100 Best Albums of the Eighties
This has been the first rock & roll decade without revolution, or true revolutionaries, to call its own. The Fifties witnessed nothing less than the birth of the music. The Sixties were rocked by Beatlemania, Motown, Phil Spector, psychedelia and Bob Dylan. The Seventies gave rise to David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, heavy metal, punk and New Wave.
In comparison, the Eighties have been the decade of, among other things, synth pop, Michael Jackson, the compact disc, Sixties reunion tours, the Beastie Boys and a lot more heavy metal. But if the past 10 years haven’t exactly been the stuff of revolution, they have been a critical time of re-assessment and reconstruction. Musicians and audiences alike have struggled to come to terms with rock’s parameters and possibilities, its emotional resonance and often dormant social consciousness.
The following survey of the 100 best albums of the Eighties, as selected by the editors of Rolling Stone, shows that the music and the values it stands for have been richer for the struggle. Punks got older and more articulate in their frustration and rage, while many veteran artists responded to that movement’s challenge with their most vital work in years. And rap transformed the face — and voice — of popular music.
The first 10 entries here span the Clash’s polyglot punk, Prince’s crossover funkadelica, Afro-bop from Talking Heads and Paul Simon and hymns of innocence and experience by U2 and Tracy Chapman. Further down the list, old-timers like Dylan, the Stones and Lou Reed hit new highs; Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C. kicked out some serious streetwise jams; Metallica and Guns N’ Roses established new hard-rock beachheads; and Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and the Replacements offered definitive statements of postpunk angst. The embarrassment of riches on this list is all the more remarkable, since arthritic radio programming, corporate sponsorship and outbursts of racism and sexism in rap and metal have complicated rock’s present and raised fears for its future.
Best-of lists such as this one are by nature subjective. But rock in the Eighties was like that — lively, varied, contentious and, to some degree, inconclusive. Looking at the best rock has had to offer in the Eighties, it’s clear that there’s plenty of life left in the old beast yet. The next revolution may be just around the corner.
This feature was originally published in the November 16, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.
Artists United Against Apartheid, ‘Sun City’
One of the most fervent and forceful political statements to emerge from Eighties pop music, Sun City didn't achieve the sales or wide radio airplay of other "cause" records like We Are the World. Nevertheless, the single and the accompanying album managed to achieve their primary goals: to draw attention to South Africa's racist policy of apartheid and to support a cultural boycott of the country.
"It was completely successful, and that's such a rare thing," says Sun City organizer and coproducer Steve "Little Steven" Van Zandt, who rallied dozens of top rock, funk, rap and jazz acts to work on the project. "Issue-oriented events and records can be very frustrating, because you really don't see the results, whether it's feeding people in Ethiopia or raising money for AIDS research. Our goal was to stop performers from going there, and to this day no major artists of any integrity have played Sun City."
Van Zandt, a former member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, was sitting in a Los Angeles movie theater waiting for a film to start when he got the original inspiration for the project. The theater's PA system was playing Peter Gabriel's "Biko," which eulogizes the murdered South African human-rights activist, and Van Zandt was captivated by the song's message. He started examining the apartheid situation and began to write an anthem about the entertainment resort called Sun City for his third solo album.
A Vegas-style recreation center with glamorous hotels, gambling casinos, showrooms and spas, Sun City is located in Bophuthatswana, one of South Africa's so-called "homeland" regions, where Zulus were relocated without their consent. In efforts to legitimize the area, Sun City has offered vast sums to entertainers to perform there. Some of the acts that have done so in years past include Rod Stewart, Queen and Linda Ronstadt. Although executives at the resort frequently try to downplay the realities of apartheid, the Sun City complex has become a symbol of the opulence that whites enjoy at the expense of the country's black natives.
Rethinking his initial approach to the project, Van Zandt decided to release the tune as a single for maximum effectiveness. Rather than performing the song himself, however, he considered using artists from various genres to sing one verse each, hoping to break down musical separatism in the United States as well as apartheid in South Africa. The idea took on a life of its own, and more than fifty musicians eventually wound up contributing their talents, including Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Gil Scott-Heron, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, David Ruffin, Run-D.M.C., Ringo Starr, Pete Townshend and Bobby Womack.
The embarrassment of riches evolved into different versions of "Sun City" for single release and an entire album of outtakes. "Peter Gabriel had a basic log-drum part he did with a chant for about seven minutes, and I didn't have a place for it on the single, so it became an album track," says Van Zandt. "The same thing happened with Miles Davis. I had a part for him on the intro, just a few seconds, but he played for seven minutes. There I was using five seconds on the song, and I thought, 'I can't leave six minutes of Miles on the floor!' So we got Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter and put together a jazz version."
In addition to the jazz number and the "Sun City" single, Davis also appeared on several other of the album's tracks, including the galvanizing rap collage "Let Me See Your I.D." A stark, harrowing glimpse of South Africa's totalitarian regime, which restricts free movement and forces blacks to carry identification papers, the song is centered on improvised lyrics by Scott-Heron and also features rapper Grandmaster Melle Mel; the Malopoets, a South African vocal group; and Peter Garrett, lead singer of Midnight Oil.
Less than forty-eight hours before the album was to be mastered, U2's Bono made a surprise appearance at the studio where Van Zandt and coproducer Arthur Baker were working on the final mix. Bono brought tapes of a newly recorded number, "Silver and Gold"; too good to pass up, the song was tacked onto the completed album, although the title never made it onto the original cover credits because the artwork was already finished.
"It's kind of a country-blues song," Bono said at the time, adding he was "inspired" to write it after spending the night with the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards and Ron Wood helped Bono record the track, which the U2 singer called "a gift" to Van Zandt. Bono said his involvement in Sun City was humanistically rather than politically motivated. "People try to put it across as propaganda, that it's the left or the right," said Bono. "This is apolitical. It doesn't matter what side you're on — this is common sense."
For whatever reason, the single never became a radio hit. Some chalked it up to timid radio programmers who were afraid to broadcast the song's strong message. Others believed it was due to the track's aggressive rap attack, which didn't fit neatly into the Top Forty format. Van Zandt is inclined to agree with the latter explanation. "There we were with an African chant and Zulu rhythms, Miles Davis playing in his style and a very danceable hip-hop rhythm with a rock guitar on top," Van Zandt says. "It was a very, very wild combination of things, but I realized then and I realize now that it's not a typical hit-single formula record."
Fortunately, the lack of radio airplay didn't stop "Sun City" from reaching the public. Thanks to a spectacular video clip, directed by Godley and Creme, Jonathan Demme and Hart Perry, the antiapartheid message was heard and seen around the world. More a minidocumentary than a music video, the visually inventive clip featured all the performers on the anthem and also crosscut recent footage of South African unrest with scenes of the Sixties civil-rights struggle in America. Vigorously championed by MTV and other cable outlets, the video raised both consciousnesses and record sales. Several months later, Van Zandt, Baker and others involved with Sun City were able to donate more than a half million dollars to causes supporting the antiapartheid struggle.
Perhaps more important than the money earned, the album threw an effective political punch: Not only did it discourage musicians from playing the South African resort city, but it also helped spread the word about new sounds like rap. "The Sun City project is about informing and motivating people," said a Rolling Stone review of the album in 1985. "That we can dance while we're organizing is this record's greatest triumph."
Was (Not Was), ‘What Up, Dog?’
A deranged painting of a snarling pit bull held back on a short leash adorns the cover of What Up, Dog?, and a more appropriate image would have been hard to find. Was (Not Was)'s 1988 breakthrough album is an untamed and snap-happy work, a demented, rhythmic blend of classic soul and crazed rock & roll with a bark every bit as ferocious as its bite. And it vindicated the struggling absurdist band from Detroit by proving it capable of commercial success.
Formed by two cynical white songwriter-musicians and fronted by the black vocal duo of Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens, Was (Not Was) has always taken a smart, and occasionally smartass, approach. "If we had our druthers, we'd be living in a bizarro world where you could make ugly music and earn lots of coal for doing it," says David Weiss, who created the avant-goofball group with childhood friend Don Fagenson.
The band's first two albums had achieved critical raves but miserable sales. Things became so dismal after its second album stiffed that the band came dangerously close to permanent not-was status. With the group in complete disarray, Weiss says he was doing "lamentable" home-video scores, while Fagenson produced "sexual deviants" like transvestite singer Marilyn. Bowen worked with the O'Jays, and Atkinson was "probably watching the soaps and pimping," Weiss says jokingly.
After landing a new record deal in England, the band bounced back with What Up, Dog? — a collection of diverse songs ranging from the sentimental and heartfelt "Somewhere in America There's a Street Named After My Dad" to a track about the JFK assassination, "11 MPH." A brilliant collage of musical genres, the album manages to dovetail smooth ballads like "Anytime Lisa" and a calypso-flavored collaboration with Elvis Costello, "Shadow and Jimmy," with more experimental pieces like the primal screamfest "Dad, I'm in Jail." After several of the songs became hits in Europe, the album was picked up for U.S. release by Chrysalis Records.
With so many deliciously wicked numbers, it might seem tough to pick a single highlight, but for Weiss the album's tour de farce is "Wedding Vows in Vegas," a track included on the CD version of What Up, Dog? The song is a smoky, sardonic number crooned by cocktail-lounge icon Frank Sinatra Jr. "He came in like a hit man to sing that day," Weiss says of the hour-long session.
After the late-1988 release of What Up, Dog?, there was no question which world Was (Not Was) inhabited: "Walk the Dinosaur" climbed into the Top Ten, and "Spy in the House of Love" reached Number One on the dance charts. But however welcome success may have been, Weiss still sounds like a man with more than a few questions about the merits of pop music. "It's easy to make disgusting, unlistenable records that are just plain weird," he says. "But that's what we do on a good day."
UB40, ‘Labour of Love’
Labour of Love, by Britain's UB40, was exactly that: an enjoyable way of paying tribute to the reggae tunes that meant the most to the band members when they were growing up. The ten numbers they chose to cover from among hundreds they knew and loved were originally recorded between 1969 and 1972 — a period that corresponded to the band members' early exposure to reggae at weekend-long parties in the ethnic neighborhood of Balsall Heath, in their hometown of Birmingham.
In the Sixties, the term reggae was used interchangeably with bluebeat, ska and rock steady. It was Jamaican pop music, meant for dancing. "In those days," read Labour of Love's liner notes, "reggae appealed not to the intellect or the social conscience, but to the heart and hips." Although UB40's own material has often been topical, the group felt that the historical perception of reggae as purely political music was off base, and Labour of Love was its way of setting the record straight.
"It's African and calypso rhythms fused together with American rhythm & blues," says guitarist Robin Campbell. "All it's ever been is homemade pop music, and it just gets up my nose when people start talking about reggae as a political or religious music."
The group chose material ranging from the well known (Jimmy Cliff's classic "Many Rivers to Cross") to the unknown (Winston Groovey's "Please Don't Make Me Cry"). UB40's lilting rhythms, uncluttered arrangements and sweet, soulful vocals proved irresistible, and Labour of Love helped break UB40, which had been famous in Europe since 1980, in the U.S.
Through a convoluted string of events, "Red Red Wine" — written by Neil Diamond, covered by Tony Tribe and rediscovered by UB40 — became a Number One hit in 1988, four years after its first appearance on Labour of Love. The album also reentered the charts, doing better the second time around and outselling the band's then-current release, simply titled UB40. "I think it's purely the fact that American radio is now prepared to play reggae, whereas before it wasn't," Campbell says of UB40's long-overdue recognition in the States.
Sax player Brian Travers claims that UB40 may someday do a second volume of reggae covers. "We're going to do another version when we get the chance, just to preserve them," he says. "We do it because the originals are such a turn-on."
Graham Parker, ‘The Mona Lisa’s Sister’
The Mona Lisa's Sister signaled the urgent comeback of Graham Parker — an artist who had lost direction following several tough, R&B-fueled albums recorded in the late Seventies. Ambitious and fiercely spare, the album examines the progress of Parker's life in powerful terms, exploring the relative value and meaning of love and loss, work and creativity, success and failure.
"The Mona Lisa's Sister was really exciting for me, because I had an idea that was a little off the wall, and I didn't compromise it for anybody," Parker says. "And it paid off." The notion Parker had for his 1988 album was that he should write all the songs and produce them himself-but that proved problematic.
The trouble started when Parker submitted a thirty-song demo tape to his new label, Atlantic Records. The label didn't like the songs and asked Parker to work with an outside producer and collaborate with other songwriters. Parker, who felt that his recent albums had been fatally overproduced, refused. Atlantic released him from his contract, and Parker eventually signed with RCA, where he found the autonomy he craved.
Parker called in guitarist Brinsley Schwarz and bassist Andrew Bodnar, two members of his original backing band, the Rumour. The only other musicians that appear on The Mona Lisa's Sister are keyboardist James Hallawell, singer Christie Chapman and drummers Pete Thomas (of the Attractions), Terry Williams and Andy Duncan. The stark, bare-bones production cost a mere $60,000.
The Mona Lisa's Sister is one of Parker's most personal records. The ballad "Success" is a scathing indictment of the ethic that judges people by their material worth. "It was the experience with Atlantic that really kicked the song out of me," Parker says. "Under the Mask of Happiness" takes off from Parker's impressions of Joe McGinniss's book Fatal Vision to explore the tensions and denials underlying a seemingly perfect marriage.
The single "Get Started. Start a Fire" — which opens with the lines "The Mona Lisa's sister doesn't smile/She tried to pose but only/For a while" — has an especially personal meaning for Parker. It relates to the album's cover, which depicts a modernist Mona Lisa sporting Parker's trademark shades. "I'm the Mona Lisa's sister, you know," says Parker. "And the record company is the Mona Lisa, or something like that. I was the sister who didn't get the painting done of herself."
Looking back at The Mona Lisa's Sister, Parker says, "What it's given me is an approach that I can always go back to with the right kind of songs. You can record songs and make them pretty honestly without a circus happening around you and lots of money being thrown away. You really can."
Culture Club, ‘Colour By Numbers’
When told that Culture Club's Colour By Numbers had been selected as one of the Top 100 albums of the decade, Boy George said, with typical playfulness, "As well it should be."
The band's second LP, Colour by Numbers, was released in the fall of 1983 while a second British Invasion was dominating the American pop charts. But George insists the album's surprisingly mature pop polish wasn't motivated by competition with his peers.
"We used to call Duran Duran 'bottles of milk,' they were so white bread," George said. "We certainly weren't competing with Spandau Ballet. We wanted to be more like the older people we admired."
Colour by Numbers does display a respect for pop history. When George debuted the ballad "That's the Way (I'm Only Trying to Help You)" at a sound check one day, he said, "Everyone said, 'Oh, it's really like Elton John.'" After the album was released, George told a reporter that "It's a Miracle" borrowed from the melody of a Gilbert O'Sullivan song. And "Church of the Poison Mind" is nearly identical to Stevie Wonder's "Uptight."
But the familiarity of the group's songs bothered at least one person. "The guy who wrote 'Handy Man' [Jimmy Jones] tried to sue us over 'Karma Chameleon,'" George said. "I might have heard it once, but it certainly wasn't something I sat down and said, 'Yeah, I want to copy this.' We gave him ten pence and an apple."
Culture Club made its second album with the same producer (Steve Levine) and at the same studio (Red Bus Studios, in London) it had used for its debut. George attributes the band's improvement from the tropical pop of Kissing to Be Clever to the input of outside musicians, notably keyboardist Phil Pickett, who co-wrote two songs with the band, and singer Helen Terry, who electrifies several tracks.
