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.
Five years after arriving in New York City from her hometown of Pontiac, Michigan, Madonna Louise Ciccone had little to show for a lot of work. By 1982, she had managed to get only a few gigs singing with drummer Stephen Bray’s band, the Breakfast Club, at clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, and the future looked far from bright.
“I had just gotten kicked out of my apartment,” Madonna says, “so the band let me live in their rehearsal space at the Music Building, on Eighth Avenue. Stephen had keys to all the rehearsal rooms, so when I decided to make my own demos, we’d go into other people’s studios at night and use their four-track machines.”
Armed with a tape, Madonna began making the rounds of New York’s dance clubs. “I had heard that a lot of A&R people hung out at the clubs,” she says, “and I thought trying to go see them at their offices would be a waste of time.” It proved a good strategy: Through Mark Kamins, the DJ at Danceteria, the tape found its way to Sire Records, and Madonna was signed by label president Seymour Stein. “Seymour was in the hospital at the time,” she says. “I got signed while he was lying in bed in his boxer shorts.”
The contract with Sire guaranteed just one single, but it had options for recording albums as well. With Kamins producing, Madonna cut the moody disco track “Everybody” as her debut single. But when Sire picked up its option to record an album, she decided to try a different producer. “I wanted someone who’d worked with a lot of female singers,” she says.
Reggie Lucas, the Grammy-winning songwriter who had produced Stephanie Mills and Roberta Flack, was selected. After recording the album’s second single, the Lucas-penned “Physical Attraction,” he and Madonna cut the rest of the album, with the exception of “Holiday,” which was produced by Jellybean Benitez.
“Things were very informal and casual,” Lucas says of the sessions. “It was my first pop project, and she was just a new artist. I had no idea it would be the biggest thing since sliced bread.”
Indeed, initial response to Madonna gave no indication of the mania to follow. It took a year and a half for the album to go gold. But its assured style and sound, as well as Madonna’s savvy approach to videos, helped the singer make the leap from dance diva to pop phenom, and it pointed the direction for a host of female vocalists from Janet Jackson to Debbie Gibson.
“It influenced a lot of people,” says Madonna, who cites Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry as her own musical heroes. “I think it stands up well. It just took a long time for people to pay attention to me —and I thank God they did!”
The Feelies, ‘Crazy Rhythms’
"Crazy Rhythms is aptly titled," says Bill Million of the Feelies. "There are a lot of weird things going on. We didn't practice much, so we were kind of disjointed when we made the album." Today, Crazy Rhythms is a landmark of jangly, guitar-driven avant-pop, and its shimmering sound can still be heard in bands like R.E.M. But it almost wasn't released at all.
The Feelies formed in 1976 in their small hometown of Haledon, New Jersey, as a lark. Tripping on acid one day, Million passed guitarist Glenn Mercer's garage and was impressed to hear the band playing the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." The like-minded guitarists formed a band that eventually included bassist Keith Clayton and drummer Anton Fier.
"The sound we were after was a reaction against the punk scene," says Mercer. "Being a little older, we felt it had all been done before. We wanted the guitars to be cleaner, and we started experimenting with a lot of percussion."
Afer recording a four-song demo, the Feelies signed with England's Stiff Records, the only label that would let the fledgling band produce itself. They entered New York's cavernous Vanguard studios late in the summer of 1979 only to find that they couldn't get a guitar sound they liked. "It was very old, things were breaking down," says Mercer. "We tried closets, bathrooms, hallways." Finally, engineer Mark Abel suggested bypassing the amp and plugging the guitars directly into the mixer. "It's a basic rule of recording to never, ever record direct," says Mercer. "It's a very dry, clean sound, and most people think it lacks dynamics. But we found it was closer to your ear, more up front."
The music is jittery, thumping and volatile, complementing titles like "The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness" and "Loveless Love." There are long silences, repeated notes, wavering tones, pickups flipped on and off. Any gaps are filled with strange, found percussion instruments, including cans, shoe boxes and coat racks.
Their record label, however, "hated it," according to Mercer. "They brought us into a meeting, put Lene Lovich's latest song on the turntable and said, 'You guys gotta come up with something like this.'" The album received little promotion, Fier was soon wooed away by the Lounge Lizards, and the band broke up for several years. Today, Crazy Rhythms is available only as a German import. "People have talked about remixing and re-releasing it," says Mercer, "but you don't want to mess around with it. It's got a life of its own."
"This is going to sound pompous and arty," says XTC's Andy Partridge, "but the whole album is a cycle of something: a day or a year, with the seasons, or a life. It's a cycle of starting, aging, dying and starting again." He is referring to Skylarking, the British trio's superb eighth album.
Recorded largely at Todd Rundgren's studio in Woodstock, New York, Skylarking's fourteen songs abound in elemental imagery and music that is pastoral, understated and carefully arranged. The album is a celebration of nature and particularly of summertime.
"The atmosphere of the album is one of a playfully sexual hot summer," says Partridge. "On a hot day, a lot of life is going to be made somewhere, and it's probably gonna be outdoors on grass. It's just about summer and being out in the open and discovering sex in a stumbly, teenage way."
The concept of the album as a song cycle is underscored by musical interludes and incidental sounds between tracks. The songs are related by key, tempo and subject matter. Oddly enough, the thematic framework was not the band's idea but producer Rundgren's. Guitarist Partridge and bass player Colin Moulding, XTC's principal writers, had worked up thirty-five songs, which they sent Rundgren in advance of their arrival in America. He selected fourteen of them, decided on a lineup and instructed the band to be ready to cut them in that order.
"He tended to go for the gentler songs, for songs of a certain atmosphere," says Partridge. "We'd sit down and talk about where the emotion was headed: the emotion, the atmosphere, the heat, the geographic place, the time of day — this journey you're supposed to go through on the whole record."
Partridge's iconoclastic "Dear God" was left off the album at his insistence. Relegated to the B side of a twelve-inch single, "Dear God" generated such an overwhelming response when played on radio that it became XTC's unlikely first hit in America — and was added to later pressings of Skylarking. "I thought I'd failed to précis the largest subject in man's mind, which is man's belief of what the truth is," Partridge says. "How the hell do you condense that into four minutes?"
Skylarking, as it turned out, was the album that broke XTC to a larger audience in America — and it couldn't have come at a more opportune time. "We were at our lowest ebb, moralewise, because we weren't selling any records and it wasn't the LP that Virgin and Geffen wanted made," Partridge says. "They wanted a slick, hard, American rock album: The quote was 'Can you make it somewhere between ZZ Top and the Police?'"
Though subdued and sublime, Skylarking was not an easy album to make. The band members argued with Rundgren and one another; Moulding actually quit at one point, and Partridge repeatedly threatened to fly back to England. Though he didn't like the album initially, Partridge's opinion of Skylarking — and of Rundgren — has softened. "I now see with the benefit of hindsight that it's a fine album and he did some sterling work," says Partridge.
Tina Turner, ‘Private Dancer’
Perhaps the most spectacular comeback album of the Eighties, Private Dancer reestablished Tina Turner as one of rock's premier artists. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the album is that it was made at all.
Turner was playing Las Vegas and selling few records when, in 1982, Martyn Ware and Greg Walsh of the English synth-pop group Heaven 17 recruited her for an album of high-tech covers of their favorite songs sung by their favorite singers. Turner's version of "Ball of Confusion" became a British hit and won her a recording contract. Back with Ware and Walsh, her reworking of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" proved a hit, and Capitol wanted an album fast.
Terry Britten, an Australian songwriter, co-wrote the feisty "Show Some Respect," produced a stark electro-version of Ann Peebles's "I Can't Stand the Rain" and co-wrote the reggae-tinged "What's Love Got to Do With It."
Rupert Hine, known for his work with the Fixx, produced the Holly Knight-penned "Better Be Good to Me." Turner related her life story and her belief in reincarnation to Hine's girlfriend and song-writing partner, Jeanette Obstoj, who then wrote the album's opening track, "I Might Have Been Queen." Lyrics like "I look up to my past/A spirit running free/I look down and I'm there in history/I'm a soul survivor" must have rung true, for as Turner's manager, Roger Davies, says, "she just loved it — I think she almost cried when she read the lyrics."
Mark Knopfler donated "Private Dancer," and British singer Paul Brady wrote the album's hardest rocker, "Steel Claw." Jeff Beck, backed by Dire Straits (minus Knopfler, who had other commitments), contributed electrifying leads to both tracks.
Recording with Britten in London by day and at Hine's country studio by night, Turner cut nine tracks in three weeks. When it was all done, "What's Love Got to Do With It" hit Number One, and "Better Be Good to Me" and "Private Dancer" went Top Ten. Private Dancer went platinum several times over, and Tina Turner's rightful place in pop's pantheon was reaffirmed.
• Rolling Stone's Original 1984 Review
• Tina Turner Photos: A Life in Photographs Onstage and Behind the Scenes
Peter Gabriel, ‘Peter Gabriel’
The album's cover depicts the face of Peter Gabriel disintegrating ghoulishly, but it is the social and psychological issues explored on Gabriel's third solo album that make it such a chilling work. The album's opening track, "Intruder," is about a thief and potential rapist; "Family Snapshot" is about an assassin; "I Don't Remember" is about an amnesiac; and "No Self Control," Gabriel's favorite track on the album, is a desperate tale of anxiety, alienation and latent violence. Small wonder that Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun asked if Gabriel had spent any time in a mental hospital after hearing "Lead a Normal Life," an eerie sketch of life in an asylum.
Less understandable, however, was Atlantic's decision not to release Gabriel's third album. (Each of his first four solo albums is titled Peter Gabriel.) "I think they were looking for, perhaps, 'Solsbury Hill' or 'Modern Love' — something that they thought had more pop appeal," Gabriel says. "I still have a lot of respect for Atlantic, based on their history. But at the time it was a major blow to my self-confidence. I definitely felt it was my best work, so I was waiting for an enthusiastic reaction, not to be dropped from the label."
Mercury eventually released the album in the summer of 1980; it was well received and enjoyed prominence on alternative radio, largely on the strength of "Games Without Frontiers," Gabriel's jaunty examination of the similarities between childhood play and adult warfare.
Peter Gabriel's jagged rhythms and off-kilter melodies provide a gripping sonic complement to the album's edgy themes. "There were some definite ambitions with arrangements, going for sounds that hadn't really been used before," Gabriel says. "I think for me as a writer, it's the album on which I discovered a style."
He also discovered "good working partners," among them guitarist Robert Fripp, drummers Jerry Marotta and Phil Collins (Gabriel's old band mate from Genesis), singers Paul Weller of the Jam and Kate Bush, producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham. "There was a lot of open minds, a lot of support for exploration," Gabriel says.
Peter Gabriel is perhaps best known today for its closing number, "Biko" — a tribute to freedom fighter Steven Biko, who was murdered in prison by the South African authorities. "I was quite uncertain about getting engaged in a political song," Gabriel admits, "because I'd never directly taken on an issue in that way. I just tried some ideas, and I felt the spine tingling. That to me is the musician's rubber stamp — the spine tingle." After all the troubling themes the album confronts, "Biko" ends Peter Gabriel on a stirring note by exalting the indomitable human desire for freedom. That process is part of what Gabriel says is "a familiar theme for me: looking into the darkness and seeing if there's a possibility for triumph."
Sonic Youth, ‘Daydream Nation’
"How do you plan an accident? That's what we're all about," says Sonic Youth's guitarist Thurston Moore.
The trailblazing quartet has made its mark by exploring the rough edges that other bands smooth over, bolstering its experiments in sound with the raw power of a top-flight rock & roll band. Daydream Nation refined everything that made Sonic Youth the most powerful and innovative American guitar band of the Eighties and channeled it into a seventy-one-minute, double-album tour de force. The band's guitarists, Moore and Lee Ranaldo, harnessed an idiosyncratic vocabulary of overtones, harmonics, drones and feedback to create vast sounds and textures unlike anything else in rock.
Daydream Nation is very much of the place where it was created, articulating the chaos and violent energy of the band's New York City. "The structures of Daydream Nation were really worked on a lot," says bassist-vocalist Kim Gordon, and sure enough, beneath the music's teeming surface is a Byzantine barrage of spine-tingling riffs and dynamic peaks and valleys fueled by drummer Steve Shelley.
The band's lyrics tend toward a stream-of-collective-unconscious grab bag of underground culture, including erotica, grade-Z horror flicks and cyberpunk science fiction. "Hit the power/Psycho helmet's on/You've got to splice your halo/Take it to the moon," Moore sings in "Silver Rocket," as the song's raw punk thrust explodes in a shower of pure, exultant noise.
Although the largely self-produced Daydream Nation was recorded for a paltry $30,000, that was twice as much money as the band had spent on any of its five other albums. According to Gordon, the extra production bucks "gave power to the songs. It's like buying credibility."
"Providence," one of the album's most interesting tracks, is a quiet interlude for phone machine, piano and one abused amplifier. "It was a fan-cooled amplifier," Moore says, "and I had put something on the fan, so the tubes were suffocating and created this panicky rumble coming out of the speakers. So we recorded that and made it into a song." A friend of the band's, Mike Watt of the group Firehose, contributed a phone message from Providence, Rhode Island, scolding Moore for losing some guitar cables and insinuating that his short-term memory was shot. "It's about smoking pot," Moore explains.
Moore says the band originally wanted to call the album Bookbag and package it in a plaid schoolbook tote, an idea scrapped only because of its expense. Instead, the band opted for a simple painting of a candle by German artist Gerhard Richter. "We wanted to use something that was outwardly conservative looking, just because people wouldn't expect that," Gordon says. "The most radical things outwardly look very conservative."
Both Ranaldo and Moore are veterans of downtown noise maestro Glenn Branca's guitar orchestras. The massed guitars and colossal dissonances of those groups still figure in Sonic Youth's sound, although Moore doesn't quite see it that way: "I mean, he's into the harmonic series, we're into the TV series." Moore would rather compare his band to the early-Seventies New York grunge rockers in the Godz, whom rock critic Lester Bangs once lovingly described as "the most inept band I've ever heard." "We come straight out of them," Moore says. "If you can find The Third Testament, by the Godz, that's a great record."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1989 Review
• Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Daydream Nation' by Sonic Youth
Bob Dylan, ‘Oh Mercy’
Bob Dylan closed out the Eighties with Oh Mercy, arguably the strongest album from the singer-songwriter in a decade that saw both his creative ups (Infidels) and downs (Down in the Groove). Recorded in New Orleans, Oh Mercy can be considered a musical trivet consisting of Dylan, producer Daniel Lanois and a solid New Orleans rhythm section.
Lanois, who'd previously worked with U2 and Peter Gabriel, interrupted the recording of his own album, Acadie, to work with Dylan. "It's an enlightening experience, watching a great poet embark on a new voyage," says Lanois.
The majority of the album was cut live, with members of the Neville Brothers providing no-nonsense backing for Dylan's raspy, half-spoken vocals. His more cryptic compositions, however, found him accompanied only by Lanois and engineer Malcolm Burn. Although the sessions were shrouded in secrecy, one musician who was there recalls that Dylan was "extremely focused on his writing. He had the lyrics to his songs on a music stand in front of him, and he'd be writing and changing lyrics while people were running around the studio. He does a tune a number of different ways until he hits a groove that works. If things aren't working after a few takes, he goes on to another song."
"Political World" sets the album's lyric theme, boiling with savage musical intensity. Oh Mercy's only other rocker, "Everything Is Broken," is reminiscent of a Slim Harpo blues shuffle, complete with a squeaky harmonica solo. Still capable of making a listener feel squeamish, Dylan chides his audience on "What Was It You Wanted" and "Shooting Star." On the other hand, "What Good Am I" and "Most of the Time" emerge as his most personal compositions in many years.
While it would be unfair to compare Oh Mercy to Dylan's landmark Sixties recordings, it sits well alongside his impressive body of work. It is also an encouraging sign that Dylan's creativity will continue to flourish in the coming decade.
• Rolling Stone's Original 1989 Review
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Nebraska’
First, he sat on a rocking chair in his New Jersey bedroom, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing into a tape recorder. Then he stuck the cassette (sans case) in his back pocket and carried it around for a couple of weeks. Next, he tried to teach the songs to the E Street Band. Finally, several soul-searching months later, Bruce Springsteen decided that his next album was going to be the cassette tape he'd kept in his pocket.
That tape would become Nebraska, an album full of dark, desperate tales from a rock & roll star who'd decided that some stories are best told simply, by a man and his guitar. Commercially, it was a daring move. In 1982, Springsteen was at the point where a strong rock album would have cemented the breakthrough he'd made with The River, released in 1980, which yielded his first Top Ten hit, "Hungry Heart." But he was growing increasingly disturbed by the currents in Ronald Reagan's America and was unable to retain his youthful belief that rock & roll could make everything right. "There was a particular moment when I said, 'Oh, my ideas that have sustained me have sort of failed,'" he said later. "I had a particular time when I felt pretty empty and very isolated, and I suppose that's where some of that record came from."
He listened to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and more obscure folk and country singers. He saw movies like John Huston's Wise Blood and Terence Malick's Badlands, which sparked his interest in the 1958 murder spree of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate. Back home in New Jersey, he wrote more than a dozen shattering, plain-spoken songs about murder, despair and isolation. On January 3rd, 1982, he sang them, one after another, into a four-track tape recorder.
