Gonna make you, make you notice

Here in 2020, we’ve seen a whole bunch of “50 years ago” lists and tributes to albums, songs, bands and events from 1970.  I wrote my own blog about it several months ago.

This week, I thought I would instead focus on what was going on in music 40 years ago.  Here’s what I found:  1980 was a year of transition, when many artists of the Seventies were losing their clout and new artists were leading the industry in a different direction.

images-199

Techno-pop.  The drum machine.  The morphing of punk into “New Wave.”  The death of disco.

In reviewing the list of more than 500 rock albums released 40 years ago this year, I found that nearly half were by artists who had been around for a while, while the other half were by newer bands, working on their debut or second LP.  I listened again to as many as I could and whittled down my list of the Best Albums of 1980 to the 25 or so that most inspired and influenced me.  My list has a similar split between established artists and new upstarts, reflecting my passion for Seventies styles while embracing the best of the new.  The hard part was selecting the final dozen; most of my “honorable mentions” could easily have made the cut on someone else’s list.

My accompanying playlist includes four tracks from each of the dozen albums on the list, plus two tracks each from the honorable mentions.

Crank it up!

*****************

“Pretenders,” The Pretenders

Unknown-374Of the new contenders who first emerged in 1980, the most pleasant surprise was The Pretenders, led by the indefatigable Chrissie Hynde, one of the most talented badass women rock music has ever seen.  A product of the rough-and-tumble milieu of Akron, Ohio, Hynde moved to London in her early 20s and was profoundly influence by not only the energy of the British punk scene but its defiance and “up yours” stance as well.  The difference between The Pretenders and the lame “pretenders” who had similar ambitions, in my view, is Hynde’s ability to write great songs with pop hooks that made their stuff palatable to skeptics like me.  Their debut LP came out the first week of 1980 and went immediately to #1 in England, while in the US their popularity grew more slowly until the LP reached #9 mid-year.  “Brass in Pocket” became their signature hit single, although just as interesting were “Kid,” “The Wait” and “Stop Your Sobbing,” among others from this fine record.

“Arc of a Diver,” Steve Winwood

Unknown-382When he was still just 15, Winwood wowed critics and fans with his amazing voice on Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man.”  At 18, he formed Traffic, the British band who came up with a dazzling mix of folk, jazz and rock.  He took a break to join forces with Eric Clapton in Blind Faith for a short spell, and then reformed Traffic for another four-album run that included the exemplary “John Barleycorn Must Die” and “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.”  A first attempt at a solo album in 1977 was surprisingly flat, although not without great moments.  Late in 1980 came “Arc of a Diver,” a phenomenal LP which featured Winwood playing every instrument and singing in fine form on a great batch of songs.  The album reached #3 on US pop charts, led by the #7 hit single “While You See a Chance.”  Other strong tracks included “Spanish Dancer,” “Night Train” and the title song.  He followed it with three more strong albums in the same vein — “Talking Back to the Night,” “Back in the High Life” and “Roll With It.”

“Empty Glass,” Pete Townshend

Unknown-375Since forming The Who with singer Roger Daltrey in 1964, Townshend had assumed the responsibility of writing nearly all of the band’s material, which took its toll on his physical and mental health.  His never-easy relationship with Daltrey became strained, largely because Townshend would occasionally insist on handling lead vocals on certain tracks.  When drummer Keith Moon died in 1978 after the release of their “Who Are You” album, the band wasn’t sure how to proceed.  Townshend took the opportunity to gather some intensely personal songs about alcoholism, drug abuse, marital strife and the death of friends and release them as a solo album, “Empty Glass,” which reached #5 in the US.  This further rankled Daltrey, who felt the songs were superior to the ones Townshend offered to the band for their lackluster concurrent album “Face Dances.”  I think he’s right — “Rough Boys,” “And I Moved,” “Gonna Get Ya” and “Empty Glass” are superb tracks that might have been even better if The Who had recorded them.  Still, Townshend’s solo effort is a fine piece of work on its own.