Within months of the release of Colour by Numbers, George's plucked brow was on the cover of Newsweek, followed by a Tonight Show bitch-off with Joan Rivers, a Boy George doll and his infamous acceptance speech at the Grammys, when George thanked the audience for "knowing a good drag queen when you see one."
George said he last listened to Colour by Numbers three years ago, when he was trying to kick his heroin addiction. "I thought some of the singing was out of tune," he said with a giggle. "It's definitely the best Culture Club album, but I don't know if it's my best record." During three recent concerts in Australia, the only song from Colour he performed was "Victims," the album-closing ballad. Which doesn't mean he's not proud of the band he may — or may not — be re-forming.
"We had a good formula, and other groups obviously picked up on that," he said. "I think Wham! definitely picked up on it in the beginning. I've read things where people have said the songs were awful and the only important thing was the way I looked. Colour by Numbers definitely does have a place. Above who or below who, I'm not sure."
John Cougar Mellencamp, ‘Scarecrow’
"We were basically in a pretty mean run at that time," says Larry Crane, guitarist with John Cougar Mellencamp's band. "We were going in and getting things done, and the band was clicking."
Scarecrow consolidated the band's rugged, roots-rock thrash and the ongoing maturation of Mellencamp's lyrics. The album is largely about dreams and illusions in America and how the essential character of the nation was being twisted in a government-supported climate of corporate greed. The most visible manifestation of the problem, from Mellencamp's perch in central Indiana, was the rash of farm foreclosures across the Midwest.
Despite the bittersweet, reflective tone of songs like "The Face of the Nation" and "Minutes to Memories" and the sentimental cast of his ode to rural America, "Small Town," the rehearsals that led up to the recording of the songs were nothing but pure fun. The group spent a month, at Mellencamp's insistence, learning a hundred classic rock & roll songs from the Sixties. "We got a bunch of those tapes you see advertised on TV with all the old songs on them," Crane says, chuckling, "and God, we learned everything." They rehearsed behind Mellencamp's house inside what had been a dog kennel. When a cousin opened up a bar nearby, Mellencamp christened it by playing an entire evening's worth of cover versions, from "White Room" to "Lightnin' Strikes."
When it came time to cut Scarecrow, the band members employed the lessons they learned from their Sixties studies. The idea, according to producer Don Gehman, was "to learn all these devices from the past and then use them in a new way with John's arrangements." Mellencamp would make comments like "I want this to be like an Animals record…. And I want the overall record to have this kind of a tone, like maybe it was a modern-day Dylan record." Indeed, Dylan himself hadn't been that bitingly topical in years. "You've gotta stand for somethin'/Or you're gonna fall for anything," Mellencamp sings, and on Scarecrow, he dug in and made a stand.
• Rolling Stone's Original 1985 Review
• Photos: Farm Aid 25 featuring Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and more
New Order, ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’
When New Order began recording its second album, Power, Corruption & Lies — a landmark album of danceable, post-punk music — late in 1982, it wasn't a band but a mere shadow of Joy Division. Ian Curtis, the Manchester group's singer and songwriter, had hanged himself in May 1980. The remaining members — guitarist Bernard Albrecht, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris — had taken a new name, added Gillian Gilbert on guitar and keyboards and gone back into the studio with Joy Division producer Martin Hannett.
Movement, New Order's 1981 debut, "owed more to Joy Division than to New Order," Stephen Morris says. The album was recorded "in a situation of complete turmoil," according to Albrecht, the band's reluctant new singer and lyricist. "We were all wondering what to do next." New Order followed Movement with a few singles, including "Temptation," a transitional song that incorporated a solid dance beat.
On Power, Corruption & Lies — originally released by the British Factory Records in 1983 and reissued in this country on Qwest/Warner Bros. two years later — the band members produced themselves, upgrading from home-built synthesizers and sequencers to state-of-the-art models in the process. "We got the machines two weeks before we went into the studio, and we didn't really know how to work them," Morris says.
"Blue Monday," the first single from those sessions, was "an exercise in learning how to use sequencers," says Morris. "We were trying to create a sort of Frankenstein-monster song, where you just press a button and the song comes out." Released in March 1983, "Blue Monday" is one of the best-selling twelve-inch singles in British history. (It was later included on cassette and CD versions of Power, Corruption & Lies but not the LP.)
The band's struggle with technology helped give Power, Corruption & Lies its defining tone, which Morris describes as "fragile and wintery." As is the band's custom, the album's cryptic song titles were added only at the last minute. "Ultraviolence" was a term from A Clockwork Orange. The title Power, Corruption & Lies, Morris says, came "off the back of a George Orwell book." Peter Savile's cover design shows only a cropped reproduction of Roses, by Henri Fantin-Latour, a French impressionist, with no mention of the album title or band name.
A piece tentatively called "KWI" — as in "that Kraftwerk one" — became "Your Silent Face," which offered the first glimpse of New Order's skewed sense of humor. "You've caught me at a bad time," Albrecht sings quietly. "So why don't you piss off." Says Morris, "It was a very majestic piece, and we thought, 'Ah, it's getting too serious.'"
After six weeks in the studio, New Order went on tour. "We'd recorded these songs but didn't know how to play them," says Morris. "The first night, there was a resounding silence to every song. People just stood there. A lot of hard-core Joy Division fans wondered what we were up to. But fortunately, we started creating New Order songs."
• Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Substance' by New Order
Luther Vandross, ‘The Night I Fell in Love’
The Night I Fell in Love, recorded in 1984, was Luther Vandross's fourth album. But this New Yorker with the polished tenor had been in the music business since the early Seventies. He wrote a song for The Wiz; sang on, co-wrote and arranged David Bowie's "Young Americans" in 1975; toured as a background singer with Bette Midler, Chaka Khan and Carly Simon; recorded albums as a member of three bands; and did sessions with Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones and others. He also sang a lot of ad jingles.
But when he recorded his own albums, Vandross says he "got tired of going into the same studios, driving up the same streets and going up the same elevators I had gone up during all my years of sessions. After a few albums, I said, 'There's got to be another way to record.'"
Vandross booked time at AIR Studios, on Montserrat, in the West Indies, bringing with him the same musicians he'd used since Never Too Much, his 1981 debut — bassist and coproducer Marcus Miller, keyboardist and arranger Nat Adderley Jr., drummer Yogi Horton and guitarist Doc Powell. He also enlisted Billy Preston on organ and singers Cissy Houston, Alfa Anderson of Chic and Darlene Love.
"We were out of town, so the band wasn't looking at their watches, having a 4:30 Pepsi-Cola jingle they had to go do," says Vandross. "Once you get someone away from that New York session mentality, their whole countenance relaxes and their guard comes down. They take off that bulletproof vest they've been wearing and give you the best that they've got.
"A lot of people go down there because of the comfort," Vandross continues. "There's a cook, there are lots of lounges. It's magnificent. Outside the control room is a big swimming pool on the side of a gigantic mountain that leads to the ocean. The mood it puts you in gives you a better perspective on your music."
Of the album's first single, the finger-popping "'Til My Baby Comes Home," Vandross says, "That was one of the baddest things on radio. You had a big pop element, without ignoring the soul element." Next was "Creepin'," a Stevie Wonder ballad from Fulfillingness' First Finale, followed by "If Only for One Night," a torchy Brenda Russell song Vandross heard Roberta Flack sing on tour.
The moody ballad "Wait for Love," Vandross says, "gets the most applause in concert. We tear that thing up." But the album's most startling song is "My Sensitivity (Gets in the Way)," a romantic's bald confession. "There are only two songs I've written that are absolutely personal — 'My Sensitivity' and 'Any Love' [the title track to his most recent album] — and if they apply to anyone else, that's a peripheral consideration."
Discussing the eight tracks on The Night I Fell in Love, Vandross says, "Yeah, that's a good album. There was something magical about the way everyone responded to it, which to this day I can't account for."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1985 Review
• Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Luther Vandross
Tom Petty, ‘Full Moon Fever’
"It's all in the songs," says Tom Petty. "If you've got the songs, it's all very simple. With Full Moon Fever, I was lucky in that the songs just kept coming up, and I hit a good period of writing that carried through the Traveling Wilburys."
Full Moon Fever, Petty's first album without the Heartbreakers, fell together almost by accident early in 1988 when he and new acquaintance Jeff Lynne wrote and cut a few songs together at guitarist Mike Campbell's garage studio. The result was an album of pop nuggets with a bright, Sixties-style sheen.
"I've always loved the British rock and pop of the Sixties, and Jeff feels the same way," Petty says. "Within the Heartbreakers, I represent some portion of that sound, but they have so many other influences. If you take me away from them, this is what you get." The only Heartbreaker involved to any significant degree was Campbell, who coengineered, coproduced and played guitars and keyboards.
Full Moon Fever was truly a garage record. "We actually had to pull the cars out at the start of the day," Petty says, laughing. The sessions were relaxed and unhurried, and Petty credits Lynne, the former leader of ELO, for the upbeat atmosphere. "Jeff just loves to be in the studio," he says. "It's like Disneyland to him: 'All right, we're making a record! Boy, what fun!' And it rubbed off on me and Mike."
The sessions also led to the Traveling Wilburys, the impromptu supergroup whose knockoff album was a sensation in 1988. Roy Orbison began hanging around the studio, and George Harrison showed up to play acoustic guitar on "I Won't Back Down." The idea of four musicians — Petty, Campbell, Lynne and Harrison — strumming around a mike worked so well it was adapted by the Wilburys.
Petty and Lynne worked up nine songs and then stopped to make the Wilburys record. Afterward, Petty cut three more tracks to round out Full Moon Fever, including a "shamelessly faithful" cover of the Byrds' "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better."
In his lyrics, Petty strove to say more in fewer words, citing Randy Newman's influence. "I'd sung a couple of tracks on his last album, and I was so impressed by his material it made me want to quit the business," Petty says. "He can say so much with a simple line. I just kept thinking I wanted to keep the lyrics real simple, as if it were a conversation."
Some songs were personal, others journalistic. "Zombie 'Zoo," for instance, was written about a punk club in L.A. following a conversation in a diner with some musicians who played there. "I wrote it as if I were Jed Clampett going to the Zombie Zoo," Petty says. "It wasn't meant as a put-down; it was done for comedy's sake." And it caught the spirit of play that marked the sessions. "We did Full Moon Fever for the sheer fun of it," Petty says. "We never sweated it. It was the most enjoyable record I've ever worked on."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1989 Review
• Photos: Classic Super Bowl Moments
Lyle Lovett, ‘Lyle Lovett’
"This is definitely an album of the Eighties," says Lyle Lovett, "because it took almost the whole of the Eighties to do it." The line is typical of the dry wit that Lovett employs in his offbeat country and blues songs — and also accurate. Some of the songs on Lyle Lovett were written as early as 1979. In 1984, he spent his life savings as well as a loan from his parents to record eighteen demos; ten of these were finally remixed and released in 1986.
The wait paid off. Lyle Lovett — an assured, refined collection of tunes about rocky romances, dubious weddings and sturdy old porches — heralded the arrival of a major songwriter who brought absurdity and wit to a field that was normally earnest and predictable.
In 1984, Lovett, a Texas singer-songwriter with a degree in journalism, hooked up with the J. David Sloan band at a music festival in Luxembourg. He returned with the members of the band to their native Arizona, and one day in June he cut four songs at Chaton Recordings, in Scottsdale. Lovett then drove to Nashville, looking for a publishing deal, and wound up recording fourteen more demos that August.
He sent the tape around to record companies. They liked the material but wanted him to re-record it, which he refused to do. Finally, the tape found its way to singer-songwriter Guy Clark, who recommended him to Tony Brown at MCA. "When I first heard the demos," says Brown, "I thought, 'How could this tape have been around for more than a week without somebody putting it out?' This guy was so developed, so focused."
Aside from some remixing and minor overdubbing, the tapes were virtually released as is. Brown helped Lovett select ten songs (the rest have appeared on subsequent albums) with an ear to country radio. Four made the C&W Top Twenty.
"I probably would have chosen fewer country songs and weighted it more toward the blues-oriented stuff," Lovett says today. "But it ended up being more representative of my songwriting." And as a homespun sampler of a rookie off the street, it has few peers.
Sting, ‘…Nothing Like the Sun’
"I don't give a fuck about rock & roll," Sting declared unequivocally in 1987. There was, he complained, "no new fuel in rock music." Instead, he said, musicians should be looking outside of rock to African, jazz and even classical music: "Anything! Anything will do."
… Nothing Like the Sun, released shortly after that tirade, was everything but the kitchen sink, a double-album banquet of seductive Hispanic and Brazilian rhythms, exultant reggae, big-band jazz and melancholy Euroballadry featuring an all-star, genre-busting crew: Branford Marsalis, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, Rubén Blades and Andy Summers.
Sting's sources ranged from German composer Hans Eisler and Jimi Hendrix (a jazz reading of "Little Wing") to a traditional Chilean courting dance in "They Dance Alone," a haunting tribute to the families of Chile's "disappeared," opponents of the government who are believed to have been murdered. In his lyrics, Sting juxtaposed meditations on death and rebirth — his mother died during the making of the record — with observations on religion, history and, in "Englishman in New York," spiritual and cultural exile.
Literally worlds away from the artful simplicity of his hits with the Police and even his jazz-fusion tangents on The Dream of the Blue Turtles, his first solo excursion, … Nothing Like the Sun is as much a vivid reflection of the mushrooming exploratory fervor among many of Sting's middle-aged pop peers, such as Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and Paul Simon, as it is an expression of Sting's disgust with the state of pop. Ironically, the eleven original songs on the album were the product not of extensive musical field trips but of five months' concentrated writing in New York City in the winter and early spring of 1987.
"I had already started writing songs before that back in London," he told Rolling Stone during a Brazilian tour the following year. "But I brought those fragments over. And I had this kind of monkish life. I lived on my own. I cooked my own food. I went to the gym every day. I took piano lessons. The phone was off the hook. And I worked usually from twelve midday to very late at night." The strict regimen, though, combined with the emotional weight of his mother's recent passing, made it hard for him to be objective about the results. "'They Dance Alone' was a song I played to people as a demo in my apartment," he says. "People were visibly moved. I was too bound up in it to make judgments."
Sting's record company initially questioned the wisdom of his musical expeditions on … Nothing Like the Sun. "It wasn't simple enough or directed toward the charts," says Sting. "I said, 'Why underestimate the record-buying public?'" In fact, the album was a commercial success, spawning a hit single in the jaunty "We Will Be Together."
"It confirms my belief that sophistication, or intended sophistication, is not the kiss of death," he said proudly. "As long as you're grounded somewhere in common sense."
• Photos: Hot Rock Offspring featuring Madonna, Sting, Keith Richards and More Stars' Famous Kids
Aretha Franklin, ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’
"If I see someone cute," Aretha Franklin told producer Narada Michael Walden during an initial telephone conversation to discuss working together on an album the singer was planning, "I may wink. Then he may wink, and it's like 'Who's zoomin' who?'"
The phrase — which Franklin said was an old New York street expression — immediately caught Walden's imagination. "At that time I hadn't worked on an album by anyone of Aretha's stature," Walden says. "I wanted to design something just for her." The result was the title track of Franklin's 1985 comeback album, Who's Zoomin' Who?
The reclusive Franklin had spent many of the preceding years in her hometown of Detroit, looking after her seriously ill father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin. According to Walden, Aretha hadn't sung seriously in two or three years. After her father died in 1984, the singer began thinking about returning to the music scene.