He planned to teach them to the E Street Band, but somehow the songs that were so haunting in their rough, unaccompanied versions didn't sound right with fuller arrangements. "It became obvious fairly soon that what Bruce wanted on the record was what he already had on the demo," says drummer Max Weinberg. "The band, though we played the hell out of them, tended to obscure the starkness and the vibe he was going for."
Eventually, Springsteen returned to the acoustic demos, deciding to release them as is. Nebraska was a grim record for a grim time. It was both a courageous album and an influential one, presaging the frank, narrative songwriting and spare presentation of such late-Eighties folk stylists as Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega. Its ghostly aura even pervaded the work of U2 and John Cougar Mellencamp. But it was, above all, a profoundly personal statement from an artist who was unsettled by all he saw around him — and decided he couldn't look away.
The Robert Cray Band, ‘Strong Persuader’
"I think that my band was part of a blues-roots movement that included people like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan, who were coming along at that particular time," says bandleader Robert Cray. While Cray's sense of what was happening on the American rock scene in late 1986 is accurate, it modestly downplays the accomplishments of the singer-guitarist and his backing trio.
In February of that year, Strong Persuader — Cray's fourth album — hit Number Thirteen on the Billboard pop-albums chart, making it the highest-charting blues album since Bobby "Blue" Bland's Call on Me/That's the Way Love Is, which reached Number Eleven some twenty-three years earlier. Strong Persuader, in effect, introduced a new generation of mainstream rock fans to the language and form of the blues.
An army brat who grew up on bases in West Germany and the Pacific Northwest, Cray was introduced to popular black music at home, but he discovered blues artists on his own as a teenager. "I still have a lot of the same influences today," Cray says. "People like Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, O.V. Wright and Sam Cooke."
In his lyric themes, Cray often veers away from the hard-luck road trod by most bluesmen. But his trebly, razor-sharp guitar playing is straight out of the electric blues tradition, and it provides Strong Persuader with a distinctive edge.
Signed to the small High Tone label when work on Strong Persuader began, Cray was hoping to hook up with a larger company. "The production on the first records was too low-budget," he says, "and we were looking for a major label because we want to make a better record every time."
Cray and his band eventually cut a deal with PolyGram, but they continued to work with producers Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, who had produced their High Tone albums. As a result, Strong Persuader was released with a combined High Tone/Mercury imprint. In addition to coproducing the album, Walker contributed "Right Next Door (Because of Me)," a tale of infidelity played out in a motel room. The song, which became the album's centerpiece, also includes the lyrics from which Strong Persuader derived its title.
The song that really drove Strong Persuader up the charts, however, was "Smoking Gun," a smoldering tale of jealousy and murder. Although released two months after the album hit the streets — late for a first single — it became a Top Forty hit, and the video became a staple on MTV.
Strong Persuader ultimately went gold, a feat virtually unheard-of for a blues album. Yet Cray maintains that the album was less a departure from his blues path than a natural evolution. "The recording sessions have been pretty much the same for each of our albums," he says. "I just thought the quality of the music we were making was getting better. It was about the whole band being together."
R.E.M.'s thorniest and most overtly political album, ironically, was the one that brought the band a mass audience, yielding its first bona fide hit single in "The One I Love." After four albums of unique, visionary rock & roll (not counting Dead Letter Office, a collection of B sides), the unconventional Georgians left the alternative-music substrata and entered the mainstream, at least saleswise, with Document as their passport. As Peter Buck put it at the time, "We're the acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff."
Recorded in Nashville with producer Scott Litt, R.E.M.'s Document is an angry, largely topical look at a world wracked by political and environmental catastrophe. Singing in clear, enunciated syllables, Michael Stipe trains his disapproving lyrics upon despoilers of nature ("Disturbance at the Heron House"), peddlers of right-wing dogma ("Exhuming McCarthy"), warmongers in Latin America ("Welcome to the Occupation") and other abusers of the planet and the public trust. The first side closes with "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)," a nervy pop-music news bulletin about an apocalypse in progress. A rapid-fire spew of pop-culture images leads to the main title and its cryptic tag: "… And I feel fine."
What was going on? "Michael broached the idea that the stuff he was writing was a little more direct politically," says guitarist Peter Buck, "and the stuff we had been writing was a lot more chaotic, too. It kind of came together."
R.E.M.'s politicization on Document, Buck believes, is due to the fact that "your thoughts are obviously different at thirty years old than they are at twenty-three." Even the seeming love song "The One I Love" is far from a fairy-tale view of romance, describing "the one I love" as "a simple prop to occupy my time." "It's definitely not a love song," says Buck. "It's more of a nasty comment about oneself."
Despite its success, "The One I Love" is not one of the band members' favorites. "It's funny that the songs on the radio from us are probably the ones we feel from the heart the least," says Buck. So how did he feel when R.E.M. was proclaimed America's best rock & roll band on the cover of Rolling Stone as Document was ascending the charts? "Embarrassed, like any sensible person would be," he says with a chuckle.
• Rolling Stone's Original 1987 Review
"Punk had died," says the Edge. "we couldn't believe it had been swept to the side as if it had never happened, and War was designed as a knuckle buster in the face of the new pop."
Indeed, at the time of the album's release in 1983, the anger and anarchy of the late-Seventies punk movement had been replaced by the new romanticism best typified by Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. Into such tepid waters, U2 dropped its bomb: War is a powerful fusion of politics and militant rock & roll, an album that anticipated the political awareness that would come back into vogue as the decade progressed.
With two of U2's best sing-along anthems, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," War became something of a Who's Next for the Eighties. The album's aggressive sound is highlighted by what bassist Adam Clayton calls "all those helicopter guitars."
Following U2's first two albums, the delicate and ethereal Boy and the moodier and disjointed October, War arrived with the force of a jackhammer ripping into concrete. Rough, hard and metallic, it remains U2's most overt rock album.
"We loved the Clash's attitude early on," the Edge says. "And Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Pistols. Guitar bands that didn't use blues clichés. I was listening to Tom Verlaine to figure out how to make tough music."
The title itself was arresting, as were its politically inspired songs. "We wanted a record people couldn't just write off," says Clayton. "It was an unsettled time, a year of conflict. Poland was on the news at the time. You looked around and there were conflicts everywhere. We saw a lot of unrest on TV and in the media. We focused on that."
Still, U2 wanted to leave listeners with a feeling of hope. "We wanted love and anger," says the Edge. "We wanted a protest record, but a positive protest record."
War was recorded in about six weeks at Windmill Lane Studios, in Dublin, with most of the songs written in the studio. Vocalist Bono improvised lyrics to completed tracks, then refined them. "Bono would sing, and whatever came out would be the starting point," says producer Steve Lillywhite.
Completing the songs was difficult. "It's always hard to finish them," says Clayton. "It takes Bono a long time to commit to a lyric. 'New Year's Day' was a tough one. We had arguments over the vocals. At one stage it wasn't even on the record."
The album's final track, "40," which takes its title and lyrics from the Fortieth Psalm, was literally finished at the last moment, even as the next band scheduled to use the studio cooled its heels. "We were trying to get lyrics down and mix it with people pounding on the door," says Clayton.
• Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review
ZZ Top, ‘Eliminator’
ZZ Top's Eliminator was the hands-down party album of the decade, pleasing hard-core boogie freaks and New Wave ironists alike with its bluesy vamping, tawdry lyrics and chic, trashy videos. You practically had to be in a coma not to have found some opportunity to dance to "Legs," "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Gimme All Your Lovin'" in 1983. ZZ Top had enjoyed million-selling albums in the Seventies, but Eliminator outsold all the band's previous releases. Most amazing of all, the album suddenly made the Texas trio with two of the longest beards in Christendom the hippest and hottest thing in rock & roll.
"We still sometimes wonder what exactly did transpire to make those sessions dramatically different," says guitarist Billy Gibbons. "I suppose it might have been a return to playing together as a band in the studio as we did onstage."
Many of the songs were written backstage during the Deguello tour. "Those dressing-room sessions that so many traveling bands talk about really are invaluable to creating a body of studio work," says Gibbons. The band was determined to keep that dressing-room ambience alive when it went in to record. Eliminator was cut at Ardent Recording, in Memphis, a city whose musical heritage of Stax-Volt soul and Beale Street blues rubbed off on ZZ Top. "There was quite a stirring of sentiment around 1983 in Memphis," Gibbons recalls. "The city is steeped in a very time-honored and strong tradition. It's in the air. There was a soulful element in that period of time that affected the way we were playing."
A trip to England prior to the sessions yielded its own influences, with the band taking in synth pop and the intense fashion consciousness of its "new romantic" practitioners. The modern technology inspired the band members to have a go at synths themselves, while the cool threads they had seen on the streets of London inspired them to write "Sharp Dressed Man."
The synthesizers the band began noodling around on at Ardent happened to be primitive analogue models, with lots of wires and dials and no presets. "When we finally did return from England to get our work done, I think curiosity was a real magnet to turning on those things," says Gibbons. "What you got was a bunch of cowpokes on blues twisting knobs from outer space." But it worked: The synthesizers — layered organically amid guitars, bass and drums — contributed to Eliminator's dense, bluesy feel. "Synthesizer meets soul was a good combo," Gibbons says.
Often lyrics were inspired by real-life situations. "Legs," for instance, came about one rainy day on the way to the studio. "There was a young lady dodging the raindrops, and being obliging Southerners, we spun the car around," says Gibbons. "No sooner had we turned around to pick her up — boom! — she'd vanished. And we said, 'That girl's got legs, and she knows how to use them.'"
Another song, "TV Dinners," was inspired by seeing those very words stenciled on the back of a woman's jumpsuit on the dance floor of a funky nightclub on the east side of Memphis. "I was stunned," says Gibbons, deadpan. "It was just that moment — there it is, a gift. I mean why, other than to inspire us, would she have walked past sporting TV Dinners on her jumpsuit?"
As Eliminator gathered steam, Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill's flowing, belt-length beards became a visual symbol of ZZ Top. At one point, the Gillette company actually offered to pay them to shave off their beards on national television. "Our reply was 'Can't do it, simply because underneath 'em is too ugly,'" says Gibbons, guffawing.
• Photos: Taylor Swift, ZZ Top, Tim McGraw and More Rock for Flood Relief
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Imperial Bedroom’
When Columbia records released Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom — the angry young Brit's seventh album in six years — the company took out ads that read, Masterpiece? Without question, Imperial Bedroom is one of Costello's major artistic statements — and arguably the high point in the career of a prolific musician who has consistently delivered impressive work.
Perhaps reacting to the creative limitations of his preceding album, Almost Blue — a disappointing collection of country covers recorded in Nashville with the veteran producer Billy Sherill — Costello returned to form on Imperial Bedroom. It is a far-ranging gem that finds him moving all over the musical map, from the ominous, jazzy "Shabby Doll" to the Sgt. Pepper-esque pop of "… And in Every Home." Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbaugh wrote, "Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom is really a mansion, each of whose rooms is decorated with painstaking care and detail by the artist."
When it comes to Imperial Bedroom, Costello is its harshest — and maybe its only — critic. "In retrospect, I feel some of the songs are just not well written enough," he said in an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year. "Some of them were attempts to create a little mystery room the listener could go into. And in some cases, the subject matter is maybe too large for the song's own good. 'The Loved Ones' is about the trap of playing to posterity, and it's just too vague a subject for a song. It's too theoretical."
Asked about the Columbia ad, Costello grimaced and said, "There were some ludicrous things claimed on behalf of that record." Some reviewers compared Costello to John Lennon and Paul McCartney (Costello would later collaborate with McCartney), as well as Tin Pan Alley immortals like Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
"It could be momentarily flattering," Costello said of the praise. "But then you realize that, strange as it may seem, some people don't like Cole Porter, you know? It made me very perverse on that tour. I'd be playing amphitheaters in the Midwest, and I'd do eight ballads in a row, only two of which would be mine. In the end, all those comparisons just made things more difficult."
According to Geoff Emerick — the veteran recording engineer for the Beatles and the producer of Imperial Bedroom — his approach to recording the artfully crafted album was actually quite simple. "We were trying to capture Elvis's spontaneity, because he's a first-take kind of guy," says Emerick. "We wanted to get back to basics." Work at AIR Studios in London proceeded quickly. "Elvis is very fast," Emerick says. "When we did the first session, there was an onslaught of something like eighteen songs, which we cut in fast takes. It took me quite by surprise. From then on, it was a matter of thinking which ones should we record."
The savage guitar and wordless screaming that link three of the songs on the album's first side — "The Long Honeymoon," "Man Out of Time," "Almost Blue" — was something of an afterthought. "That may have been part of a song we didn't use," says Emerick. "We just faded it in and out." Considerable thought, however, went into keyboardist Steve Nieve's inventive orchestrations for many of the album tracks. "Steve didn't want the standard orchestration — first and second violins, cellos and so on — on 'Town Cryer' and some of the other songs. So we used, I think, eighteen violas, which was really unique."
Despite the rave reviews, Imperial Bedroom yielded no hit singles, and the album peaked at Number Thirty in the United States. Still, it is a favorite of many Costello fans, as well as producer Emerick's. "Elvis is a major songwriter," he says. "He just oozes talent. And we captured Elvis then and there. It was easy — I pulled up the fader, and away we went."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1982 Review
• Video: Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes Play the New York Public Library
Marvin Gaye, ‘Midnight Love’
It was conceived as an album about spiritual and sexual salvation titled Sexual Healing, after the song that eventually became one of the biggest hits of Marvin Gaye's three-decade-long career. But the singer's new record company, Columbia, wasn't thrilled with the title, and ultimately neither was Gaye, who worried that such a provocative title would spoil what he hoped would be his comeback.
Gaye dropped the idea but kept the song "Sexual Healing," which he correctly believed from the start would be a hit (it reached Number Three on the Billboard pop charts). "They'll be jamming all over the world to this," he told his biographer David Ritz, who collaborated with him on the lyrics of the song.
While Midnight Love is not Gaye's masterpiece — that honor goes to the landmark album What's Going On — it is an inspired, mature work from one of the greatest soul singers, and it is certainly one of the best soul albums of the Eighties. Loaded with infectious dance-floor grooves, sophisticated guitar work, third-world rhythms and seductive vocals, Midnight Love did indeed prove to be Gaye's comeback. Sadly, it was also the last album he made before he was shot to death by his father in April of 1984.
"Marvin had been living in Europe, and he was influenced by both reggae and the synthesizer work of groups like Kraftwerk," recalls Larkin Arnold, a former CBS Records vice-president who was the executive producer of Midnight Love. "He took the rhythm of reggae, the new technology and American soul and came up with something fresh and unique."
Although Midnight Love has an urbane, high-gloss feel, the album was actually conceived and created while Gaye was living in Ostend, a quiet seaside town in Belgium, where he had retreated to escape the excesses of Hollywood and London. At first he worked with his brother-in-law the multi-instrumentalist Gordon Banks, at Studio Katy, in Ohaine, a small town not far from Brussels. Later the veteran Motown producer Harvey Fuqua (who had discovered Gaye and added him to the historic doo-wop group the Moonglows in 1958] was brought in to keep things on track.
Gaye worked sporadically on the album over a nine-month period. "He was stubborn," says Arnold. "He enjoyed the role of the tortured and spurned artist. He would pout and go off. Two or three times he stopped working on the album. It was nerve-racking." Columbia's financial cost for getting Gaye into the studio and keeping him there was high — more than $1.5 million to buy his contract from Motown, a $600,000 advance for the singer and more than $1.5 million in recording costs, according to Curtis Shaw, Gaye's attorney at the time. But Arnold, who masterminded the deal, puts the cost of recording Midnight Love closer to $2 million.
Whatever the cost, the album was a hit, selling 2.7 million copies worldwide, more than 2 million of them in the United States. Gaye saw his album — which followed two unsuccessful records for Motown — as a commercial endeavor designed to win back a mass audience. In a typically frank interview, he even dismissed a couple of the album's songs as "contrived."
Although he told the writer Nelson George in 1983 that his "mission" was to "tell the world and the people about the upcoming holocaust and to find all of those of higher consciousness who can be saved," Gaye felt the need to draw everybody's attention with a hit before returning to message music. "For legitimacy, I need worldwide exposure," he said. "This is a chance for the world to recognize Marvin Gaye, so that ultimately I can get my message across."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review
• Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Marvin Gaye
Anita Baker, ‘Rapture’
Although Anita Baker's Rapture exudes an aura of dimmed lights and romantic introspection, the album was, in fact, a product of hard times and difficult decisions. Baker had previously cut a funk record with a band called Chapter 8 and a solo album called The Songstress, which was released on the Beverly Glen label in 1983. When she moved to Elektra, a legal battle ensued that threatened to block the release of Rapture.
"You don't see any of that turmoil in the music," says Baker. "It's as if it were an outlet for more beautiful things." Baker moved to Elektra because she was looking for creative freedom. "I knew what I wanted to sing, and I knew what kind of production I wanted, which was a minimalist approach," Baker says. "The dilemma was choosing a producer."
Baker turned to Michael J. Powell, the former keyboardist in Chapter 8, who produced seven of the eight tracks on Rapture. Baker herself is credited as executive producer. Elektra, meanwhile, let Baker make the record her way. "They just gave me my budget and left me the hell alone," she says, appreciatively.
Rapture, which was released in 1986, is an emotionally rich, subtly restrained suite of songs that merge elements of jazz and soul, with an emphasis on ballads like "Sweet Love," "You Bring Me Joy" and "Been So Long." It is bold in its very conservatism, and it evokes favorable comparisons to the work of some of Baker's idols, such as Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. Baker says she was not concerned about how different Rapture seemed from much of the music out at the time. "It didn't cause me any apprehension," she says with a laugh, "because I didn't think anybody was gonna hear it!"