“Zenyatta Mondatta,” The Police

Unknown-376I remember first hearing this Brit trio’s debut hit, “Roxanne,” and thinking it was an enticing blend of reggae and punk.  “Message in a Bottle” from their second LP grabbed me as well, but I wasn’t motivated to buy either album.  By the time “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” was released in September 1980, I was far more open to the New Wave styles that were beginning to reach the mainstream, so I bought “Zenyatta Mondatta,” The Police’s strong third album.  It became a popular soundtrack at the crazy parties my roommates and I were throwing, where we danced up a storm to these songs, sometimes on the furniture!  The mix of Andy Summers’ guitar stylings, Stewart Copeland’s jazzy drumming and Sting’s bass lines and vocals created an indelible sound that only grew more compelling  with their subsequent albums — “Ghosts in the Machine” and the phenomenal “Synchronicity” — before they disbanded.  On “Zenyatta,” tracks like “Man in a Suitcase,” “Canary in a Coal Mine” and the hypnotic “When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” stay with me four decades later.

“One-Trick Pony,” Paul Simon

Unknown-380Following the success of his 1975 LP “Still Crazy After All These Years,” which won a Grammy as Album of the Year, Simon took some time off.  Never a prolific writer, he suffered through one of his bouts of writer’s block by turning his attentions to film.  He appeared as a music industry luminary in Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning “Annie Hall” and then began work on his own film project.  He not only composed the songs for the soundtrack but also wrote the script and assumed the lead acting role.  “One-Trick Pony” is the story of a once-popular folk musician who is struggling to record a new album in the face of pressure from record label execs and a wife who is pulling away from him.  The poignant movie flopped at the box office, which affected sales of the accompanying album, which is a crying shame.  “Late in the Evening” was a hit, but there are so many other fine tunes that flew under most people’s radar.  “God Bless The Absentee,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Jonah” and the title song all deserve your attention.

“Gaucho,” Steely Dan

Unknown-379Over the course of six outstanding albums in six years, from “Can’t Buy a Thrill” to “Aja,” Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had taken Steely Dan from an actual band to a two-man project involving dozens of session musicians.  Then 1978 and 1979 went by with no new album, and fans wondered if they’d heard the last of them.  Turns out the period was full of personal and professional problems that affected recording sessions and relationships.  When “Gaucho” finally appeared in the fall of 1980, it was cause for celebration.  To me, the seven beautifully produced songs carried on logically from the sound heard on “Aja,” and lyrically, they continued the Steely Dan tradition of creating character studies about sketchy outliers and woeful ne’er-do-wells.  Sadly, “Gaucho” would be the last Steely Dan album for 20 years, but with songs like “Babylon Sisters,” “Glamour Profession,” “Time Out of Mind” and the hit single “Hey Nineteen,” they surely went out with class.

“Making Movies,” Dire Straits

Unknown-7I found the first two LPs by this band mildly interesting, mostly because of the spare, delicious guitar playing of Mark Knopfler.  His singing left me cold and some of his songs were kind of dull.  But boy, did I sit up and take notice when Dire Straits’ third LP, “Making Movies,” arrived in late 1980.  Knopfler had been writing more sophisticated, more personal songs, and with the stunning contributions from The E Street Band’s Roy Bittan on piano, the arrangements and production quality took quantum leaps forward.  Even Knopfler’s singing had improved, to the point where I no longer wished they’d hired a different vocalist.  Dire Straits would go on to become one of the biggest sellers of the decade, thanks to the 1985 blockbuster “Brothers in Arms” and its mega-hit single “Money for Nothing.”  But I will always be partial to the outstanding tracks on this album, especially the gorgeous “Romeo and Juliet,” “Tunnel of Love,” “Skateaway” and the aggressive rocker “Solid Rock.”

“Hotter Than July,” Stevie Wonder

Unknown-381Following the unparalleled success of his 1970s albums (“Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” and “Songs in the Key of Life,” three of which won Album of The Year Grammy awards), Wonder tried something new and wrote a soundtrack for a documentary called “The Secret Life of Plants.”  That album had some fine tracks like “Send One Your Love” and “Black Orchid,” but overall, it didn’t click with most fans.  So it was a welcome return to form when he came roaring back in September 1980 with “Hotter Than July.”  Critic Stephen Holden accurately described Wonder as “our most gifted pop muralist because of his evocative, unique synthesis of pop and African musical elements.”  He dedicated the album (and the song “Happy Birthday”) to his effort to have Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday, which came to pass only three years later.  “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” was a fabulous dose of reggae in honor of Bob Marley, while “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It,” “Rocket Love” and “All I Do” stand out as the best tracks.