Walden started assembling backing tracks in Los Angeles. Since Franklin doesn't like to travel — she refuses to take airplanes when on tour — Walden brought the session tapes to Detroit, where Franklin added her vocals.
"She had to get reacquainted with being in the studio," Walden says, "and she'd get winded." But it didn't take long for the singer to regain her form. "She'll sing a song down in the lower range maybe four or five times," he says. "Then she'll sing it up in her range and do two or three takes."
Who's Zoomin' Who? produced two Top Ten singles — Franklin's first album to do so since 1972's Young, Gifted and Black — with the title track and "Freeway of Love." The latter boasted a cameo appearance by E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons. "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" featured Annie Lennox of Eurythmics and was produced by Lennox's band mate, Dave Stewart.
Looking for a male singer to work with Franklin on another duet, "Push," Walden "put out signals, but a lot of people were frightened to death to sing with her." Former J. Geils Band vocalist Peter Wolf, however, jumped at the chance. "Peter's got guts," says Walden. "He put his helmet on and came up in there."
Despite Franklin's awesome reputation as a singer, Walden found her easy to work with. "She's a black Mae West," he says. "She's very fast I didn't pull anything out of her. She's so vast and brings so much to her takes that it's more a question of keeping up with her. And when it stops, it stops. So you've got to be on your toes. Before any session with her, I'd jog four or five miles just to be mentally alert. You have to be — she's the queen."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1985 Review
• Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Aretha Franklin
• Video: Jeff Beck, Aretha Franklin, Ozzy Osbourne and Annie Lennox Encourage Young Rockers Backstage at Hall of Fame Concert
Jackson Browne, ‘Lives in the Balance’
"And from the comfort of a dreamer's bed/And the safety of my own head/I went on speaking of the future/While other people fought and bled." With those words from the opening verse of "For America," the first track on Lives in the Balance, Jackson Browne turned away from the personal introspection that had characterized his earlier work and took dead aim at one of the most important political issues of the Eighties: U.S. policy in Central America.
The album was inspired, in part, by visits Browne made to Central America in 1984 and 1985, though he had already begun writing "For America" and the title track prior to his trips. "I know that in going to Central America, I was really moved to want to do something," Browne told Rolling Stone in 1987, "to talk about whether we really believe in freedom and justice for all or if it isn't just freedom and justice for us, while we do the most unspeakable things to other cultures."
Months before the Iran-contra scandal broke in the press, Browne sang on "Lives in the Balance" of wanting "to know who the men in the shadows are/I want to hear somebody asking them why." After the arms-for-hostages deals hit the news, the increased public awareness of the U.S. government's covert war in Nicaragua prompted Browne to produce and pay for a video for "Lives in the Balance" well after the album had passed its peak in terms of sales. Discussing the song at the time of the video's release, Browne said, "I imply that the truth is kept from us on a regular basis. I flat out say the government lies. Well, these things are no longer heresy."
Other songs examine related aspects of the album's political theme. The haunting "Soldier of Plenty" indicts the paternalism of America's attitudes toward its Latin neighbors, while "Lawless Avenues," with touching Spanish lyrics by Jorge Calderón, explores the impact of American foreign policy on life on the home front — specifically, in this case, in the Hispanic ghettos of Los Angeles. And, intriguingly, amid all the hard-hitting sociopolitical commentary stands "In the Shape of a Heart," one of Browne's finest love songs.
Lives in the Balance never achieved the commercial success of some of Browne's earlier records. That hardly mattered to him. "I like this album as much as any I've ever done," Browne said. "And there's a certain comfort, a security that I have, talking about something that I feel this strongly about. And whether or not an album succeeds wildly or not, that's intact."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1986 Review
The Rolling Stones, ‘Steel Wheels’
Most of the songs on Steel Wheels were written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards during a three-week session in Barbados. That get-together was the make-or-break point for the Rolling Stones' 1989 reunion — a reunion that had been imperiled by Jagger's and Richards's solo records and by a year of public backbiting between the two.
Their attitudes in approaching the Barbados session say a great deal about the differences between them. "I said to the old lady, 'I'm going over to Barbados to write songs — I'll see you in two weeks or two days,'" Richards says of the conversation he had with his wife, Patti, before leaving. "I had no idea, and I'm sure Mick didn't either."
Jagger, however, admits to having no such doubts about his ability to work with Richards. "I never worry about those things," he says. "I just get on and do it. Keith is very supersensitive about all that sort of thing and worries that maybe it can't happen. I said, 'Well, we'll just try. If we don't do it, we don't do it.'"
Each man brought material to the session. Jagger had a rocker, "Hold On to Your Hat," while Richards had a ballad, "Almost Hear You Sigh." But they began writing together immediately. "We got two or three songs in the first hour, and once you get a roll going, there's no problem," Richards says. "What's good for the music will be good for us personally."
And Richards says there was something of a rapprochement. "It was very funny, because, with all the shit that's been going down over the last few years, you never know," he says. "But it was 'Do you remember when you said …' and both of us are cracking up."
Charlie Watts's arrival on the scene also bolstered Richards's sense of possibility for Steel Wheels. "I drove up to the rehearsal place, and I heard him playing," says Richards. "I just sat in the car for five minutes and listened, and I said, 'Yeah, no problem. This year's made.'"
Musically, Jagger was concerned that the songs on Steel Wheels not repeat the sort of problems that had made him feel constrained in the Stones. The album's most radical departure is "Continental Drift," with its North African feel and use of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, from Morocco. "I never thought I'd get away with that with the Stones, but they bought it," Jagger says.
Steel Wheels also seems to have provided Jagger with an opportunity to respond to Richards's public criticism of him. On the album's first single, "Mixed Emotions," Jagger sings, "Button your lip, baby," and declares, "You're not the only one with mixed emotions." But the song ends with Jagger singing, "Let's stick together." "I just averted my eyes," Richards says, laughing, about his response to hearing the song's lyrics. "Although I realized it's not 'Mixed Emotions,' it's 'Mick's Emotions.'"
Jagger moans when told of Richards's remark. "Well, I wrote that about this girl I know, actually — it's got nothing to do with the Rolling Stones," he says with a laugh. "I hate to disillusion you."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1989 Review
• Photos: Rare and Intimate Pictures of the Rolling Stones
• Photos: The Secret History of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles
Bruce Springsteen, ‘The River’
He was a major rock & roll star. His records were FM-radio staples. He sold out coliseums. His live shows were legendary. But by 1980, Bruce Springsteen had not yet placed a single in the Top Twenty, and he hadn't really made an album that fully captured the bracing live sound of the E Street Band.
The River changed all that. The album is the work of a top-notch rock band playing live in the studio. Over the course of two discs, Springsteen displays a little bit of everything that drew people to him. If songs like "Jackson Cage," "Point Blank" and "Independence Day" recall the grim, relentless Darkness on the Edge of Town, tunes like the frat rocker "Sherry Darling" and the Number Five hit "Hungry Heart" are lighter and more buoyant. And if the sheer giddiness of "Crush on You" and "I'm a Rocker" make The River sound like Springsteen's party record, sobering character sketches like the title track and "Stolen Car" argue otherwise.
The album didn't come easily to Springsteen. "I search for that internal logic that connects everything," he said later. "And if it comes real naturally, it's great. With The River, man, forget it. It took many months. Years, you know?"
All in all, the album consumed more than a year in the studio, in excess of $500,000 in recording costs and what Springsteen remembers as "about ninety songs" that were rehearsed and either recorded or rejected. In the spring of 1979, Springsteen and the band began cutting songs like "The Ties That Bind" and "Roulette" (a savage rocker that would remain unreleased for eight years). By that fall, Springsteen and his coproducers, Jon Landau and Steve Van Zandt, had compiled a single-disc album that was to include "Hungry Heart," a rockabilly arrangement of "You Can Look (but You Better Not Touch)" and the still-unre-leased gems "Cindy" and "Loose Ends." But when they returned to the studio after playing two No Nukes concerts in New York with other concerned musicians, Springsteen decided he didn't want to put the finishing touches on that record. Instead, he was looking for something richer and more expansive — something that would take close to another year to finish.
"I was trying to answer 'Where are these people going now?'" he said. "I had an idea where they were going, but I wasn't really sure. I guess I didn't know where I was going, you know?"
On The River, Springsteen accepts the fact that contradictions and paradoxes can be part of his music because they're part of everyday experience, and the decision to make a two-record set gave him the space to let his characters go just about everywhere. The trip encompasses a hard-rocking visit to "Cadillac Ranch" and the disquieting vision at the heart of the stark finale, "Wreck on the Highway."
"Bruce Springsteen didn't title his summational record The River for nothing," wrote Paul Nelson in his Rolling Stone review of the album. "Each song is just a drop in the bucket, and the water in the bucket is drawn from a river that can take you on a fast but invigorating ride, smash you in the rapids, let you float dreamily downstream or carry you relentlessly across some unknown county line."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1984 Review
• Photos: Bruce Springsteen's Surprise Set at Asbury Park
Neil Young, ‘Freedom’
"I knew that I wanted to make a real album that expressed how I felt," says Neil Young of his most recent album, Freedom. "I just wanted to make a Neil Young record per se. Something that was just me, where there was no persona, no image, no distinctive character like the Bluenotes guy or the guy in Everybody's Rockin'. It's the first time I've felt like doing an album like this in years."
Freedom veers between folkie ballads ("Ways of Love," "Someday" and "Too Far Gone") and screeching rockers ("Eldorado" and a wild-eyed cover of "On Broadway"). The album is bookended by contrasting versions of the bitter, ironic "Rockin' in the Free World." The opener is live and acoustic, with the audience singing the chorus, while the finale is an angry, electric rendition with an additional verse. (Young used a similar device on Rust Never Sleeps.)
"It's the longest album I've ever done," says Young. "It's a real mouthful. When I listen to it, it's almost like listening to the radio — it keeps changing and going from one thing to another."
He'd originally planned to release a purely electric rock album — "Nothing but abrasiveness from beginning to end," he says — that he'd recorded in New York. (Five songs from those sessions were released on an import EP called Eldorado.) For the album that was eventually released, he mixed in material from some subsequent acoustic sessions, looking to strike a balance. The result is Young's most personal and unguarded set of songs in many years.
"Music can be like therapy," he says. "It's like getting parts of yourself out, which I used to do all the time. But I was at a point in my life where I really closed off my emotions about a lot of things I didn't understand. I just shut down the whole program and did things that were more on the surface level, because it was safer. Now I feel time has healed whatever was bothering me so much. I feel more open, and I can write songs that are more directly involved with what I'm thinking."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1989 Review
• Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Neil Young
• Photos: MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute to Neil Young
George Michael, ‘Faith’
George Michael sang suggestively on "I Want Your Sex," the incendiary hit that ignited his 1987 album Faith. Besides the sensual implications, the lyrics could also describe the British performer's make-over from teen idol to mature pop talent with his solo debut. "I was trying to shake an image — a very glossy, bubblegum image," says Michael, recalling his early-Eighties career, when he and childhood pal Andrew Ridgeley sang together as the prefab dance duo Wham! After their split in 1985, Michael became intent on finding a fresh start as a solo artist.
Shying away from his persona as a preening dandy who sang drivel like "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," Michael cultivated a new approach that was seriously sexy. With torn jeans, perfectly coifed hair and stubble that would make Don Johnson envious, he became the leading progenitor of a style that all but redefined late-Eighties fashion.
But the real change was in the lyrics, not the look. Beyond the beat-crazy dance rhythms, most of the songs on Faith revolve around important issues. "I Want Your Sex," for example, raises the issue of monogamy in the age of AIDS; "Look at Your Hands" deals with abused wives; and "Monkey" touches on the horrors of addiction. "I wouldn't have dared approach subjects like wife beating or addiction when I was with Wham!" says Michael. "But I had been liberated from those particular confines."
Michael spent almost two years writing and recording Faith, influenced, he says, by "a lot of American radio, which kind of seeped into my consciousness." Months before he began recording the album, he had created "I Want Your Sex" as a song for a friend to sing, but he reclaimed it. "I Want Your Sex" unleashed a torrent of protest and publicity for the young star. The BBC banned the song in England, and many American stations refused to play it. Nevertheless, spurred by an outrageously erotic video clip and all the surrounding controversy, Michael's sassy come-on sold more than 1 million copies in the United States.
After "I Want Your Sex" scored, the catchy single "Faith" was released in October; the entire album was released a month later. Supercharged by four more hit singles — "Father Figure," "One More Try," "Monkey" and "Kissing a Fool" — the album went on to sell 14 million copies worldwide, and Faith became one of the few albums to top the pop and black charts simultaneously. As further evidence of its broad-based appeal, Faith subsequently captured a Grammy for album of the year and topped Rolling Stone's annual readers' poll.
"I was expecting the album to be big, but I wasn't expecting anything like the success it had," says Michael. "There was a fair amount of pressure on me to carve a different niche as a solo artist without actually having to force it. The progression had to be natural, but I also knew there had to be a progression."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1988 Review
• Photos: George Michael Remembers the Recording of His Classic LP 'Faith'
David Bowie, ‘Let’s Dance’
"I wanted to come in touch with the common factor and not seem to be some sort of alien freak," David Bowie told writer Lisa Robinson shortly after the release of Let's Dance, his most accessible — and commercially successful — album. "I don't want to seem detached and cold, because I'm not."
A warmer, more open Bowie was evident at every turn on Let's Dance, whose bright, upbeat exterior and approachable lyrics celebrate "modern love" and sensual romance beneath "serious moonlight."
Coming off of four hermitic, experimental and disillusioned albums — from Low to Scary Monsters — Bowie pulled an about-face. His newly found extroversion, complete with a haystack-yellow British-schoolboy haircut, netted him three Top Twenty singles — "Modern Love," "China Girl" and the chart-topping title track. Let's Dance was a determined move to recapture the spotlight by a musician who five years earlier had told Melody Maker, "I feel incredibly divorced from rock, and it's a genuine striving to be that way."
Let's Dance grafts brassy, big-band swing onto a solid, contemporary R&B foundation. Bowie tapped Nile Rodgers, guitarist for the stylish New York dance band Chic, to produce Let's Dance. Excluding Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was Bowie's suggestion, the musicians were drawn from Rodgers's circle. "Except for Bernard Edwards, no person had influenced me more," Rodgers says of Bowie. Yet the collaboration was nothing like what he had had in mind.
"To be honest, when I first got involved, I wanted to do a very noncommercial, avant-garde album," says Rodgers. "I thought I was finally getting a chance to show that black people can do records about things other than dancing, making love and stuff like that. I was quite surprised when I got to Europe and we were working on songs called 'Let's Dance' and 'Modern Love.'" After some discussion, Bowie said, "Nile, I want you to do what you do best — make great commercial records." He trusted Rodgers's instincts, and the album was finished in nineteen days.
Its swift popularity caught the normally unflappable Bowie off guard. "David might not want me to say this," says Rodgers with a chuckle, "but for the first few weeks, even he was surprised. He's a big artist and a rock & roll demigod, but there was still a garage-band guy in there who couldn't believe his record was selling. I'd be lying in bed, and the phone would ring: 'Hello, Nile? This is David. Look what's happening, did you see Billboard this week? Wow, unbelievable!'"
• Photos: Paintings and Photos By Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and More
Squeeze, ‘East Side Story’
"In songwriters Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, the British New Wave has finally found its own John Lennon and Paul McCartney." This statement of high praise for Squeeze's dynamic songwriting duo began Rolling Stone's review of East Side Story, Squeeze's fourth album. Joined by keyboardist and singer Paul Carrack in his one-album cameo as a Squeeze member, the group filled the album with smart, uptempo pop tunes whose lyrics scanned, in Difford's words, like "suburban short stories."