Rapture was recorded in a couple of months, with a good deal of time spent selecting material and working out arrangements. Baker still finds the album's depth of feeling satisfying. "I was very pleased," she says. "I didn't know I had that in me. I wanted a smooth product with energy and heart, but I surprised myself. There's passion there. I knew I could pop a note, but the nuances, I think, are what's important on that album."
Interestingly, despite its torch songs and paeans to love, Rapture ends with the edgy "Watch Your Step" — one of three songs Baker wrote or co-wrote. It's a relatively uptempo R&B number that warns an inconstant lover, "You better watch your step/You'll fall and hurt yourself one day." Baker says: "The last thing that people hear from you should be something to stir your emotions, to shake you up. I don't like to leave people relaxed. I like to start off relaxing them and then build up to some sort of crescendo."
Despite her regard for the album, Baker did not anticipate the multiplatinum sales Rapture earned. "Nobody did," she says, laughing. "Nobody. It was like a music-industry fairy tale. I've heard people speak of things like that happening; I've seen it happen to other people. I'll tell you, though, it took a hell of a lot of work."
Metallica, ‘Kill ‘Em All’
With their 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All, Metallica rose up from the heavy-metal underground to establish a vital new subgenre, known as speed metal or thrash metal. As pioneered by Metallica, it was a hybrid of punk and metal, distinguished by lightning speed, manic rhythm changes and a thoughtful if outraged approach to lyrics about suicide, religion, war and nuclear holocaust.
At a time when most young metal bands still slavishly imitated aging or absent gods like Ozzy Osbourne and Led Zeppelin, such songs as "Whiplash," "Hit the Lights" and "Seek and Destroy" were refreshing and revelatory. The no-sellout attitude of the band — singer-guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, bassist Cliff Burton and drummer Lars Ulrich — inspired metal fans seeking new thrills and heroes.
Kill 'Em All, originally released on Megaforce and later reissued on Elektra, was the product of what the band calls "riff tapes." Riffs that emerged during practice or jam sessions were committed to tape. Then Ulrich and Hetfield constructed songs from the best riffs. "You start at the top and figure what vibe the song has," Ulrich told Rolling Stone last year. "The general tempo, where you want to take it all. Get an opening. And at one point soon after the opening, you enter into the Mighty Main Riff."
Hetfield's lyrics, by comparison, were the result of "drinking and thinking, seeing what's going on around me." He tackled weighty subjects like spiritual isolation ("No Remorse") and bloody apocalypse ("The Four Horsemen"). The title of the album certainly captures the adversarial tone of the record, although not as graphically as the name the band originally proposed: Metal up Your Ass.
At the time, Metallica had temporarily relocated from California to New York City, where, according to Hammett, they lived on bologna sandwiches and Schlitz Malt Liquor while rehearsing and recording. "When we started out, it seemed like all the odds were against us," says Hammett. "The sound we had was so different, other people didn't know what to do with us." When Megaforce told the band that distributors wouldn't go for an album called Metal up Your Ass, Hammett says, "we were so pissed off that one day Cliff just went, 'Aw, why don't we just kill 'em all?' And we went, 'Yeah, that's it!'"
• Metallica Photos: Three Decades of Metal Mayhem
The Rolling Stones, ‘Tattoo You’
"Tattoo You wasn't really an eighties album," says Mick Jagger, and in a sense he's right. The decision to launch a Rolling Stones tour in 1981 left the band with little time to write new songs and prompted what Keith Richards calls "a frantic search through the can" to come up with material for an album — a search that produced some ironic results.
"The album came out and everybody said, 'It's the freshest-sounding Stones album in years,'" says Richards, laughing. "We all had a good chuckle."
"Oh, that made me really laugh," Jagger says in agreement. "But now all can be revealed. I was actually rather scared at times. I thought, 'They're bound to notice. The critics can't not notice that this is from here and that's from there.'"
As it turns out, the band reached back nearly a decade for material. The ballads "Waiting on a Friend" and "Tops" were begun in Jamaica in 1972 during work on Goats Head Soup. "Worried About You" and "Slave" dated back to some 1975 rehearsals in Holland for Black and Blue. Early versions of "Start Me Up" were worked up during the Some Girls sessions in 1978. Finally, "Neighbors," "Heaven," "No Use in Crying," "Little T&A," "Hang Fire" and "Black Limousine" were initially recorded during the 1979 sessions for Emotional Rescue.
Of course, the varied origins of the songs on Tattoo You do not detract from the album's power and thematic richness. As Richards points out, having a stockpile of worthwhile material is "one of the advantages of being around for a while." Both Jagger and Richards estimate that forty or more takes exist of "Start Me Up" — one of the Stones' best singles — all but one of which treat the song as a reggae number. "We'd obviously gotten pissed off with reggae," says Richards with a laugh. "We just hit it that one time — rock & roll — and there it was lying there, like a little gem."
In addition to unearthing a single that would burn Tattoo You into the memory of their fans, the Stones pushed the boundaries of their music by bringing in jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins to play on three tracks of the album. "Instead of having all these rock players, I thought we'd go a bit more off the wall and ask him to do some solos," says Jagger. "You can't beat using the best people." In addition, Jagger credits Bob Clearmountain, who mixed the record, for the cohesiveness of Tattoo You. "He did a great job of making it all a rather more homogeneous sound," Jagger says. "It sounds crisp, like it was recorded only yesterday."
For Jagger, Tattoo You provided a valuable lesson in the uses of the past. "It just shows what you can do," he says. "Just bring the tracks out, and start doing vocals and the odd guitar bit and saxophones, and then, hey, you've got an album. And it does actually hold up quite well."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1981 Review
Hüsker Dü, ‘Zen Arcade’
With this landmark 1984 album, the Minneapolis trio Hüsker Dü picked hardcore punk up out of its monotonous rut and drop-kicked it into the future. Structurally, Zen Arcade is defiantly anti-punk — a double album with an operatic narrative and unorthodox segments of acoustic folk, backward tape effects and psychedelicized guitar à la the Beatles' White Album. Yet in challenging the rigid hardcore aesthetic of "loud 'n' fast rules," Hüsker Dü created a brave new music that was true to punk's raging energy while articulating the anger, confusion and fear of a generation that had outgrown "Blitzkrieg Bop." The result was Tommy by way of CBGB.
"We started out as a punk band," said Bob Mould, the band's singer and guitarist, in 1985. "We had a real garage mentality about everything. We'd get pumped up, and a song that was generally midtempo would come on full throttle. We didn't have a lot of control over that sort of thing." Indeed, the Hüskers' 1981 debut album, Land Speed Record, set the thrash-rock standard. But, as Mould pointed out, "hardcore is basically music for young people. We were growing up, and [Zen Arcade] showed a lot of that."
Hüsker Dü's coming of age took place during the summer of 1983 in an empty church in St. Paul, where the band created Zen Arcade's twenty-three songs. "There was so much change," drummer Grant Hart said in 1986. "We were constantly jamming. We'd pick a chord, any chord, and then go for it. 'Reoccurring Dreams' [Zen's frenzied instrumental climax] would go on for an hour."
The album, primarily written by Mould and Hart, was recorded the following October in a mere eighty-five hours. All but two songs were first takes, and the mixing was done during forty straight hours of work. Total cost: $4000. Yet the depth and detail of the story belied the economy with which it had been committed to tape.
According to Mould, Zen Arcade is about a young computer hack from a broken home who dreams about killing himself after his girlfriend dies of a drug overdose. Instead, he lands in a mental hospital where he meets the head of a computer company who hires him to design video games. "Then he wakes up and goes to school," Mould said. "The only thing we never agreed on was the name of the video game. We thought it was Search."
While the story is fictional, Mould allowed that the songs contain elements of autobiography. "Some of us are from broken homes, some of us have had friends die," he said. "I don't think that's anything new."
But the power and imagination with which Hüsker Dü married fact and fantasy on Zen Arcade, and the album's subtext of striving and hope, helped elevate punk to a higher, more expressive plane. "It's an admission of humanity," said Mould, who has gone solo since the band's breakup in early 1988. "You can't just scream and holler all your life. You have to step back a minute, look at yourself and say, 'Yeah, I am fucked.' And try to change it."
John Cougar Mellencamp, ‘Uh-Huh’
By 1983, John Cougar was a smash with the public — his multiplatinum American Fool, the biggest-selling album of 1982, saw to that — but was still scorned by critics. With Uh-huh, he turned a corner, winning over even hardened skeptics who thought he would never escape the shadow of the heartland-rocker triumvirate of Seger, Springsteen and Petty. Not only did he surmount his influences, he upped the ante with insightful and incisive songs about life in working-class America such as "Pink Houses" and "Authority Song." And, in a move consistent with the no-nonsense, back-to-the-roots flavor of Uh-huh, he even reclaimed his real surname, becoming John Cougar Mellencamp. Suddenly other artists were being compared to him.
A rough-hewn gem, Uh-huh was "written, arranged and recorded during a sixteen-day blowout at the Shack," according to the liner notes. The Shack, in fact, wasn't a studio at all but a half-finished house standing in the middle of Indiana farmland. It belonged to a friend who couldn't afford to finish building it, so Mellencamp agreed to do so for him — provided Mellencamp could rehearse and record there for a year.
Before recording Uh-huh, Mellencamp produced a Mitch Ryder record, Never Kick a Sleeping Dog, at the Shack. Working with a Sixties icon like Ryder helped gear Mellencamp and company for a leaner, more aggressive sound when it came time to do their own record.
Ironically, one of Uh-huh's most memorable songs, "Pink Houses," isn't a rocker at all but a ballad about the contentment to be found in leading a modest life. Inspiration struck Mellencamp on a highway overpass. "I looked down and saw this old man, early in the morning, sitting on the porch of his pink shack with a cat in his arms," he says. "He waved, and I waved back. That's how the song started."
"The first time we ever played it is the way it stayed," says guitarist Larry Crane. "We said, 'Well, we got that one,' and we didn't bother it after that."
Roxy Music, ‘Avalon’
The soft, dreamlike scope of Roxy Music's 1982 release Avalon was a far cry from the stark abrasiveness of the band's Seventies albums. But with its haunting melodies and hypnotic rhythms, Avalon was the logical extension of a style that Roxy Music had begun dabbling in on Flesh and Blood, released in 1980.
"If you want to come up with something new, you have to change your methods of working," says former Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera. "Avalon was the culmination of a method that was started halfway through Flesh and Blood." The band holed up in Manzanera's newly built Gallery Studio, in Surrey, southwest of London, and began to experiment.
"We constructed a lot of tracks out of improvisations," he says. "In the studio, you can head off into very strange territories by artificial means. By accident, you can plug something into the wrong place on the desk and something amazing happens that you could never have dreamed of. The combination of writing in the studio while using the studio as an instrument had evolved halfway through Flesh and Blood and on into Avalon. It was this soundscape to which Bryan would then write his sort of dreamy lyrics."
The album contained some of vocalist Bryan Ferry's strongest songwriting to date. "I think Bryan decided he wanted a more adult type of lyric," says Manzanera. "We were making music that was a bit rockier, but then we decided — in light of the way Bryan was thinking lyrically — that we should tone it down, so it ended up having a more constant sort of mood. And although that mood wasn't very up and rocky, it was positive."
Ferry's lyrics expressed a marked openness and vulnerability. "It was just before he got married," says Manzanera. "It was a period when he was searching."
The title track commences with a subtle reggae lilt. "When we were recording the third or fourth album in London," says Manzanera, "we'd often be working in the same studio as Bob Marley, who'd be downstairs doing all of those famous albums. It just had to rub off somewhere." Singer Yanick Etienne, recruited while the band was overdubbing in New York, added soaring vocals to "Avalon."
"More Than This," the opening song, was initially poppier, according to Manzanera. "Halfway through, Bryan rebelled, and it was all scrapped and simplified incredibly," he says. "I must say, I was concerned that we weren't going to have a hit single from that album. And obviously, wanting to make it in America, we needed to have a single to break us. But in the context of the whole album, Bryan obviously had a broader view in the back of his mind. By the time it was done, it fit in much better with everything."
The atmosphere in the studio was charged, as was usually the case at Roxy's sessions. "Roxy Music was a series of complex personalities, and inevitably there would be ups and downs," says Manzanera. "Any sort of creative force that's worth its while has to exist in a sort of state of conflict. So it's absolutely amazing that we managed to do seven or eight albums."
His fondest memory of recording Avalon? "The day it was finished."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1982 Review
• Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Roxy Music
Los Lobos, ‘How Will the Wolf Survive?’
"The Wolf record was very pivotal for us," says Louie Perez, one of the four East L.A. high-school buddies who started Los Lobos in 1973. "We decided to take a responsible look at what we represented and where we came from as Mexican Americans. Was this band going to be a fun, sock-hop party band or actually show they're of reasonable intelligence and concern?"
The answer turned out to be both. On How Will the Wolf Survive?, Los Lobos — Perez on drums, guitar and requinto; David Hidalgo on vocals, accordion and guitar; Cesar Rosas on vocals, guitar and mandolin; and Conrad Lozano on bass and guitarron — played with crisp exuberance. They adroitly mixed blues rave-ups like "Don't Worry Baby" with traditional numbers such as "Serenata Nortena" and personal songs by Perez and Hidalgo about the band's quest to retain its Mexican American heritage while working within a glossy pop-star industry.
Los Lobos (Spanish for "the wolves") had quit various local cover bands, bought traditional Mexican instruments at pawnshops and learned the norteño music of their forefathers. They eventually incorporated electric instruments and in 1983 with the Blasters' saxophonist, Steve Berlin (who soon joined the band), recorded an EP called … And a Time to Dance. It sold only 50,000 copies but won many critics' awards and enabled the band members to buy a beat-up Dodge van in which they toured America for the first time.
Hidalgo and Perez worked on songs for their first full-length album at the home of Perez's brother-in-law. "We'd sit down with a guitar, a tape recorder and a jar of Tasters Choice, and we were coffee achievers all afternoon," says Perez. One result of these sessions was "A Matter of Time," a touching ballad about a Mexican crossing the border, looking for a better world.
They entered the studio early in the summer of 1984 with T-Bone Burnett, who had coproduced the previous EP with Berlin. Basic tracks were recorded at the Capitol studio in L.A., with overdubs and vocals done at a garage studio belonging to a friend of Burnett's. Additional tracks were cut at the Warner Bros. studios, because "every time it looked like we were done, something else would come up," says Perez.
When the record was nearly finished, Los Lobos hit on its tide track. Perez found inspiration in an old issue of National Geographic with a story entitled "Where Can the Wolf Survive?" "It was like our group, our story: What is this beast, this animal that the record companies can't figure out?" says Perez. "Will we be given the opportunity to make it or not?"
On the way home from the studio late one night, Perez and Hidalgo began writing the song, which was speedily recorded with Weather Report's Alex Acuna sitting in on percussion. In it, Hidalgo sings, "It's the truth that they all look for/Something they must keep alive/Will the wolf survive?"
The grace note that pulled the album together was an instrumental of Hidalgo's performed on Mexican instruments. Perez named it "Lil' King of Everything," he says, because "it sounded to me like this hobo who wakes up in the morning, sees the world and feels good about himself. He doesn't own anything, but he's the 'Lil' King of Everything.'" The seventy-nine-second song was spliced into the intro of "How Will the Wolf Survive?" — linking Los Lobos's Mexican roots, their rocking present and their stellar future.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono, ‘Double Fantasy’
It is, of course, impossible to separate the album from what happened immediately after it was released. In late November 1980, John Lennon made his musical return after five years of self-imposed retirement with Double Fantasy, a full-fledged collaboration with his wife, Yoko Ono; on December 8th of that year, he was murdered on his way home from a recording studio. Rather than being his comeback, Double Fantasy became Lennon's sweet, gentle farewell.
But it would have been a rock & roll event regardless. After a self-indulgent, eighteen-month "lost weekend," a separation from Ono and a few disappointing albums, Lennon had retreated into a life of domesticity in late 1975, devoting himself to being a househusband and a father to his son Sean.
In the spring of 1980, Lennon and Sean sailed to Bermuda for a brief vacation; there Lennon became intrigued by New Wave musicians like the Pretenders, Lene Lovich and Madness. And when he heard the B-52's song "Rock Lobster," he was spurred to action. "It sounds just like Ono's music," he told Rolling Stone, "so I said to myself, 'It's time to get out the old axe and wake the wife up!'"
Lennon would write a song, call Ono in New York and sing it to her; she would answer with a new tune she had written. They wrote more than two dozen songs in three weeks, then recorded two albums' worth of material at the Hit Factory, in New York City. He went into the studio, Lennon later said, "not to prove anything but just to enjoy it."
The result was structured as a dialogue — one song by Lennon, then one by Ono — dealing with their trials, their separation and, above all, their love. Despite the tensions brought to the surface in songs like Lennon's "I'm Losing You" and Ono's "I'm Moving On," most of the album deals with the contentment Lennon enjoyed once he had left the music business behind. "No longer riding on the merry-go-round," he sings in the marvelous, contemplative "Watching the Wheels," "I just had to let it go."