“Boy,” U2

Unknown-385From 1980 onward, few bands have had the impact or the sales success of U2, Ireland’s most popular rock band.  I wasn’t hip to their music from the get-go, but I joined the party around the time of 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire.”  The combination of innovative guitar work by The Edge and passionate vocals by Bono have served the band very well throughout their 14-album catalog.  Just as important is the songwriting, which the band claims is credited to all four members, though it’s clear that Bono writes the lyrics and The Edge is responsible for most of their musical direction.  U2 has evolved into international superstars, both in concert and on record, but you would be well advised to go back to their humble beginnings, where you’ll find “Boy,” a remarkably mature album for a bunch of 20-year-olds.  The songs deal largely with childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, including “I Will Follow,” “Stories For Boys,” “Out of Control” and “Twilight.”  It’s a damn good record — overshadowed by later works, perhaps — but well worth your time.

“Shadows and Light,” Joni Mitchell

Unknown-383I’m not much of a fan of live albums.  In most instances, the crowd noise serves as an annoying distraction, and too often the band is encouraged to turn a five-minute song into a ten-minute excuse for endless soloing.  There are exceptions, of course;  The Allman Brothers Band’s “At Fillmore East” immediately comes to mind.  In 1980, no less than nine major artists saw fit to release a live album (and they’re always double albums, by the way, increasing the risk of boring the listener).  Nevertheless, I was thoroughly taken by Joni Mitchell’s “Shadows and Light,” which beautifully captured her creative genius as she performed with jazz greats like Pat Metheny on guitar, Jaco Pastorius on fretless bass and Don Alias on drums.  (There’s a great concert video of this show available that you should definitely check out).  Mitchell drew mostly from her more recent jazz-influenced tunes like “Amelia,” “Shadows and Light” and tracks from her 1979 collaboration with Charles Mingus, but she included favorites like “Free Man in Paris,” “Raised on Robbery” and “Coyote” as well.

“Remain in Light,” Talking Heads

Unknown-384I have a difficult confession to make.  David Byrne and his amazing band from New York City weren’t really my cup of tea when they were new.  There, I said it.  I loved “Take Me to the River,” but that was about it.  It took me until sometime in the late ’80s when I saw the astounding live concert film “Stop Making Sense” to appreciate the great songs and excellent sonics of this band.  In 1992, I bought “Sand in the Vaseline,” a 2-CD anthology of the best of Talking Heads, and finally brought myself up to speed on their catalog.  Since then, I have delved back into the original albums, and decided that “Remain in Light,” released in the fall of 1980, is probably their best work.  “Once in a Lifetime” is easily my favorite, but I was impressed with unfamiliar tracks like “Seen and Not Seen” and “Houses in Motion.”  I’ve been jazzed by Byrne’s more recent solo stuff, which I’ve been listening to lately, but the Talking Heads tracks here are not to be missed.

“The Turn of a Friendly Card,” The Alan Parsons Project

Unknown-377Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, if you went shopping for new speakers for your home stereo, you made sure to have some albums by Alan Parsons Project to test their quality.  Parsons, you may know, was engineer for The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and producer for Pink Floyd’s sonically perfect “Dark Side of the Moon,” so he knows what he’s doing in the studio.  Much like Steely Dan, Parsons and his musical partner Alan Woolfson wrote songs together and then brought in dozens of different players to turn the tracks into aural gold.  “I Robot” from 1977 is many fans’ favorite APP album, but I have always been partial to the majestic tracks heard on “The Turn of a Friendly Card,” released in the waning days of 1980.  Side two (remember album sides) was largely devoted to the titular five-song suite, of which I’ve included the final section on the playlist.  Just as strong are the sax-dominated instrumental “The Gold Bug” and the two Top 20 hits, “Games People Play” and “Time.”

images-198

*****************

Honorable mention:

The Up Escalator,” Graham Parker;  “Duke,” Genesis;  “The River,” Bruce Springsteen;  “One Step Closer,” The Doobie Brothers;  “Double Fantasy,” John Lennon & Yoko Ono;  “Crimes of Passion,” Pat Benatar; “Back in Black,” AC/DC;  “Hold Out,” Jackson Browne;  “Sandinista!,” The Clash.