Difford and Tilbrook credit Elvis Costello, who coproduced most of the album with Roger Bechirian, for providing inspiration and encouraging the band to move into different areas. "Elvis gave us a broader canvas to work on," says Tilbrook. "He considered some songs we'd written that I wouldn't have thought would be Squeeze songs." For example, when Tilbrook was fast-forwarding a tape of demos, he accidentally landed on "Labeled With Love," a country & western number. He hadn't intended to play it for Costello, who nonetheless liked it right away. When Tilbrook protested that it didn't sound like Squeeze, Costello said, "Let's do it anyway."
East Side Story's best-known song is "Tempted," sung in a husky, soulful voice by Paul Carrack, with Costello and Tilbrook chiming in here and there. Difford wrote the lyrics on the way to the airport, and "all the things in there are pretty much all the things that were in my mind on that trip," he says. Though "Tempted" became an FM-radio favorite, it didn't crack the U.S. Top Forty. "It's one of those records everyone thinks is a hit, but it wasn't really," says Tilbrook. "I was disappointed it didn't do better, but I've felt that way about a lot of our records."
Musical touches both playful and artful, ranging from the surreal, wavering keyboards on "Heaven" to the full orchestra on "Vanity Fair," adorn East Side Story. Yet Squeeze maintains that the record was an uncomplicated one to make. "It was quite an old-fashioned approach to record making," says Tilbrook. "There weren't really any production tricks on it. The production really involved arrangements, and then just a straightforward recording of the songs."
As a side note, the name Lennon cropped up in an unexpected way midway through the sessions. "One morning, Elvis called and said that John Lennon had been killed the night before and that we weren't going to go out to the studio that day," Difford says. "Then he called back and said, 'No, let's just go in, get some drink and play.' We didn't record anything; we were just playing the blues."
Van Halen, ‘1984’
"It's real obvious to me," says producer Ted Templeman when asked why 1984 won Van Halen a broader and larger audience. "Eddie Van Halen discovered the synthesizer."
The foursome had been selling out arenas for more than a decade on the basis of Eddie's virtuosic, fleet-fingered guitar playing, singer David Lee Roth's blunt, raunchy lyrics and the brute force of Michael Anthony's bass and Alex Van Halen's drums. But 1984, abetted by tunes that swirled elements of synth pop into metal — most evidently on the hit single "Jump" — and by a string of campy, low-budget videos that found favor on MTV, carried Van Halen to a new plateau of popularity. No longer viewed as threatening to those with a chronic fear of metal, the band somehow became amusing and even endearing to middle America. And all the while Van Halen continued to rock like crazy.
According to Templeman, who produced all six Van Halen albums prior to and including 1984, having time to experiment in the studio made a difference. "The group was finding out how to do stuff for themselves, rather than 'Here, do this, because we've gotta get back on the road,'" he says. "So they had a little time and got creative. They got into all kinds of different things, because they were bored doing the same old stuff."
At the time, Eddie was in the process of building his own studio with Don Landee, the band's longtime engineer (and now its producer). While boards and tape machines were being installed, the guitarist began fiddling around on synthesizers to pass the time. "There were no presets," says Templeman. "He would just twist off until it sounded right."
One night Eddie and Alex laid down an instrumental demo of what would become "Jump," excitedly ringing up their slumbering producer when they finished. "I still have it on my answering machine," recalls Templeman with a chuckle. "'Ted, come on up! It's like three in the morning, but we really came up with something great.' They played a little bit over the phone."
Roth added the lyrics, which he wrote while being chauffeured in his red Mercury convertible, and "Jump" went on to top the charts — heralding the arrival of hard rock and heavy metal in the theretofore impervious Top Forty. "They connected with a pop audience," says Templeman. "Whatever Bon Jovi has today, Van Halen picked up with 'Jump' then."
"Jump" was followed by two more singles from 1984: "I'll Wait," a ballad whose chorus was written by Roth with an uncredited Michael McDonald, and "Panama," a hard-charging number to which the sounds of Eddie Van Halen's revving Lamborghini were added.
The album turned out to be the last recorded by Van Halen in its original configuration, as Roth left — not entirely amicably — to go solo and was soon replaced by Sammy Hagar. Producer Templeman swears he didn't see it coming: "There were no indicators to signal a breakup at all. Matter of fact, they were really united on that sucker. Balls to the wall, they were going after the world, man!"
• Rolling Stone's Original 1984 Review
Suzanne Vega, ‘Suzanne Vega’
It wasn't until the release of her second album that Suzanne Vega achieved fame, scoring an unlikely Top Forty hit with "Luka," a song about child abuse. But the singer's 1985 debut album, Suzanne Vega, had already awakened listeners to a fresh new voice, reviving the folk-music genre after nearly two decades of dormancy. For Vega, who was then twenty-five years old, the album was cause for uncertainty and isolation as much as triumph. "I felt a little bit like a novelty act," she says of her auspicious introduction.
Vega was certainly an anomaly during the mid-Eighties, softly strumming an acoustic guitar and singing introspective ballads while the rest of the music world was caught up in bigger-is-better events like Live Aid and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. mega-tour. In retrospect, however, Vega's intimate first album proved to be a significant milestone in this decade, ushering in a flock of female folk singers, including Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, Michelle Shocked, Tanita Tikaram and the Indigo Girls.
Having taught herself guitar at the age of eleven, Vega began writing her own songs when she entered her teens. After graduating from Barnard College in 1982, she began playing small coffeehouses in Greenwich Village — the same area of New York City where nearly every Sixties folkie first tuned up his Gibson. But Vega, a child of the Eighties, hardly fit the protest-singer mold. Even though she carried an acoustic guitar, her hero wasn't folk icon Bob Dylan but punk godfather Lou Reed. There were other differences as well. After years on the Northeastern club circuit, she had developed a direct, emotionally tempered style that she has said was inspired as much by novelist Carson McCullers and painter Edward Hopper as by romantic balladeers Leonard Cohen and Laura Nyro.
Weaving these diverse influences into a deeply moving album were producers Lenny Kaye (formerly Patti Smith's guitarist) and Steve Addabbo (Vega's manager), who brought modern touches to Vega's straight-ahead style, enhancing the singer's sparse sound with subtle electric guitars, graceful violins and even New Age synthesizers, all of which added gentle textures to her haunting material.
Vega's prowess with simile and metaphor dominates the entire album, perhaps most effectively on songs like "Undertow," "Freeze Tag" and "Straight Lines." But Vega's sphinxlike wordplay reaches its apex on "Small Blue Thing," a ballad more reflective of an intangible feeling than a literal object. "The song is actually pretty straightforward — it's not a riddle," she says with a laugh. "I never try and be tricky. At the time, I felt like a small blue thing. I never expected that people would think that it stood for something. Some people even asked if it's a fetus. It's not that at all — it's a mood.
"The structures behind folk music and folk songs are very elemental, sort of like water," Vega adds. "You go through your fads with wine and soft drinks and everything else, but water is the basic thing you always go back to."
Steve Earle, ‘Guitar Town’
"I had given up on ever getting a record deal and became a staff songwriter, going into the office eight hours a day and trying to write for the radio," says the Nashville-based country rocker Steve Earle. "What happened was that during that period, I learned a lot about craft." When Earle finally did get to make a full-length album in 1986, after having written songs for artists ranging from Waylon Jennings to Carl Perkins, he could apply professional songwriting polish to his Dylanesque verse and outlaw style of music. The result was Guitar Town, an album that straddled country and rock to create something startlingly new. In the words of a fellow artist, John Hiatt, it was "pretty much a darn near flawless record. Great writing, fantastic album."
Guitar Town tells simple stories of people living in hard times, such as the cautionary "Good Ol' Boy (Gettin' Tough)." It also relates the autobiographical tale of a country singer rolling down the road, from "Guitar Town" to "Hillbilly Highway," trying to outrun the blues. "It's important to me to make sure the average person can understand what I'm trying to say," says Earle. "Songwriting at its best is very rarely poetry; it's usually narrative and practically journalism. It is a form of literature, but one you can consume while you're driving your car."
Guitar Town boasts everything from a rich, orchestral twelve-string to some deep, twangy solos on the Danelectro six-string bass. It was recorded at an all-digital studio in Nashville. By embracing the latest technology, Earle hoped his hometown would receive its due as an up-to-date music metropolis. "I want to see Nashville become a place to make records, and not just country records," says Earle.
Does Earle see himself as more of a country or a rock artist? "I've been more readily accepted on rock radio, but as my audience gets older with me, I'll probably end up back on country radio," he says. "I think that as a singer, I borrow more from Hank Williams than from David Bowie."
• Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Guitar Town' by Steve Earle
Robbie Robertson, ‘Robbie Robertson’
"It's easy to be a genius in your twenties," says Robbie Robertson. "In your forties, it's difficult."
Such was the trepidation with which the former Band guitarist and songwriter approached making his long-put-off solo album. But he needn't have fretted so much: Robbie Robertson — released in 1987, a full decade after the Band broke up — is ample proof that Robertson's abilities are still very much intact.
From the album's ethereal opener, "Fallen Angel," dedicated to Robertson's former band mate, the late Richard Manuel, to "Testimony," its hard-rocking conclusion, Robertson establishes himself as his own man. "It was a personal statement," Robertson says of the album. "When I was younger, I thought I was too young to really be personal. I thought that what I was feeling and thinking might be half-baked."
Robbie Robertson took three years to complete and cost over $750,000 to make. Traveling to New Orleans, Woodstock, Dublin and England for inspiration and recording sessions, Robertson enlisted the help of U2, Gil Evans, Maria McKee, the BoDeans, Peter Gabriel, two of his cohorts from the Band — Rick Danko and Garth Hudson — and the obscure but gifted guitarist Bill Dillon as sidemen.
Much of the work was done in a studio in Santa Monica that Robertson turned into a kind of workshop-cum-lounge. With guitars and synthesizers at the ready, he spent months and months working on ideas. Although he began the recording sessions with an album's worth of material, many of the songs that showed up on the finished record — "Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight," "Testimony," "Sweet Fire of Love" and "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" — were written in the studio. "I felt it was important for Robbie to write new songs for this record," says coproducer Daniel Lanois.
Robertson wrote passionately about saving the planet ("Showdown at Big Sky"), the price of fame ("American Roulette") and romance ("Broken Arrow"). "I never wrote about the environment before," says Robertson. "I feel very strongly about this stuff, but [in the past] I felt like I'd be jumping on the bandwagon. Now I felt like I couldn't help it."
Robertson sees the album as just the start of a new kind of songwriting and record making. "I was proud to rip open my chest and bare my soul," he says. "I'm not embarrassed to talk about these things anymore. Do you know what a skin walker is? It's a thing in Indian mythology. There are certain people born with this gift, and they're able to actually get inside you and mess with your feelings and with your mind. And if a skin walker chooses to get a hold of you, there's not much you can do. I want a song to get inside me, to feel it did the old skin walker on me. I was kind of discovering that on this album, and now I'm pursuing it."
• Video: Robbie Robertson Talks About the Evolution of His Guitar Style
• Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Robbie Robertson
The Human League, ‘Dare’
When the Human League’s American debut, Dare, began its race up the charts in 1982, both the band and the album seemed unabashed rock rip-offs to more than a few skeptics. The British band, after all, sported no guitars, and there was no drummer or bassist in the group, either. What the Human League used to create Dare was a wash of synthesizers performed by band members who didn’t even consider themselves to be professional musicians.
“We started out as rank amateurs with a belief that you could use technology to make up for the fact that you hadn’t acquired any skill, that you could use computers to make up for the fact that you hadn’t any keyboard players, that you could use sequencers to do rhythms rather than employ a drummer,” Human League vocalist and songwriter Phil Oakey told Musician magazine in 1982.
Dare helped pave the way for the onslaught of electronics that would permeate rock on every level in the Eighties. The album demonstrated that synth pop was a viable alternative to rock’s time-tested but guitar-glutted formulas. Dare and its smash single, “Don’t You Want Me,” also proved that the lucrative American market would willingly digest synth pop, provided there was enough in the way of melody and rhythm to overcome the sometimes sterile strains of the synthesizer sound.
With Dare, the Human League linked itself as much to the Sex Pistols as it did to Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, two Seventies pioneers in techno-rock. Like punk — a movement completely at odds with the kind of pop music a band like the Human League wanted to make — the band confirmed that attitude, and not musicianship, is what’s really important in the rock & roll process, and that with enough determination, virtually anyone can play the music.
Produced by Martin Rushent, who had also worked with the Buzzcocks and the Stranglers, Dare was the Human League’s third album. The previous two, Reproduction (1979) and Travelogue (1980), were U.K.-only releases. Critically acclaimed, both LPs nonetheless possessed largely unfocused attempts at making synth pop an accessible rock style.
After a personnel shake-up in 1980 that left Oakey and Philip Adrian Wright the only surviving members of the original Human League (Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware went on to form the British Electric Foundation and then Heaven 17), the band was revamped with newcomers Ian Burden and Jo Callis on synthesizers and Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley on vocals.
Aside from delivering an alluring synthesizer-soaked brand of rock on Dare, Oakey and the rest of the Human League further validated their best songs with lyrics that went beyond pop pap. “Seconds,” a deceptively haunting song about the JFK assassination, “Darkness,” a tune about paranoia, and “The Sound of the Crowd,” a satirical stab at conformity, are nearly as memorable as “Don’t You Want Me.”
But in the end, Dare is most remembered for its slick synthesizers, drum machines, dance rhythms and palatable pop.
“We wanted to have a Number One record — like the Beatles,” Oakey said. With “Don’t You Want Me,” the Human League achieved its goal.
Public Image Ltd., ‘Second Edition’
"I don't want to live in history books," John Lydon told Rolling Stone in 1979 by way of burying his old band, the Sex Pistols, and praising his new one, Public Image Ltd. "We're trying to write the next chapter." However iconoclastic they had been, the Pistols were "just" a rock & roll band; PiL was an anti-Rock & Roll band, and if the members of the group were on a search-and-destroy mission, they found their target on Second Edition.
Guitarist Keith Levene says the album — which was also known as Metal Box because its original U.K. packaging looked like a small film can — represents the peak of early PiL and dismisses the idea that the anarchistic band was all a joke. "It fucking wasn't like that, okay?" Levene says. "We were trying to do something serious."
The band wanted a unique album cover and toyed with ideas such as a sardine can that would require a key (not supplied) and even what Levene describes as a "sandpaper-type record, which would fuck up all your other records when you put it in your collection." Eventually, the album was released in the U.K. in a limited edition of 50,000 as three twelve-inch records (recorded at 45 rpm for maximum sonic impact) crammed into an embossed tin can and titled Metal Box. The tracks weren't listed on the album or the labels, which were at least color coded. Much to the band's displeasure, the album was released in the United States with a cardboard jacket, a different title (Second Edition) and relatively inferior sound.
With Jah Wobble's reggae-drenched bass way up front and Levene's dissonant guitar forays, the band pumps out droning, fragmented dance music — disco, Samuel Beckett style. Lydon's disembodied monotone vocals sound like they were phoned in long-distance.
Virtually all the songs on the album were improvised in the studio. Bassist Wobble would play until the other two heard something they liked, then structure a track around it, using a clutch of session drummers; Levene says the best work on the record began as mistakes that were then refined and repeated. "There was a great lack of fear, a childlike innocence in the way it was approached," says Wobble.
