100 Best Albums of the 1980s – Rolling Stone
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100 Best Albums of the Eighties

From synth pop and rap to metal and funk, 100 best albums of the Eighties selected by the editors of Rolling Stone

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.

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."

Rolling Stone's Original 1988 Review


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

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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."

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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

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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."

Rolling Stone's 1997 Review

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

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Q&A: Jackson Browne


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-u