Initial critical reaction was not unanimously favorable. Some early reviewers attacked Double Fantasy for its cozy domesticity, and several other prominent pans were written but withdrawn from publication after Lennon's death. But in the end the album proved to be durable not just as — in the words of Rolling Stone contributor Stephen Holden — "an exemplary portrait of a perfect heterosexual union" but as a lovely picture of the happiness two artists had found in each other. "I cannot be a punk in Hamburg and Liverpool anymore," said Lennon three days before his murder. "I'm older now. I see the world through different eyes. I still believe in love, peace and understanding, as Elvis Costello said, and what's so funny about love, peace and understanding?"
• Photos: John Lennon and Yoko Ono in New York: The Last Years
Janet Jackson, ‘Control’
“This is a story about control: my control.” So begins Janet Jackson‘s musical diary about her coming of age.
Growing up in America’s first family of pop music, Janet began writing and playing at the age of nine. But Control was her declaration of independence from a family in which a musical career was expected and all business and career decisions were made by an autocratic father. “The Control project represents the first time that I chose to use my ideas on one of my albums,” Jackson says.
Jimmy Jam, who coproduced the album with his partner, Terry Lewis, says that the singer desperately desired to make an album that would demonstrate she was capable of standing on her own.
“She wanted to separate from her past two albums, where she had been a singer with no say-so,” says Jam. “She was also getting out of a bad marriage and about to start living on her own, away from her family. Being a singer and entertainer was something she had been thrust into before she actually knew that was what she wanted to be.”
Working with Jam and Lewis at their Minneapolis studio, Flyte Tyme, provided an excellent environment for such a break. “She came to Minneapolis with just her friend Melanie,” says Jam. “There were no bodyguards, no limos. She drove herself around in my Blazer. She didn’t have people doing things for her.”
Only one of the album’s songs, “He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive,” penned by Flyte Tyme staff writer Spencer Bernard, was in hand when the sessions began. “We worked on the album for two months,” says Jam. “But we spent the first week just talking and getting to know each other.” Those conversations — in which Jackson talked about her desire to be independent — provided the material for the songs on Control, most of which were co-written by Jam, Lewis and Jackson. Actual recording time for the album, which would eventually sell more than 5 million copies in the U.S., was just three weeks.
Jam says he had no idea that Control would find such a broad audience. “We knew it would be a successful black album,” he says. “We tried to make the hardest, funkiest black album — almost a male singer’s album. The edginess that’s evident in the music on Control is her; that’s our interpretation of Janet.”
Although Michael Jackson’s Thriller had sold 40 million copies worldwide just a few years earlier, Jam says they felt little pressure about working in the shadow of Michael’s accomplishment. “Our joke was that we were out to make it so that Janet was no longer Michael’s little sister,” says Jam, “but rather that Michael was Janet’s big brother.”
Control succeeded in establishing Janet Jackson as an artist in her own right. Jam also views the album as a late-Eighties watershed in popular music. “It opened radio to funk,” he says, “and now that has spread into rap. Before Control it wasn’t acceptable to have hard-edged black music on pop radio. Now it’s the norm.”
Guns n’ Roses, ‘Appetite for Destruction’
"Who would have ever thought that the least likely to succeed would make it onto the Top 100 of the decade?" says Slash, the lead guitarist of the Los Angeles renegades Guns n' Roses. He has every right to savor the irony: Only a few short years before their debut album was recorded, the members of the band were living in well-documented druggy squalor, just one among many hard-rock bands looking to get a break on the competitive Los Angeles club scene.
But Guns n' Roses — a shotgun marriage between two bands, L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose — have an edgy dynamism that sets them apart from the pack. Led by a tattooed former delinquent named Axl Rose, Guns n' Roses play not so much pure metal as unalloyed hard rock that listeners who cut their teeth on the Rolling Stones and the New York Dolls can appreciate.
The dozen songs on Appetite for Destruction embrace contradictions in the band members' still-evolving characters, some aspects of which are none too pleasant to contemplate — e.g., the mounting drug habit described with indifference in the matter-of-fact "Mr. Brownstone." The opening number, "Welcome to the Jungle," describes the god-awful Pandora's box of street life for urban runaways with a cynical, scarifying leer. Numbers such as "It's So Easy," with its offhand decadence and driving beat, are real crowd arousers, releasing the venomous rage toward society — and toward themselves — that Guns n' Roses feel they have in common with their fans. During a performance in England at an outdoor heavy-metal festival, two audience members were stomped to death in a mass slam dance while Guns n' Roses played "It's So Easy." "The sincerity of the band shows," Slash told Rolling Stone in 1988. "That's why the crowds are so fuckin' violent. Not that I condone crowd violence and riots, but it's part of the energy that we put out."
The other side of Guns n' Roses is the unabashed sentimentality of "Sweet Child o' Mine," a ballad about a girlfriend sung by Rose with undisguised emotion. Appetite for Destruction is five talented misfits' way of coming to terms with the world — shouting, screaming and playing as hard as is humanly possible. The fact that it found a sizable and rabidly enthusiastic audience so quickly — the album has gone platinum eight times over — says that there are many, many kids out there who feel disenfranchised, disillusioned and confused about life in the Eighties. Guns n' Roses are singing their song.
• Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Appetite for Destruction' by Guns n' Roses
• Photos: Guns n' Roses Bring "Chinese Democracy" to North America
AC/DC, ‘Back in Black’
When AC/DC entered the studio in 1980 to cut Back in Black, its sixth American album, the band was nervous and uncertain about the future. Its longtime lead singer, the notorious Bon Scott, had choked to death in February following a drinking binge. The band members found a replacement in Brian Johnson, but they were still "a bit jittery," according to guitarist Angus Young. The gravel-voiced Johnson immediately clicked with the rest of AC/DC, and Back in Black surpassed all expectations, becoming one of the milestone hard-rock albums of the decade.
From the ominous tolling that opened "Hells Bells" to a closing blast of defiance titled "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution," the ten songs on Back in Black rock out with brute force and raunchy humor. "Let Me Put My Love Into You" and "You Shook Me All Night Long" may seem blasphemous to some, but AC/DC's lascivious frankness was part of a tradition passed down to rock from the blues. Besides, the down-under rockers were only writing about what they'd seen and heard on the road. Angus Young, who formed AC/DC in 1973 at the age of fourteen with older brother Malcolm, got an eyeful at an early age. "We were in Australia, which at that time was still a bit outback," says Young. "It was just a way of life, a way of talking, and that's how we communicated with the audience."
Angus picked up pointers about the guitar from his brother George, a member of the Easy Beats (of "Friday on My Mind" fame), and got the novel idea of performing in a schoolboy's uniform — blazer, short pants and beanie — from his sister Margaret, who for years had watched him run in the house, grab his guitar and run out the door without bothering to change clothes. "At first I thought, 'This is stupid,'" Young recalls. "But the moment I put it on, it was like Clark Kent and Superman. The suit gave me confidence: I could be another person and go, 'Well, it's not me,' you know?"
Back in Black came at a time when the band, through constant touring, had carved out a sizable audience. An instant success, the album entered the British charts at Number One and climbed to Number Four in the States — an exceptional showing for a heavy-metal album — and ultimately went on to sell 5 million copies worldwide. The members of AC/DC saluted Scott, their fallen comrade, by using black in the title and on the album jacket. "We didn't want to put in memory of, because Bon wasn't that sort of person," says Young. His loss inspired AC/DC to rock harder than ever — and to party somewhat more temperately. "I think we calmed down a bit," says Young. "But if there's a party, we can still put on a good show."
• AC/DC Photos: Four Decades of Big Riffs and Schoolboy Uniforms
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Tunnel of Love’
Bruce Springsteen wasn't a romantic young kid anymore. He couldn't write songs about hitting the road with his girl, because as he got into his late thirties, that wasn't the kind of thing that appealed to a married millionaire. So on the heels of his commercial blockbuster Born in the U.S.A. and the ensuing live boxed set that summarized and closed the chapter on the past ten years, Bruce Springsteen made a low-key, intimate record about adult relationships. "It's easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love," he sings ominously in the title track.
"When I wrote the record," he told Rolling Stone after its release, "I wanted to write a different type of romantic song, one that I felt took in the different types of emotional experiences of any real relationship. I guess I wanted to make a record about what I felt. Really letting another person into your life, that's a frightening thing. That's something that's filled with shadows and doubts, and also wonderful things and beautiful things, things you've never experienced before and things you cannot experience alone."
Tunnel of Love deals mostly with shadows and doubts. Ten years after Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen was singing in the voice of a man who, in the words of the remarkable "Brilliant Disguise," is "lost in the darkness of our love." At the center of the album is "Walk Like a Man," an open account of his wedding day. Surrounding the hope at the heart of that song are songs whose characters can barely keep their hopes alive: "Tunnel of Love," "One Step Up," the searing, hard-luck rocker "Spare Parts" and the fearful late-night reverie "Valentine's Day."
"I suppose it doesn't have the physical 'reach out and grab you by the throat and thrash you around' of, say, Born in the U.S.A." said Springsteen. "Tunnel of Love is a rock record, but most of the stuff is midtempo, and it's more rhythm oriented, very different. It was more meticulously arranged than anything I've done since Born to Run. I was into just getting the grooves."
It also came quickly. Unlike the modus operandi for most of his albums, Springsteen wrote only three or four extra songs, and he recorded the album swiftly, cutting most of the tracks in a small studio at his home in New Jersey. It was a quintessentially low-tech studio: It wasn't air-conditioned; Springsteen's Corvette had to be moved out of the way to do some piano overdubs; and if a car driving by honked its horn, the take would have to be redone.
Springsteen's first series of demos included nine of the album's twelve songs. "Brilliant Disguise" and "One Step Up" came later, and "Tunnel of Love" was written when Springsteen decided that it would make a good album title and set about composing a song with that name.
Most of the tracks were recorded, instrument by instrument, by Springsteen himself; though he later brought in E Street Band members and the odd outsider to add parts or replace drum machines, other musicians were used sparingly, and the entire band never played together. As a result, Tunnel of Love has an intimacy perfectly suited to the tales being told by a rock star determined to return to a more human scale in his music.
"The way you counteract the size [of stardom] is by becoming more intimate in your work," he said. "And I suppose that's why after I did Born in the U.S.A., I made an intimate record … a record that was really addressed to my core audience, my longtime fans."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1987 Review
X, ‘Los Angeles’
No album has succeeded better as a snapshot of a city and its punk subculture than X's debut album, boldly titled Los Angeles. From the William Burroughs cut-and-paste sex and violence of "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene" to the Beverly Hills sleaze of "Sex and Dying in High Society," X depicts a morbid, kicks-oriented demimonde going up in flames. "All those songs are from actual incidents," says singer Exene. "They're not just made up."
In all essential respects, X's Los Angeles was not that different from the city Jim Morrison celebrated and damned in his work with the Doors. In fact, the Doors' keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, became X's producer. "I thought Exene was the next step after Patti Smith," Manzarek told writer Richard Cromelin. "She takes it further than any woman has ever taken it."
After being passed over by many major labels, the group signed with the small Slash Records and cut Los Angeles — with Manzarek producing and playing keyboards — for the low-budget sum of $10,000. The musical core of the group was punkabilly guitarist Billy Zoom, powerhouse drummer D.J. Bonebrake and bassist John Doe. Exene's untrained but arresting voice entwined with Doe's pitch-perfect vocals in unique harmonies that veered from normal intervals to dissonance. "We ended up with a reckless, offbeat kind of sound that was pretty at the same time, which is an unusual combination," says Exene. Before long, the same labels that had rejected the band were involved in a bidding war to sign them, and X was on its way to leaving a mark on the Eighties with a string of albums.
Doe and Exene, who had independently migrated to Los Angeles from the East Coast, wrote so compulsively about their adopted city because they had never seen anything quite like Los Angeles or its punk-misfit culture. "Any time you're twenty years old and in a big city for the first time, you're going to be writing up a storm," says Exene. "The thing I found incredible about Los Angeles was the flagrant inequality. You'd be on the Sunset Strip with people dangerously close to attacking you for money while all these Rolls-Royces were going by. You just feel like everybody's insane there. No one really has any values. They just make up a little story to act out, and that's their life."
Black Uhuru, ‘Red’
Until the late eighties, only one foreign musical culture, Jamaica’s reggae and its antecedent ska, had managed to exert a major influence on rock & roll. With the passing of reggae’s primary architect and prophet, Bob Marley, the Kingston-based vocal trio Black Uhuru appeared poised to assume the mantle of reggae’s leadership. At a moment when the music was in critical need of a strong new voice, Black Uhuru’s finest album, Red, shone with all the musical intensity and political fervor of the Rastafarian movement.
Black Uhuru, formed in 1974 by singers Derrick “Duckie” Simpson, Garth Dennis and Don Carlos, took its name from the Swahili word for freedom (uhuru) and cut a handful of Jamaican singles that failed to attract much attention. After several lineup changes, Black Uhuru solidified as a trio consisting of Simpson, fellow Kingstonite Michael Rose and American social worker turned performer Sandra “Puma” Jones.
Along the way, Black Uhuru also replaced its original producer, Jamaican dub master Lee “Scratch” Perry, with the bass and drum battery of Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar. The thunderous drumming of Dunbar and heartbeat bass of Shakespeare were already earning them a reputation as one of the world’s finest rhythm sections. Black Uhuru’s first collaboration with them — which was also the first recording for Sly and Robbie’s Taxi Records label — caught the attention of Island Records president Chris Blackwell (the man who introduced Bob Marley and the Wailers to the world). The group made its debut on Mango/Island in 1980 with Sensimilla. On Red, released the following year, the propulsive, electronic sound of the band solidified.
Red is a plea for cultural revolution and religious faith. From the opening “Youth of Eglington,” a call not to arms but to thought and clean living for Rastafarians, through the closing “Carbine,” which counsels patience to Rastas in the diaspora, Red strives to send a message of hope to a people in cultural exile. Along the way, Black Uhuru celebrates the naturalist and nationalist roots of its lifestyle.
Despite critical raves for both Red and for Black Uhuru’s live shows, American audiences proved largely indifferent to a seemingly impenetrable foreign culture. The lack of success, coupled with business squabbles, led to the dissolution of what is considered Black Uhuru’s definitive lineup. “We’d be one of the strongest reggae bands ever if we could have avoided the jealousies,” says Simpson.
The Smiths, ‘The Smiths’
Without the help of a major label, a video or any real promotion, the Smiths‘ 1984 debut entered the U.K. charts at Number Two and became an alternative-radio favorite in the U.S. “We were incredibly sure of ourselves at the time,” says guitarist Johnny Marr of himself and singer-lyricist Morrissey.
The band’s single “This Charming Man” filled a gap on the radio. “Up until then, either you were a chart group with no substance or you were kind of an indie group who nobody ever got to hear,” says Marr. “‘This Charming Man’ found a happy compromise. It brought a real commercial kind of sound together with interesting lyrics and a good groove concept.”
Morrissey, the brooding lead singer, wrote provocative, literate lyrics to accompany Marr’s haunting melodies.
“I went specifically to Morrissey’s house because I knew he was a singer and a great writer, and I was desperate to pull a group together,” says Marr. “I’d had enough of a bland music scene in England, and I felt like the time was absolutely right for us. On the face of it, it wasn’t the most original thing to just get a four-piece band — guitar, bass, drums and a voice — but at the time, there was a move in England towards synthesizer music and duos. And lyrically, no one was dealing with the things that Morrissey was.”
The first two songs the pair wrote together (before bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce joined the band) were the melancholic “Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and the bittersweet “Suffer Little Children.”
“We just kind of built from there,” says Marr. “I’d put all of the stuff on cassette and give it to Morrissey. We wrote so quickly that it didn’t take us long to write the entire first LP — four weeks from start to finish. And that kind of kept that intensity up. We had a really close relationship that was really difficult for most people to penetrate.”
Although the album was eventually recorded at Manchester’s Pluto recording studio, the Smiths originally tried to cut it in London. “We recorded a whole load of tracks in London and it just didn’t feel right,” says Marr.
The band hooked up with producer John Porter during a Radio One session for the BBC. “We were actually waiting to be produced by somebody else, and John just happened to wander through the studio when we were setting up our equipment. We realized he was ex-Roxy Music and so on, and within about ten minutes of talking to him, we decided to sack the other producer. For me, as a guitarist, it was one of the best things that ever happened. I was starting to develop my style, and he saw something in my playing that he really felt he could work on.”
Things were a little more strained between Marr and Morrissey. “There were one or two fights,” Marr admits. “We had a very intense relationship. It wasn’t exactly a laugh a minute.” While the creative friction between Marr and Morrissey propelled them through future albums, that same intensity led to the band’s eventual dissolution in 1987.
Tom Waits, ‘Rain Dogs’
With Closing Time, released in 1973, Tom Waits staked out a rock & roll gutter all his own, gruffly crooning beat-poet tales of drifters over R&B and jazz-tinged accompaniment. With the 1983 release Swordfishtrombones, his vocals turned more ragged, his songwriting more eclectic and his orchestrations more "junkyard."
His noisome world was never so beautiful as on his tenth album, Rain Dogs — his first self-production and the first time he recorded in his new hometown of New York City. The album is "a little more developed and more ethnic feeling," he said at the time. "Kind of an interaction between Appalachia and Nigeria."
The title, Waits said, referred to the fact that "dogs in the rain lose their way home, [because] after it rains, every place they peed on has been washed out…. They go to sleep thinking the world is one way, and they wake up and somebody moved the furniture."