Many saw in Lydon's lyrics an attempt to bury the Sex Pistols myth (significantly, he had changed his name back from Johnny Rotten). On the opening track, "Albatross," he sings about "getting rid of the albatross," perhaps a reference to former Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. On "Memories," he wails, "This person's had enough of useless memories," and "Whatever's past/Could never last."
Second Edition also features three instrumentals, including the beautiful "Radio 4." But according to Levene, dropping vocals wasn't a conceptual statement. "Nobody was around," he says, "and I had to do something with the bloody studio time."
Cyndi Lauper, ‘She’s So Unusual’
She's So Unusual was an appropriate title for Cyndi Lauper's 1983 debut record: From her electric-orange hair and colorful flea-market wardrobe to her squeaky, giddy voice, Lauper hardly appeared an odds-on bet to become one of pop's premier vocalists.
Nor are many of the songs selected for She's So Unusual conventional. "She Bop," a seductive account of female masturbation, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," an uncut statement about sexual freedom, and "He's So Unusual," a short but sweet taste of a 1929 tune that recalls comedienne Gracie Allen, weren't the kinds of songs that typically add up to a hit album. But that's precisely what She's So Unusual became. The multiplatinum disc and its four Top Five singles made Lauper an instant star.
Before embarking on a solo career, Lauper sang with Blue Angel, a group she cofounded in 1978. The band's debut album, released in 1980, bombed, and Blue Angel broke up.
Lauper signed a record deal with Portrait, and with producer Rick Chertoff at the controls she began work on She's So Unusual. Chertoff brought in Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian of the then-unknown Philadelphia band the Hooters to play on the record. Together they opted for a synth-heavy sound that evoked the girl-group era of the early-Sixties and deftly played Lauper's vocals against thick arrangements.
Not yet an accomplished songwriter (although she co-wrote "She Bop" and the touching ballad "Time After Time"), Lauper looked outside for material. She interpreted the Brains' "Money Changes Everything," Prince's "When You Were Mine" and Robert Hazard's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" with wit and conviction.
That she was able to integrate her zaniness into She's So Unusual without sacrificing the underlying seriousness of the songs or her vocal delivery also meant something to Lauper's career. Few solo artists have been able to balance such a delicate dichotomy the first time around. Fewer still have made it seem so easy — and so much fun.
• Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review
• Prince Performs Killer Show With Help From Janelle Monáe, Cyndi Lauper
Prince, ‘Sign o’ the Times’
It began as Dream Factory, a two-record set with major contributions from Revolution members Wendy and Lisa, then metamorphosed into Crystal Ball, a three-record extravaganza whose lengthy title track was to be Prince's masterwork. But by the time of its release it had once again become a two-disc set, not titled Sign o' the Times.
Highlighted by the outstanding Curtis Mayfield-styled title track, one of Prince's strongest social statements, the album is his most diverse work, with material ranging from the steamy funk of "Hot Thing" and the jazzy balladry of "Slow Love" to more esoteric gems such as "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" and the fanciful "Starfish and Coffee." This was also the album that marked the return of Prince's more controversial side with the sexually provocative "If I Was Your Girlfriend."
Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince, Sign o' the Times found him back in complete control of every aspect of his music. He abandoned the neo-psychedelic qualities that had come to the fore on his previous albums, pursuing a tougher soul music, evident on the title track, "Housequake" and "U Got the Look." "He was hearing a different kind of music," says Alan Leeds, vice-president of Prince's Paisley Park Records.
At first, Dream Factory was to have been another band album like the preceding Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day and Parade, but along the way Prince disbanded the Revolution and put existing band tracks on the shelf. Instead, he holed up in the basement of his new house and began cutting solo tracks.
About half the album was recorded at home; the rest was recorded at Sunset Sound, in Los Angeles. Prince played or sang nearly everything, although there were some contributions from Sheila E., former Revolution members Wendy and Lisa and a few others. The three-record Crystal Ball concept was followed all the way through to the mastering stage and included a suitelike twelve-minute title track. But Prince and Warner Bros. decided a three-record set wasn't the best move, coming after Parade, which had not been one of Prince's better sellers.
What became the new title track was written toward the end of the recording sessions. "He had begun to see the effect of crack and drugs on young people," says Leeds. "He's not really a preacher, but it's certainly an antidrug song."
"U Got the Look," one of several hits, became a duet featuring Sheena Easton by accident. "Sheena just happened to be around," says Susan Rogers, who engineered the album. "He said, 'How'd you like to do this? Feel like singing?' It was very spontaneous."
"If I Was Your Girlfriend" features a very personal lyric, directed at Susannah Melvoin, who had been Prince's girlfriend. "Being Wendy's twin sister, she's very close to Wendy," says Rogers. "It was a way of asking, 'Why can't I have the closeness you have with your sister? Why can't we be friends too?'"
In retrospect, Sign o' the Times looks more and more like Prince's Exile on Main Street, one of the few two-disc sets by any artist that holds up through all four sides. "There was a refreshing feeling about making his own music unencumbered [by the band] again," says Leeds. "I think it showed an artist who had really grown."
Don Henley, ‘Building the Perfect Beast’
The Seventies were the favored habitat of the Eagles, whose tales of "livin' it up at the Hotel California" vaulted the West Coast rockers to superstardom. In the wake of their unannounced breakup around the turn of the decade, the individual members faced the Eighties with a much less certain hold on their audience. While his band mates — especially his erstwhile writing partner, Glenn Frey — have steered a safe, commercial course, Don Henley has written and recorded songs with a sociopolitical conscience, working at a painstaking pace. He has made only three solo albums in this decade.
Building the Perfect Beast is a meticulously crafted and programmed set of songs about love and politics. The first side is given to personal reflections on love and loss, such as the wistful, gorgeous "Boys of Summer." Side two is more issue oriented, tackling subjects from genetic engineering ("Building the Perfect Beast") to America's reckless foreign policy ("All She Wants to Do Is Dance"). The album's longest and most ambitious piece, "Sunset Grill," describes in disturbingly vivid images a character's sense of entrapment in an evil, convulsive metropolis: "You see a lot more meanness in the city/It's the kind that eats you up inside/Hard to come away with anything that feels like dignity."
Henley's collaborator is guitarist Danny Kortchmar, who has also accompanied James Taylor and Jackson Browne. Kortchmar wrote or co-wrote nine of the ten compositions on Building the Perfect Beast. The arrangements are more varied and generally edgier than the Eagles' easy-rolling songs — a development consistent with Henley's growing politicization.
"Maybe what I'm trying to do is find a purpose for being in the music business," he told Rolling Stone in 1985. "I'm trying to make people think a little bit and be aware of things. Maybe rock & roll is not the vehicle for this sort of thing — but I don't see why it can't be."
• Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Don Henley
Marshall Crenshaw, ‘Marshall Crenshaw’
"There was such a flurry of activity at that time that I don't actually have too many memories of making the first album," says Marshall Crenshaw of his acclaimed debut effort, which earned him a reputation as a new master of pop-rock songcraft. "All I can remember is my co-producer, Richard Gottehrer, eating a lot of pasta and me pumping Thom Panunzio, our engineer, for stories about his days working with John Lennon."
After all, only a few years before making his big splash, Crenshaw had been touring the United States as an ersatz John Lennon in various national companies of the successful pseudo-Fab Four musical Beatlemania. Tiring of that well-paying gig, Crenshaw decided to leave the show and work on his own music. By the summer of 1980, Crenshaw — who hails from the Detroit area — was playing his own tunes around New York City as part of a trio, with his brother Robert on drums and Chris Donato playing bass.
Crenshaw's homemade demo caught the attention of Alan Betrock of the tiny Shake Records, who put out a twelve-inch single of "Something Gonna Happen" backed with "She Can't Dance." Producer Richard Gottehrer, then much in demand because of his work with the Go-Go's, heard Crenshaw's demo and had rockabilly singer Robert Gordon cut a number of Crenshaw's songs. One of those covers, "Someday, Someway," became a minor hit (reaching Number Seventy-four on the pop charts) and helped create a buzz about Crenshaw.
Before long that buzz led to a record deal with Warner Bros. Initially, Crenshaw wanted to produce his own first record, but he later agreed to bring in Gottehrer as co-producer. When Gottehrer suggested session drummer Anton Fig and bassist Will Lee for the sessions, Crenshaw insisted on sticking with his own group. "I fought to have Robert and Chris on that record," he says, "because we'd forged a group identity and come to that point as a unit."
There were also disagreements over what material to put on the album. "I originally didn't want 'Someday, Someway' on the album," says Crenshaw, "because I felt Robert Gordon had taken a shot with it already, and I didn't want 'She Can't Dance' on there, since it had been on our Shake single. But I gave in."
Crenshaw and Gottehrer finished the record in five weeks at the Record Plant, in New York City — despite breakdowns by a steady stream of Vox amplifiers, a few of which caught fire. The final album is an alternately rousing and heartbreaking cycle of infectious pop rockers ("Cynical Girl," "Rockin' Around in N.Y.C.," "She Can't Dance") and ballads ("Mary Anne," "Not for Me") — none of them clocking in at more than 3:07.
Critics loved the album, and it sold well. Crenshaw's single of "Someday, Someway" briefly hit the Top Forty, peaking at Number Thirty-six.
"At the time, everyone focused on the Fifties-rock influence on my songs," says Crenshaw. "I was widely compared to Buddy Holly — which is a hell of a nice compliment. But to me the real influences on that record were bands like Rockpile and Squeeze. The first album is very much a product of its time. I wasn't trying to make my pop masterpiece, I was just trying to do a good day's work."
Crowded House, ‘Crowded House’
It sounds like it was fun to make. Crowded House's debut album is full of lighthearted, melodic, enormously catchy pop songs: "Mean to Me," "World Where You Live," "Now We're Getting Somewhere," "Something So Strong" and its biggest hit, "Don't Dream It's Over." From start to finish, Crowded House is shot through with the high spirits and sheer tunefulness of classic pop music.
But it turns out that the album wasn't so easy to make after all. "It's remarkable to me that it sounds like a really simple, easygoing album," says Crowded House leader Neil Finn, "because there was quite a large amount of angst involved in making that record."
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Finn, drummer Paul Hester and bassist Nick Seymour formed the band after the dissolution of the underappreciated New Zealand pop group Split Enz, of which Finn and Hester were members. They'd been together for about a year when they traveled to Los Angeles to make their debut album for Capitol Records in 1986 — but still, says Finn, "we weren't really a band at all. Having come from a band that had spent ten years together, it just felt like a collection of three people at that stage."
They shared a house in the Hollywood Hills — hence the band's name — and went to work with producer Mitchell Froom, at the time best known for his work with the Boston roots rockers the Del Fuegos.
"They hadn't really decided what they wanted the record to sound like," says Froom. "Even the broadest terms — like, should there be a lot of synthesizers, or should it be more of a natural thing? — weren't sorted out. We just tried different things as we went along, and it seemed to take on a character of its own as it went along."
"It was bloody hard work," says Finn, "partly because it was all so new to me — new producer, new band, new record company, new town, new everything — that I was really cautious every step of the way. I was wary of what Mitchell was suggesting and second-guessing him, and he wasn't completely confident with us, either."
A handful of session musicians, including guitarists. Tim Pierce and Joe Satriani (the latter on backing vocals only), were brought in, and on "Now We're Getting Somewhere" the experienced rhythm section of bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Jim Keltner was used.
"At the time that was quite a threatening thing," says Finn. "Paul and Nick felt quite sheepish about the whole thing. The next day we recorded 'Don't Dream It's Over,' and it had a particularly sad groove to it — I think because Paul and Nick had faced their own mortality."
The results hardly sounded forced, though the album seemed to be a flop until persistent word of mouth and some never-say-die promotion turned it into a hit eight months after its release. "It could easily have not been successful," says Finn. Indeed, the group's follow-up album, Temple of Low Men, failed to garner significant sales despite strong reviews. "The difference between an album becoming successful and people thinking it's remarkable," says Finn, "and being obscure and completely forgotten about is really slight."
Traveling Wilburys, ‘Traveling Wilburys Volume 1’
"This is the best record of its kind ever made," wrote David Wild in Rolling Stone's review of the Traveling Wilburys' Volume One. "Then again," he added, "it's also the only record of its kind ever made."
The Traveling Wilburys' album was one of those happy accidents that was almost waiting to happen. Starting with a throwaway song quickly recorded by George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne for the B side of a Harrison single, the project soon took on a life of its own. After completing the track and deciding it was too good to waste on a flip side, the veteran rockers cooked up a full-length album that not only included some of each member's strongest material in years but also became one of the decade's genuinely unique musical achievements.
From the catchy folk-pop hooks of the first number, "Handle With Care," to the breezy country-rock finale, "End of the Line," the album's chiefly acoustic tunes all have the sound of instant classics. But the real kicker was the presentation. Rather than releasing the album under their own names, the five musicians hid behind a thin cloak of anonymity, attributing their work to a mythical supergroup and adopting hick personae as part of an elaborate charade that included a bogus biography and a custom record label.
The tongue-in-cheek concept was a humorous way of placing the emphasis on the music instead of the big names. Besides offering a witty commentary that mocked the symbols of superstardom, the Wilbury sobriquet served as a sly, preemptive strike against those who might spoil the party and canonize the fun-fest as a Serious Rock Summit.
The five half-brothers of the Wilbury family were hokey but hip, and their individual strengths complemented one another perfectly. There was Orbison (Lefty Wilbury), whose haunting, dynamic vocals are enshrined on the operatic "Not Alone Any More," and who reclaimed his former glory only to pass away shortly after the album became a huge hit. Harrison (Nelson Wilbury) spearheaded the project following his fine solo album, Cloud Nine, proving that his comeback was no mere fluke. Dylan (Lucky Wilbury) emerged from a rut of several mediocre albums with his sneering "Congratulations," the jaunty "Dirty World" and a seeming lampoon of Bruce Springsteen, "Tweeter and the Monkey Man." Meanwhile, Petty (Charlie T. Jr.) acted out the role of eager kid brother, with his fine work on "End of the Line" and the woolly pickup tale "Last Night," presaging his top-selling solo album the following year. Rounding out the quintet was Lynne (Otis Wilbury), the former Electric Light Orchestra leader who handled most of the production chores and also sang the throbbing rockabilly bopper "Rattled."
Describing a typical day in the life of the Wilburys, Lynne remembers how the five musicians usually gathered at Dave Stewart's home studio in Los Angeles and banged out ideas until a complete song resulted from the jamming. "We would arrive about twelve or one o'clock and have some coffee," says Lynne. "Somebody would say, 'What about this?' and start on a riff. Then we'd all join in, and it'd turn into something. We'd finish around midnight and just sit for a bit while Roy would tell us fabulous stories about Sun Records or hanging out with Elvis. Then we'd come back the next day to work on another one. That's why the songs are so good and fresh — because they haven't been second-guessed and dissected and replaced. It's so tempting to add stuff to a song when you've got unlimited time."
While the Wilburys were intended as a lark, songs like "Heading for the Light," "Not Alone Any More" and "Handle With Care" offer idealistic, romantic messages from a fraternity of rock graybeards. "Well, it's alright, riding around in the breeze/Well, it's alright, if you live the life you please," says the opening lyric to "End of the Line." It is a comforting notion indeed, as the uptight, conformist Eighties draw to a close.
LL Cool J, ‘Radio’
LL Cool J (Born James Todd Smith) was seventeen years old when he recorded this early rap masterpiece. Rhymes such as "They hear me, they fear me/My funky poetry/I'm improving the conditions of the rap industry" proved prophetic — Radio went platinum, ushering in rap's blockbuster era and heralding the arrival of a superb rapper.
