Friday, August 12, 2011

Rating the Songs of Summer 1986

Summer of 1986-- the summer of Ferris Bueller and Max Headroom. The summer of Maverick, Goose, and Ice-Man. The summer I first read Catcher in the Rye and the summer when I finally committed to memory the words to "Hotel California."

During the summer of 1986, I was fifteen going on sixteen. In the mornings, I went to my first real job, as a counselor at Eager Beaver Day Camp. In the evenings, I usually rode my bike over to my friend Ned's house (neither one of us had our licenses) and swam in his pool or watched movies on his VCR. Somehow, none of this seems lame to me.

But, as I look back twenty-five years later, I think I remember the music that came out that summer most of all. So, with autumn lurking just around the bend, I decided to re-listen to twenty-five songs from that long-ago summer and see how well these tunes have stood the test of time. Basically, have these songs have held up twenty-five years later?

Now, then, to eleminiate some of the subjectivity in determining whether or not a song has achieved immortality, I am using the following criteria:

(a) whether or not you still hear this song on the radio in 2011
(b) whether or not you cringe if you do hear this song in 2011
(c) whether or not I like the song (Hey, I said, I was only eliminating some subjectivity)

Three more points before we begin:

(1) No real reason other than personal preference for why I chose these songs. I was going with the whole "25 songs from 25 years go" angle, and so plenty of songs just plain ol' didn't make the cut. So, sorry in advance to Level 42, Jermaine Stewart, and the Blow Monkeys.

(2) In most cases, I've provided links to the videos, but I take no responsibility for the cheesy content therein; and finally...

(3) Word of caution: the following list includes a rampant use of punning.

And now... the Unheralded and Thoroughly Subjective Evaluation of Pop Songs from the Summer of 1986

"Love Walks In," Van Halen: Some folks identify 5150, VH's first album with Sammy Hagar, as the precise moment where Van Halen jumped the shark, by marketing to teenyboppers and sacrificing face-shredding guitar licks for cheesy synth-keyboards. To them, I say two things: (1) "You ever hear of a little keyboard-heavy ditty called 'Jump'?" and (2) "Oh, and you didn't play the opening to 'Love Walks In' on your Casio keyboard ad naseum back in 1986?"

Haunting and beautiful, like the musical equivalent of Zooey Deschanel, "Love Walks In" also has that cool "aliens as a metaphor for love" thing going on, which never hurts. Hands down, the best single released from 5150-- in a whole other stratosphere than the unlistenable "Why Can't This Be Love?" You rarely hear it on the radio anymore (then again, outside of "Jump" and an occasional "Panama," how often do you hear any Van Halen on the radio?), but for my money, this space-age love song still lives long and prospers.

"Invisible Touch" and "Throwing It All Away," Genesis: I recognized "Invisible Touch" as a calculated, soulless piece of corporate pop before I even knew what calculated, soulless corporate pop was. To me, the song has an invisible touch, all right: it reaches in and makes me throw up my lunch. I much prefer the follow-up single, "Throwing It All Away," also released that summer; then again, "Invisible Touch" is the band's only #1 song, so what do I know? Ultimately, I heard both of these songs on the radio just last week, so I guess I have to concede that the duo have staying power.

(As an aside: Was there ever one moment in the 80s when you didn't hear Phil Collins' voice on the radio? From the summer of 1985 to the summer of 1986 alone, he released "Don't Lose My Number" and "Take Me Home" from No Jacket Required, for which he won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Plus, he sang the duet "Separate Lives" from White Nights. Plus, he had these two Genesis hits, with three more to come in the months ahead. Heck, he even appeared on an episode of Miami Vice! And that, my friends, is the paradox of the 80s: everyone seems to remember it as the decade of big hair and glam rock, but the frumpy, balding British guy in the baggy pants had more hits than anyone.)

"Higher Love," Steve Winwood: The first single from Back in the High Life and the song that officially kicked off my "Winwood phase" (which ended precisely two years later, with the release of Winwood's Roll With It, an album as derivative and insipid as High Life is original and transcendant). No need to think about it: this tune, from its drum-machine beginning to its Chaka-Khan-drenched ending, is a timeless classic.

"Rumors," Timex Social Club: I gotta tell you straight: while I liked this song a lot at the time, I can't say it has taken a lickin' and kept on tickin'. But that doesn't mean the group isn't trying to squeeze a little more blood out of this 25-year-old stone: did you hear that the group is selling a book called How Do Rumors Get Started: The True Story of the Timex Social Club? The long-awaited book, which can be purchased on the group's website, chronicles TSC's rise and fall, "a journey filled with greed (and) broken friendships (which) culminates in the group's break-up one year later." Finally, the truth can be told!

"Sledgehammer" and "In Your Eyes," Peter Gabriel: Shame that Gabriel releases albums with the frequency of Halley's Comet, because this album was So good. (Pun! Pun!) At the time, "Sledgehammer" was the smash hit (More puns!) and it still packs a whallop, but "In Your Eyes" is definitely the one that endures. And yes, "In Your Eyes" was originally released in the summer of 1986, not in the summer of 1989, which is when Lloyd Dobler famously played it outside of Diane Court's window. (Looking back, that scene really walks the line between sweet and creepy, doesn't it? Lloyd Dobler: hopeless romantic, or deviant stalker? You decide...)