The cover photo depicts a prostitute comforting a sailor who looks disconcertingly like Waits. From the first clanking strains of "Singapore" ("We're all as mad as hatters here") to the closing New Orleans-style spiritual, "Anywhere I Lay My Head," the nineteen songs on Rain Dogs are peopled by such lost souls.
"Tango Till They're Sore" was written about a friend who jumped out of a window; "9th & Hennepin" recalled the time Waits was stuck in the middle of a pimp war at a Minneapolis doughnut shop. But for the most part, while writing songs for Rain Dogs, Waits said he "was thinking of the guy going back to Philadelphia from Manhattan on the Metroliner with the New York Times, looking out the window in New York as he pulls out of the station, imagining all the terrible things he doesn't have to be a part of."
Despite impressive walk-ons from Keith Richards, Robert Quine and John Lurie, it was the band Waits patched together that bravely followed him down every skanky alley. Guitarist Marc Robot lent his oddball twang to "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and the title cut; bassist Larry Taylor provided an ominous underpinning; and percussionist Michael Blair filled in the gaps with marimba, bowed saw, parade drum and anything that wasn't nailed down.
"If I couldn't get the right sound out of the drum set," Waits said, "we'd get a chest of drawers in the bathroom and hit it real hard with a two-by-four." In that way, he explained, "the sounds become your own."
• Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Playlist: Tom Waits
• Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Video: Tom Waits and Neil Young, Darlene Love and Bruce Springsteen, All Star Jam
"To summarize the Pretenders, says Chrissie Hynde, the band's vocalist, songwriter and founder, "all I can say is that we were the genuine article. In fact, we were so genuine we killed ourselves." She is referring to the drug-related deaths of original band members James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon in the early Eighties. "We never had any pretensions," she continues. "If it sounded dangerous, it was because it was dangerous."
Indeed, on Pretenders, the band backs Hynde's potent vocals with fast, aggressive playing. She wastes no time on politeness or protocol; her songs are blunt, hard-nosed treatises on social and sexual politics, such as the dark, carnal "Tattooed Love Boys." A sense of defiant self-worth emerges in the soulful, chugging "Brass in Pocket," in which Hynde sings, "I'm special, so special/I've got to have some of your attention/Give it to me!"
As Ken Tucker wrote in a Rolling Stone review, Pretenders tells stories "about how good, tempestuous sex can be redemptive; how bad relationships thrive on degrees of contempt; how passionate self-absorption can sometimes open up into a greater understanding of the people with whom you're involved."
By 1980, Hynde — who grew up in Akron, Ohio — had been living in England for the better part of a decade. As a part-time writer for the British music weekly New Musical Express, she'd found herself sometimes questioning the validity of that line of work. "In 1973, I realized that there was no point in being a journalist and just knocking everything that was going on at the time," Hynde says. "Then it occurred to me, 'What the hell, why not me?' About 1976, I saw that the moment was coming when I could get away with it. It's all about timing, you see. If you wait long enough, your number comes up."
She met three musicians from Hereford, near Wales — guitarist Honeyman-Scott, bass player Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers — and they formed the Pretenders. Their music was more diverse than the machine-gun rhythms of punk, because the three Britons were accomplished musicians and Hynde had grown up on a diet of AM radio. "I didn't quite fit into the London punk scene because I'd been listening to too many Bobby Womack albums, you know?" says Hynde. "My musical background was a little too rich for the punk thing."
The Pretenders did share with punk an outsider's contempt for society, however. The debut album was an uncensored expression of the motivations that drew Hynde and the others to rock & roll in the first place. "I thought being in a band was an antiestablishment lifestyle," he says. "It's only ever been my interest to maintain that, and to maintain my freedom as a bum. I don't want to be recognized; I don't want to be hassled. I just want to play guitar in a rock & roll band."
Lou Reed, ‘New York’
"Faulkner had the South; Joyce had Dublin; I've got New York — and the environs," said Lou Reed this past spring, and he was not being immodest. The Big Apple, rotten or otherwise, has been both the setting for and subject of Reed's ongoing novel-in-music since the mid-Sixties, when he penned his first chapters on drugs, sex and desperation in the urban shadows and set them to the primal beat of the Velvet Underground.
But on his 1989 installment, New York, Reed took Manhattan and turned it inside out with a vengeance fueled by moral outrage. In a carefully scripted fourteen-song suite, he addressed the plight of the homeless, the hopeless and victims of AIDS and racial prejudice with the same clenched, bristling imagery and acidic wit he'd once applied to the city's uptown glitterati and downtown bohemians.
Reed then scored his libretto for two guitars (Reed and Mike Rathke), bass (Rob Wasserman) and drums (Fred Maher, who coproduced with Reed). The sound of New York is rooted in the brute metallic attack of the original Velvets; drummer Maureen Tucker even played on two songs, including the Andy Warhol tribute "Dime Store Mystery."
Except for an occasional overdub, New York was recorded live in the studio. Indeed, the false start at the beginning of "Romeo Had Juliette," the album's opening track, is exactly as Reed and crew flubbed it on the first day of recording. "It was the first song I had written," Reed told Rolling Stone shortly after the album's release. "We went in and did it in a day. And that's the take, the one you hear."
Prior to recording, Reed put the songs through an intense three-month bout of editing and rewriting at his home in New Jersey. "Even before pen hits paper, I really self-edit a lot," he explained. "So when I go to write something, it's pretty close, even just the first draft But it's way better by the sixth."
When a song started to take shape. Reed would bring in Rathke to play along on guitar, "because I couldn't play my part and sing at the same time," said Reed. "It was too new. Mike played my guitar part, and I would sing, for real. And where it didn't work, I rewrote it there, rewrote it and rewrote it until every word was exact."
While Reed insisted in New York's liner notes that the album was designed to be listened to in a single sitting, "as though it were a book or a movie," he admitted in conversation that the songs were not sequenced in any particular dramatic order.
"We had tried to put the songs in order, to tell the story moodwise and emotionally," said Reed. "And when it didn't work, it was so bad it was unbelievable. Then Victor [Deyglio], one of the engineers, said, 'There's a trick I've learned over the years. Why not put it in the order that it was recorded in?' And there it was. Wow!"
• 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Lou Reed
Prince, ‘Dirty Mind’
Dirty Mind marked Prince's coming of age. It was the first album on which he successfully synthesized the rock and soul he had grown up on into a vibrant, strikingly original sound, at the same time turning his own sexuality and flamboyance into a clear-cut style and stance. His vocals — including crystal-clear falsettos — established Prince as one of the preeminent pop singers of the Eighties.
If Marvin Gaye had opened the bedroom door a crack nearly a decade earlier with sexually frank songs like "You Sure Love to Ball," Prince ripped that door right off its hinges. Dirty Mind's lyrics cover oral sex ("Head"), incest ("Sister") and a ménage à trois gone bad ("When You Were Mine") and set a new standard for mainstream pop music, paving the way for tamer tracks like George Michael's "I Want Your Sex."
Then there is the music: a daring mix of modern technology, raw rock & roll and irresistible funk. Prince's keyboard-dominated "Minneapolis sound" became the blueprint for a generation of soul, funk and pop groups. His influence is evident in songs ranging from Ready for the World's "Oh Sheila" to Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy."
Working mostly alone in a cramped, makeshift sixteen-track basement studio in his Minneapolis home on Lake Minnetonka, Prince created Dirty Mind in a few months. Many of the songs were cut quickly — often in one night. He took engineering credit under the pseudonym Jamie Starr. "Maybe he didn't want it to seem like he did everything," says keyboardist Matt Fink, who helped write the album's title track and played on both "Head" and "Do It All Night." About half of the material was written during a tour that found Prince and his band opening for soul star Rick James; Prince whipped up "When You Were Mine" in a Florida hotel room. "It was probably inspired by an old girlfriend," says Fink.
The title track was based on a jam riff Fink created that Prince took a fancy to when he heard the band playing it one day during rehearsal. "He asked me to come over to his house," says Fink. "I left at 2:00 a.m. after we cut basic tracks. By the next morning he'd finished it."
Although Prince's sexuality was apparent on his first two albums, it came to the forefront on Dirty Mind. "He really found himself with that album," says Bobby Z, who was the drummer in Prince's band at the time. "I think he wrote better songs. And the roughness of it gave it an edge — it was a little more garage sounding."
"That really was him at the time," says Fink. "He was rejoicing in his own sexuality. He was saying, 'Sex is a reality, don't be afraid of it.'"
Prince naturally expected the album to be controversial. "He knew he was entering some hot soup," says Bobby Z. "Any time you do anything where you're pushing the envelope, you know?"
But Prince's father wasn't impressed. "When I first played Dirty Mind for him," Prince once told a reporter, "he said, 'You're swearing on the record. Why do you have to do that?' And I said, 'Because I swear.'"
The Police, ‘Synchronicity’
The last Police album was the best Police album — musically and thematically. Synchronicity was as good as thinking man's New Wave ever got. On it, singer, bassist and chief songwriter Sting applied Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's theories of the collective unconsciousness and mystical coincidence (a.k.a. synchronicity) to personal, embittered studies of pain, vengeance and the agony of love's labors lost.
The material was dark but well suited to the group's method of interaction in the studio: "violence," according to Sting in a 1983 interview. "I'll argue till the cows come home about something I believe in, and so will Andy and Stewart," he said, referring to guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland. "Synchronicity went through all kinds of horrendous cogs and gears to come out, emotionally and technically, the way it did."
It was the last album by the fractious Police, who quietly dissolved after a half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt to reunite in the studio three years later. Yet there was little evidence of battle on Synchronicity. Sting's bracing tenor was dramatically framed by the subtle third-world inflections in Copeland's drumming and Summers's delicately serrated guitar. The band displayed a refined sense of pop drama in "Every Breath You Take" — a chilling ode to obsession heightened by a haunting guitar riff — and the gothic strains of "King of Pain."
Closer to the surface were Sting's own wounds suffered during a messy divorce in 1982 from actress Frances Tomelty, his wife of seven years. Afterward, he went to Jamaica, staying at novelist Ian Fleming's old house and writing a large chunk of Synchronicity — including "Every Breath You Take," "King of Pain" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" — at the same desk Fleming had written his James Bond novels. The recurring images of entrapment and pain in Sting's lyrics dovetailed with his interest in Jungian theory, which he set to music in "Synchronicity I" and "Synchronicity II."
"The title of the album refers to coincidence and things being connected without there being a logical link," he said. Sting has continued to psychoanalyze himself in song as a solo artist, but Synchronicity captured him at a particularly vulnerable and eloquent juncture in his career. As he himself said, "I do my best work when I'm in pain and turmoil."
• Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review
• Photos: Hot Rock Offspring featuring Madonna, Sting and More Stars' Famous Kids
Recording a two-record set at a time when he had yet to become a major star was a risky thing for Prince to do — but the risk paid off. Upon its release. 1999 became Prince's biggest seller; two singles, "Little Red Corvette" and "Delirious," went Top Ten, while the title track reached Number Twelve. Although it contained only eleven songs, clocking in at nearly seventy minutes, 1999 gave Prince the room he needed to address some of his favorite topics: sex, romance, freedom and even rock critics, who were toyed with in "All the Critics Love U in New York."
The album was at once both Prince's most experimental and his most commercial. Three of the songs were each more than eight minutes in length, including "Lady Cab Driver," which features one of his most danceable grooves. The title track is a prime example of Prince's pop craftsmanship, utilizing multiple lead vocals. The striking lyrics — about dancing the night away in the face of Armageddon — remain the perfect metaphor for the modern age. While "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)" found him working with synthesizers and drum machines, creating disturbingly ominous textures, "Little Red Corvette" was a straightforward, infectious rocker that leaped onto pop radio.
"I think he was trying to become as mainstream as possible, without violating his own philosophy, without having to compromise any of his ideas," says keyboardist Matt Fink, who was a member of Prince's band the Revolution at the time. "To some extent, he was trying to make the music sound nice, something that would be pleasing to the ear of the average person who listens to the radio, yet send a message. I mean, '1999' was pretty different for a message. Not your average bubblegum hit."
Prince recorded much of the album at Uptown, his name for the basement studio he had built in his infamous purple house, located in a suburb of Minneapolis. The basement studio was more sophisticated than the one he had used for Dirty Mind and included a twenty-four-track recorder. "The groove got settled," says drummer Bobby Z. "He knew it was back to dance. There wasn't anymore of the 'Ronnie Talk to Russia' kind of songs. There was some weird stuff, like 'Something in the Water,' but it was still very funky. I think he found his groove, and the groove never left."
Although only Prince was billed on 1999 — like the three releases that preceded it — the album portended the integration of his band into future recording projects. He shared some of the lead vocal spots with keyboardist Lisa Coleman and guitarist Dez Dickerson, and Dickerson contributed the searing solos on "Little Red Corvette." On the psychedelic purple album cover, in small, backward lettering that partially obscures the i in "Prince" are the words "and the Revolution." "He was setting the public up for something that was yet to come," says Bobby Z.
Bobby Z. remembers the months Prince spent on 1999 as a period of intense creativity, when Prince's credo was "Anything goes." "A lot of experimental sound and backwards stuff was tried," says the drummer. "'Lady Cab Driver' was very innovative with the street sounds and almost a kind of rap. 'Something in the Water' was definitely using the Linn drum machine to its fullest. Prince was experimenting to get to something like the next album [Purple Rain]; 1999 gave him the keys to a lot of doors."
• Photos: Prince's Welcome 2 America Tour at MSG
The Replacements, ‘Let It Be’
After three albums of endearingly loud, fast rock & roll, the Replacements took a giant step forward without surrendering their raucous edge on Let It Be. By then, leader Paul Westerberg had developed into a first-rate songwriter, capable of soul-baring introspection ("Unsatisfied"), wry character studies ("Androgynous") and frenzied, go-for-broke rock ("We're Coming Out"). Let It Be caught one of America's most promising bands at an early creative peak, straddling the line between inspired amateurism and accomplished, deliberate craftsmanship.
For Westerberg, Let It Be was a break with the Replacements' punk aesthetic. "Playing that kind of noisy, fake hardcore rock was getting us nowhere, and it wasn't a lot of fun," he says. "This was the first time I had songs that we arranged, rather than just banging out riffs and giving them titles." The anthemic opening number, "I Will Dare," was written on acoustic guitar — a first for Westerberg.
Constrained by what people wanted the group to be — the loud, sloppy and lovable Mats, as they were known to fans — Westerberg let his feelings out on Let It Be with songs like "Unsatisfied." "I was not terribly happy," admits Westerberg. "It was just the feeling that we're never going anywhere and the music we're playing is not the music I feel and I don't know what to do and I don't know how to express myself. I felt that one to the absolute bone when I did it."
Let It Be, cut at a small Minneapolis studio, Blackberry Way, was the final album in which the Replacements' hell-raising lead guitarist, Bob Stinson, had a key role, and blowouts like "We're Coming Out" were written with him in mind. Stinson was present but not really accounted for on the next studio album, Tim, and was out of the band by the time Pleased to Meet Me was recorded. His younger brother, Tommy, remains the band's bassist, and Chris Mars the drummer.
The title Let It Be, of course, came from the Beatles. Appropriating it, says Westerberg, "was our way of saying that nothing is sacred, that the Beatles were just a damn fine rock & roll band. We seriously were gonna call the next record Let It Bleed." The songs on Let It Be were cut quickly and crudely. "We didn't have a producer looking over our shoulder, saying, 'This isn't done, boys,'" Westerberg says. Yet Let It Be has a solid emotional core, and the Replacements' evolution was fitting. "The jump from a wild punk band to one that actually plays songs and has some interesting stuff came at the right time," says Westerberg.
Peter Gabriel, ‘So’
"I was thinking of doing a blues and soul album," says Peter Gabriel about the origins of So, his multiplatinum 1986 album. "I was going to do half existing songs — favorite songs from my teenage years — and half new stuff. 'Sledgehammer' was the first song I developed for that project."
It was also the first single from So. Propelled by a powerful groove and a groundbreaking Claymation video, "Sledgehammer" went to Number One, opening the door for the album's commercial success. Daniel Lanois, who coproduced Gabriel's instrumental soundtrack for the film Birdy and then was invited back to work on So, says he and Gabriel wanted the album to be engaging and accessible.
"We had mutually decided on a philosophy for the record — that we would incorporate a playfulness and a humanness," says Lanois. "I thought it was important for Peter to be very clear with some of these songs. I wanted the listener to be able to touch the voice. I was definitely looking to bring Peter to the foreground."
Despite its mass appeal, however, So also presented compelling challenges. "Mercy Street" draws on the work of the influential American poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974. Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour wails a spectacular background vocal on "In Your Eyes." A Depression-era shot by the American photographer Dorothea Lange and Gabriel's concern about the miners on strike in England inspired Gabriel to write "Don't Give Up."
The cartoonish rocker "Big Time" harpoons the excesses of Eighties-style ambition, while the haunting "We Do What We're Told" derives from a university experiment in which test subjects were asked to administer what they believed were injury-inducing electric shocks to others and complied, in the majority of cases, rather than disobey the authority figure giving them instructions. Addressing Gabriel's recurrent theme of control — "One is ego dominant, and the other is ego submissive," he says — these two songs define extremes that must be avoided.
Given the album's thematic reach, why the seemingly offhand title? "I liked the shape and the fact that it didn't have too much meaning," Gabriel says in his elliptical way.