The liner notes say, "Reduced by Rick Rubin," and simplicity was the key to Radio. "We were going to bring it down, break it down, reduce it to its most minimal form — like real low," says LL
But its minimalism wasn't what made Radio a rap landmark. Before 1984, most rappers had simply recited continuous rhymes over four minutes of groove. Rubin arranged raps like pop songs, with verses, choruses and bridges. So that LL's rhymes could fit into this new format, Rubin says, "I would say, 'You've got twelve lines, and you've got to do it in eight.' And LL would rewrite it so it worked in eight. It was just making rap more like songs."
LL Cool J stands for "Ladies Love Cool James"; he became one of rap's first heartthrobs, partly because of his dimpled good looks and macho swagger, but also because Radio includes two of the earliest rap ballads, the cuddly "I Want You" and "I Can Give You More."
One of Radio's most powerful tracks is "Rock the Bells." Oddly enough, the track has no bells on it. LL was set to record the track using a cowbell break from a song called "Mardi Gras," until Run-D.M.C. used the identical best on its "Peter Piper." As LL puts it, "I got housed." Rubin suggested using a percussion break from the go-go great Trouble Funk instead, and LL turned in a ferocious performance; the moment when he yells, "Rock the bells!" and the go-go beat kicks in is one of the most dramatic in rap.
The album's opener, "I Can't Live Without My Radio," became a B-boy anthem. Now that LL has reached the advanced age of twenty-two, he says he is still unable to live without his radio. "But now it's in my car — know what I mean?"
• Rolling Stone's Original 1986 Review
• Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Radio' by LL Cool J
The Specials, ‘The Specials’
The Specials found a happy medium between the aggression of punk and the more danceable, upbeat rhythms of ska. Sporting porkpie hats and two-tone suits, the racially mixed seven-member band from Coventry, in Britain, spearheaded a ska renaissance. The Specials' debut album, produced by Elvis Costello, also launched the briefly successful 2-Tone Record label.
The Specials opens with a cover of Robert "Dandy" Thompson's ska anthem "A Message to You Rudy," then dives into more manic numbers, like a gritty version of Rufus Thomas's "Do the Dog" and the band's own "Concrete Jungle."
In his first outing as a producer, Costello captured the spirit of the Specials' frenetic live shows by re-creating a club environment in the studio. "It was a terrific atmosphere," says vocalist Neville Staples of the sessions at London's PW studios. "We just went in and played our show. It was all live in the studio."
In fact, for the song "Nite Club," the band even brought in an audience. "We had roadies, Chrissie Hynde and a few other friends," says Staples. "It was a laugh, because we had a little drink to get the pub atmosphere going."
"We wanted it to be like the first Clash album," said bassist Horace Panter shortly after the album's U.S. release in 1980. "Not necessarily produced, just recorded. Costello was more of an observer, if you like. Suggesting things that we were too involved in to see ourselves."
In addition to its punk-meets-reggae sensibility, The Specials is charged with antiracist sentiment: "Just because you're a black boy/Just because you're a white/It doesn't mean you've got to hate him/Doesn't mean you got to fight," sings Terry Hall in the calypso-flavored "Doesn't Make It All Right."
"We were working as a black and white unit," says Staples. "At the time there was a lot of racism happening. So we just thought, 'Well, we went to school with black and white guys. Instead of fighting and calling people names, let's work together.' So we combined black music with punk. We just mixed the two cultures."
Randy Newman, ‘Trouble in Paradise’
"Nothing," says Randy Newman when asked what he had been thinking about when he began work on his eighth album, Trouble in Paradise. "I had no cohesive plan in mind."
A cynical tour de force, Trouble in Paradise sets several of Newman's nastiest portraits of prejudice, greed, ego and small-mindedness against some of the most striking music of his career. "It came to be about places and situations that could be ideal," says Newman, "but are somehow messed up."
Newman is clearly one of pop music's preeminent songwriters. But with Trouble in Paradise, he also mastered the art of great record making. Today it stands as one of the best albums of his career, a fully realized collection of story-songs in which Newman's dark take on the world is fully fleshed out.
Although the best-known song is Newman's love-hate letter to his hometown, "I Love L.A." ("Look at that mountain/Look at those trees/Look at that bum over there, man/He's down on his knees"), Trouble in Paradise is full of clever material. "Christmas in Cape Town," with its disturbingly spooky music, is a poignant tale of racism and mean-spiritedness. In "Mikey's," two old-timers complain about what the world is coming to, distressed by the minorities now frequenting their favorite bar. "There's a Party at My House" sounds like a good-time rocker, until the punch line ("Hey Bobby, get the rope"), which hints at kinky escapades.
The centerpiece of the record is "My Life Is Good," which details the self-importance of a Hollywood wheeler-dealer. Asked about the similarities between the song's protagonist and himself, Newman laughs and says, "If I were that big a jerk, I wouldn't admit to it."
The arrangements throughout the album have a cinematic quality (Newman worked on movie scores to The Natural and Ragtime). "His songs are quite visual," says Lenny Waronker, who coproduced the album with Russ Titelman. "His songs are like little movies. It's like scoring eleven films."
The album includes some impressive cameos: Don Henley, Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, Rickie Lee Jones, Bob Seger, Wendy Waldman, Linda Ronstadt, Jennifer Warnes and Paul Simon all contribute. "His peers have such a high regard for him," says Waronker. "They wanted to be a part of it and help get Randy's stuff out to a lot of people."
How does Newman feel now about Trouble in Paradise? "It's a pretty good batch of songs," he says. "There are things about it I love. Like the first half of 'Miami.' I like the two ballads, 'Real Emotional Girl' and 'Same Girl.' And 'My Life Is Good' — although if I had to do it again, I might not do it the same way. It might be funnier just with piano."
The Neville Brothers, ‘Fiyo on the Bayou’
Keith Richards thought the Neville Brothers' Fiyo on the Bayou was the best album of 1981. Most music fans never had a chance to form an opinion. "I knew it wasn't going to get played on the radio," says Cyril Neville. "So I didn't build up any false hopes. We just made the best record we could."
With Fiyo on the Bayou, the Neville Brothers — singer Aaron, keyboardist and singer Art, saxophonist Charles and percussionist Cyril — set out to capture their undisciplined sound, descended from New Orleans Mardi Gras music, while commercializing it enough to reach a broad audience.
The tracks on Fiyo on the Bayou can be divided into two distinct categories: dance-floor burners (like "Hey Pocky Way" and "Sweet Honey Dripper") and showcase ballads for the band's primo canary, Aaron (like "Mona Lisa" and "The Ten Commandments of Love").
"The first time I saw the Nevilles was at the Bottom Line, in New York," says producer Joel Dom. "They completely blew me out of the water."
Dorn pitched a Nevilles deal to A&M, which initially didn't share the producer's enthusiasm. "A&M thought the Nevilles were too ethnic and too regional," he says. Concurrently, singer Bette Midler — whom Dorn had produced and who is also a Nevilles fan — lobbied A&M on behalf of the band. The label eventually gave Dorn the green light.
A self-admitted "sucker" for Aaron's angelic voice, Dorn painstakingly surrounded it with lush orchestration. "When we cut 'Mona Lisa,' we used the New York Philharmonic," says Dorn, "and Aaron sang live in the booth. We turned out all the lights except for one spot that was focused on a Nat 'King' Cole album. He sang the whole song to that album."
Of course, everyone involved was convinced he had a hit on his hands. "It was one of the few times that I've made a record and was 100 percent satisfied when we finished," says Dorn. "I felt Fiyo on the Bayou was the culmination of my career." But the title of the album proved confusing. Both Cyril and keyboardist Art Neville had been members of the seminal New Orleans band the Meters, which had released a 1975 album entitled Fire on the Bayou! Inclusion of a new version of the Meters' signature tune "Hey Pocky Way" on Fiyo further muddied the bayou. "We wanted those songs to be heard by more people," says Aaron.
Most radio stations were just as puzzled by the Nevilles' style, which didn't fit easily into any programming format. "We just couldn't get any airplay," says Dorn. "It was the kind of record where I wished I could have gone door-to-door and said, 'Here — listen to this record!'"
10,000 Maniacs, ‘In My Tribe’
In My Tribe — a feast of acoustic rockers centered around singer Natalie Merchant's alluring vocals and a jangly guitar sound — vaulted 10,000 Maniacs from underground status into the Top Forty. And not a moment too soon, either: The third album from the upstate-New York cult band was literally a make-or-break affair.
"There was a lot of pressure on us," says keyboardist and band cofounder Dennis Drew. "If Tribe hadn't been successful, there never would have been another album."
In My Tribe is more than a successful record — it is a poetic, heartfelt message about social concerns such as alcoholism, child abuse and illiteracy.
The Maniacs didn't always have such a passionate sense of purpose. Drew and Steven Gustafson, both college-radio DJs, formed a band called Still Life, which started out covering Joy Division and Gang of Four songs. Merchant joined after wandering into the radio station armed with a pile of LPs she wanted heard on the air. Also recruited were guitarist Rob Buck and John Lombardo, a seasoned composer-guitarist who served as the group's major creative force. Drummer Jerome Augustyniak came on board in 1982, and the group — after changing its name — released an independent EP and album before moving to Elektra Records.
The Maniacs' major-label debut, The Wishing Chair, won fine reviews but met with indifference outside alternative-music circles. Lombardo quit under stormy circumstances, and the anxiety proved to be contagious. After rejecting demos for the band's next album, Elektra insisted the group work with producer Peter Asher, best known for his work with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor.
The shotgun marriage worked out in the end, but it was a shaky trip to the altar. The band felt uncomfortable recording in Los Angeles, Asher's home turf. The Maniacs were also unhappy with many of Asher's additions to their sound, including computerized drums. Asher insists he was merely "cajoling" the band into doing its best work.
Elektra suggested doing a familiar song as the lead single, resulting in a cover of Cat Stevens's "Peace Train." The gambit failed to break the group, and the song was later removed from the album after Stevens — a converted Muslim — called for the death of Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie. The Maniacs ultimately scored with their sadly lilting second single, "Like the Weather." It took two years for In My Tribe to go platinum, but even the band agrees it was better late than never.
"The album gave us a great chance to really coalesce as a band," says Drew. "At that point we had to save our career and make a good record. We fucking buckled up, tightened our belt and did it."
Living Colour, ‘Vivid’
Screaming electric guitar punctuates the raucous melodies and street-smart lyrics on Vivid, an album that not only marked the auspicious debut of the hard-rocking band Living Colour but was also credited with breaking down racial barriers in pop music. The band proved to be the first black rock group to attract a large mainstream audience since Sly and the Family Stone in the early Seventies, and the album's ascent was accompanied by as much hubbub over the band's ethnic makeup as its compelling style.
"It wasn't like the idea of Vivid or Living Colour was generated by some sort of desire to make it in the white world of rock music," says lead guitarist and group founder Vernon Reid. "There was a lot of talk about it. But it's not odd that black people play rock & roll — what's really odd is that people think it's odd. It's a shame more people didn't focus on the music itself, because that's what we wanted."
The music itself is an intoxicating brew of hard, grinding rock with splashes of funk, jazz, reggae, rap, punk and even country rhythms. Darting from the hip-hop twang of "Broken Hearts" to the philosophical metal assault of "Middle Man," the band refuses to stay stuck in any single groove. Vivid's opening track, "Cult of Personality," is the real kicker, a bursting riff-rock anthem on the harmful effects of idolatry and blind faith that ironically helped catapult Living Colour to the status of pop icon.
The group's seeming overnight success was actually years in the making. Born in England and raised in Brooklyn, Reid earned his musical chops during the early Eighties playing guitar in electric jazz outfits like Defunkt and Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society. He formed Living Colour as a trio in 1984, going through various configurations for two years before hooking up with singer Corey Glover, drummer William Calhoun and bassist Muzz Skillings. Then came the real stroke of luck: Reid was called in to play on Mick Jagger's solo album, Primitive Cool, and the Stone dropped by the New York punk club CBGB to catch Living Colour's show.
Jagger got so worked up over the set that he took a week off from mixing his own album to produce two demos — "Glamour Boys" and "Which Way to America?" — for the fledgling group. After the Jagger tapes made the rounds and snagged Living Colour a record deal, the band called in Primitive Cool coproducer Ed Stasium to oversee the rest of the album. Jagger, whose demos appear in their original form on Vivid, came back later to blow harmonica on "Broken Hearts," while other studio guests included Public Enemy's Chuck D. and Flavor Flav, delivering a social-commentary rap on "Funny Vibe."
Reid points to "Memories" and other tracks on the album as evidence that the songs are meant to portray the personal feelings of band members rather than pursue any specific social agenda. "The fact that we're African Americans has a lot to do with what's on the record and what we see in our lives," Reid says, "but all our problems aren't generated by the fact that we're black."
Social issues provided the basis for several numbers, such as the scathing attack on gentrification, "Open Letter (to a Landlord)." But there are also touching love songs ("I Want to Know"), a Talking Heads cover ("Memories Can't Wait") and an offbeat, funky theme song ("What's Your Favorite Color?"). According to Reid, the Heads cover was one of the band's particular favorites and had been in its live repertoire for some time. "The duality of the interior life someone's leading and their exterior life spoke really powerfully to us," says Reid.
"People say we're obviously a message band," Reid adds. "But we're just trying to chronicle a certain thing that was happening with us. That thing about messages — well, really, the record was about the way we feel."
• Living Colour Headline Black Rock Coalition Tribute in NYC
Gang of Four, ‘Entertainment’
"They offer cut-up situational accounts of the paradoxes of leisure as oppression, identity as product, home as factory, resident as tourist, sex as politics, history as ruling-class private joke," wrote Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone of the Gang of Four in 1980. But as the band's drummer, Hugo Burnham, says, "We were also a great fucking rock & roll band."
The band's propulsive funk riffs ran headlong into jarring stops and starts; singer Jon King's harangues battled against Andy Gill's noisy guitar lines; bassist Dave Allen's heavy bottom laid down the law as Burnham pounded out tricky tattoos. The relentless, churning thrust of tracks like "Damaged Goods" and "I Found That Essence Rare" built up unbearable tension, then released it in transcendent explosions.
Heeding funkmeister George Clinton's slogan "Free your ass and your mind will follow," Gang of Four was intent on shattering both musical and lyric conventions — that their driving, dissonant music prove danceable was not only necessary, it was also inevitable. "We were trying to invent a new kind of music, a new kind of language," Gill says of Entertainment! "We were using the building blocks of 'rock music,' 'funk music' and 'pop music,' dismantling them to see what was there and using what we felt like using."
And Gang of Four's revolutionary pop rhetoric not only infiltrated the dance floor — it also invaded the corporate world, as the band was one of the few early postpunk outfits to sign to a major label. It was a situation some found hypocritical, but as Burnham says, "If you've got something to say, and you want people to hear it, what's the best thing to do? Make as many people hear it as possible."
The radical musical approach is epitomized by the way Gill's atonal, arrhythmic guitar ricochets all over "At Home He's a Tourist" or by his post-Hendrix feedback on "Anthrax." In his lyrics, King may work in anything, including Godard films, news items, terminology from video games and TV advertising slogans, to make his points about the effect of Western culture on interpersonal relationships.