Ain’t the afterlife grand?

I figure the best way to know if a songwriter is any good is by reading what others, particularly other songwriters, have to say about him.

If that’s true, then damn.  John Prine must be one of the best there ever was.

Unknown-259Asked in 2009 to list his favorite songwriters, Bob Dylan put Prine front and center. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism.  Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.  And he writes beautiful songs.”

Kris Kristofferson, upon discovering Prine in a small club in Chicago in 1971:  “No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy.  John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.”

Close friend and frequent collaborator Bonnie Raitt:  “He was a true folk singer in the best folk tradition, cutting right to the heart of things, as pure and simple as rain.  For all of us whose hearts are breaking, we will keep singing his songs and holding him near.”

Jack Antonoff, songwriter/guitarist/singer in the indie rock ban “fun.”, said:  “John Prine is as good as it gets.  An honor to be alive in his time.”

Bruce Springsteen tweeted, “John was a true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages.  He wrote music of towering compassion with an almost unheard-of precision and creativity when it came to observing the fine details of ordinary lives. He was a writer of great humor, funny, with wry sensitivity. It has marked him as a complete original.”

**********

Music critics can be a fickle bunch, but they have been nearly unanimous in their admiration for Prine over the years.  A few quotes:

Alanna Nash of Entertainment Weekly:  “John Prine’s best work has always been slightly cinematic and hallucinogenic, full of images that transport as well as provoke.”

Margaret Renkl, a New York Times contributing opinion writer, wrote in 2016:  “The new John Prine — older now, scarred by cancer surgeries, his voice deeper and full of gravel — is most clearly still the old John Prine: mischievous, delighting in tomfoolery, but also worried about the world.”

Michael Branch of CNN:  “John Prine was a gifted writer and vintage American troubadour who reminded us that life is as comical as it is heartbreaking, and that we should never fail to empathize with others.”

Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post:  “Many journalists loved John Prine because he did what we try to do:  document America.”

The late Roger Ebert, writing about a Prine concert in 1971:  “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off.  He starts slow.  But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics.  And then he has you.”

************

Unknown-257By all accounts, Prine was a kind, sweet guy, but he was also one tough cookie.  Despite a lack of much commercial success during his five decades in the music business, he nevertheless persevered, started his own record company (Oh Boy Records) and recorded 18 studio LPs and two live albums.  He was on the road a lot in the early days, and he continued performing well into his ’60s and ’70s as health permitted.  He also survived two major cancer-related surgeries in 1998 and 2013.  But on April 7, he fell victim to the coronavirus.  He was 73.

You’ll all pardon me if I’m kicking myself these days.  I somehow failed to pick up on Prine and his work when he was first starting out in the early ’70s when he wrote and recorded many of his best songs.  I’m pretty sure a couple of my friends in college tried to turn me on to some of his tunes, but I too quickly dismissed him because his gruff voice wasn’t much to my liking.

Ah, but here’s the thing:  Prine’s voice was perfect for the kind of songs he wrote.  Like his inspirations, Dylan and Johnny Cash, he sang in a sometimes-wry, sometimes-bitter conversational style that was perfectly suited to his simple melodies and common-man lyrics.

Unknown-261

Prine’s 1973 LP

I’ve always put Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen at the forefront of my list of the greatest lyricists of my lifetime, but I have discovered (after the fact, I’m embarrassed to admit) that John Prine belongs in that exalted group.  He offered such wonderfully keen observations on the human condition, often very concise:

“Just give me one extra season so I can figure out the other four.”

“I don’t care if the sun don’t shine, but it better, or people will wonder.” 

“Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see.”

“We were trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish, whatever came first.”

“If it weren’t so expensive, I’d wish I were dead.” 

In these and other examples, Prine often wrote in the first person, sharing his own experiences and fantasies, in turn poignant, angry and whimsical.  But he just as often served as narrator for his fictional and true-to-life tales, putting potent words into the character’s mouths.

A mother speaking to her son about his absent father:  “Your daddy never meant to hurt you ever, he just don’t live here, but you got his eyes.”