Midnight Oil, ‘Diesel and Dust’
The next time you hear some rock star moaning about life on the road, think of this album and the remarkable tour that inspired it. In the summer of 1986 — which is actually winter down under — the Australian rockers and political activists of Midnight Oil packed amplifiers, sleeping bags and good intentions into a caravan of four-wheel-drive vehicles and embarked on a concert tour of remote Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory.
The members of the band ate grubs and wallaby meat and played on makeshift stages under chilly night skies for audiences huddled around campfires. They also witnessed firsthand the extreme poverty, cultural devastation and spiritual resilience of the island continent's original settlers. The Oils' awe and anger came pouring out in Diesel and Dust, an album caked with outback grit and charged with hard-rock moxie and melodic savvy. Contrasting images of Aboriginal desperation and determination with the ruins of white manifest destiny, Diesel and Dust is a site-specific document rooted in a basic theme of man's inhumanity to man.
The Oils' odyssey had started a couple of years earlier, when at the request of a teacher friend, they played to 300 Aborigines at a settlement near Darwin. "It made a greater impact on us than playing in New York . . . or to audiences of 30,000 anywhere," lead singer Peter Garrett told an Australian reporter in 1986. "The more we toured overseas, the more the desire grew to get out with the Aborigines and learn more about our own country."
Shortly before the tour, Midnight Oil was commissioned to write a song for a documentary about the return of a sacred tribal site, Ayers Rock — or Uluru, the Aboriginal name — to its rightful owners. The band delivered "The Dead Heart," a song of ghostly urgency that was a Number One hit down under and subsequently became the centerpiece of Diesel and Dust. Also written at the same time was "Beds Are Burning," another powerful song about Ayers Rock. Appropriately, the band played both songs for its Aboriginal audiences; at one settlement, Kintore, the village elders responded to the Oils' sincerity by allowing them to participate in a sacred tribal ceremony.
Upon returning to their Sydney home base, the Oils wrote the rest of Diesel and Dust and undertook a tour of sweaty local pubs to road-test the material before recording it with British producer Warne Livesey. The resulting album gave the band its first gold album in America, as well as a Top Twenty single in "Beds Are Burning." It also fulfilled Midnight Oil's long-standing desire, in drummer Rob Hirst's words, "to write Australian music that people overseas could get into and understand, which would enlarge their whole vision of Australia past Vegemite sandwiches and kangaroo hops."
Public Enemy, ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’
"I wanted to try to make a Hip-Hop version of Marvin Gaye's What's Goin On," says the leader of Public Enemy, Chuck D. "Something that was there, something that was a staple, something that no matter how many times you played it, you had to go back to it again and again." Only time will tell if It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a potent rap discourse on drugs, poverty and black self-determination, will compare with Gaye's eloquent classic of social realism.
After their first album, the members of Public Enemy gained a new social perspective, and these self-proclaimed prophets of rage articulated the anger implicit in the hard beats and bottomless bravado of ghetto-born rap. "Bring the Noise" and "Rebel Without a Pause" blasted out of beat boxes, Jeeps and BMWs all summer; the phrase "Don't believe the hype" became the "Where's the beef?" of 1988; and despite being aimed at urban blacks, the album also won a large white audience.
Virtually every track contains repeated shrill noises that are both irritating and riveting; its agit-rap sound communicates as much rebellion as the lyrics. "Most people were saying that rap music was noise," says producer Hank Shocklee, "and we decided, 'If they think it's noise, then let's show them noise! But we're also gonna give them something to think about.'"
Like many sounds on the album, the distinctive dive-bombing squeal of "Rebel Without a Pause" is actually an inspired bit of digital alchemy — a mixture of the JBs and Miles Davis. "We use samples like an artist would use paint," says Shocklee. The album packs literally hundreds of collaged sounds drawn from more than 150 different recordings. Snippets of speeches by Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson were also employed.
But the biggest noise came courtesy of Public Enemy's lyrics. "I don't rhyme for the sake of riddlin'," says Chuck D. in "Don't Believe the Hype," as he castigates the media for painting the members of the band as criminals and declares, "I'm not a racist." The chilling "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" portrays a convicted draft dodger who leads a violent jailbreak, and "Party for Your Right to Fight" ladles out Black Muslim rhetoric about "grafted devils." For some badly needed comic relief, there's a solo turn by Chuck D.'s foil Flavor Flav, "Cold Lampin' With Flavor," a relentless cascade of hip-hop argot (lampin' means "hanging around on the corner by the street lamp").
Some critics complained that Chuck D. spent more time barking than biting on It Takes a Nation of Millions. But in the end, Chuck D. attributes the bravado to the exigencies of making a good rap record. "If I'm working on an album, I've got to drop some smackin' rap jams," he says. "I mean, this is music, too. If I was a preacher, I would be in a church. I'm trying to do something that hasn't been done before in popular music."
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Get Happy!’
"We knocked off a few good grooves on that one, I suppose," said Elvis Costello of Get Happy!! earlier this year. Of course, he understated the case for his fourth album considerably. Get Happy!! — on which Costello and the Attractions race through twenty flawless soul-pop gems in just over forty minutes — is perhaps the smartest, most impassioned party record of the decade. It may also be the most listenable mea culpa in rock history.
In the winter of 1979, while in Columbus, Ohio, on tour in support of Armed Forces, Costello got involved in an ugly argument with Bonnie Bramlett and members of Stephen Stills's band at a hotel bar. In a misguided effort to offend Bramlett and company, the British New Waver — who had been active in Britain's Rock Against Racism movement — made some racist remarks about black American musicians. The result was a painful and humiliating public-relations disaster for Costello that saw him receive death threats and have his records dropped from radio-station playlists.
While Costello dealt formally with the incident at a press conference in New York City a few days later, he did a much better job of clearing the air with this album, which affirmed his respect and affection for the music of black America. Get Happy!! was his and the Attractions' version of a Motown album and therefore an attempt to disprove some false accusations. "I had the feeling people were reading my mind," Costello told Rolling Stone's Greil Marcus in 1982, "but what could I do, hold up a sign that read, 'I really like black people?'"
For Get Happy!! Costello and the Attractions — keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas — again worked with producer Nick Lowe, though in a new location, Withlord Studios, in Amsterdam. Lowe came up with a low-tech, back-to-mono sound that suited Costello's soul-revival approach. Many songs were pieced together from notes made during the Armed Forces tour. As Tom Carson wrote in a Rolling Stone review, "This is an album that springs straight from the tensions and interruptions of life on the road — all of its scenes seem to take place in motel rooms or between planes or over long-distance phone lines."
The desperate, bitter romantic longing telegraphed in so many of the album's lyrics is offset by a light touch musically. Though Get Happy!! was the product of a difficult, even "demented" (according to Costello) time in his life, there are moments when, lost in the soulful gait of the music, he sounds, well, downright happy.
• Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Elvis Costello
• Video: Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes Play the New York Public Library
Tracy Chapman, ‘Tracy Chapman’
"This album was made for the right reasons," says David Kershenbaum, who produced Tracy Chapman's debut album.
"There was a set of ideas that we wanted to communicate, and we felt if we were truthful and loyal to those ideas, then people would pick up on the emotion and the lyrical content that was there." The stark realism of Chapman's songwriting, combined with her warm, richly textured vocals, brought a refreshing integrity to the airwaves.
Chapman was discovered in 1987 by fellow Tufts University student Brian Koppelman. "I was helping organize a boycott protest against apartheid at school, and someone told me there was this great protest singer I should get to play at the rally," says Koppelman, who now works in A&R at Elektra. He went to see Chapman perform at a coffeehouse called Cappuccino. "Tracy walked onstage, and it was like an epiphany," he says. "Her presence, her voice, her songs, her sincerity — it all came across."
Koppelman approached Chapman after the performance and said, "I don't normally do this, but I think my father could help you a lot." (Charles Koppelman, his father, was then co-owner of SBK Publishing, one of the largest independent song publishers in the world.) Chapman listened politely but didn't say much and went on her way.
Undaunted, Koppelman continued attending her shows, sitting in the front row. Although Chapman finally agreed to talk, she declined to cut any demos for him. Then Koppelman found out that Chapman had already recorded some demos at the Tufts radio station, WMFO, for copyright purposes. (In exchange, the station got to broadcast her songs.) Koppelman went to the station, and while a friend distracted the DJ, he lifted one of the tapes. It had one song, "Talkin' Bout a Revolution," on it. He made a copy and took it to his father. "He immediately got the picture and flew up to see her," Koppelman says.
Chapman's demo tape with SBK led to a signing with Elektra. "I have to say that I never thought I would get a contract with a major record label," she told an interviewer shortly after the album's release. "All the time since I was a kid listening to records and the radio, I didn't think there was any indication that record people would find the kind of music that I did marketable. Especially when I was singing songs like 'Talkin' Bout a Revolution' during the Seventies. . . . I didn't see a place for me there."
David Kershenbaum was suggested by an SBK executive, according to Koppelman, after several other producers turned down the project. "I'd been looking for something acoustic to do for some time," says Kershenbaum. "There was a sense in the industry of a slight boredom with everything out there and that people might be willing to listen again to lyrics and to someone who made statements."
Chapman's greatest concern during her meetings with Kershenbaum was that the integrity of her songs remain intact. "She said right off the bat that she wanted the record to be real simple," says Kershenbaum. "I wanted to make sure that she was in front, vocally and thematically, and that everything was built around her."
Every song on the album, with the exception of "Fast Car," was on the SBK demo. Chapman played "Fast Car" for Kershenbaum during their first meeting. "I loved it the minute I heard it." he says. "It was the most heartfelt song on the album, as far as people relating to it and visualizing what the songs were."
Tracy Chapman was recorded over an eight-week period at Powertrax, Kershenbaum's Hollywood studio. As many as thirty different bass players and drummers were invited to come in to play with her. "Mountains o' Things" was the hardest track to cut. "Tracy was so used to just singing and playing that when she got into the slight rhythm changes a band might add, it was somewhat disorienting for her," Kershenbaum says. "We had [percussionist] Paulinho Da Costa in one day, and we tried it with just Tracy and him." That wound up being the version used, with other instruments added later. In a similar way, "Behind the Wall" was recorded a cappella — and left as is.
The album opens with "Talkin' Bout a Revolution," which is "a good introduction to who she is and what she's saying," says Kershenbaum. The running order of the other ten songs on Tracy Chapman was determined by writing song titles out on three-by-five cards and shuffling them around in different sequences.
How did the album's success affect the artist? "I didn't get the feeling that she lost her perspective at all," says Kershenbaum. "She's really pretty solid. In fact, if anything, she's gotten much smarter and wiser."
• Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Tracy Chapman' by Tracy Chapman
Richard and Linda Thompson, ‘Shoot Out the Lights’
"Even in the best days of our marriage, Richard and I didn't communicate with each other fabulously well," says Linda Thompson. "I think that the reason the music was good was that we tended to save it for work." Perhaps that explains why Shoot Out the Lights is both the best and last album Richard and Linda Thompson made together.
For a change of pace, the Thompsons had decided to record an album with producer Gerry Rafferty, who as an artist had scored a hit with "Baker Street." But Rafferty's slick, elaborate style was at odds with the straightforward way the Thompsons usually recorded, and the kindest thing Richard can say today about the abortive Rafferty record is "I don't think it was wholly successful." Linda, who still has the master tapes in her attic, is more explicit: "Richard hated it."
Enter Richard's friend, producer Joe Boyd, who brought the Thompsons into the studio to cut a quick, low-budget album for his small independent label, Hannibal Records. Richard found himself in more familiar surroundings — he and Boyd had worked together twelve years before, when Richard was the lead guitarist with the pioneering folk-rock group Fairport Convention. Recording was done at Olympic Studios, an old Fairport haunt, with a band that included the Fairport rhythm section of drummer Dave Mattacks, bassist Dave Pegg and guitarist Simon Nicol. Three days into the sessions they had the basic tracks for Shoot Out the Lights.
The record turned out to be the soundtrack to what Boyd calls "an elaborate soap opera." Richard's lyrics are crystal-clear portraits of dissolving relationships, cast with wronged or dissatisfied lovers on the one hand and riveting tales of death and violence on the other. There's no concealing the genuine desperation of "Man in Need," in which a man walks out on his family at dawn. Shortly after the record was completed, Richard left Linda, who was pregnant at the time, for another woman.
Richard dismisses the idea that the lyrics presaged what was to happen to their ten-year-old marriage. "The theorists can theorize," he says, "and they may be right, but from a practical point of view, for myself, it was just the stuff I was writing, and it didn't bear any relationship to life as I could see it at the time."
"Do you buy that?" is Linda's disbelieving response. "There was a cohesion to all those songs that was part of what was going on at the time," she says. "We gravitated to that kind of subject matter. There was a kind of common denominator in those songs — they fit together, and we weeded them out that way."
According to Linda, that common denominator was "utter misery. It was kind of a subliminal thing, but that was definitely it," she says. "I think we both were miserable and didn't quite know how to get it out — I think that's why the album is so good. We couldn't talk to each other, so we just did it on the record."
The tension took its toll on Linda's voice. A victim of "studio fever," she developed a nervous tic that made her lose breath, making it difficult for her to keep her voice at full strength for more than a couple of lines at a time. As a result, Boyd was forced to painstakingly stitch together complete vocals from several takes. But for all the studio trickery, the performances have a real cohesion and showcase Linda's achingly beautiful voice.
The poignancy of English folk music is evident in songs like Linda's heartbreaking "Walking on a Wire" and Richard's caustic "Back Street Slide." The latter, the album's hardest rocker, modifies an Anglo-Irish folk melody with an odd-metered, almost Zeppelinesque riff pinched from a tune the guitarist had heard on Algerian radio.
The album's masterpiece, though, is its title track. A slow, dissonant rocker about a psychotic killer, it was, according to Richard, originally about the Russians in Afghanistan. "Somehow it developed into this urban melodrama," he says. "I can't understand how that happened."
On Shoot Out the Lights, Richard reclaimed what he calls his "license to rip" and came up with his most inspired and unrestrained guitar playing since the glory days of Fairport Convention. Nowhere is Richard's renaissance more apparent than on the masterful second solo of "Shoot Out the Lights": alternately soaring and twitching, Thompson's guitar echoes a psychopath's flitting emotions, ending on a tantalizingly unresolved note.
The song nearly didn't make it onto the record. If Richard had had his way, the light pop tune "Living in Luxury" would have been there instead. "It's Richard at his most frivolous," Boyd says of "Living in Luxury." The song was left off the record. (It now appears as a bonus track on the Shoot Out the Lights CD.)
At the end of each side is respite — a calm in the eye of the storm. The gentle ballad "Just the Motion" "was an attempt, deliberate or unconscious, to write something that was a bit restful," says Richard. To close the record, the Thompsons duet on the perversely joyous "Wall of Death," ostensibly about an amusement-park ride. "You can waste your time on the other rides." they sing, "but this is the nearest to being alive."
The ensuing tour was understandably tense and marked by screaming matches both on and off the stage. "I felt like I really sang great for the first time in years on that tour," says Linda. "It was a release, literally and figuratively."
Despite the string of excellent records that preceded it, Shoot Out the Lights remains the Thompsons' most commercially successful effort, even though it never made the pop charts. With more than a trace of bitterness, Richard acknowledges that part of its appeal is the couple's split. "I think it may have helped sales," he says. "It's a great promotional ploy — I recommend it."
And he still doesn't think it's the best thing he and Linda ever did. "I don't understand why people like it particularly. Well, I think the songs are good. But I don't think the performances are outstanding. And we still get complaints about the drum sound, especially from the drummer."
On the other hand, Linda considers Shoot Out the Lights to be the couple's best work. "People are often really horrified to hear me say, 'I do wish in a way that I was going through that again,'" she says. "They say, 'But you were mad and demented and ill!' And I say, 'Yeah, but I really could sing good.' So there's always an upswing, even in that darkest moment."
"We were conscious that we were making a record that really wasn't in step with the times," says R.E.M.'s Peter Buck of Murmur, the group's enchanting first album. "It was an old-fashioned record that didn't sound too much like what you heard on the radio. We were expecting the record company to say, 'Sorry, this isn't even a record, it's a demo tape. Go back and do it again.'"
For the most part, I.R.S. Records liked Murmur a great deal, and so did an audience that embraced R.E.M. as one of the most significant new bands of the Eighties. From the mysterious photograph of a kudzu-covered train station on the jacket to the intriguingly off-kilter music within, Murmur quietly broke with the status quo and mapped out an enigmatic but rewarding new agenda. There is nothing obvious or superficial about R.E.M.'s songs or the way the band chooses to play them. Meanings are hidden in a thicket of nonlinear imagery, with mumbled or distant vocals from Michael Stipe. Elliptical language occasionally jumps out in terse phrases such as "conversation fear" (from "9-9") as Murmur bypasses logic and goes straight for the subconscious — a state of altered awareness not unlike the rapid-eye-movement stage of dreaming from which the band took its name.
The members of R.E.M. incorporated elements of folk and country music into pop that was, by turns, bright and murky. Theirs was a quasi-traditional yet boundary-breaking sound that served as a blueprint for alternative bands throughout America for the rest of the decade.
Initially outcasts on the arty-party band scene spawned by the B-52's in their hometown of Athens, Georgia, the members of the group profess to draw more inspiration from Velvet Underground and the Byrds than from any of their contemporaries. They also claim to have learned a lot from Gang of Four and the English Beat, with whom they toured early on. "They taught us about what a rock & roll band could be, idealistically," says Buck.
