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This Week's Forgotten Gem of the '80s: Timbuk 3's "Life Is Hard"
Though known almost exclusively (and therefore pigeonholed in the process) for their novelty-seeming 1986 quirk rock hit "The Future's So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)," the husband-and-wife duo of Pat & Barbara K. McDonald actually were capable of, and accomplished, so much more. This particular track, in reality, places the pair's work far nearer the social commentary and musical ingenuity of David & David than the goofy, disposable joke pop of "Weird Al" Yankovic. This underrated and relatively unheard group was ultimately a casualty of the '80s, a decade that sometimes commodified pop music so much that there wasn't room for the interesting roots-rock, synth country, screwball intellectualism embodied by Timbuk 3's singular music. If you're ever looking for a forgotten gem of an album from 20 years ago, the duo's Greetings from Timbuk 3 will likely fit the bill quite nicely.
"Without Thriller? Is he kidding? Perhaps the best album in pop history not even on his yearly countdown?"
Pardon me if I attempt to anticipate reader responses to the headline above, but this is as good a time as any to explain myself. In much of the content I've created for this site, I've tried to cover as much ground as possible at all times in recounting the memorable music of the '80s. For that reason, I've prevented, when possible, any of the albums, artists or songs getting several mentions in blogs or lists or other material. So, in my continuing top album lists, you'll probably notice that the records that qualified as my Essential Eight Albums of the '80s will not show up a second time on their corresponding year's list.
OK, with that tedium out of the way, let me point you to my latest album lists, birthed recently for the smashing years 1983 and 1984. Both years featured many classic pop and rock albums, possibly a greater concentration than at any time during the decade. For that reason, perusing the lists will often seem like an '80s all-star team of big names and corresponding personalities. However, don't let that fool you about the quality of the music within.
This Week's Forgotten Gem of the '80s: The Call's "The Walls Came Down"
As one of the most consistently underrated great bands of the '80s, highly literate college rock heroes the Call were probably better than even U2 at righteous, anthemic, thinking man's rock. For one, the band just rocks harder than any of its peers, simultaneously riding the wondrous wave of Michael Been's soaring vocals to what I always felt was a singular peak of accessible (but not too accessible) early alternative rock.
This track, which generated the group's first substantial airplay in 1983 (though it rose to only a paltry, unjust No. 74 on the pop charts), exemplifies the forward-looking, fiercely critical worldview Been often applied successfully to his lyrics. After all, a whole quarter-century ago, in reference to a Cold War culture gone rather mad, the song accurately predicted the shameful state in which we now find ourselves. I'll shut up and simply let one of '80s music's great lines, taken from this song, say the rest: "I don't think there are any Russians, and there ain't no Yanks. Just corporate criminals playin' with tanks." Just replace "Russians" with whatever country we're likely to bomb next, and it rings all too eerily true.
Powerhouse Singer Pat Benatar Continues to Define the '80s Like Few Peers Were Able
Along with Cyndi Lauper, the Go-Go's, the Bangles, and, of course, Madonna, rocker-turned-pop-star Pat Benatar helped her fellow major (and minor) female artists of the '80s stack up quite well next to their far more numerous male counterparts. In fact, there are few images more emblematic of the '80s than Benatar's close-cropped but distinctly feminine look, displayed proudly as she prowled around onstage.
We all know the decade's music has more than its share of detractors out there, but one thing that's plain to see is that the '80s typically produced far more dignified, talented and iconic female musical superstars than have the two impending decades since. I mean, seriously, would anybody even try with a straight face to compare the antics of, say, Gwen Stefani, Shakira or Jessica Simpson today to the peak-era achievements of Benatar, Madonna or Lauper? All I know is that if so, I sure wouldn't want to have to be on their side of the argument.
This Week's Forgotten Gem of the '80s: Gear Daddies' "Cut Me Off"
Unfortunately, many '80s listeners probably never knew about this song (or the band that recorded it, for that matter) to allow it an opportunity to even be forgotten. That applies to me as well, as I stumbled upon this late-'80s, wonderful country-jangle pop combo completely by accident a couple of years ago while researching the beloved hockey song, "I Wanna Drive the Zamboni." It turns out that Martin Zellar, frontman for the Gear Daddies, was a cowriter of that Frozen North classic, a perennial favorite at rinks everywhere from the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina (Go 'Canes!) to community facilities throughout Canada and the northern half of the U.S.