"Touch and Go," Emerson, Lake, and Powell: I literally-- literally-- had not thought of this song in twenty-five years, and neither, I'd wager, has anyone else (including Messers Emerson, Lake, and Powell). So, easy "no" as far as standing the test of time, which is not to say it's a bad song; it just had the misfortune of coming out the same year as Europe's "The Final Countdown." (The two are pretty much identical.)

"When the Heart Rules the Mind," GTR: OMG, it's GTR! You know, GTR-- a VIP among the OHWs (One-Hit Wonders), that went MIA after their only single was DOA? Actually, that's not fair: this song is decent enough, but it definitely does not stand the TOT (Test of Time), since it almost never gets played, not even on "Back to the 80s" marathons. And as they say, out of sight, out of (heart-ruled) mind. R.I.P., GTR.

"Take My Breath Away," Berlin: Few things in this life befuddle me more than the enduring popularity of this song. As the "love theme" for Top Gun, this song gives me the need for speed, all right... the need to get this song off my radio as speedily as possible. And, yeah, I know I just said that thing about "enduring popularity," but will not endorse this song on general principle-- that principle being a steadfast refusal to support any song that sounds like the moans of a dying whale.

"Papa Don't Preach," Madonna: Remember Mr. Blue's assessment of Madonna in Reservoir Dogs? "I like her early stuff. 'Lucky Star.' 'Borderline.' But once she got into her 'Papa Don't Preach' phase-- I don't know, I tuned out." And I think I agreed with him, until I remembered that this "phase" also encompassed "Live To Tell" and "Open Your Heart," which I thoroughly enjoy. So, yeah, I've softened to the 1986 Material Girl and to "Papa Don't Preach" in particular. In fact, out of all the teen-pregnancy dance songs featuring Danny Aiello in the video, this might be the best.

(And if you're looking for a little depression: if the narrator of this song did indeed keep her baby, that child would be twenty-five years old. Now, excuse me as I attend to the liver spots exploding on my barren scalp.)

"If She Knew What She Wants," The Bangles: Sandwiched in between the releases of "Manic Monday" and "Walk Like an Egyptian" is this great song that no one remembers. Lost to the sands of time, and that's a shame. (On the flip side, lead singer Susanna Hoffs' starring role in the 1987 flop The Allnighter is also lost in those same sands, and that's not a shame at all. So I guess it all even outs.)

"Modern Woman," Billy Joel: From the soundtrack of the dark comedy Ruthless People. The movie is a forgotten gem; the song, thankfully, is just forgotten. Let's put it this way: even Billy Joel himself apparently wants nothing to do with it. In an interview he gave more than a decade ago, Billy justified the exclusion of "Modern Woman" from his Greatest Hits Vol III this way: "I hated that thing." Fun fact: this is the only song in this list that actually mentions the year "1986" in its lyrics.

"You Can Call Me Al," Paul Simon: And you can call this song a classic, stuffed with lots and lots of words and nutty turns-of-phrases married to an impossibly hummable melody. Who cares that we still don't know who this Al guy is, or why he wants a woman named Betty for a bodyguard, or even what a cartoon graveyard is? This song's still crazy after all these years. Amen and Hallejulah!

"Love Touch," Rod Stewart: From the soundtrack of the Robert Redford comedy Legal Eagles (which I inexplicably saw twice in the theater, although once was against my will), this is just dippy, innocuous movie-pop. I wouldn't call it un-catchy... just un-good. And un-enduring.

"Suzanne," Journey: Yeah, I didn't remember it either. I knew Journey had a song during this summer-- and a relatively decent one, at that-- but I couldn't place it. Even after I looked it up, I couldn't summon the tune. So I guess that says something about the song's ability to stand the test of time. It's also pretty much the only Journey song that has not been featured on Glee. (Then again, it could be in the future. Is Sue--as in Sue Sylvester-- short for "Suzanne"?)

"Tuff Enuff," Fabulous Thunderbirds: Twenty-five years before Bruno Mars proclaimed the things he's do for his decidedly unappreciative beloved (including catching on a grenade and jumping in front of a train), the lead singer of the T-Birds made similarly hyperbolic proclamations of love in this song.

From climbing the Empire State Building to wrestling with a lion and a grizzly bear--this guy will do it all to win the objection of his desire. Ah, but can he pass the most important test-- namely, the test of time? Tuff to say, but I'll let the Birds of Thunder roll into pop culture immortality, only because the lead singer rocks the red suit/ black beret combo and still has the guts to call himself "fabulous."

Incidentally, despite their boastings, the T-Birds do NOT win the award for the Most Outrageous Proclamations of Love by a 1980s Singer-Suitor. That honor goes to the guy from Modern English, who maintains he will not only “stop the world” for his girlfriend but also “melt” with her…. whatever that means. (Are the two related? Do you have to stop the world first in order to melt with someone? And why are either of those favorable things to do?)