Though the individual members weren't extraordinary technical musicians, the balance of personalities within R.E.M. made for a startling chemistry. "It was a unique combination of people, where there was enough tension and enough cohesiveness," says Don Dixon, who produced and engineered Murmur with fellow North Carolinian Mitch Easter. "There was a tremendous amount of energy and a lot of real subtle things going on." Buck's rhythmic strumming allowed Mike Mills to play melody lines on the bass and freed drummer Bill Berry from mere timekeeping. Drawing from his fertile imagination, vocalist Stipe launched R.E.M. into a whole other dimension.
The four organized the band in Athens in 1980, traipsing across the South to play anywhere that would have them and cutting one single ("Radio Free Europe") and a five-song EP (Chronic Town) at Easter's garage studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. For Murmur they moved eighty miles south to Charlotte's Reflection Studios, a twenty-four-track facility whose principal client was Jim and Tammy Bakker's PTL Club. (Stipe, in fact, left Charlotte with a souvenir PTL license plate and an autographed Tammy Bakker single.) The group balked at recording elsewhere. "We wanted to do it in the South with people who were fresh at making rock & roll records," says Buck. "In Charlotte we could sit up all night and mess around, have ideas and not worry too much."
R.E.M. had chosen and sequenced the material for Murmur, most of which was written in 1980 and 1981, before entering the studio. Producers Easter and Dixon provided technical expertise and offered opinions. "They were instrumental in teaching us how to use the studio," says Buck. Very little was done by the book. Stipe, for instance, generally recorded his vocals in a darkened stairwell off to the side. Although his vocal approach was unusual for rock, Easter and Dixon had no intention of altering his style. "I was not about to go in and say, 'Oh, Michael, I can't quite understand your line about the placenta falling off the end of your bed,'" says Dixon. "We were dealing with a fragile sort of art concept and trying to bring in a little pop sensibility without beating it up."
If anyone at I.R.S. had reservations about Murmur, the band didn't want to know. "The people that heard it were like 'God, this is a really good record, but…,'" says Buck. "And we'd go, 'Sorry, see you later.' Because once they start saying but and you listen, you're in trouble."
The band added a lot of quirky, experimental touches to the basic tracks in the overdub stage. "We spent most of our time finding interesting ideas and sounds," Buck says, "like laying down ten acoustic guitars, a lot of vocals way low in the mix, strange percussion things, banging on table legs, tearing up shirts. I'd play acoustic guitar and then take the guitar off and leave the reverb on with the delay, so that it was ghostly and strange."
"We did have some rules," says Dixon, "in that if you were going to fly something in backwards or fly in hunks of music triggered off a drum by James Brown, you could only do it one time, and you couldn't go back and try to get something to work." The band members also had talismans, of sorts, to which they became attached: Two plastic dinosaurs purchased by Buck at a Salvation Army thrift shop across the street, marked L for left and R for right, were placed atop the studio speakers. "The reason our records are so good is the dinosaurs," Buck says. "They've been on the speakers for every album we've ever made."
• R.E.M. Roar Back With 'Collapse Into Now'
• Photos: R.E.M. Through the Years
Michael Jackson, ‘Thriller’
When twenty-three-year-old Michael Jackson and his producer, Quincy Jones, began recording Thriller, they hoped to create a great record that would at least equal the 8 million unit sales of Jackson's prior solo outing, Off the Wall. "No matter what you do, you are competing against your previous product and everybody expects more," Jackson told a reporter in 1983. What they ended up with eight months later became the biggest-selling album in history.
Thriller, reportedly recorded for $750,000, has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide — and it still sells. It earned Jackson over 150 gold and platinum awards worldwide and a record seven Grammys. At the height of Michaelmania in 1984, Epic Records was selling in excess of 1 million Jackson records a week. Thriller was the musical equivalent of the Hula-Hoop, an item that everybody had to own.
At the center of all the madness was a slick, entertaining, endearingly innocent forty-two-and-a-half-minute collection of pure pop music that produced seven Top Ten singles: "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "The Girl Is Mine," "Thriller," "Beat It," "Billie Jean," "Human Nature" and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." "It felt like entering hyperspace at one point," says Quincy Jones about the phenomenal success of Thriller. "It almost scared me. I thought, 'Maybe this is going too far.'"
With Thriller, Jackson and Jones were aiming for a dynamic, balanced collection of potential hits. Jackson supplied many of the best songs on the album, writing "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" (as well as the slight number "The Girl Is Mine," a duet with Paul McCartney). Jones went through over 300 songs in search of additional material. "I was trying to find a group of songs that complemented each other in their diversity," says Jones. "Give me a ride, give me some goose bumps. If 'Billie Jean' sounds good, it sounds even better followed by 'Human Nature.' 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' ' into 'Baby Be Mine.' I look at an album as a total piece."
It began during the spring of 1982 at Michael Jackson's Tudor-style mansion, in Encino, California, where he had been working on material in his sixteen-track studio. Jones and his engineer, Bruce Swedien, spent several days there with Jackson, listening to "Polaroids," their term for the crude demos Jackson had made.
In April they moved to Westlake Audio, in Hollywood, where the majority of the album was recorded. Jones called on a crew of seasoned studio veterans, including guitarist David Williams, drummer Leon Ndugu Chancler, bassist Louis Johnson and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa as well as a number of synthesizer and keyboard players, including Greg Phillinganes, Michael Boddicker, David Foster and Steve Porcaro. The first song cut was "The Girl Is Mine." "Michael and Paul worked very fast," says Swedien. "Three days and it was done."
The album is full of special touches, from Vincent Price's campy introduction to "Thriller" to Eddie Van Halen's raging hard-rock solo on "Beat It." Many of these ideas were Jackson's own. Particularly innovative was the repeated vocal motif — "ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa" — that ends "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." "That's based on an African riff from the Cameroon region," says Jones. "Michael came up with it, and we added harmonies and made a whole thing out of it."
Price's "Thriller" rap was written by Rod Temperton during a cab ride to the studio, and Jackson recorded the wolf howls in the alley outside the studio. "I think the idea of 'Thriller' was to incorporate drama into pop," says Jones of the song, which was originally titled "Starlight Love." "It's like a one-act play."
Jones had to coax Jackson into writing "Beat It." "I bugged him for three months about doing a strong rock thing," said Jones. "Finally he wrote it. I had to squeeze it out of him."
He was also reluctant to do what Jones calls a "beg" on "The Lady in My Life." "That's asking a girl to give you some," says the producer, laughing. "That's against Michael's nature." But at other moments, the singer's enthusiasm was obvious, and he frequently danced as he sang his final vocals — indeed, Jackson's dancing can still be heard in the final mix of "Billie Jean."
Jones and Jackson thought they had the album wrapped in November. They were wrong. "I took Michael home, and he went to sleep on the couch," says Jones. "Three hours later we went back to the studio and listened to the acetate. Biggest piece of shit in life. We were horrified. So we took two days off, then spent the next eight days remixing. One song a day. We put those babies in the pocket."
Thriller has been an extremely influential album. "I hear it a lot in the records produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis," Jones says. "[Janet Jackson's] 'Funny How Times Flies (When You're Having Fun)' is 'The Lady in My Life.' The new jack swing. Everybody began to understand the power of melody again after Thriller."
Perhaps Thriller's biggest accomplishment has been its influence on other black musicians. "It inspired black artists not to look at themselves in a limited way," says Jones. "Before Michael, those kinds of sales had never happened for a black artist. Michael did it. He did it for the first time."
• Photos: The Making of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' Video
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’
"I had written a catchy song," Bruce Springsteen recalled in an interview last year with Rolling Stone, "and I felt it was a really good song, probably one of my best since 'Born to Run.' I knew it was going to catch people — but I didn't know it was going to catch them like that, or that it was going to be what it was."
Born in the U.S.A. — the album, the song and the sixteen-month tour — turned out to be the breakthrough that Springsteen fans had been expecting for a decade. The influential Jersey musician became the world's biggest rock star — and a bona fide American icon, to boot.
As a result, Springsteen found himself dominating the album charts in 1984 and 1985. He hit the Top Ten seven times and wound up in heavy rotation in the theretofore unfamiliar terrain of MTV. The album inspired those who knew what his bitter, tough-minded songs were really saying (from numerous songwriters to novelist Bobbie Ann Mason, whose In Country owes a debt to the LP), as well as many others who misinterpreted and exploited the cover's American-flag imagery (among them, both 1984 presidential candidates and countless advertising agencies and jingle writers).
For Springsteen, who'd been catapulted into the media spotlight almost ten years earlier, when his album Born to Run landed him simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek, Born in the U.S.A. afforded him an opportunity to do it over again, older and wiser and not so awestruck by the machinery of fame. "The Born in the U.S.A. experience obviously had its frightening moments," Springsteen told Rolling Stone. "But I was thirty-five, and I had a real solid sense of myself by that time. With Born in the U.S.A., I had a chance to relive my 1975 experience when I was calm and completely prepared and went for it. It was like 'Great. We're selling all those records? Dynamite.'"
But it took Bruce Springsteen a long time and a lot of soul-searching to get to the point where he was willing to welcome that kind of stardom. Born to Run was followed by two years of legal difficulties and, finally, the grim, relentlessly downbeat Darkness on the Edge of Town. The commercial breakthrough of The River was answered by the bleak acoustic album Nebraska. But when it came time to assemble a new album, Springsteen's choice was clear: If he was ever going to make a blockbuster rock record, this would have to be the one.
Besides, he already had most of the songs. Springsteen and the E Street Band had recorded seven of the songs on Born in the U.S.A. prior to the release of Nebraska in a three-week blitz in May 1982: "Glory Days," "I'm Goin' Down," "I'm on Fire," "Darlington County," "Working on the Highway," "Downbound Train" and — most crucial of all — "Born in the U.S.A."
Springsteen originally recorded the last of these on the acoustic demo tape that became Nebraska, but he quickly abandoned that version, feeling it didn't really work in that format. At the start of the May sessions with the full band, Springsteen revived the song in a new, electric arrangement. "Bruce started playing this droning guitar sound," says drummer Max Weinberg. "He threw that lick out to [keyboardists] Roy [Bittan] and Danny [Federici], and the thing just fell together.
"It absolutely grabbed us. We played it again and got an even better groove on it. At the end, as we were stopping, Bruce gave me the high sign to do all these wild fills, and we went back into the song and jammed for about ten minutes, which was edited out. I remember that night as the greatest single experience I've ever had recording, and it set the tone for the whole record. That track was so special; it was really something to live up to."
For a while, though, Springsteen was ambivalent about following through with the rock record whose tone had been so dramatically set by "Born in the U.S.A." "He spent a good deal of time after the release of Nebraska feeling very close to that album," says Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau, who coproduced Born in the U.S.A. "I don't think he was ready to suddenly switch back into the 'Born in the U.S.A.' mode."
Springsteen drove to Los Angeles, where he began recording demos on his own, most of them closer in sound and spirit to Nebraska than to Born in the U.S.A. Some, like "Shut Out the Light," eventually appeared as B sides; others, such as "Sugarland" and his overhaul of Elvis Presley's "Follow That Dream," never appeared.
When he returned to recording with the E Street Band, the sessions were marked by prolific songwriting and a freewheeling approach on the part of Springsteen. "I remember one night when we were completely packed up to go home and Bruce was off in the corner playing his acoustic guitar," says Weinberg. "Suddenly, I guess the bug bit him, and he started writing these rockabilly songs. We'd been recording all night and were dead tired, but they had to open up the cases and set up the equipment so that we could start recording again at five in the morning. That's when we got 'Pink Cadillac,' 'Stand on It' [both used as B sides] and a song called 'TV Movie.'… Bruce got on a roll, and when that happens, you just hold on for dear life."
In the end, though, most of the sessions were inconclusive. Of the dozens of songs he recorded from mid-1982 to mid-1983, only "My Hometown" would make Born in the U.S.A.'s final cut.
Eventually, Landau and coproducer Chuck Plotkin convinced Springsteen that the best songs were from the May 1982 sessions. Late in the recording process, however, Springsteen wrote a few more standouts, including "Bobby Jean," his benediction to guitarist Steve Van Zandt, who'd left the band to pursue a solo career, and "No Surrender," an optimistic raveup. The album slowly and painstakingly assumed a shape with the help of band members, colleagues and friends who were asked to vote for their favorites from about twenty contenders.
Born in the U.S.A. appeared to be finished, but then Landau, in an exchange that he admits was "testy, by our standards," told Springsteen that the album needed another song. He had a list of requirements: It should unify the record, it should be written in the first person, and it should capture where Bruce was at that point in time. Springsteen objected — "The obvious response is, 'Hey, if that's what you want, then write it yourself,' and I got a little bit of that in this case," says Landau — but three days later Springsteen played Landau a new song born of his frustration and confusion. Its title was "Dancing in the Dark." With that, his blockbuster was finished.
Born in the U.S.A. was Springsteen's triumph, though he doesn't regard it as his best work. "That was a rock record," he says from the vantage point of four years later. "When I put it on, that's kind of how it hits me: That's a rock record. And the bookends ["Born in the U.S.A." and "My Hometown"] sort of covered the thing and made it feel more thematic than probably it actually was, you know? But I never really felt like I quite got it."
Still, if Springsteen looks back at Born in the U.S.A. as merely "a rock record," it should be pointed out that this was the album that defined how hard a record could rock, how much a rock record could say and what impact a rock record could have.
• Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bruce Springsteen
• Photos: 17 Great Bruce Springsteen Collaborations
Paul Simon, ‘Graceland’
Few albums have had humbler beginnings, been as musically adventurous, generated as much political controversy or been as warmly received by the public as Paul Simon's Graceland. Released in 1986, Graceland matched Simon with a host of African artists — including guitarist Ray Phiri and his band, Stimela, and the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The album's scintillating blend of lively beats and thoughtful lyrics, as well as its seamless fusion of the familiar and the exotic, restored Simon's career and brought African music, and particularly South African music, to a broader international audience.
The journey to Graceland began with an unlabeled cassette tape that guitarist Heidi Berg gave to Simon, who listened to it incessantly, without knowing what it was, throughout the summer of 1984. Simon's curiosity eventually got the better of him, and he discovered that the album on the tape was called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II and had been recorded by the Boyoyo Boys, a group from South Africa.
The kind of music on Gumboots is mbaqanga, or "township jive," the street music of Soweto, South Africa, but for Simon the album called to mind music that was closer to home. "It sounded like very early rock & roll to me — black, urban, mid-Fifties rock & roll, like the great Atlantic tracks from that period," Simon told Rolling Stone after the album's release. "The rhythm was a fairly uptempo, 2/4 feel with a strange accordion in there. But the way they play the accordion, it sounds like a big reed instrument. It could almost be a sax."
The music, which seemed to Simon both fresh and reminiscent of the earliest music he loved, suggested a potential new direction for his work. He got in touch with South African producer Hilton Rosenthal, who sent him about twenty additional albums by local musicians, and in February of 1985, Simon traveled to Johannesburg to begin recording Graceland. While there, Simon recorded with Tao Ea Matsekha, who helped provide the irresistible groove to "The Boy in the Bubble"; General M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters, who fired up the funky "I Know What I Know"; and the Boyoyo Boys, who lent the bounce to "Gumboots."
Simon's trip to Johannesburg also triggered a firestorm of protest from antiapartheid groups that charged that, however honorable his intentions may have been, he violated the United Nations cultural boycott of South Africa. For a time it seemed that Simon would be added to the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid's list of censured artists — a list that also includes Linda Ronstadt, who sang on "Under African Skies" on Graceland.
In the wake of Graceland's release, denunciations flew back and forth. Simon insisted that black South African musicians "voted to let me come," were paid triple the union scale for their work on the album and valued the international exposure Graceland would provide for their music. "To go over and play Sun City, it would be exactly like going over to do a concert in Nazi Germany at the height of the Holocaust," Simon said. "But what I did was to go over essentially and play to the Jews."
The explanation did not wash. "When he goes to South Africa, Paul Simon bows to apartheid," said James Victor Ghebo, the Ghanaian ambassador to the UN and an antiapartheid activist. "He lives in designated hotels for whites. He spends money the way whites have made it possible to spend money there. The money he spends goes to look after white society, not to the townships. This is one reason why we do not want people to go there."
Eventually, after months of recriminations, both sides simply seemed to tire of the battle. Simon was never formally added to the list of censured artists. For his part, Simon reluctantly wrote a letter reiterating his refusal to play in South Africa — he had twice previously turned down offers to play Sun City — and donated proceeds from a number of concerts on the Graceland tour to black charities in the United States and South Africa.
From Simon's point of view, Graceland helped in the struggle to end apartheid. "I never said there were not strong political implications to what I did," he said near the end of the Graceland tour. "I just said the music was not overtly political. But the implications of the music certainly are. And I still think it's the most powerful form of politics, more powerful than saying it right on the money, in which case you're usually preaching to the converted. People get attracted to the music, and once they hear what's going on within it, they say, 'What? They're doing that to these people?'"
Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo tells a story about life in Johannesburg that lends resonance to Simon's defense. "I remember there was a riot there," he says. "People were fighting, the kids were fighting. But not Black Mambazo. The policeman ask us, 'Where do you come from?' I said, 'We come from singing.' They said, 'You are singing while the people are fighting?' I say, 'Yes. They are doing their job. I am doing my job.'"
• Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums: 'Graceland' by Paul Simon
• Paul Simon Peels Back the Years on New LP
Talking Heads, ‘Remain in Light’
"A lot of people don't realize this, but Remain in Light was the worst-selling Talking Heads record ever," says drummer Chris Frantz.
"Financially, we took a beating on that one," says David Byrne. "At the time, it was a really hard sell. The reaction that we heard was that it sounded too black for white radio and too white for black radio."
Remain in Light may have been a commercial disappointment, but musically, the band's 1980 album — which combines funk, disco and African rhythms — was years ahead of its time. "It got great critical acclaim, and we felt that it kind of took popular music to the next phase," says Frantz, "which is what we always wanted to do."
But getting there wasn't easy. Depending on who you speak to, tensions in the studio often ran high between at least two parties. "Remain in Light was a difficult album to make," says Frantz. "We wanted to do something groundbreaking, but we didn't want to get into fights about it. And a couple of times we did get into fights — musical fights — because somebody wanted to go one way and another person thought it shouldn't sound like that."
Within the first week of recording with producer Brian Eno at the Compass Point studios, in the Bahamas, British engineer Rhett Davies quit in frustration. "He said, 'You guys could be making a great pop album,'" says Frantz. "The British, you know, have these ideas about 'great pop albums.' So he left." In his place, they hired David Jerden, who had worked with Eno and Byrne on their recent collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
Bassist Tina Weymouth says recruiting Eno was difficult because he and Byrne had had a falling out. "Brian didn't even stay to finish Bush of Ghosts," she says. "Something happened between him and David. We asked him to work on Remain in Light, and at first he was reluctant. I really don't know what went down between them."
Byrne has slightly different memories of who was fighting whom. "That was between me and Tina," he says with a laugh. "I think she was understandably upset that Brian and I were pushing this whole direction so adamantly. It was almost like it was a train out of control or something. Maybe she felt that she wasn't a part of that. She was a part of it, but I can understand how she might have felt." Did that tension affect the album? "Nah," says Byrne, "it was all kind of extracurricular."
Even today, the band members disagree about what they'd set out to accomplish. "We were really intrigued and excited by the formal aspects of African music — the way it was created and put together," says Byrne.
Weymouth, however, says, "David had such a completely different theory about it. His theory was far more intellectual and bookish. I never felt that there was any conscious, manipulative effort on our part to play African styles. To me and Chris, it seemed as if that importance was attached to the record after the fact."
While working on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne and Eno studied voodoo and Afro-Atlantic cultures. "They were very keen on some literature they'd been reading," says Weymouth. "I suppose we all were quite aware of African music sometime before that. But no one discussed with us the fact we were going to be playing in an African style. To us, it was all very funny, putting this bibliography together with a record. It's so pseudo intellectual and everything we were trying to get away from."
While the music may or may not owe a formal, conscious debt to African styles, the words are definitely more playful than intellectual. Byrne says that Eno encouraged him to be a bit freer with his lyrics. "I really played around a lot more," he says.
"It was the beginning of David finding a way to improvise very quickly in the studio," says Weymouth. "Before, it had been a very private kind of struggle."
For "Crosseyed and Painless," Weymouth says, Byrne was struggling to come up with a vocal part. "Chris had just played drums on the new Kurtis Blow record, 'The Breaks,' which was a real front-runner hip-hop record," she says. Frantz played Blow's album for everyone, and after hearing it, Byrne came up with such lyrics as "Facts are late." "It was that whole rap thing," says Weymouth, "but in his own style."
Weymouth claims that most of the songs on Remain in Light came about from jams, yet only Byrne and Eno receive songwriting credits. "Eno called up David and said, 'I really think this is unfair,'" she says. "'I really think I did more work, and so I think you and I should get all of the credit.'"
That didn't go over well with the rest of the band. "Poor David got yelled at by a lot of people as a result," Weymouth says with a laugh. "But Brian and David were really into this credit thing, I guess."
The album cover, which features computer images over the faces of each band member, was conceived of by Frantz and Weymouth, who'd been experimenting on computers at MIT. "The masks could have been anything," says Weymouth. "They could have been African, they could have been tomatoes on our face. It wasn't really that important — it was just kind of raising questions. Making people think, 'What are they trying to do?'
"We really didn't know. We don't always know what we're doing. We often just get excited, put something down and say, 'Oh, neat.'"
• Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Remain in Light' by Talking Heads
U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’
Bono wanted to explore rock & roll's American roots; the Edge wanted to continue the expressionistic experimentalism of The Unforgettable Fire. The creative tensions between them resulted in U2's best record, a multifaceted, musically mature work. "Two ideas were followed simultaneously," says the Edge. "They collided, and this record was born."
The Joshua Tree is the rather esoterically titled album he's referring to — a title that even the typically solemn Bono could joke about. As the U2 singer said to Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis at the time of its release, "You get record-industry people saying, 'As big as the Beatles — what's the name of the album?' 'The Joshua Tree.' 'Oh, yeah, oh, right.' It's not exactly Born in the Joshua Tree, or Dark Side of the Joshua Tree. It sounds like it would sell about three copies."
In fact, the album sold about 12 million copies worldwide, and launched the already popular Irish quartet into the rock stratosphere. But more important than the mass appeal of the album was its message of spiritual and creative yearning, articulated in songs like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "With You or Without You" and "Where the Streets Have No Name." Equally significant was the group's continued examination of political and social issues. In "Running to Stand Still," Bono describes the havoc that heroin use can cause, while "Bullet the Blue Sky" captures the horror and moral outrage that the singer felt about U.S. involvement in Central American politics.
"I just think the album takes you somewhere," says bassist Adam Clayton. "It's like a journey. You start in the desert, come swooping down in Central America. Running for your life. It takes me somewhere, and hopefully it does that for everyone else."
The Joshua Tree is "an album of contrasts," says the Edge. "Bono had fairly strong ideas. He'd been taken with American literature and music. Lyrically, he wanted to follow the blues and get into America. I'd written off white blues in 1978. I was trying desperately to figure out ways to play without using white blues. I wanted to push the European atmospherics. But listening to Robert Johnson and other early blues, I could see what was there. I warmed to the idea."
Both Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who coproduced the album, made major contributions. "Brian strongly suggested that we do it all ourselves," says the Edge. "We felt inclined to bring people into the sessions — at times it would have been nice to have pedal steel or background vocals. But he always felt we could do it. There was a great wisdom in that decision."
There was no attempt to make The Joshua Tree a commercial album. "If anyone had even breathed that idea …," says Clayton. "We wanted to make music. The thing is to challenge radio. To get 'With You or Without You' on the radio is pretty good. You don't expect to hear it on there — maybe in a church."
Before recording began, the group spent time rehearsing at Clayton's house in Dublin, and the atmosphere was so comfortable that they decided to record there. "Just this big, high room," he says. "One of the biggest rooms I've ever seen in a house. With windows and natural light. Pretty much all of it was recorded at my house." The band spent about three months on the album, interrupting the sessions to headline Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope Tour in the U.S. Some recording was also done at Dublin's Windmill Lane Studios, at the Edge's house and at another Dublin studio, S.T.S.
Approximately seventeen songs were worked on. Some of the material that didn't end up on the album — such as "The Sweetest Thing," "Spanish Eyes" and "Deep in the Heart" — became B sides of singles.
Lanois credits Eno with sparking many of the music's more adventurous moments. "They had found the experimental side of working on The Unforgettable Fire tiring," says Lanois. "But if you work with Brian, like it or not, he's gonna weird things up."
Yet the sessions often had a relaxed, off-the-cuff feel. Of "Running to Stand Still," the Edge says it was "almost improvised to tape." And "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" originally had a different melody and was called "Under the Weather."
One of the album's best tracks, "Where the Streets Have No Name," proved extremely difficult to record. At one point Eno became so disillusioned with it that he tried to destroy the tape; the engineer told the Edge, "I just had to stop Brian from erasing 'Streets.'"
"It took forever to get that track," says Lanois. "We had this giant blackboard with the arrangement written on it. I felt like a science professor, conducting them. To get the rise and fall, the song's dynamic, took a long time."
Does the band consider The Joshua Tree one of the best albums of the Eighties? "With Joshua Tree, we wanted to make a really great record, with really great songs," says the Edge. "We became interested in songs again. We put abstract ideas in a more focused form. It's the first album where I really felt Bono was getting where he was aiming with the lyrics. Bono is more of a poet than a lyricist. With Joshua Tree, he managed, without sacrificing the depth of his words, to get what he wanted to say into a three- or four-minute song."
"Important?" muses Clayton. "I don't know. It was important for us. Suddenly we could do so many different things musically. It gave us a great freedom. I think we were able to stretch and do things we didn't really understand before. It captured a musicality for us that we'd never gotten on record before."
• U2 Photos: Three Decades of the World's Biggest Band, Onstage and Backstage
Prince and the Revolution, ‘Purple Rain’
“Prince knew this was going to be it,” says Susan Rogers, who engineered the 14 million seller Purple Rain. “He was ecstatic when he finished it.”
Over five years later, the influence of Prince and Purple Rain is incontestable. He is one of just two artists (along with Bruce Springsteen) to have four albums among Rolling Stone‘s 100 Best Albums of the Eighties. And perhaps more than any other artist, Prince called the tune for pop music in the Eighties, imprinting his Minneapolis sound on an entire generation of musicians, both black and white.
Released in tandem with the film of the same name, Purple Rain was more than simply a soundtrack, and it stands as Prince’s most cohesive and accessible album. “He envisioned the film as he made the album,” says Alan Leeds, vice-president of Paisley Park Records, Prince’s label. “He had a vision in his mind of the film a year before he got in front of the cameras, and he wrote the music to that vision.”
Purple Rain contained five hit singles, including his first singles to reach Number One, “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” as well as “Purple Rain,” which reached Number Two.
It was also the first Prince album to prominently feature his band the Revolution. “The band gelled when [guitarist] Wendy Melvoin joined,” says drummer Bobby Z. “We were recording and writing and doing it. We all worked hard and did this music together.”
Some of the album’s success — and certainly its reception by radio — was possible because Prince downplayed the overt sexuality of previous records. There was only one controversial lyric on the album, the much quoted line “I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine” — which appears in “Darling Nikki.” The song caught the ear of Tipper Gore, the wife of Senator Albert Gore, who cited it when she formed the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group that lobbied to have warning labels placed on album covers.
The album’s quirky first single, “When Doves Cry,” originally had a more conventional sound. But Prince stripped the song down to its current form, completely removing the bass part. Despite initial qualms among some of the people at Warner Bros, about the unusual instrumentation, the record was released and quickly reached Number One on the pop charts.
According to Rogers, “The Beautiful Ones” was Prince’s favorite. “That song meant a lot to him,” she says. “It was written for Susannah Melvoin [Wendy’s sister and, at the time, Prince’s girlfriend]. A lot of songs were written about her, but that was the first one.”
Prince debuted many of Purple Rain’s songs during a performance in August 1983 at 1st Avenue, the Minneapolis club featured in the film. Although the show was recorded, Prince didn’t intend to use the live performances on his album — a decision that he reversed when he heard the tapes. Ironically, Prince and the Revolution lip-synced their parts for the film’s live-performance sequences.
When Prince first played a version of “Purple Rain” for some of his staff, it caused quite a commotion. “Big Chick [Prince’s bodyguard at the time] came into the office raving,” says Leeds. “He said, ‘Wait until you hear the song he did last night. It’s gonna be bigger than Willie Nelson.'”
For Prince, the international success of Purple Rain was simply the culmination of many years of hard work, coupled with a strong sense of self-confidence. In 1985 he told Rolling Stone, “I wish people would understand that I always thought I was bad.“
The Clash, ‘London Calling’
This album could not have come at a more perfect time or from a more appropriate band than the Clash. Released stateside in January 1980, with the decade but a pup and the new year in gear, London Calling was an emergency broadcast from rock's Last Angry Band, serving notice that Armageddon was nigh, Western society was rotten at the core, and rock & roll needed a good boot in the rear. Kicking and screaming across a nineteen-song double album, skidding between ska, reggae, R&B, third-world music, power pop and full-tilt punk, the Clash stormed the gates of rock convention and single-handedly set the agenda — musically, politically and emotionally — for the decade to come.
The band had already chalked up two masterpieces of petulant punk fury with The Clash (its 1977 debut) and Give 'Em Enough Rope. But this time singer-guitarist-songwriters Joe Strummer and Mick Jones fine-tuned the Clash worldview with a deeper sensitivity, addressing issues by zooming in on individuals and hard realities. While the LP's cosmopolitan sound anticipated the world-music fad, its message — revolution begins at home — triggered the reemergence of pop's social consciousness in the Eighties.
For Strummer, Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Nicky "Topper" Headon, home was London, where they rehearsed and recorded the bulk of the LP during the late spring and summer of 1979 and where there was ample evidence of impending apocalypse (racial tension, rising unemployment, rampant drug addiction). Strummer's catalog of disasters in the title track, scored with Jones's guitar firepower, sets the tone for the record. But that fear and urgency was also very real to the band, which had just split with manager Bernie Rhodes, was heavily in debt and had declared open warfare on the music business.
"I remember that things were so up in the air, and there was quite a good feeling of us against the world," says Strummer. "We felt that we were struggling, about to slide down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails. And that there was nobody to help us."
Isolation and desperation are recurring themes on London Calling. The Phil Spector-like glow of "The Card Cheat" belies its lyric pathos, while "Hateful" looks at drug addiction from an addict's point of view ("I'm so grateful to be nowhere"). "There was a sense that life really is a succession of heavy blows," says Jones, "that this is what we have to take day to day." Indeed, "Lost in the Supermarket," a dark slice of peppy Euro-pop, is based on Jones's personal life at the time. "I was living in a council flat with my grandmother," he says. "I couldn't get settled. I was supposed to be this rock star, but I was living with my grandmother," Jones and Strummer wrote a lot of songs in his grandmother's flat before Jones eventually moved out.
The album also has fighting spirit to spare in the likes of "Clampdown" ("Let fury have the hour, anger can be power") and "The Guns of Brixton," a Paul Simonon song that combines images of the racially tense Brixton area of London with the outlaw ethic of The Harder They Come. "Spanish Bombs," initially inspired by a radio news report of a terrorist bombing in the Mediterranean, evokes the rebellious spirit of the Spanish Civil War.
London Calling became a double album simply because of the energetic rate at which Strummer and Jones were writing songs. "Joe, once he learned how to type, would bang the lyrics out at a high rate of good stuff," says Jones. "Then I'd be able to bang out some music while he was hitting the typewriter." The members of the Clash devoted nearly three months to arranging and demoing the material at their rehearsal space, a garage in London's Pimlico section, before going into the studio. They added a few choice covers that reflected their widening field of musical vision, such as "Brand New Cadillac," by the British rockabilly legend Vince Taylor, and "Wrong 'Em Boyo," a "Stagger Lee" takeoff by a Jamaican ska group, the Rulers.
The Clash found the perfect producer in Guy Stevens, a kindred renegade spirit with impeccable credentials (he ran the U.K. branch of Sue Records in the Sixties) and an intuitive, if lunatic, genius for getting the essence of rock & roll on record. His protégés included Free and Mott the Hoople, and he'd produced the Clash's first demos in 1976. He'd fallen from grace in the industry, but the Clash felt he was just the madman to do the job.
"We sensed it was a good way to keep it on the beam, keep our feet on the ground," Strummer says. "I think something dies in the music when everything is so straitlaced, with accountants monitoring every move."
There was nothing straitlaced about Stevens's methods, which included pouring beer into a piano when the band wanted to use it on a song over his objections and slinging chairs around "if he thought a track needed zapping up," according to Strummer. Stevens nearly hit Jones with a ladder during one take.
But Jones says Stevens — who has since died — was a "real vibe merchant" and was always "exhorting us to make it more, to increase the intensity, to lay the energy on. "Stevens had good musical instincts, too. The version of "Brand New Cadillac" on the LP is actually a warm-up take. "We said, 'Okay, now we'll do it proper,' "says Topper Headon. "And he said, 'No, it's great, let's keep it.' But we said, 'Hang on a minute, it speeds up.' And he said, 'All rock & roll speeds up.' And that was it."
The Clash quickly got into the spirit of things. The crackling at the beginning of "The Guns of Brixton" is not fire but the sound of the band members tearing Velcro strips off of leather swivel chairs swiped from the control room. "Train in Vain," the album's surprise hit, was recorded so late in the sessions that there wasn't time to include it on the cover or label copy. And there is no train in the song, either. "The track was like a train rhythm," says Jones, who wrote most of it, "and it was, once again, that feeling of being lost. So there it was."
Strangely, the Clash was slagged at home for softening up and selling out to mainstream American tastes.
"When I read that, the notion was so new to me I just laughed," Strummer says. "In that dirty room in Pimlico, with one light and filthy carpet on the walls for soundproofing, that had been the furthest thought from our minds." He also remembers the distress of one German skinhead, who cried, "My grandmother likes 'Wrong 'Em Boyo.' What have you done to me?" Strummer says, "I remember thinking, 'Is he right? Maybe we should have offended her more.'"
In fact, the Clash was simply showing its punk constituency, and the pop world at large, that there was more than one way to rock the house. The cover design of London Calling, a takeoff on Elvis Presley's first album with a photo of Paul Simonon destroying his bass onstage in New York, says it all: This is an album of classic rock & roll values with renewed spirit for a new age.
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