The title of the album neatly reflects its own paradox — that of commenting on entertainment and being it. The title comes from the song "5:45," in which a man watching the evening news comes to the realization that "guerrilla war struggle is a new entertainment!" It isn't all straight sociopolitics; songs like "Damaged Goods" and "Contract" are about romance, demystified and reduced to a transaction — "a contract in our mutual interest." "Anthrax" contains two separate sets of lyrics sung simultaneously: one a song comparing love to a cattle disease, the other a brief essay about why pop music is so fixated on love.
Recording took place in four weeks, from April to May 1979. The mood at the studio was hardly convivial — Gill and King helped produce the record, and there was as much jockeying over production credits as good seats at the mixing console. "It was really vicious, it was hell," Burnham says with a chuckle. "But we got a fucking brilliant record out of it."
One can spot a clear Gang of Four influence in R.E.M., INXS and U2, as well as countless other bands. Unfortunately, Gang of Four never quite matched Entertainment! again and underwent a gradual and messy breakup, leaving behind this postpunk masterpiece as its legacy.
• Rolling Stone's Original 1980 Review
• Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Entertainment' by Gang of Four
Def Leppard, ‘Pyromania’
The album took a year to record and had to sell 1 million copies just to break even. But Def Leppard's 1983 chart torcher Pyromania was worth the time and expense: It sold more than 9 million copies and, with its radio-ready blend of melodic savvy and stadium wallop, defined the mainstream metal sound of the Eighties, for better and worse. For worse because Pyromania unleashed a plague of cheap imitators (Poison, Winger and White Lion). For better because the Leppards and their producer, hard-rock auteur Robert John "Mutt" Lange, set precedents for commercially astute songwriting and sheer studio ambition (the massive yet airy vocal harmonies, philharmonic layers of guitar) without compromising the basic thump.
"We gave Mutt songwriting credits because this time he actually helped us structure the songs," singer Joe Elliott said in 1985. "They weren't written songs that he changed. He sat down with us as a sixth member of the band and participated in the whole thing."
Lange and the Leppards worked for months on riffs and choruses, trying different combinations and then sewing them up when they made melodic and commercial sense. But the writing wasn't all so academic. "Photograph" was a song with a good chorus, a hot bridge but a flabby verse riff until guitarist Steve Clark started noodling around on his guitar one night while the rest of the band was watching World Cup soccer.
"The announcer suddenly got quiet," Elliott said, "and we heard this guitar blasting from the room next door. It sounded great, so we got up and ran over to see what was going on. Steve sat there beaming, saying, 'I fixed it.' And that was it. 'Photograph' was born."
Pyromania was a hard-rock temple built brick by brick. To get a sound that combined metal muscle with studio precision, Lange recorded each member of the band individually, starting with bassist Rick Savage. A single guitar riff overdubbed with clean harmonies, funky distortion and screaming feedback might take up to three weeks to record, often one string at a time. When the band members later went to do background vocals, they discovered all of the guitars were slightly out of tune. It was too late to re-record them, so the guitars were put through an electronic harmonizer to cover up the bum notes.
Lange's obsessiveness with the smallest sonic details had a big downside: It was hard to tell, from day to day, whether any progress at all was being made on the record. After an all-night session, Lange would often play work tapes for Leppard comanager Peter Mensch, who lived a short drive from Battery Studios. "Mutt would come in and say, 'Listen to what we did tonight' — and three more words would be added to a vocal," says Mensch. "It got to a point where I'd keep listening to these tapes and I couldn't tell what was there and what was missing."
There were personal complications, too. Founding rhythm guitarist Pete Willis was fired midway through the sessions because of a debilitating alcohol problem; within forty-eight hours, his replacement, Phil Collen of the London glam-rock band Girl, had cut the solo for "Stagefright."
That was nothing compared to the calamity of recording the next LP, Hysteria. That album took three years to record; drummer Rick Allen also lost his left arm in an auto accident. Fortunately, it takes more than a little trauma to keep a good Leppard down, as Pyromania so ably proved. "There was always that feeling there, that we have to do it right," Rick Savage said a couple of years ago. "Or we don't do it at all."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, ‘Doc at the Radar Station’
Captain Beefheart once said of his music, "I'm just throwing up — in tie-dye." If so, then Doc at the Radar Station, released in 1980, is one of the most colorful, and pivotal, records in his singular catalog. Poised on the cusp of a new decade, Beefheart (a.k.a. Don Van Vliet) poured out his innards in technicolor for Doc at the Radar Station, serving up his most colorful and caustic verse in years on a sprawling, distinctively Beefheartian platter of corrosive avant-rock, jungle-blues squawk, alien-guitar romanticism and willful, yet often playful, atonality. He added a Mellotron to his aural palette as well, attacking it on "Sue Egypt" and "Ashtray Heart" with the vigor of the Phantom of the Opera. His singing, too, was more animated — going from stratospheric screech to subterranean Howlin' Wolf in a heartbeat — and laced with an unmistakable menace.
In short, Doc at the Radar Station is the true emotional and musical heir to Beefheart's epic 1969 masterpiece Trout Mask Replica, capturing his remarkable art with power and unprecedented cohesion. Beefheart recognized his own achievement at the time; one Doc rocker is proudly titled "Best Batch Yet." And guitarist Moris Tepper, who joined Beefheart's Magic Band in 1975, still believes that the album was the peak of his tenure. "We were able to pull the goo out a lot more clearly than we had earlier," says Tepper. "There was a density that was not on earlier records."
As always, Beefheart dictated the content of his twelve songs for Doc at the Radar Station to the Magic Band in obsessive detail, presenting tapes of himself playing the piano, or sometimes just whistling a phrase, and telling the band to interpret it, exactly. For "Sue Egypt," Tepper says, there were sections on Beefheart's demo "where he was literally screaming bloody murder into a tape recorder. And then going, 'Here, play this.'"
Guitarist-drummer John "Drumbo" French, who had played on Trout Mask Replica and was already familiar with Beefheart's idiosyncrasies, recalls the rather odd way the band did backing vocals on "Run Paint Run Run." "We didn't have a copy of the lyrics," says French. "We were supposed to be singing these parts, and we didn't know where the heck we were supposed to be singing or what the words were. I think the reason he did that was to get that anger, that kind of screaming out of us. He wanted us to sound really desperate. And it came out real well."
Beefheart's own desperation is evident on the record. "Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey on My Knee" is a violent lyric climax: "Gnats fucked my ears 'n nostrils/Hit my brain like hones'n numbed t' nothing… Oh fuck that thing… Fuck that poem!" Yet the album also has moments of remarkable tranquillity, such as Gary Lucas's solo guitar performance on "Flavor Bud Living."
Doc at the Radar Station was, in a sense, Beefheart's last hurrah. After Ice Cream for Crow, in 1982, a weary and frustrated Beefheart retired from music to concentrate on painting (he did the cover art for Doc at the Radar Station). But when contacted recently at his northern-California retreat, Beefheart said that he still listens to Doc a lot, often while painting. "I'm the music I'm making when I'm painting," he declared. "I'm still doing the same damn thing. The paintbrush is my pen now."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1980 Review
• The Odyssey of Captain Beefheart: Rolling Stone's 1970 Cover Story
Lou Reed, ‘The Blue Mask’
Lou Reed's 1982 album The Blue Mask was "the end of something," as Reed put it in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview, "the absolute end of everything from the Velvet Underground on. The Blue Mask was the final ending and Legendary Hearts [the 1983 follow-up] like a coda."
The Blue Mask certainly marked a crossroads in Reed's life and art. In stark contrast to his well-publicized personal and musical indulgences of the Seventies, Reed was now married and enjoying the new-found domestic calm documented in "My House" and "Heavenly Arms," the ballads that bookend the album. At the same time, he had formed a lean, mean quartet combining his own psycho-twang with that of the celebrated New York guitarist Robert Quine and the fluid R&B bass of Fernando Saunders.
The result is a poetically compelling, musically brutish summation of Reed's rites of rock & roll passage. The Blue Mask harks back to the twin-guitar violence of the Velvets and Reed's earliest literary conceits ("My House" is dedicated to his mentor at Syracuse University, the poet Delmore Schwartz). At the same time, the album casts a hopeful eye toward the future while effectively closing the book on Reed's extended narrative odyssey through the dark side of human experience — violence ("The Gun"), alcoholism ("Underneath the Bottle") and spiritual isolation (the howling "Waves of Fear"). Reed, who had already written definitive songs about drug addiction and sexual perversion, managed to top himself with the title track, which was packed with graphic images of sexual torture, Oedipal desire and, finally, castration. "I can't even listen to that song," the usually fearless Reed admitted in 1986.
Initially, Reed gave each member of the band a bare-bones demo of the songs for The Blue Mask, with Reed singing and strumming an electric guitar. There were no rehearsals as such before the band went into the studio in October 1981. According to Robert Quine, "We'd just go in every day and do at least one, maybe two songs. We'd start to play and the arrangement would take shape."
To preserve the spontaneity and bare-knuckles sound of the band, each track was recorded live (Reed redid his vocals later) and usually nailed down in two or three takes. "The Blue Mask" itself didn't even take that long. "We did one half-finished take on that one," says Quine, "did another one and that was it. That's a great moment when [Reed] takes that guitar solo at the end. It's every bit as brutal and energized as his stuff with the Velvet Underground."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1982 Review
• The 25 Boldest Career Moves in Rock History
• Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Lou Reed
George Clinton, ‘Computer Games’
"I was having fun on that album," George Clinton says of Computer Games, which contains blueprints for all the tangents funk and rhythm & blues would take in the Eighties. With a cosmic giggle, Clinton co-opted the new technology — sequencers, samples, remixing, looping and scratching. In addition to reestablishing Clinton early in the new decade, Computer Games netted him a comeback hit in "Atomic Dog," a funky ode to man's best friend filled with canine woofing and all sorts of rhythmic trickery that has since been sampled on numerous rap and hip-hop records.
Throughout his four decades in music, Clinton's sales figures have never been a true measure of his influence. In the Seventies he forged a white-rock-black-funk synthesis with the bands Parliament and Funkadelic, much as Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix had done in the Sixties. Parliament featured horns and was closer to soul, while Funkadelic emphasized guitars and was closer to rock. There were many offshoot projects as well, with Clinton juggling roles as master conceptualist.
In 1981, however, an overworked Clinton put P-Funk on hold and took time off to straighten out personal and legal business. Almost two years later, Computer Games announced his return. Clinton worked especially hard on the album to prove that "I still had my brain together," he says. "The minute you get real drunk or wrecked, the first thing you think is 'Oh, Lord, if you let me out of this one, I won't do it no more.' Mine is, I have to be able to cut a record; that's the only thing that will let me know I didn't fuck up. I just had to find that out for myself, and I think I was all right,"
In truth, Clinton was often brilliant, giving an Eighties face lift to funk on "Atomic Dog" and looping up a storm on the wild collage of old and new soul songs titled "Loopzilla." "Atomic Dog," which neither Clinton nor the record company viewed as commercial, was a sizable hit. In fact, says Clinton, "'Atomic Dog' wouldn't get out of the way for any other single off that album." Six years later it remains so popular that Clinton cut another "dog" song — "Why Should I Dog U Out?" — for his latest album, The Cinderella Theory. "I figured, 'Let's give 'em some more dog; let's start right off doggin' 'em again,' "Clinton says, laughing. "I thought they had enough of 'Atomic Dog,' but they didn't, so here's some more. With fleas and ticks."
Various Artists, ‘The Indestructible Beat of Soweto’
The next logical step after you've gone to Paul Simon's Graceland, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto is a classic. Out of the bleak and dusty streets of Soweto, South Africa's largest black township, springs music that's joyous and proud — and you can dance to it.
Trevor Herman, an expatriate white South African ("I left for the obvious reasons"), compiled these twelve tracks, which were recorded in the early Eighties, when a resurgence in township music, known as mbaqanga, and consciousness about apartheid propelled the music out of South Africa and won it international acclaim.
Mbaqanga takes its name from a doughy cake sold on township streets — it's very workaday music that deals with everything from drunken husbands to gossips to hard-working miners. "In most parts of Africa," Herman says, "music is more than entertainment — it's part of life. Everything is celebrated in song, in the rhythm of living."
An alloy of several tribal styles as well as jazz and reggae, mbaqanga shares a number of similarities with the blues, and not just because it is a music born of oppression. Like modern blues, mbaqanga came about when workers flooded into major cities, bringing their local music with them. And like the blues, mbaqanga got electrified when it came to the city.
One strand of mbaqanga music comes from hymns learned from missionaries, very evident in Ladysmith Black Mambazo's stirring "Nansi Imali" ("Here Is the Money"). There's a lot of reggae in the two tracks by the legendary Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, and a country & western sound pervades "Sobabamba," by Udoketela Shange Namajaha.
In the early Sixties, several township styles — jazz, penny-whistle music and marabi (honky-tonk music) — coalesced into a dance musïc that became known as township jive. With a steady beat adorned by droning acoustic guitars, tinkling electrics and rich vocal harmonies that are joyous, gritty and real, mbaqanga became party music played in shebeens (illegal bars ignored by the government), at workers' parties, on the street and in the recording studio, where groups often united for one-shot recordings. Herman theorizes that the strong beat came from American groups such as the Supremes. "Also, a lot of players were listening to the Beatles," he says. "Not so much the music but the instrumentation."
Since many mbaqanga bands are ethnically mixed, their music brings together different black ethnic groups; if South Africa's black majority hasn't prevailed because it is a house divided, it's not the fault of mbaqanga.
In the final analysis, it's inspirational music. "Maybe they're living in hell," Herman says of the mbaqanga players, "but when they get down to the music, it's something from themselves, something from the heart, something that gives them strength."
Pete Townshend, ‘Empty Glass’
On Empty Glass, his second solo album, Pete Townshend chronicled the personal tumult he was experiencing and initiated an adult style of songwriting that helped reenergize the singer-songwriter tradition in the Eighties.
Eight of the ten songs were written following Who drummer Keith Moon's death late in 1978. In December of 1979, during the band's American tour, eleven fans died in a preconcert crush outside Riverfront Coliseum, in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, the members of the Who were repeatedly dismissed as worn-out ancients by Britain's scornful punks.
Amid the turmoil, Townshend resolved to make a solo album. "In a way, I've got the punk explosion to thank for making that decision," he said at the time. "It freed me. It allowed me to be myself. It dignified me, in a way, to be cast to one side. I felt uneasy with the way the Who were inevitably on the road to mega-stardom. . . . [It] was the most important thing I've ever done for me — to allow me to have a new beginning, to actually grow."
On Empty Glass, Townshend's ambivalent obsession with punk dominates both the lyrics and the music. Produced by Chris Thomas, who'd recently worked with the Pretenders and the Sex Pistols, the album was raw, muscular and focused in a way the Who never would be again.
Although he'd begun a spiral of booze and drugs that would lead to a bout with alcoholism and a temporary split with his wife, Karen, Townshend pledged in "A Little Is Enough" to make the best of their fitful marriage. "I was able to very easily put into words something that had actually happened to me when I was a thirty-four-year-old," he said. "It's very emotional, but it's also very straightforward and clear."
Of course, a literal reading of a songwriter as complex as Townshend can be deceptive, as in "Rough Boys" and "And I Moved" (written for Bette Midler), taken by some as confessions of homosexual lust. Townshend said, "A lot of gays and a lot of bisexuals wrote to me congratulating me on this so-called coming out. I think in both cases the images are very angry, aren't they? In 'Rough Boys,' the line 'Come over here, I want to bite and kiss you' is about 'I can scare you! I can frighten you! I can hurt all you macho individuals simply by coming up and pretending to be gay!' And that's what I really meant in that song, I think."
