fourth single from it. I don’t think Billy Joel was too concerned about that song’s lackluster sales. “The Bridge” still gave the entertainer three top 20 hits with “Modern Woman”, “This Is the Time” and my personal favorite from the album, “A Matter of Trust”. That song will always have special meaning to me as I was getting over some trust issues I had at that time in my life. It was the reason I had to buy “The Bridge” when I first heard it.

Roxy Music

Glam rock and punk rock were two opposing forces in the 1970s. On their debut album, Roxy Music took it as a challenge to meld the two into a cohesive collection of songs, the likes of no one had heard before. The result was pure brilliance.

Oil and vinegar can not be mixed together homogeneously, yet they can be combined into something incredible. Roxy Music’s first album combines the slick oil of glam and art rock with the piss and vinegar of punk to make an incredible album that satisfies and stimulates the auditory to the same effect of a good olive oil and Balsamic vinegar to the palate. Great in itself, but also an excellent foundation to be built upon with things to come.

Joe Jackson – Look Sharp

The story of Joe Jackson’s 1979 debut album is one to file under “If at first you don’t succeed”.

When record producer David Kershenbaum first heard the songs Joe Jackson was working on for what Jackson hoped would eventually be his first album, he liked what he heard so much, he immediately had Jackson signed to A&M records. To gain traction for “Look Sharp”, the first single from it, “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”, was released ahead of the album. It went nowhere, in the US or Britain. A second single, “Sunday Papers”, was released. Same thing. The third single, “One More Time” followed suit. Things weren’t looking too sharp for Joe Jackson. But finally, the album “Look Sharp” was released…and it went nowhere.

It made no sense. It was a great album with great songs bouncing between new wave and punk. What went wrong?

I’m not sure who made the final decision, but they did what was really the only thing that made sense at that point. They re-released the single “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”. It was a hit! “Sunday Papers” and “One More Time” soon took off as well. Radio stations even started playing songs from the album that weren’t released as singles. A short while later Joe Jackson had his first gold record in the US and Britain, just like they had planned all along.

And the moral of the story is never underestimate the power of “try, try again”.

The Fixx – Phantoms

The Fixx is one of the bands that helped defined alternative rock, or new wave as it was called in its beginning, in the 1980s. They had an impressive run of numerous hit singles and five successful studio albums. “Phantoms” was their third. “Are We Ourselves” was the biggest hit off of it and it became the new wave band’s first number one hit on Billboard’s mainstream rock charts. Two more number ones would follow before the end of the decade.

Overall, The Fixx racked up ten hit singles on the mainstream rock charts seven of which broke the top 10. They probably would have had even better success on the alternative charts, except Billboard didn’t create the alternative rock charts (originally termed “modern rock”) until 1988. It was bands like The Fixx, bands that didn’t really fit the bill of mainstream rock, that prompted Billboard to start the new record charts.

As the ’90s rolled in, The Fixx’s style of music grew out of favor as grunge gained popularity in the U.S. The Fixx remained together however and the original line-up continues to record and tour today. Their 10th album, “Beautiful Friction” was released in 2012.