Anyway, coming out of the fertile Minneapolis scene of the mid-'80s, Zellar was posed not only to write an ode to the greatest sport on earth but also to front one of the decade's truly great indie bands. I could have chosen pretty much any track from the band's sparkling 1988 debut, Let's Go Scare Al, to spotlight here. In fact, I'm still waffling on which song to list above, but ultimately my choice falls to a tune most representative of the band's unique, jangly and highly melodic sound. Do yourself a favor and seek out this whole album; it's truly one of the buried treasures of the '80s.
Persistent Reports of Van Halen Reunion Tour Almost as Oppressive as the Summer Heat
As a massive heat wave continues to punish much of the southeastern and central U.S., there's very little I can imagine that is as stultifyingly uncomfortable as standing in the sun in temperatures above 100 degrees or (even worse) stepping into a car parked outside in similar conditions. However, one thing that might come pretty close is the continuing rumor that Van Halen's long-expected reunion tour with David Lee Roth, so memorably scuttled in March when Eddie Van Halen entered rehab, may happen after all.
Yes, if you haven't already heard, Eddie's out of rehab and apparently doing well, and fairly reputable reports suggest that the original band (minus Michael Anthony) will tour North American arenas this fall. Unfortunately, my only response at this point is about the same as the general effect of this heat on me: extreme weariness and a disgusted sort of indifference. With that I skulk away, hoping with all my might that my air conditioning doesn't break down under all this duress.
More Van Halen Resources, in Case You Care
This Week's Forgotten Gem of the '80s: Marillion's "Kayleigh"
Perhaps by virtue of its status and origins as a latter-day progressive rock band, British group Marillion has often produced interesting blends of rock music styles that sound utterly distinctive. This tuneful track from 1985's Misplaced Childhood particularly qualifies as a wonderful mish-mash of '80s genres, coming off as a very pleasant post-new wave guitar rock treat shimmering with power pop gloss and laced with just the slightest touches of prog rock orchestration. Lead singer Fish sings with an endearing passion only rarely found in progressive rock circles, sounding quite a bit like Asia's John Wetton at times on this tune. And in case you're wondering, I consider that a full-on compliment, as Marillion's ability to straddle genres helps the group's music harbor appeal for audiences ranging from arena rock to alternative rock and back again. Unfortunately, that appeal didn't translate to widespread success in the States (only a No. 74 Billboard pop peak), but this song did become a major U.K. smash.
Over the Top Not Just a Bad '80s Stallone Movie
I can't believe a reference to an insipid little film about arm wrestling, of all things, has become the central headline hook for my latest blog, but there it is in black and white. In addition to that fine piece of cinema, the phrase "over the top" perhaps refers most accurately to many of the vocal styles on display during the '80s. In celebration of such shameless musical bombast, please accept my invitation to check out my list of the Top 5 Blustery Vocal Performances of the '80s. I challenge you to emerge from such an activity with anything but a smile (or disgusted grimace) on your face. At any rate, I doubt you'll be left with neutral feelings, and that's the way I like it, baby, I don't wanna live forever. How Lemmy got involved in this, I cannot say.
This Week's Forgotten Gem of the '80s: Translator's "Everywhere That I'm Not"
The fact that I had to be reminded of this great 1982 post-punk/new wave classic through a total listening accident instead of reasonably consistent airplay is the kind of musical reality that continues to frustrate me. Nonetheless, I was quite grateful to stumble upon this tune today while surfing the music selections available through my cable system's expansive yet frequently unsatisfying fringe channel offerings. It's a wonderful song, a unique hybrid of Beatlesque pop and new wave/college rock hipness that represents everything that was memorable and original about guitar pop a quarter-century ago. Ultimately, a rediscovery like this helps to ensure what I already knew, that music (especially '80s music) always retains the capacity to unearth hidden treasures at the time you least expect it.
Night Ranger At Least Trying to Keep Making Original Music, But I Think I'll Stick With the '80s Stuff
Credit the three remaining original members of Night Ranger (Jack Blades, Brad Gillis and Kelly Keagy) for trying, as a new album of fresh material, Hole in the Sun, remains set for release later this summer. After all, that's arguably more laudable than a listless covers album or yet another summer reunion tour in exploitation of the glory days, which is the typical practice of most '80s artists still kicking around out there. Even so, I gotta say I greatly prefer the Night Ranger from the early to mid-'80s to any labored attempts to recapture the one-shot brilliance of a song like "When You Close Your Eyes." So, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll gather up my half-dozen Night Ranger keeper tracks and take a half-hour iPod trip back to the late '80s, when I hardly knew there was any other music worth listening to besides this kind of classic/arena rock. And while I'm glad my musical taste has matured since then, I'm also grateful that I can still see how great some of that mainstream '80s stuff was and always will be.
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