He dismissed "Let My Love Open the Door" as "just a ditty," but it charted as high as any Who single ever had, reaching Number Nine. "If I disagree with the fact that [Empty Glass] is the best work I've done in a long time, I would be fooling you," Townshend said in 1982. Later, he admitted that the Who seemed much less viable as a result: "I think the only thing that really went wrong was that I realized, as soon as Empty Glass was finished, 'Hey, this is it. I'm not able to achieve with the band what I've achieved here.'"
• Rolling Stone's Original 1980 Review
• Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Pete Townshend
Joy Division, ‘Closer’
"It's a heavy album," says Bernard Sumner, who played guitar and keyboards with Joy Division and still can't listen to Closer. "It was a voyage into the dark side of yourself."
"Decades," the masterpiece that closes the record, seems to tell of that voyage: "We knocked on the doors of hell's darker chambers/Pushed to the limit, we let ourselves in/Watched from the wings as the scenes were replaying/We saw ourselves now as we never have seen."
The eerie soundscapes and fatalistic lyrics on Closer (re-released on Qwest/Warner Bros.) take listeners down into the abyss and challenge them to crawl back out. Metal machine rhythms and twisted, tortured guitars echo Ian Curtis's anguished vocals, while synthesizers add a feeling of steely, high-tech alienation. Peter Hook's bass often carries the melody, an innovation much copied since — there's not a doom rocker around who doesn't owe something to Joy Division, but they're just gray imitations of a deep, dark band.
"Mother I tried/Please believe me/I'm doing the best that I can/I'm ashamed of the things I've been put through/I'm ashamed of the person I am," Curtis sang on "Isolation." As if to prove he really meant it, Curtis took his life soon after the album was recorded, hours before the band was to embark on its first American tour (the band changed its name and carried on as New Order).
Joy Division's powerful first album, Unknown Pleasures, had topped the British independent charts in 1979, yet the members of the band weren't fully satisfied with the sound of it. "We wanted it to be more powerful," says Sumner. Less than a year later they recorded Closer. Curtis acted as musical director; as Sumner says, "The madder the music sounded, the more pleased he would be with it."
The members of the band would sleep all day and work through the night, undisturbed, until dawn, when twittering birds would sometimes find their way onto the studio tapes. Sumner says that while they were recording a room sound, they picked up a phantom whistling the tune of "Decades" — odd, since the building was otherwise deserted. Figuring it was a bad omen, they left it off the record.
Ironically, Curtis dropped hints about his fate, yet no one could decipher them. He once told Sumner, "I feel like I'm caught in a whirlpool and I'm being dragged down and there's nothing I can do about it." "But he wouldn't explain what he meant," says Sumner. "I think he wanted someone to help him, but he didn't want to ask."
• Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Closer' by Joy Division
• Remembering Joy Division's Ian Curtis 30 Years After His Death
John Fogerty, ‘Centerfield’
John Fogerty began recording Centerfield, the album that revived his long-dormant career, right after he attended the major-league-baseball All-Star Game at San Francisco's Candlestick Park in the summer of 1984. Fogerty's seats were, he notes, in center field. "I was very aware of the connotation of center field — the comeback, spotlight angle of it," says Fogerty. "It all seemed very Zen-like and cosmic to me at the time."
Fogerty's hopes were, of course, rewarded. Centerfield went on to become his first Number One album since his departure from Creedence Clearwater Revival, and two of its singles, "Old Man Down the Road" and "Rock and Roll Girls," went Top Twenty. Creatively, the album found Fogerty at the top of his form, and it contains songs that rival his best work from CCR's glory days.
Centerfield shows Fogerty to be a mature record maker. It is a concept album that can be taken as simply a great collection of songs, a kind of "Whitman's sampler of what John Fogerty is about," as he puts it. But look a little deeper and one finds an intensely autobiographical album: a survivor's tale that celebrates the durability of rock & roll and the power inherent in remaining true to one's own beliefs.
While some of the songs on Centerfield, like "Rock and Roll Girls" and "Big Train (From Memphis)," evoke lost innocence, others cynically portray Fogerty's experiences in the music business. The title of "Vanz Kant Danz," which was originally named "Zanz Kant Danz," refers to Saul Zaentz, the head of Fogerty's former record label, and "Searchlight" chronicles the emotional toll the CCR years had taken on Fogerty. But the story Fogerty tells on Centerfield has a happy ending. The title track, of course, is the centerpiece of the album, a song about getting another chance at the big time, and "I Can't Help Myself" expresses the excitement John Fogerty felt at once again being a player on the rock scene.
Fogerty had been trying to write songs for an album for years, but he says they just didn't come together. Toward the end of 1983 he finally regained his muse. "Stuff just suddenly started to click," he says. "So much so that I began to think, 'I'm gonna be able to make a record pretty soon.'" He came up with about twelve songs but narrowed the song list down to the nine that appear on the album.
The actual recording of Centerfield took two months at the Plant, the Sausalito, California, recording studio best known as the site of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours sessions, and cost just $35,000. Because Fogerty worked from detailed demos and notes, recording was straightforward and painless. "Centerfield, probably more than any record that will ever be made, is a result of one guy's homemade production," says Fogerty. "From the artist to the listener. Here's a case where the guy who wrote the songs literally put all the sprockets on the drums. It wasn't shipped off to have a bunch of roadies to do — each thing was actually hand-done by me."
For Fogerty, everything was riding on the fate of the album. "It was more than a comeback," he says. "There were a bunch of things that were going to be set right once the thing was really ready. I had to do more than just finish the sucker — it had to be good enough to be a hit. There was a lot of stuff to be proven. It was more than the act of just finishing the race — I had to win the race."
• John Fogerty's 'Centerfield' Gets Honored by Baseball Hall of Fame
Talking Heads, ‘Speaking in Tongues’
"Speaking in Tongues was a lighter record," says Talking Heads singer David Byrne, referring to the band's 1983 release. "I guess we wanted to show that we weren't totally one-sided. We were in danger of being categorized as a kind of quirky, gloomy bunch of weirdos."
The band's playful side indeed shines through on the album's nine songs, which include such tracks as the wobbly "Making Flippy Floppy," the animated "Girlfriend Is Better" and the cheery "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)." For all its lightheartedness, however, the album still managed to fuse the band's disparate musical interests, most notably the Afro-funk that Byrne had led the band to explore on its preceding album, Remain in Light, and the dance-oriented sounds that drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth had pursued with the Tom Tom Club. And years of touring had given the Heads a sense of how to craft songs that would appeal to their audience.
"By playing live, you figure out what it is that makes people jump up and down and what it is that makes them sit in their chair," says Frantz. "When it came time to do Speaking in Tongues, we knew we were going out on the road. It's not like everything is premeditated, but we had this feeling that it's not just about art. It's also about entertainment. When we went out on tour after that, it was the first time that the kids would go nuts for the songs off the current album. In the past they'd go for the old ones, like 'Psycho Killer' and 'Take Me to the River.'"
The band wrote the tracks at the Blank Tapes recording studio in New York.
"The writing was done by four people sitting down in a studio and just rolling the tape," says Frantz. "We'd record these long, extended grooves and then bring in people like Alex Weir to add a little bit of additional guitar and various other people, like keyboardist Wally Badarou."
Byrne sang nonsense lyrics, which he later refined. "I sang all the words in gibberish first," he says, "and then made words to fit later. I'd done that a little bit before, but it was the first time I'd done it for a whole record."
"Some of the gibberish actually made sense," says Weymouth. "Certain phrases like 'I've got rockets in my pockets,' on 'Moon Rocks,' actually remained on the record from the first improvisational takes. We didn't want to lose them, because they were so free and they fit right in."
The chorus in the opening song, "Burning Down the House," was inspired by a Parliament-Funkadelic show. "I heard these kids in the audience screaming, 'Burn down the house,'" says Frantz, "and I thought, 'Wow, that sounds like a song.'
"I guess it was a good title, because I heard it on classic rock radio twice today," Frantz says now. "They won't play our new stuff, but they'll play the old stuff. Hey, it was a classic title. But what we really wanted to do was rock the house."
John Hiatt, ‘Bring the Family’
John Hiatt made his best album, the brilliant and skillful Bring the Family, in record time — four days in February 1987, to be exact.
On it, Hiatt was accompanied by a small, simpatico ensemble of all-star musicians: guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner. The sessions were preceded by no rehearsals or preproduction. Lowe, in fact, went straight from the airport to the studio, arriving just in time to cut "Memphis in the Meantime," a song he had never heard before.
The spontaneity of it all, Hiatt believes, was largely responsible for the understated, forthright collection of songs that resulted. "I just don't think it would've come out the same if we'd spent more time on it," he says. "The beauty of the project was that none of us was given the time to think with the old left side of the brain."
Producer John Chelew imposed a four-day limit on the sessions; his motivation had less to do with economics or scheduling than a desire to capture the performances with an unstudied, first-take freshness. Hiatt himself likens it to a jazz session, where a band runs a tune down a few times, cuts it and moves on. "I imagined it might be something similar to that, in terms of the intensity and the fun," Hiatt says. "It was kind of scary, too, but very exciting."
There were seat-of-the-pants decisions made at every turn. When the band couldn't settle on an arrangement for the moving, confessional "Have a Little Faith in Me," Hiatt banged it out alone at the piano during a break, and it wound up on the album in that form. Lowe's breathless arrival the first day gave "Memphis in the Meantime" its odd, loopy rhythms. "It sounds like a car with four bald tires," says Hiatt, laughing. "It's like a four-man groove sputtering down the road, and I really like the record for that."
Hiatt is especially fond of Bring the Family's love songs. Having beat his alcohol and drug problems in 1984, Hiatt was a clearheaded, happily married and much less vituperative songwriter. "'Learning How to Love You,' for instance, is a song I had never been able to say quite so directly," Hiatt says. "I'm a coward, basically, when it comes to love, and that was the first time I really felt willing to come out and be a little vulnerable."
The emotional openness and spiritual resurgence carried through the whole album — which, amazingly enough, was made at a time when Hiatt didn't even have a record deal in America. "The normal sort of pressures of making a record, real or imagined, just weren't there," says Hiatt. "I'm not so sure a major label would have even let it happen, frankly, although they all seemed to want it after we made it. It went against the corporate approach to record-making, which is 'It can't be any good; you didn't spend any time or money on it!'"
To the contrary, Bring the Family is one of the most sublime and deeply felt albums of the Eighties. "I think the effect this group of musicians had on each other is that we all wanted to do our best," Hiatt says. "The way I look at the album today, I really see it as a true collaboration, of which I was just a cog in the wheel. I'm not trying to feign humility, but it was just such a group effort. It's a very inspirational bunch. I would like to go on record to say I sure hope it happens again."
Dire Straits, ‘Making Movies’
"I love doing third albums," says Jimmy Iovine, who coproduced Dire Straits' Making Movies with the band's lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, Mark Knopfler. "A group makes its first album, and then the record company rushes them into the studio to make their second album. After that, they go, 'Whoa, wait a second.' They get a little more confident. They step back and say, 'Okay, now we're gonna do it.'"
Iovine's description is an apt summary of the road Dire Straits traveled to get to Making Movies, which followed the band's distinctive 1978 debut, Dire Straits, and its disappointing second album, Communique. The description also captures the nature of Knopfler's ambitions for the record. "I think he wanted to take Dire Straits to that next step, especially in terms of the songs, and to have the album really make sense all together, which I think it does," Iovine says. "It's a really cohesive album. He stunned me, as far as his songwriting talents. The songs on that album are almost classical in nature."
Knopfler contacted Iovine because he liked Iovine's work on "Because the Night," the Patti Smith single that she'd co-written with Bruce Springsteen. Iovine, who had also worked on Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, was instrumental in calling E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan into the sessions for Making Movies. Without him, the album's cinematic power and evocative landscapes might have been impossible to achieve.
The melodicism and romantic intensity of Bittan's playing alternately underscore and serve as a foil for Knopfler's guitar — and help elevate such tracks as "Romeo and Juliet," "Tunnel of Love" and "Expresso Love" to poetic heights. Bittan's role became especially important because Knopfler's brother David, the band's rhythm guitarist, left Dire Straits during the first week of recording. Guitarist Sid McGiniss was brought in to assist Mark, bassist John Illsley and drummer Pick Withers, but Bittan's contribution was unique in that it was the first time the band had ever fully worked a keyboardist into its lineup.
"Mark was real excited, because it was the first time he expanded Dire Straits in a way that has been consistent since then," Bittan says. "It was a seminal album for them in that respect."
Bittan describes the sessions for Making Movies as "work sessions where we went in and really took time to capture the emotion and paint the picture…. They were not very straightforward songs. The subtleties of emotion that he was trying to capture was something real special — it reminded me of Bruce, you know?"
Making Movies was recorded in six weeks, but, Iovine says, "it basically happened on the first six days of the sessions. The right people were in the room together. It really was making a record in the pure sense of the term. The whole thing sounds like one song. But you know what that is? That's the writing, the guy who wrote it. He wrote the album like that; he wanted to make the album like that."
The pioneering rap-metal fusion of the song "Rock Box" and the powerful 1984 debut album it came from, Run-D.M.C., catapulted nineteen-year-old rappers Run (Joseph Simmons), D.M.C. (Darryl McDaniels) and their DJ, Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell), to the top of the rap heap and beyond. "Rock Box" proved that rap, like rock, is a malleable art form, capable of absorbing other influences, continually reinventing itself in the process.
Run and D.M.C. wielded rhymes like rockers wield guitars; the hugely influential "Rock Box" made the comparison explicit by souping up an inspired brag session with an innovation: blistering heavy-metal guitar from ace sessionman Eddie Martinez.
Although Run thought it was a bad idea at first, the marriage of metal and rap was inevitable, as rappers had already been using rhythm tracks from songs such as Billy Squier's "Big Beat" and Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." "Rock Box" kicked down musical barriers: It was the first video by a rap artist on MTV, thereby attracting a large white audience.
The rap-metal fusion remained influential. In the summer of 1986, Run-D.M.C.'s remake of "Walk This Way" went Top Five. The Beastie Boys rode rap metal to platinum heaven with hits like "Fight for Your Right to Party," and Tone-Löc's "Wild Thing," with its Van Halen guitar hook, went double platinum early this year.
Run-D.M.C. includes several other rap classics as well. The group's first two singles, "It's Like That" and "Hard Times," paint bleak pictures of unemployment, inflation and war but go on to promote school, work and church as a way out. But the positive message wasn't simply a public service. "I was trying to get a record that was positive," Run says, "because I knew that the radio didn't want to play anything negative."
On tracks like "Sucker M.C.'s," Run and D.M.C. rapped over little more than an infectious drum-machine beat spiced up with synthesized hand-claps, capturing on vinyl what rappers had been doing in New York City parks for years. Although radio initially bridled at the minimal approach, the record's hip street sound eventually proved irresistible, giving creedence to Run's assessment of the album: "It's good to be raw."
Run's brother, Russell Simmons, who went on to become rap's foremost impresario as co-owner of Def Jam Records, helped arrange the vocals and coproduced the album with Larry Smith, a veteran R&B musician who programmed the drum machines and supplied the odd organ swoosh. Jam Master Jay scratched in percussion effects while the two rappers took a novel tag-team approach, uncannily finishing each other's lines, phrases and even words.
Besides some heavy breathing, Smith made a unique contribution to "Wake Up." "If you really listen to the record," Smith says, "you'll hear somebody peeing in the toilet and flushing it. That was me!"