"Nasty," Janet Jackson: Well, no one can say Ms. Jackson hasn't stood the test of time; it just hasn't always been for the right reasons. Still, I'll say the song endures, if only because it somehow reminds me of a time when Janet seemed innocent. Oh, the 1986 Janet was still sassy and tough. Just not as... well, nasty.

“Like a Rock,” Bog Seger: “Twenty years now—where’d they go?” Seger’s narrator laments as he looks back on his days as a brawny, carefree, charging-from-the-gate teen. Now consider that he asked this twenty-five years ago. (Oh, look… them liver spots again.)

And yet, despite its age, this song is still Ford-truck tough, enduring all these years later as one of Seger’s best, and certainly the best work of his later years. (And, yes, that most definitely includes 1987’s wretched “Shakedown,” from Beverly Hills Cop 2.)

"Glory of Love," Peter Cetera: Never really cared much for this song, the "love theme" to Karate Kid II, but I can't say that Time has swept the legs out from under it, either. So, I'll begrudgingly say it's stood the test of time, partly because lite rock stations still play it and partly because if I don't, my wife will resent me as trying to sound cooler than I actually am. Two more comments about this song:

(1) What's up with the summer of 1986 and soundtracks? Four on this list already, and that's not even including Michael McDonald's "Shine Sweet Freedom" (Running Scared) Carly Simon's "Coming Around Again" (Heartburn), Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" (Top Gun), Jon Waite's "If Anyone Had a Heart" (...About Last Night), and El DeBrage's "Who's Johnny" (Short Circuit). Plus we had the re-release of "Stand by Me." And the Love Theme to Howard the Duck. (Kidding about that last one.)

(2) I always found it curious that Peter Cetera's first post-Chicago hit was a song that sounded exactly like a mid-80's Chicago song. What's the point of leaving if you're going to do the same old stuff? Wouldn't it have been infinitely more interesting if he did something completely different instead, like a cover of "Crazy Train"?

"Venus," Bananarama: The song may be about the goddess of love, but personally, I never had it--love, that is-- for this tune. Still, I can't deny the song has endured, showing up in razor commercials and on American Dad. I guess it all comes down to our collective desire to say the name "Bananarama."

"Mad About You," Belinda Carlisle: In the early 80s, two of my friends made a bet about who was going to be a bigger star-- Madonna or Belinda Carlisle. I guess we know who won that one. Still, Belinda had a few good tunes in her post-Go-Go's discography, including this one. At the very least, this song has lasted longer than the 90's sitcom of the same name. (Say, what happened to Helen Hunt, anyway? Has anyone seen her in, like, the past seven years? Should someone go looking for her?)

"That Was Then, This Is Now," Monkees: For reasons no one can quite explain, 1986 saw a bit of a Monkees comeback. As MTV showed all of the Monkees episodes, radio stations played this song (a remake of a tune originally recorded by a band called the Mosquitos, a name only slightly dumber than the Monkees). The comeback was short-lived, and I would hardly call this song a timeless classic, but maybe those wacky gents could still generate some mainstream Monkeemania in 2011? Hey, a man can be a (daydream) believer, can't he?

"Walk This Way," Run-D.M.C.: Believe it or not, this one gave me some pause. On the one hand, except for a recent mention in the new Smurfs movie, you rarely hear Run-D.M.C.'s version of this song on the radio, which could lead one to deduce the tune didn't have any legs. On the other hand... it's "Walk This Freakin' Way"! The song that introduced rap into the mainstream, revitalized the career of Aerosmith, and influenced pretty much every rap rock act that followed them! And here I am, on my stupid list, suggesting this song didn't stand the test of time? How smurfin' pretentious is that?

"Stuck with You," Huey Lewis and the News: On a recent car ride, my wife and I were trying to decide who had more hits in the 80s. Our calculations put Phil Collins as number one, but right behind him was Huey Lewis. Not Madonna or Michael Jackson or Hall and Oates or even Kajagoogoo, but the big-headed lug from San Francisco. We rattled off fifteen legitimate hit songs without even really thinking about it.

So why doesn't Huey get more love? We determined that, despite his fame, it was always a little embarassing, even at his peak, to admit you were a Huey Lewis fan. But I don't care. I proudly call myself a fan, of the group and this song, and I'm happy this tune has stuck with us for the past twenty-five years.

Hope this was good for a little nostalgia. Weird thing is, as I write this, I can clearly remember these songs from the summer of 1986--which was twenty-five years ago-- but I'm having trouble remembering even three songs from the summer of 2011-- which was just, like, last week. Maybe the short term memory is going in my 41-year-old mind is starting to go. or maybe the current crop of songs just aren't particularly memorable. But most of all, maybe the current songs just aren't that memorable to me.

I think a little paraphrasing of the last line of Stand by Me (a movie which came out, coincidentally, in the summer of 1986) sums up my thoughts nicely on this matter: "I'll never have music like the music I had when I was fifteen. Jesus, does anyone?"