An elderly woman referring to her husband:  “My old man is another child that’s grown old.”

An adolescent boy singing about his troubled father:  “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”

Most provocatively, speaking for Jesus:   “I’m a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood. They’re gonna kill me, Mama.  They don’t like me, bud.”

Unknown-263

His 1991 comeback

Prine echoed the belief many songwriters share when he said, “I felt sometimes I was a conduit, a channel through which songs arrive from an unknown source, maybe God.”

He had periods when songwriting came almost effortlessly.  “Sometimes, a song takes about as long to write it as it does to sing it.  They come along like a dream or something, and you just got to hurry up and respond to it, because if you mess around too long, the song is liable to pass you by.”

When major or minor life events occurred, both good and bad, they became fodder for new material. “  After my second divorce,” he said with a chuckle in 1990, “about a month later, the song truck pulled up and dumped a bunch of great songs on my lawn.”

Prine had a singular approach to songwriting.  “I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better.  Rather than tell them everything, you save your details for things that exist.  Like what color the ashtray is. How far away the doorway was.  So when you’re talking about intangible things, like emotions, the listener can fill in the blanks.  You just draw the foundation.”

In his 1973 song “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” Prine painted a picture in such a way that listeners could easily insert memories of their own grandfathers:  “”Well, he used to sing me ‘Blood on the Saddle’ and rock me on his knee, and let me listen to radio before we got TV, well, he’d drive to church on Sunday and take me with him too, stained glass in every window, hearing aids in every pew.”

Unknown-260

Prine’s 1971 debut

Last year, Prine was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, where he summed up why he chose a life as a songwriter: “I gotta say, there’s no better feeling than having a killer song in your pocket, and you’re the only one in the world who’s heard it.”

There were two Prine tunes I discovered long ago as cover versions by other artists.  One was “Angel From Montgomery,” recorded by Raitt on her 1974 LP “Streetlights.”  She and Prine sang it together often, most recently at the 2020 Grammy Awards, where he won a long-overdue, well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award.

The other one was the heartbreaking “Hello In There,” which Bette Midler recorded for her first album.  In it, Prine described the pain and loneliness that aging brings, and he urged us all to pay attention:  “Old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers just grow wilder every day, old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.'”

I’m sure as hell paying attention now, Mr. Prine.

He left behind an impressive legacy of nearly 200 songs, and you’d be hard pressed to find one you could label a clunker.  His favored genres were country, folk, a little bluegrass and what is now popularly called Americana, and he did them all well. His songs are generally pretty basic, three- or four-chord construction, which makes them easy to learn on guitar, something I’ll be doing for the next few weeks.  And they’re easy to sing too, so you can bet they’ll start showing up at occasional singalongs by the fire pit, especially the funny ones.

Unknown-264Take “In Spite of Ourselves,” the title track from his 1999 album which features duets with some of country music’s best female vocalists.  The song’s blunt lyrics offer a fairly hilarious yet poignant dialog between Prine and Iris DeMent as husband and wife who adore each other but view their marriage quite differently.  Husband:  “She thinks all my jokes are corny/ convict movies make her horny/ she likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs and swears like a sailor when shavin’ her legs/ she takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’,/ I’m never gonna let her go…”   Wife:  “He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays/ I caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies/ he ain’t too sharp but he gets things done/ drinks his beer like it’s oxygen/ he’s my baby and I’m his honey/ never gonna let him go…”

Or consider 1973’s “Please Don’t Bury Me,” a whimsical look at death that now takes on an entirely deeper meaning:  “Please don’t bury me down in that cold cold ground, no, I’d druther have ’em cut me up and pass me all around, throw my brain in a hurricane, and the blind can have my eyes, and the deaf can have both of my ears if they don’t mind the size.”

I see that the new generation of country singers adores Prine with as much enthusiasm as their predecessors do.  Check out this YouTube video of Prine sitting on stage with Kacey Musgraves as she plays a song she wrote called “Burn One With John Prine.”  It’ll bring tears and chuckles in equal amounts.

Rest in Peace, John.  Much obliged for your fine body of work.

Unknown-258

*********************

A Spotify playlist of some of Prine’s finest tunes.  Dial ’em up!